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Chapter 10

FROM POCKETS TO PICKPOCKETS.


As the latter part of the preceding chapter may seem strange to
those landsmen, who have been habituated to indulge in high-
raised, romantic notions of the man-of-war's man's character; it
may not be amiss, to set down here certain facts on this head,
which may serve to place the thing in its true light.

From the wild life they lead, and various other causes (needless
to mention), sailors, as a class, entertain the most liberal
notions concerning morality and the Decalogue; or rather, they
take their own views of such matters, caring little for the
theological or ethical definitions of others concerning what may
be criminal, or wrong.

Their ideas are much swayed by circumstances. They will covertly
abstract a thing from one, whom they dislike; and insist upon it,
that, in such a case, stealing is not robbing. Or, where the
theft involves something funny, as in the case of the white
jacket, they only steal for the sake of the joke; but this much
is to be observed nevertheless, i. e., that they never spoil the
joke by returning the stolen article.

It is a good joke; for instance, and one often perpetrated on
board ship, to stand talking to a man in a dark night watch, and
all the while be cutting the buttons from his coat. But once off,
those buttons never grow on again. There is no spontaneous
vegetation in buttons.

Perhaps it is a thing unavoidable, but the truth is that, among
the crew of a man-of-war, scores of desperadoes are too often
found, who stop not at the largest enormities. A species of
highway robbery is not unknown to them. A _gang_ will be informed
that such a fellow has three or four gold pieces in the money-
bag, so-called, or purse, which many tars wear round their necks,
tucked out of sight. Upon this, they deliberately lay their
plans; and in due time, proceed to carry them into execution. The
man they have marked is perhaps strolling along the benighted
berth-deck to his mess-chest; when of a sudden, the foot-pads
dash out from their hiding-place, throw him down, and while two
or three gag him, and hold him fast, another cuts the bag from
his neck, and makes away with it, followed by his comrades. This
was more than once done in the Neversink.

At other times, hearing that a sailor has something valuable
secreted in his hammock, they will rip it open from underneath
while he sleeps, and reduce the conjecture to a certainty.

To enumerate all the minor pilferings on board a man-of-war would
be endless. With some highly commendable exceptions, they rob
from one another, and rob back again, till, in the matter of
small things, a community of goods seems almost established; and
at last, as a whole, they become relatively honest, by nearly
every man becoming the reverse. It is in vain that the officers,
by threats of condign punishment, endeavour to instil more
virtuous principles into their crew; so thick is the mob, that
not one thief in a thousand is detected.


Herman Melville