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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Henry Fielding (1707–1754)

Slippery Sailors

From “A Voyage to Lisbon”

OUR captain, who was a very good and experienced seaman, having been above thirty years the master of a vessel, part of which he had served, so he phrased it, as commander of a privateer, and had discharged himself with great courage and conduct, and with as great success, discovered the utmost aversion to the sending his boat ashore whenever we lay wind-bound in any of our harbours. This aversion did not arise from any fear of wearing out his boat by using it, but was, in truth, the result of experience, that it was easier to send his men on shore than to recall them. They acknowledged him as their master while they remained on shipboard, but did not allow his power to extend to the shores, where they had no sooner set their foot than every man became his own master, and thought himself at full liberty to return when he pleased. Now it is not any delight that these fellows have in the fresh air or verdant fields on the land. Every one of them would prefer his ship and his hammock to all the sweets of Arabia the Happy; but, unluckily for them, there are in every seaport in England certain houses whose chief livelihood depends on providing entertainment for the gentlemen of the jacket. For this purpose they are always well furnished with those cordial liquors which do immediately inspire the heart with gladness, banishing all careful thoughts, and indeed all others, from the mind, and opening the mouth with songs of cheerfulness and thanksgiving for the many wonderful blessings with which a seafaring life overflows.

For my own part, however whimsical it may appear, I confess I have thought the strange story of Circe in the “Odyssey” no other than an ingenious allegory, in which Homer intended to convey to his countrymen the same kind of instruction which we intend to communicate to our own in this digression. As teaching the art of war to the Greeks was the plain design of the “Iliad,” so was teaching them the art of navigation the no less manifest intention of the “Odyssey.” For the improvement of this their situation was most excellently adapted; and accordingly we find Thucydides, in the beginning of his history, considers the Greeks as a set of pirates or privateers, plundering each other by sea. This being probably the first institution of commerce before the Ars Cauponaria was invented, and merchants, instead of robbing, began to cheat and outwit each other, and by degrees changed the Metabletic, the only kind of traffic allowed by Aristotle in his “Politics,” into the Chrematistic.

By this allegory, then, I suppose Ulysses to have been the captain of a merchant-ship, and Circe some good ale-wife, who made his crew drunk with the spirituous liquors of those days. With this the transformation into swine, as well as all other incidents of the fable, will notably agree; and thus a key will be found out for unlocking the whole mystery, and forging at least some meaning to a story which, at present, appears very strange and absurd.

Hence, moreover, will appear the very near resemblance between the seafaring men of all ages and nations; and here, perhaps, may be established the truth and justice of that observation, which will occur oftener than once in this voyage, that all human flesh is not the same flesh, but that there is one kind of flesh of landmen and another of seamen.

Philosophers, divines, and others, who have treated the gratification of human appetites with contempt, have, among other instances, insisted very strongly on that satiety which is so apt to overtake them even in the very act of enjoyment. And here they more particularly deserve our attention, as most of them may be supposed to speak from their own experience, and very probably gave us their lessons with a full stomach. Thus hunger and thirst, whatever delight they may afford while we are eating and drinking, pass both away from us with the plate and the cup. A second haunch of venison, or a second dose of turtle, would hardly allure a city glutton with its smell. Even the celebrated Jew himself, when well filled with calipash and calipee, goes contentedly home to tell his money, and expects no more pleasure from his throat during the next twenty-four hours. Hence I suppose Dr. South took that elegant comparison of the joys of a speculative man to the solemn silence of an Archimedes over a problem, and those of a glutton to the stillness of a sow at her wash—a simile which, if it became the pulpit at all, could only become it in the afternoon.

Whereas in those potations which the mind seems to enjoy, rather than the bodily appetite, there is happily no such satiety; but the more a man drinks, the more he desires; as if, like Mark Antony in Dryden, his appetite increased with feeding, and this to a filthily immoderate degree, without any exhibition of shame. Hence, as with the gang of Captain Ulysses, ensues so total a transformation that the man no more continues what he was. Perhaps he ceases for a time to be at all; or, though he may retain the same outward form and figure he had before, yet is his nobler part, as we are taught to call it, so changed, that, instead of being the same man, he scarce remembers what he was a few hours before. And this transformation, being once obtained, is so easily preserved by the same potations, which induced no satiety, that the captain in vain sends or goes in quest of his crew. They know him no longer, or, if they do, they acknowledge not his power, having, indeed, as entirely forgotten themselves as if they had taken a large draught of the river of Lethe.

