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Chapter 43:

  • Fernando de Noronha
  • -- its famous peak -- is a penal settlement of Brazil -- a visit from the Governor's ambassadors -- a visit to the Governor in return -- the Aristocracy of the island -- capture of the Lafayette and the Kate Cory -- burning of the two last ships, with the Louisa Hatch -- prisoners sent to Pernambuco -- the Cloud Ring, and the rainy and dry seasons.

Fernando de Noronha lies not a great way from Cape St. Roque in Brazil. It forms the western end of a chain of volcanic islands and deep-sea soundings that extend some distance along the equator. Earthquakes have been frequently experienced by ships when passing along this chain, and the charts point out a number of supposed dangers hereabout. Many of these dangers have no real existence, but still the prudent mariner gives them a wide berth, when sailing past the localities assigned them. The island of Fernando de Noronha is evidently of volcanic origin. Its whole appearance indicates that it was thrown from the depths of the sea, by nature, when in one of her most fearful paroxysms. Its abrupt and rugged sides of solid rock, rent and torn, and blackened by the torrents, rise almost perpendicularly from the waters to the height of several hundred feet.

The famous peak before spoken of, and which the mariner at sea descries long before the body of the island becomes visible, is a queer freak of nature. It looks as though the giants had been playing at church-steeples, and had upraised this immense shaft of granite to mark one of nature's cathedrals. The illusion is almost perfect. When ‘land ho!’ is first cried by the look-out at the mast-head, and the glass is applied in [597] the given direction, the observer is startled at the resemblance. Nor is his surprise diminished, as his ship approaches nearer, and the body of the island begins to make its appearance above the water; for there is the roof of the massive cathedral, to which the steeple belongs! The peak is a mass of solid granite, shot by the earthquake through the solid crust of the mountain, and is almost symmetrical enough to have been shaped by human hands. We lay nearly two weeks at Fernando de Noronha, and I was never tired of gazing upon this wonderful evidence of the power of volcanic forces.

The winds, the rains, and the sunshine have, in the course of ages, disintegrated enough of the surface of this rocky island, to form a rich soil, which is covered with a profusion of tropical vegetation, including forest-trees of considerable size; and a number of small farms, with neat farm-houses, add to the picturesqueness of the scene. Fruits and vegetables, the Indian corn, and the sugar-cane, flourish in great perfection, and a few ponies and horned cattle have been introduced from the main land. Swine, goats, and domestic fowls abound. Fernando de Noronha stands as a great sign-board, as it were, on the principal commercial thoroughfare of the world. Almost all the ships that cross the line, from Europe and America, to the East Indies and Pacific Ocean, and vice versa, sight it, for the purpose of taking a new departure from it. The dwellers on its lonely hills look out upon a constant stream of commerce, but they are like prisoners looking out from their prison-windows upon a scene of which they are not a part. A ship rarely ever touches at the island. There is nothing to invite communication. It is too insignificant for traffic, and has no good harbor where a ship could repair damages or refit. It is, besides, a penal colony of Brazil, to which it belongs. It is under the government of an officer of the Brazilian Army, who has a battalion of troops under him, and hither are sent from Rio Janeiro, and the other cities of the empire, all the noted criminals who are condemned to long terms of imprisonment. Very few of the prisoners are kept in close confinement. The island itself is prison enough, and there are no possible means of escape from it. The prisoners are, therefore, permitted to run at large, and mitigate the [598] horrors of their lot by manual labor on the farms, or engage in the mechanic arts.

