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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLVIII, No. 1 (Jul 1878)
pp. 56-61.

56 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      Dave Dunn generally had a stock of yarns ready for any and all occasions, and one hearing him would say that his stories were either strictly true, or very cleverly extemporized. But from cultivating his acquaintance during a long cruise which we made as shipmates, I came to suspect that he invented most of his yarns in his idle hours, and spent some care in elaborating the incidents. and fixing them in his memory ready to be made use of as occasion might require. I had been reading Montgomery's poem, "The Voyage of the Blind," and was making some comment upon that sad story to Dunn, when he said carelessly: –

      "Yes, I remember reading about that voyage, and it was indeed a very strange yarn, – so strange that I didn't believe it, though it is rather a good thing to write poetry upon. By the way, I have never told you, I think, about the voyage of the Shakers."

      "The Shakers!" I said, in amazement. "No, indeed! I have some knowledge of these peculiar people, for I once made a visit to their community at New Lebanon, but I never heard that any of them were seafaring men."

      "Nor I either,"answered Dave, laughing at the droll idea of any sailor having embraced the doctrines of Mother Ann Lee. The Shakers that I refer to didn't come from New Lebanon at all, but formed a very odd community by themselves. They didn't shake as a matter of religious duty, either; for it was rather a case of 'needs must when the Devil drives.'"

      "Well, give us the yarn," said I, for I had got just enough now to excite my curiosity.

      "We were homeward bound on the 'Cadmus,'" he began, "from an Indian-Ocean voyage, and had arrived nearly abreast of the Cape of Good Hope, when one morning a sail was in sight, ahead, steering on the same course as ourselves. As we had the advantage of her in point of speed, we gradually overhauled her, so that in the afternoon we were right abeam of her, within a couple of miles, and our curiosity was greatly roused by what we observed. We could see that she was a small brig, apparently a dull sailor at best, but was now under easy canvas, having her topgallant sails both furled after a fashion, but in so slovenly a manner that we thought at first they were hanging clewed up. She yawed about in a strange manner, as if the man at the helm was either drunk or asleep. She did not appear to be at all under proper management and trim to encounter the bad weather which might reasonably be expected in doubling Good Hope. As the wind was dying away when we came up abeam of her, the captain signified his intention of lowering a boat, and boarding her. As we were preparing to do so, he looked through his telescope. and saw the brig's signal going up; not steady, but by jerks, until it reached the gaff-end, when it stopped, – there being just wind enough to open and flutter it.

      "'The British ensign, – and set union down!' said the captain, with some excitement. 'Some poor fellow in distress. Lower away, and jump in there, a full crew! I'll board her myself.'

      "Handing his spy-glass to the steward, he leaped into the stern-sheets, and took the steering-oar in his own hands. We needed no urging, but were soon pulling away with all our might and muscle toward the strangers.

      "I was pulling the midship oar in the captain's boat, and, as we were near enough to make out the brig's name on her counterboard, I turned my head, and read, 'Shakspere, of Liverpool.' I saw a man looking over the taffrail who appeared to be gesticulating in a wild sort of way. Our captain, standing up, and facing forward, could see more, of course, and his face wore a very puzzled look. '

      "'She 's an English vessel,' he said, 'but the crew must be either fools or Frenchmen, the way they are jerking themselves about decks. Pull ahead, boys; a few more strokes, and we shall be alongside. They might be amusing themselves with a pantomime, – or perhaps they are all mad actors,

The Voyage of the Shakers. 57

inspired from the name of their old vessel.'

      "As he spoke. we shot alongside, under the lee of the brig, and he clambered over her low rail to the deck, followed in a hurry by all the rest of us. But as one after another struck the deck with his feet, each remained rooted to the spot, staring in blank amazement at our hosts. There were only seven men to be seen; but this was quite enough to man the small vessel on a merchant voyage. But they were all acting in the same strange manner, which I can only describe as a compromise between a drunken swagger and epileptic fits. But no one had spoken to welcome us, when Captain Winters broke silence.

