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or, A Life Before the Mast
By James Fenimore Cooper.
Thou unrelenting Past!
Strong are the barriers round thy dark domain,
And fetters sure and fast
Hold all that enter thy unbreathing reign.
Entered, according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1843, by
J. Fenimore Cooper,
in the clerk’s office of the District Court of the United States for the Northern district of New York.
It is an old remark, that the life of any man, could the incidents be faithfully told, would possess interest and instruction for the general reader. The conviction of the perfect truth of this saying, has induced the writer to commit to paper, the vicissitudes, escapes, and opinions of one of his old shipmates, as a sure means of giving the public some just notions of the career of a common sailor. In connection with the amusement that many will find in following a foremast Jack in his perils and voyages, however, it is hoped that the experience and moral change of Myers may have a salutary influence on the minds of some of those whose fortunes have been, or are likely to be, cast in a mould similar to that of this old salt.
As the reader will feel a natural desire to understand how far the editor can vouch for the truth of that which he has here written, and to be informed on the subject of the circumstances that have brought him acquainted with the individual whose adventures form the subject of this little work, as much shall be told as may be necessary to a proper understanding of these two points.
First, then, as to the writer’s own knowledge of the career of the subject of his present work. In the year 1806, the editor, then a lad, fresh from Yale, and destined for the navy, made his first voyage in a merchantman, with a view to get some practical knowledge of his profession. This was the fashion of the day, though its utility, on the whole, may very well be questioned. The voyage was a long one, including some six or eight passages, and extending to near the close of the year 1807. On board the ship was Myers, an apprentice to the captain. Ned, as Myers was uniformly called, was a lad, as well as the writer; and, as a matter of course, the intimacy of a ship existed between them. Ned, however, was the junior, and was not then compelled to face all the hardships and servitude that fell to the lot of the writer.
Once, only, after the crew was broken up, did the writer and Ned actually see each other, and that only for a short time. This was in 1809. In 1833, they were, for half an hour, on board the same ship, without knowing the fact at the time. A few months since, Ned, rightly imagining that the author of the Pilot must be his old shipmate, wrote the former a letter to ascertain the truth. The correspondence produced a meeting, and the meeting a visit from Ned to the editor. It was in consequence of the revelations made in this visit that the writer determined to produce the following work.
The writer has the utmost confidence in all the statements of Ned, so far as intention is concerned. Should he not be mistaken on some points, he is an exception to the great rule which governs the opinions and recollections of the rest of the human family. Still, nothing is related that the writer has any reasons for distrusting. In a few instances he has interposed his own greater knowledge of the world between Ned’s more limited experience and the narrative; but, this has been done cautiously, and only in cases in which there can be little doubt that the narrator has been deceived by appearances, or misled by ignorance. The reader, however, is not to infer that Ned has no greater information than usually falls to the share of a foremast hand. This is far from being the case. When first known to the writer, his knowledge was materially above that of the ordinary class of lads in his situation; giving ample proof that he had held intercourse with persons of a condition in life, if not positively of the rank of gentlemen, of one that was not much below it. In a word, his intelligence on general subjects was such as might justly render him the subject of remark on board a ship. Although much of his after-life was thrown away, portions of it passed in improvement; leaving Ned, at this moment, a man of quick apprehension, considerable knowledge, and of singularly shrewd comments. If to this be added the sound and accurate moral principles that now appear to govern both his acts and his opinions, we find a man every way entitled to speak for himself; the want of the habit of communicating his thoughts to the public, alone excepted.
In this book, the writer has endeavoured to adhere as closely to the very language of his subject, as circumstances will at all allow; and in many places he feels confident that no art of his own could, in any respect, improve it.
It is probable that a good deal of distrust will exist on the subject of the individual whom Ned supposes to have been one of his god-fathers. On this head the writer can only say, that the account which Myers has given in this work, is substantially the same as that which he gave the editor nearly forty years ago, at an age and under circumstances that forbid the idea of any intentional deception. The account is confirmed by his sister, who is the oldest of the two children, and who retains a distinct recollection of the prince, as indeed does Ned himself. The writer supposes these deserted orphans to have been born out of wedlock–though he has no direct proof to this effect–and there is nothing singular in the circumstance of a man of the highest rank, that of a sovereign excepted, appearing at the font in behalf of the child of a dependant. A member of the royal family, indeed, might be expected to do this, to favour one widely separated from him by birth and station, sooner than to oblige a noble, who might possibly presume on the condescension.
