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My First Duel

An 1833 First-Person Account of A Duel in Brazil

My First Duel
An 1833 First-Person Account of A Duel in Brazil

Reproduced with occassional spacing alteration for readability from the Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer, April 3, 1833.

[From Whittaker's London Magazine]

There are some events in the life of a man that make an indelible impression on the mind; events that, amid the varied scenes of love, or war, or ambition, are, to the last hour of existence, as forcibly impressed upon the tablet of memory, as at the moment when they were first inscribed there by the hand of fate.  Of this nature is our first duel – the recollection of the first time that we stood on the boundary line that separates the civilization of ancient and modern worlds.  There are several kinds of courage, it has been a thousand times remarked, all of which, if we take the trouble of metaphysically analyzing them, we shall find are but the consciousness of our own force or skill.  The squadron of steel-clad cuirassiers rides gallantly at the square of infantry, heedless of the bristling bayonets, of the kneeling front rank, or the murderous volley of the rear.  The sailor, lashed to the helm, looks calmly on the raging tempest.  The huntsman, in pursuit of game, springs fearlessly across the yawning chasm, or boldly attacks the lion in his lair.  Habit, and a familiarity with danger, deaden the instinctive dread of death implanted in us by nature; yet the bravest man may blanch, and life’s blood curdle in the veins, when he finds himself opposed to an adversary, who, without exaggeration, at twelve paces, could wing a hum-bird. 

Such was my case when quite a raw and experienced youngster, exposed, at the age of sixteen, to one of the most slippery tricks that dame Fortune, in her most wayward humor, can play a man.  Every one must recollect the rauccrous animosity that subsisted between the British and Americans for several years after the termination of the war between the two countries.  Time has now, in some degree, softened down this hostile feeling; but, in 1818 it blazed fiercely forth at Gibraltar, where a slight misunderstanding at one of two guard houses, led to a succession of bloody, and, in some instances, fatal rencontres between the garrison and the officers of the American squadron, at that time in the bay.  Similar scenes were enacted at Madiera, though with less fatal results; and, only a few months afterwards, when the United States corvette Ontario, and the Hyperion, were lying in the bay of Callao de Lima, to so fierce a pitch had this feeling arisen, that the commanders of the two ships came to an understanding to allow their officers to go on shore only on alternate days; and by this timely precaution they prevented a hostile collision, which would in all probability have deprived the services of both countries of some valuable and gallant officers.  It was during the noontide heat of rancorous feeling between the two nations, that I one evening entered a café, in one of the Brazilian outports, to meet, by appointment, a friend, from whom I was to receive some letters of introduction for the interior of the country, for which I was one the eve of my departure.  The streets were silent and deserted; the only sound to be heard was the vesper hymn sweetly floating on the evening breeze. 

The Harbor at Rio De Janeiro by Martin Johnson Heade, circa 1864.

On entering the café, I found a group of savage-looking Minheiros, who were drinking and listening to a love-lay, sung with great sweetness to a guitar accompaniment, by a mulatto youth; and a party of four American officers who were going home, invalided from their squadron, round the Horn.  Forcibly as my attention was arrested by the picturesque costume of the Brazilian mountaineers – one of those dark satanic groups that the spirit of Salvator so reveled in delineating – it did not escape me that the subject of discourse with the American party was England, against whose institutions and people violent abuse and unmeasured invective were leveled, in that drawling, nasal tone that so particularly distinguishes our transatlantic brethren.  No man, even of the most cosmopolitan composition, can digest violent strictures on the country of his birth; the language of the Americans jarred violently on my ear, but though it stirred up the ill blood of my nature, I did not exactly think myself called upon to play the Don Quixote, and to run a tilt against all those who should choose to asperse the majesty of England.  By the young and ardent this feeling, I am aware, may be stigmatized as ignoble; but those whose passions have been mellowed by time and experience will, I think, own the prudence of the line of conduct I pursued.

