18 JULY 1874, Page 9


THE "Albert Medal of the Second Class," given on July 10 to Mr. David Webster, second mate of the collier Arracan,' of Greenock, has .been singularly well bestowed. Not only is David Webster well deserving of it, a point we shall say some- thing about presently, but the selection of David Webster for special and very real honour will help to break up one of the most utterly wicked traditions of our Mercantile Marine.- We have never been able to discover why it should be considered excusable for a seaman, if he happens to be hungry at sea—very hungry, that is, hungry to the death—to murder and eat any friend who happens to be handy ; but undoubtedly that is among the privileges conferred by seafaring tradition on merchant seamen. If any land-lubber on shore, say, a gipsy of bad character, were equally hungry, we should expect him, in default of relief, to lie down and die as quietly as he could of inanition, and if he cut any- body's throat and ate him we should hang him without the smallest scruple. Indeed, in most parts of England he would stand a very good chance of being lynched, and even if he escaped that fate and the gallows, his only course would be to disappear. Seamen, however, are treated differently. A sailor is not expected to en- dure hunger till he dies. The proper and regular thing for him, according to tradition, Marryat, and stories of shipwreck, is to keep up his strength by murdering a fellow-passenger in the boat —a woman, if there is one, but if not, a boy—eating her or his flesh, and then rowing until his boat is seen by some merchant vessel, and he himself rescued from a fate to which a considerable section of mankind submit in silence, and without murder, every day. He is never punished, at all events for murder, and never very strongly condemned. There may be some natural horror of him, but he is embalmed in sea-legends as a rather interesting figure, and is rarely so shunned that he dare not, in language more or less covered, allude to his own horrible "adventure," mention- ing particularly, of course, as a redeeming fact that the victim, who is always the weakest on board, was fairly chosen by the "lot." Historians, seamen, novelists are all agreed upon this point ; they all admit some sort of excuse in the circumstances for what seems to us a peculiarly dastardly and selfish form of assassination. Why cannot the men die quietly at sea as well as on land, as, for example, Australian explorers have frequently died, and as thousands of Irish died in 1847? What should we have said of the Irish if, in the extremity of the suffering which, despite all England could do, in some instances depopulated villages, they had taken to murdering and eating one another, or what should we say of Beharees under the same circumstances? What is there in the mere circumstance of being afloat which should induce us to be so lenient, while as regards men on shore we are so immovably hard? Hunger drives men mad, mad in the, true medical sense, which involves moral irresponsibility ? It does nothing of the kind. Thirst, some- times, though not always, produces madness, or something very nearly akin to it, and a boat on the ocean is a place where thirst may be felt to its very last extremity ; but hunger strikes men at sea just as it strikes them on shore, namely, as a sharp craving, sometimes intolerably painful for three days, and then as a dull, gnawing want, which is pain only when accompanied by the intense fear of coming dissolution. There is no madness of the furious type at any stage of the process, though, of course, as the brain ceases to be nourished, there is idiocy, sometimes assuming grotesquely horrible forms. If madness were an invariable or frequent accompaniment of hunger, we should see it on shore, where it is never recorded, and should find it universal at sea, where, as a nearly invariable rule, some one or other remains sane, and refuses to destroy his friends' last chance of escape from the horror which is overwhelming them. We could not have a more complete proof of this proposition than the story in the Gazelle

" The Arracan,' whilst on a voyage from Shields to Bombay, with a cargo of coals, took fire from spontaneous combustion of her cargo, and on the 17th February was abandoned by her crew, who then took to their boats and endeavoured to make for the Maldive Islands. The boats kept company until the 20th, when, finding the currents too strong, it was agreed to separate, after dividing the provisions. "The Master, in command of the long-boat, then made for Cochin • the Mate, in charge of the gig, and the Second Mate, Mr. David Webeter, in charge of the pinnace, with four of the crew, viz., three men and one boy, made for the Maldive Islands.

"After two days Mr. David Webster's boat was injured by a heavy sea, and could not keep up with the gig, and lost sight of her. From this time the pinnace was kept working to windward until the 9th March, by which day the provisions and water had been consumed. "Shortly afterwards the crew cast lots which of them should be first killed to be eater, and the lot fell upon the ship's boy Homer; but

Webster, who had been asleep, was awoke in time to save the boy's life. Alter dark an attempt was made to kill Webster himself, but the boy Horner awoke him in time to save himself.

"On the following day, Webster having fallen asleep, was awoke by the struggles of the crew for the possession of his gun, with which to shoot him. Two hours later the crew attempted to take Homer's life again, but were prevented by the determined conduct of Webster, who threatened to shoot and throw overboard the first man who laid hands on the boy.

The next day one of the crew attempted to sink the boat, but Webster mastered him and prevented further mischief. Two days later the same member of the crew again tried to sink the boat, and expressed his determination to take the boy's life. For this he would have been shot by Webster had not the cap on the gun missed fire. Soon after putting a fresh cap on his gun, a bird flew over the boat, which Webster shot ; it was at once seized and devoured by the crew, even to the bones and feathers.

