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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLII, No. 2 (Aug 1875)
pp. 132-137.

132 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      Many years ago – before the Australian gold fields were opened to immigrants – I found myself adrift in Sidney, out of employment and out of money. As a change from the round of whaling cruises which I had made in American ships, I was induced to try my fortunes in a colonial "lime-juicer," and shipped as able seaman in the barque Lady Roswell, bound on a general trading voyage among the islands in the Pacific. Trinkets and tobacco were to be bartered for marine shells, sandal-wood, beche-de-mer, cocoanut oil, or whatever else could be turned into money at the end of the voyage. In short, all was fish that came to our net.

      The Lady Roswell was not exactly the style of vessel one would select as adapted to a voyage of the kind. She was no great traveler, and had a cumbrous, castellated, old-Admiral-Benbow appearance clinging to her, as if she were a relic of past ages. She was stanch and tight, however, and had been purchased cheap by her captain, Joe Beecher, a harem-scarem Englishman, who had invested his all in the venture.

      We visited a number of islands, and did a smattering of barter trade; but the sandal-wood business, on which the captain had built his chief calculations, was found to be a failure. The article was very scarce, and the little obtained was, to use a whaler's phrase, "like skimming slicks." We made a start for the Gilbert Islands, hoping to make up a good voyage with cocoanut oil. The method pursued was to land a few casks to be filled, then proceed to another island and land a few more, and so on, making the rounds of the group, and collecting the oil by small installments.

      At Epimama, generally known to mariners as Simpson's Island, we had put about twenty casks ashore, which would contain one hundred barrels. Rackaboo, the reigning chief, had promised to fill them; but, at the rate these savages work, it would take several weeks to get this quantity of oil together, and have it ready for shipment. Meanwhile, he was at war with the chief of Koorua, another island under his lee, and his mind was burdened with preparations for a grand warlike expedition, or raid, which he was intending to undertake against his enemy. He was especially desirous to secure the aid of Captain Beecher, with his ship, in this naval campaign, and was profuse in his promises of indefinite quantities of cocoanut oil and other valuable truck as compensation for our services. The captain, reckless adventurer as he was, lent a favorable ear to these proposals; and some of our crew appeared delighted with the mere excitement of the thing, without considering at all the right and wrong of the matter.

      But our chief mate, Edward Doyle, a very intelligent Irishman, protested stoutly against such a course, declaring that it was no quarrel of ours, and that if the two barbarians wanted to knock each other on the head, they ought to be left to do so, without our interfering at all.

      "Why, we know nothing about the rights and wrongs of this quarrel!" said he to the captain.

      "Well, what if we don't? We never do know much more in any case of war, do we? The queen calls for our services, and we just obey orders, without asking questions."

      "Ah, but we're not to put this old copper-colored thief of a Rackaboo on a parallel with our rightful sovereign. There's a vast difference between fighting for one's country, and disgracing the British flag by taking part in a row between a couple of heathen Kanakas, as a mere mercenary, to be paid off in cocoanut oil and tickel-moce-moce!" (This last is a kind of sweet syrup or treacle, made by boiling down the cocoanut sap.)

      "Oh, don't be afraid that I shall flaunt the British flag," said Captain Beecher. "I don't care any more about it than any other piece of rag of the same size. I'm a sort of – what d'ye call it? – cosmopolite, myself, and though it's all very fine to talk of fighting only for one's own country, and all that sort of thing, yet I think it's all humbug; and that patriosm – if that's the right word – don't pay so well as oil, or

The Fate of the Lady Roswell. 133

even the cocoanut molasses, whatever may be your name for it.

      It was useless arguing with such a man as this. Mr. Doyle was overruled, and if not convinced, he was at least silenced for the time being.

      So we took on board Rackaboo, and two or three subordinate chiefs with their immediate suites of warriors, veering the canoes astern to be towed behind us. Other canoes fell into our wake, numbering about fifty, each manned with eight or ten men. We up helm and squared the yards to the brisk trade wind, and thus the expedition started, like a flotilla of small craft under convoy of a single frigate.

      The canoes at the Gilbert Islands are swift enough to hold way with a ship under moderate press of sail, but they are very frail structures. For, as they have no trees here of suitable size and texture for making "dug-outs," each craft is built of hundreds of little bits of wood, seized together, the interstices being filled up with a kind of white cement. They always leak, and it is one man's work the greater part of the time to bale the water out. With an outrigger to hold them right-side up, and an immense leg-of-mutton sail, made of matting, they are a swift and moderately safe craft at sea; but the pump-or-sink quality is common to them all.

