Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXVIII, No. 4 (Oct 1868)

Ballou's Monthly Magazine. 347



      Our tedious and unprofitable cruise in the barque Fortune was finished at last, and we were snug at anchor in the bay of Nukahiva. Misfortune, she might have been appropriately called, so far as that season was concerned; for I had been boxhauling about for six months in her, and my "lay" of her catchings was insufficient to pay my tobacco and slop bills. My term of service expired at this port, and I had the option of receiving an honorable discharge, or of trying my luck another half year in her. Little ciphering would be required for paying me off, as the balance was all on the wrong side of the books, I being considerably in debt to the ship. To collect this balance from me would be to extract blood from a stone, as I was then but a reckless adventurer, here to-day and gone to-morrow. I was no stranger to the island of Nukahiva, the most frequented of the Marquesan group, having, in the course of my wanderings in the Pacific, brought up here several times. The bay in which we were moored, the Port Ann Maria of the saucy frigate Essex where she rendezvoused and refitted her numerous prizes in the war of 1812, was now occupied by a heavy French frigate and two corvettes, while fortifications were going up on shore, and sentries paced their beats at various points round the bay. The experiment of convict labor was also being tried at this time, though it proved, like most others under similar circumstances, a failure.

      I was packing up my few traps, preparatory to going ashore, the morning after our arrival, having not the remotest idea what would be my next movement in the way of travel and adventure, when a cutter pulled alongside of us from the French sloop-of-war. An officer came on board, saluted the captain, and began putting questions, but his knowledge of English being quite limited, and the old man’s command of French even more so, one of the ‘ seamen in the boat was called upon to assist in explaining matters between them, so as to be mutually intelligible. My delight equalled my astonishment at recognizing in the interpreter an old shipmate and crony, Ned Butler, who had sailed with me in two ships, and from whom I had parted company at Payta, more than a year before. We had only time to give each other a hearty greeting and shake of the hand as he jumped in over the rail, for he was wanted on the quarter-deck. The object of the visit from the man-of-war was to inquire whether we had seen any vessel pass out during the night. A smart little schooner, which had been moored in shore of us when we anchored the night before, was now missing. She had been used as a light transport between the islands of the group, and also to visit the various bays and points of landing round Nukahiva, but not having been employed for some few days past, had been led with only one man on board to have the care of her. When wanted for service she was manned with a temporary crew from the flag-ship.

      A notorious felon named Gagnon was also missing, a man who had been brought out from France in one of the transports, but had afterwards been permitted to enlist as a soldier in the "infanterie de la marine," as the corps was called which occupied the oceanic settlements, and had been placed the night before as a sentinel on a post near the shore of the bay and directly abreast of the little schooner’s anchorage. With him had disappeared two sailors from the Acteon, the ship which brought him out, and it was probable that these three had boarded the light craft in the night, either killed or gagged the single shipkeeper, slipped the cable, and gone off on some sort of buccaneering or marauding cruise. As the night was very dark, and she lay at some distance from the man-of-war, she had stolen out without having alarmed the lookouts.

      Our anchor-watch had seen nothing, and failing to get any information, the officer soon left us. Butler and I found an opportunity to exchange a few words, and appointed to meet each other that evening at a little restaurant near the landing, kept by an old Frenchman. My old shipmate was looking uncommonly well, and his really handsome, manly figure was well set off by his neat French naval rig for tropical weather, trousers and jumper being both white, with wide blue collar turned over, while his jaunty little hat bore the name of "L’Afrique" on its band,

348 Gagnon's Peak.

showing that he belonged to the corvette.

      We were both punctually on hand that night to drink auld lang syne in a bottle of vin ordinaire at the little half-French, half-aboriginal shanty, where old Gaspard was licensed to dispense refreshments, liquors included, to soldiers and seamen, but not to natives of the soil.

      "Well, Nat," said Butler, as we were filling our glasses at the little table in the corner. "How goes it? Good luck in that old spouter?"

      "No luck at all," I answered, gloomily. "I haven’t a shot in the locker."

