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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLVI, No. 5 (Nov 1877)
pp. 446-452.

446 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      Captain John Gartland, well known in New London and the neighboring ports, tells this story of his early life, when he was a cruiser in the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean. Some of the general features of it can be vouched for by several of his old shipmates who are still living, but the details must rest upon his own veracity, which is believed to be on a par with that of the average old-school seaman.

      When I was nineteen years old, I shipped as an ordinary seaman for a voyage to Desolation and the Crozettes, in the old ship "Diogenes," commanded by Captain Jerry Church. Our voyage was in quest of sperm or right whales, sea-elephants – in short, anything, whether cetaceous or amphibious, that would yield oil to fill the ship.

      We had met with average luck after reaching our cruising-ground, off the Crozette Islands, but a heavy blow coming on which compelled us to lie to under short canvas for several days, we drifted away off to the southward and eastward, until we found ourselves in what was to us "unknown seas," estimating from our dead reckoning only, for we had not caught a glimpse of the sun for a week or more. When at last the weather cleared up, to our great astonishment land was seen in the southern board, very distant, but still clearly and unquestionably land.

      As our chart showed none in the part of the ocean where our reckoning placed us, we at once concluded that we had stumbled upon a very important discovery, and kept the ship away to explore and examine it more nearly. If land existed in that latitude, it was pretty sure to be well stocked with seals and sea-elephants; and if so, the duration from the regular course of our voyage, which we had regarded as in the highest degree unfortunate, might yet turn out greatly to our advantage.

      The island was not a large one, extending only about ten miles In its longest dimension, north and south, while it was not more than four miles across at the broadest part. At its northern extremity the volcanic rocks were piled up, forming a high peak, which, towering aloft, looked at a great distance not unlike a gigantic human figure: a vast Colossus or a geni standing guard over the treasures of enchanted seas. But as we rapidly approached it, the outlines of the peak stood out more boldly from the mist, sublime in its rugged grandeur, and we began to get a better view of the main body of the island, which was quite irregular, and of no great height. At the south end there was a low point two or three miles in length, flat and sandy in appearance, and we steered in boldly to get a near view of what was in the eyes of a New-London whaler like Sinbad's "Valley of Diamonds." For the low land on the point was literally swarming over its whole extent with sea-elephants which lay basking there, quite unused to the sight of an enemy, and totally unconscious of danger. Captain Church fairly jumped up and down on his quarter-deck in the excitement of his feelings.

      There's our voyage waiting for us! Right there, on that point! Now, if we can only find a place to moor the ship, we may make a good haul, even before the winter season sets in. We must explore the island all round while we have this slant of weather, and see what the prospect is."

      We spent all that day and the next in circumnavigating our new discovery, but we were obliged to give up all hope of finding any place where we would venture to anchor the ship. There was no bay, and not even any bend or bight of the coast sufficient to afford shelter as a safe anchorage. Most of the island was bold and rocky, with here and there patches of beach well stocked with elephants; but the sandy point offered the only beach capable of being worked, and there, if at all, we must look for any good returns for our labor.

      The surf broke heavily upon the shore, and it was only in very moderate weather that a boat could get on and off, but we succeeded in making a landing, and at once began the work of slaughter among the amphibious monsters. We skinned and

Phantom Island. 447

hauled off about two hundred barrels of blubber, stringing the pieces on ropes, like dried apples, to get them out through the breakers. But a change of weather came on, and as the month of April was at hand, when winter may be looked for in those Antarctic latitudes, the captain determined to land a party to remain on shore, killing and skinning until he should return in the spring with his ship. The second mate was to command the beach gang, and he selected six men, of whom I was one, to go on shore with him. Although the sea was rather rugged for our purpose, and we worked under great difficulties, we succeeded in landing a stock of provisions, some lumber for building a small shanty, and various articles of necessity, and also hauled on shore a long raft of empty casks, which were to be filled by us with elephant blubber. This work having been completed, and the final Instructions given to the beach-header, the "Diogenes" filled away for her whaling-grounds in lower latitudes, leaving seven of us to our own resources in this desolate, out-of-the-way place which we had christened Phantom Island.

