A Drowning Messmate by A. Lee Knight
It is as one of the most popular sea-novelists of all times that Captain
Marryat is best known to his countrymen—oldsters and youngsters alike.
The whole life of this gallant seaman, however, was made up of one long
series of exciting adventures, both on land and sea, many of these
experiences being made use of in after years to supply material for his
One of Marryat's most characteristic acts of self-devotion was his
springing overboard into the waters of Malta Harbour in order to save
the life of a middy messmate, Cobbett by name, who had accidentally
fallen overboard. What made this action an especially noble one was the
fact that Cobbett was one of the greatest bullies in the midshipmen's
berth, and had specially singled out Marryat for cowardly and brutal
treatment. Again, we must remember that sharks are often seen in Malta
Harbour, and any one rash enough to enter its waters takes his life in
Thank God the gunroom of a British man-of-war of the present day is
managed in an entirely different manner from what it was in Marryat's
day. Says that gallant officer: "There was no species of tyranny,
injustice, and persecution to which youngsters were not compelled to
submit from those who were their superiors in bodily strength."
The entire management and organisation of the Royal Navy at that period
was rotten to the core, and it speaks volumes for the devotion, skill,
and bravery of the gallant officers of the fleet that they so
magnificently upheld the glory and honour of the flag in every quarter
of the globe in spite of the shortcomings of the Admiralty Board.
As an instance of this general mismanagement of naval affairs, Marryat,
who had been sent to join the Impérieuse frigate as a young middy,
thus writes in his private log—
"The Impérieuse sailed; the admiral of the port was one who would be
obeyed, but would not listen always to reason or common-sense. The
signal for sailing was enforced by gun after gun; the anchor was hove
up, and, with all her stores on deck, her guns not even mounted, in a
state of confusion unparalleled from her being obliged to hoist in
faster than it was possible she could stow away, she was driven out of
harbour to encounter a heavy gale. A few hours more would have enabled
her to proceed to sea with security, but they were denied; the
consequences were appalling, and might have been fatal.
"In the general confusion, some iron too near the binnacles had
attracted the needle of the compasses; the ship was steered out of her
course. At midnight, in a heavy gale at the close of the month of
November, so dark that you could not distinguish any object, however
close, the Impérieuse dashed upon the rocks between Ushant and the
Main. The cry of terror which ran through the lower deck; the grating of
the keel as she was forced in; the violence of the shocks which
convulsed the frame of the vessel; the hurrying up of the ship's company
without their clothes; and then the enormous waves which again bore her
up and carried her clean over the reef, will never be effaced from my
"Our escape was miraculous. With the exception of her false keel having
been torn off, the ship had suffered little injury; but she had beat
over a reef, and was riding by her anchors, surrounded by rocks, some of
them as high out of water as her lower-yards, and close to her. How
nearly were the lives of a fine ship's company, and of Lord Cochrane and
his officers, sacrificed in this instance to the despotism of an admiral
who would be obeyed!
"The cruises of the Impérieuse were periods of continual excitement,
from the hour in which she hove up her anchor till she dropped it again
in port; the day that passed without a shot being fired in anger was
with us a blank day; the boats were hardly secured on the booms than
they were cast loose and out again; the yard and stay tackles were for
ever hoisting up and lowering down.
"The expedition with which parties were formed for service; the rapidity
of the frigate's movements, night and day; the hasty sleep, snatched at
all hours; the waking up at the report of the guns, which seemed the
only key-note to the hearts of those on board; the beautiful precision
of our fire, obtained by constant practice; the coolness and courage of
our captain inoculating the whole of the ship's company; the suddenness
of our attacks, the gathering after the combat, the killed lamented, the
wounded almost envied; the powder so burnt into our faces that years
could not remove it; the proved character of every man and officer on
board; the implicit trust and the adoration we felt for our commander;
the ludicrous situations which would occur even in the extremest danger
and create mirth when death was staring you in the face; the hairbreadth
escapes, and the indifference to life shown by all—when memory sweeps
along those years of excitement even now, my pulse beats more quickly
with the reminiscence."
A middy's life was no child's play in those days, was it?
But it is time that I told you the story of how Marryat saved the life
of his messmate Cobbett, in the Mediterranean.
The Impérieuse was lying at anchor in Malta Harbour at the time the
incident happened. It was about the hour of sunset, and the officer on
duty had turned the men of the second dog watch up to hoist the boats to
the davits. The men ran away smartly with the falls, and soon had the
cutters clear of the water and swung high in the air.
At this moment, Cobbett, who was off duty, went into the main-chains
with some lines and bait in order to fish. In endeavouring to get on one
of the ratlines of the lower-rigging his foot unfortunately slipped, and
he fell headlong overboard into the waters of the Grand Harbour. Several
persons witnessed the accident, and the prodigious splash the middy's
body made in striking the water immediately made known to every one else
that a struggle for life had commenced.
Cobbett could not swim a stroke, and was much hampered by his heavy
clothes and boots. At the first plunge he was carried far beneath the
surface, but quickly rose again, puffing and blowing like a grampus, and
making desperate efforts to keep himself afloat.
