Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s
Edgar L. Wakeman
1818 to 1875
Edgar Wakeman was born in Green Farms, Fairfield County, Connecticut to the town's champion wrestler, and while his life at sea spanned 40 years, approximately ten years were spent on land as he tested other ventures, including panning for gold and farming.
Captain Wakeman was between 10 and 12 years of age when he left a note for his mother at his home in Connecticut, boarded the sloop Mary and paid 50 cents for passage to New York. He was a story teller from the time he could talk and within a short time of docking, he had a job.
When the opportunity presented itself, he strolled the waterfront at the foot of Wall Street. During one outing in 1834, he saw the ship Peruvian, which was to set sail around the world. He presented himself to the captain, was signed on, and spent most of his life at sea. On that first voyage, the Peruvian put in at Valparaiso and then Callao where no liberty was given. And after a 57-day run, they anchored in Manila and then Batavia where many of the crew died. They sailed to the Island of Java, the Straits of Sunda . . . He lived through a tiger bite, sailed through cyclones . . .
"First trip at sea to Valparaiso/Callao. Disposed of cargo and sailed for Manila. 57 days at sea. "After a long, hard time in Manila, sailed for Batavia on the Island of Java . . . thru the China Sea, where we saw great sea-snakes like eels, but more dormant, lying on the surface of the water . . . I learned to count in Malay, in receiving coffee . . . "
By the time Wakeman was 20, he was chief mate on one of the Liverpool packets of the Black Ball line. He shipped in the Mediterranean and in the West Indies. In Havana he killed a Cuban who attacked him with a knife.
Wakeman sailed to Denmark, Russia and Norway before being wrecked on the Isle of Guernsey (Right: map of Jersey, Guernsey, Sark) in December 1837. Half of his crew perished, but Wakeman came ashore safely in a sealskin suit, complete with hood. Making his way to New York, he was soon bound out as mate on the brigForrester for the West Indies.
One voyage to Liverpool on a large ship. Transferred to Black Ball Line. (He was not yet 20 at this time). Several more voyages to Liverpool, then up the Mediterranean.
Back to New York, then to West Indies, Denmark, Russia.
December 1837: English Channel. To Guernsey. "Then brigantine Forrester to the West Indies: Havana, Puerto Rico where we loaded tobacco and sailed for Bremen, Germany. Captain Wakeman was somehow involved with a fight on shore and the release of American sailors. The police tried to arrest him, but failed. They left for New York with starch, boxes of dolls, sand for ballast, and a load of Dutch passengers.
Somewhere in here they sailed into Harwich on the East Coast of England where they were the first American's to be seen there. They left for Ipswich, and were found drifting and were rescued by the brig Freighter. Sailed into Castle Garden.
Captain Wakeman then sailed up the Mississippi to Vicksburg where he witnessed duels and smuggled specie along the Tabasco River. He spent two years in the Mexican War carrying dispatches in a "pretty armed schooner for the Commodores Kelly and Perry. I took a prize schooner called the Relampego," which means "lightning."
He traded at many ports, mainly Tabasco. He rescued a prisoner by the name of "Le Pap," and escaped to New Orleans. There he fitted the Relampego for California and left with 50 passengers. Because of additional needed repairs, he was stranded at Key West where he worked at dismantling and repairing ships until he made enough to refit his schooner. For six months he traded in Mexican ports.
Back in New York, he signed onto the New World to take her to California. However, the New World was being impounded for debts owed by its owner and was boarded by the Sheriff. Captain Wakeman literally took over the ship, brought on a crew, convinced the Sheriff that they had to test the engines to remove rust. They sailed away while being chased around the Horn and into Panama. At Panama, he realized the money he could make by bringing on immigrants to San Francisco (at $300-$500 per person). He again escaped authorities and sailed into San Francisco, arriving July 11, 1850.
He spent two years running the New World between San Francisco and Sacramento and touring Northern California's beautiful wildlands.
By 1851, he was back at sea as captain of the S.S. Independence, 800 tons, and sailing for Vanderbilt's Nicaragua Line.
July 27, 1851, Daily Alta California, San Francsico
DINNER TO CAPTAIN WAKEMAN -- The friends of Capt. Wakeman, commander of the new opposition steamer Independence, contemplate giving him a public dinner, and intend holding a meeting at the California Exchange this evening, for the purpose of arranging the preliminaries. Captain. W. has been favorably known to the public of San Francisco and Sacramento for a length of time, and borne a very high reputation as a seaman and a citizen. His connection with the recent action of the very large body of our fellow citizens composing the Vigilance Committee, has brought him somewhat into notice and caused him to be condemned by that small portion of the community opposed to their acts. In allusion to this subject, we have received the annexed communication.
