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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol. 50, No. 35 (Feb 26, 1870)
p. 1

Our French Interpreter.

      On one of my early voyages, right-whaling, on the ground then well-known as the "Brazil Banks," we had a negro cook who rejoiced in the name of Isaac Daboll. Captain Briggs was accustomed to accuse him of being the man of that patronymic who made, the Arithmetics of that day, as also a Treatise on Navigation; but with no more justice, I think, than Daniel Webster was congratulated by the old lady upon having furnished the rising generation with a spelling-book.

      Isaac's was the only black face among us, and we had not, at that date, fully learned to recognize one of his race as "a Christian and a brother." He was considered a target for rude jokes, by all hands. Nay, even the officers and Captain Briggs himself did not hesitate to make a butt of him. But poor Isaac bore it all patiently and philosophically; and as he, as well as most of his tormentors, has long since passed away, he is doubtless enrolled in the great army of martyrs.

      Isaac was a refugee from slavery, and had found his way to the free North, as a stowaway, in a small coasting vessel. He was an artist in cookery; could turn flapjacks with the dexterity of a juggler, and turn out a duff which would not be found intact after having been dropped out of the maintop. But he made no pretensions to seamanship – for this was his first voyage into blue water.

      The captain used to come on deck after dinner, with his pipe loaded, and with the first stamp of his foot, as be emerged from the companionway, was blended the shout, "Nigger! bring me a coal of fire!"

      Old Isaac answered as readily to this name as he could have done to a title of the highest honor. He would run aft with a live coal in his tongs, hand it to the captain, and wait humbly under his lee, to carry it back again, after it had served its purpose.

      "Nigger!" would be the next salute, thrown out between the puffs at tho pipe, "do ye know the difference between a figure-eight and a granny-knot?"

      "No, sah!" with a broad grin.

      "Wall, why didn't ye larn somethin', when ye was young?"

      "'Cause, dey wouldn't luff me larn nothin', sah."

      "Wall, I'll larn you somethin', then."

      Exit Isaac, followed by the coal cf fire hurled as a projectile, and the tongs skimming along the main-deck at his heels. He was always too quick to be caught by either, and would laugh more heartily at the fun than the captain himself or any of the spectators.

      On the passage out, the captain was one day employed in making a sort of wooden grating, bored with a tier of small holes. This machine was to be used as a leader for tho spunyarn warps, in making what is known as a "sword-mat." Isaac carne aft to fill his bucket with water, and stood looking admiringly at the strange contrivance, with his mouth frightfully expanded.

      "Nigger! d'ye know what that's for?' roared Captain Briggs.

      "No, sah."

      "That's a traverse table."

      "What's for, sah?" was innocently asked.

      "To navigate the ship with."

      "What ye do? Look froo it, sah?"

      "To be sure, you look through the scores and the little holes, too. You get the sun and moon, and then bring 'em down into that machine that cooper's building there."

      The negro's eyes followed his direction, towards where the cooper was engaged in making a "case-bucket," a long, slender, cylindrical affair, to be used in baling out spermaceti from a whale's head, in case we should capture one of the sperm species, on the passage.

      "Golly! that's great ting, sah," said the astonished Isaac. "Sh'd like to larn how it's done, sah."

      "I'll show ye, when the sun's up at noon."

      "T'ankee, sah."

      The cook did not fail to be on hand when he saw Captain Briggs and the mate with their quadrants taking the meridian observation. He even ventured to remind "de ole man" of his promise to show him how to use "dat trabbus-table,"

      "Oh, yes, so I did, Well now, nigger, you take this, and hold it up slantindic'lar, so the sun 'll shine through these scores, and then sweep the horizon, same's you see Mr. Coffin do with the quad'ant. Mind and keep your eye fixed, steady, and tell me what you see."

      The negro, delighted as a child with a new plaything, did as he was directed. As soon as he was in position and his attention fixed, the "case-bucket," which had been filled with sea-water, to soak it tight, was suddenly inverted, and jammed down upon his head, till it brought up at the broad shoulders. It was so snug a fit that it required considerable effort on the part of old Isaac to get rid of the strange head-dress. An explosion of laughter was the only expression of sympathy that he met with from any one. He was always ready to join the laughing chorus himself as soon as the laugh came in, even at his own expense – for nothing ruffled his temper.

