Chapter 5: A True & Exact Account Of The Life Of Captain Dobbin
My head was heavy as Copper when I came round from my slumber in the captain’s quarters. The Sofa into which I had been laid was far too small for my figure, and I found my legs distorted and bent. I groaned, and tried to roll over for the weight upon my broken ribs was too much pain even for a man such as myself.
This being the second time in as many months that I had been lain flat by dogs, I cursed Fortune for her negligence. My lip was swollen, and the whole of my cheek was bruised. My eye was boiled over, and a large clump of hair had been tore from my scalp. My checked shirt was then only suited for a washrag owing to the quantities of Blood which now stained its front; the fellows had even torn holes of considerable Circumference into my duck trousers, and I was missing a shoe besides. And Upon further Reflection, I found the insult was all the worse for these dogs who attacked me had no more gentility than the lacquey who cleans my boots. Worthington, though as profane and scandalous a Wretch as ever existed, was still a gentleman; and know this Now: George Sperryhawke is not so blind with self-admiration that he cannot appreciate the consequence of a Worthy adversary.
The captain’s quarters —- though greatly in want of ornament and color —- were yet filled with all manner of poorly crafted bric-a-brac. Nautical charts and astrolabes and looking glasses and inclinometers, great dusty chests & small boxes, all of which were coming apart at the seems for want of craftsmanship. And for all the Captain’s insistence that the quarterdeck be scrubbed thrice daily, and the anchor chain not bear a spec of rust, he kept his own quarters no cleaner than a charnel house.
I raised myself from the sedan, and peered over at the Captain seated at his desk. He was a tired old man; and yet with his dark blues eyes set deeply in his skull, and that great chin, it was no real effort to imagine that in his youth he had cut a very fine figure indeed, and I did not suppose that he had wanted for female companionship. But the young man had abandoned the Captain somewhere out there on the silent Sea, displaced only by the sickly creature who suffered Greatly from seizures & depression. Whence he heard me stirring on the sofa, he raised his eyes from the charts, and removed his eyeglass.
“Aye, you’ve had a bit of an ordeal have you George,” said the Captain and smiled a curious grin. “The men tell me you was in cards?”
“Yes, just a friendly game of hearts I believe.”
“I can’t say as I’ve met a Churchman before who plays at cards,” Dobbin considered this, and placed the tip of his quill between his lips. “Tis the devil’s work I say George, the devil himself!
“Christ must find men where they are,” said I, and was pleased with this piece of scripture.
Dobbin chuckled, and made me know that he was not overly disturbed by the conduct. He raised himself from his chair, and limped towards the window where he retrieved a tankard of water, and brought it me. I thanked him, and he looked over my wounds.
“Nothing that shan’t heal in time,” Dobbin poured me out some water. “Tell me George, what is your real purpose in this place? I can see well enough that you are no Churchman.”
I felt obliged to defend myself in this accusation, and yet for whatever reason, the words did not come. Instead, I dropped my head in sorrow, and told the truth of old Sperryhawke. I found myself pouring out my tale of woe to this grizzly captain, of the duel with my father, of that scoundrel Mr. Plimpton and the wretched candle factory at Salem, and still again of my expulsion from Harvard. All of these episodes I relayed with perfect Truth & humility.
“And so I wish to become a seaman,” said I.
“A seaman you say,” Dobbin let out a low grunt. “And why should a fine gentleman like you wish for that?”
“Tis a most noble occupation, and I am eager to make myself useful.”
“Aye,” said the captain, seeming somewhat pleased with my honesty, “let me tell you what life at sea is my boy.”
The captain thence told me of his life. He was a foundling, and had been raised in a hospital in Maine. When he was 14, he ran away to sea and fell in with the Portuguese company.
“I lived a wild life. Reckless, and foolish, for those Portuguese are all devils,” said Dobbin. “No better than a dog I lived. The life of a cabin boy is a hard one, Mr. Sperryhawke, and the pay shall only barely keep body and spirit together. But it is an education of sorts, and soon I learned the wide step of the sailor.”
