Letter XLII: Thursday, March 14, 1850
A tall, well-looking man, exceedingly bronzed, with an appearance of high health, and evidently possessed of great bodily strength, gave me the following account of an East Indian voyage, just completed: ''I have been at sea twenty-two years, and am now 34. From that age to 40 a seaman is considered in his prime. I have been at sea all these twenty-two years, merely excepting the times the ship was in port. I never was cast away in my life, but having a good character (to prove this, he showed me different papers) I have been generally fortunate in getting good ships and good masters. Good masters can always command the very best men. I have always found it so, and so their ships are always safest. Tyrannical and ignorant masters have often enough to put up with such men as they can get. We naturally avoid such ships if we know the character of the masters." (By masters, he meant the captains of the vessels.) "My last voyage was to Aden, and from there to Colombo in Ceylon, and Cochin on the Malabar coast. The vessel was 400 tons, and carried a crew of seventeen -the master, mate, second mate, carpenter, steward, cook, seven able seamen, two ordinary seamen, and two apprentices. An able seaman is a man capable of doing every part of the duty required on board ship; an ordinary seaman can only do part of it. My wages, as an able seaman, were £2 a month; the ordinary seamen had, one 30s., and the other 25s.; the cook had £2 7s. 6d.; the steward £2 1 Os.; the second mate £3; the carpenter £4 1 Os.; and the chief mate £4 lOs. The captain had, I believe, £12 a month, and two per cent on the cargo. We took out coal and government stores to Aden, leaving that place in ballast. At the other two ports we took in cocoa-nut oil, coir rope, and junk (short pieces), bees' wax, coffee, and cinnamon. My opinion is, that £2 a month is not a sufficient payment for an able seaman, considering the nature of his work, and that he must be sailmaker and everything on board a ship. Then look at the hardships we endure on board ship - I have been kept up forty-eight hours, all hands on deck, without a minute's rest, and with hardly time for meals. Certainly there was great danger then, but we had a good captain. Masters never show any allowance for a man having
been up all night on account of the weather; he must do his work all the same. I am quite satisfied, from the talk I have had with seamen situated like myself, that it is our general opinion that the wages ought to be higher; but if we tried to get better there was always some one, and good seamen too, ready to jump into the place, and take even less, especially when times are bad. In my last ship the provisions were by no means good. The biscuit, flour, beef, and pork, were all the remains from the stores of her former voyage from Ceylon. The peas and barley only were fresh at starting on the voyage. The biscuit was full a weevils (a small black insect), and we had to bake it in the oven before we could eat it. It eat better then; the baking made it crisp instead of tough, as it came out of the barrels, and killed the weevils -but we had to eat the dead bodies of the things that didn't crawl out. We made great complaints about it, but were told there was no help for it; we must eat through the bad to get to the good. There was no help unless we kicked up a row, and that wouldn't do at all. The pork and beef were both very bad, as rancid as could be. A piece of pork weighing 5lbs. used to lose about 2lbs. in boiling. We complained, and the master weighed it himself on deck; but he told us there was no help for it, he eat the same himself. We had three half pints of pretty good tea each, night and morning. Sugar was scarce, only %lb. to each man a week. At each meal we have as much bread as we like to eat, unless the ship be on short provisions. Grog was given out at the captain's option, sometimes one glass a day, sometimes two, three, or four, according to the day's work, as well as a glass every Saturday night to drink 'Sweethearts and wives,' and another glass after dinner on Sundays. On Sundays - I ought to have told you - we had two fresh meals: on going out a pig was killed, for one, and the other was bouilli soup, from preserved beef in tins; and in coming back a pig was killed every Saturday, and, little or big, the crew had half of it on Sunday. No one can call me a drunken man, but I think grog encourages a man to do his work well - just what is fit to revive him when he flags. Too much is worse than none. In my last ship we had two forecastles, one above (the gallant forecastle), and one below (the lower). I was in the lower forecastle, which was pretty good and middling for room, though in some ships it's very bad. My berth was 6 feet by 3. I am 5 feet 10¥4 in. in height. I have slept in a berth only two feet wide, so that I could hardly get into it, and, when in, couldn't slew round or anything. The gallant forecastle was very leaky, the water coming in continually in rainy weather, and wetting all the men's beds. The carpenter couldn't stop it, the ships was so slightly built, though she was only four years old. She was built at Leith. The master was a good officer, without being too severe; but the mate was a domineering, ignorant fellow; and, indeed, sir, these ignorant fellows are always the worst; he used to run tattling to the captain and make mischief fore and aft. We had two or three rows in her, and all through him. I consider there is a decided improvement in merchant ships of late. Lime
juice and vinegar is a great improvement in southern-going ships. It is a very common fault in all the ships I know, to have no place to keep the bread in. It's kept in bags, and they are put anywhere-anywhere down below. No care at all is taken of it, and the damp gets to it and causes maggots and weevils. The last voyage, when we eat through the old bread, two cwts. of the new was found to be so mouldy that it have to be heaved overboard. The bags often come up so rotten with damp that they fall to pieces, and the bread falls out. I think if the bread were kept in barrels, as the beef and pork is, or in tins, it would be much better and healthier. I don't know how they manage the bread on board a man of war - I never was on board one; but they'll take care of it there you may depend. In the East India ports that I have visited lately, the native women are not allowed to come on board so freely as they were, but the men have more liberty to go on shore. I think there is not so much swearing and cursing on board ship as there used to be. If the offtcers swear, they always make men swear. We had prayers on board my last ship in fme weather, but I wouldn't go or stay - because it was a mockery. The captain began swearing the moment he'd done praying. I think masters should not be permitted to take out bread, or other stores, that had remained from former voyages, and were bad in consequence. They might be sold for pig-meat, and the biscuit is often ftt for nothing else. My last captain was a good navigator, or we might have been lost, as the mate couldn't be depended upon for navigation. I think, too, that six pints of water a day, our present allowance, is too little -it ought to be a gallon. The water is generally good now, being all ftltered, at the principal ports at any rate, before it is shipped. As to advance notes, I think they had better be done away with, and have the plan they have in the States (United States). There, when a seaman gets a ship he goes to a shipping-offtce and receives the advance money agreed upon from the master of the shipping-office, without any note whatsomever. The man you lodge with, to whom the advance-money is paid, is security for you to the shipping-offtce, in case you run away. He will then have to make it good. The master of the ship repays the shipping-offtce master. That's a simpler plan than ours."