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Hard Times

We  publish many of our readers own  accounts of endurance and hardships suffered during their quest for adventure. Some have depicted impressive tenacity when things go wrong or get tough. We thought it would be of interest to include this extract from an arduous sea journey made in 1742, by the Scottish writer and poet Tobias Smollett – when life at sea was really hard:

“Smollett, duly equipped with his warrant as surgeon's second mate, had joined the Chichester on the Medway back in March.

Built in Chatham in 1694, she was, although a third-rate, one of the largest ships in the Navy, and rolled heavily in high seas. She was manned by a mixture of veterans and press-ganged novices. Crews' uniforms were not introduced in the Navy until 1748, so the men were clad in a motley of blue jackets, check or spotted shirts, loose necker¬chiefs, waistcoats and calf-length white trousering; most were clean-shaven, wore their hair in a pigtail, and were barefooted.

Once out of the Channel, the fleet encountered a horrific storm in the Bay of Biscay. The Superb lost its three masts, and the Chichester's mainsail split. 'Of all the fleet, seven sail only were to be seen, and of these two had lost their masts, while the others scudded under reefed main¬sails,' A water barrel broke free of its lashings and maimed sixteen men; one of the yardarm braces gave way with such force that four men were hurled overboard, two of them lost for ever, and another man's knee was horribly mangled. 'I was wakened by a most horrible din, occasioned by the play of the gun carriages upon the deck above, the cracking of cabins, the howling of the wind through the shrouds, the confused noise of the ship's crew, the pipes of the boatswain and his mates, the trumpets of the lieutenants, and the clanking of the chain pumps,' he recalled in Roderick Random, adding that 'The sea was swelled into billows mountain high, on the top of which our ship sometimes hung as if it was about to be precipitated to the abyss below! Sometimes we sunk between two waves that rose on each side higher than OUT topmast head, and threatened, by dashing together, to overwhelm us in a moment!' All seemed chaos on board.

A number of officers and sailors ran backwards and forwards with distraction in their looks, halloing to one another, and undetermined what they should attend to first. Some clung to the yards, endeavouring to unbend the sails that were split into a thousand pieces flapping in the wind; others tried to furl those which were yet whole, while the masts, at every pitch, bent and quivered like twigs . . .

It is during this storm that Jack Rattlin is hurled from the yardarm on to the heaving deck and breaks his leg so violently that splin¬tered shin bones poke through the surrounding skin, leading Mackshane to attempt an amputation - only to be thwarted by Roderick and Morgan, who saw off the protruding piece of bone, dress the wound, apply the 'eighteen-tailed bandage, and put the leg in a box.

The Chichester's Lieutenant Watkins refers to the gale in his journal, as well as to the health of his men. Almost every day he recorded a death on board ship. When the ship reached Dominica in December, 110 sick men - a sixth of the crew - had to be sent ashore. Tents were pitched for them on the shore, and those with scurvy were, as if in anticipation of Lind's proposals, treated to limes, lemons and oranges, as well as fresh air and water. Although the ship's bill of health was no worse than average, Smollett and his colleagues were kept busy throughout the voyage.

 'At a certain hour of the morning, the boy of the mess went round all the decks, ringing a small hand-bell, and, in rhymes composed for the occasion, invited all those who had sores to repair before the mast, where one of the doctor's mates attended, with applications to dress them,' he recorded. Watkins noted, on 19 November, that they 'began to serve wine to the sick men', and the following day they 'sold some of our dead men's clothes at the mast': Smollett eventually had £2 15s. deducted from his pay for the cost of a set of dead sailor's clothes.

The men enjoyed watching the dolphins as the fleet entered trop¬ical waters, but Smollett remembered that a man threw himself over¬board 'in resentment for having undergone the shameful discipline of the ship for vermin'; Atkins recorded that 'Samuel Murray was whipped for mutiny because the steward would not give him raw meat, and for beating the cooper', and that 'eighteen hundred and ninety-five pounds of cheese' had been condemned as inedible...”


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