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. XXXV, No. 3 (Mar 1872)

246 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .


By W. H. Macy

      While in command of the little bark Peri, said Captain Jeffrey, I met with an adventure among savages that I think worth relating; for though no lives were lost, save one which was quite worthless, and the circumstances never made any sensation among the whalemen, they can never be forgotten by us who were actors in the drama.

      We were making what had proved, until then, a very successful cruise among the small "school whales" in the neighborhood of the Gilbert group of islands, and had been swept out of our usual track during a succession of light winds, and currented off south of the equator. After baffling for several days, we so far recovered our lost ground as to sight the island of Arorai, and were near enough in the afternoon to be visited by a goodly number of the natives. They brought very little in the way of barter, but informed us that a ship had been cast away there some time before, and that they had various articles on shore for sale, which were of too ponderous a nature to be brought out in canoes.

      We had not visited this particular island before, but having a good general knowledge of these Micronesians, I was inclined to be wary and suspicious of a scheme to decoy a part of us on shore. There was a difficulty in communicating with the earliest comers, as our conference about the shipwrecked articles was carried on in the language of signs; but I learned that there was a white man living among them, as indeed there was one or more at each island that I had visited. It was quite late in the day before this man's canoe was seen approaching us, and we had then worked up to a convenient position under the lee of the land, where we could see, for ourselves, a number of casks lying on the shore, and an object that looked like a ship's anchor.

      The white man who boarded us called himself Barney, and was unmistakably an Irishman; most likely a runaway from one of the

In a Bamboo Prison. 247

British penal settlements, who had found his way here in some colonial whaler or trading vessel. He confirmed the statements of the natives about the wreck of the Adelaide, some six months back, and said that there were many valuable articles on shore, including anchors, chains, casks and cordage, which they were anxious to dispose of for tobacco and cloth. Indeed, as we stood in near the beach, we saw enough to satisfy us that his account was substantially true, and after consulting with my mate, I resolved to venture a shore myself to examine with a view of purchasing, if the weather should continue fine the next day for getting the things off.

      Taking Barney into the boat with us, we started for the shore, the boat's crew being all armed, and cautioned particularly to be on their guard. The mate was also instructed to use the utmost vigilance, and to keep the ship as near the land as practicable. My intention was, not to be absent from her more than a couple of hours, which would be sufficient to examine the articles for sale and decide upon purchasing. I could be snug on board again by sundown, and finish the business on the morrow.

      We found the landing on the coral shelf rather dubious work for a whaleboat, though the native canoes managed it very well, making sport of what might have been to us a matter of life and death. I was compelled to trust somewhat to the Irishman's pilotage, and we got ashore without material accident, though our boat was slightly stoven in so doing. Barney led the way along the beach towards the place where we had seen the anchor and the casks, and four of us accompanied him, leaving two in charge of the boat. The crowd of savages hovered round us, seemingly in high glee, the Irishman talking continually in the barbarous guttural dialect of the island, of which he seemed to be quite master.

      Before we reached the place where the shipwrecked articles were collected, we had to round a bend in the land, so that our own boat was hidden from view; but we gave little heed to this fact, as all appeared straightforward and friendly, and we apprehended no danger while the ship was so near at hand to support us. The anchor proved to be a very good one, and there were two serviceable fluke-chains and many other valuable articles offered for a mere trifle in the way of barter; so that I had fully determined to buy the whole, and take them on board next morning, if wind and weather should serve. I was in the act of arranging my plans to this end with Barney, when the report of a musket from the direction of the boat startled us. I immediately jumped to my feet, with a word of caution to the men to look to their arms and be on their guard. A single step satisfied me that we were not to be allowed to return whence we came, without fighting our way.

      The women and children, who had until now formed a portion of the crowd, were leaving us, and drawing off inland, a sure indication that treachery was on foot. It did not appear, however, to be the design of the savages to kill us at once, or they might have done so, by making a rush in upon us, as we were only four in number. They doubtless thought it more profitable to secure us and hold us for ransom, while they knew that some lives must be lost at the first attack, and felt a little wholesome dread of our guns.

      We, on the other hand, endeavored to present as bold a front as possible against such fearful odds, and to refrain from bloodshed until compelled thereto in the last extremity. Besides, if we discharged our firearms, we would be at the mercy of the enemy before we could possibly reload them.

      Finding that we could not make way against the living wall that barred our return to our comrades at the boat, we came to a stand, formed in a group, back to back, so as to present a gun to each of the four points of the compass, while I opened a parley with Barney, demanding of him why we were obstructed in our movements, and what was the purpose of the natives? He assured me that no violence was intended, but that the king had determined to have us remain on shore all night, and that we could not be allowed to leave the beach, though he hoped we would see the necessity of submitting to his wishes without forcing him to order an attack.

