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W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol 50, No. 47 (May 21, 1870)
p. 1.

Trading for Cocoanut Oil.


      We had left twenty casks on shore at Apaiang, one of the Gilbert Islands, to be filled with cocoanut oil, under contract with old Tentebau, the savage king. We were in the habit of doing so at various islands of this group, and thus drove a profitable trade in addition to the more legitimate business of our voyage, the hunt of the sperm whale, not so numerous in that cruising ground now as formerly.

      This business of collecting cocoanut oil among the little islands of Micronesia was one involving considerable risk, and to conduct it required a man of infinite resources, one of great firmness and personal courage, as well as a skillful seaman and navigator. Such a man was Captain Andrew Cheyne, of the bark Audacious, of Sidney, to which I then belonged in the capacity of captain's boat-steerer, or, by courtesy, third mate.

      The time of which I write was years before the advent of Christian missionaries among these people, when their intercourse with whites was limited to occasional "touching" visits of whalers, and the petty traffic was, for the most part, carried on by canoes putting off alongside the ship. Seldom did any white man venture to place himself in the power of these barbarians by landing among them. But Captain Cheyne was not to be daunted from carrying on a lucrative trade by considerations of danger.

      After a successful cruise of several weeks among the windward islands of the group, we again ran down to Apaiang, and the sails of canoes were seen putting out to us almost as soon as the land was in sight from our deck. Tekoubira, the son of the king, was among the first arrivals, and reported the casks all filled with oil, and ready for rafting. As we had a fine day before us, two boats were lowered, the crews being well armed to guard against treachery. The quantity of tobacco which was to be paid for the oil, pursuant to contract, was placed in our boat, under the immediate charge of the captain; and with the most stringent orders of the mate to be on his guard in his intercourse with the canoes, he gave the word to push off, heading in for the narrow opening to the lagoon.

      The canoe of Tekoubira, with a few others, accompanied the boats, but the greater number still hovered round the ship. No danger was to be apprehended from these, however, if a proper degree of vigilance was observed. Our own duty of landing and towing out the casks was one of great delicacy and peril, in case of any treachery on the part of the natives.

      We passed through the inlet into a smooth basin, where good anchorage was to be found on the reef; but at the time of which I am writing, no anchor larger than a boat's grapnel had ever broken its placid waters.

      All was stir and bustle among the savages along the brink of the lagoon, for this was a great event with them, and every man, woman and child had turned out to welcome the strangers. Old Tentebau was waiting for us near the casks of oil, but the noise and confusion went on without respect to his presence. Though the king here rules in some respects, with the will of a despot, yet in,others he seems to have little or no authority. He maintains no royal state and keeps no guard; but on all ordinary occasions is jostled among the crowd – as Captain Cheyne expressed it, "hail-fellow well-met with all hands."

      The boats were anchored off at a little distance, with two armed men left in each, while the rest of us waded ashore to raft the casks. It was necessary to assure ourselves that they contained only oil, and for this purpose we had extemporized a "searcher," to probe them to the bottom. Three were rejected as containing a large quantity of water; and here our difficulties commenced, The old king was furious at our having so neatly discovered the cheat, and now demanded a price nearly double that which had been agreed upon.

      The captain naturally became exasperated at the bad faith of the old savage. He knew that there was no misunderstanding about the contract, for the whole matter had been carefully arranged through the medium of our shipmate, Konara, or "Wat Tyler," a native of the neighboring island of Aranuka, who had been with us several months. Indeed, the Prince Tekoubira was satisfied with the stipulated price, and remonstrated with the old man, but in vain. He only grew more stubborn, and swore the oil should not leave the beach till he had received five pounds of tobacco for each cask, instead of three, as had been promised. The captain was equally firm. "Tell him" said he to the interpreter, "that I will pay him three pounds apiece for the good ones, and only two pounds for these three that are half filled with water. That's rather more than I ought to pay. I can get enough sea-water outside the reef; without buying it."

      He looked old Tentebau steadily in the eye, while his words were repeated by Wet Tyler.

      "Tell him, now," he added, "that if be interferes with the work, I shall kill him with my first shot."

      The old man's rage was fearful to behold, but as he looked at our resolute leader, carelessly patting the breech of his gun' he quailed, for the white chief was evidently a man of his word. It was to be seen in his eye.

      "Mr. Conway," said he to the second mate, "bung up and roll down the casks as fast as you can. Be on your guard, there, in the boats – and have the raft-rope all ready for reeving."

