by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (2000)
SAMUELS, SAMUEL (1823-1908). Samuel Samuels was the most famous of the packet-ship masters, eventually commanding the renowned Dreadnought (1853). Packets sailed on a set schedule, regardless of whether or not their cargo holds were full. Almost all that is known of Samuels comes from his autobiography, From the Forecastle to the Cabin, published by Harper and Brothers in 1887. Samuels states that the purpose of his autobiography is to keep young men from running away to sea–“I would not commit my memoirs to paper if I felt that they would, in the slightest, tend to induce a boy to become a sailor” (2)–but his stories are such rollicking fun that they prove a strong temptation. At age eleven, Samuels ran away from home. He had devoured the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Frederick Marryat, and these inspired him to go to sea. As he struggles to become a sailor, his early misadventures are both humorous and cautionary. On numerous occasions, he barely escapes beatings.
Samuels suffers from seasickness his first three years at sea. Another sailor attempts to cure him by having him swallow a bit of raw pork tied to a rope yarn and then yanking the yarn–a treatment also attempted in Frederick Pease Harlow’s The Making of a Sailor (1928). Later, Samuels is shanghaied–drugged and forcibly shipped–on a full-rigged ship bound for Liverpool. Despite his troubles, Samuels, with the kindness of other sailors, learns the skills of the seaman and soon becomes an officer and then a captain by age twenty-one. Samuels encounters pirates, brawls, floggings, and countless storms, and each story is more incredible than the last. His greatest adventure is rescuing a Scandinavian woman from a Turkish harem. Well known for his nonviolent treatment of sailors, Samuels was not afraid to ship even the toughest sailor. He states: “I never rejected a crew . . . on account of their bad character. I generally found among these men the toughest and best sailors” (266).
The full-rigged ship Dreadnought was built specifically for Samuels, and her speed coupled with the reputation of her captain led to her fame in both song and story. As Ralph D. Paine notes in his introduction to the 1924 edition of From the Forecastle to the Cabin, the Dreadnought maintained “an astonishing consistency of performance for a vessel under sail” (xv). There are many versions of the song “Dreadnought,” a sign that it was sung often and in many locations. It is mentioned in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous (1897), when Captain Disko Troop sings “this ancient, ancient ditty” to “a most dolorous tune, like unto the moaning of winds and the creaking of masts” (ch. 4). Kipling’s description is intriguing. By 1897 the Dreadnought was not ancient, since the vessel had been built only in 1853; however, the old Engish tune to which it is sung (also the tune of the naval ballad “The Flash Frigate”) is.
Samuels’ book tells an appealing story, but, unlike Harlow’s The Making of a Sailor or Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast (1840), it is not strictly accurate. Samuels is too often the hero.