      We erected our shanty, and made everything cosy and comfortable, as far as our means would permit, against the approach of winter; after which we went to work upon the great object of our voyage. As the beasts were numerous, and not at all wild, we had no difficulty in killing all that we could take care of from day to day, taking precautions not to spread any unnecessary alarm among the survivors; and thus in a few weeks of hard labor we had all our casks filled with blubber, and were ready to rest and take matters easy during the severe winter season that was already stealing upon us. But we still continued to kill some elephants each day, collecting the fat in heaps at different points. The weather would be so cold that it would keep all winter well enough, losing but little of the oil, and our chief care about it was to contrive ingenious devices in the way of scarecrows, to protect it from the attacks of voracious birds.

      We had one of the ship's whaleboats on shore with us, and now that we were more at leisure, the second mate resolved to make a cruise of discovery in the boat, coasting up the west side of the island, taking a look at the several rocky beaches where we from the ships had seen herds of elephants collected, and studying the possibility of working those places at some future day, when the treasures of the point should have been exhausted. Six men were required to man the boat, and as I was suffering at the time from a very painful boil or carbuncle, I remained behind alone, while all the rest went off early in the morning in high spirits. It was fair weather when they set out, but cold, the wind being light from the southward. We had carried the boat across the point, where it was not more than half a mile wide, that they might launch her on the west side, for we had built our house near the eastern beach, as offering the best lee against the prevailing winds of those latitudes. As soon as I saw them well outside the breakers, and speeding away to the north with sail and oars, I returned to our rude home, feeling rather sad and lonely, and almost wishing I had insisted upon joining the party myself, notwithstanding the pain in my arm, and the fact that the seventh man in a whaleboat is in his own and every other man's way. I remained at home until afternoon, when, going out again, I noticed indications of a change of wind, and, as it looked likely to come from the northwest, I became uneasy about the return of the boats, fearing the surf might rise on the beach so as to make landing dangerous.

      I hurried across to the landing-place where the boats had been launched in the morning, but, straining my eyes to the utmost, I could see nothing. The party must soon return, for the second mate had declared that he should on no account be absent all night. He must certainly have noted the signs in the heavens, and it was unaccountable that he should not have made all haste to return. As hour after hour wore away, and the sun went down with no boat in sight, I felt quite certain that some accident must have happened to her. I went back to the house, but could not stay there, and putting on an extra jacket, prepared to pass the night upon the beach. For there was still a hope that they might come within hearing during the darkness, and, if the surf should be too heavy for safe landing, I could at least warn them off to go round the end of the point and land on the east side.

      All night long I patrolled the beach, but neither saw nor heard anything of my lost shipmates. The wind had indeed set in steadily from the northwest, but was still

448 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

but a gentle breeze, and though the surf had increased a little, it was not at all dangerous at daybreak the next morning. As the sun rose clear and bright, I was taking my last lingering look to the northward, intending to turn away home to get some sleep if I could, when my eyes rested upon a distant object which looked like a boat. I remained for a long time rooted in my tracks, gazing at it with my whole soul in my eyes. It was nearing me slowly, and I made out after a time that it was not propelled by human power, for no men were to be seen in it, but was merely drifting with the wind and tide.

      Could it be possible that the crew were asleep in the bottom of the boat? But I soon dismissed that supposition as absurd.

      For the next two hours I hardly took my gaze from her as she drew nearer and nearer. It was indeed our boat; but where, oh! where were all my shipmates?

      She was drifting not in a direction parallel to the coast, but working in-shore on a converging line, so that I estimated she would strike the beach at some distance below where I then stood, and very near the extreme southern end of the point.

      I laid my plans accordingly, for that boat must be saved, even at the imminent risk of my own life. As she gradually neared the land, I followed on, keeping abreast of her until she was so near that I saw her already feel the influence of the rollers, for she was floating lightly and buoyantly. There could be no further delay, and throwing off my heaviest outside jacket, I rushed down the slope of the beach as a wave receded, and plunged head foremost into the next approaching roller. Cold as the water was, for the chill seemed to take away my breath entirely, I fought my way through and swam to the boat, not a minute too soon, for I pulled myself into her, and got her head round with the steering oar just in time to save her from drifting broadside on into the breakers. All the oars were in the boat, and also the mast and sails, which I soon managed to set, and taking the steering oar again, got her under full control and rapid headway. Doubling the southern cape of the island, I worked her up by short tacks along the eastern shore to a good smooth landing-place near the house. By getting the oars under her as rollers, and exerting what seemed to me superhuman strength, I succeeded at last in getting her up where she would be secure from any ordinary breakers; and nearly worn out with cold, with hard labor, and want of sleep, I returned to the shanty for warmth and rest, and to reflect upon the strange situation.