      Two five-franc pieces were pulled out of Ned’s pocket by way of reply, and one of them rang on the table before me.

      "Half’s fair between chummies," said he.

      "But I don’t like to take it, unless I borrow it, to be repaid."

      "Nonsense! I should take it from you if the case was reversed, for I should suppose you meant it, just as I do. It’ll be your turn by-and-by. But what have you got in view ahead?" he asked.

      "Nothing," I replied. "I don’t know where I shall turn up next, and feel as if I didn’t care much. Perhaps I shall reship in the Fortune, for I must be off somewhere in a few days. But how long have you been serving under the tri-color?"

      "About a year," answered Butler. "I enlisted for two years. Why don’t you try it, Nat? It’s pleasant service, cruising among these islands, or lying in a snug bay for a month or two at a time. The work is light, and the usage is good enough, fresh grub nearly all the time, and a run ashore often."

      "Do you want men?" I asked.

      "Yes, we want a dozen in L’Afrique now. You’ll get a month’s advance, and if you let me bring you to the ship, I’ll get ten francs bounty, and that we’ll divide -- or drink it together, which amounts to the same thing."

      "Are you sure I will be sent aboard that ship?"

      "Yes, let me manage all that," said Butler, "and I’ll warrant you’ll be on board the L’Afrique, and in my mess, too. I’ll get you enlisted for one year, and then our times of service will be up together."

      "All right," said I. "I may as well be a Frenchman for a year as anything else that I can see offering now."

      "Well, I’ll arrange the matter and meet you here again to-morrow. I shouldn‘t be surprised if we were ordered on a wild goose chase among the groups after that cutthroat that carried off the little Alouette from her anchorage last night. That was neatly done, though. Gaspard, let’s have another bottle of your red swipes," he added, seeing that my glass was nearly empty.

      "There are only three men in that schooner, I understand," said 'I.

      "That’s all," my friend answered, "but three can handle her very well; she’s light rigged and sparred, and everything works like a charm. Besides, he can get natives enough at some of the other islands if he wants a heavier crew. She’s got plenty of truck aboard for trade, plenty of small arms, and mounts one little brass gun amidships -- s regular snapper. I’ve been’ two or three short cruises in her myself, and she’s just such a craft as I would like to own if I was trading among these chains of islands in the Pacific. They say this Gagnon is a first-rate seaman too, and an out-and-out navigator. Then there was one man left in charge of her, and it’s not certain that they have killed him. He may have joined them, or at least pretended to, to save his life; which would make a crew of four."

      "Do you suppose he has gone to any of the islands of this group?"

      "No, not to remain there, though he may touch at some of them. I have heard tell of a newly discovered island a few days’ sail to the southwest, that, from its description, would be a good out-of-the-way place to settle. But whether this Gagnon knows anything of it, I can’t say. By the way, there may be a chart on board the schooner with the new island laid down in pencil. There are nautical instruments all complete, and in order, for the Alouette was always kept ready for service at a moment’s warning."

      "He may make some trouble before he is taken, if he is so disposed." '

      "Yes, or he may destroy the vessel, and settle down into a Crusoe life somewhere. But it is time for me to be going, for I must not overstay my leave, or I shall have it stopped. Be on hand to-morrow morning. Or come down to the boat with me now, and I will mention the matter to the lieutenant before we shove off, for we may be ordered to sea to-morrow."

      We saw the officer, who, finding I was disposed to ship, invited me to go on board and pass the night; and the next morning, I was duly enlisted for one year in the naval service of his majesty Louis Philippe. The signal

Gagnon's Peak. 349

was made for us to heave short, and for the captain to come on board the flag-ship. Our canvas was loosed as he came alongside again with his orders, his boat and our anchor came up simultaneously, and L’Afrique, taking advantage of a light air, was outside the reef and steering to the southwest before the sea-breeze set in. Gagnon had now some thirty-six hours the start of us, and I had wondered why pursuit was delayed so long. But we came to the conclusion, my shipmate and I, that it was not thought best to detach a vessel in pursuit until having ascertained whether or not he was still lurking about some one of the bays of Nukahiva. Reports had doubtless been since received from all points round the circuit of the island. The sloop-of-war seemed now to shape her course with confidence, crowding all sail, but whether upon any clue or not, was, of course, only known to those in command.

