Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Flag of Our Union.
Vol. 25, No. 14 (Apr 2, 1870)
p. 222.

[Written for The Flag of our Union.]



      Old "Life" Edwards, as I remember him, was a jobbing cartman. I presume he had been christened Eliphalet; but nobody ever called him by the full name, and for aught I know, he may have forgotten it himself. Ha drove an old nag, noted tor a most astonishing concavity of the spine, which brought his saddle deep down in a valley. Such a conformation was consistent with no line of beauty, but might have been invaluable to a beginner practising equestrianism.

      But it was not of the old horse that I purposed to speak; but of Life himself; who had been a nautical adventurer in his younger days. For the ancient mariner, in our parts, if he have been no favorite of Fortune, and quit the sea as poor as he began, gravitates as naturally to the alternative of a fishing-boat or a jobbing-cart as does the broken-winded pugilist to a public-house.

      Life told me the story himself, but I will not attempt to give it in his language; for I never admired his style, nor do I think my readers would. His yarn had a great many knots in it. It was interlarded with "you know's" and "don't you see's," until the result was, that, at times, the hearer didn't see or know anything; and it became necessary to begin back and clear away the fog that enveloped his statements, even as it did the old Sirius when Life deserted her so suddenly. But I am anticipating.

      It was in the year "ninety nine," according to Life's reckoning, when he, then nineteen years of age, was a boatsteerer in the Sirius, on the Brazil Banks. Joe Pinkham, who commanded her, was not the most agreeable man in the world to sail with; and Life found his position on board anything but a comfortable one. The routine of a subordinate's duty under such a skipper was but a continuous martyrdom, but our hero saw no prospect of escape from it, until the cruise should be at an end. The ship was fitted only for one season, and Captain Pinkham did not intend to drop his anchor except in a home port. But relief from thraldom arrived to him in the most singular and unexpected manner. The Sirius was lying to, on the Banks, one thick, murky night, and, for the avowed purpose of "working up" the boatsteerers, the captain had ordered that they should take turns to patrol the "house" overhead, as a kind of supplementary addition to the regular lookout on the bows.

      This house was simply a rude covering of boards laid over the skids or boat-bearers, and extending nearly the whole length over the quarter-deck. Life, buttoned to his nose in a monkey-jacket, and roofed down to the eyes with a sou'wester, mounted his post when his turn came at midnight, and fell into a mechanical movement fore-and-aft his boat. It could not be called a march; but it was that unconsciously easy straddle known only to the possessor of flexible "sea-legs." He was communing with his angry thoughts, and wishing himself anywhere but on board the Sirius, giving no heed whatever to his lookout duty, when he was suddenly awakened to a sense of his remissness by a rushing sound of waters, and an overshadowing cloud darkened the air. He cried out something, he knew not what, but there was no time to do anything to avoid the impending collision, The strange ship's jibboom came in directly over Life's head; a terrific snapping and crashing followed; he felt the foundation going from beneath his feet, and involuntarily clutched in the air above his head, The boards were torn from under him, and the next moment he swung out into the void, still hanging by the stranger's jib-martingale-stay, among the wreck of her head-gear. The two vessels were clear of each other, and, unable to drop back to his own, he had no resource but to climb up and secure his footing on the other. By the time he had succeeded in doing this, the Sirius had vanished into impenetrable mist and darkness.

      Luckily, the stranger, who was running free, was under no great headway, there being more swell than wind at the moment of collision. Hence, no serious damage was done to the hull of either vessel, and they had separated at the first recoil. Thankful at having escaped with his life (I don't mean his name) the young fellow scrambled, through the snarl of wreck, upon the forecastle of the ship, where her crew and officers were all rallying now, to examine into the extent of the disaster,

      "Qui va la!" shouted the hoarse voice of some one in authority, as he jumped in on the comparative terra firma of the deck.

      But the French mate got no reply to his hail. "Because, don't you see?" said Life, "I didn't know nothin' about parley-wooin', you know." So the next minute, the interloper was surrounded by a ring of astonished mariners, and a great stock of breath was expended, for which neither party was any the wiser. At length, a little fellow was pushed into the ring, who spoke the only language which Life had ever considered worth spending time and labor to learn. Through the medium of this interpreter, he was informed that he was on board the Provence, merchantman, bound to Bordeaux. But there was not much time to spend just then in explanations. To think of restoring their new recruit to his own vessel was quite impossible. She was already far to windward, and to secure the head-spars, it was necessary for the French ship to keep off before the wind.

      When Life came to consider the matter, he decided that he had little or nothing to be sorry for. He had escaped unhurt, almost by a miracle; and his situation among his new shipmates was not likely to be more unpleasant than under the tyranny of Joe Pinkham. He had left a few old clothes on board the Sirius; but not much money was due him, as the ship had taken but little oil.

      There was one matter which haunted his thoughts more than all others. Rhoda Joy would suppose him dead; and it was quite uncertain how long it might be before he could inform her of her mistake, for the political affairs of the whole civilized world were, at that period, in a most unsettled state. It was not easy for those living under different flags to communicate, either in person or by letter. It was in the midst of the quasi war between the United States and France, and although this was continued merely to naval operations, the belligerent state of affairs was well known to the crew of the Provence, as well as to Edwards himself. Under a false impression, Rhoda Joy, though she loved him as his Life, might, after a proper season of mourning, unite her fate with that of some other man, But, at nineteen, no youth is long despondent, if his conscience be clear; and our hero, being well treated, merged in with the rest as one of the crew of the Provence, and, for the present, at least, had no reason to sorrow at the change of vessels. With the aid of the interpreter, he made rapid progress in acquiring the language orally, as he thought It might be of great advantage to have such knowledge at some future time.