MESSRS. EDITORS: Permit me to make a suggestion through your columns. It is in reference to Capt. Wakeman, of the steamer Independence. A number of his personal friends are desirous of testifying, previous to his departure, their esteem and regard for him by inviting him to partake of a "parting bite" with them; not that there actually needs any further expression of opinion to increase the estimation in which he is held by those who know him intimately, but simply that it might be gratifying to his feelings to meet them socially before leaving them, after a residence of a year among them. With reference to his position as commander of one of the finest boats in these waters, it may not be out of place to remark that the establishment of an opposition line, may justly be regarded as a precursor of good to California, in that it will lessen the expense, and consequently increase the amount of travel hither. To Capt. Wakeman, therefore, as to one instrumental (however indirectly) in ensuring the success of such an enterprise, I humbly think that a slight testimony of the nature alluded to, would serve to convince him that he has the best wishes and good opinions of many here to stimulate him in his exertions, as well as an evidence o the confidence reposed in him as a man, a thorough, practical seaman, and a frank, open-hearted fellow. It is hardly necessary for me, I trust, to remark that this is a spontaneous suggestion, made without any previous consent, or even knowledge of his, by one who, though a comparative stranger, esteems him as a "diamond in the rough.
--McC. August 1, 1851, Daily Alta California, San Francisco
FLAG TO CAPTAIN EDGAR WAKEMAN. -- Captain Edgar Wakeman was presented with a very splendid signal flag, on board of the Independence, yesterday. The usual formula of presentation was observed, and the affair went off with great eclat. The flag is a very elegant one, with the inscription of the words "Vigilance" and "Eureka," one above and the other below a large lone star. The device is, of course, significant of the recipient s recent action in concert with the citizens, and is exceedingly appropriate.
The following remarks were made at the presentation by G.A. Woodworth, Esq., Chairman of the Committee appointed to perform the pleasing task:
Capt. Wakeman: Sir Your friends and associates, citizens of San Francisco, a multitude of whom you now see here assembled, have seen fit to confer upon me this honor, and make me the happy medium to convey to you their fervent expressions of kindly feeling and brotherly affection. In expressing to you the sincere and honest prompting of every heart now throbbing around you, it becomes likewise my pleasing duty to present to you in their behalf this slight testimonial of their kind regard and their just appreciation of your manly virtues and your modest worth. Accept it then, Sir, in the spirit which has prompted its award. It bears in itself no real intrinsic value, but I know it will possess in your eyes a worth inestimable, coming as it does directly from the hearts of those who love you.
This flag, designed by your friends as your private signal, bears for its leading motto a sentiment deemed peculiarly appropriate for one placed in your position, and a sentiment which should be a guiding motto through life for us all. This, with the motto of our golden State combined in union on the flag, which is now entrusted to your keeping with confidence by your fellow citizens, who know of no one more capable of defending it. The pleasure afforded your friends in thus having an opportunity of expressing to you their feelings of esteem and affection is somewhat alloyed by the existing necessity which obliges us for a time to part with you; but we trust, soon to have the happiness of again welcoming you among us.
Allow me the pleasure also, Sir, to offer you my hearty congratulations on this happy occasion and to express to you the warmest assurances of my individual regards.
Captain Wakeman replied as follows:
Mr. Chairman The beautiful flag presented by you on behalf of the citizens of San Francisco to myself, for my private signal, calls forth feelings which I cannot find words to express. Suffice it to say, that I feel proud of the honor conferred upon me. I never in my whole life have done an act for the save of reward; it is the purpose of human life to discharge our relative duties without such expectation. Both by sea and land, I have endeavored to play my part conscientiously. I shall ever bear in mind with pleasure this estimation of my character, and trust that in all my acts I may deserve it. As the beacon light to the mariner when nearing land, to guard his frail barque from danger, so may this testimonial prove to me as a beacon when dangers or temptations beset me. It will serve me, if ever permitted to retire from the busy scenes of life, to remember with gratitude the citizens of San Francisco. Although placed in command of the steamer Independence, and consequently obliged to plough the waves of &old Ocean,& still I am with you. I humbly hope, winds proving propitious, and no ill betiding me, to exhibit ere long your gift, MY SIGNAL, at the fore-topmast head of the Independence as she enters the Golden Gate of the Bay of San Francisco. In the meantime, I wish you much peace, happiness, and prosperity. May we oft meet again.
