Saturday, September 23, 2023

Saturday Snippet: A (very) young man goes to sea


John D. Widden was a sailor in the 19th century, starting at the most tender of ages in 1834 and retiring as a ship's captain in 1870.  He wrote an autobiography titled "Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days - From Forecastle To Quarter-Deck".

The blurb reads:

John D. Whidden started out at sea in 1834, at the age of twelve, and did not retire until 1870.

This is his account of over a quarter-century spent on the high seas.

Orphaned at five, nothing held Whidden back from embarking on sea life seven years later. Serving as an apprentice, he quickly proved his worth, and earned himself a mate’s position by his early twenties. Graduating to third, second and first office, he ended his career in command of, and having part-ownership of his own vessel.

This memoir, Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days, records a series of real events, from his childhood impressions of rough and ready seamen, to his thrilling and brutal experiences of war.

His travels saw him spanning the world, with stops at major ports such as Honolulu, Buenos Aires, Calcutta, and Liverpool.

His life spans the changes in the shipping industry over the 19th and into the 20th century.

During the Civil War, Whidden was heavily involved in profitable island trading in the Bahamas to elude Confederate sailors. However, shortly after the close of the war, in 1870, Whidden left sailing as he found it being overtaken by foreign interests.

John D. Whidden (1832-1911) wrote Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Days in 1908, partly as a memoir, but also to offer a snippet of the “old sailing ship days” before major changes occurred to its business environment, fundamentally changing its nature. It is a classic account of a different way of life, which will appeal to both sailing enthusiasts and historians alike.

I thought the opening chapter might set the scene for a very interesting autobiography.  Recommended to all who love ships, the sea, and the age of sail.

I was born on High Street in Boston, Mass., in the year 1832, and lost my parents when I was but five years of age. My mother died at Mobile, Alabama, where my father was engaged in business, and my father died in Savannah, Georgia, the year after. Upon their decease, my grandparents having taken charge of my sister and myself, we were brought up in their family at Marblehead, Mass., and I attended the public schools until I attained the age of twelve years.

At this time I was called a very fair scholar, well up in reading, writing, and geography, fair in arithmetic, and intensely interested in books of travel and adventure, while all works treating of the sea, tales of travel in foreign lands, shipwrecks and everything pertaining to the ocean, had a very great fascination for me.

Marblehead being a seaport town, my time, when not in school or employed around the house doing chores, was spent with my companions about the wharves, swimming or climbing about the vessels at the docks, rowing around the harbor in the small boats, or dories, that we would borrow from the various captains or skippers of the fishing craft, — mostly schooners from fifty to ninety tons burthen, engaged in the Grand Banks fisheries, of which at this time there was a fleet of nearly a hundred sail, all hailing from and owned in Marblehead.

What a treat for us boys when a square rigger — as we designated all barks, ships, and brigs — came sailing into the harbor, perhaps from Cadiz, Spain, laden with salt for the fishing fleet to take to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for their spring fares, and when she hauled into the wharf to discharge her cargo into the salt sheds, how we youngsters swarmed on board, exploring every nook and cranny of her, climbing over her rigging, daring each other to mount higher and higher, until with a feeling of triumph I at last placed my cap upon the main royal truck, the highest point, and looking down saw the admiring, though envious, gaze of my young companions!

Then, again, to sit around the fo’c’sle after the work for the day was over, to see the sailors at their meals, and hear them spin their yarns, was happiness indeed.

To go to sea, become a sailor, visit foreign lands, and in due time become the captain of a fine ship, this was the goal to be looked forward to, the great aim of our lives. It certainly was of mine, and I judge of all, or nearly all, of my playmates.

My grandparents were not in favor of my adopting a sailor’s life, wishing me to learn a trade, but to this I was opposed, and rang the changes upon the advantages of a seafaring life, until they gave way and consented.

Shortly after this decision, on my return from school one day I was ushered into the parlor, where sat a gentleman in conversation with my grandmother, to whom I was introduced. He was Captain James King, of Salem, Mass., and I learned for the first time that I was to join the ship he commanded in two weeks, the ship being the fine new half clipper named the “Ariel,” just launched, and lying at Newburyport, bound round to New York to load flour for Liverpool, England, from thence to China, she having been built for a Canton trader.

This was joyful news indeed, and I went out from the parlor, after making my best bow and answering all his questions in a satisfactory manner, the happiest boy in the old town.

