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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXX, No. 5 (Nov 1869)
pp. 445-448

Ballou's Monthly Magazine. 445



      While off Nukunau, or Byron's Island, in the barque Cherokee, a white man came on board, who said he had been living several months among the savages, and was anxious to ship in any capacity, to get away from them and be once more a civilized being. He called himself an Englishman, and said that be was left on shore from a Sydney whaler.

      As we were shorthanded, and had a few days before "broken" or disrated one of the boatsteerers as incompetent, this man was shipped to fill his place. He registered his name as Abraham Cobbett, and took up his quarters, of course, in the cabin, as a petty officer.

      As he belonged to the waist or second mate's boat, while I filled the same station in the chief mate's, we roomed together, and were necessarily thrown much in contact. Cobbett could not have been less than forty, or nearly twice my age at that time, but still in vigorous health, and remarkable for great muscular power. He was not a bad roommate in the main, being quiet and intelligent, though at times gloomy and abstracted, and always very reticent as to his past life. I had observed several times that when relating s«me story, where he was about to mention the name of a ship or captain, he checked himself, hesitated and changed it, declaring that he was mistaken; or, at other times, evaded mentioning any name, by saying that he had forgotten it. He was a prime seaman, and a quick and ready man in his attack upon a sperm whale, as he soon had occasion to prove. This last was the main point, and was sufficient to have covered a multitude of failings, even had he been deficient in other respects. So Cobbett soon stood high in the estimation of the captain and officers, who reposed perfect confidence in him.

      As is usual with sperm-whalers when on cruising ground, the crew were arranged in three divisions, called "boat's-crew-watches," each being in charge of a boatsteerer, while the captain and mates took "all night in."

      We had met with good success in our cruise among the Kingsmill range. Having gradually drifted down to the leeward islands of the group, we took advantage of the "westerly monsoon," so called, which is here of short duration, to run back, until we again passed Nukunau, and were in a position to zigzag the old track over again.

      The land was in sight off the lee bow at sundown one fine evening, seven or eight miles off. We had again met the regular trade winds, light but steady, and had plenty of room to pass to windward of it. I had charge of the first watch, and called Cobbett to relieve me at eleven o'clock. The land was then dimly visible, or rather the tops of the cocoa-palms, breaking the horizon line abeam of us, by a slightly irregular, jagged appearance. The coral islands of this group are very low, having little or no soil upon them, and at a distance the tufts of trees only are seen, seeming to grow in the ocean.

      Instead of retiring to my room below when relieved by Cobbett, I brought up my blanket and pillow, and prepared a "shake-down" in the stern sheets of the quarter-boat on the cranes. This was nothing unusual for me in that climate. I preferred, as a choice of evils, the open night air to the hot, stifling quarters under deck.

      Unfurling the boat's sail, I shook it out over the gunwales, as a screen or awning, to shield me from the moon's rays. I was thus hidden from view, unless the edge of the sail was lifted up to look under it. Not feeling at all sleepy, I had lighted my pipe and lay awake smoking for a long time. I could hear Cobbett's bare feet pattering as he paced fore-and-aft the quarter-deck. After awhile the sound ceased, and he appeared to have gone forward. In a few minutes I caught these words:

      ----"better chance than we've got now."

      "Never," answered the voice of Cobbett; "but we must wait and make sure that Joe's asleep."

      But I, Joe, was not yet asleep, and did not mean to be after hearing this. These words seemed to be spoken in subdued tones, but as the parties stood near the mainmast, the sound floated directly down to me. Still, it was not, as yet, apprehension of danger that kept me awake, but merely a natural curiosity

446 Almost on a Coral Reef.

to know what was going to be done. So when, after a few minutes, I felt a trembling of the boat's gunwale, I lay quiet and feigned sleep. Cobbett lifted the screen and peeped in at me.

      He listened a moment to my measured breathing, and apparently satisfied that all was safe in that quarter, he stepped quietly back to the deck. With my curiosity excited now to the highest pitch, I listened for the slightest sound. No word was spoken, but I presently became sensible, by the movement of the ship, as well as by the difference of sound as she glided through the water, that she was running with a free wind.

      Could the wind have hauled aft, then? I ventured to raise myself a little and peep out under my awning. A single glance satisfied me of the truth. The wind was steady in the old quarter, but the ship was nearly before it. There was the island looming ahead and on each bow, instead of abaft the beam, where it should be. A moment's observation made it evident that this change was not the accident of a moment, but that the ship was being carefully steered in that direction. She was approaching the land at a rate which would put her ashore in an hour or little more.

