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for he it is to whom, all day long, reports of various kinds are
incessantly being made by the junior Lieutenants; and no report is made
by them, however trivial, but caps are touched on the occasion. It is
obvious that these individual salutes must be greatly multiplied and
aggregated upon the senior Lieutenant, who must return them all.
Indeed, when a subordinate officer is first promoted to that rank, he
generally complains of the same exhaustion about the shoulder and elbow
that La Fayette mourned over, when, in visiting America, he did little
else but shake the sturdy hands of patriotic farmers from sunrise to

The various officers of divisions having presented their respects, and
made good their return to their stations, the First Lieutenant turns
round, and, marching aft, endeavours to catch the eye of the Captain,
in order to touch his own cap to that personage, and thereby, without
adding a word of explanation, communicate the fact of all hands being
at their gun's. He is a sort of retort, or receiver-general, to
concentrate the whole sum of the information imparted to him, and
discharge it upon his superior at one touch of his cap front.

But sometimes the Captain feels out of sorts, or in ill-humour, or is
pleased to be somewhat capricious, or has a fancy to show a touch of
his omnipotent supremacy; or, peradventure, it has so happened that the
First Lieutenant has, in some way, piqued or offended him, and he is
not unwilling to show a slight specimen of his dominion over him, even
before the eyes of all hands; at all events, only by some one of these
suppositions can the singular circumstance be accounted for, that
frequently Captain Claret would pertinaciously promenade up and down
the poop, purposely averting his eye from the First Lieutenant, who
would stand below in the most awkward suspense, waiting the first wink
from his superior's eye.

"Now I have him!" he must have said to himself, as the Captain would
turn toward him in his walk; "now's my time!" and up would go his hand
to his cap; but, alas! the Captain was off again; and the men at the
guns would cast sly winks at each other as the embarrassed Lieutenant
would bite his lips with suppressed vexation.

Upon some occasions this scene would be repeated several times, till at
last Captain Claret, thinking, that in the eyes of all hands, his
dignity must by this time be pretty well bolstered, would stalk towards
his subordinate, looking him full in the eyes; whereupon up goes his
hand to the cap front, and the Captain, nodding his acceptance of the
report, descends from his perch to the quarter-deck.

By this time the stately Commodore slowly emerges from his cabin, and
soon stands leaning alone against the brass rails of the
after-hatchway. In passing him, the Captain makes a profound
salutation, which his superior returns, in token that the Captain is at
perfect liberty to proceed with the ceremonies of the hour.

Marching on, Captain Claret at last halts near the main-mast, at the
head of a group of the ward-room officers, and by the side of the
Chaplain. At a sign from his finger, the brass band strikes up the
Portuguese hymn. This over, from Commodore to hammock-boy, all hands
uncover, and the Chaplain reads a prayer. Upon its conclusion, the drum
beats the retreat, and the ship's company disappear from the guns. At
sea or in harbour, this ceremony is repeated every morning and evening.

By those stationed on the quarter-deck the Chaplain is distinctly
heard; but the quarter-deck gun division embraces but a tenth part of
the ship's company, many of whom are below, on the main-deck, where not
one syllable of the prayer can be heard. This seemed a great
misfortune; for I well knew myself how blessed and soothing it was to
mingle twice every day in these peaceful devotions, and, with the
Commodore, and Captain, and smallest boy, unite in acknowledging
Almighty God. There was also a touch of the temporary equality of the
Church about it, exceedingly grateful to a man-of-war's-man like me.

My carronade-gun happened to be directly opposite the brass railing
against which the Commodore invariably leaned at prayers. Brought so
close together, twice every day, for more than a year, we could not but
become intimately acquainted with each other's faces. To this fortunate
circumstance it is to be ascribed, that some time after reaching home,
we were able to recognise each other when we chanced to meet in
Washington, at a ball given by the Russian Minister, the Baron de
Bodisco. And though, while on board the frigate, the Commodore never in
any manner personally addressed me - nor did I him - yet, at the
Minister's social entertainment, we _there_ became exceedingly chatty;
nor did I fail to observe, among that crowd of foreign dignitaries and
magnates from all parts of America, that my worthy friend did not
appear so exalted as when leaning, in solitary state, against the brass
railing of the Neversink's quarter-deck. Like many other gentlemen, he
appeared to the best advantage, and was treated with the most deference
in the bosom of his home, the frigate.