During our conversation, my grandmother touched upon my good qualities, and said to Captain King that she did not see how she could part with me, I was so useful and willing to do anything about the house, such a help to her, etc., etc., to all of which I listened in considerable astonishment, for, while my grandmother was one of the best of souls and very fond of me, yet I was constantly getting into trouble, and received more scoldings, no doubt richly deserved, than pettings. In fact, at this time I had fallen into disgrace, and I afterward thought it the predisposing cause of her consent being obtained to my going to sea.

The facts were as follows: At regular intervals during the year, and especially about the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, my grandmother made up and baked what she called a “batch” of pies, — mince, apple, and squash predominating. I was very fond of pie, and at these times I was in great demand to peel and core apples, seed raisins, chop meat and suet for the mince; taking a most active part, and a very willing one, in all that was going on in this line.

Then came the baking. Our kitchen was large and roomy, and the fireplace immense. This was before cooking stoves came into use. On the left side of the fireplace was a large brick oven, where all the baking was done, and when this occurred it was in large quantities, about thirty or forty pies constituting a “batch.” After baking, they were stored in what was called the “back chamber closet,” very large and convenient, having tiers of shelves around it, there to remain until wanted. It was a goodly and attractive sight to my eyes whenever a fresh “batch” was stored away. I longed to get at them, but the old lady, probably feeling that I was not to be trusted when pies were around, always kept the closet locked and the keys stowed safely in her ample pocket. My little bedroom adjoined this chamber, and in going and returning I was obliged to pass through it. Always in the morning I invariably tried this closet door, and always found it locked, but this morning my grandmother had forgotten to lock it, although she had taken out the key! I could hardly credit it. Opening the door I looked in, where lay the rows of pies, temptingly displayed in tiers, shelf over shelf. I would not have stolen money, or anything else, but the sight was too much, and I yielded to temptation. I did not dare take a whole pie, as that would be missed at once. To cut one would be open to the same objection, i.e. discovery. I pondered awhile how I should enjoy the fruits of my “find” and yet escape detection. A brilliant thought struck me. Slipping down-stairs I entered the kitchen. My grandma was busily engaged, and I could see was likely to be, for half or three quarters of an hour, at least. Hastily smuggling a case-knife into my pocket, I passed out of and around the house and entered by the side door. Creeping softly up the back stairs, in a moment I was again in the closet. Standing on a chair, and taking a pie from the top shelf, knowing these would be the last used, I inserted the thin knife between the upper and lower crusts, and working carefully round was able to lift the top crust sufficiently to enable me to get at and eat all the mince from the inside. Carefully replacing the top crust, and patting the edges down, the pie to a casual observer showed no difference, in the looks, from any other pie. Pleased with my first experiment, I proceeded to try another, and did not finish my feast until I had eaten the insides out of six or seven pies.

Each day I visited the closet and regaled myself on mince or apple pie, taking no note of the number; in short, I was just living on pie. No wonder my dear old grandmother thought my appetite was failing and grew anxious about me, but the end was near!

One day, on my return from school, I found we had company to tea, two or three ladies. This was good news, for company days were red letter days to me, as we always had something extra in the way of cake, preserves, and pies; in short, a great addition to every-day fare.

The tea was ready, the table nicely laid, and the guests seated around it, my grandmother at the head to serve the tea, grandpa at her left, and myself at her right. I can see her now, smiling, and beaming upon her guests, as she glanced around the well-appointed board.

Ann, our old servant, had been commissioned to bring down two or three pies, which were on the hearth in front of the fire, warming. At the right moment one of the pies was placed in front of the old lady. As she took the knife and fork in her hands to cut it, she made a few remarks on how she made her pies, how careful she was to select the ingredients, etc., ending with the query whether Mrs. Jones would prefer apple or mince?

“Well, really, Mrs. Appleton,” replied the lady, “they look so nice, I believe I’ll take a small piece of each.”

“Why, certainly,” replied my grandmother, laying her knife upon the pie, which crashed through it like an egg-shell!

I shall never forget the feeling of terror that seized me, or the look of astonishment on my grandmother’s face, as she turned reproachfully to Ann, and said: “Why, Ann! You’ve forgotten to put any mince in this pie,” adding, rather sternly, “You may pass me up another pie.”