      I knew the man Mc'Intosh, who had relieved the wheel when my watch was out, to be a rough, desperate sort of fellow; in short, just the man to be an accomplice of Cobbett in case he had really plotted any mischief, as I now could not help believing. The few words which I had overheard were a key to the mystery. "They would never have a better chance than now" to run the ship ashore, of course. But the person with whom Cobbett was talking had been forward near the mainmast when he spoke. I had been unable to recognize the voice, but I felt tolerably sure that he must have at least two companions in his villany.

      I lay still, considering what was best to be done. I wanted to communicate with the captain or mate at once, but it might not be best to attempt this rashly. Cobbett had complete control of the ship for the time being, with I knew not how many men to back him. They would not, of course, permit me to pass below if they had any idea of my purpose in doing so. They believed me to be sleeping soundly, and it was important to keep them in that belief until I could seize the right moment to act.

      They had not, of course, ventured to square in the yards, for this could not be done without noise, and would disturb those below. The ship could be steered for the land with everything braced up sharp, and in case the captain or mate should come on deck, a movement of the helm would bring her to her proper course. It would thus be supposed that her falling off was merely the result of accident or carelessness of the helmsman.

      Too anxious and impatient to remain inactive, I silently arranged my screen so that I could peep at what was going on in-board, and saw Cobbett with a pistol in his hand, which he was capping. He did not seem to be satisfied with the fit of the caps, having tried several while I was looking at him.

      At this moment I heard the voice of Hiram, a boy in Cobbett's watch, who came along in the waist, calling, "Look, Cobbett, see how near the land is!" Cobbett laid the pistol on the scuttle-butt, and hastened forward to quiet him.

      I had only to raise myself up and reach my body over, and the pistol was in my hand. My first impulse was to keep it and rush below with it; but I thought I could manage better by keeping quiet awhile. If I gave the alarm in this way, the mutineers would at once shut us up below, and we should probably have a bloody fight for the possession of the ship, or be snugly caged up when she ran on the rocks.

      I took up the drinking-cup, which stood on the scuttle-butt half full of water, and turned enough into the muzzle of the pistol to drown the charge well. I then drained it out, and wiped it carefully outside. All this I could do without being seen by Mc'Intosh where he stood, under the little hurricane house. But had he taken a step, or even leaned forward, I should have been discovered, and obliged to make a rush for it.

      Meanwhile, I heard Cobbett say to the boy, "Don't you trouble yourself about the land. I've got charge of the ship, and know what I'm about."

      "All right!" answered Hiram, who seemed, even then, half asleep. "I don't care what you do with her. I only thought maybe the man at the wheel had let her fall off, and you didn't know it, and – "

      "O no; nothing of the kind. I'm looking out for her."

      By this time, I presume the boy had " struck an attitude" on the barrel of the windlass,

Almost on a Coral Reef. 447

and, like a true Jack, left all responsibility to those who were better paid for it.

      When Cobbett returned, I had fallen quietly back to my entrenchments, and lay watching him. He tried another cap on the pistol, which seemed to satisfy him, and then concealed the weapon in the breast of his shirt, handling it very carefully. I knew that he might have pushed it in, muzzle foremost, and pulled trigger. It wouldn't have hurt him. I was quite confident that he and his gang had no other firearms. The pistol was his own, for I had often seen it in his chest.

      His intention was, doubtless, to run the barque on the reef at all hazards, but not to make use of any violence, unless compelled thereto by some interruption of his design. If the crashing of her timbers gave the first alarm to those below, so much the better.

      I had now resolved to attempt running the gauntlet by stratagem. Suddenly throwing off the boat's sail, I roused up, yawning and rubbing my eyes, as if I had just woke. Without looking around me, or seeming to know or care anything about the course of the ship, I gathered up my blanket, peajacket and pillow in my arms, and thus holding the clumsy burden before me, I stepped on deck, and, muttering in a sleepy voice that "it was chilly," I passed on into the companion-way, and hurried below without opposition from any one. I thought I had blinded the conspirators by my apparent innocence, but Cobbett was too sharp to be easily caught.

      He was, indeed, partially deceived, but did not fail to keep watch on me after I went below. I threw the bedding into my own bunk, and blew out the tin hanging-lamp which was burning, thinking to make it appear that I had turned in at once. Waiting a minute in the dark till I thought all was safe, I then darted aft into the captain's stateroom, and touching him with my hand, he was instantly awake. A whispered word only – his ears told him the rest; that the ship was off before' the wind, and that the sullen roar of the breaker on the coral barrier was already audible, as he turned his head up to the little side-light in his berth, which stood open. *

      I darted across to rouse the mate on the other side of the cabin. Slam went the doors of the companion-way, the slide was drawn over and bolted, then we heard a rush towards the body-hatch, which led into the steerage. By the hurried, rattling sound of a rope, they must be lashing it down to prevent its being pushed off. We were caged for the present .

