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

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXII, No. 2 (Aug 1870)
pp. 163-166.

An Innocent Fratricide. 163

. . . .

An Innocent Fratricide.


      The conversation on board the Clematis, during a "gam" of half a dozen shipmasters, turned upon homicide without personal malice, and the subject became interesting, as each alluded to cases which had occurred within his own knowledge. One or two, indeed, had stories to tell of their own personal experiences, bearing directly upon the question. I remarked that it had always seemed to me that the taking of human life, under any circumstances, must be an occasion of remorse to the person who had done it.

      "Not so," said one; "of regret, perhaps, but not of remorse. I am acquainted with a man who, while out gunning, accidently killed his best friend."

      "Oh, but," said I, "I did not allude to accidents, of course."

      "But an accident, it appears to me, might be the cause of more regret than an intentional homicide in several cases which I could mention. For instance, what do you think of the soldier in battle?"

      "Or of the officer in pursuit of a criminal?" said another.

      "Or of any man who is forced to take another's life in defence of his own?" put in a third.

      "I give it up, gentleman," said I. "I spoke without thinking."

      "What do you think of a man who kills his own brother, intentionally as to the killing, but ignorant who the victim is until after the deed is done?" asked Captain Fletcher, who had until now said little or nothing on this subject.

      "If his conscience is clear as to the act itself," replied Captain Fairchild, after considering a moment, "I can't see that the fact of the relationship need make any material difference – though the circumstances might require to be known to decide upon any particular case."

      "You shall hear my story, then," said Captain Fletcher, "though I never told it before to anyone. I killed my own brother, gentlemen; but my conscience is clear though the feeling of regret is much increased by the knowledge of the brotherly tie. As for remorse, I don't feel any, I am sure, as I understand the word. And what makes my story the more strange, I thought at the time I killed him that he had been dead for years."

      Having thus raised our curiosity up to a high pitch, he proceeded to gratify it; and I shall do the same by the reader, endeavoring to preserve his language as accurately as possible.

      When I sailed as third mate in the Portugal, being then but twenty-two years old, my young brother, Hiram, was fourteen, and as graceless a scamp, I venture to say, as was to be found in our place or for miles round about. He was not only wayward naturally, but our parents had made much of him as the Benjamin of their old age, and had ruined him by over-indulgence. He was bent on going to sea, and all they as well as I could say to dissuade him, only served to fix him the more firmly in his purpose.

      I was not surprised, therefore, when I received a letter from home informing me that Hiram had shipped and gone to sea in the Science, which had sailed only about six months after our own departure. I thought perhaps it was all for the best; he would be no comfort to his parents if he remained at home, and a sea-voyage might be the making of him. It is so in some cases, as I have observed.

      Time passed on, and though we had several times heard indirect reports of the Science, we had never fallen in with her. We were on the third year of our voyage when we went down among the Marshall Group to cruise, and soon after learned that she was on the same ground, having seen a barque which had spoken her a few days before. I hoped every time a sail was raised, that she

164 An Innocent Fratricide.

would prove to be the Science, that I might meet Hiram, trusting to find him much improved.

      We had lowered for sperm whales one afternoon when the wind was light, and chased them several miles to windward before we struck one. We then made fast to the old bull, or "schoolmaster," as he is sometimes called, and after a hard tussle killed him. The ship's topgallants were just visible on the horizon. The captain's boat and mine were together, fast to the whale, the others having been left far behind, so that they were out of sight. "Mr. Fletcher," the old man said to me, when the whale was going in his last dying flurry, "I shall have to leave you to-night to lie by this whale. Eighty barrels of oil is too rich a prize to lose without running some little risk. The weather looks promising, and I think I shall have a breeze to work the ship to you between now and morning. You can't do much at towing, but you can cut a hole and get all ready, and then lie still where you are. Set your lights as soon as it is dark, and keep a lookout for mine. I'll try to raise a bonfire of some sort."

      The captain's lantern-keg and water-keg were passed into my boat, and in a few minutes, our whale being turned up, I and my boat's crew were left alone on the ocean, while our comrades were pulling with might and main towards the faint loom of the Portugal's mastheads, barely discernible in the distance.

      It was sundown when the captain left me, and by the time I had cut a hole, arranged my line all right, and planted a waif in the whale's body, as a further chance of saving him in case I found it necessary to leave him, it was time to strike a light in my lantern. We made our suppers, and as there was nothing more to be done, the men stretched themselves about on the thwarts to catch such cat-naps as they might, while the boatsteerer and I took turns on watch.