“The first thing that a sailor must learn is the ropes. The ropes my boy! The ropes! Aye, this generation of today is foolish, for they think they are above the learning of ropes. They think all they should need is a figure-Eight and a reef-knot. But what of the Clove-hitch, and the Carrick-bend? Bah! They haven’t the slightest idea how to tie one.”
“Now, some men will say that the sheet bend should be used to bind up the Jiboom, but this is incorrect. The sheet bend hasn’t the gaunt to keep a boom, but instead you must use a Bowline knot. In smooth sailing, you may use a slide hitch, for the slide hitch allows the sail to pull a bit -- not too much mind you, but it has enough give to ensure that . . .”
“Enough sir,” I shook my head, and reached for an apple. “You have well enough described the importance of knots. Get on with the story.”
“Yes of course,” said the Captain, “at last I was given the chance to take ship as a proper crewman aboard the brig Cataline. We were sailing for the company of Digby & Sons, with the cargo insured by a Mr. Trapper. It was a great chance for a boy such as I.”
“We were twenty-two men in a three-hundred ton ship. We left Savannah, and sailed down the eastern coast, and had very fine weather,” said the Captain. He poured himself another small glass of claret and put the beaker to his lips. “Twas a hard ship, Mister Sperryhawke, and a very hard captain, was that Mr. Jebediah Cornelius. He was a ferocious man, and liked to make an example of the weaker of the group.”
Dobbin then explained the daily chores of the crew, in painstaking detail. He even managed to describe the chores in a way that took longer than the actual chores, so that a description of a ten-minute chore took him twenty-minutes to explain.
“Aye Mister Sperryhawke, as a boy, my first mission each morning was to take in the lower mast and bowspirit. To do so, the boy must shore up the beams upon which the heels of the shears will rest, and if necessary of course, rearrange the Keelson. Now, you must always parbuckle the shears aboard with their heads-aft, mind you. Then you must raise the head upon the Taffrail, cross them betwixt themselves, and don’t forget to pass the shear-lashing. You must then lash the upper block of a three-fold tackle under the cross, and secure the lower block to the breast-hook, or to a toggle in the hawse-hole. But don’t forget to let the fall of the main tackle come through the middle sheave! Oh so many a boys neglect this step in their duties!”
“Good heavens!” I repeatedly had to insist. “This is not Material to your story. Get on with the point, man!”
“Yes, yes, of course!” replied the Captain. “But let me only tell you a little more about the discipline on the ship. The second mate was tossed overboard for sleeping on watch, and one of the crew was crucified on the mizzenmast for striking the first mate! Aye, Mr. Sperryhawke, t‘was the rare dog who escaped the journey without at least 30 lashes and a side of shattered ribs.”
Dobbin could tell that I was not impressed by these anecdotes, and so continued on with the story as I had insisted.
“After two weeks at sea, we docked at Bridgetown, where we unloaded the cargo. Sheep mostly, but also cows and chickens. The supercargo took them all to market while the rest of us made haste to the mighty plantation of the Crooked Wheel, which belonged to a great man’s son, a certain Lord Buckingham.”
“Oh Mister Sperryhawke, they are gruesome places these plantations. Huge tracts of land worked by great noble savages, chained up no better than dogs. A gang of white men in broad hats walking up and down the rows of cane whipping and beating these Negroes without cause or concern,” Dobbin explained with mist in his eyes. “He was a ferocious and corrupt young gentleman, this Lord Buckingham -- a regular terror to his slaves and kitchen wenches alike. We found him living as a sovereign, a despot and a cruel and unforgiving tyrant! T’was the heat! The heat Mr. Sperryhawke will make a sane man mad, and a mad-man will become a beast.”
“That evening, our Captain dined with his Lordship, and we crew took our salted beef in the cellar. The slaves told us fantastic tales of his Lordship’s cruelty and thirst for blood.”
“See now just here would be a good time for further elaboration,” I explained, trying to help the Captain form his narrative better. “It would be useful to Your audience to hear one of these fantastic tales of the master’s thirst for blood.”