      L’Afrique was a most beautiful vessel, mounting twenty heavy guns on one deck, and evidently a smart sailer, though Butler gave his opinion that she would prove no match for the schooner in a fair trial of speed, unless in very strong winds. The trades continued moderate, and carrying sail all night, an island was in sight at daylight in the morning. This I knew, as we approached it, to be Hiau, having seen it two or three times before. Though wooded, and producing some cocoanuts, it is uninhabited. It was carefully examined and a bright lookout kept as the lee side of it opened to our view, but no sail was seen, nor any signs of life on shore. A boat was sent in charge of the second lieutenant, to land and search for traces of a recent visit, and was successful, even beyond the captain's expectations. She returned within half an hour, and I saw the officer hand something like a flat bit of wood or bark to the commander, who glanced at it a moment, and the order was given to fill away and crowd on the studdingsails still running to the southwest.

      I was all abroad after living Hiau, as to any knowledge of our position, and was acquainted with no islands in this direction, though I had heard rumors of the late discovery of which my shipmate had spoken at old Gaspard's table.

      "Ned," said I, that evening, "what do you suppose they found at Hiau to guide us? for it would seem by our after-manoeuvres that we are on the track of this Gagnon."

      "Fouchon, the bowman of the boat tells me," returned my chum, "that they found fresh tracks up and down the beach which had certainly been made within a day or two, and also marks of wood having been dragged down along the ground, but while they were examining these, the lieutenant appeared with a bit of wood in his hand, and seemed not to care for looking any further, but to have found all he wanted; for he gave the order to push off in a great hurry. He handed this bit of wood to the captain as if it contained all the report it was necessary to make."

      "What could it be?" I asked.

      "Something written on it by old Leroux, the ship-keeper, of course. He was a tried and trusty veteran, was old Leroux. Indeed, you might know that, or he wouldn’t have been detailed in charge of the vessel and property. I cannot account for it how they managed to surprise him without his raising any alarm. But the best of us will be off our guard at times, in a case like that, where everything appears safe and snug. You see, it was unfortunate for this pirate Gagnon, that he was so short-handed as to be obliged to take the old ship-keeper in the boat with him at Hiau, for of course he didn’t dare to leave him on board the schooner alone, and he must leave one man, at least, to manage her."

      "If he had been stronger-handed perhaps he would have killed Leroux," I suggested.

      "No doubt of it," said Butler. "I don’t think he would have hesitated to do so. He only spared his life, depend upon it, because he needed his help."

      We continued on the same course for seven or eight days, the winds, during a portion of the time, being very light and baffling, when land was again seen, high and distant, and, delayed by light airs we were still several miles from it when the sun went down though it had been visible all day. We fanned in a little nearer, and then lay off and on through the night that we might make our observations by daylight. We found ourselves not more than two miles from its base in the morning, but the land was bold and precipitous, and the uniform color of the ocean indicated no soundings within a short distance of the rocks. This island bore marks of volcanic origin, and had the general appearance of having been pushed up out of the sea. It was brown and sterile, except that here and there sloping hills of green were distinguishable, like oases in the desert. No signs

350 Gagnon's Peak.

of life yet appeared, and we coasted down the land as fast as the light wind would propel us. Passing a projecting headland we suddenly came in view of a remarkable peak or eminence pierced through at the height of seven or eight hundred feet above the sea. As we passed abreast of it, the officers observing it with telescopes, something like a flag was projected from the hole and waved for a minute, and then suddenly disappeared. We could make it out with the naked eye, after we perceived the slight stir of excitement on the quarter-deck, though at that giddy height it appeared like a bit of rag, or bird’s wing.

      "We are on the track," said Butler to me. "That's some of old Leroux’s work. I hope Gagnon wont catch him at it, for he’d think nothing of hurling him down from that peak, if he knew of that signal."

