San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter VII.

WE passed the lightship at Newport Rock, off Suez, about noon, November 1, bound for Aden, Arabia.

The peak of Mount Sinai, in the Holy Land, was plainly visible in the distance.

We experienced splendid weather in the Red Sea, and had a fresh breeze on the quarter for more than a week.

On the 9th and 10th of November we passed through the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, in company with a large Japanese man-of-war that was on her way out to Japan, from France, where she had been built.

This is the place where young Ham is supposed to have crossed over into Africa, after he was cursed by Noah for having laughed at the old man when the latter had a quiet jag on.

Ham subsequently married the daughter of a venerable old monkey, and settled down in Abyssinia and raised the first family of "colored society."

Lineal descendants of this inter-tribe union are to be found at the Lotus Club and other social organizations of razor fame in San Francisco; also in Thompson Street, Sixth Avenue, and Thirty-second Street, New York; South Street, Philadelphia, and in every town and county in the "Cotton Belt."

"Colored society" has had a hard struggle for social recognition in the United States. It was first introduced into America, in the year 1620, by a Dutchman who brought twenty members of it over from Africa, and landed them somewhere up the James River. The F.F.V.'s refused to acknowledge the introduction of the Dutchman, from a social standpoint. Whether this was on account of the color or odor of his protégés, or whether it was because of the Dutchman's own uncertain social standing (he was probably a pirate), I have not been able to ascertain; but at any rate the "first families of Virginian colored society" were not received as guests; and what is still better, their descendants never will be. A man named McAllister,--long live his name!--a predecessor of Ward, declared that society must have a grandfather. The Dutchman proved up "grand-paternity," accursed as it was, by the Bible, but it leaked out that there was a "tail" connected with its "ma-ternity," or monkey-turnity, I don't remember which, and the Dutchman, freebooter that he was, was so shocked that he sold his protégés to some old planters for slaves.

In due time the planters discovered that their slaves were useful about cotton farms. These slaves were prolific, but not enough so to supply the demands of the cotton raisers of the South; so some enterprising New Englanders procured a ship and brought over some more of the descendants of Ham from Africa, and sold them for good prices.

Subsequently whole fleets of New England ships ran between Africa and different American sea ports, bringing over "colored society" to order.

No one ever dreamed of receiving "colored society" on a basis of equality until a rail splitter, named Abraham Lincoln, through accident, got to be President of the United States.

Mr. Lincoln was told that the white overseers and slave drivers from Indiana, who superintend Southern cotton plantations for American owners, were trying to make "colored society" white, and that they had already changed a good deal of it to a dingy, disgusting yellow. Mr. Lincoln thought that if a few Hoosier overseers could make "colored society" yellow, the president of the jingo party ought to be able to make it snow white. So, after stirring up a great civil war, and wrecking the country, he issued a proclamation setting all "colored society" "free," and placing it on a white basis, so he thought.

But, so far as benefiting "colored society" was concerned, Mr. Lincoln's scheme was a rank failure,--that is, if the opinion of "colored society," on that particular subject, counts for anything,--because eighty per cent. of "freed colored society" in the South says: "Lord bless yoh soul, chile, we am wuss off now dan we eber was befo'. Umph, my Lord! we had homes befo' we was freed, but now we aint got nothin'--nothin' 'tall."

After setting the slaves free, it was found that they could not take care of themselves, and that white society ignored them socially. Then a man named Booth, a frenzied crank, took pity on society and killed Mr. Lincoln, to keep him from making a giant April fool of Uncle Sam by allowing the fanatics to try to further facilitate the début of the descendants of Ham and his monkey spouse into the society of legitimacy and the White House.

As it stands to-day, "colored society" has no social standing in America at all, and it never will have any.

It should be sent back to Africa, where it came from, to raise watemelons and poultry for itself, instead of stealing all that the "poh white trash" raise.

Early in the morning of November 11, we came to anchor in the harbor of Aden, which is, perhaps, the dryest city on the face of the earth. However, it forms an important link in the long chain of English fortified coaling stations extending around the world. There is not a drop of natural fresh water to be found within miles of Aden. The city bears the distinction of having a manufacturing industry that consists solely of a water factory where fresh water is condensed from the salt water of the ocean.