      But the ship was too distant for us to see a light on board, or anything short of a large fire, and nothing was likely to occur to break the lazy monotony of our situation. The gentle tossing movement of the light boat had nearly lulled me to sleep, as I reclined back on the stern sheets, listening to the ceaseless ripple and swash of the sea over the body of the whale. But a different sound suddenly broke the spell, and brought me erect, with all my faculties sharpened – a measured, jerking sound, as of oars in their rowlocks.

      I could see nothing at first, but the sounds drew nearer and nearer at each repetition, and soon I heard a voice say: –

      "'Tisn't a ship; it's a boat with a light set."

      I could now make out the dark, moving object nearing us. She was not coming from our ship, but from the opposite quarter of the compass.

      "Boat ahoy!" I roared.

      "Halloo!" came back out of the blackness, and the thump of the oars ceased, but the boat still advanced with the impetus she had acquired, until she lay tossing like ourselves within easy talking distance.

      "What ship are you from?" I asked.

      "The Nelson of Sydney," was the answer, but not without a slight hesitation.

      "Where is your vessel?"

      "We don't know," answered a different voice. "We lowered for whales this morning and got lost. We thought you were a ship when we saw your light."

      It was a boyish voice that said these words, and I knew it but too well. It was that of my brother Hiram! The flimsiness of his story was but too apparent from the fact that there were eight human forms in the boat. She might possibly have lowered for whales short-handed, but never with two men more than a crew. He had not of course recognized me, or he would not have made himself spokesman; at least, I think now that he would not. But his tone of speech was peculiar, and I could have sworn to it anywhere.

      I understood well enough that they were deserters. The boat had meanwhile drifted close alongside of us, and I was now entirely satisfied of my brother's identity, if indeed I had wanted further evidence to confirm that of my ears.

      "Hiram!" said I, reproachfully.

      "My brother Richard!" he exclaimed, with as much vexation as surprise, I thought. "Where's your ship?"

      "Some ten miles to leeward," I replied.

      "Let's pull ahead and find her," said he who had answered my first hail.

      "Hiram!" said I, as they were tossing back their oars for a start, "come with me; come into my boat. Think of your father and mother!"

      "O! bother your preaching! Pull ahead, boys!" again sang out the man who was steering.

      "Hiram! Hiram!" I called aloud. "Listen to me!"

An Innocent Fratricide. 165

      "I can't back out now," my brother answered; "nor I don't want to, either. Goodby, Dick." And he plied his oar as lustily as any of the rest.

      I could not bear to let him go thus. I seized my lantern, and lashed it by its lanyard to the waif-pole in the whale, cut my line with a single stroke of the boat-knife, and gave the order to pull ahead in pursuit.

      It was useless, perhaps foolish, in me to do so, for I could not force him to come with me against his will, backed as he was by a stronger force than my own. Nor had we pulled many strokes before I was painfully conscious that I could never overtake him. My men did their best; but the boat of the Science was faster than ours. Well I knew that runaways always select the fastest boat they can get; and with two of her oars double-banked, the extra weight in her was more than balanced by the extra muscle. I continued in chase until I could but barely distinguish my lantern on the waif-pole. With a heavy heart I gave the order to return, found my way back to the whale, and again took up my sorrowful vigil.

      I was well satisfied the deserters would not go near the Portugal, but if they saw a ship's light would avoid it; for they were not yet in distress for want of anything, having without doubt left the Science during the previous night, and supplied themselves well with provisions. Ebon or Boston Island was some eighty miles westward from us, by my reckoning, and this must be their objective point.

      It is no uncommon thing, as you all know, for men to desert from ships at sea, especially in low latitudes, and take their chance of finding land or being picked up by another vessel. But I could not dismiss the matter from my thoughts, now that the fate of my brother was concerned. Even if he did not perish miserably in the boat, he could only land among swarms of treacherous savages, who would be quite as likely to put him to death as to relieve his wants.

      The breeze freshened during the night, so that the ship walked to windward, and by noon the next day we had the satisfaction of taking our valuable prize alongside. As I expected, the deserters had not been seen from the ship. After cutting the whale, we steered off in the direction we thought most likely to fall in with them. We ran down to Ebon and communicated with the natives. Two white men came off to us, but they were evidently old "beach-combers," who had lived there for years; nor could we learn that any boat had been seen.

