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 52

SOMETHING CONCERNING MIDSHIPMEN.


It was the next morning after matchless Jack's interview with the
Commodore and Captain, that a little incident occurred, soon
forgotten by the crew at large, but long remembered by the few
seamen who were in the habit of closely scrutinising every-day
proceedings. Upon the face of it, it was but a common event--at
least in a man-of-war--the flogging of a man at the gangway. But
the under-current of circumstances in the case were of a nature
that magnified this particular flogging into a matter of no
small importance. The story itself cannot here be related; it
would not well bear recital: enough that the person flogged was a
middle-aged man of the Waist--a forlorn, broken-down, miserable
object, truly; one of those wretched landsmen sometimes driven
into the Navy by their unfitness for all things else, even as
others are driven into the workhouse. He was flogged at the
complaint of a midshipman; and hereby hangs the drift of the
thing. For though this waister was so ignoble a mortal, yet his
being scourged on this one occasion indirectly proceeded from the
mere wanton spite and unscrupulousness of the midshipman in
question--a youth, who was apt to indulge at times in undignified
familiarities with some of the men, who, sooner or later, almost
always suffered from his capricious preferences.

But the leading principle that was involved in this affair is far too
mischievous to be lightly dismissed.

In most cases, it would seem to be a cardinal principle with a Navy
Captain that his subordinates are disintegrated parts of himself,
detached from the main body on special service, and that the order of
the minutest midshipman must be as deferentially obeyed by the seamen
as if proceeding from the Commodore on the poop. This principle was
once emphasised in a remarkable manner by the valiant and handsome
Sir Peter Parker, upon whose death, on a national arson expedition on
the shores of Chesapeake Bay, in 1812 or 1813, Lord Byron wrote his
well-known stanzas. "By the god of war!" said Sir Peter to his sailors,
"I'll make you touch your hat to a midshipman's coat, if it's only
hung on a broomstick to dry!"

That the king, in the eye of the law, can do no wrong, is the well-
known fiction of despotic states; but it has remained for the navies
of Constitutional Monarchies and Republics to magnify this fiction,
by indirectly extending it to all the quarter-deck subordinates of an
armed ship's chief magistrate. And though judicially unrecognised, and
unacknowledged by the officers themselves, yet this is the principle
that pervades the fleet; this is the principle that is every hour
acted upon, and to sustain which, thousands of seamen have been flogged
at the gangway.

However childish, ignorant, stupid, or idiotic a midshipman, if he but
orders a sailor to perform even the most absurd action, that man is not
only bound to render instant and unanswering obedience, but he would
refuse at his peril. And if, having obeyed, he should then complain to
the Captain, and the Captain, in his own mind, should be thoroughly
convinced of the impropriety, perhaps of the illegality of the order,
yet, in nine cases out of ten, he would not publicly reprimand the
midshipman, nor by the slightest token admit before the complainant
that, in this particular thing, the midshipman had done otherwise
than perfectly right.

Upon a midshipman's complaining of a seaman to Lord Collingwood,
when Captain of a line-of-battle ship, he ordered the man for
punishment; and, in the interval, calling the midshipman aside,
said to him, "In all probability, now, the fault is yours--you
know; therefore, when the man is brought to the mast, you had
better ask for his pardon."

Accordingly, upon the lad's public intercession, Collingwood,
turning to the culprit, said, "This young gentleman has pleaded
so humanely for you, that, in hope you feel a due gratitude to
him for his benevolence, I will, for this time, overlook your
offence." This story is related by the editor of the Admiral's
"Correspondence," to show the Admiral's kindheartedness.

Now Collingood was, in reality, one of the most just, humane, and
benevolent admirals that ever hoisted a flag. For a sea-officer,
Collingwood was a man in a million. But if a man like him, swayed by
old usages, could thus violate the commonest principle of justice--
with however good motives at bottom--what must be expected from other
Captains not so eminently gifted with noble traits as Collingwood?

And if the corps of American midshipmen is mostly replenished
from the nursery, the counter, and the lap of unrestrained
indulgence at home: and if most of them at least, by their
impotency as officers, in all important functions at sea, by
their boyish and overweening conceit of their gold lace, by their
overbearing manner toward the seamen, and by their peculiar
aptitude to construe the merest trivialities of manner into set
affronts against their dignity; if by all this they sometimes
contract the ill-will of the seamen; and if, in a thousand ways,
the seamen cannot but betray it--how easy for any of these
midshipmen, who may happen to be unrestrained by moral principle,
to resort to spiteful practices in procuring vengeance upon the
offenders, in many instances to the extremity of the lash; since,
as we have seen, the tacit principle in the Navy seems to be
that, in his ordinary intercourse with the sailors, a midshipman
can do nothing obnoxious to the public censure of his superiors.

"You fellow, I'll get you _licked_ before long," is often heard
from a midshipman to a sailor who, in some way not open to the
judicial action of the Captain, has chanced to offend him.

