Short and Singular Rations

By Mark Twain
From The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (New York: C. H. Webb, 1867).

As many will remember, the clipper-ship Hornet, of New-York, was burned at sea on her passage to San Francisco. The disaster occurred in lat. 2 20' north, long. 112 8' west. After being forty-three days adrift on the broad Pacific, in open boats, the crew and passengers succeeded in making Hawaii. A tribute to the courage and brave endurance of these men has been paid in a letter detailing their sufferings, (the particulars being gathered from their own lips,) from which the following excerpt is made:

On Monday, the thirty-eighth day after the disaster, "we had nothing left," said the third mate, "but a pound and a half of ham -- the bone was a good deal the heaviest part of it -- and one soup-and-bully tin." These things were divided among the fifteen men, and they ate it all -- two ounces of food to each man. I do not count the ham-bone, as that was saved for next day. For some time, now, the poor wretches had been cutting their old boots into small pieces and eating them. They would also pound wet rags to a sort of pulp and eat them.

On the thirty-ninth day the ham-bone was divided up into rations, and scraped with knives and eaten. I said, "You say the two sick men remained sick all through, and after a while two or three had to be relieved from standing watch; how did you get along without medicines?"

The reply was, "Oh! we couldn't have kept them if we'd had them; if we'd had boxes of pills, or any thing like that, we'd have eaten them. It was just as well -- we couldn't have kept them, and we couldn't have given them to the sick men alone -- we'd have shared them around all alike, I guess." It was said rather in jest, but it was a pretty true jest, no doubt.

After apportioning the ham-bone, the captain cut the canvas cover that had been around the ham into fifteen equal pieces, and each man took his portion. This was the last division of food the captain made. The men broke up the small oaken butter tub, and divided the staves among themselves, and gnawed them up. The shell of a little green turtle was scraped with knives, and eaten to the last shaving. The third mate chewed pieces of boots, and spit them out, but ate nothing except the soft straps of two pairs of boots -- ate three on the thirty-ninth day, and saved one for the fortieth.

The men seem to have thought in their own minds of the shipwrecked mariner's last dreadful resort -- cannibalism; but they do not appear to have conversed about it. They only thought of the casting lots and killing one of their number as a possibility; but even when they were eating rags, and bone, and boots, and shell, and hard oak wood, they seem to have still had a notion that it was remote. They felt that some one of the company must die soon -- which one they well knew; and during the last three or four days of their terrible voyage they were patiently but hungrily waiting for him. I wonder if the subject of these anticipations knew what they were thinking of? He must have known it -- he must have felt it. They had even calculated how long he would last. They said to themselves, but not to each other -- I think they said, "He will die Saturday -- and then!"

There was one exception to the spirit of delicacy I have mentioned -- a Frenchman -- who kept an eye of strong personal interest upon the sinking man, and noted his failing strength with untiring care and some degree of cheerfulness. He frequently said to Thomas, "I think he will go off pretty soon now, sir; and then we'll eat him!" This is very sad.

Thomas, and also several of the men, state that the sick "Portyghee," during the five days that they were entirely out of provisions, actually ate two silk handkerchiefs and a couple of cotton shirts, besides his share of the boots, and bones, and lumber.

Captain Mitchell was fifty-six years old on the twelfth of June -- the fortieth day after the burning of the ship and the third day before the boat's crew reached land. He said it looked somewhat as if it might be the last one he was going to enjoy. He had no birthday feast except some bits of ham-canvas -- no luxury but this, and no substantials save the leather and oaken bucket-staves.

Speaking of the leather diet, one of the men told me he was obliged to eat a pair of boots which were so old and rotten that they were full of holes; and then he smiled gently and said he didn't know, though, but what the holes tasted about as good as the balance of the boot. This man was very feeble, and after saying this he went to bed.

All contents © Copyright The Hannibal Courier-Post and GateHouse Media, Inc.
Contact us. | Privacy Policy.