October 5, 1851, Daily Alta California, San Francisco
Resignation of Captain Wakeman
Yesterday a somewhat serious difficulty occurred in connection with the steamer Independence. It seems the agent here proposed to lower the wages of the men, stewards, &c. on board the boat. Much dissatisfaction of course arose among the officers and men on account of this. We are informed that they all refused to sail under diminished pay, and took their chests ashore. Capt. Wakeman deemed the step taken by the agent improper, and ordered his baggage ashore also. This was about nine o'clock yesterday morning. When the passengers on board, about seventy-five in number, learned that Capt. Wakeman had left the vessel, they went on shore also, and demanded their passage money back. After a few hours consideration and argument, it was decided that the rates of wages should remain unaltered, and the whole disaffected party returned to the steamer. This happened about one o'clock, and accounted in part for the steamer not leaving punctually at the hour named.
March 9, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco
The Wakeman Testimonial
Sailing of the New Orleans
-A very large assemblage of the citizens of San Francisco last evening testified their respect and esteem for Capt. Edgar Wakeman by tendering him an elegant entertainment at the Lafayette Restaurant and presenting him with some costly and appropriate testimonials of their regard on the occasion of his departure in the steamer New Orleans, which sails today for Australia. Capt. Wakeman is favorably known to this community as one of its most enterprising and public spirited citizens, as well as an accomplished navigator, and the best wishes of the community go with him on his voyage. During the evening, Mr. F.A. Woodworth presented the substantial testimonials in the following language:
In behalf of a large number of your fellow citizens of San Francisco, it becomes my pleasing duty to tender for your acceptance these testimonials of their sincere regard and esteem and their just appreciation of your many noble qualities as a man -- your abilities as a skillful and experienced navigator, and your generous devotion to the cause of public safety as a citizen.
In the time of common danger you were among the first to content for, and manually support the great moral principle, that "self preservation is the first law of nature," and though none regretted more sincerely than yourself the painful necessity of appealing to this "higher law," none were more faithful and fearless in the discharge of the repugnant but imperative duties attending it. The moral good which has resulted therefrom is too apparent to us all to need any further comment, and allow me to assure you, sir, that your fellow citizens of San Francisco duly appreciate the value of the services you have performed and the purity of motive which governed our in the performance.
You are now about to embark on a long, and perhaps perilous voyage, and many months must elapse before we can again welcome you in our midst, but while tossed in your frail bard upon the bosom of the deep, the prayers of many grateful hearts -- of wives, mothers and children, will be offered up for your safety and protection. We part with you with feelings of deep and sincere regret, but with the liveliest feelings of pleasure we commend you to the kind offices and regards of all good men wherever you may go.
Accept then these few mementos from your friends in San Francisco, and allow me at the same time to express to you my warmest feelings of personal regard. Wishing you a safe, prosperous voyage, I trust we shall soon have the pleasure of welcoming your return.
Capt. Wakeman replied:
Allow me to return to you, sir, and to the gentlemen in whose behalf you have addressed me, my sincere and heartfelt thanks for the overwhelming honors you have seen fit to confer upon me. My feelings, sir, are too big for utterance, and I am fearful that my lips cannot give expression to the prompting of my heart. When I look around upon this numerous assemblage, and see the character and standing of the gentlemen composing it, and when I look at the rich and costly presents which have just been tendered me, it seems to me, sir, that I must be in a dream, for it is difficult for me to believe that any conduct on my part should have merited such reward as this. I have been nearly all my life, sir, a sailor, and have ploughed the ocean in every quarter of the globe, since I was thirteen years of age. I have had but little opportunity for the cultivation of refinement, but God has placed within my breast all the feelings of a I>man and I am sure you will believe me, sir, when I tell you that those feelings are beyond the power of words to express to you.
I can only thank you, gentlemen, with my whole heart and soul, for this unexpected, and I am fearful, undeserved manifestation of your kindness. I shall treasure these valuable tokens most sacredly to the last moment of my existence, and shall hand them down to my children and my children's children as household gods. And now, gentlemen, in taking leave of you, permit me again to thank you, and to assure you that I shall ever look back to the present moment as the proudest and happiest of my life.