Ann’s face was a study. She was a splendid cook, and to be called down before company for not putting mince or apple in pies, and baking them without, was past her comprehension. She could not understand it. Another pie was placed upon the table, and again the old lady started to cut it, meanwhile apologizing for keeping her guest waiting. Same result! Laying down her knife and fork, she looked at my grandpa, and then at me.

Although not a word had been said, I could contain myself no longer and blurted out, “I didn’t do it.”

This of course was a dead give-away.

My grandfather arose, and taking me by the shoulder marched me to the door, telling me to go to bed, and he would attend to me by and by, which he did, and I lost all appetite for pie for the time intervening between this event and my leaving home.

Now came the bustle of preparation. The carpenter, old Mr. Jerry Smith, was given the commission to make my little blue sea-chest. As no member of the family had ever been to sea, the old folks were somewhat at a loss as to what I would require, but this was got over by pressing into the service old Captain Edmund Bray, a retired shipmaster, who readily entered into the family councils, and, acting on his suggestions, my outfit was soon completed and packed away in my chest.

On Monday morning, I was to leave home, and taking my books from school Friday night for the last time, I bade the master goodbye, spending Saturday with the boys in all their games, it being a holiday.

Sunday I attended church all day, and the following morning said the last goodbye, and started for the station with my grandfather. Arriving a little before train time, he spent the interval in giving me good advice, which I am afraid was not listened to as earnestly as it should have been, when handing me my tickets for Newburyport, with six new half-dollars, which were very highly appreciated, money having always been a very scarce article during my school days. I stepped on board the train and in a few moments was speeding away toward my future home, at least it would be my home for a year or more.

Arriving at Newburyport, I hired a conveyance and was driven to the wharf with my chest, there obtaining the first view of the ship in which I was to make my start in life, and, as I took in her trim appearance, and looked aloft at her long, tapering spars, realizing that I was really a member of her crew, a feeling of pride came over me, and all regrets, if I had any, were swept away, and I felt I had made no mistake in adopting a sailor’s life.

The first and second officers were on board, with the carpenter, who came out to assist me in getting my chest on board and stowed away in the fo’c’sle, where for the time I was the only occupant, the carpenter having his room aft.

Having got my mattress into one of the upper berths, I got out my blankets and sheets, with “comforter” or spread, and proceeded to make my bed after a home pattern. At this time sheets and pillow-cases were unheard of articles in a ship’s fo’c’sle, but of this fact I was not aware, so made my bed as near as I remembered it in my little chamber at home. This being done, I went on deck, making the acquaintance of the first and second officers, by whom I was set to work at odd jobs about deck, sweeping up, and anything I was told to do.

As the crew had not come down from Boston, there was no cooking on board, but the officers and myself got our meals at a place called “Brown’s Tavern,” but a short distance from the wharf.

A week passed, and I had become quite accustomed to being on shipboard. After having received instructions from the second mate before going aloft, I had won considerable credit by sending down the main royal yard, and did the work in a manner that brought a compliment from him, i.e. “an old hand could not have done it better.”

This pleased me very much, and I began to consider myself quite a sailor. But, “pride goeth before a fall.”

It was the close, of a drear December day. Snow, rain, and sleet had been falling, and about four in the afternoon I had gone below in the fo’c’sle to get ready to go up to the tavern for supper, when I heard a great commotion on the deck overhead. The companion doors were thrown open, and down rained chests, bags, and hammocks, wet and dirty, followed by the crew who had just arrived on the train from Boston.

There were about twenty men, of all nationalities, and as soon as they landed in the fo’c’sle they began pitching the bags and hammocks into the berths, all talking and swearing, for they were not in good humor, being about as wet as their luggage.

I had drawn up, and was standing on my little chest alongside my berth, when, without any ceremony or asking “by your leave,” an old grizzled shellback tossed into my clean berth a wet, dirty bag and hammock.

Although I had stood, half in awe, watching the scene, not venturing a word, this act of old Tom’s was too much, and laying my hand upon his arm I remonstrated: “Don’t do that! You’ll soil my sheets!”

Tom gave me a puzzled look for a moment, and exclaimed, “Who in thunder are you?”

I hastened to assure him that I was a sailor, one of the crew, and that was my berth, and my bed was made up. With a queer look he mounted my sea-chest and glanced into my berth. Never shall I forget his look of wonder, and the ineffable scorn conveyed in his tone as he turned around to his chum, and exclaimed with withering sarcasm, “Well I’m blessed, Joe,” (only he did not say “blessed”) “if the beggar ain’t got sheets!”