      The appearance of the fleet was picturesque as it swept in battle down towards Koorua. But we found them by no means unprepared for an attack; and had the conflict been confined to the two tribes of savages, I have no doubt Rackaboo would have got as good as he brought. But the appearance of the "big canoe," Lady Roswell, as an ally of their enemies, struck dismay to the hearts of the sturdy Kooruans.

      "How do you propose to make the attack?" inquired the mate; for the captain had as yet given him no inkling of the plan of the campaign.

      "I shall cast of the canoes, sending Rackaboo and his crowd to fight after their own fashion. Meanwhile, we'll stand in with the ship within short range for our two nine-pounders, and blaze away at the village on the shore, while the canoes are having their battle out."

      "This is a cowardly piece of work," said 'Mr. Doyle. "I've no stomach for it; and though I never yet shirked my duty in fifteen years' experience at sea, you may depend, Captain Beecher, that no gun will be fired by me, or under my orders, unless it be in self-defence."

      "Very well, then," said the obstinate skipper. "You must go off duty, and let the second mate take your place. I must say, Mr. Doyle, you're the first Irishman I ever knew who didn't want to take part in what Yankees call a free fight."

      "And I will make bold to say," retorted the mate, "that you're about the first and only Englishman I ever sailed with who didn't stand up for what you call fair play."

      "Ah! but I'm not an Englishman – that is, not particularly so, as I told you before. I'm only a cocoanut-oil merchant, and shall hoist no flag to-day."

      So Mr. Doyle, as a matter of conscience, put himself off duty, and Schmidt, the second mate, a big stupid Dutchman, took charge of the barque under the direction of the cosmopolitan Beecher. Rackaboo and his gang got into their canoes, and took their places in the line to lead the fleet of Epimama, while the canoes of Koorua were seen coming out from behind a point of the land and advancing warily to meet the foe. But no human being was to be seen on the shore; it appeared as if the houses were deserted, and the women and children all spirited away to some safe place before the warriors were sent forth to battle.

      The two squadrons approached each other within what might be called a clever yelling distance, and both sides struck up the war-whoop. Each savage seemed to be lashing himself into a fury, as if his object was to strike terror to the heart of his enemy before a blow was struck. If so, both armies were quite successful, for before they arrived within stone range, their headlong valor, like that of Bob Acres, oozed out at their fingers' end. Volleys of stones were interchanged, but with little or no damage, most of the missiles falling short.

      "You see, sir," said Mr. Doyle, who was standing idle near the taffrail, " what sort of warriors you have for allies. If any real destruction is done here, it will have to be done by our nine-pounders. To see those canoes advancing to the attack, one would suppose they were prepared to die to the last man rather than to

134 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

retreat; and they would come together with a shock like that of Regulus and Carthaginians."

      The captain made no reply. It was evident that he was disgusted at the bravado and poltroonery of his Epimama friends, and was now more amused at the sham-fight itself, than interested in the result of it. The lines of canoes alternately advanced and receded, throwing stones and occasionally a light spear or two, but we could not perceive that any one was killed or seriously injured. The shouting and yelling continued incessantly throughout. It was plain that the stock of ammunition on both sides must soon be used up, they having done little more than spatter each other with water by throwing stones into the sea; but their stock of breath seemed to be inexhaustible. As the mate expressed it, "they had cowardly hearts, but very brave lungs."

      There was a lull in the storm, and Rackaboo's canoe was seen approaching the ship. He came to remonstrate at our inactivity, and to hold Captain Beecher to his promise. If we did not bombard the village on the shore, we should get no cocoanut oil.

      "I must keep my word, I suppose," said the captain; "but I guess, as the whole thing seems to be only a scare, we can do our part of it without wasting any ball Put up the helm, there, and square the after-yards. Load the guns with blank cartridge, and we'll bombard the town – with powder! Go back and lead your brave squadrons, Rackaboo. I'll look out for my part of the work, and scare the women and children to your satisfaction."

      The barque fell off slowly before the light breeze, and forged ahead, steering directly in towards the coral reef. The mate, foreseeing danger, again remonstrated.

      "If the wind dies away any more, sir, we may find that we are quite near enough in already. There's a horse of a current setting down through this group, and we have been nearing the land ever since we have been lying aback."

      "What does it matter to you? you are not on duty."

      "But my life is worth just as much to me, whether I am on duty or off. I would sell my chance cheap if these heathens could once get the ship hard and fast on the coral."

      Even while he spoke the sails flapped in against the masts, and the ship lost steerage-way. The Dutch second mate was in the act of slueing one of the nine-pounders into position for firing, having rammed home the heavy charge of powder, when the captain seemed for the first time to realize the peril of our situation.

      "Hold fast, all, with that gun!" he shouted. "Get the anchor – No, no, that's no use! It's bold water right up to the coral bank. Mr. Doyle – never mind what's past – come on duty, and help us to save the ship, if we can do it. I'm afraid it's too late already."

