Home  »  Two Years before the Mast  »  Chapter XXIV

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815–1882). Two Years before the Mast.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

San Diego Again—A Descent—Hurried Departure—A New Shipmate

Chapter XXIV

SUNDAY, OCT. 11TH. Set sail this morning for the leeward; passed within sight of San Pedro, and, to our great joy, did not come to anchor, but kept directly on to San Diego, where we arrived and moored ship on.

Thursday, Oct. 15th. Found here the Italian ship La Rosa, from the windward, which reported the brig Pilgrim at San Francisco, all well. Everything was as quiet here as usual. We discharged our hides, horns, and tallow, and were ready to sail again on the following Sunday. I went ashore to my old quarters, and found the gang at the hide-house going on in the even tenor of their way, and spent an hour or two, after dark, at the oven, taking a whiff with my old Kanaka friends, who really seemed glad to see me again, and saluted me as the Aikane of the Kanakas. I was grieved to find that my poor dog Bravo was dead. He had sickened and died suddenly, the very day after I sailed in the Alert.

Sunday was again, as usual, our sailing day, and we got under weigh with a stiff breeze, which reminded us that it was the latter part of the autumn, and time to expect south-easters once more. We beat up against a strong head wind, under reefed top-sails, as far as San Juan, where we came to anchor nearly three miles from the shore, with slip-ropes on our cables, in the old south-easter style of last winter. On the passage up, we had an old sea captain on board, who had married and settled in California, and had not been on salt water for more than fifteen years. He was astonished at the changes and improvements that had been made in ships, and still more at the manner in which we carried sail; for he was really a little frightened; and said that while we had top-gallant sails on, he should have been under reefed topsails. The working of the ship, and her progress to windward, seemed to delight him, for he said she went to windward as though she were kedging.

Tuesday, Oct. 20th. Having got everything ready, we set the agent ashore, who went up to the mission to hasten down the hides for the next morning. This night we had the strictest orders to look out for south-easters; and the long, low clouds seemed rather threatening. But the night passed over without any trouble, and early the next morning, we hove out the long-boat and pinnace, lowered away the quarter-boats, and went ashore to bring off our hides. Here we were again, in this romantic spot; a perpendicular hill, twice the height of the ship’s mast-head, with a single circuitous path to the top, and long sand beach at its base, with the swell of the whole Pacific breaking high upon it, and our hides ranged in piles on the overhanging summit. The captain sent me, who was the only one of the crew that had ever been there before, to the top, to count the hides and pitch them down. There I stood again, as six months before, throwing off the hides, and watching them, pitching and scaling, to the bottom, while the men, dwarfed by the distance, were walking to and fro on the beach, carrying the hides, as they picked them up, to the distant boats, upon the tops of their heads. Two or three boat-loads were sent off, until, at last, all were thrown down, and the boats nearly loaded again; when we were delayed by a dozen or twenty hides which had lodged in the recesses of the hill, and which we could not reach by any missiles, as the general line of the side was exactly perpendicular, and these places were caved in, and could not be seen or reached from the top. As hides are worth in Boston twelve and a half cents a pound, and the captain’s commission was two per cent, he determined not to give them up; and sent on board for a pair of top-gallant studding-sail halyards, and requested some one of the crew to go to the top, and come down by the halyards. The older sailors said the boys, who were light and active, ought to go, while the boys thought that strength and experience were necessary. Seeing the dilemma, and feeling myself to be near the medium of these requisites, I offered my services, and went up, with one man to tend the rope, and prepared for the descent.

We found a stake fastened strongly into the ground, and apparently capable of holding my weight, to which we made one end of the halyards well fast, and taking the coil, threw it over the brink. The end, we saw, just reached to a landing-place, from which the descent to the beach was easy. Having nothing on but shirt, trowsers, and hat, the common sea-rig of warm weather, I had no stripping to do, and began my descent, by taking hold of the rope in each hand, and slipping down, sometimes with hands and feet round the rope, and sometimes breasting off with one hand and foot against the precipice, and holding on to the rope with the other. In this way I descended until I came to a place which shelved in, and in which the hides were lodged. Keeping hold of the rope with one hand, I scrambled in, and by the other hand and feet succeeded in dislodging all the hides, and continued on my way. Just below this place, the precipice projected again, and going over the projection, I could see nothing below me but the sea and the rocks upon which it broke, and a few gulls flying in mid-air. I got down in safety, pretty well covered with dirt; and for my pains was told, “What a d—d fool you were to risk your life for a half a dozen hides!”

