In Command

In good ships sailing from one part of the world to another, I served my time as second mate, then took first mate’s certificate, and finally passed as master and got a command.

A young fellow on taking command of a large vessel for the first time has very mixed feelings. He has a certain pride, no doubt, in his position, but the sense of responsibility weighs upon his mind. He is in absolute charge of precious lives and valuable property, and if anything goes wrong he alone will be to blame. It sometimes happens that it is on one’s first voyage the greatest trials come.

It was so in my case, at least. I had made a good run out to Java, but on the homeward passage I was caught in a cyclone. We were standing across the variable space which lies between the Island of Java and the Trades. One day we had a succession of squalls, chiefly from SW. About sunset the sky appeared to change for the better, and as far as I could read the indications, a squall we saw coming down on us would probably be lighter and possibly the last. I was mistaken. In a few seconds it came away like fury and struck us with terrific force, rain falling in torrents. We luffed up to it, but heeled over until about at capsizing point. At that moment a huge wave rose to leeward, like a wall, filling the decks fore and aft, and before we had time to recover from the shock, we were taken flat aback by a howling gale from the opposite direction from whence the squall had come. For nearly two hours we continued to make stern-board – one of the most dangerous positions a ship can be placed in with any sea or wind. Every muscle was strained to fill the yards, but all the time the seas ran clear over us from aft, almost knocking the stern in. At length it eased a little and allowed us to square away before it, and soon after with snug canvas we were on our course again.

On going below, to my consternation, I found that during the two brief hours the barometer had fallen over 4-10ths. With the violent sudden change, the fall could mean nothing else but the approach of a cyclone. Fresh from the study of the Law of Storms as I was, it came to be a question how far had I the courage to put confidence in the theoretical teaching of the schools. According to the rules laid down as to the movement of these great circular storms, the cyclone we had got into was coming from the eastward and going to the westward. My first duty was to find out how we stood in relation to its centre, Turning one’s back to the wind, we had the centre on the right hand, cunsequently we were on the left-hand semi-circle or southern edge of the storm. This we knew, because the wind was SE and the wind in the cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere always turns with the hands of a watch. Having thus satisfied myself theoretically by bearance of the centre, I resolved to scud before the cyclone, and at the same time to steer a little southerly off the course we wished, thus taking advantage of the storm, but gradually moving off its supposed track. 

For nine days we ran before it in this way, making 220 miles per day, running down ultimately to 150 miles. Each day the gale became stronger, and the sea heavier. Sail after sail had to be taken in. We had a clear ocean before us, and the good ship sped along as fast as the sails would carry her. On the ninth day, however, the race was up. Our enemy which had pursued us so long began to gain rapidly upon us. The whole heavens were black as ink, the wind howled awfully, and the sea was tossed into mountains. The mercury in the barometer sank nearly out of sight, and emitted a bluish flame. One manoeuvre alone was left for us, and every possible precaution was taken that it should come right. The bringing of a ship to the wind running before a heavy sea is the most dangerous evolution that can be performed at sea, but I resolved to try it, though the conditions of wind and sea were against us. It was a last chance to save the ship. We could scud in front of the tempest no longer. Barometer, sea, and sky tell us plainly not a moment should be lost. All sails are furled excepting a lower topsail and a trysail. Now comes the move which is to decide our fate. One roller when the ship is broadside on and the decks may be swept, the hatches burst in, and the masts gone by the board. We expect to founder, but hope to float. Just before the helm is put down, the order is supposed to be given, “Look out for yourselves” but a trumpet voice could not be heard above the roar of the sea and the howling of the wind. The order is unnecessary, as every one knows the imminent peril of the movement. The helm is put down. The brave little ship comes to grandly. Some spars are carried away, and there was a frightful shock all over, but still we have won. There is a stern joy in defying the tempest and cheating the storm by the handling of one’s ship. At the same time the heart involuntarily goes out in gratitude to God for having given us the victory. Before many hours we found the wind hauling to the eastward. Our calculations, based on the scientific theory of the Law of Storms, had proved correct. The cyclone was holding to the westward, while we had been sailing out of its course, and at the same time on the proper tack for heading up to any change in the direction of wind and sea. In short, we had been sailing round the southern verge of the storm until the whole mass had passed us. The cyclone ultimately disappeared below the western horizon. We estimated its diameter at 600 miles, and were truly thankful to have seen the last of it. 