      The mate at once responded to the request by action, without stopping for any verbal reply. He ordered the whaleboats, of which we had two, to be got out and manned, with a hope that they might be able to tow her off round shore. To man these took all the men out of the ship but four, besides Mr. Doyle himself and the captain.

      "Make a signal to Rackaboo to send his canoes," said Captain Beecher. "If we had them all hooked on ahead of us, they might tow the ship bodily up to windward."

      "Ay! but let's see you get them," answered the mate. "That thief Rackaboo would like nothing better than to see us bring up on the reef. And I'm thinking he'll have his desires before many minutes. We begin to feel the heave of the swell already."

      This was quite true; and it was evident our two boats could be of no service to save us from shipwreck by towing. The combatants in the fleets of canoes had ceased their noisy hostilities, and were watching the ship with a common interest in view, for they seemed to understand the dangerous situation we were in as soon as it fell calm.

      The Lady Roswell was not the style or build of vessel to claw off from a lee-shore, even with a working breeze. But under the present circumstances little short of a miracle could have saved any vessel, dependent upon sails alone, from driving on to destruction. Captain Beecher still continued making frantic signals to his savage allies to come to our aid. But they remained inactive, as if waiting for the crash, and rather enjoying the spectacle. The heave of the swell became stronger

The Fate of the Lady Roswell. 135

and stronger as we drew nearer to the coral barrier, and the mate seeing that hope of safety was past, assumed command and issued orders without waiting for instructions from his superior.

      "Cast off, there, in the boats, and come alongside at once! Get the boats up as fast as possible. Load those guns, both of them, and with ball, tool We shall soon have work for them, I reckon, and will want no boy's play with blank cartridges."

      "Rackaboo is coming with all his force," said the captain.

      "Ay, but not to haul us off the reef. He is coming to see us well on, and pick our bones! See! the other fleet is coming too! There's no war between them now. They expect to find better business. Run those boats up on the cranes – lively, before she strikes!"

      We were none to soon, for our boats and men were hardly secured, when the barque brought up, lightly at first, on a projecting spur of the reef, and the next roller, lifting her high, dashed her further on with force enough to make her timbers crack, and dispel the last shadow of hope that she might be saved. The captain was now in great trepidation and trouble.

      "All that I have in the world is under my feet," said he, "and nothing insured!"

      "Devil take your insurance." said Mr. Doyle. "It's too late to think of that now. We shall have enough to do to fight for our lives against the warriors of both islands. Are those guns ready, Schmidt?

      "Ay, ay, sir!"

      "Keep all fast until you get the word. I said I wouldn't fire one of those to-day, unless in self-defence, and I spoke truly. There might be nigh a hundred war-canoes in the two squadrons, now both ready to fight under one leader. This comes of meddling in other people's quarrels – like interfering between man and wife and getting a thrashing from both."

      After the first two or three heaves of the sea, the ship seemed to be firmly bedded and the immediate danger of going to pieces was over, though she still rose and fell a little, pounding quite smartly, and the water in the pump-well showed that her fate was sealed. Mr. Doyle now really commanded this forlorn hope, for Beecher appeared to be entirely unmanned by the great disaster. This did not discourage the rest of us; for we had much more confidence in his successor than in him, and the orders were obeyed with alacrity. The canoes, both of Koorua and of Epimama, gathered round near the edge of the reef, hemming us in with a complete cordon of enemies, confident that we were wholly in their power, when the favorable moment should arrive for an attack. They had things all their own way, and could afford to wait.

      There is but little rise and fall of tides at these low islands in the topics; but this little might be enough to drive the vessel over the reef when the full flood should arrive. We should then only have the satisfaction of seeing her sink in deep water; and when we could no longer hold our position on the wreck, we must take to our boats, provided these should still be in a condition to float, until the rise of the tide in the evening; we could only watch and wait like our bloodthirsty foes.

      Both nine-pounders were loaded and trained to bear down upon the enemy who know enough of their effects to stand in wholesome fear of advancing within range. The women and children of Koorua had come forth from their hiding-places, and now thronged the beach of the lagoon gazing upon us in our helpless plight, and chattering and yelling in anticipation of expected plunder. As the tide rose gradually, the ship thumped harder and harder as each successive wave lifted her and let her fall again. The captain had absolutely nothing to say, now that he saw no safety for his property; but Mr. Doyle exhorted vigilance and patience, holding himself in readiness to take the lead in any moment that might be opened to us by circumstances.

      The evening was dark, and the lights in the canoes were all extinguished early, and silence preserved, so that we had no exact knowledge of the enemy's position. All this rendered the suspense even more intolerable; but we ascertained by ranges and bearings of objects on the land that we were altering our position, working in toward the inner edge of the coral bank, which was not very wide at this point. The breeze freshened, too, with the flood-tide, and we felt sure that every heave of the swell was bringing matters nearer to a crisis.

