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Taulerius Cornelius  

Tales From Seafaring Days Of Taulerius Thomsen

Taulerius Cornelius Thomsen was born in 1832. That means more than hundred years ago. He was the next youngest son of the old skipper and merchant Tolleif Thomsen in Engesund, Fitjar, some miles just south of Bergen, Norway. His mother died when he was eight years old, so he and his younger brother, Gerhard, often found their boyhood days darkened by a stern and wilful housekeeper who had no love to share with the children, left in her care. The father, a Christian and well meaning man, had himself been brought up under the stern and iron hard discipline of the long years of war, didn't have the ability to make the childhood days lighter. Luther's adage that the apple should always be beside the sticks was followed as far as the stick was concerned, but as far as the apple, alas! The children got, for their time and condition, a real good common school education. There was a very primitive parish school in Fitjar at that time, but that was added to by lessons from the old one, (the father) and later helped along by a private teacher. Otherwise, from the time they could be useful, they were kept at work. After they were confirmed at the age of fourteen or fifteen, they were along on the winter fishing after herring, which was a hard and cruel school to graduate from. The ocean, a treacherous, tumultuous and hard master to struggle with, or as the poet says,

A people you see
in a fight for life continually
with precious the cost
in endless struggles lost.
For oft there was none
that could bring home the tale.

Since Tauler, as he was called, was the one of the boys who took the most interest in the seafaring branch of the establishment's many-sided affairs, his father set him to skipper the small coasting vessel used to carry on the freighting for the business. Steamboats did not then; as now, run in to every bay and cove to pick up freight and passengers, so all traffic has to be carried with their own vessel. His experience as skipper of his own vessel at so young an age developed a resolution and quickness of action and decision that never left him in all his life. In the dark winter months he sailed with the fresh caught herring into the big salteries in Bergen and Stavanger. Haugesund, which later has played so big a role in the shipping trade, was then just a village and was named Karmsund. The coast sailing was often dangerous with the short winter day, fog, unsightly weather, sudden storms, when all visibility suddenly obscured narrow inlets and sailing routes, and not, as now, a beacon light on every point of land. As an old pilot expressed himself, "we had to find our way when I was a youngster, although they didn't have a man with a lantern on every promontory, to light our way for us."

After the winter fishing season was over, he went south to Stavanger, either after oats (the most useful grain in those days) and to Bergen after rye and other trade goods. One spring, after the potato crop has failed in Sunnhordaland, he sailed his smack up north to Trondheim after seed potatoes, so he learned experience and self-reliance early. On a business trip to Stavanger for his father (I believe in 1852) he took the mail steamer south. At the hotel he met a tall-sunburned sailor who told him he was from a farm named Sortland on Moster Island, Sunnhordaland. His name was Lars Olsen, and had just arrived from America. He had spent several years sailing on American ships, mostly from the port of Boston. He had much to tell from his sailor life on the seven seas. Tauler became interested and the urge for adventure, which always lurks inside a Norwegian's bosom, was awakening. After a couple of days company, while waiting for the north-bound steamboat, and after an evening's celebration, they took the morning steamer together, and later in the same day parted in Mosterhaven, Lars to look up relatives and friends, and Tauler to get a man to sail him home to Engesund. Much water was to run down the brook before they met again under very different circumstances.