On the afternoon of November 17, we took our departure from Aden, and stood for the Island of Ceylon.

On the 19th we passed Cape Guardafui and the Island of Socotra.

After that we took a few deep-sea soundings in the Indian Ocean, probably just to give Mr. Wadham a chance to lose the rest of the sounding cups and wire that were left over from the expedition on the Atlantic. After he had lost all of the cups, and nearly all of the wire, Captain Jewell placed Mr. Hoggett in charge of the sounding machine, with a single cup made by the engineers on board the ship. Mr. Hoggett had better luck than Mr. Wadham, and we managed to get along without mishap until all the soundings were taken.

Fifteen days after leaving Aden we sighted the beautiful Island of Ceylon, and on the afternoon of December 2 we moored ship in the harbor of Colombo, the principal city on the island.

Our lines were barely made fast before the Parsee peddlers began to swarm over the gangway, loaded down with cheap jewelry, and bogus precious stones purported to have been found in Ceylon, but actually imported from Europe and America.

The Parsees, be it understood, are called the "Jews of Asia." They received this title from the first white people who ever went to India, for the reason, no doubt, that there were no other people on the face of the earth except the Jews who could be compared with them for "business ability." Had it not been for the fact that the Jews were known to the Europeans before the Parsees were, I think that their respective titles would have been reversed, and that the Jews would now be called the Parsees of America and Europe. The shrewdest venders of collar buttons, socks, and second-hand clothes on Baxter Street, New York, and Kearney Street, San Francisco, could not hold a candle to the Parsees. When it comes to a "bargain," Raphael, Roos Brothers, Cohen & Co., and the other world-beaters for bum overcoats, simply "aint in it" with the Parsee crepe shawl peddlers.

One of these latter asked me twenty-five rupees for a shawl. Not wishing to buy the shawl, I offered him five rupees for it, and he took it.

After a pleasant sojourn of four days at Colombo, we put to sea on the 6th of December. Passing Point de Galle, the southeastern extremity of Ceylon, we pointed our prow eastward across the Bay of Bengal, and stood for the Straits of Malacca.

Hauling fires and sending the black squad on deck, we continued under canvas the same as we did while crossing the Atlantic.

On the 9th and 10th of December we ran before the heaviest gales that we encountered during the whole cruise. On the 10th the storm increased to such violence that we were compelled to heave to for a whole day.

This was the same typhoon that destroyed Madras, and played such havoc with the shipping all up and down the east coast of India. It was estimated that the wind blew at the rate of over one hundred miles an hour. The weather moderated on the morning of the 11th, however, and we shook the reefs out of our sails and proceeded on our course.

On the 14th we stopped off the west coast of Sumatra to have our quarterly target practice and torpedo exercise. A target was rigged up on a raft and launched. Then Captain Jewell came on deck and gave the order: "Clear ship for action!" In a very few minutes the light spars were sent down, and everything was made snug aloft. The decks were cleared of everything not needed in battle, and we were ready to execute the maneuvers just as if we were going into an engagement with "the enemy." For fully an hour the broadside guns, the big eight-inch pivot gun, and the bow chaser were turned on the target. Shell after shell went hissing across the water, and the cannonade was something terrific. The best gunners in the ship pointed and fired the guns; but, when the quarterly allowance of practice shells was exhausted, the target still floated peacefully on the smooth sea. They had never touched it.

Then the Gatling guns were brought into action, and the marines and sharpshooters gave an exhibition of their markmanship, but the bullets from their guns only ricocheted across the water until the last round of the quarterly allowance of small-arm ammunition was gone.

Mortified and disgusted with his gunners, Captain Jewell ordered the torpedo division to blow up the impudent target, which had drifted alongside the ship right in the face of the terrific fusillade which had been directed at it. Very soon a small dynamite torpedo was rigged out on the end of the starboard lower studdingsail boom.

These torpedoes are exploded by electricity. The electric battery was aft on the poop. The wire, extending forward along the bulwarks, was run out and connected with the torpedo on the end of the boom.