Our arrival was announced in due form to the Governor, and the paymaster had, besides, at my suggestion, addressed him a letter on the subject of supplies. In the meantime, we hauled the Louisa Hatch alongside, and commenced coaling. The next morning a couple of gentlemen visited me, on the part of the Governor, to arrange personally with the paymaster, the matter of supplies, and to welcome me to the island. No objection was made to our bringing in the Hatch, or to our receiving coal from her. The state of my diplomatic relations with the Governor was thus so satisfactory, that I invited his ambassadors into the cabin, and summoned Bartelli to provide champagne. A popping of corks, and a mutual clinking of glasses ensued, and when we had resumed conversation and lighted cigars, one of the gentlemen diplomats informed me, in the most easy and san souciant manner possible, that he was one of the convicts of the island! He had been sentenced for six years, he said, but had nearly served his term out. He was a German, and spoke very good English. Several of my officers were present, and there was, of course, a casting of glances from one to the other. But Bartelli, who was still standing a few paces in the rear, with a fresh bottle of uncorked champagne in his hand, seemed to be most shocked. My faithful steward felt the honors and dignity of my station much more than I did myself, and it was amusing to see the smile of derision and contempt, with which he wheeled round, and replaced the uncorked bottle in the champagne basket.

The next day, accompanied by my paymaster—by the way, I have forgotten to mention that I had appointed Dr. Galt, my esteemed surgeon, paymaster, at the time I made a present of my former paymaster to Mr. Adams, as related; and that I had promoted Dr. Llewellyn to be surgeon—I made a visit to the Governor at his palace. He had kindly sent horses for us to the beach, and we had a pleasant ride of about a mile, before we reached his headquarters. It was about eleven A. M., when we alighted, and were escorted by an aide-de-camp to his presence. The Governor was a thin, spare man, rather under the medium height, and of sprightly manners and [599] conversation. His complexion, like that of most Brazilians, was about that of a side of tanned sole-leather. His rank was that of a major in the Brazilian Army. He received us very cordially. We found him at breakfast with his family and some guests, and he insisted that we should be seated at the breakfast-table, and partake of a second breakfast, though we endeavored to decline. The meal was quite substantial, consisting of a variety of roast meats, as well as fruits and vegetables.

As soon as I could find a little time to look around me, I discovered that her ladyship, the governess, was a very sprightly and not uncomely mulatto, and that her two little children, who were brought to me with all due ceremony, to be praised, and have their heads patted, had rather kinky, or, perhaps, I should say curly, hair. But I was a man of the world, and was not at all dismayed by this discovery; especially when I observed that my vis-a-vis — one of the guests — was a beautiful blonde, of sweet seventeen, with a complexion like a lily, tinted with the least bit of rose, and with eyes so melting and lovely, that they looked as though they might have belonged to one of the houris, of whom that old reprobate Mahomet used to dream. To set off her charms still further, she was arrayed in a robe of the purest white, with a wreath of flowers in her flaxen hair. She was a German, and was seated next to her father, a man of about sixty, who, as the Governor afterward informed me, was one of his chief criminals.

The Governor seeing me start a little as he gave me this information, made haste to explain, that his guest was not of the canaille, or common class of rogues, but a gentleman, who, in a moment of weakness, had signed another gentleman's name to a check for a considerable amount, which he had been clever enough to have cashed. ‘He is only a forger, then!’ said I to the Governor. ‘That is all,’ replied he; ‘he is a very clever old gentleman, and, as you see, he has a very pretty daughter.’ There was certainly no gainsaying the latter proposition. The chaplain of the penal colony —which numbered about one thousand convicts, the entire population of the island being about two thousand—a portly and dignified priest, was also at the breakfast-table, and my paymaster and myself spent a very pleasant half-hour around this social board, [600] at which were represented so many of the types of mankind, and so different moral elements.

From the breakfast-table, we retired to a withdrawing-room, which was pretty well filled when we entered, showing that his Excellency had done me the honor to get some guests together to greet me. The paymaster and myself were personally presented to most of these distinguished gentlemen—some military men, some civilians. Among others, was present the ambassador of the day previous, who had given such a shock to Bartelli's nerves, as to render him incapable of doing that which he loved above all other things to do—draw a champagne cork for the Captain's guests, whom he regarded, after a certain fashion, as his own. The Governor had evidently been select in his society, for most of these gentlemen were not only well dressed, but well-mannered, and some of them were even distinguished in appearance. They were mostly homicides and forgers, and seemed rather to pride themselves upon the distinction which they had attained in their professions. There was one young fellow present, upon whom all seemed to look with admiration. He was a dashing young German, who had evidently driven fast horses, and kept the best of company. He wore an elaborately embroidered shirt-bosom, on which glittered a diamond brooch of great brilliancy, and there were chains hung about his neck, and signet and other rings on his fingers. This fellow was such a master of the pen, that he could cheat any man out of his signature, after having seen him write but once. To give us an example of his skill, he sketched, whilst we were talking to him, the Alabama, and her surroundings, as they appeared from the window of the saloon in which we were sitting, so perfectly, with pen and ink, as to create a murmur of applause among the bystanders. This charming young gentleman had ‘done’ the Bank of Rio Janeiro out of a very large sum, which was the cause of his being the guest of the Governor.