Now let us follow this Lars Olson for a while. How long he stayed in Norway, I do not know, but in later fifties we find him among that sturdy advance guard of those sturdy Norsemen who from the Illinois and Wisconsin settlements, passed by Fort Snelling and St. Anthony Falls and through the big woods, found their way to the edge of the prairies in what was first Monongalia county, now Kandiyohi county, Minnesota. He was, as far as my knowledge goes, the first to file on a homestead in what is now Colfax Township. He found a beautiful piece of land on what is now Lake Prairie. A nice lake outside the cabin door, full of fish, the prairie ready to set the plow in, and fine timber, oak, ash, basswood, stately elms, maple, poplar, wild plums which every fall were loaded with delicious fruit, besides the wild grapes that grew in profusion everywhere, and not to forget the wild game, deer, bear, wolf, raccoons, rabbits, beside the forbearing animals as mink and muskrat. The bird life was an endless multitude, geese, different kinds of duck, cranes, and herons waded in the swampland, and in the edge of the timber the prairie hen would, if disturbed, fly up with a great roar, while her youngsters would scatter in all directions and hide from the intruder. A pioneer paradise in truth. But as of old in Eden there was a serpent. Spring and fall there were the terrible prairie fires so the only safe place was the plowed land, or where they had made firebreaks by clearing or burning a strip of land. In the winter the fearful snowstorms, that almost without warning came rolling over the wayfarer or lonely settler. In the summer the mosquitoes that like a cloud tormented man and beast, were kept in check by constant smudges around the buildings, and not to forget the red man, who with suspicious eyes, watched the white man intruding on his premises, and terrible was the vengeance he took, but this is now history. Now are the Indian and game gone, and many of the lakes drained out. The iron hand of civilization has set up its stamp everywhere. Well-cultivated farms, purebred cattle, good roads, modern schools, and fine churches are now seen over the landscape where the Indians of old chased the buffalo. On the edge of the timber where his wigwam was erected is now a modern farmhouse. The virgin beauty in its awe-inspiring wildness gone, and the spirit of materialism rules. But back to Lars Olson. I am not sure whether it was in 1858 or 1859 he came. He told me once that he left his wife and children further east in the state, and alone with his oxen drove westward into the unknown wilderness. After he had found the land he liked, he had to build a house. As he told me, "I was working here alone during the late summer for five or six weeks, and had seen neither red or white people, so it began to be kind of lonesome. One evening I took my rifle and walked south over the prairie to see if I could get some game to replenish my empty larder. About a mile south I saw a man with a gun evidently out on the same mission. As I got nearer I saw it was a white man, and when he saw me we hurried to meet each other. The stranger was a Swede, Anders Olson. He had a homestead a couple of miles further south, and was also alone. We were happy as two lonely kids and now there was no more loneliness." Out there in the wilderness was cultivated a friendship that lasted for a long lifetime. The human need for society and companionship is queer. Lars and family lived on their homestead until he and other settlers in August 1862 had to flee for their lives from the Indians. In the summer of 1860 Anfin Thorson Hystad from Stord Island also came with others. This Anfin Thorson Hystad had sailed earlier on the coast of Norway with Tauler, but they had lost track of each other.

