Herman Melville – The ‘Gees

In relating to my friends various passages of my sea-goings I have at times had occasion to allude to that singular people the ‘Gees, sometimes as casual acquaintances, sometimes as shipmates. Such allusions have been quite natural and easy. For instance, I have said The two ‘Gees, just as another would say The two Dutchmen, or The two Indians. In fact, being myself so familiar with ‘Gees, it seemed as if all the rest of the world must be. But not so. My auditors have opened their eyes as much as to say, “What under the sun is a ‘Gee?” To enlighten them I have repeatedly had to interrupt myself and not without detriment to my stories. To remedy which inconvenience, a friend hinted the advisability of writing out some account of the ‘Gees, and having it published. Such as they are, the following memoranda spring from that happy suggestion:
The word ‘Gee (g hard) is an abbreviation, by seamen, of Portugee, the corrupt form of Portuguese. As the name is a curtailment, so the race is a residuum. Some three centuries ago certain Portuguese convicts were sent as a colony to Fogo, one of the Cape de Verdes, off the northwest coast of Africa, an island previously stocked with an aboriginal race of negroes, ranking pretty high in civility, but rather low in stature and morals. In course of time, from the amalgamated generation all the likelier sort were drafted off as food for powder, and the ancestors of the since-called ‘Gees were left as the caput mortum, or melancholy remainder.
Of all men seamen have strong prejudices, particularly in the matter of race. They are bigots here. But when a creature of inferior race lives among them, an inferior tar, there seems no bound to their disdain. Now, as ere long will be hinted, the ‘Gee, though of an aquatic nature, does not, as regards higher qualifications, make the best of sailors. In short, by seamen the abbreviation ‘Gee was hit upon in pure contumely ; the degree of which may be partially inferred from this, that with them the primitive word Portugee itself is a reproach; so that ‘Gee, being a subtle distillation from that word, stands, in point of relative intensity to it, as attar of roses does to rosewater. At times, when some crusty old sea-dog has his spleen more than unusually excited against some luckless blunderer of Fogo his shipmate, it is marvelous the prolongation of taunt into which he will spin out the one little exclamatory monosyllable Ge-e-e-e-e !
The Isle of Fogo, that is, “Fire Isle,” was so called from its volcano, which, after throwing up an infinite deal of stones and ashes, finally threw up business altogether, from its broadcast bounteousness having become bankrupt. But thanks to the volcano’s prodigality in its time, the soil of Fogo is such as may be found on a dusty day on a road newly macadamized. Cut off from farms and gardens, the staple food of the inhabitants is fish, at catching which they are expert. But none the less do they relish ship-biscuit, which, indeed, by most islanders, barbarous or semi-barbarous, is held a sort of lozenge.
In his best estate the ‘Gee is rather small (he admits it) but, with some exceptions, hardy; capable of enduring extreme hard work, hard fare, or hard usage, as the case may be. In fact, upon a scientific view, there would seem a natural adaptability in the ‘Gee to hard times generally. A theory not uncorroborated by his experiences; and furthermore, that kindly care of Nature in fitting him for them, something as for his hard rubs with a hardened world Fox the Quaker fitted himself, namely, in a tough leather suit from top to toe. In other words, the ‘Gee is by no means of that exquisitely delicate sensibility expressed by the figurative adjective thin-skinned. His physicals and spirituals are in singular contrast. The ‘Gee has a great appetite, but little imagination; a large eyeball, but small insight. Biscuit he crunches, but sentiment he eschews.
His complexion is hybrid ; his hair ditto ; his mouth disproportionally large, as compared with his stomach ; his neck short ; but his head round, compact, and betokening a solid understanding.
Like the negro, the ‘Gee has a peculiar savor, but a different one—a sort of wild, marine, gamey savor, as in the sea-bird called haglet. Like venison, his flesh is firm but lean.
His teeth are what are called butter-teeth, strong, durable, square, and yellow. Among captains at a loss for better discourse during dull, rainy weather in the horse-latitudes, much debate has been had whether his teeth are intended for carnivorous or herbivorous purposes, or both conjoined. But as on his isle the ‘Gee eats neither flesh nor grass, this inquiry would seem superfluous.