During the next five days the crew were quieter, subsisting on barnacles which attached themselves to the bottom of the boat, and on sea-blubber, for which they dived. The following day some of the men became delirious. One of them lay down exhausted, when another struck him several blows on the head with an iron belaying-pin cutting him badly. The blood which flowed was caught in a tin and drunk by the man himself and the two other men. Afterwards they fought and bit one another, and only left off when completely exhausted, to recom- mence as soon as they were able ; the boy Horner during the time keeping watch with Webster. "On the thirty-first day in the boat they were picked up, 600 miles from land, by the ship 'City of Manchester,' Hardie, master, by whom they were very kindly treated, and brought to Calcutta. "Webster, by his conduct, was the means of saving the lives of all in the boat."

Observe, all alike were in the same circumstances, that is, were with- out solid food or, it is added, water—though there must be some mistake about that—for eight continuous days. Nevertheless, not only did they not all go mad, as they ought to have done on the popular theory, and hunger for anything, even human flesh, but the weakest among them, the boy Horner, was the sanest, and watched steadily over Webster who had saved him, while he slept. Moreover, those who were, presumably, mad—mad enough, at all events; to commit murder—were none of them mad enough to risk being shot, or to commit the indefinitely more venial crime of suicide. And finally, they did not wait—as they, as a rule in such stories, never do—till the pangs either of hunger or of thirst had become unendurable. On the

contrary, the lots for a victim were cast within twenty-four hours of the giving out of the food, the motive obviously not being unendurable suffering, but that selfish horror of death which, among bad natures, is held to justify almost any crime.

The victim selected is murdered, just as an inconvenient witness is by burglars, in order that those who murder him may be com- fortable. The crime committed is not a romantic one, or one ex- cusable in any way—though, of course, often unpunishable, from defect of evidence as to sanity—but a dirty assassination, perpetrated by men too selfish to give their comrades a fair chance. That is the truth about it, a truth every one of us recognises in the pleasure with which he hears that the man who retained his nerve, and had a conscience, and stopped the crime even by slaying its perpetrator—and Webster meant to slay his man—has been honoured by' the Crown. It was time he or some one like him should be, time that the foul tradition should be broken, time it should be known that the man who by shooting a would-be murderer stops him from relieving his hunger on a comrade's flesh does a right and honourable thing. The seamen of the Arracan ' had no more right to eat Horner at sea than they would have to eat their owner at home. Their duty was to do all they could, hope all they could, and then die quietly like men, and not kill and eat defenceless comrades like a pack of wild beasts.

Second Mate David Webster, of the collier Arracan,' deserves all honour for a deed of sustained, long-protracted, and successful fortitude, and he has got it in full measure. A contemporary rather despises the Albert Medal, and suggests that Webster would like some more solid reward, pay, or promotion, or what not ; but the writer is mistaken, we think, in his estimate of human nature. The one objection to the Victoria Cross, a mere bit of copper, is the readiness of officers to risk their lives, which belong on service to the State, and not to themselves, in order to obtain a distinction which carries nothing solid. That is the reason why it is refused to general officers, whose business is to direct others, not to throw away the Queen's property—their lives—and the State's concern—their powers of guidance—in the effort to show that they are too brave to know the rudiments of their business. Webster has gained the Victoria Cross of his profession. His deed will not live only in sailors' gossip, to be doubted, or denied, or whittled away by the envy or malice of his fellows or their superiors ; but has been rigidly investigated, has been described to the Queen, has been officially certified in all details in a Chronicle accessible to all men. Henceforward throughout earth, wherever the English language is spoken, in every port of every -sea, he is a separate man, a man honoured, a man whom employers consider it a duty to help, whom other Mates regard as English soldiers regard a V.C., whose failings are looked on indulgently, whose merits are secure of careful recognition. The Medal, or rather the official description of the reason for giving him the Medal, is worth as a mere professional certificate a doubled income, while in every other way it is to hill), to his family) to his descendants, more than any promotion or pay it would be wise to give, certainly more than any such reward given without the circu- lation of the narrative of his deed. If Mr. Webster is in the least like any other sailor, or like the character his conduct in that boat would imply, he is better rewarded by the recognition he has re- ceived from sixty millions of men, than by any probable grant which anybody who bribed sailors to wake up a true-seeming story might also succeed in getting. The bare honour is the wisest as well as the most effective form of reward, and we are glad that it bas fallen to a man who not only did a rsplexidid deed, fighting through eight days and nights of hunger, and thirst, and ex- pectation of death, in order to save a boy-oomrade, but who in doing it gave a deadly blow to the worst of all the traditions of the sea. Heneeforward we may hope that even at sea steadfast endurance will be regarded as more romantic than selfish murder, and sailors left without food will starve like explorers, or poor widows, or Irish labourers under the same temptation, and die with their faces to death, as they would if the shot were flying, without murder on their consciences, or their friend's raw flesh in their stomachs. Madness excuses anything, but none the less is it well that sailors should know that public recognition is for those among them who, under the strain of shipwreck, do not go mad. There is but one fault in the official order, and we may hope that Sir C. Adderley will, when it is brought to his notice, have the grace to correct even that. If not, the mildest hint from the Sovereign who instituted the Order and attends to its distribution will -net be misplaced, and is pretty sure to come. Considering that • the ship's boy Horner did nearly as well as AlVebater, that he endured as much -and was threatened more, that he did his •share in keeping discipline and stood through those eight days loyally by his preserver, and considering also that without his aid David 'Webster's courage and conscience and long endurance would all have been unavailing, the Department might have had the decency to ask and to record Homer's Christian name. With it he would be nearly as much honoured as his superior, without it, he will slip unnoticed or disbelieved into the crowd.