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

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXVII, No. 4 (Apr 1873)
pp. 329-333.

How we refused Duty. 329

. . . .



      "Man the windlass!" was the order from our first officer, Mr. Scott, issued to us, the crew of the good ship Corsica, lying at single anchor in Kitty Harbor, at the island of Ponapi, or, as it is often called, Ascension.

      Instead of prompt obedience to the command, as he evidently expected, there were indications of a desire to argue the point. Men, who had usually been foremost, now fell back on the bows, away forward of the wind-lass, and looked at each other in silence, or, in one or two instances, exchanged whispered words as well as glances.

      "Did you hear the word there? Man the windlass!" he repeated, in a louder and still more authoritative tone.

      "Go ahead, Wilson! You're spokesman," said two or three encouraging voices.

      And Wilson took a step in advance of his shipmates, and said, respectfully, "Mr. Scott, we would like to see the captain before we take the anchor."

      But the mate was not one to temporize, or to be made a fool of. He brought matters to a crisis at once.

      "The captain is below now, and my orders are to man the windlass and get the ship underway. What I want to know is, are you going to obey the order?"

      "No sir, not until we have seen Captain Hazard."

      Without further parley, Mr. Scott turned on his heel and hurried aft.

      "We've put a foot in it now, boys," said Wilson, " and we must wade through."

      "All right; we'll hang together," was the reply from half a dozen at once.

      "If the old man wants to take his anchor, let him take it," said one.

      "Ay, let's see how he'll manage it without our help," said another.

      "If you was all o' my mind, lads, you'd never do another hand's turn in the bloody hooker!" added Jack Collins, whom everybody knew to be the greatest blower, and, as a matter of course, the greatest coward in the forecastle.

      Meanwhile, our executive officer hastened aft to the cabin gangway, and leaning over it, reported, "Captain Hazard, the crew have refused duty!"

      Up came the captain, cool and self-possessed – one of those resolute men who will

330 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

go through fire and water to carry their point. The "cruisers" had never seen him tried in an emergency; but we who had been longest on board the Corsica, best knew that our commander was not a man to be trifled with.

      He confronted us with no outward sign of any disturbance of mind.

      "What's the matter, men? What have you refused duty for?"

      "If you please, sir, we want more liberty," answered Wilson.

      "More liberty? Why, haven't you had three days apiece each watch? What more do you expect?"

      "Yes sir; but, you see, we think we ought to lie in port longer. Here we've been out a long six months' cruise, on Japan, and now only nine days in harbor. These other ships were here when we came in, and are going to make a still longer stay of it. Besides, sir, you know that we can't get much in the way of recruits here to carry to sea with us; and we have thought that it was no more'n right that we should have a longer run ashore, to make up for it."

      Captain Hazard seemed somewhat struck with the force of Wilson's statement, and for a moment appeared to hesitate. Some of the crew – those who didn't know him thoroughly – thought we were going to carry our point without further trouble.

      "Men!" – he spoke firmly, and with the air of having made up his mind as to the course to be pursued – "I have heard all you have to say. The ship has been at anchor in this bay as long as I think it is proper or necessary, and she's going to sea to-day, if she'll float! I shall now give you ten minutes to do one of two things – either to go to the windlass or to go below."

      And he, as well as all his officers, went aft to await our movements; the two ends of the ship arrayed against each other. On one side, overwhelming numbers, on the other, authority, the prestige of command, and the influence – powerful it is, too – of that habit of discipline which becomes a part of the very nature of the soldier and the seaman.

      But it would never do, said the master-spirits among us, to back down now. The captain had disclosed his determination to take the ship to sea that morning; very well, let him do it, if he could. It would be something gained if we could compel him to do it without our assistance. It was certain that the "afterguard," unaided, could never weigh the anchor; he must either obtain help from our consorts, the two other whalers, or else slip his cable, and leave the anchor behind.

      But had we really any ground for the insubordination we had shown, the reader may ask? I am bound to answer, if I can, because I am, in very truth, telling a story, and not making one. Boy as I was at the time, I thought we were entirely in the right; looking back at this distance of elapsed time, my views are very much modified.

      Revolts and mutinies on shipboard are seldom the result of a sudden impulse. In almost all instances, the causes may be traced back through a considerable space of time. A hundred little matters, each trifling in itself, but each adding to the cumulative dissatisfaction, until the burden needs but the additional feather to break the backbone of endurance. There was much in Captain Hazard's conduct towards his crew which was not what it should be; though he was, in no sense, what is commonly known as a Tartar. His worst failing was in the matter of feeding us; he being an owner in the ship himself, and if not downright mean in this respect, he was decidedly "near," as Peggotty would say.

