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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2 (Aug 1873)
pp. 131-134.

The Cormorant's Luck. 131

. . . .



      Seamen have the reputation, not altogether undeserved, of being more superstitious than the generality of mortals. Almost every one, however strong-minded and intelligent, cherishes away down in his mind a belief in "lucky" and "unlucky'' ships. He may deny it ever so earnestly; may scout the imputation as sheer nonsense; but when brought to the test, the old feeling is very apt to come uppermost, and his actions to belie his bold words.

      I well remember, in my boyish days, that there was always a rush of the best seamen to ship in the Cormorant as soon as her papers were known to be open. There were many more desirable ships, considering merely the intrinsic qualities of each; but the Cormorant had always been lucky, and it was generally believed always would be. There was a venerable battered horseshoe nailed to one of the breast-hooks in her bows, so as to revolve as on a pivot, and the crews who had sailed in her entertained a sort of veneration for this symbol. If unsuccessful in a chase of whales, they went into the forecastle after their return on board and turned the horseshoe on the nail a certain number of times; luck was sure to follow the next day, or, at least, very soon. Certain it was that the Cormorant, though an ancient ship, had never failed to make a successful voyage, and scarce any one had the temerity to suppose that she ever could fail.

      My cousin, Joe Burrell, was several years my senior, and had arrived at that stage – only a question of time with all of us young islanders – when he was old and stout enough to go "round Cape Horn." His father, who had been an old salt himself, was a devout believer in luck, and had curbed Joe's impatience a whole year, having actually bespoken him a berth in the old Cormorant while yet she was at sea on her previous voyage. Nothing could exceed the boy's delight when he really saw his autograph signed on her shipping articles, though the "lay" against it was not so liberal as he might have obtained in other ships of less enviable reputation. The supply of stout lads to man the Cormorant was always greater than the demand, and the shrewd old Quaker owner

132 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

did not fail to profit a little by that fact.

      Nathan Joy, her commander, had been mate of her on the previous voyage, and there was luck in him as well as the vessel. Surely no one ever began his career in the whaling business with a more flattering prospect of success than my cousin Joe. His letters to me were as frequent as his opportunities for sending them, and he always wrote in high spirits, giving such glowing descriptions of his adventures as fired my boyish ardor, and made me chafe with impatient longing for the time when I, too, should be deemed worthy to join the crusade against the leviathan.

      A letter dated when the Cormorant was about two years out from home reported her near the Galapagos Islands, wanting only a few whales to fill her. As the letter was five months old when received, we began to look for Joe's arrival from the day of its reception. But months passed on, and winter set in without bringing either the ship or further tidings, until not even her proverbial good luck was proof against certain vague fears that some accident might have befallen her.

      Every whaleship in those days carried a distinguishing signal, or "owner's flag," of large size, and it was customary, on arrival at Homes's Hole, or "Oldtown" (as we always called the little port of Edgartown), to send this flag by the little packet-sloop which plied between the Vineyard and Nantucket, thus reporting as early as possible the identity of the ship to the anxious ones on the lookout for her. Many a day we kept the spyglass in operation from the "walk" on the housetop, vainly watching for the great blue flag with a C in white, which was to set our minds at rest about the Cormorant. It came not, and even the most sanguine shook their heads, and admitted that the doctrine of luck had in this case proved a failure.

      Then there drifted home a rumor that a certain whaleship, believed to be the Cormorant, had been cut off at Juan Fernandez by a party of Chilian convicts. What had been the fate of the crew could not be known, but it was almost sure that the pirates had kept possession of the vessel, and started off on some sort of marauding expedition in the Pacific. The penal settlement at the island had been broken up through the inefficiency of those placed in authority over the malefactors, and some of the latter had been summarily shot, as Napoleon is said to have shot the Turks at Jaffa, as the easiest way of disposing of them. But those who had seized the ship had made good their escape, and it was long ere their whereabouts was known.

      My uncle, Joe's father, still clung to his faith in the ultimate safety of the vessel and crew. "I tell you," said he, "there's luck in her old timbers, and she'll turn up somewhere yet all right." But spring came without any light being shed upon the mystery, and meanwhile I had grown stout enough to commence my own adventurous career, and cast my lot in the new ship Samaria, and prepared to fulfil what I had always been accustomed to look upon as my appointed destiny, quite undeterred by the lesson of my cousin Joe's fate.