1854: Married and his wife joined him at sea aboard the Surprise and the Sea Bird to the Sandwich Islands, then back to San Francisco where he sailed the Pacific between the City and Nicaragua. In the North Pacific aboard the 1800 ton Adelaide, in which he had a part interest, his daughter Adelaide Seaborn Wakeman was born. She died before a year was out. The next voyage was from San Francisco to Peru to load guano, then through to New York. This voyage was done in 38 days and the Adelaide was again loaded for San Francisco. His daughter, Minnie, was born at sea and stayed with them for three voyages around Cape Hornand it was Minnie that ultimately edited hisLog.
1856: Wakeman joined the Vigilance Committee (this was the second Committee, the first having been established in 1851). He joined as a marshal, taking part in the arrest and execution of the Vigilantes' first victim, John Jenkins. Wakeman was quickly appointed to the command of theWater Police and his tight control of the harbor earned him the title of "Emperor of the Port."
Captain Wakeman obtained copies of passengers lists of arriving vessels and detained and examined their personnel until he was satisfied as to their good character. His Water Police patrolled the Embarcadero, keeping a watchful eye on sailors, ships, storeships and warehouses, and he had a small fleet of boats on the Bay, from skiffs and Whitehall boats to the Revenue Cutter Polk, which was more or less placed at his orders.
The Water Police were particularly on the lookout for thieves who were accustomed to slip under the stores built on pilings over San Francisco water lots. They would enter such places of business via trap doors or simply by prying up the floorboards. Men like Charles Minturn, who ran the Senator on the Sacramento River, kept a lot of money in their offices. Sometimes the gold was held in rather flimsy strongboxes, but often was kept from waterfront pirates by no more than a locked door and the thickness of the floor. Watchdogs were neither plentiful nor cheap in 1851, so the Water Police were very necessary to dockside merchants.
When the murderers and thieves of Sydney Town, as the Barbary Coast was then called, had all fled from the city, been transported, or gone underground, the Water Police disbanded and Wakeman resumed his command on the steamer New World on the Sacramento River run. He stuck to his job for only one year, then sought new fields to conquer.
1866: He was a multi-faceted captain and a contemporary of Mark Twain, who sailed from San Francisco in the Opposition Line steamer America, with Captain Wakeman on December 15, 1866. Twain wrote of the Captain:
"I will do him the credit to say that he knows how to tell his stirring forecastle yarns . . . with his strong, cheery voice, animated countenance, quaint phraseology, defiance of grammar, and extraordinary vim in the matter of emphasis and gesture . . . He is a burly, hairy, sunburned, stormy-voiced old salt . . . and is tattooed from head to foot like a Feejee islander . . .
Twain dubbed him Captain "Ned Blakely," in Roughing It, who with his own hands hanged Bill Noakes, after reading him promiscuous chapters from the Bible. Captain "Stormfield," who had the marvelous visit to heaven, was likewise Captain Wakeman; and he appears in the "Idle Excursion" and elsewhere.
The Captain's tattoos included Liberty holding an American flag, a ship under full sail, names of his wife and children on his arms, a figure of Christ on the Cross, and more.
He was also a gentle soul who wrote verse for his family:
Oh, darling, if you only knew
How very sad your papa grew
When all alone on deck he sighs
Through midnight hours with tearful eyes
At eve I'm sure you'd ne'er forget
The one afar, whose eyes are met
With weeping for his child at home
So far across the ocean foam
Yet well I know it still must be
While I'm compelled to sail the sea;
Through weary years I'm doomed to part
From Minnie with an aching heart;
And ev'ry voyage I still must grieve
When my poor Frankie said I leave
While Eddie asks, with eyes so black,
"When shall I look for papa back?
The mother, like an angel, seeks
A parting kiss, but never speaks
As closer to her loving breast
Her infant angel's fondly pressed
Upon its pillow snowy white
It draws its food with all its might
Then falls into a heavenly sleep
And dreams of one upon the deep
O God, protect this little flock,
Bring back their papa safe to dock
And when in time their days be run
Conduct them, with the setting sun
To that dim land where we may be
United through eternity
And till we wake to that blessed time
Dear God protect both me and mine.
1862: He helped break up the ship Sea Nymph which had wrecked off Pt. Reyes, just North of the San Francisco heads. The next five years were spent sailing between San Francisco and Mexico as Captain of the John L. Stephens. The Stephens was captured by Capt Dana off Cape St. Lucas and with clear mind, Captain Wakeman regained control of his ship.
Back to California then to New York to take command of the America.