      "Blow out the light!" said the mate, who seemed to comprehend the whole affair without much explanation. "We'll have the advantage in the dark. I've two pistols here, ready loaded, and in perfect order."

      "We must break out very quick," said Captain Harris, "or the ship will be hard and fast on the coral reef."

      "How many are there, Joe, in the scrape?" demanded the mate.

      "I can't tell, sir, but I am pretty sure there are three, at least. Cobbett, Mc'Intosh, and one other, probably Carter."

      "All right; we'll fix 'em out in a few minutes. Cobbett's the whole heart and soul of the business. I think I can put him through, and the rest are nobody."

      "What's your plan, Mr. Stivers?" asked the captain, who, in an emergency of this sort, naturally looked to the most energetic man on board – in fact, leaned upon him. It was evident Stivers could save the ship if anybody could.

      "For you and the rest to get on the stairs there, and pretend to be trying to force your way out. You will have your arms ready, of course, but trust to me to take care of Cobbett. His pistol has been wet, and he don't know it yet . Batter away at the door, and parley with Cobbett . Keep his attention employed, at any rate. Here, Joe, come with me."

      We passed through the door which led into the steerage, and the mate seized a long board which lay on the heads of the casks.

      "Here, Joe, take one end."

      We pushed it through into the after cabin, and launched one end out at the stern window.

      "Softly, Joe," said he. "Make all the noise you can there on the stairs. Kick the doors – fire a pistol – anything!"

      Cobbett was kept fully employed in this manner, while he was obliged to have Mc'Intosh at the helm to keep her head on shore, and the other man near the steerage hatch to guard against a surprise. He supposed Mr. Stivers to be operating in that direction, as he did not hear his voice with the captain and second mate at the cabin doors.

      We pushed the stout ash board four or five feet out through the window, the outer end, of course, inclined upward.

      "Now, Joe," whispered Mr. Stivers, "ride

448 Mary Slocum's Dream.

on the long end and keep it down. Quick, boy!"

      The mate sprang on the transom, and passed through the window out to the end of the board. He had calculated rightly to reach the spare spars which were lashed across the stern. With a single leap he rose out of my sight.

      I heard a bitter oath from Cobbett's lips, then the ineffectual snap of his wet pistol, followed by the sharp report of the mate's and a heavy fall. Then another fall, as Mc'Intosh was knocked sprawling by a blow from the mate's fist – the rattling of the tiller-blocks as the wheel was thrown hard-a-port, while, with a kick, the bolt of the slide was loosened and we all rushed on deck.

      We had been none too soon, for the breakers were frightfully near under our lee, while the cocoanut trees appeared almost to tower over our heads in the dim moonlight.

      On going forward, we found the fore-scuttle fast, and the crew in the act of battering the top off with sticks of wood used as rams. Cobbett, it appeared, had sent the boy Hiram and another of his watch down there upon some pretext, and then fastened all hands up below. His only object was to gain time and prevent interruption until he could run the barque on the reef. A few minutes more would have done it.

      He was mortally wounded by Mr. Stivers's pistol; but he lived long enough to tell us that he meant to destroy the ship, not from any ill will towards the captain or crew, but to be revenged upon the owner. He had, he said, sailed in the same employ before, and the owner had wronged him. He had shipped in the Cherokee with this determination, knowing that it was not the custom of our employer to insure his vessels, and that, if wrecked, she would prove a total loss. He had not intended any violence unless forced to it, but meant to carry out his plan at ail hazards, and to let us all take our chances after the vessel struck. He refused to tell in what ship he had sailed before, or how he had been wronged.

      But the body was identified immediately by the captain of another ship, who boarded us next day, while we were lying with our ensign at half mast, making preparations for the burial.

      "His name isn't Cobbett," said he. "Thats Captain Averill, who was master of the Falkland. His ship was taken from him, you remember, two years ago, for intemperance and mismanagement of his voyage. The owners sent a man out to the Sandwich Islands with full powers to take charge of her. Averill has been knocking about ever since, and has lived on two or three of these savage islands at different times. I knew him well."

      Mc'Intosh and Carter were secured and kept in irons for a time, but were afterwards allowed to go ashore at Onoatoa, another of the same group. We were glad to be rid of them in this way, and I have never seen or heard of either of them since.

. . . .


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Almost on a Coral Reef.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 30, No. 5 (Nov 1869)
Pages: 445-448