- Gentlemen and Seamen
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 21 Gentlemen and Seamen The Harvard Advocate, 87 (25 May 1909) 115-16 Those of us who can claim any New England ancestors may congratulate ourselves that we are their descendants, and at the same time rejoice that we are not their contemporaries. Their sombre faces, with an inflexible contraction of the lips, as they have been stiffened and conventionalized in oils by forgotten artists, suggest natures difficult and unyielding, as the consequence of religious principle and of interminable struggle against the narrow resources of New England. The men of whom I am thinking are the patriarchs of the smaller towns, rather than the merchants of Boston, whom affluence often left more genial than the never prosperous countryfolk. But the representative New Englander is not exclusively a city man by descent, and has quite as much reason for taking pride in his rustic ancestors. One notable characteristic of those hardy folk is the success with which they supported, in the conflict with misfortune, a gentlemanly dignity. Tradesmen and farmers, most of them, by descent, they were farmers in America; yet here they founded and maintained successfully a plebeian aristocracy, without the training of generations, and under adverse fates. Any task which necessity compelled them to undertake, in their hands became honorable; no privation and hardship lowered their pride or social position. So they were found as merchants and tradesmen, as farmers and printers, according to circumstance, without losing a jot of their dignity. There were many sacrifices. Straitened means confined noble ambitions, and their passion for education was not always gratified. In one of those white clapboard houses which look so tranquil in their decay lived a boy of good family, a hundred years ago, whom lack of means thwarted from his ambition the college education. So, at the age of fifteen, he killed himself. But most of our New Englanders were stronger, and turned to what vocation they could find; the farm, the printing-press–a hundred years ago there were many local presses–or to the sea. The merchant marine was not the least important career in which New Englanders found distinction. They were the men who carried American commerce to the Levant, to India, to China; who from the Revolution till after 1812 made America an ocean power in war and in peace. They built the fine old ships which we know only from 1909: Harvard University 22 ] contemporaneous engravings. How stirring are those antique woodcuts. The “Ajax,” two hundred ton brig, entering Algiers under full sail with a thundering salvo from the city; the ensign very large, triumphantly shaking out its thirteen stars from the end of a yard-arm. Or the “Poor Richard,” off the coast of Africa repelling pirates; the native feluccas very small in contrast ; or the “Samuel Adams,” passing a sea-serpent in the Bay of Biscay. Built and manned and commanded, every one of the boats, by Yankee seamen ; and for them was built the handsome old custom house at Salem, now slumbering in proud uselessness. Go to Salem and see a town that flourished a hundred years ago in the hightide of New England’s naval energy.1 It seems now to be always in dignified mourning for its former grandeur, for the ships which do not leave and the ships which do not return. One feels that noisy mirth is a profanation there, the town is so populous with ghosts. Where is the China fleet now? the clumsy barks that sailed to every part of the world? Every day, a hundred years ago, the crowsnest watched for another homecomer bending past Baker’s Island. Of the freights which the boats carried in are left onlytheshawls,theginger-jars,thecarvedivorywhichthecaptainsbrought back from the Orient, the gifts which their descendants are proud to display . From New Brunswick to Florida to-day lounge the coasters, manned with the Irish and the “bluenose”;2 the mackerel fleet splits out to the banks under Irish skippers, and the cargoes of the world are borne in steamers owned in Europe. The sea trade of the Yankees is gone. The captains who handled the old fleet were just the sort of aristocratic plebeians of whom I spoke. Very young, at fourteen or fifteen years, they would enter the service, at the bottom of the nautical cursus honorum.3 They often rose quickly; there were many like the youth who sailed a bark from his father’s Portsmouth ship-yard to Savannah for lading, thence to London, where...