      I had regarded the saving of the boat as a matter of the very first importance, not only for the use she might be to me, but she was in fact the only means by which I might aid my shipmates, if still living, or ascertain their fate, if indeed it could ever be ascertained at all. And it now occurred to me as I thought over the matter at leisure, after a warm supper, that there could be only one reasonable solution of the mystery. My shipmates must have landed, and by some chance or accident their boat had been floated off and gone adrift, leaving them marooned on a wild beach, with no means of getting away. They would of course in such a case attempt to return overland to the point by climbing the rocks, if such a thing were possible. But I could do no more for them at present, so I shut myself up, and, quite exhausted, soon fell into a long and deep sleep.

      I did not awake until broad daylight the next morning, when I found the wind had increased to a howling gale, so that it was hardly possible to stir abroad. This continued for two days, and when the gale was at its height it certainly equalled in force anything that I have ever experienced. But my little shanty was firmly planted on its foundations, and heavily loaded with stones on its nearly flat roof.

      I had plenty of provisions, and no want of fuel, for I could draw upon the store of elephant blubber. While riding out this gale I had ample time to consider my very remarkable situation, and to lay plans for my future course. My first duty seemed to be to find out if possible the fate of my comrades, in case they did not return overland within a day or two after the storm should be blown out.

      When the wind again came from the southward, I felt that an Antarctic winter was really upon me, for the weather sat in quite different from our previous experience on the island, being intensely cold. A whole week passed without any signs of Mr. Burns or any of his party, and it was hardly possible that they could still be alive. But as soon as I had weather which I judged suitable to undertake the voyage, I set about launching my boat, feeling at the

Phantom Island. 449

same time very doubtful whether I should ever succeed in hauling her up again, if I returned in safety. But I had set everything upon the hazard of what I believed to be my duty. Taking a good stock of provisions and other articles with me, I boldly put to sea, doubling the cape again, and running along the western shore before a high wind which filled my boat's sails. The breeze continued fair and steady as I ran past several coves or indentations in the bold coast, inspecting them closely, but in vain; discovering no signs of any living thing except penguins and other sea-birds, with the sleek and lazy sea-elephants everywhere among them, like monarchs of the animal kingdom. I kept on, determined to satisfy myself by making the entire circuit of the island if I could. The cold was severe, but I had taken all possible precaution against it, and had even brought all the materials for starting a fire on a bed of sand in the boat, if it became necessary to do it. I sailed along as closely as was prudent at the very base of the lofty Phantom Rock, which appeared worth examining. I found on drawing nearer that it might be easily entered, and afforded good shelter for the boat; moreover, an irresistible something told me that I should here find the key to the mystery. Taking in my sail, and using my steering oar as a scull, I forced her ahead into the little haven, and saw what seemed to freeze my blood in my veins! Within a few feet of me, huddled together as if to get the last warmth from each other's bodies, were all my shipmates – six in number – stiff and stark. I could read the whole story at a glance. They had all strayed over the broken rocks in the cove beyond, and while thus temporarily out of sight of the boat, she had drifted away, not having been securely made fast. When they had returned, no boat was in view, for a drift of fifty yards westward from the mouth of the cove would take her entirely out of sight. Imprisoned in this fearful place, with absolutely nothing to live upon, and without even the means of getting a fire, they had sunk into despair, and had in the few succeeding days all perished of cold and starvation!

      It needed but a look and a touch to assure me that they were past all help; indeed, the ravenous birds had already begun their fearful work. With a shuddering and sinking of the heart, I turned away, and leaping again into my boat, pushed her out to sea as quickly as I could. Nothing remained for me now but to go back to the starting-place, and I sped impatiently on, circumnavigating the island. The gigantic phantom, towering into the sky above me, was now invested with tenfold terrors, and I was seized with a shuddering tremor whenever I turned my head to look backward upon it. Every scream of a sea bird seemed in my ears like the wail of a dying man. I was so agitated in mind that I was quite unfit for the difficult task of managing my boat alone, especially as the wind and sea had materially increased before I arrived back at the landing-place. In attempting to head her straight on shore, I lost control of the steering oar at the most critical moment, and the next instant found myself floundering in the breakers, with quite enough to do to save my life, while the frail craft, thrown broadside on, was crushed and wrecked beyond all hope of repairs. Exhausted with my struggle for life, and chilled to the marrow by my cold immersion, I made my way to the house, which now was my only reliance for shelter, warmth, and life through the severe winter now commencing.