      A great clamor arose among the savages as we hurried up the work, while the captain and two others, with muskets, stood as a covering force keeping guard over us. These natives, at that date, knew nothing of the use of firearms, and stood in wholesome fear of them, from what little they had seen of their effects. And herein lay an advantage which we did not fail to make the most of.

      "I'll give the old fellow an illustration, I think, of what he may expect if he attacks us;" said Captain Cheyne, raising his double-barrel as he spoke, and taking sight with the quickness of thought at a bunch of cocoanuts, hanging some seventy or eighty feet above our heads. The sharp report made the old king jump, in affright, and the heavy nuts fell in the sand at his feet, while the captain stood coolly covering him with the other barrel.

      Thus holding them in awe, the oil was all floated and rafted, ready to be taken in tow by the boats. The men were all in their stations at the oars, and the captain, still maintaining his stand, called for the tobacco, which was passed out to Wat Tyler, and placed before the king. But the clamor and yells of impotent rage still increased. It was evident that nothing deterred them from making an attack but the certain knowledge that the movement would be the signal for the instant death of their king.

      Go into the boat, Wat," said the captain, while he himself began to step backwards down the coral slope, with his aim still directed at Tentebau. "Keep cool, there, you with the guns. Don't fire unless you are obliged to, and don't waste powder on any common Kanaka. Keep you aim upon the king's son, and that tall chief over there with the green leaf on his head."

      The savages gradually followed him up, watching for an advantage. They seemed to know that he had but one more shot in his gun, but were, doubtless, ignorant of the fact that, if brought to close quarters, he held the lives of half a dozen of them in the little revolver at his side. Two or three times the arch-savage brandished his spear, but lowered it again as he looked at the muzzle of the gun so steadily facing him, for nothing could hurry the captain's movements.

      Slowly and carefully he continued backing down towards us. He was already in the water, and within a dozen yards of the boat, when his heel struck a bunch on the slippery coral, and before he could recover himself, he fell to a sitting posture in the water. At the instant his aim wavered, the spear left the hand of the king. It raked past the side of the captain's head, laying his cheek open with its serrated edge of sharks' teeth. The sight of blood seemed to make the savage frantic, and with the leap of a tiger, he grappled with the captain, regardless of two shots fired at him from the boats, but with such unsteady aim that he received only a slight wound in the arm. The captain's gun, thoroughly wet, could only be used as a club, and now, at close quarters, was dropped as useless, while all the charges in his revolver were ruined. Two of us sprung from the boat to his rescue, amid a shower of stones which were hurled at us by the infuriated natives. 1 swung a blow at the old king, with the butt of a discharged gun, which felled him, stunned and bleeding, on the rocks; and seizing our captain, with the help of my comrade, dragged him to the boat.

      Still the volleys of stones poured upon us, and two or three men had been wounded in this way. But a number were engaged in hauling Tentebeau ashore, and meanwhile, an important diversion had been made, which told greatly in our favor.

      The man in the head of the second mate's boat, taking surer aim than the rest of us, had mortally wounded the tall chief with the palm-leaf head-dress, and a great outcry arose, of wailing and lamentation; for nothing so effectually damps the ardor of these islanders, as the fall of one of their head men.

      They seldom make a hostile attack, unless ail the circumstances are overwhelmingly in their favor – though, in this case, the king's insane fury had outran his discretion. The lives of the common people, the mere rabble, are held of very trifling value; but the death of a chief of rank seems to paralyze the whole host of followers.

      The king's son, Tekoubira, had, from the first, shown a lukewarmness, and still kept in the background. We were thus enabled to push the boats out beyond the range of stones, and bind up the terrible wound of Captain Cheyne, while they were yelling and wailing over their two fallen chieftains. He was bleeding frightfully at the ragged gash in his cheek, and one ear was nearly cut off, but he was as full of pluck and determination as ever.

      Meanwhile the raft rope had been detached from the boat, the casks had floated off, and been suffered to drift out into the lagoon. The second mate thought it best to abandon them, and make our way directly on board; but the indomitable captain having succeeded in stanching the bleeding a little, at once assumed tho command.

      "Not while I'm alive. They shall not be left for these heathens," said he. "Pull ahead! hook up the line, and take them in tow again!"

      With the twenty casks astern of us, submerged nearly flush with the surface, our progress towards the inlet was necessarily very slow. But we kept beyond range of any missiles possessed by the savages, and with our guns reloaded, felt comparatively safe from further attack. The howling still continued over the body of the slain chief, but old Tentebau had recovered his vigor, and was inciting his people to fury by word and gesture. They kept abreast of the boats along the brink of the lagoon, and the women and children were all sent inland some little distance, a certain indication that they still meant hostility and revenge, if an opportunity offered.

