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W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol. 51, No. 38 (Mar 18, 1871)
p. 1

Undermining an Enemy.


      I had been discharged from my ship at Tahiti in consequence of illness, and, on recovering my health, found myself, as we sailors say, "adrift," and up for anything in the shape of employment that might offer. I accepted a berth as second mate, in the French bark, "Gustave Adolpha," which had been chartered to go to the Gilbert Islands to bring up a cargo of natives from that group as coolies, to work for the Tahiti Cotton Company.

      Our voyage was a pleasant one, touching at several different islands, and taking on board instalments of our living cargo at each of them, until we had collected some two hundred and fifty able-bodied savages, and were nearly ready to run to the southward, as we must do, to get into the "variables" for the return passage.

      It fell calm when we were within a few miles of Nukunau, or Byron's Island, and continued so all through the night. At early morning the captain brought up a large quantity of tobacco and a pile of cotton shirts, and called the coolies together, giving them permission to come up on the poop, or raised quarter-deck, where he began distributing the "truck" among them. They crowded eagerly together, till nearly the whole of them were assembled on the poop. No such thing as the danger of mutiny had yet been thought of, and the captain, with Mons. Letellier, a passenger who was interested in the speculation, at his side, stood unconcerned in the centre of the human swarm, while the men who composed the watch on deck were attending to their ordinary duties here and there about the decks.

      All at once, without a moment's warning, I became sensible of a convulsive movement or rush of the crowd, as if it had been a concerted thing. A wild, deafening yell rose from two hundred throats at once. I was standing, at the moment, down on the main deck, in front of the cabin door.

      Through a gap in the living mass I saw Letellier struck down and killed with a hatchet, but was unable to get a glimpse of the captain or the helmsman. My first impulse was to cry out, to spread the alarm, at the same time seizing a gun which stood within the cabin door that I might rally to the aid of the captain. But a glance, as I raised my eyes above the level of the false deck, satisfied me that I was too late to serve him. He had been stabbed, and had fallen dead, and doubtless the man at the wheel had shared his fate.

      I threw a quick glance about me. My shipmates were either dead or had fled below, for none of them were to be seen. The yelling mutineers had full possession of the deck. I darted within the door just in time to escape the blow of a pump-brake aimed at my head, and closed the slide behind me.

      I found here the mate, who had been roused out, and had armed himself with the best gun he could find; and the steward, who, in trying to help the captain, had been wounded in the shoulder. Had we been supplied with good fire-arms, I think we might have soon regained possession of the ship, even against so great odds. But the vessel was very illy provided in this respect, for we had only two carbines, and a revolver which would not go off more than once in three trials.

      The barbarians did not attempt to force their way into our little stronghold. But, having us securely caged, they blockaded all egress by piling up heavy articles, such as coils of rigging, and bricks which they torn from the cook's caboose.

      The men in the forecastle were confined much in the same manner.

      So long as this state of affairs continued, we were completely in their power; for they intended, of course, to run the ship on shore and plunder her. There was no hurry about making an attack upon us, which would incur some risk, when we might be murdered at leisure after the ship was beached. But this part of the programme could not be carried out immediately for want of wind.

      After a short time, we heard our men trying to force their way through a bulk-head or partition between decks. With our assistance, this was soon accomplished, and we were thus reinforced by six men, but were still almost destitute of arms.

      The mate became impatient, and insisted upon making an attempt to open communication with the interpreter. This man was a Society Island native, who had picked up the language during a residence of some months at Arorai, or Hope Island, where ho had been left from a whaler. He had, at the beginning of the mutiny, been seized by the savages, and bound with cords. He was now held a prisoner, and kept on deck near the mainmast, as we could see through the chinks.

      I said all that I could to dissuade my superior officer from running so great a risk. But he was not to be turned from his purpose; and, spite of my advice, persisted in his design. He made his way in between-decks as far as the main-hatches, and, by thumping, and shouting, attracted the attention of the crowd on deck. The hatch was lifted aside, and the report of a musket followed instantly. The mate fell dead, shot through the head by a ball from the interpreter's gun, fired by one of the savages. The fall of the mate was followed by a diabolical howl and prolonged outbursts of laughter, which rang in our ears like that of fiends. The hatch was clapped on again; but I had approached the opening near enough to perceive that there was a breeze stirring. Our fate must now be decided very soon, as the mutineers would have tho bark under control, and they knew enough of her management to keep her headed in for the land. They also knew the most favorable spot for beaching her, so as to save the plunder.

      Left now in command of the surviving force, and feeling that all were looking to me to take the responsibility, I decided to put in execution a desperate plan which I had some time before conceived. This was to blow off the upper deck, aft, by a gunpowder explosion, and, during the confusion and panic that must ensue, to rush up through the opening, and "board them in the smoke."

      I collected all the powder I could find, which amounted to no more than a keg of twenty-five pounds. This I planted directly under, the centre of the quarter-deck, where the majority of the coolies were assembled. With a small quantity of the powder, I strung a train from the keg away forward to the fore-hatchway. I took off the lower hatches to secure my retreat downward, for I meant to fire the train myself.

      I ordered all hands to move forward between-decks, to be as far from danger as possible. All this was done in perfect silence, that the enemy might have no suspicion of our intentions. And then, seeing that the train was perfect, and all things so arranged as to admit no possibility of failure, I proceeded to give my orders in words which might perhaps be my last.

      The men were directed, as soon as the explosion took place, to rush on deck, without waiting to look for me, as there was no telling what might be my fate. But, even as I said this, I had confidence in the success of the plan, and I think I was never more calm in my life than at that moment. I felt that it was our only chance of deliverance; that if we remained penned up an hour or two longer, the ship would be stranded on a coral ledge, and we should be left to the alternative of drowning or perishing at the hands of merciless savages.

      I saw the men all placed in safety, including the wounded steward, and, match in hand, returned to my station. I made a short prayer for safety, struck a light, and lowered my body partially over the combings of the hatch. Then, stretching forth my hand, I applied the fire to the end of the train, and let myself fall, at the same instant, upon the water casks in the hold.

      The explosion was instantaneous, and appeared to shake every timber in the bark. Blinded and nearly choked by the sulphurous smoke, I was yet conscious that I was physically unhurt, and felt that, of course, my shipmates must be safe, so much farther from the main explosion. I struggled up between-decks, and gasping for breath, rushed blindly through the choking vapor. The companionway had been blown entirely off, and my men had reached upper air in advance of me. Besides them, there was not a living soul on board save the interpreter, who was still bound. But the sea on all sides was completely dotted with the black, shaggy heads of the amphibious savages, all striking out for the island, only a couple of miles distant.

      The vessel was again in our hands, and my first care was to change her course, so as to head her off shore, while two men were sent below to see if any fire had communicated to the ship. I had taken the precaution to place a quantity of matting under the keg of powder to save the deck, and nothing but that had taken fire. In a few minutes all was pronounced safe; and the bark, impelled by a fresh breeze, was speeding away, as if she herself rejoiced at her deliverance.

      Her damage was not as great as we had expected; the deck was not blown completely off, nor were the planks thrown much out of their places; but the whole fabric was raised bodily upwards, several inches, no doubt giving the crowd of naked wretches who stood thereon a terrible fright. The cabin-work inside was partially demolished, but that was a trifle. Our hearts wore filled with gratitude to Heaven that we had escaped with our lives, and in due time, we arrived safely at Tahiti.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Undermining an Enemy.
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 51, No. 38 (Mar 18, 1871)
Pages: 1