      You may try to Imagine if you can what my feelings were at the certainty that I was indeed the only human being in this desolate place, with my last means of egress cut off by the destruction of the boat, and on an island so entirely unknown that I could not expect the sight of a vessel until the "Diogenes" should return in the spring. And what if owing to any accident she should not return? I dared not dwell upon this thought, but dismissed it as quickly as possible. To be sure I was young and hopeful, and soon schooled myself to look on the bright side of the situation. I had a snug house over my head, and no scarcity of fuel for keeping me warm. The provisions on hand were sufficient to last one man for two years, besides the resources of the island in the way of food. I had no need to expose myself much during the winter; nothing to do but to make myself comfortable, if that were possible, to kill time, and ward off the scurvy as best I could. So I settled down into a Crusoe life, which lasted four months according to my calender, and the details of which would be too monotonous to dwell upon. I believe that I have certainly as good a stock of resources within

450 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

myself as the average of my fellow-men; but this lonely, monotonous life was dreadful to me, and grew more so from day to day, instead of my becoming reconciled to it. My surroundings seemed even more horrible than would have been the case if the fate of Mr. Burns and his crew had remained unknown to me; for there was that lofty spire of Phantom Rock ever in sight, towering into the sky like a vast monument over the common grave of my shipmates, and the voices of the winds howling around it seemed to be calling upon me to join them in the other world. This freak of the imagination took possession of me so strongly that I could never turn my face northward and look up at the pinnacle without a shudder, while at the same time I was conscious of a strange fascinating influence drawing me towards it.

      The backbone of winter was broken at last, and the time was drawing near for the return of my ship, when one night I was roused from my slumbers by a low rumbling sound, which appeared to come from the direction of the dreadful Phantom Bock. I jumped to my feet, and, pulling on my jacket, rushed out into the open air. The night was intensely dark, and a fresh breeze blowing from the westward. The sound had ceased, but there seemed to me something ominous in the air, and I was soon sensible that a great and general movement was in progress among the herds of elephants which swarmed the island in a body, for I ran down the beach a short distance where I could see a portion of them crowding each other in solid phalanx down the slope, and tumbling with loud snorts of terror into the surf; they put to sea and disappeared, only to be followed by others, until the last had vanished. Vast armies of penguins pressed by me like waddling old women, all headed toward the sea, for all animated nature seemed to have taken the alarm and to be on the move.

      I had heard of rats deserting a sinking ship, and it seemed to me that the instinct of my dumb companions had forewarned them of some great calamity impending over the island. Yet all was still around me but the rush of the wind and the roaring of the breakers on the beach, while the great Phantom, dark and sombre, loomed more gigantic than ever, and seemed to call for more victims. I little knew at that moment how many brave men were in the dreadful agony of drowning at its very base.

      Impelled by an uneasy fascination, I took my way not towards home, but across the point to the weather shore, where I stood for a while looking seaward, though I could not have told why, or what I expected or hoped to discover. Suddenly the monotonous roar of the surf was broken by a rattling sound, something flashed up on the crest of a breaker, and then I heard something like a human voice.

      Yes! A fearful cry of distress!

      I rushed down to the water's edge as the roller came in, and a large spar with rigging attached was driven past me with great violence, ploughing endwise deeply into the sand.

      But I had eyes only for a dark object clinging to it with the grasp of death!

      I lifted the poor man to his feet, and was overjoyed to find that he still had life in him. Becoming conscious that help was at hand, he made a great effort to aid himself, and thus, half supporting, half carrying him, I made my way to the house, where my fire was constantly burning.

      As soon as he was a little rested, I started out for the beach again, where I cruised about for an hour, by which time I was convinced that no more lives could possibly be saved from the wreck. Other broken pieces of spars and a few light articles were thrown up, among the rest one of the sections of a ship's main-hatches, which, being easily portable, I took on my head and carried home, throwing it down near the door of the shanty.