I made no reply, but I felt that in his eyes, at least, I was no sailor, and when they had gone to supper, shortly after, off came the sheets and pillow-cases, which were stored at the bottom of my chest, nevermore to do duty as bedding on that ship.

Two days after, the weather having cleared, the crew came on board, also the pilot and captain, and with a fine westerly breeze sail was made at the wharf, the fasts cast off, and the ship headed for the bar. As soon as crossed, the pilot was discharged, and all sail made, topmast stun’sail booms got up and run out, stun’sails got out and sent up, anchors secured, and everything movable about decks made fast.

All was bustle and excitement attendant upon leaving port, and particularly in this case, as the “Ariel” was a new ship, on her maiden voyage, and many a glance was cast over the ship’s side to note her speed. Meanwhile the log was hove, and showing better than ten knot, a general feeling of satisfaction was felt fore and aft. The sea was comparatively smooth, and everything new to me. I was in my element, long looked forward to, and entered into everything with a will. Where I did not fully understand all orders I went with the crowd, and took note of what was going on, managing to get along very well.

At four o’clock the crew were called aft and the watches chosen, after which the port, or mate’s, watch went below to supper, while the starboard, or second mate’s, cleared up decks. They put everything in order for the night, while the boys swept up.

At four bells, — six o’clock, — the mate’s watch again came on deck to relieve the starboard, who went below for supper, remaining until eight o’clock, — eight bells, — when they again came up, relieving the port watch, who went below until midnight.

I will here state that from four to eight o’clock P. M. is divided into two watches of two hours each, and this changes the watches each night; so that the port watch has eight hours below one night, i.e. from eight to twelve P. M. and from four to eight A. M., while the starboard has eight hours on deck, having only four hours below to sleep, i.e. from twelve midnight until four o’clock A. M. The “dog” watches, as they are called, serve to change the long watches, so that the two get their eight hours below every other night, and it is a rule that the second mate’s watch always has the eight hours on deck the first night at sea.

I had been chosen in the second mate’s watch, Mr. Henry Fabens’s, and went to supper at six, with the rest. It consisted of hash, salt meat, hard ship’s biscuit, and tea sweetened with molasses. After supper the men filled their pipes, smoked and “yarned” until eight bells, when they again went on deck, myself with them, to stand my first watch at sea.

The wheel was relieved, the lookout man mounted the steps to the to’gallant fo’c’sle, while the remainder of the watch either paced the deck from the break of the fo’c’sle to the stern of the long boat, or picked out a snug berth, sheltered from the wind, to spin a long “yarn” to while away the four hours that must intervene before they could turn into a warm berth.

Old Tom, who since the sheet and pillow-case business had hardly taken any notice of me, started to do a turn of walking, pacing regularly from the fo’c’sle to amidships and return.

I wonder how many youngsters today would be willing (let alone able) to leave home at the age of 12, and enter into a dangerous, hardworking career at sea?  I suspect our ancestors were a hardier breed than we've become . . .



John in Philly said...

It's on the way to my Kindle.

When my father was in the hospital for surgery in the late sixties, a gent in his room was a retired ship captain and he had started with sails. I wish I had spent more time talking with him.

Thank you.

Dakota Viking said...

I know I've read the pie and sheet stories before, probably in a similar snippet somewhere. Was good to read it again.

Old NFO said...

It's a great read, and no, that wouldn't happen today.

Anonymous said...

Post Civil War, foreign interests took over as merchant shippers because the Confederate raiders had so diminished the US merchant fleet.

Justin_O_Guy said...

well up in reading, writing, and geography, fair in arithmetic, and intensely interested in books.

Sounds like he was better educated than some alleged graduates.

Jeff F. said...

99 cents on Kindle. Great read.

Mad Jack said...

I would have been willing, and in fact wanted to leave home when I was 12. I also wanted to quit school when I graduated the eighth grade, but my parents wouldn't hear of either plan - despite the fact that my father hated me and my mother didn't really like me much.

Just as well, I suppose. I have bronchial asthma, and would have had a very short life due to the wheezing disease.

I read the autobiography of a sailor who finished as an officer, and I knew a professional sailor who started his career on a barquentine. He'd also been a professional baseball player, and had several careers. He was a christian, and I still have the walking cane he made for me.