The Crooked Lake Review

Spring-Summer 2007

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Robert Beck's Story

On Board the Lancaster, Smallpox
Back to Sea, Bridgetown Binge


Robert Beck

On Board the Lancaster

In about a week our good ship was loaded, all hatches battened down, deck cleared and swept, ship's stores put on board, water tanks filled with fresh water, and all other preparations completed. The crew came on board which consisted of 24 hard-looking men of all nations and creeds. A powerful tug boat made fast, the lines were cut off, and we went floating down the Mississippi 120 miles. That evening the mates chose watches and I was chosen by the first mate and the other apprentice boy was in the second mate's watch. The other young fellow had been with the ship for over a year; his name was Thomas Burdenof Philadelphia, a very fine young man.

When we got to the mouth of the river the ship got stuck in the mud on the bar and could not be dragged over with the help of four of the most powerful tugboats, so we laid there for 21 days or until high tide at the change of the moon.

One evening just after sunset our good ship was found floating out to sea without any help. The wind being favorable, all sails were spread and by morning there was no land in sight and we were steering eastward bound for Liverpool, England. And after an uneventful passage we sighted the coast of Wales about February 16th, 1858, and were in the dock at Liverpool February 20th, and all American ships displayed their colors on February 22nd in honor of Washington's birthday.

My duties as an apprentice were very light. I was never asked to go aloft at sea but I did go one night when the order was given for all hands to lay aloft. Of course, I considered myself one of the hands, but I was called down and the mate informed me not to go aloft unless he ordered me. I was well used by officers and crew and the sailors used to tell me that Ii was very fortunate in getting in such good hands, that if Ii followed the sea long I would learn that the officers were not all so kind, which I learned before I did get through with my seafaring experience. But the sailors as a class at that time were a hard lot of bums and needed stern men to handle them, and some of them nothing short of knocking them down would subdue and keep them in the traces, for on shipboard discipline is necessary and an officer that is not a good disciplinarian cannot control his men, and kind words will not do for rough burly pubilists and barroom bums. I was shipmates with several that it did them good to knock them down once in a while.


While i Liberpool i formed the acquaintance of some young men and had quite a good time as we had every evening to ourselves.We attended theatres and other places of amusement, as prices were chap a little money went a good way. Liverpool is the greatest seaport in the world and it being a very old english city, there are a great many places of grea6t interest. So i passed the time vekry peasantlky until about the iddle of March when all at once i was taken quite sick.

I reported to the first mate that I was not feeling well and he excused me from duty and gave me some medicine as he was also the ship's doctor. He told me I would be all right in a few days. He thought I had indigestion. But instead of getting better I kept getting worse so finally the captain gave me an order to go to the Marine Hospital and find out what was the matter with me. I wlked to the hospital which was not very far away but i was very weak and it seemed as if i would never get there.

On arrival at the hospital I gave my order, or whatever it was, for [it] was done up in a large enveloope, to a porter at the door. He showed me into a waiting room and in a few minutes a fine looking gentleman came to see me and simply informed me that Ihad the smallpox. Well, I siimply collapsed for it was as much of a surprise as if he had told me that I would die the next hour. It certainly gave me a great shock for I had not thought of such a thing, and could not think how or where I had caught such a thing as smallpox. Well, he told me to wait a moment, went out of the room and in a few moments returned with two young students. The three stood over me and the old doctor explained to the young men just how I [had] felt from the start, and how I was feeling then, and how it would develop without asking me a single question and every word was true. He then ordered me to rollup my sleeve and he pointed out a light rash. He explained how that would form pustules and so on. After he was through with his lecture he dismissed the students, and I felt as if I was ready to die and did not care to live with my face all disfigured as I was at that time quite good-looking. The doctor gave me a large envelope and directed me to return to the ship and give it to the captain, which I did.