The native dress of the ‘Gee is, like his name, compendious. His head being by nature well thatched, he wears no hat. Wont to wade much in the surf, he wears no shoes. He has a serviceably hard heel, a kick from which is by the judicious held almost as dangerous as one from a wild zebra.
Though for a long time back no stranger to the seafaring people of Portugal, the ‘Gee, until a comparatively recent period, remained almost undreamed of by seafaring Americans. It is now some forty years since he first became known to certain masters of our Nantucket ships, who commenced the practice of touching at Fogo, on the outward passage, there to fill up vacancies among their crews arising from the short supply of men at home. By degrees the custom became pretty general, till now the ‘Gee is found aboard of almost one whaler out of three. One reason why they are in request is this : An unsophisticated ‘Gee coming on board a foreign ship never asks for wages. He comes for biscuit. He does not know what wages mean, unless cuffs and buffets be wages, of which sort he receives a liberal allowance, paid with great punctuality, besides perquisites of punches thrown in now and then. But for all this, some persons there are, and not unduly biassed by partiality to him either, who still insist that the ‘Gee never gets his due.
His docile services being thus cheaply to be had, some captains will go the length of maintaining that ‘Gee sailors are preferable, indeed every way, physically and intellectually, superior to American sailors—such captains complaining, and justly, that American sailors, if not decently treated, are apt to give serious trouble.
But even by their most ardent admirers it is not deemed prudent to sail a ship with none but ‘Gees, at least if they chance to be all green hands, a green ‘Gee being of all green things the greenest. Besides, owing to the clumsiness of their feet ere improved by practice in the rigging, green ‘Gees are wont, in no inconsiderable numbers, to fall overboard the first dark, squally night; insomuch that when unreasonable owners insist with a captain against his will upon a green ‘Gee crew fore and aft, he will ship twice as many ‘Gees as he would have shipped of Americans, so as to provide for all contingencies.
The ‘Gees are always ready to be shipped. Any day one may go to their isle, and on the showing of a coin of biscuit over the rail, may load down to the water’s edge with them.
But though any number of ‘Gees are ever ready to be shipped, still it is by no means well to take them as they come. There is a choice even in ‘Gees.
Of course the ‘Gee has his private nature as well as his public coat. To know ‘Gees—to be a sound judge of ‘Gees—one must study them, just as to know and be a judge of horses one must study horses. Simple as for the most part are both horse and ‘Gee, in neither case can knowledge of the creature come by intuition. How unwise, then, in those ignorant young captains who, on their first voyage, will go and ship their ‘Gees at Fogo without any preparatory information, or even so much as taking convenient advice from a ‘Gee jockey. By a ‘Gee jockey is meant a man well versed in ‘Gees. Many a young captain has been thrown and badly hurt by a ‘Gee of his own choosing. For notwithstanding the general docility of the ‘Gee when green, it may be otherwise with him when ripe. Discreet captains won’t have such a ‘Gee. “Away with that ripe ‘Gee!” they cry; “that smart ‘Gee; that knowing ‘Gee! Green ‘Gees for me!”
For the benefit of inexperienced captains about to visit Fogo, the following may be given as the best way to test a ‘Gee: Get square before him, at, say three paces, so that the eye, like a shot, may rake the ‘Gee fore and aft, at one glance taking in his whole make and build—how he looks about the head, whether he carry it well; his ears, are they over-lengthy? How fares it in the withers? His legs, does the ‘Gee stand strongly on them? His knees, any Belshazzar symptoms there? How stands it in the regions of the brisket, etc., etc.
Thus far bone and bottom. For the rest, draw close to, and put the centre of the pupil of your eye—put it, as it were, right into the ‘Gee’s eye—even as an eye-stone, gently, but firmly slip it in there, and then note what speck or beam of viciousness, if any, will be floated out.