I therefore took my seat, lighted a cigar, and listened attentively to the beautiful modinha sung by the mulatto; there was a plaintive softness in the air, and an exquisite simplicity in the words of the ditty, telling of the pangs of unrequited love, that had well nigh allayed the angry feelings that were struggling for mastry in my bosom; when the strictures of the Americans which had hitherto been leveled at Old England in general, were directed to me personally, and left me but one – one honorable alternative.  “When a man openly insults you,” says my Lord Chesterfield, “knock him down.”  If I did not on this occasion follow his lordship’s advice a la lettre, I did something which, among honorable men, is deemed a tantamount to it, and which produced a challenge from one of the party; a demand for immediate satisfaction on the following morning, on the plea that their departure was fixed for the succeeding day.

"It was during the noontide heat of rancorous feeling between the two nations, that I one evening entered a café, in one of the Brazilian outports..."  Charcoal by Matthew Ecklund.

“Gentlemen,” said I, “willing as I shall be to give you the satisfaction you require, I doubt my ability to do so at the early hour you have named; for I am a stranger here, and may experience some difficulty in finding a second among my countrymen who are quite strangers to me; and are moreover, established in a country where the laws against dueling are severe – banishment to the shores of Africa – I must therefore, defer the renconter till the evening, not doubting, in mean time, to find some one to do me the office I stand in need of.”

A provoking sneer played round the lips of three of the party, and an exclamation of withering contempt was on the point of escaping them, when the fourth, who had hitherto been quietly sipping his sangaree, rose from his chair and addressed me with great politeness of manner: “ I cannot conceal from myself,” were his words, “that this quarrel has been forced upon you, and I regret from the turn it has taken, that there remains nothing but the last appeal; but if, as you say, you are a stranger here, and are likely to experience any difficulty in finding a second, I will myself most willingly do you that office; for I can conceive no situation so forlorn, so desolate as that a man, in the solitary loneliness of a foreign land, without a friend to stand by him in an honorable quarrel.”

The hearty pressure of my outstretched hand must have told him better than words could do, how deeply sensible I was on the service he was about to render me.  We separated. 

...there was an expression of enthusiasm, of a cool, determined cast, a stern intrepidity; and, as he stretched out his hand to welcome me, and fixed his large black eyes on me with a concerned gaze that seemed to read my thoughts, it struck me that I beheld the very beau ideal of a duelist.

The sun had scarcely gilded the balconies of the east when I arose, hurried on my clothes, and having given a few directions to my servant, hastened towards the spot where, on the previous evening, I had parted from my new friend.  It was a beautiful morning – the sun had risen in all the splendor of a tropical clime, and as I moved on through the silent trees, methought the fair face of nature had never looked so beautiful; not a sound was heard, save the solemn peal of the matin bell, or the rustling of the silk mantilla of some fair beauty, as she glided past me to pour forth her morning orisons at the shrine of her patron saint.  I at length reached the palace square, and observed my American friend slowly pacing the esplanade of the church of St. Maria. 

He was tall and bony; his blue frock and ample white trousers hung about him with republican negligence of manner; he wore his shirt collar open; and his long matted dark hair was shadowed by a broad brimmed hat of Chilean straw, white, in comparison to the sallow hue of his complexion; his countenance I can never forget; it wore not the open frankness and gallant bearing of the soldier, but there was an expression of enthusiasm, of a cool, determined cast, a stern intrepidity; and, as he stretched out his hand to welcome me, and fixed his large black eyes on me with a concerned gaze that seemed to read my thoughts, it struck me that I beheld the very beau ideal of a duelist.

We moved on, each of us wrapped up in his own meditations, when, on clearing the city, he at length broke the silence that had prevailed, by asking me if I had ever been out before?  On my answering the question in a negative, “I supposed as much,” he continued.  “At your age one has seldom drawn a trigger, but on a hare or partridge; remember, therefore, to follow implicitly the instructions I shall give you in placing you on the ground; and take this cigar,” he added, handing me one from his case: “it is a powerful stimulant, and quickens the circulation of the blood.”

The 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr, which led to Hamilton being fatally wounded in the abdomen.

