Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Loading a Steamer



Songs With Which the Black Screwmen Lightened Their Toil — The "Nosing" Process Which Forces Three Bales Into a Space Which Two Would Fill.

T. Thomas Fortune writes as follows from Charleston to the New York Sun:

The great world at large, which has its own business to attend to and seldom sees more of an ocean freight steamer than her smokestack and masts as she stands as a chained leviathan at her pier, knows very little of the capacity of such a ship or toil and anxiety which are involved in loading her with the precious products designed for foreign ports.

The loading of a steamship is not such an easy thing as it would appear to be at first sight. The stevedore contracts to put as many bales of cotton and as much of other substances into the big thing of iron within a given time, usually ten days, as she will hold. During the time the steamer is in port she is in the hands of the stevedore. He is responsible to the shipper or broker who has the contract for her return cargo. The captain may dance and curse and give all the captious orders sea dog nature may prompt, but the stevedores and the screwmen waste very little time, attention or sympathy on him. They simply let him "shoot himself out," as they phrase it.

I went through the Urania, a Liverpool tramp here, with Mr. S. W. Bennett, an old custom house employee, recently and was surprised to find that the small steamer was under contract to carry 9,000 bales of cotton, 300 pounds or thereabouts to the bale; 3,000 barrels of turpentine and 3,000 tons of cottonseed meal, which is a very high grade fertilizer, much used of very late years in Europe and America, instead of phosphates, guano and other fertilizers.

It was in one of the compartments of the iron tramp steamship Urania that I first witnessed the interesting process of packing a large bale of cotton into the very smallest space, much less than an ordinary bale of cotton would occupy. The process of "nosing up" three bales of cotton into the space which two would ordinarily occupy cannot be understood or explained by the uninitiated. There are five men in each squad, one of whom is the foreman, who does nothing but direct which bale shall be fitted into a given space and the manner in which it shall be placed.

The four men throw the heavy bales into position as easily as if they were straws, albeit with numerous grunts untranslatable. It is a matter of dexterity and not of strength. The three bales are piled upon each other edgewise, and then a long notched plank is placed against one of the iron stanchions resting on the floor or against a layer of cotton, as the case may be. One end of the sum, which weighs about 300 pounds, is placed against the three bales of cotton, and the other in one of the notches of the plank, which is about 2 inches thick. Then the "nosing" begins. The four men yank the crank of the screw, which has a right and left prong, by a sudden jerk sufficient to disarrange the physical organism of an amateur.

During this process of "nosing" the four screwmen become bathed in perspiration and croon the most outlandish gibberish. It is hardly to be comprehended by the untutored ear. The swaying of the black bodies is as regular as if they were automatons. As they sway and croon the three bales gradually yield to the turning of the crank until they are compressed, flat side down, into the space which two bales, unpressed, would occupy. This monotonous and tiresome process is repeated hour after hour until the 9,000 bales are compressed into the space which 6,000 bales would occupy thrown into the ship's hold in the usual way. Usually only one crew occupies a compartment, but in the Urania I found two crews at work, because of the great width of the ship.

As the process of "nosing" proceeded each of the gangs crooned a ditty, in which the big foreman sometimes joined, which was as intensely diverting as it was nonsensical. One of the songs ran in this wise:

I lubes Miss Susan, she lubes me;
Pull erway, pull erway.
She hab gone ter de odder sho';
Pull erway, pull erway.
I lubes Miss Susan, she lubes me;
Pull erway, pull erway.

It is impossible to describe the peculiar gyrations of the bodies and the weird, crooning, musical sound of the voices, especially in the refrain, as this song is sung, repeated over and over until the three bales are "nosed" up and begun again, when another three bales are placed in position to be "nosed." But the song that struck me most forcibly was the following:

Riley hab a baby; de baby hab no head;
Frow um in de fryin pan un call um gingerbread.
Rio, Riley, Democrat Riley, oh!
Rio, Riley, oh! Rio Riley, oh!

The last line would be drawn out in a long, ringing cadence and die away in a gentle echoing sound. The amount of music which the four men managed to extract from these senseless words would astonish Mr. Dvorak or Mr. Damrosch.

The cotton shipment movement lasts about five months of the year, when Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah and Charleston employ an army of black screwmen. They receive good wages, but I was informed at Galveston and here that they save very little of their money. On Saturday it comes in one hand and goes out of the other. When the pressing season is over, they take to fishing, truck driving and whatever else they can get to do. They toil only that others may grow rich.

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