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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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They didn’t know it yet, but Aquilla and his colleagues were already sailors, and had been for over an hour. The “passenger list” they’d signed had actually been the T.F. Oakes’ ship’s articles; they’d been not only signing in, but signing up as well. And in the 1890s, sailors who skipped after signing onto a ship were hunted down and dragged back to work by law enforcement the same way runaway slaves had been in the old South during the bad old ante-bellum days. It was a form of indentured servitude.
But, back to our story: The friendly ship’s officer proceeded to give the men a tour of the T.F. Oakes, explaining how the steam-powered anchor winch worked, giving the names of each of the three masts, and babbling amiably about the difference between barks and barkentines and how they were different from full-riggers like the T.F. Oakes. He was prattling on about such things when Aquilla glanced over his shoulder and saw all the rowboats pulling for shore, leaving them behind on the ship.
That was about the time that four uniformed police officers stepped out of one of the cabins on deck. Each of them had a .45-caliber revolver in each hand — eight guns, covering 10 men. They weren’t taking any chances.
Then another cabin door opened and out came the captain of the T.F. Oakes, with the rest of the ship’s complement of officers.
“Now, young men, you are sailors on the T.F. Oakes and you’re going to Le Havre, France,” the skipper told them. “Just to make sure you are going I’m going to sort of tie you together for a while.”
Of course, the lads protested. The skipper was ready for them. One look at the “passenger register” they’d signed on the Iralda, which the skipper had in his pocket ready to show them, and the dullest among them surely knew their case was hopeless.
They had been shanghaied. It had all been a big trap — the party, the boat ride, the drinks, the friendly ladies hired to entertain them — all a trap to get the ten of them to sign that register and thus launch themselves on a new and unexpected maritime career.
(As a side note, the boardinghouse “runner” who handled them so smoothly, “Mr. Smith,” was very likely the notorious Portland underworld entrepreneur Joseph “Bunco” Kelley. Several years later he and Larry Sullivan would have a very violent falling-out, and in 1894 Sullivan railroaded him into prison on a trumped-up murder rap; but in 1891 Bunco was Sullivan’s number-one lieutenant, and a very smooth operator indeed. It’s actually somewhat unlikely that Sullivan would have entrusted anyone else with a job of this magnitude.)
The captain spent some time giving his new sailors a pep talk before sending them below. He spoke glowingly about the glories of being a sailor before the mast, and opined that all young men should go to sea for a voyage or two before settling down in life, and that an able-bodied seaman was one of the finest and noblest of God’s creatures.
“I never did understand why the skipper went to all this trouble telling us how fortunate we were to go to sea and especially fortunate to go to sea on such a fine ship as the T.F. Oakes,” Aquilla remarked to Stewart Holbrook. “He had us completely in his power, but here he was talking like a recruiting officer for the Navy.”
Maybe it was because talk was cheap. The fact was, it was very uncommon for a sailing ship to be desperate enough to accept ten total greenhorns — about two-thirds of its normal complement of sailors — on its crew. And it hadn’t gotten itself into such a predicament by being a good place to work. The T.F. Oakes had a reputation as a “hell ship.”
The wise sailors, the ones who had been around a while, took care to not be around the boardinghouse when ships like the T.F. Oakes were due to leave port. The captain who spoke so highly of life as a sailor was notorious — not for physically abusing sailors (he left that to his first mate, a scowling bully known as Black Johnson) but for not feeding them adequately. Sailors would put up with a lot of physical abuse, but constant gnawing hunger was something else.
Chances are, Sullivan’s “party” helped the skipper out of a very tight fix, and he certainly must have paid handsomely for it.
And so did Aquilla and his nine companions. After they had passed over the Columbia River Bar (below decks, handcuffed to a stanchion) and crossed two oceans as A.B. mariners, they arrived at Le Havre to find that Sullivan had claimed $60 — two months’ pay — from each of them, to cover the cost of his boat party.
It would be seven years before Aquilla Ernest Clark would see Oregon again.