      We were nearly up with Cape Horn in the Samaria, hammering away against head winds, when a homeward-bounder, under a cloud of sail, came running down on our quarter. There were many marks of resemblance about her to the Cormorant; so said the old seamen, who ought to know, and when she rounded to within a short distance, and flaunted the blue flag with the C in white, for which we had watched so anxiously and so long, all doubt was removed. A few minutes later and my hand was seized with an iron grip by my cousin Joe Burnell, no longer a boy in stature, but a young Hercules.

      Of course all sorts of eager questions were put, in our curiosity to learn the adventures of men who appeared as if risen from the dead; and the truth of their story, as I gathered it from Joe, was that the ship had been captured, as rumored, by a party of Chilians, who effected their purpose by surprise, boarding her while lying at Juan Fernandez in such force as to overpower the crew without striking a blow. Captain Joy, though not wanting in courage or in disposition to defend his property, found himself powerless, in consequence of the negligence of the watch in charge, and saw the impolicy of any attempt at resistance after the convicts were in full possession of the deck. They numbered full seventy men, and they offered no further violence, either to himself or his crew, than such as was necessary to make themselves safe in possession.

      Joe told me he never was ill-treated by any of them during the whole time that he

The Cormorant's Luck. 133

was in their power; but he with the rest of his shipmates was confined below, constantly under guard, and only allowed to come out a few at a time, while the ship was put off with a free wind, running westward into the broad Pacific, her destination being, of course, quite unknown to her rightful owners.

      The leader of the pirates was a Frenchman, who spoke fluently both Spanish and English, as well as his own tongue, and was evidently a man of no ordinary intelligence, and a competent navigator. For this reaeon the captain and officers knew no more of the position of the ship than what little they could gather by stealth, as they were not called upon to assist in shaping her course. Barreau the Frenchman was quite equal to the work he had undertaken, and maintained the most admirable discipline among his desperadoes. He never relaxed his vigilance in the guard over his American prisoners, while, at the same time, he allowed no one of his own followers to oppress or maltreat them. He had promised Captain Joy that they should all be landed at some civilized port, if he could approach the land so as to do so without compromising his own safety.

      In due time the ship, making, as they judged, a general northwest course, arrived at an island supposed to be one of the Marquesan group, and came to anchor. Barreau would not suffer one of the Americans to land, but kept up the watch and guard over them with increased vigilance. The next day after the arrival he himself took a crew in one of the whaleboats, and pulled round a point out of sight from the ship. He was absent several hours, and on his return two heavy bags were lifted out of the boat, and carried below into his stateroom, being the same which Captain Joy had formerly occupied. Nothing was said openly about the contents of the bags, but it was whispered among the Chilians that they were filled with gold, and had been secreted at the island by Barreau on some former cruise.

      Stores and provisions were taken on board, until the vessel was in a complete state of readiness for a voyage of any ordinary length. All this time the pirates had been kept strictly to their work, and been allowed no time for recreation or riot; but such humdrum life was not to be endured forever by men of this stamp. They insisted upon having one grand carouse and jubilee before again putting to sea, and Barreau found himself obliged to yield. He made it conditional, however, that they should not leave the ship for that purpose, but should hold their revels on board. If his followers could be thrown off their guard while away from the vessel, there was the double danger of treachery from the savages and of a rising of the prisoners.

      A renegade Englishman, who had taken up his abode on the island a year or two before, and become more than half barbarian, had established the manufacture of liquor from the "toddy" or sap of the cocoanut tree, a vile stuff, which may be warranted to kill at as many yards as any "tangle-foot" dispensed over the bar of the worst grogshop in New York or London. It was the first opportunity that the convicts had had to indulge in alcoholic stimulants, and they were not slow to buy up all the stock on hand from Cockney Ben, amounting to some dozens of bottles.

      The revelry waxed loud and furious on the night previous to the day set for departure, and the desperadoes, having once given themselves up to it, appeared to have abandoned all thought of care or vigilance. The prisoners were allowed almost unlimited freedom, and were frequently invited to drink with their guards; but no more was taken by any of them than barely sufficient to avert suspicion, for the word had been quietly passed among themselves, and anxious eyes were watching the gradual progress of the drunken revel, which promised to open up a chance for striking a blow for freedom. It was a source of delight to them to observe that the master-spirit Barreau had little or no control of himself after he once began to drink. He was soon one of the most recklessly intoxicated of the party, and all discipline was at an end.