      "Golly!" he sputtered, throwing up about a pint of sea-water which he had swallowed, and shaking his glistening wool-knots, "if dem's de fust lessons of navigation, I tink I won't try to larn it."

      But the negro did not remain green a great while, and it became more and more difficult to entrap him into a scrape, or to play off practical jokes upon him; and, before we had been out many months, he played one upon the captain himself – so good a one, that the victim was vain to acknowledge the account balanced.

      We were lying to, under short canvas, "on the Banks," one misty, unpleasant day, when a ship was seen coming down before it, and as she approached, we made her out to be a large merchantman. We ran up our ensign at the gaff, and the stranger, in reply, hoisted French colors, and altered his course a little, with the evident intention of speaking us. Our main- topsail was thrown in aback, and the old "Montezuma" sat at ease, like a hostess waiting to receive company.

      There was a consultation among the officers aft, which seemed to result in nothing but smiles and mutual embarrassment. Then Captain Briggs came forward, to the mainmast.

      "Is there anybody aboard that can talk French?" he demanded.

      For a moment, no one answered, and it was evident the education of most of us had stopped short of that accomplishment. But Isaac's shining face protruded from the galley, with, "What de old man say?"

      "He wants to know," said I, "if any of us can talk French,"

      "Yes, sah!" roared Isaac. "I c'n talk it."

      "You can!" said Captain Briggs. "Where'd you la'rn French?"

      "New Orleens, sah."

      "Oh, yea. I forgot you'd lived there. Can you talk it well?"

      "Oh, yes, sah."

      "Let's hear ye."

      Isaac delivered himself of a sentence of strange gibberish, which answered the purpose very well with Captain Briggs. Had it been Bengalee, or Choctaw, he would have been none the wiser. I knew well enough that it was not French; but I began to "smell a large-sized mouse," and resolved to lie low and see the fun.

      "What did that mean 'n English?" asked the captain.

      "Dat, sah? Dat mean, 'what ship's dat, pray?'"

      "I guess you'll do. Come aft here, with me. If the captain talks English, I shan't want ye; but, if he talks French, you stand by to take the trumpet and answer him."

      "All right, sah!"

      The old negro perched himself up at the taffrail, close by the captain. The Frenchman was shooting swiftly down across our stern under a cloud of lofty kites, and it was plain that there would not be time to interchange many sentences. All was still on deck, and every one on the tiptoe of expectation.

      The French captain had mounted into his quarter boat, with all his officers grouped round him. On came the great ship, sliding swiftly down before the following wind and sea – already her flying jib-boom was abreast our stern.

      "Bon jour, Capitaine!" was roared at us. Captain Briggs stood bewildered; but hie sable interpreter sprang to the rescue.

      "Le' ma take de trumpet, sah! quick!"

      He fairly took it from the unresisting grasp, and raising it to his lips, "began where he left off," when he gave the specimen of his powers as a linguist. He kept this jargon going, without pausing for breath, or giving the French captain any chance to be heard. In vain the latter shook his trumpet excitedly, and made various attempts to open a fresh communication. In vain Captain Briggs shouted, "What does he say, Isaac?" "What does he want?' Isaac only rattled away his nonsense still louder, till the ship had passed to leeward of us. As he rested for breath, the ring of the sacs r-r-ce through the brass tube of the irate little Gaul came faintly up to our ears, by way of parting salute.

      "What did he say, nigger?" demanded Captain Briggs, fiercely.

      "Don't you know, sah? He wants to know de coarse'n distance to France!"

      Isaac dropped the trumpet and struck a beeline for his castle, the galley. The speaking-trumpet described a parabola in pursuit, and struck him on the top of the skull; but, the, resisting force was too much for the missile, which was flattened out of shape, while the darkey retreated in good order to his stronghold.

      He escaped without further punishment. Indeed, he fared better after this affair than before. For the whole thing was so rich – so full of cool audacity, and so unctuous, when recalled to mind, that even the captain, mortified as he was, broke down in a paroxysm of laughter whenever he thought of it. He acknowledged the balance of the account to be in Isaac's favor. The story became a stock article among the whalemen; and so long as he lived, he never heard the last of his colored interpreter, and "the course 'n distance to France."

W. H. Macy.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Our French Interpreter.
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 50, No. 35 (Feb 26, 1870)
Pages: 1