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Portrait Of A Yankee Skipper
From his great-grandfather’s papers a poet re-creates that hard-working man of many parts—sailor, farmer, merchant financier—the New England sea captain
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
I suppose a sailor in those troubled years, like a sailor in any generation, balanced the bad off against the good and then refrained from striking a balance. The bad, in Moses Hillard’s computations, would have included, along with the wreck of the Oneida, the loss of the brig Caroline, and the failure of a voyage in the Amiable Matilda, but neither disaster would have been chargeable to the sea. The French sank the Caroline somewhere north of St. Lucia on his second voyage in 1800, and a British man-of-war, combined with the French Army, cost him the voyage in 1808. This second misadventure is reported in a letter from the Mediterranean to the Captain’s owners, William and Samuel Craig of New York. A “British cruizer,” he wrote them, had forced him into Gibraltar Roads and endorsed his register forbidding him to enter any port from which the British flag was excluded. This act, combined with the occupation of Barcelona by the French, “Blasts all our hopes of A voyage” and left him with no choice but to “Return Direct to NewYork as the best possible thing that I Can Do for your Interest in this Dreadful Dilemma. I shall sail with the first Ship of force that goes through the Gut for a Convoy and make the best of my way home.”
The loss of the brig Caroline is recorded in quite another form. From his first voyage (“July 2nd 1799 took my Departure from my father’s house in Preston and Sailed from Norwich for NewYork got to New-London and Set off from there in a light westerly wind”) Moses Hillard had kept a diary of sorts in a little, homemade journal covered with a rag of sailcloth which is now in the library at Yale. The last pages record the voyage of the Caroline which began at New London on May 8, 1800. St. Lucia, in the Windwards, was reached on June 13 and thereafter the journal entries are in lead pencil and now all but illegible:
Monday June. 23 sailed from St. Lucia for America with a fan’ wind.
Tuesday June 24 at 8 A.M. was taken by a French Privateer of 4 guns and fifty men and robbed of most of our clothes and adventures [i.e. goods for sale on adventure] and scuttled the brig after taking us all on board the privateer.
Wednesday June 25 took an American ship and put us all in irons.
Thursday June 26 this day kept close confined and under water most of the time.
Friday June 27 after having had several skirmishes [?] arrived in Basse-Terre not a/lowed to leave our irons on any emergency .
Saturday June 28 This day was put on shore and turned to prison after being robbed of our money one and all and most of our cloathes thus we are set naked and helpless ashore in a foreign country.
It was a mean business. The prisoners were allowed “two or three ounces of pork poor stuft and bread in proportion” and lived “toughing it out in the usual way half starved.” Some, including the Captain of the Caroline, were sent off in a cartel within a few days, but it was not until the twenty-eighth of July that Moses Hillard, having spent half his time in prison and the rest “working out” on the fitting of French sloops or prizes “to keep alive,” found himself in a cartel headed for St. Kitts.
On the other side of the mariner’s balance would stand, in Captain Hillard’s case, the voyage of the Thomas from Archangel to London to New York in 1812–13, which earned him his footnote in the history of the Republic. N. and D. Talcott of New York, the owners for whom the Captain most frequently sailed, had sent the Thomas to Archangel in the previous year, where the Russians had detained her on suspicion, real or pretended, as to her neutrality. Her captain and most of her crew had deserted her, her equipment had been tampered with, bills amounting to three or four thousand rubles were outstanding against her, and the situation generally was one to worry the American consul almost as much as it pained the owners.
Furthermore the War of 1812 was in the offing and the future handling of the ship, even if she could be cleared from Archangel, presented uncommonly difficult problems, in these circumstances—and it was a tribute to the regard in which he was held in the profession-Captain Hillard was asked to get together a skeleton crew of five or six able seamen and make his way to Archangel to take whatever action was possible. A credit for £4,000 was opened in his name, he was given full power of attorney to act for the owners, and the decision whether to sell the ship, freight her, or load her was left entirely to his discretion.
The mission, so far as the Thomas was concerned, was successfully completed. The Captain was able to get possession of his ship, man her and equip her and take her out. Financially, however, the owners sulfered. Agents, apparently British, so managed the exchange of funds in Archangel as to absorb a considerable part of the sterling credit, and Moses Hillard always felt that, had he understood Russian currency a little better, he might have saved the money loss as well as the ship itself. But it was not the finances of the voyage which gave it its importance but the news the Thomas brought home with her.