      By midnight more than half of the Chilians were laid out, stupid from the effects of their grand carouse, while many of the rest were but little better. The Frenchman, after a maudlin attempt to show that he was still himself, which resulted in a signal failure, had retired below, and fallen, in a stupor across the cabin table.

      Now was the time for Captain Joy to recover easy possession of his vessel, and the signal was given for which his crew had been so eagerly waiting. By simultaneous action in different parts of the ship, a few

134 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

minutes sufficed to overpower the small number who were still capable of resistance; the rest were easily taken care of, and Captain Joy, with his own crew of twenty-four men, found himself once more in full command of his favorite Commorant, but with seventy prisoners on his hands. It would never do to remain at their anchorage until daylight, as the natives might make an attack on seeing the new state of affairs, and the little party would be placed between two fires. Orders were given at once for lifting the anchor, and though the operation was performed as quietly as possible, it did not fail to attract attention from the shore. Canoes were soon seen approaching, but were ordered off out of range, and before the alarm had spread to all the savages the ship was a-welgh, and, with her topsails and jib drawing, moved slowly out of the bay. More canvas was added to catch the breeze, but the force detailed to guard so large a number of Chilians necessarily left tbe working party very short-handed. The prisoners must be got rid of, by some means, before they ail recovered their sober senses, or it would be next to lmpossible to control so overwhelming a force.

      As soon as an offing was gained the boats were lowered and filled with men, the most helpless ones being piled in with little regard to position or storage, and a few of the more sober men driven into each boat before she was cast adrift. So near the land they could not fail to reach it in safety, and their after fate among the barbarians must be their own affair. In this way about fifty were disposed of, including Barreau himself, who was still insensible. Except the few who had been wounded in the brief struggle for recapture no one was injured, and those few were retained among the twenty left on board, who were all placed in close confinement.

      Thus relieved of the heaviest burden of care, our whalemen shaped their course for Valparaiso. As no observations could be taken for the two succeeding days, it was found difficult to determine exactly what island it was they had visited; for the pirates had kept no log, the navigation of the ship having been left in the hands of their leader, who, though he did his work well and understandingly, had left no written record of it. But that the Island was one of that portion of the Marquesas known as the Washington Group was pretty well determined. It was small, of coral formation, and thinly inhabited. Nothing definite was learned of the after history of the fifty men set adrift in the boats.

      The Cormorant arrived off Valparaiso in due time, touching only long enough, however, to land the twenty desperadoes, for which the authorities did not appear to feel at all grateful, especially when it was learned that the Frenchman himself was not among them. There was no time for any questioning or investigation as to the contents of the mysterious bags, which still remained in the captain's stateroom. After leaving the place with a cracking breeze, bound up towards Cape Horn, the nature of their contents was first made known to the crew.

      "Forty thousand dollars are in those two bags, all in gold," said Joe, as he finished his story, "and we all draw lays of it. The old man says it's part of the catchings of the voyage just as much as the oil."

      Which there was no doubt it justly was; and thus it fell out that the Cormorant, with her cargo of spermaceti and the bags of yellow boys added, made the luckiest voyage of her whole career. She held her reputation until she was hauled up into the dock mud at the home-port and broken up, fairly dying of old age, as one might truly say. The horseshoe, much attenuated by corrosion, was religiously preserved, and nailed up in a similar position in the bows of her successor the Novelty, fresh from the ahipyard. But, as if in very spite of the faithful believers, the Novelty was cast away on her first voyage, but a few months after leaving home, and the rusty emblem of good fortune was lost with her.

      "Ah well," said my Uncle Burnell, then far advanced in years, "the bad luck was in her timbers, and not in the horseshoe. The Cormorant never ought to be allowed to die altogether; we might have kept a piece of the old keel to swear by, and built upon it. And it would ha' paid, too, better than building new ones, for, as long as she lived, her voyage was a sure thing, made before she sailed."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Cormorant's Luck.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 38, No. 2 (Aug 1873)
Pages: 131-134