Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 43

SMUGGLING IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


It is in a good degree owing to the idleness just described,
that, while lying in harbour, the man-of-war's-man is exposed to
the most temptations and gets into his saddest scrapes. For
though his vessel be anchored a mile from the shore, and her
sides are patrolled by sentries night and day, yet these things
cannot entirely prevent the seductions of the land from reaching
him. The prime agent in working his calamities in port is his old
arch-enemy, the ever-devilish god of grog.

Immured as the man-of-war's-man is, serving out his weary three
years in a sort of sea-Newgate, from which he cannot escape,
either by the roof or burrowing underground, he too often flies
to the bottle to seek relief from the intolerable ennui of
nothing to do, and nowhere to go. His ordinary government
allowance of spirits, one gill per diem, is not enough to give a
sufficient to his listless senses; he pronounces his grog basely
_watered_; he scouts at it as _thinner than muslin;_ he craves a
more vigorous _nip at the cable_, a more sturdy _swig at the
halyards;_ and if opium were to be had, many would steep
themselves a thousand fathoms down in the densest fumes of that
oblivious drug. Tell him that the delirium tremens and the mania-
a-potu lie in ambush for drunkards, he will say to you, "Let them
bear down upon me, then, before the wind; anything that smacks of
life is better than to feel Davy Jones's chest-lid on your nose."
He is reckless as an avalanche; and though his fall destroy
himself and others, yet a ruinous commotion is better than being
frozen fast in unendurable solitudes. No wonder, then, that he
goes all lengths to procure the thing he craves; no wonder that
he pays the most exorbitant prices, breaks through all law, and
braves the ignominious lash itself, rather than be deprived of
his stimulus.

Now, concerning no one thing in a man-of-war, are the regulations
more severe than respecting the smuggling of grog, and being
found intoxicated. For either offence there is but one penalty,
invariably enforced; and that is the degradation of the gangway.


All conceivable precautions are taken by most frigate-executives
to guard against the secret admission of spirits into the vessel.
In the first place, no shore-boat whatever is allowed to approach
a man-of-war in a foreign harbour without permission from the
officer of the deck. Even the _bum-boats_, the small craft
licensed by the officers to bring off fruit for the sailors, to
be bought out of their own money--these are invariably inspected
before permitted to hold intercourse with the ship's company. And
not only this, but every one of the numerous ship's boats--kept
almost continually plying to and from the shore--are similarly
inspected, sometimes each boat twenty times in the day.

This inspection is thus performed: The boat being descried by the
quarter-master from the poop, she is reported to the deck
officer, who thereupon summons the master-at-arms, the ship's
chief of police. This functionary now stations himself at the
gangway, and as the boat's crew, one by one, come up the side, he
personally overhauls them, making them take off their hats, and
then, placing both hands upon their heads, draws his palms slowly
down to their feet, carefully feeling all unusual protuberances.
If nothing suspicious is felt, the man is let pass; and so on,
till the whole boat's crew, averaging about sixteen men, are
examined. The chief of police then descends into the boat, and
walks from stem to stern, eyeing it all over, and poking his long
rattan into every nook and cranny. This operation concluded, and
nothing found, he mounts the ladder, touches his hat to the deck-
officer, and reports the boat _clean_; whereupon she is hauled
out to the booms.

Thus it will be seen that not a man of the ship's company ever
enters the vessel from shore without it being rendered next to
impossible, apparently, that he should have succeeded in smuggling
anything. Those individuals who are permitted to board the ship
without undergoing this ordeal, are only persons whom it would be
preposterous to search--such as the Commodore himself, the Captain,
Lieutenants, etc., and gentlemen and ladies coming as visitors.

For anything to be clandestinely thrust through the lower port-
holes at night, is rendered very difficult, from the watchfulness
of the quarter-master in hailing all boats that approach, long
before they draw alongside, and the vigilance of the sentries,
posted on platforms overhanging the water, whose orders are to
fire into a strange boat which, after being warned to withdraw,
should still persist in drawing nigh. Moreover, thirty-two-pound
shots are slung to ropes, and suspended over the bows, to drop a
hole into and sink any small craft, which, spite of all precautions,
by strategy should succeed in getting under the bows with liquor by
night. Indeed, the whole power of martial law is enlisted in this
matter; and every one of the numerous officers of the ship, besides
his general zeal in enforcing the regulations, acids to that a
personal feeling, since the sobriety of the men abridges his own
cares and anxieties.

How then, it will be asked, in the face of an argus-eyed police,
and in defiance even of bayonets and bullets, do men-of-war's-men
contrive to smuggle their spirits? Not to enlarge upon minor
stratagems--every few days detected, and rendered naught (such as
rolling up, in a handkerchief, a long, slender "skin" of grog,
like a sausage, and in that manner ascending to the deck out of a
boat just from shore; or openly bringing on board cocoa-nuts and
melons, procured from a knavish bum-boat filled with spirits,
instead of milk or water)--we will only mention here two or three
other modes, coming under my own observation.

While in Rio, a fore-top-man, belonging to the second cutter,
paid down the money, and made an arrangement with a person
encountered at the Palace-landing ashore, to the following
effect. Of a certain moonless night, he was to bring off three
gallons of spirits, _in skins_, and moor them to the frigate's
anchor-buoy--some distance from the vessel--attaching something
heavy, to sink them out of sight. In the middle watch of the
night, the fore-top-man slips out of his hammock, and by creeping
along in the shadows, eludes the vigilance of the master-at-arms
and his mates, gains a port-hole, and softly lowers himself into
the water, almost without creating a ripple--the sentries
marching to and fro on their overhanging platform above him. He
is an expert swimmer, and paddles along under the surface, every
now and then rising a little, and lying motionless on his back to
breathe--little but his nose exposed. The buoy gained, he cuts
the skins adrift, ties them round his body, and in the same
adroit manner makes good his return.

