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’Tween Decks in the ’Seventies

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’Tween Decks in the ’Seventies
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Author(s): Sam Noble
Date Published: 2010/08
Page Count: 204
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-269-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-270-3

A sailor of the Queen aboard HMS Swallow in the 1870s

The mid-Victorian period saw the Queen-Empress' domains growing in number, stability and strength all over the globe. The days of sail were all but done and now it was the time of the 'ironclad' and the 'gunboat'. Wars were inevitable and frequent as they must be when empires encroach on the domains of other peoples, but the time of rolling broadsides from wooden decks was gone forever. The Royal Navy ensured that Britannia did not 'rule the waves' merely in song. It was a strategic fact. So Noble's navy was an entirely different one from that of half a century before and it would be the foundation for the Royal Navy that would fight at Jutland and the great sea battles of the Second World War. This is the engaging, intimate and first hand account of an ordinary seaman's life. The doings of his ship and anecdotes of the personalities he knew are recounted in graphic detail with a fair measure of humour, enabling the modern reader to gain a vivid insight into naval life of the period. An essential book for all those interested in the history of the Royal Navy.

d here I tasted my first banana (a great rarity in those days) and saw the little black boys diving for pennies. These kids can actually swim before they can walk. It was a treat to watch them. You would see the penny swirling down—down—down, and the little fellow, as brown as the penny itself, after it. Presently he would clutch the coin, into his mouth with it, and back again waiting for another to be thrown.<br>
Here, too, I saw another sight that I’ve never forgotten: a woman swim out to the ship towing her baby by her breast. It hung over her shoulder and the youngster had the nipple in its mouth, holding on like grim death, and its little feet kicking out behind.<br>
Four days we lay at Madeira, then went to Sao Vicente (we called it St. Vincent) in the Cape Verdes, for coal. Here we shipped our medical officer, Dr. Strickland, and here we had our first dinner of turtle. A most unpleasant, unpalatable dinner it was! The look of the green, slimy mess sickened me. But we soon got accustomed to it. Sailors will eat and grow fat upon anything. By and by our tastes became quite nice, and our stomachs craved for it—showing that, after all, Jack and My Lord High Admiral are brothers under the skin.<br>
It was here, too, that an occurrence took place which caused a tremendous kick-up, both in the ship and ashore. It didn’t happen on this, our first visit, but later. However, seeing we are at the place I may as well tell it now.<br>
It was in December, and we expected to spend Christmas at sea. One of our fellows, Nobby Clark by name, a quiet, methodical sort of chap—a married man, too, by the way—had gone ashore to buy the provisions for all the four messes, but had been drugged by the storekeeper, a vile-looking Portugee, robbed of the money, stripped of his clothing, and then carried inland and left among the rocks. When the search party found him, eighteen hours afterwards, the poor soul was lying unconscious, with froth oozing from his mouth, and almost dead from exposure and the effects of the drug.<br>
That Portugee was brought aboard, pretty nearly flayed alive by the bo’sun’s mate, soused in the sea so that the brine would tickle him up a bit more, then taken ashore and handed over to the authorities.<br>
We heard afterwards that they hanged the brute. Whether they did or not didn’t matter to us, but I’ll wager none in that cinder heap of an island ever wanted to interfere with a British bluejacket again.<br>
Nobby gradually got better, and took a fair share of the Christmas dainties, but it was a long time before the shock of that affair completely left him.<br>
After leaving St. Vincent, we struck the mainland and began the parade of our station. This went from Sierra Leone below the tenth parallel, right through that hot region, past Cape Palmas and the Ivory Coast, round Cape Three Points, and so along the Gold Coast to Cape Coast Castle, which was our headquarters.<br>
There we rolled and rolled and rolled for a month at a stretch, scorched by its frizzling heat at one time, drenched by its roaring torrents of rain at another, and sometimes half killed by sudden downpours of hailstones as big as peanuts. When one of these showers came on, we youngsters would rush below, put on our black hats and come up and stand under it. It was glorious fun to hear the hail rattle on your hat, for all the world like a tune on the kettle-drum, and to see them go flashing off your mate’s like crystal sparks from the Aurora Borealis.<br>
The only relief to the tedium of this outlandish place was the arrival of the natives in their big war canoes. This usually happened two or three times a day. There would be twenty or thirty men in each, sitting along the gun’les, and they would come bounding over the sea—we lay a long way out on account of the heavy surf—brandishing their paddles and chanting their wild, weird litanies like people possessed. They always came singing.<br>
They brought various kinds of fruit—bananas, pineapples, pomegranates, mangoes (all new to us then, but as common as apples nowadays)—yams, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. Sometimes they brought “soft bread,” which was made in small loaves, something like our morning rolls, each with a little green leaf adhering to it, but whether baked on it or not I forget.<br>
They also brought articles made of ivory and wood, plaited reeds, and wonderful little trinkets in gold, such as bracelets, bangles, brooches, rings, etc. I bought a ring made from a piece of gold wire in the form of a true lover’s knot, the joining of which was so well done that the doctor couldn’t find the splice even with his microscope. Filigree work, too, so dainty and light that you could blow it about in your hand.<br>
All these things they would barter for money or pieces of clothing; and the jabbering and shouting that went on during the bargaining was enough to awaken the dead. As a rule the natives were honest and very friendly, but even as a boy I thought it pitiful to see full grown men such as they were with no more intelligence than white children of eight or nine.<br>
From Cape Coast Castle our beat went on past the Bights of Benin and Biafra, right through the Gulf of Guinea, passing the Island of St. Thomas on the Equator, and so down to the Cape of Good Hope.<br>
It would be tedious to detail all the ports we touched at, even if I could remember them, so I will only mention the ones that have stuck to my memory through something of interest happening there.<br>
For instance, the first time we touched Sierra Leone—then only a small cluster of huts, though a big place now, I believe—a big buck nigger came down to greet the boat, clad in a tattered pair of lady’s stays, one old white gent’s cuff, and a tile hat that would have dis- graced a London cabby. But wasn’t he proud!<br>
At Freetown, Sierra Leone, we shipped our kroomen. These were negroes (liberated slaves), who were employed by the Navy for work in the sun. We had over a dozen. They lived under the fo’c’sle and some of them were choicely named. We had in our lot Jack Sunday, John Bull, Tom Pepper, Alfonso de Costa, Percy Montmorency, and—actually—Alfred Tennyson. Such is fame! Some of the missionaries could account for that, I daresay.