      Any fool could see this, of course; that a fight must result in our being overpowered and massacred as soon as we had fired one volley. The Irishman professed great friendliness towards us, telling me that he was overawed by the chiefs, and dared not oppress their designs. But I had no faith in the scoundrel, and in fact, was well enough convinced that be was the master-spirit and instigator of the whole treacherous business. I assured him that I should hold him re-

248 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

sponsible, if any attack were made, and should take care that the first bullet should find its way to his heart. He quailed at this threat, and was more profuse than ever in his protestations of innocence of any complicity in the king's designs. He said that the two men left at the water-side had already been secured, without bodily injury to either of them. One native had been slightly wounded by the musket which we had beard fired.

      I had reason to think his statement was true, as we had listened in vain for a second report, though both men were armed. In a moment like this, fraught with such peril, a hundred thoughts and impracticable plans forced themselves upon my mind, while I inwardly cursed my own folly for having so blindly placed myself in the power of these treacherous savages. But where, meanwhile, was the ship? If she stood on, as I supposed she would, she must soon open us to view, though the surprise of the two men who were visible at the landing-place had been effected so quietly, as perhaps not to excite any alarm on board.

      The Irishman, who kept himself well informed by the scouts who were constantly running back and forth, told me that the ship had gone on the other tack and was three or four miles off the land. This, though improbable, might possibly be true; I had no means of settling the point, and now demanded of him what he, or the king, would have us do? as we could not stand thus at bay forever. If they did not soon make an attack, or come to some terms, I should open fire, and sell my life as dearly as I could. Besides my musket, I carried a revolver in the breast of my shirt, and Barney knew, as well as I, that his own life was doomed at the commencement of the fray.

      He kept up now a continuous jabbering with the leading men of the crowd, and, so far as I could judge, was endeavoring to work their courage up to a sufficient pitch to make a simultaneous rush upon our little group, and take the risk of a single volley. Our great advantage lay in the fact that there was not a single gun among the whole population, and the general feeling of dread with which all firearms were regarded by them. The attack upon us was deferred because no one dared to be foremost in it, and throw away his own life for the benefit of the general cause,

      It was now their turn to open a parley with us, promising that we should be well entertained, and that no harm should befall us, if we would lodge all night on shore in a large house which they pointed out to us. We had little faith in their promises, but as our retreat was fully cut off, we saw no way out of the dilemma, but to pretend to be satisfied with them, and we moved on towards the house, still keeping our guns at the ready, and allowing no savages to cut in ahead of us. They all followed at a respectful distance, and thus we backed into our prison, which was immediately closed upon us, and the doors secured without.

      As the house was lightly built of bamboo, it would not have been difficult, at any time, to force our way through the broadside of it; but no one could get in upon us without raising an alarm, as we distributed ourselves, one near each corner of the building. There were cocoanuts hung up against the posts, and other provisions in the form of a sweet paste, made in sheets and rolled up like small slices of leather; so we were in no present danger from hunger, even if our keepers failed to bring us anything. Of course we should fight, before we should starve; and if a savage caprice should seize them to set fire to the building, we must also, in that case, break out and sell our lives dearly.

      It was now past sundown, and, as the twilight in that part of the world is short, would very soon be dark. What had been the fate of our two comrades, or what had been done with the boat, we could not tell with a certainty, though the Irishman declared that the boat had been carried well up inland, and that the men were secured, though, as yet, their lives were as safe as ours. He talked with me through a chink in the door, and he admitted, now, that their object was to get a large quantity of tobacco from the ship, as ransom for us, more than they could obtain by the sale of the fluke-chains and other articles, which I had promised to purchase.

      After a time, as it grew dark, I told him I did not care to talk any more, but would like to be left to get some rest. He went away, and for a time all was still, and no person was to be seen moving in the neighborhood, except a few guards, who were so posted as to command a view of all sides of the building. They did not venture to approach very near, and, for the most part, managed to dodge in range of cocoanut

In a Bamboo Prison. 249

trees; but they were vigilant, and any movement of ours would at once be seen and reported.

      There was, of course, no rest for us inside the house; for sleep, under such circumstances, was the farthest thing from our thoughts. We kept both sight and hearing upon the strain; for notwithstanding the story of Barney about their intention to demand ransom for us, the caprice of savages was not to be depended upon from one minute to another. I had reason to fear a surprise, and believed Barney himself to be a greater scoundrel than any of the rest, while, at the same time, he lacked the courage to attack us openly while we stood with our guns aimed at him.

      The event soon proved that I was not wrong in this opinion. As the night advanced, and all remained quiet in the house, we observed that the savages were collecting in numbers at various points among the cocoanut trees, as if with the intention of surprising us by a simultaneous advance upon different sides of the house. This was done very quietly; not by any sudden rally, but the number of each group seemed gradually to increase, and to form a larger black mass, as if reinforcement were slowly but steadily being sent to each post, where only a guard or two had been at first stationed.

