Thursday, February 11

About Baptiste, the Surgeon's Mate

Apple, the ship's carpenter, sat his empty bowl on the hanging table, leaned back against the eighteen pounder and let out a companionable belch. 

“Alright Frenchy” he said in a voice not unfriendly, “Wat’s yer story?”

The mess looked at the older French sailor. He was a recently pressed man that had been assigned as surgeon’s mate when it was learned that he’d had experience in that area. He had spoken very little since. 

“My story?”

“That’s right. This blockade ‘as gone on so long I know everything there is ta know about these ‘ere lubberly coves- ‘eard  sung ever song they know,  everything that’s ever happened to  ‘em and every lie they can think up. Yer the closest thing ta new entertainment we got.  Ya speak good enough English for a frog- so, what’s yer story?”

The Frenchman smiled. Honest, friendly curiosity wasn’t what he had expected. “I am an old man- I have many stories.”

“An we got nothing’ but time” said Apple “so it can be as long as need be. Shove off and let’s hear the first few fathoms.”

“Of myself? ” he asked, warming to his audience. Apple nodded.

“To begin I am Creole.”

“We all thought you was French” said the young gunners mate.

“I am, but born here- in America-  is as they call Creole.  My Papa- my father- he was of the Compagnie Franches de la Marine- a soldier of the Marine in de Illinois country. Is far up de river Mississippi.”

“Among the red Indians?” interrupted the gunners mate. He had dearly hoped to see a wild Indian while on North American station. The few he had seen in Halifax had been a sore disappointment.

“Yes …among the red Indians- my Grandmere- she was one, a Kaskaskia. She live with us. My Grandpere, he was French, but he die before I was borned. My Grandmere was …how do you say him in Englais? A doctor of herbs? Yes. And my Mama after her.  My Papa, he work with the surgeon at Fort DeChartres, help him to set  broke bones, hold fellows down. When I was old enough, he have me to accompany him. But most of what I wish to do was only to hunt and fish and swim with the Indian boys.”

“I was young still when de war begin.  Most is far off, but once my Papa- he go far to Niagara. He fight in de battle of de Belle Famillie. Almost everyone to home loose somebody in dat fight, but my Papa, he come home with no hurt. He save de life of his Captain dere, an de Captain, he always remember dat. I have always strange fortune, perhaps that is where it begins.”

“After de war, is a time of great worry.  De compagnie Marine is to return to France, but  dem  dat wish may take der discharge and stay as habitants, and my Papa he does dis.  No one knows but what des Englis is to come and drive us from out our homes. Some move across the Mississippi to de Spanish. But only a few hunters and merchants come to de Illinois.  I am a young man by den.”

“Is a year or so after dat my Papa receive a word, is from his Captain. De Captain, he say for my Papa to send me to a fellow in New Orleans – a merchant dat have a grand plantation. He say dis fellow will give me a position, teach me to read and look after me.”

“I do not wish to leave de Illinois, but my Papa, he say I must. So dat spring I go down de Mississippi with de bateaus to New Orleans and de wealthy fellow’s plantation.”

“Dat fellow, his name is Francois Rochambeau, he is very kind to me. He was a cousin to my Papa's Captain.  He have a grand plantation with many slaves, and he is a merchant in New Orleans. He have tree daughters and de same fellow that is a school master for dem he have to teach me to read. I find I like to read- always I like a story.”

“I have a good life dere with Masseur Rochambeu. He is very learned, a man who love science. He is a great champion of the cockpit and he put me to work with the fellow that keep his birds. I learn to both heel and set to a cock, I learn everything about dem. I come to be his favorite setter.

"He also is a champion of horses racing. When he learn that I know how to bleed a fellow- I learn from my Papa who learn from de surgeon- he have me to sometimes bleed de horses he race with. Never had I heard of such a thing, but as I say, he is a man of science. He say dat if de humors of man can come unbalance den a horse may also."

"Was Indians dere also- Homas most. I become friends among dem and hunt with dem also." 

"Messur Rochambeau grow fond of me - I think perhaps because he have no son, only daughters. Sometimes he travel about business and take me with him to look after his horses or birds. Sometimes he let me read of his books. I wish to see l'Afrique and de Indies and de other places I read of. Also I wish to see France. My Papa was from La Rochelle and he often speak of de handsome towers and copper face houses dere."

"As I say before, Messur Rochambeau have tree daughters. The most young is just a bit more young than myself. After some time she and I become fond of one another. We keep a secret of dis, for she is... how do you say him in Englis...on the top of my post, yes?"

"Above yer station." corrected Apple.

"Above my station. Yes. After some long time that we have kept company in secret she tell to me dat I should ask her Papa for her hand. Do not misunderstood me- I never... how you call him... I never make a challenge to her virtue? Yes. Never even I have a thought of it. But both we are young, and we think we love one another. Her name is Evett- did I tell dat already?"

"I would never think to do such a thing, because she is stationed above me, but she say to me 'My Papa, he is very fond of you. He think of you as a son' and she encourage me to do so. So one day I gather up all my brave and I go do so. I can tell he is taked for a surprise, but he do not become cross. He say to me 'I must think on dis for some time' and den he dismiss me."

"De next day he come to me and he say 'We are going into new Orleans, take everything you may need for you may be gone some long time.' All the way dere, when we speak, we talk of de cockpit and horses, never of Evett.  When we come to the city he send me to board the horses and partake some ...errand, dat is the word, yes? Errands, and he give me money enough for my board - he is to call at the home of a friend- and he tell to me that he will see me at de stable of de morning."

"Dat night I sleep in de stable for to save my board money- I trade de stable fellow some bread we bring. Of de morning Messer Rochombeau come and he tell to me to bring my things and come with him. We go to de waterfront, sometimes before we travel to Mobile of a boat, and I think that must be where we are to go."

"We come to a ship where dey are loading goods. Messer Rochambeau walk right aboard. The Captain see him and come and say 'So, dis is de fellow you speak to me of?' Messeur Rochambeau say 'Yes. Dis is him' den he take me by the hand and say 'Baptiste, you are a good boy. Call on me when you are returned' and with that he turn and leave. By de next tide I am sailing for de west Indies."

"I was heartbroked to be sure. First chance I have I jump de ship and think I will find another ship to return and steal Evett away . But I can find no ship to go straight away back. But what is it dat dey say...enough time and salt water make a fellow forget anything, yes? Yes. I come to find dis life suit me."

"I come to find I enjoy the pleasures of women with no virtue..." this brought howls of approval from the mess"... and soon enough I no more think of Evett. Later I find she marry well, a merchant in the city. And I have becomed a sailor.... Fathoms enough?"

"Far enough fer now" said Apple "this blockade may last for years."


  1. One of my favorite posts so far! :) That map of the United States is interesting too.