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

Flag of Our Union
Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jan 15, 1870)
pp. 46-47.

[Written for The Flag of our Union.]



      Most refreshing to us sea-tossed mariners was the sight of the fertile and beautiful isle of San Cristoval, one of the numerous group that stud the Archipelago of Solomon. Rich in tropical luxuriance, a stroll on shore, under the shade of its lofty cocoa-palms, and through perfect jungles, teeming with the sweets of a vegetation so aromatic, so gorgeous to our unaccustomed eyes, was like an entry into fairy-land.

      And yet more wonderful, if possible, to me, were the eccentric specimens of humanity who dwelt in this sea-girt paradise. I had already become somewhat familiar with the more ordinary and better-known type of the Polynesian. I had spent a fortnight among the Tahitian beauties, the daughters of those whose seductions had overmatched the loyalty and integrity of Fletcher Christian and his associates; had learned to talk Kanaka-English with the Americanized Hawaiian, and had paid a flying visit to the fierce, untamable New Zealander. But at San Cristoval I made my first acquaintance with a race who may well be called the Ethiops of the Pacific.

      Repulsive enough were they to the sight, with their "thrummed mat" heads, their lips unnaturally red, and their teeth colored, or rather discolored, to the same hue as their skins. Their hair had the true woolly kink of the African, and was colored a dull red by the use of some calcareous dressing. Yet we found these people, so far as our intercourse with them extended, inoffensive and well-disposed. They I had music in their souls, too, and appeared to enjoy life with true negro jollity and abandon. I

      I was surprised at the strong desire evinced by I these people to have white men settle among them. On each occasion that I went on shore, I was beset with the most munificent offers, and the most flattering promises were made me, to induce me to desert the ship and take up my abode with them. I began, soon, to be really afraid that I might be forcibly abducted. Nor was I alone in this particular, for various others of my shipmates complained of having been persecuted in similar style.

      Fortunately, we had a very steady ship's company, and all were well satisfied with the ship and the treatment. No vacancies having occurred among us since we bad been cruising in the Pacific, our morale had not been corrupted by any admixture of the adventurers who infest most of the islands and ports on that side of the world, and who are ready to make a change at any time in search of a runaway's paradise, where life may be a ceaseless round of lazy licentiousness.

      Added to this, was the inborn prejudice, natural to all Americans, and more powerful then than to-day, against amalgamating with a people like those I have described. "There might be some sense," said Young America, "in going ashore to live among Kanakas. But with these niggers – bah!" Their brilliant offers and blandishments availed nothing to lure us from our allegiance to the good ship Mount Hope.

      I was one day examining, with much curiosity, one of their little temples for idol-worship, which stood in a picturesque and commanding situation, on a rise of ground, a short distance back from the village near which we had anchored. These temples, though they evince much care and taste, so far, at least, as relates to their outward appearance and arrangements, are not built on the same grand scale as the morais of the Marquesans, or those formerly in use among the Sandwich Islanders, as described by Cook and others. They are neatly put together, and a space paved round about them; but they have nothing massive or imposing in their character, to strike the mind even of the unbeliever in heathen mythology.

      I was not suffered to make my investigations alone. A woman black as ebony, who reminded me of the pictures, so impressive to my boyhood, in Mungo Park's African Travels, hovered near me like a shadow, accompanied by her little daughter, who might have sat for the original of Mrs. Stowe's Topsy. I inspected the two rude statues, which were erected on pedestals, one each side of the closed portal, and was passing on to view the other sides of the structure, when the woman called my attention to what I had supposed to be mere random scratches in the blocks on which the idols stood, but which she evidently looked upon as highly ornamental.

      I was guilty of a sacrilegious laugh at her enthusiasm, as she placed one hand on my arm and extended the other towards the hieroglyphics, while the woolly halo round her head seemed to expand with admiration. But the next moment, as my eye connected several of the characters at one glance, they became an inscription in English, rude, it is true, but sufficiently: legible, now that a clue was found. In speechless astonishment, I read:

      "James Stanbury – kept prisoner here – stained black – not allowed to see or be seen when any vessel comes. Don't know how long I have been here – should think two years."

      "I spelled all this out on one pedestal, and passing to the other – from Gog to Magog – read on:

      "I belong in London – ran away from barque Tuscanam – not badly used, but see no chance of ever getting away. If anybody reads this, I hope they will try to find me – am shut up in one of the joss-houses as soon as a sail comes in sight.”

      The letters forming these inscriptions had been cut or dug into the hard wood, seemingly with a very dull knife. They must have cost the workman much time and labor; and doubtless the natives had watched the progress of the supposed ornamental work with the keenest interest.