All this and more must be done: and yet after all, the best judge may be deceived. But on no account should the shipper negotiate for his ‘Gee with any middle-man, himself a ‘Gee. Because such an one must be a knowing ‘Gee, who will be sure to advise the green ‘Gee what things to hide and what to display, to hit the skipper’s fancy; which, of course, the knowing ‘Gee supposes to lean toward as much physical and moral excellence as possible. The rashness of trusting to one of these middle-men was forcibly shown in the case of the ‘Gee who by his countrymen was recommended to a [[w:New Bedford|]] captain as one of the most agile ‘Gees in Fogo. There he stood straight and stout, in a flowing pair of man-of-war’s-man trousers, uncommonly well fitted out. True, he did not step around much at the time. But that was diffidence. Good. They shipped him. But at the first taking in of sail the ‘Gee hung fire. Come to look, both trousers-legs were full of elephantiasis. It was a long sperm-whaling voyage. Useless as so much lumber, at every port prohibited from being dumped ashore, that elephantine ‘Gee, ever crunching biscuit, for three weary years was trundled round the globe.
Grown wise by several similar experiences, old Captain Hosea Kean, of Nantucket, in shipping a ‘Gee, at present manages matters thus : He lands at Fogo in the night ; by secret means gains information where the likeliest ‘Gee wanting to ship lodges; whereupon with a strong party he surprises all the friends and acquaintances of that ‘Gee; putting them under guard with pistols at their heads ; then creeps cautiously toward the ‘Gee, now lying wholly unawares in his hut, quite relaxed from all possibility of displaying aught deceptive in his appearance. Thus silently, thus suddenly, thus unannounced, Captain Kean bursts upon his ‘Gee, so to speak, in the very bosom of his family. By this means, more than once, unexpected revelations have been made. A ‘Gee, noised abroad for a Hercules in strength and an Apollo Belvidere for beauty, of a sudden is discovered all in a wretched heap ; forlornly adroop as upon crutches, his legs looking as if broken at the cart-wheel. Solitude is the house of candor, according to Captain Kean. In the stall, not the street, he says, resides the real nag.
The innate disdain of regularly bred seamen toward ‘Gees receives an added edge from this. The ‘Gees undersell them working for biscuit where the sailors demand dollars. Hence anything said by sailors to the prejudice of ‘Gees should be received with caution. Especially that jeer of theirs, that monkey-jacket was originally so called from the circumstance that that rude sort of shaggy garment was first known in Fogo. They often call a monkey-jacket a ‘Gee-jacket. However this may be, there is no call to which the ‘Gee will with more alacrity respond than the word “Man!”
Is there any hard work to be done, and the ‘Gees stand round in sulks? “Here, my men!” cries the mate. How they jump. But ten to one when the work is done, it is plain ‘Gee again. “Here, ‘Gee you ‘Ge-e-e-e!” In fact, it is not unsurmised, that only when extraordinary stimulus is needed, only when an extra strain is to be got out of them, are these hapless ‘Gees ennobled with the human name.
As yet, the intellect of the ‘Gee has been little cultivated. No well-attested educational experiment has been tried upon him. It is said, however, that in the last century a young ‘Gee was by a visionary Portuguese naval officer sent to Salamanca University. Also, among the Quakers of Nantucket, there has been talk of sending five comely ‘Gees, aged sixteen, to Dartmouth College; that venerable institution, as is well known, having been originally founded partly with the object of finishing off wild Indians in the classics and higher mathematics. Two qualities of the ‘Gee which, with his docility, may be justly regarded as furnishing a hopeful basis for his intellectual training, is his excellent memory, and still more excellent credulity.
The above account may, perhaps, among the ethnologists, raise some curiosity to see a ‘Gee. But to see a ‘Gee there is no need to go all the way to Fogo, no more than to see a Chinaman to go all the way to China. ‘Gees are occasionally to be encountered in our seaports, but more particularly in Nantucket and New Bedford. But these ‘Gees are not the ‘Gees of Fogo. That is, they are no longer green ‘Gees. They are sophisticated ‘Gees, and hence liable to be taken for naturalized citizens badly sunburnt. Many a Chinaman, in a new coat and pantaloons, his long queue coiled out of sight in one of Genin’s hats, has promenaded Broadway, and been taken merely for an eccentric Georgia planter. The same with ‘Gees; a stranger need have a sharp eye to know a ‘Gee, even if he see him.
Thus much for a general sketchy view of the ‘Gee. For further and fuller information apply to any sharp-witted American whaling captain but more especially to the before-mentioned old Captain Hosea Kean, of Nantucket, whose address at present is “Pacific Ocean.”