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An Incident that Occurred in the Pacific.

W. H. Macy

Oct 1869
pp. 321-324

An Incident that Occurred in the Pacific.


      We were cruising in the bark Gratitude, "on Japan;" which phrase, as employed by old sperm-whalemen, by no means indicates the near vicinity of the great empire of this name. It includes all that tract of the Pacific ocean, northwest of the Sandwich Islands, which lies between the longitude of this group and the Japan Islands, below the parallel of forty degrees.

      It was toward the close of the season; and we were lying under short sail, "stowing down" a fare of oil which we had taken a few days before. Captain Wyatt, clad in his armor of proof (canvas frock and overalls), went into the hold to oversee the work, as he often did in such cases. Though the second mate nominally has charge of that department, and is responsible for the stowage, many captains prefer to head the work themselves; and of this class was Captain Wyatt.

      The wind was light at the time, with a tumbling swell; and the bark had hardly sufficient canvas set to keep her steady. She had a slight heel to windward, in consequence of many heavy articles having been shifted over from the lee side.

      "Mr. Chase," hailed the captain, up the hatchway: "send me down a forty-two, to go next the shifting-board." "Ay, ay, sir," I answered; and proceeded to select, by measurement, one from the tier of casks lashed along the rail. While doing so, the ship made a heavy weather-roll – so suddenly as almost to throw me off my feet. I was sensible of a quick jarring of the vessel, a crashing noise in the hold, and then several voices raised in confused discord. I ran to the hatchway.

      "The old man’s hurt," said one of the boat-steerers, looking up excitedly.

      One spring landed me between decks; another, and I was among the group of men, who were struggling to roll back the cask, and release the captain from his painful position at the shifting-board. A glance showed me, without making inquiries, how the accident had happened. The cask had been rolled up in the "wing," and chocked; and the captain had been standing directly in range of it, when the sudden weather-roll had displaced the groins. He had almost escaped, by seizing hold of the shifting-board and springing upward; but one leg was caught, and held, as in a vice.

      Helpless, and moaning with pain, we released him; and seized by numerous strong arms, both from above and below, he was lifted tenderly on deck, and carried aft into the cabin. I stripped and examined him as quickly as possible. The injury was all below the knee; but it seemed to me that the bone must be crushed, for the limb appeared flattened in shape.


As he had been caught by the quarter of the cask, his foot had hung below the point of contact; and had thus escaped injury.

      "Is it smashed all to pieces?" gasped the suffering man.

      "No, sir; I guess not," I replied, speaking as cheerfully as I could: though I felt that he must lose his leg – perhaps his life.

      "Mr. Cook," said I to the second mate, "make sail at once, and keep her head southeast. Pack it on to her! We must make a port as quick as possible."

      There was a strange numbness about his leg, the captain said. But none of us on board knew anything of surgery. We applied such remedies as our medical handbook directed; but when, next morning, the limb appeared still flattened, much discolored, and the inflammation still increasing, our united wisdom decided that amputation was the only chance of saving Captain Wyatt’s life.

      It might still be many days, before we could reach the Sandwich Islands. He would never stand it to wait until then, we thought; and he himself agreed with us in this opinion. If he was to lose his leg it must be taken off at once, and some of us must do it.

      "Did you ever happen to see a limb amputated, Mr. Cook?" I asked.

      "No, sir."

      "Do you think you could do it? Or lend me a hand to do it?"

      "No, sir," was the decided answer. "I couldn’t bear even to look on and see it done."

      I called all hands to the mainmast. Had anyone ever seen such an operation performed?

      "Yes, sah," said our venerable African "doctor;" who prepared and dispensed our daily potions of "domestic" coffee, as well as our pills of duff and salt junk, for that most dread disease – hunger. "I seen it done once, sah; good many year ago, when I’s in de old Liberty."

      "Did you do it?"

      "I helped, sah. De old man bossed de job – old Cap’n Gar’ner – but I lent him a hand, sah; to pass him de tools, and hold on to de slack, like"

      "Did you save the man?"

      "O yes, sah. Made a fuss rate stump of it. Dere ain't much ’bout it, arter all; only takin’ up de art’ries. You must look out for yer turn-a-cat, sah. Be sure you hab dat solid."

      "Come with me, doctor," said I. I was satisfied the old negro knew more about the business than I did myself; which was not saying much.

      I had never in my short life – for I was but a young man then – felt so fearful a responsibility resting upon me. The captain was impatient for me to attempt the operation; declaring that he could not live many days as he then was. I tried hard to screw up my courage, and nerve myself for the undertaking. But I shuddered as I cleaned up the fine saw, which was to


divide the bone; and the tourniquet, as I handled it, seemed already tightened round my own throat, instead of the captain's limb.