It remains only to renew the declaration, that every part of this narrative is supposed to be true. The memory of Ned may occasionally fail him; and, as for his opinions, they doubtless are sometimes erroneous; but the writer has the fullest conviction that it is the intention of the Old Salt to relate nothing that he does hot believe to have occurred, or to express an unjust sentiment. On the subject of his reformation, so far as “the tree is to be known by its fruits” it is entirely sincere; the language, deportment, habits, and consistency of this well-meaning tar, being those of a cheerful and confiding Christian, without the smallest disposition to cant or exaggeration. In this particular, he is a living proof of the efficacy of faith, and of the power of the Holy Spirit to enlighten the darkest understanding, and to quicken the most apathetic conscience.
In consenting to lay before the world the experience of a common seaman, and, I may add, of one who has been such a sinner as the calling is only too apt to produce, I trust that no feeling of vanity has had an undue influence. I love the seas; and it is a pleasure to me to converse about them, and of the scenes I have witnessed, and of the hardships I have undergone on their bosom, in various parts of the world. Meeting with an old shipmate who is disposed to put into proper form the facts which I can give him, and believing that my narrative may be useful to some of those who follow the same pursuit as that in which I have been so long engaged, I see no evil in the course I am now taking, while I humbly trust it may be the means of effecting some little good. God grant that the pictures I shall feel bound to draw of my own past degradation and failings, contrasted as they must be with my present contentment and hopes, may induce some one, at least, of my readers to abandon the excesses so common among seamen, and to turn their eyes in the direction of those great truths which are so powerful to reform, and so convincing when regarded with humility, and with a just understanding of our own weaknesses.
I know nothing of my family, except through my own youthful recollections, and the accounts I have received from my sister. My father I slightly remember; but of my mother I retain no distinct impressions. The latter must have died while I was very young. The former, I was in the habit of often seeing, until I reached my fifth or sixth year. He was a soldier, and belonged to the twenty-third regimen of foot, in the service of the King of Great Britain. The fourth son of this monarch, Prince Edward as he was then called, or the Duke of Kent as he was afterwards styled, commanded the corps, and accompanied it to the British American colonies, where it was stationed for many years.
I was born in Quebec, between the years 1792 and 1794; probably in 1793. Of the rank of my father in the regiment, I am unable to speak, though I feel pretty confident he was a commissioned officer. He was much with the prince; and I remember that, on parade, where I have often seen him, he was in the habit of passing frequently from the prince to the ranks–a circumstance that induces my old shipmate to think he may have been the adjutant. My father, I have always understood, was a native of Hanover, and the son of a clergyman in that country. My mother, also, was said to be a German, though very little is now known of her by any of the family. She is described to me as living much alone, as being occupied in pursuits very different from those of my father, and as being greatly averse to the life of a soldier.
I was baptized in the Church of England, and, from earliest boyhood, have always been given to understand that His Royal Highness, Prince Edward, the father of Queen Victoria, stood for me at the font; Major Walker, of the same regiment, being the other god-father, and Mrs. Walker, his wife, my god-mother. My real names are Edward Robert Meyers; those received in baptism having been given me by my two sponsors, after themselves. This christening, like my birth, occurred in Quebec. I have, however, called myself Edward, or Ned, Myers, ever since I took to the sea.
Before I was old enough to receive impressions to be retained, the regiment removed to Halifax. My father accompanied it; and, of course, his two children, my sister Harriet and myself, were taken to Nova Scotia. Of the period of my life that was passed in Halifax, I retain tolerably distinct recollections; more especially of the later years. The prince and my father both remained with the regiment for a considerable time; though all quitted Halifax several years before I left it myself. I remember Prince Edward perfectly well. He sometimes resided at a house called The Lodge, a little out of town; and I was often taken out to see him. He also had a residence in town. He took a good deal of notice of me; raising me in his arms, and kissing me. When he passed our house, I would run to him; and he would lead me through the streets himself. On more than one occasion, he led me off, and sent for the regimental tailor; directing suits of clothes to be made for me, after his own taste. He was a large man; of commanding presence, and frequently wore a star on the breast of his coat. He was not then called the Duke of Kent, but Prince Edward, or The Prince. A lady lived with him at the Lodge; but who she was, I do not know.
At this time, my mother must have been dead; for of her I retain no recollection whatever. I think, my father left Halifax some time before the prince. Major Walker, too, went to England; leaving Mrs. Walker in Nova Scotia, for some time. Whether my father went away with a part of the regiment to which he belonged, or not, I cannot say but I well remember a conversation between the prince, the major and Mrs. Walker, in which they spoke of the loss of a transport, and of Meyers’s saving several men. This must have been at the time when my father quitted Nova Scotia; to which province, I think, he never could have returned. Neither my sister, nor myself, ever saw him afterwards. We have understood that he was killed in battle; though when, or where, we do not know. My old shipmate, the editor, however, thinks it must have been in Canada; as letters were received from a friend in Quebec, after I had quitted Nova Scotia, inquiring after us children, and stating that the effects of my father were in that town, and ought to belong to us. This letter gave my sister the first account of his death; though it was not addressed to her, but to those in whose care she had been left. This property was never recovered; and my shipmate, who writes this account, thinks there may have been legal difficulties in the way.