      Suddenly a party of forty or fifty of the boldest of them , with the old king at their head, started upon a run, leaving the main body to follow at a leisurely pace. The men of this advance guard were all armed with spears, and each one bore on his shoulder a loose basket of leaves, which we supposed to contain stones. We were able to watch their progress but a short distance, when they were lost in a grove of pandanus trees, which intercepted the view.

      "What's the meaning of that manoeuvre?" asked the second mate.

      "They mean to attack us again in the passage," answered Captain Cheyne, coolly. "That's the only place where they can do us any harm, We may have to lose the raft yet, and run the gauntlet with light boats, But I won't lose it, while there's the shadow of a chance of towing it out. They shall fight for it, at any rate. Set a waif for the ship!"

      The passage in the coral barrier through which it was necessary to pass, was not more than fifty fathoms wide, at a point where the reef rose almost to the surface, so that men could stand upon it half knee deep, at the very brink of the deeper channel. There was no difficulty in navigating into it, the changes in the color of the water being boldly defined on either hand. But, encumbered with the long raft, we should be compelled to stand well over to the weather shore, owing to a current which would otherwise set us down upon the opposite point. The enemy's tactics were based upon a perfect knowledge of these facts, and they hoped, at least, to compel us to abandon tho oil which we had bought and paid for.

      The party of old Tentebau soon emerged into view again, running by a circuitous route towards the extremity of the reef, where it was plain they would establish their line of battle long before the boats could reach the mouth of the passage.

      "Let 'em come!" said Captain Cheyne. "They'll leave again mighty suddenly, if Mr. Gifford understands the situation, which he will, surely, before many minutes. I doubt whether these pagans ever heard the report of anything bigger than a musket."

      We all looked over the barrier to seaward. The Audacious was coming to the rescue! She had shaken off all the swarm of canoes, and was heading up for the inlet, "rap full," and everything drawing.

      The howling savages had taken up their position on the extreme verge of the reef, and were shouting defiance at us, as we approached. The old king presented the most revolting and hideous appearance of anything in human form that I have ever seen before or since. A matted mass of leaves, lately green, but now. discolored with blood, was tied upon his wounded head, from which largo clots had fallen and smeared his naked body. This man could not have been less than sixty years old. Yet he appeared as active as the younger members of his party. A shock of coarse, matted hair stood out all round, kike a halo, and a cutaneous disease – common among these islanders – gave his body the appearance of a fish, partially sealed off. Slightly bowed lower limbs supported a form startling in its development of brawny muscle, while-the distortion of savage passions heightened the coloring of the whole picture. "Heave up!" was the order from our captain. "Just hold way with your oars, so as not to sag down upon the lee point of the reef." Be took up his gun and drew a sight upon the horrible old monarch, but better feelings prevailed. He dropped it again.

      "I might easily kill the old pagan, without going within stone-range," he said, and I've half a mind to do it, but I don't want any more bloodshed. We've killed one chief, and I'm sorry we were obliged to do that. I won't do it yet – just hold her so. The ship will soon be near enough to help us."

      We lay thus perhaps ten minutes, during which time a few stones were thrown at us, but fell short. The bark stood in almost to the outer limit of the reef, when suddenly up went her mainsail "in stays," and as she came to on the other tack, a puff of white smoke shot from her waist, a thundering report followed, and a ball from her nine-pounder whizzed over the heads of the astonished barbarians, and went hurling away inland among the cocoa-palms.

      "That's the talk!" shouted the captain, in high glee. "Mr. Gifford is wide awake, but he needn't waste another charge upon them. Pull ahead!"

      Never was a line of battle broken quicker by a single shot. The affrighted natives threw away their bags of atones, and, like Macbeth's ghost, "stood not upon the order of their going." Some even dropped their spears to hasten their flight, and old Tentebau fell down in the water two or three times before he reached the dry part of the reef.

      Before they had recovered from their panic, we were shooting out of the narrow inlet into the long swell of the Pacific. As we glanced backward, not a living being was to be seen on the shore.

      The progress of missionary enterprise has since reached Apaiang and other islands of the Gilbert group, and the elements of light and darkness are even now struggling for the mastery, on those distant isles of the great South Sea. But many of my seafaring brethren are still living, who have been actors in scenes similar to this here related, and who will attest the truthfulness of the sketch.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Trading for Cocoanut Oil.
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol 50, No. 47 (May 21, 1870)
Pages: 1