      This matter of short commons is one which has a great weight with seamen, and is a most fruitful source of discontent, as well it may be. On the other hand, liberality in this direction, like charity in the Scripture, covereth a multitude of sins; and many a brutal captain has made friends of his subordinates by giving them duff three or four times a week. Jack is soft-hearted, where an appeal is made to his stomach, and is quite prone to sell his birthright for pottage. But I can honestly say that no attempt had ever been made to bribe the Corsica's crew by overfeeding them.

      Our stays in port, as had been represented to the captain by our spokesman, had been very short. This, however, is but a comparative term; and looking back now, I incline to the belief that they had been quite; as long as was really necessary. The business of our voyage was to be prosecuted on the ocean, and in carrying out his contract with his employers, Captain Haz-

How we refused Duty. 331

ard was, in the full sense of the word, a "driver." Indeed, were I an owner, fitting out a ship, I should, beyond doubt, seek just such a man to conduct the voyage; but were I going to ship, in a subordinate position; should look further before signing my name. I have sailed with much worse men than our captain in the course of my own experience – and with better.

      I had fallen in with the current of disaffection, as might naturally be expected. For how could a mere boy like me do otherwise, without acting what I then, as well as all my forecastle comrades, would have called the part of a "sneaking traitor?" I was in the position of a conservative Southerner of '61, struggling in the great vortex of secession.

      Before the ten minutes were up we had, one after another, passed below into the forecastle, and left the officers, with the boatsteerers and steward, to do what they could with the ship. As the last man descended, the flag went up and down at our mizzen-peak to attract the attention of our consorts, and the hail of our captain through his speaking trumpet, for Captain Merritt of the Mohegan to come on board in his boat, looked ominous for our chances of a longer stay at Ponapi. A boat's crew from her, and another from the English barque, the Stromness, would be ample force to purchase the anchor. We certainly could not prevent their doing it, if they saw fit; at least, not without a display of open violence, to which we were by no means prepared to resort, and in which, had we resorted to it, we should as certainly have come off second best.

      "They wont come to take our anchor," said one of the men. "They told me they wouldn't – five or six of the Mohegan's fellows."

      "Not they!" blustered Jack Collins; "I'll answer for them chaps aboard the 'lime-juicer,' anyway. They knocked off duty themselves here in this same bay last year; and carried their p'int, too."

      "This thing was well known beforehand to the crews of both those ships," said Wilson, "and they have all, so far as I know, encouraged us to go ahead, and they would stand by us in putting it through. I can't believe they will be traitors enough to come aboard now and take our anchor."

      "I don't know about that," said Bill Owen, a cautious and shrewd man, better known by his sobriguet of "Steady Owen." Bill was one of the conservatives, and had all along had grave doubts of the policy of our course; but had been overruled by the majority, and found the only alternative was acquiescence, or downright "treason," which would send him to Coventry for the residue of the voyage, so far as his standing and influence among his shipmates were concerned.

      "I don't know about that," he repeated again. "There's a vast difference between knocking off duty to carry a point of their own, and doing the same thing just to keep us in countenance. It may be that we can get up a revolt of three ships' crews, for the sake of giving us another day's liberty or two; but I'll believe it when I see it, and not before."

      "But they aint under no obligation to come here and work at our windlass," argued Jack Collins. "You can't oblige a man to go aboard another ship and work, anyhow."

      "That may do for a theory," was the reply, "but whether it can be done or not, it is done every day in the week. The captains certainly wont refuse to give the order to help a brother captain who says he's in distress. And, as for the obligation to obey, even the Englishmen, salt and jolly as they appear to be when gaming with us, may think it a great deal more like plain sailing to just do what they're told, than to make asses of themselves because we have."

      "Showing the white feather, eh? I did not think it o' you, Steady," said Collins, with a sneer.

      "I shall show no white feather," was the wrathful retort of Owen, "till long after you've struck your flag altogether. If the matter ever comes to a square knock-down, you'll be found a long way astern of me; and that every one of my shipmates knows. But I did say that we were making asses of ourselves, and I say so yet; and what's more, I don't believe the Mohegan will back us up in it – nor the lime-juicers, either."

      "Boats coming from both ships," reported some one, who had popped his head up at the scuttle to reconnoitre.

   g;   "Of course they are," said Steady, quietly; and the silence of suspense fell upon all.