      By and by, all was motionless again, and the dark bodies of men appeared as if they were inanimate fixtures. Then a single man came briskly up towards the house, and I had no difficulty in detecting the "beachcomber," even at a considerable distance. He was naked, with the exception of the maro about his loins, like the natives; but his walk, which he could not disguise, betrayed him. His heart and his habits might be assimilated to those of the Gilbert Islanders; but his legs were as Irish now as ever.

      We preserved perfect silence, while Barney came nearer and nearer, venturing, after a while, to apply his ear to the chink in the door. But no sound could he hear, save a musical imitation of snoring, which we all made, as bad been previously agreed upon. He continued for a little time listening, as if he were surprised, as well he might be, to find us all off our guard. He had expected, no doubt, to discover us uneasy and inquisitive, and to hold another lying parley with us; but, apparently satisfied at last that we were indeed completely at his mercy, he tripped silently away.

      We had no doubt, now, that the attack would be ordered at once; and it was well understood that, if such were the case, the Irishman was to be the first victim of our fire. With all our senses upon the strain, we awaited the onset, which we felt must decide our fate in a few minutes. I directed the boatsteerer, who was the best marksman of the party, to make a sure thing of his aim at Barney, feeling that our salvation depended much upon killing him at the out set.

      We had not long to wait, before the dark cordon of naked forms came closing up around us, with a slow and measured movement, for it was evident they thought we knew nothing of their approach. They were within thirty yards of us, the Irishman conspicuous by his peculiarity of figure and gait, when I touched Dick, the boatsteerer, on the arm, and gave the word in a whisper, "Now! Make an end of him!"

      At the same time, I brought my own gun to a sight, to send a second bullet in the same direction, in case the first one missed its mark. But there was no need. The report from Dick's musket was followed by a yell – a veritable Irish yell – and Barney fell in his tracks. No further sound came from him; but the sonorous wail of many savage voices attested the astonishment and awe of the natives, as they seemed, for the moment, to hesitate in their attack.

      A sudden thought struck me. There was a hideous idol fixed against one of the posts in our prison, directly fronting the door; and it bethought me of making it still more hideous, by smearing it with phosphorus. We all had friction-matches in our pockets, and Dick, in particular, being a famous smoker, had brought about half a bunch on shore with him. It was the work of a moment to rub the face of the idol with the luminous substance in which the matches had been dipped. Its great circular eyes, and hideous grinning mouth appeared as if shooting forth flume, and the effect was startling, even to us who understood the cause.

      It was at this moment that the boldest of the barbarians rushed up to the door and threw it open from the outside. We stood at bay in the darkness, reserving our fire, in readiness for the worst. But a single glance into the building was enough for the leaders, who thought themselves, as indeed they were, the bravest of their tribe. They saw only their god glaring at them with fiery eyes, as they thought, and breathing flame from his capacious jaws.

250 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "Jurawarra! Jurawarra!" was yelled from a score of savage throats, in most discordant concert; the cry was taken up by all the rest, and there was a general rush for a view at the terrible object, though no one ventured to approach it. The first assailants had fallen back a short distance, and the more timid crowded in their rear, and stood with eyes fixed upon the fiery apparition, spellbound and awe-stricken, still repeating the cry "Jurawarra!"

      "Now is our time!" said I, seeing that the back side of the building was left entirely unguarded, and knowing that our operations were well covered by the interior darkness. "Kick hard, and make an opening!"

      It was but the work of a moment to force a hole through the dry bamboo sides of the house. Save a slight crash, which was effectually drowned by the shouts of the barbarians, this was done without noise. Indeed, what had added to the sense of awe and mystery, was the fact that no sound bad come from the building, but the report of the single shot which had killed Barney.

      We passed quickly into the open air, and struck a beeline for the water-side, guided by the roar of the tide on the coral reef. No natives crossed our path; every one, women and children included, had rushed to the centre of attraction, joining in the everlasting shout of "Jurawarra! " and we had no difficulty in avoiding them all. As we reached the beach, a light flashed up on the seaward horizon, and as soon as we recovered breath and looked steadily for a little time in the direction of the light, we made out the outline of the ship's sails against the dark background!

      There was little prospect, at that distance, that we could make ourselves heard by hailing. On the other hand, we should only hasten the approach of our enemies, who, for the present, were bewildered by a phenomenon, which must have, appeared to them a miracle. But the luminous effect of the matches would not last many minutes. The savages would discover our absence, and recover for their fright.

      "In this direction our boat lies," said Dick, the boatsteerer. "It's thereaway we landed."

      "Yes; but she may have been carried away up among the cocoanut groves, and we may almost as well look for a needle in a haystack, as hunt for her in the darkness."

