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Chapter 49

RUMOURS OF A WAR, AND HOW THEY WERE RECEIVED BY THE POPULATION OF
THE NEVERSINK.


While lying in the harbour of Callao, in Peru, certain rumours
had come to us touching a war with England, growing out of the
long-vexed Northeastern Boundary Question. In Rio these rumours
were increased; and the probability of hostilities induced our
Commodore to authorize proceedings that closely brought home to
every man on board the Neversink his liability at any time to be
killed at his gun.

Among other things, a number of men were detailed to pass up the
rusty cannon-balls from the shot-lockers in the hold, and scrape
them clean for service. The Commodore was a very neat gentleman,
and would not fire a dirty shot into his foe.

It was an interesting occasion for a tranquil observer; nor was
it altogether neglected. Not to recite the precise remarks made
by the seamen while pitching the shot up the hatchway from hand
to hand, like schoolboys playing ball ashore, it will be enough
to say that, from the general drift of their discourse--jocular
as it was--it was manifest that, almost to a man, they abhorred
the idea of going into action.

And why should they desire a war? Would their wages be raised?
Not a cent. The prize-money, though, ought to have been an
inducement. But of all the "rewards of virtue," prize-money is
the most uncertain; and this the man-of-war's-man knows. What,
then, has he to expect from war? What but harder work, and harder
usage than in peace; a wooden leg or arm; mortal wounds, and
death? Enough, however, that by far the majority of the common
sailors of the Neversink were plainly concerned at the prospect
of war, and were plainly averse to it.

But with the officers of the quarter-deck it was just the
reverse. None of them, to be sure, in my hearing at least,
verbally expressed their gratification; but it was unavoidably
betrayed by the increased cheerfulness of their demeanour toward
each other, their frequent fraternal conferences, and their
unwonted animation for several clays in issuing their orders. The
voice of Mad Jack--always a belfry to hear--now resounded like
that famous bell of England, Great Tom of Oxford. As for
Selvagee, he wore his sword with a jaunty air, and his servant
daily polished the blade.

But why this contrast between the forecastle and the quarter-
deck, between the man-of-war's-man and his officer? Because,
though war would equally jeopardize the lives of both, yet, while
it held out to the sailor no promise of promotion, and what is
called _glory_, these things fired the breast of his officers.

It is no pleasing task, nor a thankful one, to dive into the
souls of some men; but there are occasions when, to bring up the
mud from the bottom, reveals to us on what soundings we are, on
what coast we adjoin.

How were these officers to gain glory? How but by a distinguished
slaughtering of their fellow-men. How were they to be promoted?
How but over the buried heads of killed comrades and mess-mates.

This hostile contrast between the feelings with which the common
seamen and the officers of the Neversink looked forward to this
more than possible war, is one of many instances that might be
quoted to show the antagonism of their interests, the incurable
antagonism in which they dwell. But can men, whose interests are
diverse, ever hope to live together in a harmony uncoerced? Can
the brotherhood of the race of mankind ever hope to prevail in a
man-of-war, where one man's bane is almost another's blessing? By
abolishing the scourge, shall we do away tyranny; _that_ tyranny
which must ever prevail, where of two essentially antagonistic
classes in perpetual contact, one is immeasurably the stronger?
Surely it seems all but impossible. And as the very object of a
man-of-war, as its name implies, is to fight the very battles so
naturally averse to the seamen; so long as a man-of-war exists,
it must ever remain a picture of much that is tyrannical and
repelling in human nature.

Being an establishment much more extensive than the American
Navy, the English armed marine furnishes a yet more striking
example of this thing, especially as the existence of war
produces so vast an augmentation of her naval force compared with
what it is in time of peace. It is well known what joy the news
of Bonaparte's sudden return from Elba created among crowds of
British naval officers, who had previously been expecting to be
sent ashore on half-pay. Thus, when all the world wailed, these
officers found occasion for thanksgiving. I urge it not against
them as men--their feelings belonged to their profession. Had
they not been naval officers, they had not been rejoicers in the
midst of despair.

When shall the time come, how much longer will God postpone it,
when the clouds, which at times gather over the horizons of
nations, shall not be hailed by any class of humanity, and
invoked to burst as a bomb? Standing navies, as well as standing
armies, serve to keep alive the spirit of war even in the meek
heart of peace. In its very embers and smoulderings, they nourish
that fatal fire, and half-pay officers, as the priests of Mars,
yet guard the temple, though no god be there.

Herman Melville