332 Ballou's Monthly Magazine

      The new-comers came down into the forecastle when they first arrived, while the captains were holding a short conference aft. They professed full sympathy with our undertaking; but it was still evident, as Owen had predicted, that they were not prepared to form an alliance, offensive or defensive with us. We all began to perceive that it was too much to ask of them to disobey their own officers, out of sheer friendship for us. It was also evident that the captains had selected the men to compose the boats' crews with a view to their trustworthiness.

      "Man the windlass!" was called again, a few minutes later, and our new crew went to their stations. Some of our own company were strongly minded to go, too; but the reaction was not yet strong enough to sustain them in doing so, and they were overruled, to stand by each other and see it out.

      It was evident the ship would go to sea, at all events; and we must fight it out, somehow, in blue water. This would place us at a great disadvantage; for seamen seldom combine against regular authority on the ocean, unless there be some accomplished desperado among them, who feels competent to the task of commanding the ship. Your ordinary foremast-man always wants a hold upon terra firma to give him a stomach for rebellion; and if his ship be an uncomfortable one, the first sound of the anchor plunging towards the bottom acts as a strong temptation to him to throw his hat in air, and "give cheek" to the officers.

      There was more thinking than talking going on in our little triangular den while the chain was slowly but surely coming in at the hawse-hole. The clanking noise of the brakes and pawls so close over our heads was unfavorable for conversation; as it would have been necessary to shout at each other in order to be heard.

      The word "All a-weigh!" had been given; we could feel a slight heel of the ship as she began to "cast" her head; we heard the order to stand by the fore-braces, ready for filling away; when all at once the clank of the windlass was drowned by the stentorian cry from our own mate, "Avast heaving!" Then there was a Babel of voices, and a rush of feet, and the word was given, "Let go the other anchor, quick, and bring her up!"

      "What's the matter now?" asked everybody of everybody else; and the same inquiry from the lips of Captain Hazard was answered, "Bight of a strange chain coming up on our anchor!"

      Here was excitement for everybody. Of course the anxiety was great to get fast to it and save it; for aside from its intrinsic value, which might not be great, there was a mystery connected with it, and curiosity was on the qui vive. Our second anchor went, with a thundering plunge and rattle, down into the mud, and all sorts of frantic orders were given, in the haste to get a sure hold, by means of a hawser, of the strange chain; which, having caught over the stock of our anchor, was in danger of slipping off and going back to its old bed; in which case, one might have grappled a whole day without again hooking it.

      "O, what's the use? Let's go up and have a hand in the fun!" said two or three of our best men. A start was made for the ladder; one after another followed. "Here! Lay hold of this rope and light along!" said the second mate, as if we had been all the time on duty. The mutiny, if such it could be termed, seemed to have been forgotten, for no one alluded to it.

      We were successful in establishing a connection with the chain, and it was led into the windlass, every one heaving away with a will, Mohegans, "lime-juicers" and all. At the end of it we found an anchor, which was also secured; and from the marks upon the shackle, and the fragments of wood, first charred by fire and then water-logged, and other little but unmistakable evidences contained in its muddy load, our discovery shed light upon the fate of a fast-sailing trader, which had sailed from Oahu for Manilla, two years before, and had ever since been numbered among the missing. She had been cut off in this bay and her crew massacred. If further evidence were wanting, it was furnished in the conduct of the frightened natives, who had been, until now, hovering around us in their canoes. The sight of the strange chain above the surface was a sufficient accuser for their guilty consciences.

      But all that has little to do with my story. When, two hours later, the word was given to "Man the windlass!" and given for any one to obey it who chose, the effect was curious in the extreme.

"The Little Stranger." 333

There was, it is true, some evidence of hesitation; of a desire to wait for each other. But reflection had come to our aid; the whole current of our thoughts had been diverted from its old channel; and it was exceedingly awkward to go back to our act of insubordination – to "begin where we had left off," like a child which has suddenly changed from tears to laughter, for a moment, and would fain change back again. With sheepish looks at first, we all turned to at the brakes, and the Corsica did, indeed, go to sea that day, as Captain Hazard had determined that she should.

      The subject was dropped from that hour forward. Neither officers nor men ever alluded to it in any way on duty; but it leaked out, through the steward, that the captain had made ample preparations for a life-and-death struggle to quell us had we persisted in resisting his authority after the ship was at sea. The next day we were among sperm whales, and the cruise proved a most lucky one. And the reader may not wonder to learn that from that date the Corsica was a better ship (in the seamen's sense of the phrase) than ever before; and that we made a long stay in the next port, enjoying our "liberty" till we began to surfeit of it. The voyage, altogether, was not an unpleasant one – always excepting that "nearness" in the commissariat department.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: How We Refused Duty.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 37, No. 4 (Apr 1873)
Pages: 329-333