“I shall give you, I assure you. Just wait a minute,” said Dobbin. “The next morning we rode out with his Lordship, and the Captain, to survey the estate, and make collection of the cargo from the Warehouses. Early on we approached a most Disturbing episode. We encountered four Slaves tying a cord around a young woman’s throat. The Captain made haste to direct the Lord’s attention to the murder, to which the Lord Buckingham smiled, laughed, and explained that such behavior was not a criminal act: ‘The Men shall hang any woman who births twins, for they believe it means she has lain with another man beside her husband.’”
“We then watched as the Brutes tied a thick rope around the poor woman’s neck, and dragged her kicking and screaming across the yard, and hung her from a tree branch. Our Captain pleaded with Buckingham to intervene, but Buckingham only smiled, and responded, ‘Tis no use. Tis their own cherished superstitions, and they should think me awfully cruel and ungenerous if I deprived them of their customs.’ And besides, such a Woman is worth little to me. A greater problem still is suicide, for these fools believe that if they only take their own lives, they shall be reborn in their mother country. Just this past week, I have lost two good Slaves. They have gone off, just when I least expected it, and hanged themselves from the cedar trees!’”
“Buckingham then showed us then the furnaces & presses, and all the mechanical Processes that go into turning the cane into the sugar. He showed us into his warehouse, sticky and wet and full of flies. The captain examined the merchandise. But t‘was not near the promised Four-hundred tonnage and the captain asked the fiend what the meaning of this was. But Buckingham responded that it was the only available product, and we could take it or leave it.”
“You went for sugar then?” I asked.
Captain Dobbin bit his lip, and looked me with a crooked eye. “The White Gold! The White Gold I say! Men were mad for it in those days.”
“The Captain was in no position to refuse the tonnage. And so consented to Three-Hundreds tons, rather than the anticipated Four-Hundreds. But we had another space for One-Hundred tonnes, and the Captain intended to fill it up with the human cargo from the slave fortress at Bridgetown. Aye, t‘was a gruesome place Mister Sperryhawke!”
“Yes of course,” I grunted, “I’m sure t‘was a gruesome place.”
“Aye, it was a mighty slave fortress there at Bridgetown, and the Captain took three of us lads to market. These poor Negroes were treated no better than cattle -- nay, worse than cattle Mister Sperryhawke! A great crowd of merchants and slave dealers, all dressed in frock coats and top hats, and captains and subalterns and army officers. They poked and prodded the flesh, and measured the size of the biceps and calves, pulling open mouths to examine the teeth, pinching their limbs to test the strength of the muscles, and making them stand on a single leg to determine agility and balance. Now the captain had only been required to pay over one-Hundred ten guineas for the Three-hundred tons of sugar, and thus was left with five-and-Sixty pounds. More than enough for a gang of slaves.”
“Thence the slaves were brought one at a time upon the auctioneer’s altar. The crowd stood about in casual circumstance. Some chewed on side of bread, and drank tankards of rum and water. Some became quite drunk, which was the auctioneer’s intention, so that their purses might become as loose as their lips. And then a jolly Englishman raised a cane, and made a great show and spectacle of the sale!”
“Now the Captain watched the first few slaves being sold off until he ascertained the price of a heavy set male. He then bid upon the next gang of field slaves that appeared on the rostrum.”
“Forty five pounds!” cried our Captain, waving his fist at the line of Slaves arranged upon the platform.
“Is that a good price for field-slaves?” I asked.
Suddenly, Dobbin grabbed me by the thick of collar -- his greasy hands staining the very fine linen -— and shook me something fierce. “You must never touch it! Never let your hands touch the human cargo! The human cargo, Mister Sperryhawke! The cargo of souls shall be the demise of any seaman!”
I scowled at this piece of moralizing. “Calm yourself Dobbin or I shall be forced to take away the drink.”
“Now once our Captain had procured two dozen head of slaves, we lads transported the cargo back to the ship, loaded the cargo onto the ship, and we set out from the islands, up the eastern coast, through the straits of Bermuda. Our ship was coming out from the coast of the Bahamas, and we came upon a ferocious storm. Half the crew was sent overboard in the first ten minutes. God Almighty himself set his hands on the sails, and tore us to’ and fro’ across the winds! The boat began to take on water, and so we lost our speed. The captain ordered me to dislodge our cargo lest we sink, and all be lost.”