In 1863, Edgar L. Wakeman was born to Captain Wakeman and Mary Lincoln. When Edgar L. Wakeman came of age, he began wandering the world, but not as a sea captain, rather as a writer. He was published extensively throughout the United States.
November 17, 1869: "Watched the sinking of the sidewheel steamer D.C. Haskins which had been built for Commander Vanderbilt." The Haskins was hit by a hurricane in the Gulf Stream.
Fall 1870: From page 294 of Captain Wakeman's log: "In the Fall of 1870, I gave up farming (in Northern California) and, returning to the Bay, I soon after occupied myself in fitting for sea the steamers of W. W. Webb's new line upon the Australian route. After sending off the Nevada and Nebraska, Captains (James H.) Blethen and Hardy I went down in the Moses Taylor, Captain Bennett to act as superintendent of the line at Honolulu and to arrange for coaling stations, etc., upon the islands."
When the Nebraska returned from Australia and the Moses Taylor from San Francisco, my duties again called to to the dock.
Back on the West Coast
In September 1861, Captain Wakeman brought the steamer Panama from Crescent City, Eureka and Trinidad into San Francisco. His passengers: Hon G. M. Hanson, Hon A. A. Sargent, Hon. A. Wiley, Lieut. P. S. Johnson, C. V., W. Turney, H. H. Hopkins, A. C. Hopkins, Cyrus Willard, Mrs. C. A. Powers, T. S. Campbell, J. A. Lord (Wells Fargo & Co’s Messenger), and 27 others (not noted in newspaper clippings).
On December 1862, he brought the SS Oregon from Mazatlan and ports on the Gulf of California into San Francisco. Memoranda: Sailed from San Francisco, November 15th at 4 o'clock P.M.; arrived at Mazatlan November 26, 2:20 A.M.; discharged freight and passengers and sailed November 26th for Guaymas and La Paz; left Mazatlan December 8th for San Francisco. Left in port, at Mazatlan, H.B.M.S. ship Tribune, and Danish ship Mazatlan, discharging. In Guaymas, American barque Fanny Major.
Consignees: Barron & Co, $36,000; Rodgers, Meyer & Co. $13,000; Thomas Bell, $2,316.75; T. Lemmen Meyer, $8,000; Zeil, Berthau & Co., $2,150; J. E. Rene, $1,000; H. Hansmann, $1,000; Adelsdorfer Bros, $3,000; S & S M Holderness, $1,500; Order, $1,787; Stephen Card, $4,000. Total $73,753.75. 126 pkgs merchandise to order.
Passengers: Dr. J. P. Thomas, Francisco Cortez, J. F. Schleiden, Dwight Frarg, Mrs. Richardson and 4 children, J. D. Bostwick, Mrs. General Langberg, B. Price, wife and servant, F. Holderness, Fortunato Ariola and son, Mrs. J. Ybarra, E. Moore, Dr. Dinelage, wife and child, A. A. Vantine, Charles Souza, F. Cocis, L. Irelan, F. G. Cadiergo, W. H. Hilton, Broome Smith, F. C. Walker, P. T. Torrence, B. S. Dudley, F. Davids, G. S. Steward, H. Drinkman, F. Walkter, W. H. Cleveland, Adam Maurer, F. Gonzales, Mrs. Wm. Smith, Mrs. R. Branman, Mrs. J. Crown, Francis Crown, A. L. Enfert, D. W. Jones, J. S. Harper, L. Sloclan.
August 8: At 9:30 dropped into a quarter boat with one man off the harbor of Pago Pago, Island of Tutuila, without a deviation, or detention of five minutes on the steamer Nevada.
June 29, 1872: Took command of Mohongo and arrived in Honolulu. Captain Wakeman here had a seriously debilitating illness from where he never completely recovered.
March 1873: Left on Mohongo for New Zealand and returned in May.
October 1: Sailed on the Montana with a crew of "Mongolians."
November 15, 1873: Left San Francisco on Newbern, Captain Metzger, for Cape St. Lucas and on November 28, we sailed up the Colorado River on theColorado for Yuma, Arizona.
January 10: Sailed on the Newbern from Arizona to La Paz and in was pearl fishing along the coast, bringing in $200,000 worth of pearls and shells.
March 21, 1874: "Grenada," under Captain Seabury to Panama.
1875: The Captain was ill and retired by this time.
