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Chapter 70


Besides general quarters, and the regular morning and evening
quarters for prayers on board the Neversink, on the first Sunday
of every month we had a grand "_muster round the capstan_," when
we passed in solemn review before the Captain and officers, who
closely scanned our frocks and trowsers, to see whether they were
according to the Navy cut. In some ships, every man is required
to bring his bag and hammock along for inspection.

This ceremony acquires its chief solemnity, and, to a novice, is
rendered even terrible, by the reading of the Articles of War by
the Captain's clerk before the assembled ship's company, who in
testimony of their enforced reverence for the code, stand
bareheaded till the last sentence is pronounced.

To a mere amateur reader the quiet perusal of these Articles of
War would be attended with some nervous emotions. Imagine, then,
what _my_ feelings must have been, when, with my hat deferentially
in my hand, I stood before my lord and master, Captain Claret, and
heard these Articles read as the law and gospel, the infallible,
unappealable dispensation and code, whereby I lived, and moved,
and had my being on board of the United States ship Neversink.

Of some twenty offences--made penal--that a seaman may commit, and
which are specified in this code, thirteen are punishable by death.

"_Shall suffer death!_" This was the burden of nearly every
Article read by the Captain's clerk; for he seemed to have been
instructed to omit the longer Articles, and only present those
which were brief and to the point.

"_Shall suffer death!_" The repeated announcement falls on your
ear like the intermitting discharge of artillery. After it has
been repeated again and again, you listen to the reader as he
deliberately begins a new paragraph; you hear him reciting the
involved, but comprehensive and clear arrangement of the
sentence, detailing all possible particulars of the offence
described, and you breathlessly await, whether _that_ clause also
is going to be concluded by the discharge of the terrible minute-
gun. When, lo! it again booms on your ear--_shall suffer death!_
No reservations, no contingencies; not the remotest promise of
pardon or reprieve; not a glimpse of commutation of the sentence;
all hope and consolation is shut out--_shall suffer death!_ that
is the simple fact for you to digest; and it is a tougher morsel,
believe White-Jacket when he says it, than a forty-two-pound

But there is a glimmering of an alternative to the sailor who
infringes these Articles. Some of them thus terminates: "_Shall
suffer death, or such punishment as a court-martial shall
adjudge_." But hints this at a penalty still more serious?
Perhaps it means "_death, or worse punishment_."

Your honours of the Spanish Inquisition, Loyola and Torquemada!
produce, reverend gentlemen, your most secret code, and match
these Articles of War, if you can. Jack Ketch, _you_ also are
experienced in these things! Thou most benevolent of mortals, who
standest by us, and hangest round our necks, when all the rest of
this world are against us--tell us, hangman, what punishment is
this, horribly hinted at as being worse than death? Is it, upon
an empty stomach, to read the Articles of War every morning, for
the term of one's natural life? Or is it to be imprisoned in a
cell, with its walls papered from floor to ceiling with printed
copies, in italics, of these Articles of War?

But it needs not to dilate upon the pure, bubbling milk of human
kindness, and Christian charity, and forgiveness of injuries
which pervade this charming document, so thoroughly imbued, as a
Christian code, with the benignant spirit of the Sermon on the
Mount. But as it is very nearly alike in the foremost states of
Christendom, and as it is nationally set forth by those states,
it indirectly becomes an index to the true condition of the
present civilization of the world.

As, month after month, I would stand bareheaded among my
shipmates, and hear this document read, I have thought to myself,
Well, well, White-Jacket, you are in a sad box, indeed. But prick
your ears, there goes another minute-gun. It admonishes you to
take all bad usage in good part, and never to join in any public
meeting that may be held on the gun-deck for a redress of
grievances. Listen:

Art. XIII. "If any person in the navy shall make, or attempt to
make, any mutinous assembly, he shall, on conviction thereof by a
court martial, suffer death."

Bless me, White-Jacket, are you a great gun yourself, that you so
recoil, to the extremity of your breechings, at that discharge?

