THE COMMODORE ON THE POOP, AND ONE OF "THE PEOPLE" UNDER THE
HANDS OF THE SURGEON.
A day or two after the publication of Lemsford's "Songs of the
Sirens," a sad accident befell a mess-mate of mine, one of the
captains of the mizzen-top. He was a fine little Scot, who, from
the premature loss of the hair on the top of his head, always
went by the name of _Baldy_. This baldness was no doubt, in great
part, attributable to the same cause that early thins the locks
of most man-of-war's-men--namely, the hard, unyielding, and
ponderous man-of-war and navy-regulation tarpaulin hat, which,
when new, is stiff enough to sit upon, and indeed, in lieu of his
thumb, sometimes serves the common sailor for a bench.
Now, there is nothing upon which the Commodore of a squadron more
prides himself than upon the celerity with which his men can handle
the sails, and go through with all the evolutions pertaining thereto.
This is especially manifested in harbour, when other vessels of his
squadron are near, and perhaps the armed ships of rival nations.
Upon these occasions, surrounded by his post-captain sa-traps--
each of whom in his own floating island is king--the Commodore
domineers over all--emperor of the whole oaken archipelago; yea,
magisterial and magnificent as the Sultan of the Isles of Sooloo.
But, even as so potent an emperor and Caesar to boot as the great
Don of Germany, Charles the Fifth, was used to divert himself in
his dotage by watching the gyrations of the springs and cogs of a
long row of clocks, even so does an elderly Commodore while away
his leisure in harbour, by what is called "_exercising guns_,"
and also "_exercising yards and sails;_" causing the various
spars of all the ships under his command to be "braced,"
"topped," and "cock billed" in concert, while the Commodore
himself sits, something like King Canute, on an arm-chest on the
poop of his flag-ship.
But far more regal than any descendant of Charlemagne, more haughty
than any Mogul of the East, and almost mysterious and voiceless
in his authority as the Great Spirit of the Five Nations, the
Commodore deigns not to verbalise his commands; they are imparted
And as for old Charles the Fifth, again, the gay-pranked,
coloured suits of cards were invented, to while away his dotage,
even so, doubtless, must these pretty little signals of blue and
red spotted _bunting_ have been devised to cheer the old age of
By the Commodore's side stands the signal-midshipman, with a sea-
green bag swung on his shoulder (as a sportsman bears his game-
bag), the signal-book in one hand, and the signal spy-glass in
the other. As this signal-book contains the Masonic signs and
tokens of the navy, and would there-fore be invaluable to an
enemy, its binding is always bordered with lead, so as to insure
its sinking in case the ship should be captured. Not the only
book this, that might appropriately be bound in lead, though
there be many where the author, and not the bookbinder, furnishes
As White-Jacket understands it, these signals consist of
variously-coloured flags, each standing for a certain number. Say
there are ten flags, representing the cardinal numbers--the red
flag, No. 1; the blue flag, No. 2; the green flag, No. 3, and so
forth; then, by mounting the blue flag over the red, that would
stand for No. 21: if the green flag were set underneath, it would
then stand for 213. How easy, then, by endless transpositions, to
multiply the various numbers that may be exhibited at the mizzen-
peak, even by only three or four of these flags.
To each number a particular meaning is applied. No. 100, for
instance, may mean, "_Beat to quarters_." No. 150, "_All hands to
grog_." No. 2000, "_Strike top-gallant-yards_." No. 2110, "_See
anything to windward?_" No. 2800, "_No_."
And as every man-of-war is furnished with a signal-book, where
all these things are set down in order, therefore, though two
American frigates--almost perfect strangers to each other--came
from the opposite Poles, yet at a distance of more than a mile
they could carry on a very liberal conversation in the air.
When several men-of-war of one nation lie at anchor in one port,
forming a wide circle round their lord and master, the flag-ship,
it is a very interesting sight to see them all obeying the
Commodore's orders, who meanwhile never opens his lips.
Thus was it with us in Rio, and hereby hangs the story of my poor
One morning, in obedience to a signal from our flag-ship, the
various vessels belonging to the American squadron then in
harbour simultaneously loosened their sails to dry. In the
evening, the signal was set to furl them. Upon such occasions,
great rivalry exists between the First Lieutenants of the
different ships; they vie with each other who shall first have
his sails stowed on the yards. And this rivalry is shared between
all the officers of each vessel, who are respectively placed over
the different top-men; so that the main-mast is all eagerness to
vanquish the fore-mast, and the mizzen-mast to vanquish them
both. Stimulated by the shouts of their officers, the sailors
throughout the squadron exert themselves to the utmost.
