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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Bow Bells, (London)
Vol. 11, No. 281 (Dec 15, 1869)
p. 486



      We were cruising for right whales, in the Unicorn, on the "Kodiak Ground," so called from an island of that name, which lies a short distance off the coast of the Alaskan Peninsula, in North America.

      In the early part of the season, we made the unpleasant discovery that the head of the mainmast was rotten. Ou sounding and examining it more particularly, it was found to be in even worse condition than we had at first supposed. The spar was entirely unsafe to bear either the strain of cutting a large whale, or of carrying a press of sail, in case of getting jammed on a lee-shore. In view of this fact, the captain called the officers together for a consultation. If we bore away for the Sandwich Islands, our season's work was lost; as to go there, complete the repairs, and return to the whaling ground, would consume nearly the whole summer. It was hard to thick of losing the rich harvest which we had hoped to reap among the right whales.

      The mate, who had in his youth been a trading voyage to the north-west coast, said that there were good harbours down about Queen Charlotte's Sound, where we might lie at anchor, and strip and "fish" the mast. Or, if necessary, we might even cut a tree of sufficient size for a new one, and make it ourselves. If so we might be back off Kodiak in two or three weeks at farthest; and it was resolved to steer to the south-east accordingly. We neared the land with fair weather, and coasted down it till we came to an inlet that looked promising for anchorage. Having reconnoitered with a boat, and finding it a snug harbour, we took the ship in, and moored as nearly as possible in the centre of the basin.

      We were not ignorant of the savage and treacherous character of the north-west Indians; but same risk must be run rather than lose our season's work, and we trusted, by using all due caution and vigilance, to finish our business without difficulty with the natives. Indeed, none were to be seen, nor any signs of habitation round the shores of the bay, which was safe and well sheltered. On further examination, it was found impracticable to fish the old mast. A party was sent on shore to select a tree to be felled, and found just what was wanted for our purpose, about a mile inland. There was none of suitable size nearer the beach, though the shores were wooded, even to the very edge of the water.

      The tree selected was soon cut down, and every men who could make a decent use of tools had a hand in hewing out and making the mast, which was finished in a couple of days. But the hardest part of the job was to come, in moving it from where it lay to the water-side. We had neither horses nor oxen, but must do all the labour ourselves. We carried ashore planks and cut rolls from small trees, got all our tackles in readiness, and as this part of the work required all the force we could muster, the crew were all sent on shore, except the cook and myself. I had been so unfortunate as to cut my hand slightly with an axe the day before, and for this reason I was left on board as ship-keeper.

      During this time, no Indians had been seen, nor had any signs even of temporary encampment been observed. We had become accustomed to the solitude of the place, and had gradually passed from alarm to careless security. When the captain went on shore that morning in the last boat to superintend the work, he said nothing to me or the cook about danger. But the old rusty six-pounder had been loaded ever since we arrived in the harbour; and it was generally understood that those on board were to "torch her off," in case they wished to alarm their shipmates in the woods.

      The old mainmast was still in its place, and everything aloft. It had not been thought prudent to start anything until the new spar was afloat, for fear that some interruption, either from the natives or the weather, might drive us to sea with no mainmast at all.

      I had nothing to do, after the boats had left the ship, but to amuse myself and kill time as best I might. The old cook was idling round his galley, with little more to do than myself; for the crew had taken cooked rations with them, so as to make a long day of it, and no one was expected on board before nightfall.

      I passed most of my time reading in the forecastle, occasionally going on deck and glancing round. But all was quiet as ever, and I had ceased even to think of a possibility of a visit from human beings. After a while I went up to the galley-door, and looking in, found the old cook sitting, swaying about with a tin-cup in his hand, and a maudlin smile distending his capacious mouth. He was so far gone with intoxication that he could no longer hold up either head or body. The tin quart still contained perhaps half a pint of rum. I took it from his unresisting grasp, and gently eased him down upon the galley-floor. I closed the door, and left him to sleep off his potations, while I carried the remnant of the liquor into the cabin. 1 had no desire to follow his example, for I seldom drank any liquor, even when it was served out to us.

      The captain's state-room was locked, but the key was lying on the transom. It had been left by accident, I suppose, and the cook had found it before I did. I put it in my pocket, came on deck, and after taking another look round the horizon, went below to read again. I remember reading till the words seemed all mixed together -- rubbing my eyes and beginning back a piece -- hearing a noise, I didn't know what it was -- but I do now. It was my book dropping out of my hand.

      The next noise I heard was a pattering of feet overhead. I jumped up, thinking one of the boats must have returned for some purpose But as I did so, I heard voices in a strange, barbarous tongue. Standing on the ladder, and peeping cautiously out, I found the deck in possession of about twenty Indians, all armed with spears and knives; while one, who seemed to exercise authority over the rest, carried a gun. They seemed to be lost in astonishment at having found and boarded a ship with no one on board, and were somewhat wary in their movements, as if fearing a trap.

      Having, as it appeared, searched the cabin and found no one, several of them came forward. They took off the fore-hatches and peered down between decks, and one of them pushed his head down the fore-scuttle. But I had beaten a retreat, and concealed myself under a bunk, where I could watch the enemy without being seen myself. I heard the galley-door push open -- then a confusion of guttural sounds, indicating their astonishment at finding the sleeping cook -- a shriek of mortal agony that chilled my blood -- I knew then that there was no mercy for me if I was found; and cursed my owe stupidity and want of vigilance that I had allowed them to surprise and capture the ship.