      The wood was by no means freshly cut. A considerable time must have elapsed since it was done, and it was a question whether the man might or might not be still alive and on the island. It will be seen that there was no date to the record; the man had kept no calendar, and had no means of computing time. He had guessed at two years, from the sequence of wet and dry seasons.

      Joss-houses? Of coarse be meant temples, idol-houses. He had been in China, probably, and had picked up the name there. He might be incarcerated at that moment in one of those places; perhaps in the very house before which I was standing! I called his name aloud; but a second thought satisfied me that his keepers would have exercised a more jealous care of their prisoner, had he indeed been in this building. The woman, far from showing any uneasiness, laughed with tree negro delight at my cries, which she supposed to be extorted by admiration of the splendors of the temple and ornamental work. He was not there, of course; and to find where he was, I most be careful not to arouse suspicion.

      I read and reread the strange story until I had it all fixed in memory, and soon after went on board and reported it to the captain. He took the first opportunity to visit the place and read for himself, after which he returned on board and sent for me into the cabin.

      "Have you mentioned this matter to your shipmates?" he asked.

      "No sir. I waited for your opinion, thinking it might not be well to attract too much attention to the place; for of course every man would rush there to read the inscriptions."

      "Right," said he. "I am glad that you have been so discreet. The Englishman is not in that house, I am satisfied ; but I think I know where he is – if he be still living."

      "In the king's palace?" I suggested.

      "No," answered the captain, "I'm sure he is not, for I have been with the king into every part of it. But there's another church, or joss-house, or whatever you may choose to call it, down the south side of the bay, about a mile below our anchorage. It is hoodwinked in by trees, as we look from this direction; but I got a view of it the other day, as I was crossing the harbor with the king, in his canoe – you know, the day that we went pigeon-shooting. I saw the great idols propped up against it, and spoke about them to the king. I remember, now, that he seemed embarrassed, and called my attention to something else; though of course I shouldn't have I thought of it again, but for this discovery that you have made. That's the place, you may depend."

      "Were there any guards near it?" I asked.

      "Yes, there were two men in sight, who seemed to be lying off-and-on near it. But say nothing about it for the present. It will never do to attempt to rescue the man as long as we are so completely at the mercy of these natives. We shall be ready for sea to-morrow, and then – I have a plan that I think will work."

      The king being on board next morning, the captain proposed to go gunning again, taking the ship's boat; for the excursion. His majesty was ready to accompany him, as indeed he always was, but would never allow any of us to go without himself or one of the principal chiefs, as escort or guide. That the men might not be taken from the ship's duty, the king furnished a crew of blacks to man the paddles; but when all was in readiness for pushing off, the captain tipped me the wink to take my place at the steering-oar.

      He signified to the king that he thought the woods on the south side of the bay would afford the best sport; but his unwillingness to go in that direction was so manifest as fully to confirm our suspicions. But the captain and I understood each other, and despite all remonstrances, I kept gradually edging over towards that side of the harbor, passing the temple in full view, and approached the shore at a point some distance below it. The king at length, ceased to object, though he still showed signs, of uneasiness.

      We landed and pushed in under the shade of the lofty trees, where the tropical pigeons were to be found, fluttering high aloft among the branches. The king and the captain alone carried guns, and we pursued our sport for some time with fair success, but seized every occasion to work in the direction of the forbidden spot.

      We at last approached the border of the clearing, so that the building was in view, the idols, which were of colossal size, seeming to grin hideously at us. But to my surprise, the men, whom we had seen outside in passing, had disappeared! No living being was to be seen in the neighborhood.

      "Where are the guards?" said I, quietly, to avoid the appearance of interest or surprise.

      "Inside, of course," replied Captain Gwynn, in the same manner and tone. "I'm sure we're right, now, The Englishman is here, and gagged, as long as we are within hearing."

      "We can't get in, of Cours?"

      "No, it would be useless to ask the king. Taboo would be the answer to everything – or whatever word these niggers use to express the same meaning. Attend, now, to what I am saying."

      "Ay, ay, sir."

      I was carrying the captain's powder-flask and shot-pouch, as also a small box of which I knew not the contents. It weighed several pounds, and was an awkward burden to carry about; but as I had been ordered to bring it along, I asked no questions.

      He kept the king's attention employed as we approached the temple, so as to disarm suspicion, meanwhile giving me my instructions, to which I was all attention.

      "I am going to call out the man's name. He can't answer me, of course, if he's gagged; but he'll know that we are here. Jim Stanbury!" he shouted, running, with his gun raised, towards a tree near at hand, and then back again, terribly vexed, apparently, that his gun had missed fire.

