In his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions that, during his time as editor of Seafarer and Marine Pictorial magazine, “I printed what I believe to be one of the outstanding sea stories ever written, ‘The Passing of Pengelley,’ by a sailor named Williams, a protégé of Hamilton Holt, the editor of the Independent.”
Googling “passing of pengelley” and “williams” produced just two hits: one to Living Again, the other to the Google Books page for Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, subtitled “An autobiographical narrative based upon the writings of James H. Williams,” a 1959 book edited by Warren F. Kuehl.
In his preface to the book, Kuehl describes how he stumbled across a collection of Williams’ manuscripts while researching a biography on Holt:
In style and story, it held me spellbound. Here were daring adventures, heroic deeds, and colorful descriptive passages. And here was the lure of a romantic age now lost save in our imagination.
From reading the pieces, Kuehl soon learned more about the writer:
He called himself a common sailor, but he was a most uncommon man. With little formal education, he wrote in a style which would embarrass many polished scribes. Although a self-confessed murderer according to his own account, he possessed a high sense of moral virtue which like an unseen hand directed his actions. Although a practical man who survived innumerable storms and two major shipwrecks, he was a romantic soul who instinctively sought out the ships of masts and spars in an age in which the merchant marine was making its transition from sail to steam, from Wood to steel. Within him, too, burned a reforming fever so intense that he became an uncompromising enemy of crimps, jackals, avaricious shipowners, heartless masters, and all who preyed upon the common seaman. And he labored with some success to achieve through unions and legislation the humane treatment and legal rights which he felt his comrades of the sea deserved.
James H. Williams, Negro seaman with reddish hair and light-brown skin. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1864, the son of James C. and Margaret Crotty Williams and, as he narrates in describing his family background and childhood experiences, went to sea at an early age. It was in 1897 that he first began to write about life in the old merchant marine. He was then thirty-three years old and had been a sailor for twenty-one years. Hamilton Holt, then the managing editor of the Independent, a prominent national magazine, opened the columns of his journal to Williams and subsequently prints over thirty articles and editorials from Williams’ pen.
As Williams writes in the first piece, “A Son of Ishmael,” his father was a black sailor, whose mother had been a slave, and his mother a white working-class woman from Fall River. Williams’ father rose to the status of pilot for a Long Island Sound line, and had ambitions of a college education for his son, but these ended with his death in an accident in 1870. At the age of twelve, Williams took to sea, bound to a shipmaster as a cabin boy.
By the time Williams went to sea, the great age of sailing ships was already coming to an end. Steamships were rapidly replacing sailing ships, and three-masters were being elbowed out of the most profitable routes. Although Williams was quite clearly a highly perceptive and intelligent man, for some reason he chose to stick with the older ships–a decision that relegated him to a series of rough, dangerous, and poorly-paid posts on ships plying secondary routes to such places as Bombay and Buenos Aires. Most of his jobs were on British ships, although he considered this “entirely the result of chance and not of choice.”
“I am proud of my hard-earned distinction as a maritime A. B. and of my lifetime of intimate and fraternal association with the ‘common’ sailors of the old merchant marine. No nobler or braver or more loyal, devoted and self-sacrificing martyrs than the merchant seaman ever lived.”
“The Passing of Pengelley” offers a dramatic illustration of the risks taken by these seamen. It describes the death of one of Williams’ shipmates, Alfred Pengelley, on the British ship, Late Commander, on a transit from Southhampton to Calcutta. As they huddle together on deck, sheltering from a terrific storm while standing watch, Pengelley confides in Williams that he has a crippling fear of climbing the masts and believes that he is destined to die from a fall. Pengelley’s premonition comes true that night. Williams then recounts his burial at sea and how the ship’s captains and owners then attempt to cover up the cause of the accident–the lack of proper safety attachments–and put the blame on Pengelley’s own negligence. It’s a vivid story that not only demonstrates the dangers of shipboard work but also Williams’ own advocacy of better working conditions and pay for sailors–a cause he championed both while at sea and later through his articles and columns.
The story illustrates why Kuehl is apt in comparing Williams’ writings to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s classic, Two Years Before the Mast. Both men were eloquent in conveying the drama and degradation of life as a working sailor, and both played important roles in organizing movements to improve their lot.
Ironically, though, at the same time that Williams began to write, the very organizations he was trying to support were making it more and more difficult for a black man to work as a merchant sailor. By the time he came ashore for good in 1910, it would have been difficult for him to get a posting as anything other than a cook or steward.
Williams’ time at sea took a considerable toll on his health. Although supported by Holt and others, he still had to rely on odd jobs on the Manhattan waterfront to get by. He collected his manuscripts and wrote an introductory foreword to them in 1922, hoping to publish them as a book. It was this collection that Kuehl discovered among Hamilton Holt’s papers.
In 1926, he retired to Sailor’s Snug Harbor a home founded in 1801 to give refuge to “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen. He died a year later after an operation to treat his throat cancer and was buried in the Sailor’s Snug Harbor cemetery.
A paperback reproduction of Blow The Man Down is available from Literary Licensing, LLC. for $32.95, but used copies of the original 1959 hardback can be found for a fraction of that price on Amazon and elsewhere.
Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, based upon the writings of James H. Williams, edited by Warren F. Kuehl
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959