      Standing on by this remarkable landmark and luffing up to follow the trend of the land, we passed not long afterwards another prominent bluff, hardly less remarkable than the other, being much higher, and tapering gradually upward, a massive tower of naked gray rock, forming one of the headlands of an ironbound bay which now opened to our view, indenting the west side of the island. The bay itself presented an array of lofty cliffs almost inaccessible to man, though it was observable that the patches of vegetation were much larger and more numerous on this side, and in a few spots, the cocoanut, banana and other trees reared their heads, showing a considerable deposit of soil. But no vessel was yet to be seen, and here, if anywhere, would Gagnon be likely to land. The signal at the embrasure in the rocky peak could never have waved there without human agency. But he might have destroyed the vessel, for he had, perhaps, made a shorter passage than the corvette, and if so, would have had ample time to carry ashore all that would be of any value to him.

      Our lead gave us soundings, gradually shoaling as we worked in shore, showing that there was anchorage here though none of the best, while the confused jumble of sunken rocks and boulders all round the shores of the bay appeared to present an insurmountable obstacle to landing the heavy boats of the man-of-war. Luckily we had with us a whale-boat, which might be made available in landing a few men at a time. It was known that L’Alouette also had one when she was seized, it having been found useful in her cruises about the archipelago.

      We did not wish to come to anchor with the ship without further evidence that those whom we sought were here. So we beat up into the bay on short tacks, keeping the lead going, and the telescopes constantly bearing upon the land to scrutinize every new object that came in sight as we worked to windward. A discovery was at last made that set all doubts at rest. At the very head of the bay, in the spot that appeared most favorable for a landing, an object rose in view with each receding wave, which looked more like a timber standing erect than a rock. Nearer and nearer we approached it at every short board we made, till it was ascertained beyond all question to be a vessel’s stern post, and now the falling tide laid bare the ends of several floor timbers just peeping above the surface. All were now well assured that the beautiful schooner had been destroyed, probably run ashore, and then burned, as far as was possible to do it where she lay.

      The captain's course of action was now decided upon. Gagnon and his gang were here without doubt, and they must be taken or killed. When in ten fathoms water, and at easy distance for a covering fire upon the beach at the head of the bay, we came to with the best bower anchor made all snug, and got out the boats. I found myself with Butler assigned for duty in the whale-boat, which was to be used if found necessary, in landing the attacking force from the heavier boats. Forty men, including both sailors and marines, were told off for boat service, and fire-arms served out to us all. It was no holiday sport that we had before us, to attack this desperado in his stronghold, the mountains being so difficult of access, and the passes in many places so narrow that they might be maintained by a few determined men against an army, as long as their ammunition held out.

      We pushed off and rowed for the shore in three boats, the ship’s heavy guns being loaded and trained upon the point of landing. The first lieutenant commanded in the barge, and the whale-boat, as being lightest and best adapted for skirmishing service as well as for landing among the rocks, pulled a little in advance. We selected a spot for landing where a large flat rock was left bare by the receding wave at each recoil, and by anchoring the boats and veering till the stern was nearly up to the rock, the whole force could be landed much sooner than by depending entirely upon the whale-boat. No sign of life had yet been seen, and the operation of land-

Gagnon's Peak. 351

ing in this manner consumed some time, for care was necessary to keep all the fire-arms and ammunition dry, as well as to avoid injury to the boats, and there was not room for both the large boats to veer in to the landing rock at the same time.