There was a switch at the break of the forecastle, just like an ordinary electric light switch, that connected or disconnected the battery with the torpedo as occasion required. Ensign Rodman, assisted by Quarter Gunner Henry Hudson, had charge of the torpedo division up forward, while Lieutenant Fechteler looked after the electric battery aft. The ship steamed around in order to get into a position so that the torpedo could be lowered into the water and exploded under the target.

All the boys, and, in fact, nearly the entire crew, crowded up on the top-gallant forecastle to watch the blowing up of the raft. While this was going on, someone turned the switch connecting the torpedo with the battery before the torpedo was lowered into the water. Lieutenant Fechteler, supposing that everything was all right in connection with the torpedo up forward, pressed the button just to see if the battery was in working order. A terrific explosion followed. The ship trembled from stem to stern, while fragments of the copper torpedo flew in every direction. When the smoke cleared away the forecastle presented a pitiable sight. Lying in a pool of blood, at the breech of the six-inch rifle bow chaser, was all that remained mortal of Seaman Apprentice Peter Hagele. A piece of the torpedo had penetrated his temple, killing him instantly. A few feet away lay W. C. Hammond, another seaman apprentice, with the blood flowing from an ugly wound in the temple.*

[*Note : Hammond was afterward sent to Bellevue Hospital, New York, to have the piece of copper extracted from his brain. At last accounts he was a lunatic from the effects of the wound.]

R. F. Gerbach ran aft with the blood flowing from a wound in his left knee. August Rettig received a fragment of copper in the leg. W. J. Morgan, the chief boatswain's mate, had a small hole in his leg, and W. J. McFadden was down on his knees calling frantically upon the Blessed Virgin to stop a small stream of blood that was trickling from his forehead. Nor was this all. Down under the forecastle was old Corporal Boyd, of the marine guard, picking a piece of copper out of his head with his knife. Boyd, who was an old veteran, was looking out of a porthole when the explosion occurred. When he found that he was not dead, he quietly extracted this missile from his head, and, tying his handkerchief over the wound, proceeded to assist the rest of the injured.

As this all happened on the equator, where the temperature was 100° in the shade, it was impossible to keep poor Hagele until we reached port.

At three o'clock the same afternoon the boatswain's mate sounded the solemn call, "All hands bury the dead."

The entire ship's company mustered on deck. The flag was hoisted at half-mast. The corpse, sewed up in canvas, with a sixty pound shot attached, was brought to the starboard gangway on a broad plank.

Giving the order to "uncover," Captain Jewell took off his cap, and read the burial service. As he came to the last words he signaled to Summerville, the captain of the maintop, who tipped the plank outward. There was a splash, as the remains of our shipmate disappeared into the sea, and all was over. Motioning to the boatswain's mate to "pipe down," and signaling to the engineer to go ahead full speed, the captain proceeded to shape his course for Singapore.

We went ahead through the Straits of Malacca, picking our way through the narrow channels between the islands along the south coast of the Malay Peninsula, as fast as our engines could propel the ship through the water. As an everlasting reminder of somebody's blundering work, which could safely go down to history as criminal carelessness, one life had been sacrificed and another had been blighted. In addition to this, two persons were under the surgeon's knife, with the very best prospects of developing gangrene, in which case they would have lost their legs and, probably, their lives; and three others were more or less injured.

"Lieutenant Fechteler pressed the button. A terrific explosion followed. When the smoke cleared away, Hagele was dead, Hammond was crippled for life, and four others were dangerously wounded."-- Extract from Author's Private Diary, Dec. 14th, 1886.

The court of inquiry, composed of offices of the ship, decided that nobody was responsible. The sad occurrence was summed up by the talented court as an "unavoidable accident," and such it is still believed to have been.

Nothing can ever restore the life that was lost, and nothing will ever restore the mind that was wrecked, but nevertheless, a review of the prominent facts in the case is, I hope, not out of place even at this late hour.

Several commissioned officers were superintending the experiment through which the "accident" was brought about. The person killed, and all of the wounded, were enlisted man. The court of inquiry was composed of officers. I suppose the court made some inquiries about the man whose duty it was to see that the torpedo was handled carefully. Whether or not anyone was supposed to turn on the current at a given signal, I could not say. If this was overlooked someone was guilty of criminal carelessness. But I sincerely hope that the decision rendered was just.

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


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