      The king laughed at him for frightening the pigeon away by his foolish shouting, and still more when the captain showed him that the gun was not capped.

      We were now standing close to the wall of the building, and could hear a scuffling sound and hard breathing inside.

      "He heard me, of course, and is struggling with his keepers; but he's gagged, as I thought. All right – keep quiet!" he called, raising his voice; then lowering it again, "That box you are carrying is full of powder; I'm going to lead the king and his men round the front side of the house; watch your chance to drop behind."

      At this moment I looked seaward, down the clearing, and saw the ship's flying jib-boom push into view, by the trees. The captain saw it before I could cry out, and cut me short in the same quiet tone:

      "All right – she'll anchor again below here. Mr. Hart has his orders. Attend carefully, now, to what I say."

      The king here caught sight of a pigeon, and trotted silently off, bis black crew following at a little distance, to see the effect of his shot.

      "Good!" said the captain. "Now's your time. Pass round the corner of the building, lift a paving stone and put down the box – close to the corner post – fix a train with the powder in the flask. Work as quick as you can, and I'll amuse the king and his gang."

      The sharp report of the royal fowling-piece was followed by a cry of delight from the negroes, indicating his success. During the powwow over the fallen bird, I was making good use of my time to carry out my instructions. I heard the captain's voice, speaking so as to be heard inside:

      "Keep towards the back end of the house. Don't go near the front door."

      And the direction of the smothered sounds satisfied us that we were understood by the prisoner. There was no fear that his jailors would be any the wiser; for of all the tribes in the Pacific, these Oceanic negroes possess the least capacity for acquiring a foreign language. There was not even the smattering of English here that is usually to be found wherever half a dozen ships may have touched at long intervals.

      The king and his party returned with their prize; but while reloading his gun, his majesty for the first time appeared to have his curiosity excited about the ship's movements. The captain, reassuring him, led the way to the water side, followed by the whole party, thus leaving my operations unobserved. I carried out his directions in full, without further interruption, and joined him on the beach. The ship had dropped a single anchor in a berth convenient to us, but still lay with her foretopsail loosed; and a boat, fully manned, was pulling towards the place where we had landed in the other.

      "All ready, boy?" the captain asked without looking at me.

      "All ready, sir. The little stick, upright in the sand – that's the end of the train."

      The king made signs to inquire where the box was which he had seen me carrying. I pretended to have suddenly missed it, and started back to look for it. The captain followed at my heels, pretending great indignation at my carelessness.

      The royal party stood still and laughed at this mock chase, redoubling their merriment as Captain Gwynne now and then kicked at me from behind, while I counterfeited an agony of fright, and deprecated his anger by the most expressive pantomime.

      "They'll laugh out o' the other side of their mouths in a minute, boy," said he, drawing a card of matches from his pocket. "Run towards the stick – O yes, I see it. Now double on me, and run back out of the way."

      Never was a group of unsophisticated savages more thoroughly frightened than were the king of San Cristoval and his four paddle-men, at the deafening explosion and its, to them, miraculous effects. The whole corner of the bamboo house was blown into a complete wreck; the hideous deity who had mounted guard for years on that side leaped frantically upward through the smoke and toppled over, crashing to the ground. They stayed to see no more. When we rushed in at the gap, the captain and I, the beach was deserted, and their negro yells were receding in the distance among the forest mazes.

      There were five men inside the temple, which was full of idols of various sizes; while the fixtures and fittings were such as indicated that these people, who appeared so inoffensive and happy, believed, like their Fejee neighbors, in human sacrifice But we had time only for a single glance. Four of the occupants, who had crouched in a panic of fear at our entrance, fled through the opening with speed of antelopes. The fifth lay bound and gagged upon the floor. He was as black, or nearly so, as the others.

      To cut his bonds and help him to his feet was the work of an instant; and assisting him between us we all rushed down the slope together to meet the approaching boat, which had taken our empty one in tow. But little danger was to be apprehended from the natives, as it would take them some time to recover from their panic. Everything on board was in readiness for a start, and we were safe under sail while yet the king and his retinue were investigating, with fear and trembling, what they believed to be the effect of a deity's wrath.

      Our new shipmate, Stanbury, naturally became a centre of interest and curiosity. The black dye with which he had been stained gradually wore out, so that in a few months he regained his normal hue. The king of San Christoval, he said, had always ordered it renewed as often as it faded. Yet excepting this periodical baptism, and his entire isolation from even the sight of beings of his own race, he had been treated with kindness, nay even with distinction, by the islanders.