      "'Hollo! what's the matter with ye all?' he cried. 'Captain,' – addressing the one whom he had instinctively selected as occupying that station, – 'what's the misfortune? and what can we do to help you? A signal of distress is always enough to make all brother sailors the same as shipmates. My name is Winters, and yonder is my ship, the "Cadmus," of Sag Harbor. Why, what the –– is the matter with your men? Hold up, there!' For the strange captain, making an effort to step forward, and extend his hand, jerked and twitched with such violence that threatened to tear him limb from limb.

      "I now observed that all the rest of these unfortunate men kept as much as possible in one position, each clinging to something firm, as if they feared to rush out into open space. The skipper made several efforts to speak, but his words were so broken up into odd syllables, and the effort to speak caused such an increase of his spasms, that he was soon obliged to stop it, and suffer himself to run down like a clock. No mortal ear or intellect could so connect these jerks of sound as to make intelligible English of them. We addressed all the men in turn, but their efforts to talk were no more successful, – most of them declining to try, and merely giving negative movements of the head, which resulted in a continuous vibratory action of that organ. This motion lasted some time, the are growing shorter and shorter until it again became settled, while the body shook as with an ague fit.

      "The negro who pulled the stroke oar of our boat had been left in her, to keep her off from the brig's side; but he now came and joined the group, having veered the boat astern, where she would ride clear. He was a Zanzibar native, but spoke English indifferently well. He examined the men with the air of one who knew what he was about, and to whom the sight was not quite so great a mystery as to the rest of us.

      "I understand it,' said Ebony, – for this was the name he went by among his shipmates. 'I know what's the matter,' – showing his white teeth, – 'they's all got the shakes, sir.'

      "'The what?' demanded Captain Winters.

      "'The shakes, sir.'

      "'We can all see that, of course, for they seem to be in danger of shaking themselves all to pieces. But what is the meaning of it all?'

      "'I spects the brig has been into Njerxi Bay,' announced Ebony.

      "'Is that so?'

      "All the faces of the stricken men lighted up, and they all began throwing affirmative words at us, at the imminent risk, as it seemed, of dislocating their necks, and slatting their heads off their shoulders.

      "'Njerxi Bay, eh?' said Captain Winters. 'It's well named, anyhow; but I should suppose they had discovered perpetual motion while there. But what's the disease? and what can be done to cure or help it?'

      "Ebony went on to explain that the shakes was a disease peculiar to a certain locality on the east coast of Africa, and that he had in the course of his life seen a few cases of it. Njerxi Bay was the place most famous for it, and very few vessels ever went in there, for the shakes was almost sure to seize upon every white man who ventured on shore, especially if he staid out in the night air.

      "The 'Shakspere,' having had a long passage across from Ceylon, had put in at the ill-fated bay for water, which was easily obtained there, though the permanent population of blacks at this pestilential place was very small. The brig had remained there only two days, but for the sake of despatch all hands had staid ashore, and filled water-casks late in the evening. The disease does not appear until they have been four days at sea, and, as it was useless to put back for relief to any harbor on the east coast, they had kept on their course as best they could to double the Cape of Good Hope; but one after another had been

58 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

seized with the fatal shakes, and had continued to grow worse. All this we learned by the statements of Ebony, and by his leading questions drawing confirmatory nods and gestures from the captain and crew of the 'Shakspere.'

      "They had managed to furl their topgallant sails while a part of them were able to go aloft, and had kept them furled. There had as yet been no weather heavy enough to compel them to take in any more sail, but the most they could have done if a blow came on would have been to let their topsails run down on the caps, and Spanishreef them by hauling out the reef-tackles. They were nearly helpless in respect to steering the vessel; and in consequence she jerked herself about almost as badly as the helmsman himself did. Any observations for latitude or longitude were quite out of their power. A quadrant in the captain's hands would have swept the whole vault of the heavens from horizon to zenith.