Editor's Note: During the late 1800s and early 1900s, one Captain Wakeman was travelling the world writing for newspapers, including a trip to Malta where he published for the Syracuse Standard which was published Sunday, March 6, 1892.
Editor's Note: Edgar L. Wakeman, author of the following, is the son of controversial and well-noted Captain Edgar L. Wakeman and Mary Lincoln. The younger Wakeman was born in San Francisco in 1863 and became a noted travel writer in the late 1800s.
Sunday, March 6, 1892, The Syracuse Standard
Malta and the Maltest -- From Palma on a Maltese Brigantine--
A Typical Tunisian Merchant and His Views
Copyright, 1898, by Edgar L. Wakeman
Latin races dwelling to the north of the Mediterranean and all those of original extraction to the south and east, look upon the English occupation of the island of Malta and the two contiguous lesser islands of Comino and Goza in much the same spirit as they regard the occupation of Gibraltar by the English.
That is in an evil and vengeful spirit. The fact could have had to clearer illustration than in the sentiments expressed by the captain of the coaster upon which I made my way from Majorca to Malta, and by the only other passenger besides myself upon the odd little brigantine upon which we sailed.
My companion passenger came aboard at Tunis where we touched to land Majorcan wine, making up our part cargo of wine for Malta with Tunisian hides and wheat in curious little brown sacks which were tied in the middle and stowed away in the hold crisscross, as you would lay dump-bells each upon the other.
Our crew comprised six half naked and barefooted Maltese sailors with cotton trousers, crimson scarfs certainly 30 feet long wound about their waists, ugly sheath-knives in those, and no other clothing whatever save tiny tasseled caps resting jauntily upon the crisp and curly hair of their hard little heads. They were little wiry fellows, the best sailors in the world, it is said, with snapping, beady eyes, sharp, short noses, thick lips, splendid teeth, and altogether as merry and sunny-natured a lot as you could find sailing upon any sea.
The captain was of Spanish extraction and Maltese birth. He had been a fisherman of Valetta; had saved his money; had got an education at the free English schools of Malta; and from the position of port pilot had come to own the craft which he commanded. In his little cabin were many good books, both in Spanish and English, and his surroundings in his tiny sea home were as pleasant, and certainly more evident of education, refinement and good taste than you will often find in cabins of the most pretentious American sailing vessels.
His wife, Teresa, and nine children, the latter grading in size from an infant in arms to a lad of 11 as regularly as a set of ten pins and nearly as naked, cooked for
and waited upon us, lending a hand at light seamen's' duties whenever required with wonderful agility, adding pleasantly to the picturesque of the every-day life of the tiny vessel, and providing those blessed of all sounds at the, she voice of women and the prattle of children, ceaseless, tuneful and winsome as every make melodic the sunniest home of city, hamlet or vale.
Not the least picturesque object on board of brigantine was our other passenger, who with the dried hides, which so resembled in visage, had been taken on at Tunis. He was a Tunisian merchant trading between Tunis and Malta. We all treated him with much consideration because his flowing robes and white burnoose, which took up a good deal of room, gave this otherwise measly looking man a most important appearance, and, unconsciously, I presume, because he owned the hides and wheat. Then too, he was very bland and agreeable, a peculiarity of all Moslems when they are found one mile from home.
You will notice this characteristic if you travel much about the Mediterranean. In their own homes, streets and shops there are no more imperiously grave, imperturbable and sodden humans than Turk, Arab and Moor. But let them once turn their faces towards Christian ports and profit, and their manner and bearing at once change. They seem to have suddenly become ready-greased with graciousness for all trade and social exigencies. Their striking habiliments no longer comport with their reputed dignity of character. The bags on their heads and their ample robes and sandals suggest the harlequin. Neither Yankees nor Jews are a match for them in the subtle shuffling and diplomacies of trade. In fact, they are the "Oily Gammons" of the Mediterranean.
In the long, languorous days and glowing evenings of our lazy sailing they were both, The Maltese captain and the Tunisian merchant, more to me than weeks of desultory meetings of their kinds in their own lands. They were both intelligent, companionable and both spoke English fluently. Their true feelings and opinions came gradually and surely out of the confidential companionship of sea voyages universally impel. They represented, in heredity, education and feelings the implacable and endless religious and race war between the people of the Crescent and the Cross. The forefathers of each had doubtless been slain defending the banners of one or the other. They typified Christian Europe pitted against Infidel Africa and Asia.
But all the race and religious hatred was blended in a common hatred of the English masters of Malta.