Wine and cigars were brought in, and as we chatted, and smoked with these fellows, the paymaster, and I were highly amused-amused at our own situation, and by the variety of characters by whom we were surrounded. The levee being at an end, the Governor ordered horses, and, accompanied by an orderly, we rode over his dominions. It was in the midst of the rainy season, and the island was almost constantly wreathed [601] in mists and rain, but as these rains continue for months, noone thinks of housing himself on account of them.

We passed within a stone's throw of the Peak, and weremore struck than ever, with the grandeur of its proportions and the symmetry of its form. The island is broken and picturesque, as all volcanic countries are, and in the midst of the rains, it was one mass of rank vegetation, it being as much as the farmers could do to keep a few patches of cultivation free from the encroaching weeds and jungle. We had not been in the saddle more than twenty minutes, when a heavily laden, vaporous cloud swept over us, and drenched us to the skin. But I found that this was not to interfere, in the least, with our ride. Its only effect was, to induce the Governor to call a temporary halt, at a Manioc factory, in which he was interested, and whistle up a boy, who brought each of us a very small glass filled with the villanous aguadiente of the country. The Governor tossed his off at a single gulp, and not to be discourteous, we made wry faces, and disposed of as much of ours as we could.

We passed through tangled forests, the trees of which were all new to us, and through dells and ravines, in which the living, and the decaying vegetation seemed to be struggling for the mastery, and emerged in a beautiful cocoanut plantation, on the south end of the island, which lay only a few feet above the sea-level. I was now at the end of the Governor's dominions—an hour's ride had brought me from the sea, on one side of them, to the sea, on the other, and there was nothing more to be seen. Other showers coming on, we entered a tiny country house of the Governor's, and had some grapes, figs, and melons brought in to us by the major domo. The green cocoanut was brought to us among other delicacies, to be eaten with spoons. We were quite amused at the manner in which these nuts were gathered. The major domo called a boy, and tying his legs together, just above the ankles, so that the ankles were about six inches apart, set him down at the foot of a tree. These trees, as the reader knows, grow to a great height, are perfectly cylindrical, and have not an excrescence of any kind from root to top; and yet the boy, by the aid of the bandage described, wriggled himself to the top of one of the tallest, with the agility of a squirrel. [602]

There being at length a pause in the rains, the sun even peeping through an occasional rift in the ragged and watery clouds, we remounted, and rode back. The tiny mountain paths had, many of them, by this time become rills and torrents, and our horses were frequently knee-deep in water. The paymaster and I pulled on board at five P. M., without having suffered any inconvenience, either from the rains, or the Governor's aguadiente; nor did our morals suffer materially by what we had seen and heard in the island of Fernando de Noronha. The next morning the Governor's wife sent me a fat turkey for dinner, accompanied by the most charming of bouquets. This was evidently my reward for patting the little curly heads of her children. My diplomacy from this time onward was all right. I did not hear a word from the Governor, or any one in authority, about neutral rights, or the violation of neutral jurisdictions. Brazil had, I knew, followed the lead of the European powers, in excluding prizes from her ports, and I had fully expected to receive some remonstrance against my bringing in the Louisa Hatch, but Madame was too strong for the Governor, and, as the reader has seen, I received fat turkeys, and bouquets, instead of remonstrances. The anchorage being nothing but an open roadstead, we soon found it too rough to permit a ship to lie alongside of us, and so were obliged to haul the Hatch off to her anchors, and continue our coaling with boats. This was rather a tedious process, and it was not until the 15th of April, or five days after our arrival, that we were coaled.

