Charles Darwin was seasick, he had been seasick from the first dawn, and he had been so relentlessly seasick for a week now that he was beginning to wonder if his intestines were being attacked by a sea cucumber. This was surprisingly close to the truth, as the ship’s cook had been poisoning the entire crew ever since he had come aboard. The cook’s approach to cuisine was his revenge on the British navy for having press-ganged him into service from the finest restaurant in Belgravia and carted off to serve slop to drunken sailors aboard the HMS Beagle. Most of the meals consisted of whatever odd animals he could drag from the sea, ranging from albatrosses, vampire squids, and most provocatively ambergris - which for lack of a better title is known as whale vomit.
Darwin stared out the porthole. Plymouth sat there as steady as a rock and he wondered if they would ever set to sea. The captain had insisted that before their voyage the officers and gentlemen spent time with each other, it had only taken one meal for them to develop an instinctive dislike of each other and of the dining room. The captain assured them that seasickness was common even amongst seasoned sailors, and then threw up a curry made up of octopus eyeballs, leafy sea-dragons and malaria tablets.
“Gentlemen, a toast!” captain FitzRoy lifted a glass, “to a successful voyage, and to sweethearts and wives - may they never meet!”
“Could we just have a slice of dry toast?” Darwin groaned.
“What’s wrong with the meal?”
“Well, either it’s still alive or it has come back from the grave,” Darwin pushed the plate away.
“Nonsense,” FitzRoy looked annoyed, “the cook is the finest we could pressgang from the restaurants of Belgravia. None finer.”
“None finer than what?” Darwin watched amazed as the shell of some antediluvian crustacean emerged of its own volition like the Birth of Venus from beneath the soup.
“Well, you know, none finer.” FitzRoy regarded Darwin circumspectly, “Charles, we will soon be at sea on a voyage that may last up to five years, a little discomfort is to be expected in the cuisine.”
“I would most certainly agree captain,” Darwin felt green, “except we’re still in Plymouth harbor and have yet to set to sea. We could at least have our meals in the tavern, while the cook decides whether to poison us or kill us with scurvy.”
“Nonsense,” FitzRoy thumped the table with his fist, “the Royal Naval has a tradition to uphold, and the food is part of that tradition, no matter how foul it may be.”
“The other thing,” Darwin looked under the table at his ankles, “is it really necessary for all of us to be shackled to the floor?”
“That also is part of the Royal Naval tradition,” FitzRoy waved his hands about to dismiss any arguments, “all new sailors are to be shackled while in port, this prevents deserters from well, deserting you know.”
“But FitzRoy,” Darwin complained, “we’re not Jack Tars, we’re officers and ordinary gentlemen.”
“Enough of that!” FitzRoy stood to attention, “we will sing Heart of Oak, the anthem of the Royal Navy.”
The rest shambled to their feet, dragging their chains and FitzRoy lead them on with first verse:
“Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honor we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?”
Not knowing the words to this, all Darwin could do was rattle his chains and look uncomfortable.
The next morning they assembled on the deck and Captain Robert FitzRoy read them the riot act.
“It has come to my attention,” he looked down sternly at Darwin from the poop deck, “that there are rumors of a mutiny on board my ship. Given that we have been sitting in Plymouth Harbor for only a week, and have several years of sailing to get through, I have decided to set an example to you all.”
Darwin felt the earth give way beneath him, and then he realized it was just the swell of the sea. He watched FitzRoy with the sense of alarm.
“I have decided to show that your captain is just as capable of enduring the rigors of the sea as any of you are, and to this end,” he waved at Bosun to come forward, “I am going to have myself keelhauled. Bosun!”
“Sir? What?” The Bosun looked at the captain in alarm. “Isn’t that a little extreme?”
“Nonsense!” FitzRoy used the sort of stare Nelson gave with his right eye, that is to say – blindly. “Attach the chains to my limbs, and have the men haul me under the ship.”
“Beggin’ your pardon sir,” the Bosun bobbed his head and looked to the junior officers for support, “but we can’t be doing that sir, not unless the captain has committed some offence again’st King’s regulations and what like.”
“And King’s regulations state, the captain is the final arbiter in all matters.” The captain took off his hat and jacket and handed them to the Bosun, “now carry out your orders, or it will be you, and not I, that goes under the ship.”
This was too much for the Bosun and he quickly tied the chains to captain FitzRoy’s arms and legs, and had the ordinary seamen toss him overboard. Several minutes later he was dragged back on board, none the worse for the object lesson.
“There see,” FitzRoy spoke directly to Darwin as he wiped the seawater from his face, “the rigors of our journey are to be endured, not complained or whined about mister Darwin.”
“Yes captain,” said Darwin, in no little awe of this demonstration, then he pointed at FitzRoy chest, “are those lampreys or eels?”
‘Waah!” FitzRoy jumped in the air and started flailing at the creatures, which had attached to his torso. “Get them off! Get them off!”
