Tour Of The Caribbean - Tom Bowling's Chantry
( Originally Published 1925 )
THE most human building in the town of Port Royal is the old church. Viewed from the outside it is small, insignificant and ugly, being little more than a cube of plaster standing in a disintegrated graveyard. Its outward ugliness is due to the fact that it has been " restored," and that the work has been done with as much ruthlessness as if it had been a fourteenth-century church in England. A tablet announces that it was rebuilt in the years 1725-6.
Within it is happily but little disturbed, owing, it may be supposed, to a fortunate lack of funds. Still left standing are the old-fashioned pews and benches where many generations of sailor men, " grummets " and " younkers," have sat and prayed to be preserved " from the dangers of the sea and from the violence of the enemy." At one end is a grand wooden singing gallery, held up by stout pillars. Its front is very elaborately and strangely carved in the Spanish style, the surface of the work being toned down by age to a rich port-wine colour. The walls are covered with memorials and tablets of every type and period. They tell one ever-repeated story—the story of men lost in gales or killed in action, of men who sank with their ships, and above all of the host who were sacrificed as a tribute to the Minotaur of yellow fever. How many thousands of British sailors and soldiers lie buried in the sands around Port Royal no chronicle can tell. Those whose names still linger on the walls of the ancient church are but a mere fraction of the multitude.
The monuments are erected by widows, by old shipmates, by sisters and daughters. There is one to three little middies who died of yellow fever in 1820. The tablet that keeps green the memory of their brief lives is placed in the church by their captain, who would have found his ship grown strangely quiet after the three small coffins were taken ashore. There is a memorial to a lieutenant aged forty-nine, which will serve to show how slow promotion might be half a century ago. It is to a certain Lieutenant Bainbridge, of H.M. schooner Pickle, who perished of yellow fever in 1846, and is erected by his shipmates. Another tablet tells of a dismal voyage as well as of a doctor and his patients. It reads thus:—" Thomas Graham, M.D., and sixteen seamen of H.M. ship Pantaloon, who died of fever between Belize and Jamaica, 1847." A remarkable monument exists to the memory of Lieutenant Stapleton, who was killed in 1754 by the bursting of a gun. The carving in white marble representing the catastrophe was considered by many to be an achievement until Froude disposed of the same by declaring it to be " bad art."
Port Royal Church is the church of the sailor of bygone days, the seamen's chantry where ' prayers may be offered for the peace of their restless souls. Among the many inscriptions upon its walls might well appear the opening lines of Dibdin's sea song :
"Here, a sheer hulk, lies poor Tom Bowling,
As befits a sailors' chapel it is close to the sea, so near that the sound of the waves on the beach can be heard any service time when the wind is southerly.
What a muster of men these fateful walls have seen ! Here, in the best pew, stands the staid captain, " in a coat of the regular Rodney cut, broad skirts, long waist and stand-up collar ; " his costume being completed by white kerseymere breeches and long boots with " coal-scuttle tops." His lips never move through the service. He opens his book always at one place, never turning a leaf. It is the place in the volume where lies a book-marker made by a daughter long years dead ; for the old man's Sunday service, the year through, consists of a worshipful communion with memories of the past.
Here too is the mahogany-faced bo'sun, around whose visage is a fringe of hair like a mane, and at the nape of whose neck hangs a queue which might be made of a rope's end. He has a voice like a fog-horn, a reputation for musical gifts and for great powers of song. He will never begin a verse of a hymn until he has first drawn the back of his hand across his mouth, as if he were about to take a satisfying draught.
Then there are the middies, looking very trim as becomes boys fresh from home. They are apt to be pale-faced, and to seem a little too frail for the giant-limbed company they find themselves among. They wear dirks by their sides, and carry in their hands the Prayer Books their mothers gave them.
The body of the congregation is made up of a rough crowd of reckless-looking, masterful men. Most of them wear short jackets and white trousers, the latter being maintained in place by a wisp of bunting or a strip of sail cloth. Some hold shiny black hats in their fists, while most of them drag a lock of hair respect-fully over their foreheads as they enter the aisle. They are strong in coloured handkerchiefs, in large ear-rings and in ponderous boots. They are shy and awkward as they lurch in at the door, are inclined to huddle together, and, when their faces are hidden in the attitude of prayer, surreptitious jets of tobacco juice may be heard to strike the boards. Heads come close together under the shelter of the pew wall; whisperings may at times be exchanged, and these may rise into angry murmurs or even to sounds of open wrangling, until at last it comes to be known that two of the worshippers are rolling on the floor, fighting like hyaenas and nearly bursting the panels of the pew with their backs. They are removed with as much decorum as the circumstances will permit, and the subsequent fight in the graveyard is listened to with rapt interest and much nudging of elbows by a critical congregation.
Few in the assembly can read, but all can sing, and sing they do till the windows shake. The coxswain waiting by the boats on the slip must many a time have had the quiet of his watch broken in upon by the roar of the "Old Hundredth" pouring forth from the church half a mile away. It was well perhaps that they could not read, for there was ever before them in the little church the dread writing on the wall, a script which told of far-off disaster as well as of that shadow of death which left, Sunday after Sunday, ever-widening gaps in the benches.
Let it be hoped that, after the storm and stress of their rugged lives, they all found at last—as did Tom Bowling—that never clouded land of " pleasant weather."