The island of Madeira.—Sailing for Senegal.—A huge shoal of porpoises.—They swim so fast.—Harpooning porpoises.—Rejoicing on board.—How porpoise meat tastes.
Some years ago I visited the beautiful island of Madeira, where we had come to revictual after a most severe storm, under the violence of which our ship almost foundered. Our boats had been carried away, the livestock had been washed off by the waves, our provisions had been partly destroyed, and for a few hours we were in danger of going to the bottom of the ocean. It was the first great storm I had experienced at sea, and the waves appeared frightful to me, for I was no sailor at all.
How beautiful was that island of Madeira, with its hills covered with grape-vines, and trees bearing all kinds of fruits. Bananas, pears, apples, chestnuts, walnuts, oranges, lemons, and grapes were to be found in great abundance. In fact, almost, if not all the fruits belonging to the temperate zone seem to be there, with others belonging to tropical climates.
Our vessel was called The Roland, commanded by a rough but good-hearted captain. I made great friends with a sailor by the name of John, who was always ready, when off duty, to do any thing for me.
For several days after leaving the island, when ready to continue our voyage, the breeze was fair and the sky clear. Only a few white, fleecy clouds were tossed about by the wind. The sun shone upon the sails of our ship all day, and made them appear of a snowy whiteness. The beautiful blue sky seemed to give its color to the sea, which appeared more blue by the contrast of the white caps of its gentle waves. How I enjoyed the breeze as it blew upon my face! I could feel that it made me strong. What an appetite it gave me. In the evening I would watch the wake of the ship, which was like a line of fire.
The Roland was a good sailer, and many a time we were going at the rate of ten miles an hour. We were bound for West Africa. The Senegal country was the first land we intended to put our feet upon after leaving the vessel. A few days brought us to the leeward of the island of Teneriffe. I shall never forget the time when I got a sight of the high-towering and snowy peak. It was in the morning. Not a cloud hung over the land. The island, for about a third of its height, was covered with snow. It rose before us like an enchanted land—a land which seemed to rise so high that it looked as if it wanted to kiss the sky. It rose right from the sea to a height of more than 12,000 feet.
It was a sight never to be forgotten. To this day I have this island before me. I remember well that when the shades of evening cast their gloom over the sea, this tall, giant-like island appeared to me like a ghost gradually fading away from my sight. My eyes were riveted upon the spot, though I could see nothing, till the captain called to me, "What are you doing there? You seem as still as a statue." He was right. I was thinking, when he awoke me from my deep thoughts, of the tremendous volcanic outburst that must have taken place to raise the island from the bottom of the sea—what a powerful uprising of the fiery elements below; for Teneriffe is entirely of volcanic origin. As the island faded from sight, I knew that I should probably never see it again, and I silently said good-by to it. That very same night a gale of wind blew, which made the ship roll and pitch in a way that was not comfortable. Happily, the storm lasted only a few hours.
My heart, during the voyage, was bounding with joy, for I was going to a country which I had never seen, and of which I had read so much. Senegal was to be one point we were to visit. We were going to sail along the coast which forms the boundary of the great Sahara. The navigation was dangerous, and woe to the poor shipwrecked mariner who is cast upon that inhospitable coast.
I shall see the wild Arab, or Moor; I shall ride on the back of a camel; I shall get a glimpse at the huge baobab-tree, and probably meet with all kinds of adventures.
I feel in high spirits. The voyage has thus far been prosperous. The wind has been fair a great part of the time. The health of the crew is good, and all the damage the great storm has done to the ship has been repaired; so you will not wonder that I feel happy and hopeful.
One afternoon a dead calm overtook us. There was not a ripple on the water, which was as smooth as a mirror, but the heavy swells of the sea made the vessel roll in the most fearful manner, for the sails were of no use in steadying her. They only flapped and flapped against the mast with such force that I really thought the whole rigging, with mast, would break down. Happily, every thing on board was lashed carefully to the bulwarks or to the iron rings in the deck, which were fastened to the beams underneath.
The rays of the sun were pouring down upon us with great force.
When thus becalmed, the vessel became unmanageable, the rudder was of no use whatever, and the poor ship was literally swinging round and round in a circle.
We did not like it at all. We knew that we might be becalmed for several days, and the prospect of a fair passage to Senegambia became blue as the sea. The captain hoped, however, that after sunset a breeze would spring up. We were disappointed. After sundown it did not come. I was tired out, for it was impossible for a man to stand up. I had to hold fast to a rope in order not to be flung to the other side of the vessel head foremost.
That night it was impossible for any body to sleep, and as for eating at the table, I gave it up; but I managed to eat what I could, in a very uncomfortable manner, on deck. I can tell you that in such a time we did not care for hot coffee or soup.
