The Naval Officer/Chapter VIII

Since laws were made for every degree, I wonder we haven't better company on Tyburn tree.

"Beggar's Opera."

While I was on board of this ship two poor men were executed for mutiny. The scene was far more solemn to me than anything I had ever beheld. Indeed it was the first thing of the kind I had ever been present at. When we hear of executions on shore, we are always prepared to read of some foul atrocious crime, some unprovoked and unmitigated offence against the laws of civilized society, which a just and merciful government cannot allow to pass unpunished. With us at sea there are many shades of difference; but that which the law of our service considers a serious offence is often no more than an ebullition of local and temporary feeling, which in some cases might be curbed, and in others totally suppressed by timely firmness and conciliation.

The ships had been a long time at sea, the enemy did not appear—and there was no chance either of bringing him to action, or of returning into port. Indeed nothing can be more dull and monotonous than a blockading cruise "in the team," as we call it; that is, the ships of the line stationed to watch an enemy. The frigates have, in this respect, every advantage; they are always employed on shore, often in action, and the more men they have killed, the happier are the survivors. Some melancholy ferment on board of the flag-ship I was in caused an open mutiny. Of course it was very soon quelled; and the ringleaders having been tried by a court-martial, two of them were condemned to be hanged at the yard-arm of their own ship, and were ordered for execution the following day but one.

Our courts-martial are always arrayed in the most pompous manner, and certainly are calculated to strike the mind with awe—even of a captain himself. A gun is fired at eight o'clock in the morning from the ship where it is to be held, and a union flag is displayed at the mizen peak. If the weather be fine, the ship is arranged with the greatest nicety; her decks are as white as snow—her hammocks are stowed with care—her ropes are taut—her yards square—her guns run out—and a guard of marines, under the orders of a lieutenant, prepared to receive every member of the court with the honour due to his rank. Before nine o'clock they are all assembled; the officers in their undress uniform, unless an admiral is to be tried. The great cabin is prepared, with a long table covered with a green cloth. Pens, ink, paper, prayer-books, and the Articles of War, are laid round to every member. "Open the court," says the president.

The court is opened, and officers and men indiscriminately stand round. The prisoners are now brought in under the charge of the provost-marshal, a master-at-arms, with his sword drawn, and placed at the foot of the table, on the left hand of the judge-advocate. The court is sworn to do its duty impartially, and if there is any doubt, to let it go in favour of the prisoner. Having done this, the members sit down, covered if they please.

The judge-advocate is then sworn, and the order for the court-martial read. The prisoner is put on his trial; if he says anything to commit himself, the court stops him, and kindly observes, "We do not want your evidence against yourself; we want only to know what others can prove against you." The unfortunate man is offered any assistance he may require; and when the defence is over, the court is cleared, the doors are shut, and the minutes, which have been taken down by the judge-advocate, are carefully read over, the credibility of the witnesses weighed, and the president puts the question to the youngest member first, "Proved, or not proved?"

All having given their answer, if seven are in favour of proved, and six against, proved is recorded. The next question—if for mutiny or desertion, or other capital crime—"Flogging or death?" The votes are given in the same way; if the majority be for death, the judge-advocate writes the sentence, and it is signed by all the members, according to seniority, beginning with the president and ending with the judge-advocate. The court is now opened again, the prisoner brought in, and an awful and deep silence prevails. The members of the court all put their hats on, and are seated; every one else, except the provost-marshal is uncovered. As soon as the judge-advocate has read the sentence, the prisoners are delivered to the custody of the provost-marshal, by a warrant from the president, and he has charge of them till the time for the execution of the sentence.

About three o'clock in the afternoon, I received a message from one of the prisoners, saying, he wished much to speak with me. I followed the master-at-arms down to the screened cabin, in the gun-room, where the men were confined with their legs in irons. These irons consist of one long bar and a set of shackles. The shackles fit the small part of the leg, just above the ankle; and, having an eye on each end of them, they receive the leg. The end of the bar is then passed through, and secured with a padlock. I found the poor fellows sitting on a shot-box. Their little meal lay before them untouched; one of them cried bitterly; the other, a man of the name of Strange, possessed a great deal of equanimity, although evidently deeply affected. This man had been pretty well educated in youth, but having taken a wild and indolent turn, had got into mischief, and to save himself from a severe chastisement, had run away from his friends, and entered on board a man-of-war. In this situation he had found time, in the intervals of duty, to read and to think; he became, in time, sullen, and separated himself from the occasional merriment of his messmates; and it is not improbable that this moody temper had given rise to the mutinous acts for which he was to suffer.