Our morning and evening quarters were agreeably diversified for some
weeks by a little circumstance, which to some of us at least, always
seemed very pleasing.

At Callao, half of the Commodore's cabin had been hospitably yielded to
the family of a certain aristocratic-looking magnate, who was going
ambassador from Peru to the Court of the Brazils, at Rio. This
dignified diplomatist sported a long, twirling mustache, that almost
enveloped his mouth. The sailors said he looked like a rat with his
teeth through a bunch of oakum, or a St. Jago monkey peeping through a
prickly-pear bush.

He was accompanied by a very beautiful wife, and a still more beautiful
little daughter, about six years old. Between this dark-eyed little
gipsy and our chaplain there soon sprung up a cordial love and good
feeling, so much so, that they were seldom apart. And whenever the drum
beat to quarters, and the sailors were hurrying to their stations, this
little signorita would outrun them all to gain her own quarters at the
capstan, where she would stand by the chaplain's side, grasping his
hand, and looking up archly in his face.

It was a sweet relief from the domineering sternness of our martial
discipline - a sternness not relaxed even at our devotions before the
altar of the common God of commodore and cabin-boy - to see that lovely
little girl standing among the thirty-two pounders, and now and then
casting a wondering, commiserating glance at the array of grim seamen
around her.



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

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 scourge.

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.



As the Articles of War form the ark and constitution of the penal laws
of the American Navy, in all sobriety and earnestness it may be well to
glance at their origin. Whence came they? And how is it that one arm of
the national defences of a Republic comes to be ruled by a Turkish
code, whose every section almost, like each of the tubes of a revolving
pistol, fires nothing short of death into the heart of an offender? How
comes it that, by virtue of a law solemnly ratified by a Congress of
freemen, the representatives of freemen, thousands of Americans are
subjected to the most despotic usages, and, from the dockyards of a
republic, absolute monarchies are launched, with the "glorious stars
and stripes" for an ensign? By what unparalleled anomaly, by what
monstrous grafting of tyranny upon freedom did these Articles of War
ever come to be so much as heard of in the American Navy?

Whence came they? They cannot be the indigenous growth of those
political institutions, which are based upon that arch-democrat Thomas
Jefferson's Declaration of Independence? No; they are an importation
from abroad, even from Britain, whose laws we Americans hurled off as
tyrannical, and yet retained the most tyrannical of all.

But we stop not here; for these Articles of War had their congenial
origin in a period of the history of Britain when the Puritan Republic
had yielded to a monarchy restored; when a hangman Judge Jeffreys
sentenced a world's champion like Algernon Sidney to the block; when
one of a race by some deemed accursed of God - even a Stuart, was on the
throne; and a Stuart, also, was at the head of the Navy, as Lord High
Admiral. One, the son of a King beheaded for encroachments upon the
rights of his people, and the other, his own brother, afterward a king,
James II., who was hurled from the throne for his tyranny. This is the
origin of the Articles of War; and it carries with it an unmistakable
clew to their despotism.[4]

- -

[FOOTNOTE-4] The first Naval Articles of War in the English language
were passed in the thirteenth year of the reign of Charles the Second,
under the title of "_An act for establishing Articles and Orders for
the regulating and better Government of his Majesty's Navies,
Ships-of-War, and Forces by Sea_." This act was repealed, and, so far
as concerned the officers, a modification of it substituted, in the
twenty-second year of the reign of George the Second, shortly after the
Peace of Aix la Chapelle, just one century ago. This last act, it is
believed, comprises, in substance, the Articles of War at this day in
force in the British Navy. It is not a little curious, nor without
meaning, that neither of these acts explicitly empowers an officer to
inflict the lash. It would almost seem as if, in this case, the British
lawgivers were willing to leave such a stigma out of an organic
statute, and bestow the power of the lash in some less solemn, and
perhaps less public manner. Indeed, the only broad enactments directly
sanctioning naval scourging at sea are to be found in the United States
Statute Book and in the "Sea Laws" of the absolute monarch, Louis le
Grand, of France.[4.1]

Taking for their basis the above-mentioned British Naval Code, and
ingrafting upon it the positive scourging laws, which Britain was loth
to recognise as organic statutes, our American lawgivers, in the year
1800, framed the Articles of War now governing the American Navy. They
may be found in the second volume of the "United States Statutes at
Large," under chapter xxxiii. - "An act for the _better_ government of
the Navy of the United States."