At times you will see one of these lads, not five feet high,
gazing up with inflamed eye at some venerable six-footer of a
forecastle man, cursing and insulting him by every epithet deemed
most scandalous and unendurable among men. Yet that man's
indignant tongue is treble-knotted by the law, that suspends
death itself over his head should his passion discharge the
slightest blow at the boy-worm that spits at his feet.

But since what human nature is, and what it must for ever continue to
be, is well enough understood for most practical purposes, it needs no
special example to prove that, where the merest boys, indiscriminately
snatched from the human family, are given such authority over mature
men, the results must be proportionable in monstrousness to the custom
that authorises this worse than cruel absurdity.

Nor is it unworthy of remark that, while the noblest-minded and
most heroic sea-officers--men of the topmost stature, including
Lord Nelson himself--have regarded flogging in the Navy with the
deepest concern, and not without weighty scruples touching its
general necessity, still, one who has seen much of midshipmen can
truly say that he has seen but few midshipmen who were not
enthusiastic advocates and admirers of scourging. It would almost
seem that they themselves, having so recently escaped the
posterior discipline of the nursery and the infant school, are
impatient to recover from those smarting reminiscences by mincing
the backs of full-grown American freemen.

It should not to be omitted here, that the midshipmen in the
English Navy are not permitted to be quite so imperious as in the
American ships. They are divided into three (I think) probationary
classes of "volunteers," instead of being at once advanced to a
warrant. Nor will you fail to remark, when you see an English
cutter officered by one of those volunteers, that the boy does
not so strut and slap his dirk-hilt with a Bobadil air, and
anticipatingly feel of the place where his warlike whiskers
are going to be, and sputter out oaths so at the men, as is too
often the case with the little boys wearing best-bower anchors on
their lapels in the American Navy.

Yet it must he confessed that at times you see midshipmen who are
noble little fellows, and not at all disliked by the crew. Besides
three gallant youths, one black-eyed little lad in particular, in the
Neversink, was such a one. From his diminutiveness, he went by the name
of _Boat Plug_ among the seamen. Without being exactly familiar with
them, he had yet become a general favourite, by reason of his kindness
of manner, and never cursing them. It was amusing to hear some of the
older Tritons invoke blessings upon the youngster, when his kind tones
fell on their weather-beaten ears. "Ah, good luck to you, sir!" touching
their hats to the little man; "you have a soul to be saved, sir!" There
was a wonderful deal of meaning involved in the latter sentence. _You
have a soul to be saved_, is the phrase which a man-of-war's-man
peculiarly applies to a humane and kind-hearted officer. It also implies
that the majority of quarter-deck officers are regarded by them in such
a light that they deny to them the possession of souls. Ah! but these
plebeians sometimes have a sublime vengeance upon patricians. Imagine an
outcast old sailor seriously cherishing the purely speculative conceit
that some bully in epaulets, who orders him to and fro like a slave, is
of an organization immeasurably inferior to himself; must at last perish
with the brutes, while he goes to his immortality in heaven.

But from what has been said in this chapter, it must not be inferred
that a midshipman leads a lord's life in a man-of-war. Far from it.
He lords it over those below him, while lorded over himself by his
superiors. It is as if with one hand a school-boy snapped his fingers
at a dog, and at the same time received upon the other the discipline
of the usher's ferule. And though, by the American Articles of War, a
Navy Captain cannot, of his own authority, legally punish a midshipman,
otherwise than by suspension from duty (the same as with respect to the
Ward-room officers), yet this is one of those sea-statutes which the
Captain, to a certain extent, observes or disregards at his pleasure.
Many instances might be related of the petty mortifications and official
insults inflicted by some Captains upon their midshipmen; far more
severe, in one sense, than the old-fashioned punishment of sending them
to the mast-head, though not so arbitrary as sending them before the
mast, to do duty with the common sailors--a custom, in former times,
pursued by Captains in the English Navy.

Captain Claret himself had no special fondness for midshipmen. A
tall, overgrown young midshipman, about sixteen years old, having
fallen under his displeasure, he interrupted the humble apologies
he was making, by saying, "Not a word, sir! I'll not hear a word!
Mount the netting, sir, and stand there till you are ordered to
come down!"

The midshipman obeyed; and, in full sight of the entire ship's
company, Captain Claret promenaded to and fro below his lofty
perch, reading him a most aggravating lecture upon his alleged
misconduct. To a lad of sensibility, such treatment must have
been almost as stinging as the lash itself would have been.

It is to be remembered that, wherever these chapters treat of
midshipmen, the officers known as passed-midshipmen are not at
all referred to. In the American Navy, these officers form a
class of young men, who, having seen sufficient service at sea as
midshipmen to pass an examination before a Board of Commodores,
are promoted to the rank of passed-midshipmen, introductory to
that of lieutenant. They are supposed to be qualified to do duty
as lieutenants, and in some cases temporarily serve as such. The
difference between a passed-midshipman and a midshipman may be
also inferred from their respective rates of pay. The former,
upon sea-service, receives $750 a year; the latter, $400. There
were no passed-midshipmen in the Neversink.

Herman Melville