This feat is very seldom attempted, for it needs the utmost
caution, address, and dexterity; and no one but a super-expert
burglar, and faultless Leander of a swimmer, could achieve it.

From the greater privileges which they enjoy, the "_forward
officers_," that is, the Gunner, Boatswain, etc., have much
greater opportunities for successful smuggling than the common
seamen. Coming alongside one night in a cutter, Yarn, our
boatswain, in some inexplicable way, contrived to slip several
skins of brandy through the air-port of his own state-room. The
feat, however, must have been perceived by one of the boat's
crew, who immediately, on gaining the deck, sprung down the
ladders, stole into the boatswain's room, and made away with the
prize, not three minutes before the rightful owner entered to
claim it. Though, from certain circumstances, the thief was known
to the aggrieved party, yet the latter could say nothing, since
he himself had infringed the law. But the next day, in the
capacity of captain of the ship's executioners, Yarn had the
satisfaction (it was so to him) of standing over the robber at
the gangway; for, being found intoxicated with the very liquor
the boatswain himself had smuggled, the man had been condemned to
a flogging.

This recalls another instance, still more illustrative of the
knotted, trebly intertwisted villainy, accumulating at a sort of
compound interest in a man-of-war. The cockswain of the Commodore's
barge takes his crew apart, one by one, and cautiously sounds them
as to their fidelity--not to the United States of America, but to
himself. Three individuals, whom he deems doubtful--that is, faithful
to the United States of America--he procures to be discharged from
the barge, and men of his own selection are substituted; for he is
always an influential character, this cockswain of the Commodore's
barge. Previous to this, however, he has seen to it well, that no
Temperance men--that is, sailors who do not draw their government
ration of grog, but take the money for it--he has seen to it, that
none of these _balkers_ are numbered among his crew. Having now proved
his men, he divulges his plan to the assembled body; a solemn oath of
secrecy is obtained, and he waits the first fit opportunity to carry
into execution his nefarious designs.

At last it comes. One afternoon the barge carries the Commodore
across the Bay to a fine water-side settlement of noblemen's
seats, called Praya Grande. The Commodore is visiting a
Portuguese marquis, and the pair linger long over their dinner in
an arbour in the garden. Meanwhile, the cockswain has liberty to
roam about where he pleases. He searches out a place where some
choice _red-eye_ (brandy) is to be had, purchases six large
bottles, and conceals them among the trees. Under the pretence of
filling the boat-keg with water, which is always kept in the
barge to refresh the crew, he now carries it off into the grove,
knocks out the head, puts the bottles inside, reheads the keg,
fills it with water, carries it down to the boat, and audaciously
restores it to its conspicuous position in the middle, with its
bung-hole up. When the Commodore comes down to the beach, and
they pull off for the ship, the cockswain, in a loud voice,
commands the nearest man to take that bung out of the keg--that
precious water will spoil. Arrived alongside the frigate, the
boat's crew are overhauled, as usual, at the gangway; and nothing
being found on them, are passed. The master-at-arms now
descending into the barge, and finding nothing suspicious,
reports it _clean_, having put his finger into the open bung of
the keg and tasted that the water was pure. The barge is ordered
out to the booms, and deep night is waited for, ere the cockswain
essays to snatch the bottles from the keg.

But, unfortunately for the success of this masterly smuggler, one
of his crew is a weak-pated fellow, who, having drank somewhat
freely ashore, goes about the gun-deck throwing out profound,
tipsy hints concerning some unutterable proceeding on the ship's
anvil. A knowing old sheet-anchor-man, an unprincipled fellow,
putting this, that, and the other together, ferrets out the
mystery; and straightway resolves to reap the goodly harvest
which the cockswain has sowed. He seeks him out, takes him to one
side, and addresses him thus:

"Cockswain, you have been smuggling off some _red-eye_, which at
this moment is in your barge at the booms. Now, cockswain, I have
stationed two of my mess-mates at the port-holes, on that side of
the ship; and if they report to me that you, or any of your
bargemen, offer to enter that barge before morning, I will
immediately report you as a smuggler to the officer of the deck."

The cockswain is astounded; for, to be reported to the deck-
officer as a smuggler, would inevitably procure him a sound
flogging, and be the disgraceful _breaking_ of him as a petty
officer, receiving four dollars a month beyond his pay as an able
seaman. He attempts to bribe the other to secrecy, by promising
half the profits of the enterprise; but the sheet-anchor-man's
integrity is like a rock; he is no mercenary, to be bought up for
a song. The cockswain, therefore, is forced to swear that neither
himself, nor any of his crew, shall enter the barge before
morning. This done, the sheet-anchor-man goes to his confidants,
and arranges his plans. In a word, he succeeds in introducing the
six brandy bottles into the ship; five of which he sells at eight
dollars a bottle; and then, with the sixth, between two guns, he
secretly regales himself and confederates; while the helpless
cockswain, stifling his rage, bitterly eyes them from afar.

Thus, though they say that there is honour among thieves, there
is little among man-of-war smugglers.

Herman Melville