Below we find (in bold) the reason why, as I put forth in “The Plunder Years,” it is necessary to stand against systems serving utilitarian and martial purposes; we find these to be argued in similar terms privileging a quantifiable end defined by a biased conception of “the good.”
Systems need good men and women to serve it and give it a credence we can accept and then use that “value” to dismiss all the horror as collateral to the coercive good of the system’s ends.
But also discover the type of subject the man-of-war wishes to foster and propagate (“Landless”). This man is not Melville; this man is not Thoreau. I wish to stand with those minds. I wish this for you as well.
There was on board of the Neversink a fore-top-man by the name of Landless, who, though his back was cross-barred, and plaided with the ineffaceable scars of all the floggings accumulated by a reckless tar during a ten years’ service in the Navy, yet he perpetually wore a hilarious face, and at joke and repartee was a very Joe Miller.
That man, though a sea-vagabond, was not created in vain. He enjoyed life with the zest of everlasting adolescence; and, though cribbed in an oaken prison, with the turnkey sentries all round him, yet he paced the gun-deck as if it were broad as a prairie, and diversified in landscape as the hills and valleys of the Tyrol. Nothing ever disconcerted him; nothing could transmute his laugh into anything like a sigh. Those glandular secretions, which in other captives sometimes go to the formation of tears, in him were expectorated from the mouth, tinged with the golden juice of a weed, wherewith he solaced and comforted his ignominious days.
“Rum and tobacco!” said Landless, “what more does a sailor want?”
His favourite song was “Dibdin’s True English Sailor,” beginning,
“Jack dances and sings, and is always content,
In his vows to his lass he’ll ne’er fail her;
His anchor’s atrip when his money’s all spent,
And this is the life of a sailor.”
But poor Landless danced quite as often at the gangway, under the lash, as in the sailor dance-houses ashore.
Another of his songs, also set to the significant tune of The King, God bless him! mustered the following lines among many similar ones:
“Oh, when safely landed in Boston or ‘York,
Oh how I will tipple and jig it;
And toss off my glass while my rhino holds out,
In drinking success to our frigate!”
During the many idle hours when our frigate was lying in harbour, this man was either merrily playing at checkers, or mending his clothes, or snoring like a trumpeter under the lee of the booms. When fast asleep, a national salute from our batteries could hardly move him. Whether ordered to the main-truck in a gale; or rolled by the drum to the grog-tub; or commanded to walk up to the gratings and be lashed, Landess always obeyed with the same invincible indifference.
His advice to a young lad, who shipped with us at Valparaiso, embodies the pith and marrow of that philosophy which enables some man-of-war’s-men to wax jolly in the service.
“Shippy!” said Landless, taking the pale lad by his neckerchief, as if he had him by the halter; “Shippy, I’ve seen sarvice with Uncle Sam—I’ve sailed in manyAndrew Millers. Now take my advice, and steer clear of all trouble. D’ye see, touch your tile whenever a swob (officer) speaks to you. And never mind how much they rope’s-end you, keep your red-rag belayed; for you must know as how they don’t fancy sea-lawyers; and when the sarving out of slops comes round, stand up to it stiffly; it’s only an oh Lord! Or two, and a few oh my Gods!—that’s all. And what then? Why, you sleeps it off in a few nights, and turn out at last all ready for your grog.”
This Landless was a favourite with the officers, among whom he went by the name of “Happy Jack.” And it is just such Happy Jacks as Landless that most sea-officers profess to admire; a fellow without shame, without a soul, so dead to the least dignity of manhood that he could hardly be called a man. Whereas, a seaman who exhibits traits of moral sensitiveness, whose demeanour shows some dignity within; this is the man they, in many cases, instinctively dislike. The reason is, they feel such a man to be a continual reproach to them, as being mentally superior to their power. He has no business in a man-of-war; they do not want such men. To them there is an insolence in his manly freedom, contempt in his very carriage. He is unendurable, as an erect, lofty-minded African would be to some slave-driving planter.
Let it not be supposed, however, that the remarks in this and the preceding chapter apply to all men-of-war. There are some vessels blessed with patriarchal, intellectual Captains, gentlemanly and brotherly officers, and docile and Christianised crews. The peculiar usages of such vessels insensibly softens the tyrannical rigour of the Articles of War; in them, scourging is unknown. To sail in such ships is hardly to realise that you live under the martial law, or that the evils above mentioned can anywhere exist.
And Jack Chase, old Ushant, and several more fine tars that might be added, sufficiently attest, that in the Neversink at least, there was more than one noble man-of-war’s-man who almost redeemed all the rest.
Wherever, throughout this narrative, the American Navy, in any of its bearings, has formed the theme of a general discussion, hardly one syllable of admiration for what is accounted illustrious in its achievements has been permitted to escape me. The reason is this: I consider, that so far as what is called military renown is concerned, the American Navy needs no eulogist but History. It were superfluous for White-Jacket to tell the world what it knows already. The office imposed upon me is of another cast; and, though I foresee and feel that it may subject me to the pillory in the hard thoughts of some men, yet, supported by what God has given me, I tranquilly abide the event, whatever it may prove.
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