Now back to Tauler! What the stranger had told him was not forgotten, and about a year later, we find him aboard a ship from Arendal. The ship's cargo went first to England with lumber, and then they loaded a cargo of coal for the Turkish government in Constantinople. It was a beautiful sight sailing up the Golden Horn. The city on the slopes with tall minarets with their golden domes rising magnificently over the harbor. But with closer acquaintance, the spell was broken; it was found like all other oriental cities to be a place of squalor and dirt. There was much variation of life ashore, one saw well fed Turkish noblemen in turban and long robes, or merchants sitting in their stores along the crooked and dark street, smoking long pipes which hung over their beards, wild warriors from the inland with murderous looking pistols and long knives in their belts, ready for a few piasters, to send anyone in the dark over to the unseen, veiled women walking along, mostly followed by an eunuch at their heels. There were bands of hungry dogs everywhere fighting over a carcass, or sneaking up to steal all the eatables they could find. If an ass or other beast of burden fell down in the street, it was the dogs and buzzards that finished it. Foxy peddlers that tried to get you to buy all their flimsy wares. Yes, there was much to be seen! Slaves, (criminals) did the unloading. They were chained together two and two, carrying a big bucket on a pole between them, bore it ashore walking in long rows with the slave drivers cracking a whip over their heads. One day, two got desperate over their treatment, and attacked their tormentor and got him down and almost killed him before soldiers rescued him. When they didn't return to work the next day they asked why, and the guard made a sign across his throat. After the coal was unloaded, they went in ballast up the Dardenelles into the Black Sea to Odessa to load rye and flax for Norway. It was now late in the fall, and they had to lay there all winter, icebound, as the Black Sea is frozen in the winter. It was shortly after the Crimean War and several British Warships were still lying there. Of interest, also, were the ruins of the fortifications and the stronghold of Sebastopal, and the other marks of war's destruction. They passed an easy winter, with just the ship to look after, and later in the winter to take on the cargo. It was hauled to the shipside on sleds and hoisted aboard. The voyage home went smoothly with no noteworthy happenings. In the fall they left Arendal with lumber for Leith, Scotland. It was in the month of November, and with fair wind they crossed the North Sea in three days, and were in sight of the inlet to Leith. Almost without warning, they were overwhelmed by a terrible storm from the northwest. Heaving the vessel to the gale they were driven back over the North Sea down to Jylland, Denmark. There the storm turned them back up under Scotland where the northwest gale met them again. In vain, they tried to get into a refuge harbor in Norway. Storms, blinding snow flurries, unsightly weather hindered all attempts. One night the deck load of lumber tore loose and began to break over the side. The ship half-buried in the frothing billows, laboured heavily. After a half-hour's almost superhuman exertion they got all the stays that held the lumber back cut and the ocean did the rest. After they got rid of the heavy deck load, the ship manoeuvred more easily, but with the deck load the cooks galley went also, and with that their chances for warm food except for coffee and a few other things that could be cooked on the heating stove in the cabin or in the men's quarters. At last, the third time they succeeded in getting to Leith in a fatigued and worn condition. The storm broke again, but now they were finally in safety after having been tossed about on the angry North Sea for five weeks. The North Sea was full of wreckage that they had passed. Tauler was tired of the North Sea, and now sought out broader expanses. In the summer of 1856, we find him on an English vessel in Quebec. Here, to his surprise, he met a company of Norwegian emigrants in town on their way to Wisconsin. They were mostly people from the vicinity of Bergen. Among them was a Peter Grindheim from Moster Island. I do not know if the other Grindheim brothers were with them. Peter wanted Tauler to join them, and go inland, but he loved the free life on the billows too much to leave it to be a landlubber at so young an age. Otherwise, the idea was not without its charm, as he knew the family by name and reputation. Had he yielded, this tale would have been different. In 1858, he was in London, England just back from a voyage. It was a dull time for shipping, so one day he went over to the office of the East Indian Company. The official who had done the hiring, asked him what nationality he was, and he answered Norwegian. "We can use you," he said. The ship he was to go on was a full rigger, a so-called Aberdeen clipper of 886 tons, burdens the name of the Fiery Cross. It was faster than ordinary, and carried a crew of forty-five men, all English. It also carried four cannons, and a great supply of guns and hand weapons. The Indian Sea was in those days, infested with Malayan and Chinese pirates, so it was necessary to be prepared to meet them. In a letter to his father, in my possession, dated November 20, 1858, he states they would leave London, November 23rd, and maybe for Australia. Aboard was a discipline and order as aboard a man-of war. The crew was divided in several watches; so it was seldom they were ordered on an off-duty watch even in a heavy gale. A good many had served in the British navy and were well trained in the use of arms. One old fellow had been in the Napoleon Wars, and had sailed all over the world besides. He was now a man, a good deal over seventy years of age, but lively and quick as a youth and a pet with the crew. All were willing to take a turn for the old man, and he repaid their kindness by shortening the monotony of the long voyage by spinning yarns. Somebody produced a mat on the deck, sat the old jack on it, and the rest squatted around him. Here is one of his yarns. "I sailed once with a captain, we can call him James Crancy, and cruel as the evil one himself, mean to the crew, ill-treating them, and cursing them early and late. The cat-o-nine tails were in common usage. The crew hated him as the incarnation of the evil one. Well, at last, I got away from him, and often wondered what became of the beats. Many years afterwards, I was aboard a ship sailing on the Mediterranean. We had passed Sicily and Mt. Aetna the day before and for a fair wind, stood eastward. The night was dark but starlit. As I stood there on my lookout watch, I saw a terrible dark mass coming up toward us with a terrible speed. After awhile it took the shape of a ship enclosed in flaming fires and weird terrible looking beings swarmed on the deck. As it passed us I hauled it in trembling fear. What ship is it? "Old Nick's, on our way to Mount Aetna with Captain James. "Now I found out what became of him, "the old man finished his tale.