The Captain told me to pack up some clean underclothes and pack all my other things in my trunk and be quick about it as I had to go to the Brownlow Hill Hospital. I hurried up my packing and just as I got the last thing done the Captain came to the door and informed me that the carriage was waiting for me. I hustled out, got in the carriage and that was the last I ever saw of my good Captain and good ship. I was hustled over the rough pavements for a long distance and I thought I would die for I was aching all over.

Finally we fetched up at the entrance of a great institution which looked more like a prison than a hospital but it was not as bad at it looked on the outside. I was conducted into an office where I had to give up my bundle and the contents of my pockets. I was asked my full name, my father and mother's names, their full addresses, and a whole lot of questions, all of which was written down in a large book. I was then conducted up two flights of stairs to my ward where I was received by two lady nurses, shown to a rocking chair by the fireplace, and in a very short time [they] proceeded to take off my clothes. But I remonstrated against such conduct as I was not used to being undressed by ladies. But it did no good for my strength was not equal to theirs, and in less than no time they had me stripped from head to foot and had me dressed in a white linen nightdress, then led be to bed as a mother would a little child. I thought it very immodest but soon got used to such things and before long I was very glad to have them lift me and handle me like a child for I became helpless.

Well, I was very sick and for some days I gave up hope of ever getting out of that room alive and I dreaded dying in a strange land and among entire strangers. I was simply a mass of rot but somehow by good nursing and the best of treatment I pulled through and still live. While I was in the hospital I received two letters from my captain informing me where my trunk was, and what money was due me I would find at the American consul's office and to report there and the consul would advise me further. Of course, I knew my ship would leave port before I could recover which troubled me very much. I was in the hospital 26 days but left because I was nearly starved to death.

When I began to recover my appetite was someting awful for I could eat evryting in sight which was not much. The last few days Iwas there they put me on what they called full diet which consisted of a vary small piece of boiled beef, a small bit of potato and one slice of bread that was so thin I could see through it and by holding it up before me with my breath I could make it sail around the room like a feather. Of course, this light diet was all for my best but I did not know it at that time for when I recovered my appetite I was like a man dying with starvation, and to have fed me too much would have killed me.

Well, I stood it as long as I could and asked for a permit to leave which was granted me but was told that I was leaving too soon, but I bid goodbye to my good nurses and sallied out. I went to the consul's office, presented the letter I had from the captain and placed myself in their charge. I was told that I was allowed a certain amount a week for my necessary expenses and that I could board anywhere in the city where they would board me for a certain price, and if I knew of any place I wished to go they would give me an order, if not they would recommend me to a boarding house on Red Cross Street which was a private boarding house and a good place. I followed their directions and the American consul sent a young clerk to show me the place. They also handed over what little money was due me from the ship. I had my trunk moved to the boarding house and so made myself perfectly at home for about three weeks when I applied for passage to New York as I considered myself strong enough to stand a sea passage across the Atlantic.

The consul gave me a passage ticket but told me I ought to say a little longer. But I wanted to get back to dear America again. I felt well only I was very weak and thin in flesh. I went on board with the rest of the passengers. The ship pulled out into the river and made ready for sea. But when the head officers came on board to inspect the health of the passenger list and when it came my turn, I was politely informed that I must go ashore and get a certificate from the hospital before I would be allowed to go on ship board.

Well, I packed up my traps and informed the consul of my ill luck. He told me to do just as I was instructed. I went to the hospital, asked for a certificate that I was a fit subject to make a sea passage but was informed that they could not give me such a document yet, and ordered me to come to the hospital at least every other day and take warm baths, and at the proper time I would be granted a certificate which would be accepted by the health officers. I went back to my boarding house and reported at the hospital for my baths as per directions. They kept me coming for four weeks. Finallly I got my certificate, told the consul and appllied for a passage to Boston on board the good ship S. E. Smith. I went on board and passed examinations and steered for dear America.

The captain appointed me passenger steward and [I] picked up quite a snug little sum of change on the passage so when I landed in Boston I was not dead broke.

Back to Sea

After a pleasant passage of 36 days we landed in Boston on July 3, 1858. I went to a sailor's boarding house on Ann St. and began to look for a job at my trade but found it uphill work as times were very dull in that city at that time. I whiled away time [as] best I could and waited for something to turn up but did not care to go to sea again as I considered my sailor experience about complete.