[4.1] For reference to the latter (L'Ord. de la Marine), _vide_
Curtis's "Treatise on the Rights and Duties of Merchant-Seamen,
according to the General Maritime Law," Part ii., c. i.

- -

Nor is it a dumb thing that the men who, in democratic Cromwell's time,
first proved to the nations the toughness of the British oak and the
hardihood of the British sailor - that in Cromwell's time, whose fleets
struck terror into the cruisers of France, Spain, Portugal, and
Holland, and the corsairs of Algiers and the Levant; in Cromwell's
time, when Robert Blake swept the Narrow Seas of all the keels of a
Dutch Admiral who insultingly carried a broom at his fore-mast; it is
not a dumb thing that, at a period deemed so glorious to the British
Navy, these Articles of War were unknown.

Nevertheless, it is granted that some laws or other must have governed
Blake's sailors at that period; but they must have been far less severe
than those laid down in the written code which superseded them, since,
according to the father-in-law of James II., the Historian of the
Rebellion, the English Navy, prior to the enforcement of the new code,
was full of officers and sailors who, of all men, were the most
republican. Moreover, the same author informs us that the first work
undertaken by his respected son-in-law, then Duke of York, upon
entering on the duties of Lord High Admiral, was to have a grand
re-christening of the men-of-war, which still carried on their sterns
names too democratic to suit his high-tory ears.

But if these Articles of War were unknown in Blake's time, and also
during the most brilliant period of Admiral Benbow's career, what
inference must follow? That such tyrannical ordinances are not
indispensable - even during war - to the highest possible efficiency of a
military marine.



- _The Consulate of the Sea_.

The present usages of the American Navy are such that, though there is
no government enactment to that effect, yet, in many respect, its
Commanders seem virtually invested with the power to observe or
violate, as seems to them fit, several of the Articles of War.

According to Article XV., "_No person in the Navy shall quarrel with
any other person in the Navy, nor use provoking or reproachful words,
gestures, or menaces, on pain of such punishment as a court-martial
shall adjudge_."

"_Provoking or reproachful words!_" Officers of the Navy, answer me!
Have you not, many of you, a thousand times violated this law, and
addressed to men, whose tongues were tied by this very Article,
language which no landsman would ever hearken to without flying at the
throat of his insulter? I know that worse words than _you_ ever used
are to be heard addressed by a merchant-captain to his crew; but the
merchant-captain does not live under this XVth Article of War.

Not to make an example of him, nor to gratify any personal feeling, but
to furnish one certain illustration of what is here asserted, I
honestly declare that Captain Claret, of the Neversink, repeatedly
violated this law in his own proper person.

According to Article III., no officer, or other person in the Navy,
shall be guilty of "oppression, fraud, profane swearing, drunkenness,
or any other scandalous conduct."

Again let me ask you, officers of the Navy, whether many of you have
not repeatedly, and in more than one particular, violated this law? And
here, again, as a certain illustration, I must once more cite Captain
Claret as an offender, especially in the matter of profane swearing. I
must also cite four of the lieutenants, some eight of the midshipmen,
and nearly all the seamen.

Additional Articles might be quoted that are habitually violated by the
officers, while nearly all those _exclusively_ referring to the sailors
are unscrupulously enforced. Yet those Articles, by which the sailor is
scourged at the gangway, are not one whit more laws than those _other_
Articles, binding upon the officers, that have become obsolete from
immemorial disuse; while still other Articles, to which the sailors
alone are obnoxious, are observed or violated at the caprice of the
Captain. Now, if it be not so much the severity as the certainty of
punishment that deters from transgression, how fatal to all proper
reverence for the enactments of Congress must be this disregard of its

Still more. This violation of the law, on the part of the officers, in
many cases involves oppression to the sailor. But throughout the whole
naval code, which so hems in the mariner by law upon law, and which
invests the Captain with so much judicial and administrative authority

Online LibraryHerman MelvilleWhite Jacket or, the World on a Man-of-War → online text (page 25 of 34)