This man now apologized for the liberty he had taken, and said he would not detain me long. "You see, sir," said he, "that my poor friend is quite overcome with the horror of his situation: nor do I wonder at it. He is very different from the hardened malefactors that are executed on shore: we are neither of us afraid to die; but such a death as this, Mr Mildmay—to be hung up like dogs, an example to the fleet, and a shame and reproach to our friends—this wrings our hearts! It is this consideration, and to save the feelings of my poor mother, that I have sent for you. I saw you jump overboard to save a poor fellow from drowning; so I thought you would not mind doing a good turn for another unfortunate sailor. I have made my will, and appointed you my executor; and with this power of attorney you will receive all my pay and prize-money, which I will thank you to give to my dear mother, whose address you will find written here. My motive for this is, that she may never learn the history of my death. You can tell her that I died for my country's good, which is very true, for I acknowledge the justice of my sentence, and own that a severe example is wanting. It is eleven years since I was in England; I have served faithfully the whole of that time, nor did I ever misbehave except in this one instance. I think if our good king knew my sad story, he would be merciful; but God's will be done! Yet, if I had a wish, it would be that the enemy's fleet would come out, and that I might die, as I have lived, defending my country. But, Mr Mildmay, I have one very important question to ask you—do you believe that there is such a thing as a future state?"

"Most surely," said I; "though we all live as if we believed there was no such thing. But why do you doubt it?"

"Because," said the poor fellow, "when I was an officer's servant, I was one day tending the table in the ward-room, and I heard the commander of a sloop of war, who was dining there with his son, say that it was all nonsense—that there was no future state, and the Bible was a heap of lies. I have never been happy since."

I told him that I was extremely sorry that any officer should have used such expressions at all, particularly before him; that I was incapable of restoring his mind to its proper state; but that I should recommend his immediately sending for the chaplain, who, I had no doubt, would give him all the comfort he could desire. He thanked me for this advice, and profited by it, as he assured me in his last moments.

"And now, sir," said he, "let me give you a piece of advice. When you are a captain, as I am very sure you will be, do not worry your men into mutiny by making what is called a smart ship. Cleanliness and good order are what seamen like; but niggling, polishing, scraping iron bars, and ring-bolts, and the like of that, a sailor dislikes more than a flogging at the gangway. If, in reefing topsails, you happen to be a minute later than another ship, never mind it, so long as your sails are well reefed, and fit to stand blowing weather. Many a sail is split by bad reefing, and many a good sailor has lost his life by that foolish hurry which has done incredible harm in the navy. What can be more cruel or unjust than to flog the last man off the yard? seeing that he is necessarily the most active, and cannot get in without the imminent danger of breaking his neck; and, moreover, that one man must be last. Depend upon it, sir, 'that nothing is well done which is done in a hurry.' But I have kept you too long. God bless you, sir; remember my poor mother, and be sure you meet me on the forecastle to-morrow morning."

The fatal morning came. It was eight o'clock. The gun fired—the signal for punishment flew at our mast-head. The poor men gave a deep groan, exclaiming, "Lord have mercy upon us!—our earthly career and troubles are nearly over!" The master-at-arms came in, unlocked the padlock at the end of the bars, and, slipping off the shackles, desired the marine sentinels to conduct the prisoners to the quarter-deck.

Here was a scene of solemnity which I hardly dare attempt to describe. The day was clear and beautiful; the top-gallant yards were crossed on board of all the ships; the colours were flying; the crews were all dressed in white trousers and blue jackets, and hung in clusters, like bees, on the side of the rigging facing our ship: a guard of marines, under arms, was placed along each gangway, but on board of our ship they were on the quarter-deck. Two boats from each ship lay off upon their oars alongside of us, with a lieutenant's and a corporal's guard in each, with fixed bayonets. The hands were all turned up by the boatswain and his mates with a shrill whistle, and calling down each hatchway, "All hands attend punishment!"

You now heard the quick trampling of feet up the ladders, but not a word was spoken. The prisoners stood on the middle of the quarter-deck, while the captain read the sentence of the court-martial and the order from the commander-in-chief for the execution The appropriate prayers and psalms having been read by the chaplain, with much feeling and devotion, the poor men were asked if they were ready; they both replied in the affirmative, but each requested to have a glass of wine, which was instantly brought. They drank it off, bowing most respectfully to the captain and officers.

The admiral did not appear, it not being etiquette; but the prisoners desired to be kindly and gratefully remembered to him; they then begged to shake hands with the captain and all the officers, which having done, they asked permission to address the ship's company. The captain ordered them all to come aft on the top and quarter-deck. The most profound silence reigned, and there was not an eye but had a tear in it.