We had not once thought of a prize, since we came in. Our whole attention had been given to coaling ship, and refitting for another cruise, refreshing the crew, and attending to the ladies at the Government House. But the ubiquitous Yankee would turn up in spite of us. Just as we had gotten our last boat-load of coal on board, two ships appeared off the harbor, and were seen to heave to, and lower boats. We soon made them out to be whalers, and knew them to be American, though they had not as yet hoisted any colors. The boats pulled in apace, and soon entered the harbor. They contained the masters of the two whalers, who had come in to barter a little whale oil for supplies. The Alabama was lying, without [603] any colors hoisted, as was her wont while she remained at this island, and, of course, the Louisa Hatch, her prize, had none set. The boats pulled in quite unsuspiciously, and observing that the Hatch was an American built ship, went alongside of her. The prize-master, who was taking it easily, in his shirtsleeves, and so had no uniform on which could betray him, went to the gangway and threw them a rope. The two masters declined to come on board, as they were in a hurry, they said, but remained some time in conversation—the prize-master, who was an Englishman, endeavoring to play Yankee, the best he could. He repeatedly invited them to come on board, but they declined. They wanted to know what steamer that was, pointing to the Alabama. They were told that it was a Brazilian packet-steamer, come over to the colony to bring some convicts. ‘What are you doing here,’ they now inquired. ‘We sprang a pretty bad leak, in a late gale, and have come in to see if we can repair damages.’ Presently there was a simultaneous start, on the part of both the boat's crews, and the words ‘starn, all!’ being bawled, rather than spoken, both boats backed out, in ‘double quick,’ and put off, with the most vigorous strokes of their oars, for the shore, like men who were pulling for their lives. The prize-master, a little astonished at this sudden movement, looked around him to see what could have caused it. The cause was soon apparent. A small Confederate flag—a boat's ensign—had been thrown by the coxswain of one of the boats on the spanker-boom to dry, and while the conversation was going on, a puff of wind had blown out the folds, and disclosed the little tell-tale to the gaze of the astonished whalers. It was not precisely a Gorgon's head; they did not turn to stone, but perhaps there was some of the tallest pulling done, that day, at Fernando de Noronha, that was ever done by a Yankee boat's crew.

In the meantime, the ‘Brazilian packet-steamer’ having gotten up steam, was moving quietly out of the harbor, to look after the ships outside. They were still lying to, and fortunately for me, they were four or five miles off; outside of the charmed marine league. There was an outlying shoal or two, in the direction in which they were, and this was the reason, probably, why they had not ventured nearer. It did not take [604] us long to come up with them. We fired the usual gun as we approached, and as there was no occasion for ruse, we showed them our own flag. They saw in a moment that their fate was sealed, and did not attempt to stir, but hoisted the United States colors, and patiently waited to be taken possession of. The first we came up with, was the bark Lafayette, of New Bedford. There were no papers to be examined—the mate, in the absence of the captain, having thrown them overboard, as we approached—and we gave her a short shrift. She was burning brightly, in less than an hour. We now ranged up alongside of the other, which proved to be the hermaphrodite brig, Kate Cory, of Westport. Instead of burning the Cory, I took her in tow, and stood back to the anchorage with her, it being my intention to convert her into a cartel, and dispatch her to the United States, with my prisoners, who were now quite as numerous as my crew, there being 110 of them. By seven P. M., we had again anchored in our old berth; the burning ship outside lighting us into the roadstead, and throwing a bright glare over much of the island. A number of ships that passed Fernando de Noronha that night, must have been astonished at this illumination of the lonely mile-post. The sea was smooth, and the ship was still burning, the next morning, though by this time she had drifted so far, that there was nothing visible except a column of smoke. I afterward changed my determination of converting the Cory into a cartel. A small Brazilian schooner having come into the anchorage, offered to take all my prisoners to Pernambuco, if I would provision them, and give her, besides, a few barrels of pork and flour for her trouble. This I at once consented to do, and the Governor having no objection, the arrangement was forthwith made. I was thus enabled to burn the Gory, and to put the enemy, to the expense of sending his released prisoners to the United States. I burned the Louisa Hatch along with the Cory, having no farther use for her; taking the pains to send them both beyond the marine league, that I might pay due respect to the jurisdiction of Brazil.