      We had landed about half the men, and were all huddled together without order or formation on the rocks, with the sea washing about our legs, when suddenly a sharp report broke upon the air, and a shot from the little brass pivot gun, the Alouette’s "snapper," as my friend called it, came whistling through our straggling ranks, and struck the whale-boat, passing through her between wind and water. She was anchored with only one man in her at the moment, and no one was injured, though the frail craft was, of course, ruined. "Forward!" was the word, and we jumped from rock to rock, to reach terra firma, and gain a position where we could form, while the other boat was landing her men. The enemy were not to be seen now, the gun having been concealed behind a natural rampart of rock, except at the moment it was fired, and immediately masked again. We rushed up the jagged slope of the rocks, the first lieutenant cheering us on; we were within fifty yards of the enemy, when again their little gun wheeled into view and sent another ball plunging among us, killing two marines, its report being partially lost amid the thunder of one of the Afrique’s thirty-twos, which was fired almost at the same instant, its deafening roar and the mountain echoes seeming to shake the whole bay. The range was too long, however; the ponderous ball passed just over the pirate’s heads and struck the cliff beyond, near its base, loosening some fragments of rock, but harming no one. We were getting warmed up for a charge, now, and pushed on to capture the gun before it should be fired again, leaving our dead shipmates as they had fallen. But it was Gagnon’s parting shot which had laid them low; the artillery was abandoned to us, and as we burst upon the late ambush, the three men were seen struggling up a precipitous path ahead of us.

      Where, then, was Leroux? But we had no time to think of the matter. Up we toiled after them, feeling that some of us must lose our lives before we could win the day; for the enemy’s strength lay in position, ours in numbers. Another of our party was wounded, though not seriously, by a musket ball, in the ascent; but the man who fired the shot exposed himself too long, and we had the satisfaction of seeing him fall, shot dead by one of our marines. There were only two to contend with now, but they dashed on without halting, being more familiar with the locality than we; and as we reached a flat shelf of rock we halted, and drew up for a minute’s rest and consultation before proceeding further.

      Nothing could be wilder or more grand than the scenery from this point. The broad shelf on which we stood narrowed gradually ahead of us to a ridge hardly wide enough to admit more than two men abreast. From this ridge others branched off in various directions, forming a network of narrow passes, overlooking deep chasms, while towards the middle of the island the descent was more gradual to what appeared to be an extinct crater, in the sides of which at various points vegetation was flourishing under a vertical sun, while the summits of the ridges presented to our view nothing but faces of bare rock. The singular peak with the hole through it was now to be seen, viewed, of course, on its opposite face, and it was towards this that the two men seemed to be making their way. Onward we pressed again, now reinforced by a part of the other boat’s crew. We soon came to a spot where the rocky ridge doubled upon itself, forming a ravine too wide to be jumped over, which Gagnon and his companion had crossed upon a bridge of boards previously prepared. The shattered pieces of the bridge were to be seen far down the cliffs, where they had thrown them after having passed over. A long circuit was necessary to reach the point which they had arrived at by stepping on this frail structure.

      In making this detour we were all startled by a cry of horror from the officer in advance, as he pointed to the object which had extorted it from him. Not six feet below us, on a projection where it had lodged in falling, lay the body of poor old Leroux the ship-keeper, flat on his back, the breast of his shirt fallen wide open, and a little dark hole from which the blood still oozed telling that his heart had been pierced by a pistol ball. The desire to avenge him urged us on faster than before, and the two fugitives had now disappeared from our sight, having probably gained their last stronghold, where they intended making a final stand, and selling their lives dearly. A push onward of perhaps half a mile, in close order, marching two or sometimes three or four abreast, as the width of the ridge would admit, and we found ourselves brought to bay.

352 Gagnon's Peak.

      No place could have been better fortified by nature as a last citadel for a desperate man to take his stand in. The high peak with the opening pierced in it, rose some two hundred yards in advance of us, the irregularities within the rocky chamber affording protection from shot, while it could only be approached in front by a narrow and giddy pass, barely wide enough for one man, who would be obliged to give his whole attention to his footing. Another of our party was shot down as soon as he came within rifle range, and there was no resource for the moment but to retreat out of fire, which we were ordered to do.

