My first sight of the new Captain, in the year ’96, was the crown of his hat as it rose at the Entry Way, followed brisk by the remainder of him (such as there was – he appeared but a blessing taller than me, and I was known aboard as Shrimp). He came to a halt, saluted the space at the stern where the Helmsmen steer and the Officers give command, the Quarterdeck, and strode aft to greet Captain Smith. I held my place at the end of the line, the new member of the Side Party that had piped him aboard.
Piping the Captain aboard is a common Ceremony that I had seen many times in my four years in the Navy. An Officer would say it was “a cuuhstom conducive to the biynding togethah of the sahvice” (for that is how they speak) (aside from the many that do not, but that is the voice we use to mock them quietly below deck when they vex us). Shipmates would call it a tallywagging taradiddle, or suchlike, was they being frank, but would defend the Ceremony to their utmost should any man not of the Navy be present. So perhaps my imagined Officer had the right of it.
It was the first time that it fell to me to serve in the Side Party since I was lately made Bosun’s Mate, and I had feared lest I do it clumsy. The Ceremony accomplished, I had leisure to reflect upon what was known of the small man who was to be our new Captain. His prior Ship, Agamemnon 64, had proved a sweet sailer and well handled, when together we chased the Ca Ira, a French 80. She was old, though, and in want of repair. Had the French not lopped the head off their King some three years since, our Country might be at peace and Agamemnon rotting in some forgotten creek. Captain Smith was ailing too, and was to take Agamemnon Home, while the Agamemnon’s Captain took command of our dear Captain. (When a boat approaches a Ship, the customary challenge is “What boat?” If the reply is the name of a Ship then it is known that that Ship’s Captain is aboard – the reply “Agamemnon” was given moments earlier. Thus “Captain” would signify that Captain’s Captain is aboard. In naming our Ship, their Lordships of the Admiralty had perhaps displayed a degree of uncommon merriment.)
As to the man, all we knew was that he had been on half pay before taking command of the Eggs-and-bacon, sailors’ jocular name for Agamemnon. Jack Tar likes to serve under a Fighting Captain with salt water in his veins. Their Lordships had seen fit to keep our man ashore for five years entire, so we inclined to believe that we were in for a sad time of it. Some shipmates related that he had been active in ’93 in laying siege to Corsica, off which we now lay, though how they could know I can not say.
At last Captain Smith, an unaccustomed smile upon his face, tottered toward the Entry Way where we still stood. We piped as he mounted the bosun’s chair – a plank depending from two ropes, used by Captains unable or unwilling to enter or leave by their own exertions – and continued until he sank from view, and that was our duty done.
When Agamemnon’s boat was some way off – so that Captain Smith should not suffer the indignity of hearing it, I supposed – the cry went up for all hands to muster aft. The order was expected and the muster took but a few moments. Our new Captain, whom I judged to be of some 40 years, stood at the Quarterdeck rail, the Lieutenants and Midshipmen ranged aside him in due order, and drew a document from his breast. Seen with the Officers he was, in truth, of quite unremarkable height. It must have been his slender build and fragile demeanour that had before led me ahoo.
We listened as he read, not for the words, as familiar as salt beef, but for the voice. “By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral,” he began, and I felt mirth rising, for the voice appeared to emanate from his nose and to be lighter and higher than befits a fighting man. The shoulders of some of my shipmates were a-quiver, and I resolved to look only at our Captain’s face for fear of putting myself in disgrace. “Of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland etcetera, to Captain Horatio Nelson hereby appointed Captain of His Majesty’s Ship the Captain,” he continued, and so on through the entire litany, ending, “—nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your peril.” The reading was over in a few minutes, but for all that I could swear that Captain Nelson had looked me in the eye direct three or four times in that short span.
Whilst Captain Nelson read, a flag was hoist to the mizzen mast. It was most irregular for the Ceremony to be gainsaid in such a way, but all was made clear when the signal broke to reveal itself a Broad Pennant. So it was not Captain but Commodore Nelson who now had command of us, a Commodore being a Captain in Command, for the time being, of the other Captains in a Detachment of Ships. A Detachment held promise of more interesting work than our customary pounding to and fro across the Bay of Toulon to keep the French Fleet in and their supplies out.
It being after seven bells in the forenoon watch , we were tormented by the smell of Saturday’s beef from the galley. We knew that a new Captain must needs inspect his Command at the first moment, and were resigned to a spoilt dinner, when he surprized us with, “I might be blind in one eye, but my sense of smell has not deserted me. I shall inspect the Ship after dinner.”
When we had settled at our mess table, Bradford Mick began, as we knew he would, “By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral,” in fair personation of the Commodore. Aping the speech of Officers and shipmates alike was his particular gift, and much merriment he gave us thus. He repeated it for the tables ahead and astern of us, gaining in fidelity each time.