      But nothing was easier than for them to have missed such an island, passing it too far off to be seen, when we considered their imperfect facilities and probable ignorance of navigation. We cruised in the neighborhood several days, and visited two or three other small islands that lay near our track; but we abandoned the search no wiser than we commenced it, giving them up for lost.

      We spoke the Science soon afterwards, but her captain could throw no more light on the fate of his runaways. He also had spent much time in fruitless search. I learned and made a memorandum of the names of all Hiram's companions in the rash undertaking, hoping, if they had survived and again scattered their fortunes, that I might at some future day meet with one of them.

      But I made several voyages after this, and at various times cruised in that part of the Pacific, without learning anything further. I fully made up my mind that Hiram had perished, either by drowning or starvation, and ceased even to think of the chances of his being yet alive.

      But when in command of the Shepherdess I cruised still further to the westward, and one day found myself becalmed near Wellington Island, one of the Caroline Group. We were soon surrounded by canoes, and a large number of natives were permitted to come on board. There were two white men among them; at least they had the features of white men, but they seemed to have become completely assimilated with the savages. They appeared disposed to speak only in the native tongue, though it was evident they understood English. In dress, as well as in ornamental tatooing, they were the same as all their companions.

      Our suspicions of treachery were first aroused by a warning from one of my crew, a native of Ascension, who understood their dialect. He told me they were discussing a plot for our massacre, and that the two whites were at the head of it. Thus forewarned, we took precautions to meet the attack, if it should be made. I knew that if the leaders could be disposed of, there was little danger to be apprehended from the others. Soon I observed many of the canoes push off and lie at a distance from the ship, and all the women and children swam to them, while the men still loitered about.

166 Mistaking her Sphere.

      This was a certain sign that treachery was intended, and that speedily. My faithful "Friday," as he was called, urged me if I valued my life to hesitate no longer, but to anticipate them by striking the first blow. He had selected the chief of highest rank as his own victim, and would be responsible for him if the mate and myself would take care of the two whites.

      I saw by the movements of the enemy that our peril was becoming imminent, and whatever was done must be done quickly. Seizing a moment when we had them all three favorably placed, I gave the signal, at the same moment taking deliberate aim at the taller of the two renegades. He fell dead instantly at the discharge of my pistol, and turning quickly, I saw that the mate had taken as good aim as myself, and his man had also dropped on the other side of the deck. Friday had cut the chief's head nearly off his shoulders with the blow of a spade, and the rest, struck with panic, were leaping into the sea on every side. In one minute our deck was clear, and the whole host of yelling heathens were making the best of their way towards the land.

      As I stooped to examine the body of my victim, who was a tall, muscular young man, heavily bearded, and bronzed by a tropical sun, something in the cut of his features sent a chill to my heart. I said nothing, but choking down my emotion that it might not be observed, I pushed back the hair from his forehead, and disclosed a little mole exactly where I had feared to find it. I turned his arm over, and there, encircled by rings and rude hieroglyphics, which half hid them, were two little capital letters, " H. F.," indelibly stamped with India ink. I had pricked them in there myself, at my brother's boyish request, before I sailed in the Portugal, twelve years back!

      The man whom the mate had shot lived long enough to add some more evidence, if more were needed. He told us that he and his comrade were the last survivors of eight who deserted from the Science. Four of them perished in the boat, and the remainder landed after having been twenty days at sea. Two had since been killed by the natives. He confessed with his last breath that he and his comrade had been concerned in cutting off a trading vessel three years before, and that they intended to have taken the Shepherdess and put us all to death.

      I kept my secret locked up in my own breast, but my officers and crew wondered that I insisted upon the ceremony of Christian burial for the two "beach-combers," and read the funeral-service myself before they were launched overboard. It was the least I could do for my misguided brother, and I felt the better for having done it.

      Our aged parents have gone to their long rest, ignorant of what I have been telling for the first time to-night. Their last knowledge of the boy was from my account of our meeting in the darkness, on the night when I lay by the whale. I have given you the whole truth, gentlemen, and as it is time for us to part, I must leave you to make your own reflections upon my story. I confess to having committed fratricide, and yet I can say that my conscience is entirely clear of wrong.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: An Innocent Fratricide.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 32, No. 2 (Aug 1870)
Pages: 163-166