The voyage around Cape Horn

The gold seekers who chose to sail to California by sea also had their experiences with what might be called Lynch law. But the men who opted for the long route, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, were a different class than those who took the shorter route across Panama. Mostly from the east coast of America, these were men accustomed to life aboard a ship and were generally more orderly. A great many were of an independent mind and would not tolerate a great deal of imposition, and as such they were normally as well treated on the voyage as circumstances would allow. With the large number of ancient, unseaworthy craft that were pressed into service to meet the demand, coupled with the poor quality and short quantity of supplies, it is a blessing that many of these men made it to California at all, but they did.

Cape Horn

Sometimes disputes arose about the ship’s management or about what port to stop at and for how long, but these problems were generally resolved easily as all parties wanted to get to their destination as soon as possible. Therefore most of the difficulties aboard these ships then had to do with the provisions, the quality of the flour, sea biscuits, meat, or the amount of coffee or sugar allowed each man. Some unscrupulous captains would withhold certain items from their passengers in the hope that they could make a handsome profit by selling the goods in San Francisco. Some passengers, who had paid a first class fare, were forced to eat lobscouse, a detestable stew made of anything edible the cook could find, or dunderfunk, a cake made of the same ingredients except for the beef or pork. But, as a rule, if better food was aboard and the passengers found out, the officers were obliged to serve it to avoid what could have been very serious trouble.

Clippership Sweepstakes

There were two occasions though where the passengers deposed captains of California bound ships that had sailed from American ports. In both cases it was found that because these captains had been worthless drunks the passenger’s actions were not considered mutiny but were instead commended and so no prosecution was ever begun. But the spirit of independence and the determination not to be imposed on among the American passengers became so well known that many ship captains, accustomed to ruling their vessels with an iron fist, would not accept command of ships that carried these men. Many of these captains had brought great numbers of passengers from Europe to America with no fear at all of any insubordination, but the Europeans had been rigidly governed all their lives and would never dare to ask questions or make inquiries. But the American passengers were entirely different. “No, no!” exclaimed one captain. “Save me from a shipload of Yankee passengers. As soon as they recover from their seasickness they’ll hold a meeting on the quarterdeck, without the captain’s permission, and proscribe rules for the government of the ship. Or, perhaps they will depose the captain altogether, replace him with a popular sailor then run the ship according to their democratic principles. So, excuse me from command of a California passenger ship.”


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