Redburn. His First Voyage

by Herman Melville


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Chapter LII


LII. THE EMIGRANTS' KITCHEN

I have made some mention of the "galley," or great stove for the steerage passengers, which was planted over the main hatches.

During the outward-bound passage, there were so few occupants of the steerage, that they had abundant room to do their cooking at this galley. But it was otherwise now; for we had four or five hundred in the steerage; and all their cooking was to be done by one fire; a pretty large one, to be sure, but, nevertheless, small enough, considering the number to be accommodated, and the fact that the fire was only to be kindled at certain hours.

For the emigrants in these ships are under a sort of martial-law; and in all their affairs are regulated by the despotic ordinances of the captain. And though it is evident, that to a certain extent this is necessary, and even indispensable; yet, as at sea no appeal lies beyond the captain, he too often makes unscrupulous use of his power. And as for going to law with him at the end of the voyage, you might as well go to law with the Czar of Russia.

At making the fire, the emigrants take turns; as it is often very disagreeable work, owing to the pitching of the ship, and the heaving of the spray over the uncovered "galley." Whenever I had the morning watch, from four to eight, I was sure to see some poor fellow crawling up from below about daybreak, and go to groping over the deck after bits of rope-yarn, or tarred canvas, for kindling-stuff. And no sooner would the fire be fairly made, than up came the old women, and men, and children; each armed with an iron pot or saucepan; and invariably a great tumult ensued, as to whose turn to cook came next; sometimes the more quarrelsome would fight, and upset each other's pots and pans.

Once, an English lad came up with a little coffee-pot, which he managed to crowd in between two pans. This done, he went below. Soon after a great strapping Irishman, in knee-breeches and bare calves, made his appearance; and eying the row of things on the fire, asked whose coffee-pot that was; upon being told, he removed it, and put his own in its place; saying something about that individual place belonging to him; and with that, he turned aside.

Not long after, the boy came along again; and seeing his pot removed, made a violent exclamation, and replaced it; which the Irishman no sooner perceived, than he rushed at him, with his fists doubled. The boy snatched up the boiling coffee, and spirted its contents all about the fellow's bare legs; which incontinently began to dance involuntary hornpipes and fandangoes, as a preliminary to giving chase to the boy, who by this time, however, had decamped.

Many similar scenes occurred every day; nor did a single day pass, but scores of the poor people got no chance whatever to do their cooking.

This was bad enough; but it was a still more miserable thing, to see these poor emigrants wrangling and fighting together for the want of the most ordinary accommodations. But thus it is, that the very hardships to which such beings are subjected, instead of uniting them, only tends, by imbittering their tempers, to set them against each other; and thus they themselves drive the strongest rivet into the chain, by which their social superiors hold them subject.

It was with a most reluctant hand, that every evening in the second dog-watch, at the mate's command, I would march up to the fire, and giving notice to the assembled crowd, that the time was come to extinguish it, would dash it out with my bucket of salt water; though many, who had long waited for a chance to cook, had now to go away disappointed.

The staple food of the Irish emigrants was oatmeal and water, boiled into what is sometimes called mush; by the Dutch is known as supaan; by sailors burgoo; by the New Englanders hasty-pudding; in which hasty-pudding, by the way, the poet Barlow found the materials for a sort of epic.

Some of the steerage passengers, however, were provided with sea-biscuit, and other perennial food, that was eatable all the year round, fire or no fire.

There were several, moreover, who seemed better to do in the world than the rest; who were well furnished with hams, cheese, Bologna sausages, Dutch herrings, alewives, and other delicacies adapted to the contingencies of a voyager in the steerage.

There was a little old Englishman on board, who had been a grocer ashore, whose greasy trunks seemed all pantries; and he was constantly using himself for a cupboard, by transferring their contents into his own interior. He was a little light of head, I always thought. He particularly doated on his long strings of sausages; and would sometimes take them out, and play with them, wreathing them round him, like an Indian juggler with charmed snakes. What with this diversion, and eating his cheese, and helping himself from an inexhaustible junk bottle, and smoking his pipe, and meditating, this crack-pated grocer made time jog along with him at a tolerably easy pace.

But by far the most considerable man in the steerage, in point of pecuniary circumstances at least, was a slender little pale-faced English tailor, who it seemed had engaged a passage for himself and wife in some imaginary section of the ship, called the second cabin, which was feigned to combine the comforts of the first cabin with the cheapness of the steerage. But it turned out that this second cabin was comprised in the after part of the steerage itself, with nothing intervening but a name. So to his no small disgust, he found himself herding with the rabble; and his complaints to the captain were unheeded.

This luckless tailor was tormented the whole voyage by his wife, who was young and handsome; just such a beauty as farmers'-boys fall in love with; she had bright eyes, and red cheeks, and looked plump and happy.

She was a sad coquette; and did not turn away, as she was bound to do, from the dandy glances of the cabin bucks, who ogled her through their double-barreled opera glasses. This enraged the tailor past telling; he would remonstrate with his wife, and scold her; and lay his matrimonial commands upon her, to go below instantly, out of sight. But the lady was not to be tyrannized over; and so she told him. Meantime, the bucks would be still framing her in their lenses, mightily enjoying the fun. The last resources of the poor tailor would be, to start up, and make a dash at the rogues, with clenched fists; but upon getting as far as the mainmast, the mate would accost him from over the rope that divided them, and beg leave to communicate the fact, that he could come no further. This unfortunate tailor was also a fiddler; and when fairly baited into desperation, would rush for his instrument, and try to get rid of his wrath by playing the most savage, remorseless airs he could think of.

While thus employed, perhaps his wife would accost him—

"Billy, my dear;" and lay her soft hand on his shoulder.

But Billy, he only fiddled harder.

"Billy, my love!"

The bow went faster and faster.

"Come, now, Billy, my dear little fellow, let's make it all up;" and she bent over his knees, looking bewitchingly up at him, with her irresistible eyes.

Down went fiddle and bow; and the couple would sit together for an hour or two, as pleasant and affectionate as possible.

But the next day, the chances were, that the old feud would be renewed, which was certain to be the case at the first glimpse of an opera-glass from the cabin.

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