To reach the sentimental reason of this I constantly espoused the English cause. To the Maltese captain I pointed out his own successful career, and reminded him delicately that he would have remained an ignorant and impoverished fisherman but for this very English rule which he resented.
"Si, si, senor," he would sadly reply; "but I would not have had the devil of greed set to work in my heart. I am no more hungry for a great ship than I was at first for a little felucca."
"But has not the condition of your 150,000 fellow countrymen of the Islands been vastly improved?"
"My fellow countrymen grieve over the passing away of the old things they loved. A little higher wall to one's patch of ground, another room or two added to one's home, a little more finery in one's ears or on one's back, or a little more coin clinking between the finger, do not make peasant folk better or happier. They cannot become like their masters. They learn only to envy them and to be ashamed of themselves and each other. I would give my brigantine and all but Teresa and the ninos (children)," the captain would conclude with an indescribably pathetic and loving gesture of protective fondness, which included all the romping curly heads on shipboard; "to live in a hut by the shore and see the red-coats no more forever!"
The grief of my Tunisian fellow passenger was of a different sort, though it was none the less real and poignant; but it was mitigated also by the fanatical belief that some time the Musseulman faith and folk will prevail and rule all lands.
"Christian feeling and despoliation," he would feelingly say," have been the real motive of every so-called holy crusade and expedition against us whom you call Infidels, but who along worship the one true God. The English have profited greatest by conquest under cover of pious pretence."
I called his attention to the fact that, with the exception of England's quasi occupation of Egypt to secure payment for moneys advanced by English capitalists in connection with the Suez Canal scheme, and the recent establishment of a trading post at Cape Juby, on the west Morocco coast, Great Britain did not claim to possess, or hold, a foot of soil to which any Mussulman race had the slightest possible hereditary right.
"Ah, but Gibraltar! -- Malta!"
This would be uttered in passionate exclamation and with his face as hateful as a fiends.
"They were once ours with Andaluz, and gave us the empire of all Africa and supremacy upon the Mediterranean."
"Surely, but only through invasion and butchery," I replied, harrying him a little. "Simply for pillage the Berber invader, Tarik, took Gibraltar and overran southern Spain in 711; with the same purpose your Berber ancestors in 798 took possession of and held the Balonrie Islands for 450 years; and about a thousand years ago you seized and held Malta until the Normans dispossessed you. Moslem rights were not deprived by your expulsion from lands where you did not belong."
"But our imperial Barbary is cut into pieces. We are no more a mighty people. Our temples and our treasures are gone!" he passionately retorted.
"So are your pirates and slaves," I persisted unfeelingly. "Those are the sort of things civilization will never again tolerate. It will never disturb an earnest an zealous religion; but it will surely eventually extirpate any religion or race that deprives the lowliest of its followers and people, men or women, of equal justice!"
He would not dwell upon this implied contrast between Christianity and Mohammedanism, but continually bewailed the English possession of Gibraltar and Malta as a menace to all Oriental supremacy, and the direct cause, or permissible cause, of the dismemberment and appropriation of Northern Africa by Spain, Italy and France. He admitted that its development especially in Tunis, Tripoli and Algeria had been marvelous within the last quarter of a century; that Gibraltar and Malta in the hands of the English guaranteed permanent and peaceful trade with all Mediterranean countries by the fleets of the whole world; and even confessed that without this very English supremacy in the Mediterranean his own safety with his hides and wheat, in transit from Tunis to any neighboring port would be extremely problematic if not altogether improbable.
In such unusual converse with these strange folk, the voyage to Malta was passed. I was often able to lead the momentary topic from Moors to Maltese, and thus secured much valuable information concerning the real as well as the sentimental condition of the latter. Two very interesting facts developed through the apparent extraordinary hatred of English rulers by the captain and Tunisian and their seeming equal mutual affection for the common people of Malta, the folk who were its peasantry even before its days of chivalry under the olden Knights of Malta who deeds and fame were the most luminous to all medieval history.
The first was the passionate love all Maltese have for their sterile, sun-baked, sirocco-swept little hump of rock to which they cling and nurture so lovingly that it returns them, conditions being considered, the most bounteous and luxuriant rewards of any equal area on the face of the earth. "Flower of the earth" they call this treeless spot. "My country adored" they ever name the vessel or village where they are born. And as "the purgatory" or penance-spot they know any other land beneath the sun to which necessity has led them.