William Strange, the man who had sent for me, then said, in a clear and audible tone of voice:—"Brother sailors, attend to the last words of a dying man. We are brought here at the instigation of some of you who are now standing in safety among the crowd: you have made fools of us, and we are become the victims to the just vengeance of the laws. Had you succeeded in the infamous design you contemplated, what would have been the consequences? Ruin, eternal ruin, to yourselves and to your families; a disgrace to your country, and the scorn of those foreigners to whom you proposed delivering up the ship. Thank God you did not succeed. Let our fate be a warning to you, and endeavour to show by your future acts your deep contrition for the past. Now, sir," turning to the captain, "we are ready."

This beautiful speech from the mouth of a common sailor must as much astonish the reader as it then did the captain and officers of the ship. But Strange, as I have shown, was no common man; he had had the advantage of education, and, like many of the ringleaders at the mutiny of the Nore, was led into the error of refusing to obey, from the conscious feeling that he was born to command.

The arms of the prisoners were then pinioned, and the chaplain led the way, reading the funeral service; the master-at-arms, with two marine sentinels, conducted them along the starboard gangway to the forecastle; here a stage was erected on either side, over the cathead, with steps to ascend to it; a tail block was attached to the boom-iron, at the outer extremity of each foreyard-arm, and through this a rope was rove, one end of which came down to the stage; the other was led along the yard into the catharpings, and thence down upon the main-deck. A gun was primed and ready to fire, on the fore part of the ship, directly beneath the scaffold.

I attended poor Strange to the very last moment; he begged me to see that the halter, which was a piece of line, like a clothes' line, was properly made fast round his neck, for he had known men suffer dreadfully from the want of this precaution. A white cap was placed on the head of each man, and when both mounted the platform, the cap was drawn over their eyes. They shook hands with me, with their messmates, and with the chaplain, assuring him that they died happy, and confident in the hopes of redemption. They then stood still while the yard ropes were fixed to the halter by a toggle in the running noose of the latter; the other end of the yard-ropes were held by some twenty or thirty men on each side of the main-deck, where two lieutenants of the ship attended.

All being ready, the captain waved a white handkerchief, the gun fired, and in an instant the poor fellows were seen swinging at either yard-arm. They had on blue jackets and white trousers, and were remarkably fine-looking young men. They did not appear to suffer any pain, and at the expiration of an hour, the bodies were lowered down, placed in coffins, and sent on shore for interment.

On my arrival in England, nine months after, I acquitted myself of my promise, and paid to the mother of William Strange upwards of fifty pounds, for pay and prize-money. I told the poor woman that her son had died a Christian, and had fallen for the good of his country; and having said this, I took a hasty leave, for fear she should ask questions.

That the execution of a man on board of a ship of war does not always produce a proper effect upon the minds of the younger boys, the following fact may serve to prove.

There were two little fellows on board the ship; one was the son of the carpenter, the other of the boatswain. They were both of them surprised and interested at the sight, but not proportionably shocked. The next day I was down in one of the wings, reading by the light of a purser's dip—vulgo, a farthing candle, when these two boys came sliding down the main hatchway by one of the cables. Whether they saw me, and thought I would not 'peach, or whether they supposed I was asleep, I cannot tell; but they took their seats on the cables, in the heart of the tier, and for some time appeared to be in earnest conversation. They had some articles folded up in a dirty check shirt and pocket-handkerchief; they looked up at the battens, to which the hammocks are suspended, and producing a long rope-yarn, tried to pass it over one of them; but unable to reach, one boy climbed on the back of the other, and effected two purposes, by reeving one end of the line, and bringing it down to the cables again. They next unrolled the shirt, and, to my surprise, took out the boatswain's kitten, about three months old; its fore paws were tied behind its back, its hind feet were tied together, and a fishing-lead attached to them; a piece of white rag was tied over its head as a cap.

It was now pretty evident what the fate of poor puss was likely to be, and why the lead was made fast to her feet. The rope-yarn was tied round her neck; they each shook one of her paws, and pretended to cry. One of the urchins held in his hand a fife, into which he poured as much flour as it would hold out of the handkerchief, the other held the end of the rope-yarn: every ceremony was gone through that they could think of.

"Are you ready?" said the executioner, or he that held the line.

"All ready," replied the boy with the fife.

"Fire the gun!" said the hangman.

The boy applied one end of the fife to his mouth, blew out all the flour, and in this humble imitation of the smoke of a gun, poor puss was run up to the batten, where she hung till she was dead. I am ashamed to say I did not attempt to save the kitten's life, although I caused her foul murder to be revenged by the cat.

