Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas on the Orpheus, 1889

In 1935, when Portland was that bustling city one sees in old movies—streetcars clanging up and down, crowds of pedestrians, traffic jams—Captain W. H.  Brodie paid a visit to the city. That trip he was captain of the Blue Star Liner, Canonesa, a "reefer ship" loading  30,000 boxes of Yakima Valley apples at the Oceanic dock. His first visit had been 46 years earlier, when he was an apprentice seaman on the "little three-masted Orpheus." In those days, before the Panama Canal, every vessel that made it here from the Atlantic Ocean came around Cape Horn. According to Brodie this route, through the dangerous and often stormy waters below South America, was the test that lifted an apprentice, such as himself, into the class of A. B. (Able Bodied) seaman.  
Capt Brodie from a 1935 Oregonian

It never fails to amaze me how difficult the life of a sailor was in those days. Maybe not so difficult as some fiction writers would make out: the cat-o-nine-tails hadn't been used in decades, maritime law prohibited ship's officers from using brute force (except in extreme cases, such as mutiny)—but the tedium and the meager provisions were beyond most people's imagination. Open up Google Earth and count the miles from Liverpool down the coasts and around the tip of South America. The result will always come close to 18,000 miles. Now imagine being on a relatively small vessel with 10 or 12 seamen, such as yourself, a few officers and a cook, for weeks on end—eating, sleeping, and all other necessary bodily functions occurring without anything close to real privacy.  

William (W. H.) Brodie's may have been to sea before, but as an apprentice we can be sure that he was very young. Oftentimes boys as young as eleven were apprenticed aboard merchant vessels in those days. In my research into this particular trip aboard this vessel I have discovered several interesting details: The captain of the Orpheus was James Young, a man the Oregonian called "pleasant and generous."  For that voyage of 1889 the Orpheus set sail from Britain to Montevideo with Captain Young's wife and two daughters along for the ride. The vessel left Uruguay in ballast (sans cargo) and continued on around the Cape without difficulty.  Half way up the coast of South America they met with a violent hurricane. The storm was severe enough to destroy the foretop mast, and must have been frightful for all aboard. 

It is easy to imagine that little Willie Brodie was a favorite of Mrs. Young and her daughters. It is also easy to surmise that young Brodie was of a similar social class as the captain—possibly even a close family friend—otherwise it is unlikely that he would ever climb to that rank himself, as we see he did years later. From an interview the marine reporter did with Mrs. Young it appears she was not much of an ocean lover herself, preferring the time spent in port. She had been out with the Captain before, twice to Calcutta, twice to Java, and she had even traveled with him to Portland once 13 years previous. But, from the tone of the interview, she preferred her home in Grenoch (Scotland), and dreaded storms at sea. In those days cargo vessels could be in port for several weeks, long enough for her to have made friends among the ladies at the Presbyterian church. She was spending her time in port writing letters and visiting her old friends. Captain Young told the Oregonian that since his first visit in 1876, the city had changed to the point of being unrecognizable. 

The several mentions in 1889 newspapers of the ship, Orpheus, make it sound like an idyllic little sailing family. The Oregonian calls it "a pleasant home," and since they spent Christmas in Portland, Mrs. Young and her daughters cooked up a batch of "world renowned plum duff" (or pudding) for the crew. But this crew was not exempt from the wiles of the sailor's boardinghouse masters. Looking back some 46 years later Captain Brodie, recalled that Christmas in Portland:

"…she lost her crew when she arrived at Portland, because Jim Turk and his runners shanghaied the men and placed them on other ships. The officers, two bosons and four apprentice boys were all that were left to repair the ship while it loaded a cargo of flour for Liverpool." Now that is a bit easier for me to imaging—smiling Captain Young, Mrs. Young, a couple of bosons, and the four homesick, adolescent apprentices sitting around the Christmas table. I am sure Mr. Turk would have loved to have shanghaied the lot of them, but he had a broom-wielding Mrs. Young to answer to—I suppose.

Just so there is no mistaking what is meant by "shanghaied" and how it is used in this instance, let me say this: The sailor boys were willingly "shanghaied." It meant they broke their contract with the ship and (illegally) made a new contract with a new ship. The boardinghouse master charged them for whatever enjoyment they had at his expense, usually every last shilling of their advance wages from the new ship. The former ship's captain, in this case Capt. Young, got to keep every shilling that was owed the sailors for their wages, but had to pay advance wages for a new crew. This was the Portland way of doing things from the time of Captain Young's first visit on up to about 1914. If Captain Young was ready to sail, and there were no sailors to be found in Portland, Mr. Turk would encourage cowboys, hobos, wandering minstrels, out of work loggers, or anyone else he could find to join that mighty band of men known as the Jolly Sons of Neptune. And just so the maritime business of Portland did not suffer, the U.S. Marshals would oftentimes ride along to Astoria to make sure none of the greenhorn sailors had a change of heart.

I have to say though, if were to be shanghaied I would want it to be aboard the Orpheus with the mellowing influence of Mrs. Young and her two daughters. Now that would make for an interesting Victorian era novel of manners.