Cape Cod – Old Sea Ways – Pt. 1

SIXTY years ago the thread snapped in that fine sea-piece of the American foreign trade, and now the calling and time of those deep-water sailors are dead as Nineveh. But Old Cape Cod was one with the illimitable seas and the spot most loved by men for whom the ocean was a workroom where fortunes might be made to spend at home. No picture of these men could be complete without the background of their life afloat. For five decades Yankee ships were weaving at the great loom of the Western Ocean to set the splendid colors of European adventure into new patterns of romance. Their tea-frigates raced around the “Cape” to the Far East; they took the short cut about Scotland to bargain with Kronstadt and Hamburg and Elsinore; barques and brigantines and full-riggers caught the “brave west winds” at the right slant and made record voyages past old Leeuwin, the Cape of Storms, standing out there to give them a last toss as they “ran down by” to Port Philip and “Melbun” and Sydney; clipper ships, the fastest under sail that have ever been known, winged their way around to “Frisco” in the great days of ’49. Cargoes sold there at a fabulous price, and then, short-handed, perhaps, because of desertion to the gold-fields, the great ships rushed by San Diego and Callao, rich ports enough for other times, and, storm or shine, swung ’round the Horn,

“… the fine keen bows of the stately clippers steering Towards the lone northern star and the fair ports of home,” to load again, and return by the path they had come.

Yankee captains who crowded on sail every hour in the twenty-four had soon out-raced stolid John Company’s ships in the Far East; but back in the seventeen-hundreds, before Maury had written on navgation, they thanked England for their sailing texts, and notably the “English Pilot,” printed by Messrs Mount & Page on Tower Hill, to show “the Courses and Distances from one Place to another, the Ebbing and Flowing of the Sea, the Setting of Tides and Currents.” “We shall say no more,” cry Mount & Page, “but let it commend itself, and all knowing Mariners are desired to lend their Assistance and Information towards the perfecting of this useful work.” Every inch of water is charted, the land invites with names of eld; the black letterpress, with the long lisping s, tells of the great Western Ocean, water and rim, from Barbary to Hispaniola, from Frobisher’s Meta Incognita to the “Icey Sea” of the Far South. There are burning mountains and cliffs, castles and towns, treacherous rocks and tides; and west of a certain “white mount” on Darien three peaks are sharply etched, and the legend, “Here hath been Gold found.” Due regard is had to eastern and western variation, and the line of no variation at all that springs from the coast of Florida; and it should be noted that Sir Thomas Smith’s Sound is “most admirable in this respect, because there is in it the greatest variation of the compass, that is in any part of the world, as was discovered . . . by divers good observations made by that judicious artist Captain Baffin.” One Captain Davis, no less judicious, had observed the same phenomenon on his third voyage to the North in the year 1587. And those who sailed the Western Ocean had learned painfully other facts than variations of the compass: the sharp path about the doldrums, the way of Gulf Stream and trades, and of the great west winds that sent them bowling along through the Roaring Forties.

From the beginning of things men of the Old World, with the salt of adventure in their blood, had passed “the forelands of the tideless sea” to look upon the green distances beyond; those more greatly daring had swept through the gate and brought back stories of the Hesperides. Phoenicians seeking trade, ocean thieves their prey, poet adventurers they knew not what, had sighted on the Barbary Coast the “Pilot’s” “little Hommock which appeareth like a Castle,” and sailed perhaps down by Arzille and Lavrache, Fedale and Azamoor, names of sorcery with the soft purr of Eastern tongues. Another and another slipped by Spartel, “shooting far into the Sea, the very Point guarded with a Rock,” the “Pilot” tells us, and circled northward through stormy cross-currents to Britain, or southward by the treacherous coasts where “the grown Sea cometh rowling in so hard.” Then sailors, north and south, put the land behind them, and turned their prows due west: here lay the great adventure for men who loved to play at chance, and they wan, beyond dreams, a new world. Norsemen, Portuguese, Basque, and Briton found, not Cathaia, but the fishing-banks of Newfoundland, or boundless forests where men might be free, or those magic islands of the South where Spain was the first to gather her fleet of plate-ships for the homeward run to Cadiz, where secret landlocked harbors sheltered evil, and simple natives, bearing gifts, were kidnapped for their pains. Other mariners, whose thirst for gold was not to be slaked with a New World, made for the Far East by the Cape of “Buena Esperanza.” Slipping down the coast of Africa beyond Blanco, they skirted a sullen coast where the shore is broken by distorted trees and rocks and the mouths of great rivers that cast their freight from the sinister entrails of the land far out into a protesting ocean.

These men, and others, nameless and forgotten mariners, with a keen eye for coast configuration and accurate soundings, made calculations and drawings and passed them on to their mates, until Messrs. Mount & Page winnowed out something of the truth of it all and constructed their “English Pilot.” And now should you devise a voyage about the seas of old romance, here is the chart for your venture. Swashbuckler pirates sailed this way, and discreet men who would elude them; slavers skulked down malign African coasts; clean, hardy voyagers, who sought only glory and the Northwest Passage, battered frail ships against the everlasting barriers of ice; ad-venturers in quest of gold worked their way down the Spanish Main; and, turn about, our fine young sea-men of the New World wrung their vantage from the Old.