      According to the best estimate of which Stanbury was capable. It was between three and four years since be deserted from the Tuscan, seduced by just each flattering inducements as had been held out to me and others. As soon as his ship had gone to sea, he was formally received as one of the people, presented with the freedom of the island, tabooed to insure his safety, and stained black, as the highest mark of honor that could be conferred. This last was more than Jim had bargained for; he was naturalized too much. But his resistance availed nothing against the king's fiat; he was at once invested with the high degree, as Knight of the Black Bath, and thus had "greatness thrust upon him."

      After these ceremonies, be was provided with a wife, being allowed his choice among the unmarried women of the tribe. He chose her, he said, rather for her rank than her personal charms, the whole sisterhood being much on a par in this latter respect. He thus allied himself closely to the royal family, and became a kind of prince-consort. This secured him some rights and privileges above the common herd; but these, he found, were not always such as were desirable to a white man of active habits. Besides, he had riveted the chains of his bondage more closely by his union with the kinswoman of the sovereign. His person became so very sacred that it must never again be looked upon by outside barbarians. In short, our adventurer found himself too much married, or, as he expressed it, "his wife was too rank altogether."

      He was not allowed to perform any labor, even to collect or prepare his own food. He became the proprietor of some scores of cocoa-palms and bread-trees, the dowry of his noble spouse, and was expected to maintain his dignity by a perfect abstinence from work, or indeed, anything like exertion. This compulsory idleness soon became the hardest kind of work.

      "I never thought I was over fond of hard work," said Jim, "and I always had an idea that I'd be lazy enough as soon as I could afford it. But I found that laziness reduced to a system wasn't what it was cracked up to be.".

      As soon as a sail appeared, approaching the island, Jim was at once ordered into confinement at one of the joss-houses, as he called them. He might have been treated with all the respect due to his high station, and had his wife to share his captivity, if he would have submitted quietly, and made no effort to communicate with strangers. But as he always resisted stoutly, and did his best, to raise an alarm, it was found necessary to gag and bind him whenever any white men were within hearing.

      But no more violence was employed, he said, than was necessary to insure his silence; nor was it continued a moment after the necessity was: past. But a constant guard was kept upon the temple until the whites had taken their departure, when he was again reinstated in all his honors and dignities.

      On one of these occasions, when he came out of his prison, he found another white man who had been left behind by an American vessel. Jim was nearly beside himself with Joy at this prospect of companionship with one of his own race.

      But Murphy, the new-comer, was an impulsive young Irishman, and after passing through the ceremonies of initiation, selected a wife who pleased his eye, from among the plebeian class. Thus they were not brought much into contact. Murphy was not only permitted to labor, but it was expected of him. He was also confined when a ship arrived; though it appeared not so much from fear that he himself might escape, as that he might reveal the situation of the more important prisoner, Stanbury.

      Murphy had not been many months on shore, when, having climbed a tree for cocoanuts, he fell nearly a hundred feet to the ground and broke his neck. His remains were carried outside the reef and sunk, and his widow was tabooed so that she could never marry again – except it were to another white man.

      Human sacrifices were offered, according to Stanbury's account, on very rare occasions, He had known only one instance during his sojourn, which was after the death of the king's favorite son, a boy of ten, who was killed by a shark while bathing. The victim was a castaway, who, with others, had drifted there in a canoe from one of the other islands of the group; and Jim could give no account of the ceremonies, as no one was admitted to the joss-house but the priests and the king himself.

      To make his situation known to any visitors had long been the desire of Jim's heart, and at length hit upon the expedient of carving the inscriptions upon the pedestals of the idols. The king end his people were delighted with the effect, but would not permit him to cut them in the wood himself. So much labor on the part of a grandee of the kingdom was a compromise not to be thought of for a moment. So Jim drew the form of the letters, and a native workman dug them out; which fact went far to account for their rude appearance.

      Jim, as a consequence of his long-indulged idleness, had grown fat and unwieldy, while at the same time, he was quite unable to endure the fatigue of a hard day's work. He improved, however, in these respects, under the operation of a change in diet and habits of life. It was very hard for him to be so suddenly cut off from the use of the betel, which every man, claiming to be a man, is expected to chew, at the Solomon Islands; and which to him had become a necessity, in the same manner as rum and tobacco in the more civilized circles. His dental organs, which had acquired a jetty polish from its use, did not regain their whiteness, even after his akin had bleached out.

      We left Stanbury in Australia, where he joined a ship of his own country, bound to London. I have never heard that he has published a book, or delivered lectures. Nor do I think be would make his mark at either; though, as I first beheld him, he might bave proved an attractive "card" in connection with a troupe of Ethiopian minstrels.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Knight of the (Black) Bath.
Publication: Flag of Our Union.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jan 15, 1870)
Pages: 46-47