A sailor’s life is full of incidents. One evening I took a short stroll on shore at Gravesend. We were just about to start on a voyage to Australia, and my vessel, a brand-new three-master, lay off in the stream. I got into conversation with a respectable-looking man who had come out for a walk with his children. I noticed one bright little fellow, and asked the man if he was his eldest son. “That boy” he replied, “is as dear to me as any of my own children, but he is not my son. His father, a ship captain, was drowned at sea, and the mother, a very good woman, who lived next door to us, died soon after, I believe of a broken heart. It was a sad case. I had enough to do to provide for my own family, but I could not help telling the dying woman to keep her mind easy about her son, Tommy. I would bring him up. She just whispered “God bless you”  and breathed her last. I don’t regret it, for Tommy is a good boy, and when he gets a chance I am sure he will do well. He wants to go to sea.” I felt interested in the lad, and although I knew it was irregular to have a boy on board whose name was not on the ship’s articles, I offered to take him. “Thank you very much, Captain,” said his guardian. Tommy’s face was radiant with pleasure and pride when half-an-hour later he appeared rigged out, quite smartly, with a blue jacket and white pants, carrying a small canvas bag containing the rest of his belongings. We rowed off to the ship, and I handed Tommy over to the care of the mate, and for the time forgot all about him. I had very soon something else to think about. We proceeded down St. George’s Channel, and while standing in for the Welsh coast with the wind ahead, we were suddenly caught by a nor’-wester. Up to that moment the weather had been thick as a hedge, and the breeze strong from the south-west. The barometer had shown no indication whatever of a change. All at once big drops of rain fell, and almost in a moment of time the wind struck us, as I have said, from the north-west. The sky became clear as mid-day, the sea was lashed into foam and spray. Under the change of wind the ship ran straight for the rocks. It was a critical moment for me. Here was a new ship with tall tapering masts whose staying powers had never been tested. Will she come round? I confess I had the gravest apprehensions she would be dismasted by the only manoeuvre left to seamanship. I hesitated to give the order. 

At this moment I became aware of some person at my side, and on looking round I found it was the little boy, Tommy. “Please, Captain,” said the little chap, “may I now go below to prayers?” I confess I felt a choking sensation. Here in the midst of a terrible storm was the ship driving to destruction on the rocks, and here was an innocent lad, all unconscious of danger, calmly asking if he might go below to prayers.  “Go below this instant, and don’t cease praying until I tell you,” was my somewhat odd command. The little incident did me good. I could not believe we should be lost while that cabin boy was praying. It nerved me for action. While running before the wind, we had shortened sail, then hauled close to the wind, masts and yards cracking and straining to their utmost tension. All hands were now placed at their stations, and every sailor knew what depended upon him. “Put the helm down!” For a second she shivers and shakes. Everything is strained to the breaking point. We hear the noise of the surf beating against the rocks. It is a moment of dreadful suspense. “She’s round! She’s round!” shouts every soul on deck. “Let go and haul!” rings cheerily out, and the good ship clears the iron- bound coast and leaves the dangers behind her. When I went below a few minutes later, I found Tommy faithful to the first order he had got from his captain, and told him I hoped he would always have the courage to show his colours as a Christian lad. 

I have always had the feeling that it was the cabin boy’s prayers that saved the ship that night. When the voyage was ended, Tommy went home to Gravesend to his friends. I lost sight of him from that time, and never heard mention of his name. A dozen or more years later, when I was in command of a steamship, then in the London Docks, I observed a particularly smart sailing ship lying outside of us. I had still an eye for a well-kept ship, and I was just remarking to my chief officer that the master of that ship was a proper sailor, when a fine strapping young fellow came on board of us. “You won’t remember me, Captain?” he said ; “I am the boy Tommy you picked up at Gravesend. I am now master of that sailing ship lying outside of you!” It was a delightful surprise. I afterwards learned that he was held in the highest estimation by the owners he served – one of the best lines of sailing ships out of London.  Character tells at sea as much as it does on shore. 