      At nine o'clock, the tide was at its height, and suddenly the old barque seemed lifted

136 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

and borne onward as if by what is known as a tidal wave. "Stand by, now!" cried the mate. She settled again heavily, making every timber buckle and groan; another lift and she shot headlong over the edge of the bank. We were afloat and in the lagoon!

      "Starboard your helm! Shiver in the maintopsail. Lively, boys, lively! So, steady, Jack – keep her right away for the lee passage!"

      The outlet for which the mate ordered the helmsman to steer was on the south side of the island, and had been noted and surveyed from the masthead before dark. The line of "white-water" on each side of it now indicated the limits of the narrow channel even in the darkness. But all depends upon whether the barque would float and mind her helm long enough to pass out through it, for she was gradually settling, and at such a rate that to man the pumps would be lost labor. As soon as she became water-logged, she would be entirely unmanageable, and orders were given to make sail as fast as possible. Nearly all the canoes had been let go by the run when we struck, but the maintopsail had been kept set to help force her over. The ship was a little sluggish in obeying her helm, but with a smart breeze and smooth water, she forged ahead quickly, running the gauntlet of the savages, who set up their infernal yells both from the shore and from the canoes outside, at seeing themselves baffled, and their prey about to escape. Mr Doyle, on the bow, conned the movements of the ship with great skill, and conducted her handsomely into the narrow and tortuous passage.

      But she was now settling heavily, rolling and swaying under the load of water in her hold. A large force of war-canoes was drawn up in line outside the reef, and seemed to be meditating an attack. But we steered boldly for the centre of the fleet, and they were not slow in opening ranks and getting out of our way, when they perceived our unwieldy craft driving hard on, threatening to overwhelm them in her own destruction. As if with a last dying effort, the Lady Roswell forced her way out into the deep Pacific, the water at this moment being nearly level with the lower combings, and swashing up between decks at every roll. But to sink at sea and take our chance in the boats was the best that could be done. There was no safety for us if we were once in the power of these savages.

      "Light O! "was cried from the forecastle. A rush was made at the sound; the light flared up again more brightly, revealing the masts and sails of a ship; and there, within two miles under our lee was a whaleship, boiling! We were saved! But the ship could hardly be steered, now. A few moments more and we must leave her there, wallowing in the trough of the sea. Rackaboo and his gang were so desperate that they determined, to make an attack, hoping to secure some plunder before she went down. But coolly, under the mate's leadership, we made preparations for lowering our boats; training the two guns to bear upon the advancing savages, and reserving our fire until the decisive moment should arrive. Slowly we wallowed down towards the strange ship, which seemed not as yet to have observed us. Soon we made a broad yaw from the desired course, and the mate sang out, sternly:

      "Port your helm, Tom! Hard a port!"

      "She won't mind her helm, sir. It's been hard a port for some time, sir."

      The crisis had come. "All right," said Mr. Doyle. "Stand by the guns. I said I wouldn't fire one of them unless in self-defence, and I said truly."

      It was none to soon, for the foremost canoes were within two ship's length of us when the word " Fire! " was given. Crash went the two nine-pound balls among the barbarians, and we heard the cries of anguish mingled with yells of baffled rage, that followed the discharge; but we did not wait to learn how much damage had been done. Down went our boats into the water, for every man had been assigned his station beforehand, and knew exactly what to do. While the savages were in their first panic of surprise and fright, we were stretching away under full power of boat-sails and oars towards the whaler's welcome firelight.

      The crew of the strange ship, now thoroughly aroused by the report of our guns, understood something of the situation and were ready to co-operate with us. Our enemy dared not follow us far in this direction, for these natives will seldom venture to cope with a ship, unless she could either be taken unawares, or is in a crippled condition, as was the case with the Lady Roswell. The pursuit; in fact, amounted to nothing, and in half an hour we were all

The Mad Student. 137

safe on board the Curlew of Hobart Town, and telling our story to the greedy ears of our own countrymen.

      The Lady Roswell, left to her fate, went down very soon after we arrived alongside of the whaler. She had no great weight of

      cargo, but there was enough stone ballast in her bottom to effectually finish the job. The captain's loss was heavy, for he had saved nothing but what he could bring away in the whaleboat. He had no one to blame but himself for his misfortune.

      We were unable to reach the spot again where the barque went down, as the current set off to the westward, so that next day we had lost sight even of the lee end of Koorua. But we were sure that the tawny pirates got no plunder, beyond a few little articles which may have floated off when she went down into the depths of the ocean.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Fate of the Lady Roswell.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 42, No. 2 (Aug 1875)
Pages: 132-137