      In vain the old negro sought to encourage me, by detailing how he had seen it done. "Old Cap’n Gar’ner" might have been a born surgeon, for aught I knew. I had heard of the famous Sweet family, of "natural bone-setters;" and knew that some people took these things natural, as the boy did profane swearing. But it didn't help my case at all. The more I advanced with my preparations, the more excited I became. By the time the whole fearful array of implements were laid out on the cabin table, I was completely unstrung. I could not, at that moment, have carved a round of beef; still less the flesh of my friend and shipmate.

      "Mass'r Chase," said my dark assistant, with a greenish kind of blush illuminating his open countenance; "I tink – ’scuse me, sah – I tink we ought to have a little suthin’ to take, ’fore we begin: jist to steady de narves like."

      Nerves, forsooth! he had no such thing in his organization. His coolness had already aggravated me to the verge of insanity, as I watched him feel the edges of the tools like a professional butcher.

      His suggestion to "take something" was not a bad one, however; and I mixed a couple of "fortifiers" at once. A slight good effect was soon perceptible in my case. As for the black, he was ready now to perform the operation alone, con amore. As he pushed the little saw back and forth in the air, with a hissing accompaniment, I verily believe he would have felt no more compunction, or emotion of any kind, in dividing the captain's tibia, than in cutting a stick of wood for his galley fire.

      "Want me to put on de turn-a-cat, sah?" he asked, with a broad grin.

      "I tink, sah, de pashunt ought to take a little suthin’ too – jist to brace him up, like."

      I complied with this suggestion, of course. The negro, as if conscious of his own superiority in this affair, seemed ready to take the whole business off my hands – with one trifling exception: I must "stand by to grab de art'ries!"

      "It's of no use," said I, with a shudder. "Captain Wyatt, I can't do this!"

      "I do it, sah!" said the cook, patronizingly; at the same time flourishing his knife like a very Shylock, claiming his bond. "I do it, sah; you on’y jist look out for de art’ries."

      "Hold!" said I, as a hail came faintly down from aloft: then a loud cry "Whereaway?" from the second mate, and another faint response.

      "Sail off the lee-beam, sir," reported Mr. Cook, at the companionway.

      "Hard up, and swing her off," I roared. "Run the signal up, to say that we want to speak him."

      "Say de word, sah, when you’s ready to cut," said the old negro, impatiently.


      "Hold your hand! Drop that knife, and be off to your galley!"

      If we could speak the stranger, I might meet with some one who could advise me; or, at least, I could divide the responsibility a little.

      The strange ship backed her maintopsail as soon as we headed off for her; and within half an hour I made out the French ensign at her peak.

      "Eureka!" I shouted. "I can wash my hands of the whole matter now."

      The marine laws of England and France require every vessel which carries above twenty souls to have a surgeon on board. Hence all British and French whalers are thus provided, as I well knew.

      My invitation, as soon as I got within hail, for the doctor to come on board, was at once responded to; and I may safely say, that I never grasped the hand of any human being, however dear to me, with greater fervor than I did that of Dr. Chandleur, surgeon of the Garronne. He was a little dried-up man, with a great deal more hair under his head than above it; and every wrinkle in his face was most intensely French. But at that moment I could have hugged him to my heart, as if he had been – never mind who I mean.

      Dr. Chandleur examined the sufferer with professional gravity; felt his pulse; looked at his tongue; and went to the medicine-chest to prepare something for a composing draught, he said, in tolerable English.

      "Are you willing to perform the amputation for us, doctor?" I asked, with my whole soul in the question.

      "Am-pu-ta-tion!" he repeated, pushing up the whole skin of his forehead in astonishment. "Pourguoi?"

      "I should feel much safer to have you do it, than attempt it myself," I urged, in reply.

      "Mais; vat for you vant amputation at all?" he demanded.

      "Isn't it necessary, then?"

      "Certain – no – fievre, inflammation; I make it all right."

      "But the bone is crushed?"

      "No, no. The leg is good!"

      As both ships were bound to Honolulu, he offered to remain on board until our arrival there, and take charge of the case. My answer was, simply to place my stateroom at his disposal, and send a boat to the Garonne for whatever he might want. He seemed like an angel sent to save Captain Wyatt's life – at least his leg; which amounted to the same thing, when the surgical skill of the black cook and myself is considered.

      Before we sailed from Oahu, the captain was able to walk; and he still lives, with two legs as good as my own. But to this day I can never repress a shudder, as I think of the negro flourishing the saw, and warning me to "stand by and grab de art'ries."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Almost an Amputation: An Incident that Occurred in the Pacific.
Publication: Onward.
Vol/No/Date: Oct 1869
Pages: 321-324
Almost an Amputation: An Incident that Occurred in the Pacific.