A certain navigator from the Cape, we know, used his “Pilot” on sober trading voyages to the West Coast of Africa, or London, or the Spanish Main, and sailing days over pushed his great sea-chest back under the eaves of the trim house he had built after a rich voyage to Russia. He had sailed for pure love of churning blue water, and the sweep of wind through the rigging, and great clean distances, and a fine manly sense of mastering the tools of fate: wind and water and cloud, and men, and the job of making a good, trade. Yet never had he been at sea that he was not homesick for the land, and his adventurous youth was no more than the price he paid for plenty ashore. He had met chance as it came and turned it to gold; and here in the “Pilot,” forgotten for a generation in the cavernous depths of his worm-eaten coffer, were notes for the story he had been too simple to read as romance. Its worn leather covers open out comfortably, and within, a cabin boy, perhaps, idling about while the master was on deck, had scrawled “Sloop Maremad of Boston,” and for another try “The Sloop Mairmad,” and knew his hornbook no better than a merman. Some leaves are burned through by a coal that smouldered there how many years ago, on this good sloop Mermaid, at a guess, in the year 1789, and silver-moths now plunge among the pages like cachalots in southern seas.

When the captain had set out for Africa, with a cargo of cloth, iron kettles, and such-like trifles to barter for ivory and gold, the “Pilot,” by word and chart, painted the chances before him. Over there among the Cape Verdes lay Saint Jago, “rich in products, so that were it not for the continual Rains in the Times of the Travadoes, which render it unpleasant to the Inhabitants, it would without doubt be as delightsome an Island as any in the world”; and Garrichica, in the Canaries, is no winter port, for then “the grown Sea out of the North West comes running in there sometimes so forcible and strong, that it is not possible to hold a Ship, although she had ten Anchors out.” South and east now the sullen mainland lowers, and there “lying under the Tropick of Cancer,” is a country “high and stony, so that there is nothing to be had hereabouts, . . . and with the Sun’s heat, continuing sometimes thirty and forty Days together . . . it is so intolerable hot in the Valleys, that it blinds and deafens those that travel this Way.” But knowing skippers that “sail near this Coast, pass along, none go ashore, for ‘t is not worth their while.” At a shoal called “the Goulden Bark, much Fish is taken at sometimes of the Year,” and there’s trading at last on “the great River Senega”: “several Commodities, as Amber, Elephants Teeth, with Abundance of Wax and Skins.” But on Serbera is the Traders’ Paradise, whose delights the “Pilot” accentuates by a printer’s slip: “When you come into the heaven, you may anchor where you will, but commonly they run towards Madra Bombo, as being the chief Place for Traffic; though there is Merchandizing on the Right Side of the River, where you may run with Sloops and Boats. The Place affords all Varieties of Refreshment, as Hens, Rice, Lemons, Apples, with several merchantable Commidities.”

Happy Madra Bombo! thrice happy Trader! And let him refresh himself well before proceeding to the unfriendly Coast of Malegate where the “Rains be-gins with May, and continues till October; during which time, they have great and terrible Thunder and Lightning,” and “mountainous Billows rowl to the Shore, so that ‘t is in effect impossible to approach the same in Boats, without danger of splitting. But these Seasons once over, from October to May, the Weather proves pleasant and dry; ’till indammaged by the fiery Heat of the scalding Air.”

The lean coast is marked by trees and blasted rocks: “a high tree called Arbor de Castacuis”; “a few Trees, appearing like Horsemen”; a white rock, with a look, “afar off, like a Ship under Sail”; and at Setra Crue, “high and bare Trees which raise themselves in the Air like masts of Ships laid up”; and “on a Cliff a crooked Tree appearing like an Umbrella.” Slight landmarks for a man, less imaginative, perhaps, than the “Pilot,” who shall sweep the coast with his spyglass and debate with himself whether a grove looks rather like a mizzen-sail than like a horse; and madness for the skipper to whom a tree is but a tree, no more, no less. But here is trading again with the Ivory or Tooth Coast and the “Gold Coast of Guiney,” and solid English forts where “in coming off Seaward . . . you must brace your Sails to the Mast, and let it drive; firing off a Shot as a Token of yielding before the Castle.”

Now through the great Bights of Benin and Biafra, and all along to Cape Lopez Gonzalez, must a captain keep a sharp weather eye to “mind which way the Travadoes drive the Water, for the Sea Flowes from whence they arise,” and be ready to run before the tornado, “which when you see it it is best to hand all your Sail except your Foresail which you may keep in your Brails to command your Ship.” But, above all, must you “weigh with all Speed and get off.” And these are the sinister coasts where men were sold and bought; brave John Hawkins shamed England by trading here; Spain and America loaded the scales that must be balanced with blood. “About thirteen Leagues up River Benin, on the Eastside thereof, stands the great Town of Gaton or Benin, … doubly pallisado’d with huge thick Trees, and on the other Side ‘t is strongly fortified with a great Ditch and a Hedge of Brambles. Here the King of Benin keeps his Court, having there a stately Palace.” But the high words cloak a reality sordid enough when the great King of Benin sat in his house of logs and sold meat for the slavers. And peril lurks here at every turn, “for the Ground is so very foul, and the In-habitants such Brutes, that there is no coming near it.” Peril, again, in possible confusion of the rivers Forcades and Lamas: for many pilots, thinking they are near Forcades, where there is “Fairing in twelve Fathoms good Anchor-ground,” make for Lamas, “running into it till they become shoal, then perceiving their error, but too late, the Ship is lost, and the Men endeavouring to save themselves from being swallowed up by the Sea and Mud, are devoured and eaten up by the greedy Negroes.” Such, for a slaver, should be the proper adventure of the river Lamas. May the dinner of his “greedy Negroes” sit light!

Slaves, slaves, and more slaves are all the “refreshment” here, and an honest Yankee trader, who has exchanged his “silesia linnen and basons” for ivory and gold dust, best be off for home by way of the Amboises, Fernando Po, and Prince’s Island, high, wooded, beautiful, and “affording good Refreshment in Abundance”; or, down by Lopez, the “Island Annebon,” where “those that return Home from the Cape are supplied with Abundance of choice Oranges and Pomegranates, as also good fresh Water.”