King of the Beggars - Chapter III

Chapter III

His Trip to Newfoundland; Impersonating a Shipwrecked Fisherman.

            It has been remarked, that curiosity, or the desire of knowledge, is that which most distinguishes man from the brute, and the greater the mind is, the more insatiable is that passion: we may, without flattery, say no man had a more boundless one than our hero; for, not satisfied with the observations he had made in England and Wales, (which we are well assured were many more than are usually made by gentlemen before they travel into foreign parts,) he now resolved to see other countries and manners. He was the more inclined to this, as he imagined it would enable him to be of greater service to the community of which he was a member, by rendering him capable of executing some of his stratagems with much greater success.

            He communicated this design to his school-fellow, Escott, one of those who joined the Gypsies with him, (for neither of the four wholly quitted the community). Escott very readily agreed to accompany him in his travels, and there being a vessel ready to sail for Newfoundland, lying at Dartmouth, where they then were, they agreed to embark on board her, being called the Mainsail, commanded by captain Hollingsworth. Nothing remarkable happened in their passage which relates to our hero; we shall therefore pass it by, and land him safe in Newfoundland.

            This large island was discovered by Sebastian Cabot, who was sent to America by Henry the VIIth. king of England, in the year 1497, to make discoveries. It is of a triangular figure, as big as Ireland, of about 300 leagues in circuit, separated from Canada or New France on the continent to the north, and Nova Scotia to the south, by a channel of much the same breadth as that between Dover and Calais. It lies between 46 and 50 degrees of north latitude. It is not above 1800 miles distant from the Land's-end of England. It has many commodious bays along the coast, some of them running into the land towards one another 20 leagues. The climate is very hot in summer and cold in the winter, the snow lying upon the ground four or five months in the year; the soil is very barren, bearing little or no corn, being full of mountains and impenetrable forests; its meadows are like heath, and covered with - a sort of moss instead of grass.

            Our hero, nevertheless, did not spend his time uselessly, nor even without entertainment, in this uncomfortable country; for an inquisitive and active mind will find more use and entertainment among barren rocks and mountains, than the indolent person can amongst all the magnificence and beauty of Versailles ; he therefore visited Torbay, Kitaway, Carboneer, Brigas Bay, Bay of Bulls, Pretty Harbour, Cape Broil, Bonavista, and all the other settlements, both English and French, actually making himself fully acquainted with the names, circumstances, and characters, of all the inhabitants of any note. He also visited the great bank of Newfoundland, so much talked of, which is a mountain of sand lying under the sea, above 450 miles in length, and in some places 150 in breadth, lying on the east side of the island : the sea, that runs over it, when it is flood, is 200 fathoms deep on all sides, so that at that time the largest ships may venture upon it without fear of striking, except at a place called the Virgins; but at the ebb it is dry in some places. He also visited the other lesser banks, viz. Vert Bank, about 240 miles long; the Bancuero Bank lying in the shape of a shoe, about the bigness of the other: but the greatest entertainment, and what seemed most worthy of his observation, was the great cod fishery, which is carried on about the great and other banks near the coast, for which purpose, during his stay there, he saw several hundred ships come in from different parts, both of America and Europe, so that he had an opportunity of gaining some knowledge of a considerable part of the world by inquiries, he missing no opportunity of conversing with the sailors of different countries. He was told several of these ships carried away thirty or thirty-five thousand fish a-piece; and, though this yearly consumption has been made for two centuries past, yet the same plenty of fish continues without any diminution.

            He observed that there are two sorts of salt cod, the one called green or white, the other dried or cured; but they are both the same fish, only differently prepared. The best, largest, and fattest cod, are those taken on the south side of the Great Bank; and the best season is from the beginning of February to the end of April; for then the cod, which during the winter had retired to the deepest part of the sea, return, to the bank, and grow very fat. Those caught from March to June keep well enough, which cannot be said of those taken in July, August, and September. An experienced fisherman, though he only takes one fish at a time, will catch three hundred and fifty or four hundred in a day, but seldom so many; for it is a very fatiguing work, both on account of the weight of the fish, and the cold that reigns about the Bank. When the heads of the fish are cut off, their bellies opened, and the ,guts taken out, the salter (on whose ability and care the success of the voyage chiefly depends) ranges them in the bottom of the vessel, and having made a layer there of a fathom or two square, he covers it with salt; over this he lays another, and covers it as before: and thus disposes of all the fish of one day, taking care never to mix the fish of different days together. When the cod have thus lain to drain for three or four days, they are moved into another part of the vessel, and salted a second time; and this is all the preparation these green fish undergo.

            The principal fishery for cod intended to be dried is along the southern coast of Newfoundland, where there are several commodious ports to carry the fish ashore; and though the fish are smaller here than at the Bank, on that account they are fitter to keep, and the salt penetrates them the better. As cod are only to be dried in the sun, the European vessels are obliged to put to sea in March or April, in order to have the benefit of summer for drying Some vessels indeed are sent in June or July, but those only purchase fish already prepared by the English settled in Newfoundland, giving meal, brandy, biscuit, pulse, linen, &c. in exchange. When the ships arrive in the spring, and have fixed upon a station, some of the crew build a stage or scaffold on the shore, whilst the rest are fishing and as fast as they can catch their fish they land them, open them, and salt them on moveable benches; but the main salting is performed on the scaffold. As soon as the fish have taken salt, they wash them and lay them on piles to drain. When drained, tiny range them on hurdles, head to tail; and, whilst they lie thus, they turn them four times every twenty-four hours. As they begin to dry, they lay them in heaps often or twelve a-piece, and continue to enlarge the heaps every day, till they are double their first bulk. At length they join two of these heaps together, and turn them every day as before. Lastly, they salt them over again, beginning with those that have been salted first, and then lay them in large piles as big as hay-stacks. Thus they remain till they are carried on ship-board, where they are laid on branches of trees, disposed for that purpose, at the bottom of the vessel, with mats all round, to prevent their contracting any moisture. Besides the fish itself, there are other commodities obtained from it, viz. the tripes and tongues, which are salted at the same time with the fish, and put up in barrels; the roes, or eggs, which, being salted and barreled up, are of use to cast into the sea to draw fish together, particularly pilchards; and the oil which is drawn from the livers, is used in dressing of leather.

The fishing season being over, and our hero having made all the observations that he thought might be useful to him, and returned in the same vessel to Dartmouth, from whence he had at first sailed, bringing with him a surprising fierce and large dog, which he had enticed to follow him, and made as gentle as a lamb, by an art peculiar to himself. Our hero was received with great joy by his fellow Gypsies, and they were loud in his praises, when they understood he had undertaken this voyage to enable him to deceive his enemies with the greater success. He accordingly, in a few days, went out on a cruise in the character of a shipwrecked seaman, lost in a vessel homeward bound from Newfoundland, sometimes belonging to Poole, sometimes to Dartmouth, at other times to other ports, and under such or such commander, according as the newspapers gave account of such melancholy accidents.

            If the booty he got before under this character was considerable, it was much more so now, for being able to give an exact account of Newfoundland, the settlements, harbours, fishery, and the inhabitants thereof, he applied with great confidence to masters of vessels, and gentlemen well acquainted with those parts; so that those to whom before his prudence would not let him apply, now became his greatest benefactors, as the perfect account he gave of the country engaged them to give credit to all he asserted, and made them very liberal in his favour.

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