For several years I sailed from Glasgow to Java, and thence back to Holland with the produce of the Malay Archipelago. Those were the days of big freights to the shipowner, large profits to the merchant, and hand some gratuities to the captain. In course of time I came to know all the ins and outs of the chain of islands forming the Malay Archipelago. It is always an anxious moment for the master of a vessel when land is first reported. He has been sailing mayhap for three months across the pathless ocean, without having had a single sight of land, and has guided his ship alone by the observations he has made of the sun with his sextant. I confess I always felt a little elated when, bound to Batavia, I made Java Head to a mile, which happened repeatedly.

I have always thought the coral islands of the Java Sea, the most beautiful in the world. Right ahead of us, standing out of the water but a few feet, is one of the reefs shining in the noonday sun, with all the purity of colour of fresh-fallen snow. By and bye, its pearly lustre will be dimmed by the hand of time. Its surface will be covered with mosses and lichen, then will follow a higher order of vegetation, which in turn will be succeeded by the luxurious growths of a tropical clime. You can see islands represetting each of these stages of progression. On the older coral islands one can discern the cocoa-nut tree, the plantain, the banana, and the sugar-cane, with a wealth of forest products forming the jungle. The eye detects the different varieties of coral washed by the sea–the white coral with its plant-like shape ; the mushroom coral; and the pink and blue coral rising like miniature basaltic columns. Interesting as they are to the naturalist, these coral reefs when coming to the surface are a source of great danger to the navigation of the narrow straits. On the coast of Java, we parcel out the day according to the fixed alternations of the land and sea breezes. We get the sea breeze early in the forenoon, which carries us along until sundown, dying gradually away. Knowing this, we old hands on the coast make the last tack inshore and let go anchor close to the mainland, but with all sails set. It was often very amusing to see some stranger following us in every little dodge to make the most of the wind, but hesitating to copy this last manoeuvre. It was a position, however, of perfect safety. Now comes the witching hour of lull. It is impossible to describe the pleasurable sensations one experiences during the brief pause that ensues. The fiery sun has gone down, and everything is hushed in repose. All nature seems at rest, and the cool calm air in which we are now bathed has a wonderfully soothing and refreshing effect. We feel as if transported into a veritable dreamland. To spend the evening watch on; this coast is to experience a new sensation in life. It is perfect enchantment. But just as we are at the height of our enjoyment we hear the rustling of the land breeze amongst the trees of the mangrove. The anchor is weighed, and the sails fill with a breeze of perfume. The rich fragrance of the cinnamon, the orange, the sugar cane and other spices, is at first intoxicating, and then becomes almost overpowering, and we are glad to bear away before the breeze. 

The hidden coral reefs are not the only source of danger to the navigator amongst these islands. The currents at times are baffling. Coming up on one occasion with a fine ship on her maiden voyage to the Straits of Sunda after a very fast passage, I found dozens of vessels anchored in sheltered nooks in the Strait, where they had been for some weeks, unable to stem the strong current which was running to the south. It so happened that as we approached, a fierce squall called the “Sumatra” came off that shore, and we had the good luck to catch it in the nick of time, and to the surprise of our tide-bound friends who were inshore and could not get underweigh, we headed up through the Strait in the teeth of the current. I knew the Strait pretty well, and although the weather was tempestuous we kept right on, careering through the narrow passage in the darkness of the night, with only the fitful flashes of the lightning to show us the rocks and reefs on the one side, and the hardly less dangerous sands on the other. We got through all right, and I was congratulating myself on this extraordinary piece of good fortune, when the wind died away, leaving us a few miles beyond the mouth of the Strait. 