The officer of the watch promptly called away the lifeboat's crew, and
these men quickly scrambled into one of the quarter-boats, which by this
time had been run up to the davits. Life-buoys too had been thrown
overboard, but not one of them had fallen near enough to the struggling
boy to enable him to grasp it. Young Marryat happened at the time of the
accident to be standing in the waist of the ship conversing with the
captain of the main-top of the watch below. Hearing the splash and the
excited cries of "Man overboard!" which rang out fore-and-aft, he rushed
to the gangway to see if he could be of any assistance in the emergency.
One can imagine his feelings on beholding his arch-enemy, the bully of
the midshipmen's berth, struggling desperately for life under the
frigate's counter. Being an admirable swimmer himself, Marryat saw at a
glance that his messmate was helpless in the water, and indeed was on
the point of sinking. Without a moment's hesitation, and without waiting
to throw off coat or boots, the plucky youngster boldly plunged
overboard, and quickly rising to the surface, struck out for his now
almost unconscious enemy, and fortunately managed to seize him and keep
him afloat, whilst he shouted to those on board to lower the cutter as
quickly as possible. The men were only too eager to go to his
assistance, and the instant the lifeboat was safely in the water, her
crew got their oars out, and, pulling vigorously to the spot, soon
hauled both midshipmen, wet and dripping, inboard.
Cobbett was unconscious, his face being as pale as death, but it was
only a matter now of a few seconds to get him aboard the frigate, where
he soon revived under the care of the surgeons, and was able to return
to duty in the course of a day or two, much humbled in spirit, and very
grateful to the courageous young messmate who had so gallantly saved his
life at the risk of his own.
Writing home to his mother on the subject of this adventure, Marryat
concluded his account by saying: "From that moment I have loved the
fellow as I never loved friend before. All my hate is forgotten. I have
saved his life."
A ludicrous adventure in the water once befell Captain Marryat. In the
gallant officer's private log occurs this entry: "July 10th.—Anchored
in Carrick Roads, Falmouth. Gig upset with captain."
Florence Marryat in her father's memoirs thus relates the incident:
"When this gig was capsized, it contained, besides Captain Marryat, a
middy and an old bumboat woman. The woman could swim like a fish, but
the boy could not, and as Captain Marryat, upon rising to the surface of
the water and preparing to strike out for the ship, found himself most
needlessly clutched and borne up by this lady, he shook her off
impatiently, saying: 'Go to the boy! Go to the boy! He can't swim!'
"'Go to the boy!' she echoed above the winds and waves. 'What! hold up
a midshipman when I can save the life of a captain! Not I indeed!' And
no entreaties could prevail on her to relinquish her impending honours.
Who eventually did the 'dirty work' on this occasion is not recorded,
but it is certain that no one was drowned."
As is well known, sailors are devoted to animals, and Marryat was no
exception to the rule. He has left on record a story of a pet baboon,
which was on board the Tees with him—
"I had on board a ship which I commanded a very large Cape baboon, who
was a pet of mine, and also a little boy, who was a son of mine. When
the baboon sat down on his hams he was about as tall as the boy when he
walked. The boy, having a tolerable appetite, received about noon a
considerable slice of bread-and-butter to keep him quiet till
dinner-time. I was on one of the carronades, busy with the sun's lower
limb, bringing it into contact with the horizon, when the boy's lower
limbs brought him into contact with the baboon, who, having, as well as
the boy, a strong predilection for bread-and-butter, and a stronger arm
to take it withal, thought proper to help himself to that to which the
boy had already been helped. In short, he snatched the bread-and-butter,
and made short work of it, for it was in his pouch in a moment.
"Upon this the boy set up a yell, which attracted my notice to this
violation of the articles of war, to which the baboon was equally
amenable as any other person in the ship, for it is expressly stated in
the preamble of every article, 'all who are in, or belonging to.'
Whereupon I jumped off the carronade and, by way of assisting his
digestion, I served out to the baboon monkey's allowance, which is
more kicks than halfpence! The master reported that the heavens
intimated that it was twelve o'clock, and, with all the humility of a
captain of a man-of-war, I ordered him to 'make it so'; whereupon it was
made, and so passed that day.
"I do not remember how many days it was afterwards that I was on the
carronade as usual, about the same time, and all parties were precisely
in the same situations—the master by my side, the baboon under the
booms, and the boy walking out of the cabin with his bread-and-butter.
As before, he again passed the baboon, who again snatched the
bread-and-butter from the boy, who again set up a squall, which again
attracted my attention. I looked round, and the baboon caught my eye,
which told him plainly that he'd soon catch what was not at all my
eye; and he proved that he actually thought so, for he at once put the
bread-and-butter back into the boy's hands!
"It was the only instance of which I ever knew or heard of a monkey
being capable of self-denial where his stomach was concerned, and I
record it accordingly. This poor fellow, when the ship's company were
dying of the cholera, took that disease, went through all its
gradations, and died apparently in great agony."