      He was not destined to see the port of Bordeaux at all, for the Provence was overhauled in the Bay of Biscay by a French line-of-battle ship, the Tonnerre, and three of her men selected to serve in the navy of the French Directory, one of whom was the poor waif whom she had picked up, as it were, on her jib-boom. Little cared the boarding-officer to what flag he truly owed allegiance. He was an able-bodied seaman, and such were in demand; that was a good and sufficient warrant.

      It seemed to Life, now, that his identity and individuality were completely lost. For the Tonnerre was one of the clumsy, crowded ships of the day, mounting at least twenty guns too many for her length and tonnage, and feeding a hundred or two more men than were of any earthly use in manning them. Hence, in an action, her battery was too close to be effectually worked; and, action or no action, everybody was in everybody else's way. He was no longer Life Edwards; he was only number so and-so, a unit in a cumbrous host of Frenchmen, a single cog or screw of a vast, unwieldy machine.

      The Tonnerre did little but make flying runs from one French harbor to another, and verify, by her good sailing qualities, the taunting boast of her British foes, that the French ships were built to ran away, and their own to fight. But in a few months afterwards, the coup d'etat of Bonaparte changed the whole order of things, and infused new vigor into all warlike movements, naval and military. The First Consul could not make up his mind to lose his conquests in Egypt; the Tonnerre, with several other large ships were ordered to sea, and succeeded in running the gauntlet into the Mediterranean.

      But the elements were not so easily avoided as the a English cruisers. The Tonnerre became separated from her consorts in bad weather, and was driven out of her course over towards the Barbary shore. The gale blew itself out at last, and while in the act of making sail to work off the land, an explosion of her magazine took place, from some mysterious cause which has never been explained. The late proud ship was rent to fragments, and the nine hundred beings who had been crowded into her were either hurled instantly into eternity, or were left in the sea clinging to pieces of the wreck.

      It was merely one of the little accidents of war, such as come dimly down to us, condensed into a single line of the chronicles of that period. This was before the age of daily papers and indefatigable reporters, and little was preserved of the details of such a matter. What were a thousand human lives, more or less, during that era of wholesale slaughter?

      Our adventurer still clung to life and to a shattered spar. The sea became smooth and calm; small crafts put out from the shore as soon as the thunder of the explosion was heard, and he, with some twenty others, was picked up and carried into Tripoli, to be held to slavery at the will of the pirate sovereign.

      Life used to relate many of his adventures while a prisoner among these "Ish'm'lites" as he called them. He was not a little proud of the fact that he was no "servant of servants," but was attached to the personal staff of the great Bashaw himself.

      Finding no loophole of escape, he was held five years in the service of this tyrant, who, he admitted, was more merciless than Joe Pinkham, His heart beat high with hope at the first appearance of the hostile American fleet in the year "three;" but hope was destined to he long deferred, and during the war that ensued, his position and treatment were still less endurable than before,

      Among the prisoners taken with Bainbridge in the Philadelphia frigate, he recognized one of his former comrades in the Sirius, and found an opportunity for a short conversation. His appearance in the flesh was, of course, like a resurrection to his astonished shipmate. It was known that Life had been walking in the hurricane house, and had uttered one cry of alarm, after which no one had seen or heard of him. It was naturally supposed, as the whole foundation beneath him had been demolished, that he must have been killed or knocked overboard at the moment of the collision. They had no knowledge of the name, nation or fate of the ship which had thus come in contact with, theirs. Life Edwards was, beyond all dispute, dead; and was so reported on their arrival home.

      It was something of a blow to the poor slave, even though he was not unprepared for it, to learn that Rhoda Joy, after giving two years to his memory, had married another; but he did not suffer what might be called a boyish disappointment to weigh long upon his spirits. It was only what he ought to have expected, and no one was to blame, on either side. He soon forgot to grieve, as be listened to the music of the Constitution's cannon, and dodged the missiles thrown into the city.

      It used to seem so strange to me to think that the old teamster, whom I met every hour in the day, shouting his "Git up!" and "G'long!" to the lank, hollow-backed steed, had really been an actor in such scenes; had beheld the terrible effects of the bombardment; had looked upon Old Ironsides In a blaze of angry fire, and had listened to the night-explosions of the Philadelphia when blown up by Decatur, and of the little ketch in which the devoted Somers and his associates met their mysterious fate. Thrilling incidents which seemed so far away in the past, as I read them in my school history, were brought almost before my sight, when the old man talked as carelessly about them as he would of hauling Mr. Smith's ton of coal yesterday.

      When the humble Bashaw sued for peace, Life was included in the ransom with other prisoners, and returned to his country after six years absence. It does not appear that either he or his old love, already a wife and mother, made fools of themselves, as heroes and heroines are, for the most part, licensed to do in similar cases. They accepted the situation, and made the best of it; which course may have been more or less heroic, as the critic may choose to consider it.

      Life followed the sea for many years afterwards, and, in due time, married. His worthy dame, as also the Rhoda Joy of the story, both honored by numerous grandchildren, were still living at the time that I learned these facts from the old cartman's own lips.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Story from "Life".
Publication: Flag of Our Union.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 25, No. 14 (Apr 2, 1870)
Pages: 222