And now we were ready for sea again, though I remained a few days longer at my anchors, hoping that the Agrippina might arrive. She was past due, but I had not yet given up all hope of her. [605]

We were now getting well along into the latter part of April, and a great change was taking place in the weather. It had been raining, as the reader has observed, ever since we reached the vicinity of the equator. The rains were now becoming less frequent, from day to day, and we had the showers agreeably alternated with sunshine. The rainy season was passing away, and the dry season was about to set in. I watched this phenomenon with great interest—all the more narrowly, because I had nothing to do, but look out for the weather, and the Agrippina; except, indeed, to attend to the refreshment, and recreation of my crew, and send Bartelli on shore, occasionally, with messages to the ladies at the Government House. The reader, who has now been a passenger with us for some time, has watched the trade-winds, as he has crossed the tropics, and has fanned himself and panted for breath, when we have been working our tedious way through the calm-belts. He has seen how this system of trade-winds and calm-belts wanders up and down the earth, from north to south, and south to north, drawn hither and thither by the sun. But we have had no conversation, as yet, about the Equatorial Cloud Ring. He has been, for the last three weeks, under this very Cloud Ring, but has probably failed to remark it. He has only seen that the flood-gates of the heavens have been raised, and witnessed the descending torrents, and the roll of the thunder, and the play of the lightning, without stopping to ask himself the reason.

Let us pause a moment, and look into this beautiful phenomenon of the Equatorial Cloud Ring, before we flit away to other seas, and are absorbed by new phenomena. The northeast and south-east trade-winds, meeting near the equator, produce the Cloud Ring. Let us suppose the Alabama back at the crossing of the 30th parallel, where, as the reader will recollect, we established the toll-gate. She had, whilst there, a high barometer. Starting thence on her way to the equator, as soon as she enters the north-east trade, she finds that her barometer settles a little—perhaps a tenth of an inch on an average. The reader has seen, that we had, whilst passing through this region, a series of half gales, and bad weather; but this was an exceptional state of the atmospheric phenomena. [606] The normal condition of the weather is that of a clear sky, with passing trade-clouds, white and fleecy, and with moderate breezes. If the reader has watched his barometer narrowly, he has observed a very remarkable phenomenon, which is not known to prevail outside of the trade-wind belts— an atmospheric tide. The atmosphere ebbs and flows as regularly as the sea. This atmospheric tide is due, no doubt, to the same cause that produces the aqueous tides—the attraction of the moon. It occurs twice in twenty-four hours, just like the aqueous tides, and there is no other cause to which we can attribute it.

The needle has a like semi-diurnal—indeed, hourly variation—showing the normal, electrical condition of the atmosphere. The atmospherical, tidal wave, as it ebbs and flows, seems to carry the needle backward and forward with it. The average barometer being but a very little under thirty, there is an agreeable elasticity in the atmosphere, and officers, and crew are generally in fine spirits. The sailors enjoy their evening dances, and story-tellings, and when the night-watches are set, sleep with impunity about the decks—guarded, however, by those woollen garments, of which I spoke, when describing our routine life. But observe, now, what a change will take place, as we approach the equator. We are approaching not only the calm-belt, which has been before described, but the Cloud Ring, for the latter is the concomitant of the former. The winds die away, the muttering of thunder is heard, and a pall of black clouds, along which dart frequent streaks of lightning, is seen hanging on the verge of the horizon, ahead of the ship. As she advances, fanned along by puffs of wind from various quarters, she loses sight of the sun altogether, and enters beneath the belt of clouds, where she is at once deluged with rain. She is at once in the equatorial calm-belt, and under the Equatorial Cloud Ring.