But give ear again. Here goes another minute-gun. It indirectly
admonishes you to receive the grossest insult, and stand still
under it:

Art. XIV. "No private in the navy shall disobey the lawful orders
of his superior officer, or strike him, or draw, or offer to
draw, or raise any weapon against him, while in the execution of
the duties of his office, on pain of death."

Do not hang back there by the bulwarks, White-Jacket; come up to
the mark once more; for here goes still another minute-gun, which
admonishes you never to be caught napping:

Part of Art. XX. "If any person in the navy shall sleep upon his
watch, he shall suffer death."

Murderous! But then, in time of peace, they do not enforce these
blood-thirsty laws? Do they not, indeed? What happened to those
three sailors on board an American armed vessel a few years ago,
quite within your memory, White-Jacket; yea, while you yourself
were yet serving on board this very frigate, the Neversink? What
happened to those three Americans, White-Jacket--those three
sailors, even as you, who once were alive, but now are dead?
"_Shall suffer death!_" those were the three words that hung
those three sailors.

Have a care, then, have a care, lest you come to a sad end, even
the end of a rope; lest, with a black-and-blue throat, you turn a
dumb diver after pearl-shells; put to bed for ever, and tucked
in, in your own hammock, at the bottom of the sea. And there you
will lie, White-Jacket, while hostile navies are playing cannon-
ball billiards over your grave.

By the main-mast! then, in a time of profound peace, I am subject
to the cut-throat martial law. And when my own brother, who
happens to be dwelling ashore, and does not serve his country as
I am now doing--when _he_ is at liberty to call personally upon
the President of the United States, and express his disapprobation
of the whole national administration, here am I, liable at any time
to be run up at the yard-arm, with a necklace, made by no jeweler,
round my neck!

A hard case, truly, White-Jacket; but it cannot be helped. Yes;
you live under this same martial law. Does not everything around
you din the fact in your ears? Twice every day do you not jump to
your quarters at the sound of a drum? Every morning, in port, are
you not roused from your hammock by the _reveille_, and sent to
it again at nightfall by the _tattoo?_ Every Sunday are you not
commanded in the mere matter of the very dress you shall wear
through that blessed day? Can your shipmates so much as drink
their "tot of grog?" nay, can they even drink but a cup of water
at the scuttle-butt, without an armed sentry standing over them?
Does not every officer wear a sword instead of a cane? You live
and move among twenty-four-pounders. White-Jacket; the very
cannon-balls are deemed an ornament around you, serving to
embellish the hatchways; and should you come to die at sea,
White-Jacket, still two cannon-balls would bear you company when
you would be committed to the deep. Yea, by all methods, and
devices, and inventions, you are momentarily admonished of the
fact that you live under the Articles of War. And by virtue of
them it is, White-Jacket, that, without a hearing and without a
trial, you may, at a wink from the Captain, be condemned to the

Speak you true? Then let me fly!

Nay, White-Jacket, the landless horizon hoops you in.

Some tempest, then, surge all the sea against us! hidden reefs
and rocks, arise and dash the ships to chips! I was not born a
serf, and will not live a slave! Quick! cork-screw whirlpools,
suck us down! world's end whelm us!

Nay, White-Jacket, though this frigate laid her broken bones upon
the Antarctic shores of Palmer's Land; though not two planks
adhered; though all her guns were spiked by sword-fish blades,
and at her yawning hatchways mouth-yawning sharks swam in and
out; yet, should you escape the wreck and scramble to the beach,
this Martial Law would meet you still, and snatch you by the
throat. Hark!

Art. XLII. Part of Sec. 3.-"In all cases where the crews of the
ships or vessels of the United States shall be separated from
their vessels by the latter being wrecked, lost, or destroyed,
all the command, power, and authority given to the officers of
such ships or vessels shall remain, and be in full force, as
effectually as if such ship or vessel were not so wrecked, lost
or destroyed."

Hear you that, White-Jacket! I tell you there is no escape.
Afloat or wrecked the Martial Law relaxes not its gripe. And
though, by that self-same warrant, for some offence therein set
down, you were indeed to "suffer death," even then the Martial
Law might hunt you straight through the other world, and out
again at its other end, following you through all eternity, like
an endless thread on the inevitable track of its own point,
passing unnumbered needles through.

Herman Melville