We had by this time reached the field of action, and discovered my adversary, his second, and a medical attendant, smoking their cigars beneath the shade of a cluster of cocoa-nut trees, that stood in loneliness in the middle of the valley.  They arose on our approach, saluted me sternly, and interchanged friendly greetings with my companion.  “You will, of course,” observed my adversary’s friend, “have no objection to sixteen paces.”

“As the challenged party, we have the right of choosing our own distance,” rejoined my second, “say, therefore, twelve paces instead of sixteen, and the firing down.”

“Twelve paces,” I repeated to myself; “can he be playing me false?”  But I did him injustice, for to this arrangement I owe, to all human certainty, my life.The ground was measured.  My second placed me with my back to the sun – a disposition that brought his rays right on my opponent’s line of sight.  The seconds retired to load.  The ramming down of the balls grated with portentous effect upon my ear.  All being ready, my second, taking a handkerchief from his pocket, bound one end of it tightly round my right hand, and measuring the length of my arm, which he marked by a knot, brought it across the back over the left shoulder, where the knot was tightly grasped by the left hand.  “Now then,” he said, on putting the pistol into my hand, “be cool!  When the signal is given, let your arm steadly fall, till you had it brought up by the handkerchief, and then fire!”  

The appointed signal was given; both fired at as nearly the same moment as possible, but with unequal success.  My adversary’s bullet passed through my hat; mine was more unerring in its aim – he reeled and fell. 

"The appointed signal was given; both fired at as nearly the same moment as possible, but with unequal success.  My adversary’s bullet passed through my hat; mine was more unerring in its aim – he reeled and fell."   Charcoal by Matthew Ecklund.

My first impulse was to rush towards him, but I was arrested in my course by my second who stood close by me.  “Remain where you are, sir,” said he: “he may yet stand another shot.”  This was not the case; the ball had entered the shoulder; and as the wounded man lay weltering in his blood, he said, with a look of reproach to my companion, “B---n, this is all your doing.”  We conveyed him to a neighboring hut, till the shade of evening allowed us to take him on board ship.  As he walked off the ground, my companion said to me, “You doubtless wondered why I rather placed you at twelve than sixteen paces.  Know, then, that at the latter distance your adversary was a dead shot.  At twelve, it occurred to me, that he might by chance fire over you; that, unaccustomed to that distance, he might not correctly allow for the parabola described by the ball on leaving the pistol; the result,” he added with a smile, “has proved that my calculation was correct.  Had you too,” he added, “allowed your arm to have fallen with great force the shot would taken effect lower, and might (this was said very coolly) have proved fatal.  But I must not find fault with you, as it was your first essay.”

On the following morning my generous friend, me preserver, in fact, my wounded adversary, and his friends, sailed for the states.  I have seen them since, or even heard of them, save a few short lines sent me by a vessel they spoke at sea, to inform me that the wounded man was doing well.

I have often reflected since on the high-toned, generous feeling that entered so deeply into the peculiarity of my situation; the high resolve that, once pledged, sternly devoted itself to carry me through, indifferent to the ties of country or friendship.  That my friend was a duelist, his conduct on the ground warrants me supposing.  I am ignorant if he yet walks this earth.  But this I know, had I gone into the field with any one else, I should now be sleeping beneath the white walls of the English cemetery at R-----. 

Artifact: First Issue Reprint

Included is a reprint of the first issue of the Democractic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer, May 5, 1831, which would change its name to the Detroit Free Press in 1835.

Here are a few pieces that the Jaunt editors enjoyed:

An update on the Russo-Polish War, a brief rebellion by Poland against Russia that had begun the previous November (1830).  A few months after the publication of this paper, the Polish Army would be defeated and retreat from Warsaw.  [Page 2]


Letters of resignation from Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State and future President of the United States, and John Eaton, Secretary of War.  They, along with the rest of Andrew Jackson's cabinet (except for the Postmaster General), resigned on account of a marriage scandal known as the "Petticoat Affair." [Page 3]


The first classifieds ad in the Detroit Free Press: an accountant who "writes a good hand." [Page 3]


A list of items being sold at a "Sheriff's Sale." [Page 3]


The testimony of a pirate named Gibbs, "the details of such a life of crime are almost to [sic] horrible for repetition." [Page 4]

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