      The savages, now satisfied that they had killed the only man on board, made a rush aft into the cabin to begin the work of plunder; and the sound of their retreating footsteps was the signal for me to be again on the alert. I could not reach the gun which was mounted in the waist, amidships, ready for firing the signal. It was as well, perhaps, that I could not; for I reflected that such a proceeding would certainly cost my own life, before my shipmates could arrive. The Indians were now ignorant of my being on board, and it was better to keep them so.

      Only one had been left on deck to keep a look-out upon the shores, and the shouts of exultation from the others soon announced that they had forced the doors of the state-room, and found what they were in search of. I remembered that I had left the tinpot on the cabin table with the liquor just as I had taken it from the ill-fated black; and, finding this, the savages had lost no time in seeking for more. I had heard enough of these people to know that rum was the very Alpha and Omega of their desires. They now had possession of a ten-gallon keg, nearly full; and as they do not nurse the enjoyment by imbibing gradually, like more civilized men, I knew that the fiery stuff would do its work speedily.

      The man who was on guard remained aft on the quarter-deck, and I soon saw him go to the cabin door and receive the tin-pot, which was handed up by one of his comrades. He lifted it greedily to his mouth, and its contents appeared to be so good, that he was obliged to swallow the whole, to the very bottom. The yells and antics of the others in the cabin, announced that they were making fearful inroads upon the contents of the captain's keg.

      It occurred to me that I should be much safer if I could manage to get aloft and conceal myself; as they would not be likely to pursue me there. And even if they did, I should have great advantages in the way of defensive position. Keeping myself carefully in range of the foremast, I climbed up by the topsail-sheets, and reached the slings of the fore-yard, intending to hide myself in the bunt of the sail. But, to my surprise, I could see my shipmates at work upon the mast! They had advanced so far as to have entered a clearing, but a short distance from the beach; and, from my high position, I now looked over the belt of woodland skirting the shore. If I could mount still higher, I might signalize them. I took another look at the half-drunken sentinel on the quarter-deck, and decided to venture.

      I succeeded in gaining the foretop-gallant yard, where a small blue flag was always kept, to be used as a signal to the boats when in pursuit of whales. I soon managed to attract the attention of those on shore; and rapidly running the colours up and down, as well as waving my hat, I had the satisfaction of seeing them suspend their work, and start towards the boats, which lay behind a bend of the creek, concealed from the view of the Indian on deck. Having accomplished my purpose, I slipped down the topmast, and again hid myself in the bunt of the foresail.

      In a few minutes the boats shot into view, pulling rapidly towards us, and the sentry was not yet so stupid but that be could give the alarm. His companions, crazed with the fire-winter, rushed up, yelling like demons; and the chief immediately ran so the six-pounder, which be had already observed to be loaded and primed. He knew enough about a gun of that description to be able to fire it: but he did not know that there was nothing in it but a heavy charge of powder, rammed down hard. It had not been thought necessary to waste a ball in firing an alarm.

      I could not avoid laughing in my sleeve, as I saw the importance he displayed in training the gun and taking aim at the approaching boats, while one of his men was tossing in his hands a small coal of fire, brought from the galley. The party now only amounted to twelve, as I counted them; the rest being already stupefied with liquor, and unable to come on deck. They were all grouped closely round the gun, as the boats came on, being suffered to approach very near before the leader gave the word to apply the coal to the priming, expecting, doubtless, to do fearful execution.

      And so he did, but at the wrong end of the gun. The old six-pounder had not been fired, nor even had the rust sealed off, for at least two years; and having a very heavy charge in, she exploded with terrific effect. The majority of the savages clustered round were either killed or disabled by the iron fragments, while all were more or less scorched and blinded. The recoil of the gun-carriage jammed the old chief, in a helpless attitude, against the combings of the hatches; for he had taken no precautions against an effect the nature of which he did not understand.

      Amid the discord of yells and groans, our boats rushed on and boarded in the smoke. Short work was made with the surviving Indians, for they were not considered entitled to much mercy. The stupid ones below were securely ironed for safe keeping. The captain could not make up his mind to kill them all; and he dared not let them go yet, for fear they might bring a larger force to attack us, before we should have finished our work.

      The body of the old cook was found as they had left it, on the galley floor, stabbed to the heart with one of their short knives. They had done no further damage in the cabin than breaking down the stateroom doors in search of the liquor.

      Their two canoes were lying alongside. in which they had no doubt come by sea from some other bay. It was merely a wandering detachment, or hunting party, for we saw no more of them. We floated the mast next day, and two more days were sufficient to get the old one out and the new one in place. Our repairs were completed without further interruption; and as we tripped our anchor to return to the whaling ground, we knocked the irons off our prisoners, and drove them overboard, cutting the canoes adrift at the same time. They appeared to think it strange that their lives were spared; but they could do us no further harm, and we were glad to be rid of their presence, without having their blood on our hands. We had accomplished an object in visiting this wild region, and with a favouring gale and a good spar to crack upon, the Unicorn bounded on her course towards Kodiak.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Unwelcome Visitors.
Publication: Bow Bells (London),
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 11, No. 281 (Dec 15, 1869)
Pages: 486