"Aloft, topmen! lay out! furl!" cried the First Lieutenant of
At the word the men sprang into the rigging, and on all three
masts were soon climbing about the yards, in reckless haste, to
execute their orders.
Now, in furling top-sails or courses, the point of honour, and
the hardest work, is in the _bunt_, or middle of the yard; this
post belongs to the first captain of the top.
"What are you 'bout there, mizzen-top-men?" roared the First
Lieutenant, through his trumpet. "D----n you, you are clumsy as
Russian bears! don't you see the main--top-men are nearly off the
yard? Bear a hand, bear a hand, or I'll stop your grog all round!
You, Baldy! are you going to sleep there in the bunt?"
While this was being said, poor Baldy--his hat off, his face
streaming with perspiration--was frantically exerting himself,
piling up the ponderous folds of canvas in the middle of the
yard; ever and anon glancing at victorious Jack Chase, hard at
work at the main-top-sail-yard before him.
At last, the sail being well piled up, Baldy jumped with both
feet into the _bunt_, holding on with one hand to the chain
"_tie_," and in that manner was violently treading down the
canvas, to pack it close.
"D----n you, Baldy, why don't you move, you crawling caterpillar;"
roared the First Lieutenant.
Baldy brought his whole weight to bear on the rebellious sail,
and in his frenzied heedlessness let go his hold on the _tie_.
"You, Baldy! are you afraid of falling?" cried the First Lieutenant.
At that moment, with all his force, Baldy jumped down upon the
sail; the _bunt gasket_ parted; and a dark form dropped through
the air. Lighting upon the _top-rim_, it rolled off; and the next
instant, with a horrid crash of all his bones, Baldy came, like a
thunderbolt, upon the deck.
Aboard of most large men-of-war there is a stout oaken platform,
about four feet square, on each side of the quarter-deck. You
ascend to it by three or four steps; on top, it is railed in at
the sides, with horizontal brass bars. It is called _the Horse
Block;_ and there the officer of the deck usually stands, in
giving his orders at sea.
It was one of these horse blocks, now unoccupied, that broke poor
Baldy's fall. He fell lengthwise across the brass bars, bending
them into elbows, and crushing the whole oaken platform, steps
and all, right down to the deck in a thousand splinters.
He was picked up for dead, and carried below to the surgeon. His
bones seemed like those of a man broken on the wheel, and no one
thought he would survive the night. But with the surgeon's
skillful treatment he soon promised recovery. Surgeon Cuticle
devoted all his science to this case.
A curious frame-work of wood was made for the maimed man; and
placed in this, with all his limbs stretched out, Baldy lay flat
on the floor of the Sick-bay, for many weeks. Upon our arrival
home, he was able to hobble ashore on crutches; but from a hale,
hearty man, with bronzed cheeks, he was become a mere dislocated
skeleton, white as foam; but ere this, perhaps, his broken bones
are healed and whole in the last repose of the man-of-war's-man.
Not many days after Baldy's accident in furling sails--in this
same frenzied manner, under the stimulus of a shouting officer--a
seaman fell from the main-royal-yard of an English line-of-battle
ship near us, and buried his ankle-bones in the deck, leaving two
indentations there, as if scooped out by a carpenter's gouge.
The royal-yard forms a cross with the mast, and falling from that
lofty cross in a line-of-battle ship is almost like falling from
the cross of St. Paul's; almost like falling as Lucifer from the
well-spring of morning down to the Phlegethon of night.
In some cases, a man, hurled thus from a yard, has fallen upon
his own shipmates in the tops, and dragged them down with him to
the same destruction with himself.
Hardly ever will you hear of a man-of-war returning home after a
cruise, without the loss of some of her crew from aloft, whereas
similar accidents in the merchant service--considering the much
greater number of men employed in it--are comparatively few.
Why mince the matter? The death of most of these man-of-war's-men
lies at the door of the souls of those officers, who, while
safely standing on deck themselves, scruple not to sacrifice an
immortal man or two, in order to show off the excelling
discipline of the ship. And thus do _the people_ of the gun-deck
suffer, that the Commodore on the poop may be glorified.
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