During the trip eastward, which took several months, nothing of special significance, happened. At first, the ship followed the old route south along the African Coast. They stopped at St. Helena for fresh vegetables and water and then around the Cape of Good Hope and then northeast through the Indian Ocean. Then the Indian and Chinese Archipelago to Foo Chu Foo. From there to Canton and Hong Kong where they should wait for the tea harvest and load rice and tea for England. In the China Sea they had their first encounter that might have proven fatal in the extreme. One day as they were slowly tacking up between some islands, the captain got on deck and gave some orders for extra lookouts. The information that they were passing through one of the worst pirates nests in the whole China Sea, was passed along with the order. Everyone was to report any native boat he might see along the wooded shoreline. Later in the day Tauler had his turn at the wheel. He had orders to hold the ship close to the wind so; if possible, they could pass a timbered headland over the bow. The breeze was low so the ship didn't have much speed. As he stood there wondering if they could make it without having to make another tack, he suddenly notice a dark object in the waterline in the thick foliage under the treetops that almost hung over the water. He was sure that a moment ago there had been nothing there. After a minute the object drew back, but now he noticed plainly the prow of a boat as it disappeared behind the trees. After awhile it came back. He called the captain's attention to it as he passed him. The captain made a couple of long jumps to the deck rack where his telescope was kept, and looked through it, but the boat had disappeared again. A few tense minutes followed, but soon the prow of the boat appeared again, this time very plainly. As soon as the captain got his glass on it, he turned to the mate with a curt order to be ready to go about. Now the boat was observed over the whole ship, and everyone ran to his station at ropes and braces. The rudder was laid over and the big ship ran slowly up into the wind and turned over on another bout, when again they had time to turn their heads to see what was coming. There were three large Chinese junks bearing down on them, driven by sails and oars. The foremost was a rather large vessel and carried in the bow two good-sized cannons, and all were crowded to capacity with about as ugly a bunch of pirates as you could ever see, and all armed to the teeth. They hauled in on them fast. In the meantime, the crew on the Fiery Cross had not been sleeping. All sails were hoisted. The gun crews took their posts, and the big guns were put in position, firearms were loaded and cutlasses distributed among the crew. Meanwhile, the pirates hauled in on them and a cannon ball was expected in over the stem. While they stood silently watching for what was to come, suddenly a squall of wind filled the sails and the ship heeled over under the pressure. The breeze got stronger, and soon they noticed the distance between them, and the pursuers became greater, and soon the pirates gave up the chase. "It is not out of the way to salute them in parting," said the captain, and one of the cannons was trained on them and fired. The ball passed over them. They answered promptly, but the ball did not reach the ship.

Tauler asked once what the chances would have been if it had come to blows. The captain answered, "If we could have kept up a running fight with our cannon, we could have beaten them, but if we had been becalmed and they had boarded us, our goose would have been cooked. They were at least ten to one of us, and if they had gone near enough to throw some of their stinkpots aboard (stinkpots are a kind of rocket bomb used by Chinese Pirates in those days) it would have been quite a job to get rid of them."

While they were in Hong Kong a report came that pirates had taken a ship. An English Warship lying on the Roadstead, slipped her cables, and went to sea. After a week or so it returned and sailed up on the Roadstead and there was executed a drama Tauler never forgot. Just as the ship swung up to its anchor buoy and the sails furled, the pirates they captured were hung from the yardarms where they hung all day long as dead birds on a scarecrow. A lot can be said about English politics, but one thing is manifest, they have brought law and order wherever they have ruled.