But about the last of August my money was gone and something had to be done by way of earning my living. There was ship called the Ellen Foster going to Melbourne, Australia, and was shipping a full crew. I went to the shipping office and applied for a berth as ordinary seaman but was infomred that no ordinary seamen were wanted, but to go to the mate of the ship and tell him what experience I had had at sea and if he said I would pass he would ship me as able seaman. I did as directed. I told the mate how much I had been at sea and in what capacity. He told me I was all right to go and ship as an able sewaman and he would take care of me. I did so and on the 27th of August I went on board, drew one month's pay in advance as my boarding house propietor did for me, from which he took what I owed him and the balance he gave me which was not much. Now my plan in going [to] Melbourne was if I liked it there I would stay in Australia, if not I would return with the ship. The day I went on board the tug made fast to our side and we were towed down the harbor and out to sea.

That evening the crew was divided by the mates into watches and I was chosen the second man by the first mate. Of course, I was considered by the crew as a first class man as we as a crew were strangers to each other. I felt quite proud of the high honor conferred on me by the mate and the rest of the crew showed me the greatest respect.

But the next day my troubles commenced, for the mate ordered me to do a piece of work which I knew nothing about, although it was simple enough for a sailor who understood his business. Well, the other sailors soon discovered that I was humbug and could not do the work of an ordinary seaman, let alone an able-bodied seaman and first class one at that. But my troubles had only begun. The second day out came my trick at the wheel, of course I had to go. I walked aft, took my wheel with full confidence to do the best. But [I] soon lost control of the poor old ship and she was running wild and I had her a-dancing and waltzing around in great shape and I was a whirling the wheel around at a great rate trying to keep her on some sort of course. Of course, it soon attracted the attention of the captain and mate and all the crew. The captain came runing aft and sang out, "Another man to the wheel, quick." The mate came running and began to kick and strike at me and if I had not gotten out of his reach he certainly would have broken every bone in my body. Another man took my place at the wheel and I went forward in disgrace. Happily the wind was light or I would have dismasted the ship. I did not realize what danger I exposed the ship and crew to.

Well, my name was Dennis and I expected to be flung overboard any day, for I had the ill will of every man on board and was set down on by every man on board and I was anything but happy. I began to realize that I knew but very little about a sailor's life and that I had much to learn.

I tried to explain to my shipmates how I came to ship as an able seaman but it did not help matters. I made up my mind to do the best and learn as fast as I could and gain the respect of the officers and crew by doing my work well. When it came my next trick at the wheel there was another man sent with me to instruct me in ship steering. I soon learned how, not only how to handle the ship but [I] soon became the best helmsman in the whole crew, so when the weather was very stormy and [they] needed expert steering I was called on to take the wheel. And being a good climber I had to go to the top gallants and royal yards to furl sails and out to the yard arms in reefing. I gradually worked into the good graces of the officers and was given many favors and the crew began to respect me and began to treat me as one of their equals and matters began to look brighter. On the whole we made a fairly good passage to Melbourne as the weather was good it being a southern voyage.

There was one incident on that passage which caused some excitement. The ship caught fire one forenoon but by good management on the part of the officers and hard and quick work of the crew it was soon extinguished. Another bit of excitement by way of variety was the beastly flogging of our steward. He was tied to the rigging, stripped of all his clothes except his drawers, and whipped on his bare back until the blood ran down to the deck. It was a sickening sight. After the mate had whipped him until he was tired out the captain took the whip and applied a few extra more strokes by way of finishing stokes. After the whipping his back was washed off with salt water, handcuffs put on him, and [he was] chained in a small room and kept there until we landed at Melbourne. All this was for having struck at the second mate. The whole crew was called aft to watch the flogging. I presume to warn us against a similar act. I began to learn quite rapidly the meanng of the stories the old sailors used to tell me on the first ship I was on, that ship officers were not all angels.

