How did they deal with bullies in the old days?

Do you have an irritating colleague that makes people cry? A boss who pushes you around, but when you complain she says she’s just “unwinding” or “having fun”?

Well, bullies are nothing new. In fact, Stephen Decatur Junior and his friend Joseph Bainbridge were bullied.

Who is Stephen Decatur, you ask? He’s often considered the greatest American naval hero, the man who everyone looks up to. Stephen Decatur is the sailor whose actions hundreds of Hollywood and television heroes have been modeled on.

It’s hard to read even a comic book about the sea without seeing a little of Stephen Decatur in it.

So, what were these sailors doing when they got bullied?

Their commodore  brought the ship in for repairs at Malta, and the men were given leave.  So, the they decided to watch a play.

A little recreation never hurt anyone right? Well, they weren’t the only people in uniform. A freakish wind of political luck had blown in the Mediterranean and made Malta a British military outpost.  The Royal Navy’s captains may have impressed the commodore and his wife, but the fighting men in Malta were hardly gracious hosts to the American sailors.

Something happened in a play, most people say it was a song.  A few British officers took it as a cue to pick on the Americans.  The Americans had different uniforms on after all.

The tormentors started with those standard insults, those kind that you get you fired if you say them about Jews or Pakistanis, but that people say to Americans with supposed impunity.  Bainbridge and Decatur wouldn’t have it, but they didn’t want any trouble.  They simply walked away.

Now, I know you can’t just walk away in any work situation, right? You need the money, and if you quit that job you might get a bad recommendation, right?

Well, who gives a damn.  Another employer will be understanding, and if not you can start your own business.

Besides, it wasn’t the employer causing the trouble. It was fellow customers at an place of entertainment.  The two friends lost their theatre ticket by walking away, a minor economic setback.  But no, they didn’t have to find new jobs.

Well, unfortunately the taunting yobs followed the American sailors out of their seats, and continued to taunt them with anti-American insults.  One of them – a big, confident looking fellow – got a little physical as well.

Bully boy was implying that Americans were cowards, and started nudging Joseph Bainbridge. 

Bully boy pushed Bainbridge, offering an uncreative insult. Bainbridge let the jerk know that the gesture wasn’t appreciated, but he didn’t react in kind.

Well, the British officer pushed him a second time. Again, Bainbridge avoided any great reaction.

The British officer, perhaps thinking he had an easy prey, pushed Bainbridge a third time.  Well, having missed his play, being hounded down, and nudged repeatedly was too much.  Joseph Bainbridge pushed the big oaf down to the ground.

What’s that, you can’t push bullies back?  Sure you can.  If you get in trouble for it, tell them Vasco told you so.  Just make sure you push them hard.

Because when the British soldier got up, he proved to be no ordinary soldier.  He was the secretary to Alexander Ball, the Governor of Malta.

Well, when the American Commodore was having a ball of his own, Joseph Bainbridge was challenged to a duel.  This duel didn’t make the Americans very happy, and at first Joseph and his friend Stephen tried to politely refuse.

Well, this secretary was extremely organized in his attacks, and he kept hounding the Americans for a meeting.

Stephen Decatur knew a thing or two about duels.  He grew up in what we might call a rough neighborhood.  But Stephen wasn’t prepared to let his inexperienced friend get slaughtered by the dog-breathed pig.

Why would Bainbridge be slaughtered? Well, the Secretary had fought a quite a few duels before. He was said to have killed at least eight men at ten paces.  Joseph Bainbridge hadn’t killed anyone.

Still, Stephen Decatur had a plan. He suggested four paces.

“Four paces, but that’s certain death.” said the big oaf.  The Bully mumbled some other half-quotable stuff.  This bully wasn’t used to doing things any way but his own.  He got nervous.  Could he aim as well at four paces as at ten?

Joseph Bainbridge took advantage of the situation. The bully wasn’t used to firing so early, so on the first shot the secretary-turned-bully’s gun misfired.

Well, Bainbridge was no crack shot, but at four paces he got pretty close.  He shot the secretary’s hat. 

After that, Decatur and Bainbridge offered to call it a day.  They’d given the British secretary a chance to protect his so-called “honour” and they didn’t want to see anyone die.  But the bully would have none of it.  He wanted to fight on until he had the upper hand.  Like many bullies, he refused to accept that he could lose in a fair fight.

Stephen Decatur then whispered to his friend. “If you want to live, aim lower.”

That was sound advice.  Joseph Bainbridge aimed lower the second time, and that was the end of the secretary of Malta.

Alexander Ball ended up hiring a better employee anyway.  That doesn’t mean there was no trouble.  Stephen and Joseph had to go home to face a court martial.

Yes, and when you push that bully to the ground, even if you fix him good, you might face charges.  Take heart though, the story isn’t over yet.

It seems around the same time, Horatio Nelson had been harassing some Americans in the Caribbean.  As usual, the British were forcing Americans to work on British ships against their will. 

So, both governments called it even, for now.  It seems that the American government hadn’t yet learned how to stand up to bullies.

Joseph Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur went on to fight more heroic battles for the US navy.  And, fortunately, they returned with a new commander, who wouldn’t tolerate any of this dueling nonsense (nor with stopping off in hostile ports.)  Commodore Preble was just what the sqadron needed.

If your workplace suffers from chronic, unpunished bullying, perhaps its time to get rid of the manager.  If your boss is turning a blind eye to deteriorating working conditions, maybe a little regime change is in order.

Just remember, you don’t have to just stand there and take it. You can walk away. If the bullies follow you and continue the taunting, that could be considered harassment.

It’s good, if possible, to seek the advice of a good friend, a true friend. Joseph Bainbridge had Stephen Decatur. When Commodore Preble arrived, he had a good mentor to turn to as well.

Remember, even the greatest of heroes have been bullied. But no great men have been bullies. You don’t have to stand there and take it. Stand up to the bully.

By killing Alexander Ball’s secretary, Joseph Bainbridge probably saved scores of others from suffering a similar fate. That bully killed a few men in duels, and he wasn’t about to stop of his own accord.

(In a future story, I’ll tell you why there was a better solution than going ahead with the duel. Just because a Bully wants to fight, that doesn’t mean you have to.)

By standing up to bullies, you can help stop them from bullying others.  Remember, it’s not just about you or the bully, it’s about right and wrong.  You don’t need to be famous to be a hero, you just need courage.