We soon tired of that, there being much else to consider: what was the nature of our new Commodore, and what were his achievements? He having been ashore so very long, there were few who had served under him. Foysey Jim of our mess was one such: he was at the Siege of Catillo on the Spanish Main in the year ’80 where so many of the Expedition fell sick that the venture was given up, “And it was there that my gut began the habit that ye all attach so roguishly to my name.” Nelson had had Command of the Vessels that supported the soldiers, and had gone home with a jungle sickness after the enterprize failed. Jim then took his tale along the gun-deck, retelling it to the other messes, while others did likewise with their own intelligences. One told how Nelson had shewn much vigour as 2d Lieutenant of Lowestoffe 32 in the West Indies, playing a dashing part in the capture of many Prizes. An other retailed the story a fight with a polar bear when a Midshipman of 14 or 15 years, being then required to explain that what made a bear polar was a white fur, a home in the icy latitudes and remarkable ferocity. Those sailors – every Ship has them – who were assiduous in exchanging news with other Ships when in company told that the Commodore had lost the sight of one eye two years since, in the taking of Calvi in Corsica, though he was a foolish sailor who believed his actions might ever pass unseen by the other. The cries from mess to mess continued withal, exchanging small pieces of information or opinion, making for a rowdy dinner.
Only Ned Spink, who sat across from me at mess, was silent. His eyes flicked from side to side as he watched the doings over my shoulder. I turned to look. A line of seamen I knew not were taking turns to shift their chests and other dunnage from the Entry Port and carry them below. It was usual for a Captain to bring followers aboard a new command: Clerk, Cook, Servant, the Coxswain (and often the Crew) of his gig, and the Midshipmen, who are entrusted by their parents to a particular Captain and not the Navy. Other crew members might be brought too, but never more than a handful.
There seemed no thing amiss, so I asked Ned, “What is’t?”
“I’ve never seen the like,” he replied. “He has replaced five Lieutenants.”
“But that is all of them!”
“Aye! ’Tis bad.”
A sailor belongs first to his Ship and its People, and only then to his King and Country. He believes every other Ship to be inferior to his own. To be turned over to an other Ship, at the end of a Commission or for any other reason, is perceived as a gross hurt. Here was the entire character of the Ship being turned over about our ears and, without more needing to be said, Ned and I agreed that it would hurt near as much.
“There is worse for you,” said Ned. I inclined my head. “Above 30 seamen – and a new Bosun.”
This was a blow indeed, for the man who had called for my step to Bosun’s Mate just a few weeks since must needs leave the Ship. The new man would wish to make his own appointments, and I as the most junior must surely lose my place to one of the picked hands now coming aboard.
With Captains being sent into Agamemnon to make way for the fresh hands, I was upon the point of congratulating our mess upon being spared the cull when Mardy Jim received a tap on the shoulder from a Lieutenant and a word in his ear, in consequence of which he announced, “Well, shipmates, I’ll be Home afore ye,” whereupon he turned his back and went to fetch his dunnage, saying not a word more. We looked one at another, none feeling obliged to put into words that he would be little missed.
His place was later taken by Hoo Nose, as I heard it, though it turned out to be Huw Knows – a name bestowed by shipmates past – a Welchman, an Ordinary beset by a passion to follow the progress of the War at every turn.
As we waited in our places upon the Upper Gun-deck we heard the footfalls of the Inspection Party pass forward above our heads, across the Forecastle and back upon the other Gangway, pausing from time to time then moving on. It was the Commodore’s first occasion to look 500 men in the face and take the measure of each. Having left the Bay of Saint Florent, a snug anchorage at the North-West of Corsica, we were slipping through a calm sea under all plain sail in a moderate breeze with the wind large, the motion easy, and the hot sun – it being near Midsummer’s Day – softened by the sails’ shade. The Inspection Party passed through our sight along the opposite Gangway, and soon after the Commodore leapt down the companionway with the briskness of a colt, our new First Lieutenant Mr. Berry following more sedate. He soon reached our station. “Mills, is it not?” he cried out upon seeing Foysey Jim, whose face broke into an astonished grin. “How very glad I am to see you!”, he continued, shaking him by the hand. “You are keeping well I see. The Med is an improvement upon the San Juan River, is it not?” Jim remained mute – in a forwards direction, at least – contenting himself with a vigorous nodding of his head and an ever-wider grin, as the party moved on. We heard like encounters from time to time as the Inspection moved along the Main Gun-deck below, then kept our places as it descended from hearing into the Orlop and the Hold. An Inspection is easy work for the inspected, with no thing to climb, haul or clean.
When the Inspection ended an extra tot of rum was declared. As a consequence of all, our estimation of the Commodore rose. With the entire new slate of Officers, however, I still felt a stranger in my own Ship.