      "'Here's a pretty kettle of fish!" said Captain Winters; 'and I don't know what to do to help the poor fellows. Is there any cure for this shakes, Ebony? This certainly knocks my experience either afloat or ashore. I have had some pretty bad cases of delirium tremens, and I once saw a man dosed with strychnine for paralysis until his limbs jerked fearfully of their own accord. But it was mere nothing compared to this sight.'

      "'I don't know, sir,' answered Ebony, 'whether the shakes can ever be cured after it has been left to run so long. The only cure for it is putting the man in soak in cold water up to his chin for two or three hours at a time, and chucking him under, head and ears, as often as he can bear it. That never fails to fix it, if it is begun in good time, when the shakes first comes on. But I never saw anything like this. These men have been shaking from ten days to a fortni't; and I 'm afraid, sir, that it has got fairly sot upon them for good.'

      "'How long do you think they can live in this way?'

      "'Live, sir? Oh, they'll live as long as anybody else, for that matter. A man that has the shakes isn't sick, sir, and their minds is all clear; but he warbbles and yanks about so that he isn't fit to take care of himself, sir.'

      "'But how do they ever get any sleep?' asked the captain.

      "'Sleep, sir? They sleeps regular, just like a well man, and can eat their rations right along.'

      "'A very strange kind of disease, indeed,' said the captain, 'if you can call it a disease at all. But we can never leave these poor victims to make the voyage round Good Hope in this condition. There would be anything but good hope of their ever reaching any port but Neptune's locker. We must put help aboard of her, and keep company as far as Cape Town or St. Helena.'

      "As the 'Cadmus' was now nearly becalmed, within half a mile of the brig, the arrangements were soon made. I was one of the six men sent on board, Mr. Archer. our chief mate, being placed in charge, with instructions to keep company with the ship so far as possible, but if separated to make the best of our way to one of the two ports mentioned. Our captain brought up the whole stock of quinine from the medicine-chest to put on board the 'Shakspere;' but Ebony, who was of course to be one of the boat's crew, only laughed when he saw it.

      "'That stuff is no use, sir,' he said; 'you might just as well keep it as to send it.'

      "'Why, that's what is always used for fever and ague.'

      "'Ay, sir, but this is quite a different thing from the shakes; it's neither fever nor ague. If it's cured at all, it will be by soaking it out of 'em, sir.'

      "So away we went on board, and at once proceeded to loose the canvas, which had been clumsily furled. and to trim all sail for the light wind. We then went to work to saw the empty water-casks in two, and soon had large tubs enough made to afford one for each patient.

      "Mr. Archer was a man so gifted with a propensity to see the ludicrous side of everything that after the first shock of the scene was over he could do little but laugh.

      "'If there is a patron saint overlooking this vessel.' said be, 'it must be Saint Vitus, or old Daniel Dancer, the miser. I say, Ebony, this complaint isn't catching, is it? Bear a hand, now, and get all these bathtubs filled with water, so we can begin operations tonight. When we are ready, I shall pipe all hands to baptism.'

      "The poor fellows looked on, and shook harder than ever, while all these preparations were being made. But when we came to strip them for the bath they were all in-

The Voyage of the Shakers. 59

clined to resist, and their paroxysms became positively frightful.

      "'It won't do; we can never put them into the water,' said the mate, moved to pity by this apparent increase of suffering. 'Ebony, it will never do.'

      "'Oh it's the way they always does, sir,' returned the black, as coolly as if he were about to put a tub of clothes in soak, instead of seven human beings. "There's no other chance for 'em, sir, and the earlier we get about it the better, too.'

      "Under his directions, they were all put by main force in the water, when it actually seemed that every man would jerk himself limb from limb; and we were obliged to hold them there, and witness their sufferings. – feeling our duty a very painful one. No good effect was perceptible that day nor the next, when the 'Cadmus,' at sundown, ran within hail, and spoke us, that we might report progress.