The north-east and south-east trade-winds, as they came sweeping along, charged to saturation with the vapors which they have licked up from a torrid sea, have ascended as they met, and when they have reached the proper dew-point, or point of the wet-bulb of the thermometer, precipitation has commenced. The barometer falls another tenth of an inch, or [607] so, all elasticity departs from the atmosphere, and officers and crew lose their cheerfulness. They feel all the lassitude and weariness of men in a perpetual vapor-bath. The sailor no longer mounts the ratlines, as if he had cork in his heels, but climbs up sluggishly and slothfully, devoid of his usual pride to be foremost. In other words, though not absolutely sick, he is ‘under the weather.’ The rays of the sun being perpetually excluded, the thermometer stands lower under the Cloud Ring, than on either side of it. At least this is the normal condition. Sometimes, however, the most oppressive heats occur. They are local, and of short duration. These local heats are occasioned as follows: When a cooler stratum of the upper air sweeps down nearer the earth than usual, bringing with it the dew-point, condensation takes place so near the surface, that the rain-drops have not time to cool, at the same time that an immense quantity of latent heat has been liberated in the act of condensation. At other times, when the dew-point is far removed from the earth, the latent heat is not only thrown off at a greater distance from us, but the rain-drops cool in their descent, and greatly reduce the temperature.

The Cloud Ring is being perpetually formed, and is perpetually passing away. Fresh volumes of air charged as described, are constantly rushing in from the north and from the south, and as constantly ascending, parting with a portion of their water, and continuing their journey to the poles, in obedience to the laws providing for the equal distribution of rain to the two hemispheres, before explained. The Cloud Ring encircles the entire earth, and if it could be viewed by an eye at a distance from our planet, would appear like a well-defined black mark drawn around an artificial globe. Its width is considerable, being from three to six degrees.

It remains to speak of the offices which this remarkable ring performs. It is an important cog-wheel in the great atmospherical machine, for the distribution of water over the earth; but, besides its functions in the general system, it has local duties to perform. These are the hovering by turns over certain portions of the earth, giving them an alternation of rain and sunshine. In short, it causes the rainy, and dry seasons, [608] in certain parallels, north and south, within the limits assigned to it. The ancients were of the opinion that the equatorial regions of the earth were a continuous, burning desert, devoid of vegetation, and of course uninhabitable; and perhaps this opinion would not be very far wrong, but for the arrangement of which I am about to speak. The Cloud Ring is a part of the system of calm-belts, and trade-winds. It overhangs the equatorial calm-belt, as has been stated, and it travels north and south with it. It travels over as much as twenty degrees of latitude—from about 5° S. to 15° N., carrying, as before remarked, rain to the regions over which it hovers, and letting in the sunshine upon those regions it has left. If the reader will inspect a map, he will find that it extends as far into our hemisphere, as the island of Martinique, in the West Indies. Fernando de Noronha, where we are now lying in the Alabama, is near its southern limit, being in the latitude of about 4° S.

[609] The reader has seen that the rainy season was still prevailing, when we arrived at this island, on the 10th of April; and that it had begun to pass away, while we still lay there—the rain and the sunshine playing at ‘April showers.’ The preceding diagram will explain how the Cloud Ring travels:—

Figure 1 represents the island of Fernando de Noronha still under the Cloud Ring. It is early in April, and only about three weeks have elapsed since the sun crossed the equator on his way back to the northern hemisphere. When he was in the southern hemisphere, he had drawn the ring so far south, as to cover the island. His rays had been shut out from it, and it was constantly raining. The little island would have been drowned out, if this state of things had continued; but it was not so ordered by the great Architect.

Suppose now a month to elapse. It is early in May, and behold! the sun has travelled sufficiently far north, to draw the Cloud Ring from over the island, and leave it in sunshine, as represented in figure 2. Thus the island is neither parched by perpetual heat, nor drowned by perpetual rains, but its climate is delightfully tempered by an alternation of each, and it has become a fit abode for men and animals.

As we have seen — in a former chapter, a benign Providence has set the trade-winds in motion, that they might become the water-carriers of the earth, ordering them, for this purpose, to cross the equator, each into the hemisphere of the other. We now see that he has woven, with those same winds, a shield, impenetrable to the sun's rays, which he holds in his hand, as it were, first over one parched region of the earth, and then over another—the shield dropping ‘fatness’ all the while!

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