Previously to quitting the province of Nova Scotia, my father placed Harriet and myself in the house of a Mr. Marchinton, to live. This gentleman was a clergyman, who had no regular parish, but who preached in a chapel of his own. He sent us both to school, and otherwise took charge of us. I am not aware of the precise time when the prince left Halifax, but it must have been when I was five or six years old–probably about the year 1798 or 1799.
From that time I continued at Mr. Marchinton’s, attending school, and busied, as is usual with boys of that age, until the year 1805. I fear I was naturally disposed to idleness and self-indulgence, for I became restive and impatient under the restraints of the schoolmaster, and of the gentleman in whose family I had been left. I do not know that I had any just grounds of complaint against Mr. Marchinton; but his rigorous discipline disgusted me; principally, I am now inclined to believe, because it was not agreeable to me to be kept under any rigid moral restraint. I do not think I was very vicious; and, I know, I was far from being of a captious temperament; but I loved to be my own master; and I particularly disliked everything like religious government. Mr. Marchinton, moreover, kept me out of the streets; and it was my disposition to be an idler, and at play. It is possible he may have been a little too severe for one of my temperament; though, I fear, nature gave me a roving and changeful mind.
At that time the English cruisers sent in many American vessels as prizes. Our house was near the water; and I was greatly in the habit of strolling along the wharves, whenever an opportunity occurred; Mr. Marchinton owning a good deal of property in that part of the town. The Cambrian frigate had a midshipman, a little older than myself, who had been a schoolmate of mine. This lad, whose name was Bowen, was sent in as the nominal prize-master of a brig loaded with coffee; and I no sooner learned the fact, than I began to pay him visits. Young Bowen encouraged me greatly, in a wish that now arose within me, to become a sailor. I listened eagerly to the history of his adventures, and felt the usual boyish emulation. Mr. Marchinton seemed averse to my following the profession, and these visits became frequent and stealthy; my wishes, most probably, increasing, in proportion as they seemed difficult of accomplishment.
I soon began to climb the rigging of the brig, ascending to the mast-heads. One day Mr. Marchinton saw me quite at the main-truck; and, calling me down, I got a severe flogging for my dexterity and enterprise. It sometimes happens that punishment produces a result exactly opposite to that which was intended; and so it turned out in the present instance. My desire to be a sailor increased in consequence of this very flogging; and I now began seriously to think of running away, in order to get to sea, as well as to escape a confinement on shore, that, to me, seemed unreasonable. Another prize, called the Amsterdam Packet, a Philadelphia ship, had been sent in by, I believe, the Cleopatra, Sir Robert Laurie. On board this ship were two American lads, apprentices. With these boys I soon formed an intimacy; and their stories of the sea, and their accounts of the States, coupled with the restraints I fancied I endured, gave rise to a strong desire to see their country, as well as to become a sailor. They had little to do, and enjoyed great liberty, going and coming much as they pleased. This idleness seemed, to me, to form the summit of human happiness. I did not often dare to play truant; and the school became odious to me. According to my recollections, this desire for a change must have existed near, or quite a twelvemonth; being constantly fed by the arrival and departure of vessels directly before my eyes, ere I set about the concocting of a serious plan to escape.