Now the ship was overhauled and repaired for the trip home. Mostly Coolies did the work, so the crew had it rather easy, but they had to watch and look after the ship's rig and gear and see how things were done. In those days, and possibly yet, there was in England a large premium for the first tea cargo of the year's harvest. Another large London ship lay there also ready for the homeward journey. It was important to get the tea aboard in a hurry as it came downriver from the interior, as there would be a race back to England to win the prize. The Fiery Cross got ready first and left Hong Kong six hours earlier than their rival. Now started an exciting race. They knew the other ship was on their heels, and a pressure of canvas was kept up to the utmost. At the entrance of the Indian Ocean a hurricane overtook them, and their topmasts went over the side, but in three days spares were rigged up again. Then the same press of sail out through the Indian Ocean with its changing weather from a calm and heat so the pitch ran out of the caulking of the shipside, then storms, waterspouts, typhoons, and then again the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope which was done in a storm from the southeast. They went leeward of the storm with reefed stumps; the ship half-buried in the wild waves and ran with a terrific speed through the raging waters. Some of the top rigging was broken again, but as soon as the weather calmed enough it was up again. At St. Helena, the island of Napoleon's captivity, they stopped for water, and as they left, their rival hove into sight. Now it was the same race up the African Coast with shifting winds and weather. In the Bay of Biscay they lost some rigging, but for lack of spares it would not be replaced. The rest of the voyage had all the gale that could be used so it was not needed. At the entrance to the English Channel they were overtaken by a terrific storm out of the northwest. The storm was from the right direction, but the night was dark, and the fairway narrow so the captain considered it too risky to make the run and hove to until daylight. The captain tore his hair and danced around fiercely when the news of his defeat reached him the next day. The other captain had thrown all prudence overboard and won. We can imagine it had been a trilling race. 120 days at sea from Hong Kong to London, and only six hours difference between two sailing ships! The Suez Canal was not finished until ten years later so it was a sailing of over 12,000 miles.

After the arrival in England nothing special happened. The ship was unloaded and made ready for the next voyage. Tauler was offered a berth as a boatswain, which would have given him a kind of officer's rank, the best that could be given to a man without a Navigation Certificate. Tauler said, "No thanks." He would have gladly accepted the offer, but the Fiery Cross was, as so often happened to fast sailing ships, cracked (as the sailors called it) and under heavy canvas and in storms the old hulk would groan and give so much it was a misery to listen to. Besides, it was so rate eaten as only an old ship could be, and there were more than a multitude of them aboard. The ship left England on her next voyage and disappeared without a trace. Can we doubt the existence of Providence?

Sometime afterwards Tauler is aboard a Netherlander bound for Australia loaded mostly with arack and Genever (his spelling, I don't know what it meant. The Genever could be a gin made in Holland) out from Rotterdam. They had been out at sea only two days when in the dark and fog of a night in the English Channel, they collided with a Swedish ship. They fired distress guns, and by daylight two tugboats appeared. The Dutchman didn't show too much damage, and gave its captain a chance to haggle over the towing fee, which he immediately grabbed. The Swedish ship showed more damage and was in more critical condition, so was in no position but to take the towing without dispute. They were both towed into Ramsgate, England where the Swedish ship sank in dock with a couple of others. Tauler was up in the foremast shortening sail, when all of a sudden; out of the darkness and fog two ship lanterns appeared. A shout of warning and distress sounded, but too late, in the darkness and confusion both ships swung head on, and the fore rig where they sat broke and fell on the mainmast, but they hung on as cats and came down unhurt. Now started a long and tedious court procedure, and they were held as witnesses. This got too tiresome, and little by little, the crew deserted. During this time he met a Swedish sailor of good family, who had left home on account of family strife, and since wandered about quite a lot.