      A brilliant flash lighted up the sea, revealing the ship not more than a mile, distant, and almost instantly followed by the smart report of her old six-pounder, the very voice of which we seemed to recognize.

      The situation was tantalizing enough; to know that friends were so near, and yet to have no means of reaching them, or opening communication. The report of the gun, too, would draw the attention of the natives. Already the burden of their song had changed from the single exclamation, "Jurawarra!" to a confused clamor of guttural sounds, showing that they had partially recovered from their terror, and were investigating the cause of the strange apparition.

      "Let's all shout," suggested Dick, " and try to make them hear us on board the ship. I see no better way."

      "We can do better," said I. "We can fire a musket. They could not tell our voices from the others; and if they could hear us, they can certainly hear the Kanakas now. One musket, only – Tom, fire yours off – the rest of us hold our fire, and be on our guard."

      Tom raised his old flint-lock, and fired in the air. As the report died away, a long-drawn "Aho-o-o-oy!" came from seaward, sounding above the monotonous roar of the water rolling over the coral.

      "Hurrah! a boat!" And in our excitement, we all halloed to the full stretch of our lungs. Loud voices, several of them, came back in reply, and presently, we made out the boat, which had approached as near the reef as the officer dared. Up went a boat-lantern on a waif-pole, showing what seemed little more than a spark of light.

      "She can come no further," said I," there is but one course for us – to rush out on the reef and go to her, through the breaker. We can do it, if we keep cool and seize the right moment for the start."

      "Here comes the savages! " said Tom.

      Sure enough, they were approaching; some of them bearing torches. There was not a moment to be lost.

      "Look out now, when the next one breaks, and I'll give the word. Never mind the guns, throw them away into the water, so the Kanakas won't get them. All ready? Now!"

      It was a fearful risk, but no one hesitated to run it. Braced up for the worst, we met the next roller at just the right moment; and passing through it, found ourselves still four in number, and not seriously injured, though somewhat bruised, and nearly strangled by the brine, for the struggle had been

The Angel of the Home. 251

a hard one. Our cries were answered at once, and scarcely a minute elapsed ere we were alongside the boat, and ready hands were dragging us over the gunwales. But by this time, the line on the beach was alive with the natives, and numerous torches, made by burning a species of oily nut, shed a glare upon the wild scene.

      Lying off at a safe distance, we saw them crowd down to the beach until the entire population who were able to walk must have been present. And among them, to our great relief, appeared our two comrades, who had been left in charge of the boat. They were still guarded, but did not appear to be hurt. Somehow, I felt that they were safer, now that the Irishman was out of the way, and that we should have no difficulty about effecting their ransom.

      But nothing could be done for them at the moment, and I gave the word for the already overloaded boat to return to the bark. Keeping them under good working sait, we held our position until day again broke.

      It appeared that the mate, soon after we left, had stood off shore to make a long board, intending to be close in with the island at nightfall; but the wind slacking, he was so far off at the time of the surprise of the guard and seizure of the boat, that he knew nothing of that transaction, and did not regain his desired position with the ship until long after dark. He had since kept the signal-light constantly aloft, and as the night advanced, had sent the second mate with another boat to reconnoitre, becoming uneasy about us; and had also fired the sixpounder, as before related.

      We succeeded, the next day, in ransoming our two men for a few pounds of tobacco, and other articles of trifling value; and having got them safely on board, we opened a regular fire from the old carriage-gun, under cover of which, we landed and took off our boat. The savages took good care to keep out of range of the gun, and we had no desire to kill or injury any of them. The renegade Barney was the instigator of all the trouble, and it was a satisfaction to us to know that he got his deserts. I firmly believe it was his intention to have destroyed us all, and then to have captured the bark, if possible. He was bad enough to do it, but was too cowardly to wish to run much risk himself, and for that very reason, was unable to inspire his followers with courage to act promptly. His whole management of the business showed an indecision which marred its success, and proved our safety. Followers will never be bold without a bold leader.

      Our two men, when attacked, fired but a single shot, which slightly wounded one of the natives; but, deciding that resistance was useless, threw their guns into the sea, as the rest of us did afterwards, and submitted at discretion. The wounded native and a few others were clamorous for their blood; and, for a time, their lives seemed suspended by a hair; but the ransom party finally prevailed, and the prisoners were placed in confinement, but not otherwise ill-treated. It did not appear that these people were desirous of killing any white men. Their cupidity was the besetting sin, as in the case of most South-sea Islanders, but they would never have done us injury, but for the influence of the white scoundrel and coward Barney.

      We did not stay to make a trade for the anchors and other articles; nor did we see what disposition was made of the beachcomber's body. It was probably carried off outside of the reef and sunk, according to their usual custom.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: In a Bamboo Prison.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 35, No. 3 (Mar 1872)
Pages: 246-251