That evening the gentlemen and officers reassembled in the officer’s mess and were presented with a meal that could best be described as ‘inimical’. Darwin pushed uncertainly at his plate and watched animated green bubbles make their way to the surface of the gruel only to decide death was the better alternative, before collapsing once more into the mire.
“What is this?” he asked as the mouth of a scientifically impossible fish open in the gruel and took a gulp of air before also dying. “Is it cooked?”
“Mister Darwin,” captain FitzRoy put down his spoon and gave Darwin an unrelenting look, “you are setting a bad example to my junior officers. Please refrain from doing so.”
“But this food,” Darwin poked once more at the soup, only to have it attack his spoon, “is it still alive? I mean seriously, I’d swear those are teeth.”
“It is present on the table,” FitzRoy was not giving an inch, “it is in a bowl, it is steaming and it has nourishment. Therefore, as captain of this ship, I am declaring this food. Gentlemen – the King.”
They all raised their glasses, as Darwin was heard to mutter: “Like large teeth, the short you see on a terrier. Is this terrier?”
“Mister Darwin,” FitzRoy thundered, “The King!”
“Ah, yes, the King,” Darwin joined them in the toast, “Although, I certainly wouldn’t expect King William to eat something like this.”
“Mister Darwin!” FitzRoy slammed his hands on the table and rose to his feet, “I certainly hope, you do not continue in this manner during the voyage of the Beagle, or it will be a very long voyage indeed!”
“With food like this,” Darwin looked suspiciously at his food and continued to mutter, “I’d be surprised if the voyage lasted longer than a week.”
“Darwin!” FitzRoy threw a key on the table and pointed at the door, “Leave!”
“Ah,” Darwin grinned a little, took the key, unlocked his shackles, and then crept out the door. This was his whole plan all the time, only it meant he could slip a shore and grab a proper meal from the tavern. In the back of his mind, he hoped the Beagle might sail without him on the morning-tide.
The next morning they assembled on the deck and Captain Robert FitzRoy read them the riot act – again.
“It has come to my attention,” he once more stared angrily at Darwin from the poop deck, “that there are rumors of dissatisfaction with the ship’s menu. This menu was carefully selected by the cook to sustain us during our arduous struggles in the Southern Ocean.”
The cook, who was about to strangle a cat in the gunnels, met this with a look of surprise.
“Given” FitzRoy continued, “that we have been sitting in Plymouth Harbor for only a week, and have several years of sailing to get through, I have decided to set an example to you all. Again!”
Once more Darwin wondered what lay in store for him.
“I have decided to show that your captain is just as capable of enduring the rigors of the sea as any of you are, and to this end,” he waved at Bosun to come forward, “I am going to eat a cat of nine-tails. Bosun!”
All the bosun could muster was, “Wot?”
“Bring me a cat of nine tails, a pot of boiling water and a fork,” FitzRoy did what he thought was a heroic impersonation of Nelson. “I’m going to eat a cat of nine tails, if I can do that, then any meal no matter how bad will be deemed edible.”
“Beggin’ your pardon sir,” the Bosun bobbed his head and looked worried, “but as we only have the one cat-o-nine, it would seem to be a bit of a loss when it came time to serving King’s Regulations to the crew and all. Can’t we be using something else instead?”
“Have you any suggestions?”
“Well how about the ship’s cat,” he pointed at the cook, “going to be served up anyway.”
“What?” FitzRoy stared in amazement at the cook with cat in hand, “that’s what happened to Matilda?”
“What of it?” the cook threw the cat on the deck, “You wanted fresh meat! I’ll give you fresh meat!”
The cat raced up the ship’s rigging and hissed at them from the yardarm.
“You’ve been feeding us cats?” captain FitzRoy was amazed.
“Cats, dogs, seagulls, rats, hairy crabs, glass frogs, eels eyeballs, toad legs, vole lungs, and haddock,” the cook spat on the deck, “but you only got haddock because we were out of sturgeon brains and blobfish.”
FitzRoy coughed for a moment, then leaned over the rail and vomited into the sea. A flock of seagulls dove down to investigate then flew off in terror. FitzRoy recovered and waved his arm at the cook.
“You are dismissed from service!” he croaked and returned to wave watching.
“Finally,” the cook whooped and threw his hat in the air, before racing down the gangplank and disappearing.
That evening, a rather green captain FitzRoy joined his officers in the tavern. There was a minute’s silence as they watched him expectantly. He raised a glass of port and stood at the head of the table.
“Fox hunting and old port, ships at sea,” he said simply and then looked at Darwin. “Tomorrow we will be having a new cook, trained in the French style of cuisine. The King!”
“The King!” they chorused.
Darwin raised his glass and grinned to himself. It has taken a whole week to convince the cook to serve up offal and call it food, but it had been worth it and the voyage would now have a decent cook, and if it didn’t, he had an even more cunning plan.
Copyright reserved by Jim O’Brien ©