      "We could say nothing encouraging, but our black doctor still held steadfast in his faith that plenty of water was their only chance, and we must keep on with this rough treatment, giving them two or three hours a day in the tubs. We had prepared strong coverings of canvas, with a hole large enough for a man's head to pop up through it, while his shoulders were confined by it.

      "While the poor victims were writhing and shivering to that degree that their sufferings seemed enough to move a heart of stone, and scarcely any one but Ebony himself could bear to look upon them, that relentless negro would coolly go the rounds of his hospital, as he termed it, and from time to time chuck the heads of one or another down through the canvas so as to shove him under, head and ears.

      "He vowed that if they did not take the medicine freely, of their own will, he must make them take it; that it was all for their own good, if they only knew it, and that he would keep them in soak day and night all the way into Cape Town but he would give the thing a thorough trial.

      "There was no fear of his stock of medicine giving out, as he had the whole Indian Ocean to draw upon, and could get it fresh every day. It was in vain that we urged our fears of killing the poor men: he argued – and reasonably, too – that they might as well die as to live in the condition they then were. This was quite true, though not exactly a way in which white men and Christians are accustomed to look at such matters.

      "On the fourth day, when we were forcing the patients along to their ablutions, Mr. Archer had more than half a mind to exercise his authority, and put a stop to what he regarded as sheer cruelty. We had lost sight of the ship during the previous night, and he could no longer get instructions from his superior.

      "'Here's Eb'ny,' said he, 'has shipped himself a doctor, and I suppose it's according to rule to follow the doctor's directions; but the poor fellows can't stand it much longer, – they look already as if they had been parboiled.'

      "'No danger, sir,' answered Ebony, with the utmost coolness. 'Don't you see they all sleep well enough, and eat their regular allowance? They wouldn't do that if they were in any danger.'

      "Ebony was right; there was no danger, and the good effect of his savage mode of treatment was soon plain enough, for within half an hour after the patients had been set in the cold bath, one of them, after a convulsive fit of more than usual violence, suddenly became entirely quiet, and then, stretching up his neck as far as possible, spoke in a perfectly clear and natural, but weak, voice.

      "'Let me out of this, for Heaven's sake, before I freeze!'

      "'All right!' roared our black triumphantly; 'what did I tell ye? Help him out, quick! We've soaked it all out of him, and we must keep on with the others in the same way.'

      "The restored man was soon able to give us all the particulars of their cruise up to the time when we boarded them. His name was Bateman, and he had filled the position of mate on board the 'Shakspere.' Before the day's bath was over, another man's muscles relaxed, and he too was taken out of the tub completely cured. in these cases there was no convalescent stage, no gradual abatement of the symptoms, but when the shaking and jerking ceased, the man was himself again. But the other men required longer treatment, and the case of the captain was the most stubborn of all.

      "But as all the men, though unable to talk, were perfectly rational in mind, the recovery of the first ones put new spirit into the rest, and they took the medicine with

60 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      courage and hope. We no longer had any fear that they would die in their tubs, nor had we any resistance to contend with on their part.

      "But the shakes held on to the captain so long, and his paroxysms were so severe, that Ebony himself became dubious, and was almost ready to give him up as a hopeless case. But as this was the only chance for his salvation, and his system appeared to receive no injury from the many immersions, he persevered. Meanwhile, we had come within the influence of the severe weather which we had reason to expect off the old Cape of Storms, and for several days were obliged to lie to, and drift in a heavy gale, or rather a succession of gales, with short intervals of better weather. We had seen no more of the 'Cadmus' since parting company, but having now a very strong crew we.~e quite competent to manage the brig under any circumstances.