My project was put in execution in the summer of 1805, when I could not have been more than eleven years old, if, indeed, quite as old. I was in the market one day, and overheard some American seamen, who had been brought in, conversing of a schooner that was on the point of leaving Halifax, for New York. This vessel belonged to North Carolina, and had been captured by the Driver, some time before, but had been liberated by a decision of the Admiralty Court. The men I overheard talking about her, intended taking their passages back to their own country in the craft. This seemed to me a good opportunity to effect my purpose, and I went from the market, itself, down to the schooner. The mate was on board alone, and I took courage, and asked him if he did not want to ship a boy. My dress and appearance were both against me, as I had never done any work, and was in the ordinary attire of a better class lad on shore. The mate began to laugh at me, and to joke me on my desire to go to sea, questioning me about my knowledge. I was willing to do anything; but, perceiving that I made little impression, I resorted to bribery. Prince Edward had made me a present, before he left Halifax, of a beautiful little fowling-piece, which was in my own possession; and I mentioned to the mate that I was the owner of such an article, and would give it to him if he would consent to secrete me in the schooner, and carry me to New York. This bait took, and I was told to bring the fowling, piece on board, and let the mate see it. That night I carried the bribe, as agreed on, to this man, who was perfectly satisfied with its appearance, and we struck a bargain on the spot. I then returned to the house, and collected a few of my clothes. I knew that my sister, Harriet, was making some shirts for me, and I stole into her room, and brought away two of them, which were all I could find. My wardrobe was not large when I left the house, and I had taken the precaution of carrying the articles out one at a time, and of secreting them in an empty cask in the yard. When I thought I had got clothes enough, I made them into a bundle, and carried them down to the schooner. The mate then cleared out a locker in the cabin, in which there were some potatoes, and told me I must make up my mind to pass a few hours in that narrow berth. Too thoughtless to raise any objections, I cheerfully consented, and took my leave of him with the understanding that I was to be on board, again, early in the morning.
Before going to bed, I desired a black servant of Mr. Marchinton’s to call me about day-break, as I desired to go out and pick berries. This was done, and I was up and dressed before any other member of the family was stirring. I lost no time, but quitted the house, and walked deliberately down to the schooner. No one was up on board of her, and I was obliged to give the mate a call, myself. This man now seemed disposed to draw back from his bargain, and I had to use a good deal of persuasion before I could prevail on him to be as good as his word. He did not like to part with the fowling-piece, but seemed to think it would be fairly purchased, could he persuade me to run away. At length he yielded, and I got into the locker, where I was covered with potatoes.
I was a good while in this uncomfortable situation, before there were any signs of the vessel’s quitting the wharf. I began to grow heartily tired of the confinement, and the love of change revived within me in a new form. The potatoes were heavy for me to bear, and the confined air rendered my prison almost insupportable. I was on the point of coming out of prison, when the noise on deck gave me the comfortable assurance that the people had come on board, and that the schooner was about to sail. I could hear men conversing, and, after a period of time that seemed an age, I felt satisfied the schooner was fairly under way. I heard a hail from one of the forts as we passed down the harbour, and, not long after, the Driver, the very sloop of war that had sent the vessel in, met her, and quite naturally hailed her old prize, also. All this I heard in my prison, and it served to reconcile me to the confinement. As everything was right, the ship did not detain us, and we were permitted to proceed.
It was noon before I was released. Going on deck, I found that the schooner was at sea. Nothing of Halifax was visible but a tower or two, that were very familiar objects to me. I confess I now began to regret the step I had taken, and, could I have been landed, it is probable my roving disposition would have received a salutary check. It was too late, however, and I was compelled to continue in the thorny and difficult path on which I had so thoughtlessly entered. I often look back to this moment, and try to imagine what might have been my fortunes, had I never taken this unlucky step. What the prince might have done for me, it is impossible to say; though I think it probable that, after the death of my father, I should have been forgotten, as seems to have been the case with my sister, who gradually fell from being considered and treated as one of the family in which she lived, into a sort of upper servant.
I have learned, latterly, that Mr. Marchinton had a great search made for me. It was his impression I was drowned, and several places were dragged for my body. This opinion lasted until news of my being in New York reached the family.
My appearance on deck gave rise to a great many jokes between the captain of the schooner, and his mate. I was a good deal laughed at, but not badly treated, on the whole. My office was to be that of cook–by no means a very difficult task in that craft, the camboose consisting of two pots set in bricks, and the dishes being very simple. In the cabin, sassafras was used for tea, and boiled pork and beef composed the dinner. The first day, I was excused from entering on the duties of my office, on account of sea-sickness; but, the next morning, I set about the work in good earnest. We had a long passage, and my situation was not very pleasant. The schooner was wet, and the seas she shipped would put out my fire. There was a deck load of shingles, and I soon discovered that these made excellent kindling wood; but it was against the rules of the craft to burn cargo, and my friend the mate had bestowed a few kicks on me before I learned to make the distinction. In other respects, I did tolerably well; and, at the end of about ten days, we entered Sandy Hook.
Such was my first passage at sea, or, at least, the first I can remember, though I understand we were taken from Quebec to Halifax by water. I was not cured of the wish to roam by this experiment, though, at that age, impressions are easily received, and as readily lost. Some idea may be formed of my recklessness, and ignorance of such matters, at this time, from the circumstance that I do not remember ever to have known the name of the vessel in which I left Nova Scotia. Change and adventure were my motives, and it never occurred to me to inquire into a fact that was so immaterial to one of my temperament. To this hour, I am ignorant on the subject.