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American Shipmasters
by [?]

It may seem strange to people who are entirely unacquainted with the methods of shipmasters and officers generally in the American mercantile marine that a sailor should have such a deadly objection to sail in one of their vessels; but those who know the hideous brutalities which continually occur on such ships will quite understand the feelings of a man who finds himself on a vessel which would probably have been manned willingly if it had not a bad character among seamen. I have known an American vessel lie six weeks and more off Sandridge, Melbourne, waiting for a crew, which she could not get, although men were very plentiful and the boarding-houses full. There are some vessels running from New York, etc., round the Horn to San Francisco, which have a villainous reputation. The captain of one of these was sentenced to eighteen months in the Penitentiary when I was in the great Pacific Port for incredible atrocities practised on his crew. For one thing, he shot repeatedly at men who were up aloft, and hit one of them who was on the main-yard, though not so seriously as to make him quit his hold of the jack-stay. One of the ship’s boys was treated with barbarity during the whole passage; thrashed, beaten, starved, and ill-used in the vilest manner; and at last the captain knocked him down and jumped on his face so as to blind him for life. This man went a little too far, and the courts, which are always biassed, and very much biassed considering their origin, on the side of rich authority, were compelled to do their duty by the uproar that this last incident caused. Yet even after that the people connected with the shipping interests got up petitions, and intrigued and wire-pulled for months to get the Governor of California to pardon him. Failing in this, they approached the President; but I am heartily glad their efforts were vain.

One of my own shipmates in the Coloma, of Portland, Oregon, was once with a commander of this class, and so bad was his reputation that no one among the crew knew until they were under way who the captain was. My mate said, “I was at the wheel when I saw him come up the companion, and, as I had sailed with him before, my blood ran cold when I recognised him. He came straight up to the wheel, stared at me, and asked me, ‘Haven’t you sailed with me before?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I answered. Then he grinned, ‘Ha, then you know me. When you go forward you tell the crowd what kind of a man I am, and tell them that if they behave themselves I’ll be a father to ’em.’ I knew what his being a father to us meant. However, I didn’t see any good in scaring the fellows, so when my trick was over I told them the skipper was a real beauty. Just then there was a roar from the poop, ‘Relieve the wheel’; and the man who had relieved me came staggering forrard with his face smothered in blood. He had let her run off a quarter of a point or so, and the skipper, without saying a word, struck him right between the eyes with the end of his brass telescope, cutting his nose and forehead in great gashes. That was his way of being a father to us, and he kept it up all the passage. The first chance I got I skinned out!”

It is true that the American mercantile marine is not so bad as it was. These things do not occur in all vessels, but even yet they occur so frequently that an English sailor would, as a general rule, rather sail with the devil himself than an American skipper. What the state of affairs was some twenty or thirty years ago one can hardly imagine, but it certainly was much worse then. Shanghai-ing is not so much practised. There is a story current among seamen, though I know not how true it is, that it was checked owing to the lieutenant of an English man-of-war being drugged and carried on board an American merchant-man. However, there is now, or was but lately, a boarding-house keeper in San Francisco whose Christian or first name had been abolished in favour of “Shanghai.” I had the very doubtful honour of knowing him, and could easily believe any stories told of his chicanery and treachery to sailormen.