San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter VIII.

ON the 18th of December, 1886, we dropped anchor in the harbor of Singapore, Straits Settlements.

Two days later we sent Rettig and Gerbach to the hospital, to be treated for the injuries received in the torpedo explosion.

We celebrated Christmas at Singapore in the regular, good old American style. Our dinner table was set on the spar deck, reaching from the break of the forecastle to the mainmast. On top of it was piled a menu consisting of all the different varieties of eatables that could be found in the market. This we washed down with various brands of liquid refreshments; Captain Jewell having granted us that privilege, at the request of our esteemed and beloved first lieutenant.

The eccentricities of old "Humpty Dumpty" certainly entitle him to more than a casual mention. In his way he was one of the most extraordinary characters that I have ever met. He possessed an individuality peculiarly his own. Imagine a little man of perhaps fifty, about five feet four inches in height, with moderately long red side whiskers and mustache to match, and it will give you some idea of how Mr. Bicknell appears at first glance. On closer observation you will notice that he has a pair of very keen bluish-gray eyes, a large nose, and a fairly firm chin, which, owing to his "Burnsides," appears at first to be somewhat abbreviated. Along with all these he carries a set expression that would puzzle Kendall, or any other fake mind reader in the world, to account for, further than that it is harmless. Altogether, while he is far from being handsome, Mr. Bicknell is by no means uninteresting. When he is dressed up in his social coat, with brass buttons, and has on his Sunday smile, which he assures himself of every now and then by running his fingers through his whiskers, he is actually pleasing to behold; but when he dresses up for a ball in his evening uniform suit, with epaulettes and low cut waistcoat, showing a white shirt front, he is a distressing failure. He dances as gracefully as a tortoise.

Having heard a great deal of the different heathen "religions,"--so-called from the fact that they acknowledge a Supreme Ruler,--I decided to visit some of the Buddhist and other temples in Singapore. I had been too busily engaged in other ways at Colombo and Aden to even ask anybody if there were any places of worship in those cities, and, besides this, our own missionary lieutenant had been holding so many fake prayer meetings on board, that the work "religion," uttered seriously anywhere forward of the smokestack, was like waving a red shirt before a herd of wild bullocks.

Jack Hartel, Jimmy Welch, Willie Lamb, and several other irreverent boys and organized a vigilance committee to protest against Mr. Wadham's "zeal," and the entire class of boys had joined in and adopted resolutions tabooing psalm-singing and everything of that nature. Anyone who broke the rules was liable to be severely punished, and all crimes committed while on shore were punishable just the same as if committed on board ship. After dinner was over, on Christmas Day, a meeting was called on the forecastle, and the rules and regulations concerning religion were suspended, only as fare as they interfered with sight-seeing. Those who asked permission to visit the heathen temples cautioned to steer clear of all churches in which the English, French, or German languages were spoken.

Jarrett, Schipperus, Lippincott, Funk, Link, and I were about the only boys who were anxious to see the heathen at "worship." We went up to the large temple out toward the Zodieological Gardens. As we started to enter, the door-keeper made signs to us to take off our shoes. Seeing us hesitate, he pointed to a long row of sandals just outside the door. Then we understood. As we deposited our shoes with the door-keeper, I noticed that ours were the only leather shoes in the pile; all the rest being the grass, bamboo, and wooden sandals of the Malays, Indians, and other natives.

Inside the temple we found the congregation, of men only, squatting on the earth on their launches, with their heads bowed down until their faces touched in the ground. Around the sides ere hideous-looking images of dragons, devils, monsters, fierce Oriental warriors, and many other unpleasant things. We did not stay very long, for the reason that the noxious incense and a mixture of other disagreeable odors, peculiar to the climate of Singapore, made us sick.

When we came out we found that our shoes were not where we had left them. Supposing that the door- keeper had put them away, we looked around for that individual, and discovered that he, too, had vanished.

There we stood, bare-footed, in the streets of Singapore. We knew that it was useless to go in quest of the thief, so we spoke to a big East Indian policeman who understood English, but seeing that we were Americans he only laughed at us. Perhaps he did this to remind us that he knew a thing or two about the way our own policemen act when anybody asks one of them to arrest a thief or a hoodlum or some other outlaw of the policeman's own ilk.

Not wishing to walk around town in our bare feet, we went down to the dock, and all of the party returned to the ship, except Link, who declared that he would remain on shore until he found the man with his shoes.

Several days later a long, dangle-legged Englishman, a resident of Singapore, came on board accompanied by one of the most ridiculous objects that I saw on the whole voyage. Whether it was a gorilla from the "Zoo" or a wild man from Borneo, no one could tell as it leaned against the main fife rail. It was about the height of "Humpty Dumpty," whatever it was; it walked on two legs, and appeared to understand what the Englishman said to it. It wore, on the upper part of its body, a portion on an undershirt, the sleeves and tail of which were missing, while the bosom stood open showing a healthy growth of bristles. Its lower limbs were in-cased in a pair of trousers, rolled up at the bottoms, but still dragging under its feet, while the waistband was held up under the arms by means of a belt, after the fashion of Alex Basil Willieberforce at a tennis tournament. It could actually talk; that is, it could utter sounds a trifle more intelligible than Mr. Willieberforce's presentation speech to Sam Hardy, when the latter wrested the tennis championship cup from Tom Driscoll, at San Rafael, on the Fourth of July, 1894. However, the curious object turned out to be neither a wild man nor a gorilla, nor even a near relative of Mr. Wilberforce.

In the meantime all the boys had crowded around, and the offices came on deck to see what was up. Mr. Fechteler, who was officer of the deck, having been assured by the Englishman that the thing was tame, approached it, and declared that it was the missing Link.

Mr. Fechteler was right; but at that time, so he told me at dinner on board the Albatross not long ago, he had never seen Mr. Willieberforce, or he might have reserved his verdict for the San Rafael tennis tournament.

When asked by "Humpty Dumpty" to explain why he had broken his leave, and come on board out of uniform, and in this cloudy-day- in-London rig, Link said that he had found a policeman wearing his shoes, and upon asking the policeman, who happened to be the only Irishman on the "force" in Singapore, to return them, he had received a clout over the head from the Irishman's club. Link, having taken boxing lessons from Lieutenant Tommy Carter, on the New Hampshire, was something of a scanner himself, a fact of which he proceeded to convince the rude policeman, by knocking the latter down and walking all over him, and taking his shoes by main force.

While Link was putting on his shoes, the vulgar policeman blew his whistle, and in a few minutes a whole squad of other policemen came tearing down upon him from every direction. These preservers of the peace not only recaptured the shoes, but they stripped Link of his clothes, struck him in the eye with brass "knucks," sand-bagged him, and left him for dead.

While in the plight he was found by the Englishman, who took him to his house, rigged him up in the manner aforesaid, which was the correct style in the Singapore Cricket Club, and brought him on board the Essex in a sam-pam.

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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