While we were carrying the hides to the boat, I perceived, what I had been too busy to observe before, that heavy black clouds were rolling up from seaward, a strong swell heaving in, and every sign of a south-easter. The captain hurried everything. The hides were pitched into the boats; and, with some difficulty, and by wading nearly up to our armpits, we got the boats through the surf, and began pulling aboard. Our gig’s crew towed the pinnace astern of the gig, and the launch was towed by six men in the jolly-boat. The ship was lying three miles off, pitching at her anchor, and the farther we pulled, the heavier grew the swell. Our boat stood nearly up and down several times; the pinnace parted her tow-line, and we expected every moment to see the launch swamped. We at length got alongside, our boats half full of water; and now came the greatest difficulty of all,—unloading the boats, in a heavy sea, which pitched them about so that it was almost impossible to stand in them; raising them sometimes even with the rail, and again dropping them below the bends. With great difficulty, we got all the hides aboard and stowed under hatches, the yard and stay tackles hooked on, and the launch and pinnace hoisted, checked, and griped. The quarter-boats were then hoisted up, and we began heaving in on the chain. Getting the anchor was no easy work in such a sea, but as we were not coming back to this port, the captain determined not to slip. The ship’s head pitched into the sea, and the water rushed through the hawse-holes, and the chain surged so as almost to unship the barrel of the windlass. “Hove short, sir!” said the mate. “Aye, aye! Weather-bit your chain and loose the topsails! Make sail on her, men—with a will!” A few moments served to loose the topsails, which were furled with reefs, to sheet them home, and hoist them up. “Bear a hand!” was the order of the day; and every one saw the necessity of it, for the gale was already upon us. The ship broke out her own anchor, which we catted and fished, after a fashion, and stood off from the lee-shore against a heavy head sea, under reefed topsails, fore-topmast staysail and spanker. The fore course was given to her, which helped her a little; but as she hardly held her own against the sea which was settling her leeward—“Board the main tack!” shouted the captain; when the tack was carried forward and taken to the windlass, and all hands called to the handspikes. The great sail bellied out horizontally as though it would lift up the main stay; the blocks rattled and flew about; but the force of machinery was too much for her. “Heave ho! Heave and pawl! Yo, heave, hearty, ho!” and, in time with the song, by the force of twenty strong arms, the windlass came slowly round, pawl after pawl, and the weather clew of the sail was brought down to the waterways. The starboard watch hauled aft the sheet, and the ship tore through the water like a mad horse, quivering and shaking at every joint, and dashing from its head the foam, which flew off at every blow, yards and yards to leeward. A half hour of such sailing served our turn, when the clews of the sail were hauled up, the sail furled, and the ship, eased of her press, went more quietly on her way. Soon after, the foresail was reefed, and we mizen-top men were sent up to take another reef in the mizen topsail. This was the first time I had taken a weather earing, and I felt not a little proud to sit, astride of the weather yard-arm, pass the earing, and sing out “Haul out to leeward!” From this time until we got to Boston, the mate never suffered any one but our own gang to go upon the mizen topsail yard, either for reefing or furling, and the young English lad and myself generally took the earings between us.

Having cleared the point and got well out to sea, we squared away the yards, made more sail, and stood on, nearly before the wind, for San Pedro. It blew strong, with some rain, nearly all night, but fell calm toward morning, and the gale having gone over, we came-to,—

Thursday, Oct. 22d, at San Pedro, in the old south-easter berth, a league from shore, with a slip-rope on the cable, reefs in the topsails, and rope-yarns for gaskets. Here we lay ten days, with the usual boating, hide-carrying, rolling of cargo up the steep hill, walking barefooted over stones, and getting drenched in salt water.

The third day after our arrival, the Rosa came in from San Juan, where she went the day after the south-easter. Her crew said it was as smooth as a mill-pond, after the gale, and she took off nearly a thousand hides, which had been brought down for us, and which we lost in consequence of the south-easter. This mortified us; not only that an Italian ship should have got to windward of us in the trade, but because every thousand hides went toward completing the forty thousand which we were to collect before we could say good-by to California.