Having lost the wind, the way was off the ship, and now to my utter surprise and consternation the current began, gently at first and more rapidly afterwards, to sweep us right back into the Strait again. We tried every method we could think of to retard our course. Anchor we could not –the water was too deep. Backward and backward we were drawn. We felt ourselves completely at the mercy of the treacherous current. Closer and closer it carried us to a small rocky island in the channel. In a few minutes we must be dashed against it. The current was now running like a great river in flood and foam, bearing us along with it. We were within a few hundred yards of the rock, but still there was no slackening in the force. We now waited for the end – the destruction of our good ship. In a moment we were swept in towards the rock, so close that the over-hanging branches of the trees brushed our yards. I held my breath for the fatal crash. But it came not. The ship, most mysteriously, stopped short of striking, and remained trembling like a racehorse brought suddenly up in face of an unexpected danger. Here she hung motionless for about five minutes, kept steady ap- parently by the force of the back draught. All around was the roaring current, and here were we in the very midst of it as steady as if anchored. Gradually she moved round the edge of the island until she had almost made the circle, when her head fell off a little and we shot out into the stream and were once more borne along by the current. On coming into shoal water, we watched our opportunity and let go the anchor, alas further astern than the friends we had passed so gloriously a few hours before. In the morning the current set the other way and we got through with the others. 

Although a sailor’s experiences are for the most part connected with the sea, he has occasional curious glimpses of the shore. During the period I was sailing to and from Java, one used to meet at the ports of Batavia and Sourabaya a set of very fine young fellows in command of sailing ships. I believe they were. the very pick of the masters in the mercantile service at that time. It was a purely accidental circumstance, I suppose. It would be easy to count a dozen of them at least who became a few years later commanders in the crack steam lines to India and Africa. Long detentions at the Java ports were not unusual, and to break the monotony of harbour life, a party of us arranged to have a short excursion inland, just to see the character of the country whose produce we were carrying to distant shores.

One day a party of us started from Sourabaya to Parsawang by sailing ship. The land all over the Island of Java is low towards the shore, but as a rule there is deep water close up to the beach. It is not so, however, at Parsawang, as we found to our cost. We left the ship by a small native canoe, but had not gone far when it stuck fast. The tide was ebbed or ebbing, and a stretch of shallow water lay between us and the shore. There was nothing for it but off shoes and stockings and wade. We must have presented a comical appearance – each man with his portmanteau and walking-stick trudging through the water for fully a mile. On reaching the shore we were met by a lot of natives, who took charge of our bags. At the first bamboo hut, there was a great stir among them, mustering up tubs of water for our feet, each little fellow sticking close to his patron. A small sum satisfied them, and we were once more comfortable. A little further along we reached the “Boom” or city gate, where we found carriages waiting to drive us to the hotel. An examination of our baggage now took place, and the officer being satisfied, we drove on, the huts becoming thicker as we proceed, and at length the places of the European residents form the line on either side of the road. We spent the evening very comfortably at the hotel, a first rate building, and in the morning started for the famous Blue Waters in an old- fashioned coach drawn by four ponies. The morning drive was delightful. The aroma of the plants and spices still wet with the dew, was exhilarating, and reminded one of the enchanted lands of Eastern romance. Our road led through a bit of country the loveliest in many respects I had ever seen. On one side was the sugar just planted, on the other just reaped, further on half grown, and on the adjacent field were natives burning the refuse of the cane on the land on which it had been grown, brought back from the “fabric” or sugar works. The fertility of the soil is enormous. The coffee plant waves gracefully under the shade of tree necessary for its proper growth. Close by shoots up the tall Indian corn. 

Our proximity to a field of maize was always indicated first by the great number of birds. When we came up we found multitudes of the feathered tribe hopping about, some very large birds and few very small, and nearly all exhibiting brilliant colours, We are in the land of the Bird of Paradise, and among birds of the richest plumage in the world. We would fain have spent a few hours here, but the Blue Waters lie a long way ahead of us yet, and the horses are put to their fastest paces once more The luxurious profusion and growth of vegetation is striking even to those of us who have visited not a few tropical countries. On both sides of the road we were traversing, a great hedge was formed of the natural growth of the country, consisting of the tamarin, cocoa-nut tree, and banyan, whilst in the almost impenetrable underwood grew hundreds of specimens of ferns and flowering plants and shrubs. Through scenery of this character we drove on and reached the Blue Waters, or rather as near as we could approach them with our coach. We had just got out of the old chariot when an incident characteristic of, the country occurred. On looking around, we beheld an army of monkeys, emerging out of the forest. There could not have been less than 400 or 500 of  them. They were going through a variety of antics, and chattering in the most lively manner. They varied in size from that of a small cat to a pretty large dog, and were quite fat and glossy, presenting a great contrast to the scrubby creatures one sees at home. In the forefront was a large portly leader, who is called the rajah monkey or king by the natives.