After the body had hung a certain time, they took it down and buried it in the shot-locker; this was an indictable offence, as the smell would have proved, so I lodged the information; the body was found, and as the facts were clear, the law took its course, to the great amusement of the bystanders, who saw the brats tied upon a gun, and well flogged.

The boatswain ate the kitten, first, he said, because he had "larned" to eat cats in Spain; secondly, because she had not died a natural death (I thought otherwise); and his last reason was more singular than either of the others: he had seen a picture in a church in Spain, of Peter's vision of the animals let down in the sheet, and there was a cat among them. Observing an alarm of scepticism in my eye, he thought proper to confirm his assertion with an oath.

"Might it not have been a rabbit?" said I.

"Rabbit, sir; d——n me, think I didn't know a cat from a rabbit? Why one has got short ears and long tail, and t'other has got wicee wersee, as we calls it."

A grand carnival masquerade was to be given at Minorca in honour of the English, and the place chosen for the exhibition was a church; all which was perfectly consistent with the Romish faith. I went in the character of a fool, and met many brother officers there. It was a comical sight to see the anomalous groups stared at by the pictures of the Virgin Mary and all the saints, whose shrines were lit up for the occasion with wax tapers. The admiral, rear-admiral, and most of the captains and officers of the fleet were present; the place was about a mile from the town.

Having hired a fool's dress, I mounted that very appropriate animal—a donkey, and set off amidst the shouts of a thousand dirty vagabonds. On my arrival, I began to show off in somersaults, leaps, and all kinds of practical jokes. The manner in which I supported the character drew a little crowd around me. I never spoke to an admiral or captain unless he addressed me first; and then I generally sold him a bargain. Being very well acquainted with the domestic economy of the ships on the station, a martinet asked me if I would enter for his ship. "No," said I, "you would give me three dozen for not lashing up my hammock properly." "Come with me," said another. "No," said I, "your bell-rope is too short—you cannot reach it to order another bottle of wine before all the officers have left your table." Another promised me kind treatment and plenty of wine. "No," said I, "in your ship I should be coals at Newcastle; besides, your coffee is too weak, your steward only puts one ounce into six cups."

These hits afforded a good deal of mirth among the crowd, and even the admiral himself honoured me with a smile. I bowed respectfully to his lordship, who merely said—"What do you want of me, fool?" "Oh, nothing at all, my lord," said I, "I have only a small favour to ask of you." "What is that?" said the admiral. "Only to make me a captain, my lord." "Oh, no," said the admiral, "we never make fools captains." "No" said I, clapping my arms akimbo in a very impertinent manner, "then that, I suppose, is a new regulation. How long has the order in council been out?"

The good-humoured old chief laughed heartily at this piece of impertinence; but the captain whose ship I had so recently quitted was silly enough to be offended: he found me out, and went and complained of me to my captain the next day; but my captain only laughed at him, said he thought it an excellent joke, and invited me to dinner.

Our ship was ordered to Gibraltar, where we arrived soon after; and a packet coming in from England, I received letters from my father, announcing the death of my dearest mother. O how I then regretted all the sorrows I had ever caused her; how incessantly did busy memory haunt me with all my misdeeds, and recall to mind the last moment I had seen her! I never supposed I could have regretted her half so much. My father stated that in her last moments she had expressed the greatest solicitude for my welfare. She feared the career of life on which I had entered would not conduce to my eternal welfare, however much it might promise to my temporal advantage. Her dying injunctions to me were never to forget the moral and religious principles in which she had brought me up; and, with her last blessing, implored me to read my Bible, and take it as my guide through life.

My father's letter was both an affecting and forcible appeal; and never, in the whole course of my subsequent life, were my feelings so worked upon as they were on that occasion. I went to my hammock with an aching head and an almost broken heart. A retrospection of my life afforded me no comfort. The numerous acts of depravity or pride, of revenge or deceit, of which I had been guilty, rushed through my mind, as the tempest through the rigging, and called me to the most serious and melancholy reflections. It was some time before I could collect my thoughts and analyse my feelings; but when I recalled all my misdeeds—my departure from that path of virtue, so often and so clearly laid down by my affectionate parent—I was overwhelmed with grief, shame, and repentance. I considered how often I had been on the brink of eternity; and had I been cut off in my sins, what would have been my destiny? I started with horror at the dangers I had escaped, and looked forward with gloomy apprehension at those that still awaited me. I sought in vain, among all my actions since I left my mother's care, one single deed of virtue—one that sprang from a good motive. There was, it is true, an outward gloss and polish for the world to look at; but all was dark within: and I felt that a keener eye than that of mortality was searching my soul, where deception was worse than useless.