While lying here, we shipped one new hand, an Englishman, of about two or three and twenty, who was quite an acquisition, as he proved to be a good sailor, could sing tolerably, and, what was of more importance to me, had a good education, and a somewhat remarkable history. He called himself George P. Marsh; professed to have been at sea from a small boy, and to have served his time in the smuggling trade between Germany and the coasts of France and England. Thus he accounted for his knowledge of the French language, which he spoke and read as well as he did English; but his cutter education would not account for his English, which was far too good to have been learned in a smuggler; for he wrote an uncommonly handsome hand, spoke with great correctness, and frequently, when in private talk with me, quoted from books, and showed a knowledge of the customs of society, and particularly of the formalities of the various English courts of law, and of Parliament, which surprised me. Still, he would give no other account of himself than that he was educated in a smuggler. A man whom we afterwards fell in with, who had been a shipmate of George’s a few years before, said that he heard at the boarding-house from which they shipped, that George had been at college, (probably a naval one, as he knew no Latin or Greek,) where he learned French and mathematics. He was by no means the man by nature that Harris was. Harris had made everything of his mind and character in spite of obstacles; while this man had evidently been born in a different rank, and educated early in life accordingly, but had been a vagabond, and done nothing for himself since. What had been given to him by others, was all that made him to differ from those about him; while Harris had made himself what he was. Neither had George the character, strength of mind, acuteness, or memory of Harris; yet there was about him the remains of a pretty good education, which enabled him to talk perhaps beyond his brains, and a high spirit and sense of honor, which years of a dog’s life had not broken. After he had been a little while on board, we learned from him his remarkable history, for the last two years, which we afterwards heard confirmed in such a manner, as put the truth of it beyond a doubt.

He sailed from New York in the year 1833, if I mistake not, before the mast, in the brig Lascar, for Canton. She was sold in the East Indies, and he shipped at Manilla, in a small schooner, bound on a trading voyage among the Ladrone and Pelew Islands. On one of the latter islands, their schooner was wrecked on a reef, and they were attacked by the natives, and, after a desperate resistance, in which all their number except the captain, George, and a boy, were killed or drowned, they surrendered, and were carried bound, in a canoe, to a neighboring island. In about a month after this, an opportunity occurred by which one of their number might get away. I have forgotten the circumstances, but only one could go, and they yielded to the captain, upon his promising to send them aid if he escaped. He was successful in his attempt; got on board an American vessel, went back to Manilla, and thence to America, without making any effort for their rescue, or indeed, as George afterwards discovered, without even mentioning their case to any one in Manilla. The boy that was with George died, and he being alone, and there being no chance for his escape, the natives soon treated him with kindness, and even with attention. They painted him, tattooed his body, (for he would never consent to be marked in the face or hands,) gave him two or three wives; and, in fact, made quite a pet of him. In this way, he lived for thirteen months, in a fine climate, with a plenty to eat, half naked, and nothing to do. He soon, however, became tired, and went round the island, on different pretences, to look out for a sail. One day, he was out fishing in a small canoe with another man, when he saw a large sail to the windward, about a league and a half off, passing abreast of the island and standing westward. With some difficulty, he persuaded the islander to go off with him to the ship, promising to return with a good supply of rum and tobacco. These articles, which the islanders had got a taste of from American traders, were too strong a temptation for the fellow, and he consented. They paddled off in the track of the ship, and lay-to until she came down to them. George stepped on board the ship, nearly naked, painted from head to foot, and in no way distinguishable from his companion until he began to speak. Upon this, the people on board were not a little astonished; and, having learned his story, the captain had him washed and clothed, and sending away the poor astonished native with a knife or two and some tobacco and calico, took George with him on the voyage. This was the ship Cabot, of New York, Captain Low. She was bound to Manilla, from across the Pacific, and George did seaman’s duty in her until her arrival in Manilla, when he left her, and shipped in a brig bound to the Sandwich Islands. From Oahu, he came, in the British brig Clementine, to Monterey, as second officer, where, having some difficulty with the captain, he left her, and coming down the coast, joined us at San Pedro. Nearly six months after this, among some papers we received by an arrival from Boston, we found a letter from Captain Low, of the Cabot, published immediately upon his arrival at New York, and giving all the particulars just as we had them from George. The letter was published for the information of the friends of George, and Captain Low added, that he left him at Manilla to go to Oahu, and he had heard nothing of him since.

George had an interesting journal of his adventures in the Pelew Islands, which he had written out at length, in a handsome hand, and in correct English.