      The baffled lieutenant was at his wit’s end. He ordered us to keep back at a safe distance and to shelter ourselves as far as possible over the sides of the cliffs, while he waited impatiently for the officer who commanded the other division to come up, that they might consult together. We could accomplish nothing where we were; to advance in single file on the narrow pass would be madness; to starve out the garrison would be a work of time, as the place was doubtless well stocked with provisions; to retreat in disgrace was not to be thought of. The consultation finally developed a plan which it was thought might enable us to turn the position. It would doubtless involve some loss of life, though not so much as the direct attack in front. At our end of the ridge some eighty or a hundred feet below our position, was a projecting shelf which would afford good footing, and from this, by a rugged and gradually ascending route along the face of the cliff, another landing spot could be reached beneath the enemy’s fortress. Thence the peak rose to a level with the ridge, by a slope which was not very steep and was full of irregularities which favored the ascent. It was thought possible for a part of our force to climb this jagged escarpment, while any one issuing to attack them must instantly expose himself to the fire of our party on the ridge. The men in the rear were sent back to bring up a coil of small rope which luckily had been thrown into one of the boats before leaving the ship, and pending their return, we disposed ourselves in safe positions out of range.

      Meanwhile the enemy, growing impatient at our long inaction and suspecting unforeseen danger, kept showing themselves partially at the mouth of the opening, and at last, the seaman of the Acteon ventured to dart forth suddenly, with the evident purpose of looking down into the chasm. His rashness cost him his life, for three or four rifles, ready aimed by unseen hands, cracked at the instant, and his lifeless body tumbled into the abyss below. Only one was now left to contend with, but he the most desperate of all, and doubtless provided with plenty of fire-arms. A shot whizzing over us, though it harmed no one, informed us that he was still on the alert, and prepared to defy us unto death. The coil of studdingsail halyards having arrived, one end was thrown down to the shelf below, while the other was secured to the rocks, and the third lieutenant was the first man to descend, followed by a dozen seamen, among whom were Butler and myself. In a few minutes we all stood safely on the projection, and the officer took the lead upward along the rugged path. The other shelf was also gained without accident, and the whole party rallied again for a charge up the sloping rock. It was found that three or four could ascend abreast, the face of the slope being wider than we had supposed.

      "En avant!" said the officer, and upward we struggled in close column. The leading rank had nearly reached the top when one of them fell back, wounded, upon his rear supporters. A dozen reports were blended in one from our end of the narrow pass, and the corpse of the master-spirit, Gagnon, crashed down among us. The check to our progress occasioned by this, proved our safety; for, the next instant, a deafening explosion that suspended our breaths, and appeared to shake the island to its base, drowned all other sounds, and transfixed every man with terror. The smoke cleared away; we clung to the cliff, pressed on upward, and stood -- on the summit of the mountain! The whole tower of rock above the embrasure had been lifted bodily from its weakest point abreast the opening, and hurled outward into the sea, while we, directly beneath it, stood unharmed.

      Upon investigating the spot, it was found that Gagnon had mined his fortress, and deposited the powder, intending in the last resort to blow himself and as many as possible of his assailants into eternity together, after we should have effected a lodgment at his end of the narrow pass. Had he remained close until we entered the chamber to attack him, the destruction of life would have been fearful. But rashly showing himself for a shot at our party, he had drawn a volley from our comrades, and the train had, without

To Grief. 353

doubt, been ignited by the fire of their guns. Had the rock split and scattered itself, some of us would have been crushed by the fragments. We owed our safety to the circumstance of its having fallen over seaward, nearly in one immense mass.

      We returned in mournful procession to the ship, notwithstanding our victory, if so it might be called. We bore the bodies of three of our shipmates, and of the faithful Leroux, the others being left where they fell among the rocks. Before night the Afrique was again under canvas on her return to report to the admiral. Little was found that was worth carrying with us, except the schooner’s whale-boat, which was discovered concealed among the rocks, and brought off to replace our own, riddled by the first shot fired. The brass gun was also embarked, and we were all glad that our work was finished, and that the rock-bound shores would soon fade from our view.

      Butler and I served out our time in the French service, and though our paths in life have been separated since, our old friendship is strong as ever; and we never meet, but we at once revert to this thrilling episode in the days of our young manhood, the attack upon the desperado in his mountain fastness, which is still spoken of among the French in the Pacific as Le Pic a Gagnon.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Gagnon's Peak.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 28, No. 4 (Oct 1868)
Pages: 347-353