Another piece of inhuman cruelty was practiced on a man that had stowed himself on shipboard at Boston. He did not make his appearance until the third day out. When he came out of his hiding place he was nearly starved to death. He was reported to the captain and as he had no money for passage and could not be set ashore, he was put to work which he refused to do. As his brother was a passenger on board and [he] claimed he owed him some money, he insisted his brother must pay his passage but he would not. So he was compelled to work and it looked as if they would kill the poor fellow. One day he was hoisted aloft, tied fast to the main top mast, and kept there all day in the hot sun without anything to eat or drink. The poor fellow was kicked and knocked about every day and had to do all kinds of dirty work.

Well, after a passage of 126 days, one Simday morning we sighted the south coast of Australia and that evenng sailed into Melbourne harbor which is a beautiful bay.

The city of Melbourne is about 80 miles north of the entrance. We dropped anchor about ½ mile from the city as there were not many docks for large ships at Melbourne at that time. This was about the forepart of January, 1859, and the beginning of the Australian summer. The climate was delightful and the scenery was fine around Melbouirne harbor. But I could not make up my mind to stay there and began to have a great longing to get back to dear America again. So far I have never seen anything I like better than America.

In Markch, 1859, we took on board stone ballast and began to make preparations for sea but where we were bound for, none of us sailors could find out as the officers would not tell us, and as the ship had cleared for an eighteen months' cruise we were kept guessing. Some times we thought our destination was some Chinese port, then others thought it was some port in the East Indies. But after we got out to sea and we were steering directly east across the South Pacific then we thought we were bound for some South American port. But after a while everything on ship board was made snug for heavy weather which taught us that we were about to double Cape Horn as the weather on sea in the qkuarter is usually very rough. After doubling Cape Horn we steered north. then we were almost sure we were bound for some United States port.

Now, it may sound strange that we should know what part of the globe we were on at different times and not an inch of land in sight and no one to tell us where we were or where we were going. But remember we had maps in the forecastle and of course we always knew the ship's course and about the speed we were making each day. We also knew the months and dates and we could see the position of the sun and we also knew by the animal life of the sea about what part of the ocean we were in, as all animals and birds differ in different oceans, also in different parts of the same ocean. One soon learns to know by instinct what part of the globe he is on. I could relate many incidents on interest but space and time is too short.

One morning about halfway between New Zealand and Cape Horn there came an immense whale to the top of the water, so close to the ship's side that I could have almost jumped on his hback. He looked almost as large as a ship bottom-side up. He really looked frightful as he came up several times and so close I had a splendid view of is immense size and his mode of breathing. A few days after that we saw a school of whales, just how many there were we could not tell, but there were a good many and some of them not far off. They were capering around and apparently at play as they would chase each other and with their immense tails would throw up great volumes of water and some would throw nearly their whole bodies out of the water. I had seen whales before but not so many as we did in the South Pacific.

Bridgetown Binge

Well, after a plesant voyage of 76 days we put into the harbor of Bridgetown, Barbados, West India, where we were at anchor for 9 days waiting our orders. While there I was one of the captain's gig crew, so had an easy time of it as I had not much to do. On this passage from Melbourne we were all put to work at painting the ship throughout, and I was set to painting the aftercabin. But some of the woodwork had some fancy striping which needed some touching up but I had no small striping brushes to do it with. So one morning I told the captain if he would get me some suitable brushes I would touchup the stripes and now I did one of the meanest things of my life and something for which I should have been killed or at least put in irons and kept on bread and water for two months, or slung overboard and let the sharks eat me up.

As I said before I asked the captain for some small brushes but instead of that he gave me a five-dollar gold piece and told me to buy any brushes I saw fit, and at the same time he gave two of my chums shore leave for the day. Well, the three of us went to town to take in the sights, but neither of us had a cent of money except the five dollars the captain gave me to buy the brushes with. But my dear chums got very dry and I was also quite dry. Well, the first saloon we came to, we took a drink and I plunked down the five dollar gold piece, for I thought I had plenty of money to buy all the brushes I would need. But before long we got dry again, dropped into another saloon, had another drink. About that time we began to feel quite frisky but had to have another drink to liven us up a little more, Well, there was a very fine sugar plantation just out of the outskirts of the city so we strolled out to look it over. The proprietor received us very pleasantly and showed us through the sugar mill, then invited us to his house where we were recieved with great honors and treated kus to all the rum we could dr5ink.