Dobbin bit his lip as he recounted how he and the men secured two hundred fathoms of chain.
“But the Captain would not permit us to dislodge the sugar, for in those days the weight of sugar t’was worth more than the weight of flesh. Of course we protested, for t’was murder, and the lads had no intention of hanging for the crime.”
“But the Captain was drunk when he came back onto the quarterdeck. He gave me two blows on the face for insubordination, and ordered me to dislodge the human cargo lest we sink.”
“I opened up the barge, and sent my men down into the dungeon to fire up the slaves, and bring them to the foredeck. And thence I prepared for the deed.”
“Wait a moment, you actually did as the Captain asked?” I said, astounded by his brutishness.
“Aye Mister Sperryhawke, for the Captain is the master of his ship the way the King is master of England. Through the rings on the chattels ankles, we men ran the chain through their legs, linking them up into a terrible mass. The captain in his coat and three cornered hat watched as the bow of the ship sunk deeper into the waves, and bade me to get on with it before all was lost.”
“Whence the poor souls were chained, I took the first man by the shoulders. He looked into my eyes for a moment, for he knew what I was to do. And yet he was calmer & nobler than all we wretched seaman.”
“I threw him head first into the abyss, Georgie boy. And whence he hit the water, he dragged the rest of the cargo with him, and Four-and-twenty Souls went into the water, to drown, and to die, and to be buried at sea.”
This was a rather gruesome business, and the Reader may be sure that I grieved with the Captain, and still more for the poor Souls sent overboard. Dobbin began to cry then, and remarked, “but the Merciful Lord made known his Righteous Anger at this crime. Out of the west, came another terrible squall, and the boat capsized right into a gull. All the men were thrown clear from the ship, or else condemned. I must have gone twenty feet down below the water’s line.”
“But I found a piece of driftwood and held on for dear life. I drifted along for two days, before reaching land. The captain was of course drowned for his crime, along with most of the crew.”
Dobbin paused at this point, and drank himself a full beaker of claret. He fell back into his stiff chair seemingly disturbed to have recounted this episode from his youth.
“I left the seaman’s life after that George, and turned into a Beast. I drank away my little savings, and got on as a petty thief in the southern Colonies. The nightmares. Oh the nightmares Mister Sperryhawke! All those years God tormented me with the images of the drowning slaves! And well deserved was it too. Oh well deserved Mister Sperryhawke!”
Dobbin then described for me all the petty crimes in which he participated; theft, License, extortion, Blackmail, Pick-pocketing, robbery, arson, and Burglary. “Like a dung-Heap of sin was my soul, Mr. Sperryhawke. Now George, let me tell you how I came to the Christian Faith. One night after I had been drinking all day and had not a farthing left in my pocket, I fell away into a deserted ally determined to die. I curled up in the corner of a dank gutter, and prayed to God to take me from this world.”
“When I opened my eyes, t’was a parson standing watch over my body. He was a short man in a black frock, and round black hat. He said nothing, but only gave me a look of great Love. But raised me up, and brought me round to his Cottage. There he tended me, fed me, bathed me, and put me in a new suit of clothes.”
“He told me of the scriptures, Mister Sperryhawke,” said Dobbin, and I saw tears begin to form in his eyes. “He told me of Christ’s love for man and the healing power of the Cross. And so I prayed to God for the first time in my life. I opened up my Heart to that divine ray of Light that it might wash away my Sins. And I could sense, Mr. Sperryhawke, I knew without a doubt that the cause of the storm was God’s displeasure at our slave trading. I swore to God then an oath. That if he should see fit to recuse me from death, that I should mend my ways, and serve him thereafter in righteousness.”
“When I had recovered, the Parson instructed me that I should return to sea, but not ever to again touch the human cargo. And so I did. And that is how I became a Tea merchant. The trade in tea is less in profit than the white gold and still less again than the human cargo, but tis a safe and prudent commerce.”