At twelve o'clock, before I had once closed my eyes, I was called to relieve the deck, having what is called the middle watch, i.e. from midnight till four in the morning. We had, the day before, buried a quarter-master, nick-named Quid, an old seaman who had destroyed himself by drinking—no very uncommon case in His Majesty's service. The corpse of a man who has destroyed his inside by intemperance is generally in a state of putridity immediately after death; and the decay, particularly in warm climates, is very rapid. A few hours after Quid's death, the body emitted certain effluvia denoting the necessity of immediate interment. It was accordingly sewn up in a hammock; and as the ship lay in deep water, with a current sweeping round the bay, and the boats being at the same time all employed at the dockyard, the first lieutenant caused shot to be tied to the feet, and, having read the funeral service, launched the body overboard from the gangway, as the ship lay at anchor.

I was walking the deck, in no very happy state of mind, reflecting seriously on parts of that Bible which for more than two years I had never looked into, when my thoughts were called to the summons which poor Quid had received, and the beauty of the funeral service which I had heard read over him—"I am the resurrection and the life." The moon, which had been obscured, suddenly burst from a cloud, and a cry of horror proceeded from the look-out man on the starboard gangway. I ran to inquire the cause, and found him in such a state of nervous agitation that he could only say,—"Quid—Quid!" and point with his finger into the water.

I looked over the side, and, to my amazement there was the body of Quid,

"All in dreary hammock shrouded,"

perfectly upright, and floating with the head and shoulders above water. A slight undulation of the waves gave it the appearance of nodding its head; while the rays of the moon enabled us to trace the remainder of the body underneath the surface. For a few moments, I felt a horror which I cannot describe, and contemplated the object in awful silence; while my blood ran cold, and I felt a sensation as if my hair was standing on end. I was completely taken by surprise, and thought the body had risen up to warn me; but in a few seconds I regained my presence of mind, and I soon perceived the origin of this reappearance of the corpse. I ordered the cutter to be manned, and, in the meantime, went down to inform the first lieutenant of what had occurred. He laughed, and said, "I suppose the old boy finds salt water not quite so palatable as grog. Tie some more shot to his feet, and bring the old fellow to his moorings again. Tell him, the next time he trips his anchor, not to run on board of us. He had his regular allowance of prayer: I gave him the whole service, and I shall not give him any more." So saying, he went to sleep again.

This apparently singular circumstance is easily accounted for. Bodies decomposing from putridity, generate a quantity of gas, which swells them up to an enormous size, and renders them buoyant. The body of this man was thrown overboard just as decomposition was in progress: the shot made fast to the feet were sufficient to sink it at the time; but in a few hours after were not competent to keep it at the bottom, and it came up to the surface in that perpendicular position which I have described. The current in the bay being at the time either slack or irregular, it floated at the spot whence it had been launched into the water.

The cutter, being manned, was sent with more shot to attach to the body, and sink it. When they attempted to hold it with the boat-hook, it eluded the touch, turning round and round, or bobbing under the water, and coming up again, as if in sport: but accident saved them any further trouble; for the bowman, reproached by the boat's crew for not hooking the body, got angry, and darting the spike of the boat-hook into the abdomen, the pent-up gas escaped with a loud whiz, and the corpse instantly sank like a stone. Many jokes were passed on the occasion; but I was not in humour for joking on serious subjects: and before the watch was out I had made up my mind to go home, and to quit the service, as I found I had no chance of obeying my mother's dying injunctions if I remained where I was.

The next morning I stated my wishes to the captain, not of quitting the service, but of going home in consequence of family arrangements. This was about as necessary as that I should make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The captain had been told of the unpleasant news I had received, and having listened to all I had to say, he replied, that if I could make up my mind to remain with him it would be better for me.

"You are now," said he, "accustomed to my ways—you know your duty, and do your work well; indeed, I have made honourable mention of you to the Admiralty in my public letter: you know your own business best" (here he was mistaken—he ought not to have parted with me for the reasons which I offered); "but my advice to you is to stay."

I thanked him—but being bent and determined on going home, he acceded to my request; gave me my discharge, and added a very handsome certificate of good conduct, far beyond the usually prescribed form; he also told me that if I chose to return to him he would keep a vacancy for me. I parted with the officers, my messmates, and the ship's company with regret. I had been more than three years with them; and my stormy commencement had settled down into a quiet and peaceful acknowledgment of my supremacy in the berth; my qualities were such as to make me a universal favourite, and I was followed down the ship's side with the hearty good wishes of all. I was pulled in the cutter on board of a ship of the line, in which I was ordered to take my passage to England.