Oh glad was I when the morning came. At sunrise a light breeze greeted us, and soon after we were under good headway again. I was sitting at the bow of the vessel, holding fast to a rope with one hand, and watching the vessel as she went through the water, which she seemed to cut in two. Oh, how beautiful is a fine morning at sea in that region! The tropical breeze was fanning us, and seemed to come from balmy lands to welcome me. The sky was blue, and the water seemed still bluer than the sky; and the sun, as it shone upon the sea, seemed to say, "I am the source of all life in this world." The sailors, meantime, were busy washing the deck, in which the captain took great pride, it was so white and clean. The cook was busy preparing breakfast, and every thing was alive on board the good ship Roland.
While sitting at the bow, as I have described, I suddenly spied ahead of us an immense number of porpoises, swimming and jumping out of the water, and seeming to be migrating to some other region in the ocean. As they were moving from east to west, they were going to cross our bows, and I shouted, "Captain, porpoises are ahead of us!" He gave a look, and answered, "That is so—that is so; let us see if we can not kill one for dinner." The porpoises were moving along like a vast army, thousands and thousands of them together. Onward they swam, stopping for nothing in their migration, every now and then springing clear out of the water. And how fast they did swim! I believe the porpoise to be one of the fastest fishes in the sea.
"Get the harpoon ready!" shouted the captain. "John, take the harpoon, go under the bowsprit, and harpoon one of these fellows if you can."
"Captain," I shouted, "let me have a harpoon too; I must try to harpoon one of these porpoises."
"If you try," said he, "you must be tied fast with a cord round your waist, for, as sure as you live, if you are not made secure with a rope, you will drop into the water, and that will be the end of you. John," said he, "fasten a rope round your waist also." It was hardly said when the captain had a rope round me, as he wanted to make sure himself that I was safe. John had made himself secure. My harpoon was a real nice one, which had done good service before in harpooning porpoises, and had also gone into the bodies of a good many sharks.
By the time we were ready we were in the midst of the porpoises. They did not seem to be frightened at all by the ship, and they swam so fast that they seemed to skim through the water. Some of them must have really gone at the rate of fifteen or twenty miles an hour. I was perfectly amazed. They must have thought our ship was a big floating rock, for many would swim round and round us, and that when we were going at the rate of nine knots (miles) an hour, and seemed to make no effort to accomplish the feat. They would pass under our bowsprit with the rapidity of an express train. Three times John had sent his harpoon at them, and three times he had missed them. I had sent mine twice, and, of course, I had missed.
"John," said I, we must harpoon one of these fellows, for I hear they are good to eat." "I bet they are," said John; "the liver is splendid eating, cooked with onions. The meat has no taste of fish, and looks somewhat like beef." This splendid prospect of a good meal made me feel more than ever that one of these porpoises must be harpooned. I was tired of pork and salt beef, and then I had never tasted of a porpoise, and wanted to know if they were really good. Some of them did not swim so fast as others. See, one is coming! John's eyes are upon it, and his harpoon is ready. I am watching; I am ready too. Down goes John's harpoon; mine goes down at the same time. I have struck a porpoise! The captain, who by this time is by me, seizes the line of the harpoon. The blood of the porpoise darkens the blue sea as we slowly draw him in over the side of the ship.
John, too, has harpooned a big fellow, and the crew comes to assist in hauling him in.
There is a desperate struggle from the porpoises. It is of no avail. They are on deck. I am wild with excitement. I shout, "I have harpooned a porpoise!" I really thought I had done a wonderful thing. This porpoise measured over six feet, and what a beautiful color! I really do not think it belongs to the same species which we have at home, for I do not remember having seen a single specimen near the African coast similar to this. These are always met in the middle ocean. The color on the back was grayish-black, while the sides were somewhat grayer, and the abdomen was whitish. It must have weighed two or three hundred pounds.
There was great rejoicing on board, for we were to have plenty of food. The cook came with his huge knife to help the sailors, and the two poor porpoises were soon cut to pieces. They had no fat whatever. The flesh was red, and not unlike that of beef. The liver, being considered by the sailors as the best part of the fish, was given to the captain.
For dinner we had porpoise steak, and it was not bad at all. Sailors being fond of onions, the steaks were surrounded with them. I did not care, as there were no ladies on board; as for the liver, it was perfectly exquisite. We had a glass of good wine after dinner that day. The sailors had a jolly time, and ate ad libitum of the flesh.
In the evening they felt quite jolly, and smoked their pipes with great delight, and sang a great many songs. I felt very happy to see these good sailors enjoying themselves. These poor fellows have a hard life, and we do not know how much we are under obligations to them for fetching to us from distant climes many of the luxuries we enjoy.