They were two souls of one mind and one outlook. They found berths with a ship from Hanover bound with freight from England to Brazil. Officers, as well as crew, were Germans, but the ship was chartered by an English firm and sailed under English flag. The captain had his wife along. Her first husband had owned the ship, but on one of his voyages, he had died, and the first mate had made him useful to the widow and courted her and later married her, and also the ship! He was just a middling navigator, and not much esteemed of the crew. The crew seldom likes to have the captain's wife along. The voyage was mostly uneventful, until they came into equatorial waters. One day as they sailed along they were overtaken by a tidal wave. As they were running before a fair wind, they saw in the distance a rolling mountain of water coming after them. The Captain called out to secure everything that was loose on deck, and he threw a ropes end to the wheelman with instructions to secure himself and to keep the vessel straight after the wave. All scurried to whatever shelter they could find to protect themselves from the pressure of the water. When the tidal wave struck the vessel was buried beneath it. The spray went clear up in the crowsnest. The ship shook under the terrible onslaught. Those tidal waves go as a rule in threes. The first is the largest, the others smaller. After they had passed the ship ran on as usual. These tidal waves come evidently from an undersea earthquake or a submerged volcano and roll on until they break on coast. They observed another phenomenon on that trip, a so-called Carpa Sancto (I don't know if he had the right spelling and I couldn't find it in the dictionary). It came late on evening under the equator after the hot, sultry day, when all of a sudden there appeared lights on the mast tops, on the yards and all standing rigging like dancing will-o-the-wisps, and lightning up in the darkness like fleeting firelights. A wonderful and magnificent sight. The old sailor did not like it at all, and claimed it foreboded all kinds of ill luck and storm, and that overtook them shortly afterwards. A terrible electric storm where it seemed as if the whole universe was in one flaming sea of fire, and the lightning and thunder roared through the heavens like ill-fated furies, and the ship tossed like a ball on the storm tossed waves. The storm did not last many hours, but it left a memory that would not be easily forgotten. In Brazil they entered Rio Grand du Sul, and later Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen. A beautiful charming nature more opulent than the Golden Horn. Two high capes rise up and meet a narrow inlet to one of the world's finest harbors. There was a diversified life in the city, proud Portuguese, Caballeros and officers in their bright many colored uniforms, well-fed padres and nuns of all orders, ragged peons and Negro slaves. There were endless processions of Roman Catholic origin, and were very colorful. They loaded coffee and hides for England in the meantime. When they were ready to sail, the crew was called aft for a celebration of the New Year and to drink a glass of wine to a lucky voyage back to England. Tauler took his glass, lifted it and bowed to the captain and his wife and wished them a Happy New Year and good health, and that they might have a successful and fast sailing back home. He added that the captain would find England easier than Brazil. "Didn't I find Brazil?" flared the captain. "Yes, sir, I just referred to the many soundings we made before we saw land," Tauler replied.

The sailing back took a long time, and for lack of fruit, vegetables and fresh meat a bad case of scurvy broke out among the crew. The teeth loosened in the swollen gums, the skin fell in pieces from the hands, and they all felt very dull and weak. When they finally got in the Channel and a pilot aboard, the pilot ordered the ship into the nearest harbor for fresh vegetables. The captain protested because of delay and expense. The pilot told him to be quiet. If he reported him, he would be fined, because he should have stopped at the Azores and laid in supplies. Now he would have to settle with the crew.

After they reached London, Tauler and his Swedish friend went to the captain and demanded discharge pay. As usual the captain roared, but soon gave in as they had the scurvy business to hang over him. They did not want to wait until the ship was unloaded. Now the two friends parted, one to take the course to Bergen, Norway, the other to Goteberg, Sweden. Tauler later got a letter from him saying he had found all fine at home, and that he now had both a bride and a ship. He asked Tauler to come and be with him. That did not appeal to him now, however. After eight years absence he found many changes at home. His father, who was now over eighty years of age, had first rented the Trading Establishment and later sold it, and Tauler now found his old home slipped away from him, so he became as a lonely wanderer going about the old premises. The longing for the far countries pulled and drew, but the homeland held him. He married Marie Magdalene Olsen in 1862. She was the daughter of Ole George Olsen at Einstabøvoll, Valestrand. He went there and ran the farm for his elderly father-in-law. The place was sold in 1868, but he kept part of it down by the sea and built a new house and carried on with a little farming, seagoing and fishing. The wide world still tempted and wandering was in the blood, and in 1882 when his three sons began to grow up, he sold out and left Norway for good and emigrated to the U.S.A. In Minnesota he again met old friends and acquaintances, and later became one of the first pioneers that settled among the Indians in the primeval forest cast of Mille Lacs, Minnesota. I will write more about this later. But now the yarn is spun about the first Fitjarbu (man from Fitjar Parish) who left the home friends and fjords for the long voyages of the wide world.

Written by
Tolleif George Thomsen
from "Saga from Western Norway"

Compiled by
Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler


With written permission from Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler

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