Somehow I began to feel quite wealthy and very familiar with the proprietor of the estate and I asked him what he would take for the whole plantation. He told me the price, which was several hundred thousand dollars. I pulled some change out of my pocket to convince him that I was a man of immense wealth, but I wanted him to throw in a few hundred negroes but he assured me that they were not his slaves and he could not sell them, which broke up the bargain. Well, we thanked the gentleman for his kindnesss and walked back to town and of course dropped into some more saloons and of course I was a man of great wealth and treated everybody in sight, rich and poor, black and white, for I began to think I owned the whole island.

Of course, I forgot all about such small trifles as buying brushes. Well, it was getting late in the evening and we [had] had a high old time, so started backmto the wharf but I had great trouble in getting there for things began to get out of joint as it looked as if the earth was wobbling around all sorts [of ways] and my legs were all joints.

My comrades tried to hold me upright but I thought they did not understand their business. The street was all right for length, but entirely too narrow. But we had the right of way and everybody got out of the way for us. However, after a great effort my chums got me to the wharf and laid me down. I fell asleep and my troubles were over, for that was the last I rmember of the funny end of my spree.

The next day I woke up and found myself i my bunk on shipboard, but oh, how sick, and I thought every bone in my body was smashed. I could scarcely roll over. Well, I began to think of what I had done, and felt in my pockets to see how much money I had bnkut not a cent could I find and Ihad no recollections of buying any brushes. I felt bad in body and mind for I disgraced myself in the eyes of the captain and all hands, and of course would be killed or flogged, which I deserved for I betrayed the confidence the captain had reposed inme. I was in torment soul and body.

I soon noticed by the motion of the ship that we were out as sea and I could hear the officers give commands and hear the men at work storing away the cable chain, I crawled out of my bunk, got out on deck, picked up a chainhook and commenced to tug away at the cable chain. but the first effort I made I fell down. The mate grabbed me by the nape of the neck, gave me a few shakes and told me to go to my bunk, that I was too drunk to be on deck, which was true for I was drunk clear through.

Well, I stayed in my bunk another day, then reported for duty. But how I dreaded to face the captain for I expected he would sling me over board but I mustered up courage to face the worst. But to my astonishment when I did meet him he never said a word but treated me with the same kndness as before and the incident of my drunken spree was never mentioned and I was disappointed in not being punished.

But that brush business stuck in my crop for I wanted to do a nice job on the cabin work. But my mechanical skill came to my rescue. I took an old worn out brush apart and made me some small ones which worked good and did a fairly good job as striping, but I surely expected the captain would order some stripes put on my back instead of my striping the cabin.

That was the last drunken spree of my life. I asked my companions what I did with the five dollars and they told me that I blowed it all in for drinks, that I treated everybody, and that lots of the drinks I never paid for as I would call a crowd up to drink when I did not have a cent to pay for it, and that [I] ought to consider myself lucky that I did not get pulled in.

Well, we were out as sea again and steering northwest but did not know for what port, but entrusted that we were bound for New Orleans of Mobile or Galveston. However, after a very stromy passage of 16 days we fetched up at the mouth of the Misissippi. We came to anchor just inside of the bar and laid there several days, which kept us a-guessing whether we would be towed up the river to New Orleans or whether we would go to some other port. But after a few days we were taken in tow and up the river we went. Then I knew my seafaring life was only a question of a few days more for I was tired of my sailor experience. although I never regretted going to sea as a sailor for it taught me very good lessons, and many things which I never would have seen, and many things I learned which I turned to practical use in after years.

Index to Robert Beck's Story
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