When a dispute arises between two of his subjects, he immediately runs to the spot, severs the pair of combatants, administering a good thrashing, and distributing to others the disputed property or appropriating it to himself if very dainty. We soon received some attention from them. We had only gone a few hundred yards, when they took possession of our coach. Some of them mounted on top, others with a keen eye to our provisions got on the “boot,” while half-a-dozen mischievous rascals rode the horses and began tormenting the poor animals. We had to return to drive them off. Some of them showed fight, and it was with considerable difficulty the native drivers managed to carry our luncheon under cover. We are now prepared to bathe in the Blue Waters. A house built by the Government stands near the water edge for the use of bathers. The Blue Waters spring from a well, said to be of immense depth, and are allowed to fill up a pond of goodly size, walled in on every side, and reached by a ladder. A sluice carries off the surplus water. A person swimming in this singular bath appears no bigger than a child, and his skin seems perfectly blue. The water feels cold and soft, and is decidedly invigorating, but one is haunted by the fear that one’s skin has been rendered permanently blue, and we get out and dress. 

I observed that the water was of the deepest blue over the crevice through which it rises, but lost much of its bluish tinge when it left the bath. After lunch, we fed the fishes of the Blue Waters with fragments of our provisions. They are very numerous, and are so accustomed to visitors that they will almost feed out of one’s hand. The natives hold them sacred, and will on no account catch any of them. Except that they are perfectly blue in colour, they do not differ materially in appearance from common burn trout. We had a stroll round, still escorted by our friends the monkeys, and observed many curious figures in stone, placed about 12 feet apart. The carving was marvellously good, but the representations of human features were very grotesque, and appear to have been made designedly sp. In some instances, the teeth were made to project several inches, and not content with giving a man two eyes, some figures were provided with half-a-dozen in front and one or two at the back of his head. Still the sculpture work was remarkably fine. Java abounds with the ruins of ancient temples, and its sculptures rival in beauty those of Central America or even India, but have never been adequately described. The sun now began to make itself felt in its mid-day effulgence, and gathering together our native attendants, we got the old coach underweigh. The monkeys made one or two rallies in force to prevent our departure, but they were beaten off, and we started with them in full cry after us, the old “rajah” shaking his fist when he discovered he was out-distanced in the race.

We returned from Parsawang to Sourabaya by an overland route. The coach horses were changed at stations five or six miles apart along the route. At one station, we were attracted by the sound of music, and on approaching the bamboo huts perceived that some great rejoicings were taking place. We were invited to enter the princ pal hut, and found ourselves in presence of the “Happy Man,” or high priest, of the Javanese. He was celebrating some great feast, The musicians outside were serenading the merry company inside. The band was a curiosity in its way. One man had about a dozen large oblong pieces of metal, mixed with bell-metal, which he beat with a kind of drum-stick, and as each piece gave forth a different tone, the sounds produced were not unpleasant. The other members of the band played seconds to this instrument by striking together two pieces of tin or iron. Though to our ears barbarous as to tune, the music this Javanese band discoursed was not inharmonious, and had a fine effect in the still evening. We spent a short time in, I fear, not very intelligible conversation with the “Happy Man” and his devotees, and then proceeded on our journey. 

