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Chapter 55


The allusion in the preceding chapter to the early age at which
some of the midshipmen enter the Navy, suggests some thoughts
relative to more important considerations.

A very general modern impression seems to be, that, in order to
learn the profession of a sea-officer, a boy can hardly be sent
to sea too early. To a certain extent, this may be a mistake.
Other professions, involving a knowledge of technicalities and
things restricted to one particular field of action, are frequently
mastered by men who begin after the age of twenty-one, or even at a
later period of life. It was only about the middle of the seventeenth
century that the British military and naval services were kept distinct.
Previous to that epoch the king's officers commanded indifferently
either by sea or by land.

Robert Blake, perhaps one of the most accomplished, and certainly
one of the most successful Admirals that ever hoisted a flag, was
more than half a century old (fifty-one years) before he entered
the naval service, or had aught to do, professionally, with a
ship. He was of a studious turn, and, after leaving Oxford,
resided quietly on his estate, a country gentleman, till his
forty-second year, soon after which he became connected with the
Parliamentary army.

The historian Clarendon says of him, "He was the first man that
made it manifest that the science (seamanship) might he attained
in less time than was imagined." And doubtless it was to his
shore sympathies that the well-known humanity and kindness which
Blake evinced in his intercourse with the sailors is in a large
degree to be imputed.

Midshipmen sent into the Navy at a very early age are exposed to
the passive reception of all the prejudices of the quarter-deck
in favour of ancient usages, however useless or pernicious; those
prejudices grow up with them, and solidify with their very bones.
As they rise in rank, they naturally carry them up, whence the
inveterate repugnance of many Commodores and Captains to the
slightest innovations in the service, however salutary they may
appear to landsmen.

It is hardly to be doubted that, in matters connected with the
general welfare of the Navy, government has paid rather too much
deference to the opinions of the officers of the Navy, considering
them as men almost born to the service, and therefore far better
qualified to judge concerning any and all questions touching it
than people on shore. But in a nation under a liberal Constitution,
it must ever be unwise to make too distinct and peculiar the
profession of either branch of its military men. True, in a
country like ours, nothing is at present to be apprehended of
their gaining political rule; but not a little is to be
apprehended concerning their perpetuating or creating abuses
among their subordinates, unless civilians have full cognisance
of their administrative affairs, and account themselves competent
to the complete overlooking and ordering them.

We do wrong when we in any way contribute to the prevailing
mystification that has been thrown about the internal affairs of
the national sea-service. Hitherto those affairs have been
regarded even by some high state functionaries as things beyond
their insight--altogether too technical and mysterious to be
fully comprehended by landsmen. And this it is that has
perpetuated in the Navy many evils that otherwise would have been
abolished in the general amelioration of other things. The army
is sometimes remodelled, but the Navy goes down from generation
to generation almost untouched and unquestioned, as if its code
were infallible, and itself a piece of perfection that no
statesman could improve. When a Secretary of the Navy ventures to
innovate upon its established customs, you hear some of the Navy
officers say, "What does this landsman know about our affairs?
Did he ever head a watch? He does not know starboard from
larboard, girt-line from back-stay."

While we deferentially and cheerfully leave to Navy officers the
sole conduct of making and shortening sail, tacking ship, and
performing other nautical manoeuvres, as may seem to them best;
let us beware of abandoning to their discretion those general
municipal regulations touching the well-being of the great body
of men before the mast; let us beware of being too much
influenced by their opinions in matters where it is but natural
to suppose that their long-established prejudices are enlisted.

Herman Melville