I have noticed the same almost pathetically desperate affection for one's birth spot to be true in other rugged and sterile abodes of men. Nothing could induce the half-frozen people of Labrador to quite those regions of silence and desolation. The Highland crofter of Scotland is a spiritless, heartbroken man when forced from his wild straths and glens. Who that has stepped foot on the Arran Islands off Galway ever saw other such pictures of hopeless poverty and suffering? Yet for generations their people have clung to the rocks like the dolorous puffins which nest in their sides amid the Atlantic's howlings and no power has been sufficient to tear them away from their starvation and wretchedness.
It was a curious thing, too, the learn from the Tunisian that the peasantry of Malta were more Berber and Arab races than of Greek, Italian and Spanish.
By all affinities, save the one of religion, he claimed them as brethren to a man. In their customs, superstitions and many of their homeside ways, as well as in nearly all methods, or rather want of method, in agriculture they are, he claimed, precisely like the Berber tribe farmers in the valley behind Tunis and Algiers. But more striking than all Elysian proof that the Maltese were his kindred, was his claim which I have since found to be true, that while nearly all spoke a sort of English, Italian or Spanish patois, every one could at any moment cross into Northern Africa and converse with the natives in a measurably pure Arabic tongue.
"We are at Malta, senor. Would you look upon sleeping Valetta from the sea in the early morning?"
Such was the cheery call of our captain as we approached the most famous island of the Mediterranean. When I reached the deck our craft lay a league distance from port, almost imperceptibly moving towards the white island and whiter city over a rippleless sea with sails scarcely filled by the faintest of breezes which whispered of the morning; for the sun seemed to stand a tremendous globe of crimson on the sea horizon, away over there between Greece and Crete.
My eyes never before beheld so transcendent and radiant a scene. The whole bosom of the sea seemed enveloped in a downy mantle of pearl, gold and crimson, which, lying low upon the water, showed countless matchless changes of color, and possessed the added marvelous effect of lifting all discernible objects to an unwanted altitude.
Our brigantine, with our craft here and there about us, appeared to ride upon an opalescent, intangible yet palpable surface of solidly flaring cloud. Though Sicily lay 60 miles to the north, its shoreline, lifted vertically, and not in mirage, showed strangely near, with the huge cone of Etna like a spear-head of silver above.
The Knights of Malta were formed long before their reign on Malta. The Order was originally established in 1085 as a community of monks responsible for looking after the sick at the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. They later became a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands and safeguarding the perilous routes taken by medieval pilgrims.
The Knights arrived in Malta in 1530, having been ejected from their earlier home on Rhodes by the Turks in 1522. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave them the choice of Malta or Tripoli as a new base. Neither was to their liking, but nothing, they thought, could be worse than Tripoli. Having chosen Malta, the Knights stayed for 268 years, transforming what they called 'merely a rock of soft sandstone' into a flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.
Knights were chosen from the aristocratic families of France, Italy, Spain, England and Portugal. On acceptance into the Order they were sworn to celibacy, poverty and obedience.
But where are the words with which to paint for another's seeing the island and its ancient city of the Knights as they rose out of the pulsing, throbbing, tins of that glorious morning witchery." If one could dream that the gods had transformed the sea into a bed of cameo rose, and through cycles of time, with their most cunning artificers wrought it into miracles of filigree, and then chiseled upon it a white relief of the island's area, whose wondrous design had culminated in outlines and detail of massive grandeur and matchless simplicity where the city of fortresses and palaces stood, a vague hint of this morning scene could come with the dreaming and seemings.
And on this morning, as we slowly glided into the eastern of the two ports, and the ideal gradually resolved into the real, the mind, following the imagery of the cameo, its setting, and those who wrought loved to linger oft the thought that those who had built had left their miracle of labor silent and still, as a ghostly and stately housing for all who came. Utter silence brooded over the vast bleached battlements. Escarpments, terraces, bastions, entablatures and huge flat roofs were lifeless and still. The shipping was flagless, apparently crewless, and still as though graven from onyx into the picture. Not an oar stirred the mirroring harbor. Not more still or pregnant with mystery in the Libyan Sphinx than was every strange object upon which the eye might rest. Not a thing having life stirred or was visible, save when our craft swung around and tugged gently at her anchor, the rays of the sun, shooting over ramparts, struck like golden spears upon St. Elmo. They routed a myriad drowsy jackdaws, which rose in flocks and hoarsely screamed. This was our only welcome to Malta and impregnable Valetta.
Edgar L. Wakeman