      "Twelve days had gone by since we commenced our operations, and still the English captain was as spasmodic as ever, – showing no change at all. He had been helped into his bath-tub, as usual, which was lashed under the lee of the mainmast, – for the brig was laboring heavily in a very turbulent sea, – and Ebony had taken the precaution to make a bow-line in one end of a rope, and slip it up round the patient's body under the arms, knowing how helpless he would be to assist himself in case of any accident.

      "The gale had died away, and the brig fell off several points from the wind, rolling so that one could hardly keep his feet, then coming to with a sudden luff, she met a very heavy sea, which came tumbling in upon her weather-bow as if it would ingulf her completely. The danger was seen and felt in time for each one to cling to something, for we were all assembled aft at the time; but the negro doctor, having enough to do to save himself, had for an instant left the bather to take his chance. The whole main deck was flooded with water as the vessel buried herself, and when, drenched and frightened, we gained our senses, and looked about us, the tub was gone from its lashings, and the poor, trembling form of Captain Durham was seen drifting away to leeward on a wave! His frantic struggles were fearful to behold, and brought a cry of horror from all of us.

      "'The rope! the rope!' cried Ebony in great excitement. 'Lay hold here, and haul in!'

      "Luckily he had used one end of a long coil in making the bow-line, and it had not yet all run out. We seized the rope with eager hands, and, exerting all our strength, dragged the poor man on board, but not until he had been several times overwhelmed. There was no drowning a man who had the shakes on him, however. Ebony said such a thing was impossible; and I believe he told the truth.

      "The poor captain was not drowned, but he was cured. The shakes were completely shaken out of him, and he landed on deck a well man, and quite competent to assume the command of his brig. No further damage had been done than the loss of the tub, which was no loss at all, as we had no further use for it."

      "Well, what then?" I asked, – for Dave had stopped abruptly.

      "Why, that's all I can tell you about it of my own knowledge, when the gale blew out, and a few days afterward we met the 'Cadmus' at the rendezvous off Table Bay. and went back to our own ship. But I afterward heard that as soon as the 'Shakspere' arrived at St. Helena, each man of her crew, as soon as he drank a glass of liquor, was again seized with the shakes, and had it as had as ever. There was not a drop on board at the time we boarded her, for the men had drank it all in the first attacks of disease, hoping to get relief from it. Ebony declared this was the most fatal medicine they could have taken, and that this was the reason they had required such long immersions to soak the liquor out."

      "What nonsense!" said I.

      "So I thought,"returned Dave calmly; "but I must allow the darky to know more about that disease than I do."

      "Do you believe that the men were in that condition merely from delirium tremens?"

      "Not at all. The disease – which, as I understand it, is peculiar to Njerxi Bay – was no delirium, for, as I told you before, the brain is perfectly healthy all the time. But it is aggravated by any kind of ardent liquor; and they say that if it is latent in the system the spasmodic action will be roused and excited by drinking even a single glass. We heard that all her crew were discharged at St. Helena, and sent to a hospital, except the mate. He was a total-ab

Allan's Adventure. 61

      stinence man, – and that accounts for his having been cured quicker than the others."

      "But Captain Durham's case, you said, was the toughest of all."

      "Of course it was, – because he was the hardest drinker. I heard that he died there in the hospital, shaking so that he had to be held down in his bed."

      "And did they succeed in shaking out the others?"

      "I don't know, for I never heard the particulars. But I 'm afraid they never tried it very thoroughly, for no doctor, or any one else not acquainted with such cases, would ever believe in it as Ebony did, and continue it so long, seemingly against all hope. I never could learn the fate of each particular man of the crew, – but I do know that the vessel was taken charge of by the authorities, and sent home to Liverpool. What I have told you as coming under my own observation, while I was on board of her, is strictly true."

      I did not intimate any doubt of his word, nor could I say that the story was no great shakes, though I really thought so.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Voyage of the Shakers.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 48, No. 1 (Jul 1878)
Pages: 56-61