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Francis James Child
Francis James Child, a-ponderin'


Child Book

Lessons learned while reading the ballad collection of Francis James Child.

by David Kessler

     Dear Francis,

     I wish to protest the campaign of libelous accusations being made against a captain in our country's navy.  Particularly in these times of war when he is risking his life to defend our great nation, such a campaign is most unseemly and unpatriotic.  He can hardly fire a single broadside against our Spanish enemy, without a broadside being "fired" against him by the publishing houses that seek only to scandalize!  I understand that your column is read by many of the same readers, publishers, and singers of these rags, so I appeal to you to air the true facts of this case and combat the lies.
     Our officers deeply regret the loss of any crew member.  To believe the dockside scandal mongers, the noble captain in question is an unfeeling demon unwilling to allow on board a cabin boy who had just single-handedly sunk an enemy vessel with nothing more than some carpenter’s tools.  The very idea that 3 small holes could sink a Spanish man of war is unthinkable - Spanish ships are equipped with bilge pumps!  To further suggest that the child was then allowed to drown because of promises that he could marry into the captain’s own family is ludicrous - The captain in question has no daughters that are not already promised (and, I hasten to add, all to men of far higher rank than cabin boy).
     The simple truth is that the boy was assisting the ship's carpenter in the repair of a minor breach in the hull when he was lost overboard.  Being in the smoke and confusion of the close-range sea battle ongoing at the time, he swam toward the wrong ship and so was stuck clinging to the enemy's rudder chains for the remainder of the battle.  That he may have used a chisel or an augur he had with him to damage that chain and the steering of the Spanish ship is still in question.  What is not in question was his mortal condition of exhaustion and exposure, witnessed by the ship's doctor later that day; After our forces had proved victorious in the battle he was picked up (by the same captain who now stands so villainously accused) and given a proper seaman's burial.
     All this has been testified to by the captain and officers of the ship to the satisfaction of the Admiralty.  Kindly explain it to your readers.

     Angry in the Admiralty.

     Dear Angry in the Admiralty,

     It is not the purpose of this column to attack or defend the government and its officials from charges made by third parties, but rather to offer advice and opinion on specific questions of etiquette made by those involved.  Your letter is therefore taken as from an aggrieved party in a dispute.
     "He said, She said" matters are never easily resolved, even when the parties involved are not the government and the public.  If you wish that public to trust, or at least respect the facts discovered in your inquiries and the decisions you render from them, you must make your processes and efforts transparent enough to engender that trust.  The difficulty in succeeding at this is likely a part of the reason a ship's captain is given such broad and arbitrary authority over his crew.  If you are so confident in the captain's description of the events then stand by him and damn the broadsides.
     Meanwhile, admit that proof has different standards as you move from a military court to that of public opinion.  In either case a governing body must sink or swim by the behavior of its officers – sadly, the cabin boy had to do both.

     Francis J. Child

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