In our travels along the road, we met the native Rajah of the district. Javanese Royalty still holds a place in the government of the Island, and though no longer supreme in authority the position of the native Rajah is one of some dignity and importance.  We found that our friend had a handsome palace, and his private grounds, which were enclosed, extended over a space of two miles, beautifully intersected by walks and sheltered by the choicest fruit trees. With great ceremony he put on his badge of office, and welcomed us to his abode in the most gracious manner, assuring us that his greatest delight was to see Englishmen at his house. He then led the way to a centre table groaning under the choicest viands, and invited us to refresh ourselves. On the floor of the chamber sat his ministers of state, who bowed a welcome, but did not rise. Each of these gentlemen quaffed his glass every time anything important was said or done. His Royal Highness insisted very much that we should remain all night with him in order that we might see his theatricals, which he informed us were performed twice-a-week. This invitation we were relucta tly compelled to decline, but while dinner was being prepared he proposed showing us round the palace. The rooms were all handsomely furnished. Our inspection was not confined to the principal rooms – he even took us to the cooking department, and at length to the wine cellar, where he drew our attention to his large stock of champagne, of which he seemed rather proud. We returned to the reception room, a large circular apartment, with the roof some forty feet high. The floor was of marble, and from the pillars were suspended large curtains ready to be dropped as soon as the sun shone in upon the floor. In this room was his judgement-seat or throne, lined with a dark velvet, trimmed with lace. We then removed to the dining-hall, his ministers got up off their mats, and took their places on the table at the left, while he most ceremoniously bowed to the strangers to his right. He gave us an excellent dinner, the fruits especially being most delicious. At parting we thanked him for his hospitality, and exchanged cards, he giving us besides his own that of his son Dolph, who is Rajah in another district. Our visit to the Rajah formed a very pleasant episode in our journey back to Sourabaya, where we arrived the same evening. 

On another occasion I had an unusually long and quite involuntary term of residence on shore. It is the ordinary custom of Dutch skippers when in Java to live on shore. We did not follow their example. Arriving at a small place called Peckalongan, we had to anchor in an exposed bay. One morning I landed and drove up to town, about three miles inland from the entrance, and spent the day on business amongst the European merchants. Returning in the evening to go off to the ship, I found the blue flag was flying, indicat ing that no boat could cross the bar. The weather had changed – heavy rain falling and a gale of wind blowing, with the usual accompaniment in those parts of thunder and lightning. I could see my ship pitching and rolling not the eighth of a mile from the beach, but to reach her was impossible. 

I returned to the town and took up my quarters at the hotel, trusting there would soon be a change. Here, however, I had to remain for fourteen days, without getting a single chance of communicating with the ship. For several days the rain was incessant, and the river rose rapidly. On the second day it overflowed its banks, and by the evening it had submerged the town, all except the higher buildings. On the fourteenth day I was informed there was a prospect of my getting off to the ship. An hour or two later I got off, not, however, without finding considerable difficulty in forcing our way through the boiling surf, and I was thankful to have my feet once more on the ship’s deck. A day or two later a deputation of sailors asked for a day on shore. I had some doubts about granting it, as Jack ashore in foreign parts invariably goes in for a lark, which not infrequently ends in a row more or less serious. After lecturing them a bit on the propriety of good behaviour, one watch was allowed on shore for the day. They were not very long in the town until they indulged in all sorts of diversions, riding on horses and driving furiously through the streets. Having summarily got rid of the drivers, Jack was in full possession of box and whip. Nothing more serious than the upsetting of two or three coaches into a ditch occurred, until the evening, when I received an official intimation from the Resident, or chief representative of the Dutch Government, that my sailors had taken the town and were disregarding all law and order. I had to go after them, and after a good deal of persuasion and a little compulsion I got them to go on board, to the great relief of the inhabitants. 

I had made up my mind to grant no more liberty days, but unfortunately my order to that effect did not reach the ship until the other watch had left. All I could do was to impose severer injunctions upon this lot, and I was gratified to find them returning to town in the afternoon after a drive into the country, in a thoroughly respectable condition. I saw them off in their boats without, as I thought, any mischief occurring this time. In the evening, however, to my no small astonishment, I was besieged at the hotel by a host of excited natives, pre- senting bills for payment of such things as young dogs, monkeys, parrots, ducklings, cats, and all manner of fowls which they alleged had been taken by my sailors. It turned out that the second lot was as bad as the first, for on going down the river, wishing to wind up the day with a little exciting sport, they had landed at a village and had literally robbed the place of every living animal they could lay hold on. On going aboard I found the decks presenting the appearance of a small menagerie. Jack, however riotously inclined, is not generally dishonest, and they were perfectly willing that I should settle with the natives for them, which I did to the last farthing.

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