Nor is the captain always sure of even finding out the place to which Circe hath conveyed them. There are many of those houses in every port-town. Nay, there are some where the sorceress doth not trust only to her drugs, but hath instruments of a different kind to execute her purposes, by whose means the tar is effectually secreted from the knowledge and pursuit of his captain. This would, indeed, be very fatal, were it not for one circumstance, that the sailor is seldom provided with the proper bait for these harpies. However, the contrary sometimes happens, as these harpies will bite at almost anything, and will snap at a pair of silver buttons, or buckles, as surely as at the specie itself. Nay, sometimes they are so voracious that the very naked hook will go down, and the jolly young sailor is sacrificed for his own sake.

In vain, at such a season as this, would the vows of a pious heathen have prevailed over Neptune, Æolus, or any other marine deity. In vain would the prayers of a Christian captain be attended with the like success. The wind may change how it pleases while all hands are on shore; the anchor would remain firm in the ground, and the ship would continue in durance, unless, like other forcible prison-breakers, it forcibly got loose for no good purpose.

Now, as the favour of winds and courts, and such like, is always to be laid hold on at the very first motion, for within twenty-four hours all may be changed again; so, in the former case, the loss of a day may be the loss of a voyage; for though it may appear to persons not well skilled in navigation, who see ships meet and sail by each other, that the wind blows sometimes east and west, north and south, backward and forward, at the same instant, yet, certain it is that the land is so contrived that even the same wind will not, like the same horse, always bring a man to the end of his journey, but that the gale which the mariner prayed heartily for yesterday he may as heartily deprecate to-morrow; while all use and benefit which would have arisen to him from the westerly wind of to-morrow may be totally lost and thrown away by neglecting the offer of the easterly blast which blows to-day.

Hence ensues grief and disreputation to the innocent captain, loss and disappointment to the worthy merchant, and not seldom great prejudice to the trade of a nation whose manufactures are thus liable to lie unsold in a foreign warehouse, the market being forestalled by some rival whose sailors are under a better discipline. To guard against these inconveniences, the prudent captain takes every precaution in his power; he makes the strongest contracts with his crew, and thereby binds them so firmly that none but the greatest or least of men can break through them with impunity; but for one of these two reasons, which I will not determine, the sailor, like his brother fish, the eel, is too slippery to be held, and plunges into his element with perfect impunity.

To speak a plain truth, there is no trusting to any contract with one whom the wise citizens of London call a bad man; for, with such a one, though your bond be ever so strong, it will prove in the end good for nothing.

What, then, is to be done in this case? What, indeed, but to call in the assistance of that tremendous magistrate, the justice of peace, who can, and often doth, lay good and bad men in equal durance; and though he seldom cares to stretch his bonds to what is great, never finds anything too minute for their detention, but will hold the smallest reptile alive so fast in his noose that he can never get out till he is let drop through it.

Why, therefore, upon the breach of those contracts, should not an immediate application be made to the nearest magistrate of this order, who should be empowered to convey the delinquent either to ship or to prison, at the election of the captain, to be fettered by the leg in either place.

But, as the case now stands, the condition of this poor captain without any commission, and of this absolute commander without any power, is much worse than we have hitherto shown it to be; for, notwithstanding all the aforesaid contracts to sail in the good ship the Elizabeth, if the sailor should, for better wages, find it more his interest to go on board the better ship the Mary, either before their setting out or on their speedy meeting in some port, he may prefer the latter without any other danger than that of “doing what he ought not to have done,” contrary to a rule which he is seldom Christian enough to have much at heart, while the captain is generally too good a Christian to punish a man out of revenge only, when he is to be at a considerable expense for so doing. There are many other deficiencies in our laws relating to maritime affairs, and which would probably have been long since corrected, had we any seamen in the House of Commons. Not that I would insinuate that the Legislature wants a supply of many gentlemen in the sea-service; but as these gentlemen are by their attendance in the House unfortunately prevented from ever going to sea, and there learning what they might communicate to their landed brethren, these latter remain as ignorant in that branch of knowledge as they would be if none but courtiers and fox-hunters had been elected into Parliament, without a single fish among them.