      I found my new comrade so far recovered that he was able to talk, and his first word told me that he was a Frenchman. I knew some words of his tongue, and he, being an old adventurer, had picked up a smattering of ours; so that through the medium of very bad English and still worse French, I got at the particulars of his story, which was a brief but terrible one. He belonged to the French corvette or sloop-of-war "Bucephale," outward bound for the French colonies in the Pacific, but she had been delayed pursuant to a portion of her commander's instructions in making some explorations among the Crozette Islands. Thence laying her course well southward, to make a fair wind of it, she was proceeding on her voyage toward a more genial climate, as they supposed. There was no island laid

Phantom Island. 451

down on the chart as being near their track, and, confident that they had plenty of searoom, the look-outs had been fatally careless. No danger was perceived until the ship was close upon it, and it was too late even to make an effort to alter her course. The "Bucephale" had brought up at the northwestern angle of the island, at the very base of the terrible rock. Indeed, a flying jib-boom had struck the very tower itself, and the bowsprit was driven in upon the mass of rocks, while with the heave of two or three succeeding waves the whole fabric went to pieces, so gradually that no plan for saving life could be even thought of, much less carried out. There were four men clinging to the spar when first it drifted clear of the wreck, but my companion was the only one left when it reached the shore. The "Bucephale"'s crew and officers numbered a hundred and twenty men that night at sundown, and of all those we had every reason to think he was the sole survivor.

      I was about to tell him in return something of my own story, and of the animals having deserted the island that night at about the same moment when his ship was dashed upon it. But my story was cut short at the beginning by a repetition of that horrible rumbling noise, this time louder than before, and accompanied by a sensible jarring of the earth underneath our feet. Obeying the first impulse as before, I dashed out into the darkness, calling upon the Frenchman to follow. But the poor fellow, being wrapped up in blankets instead of his regular clothing, did not move quickly; and I had hardly gone two yards from the house when another shock, three times as heavy, set the earth rocking and quaking, and the shanty was thrown and fell with a crash to the ground, burying the unfortunate man in the wreck.

      Another swinging and rocking movement as it seemed of the whole island threw me off my feet, and I was again struggling in an icy bath, for a moment completely overwhelmed. I struck out with my feet, but touched no bottom, and rising to the surface, my hand touched something which proved to be the hatch of the French ship floating close at my side. Here indeed was a life-preserver which might give me a temporary respite from death. Throwing my breast upon it, and seizing one of the rings, I clung desperately to the little raft, and tossed about in the angry sea, floating I knew not where. Pieces of the wood-work of the shanty floated near me, but I neither saw nor heard anything of poor Jerome Regnier, who had been respited from death just long enough to tell his story and explain the fate of the corvette

      It was plain enough that under the operation of volcanic changes the low part of the island had been completely submerged. But the higher and more rocky part had as yet undergone no change, and there away aloft stretched the horrible Phantom, as if gazing down, cold and stern, upon its dreadful work of human sacrifice.

      Chilled to my very bones, I closed my eyes in the exhaustion of despair, feeling inclined to court death rather than to attempt further efforts, though I still clung instinctively to the iron ring which I had clutched in my left hand. But just then a rumbling explosion, which seemed to mount from the depths of the ocean up to the heights of heaven, sent the top of the pinnacle into the air, and a jet of flame shot skyward from the Phantom's head, illuminating sea and sky and all around where until now all had been in Egyptian darkness. The volume of flame increased, and showers of rocky fragments thrown up by the giant forces within were to be seen falling with loud hissing and splashing into the sea around.

      I had not yet lost the instinct of self-preservation, for I found myself seizing upon a small piece of board, a fragment of my house, which was floating near, and used it as a paddle to force my raft further away from the immediate danger of destruction. But that strange fascination of which I have before spoken appeared to keep my eyes riveted upon the summit of the peak whence the flames issued. Soon a mass of rock tumbled away from a point a little way down from the top, or as it might be expressed, just above the shoulders of the Phantom, making a new opening out of which another stream of fire issued.

      The effect was to my half-crazed senses more horrible than ever, for the monster, no longer sombre and stern in the gloom, but ghastly in the weird light, at once launching flaming missiles from the crown of his head and exhaling fiery breath from his mouth, had the appearance of holding high carnival over the graves of those who lay buried at his feet. I shuddered again as I thought of my six shipmates in the

452 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

cavern, and of the six score French mariners resting in watery graves. I closed my eyes upon the bright glare, turned them away seaward, and opened them upon – a ship I

      Yes, my own ship, the "Diogenes," her white sails plainly visible in the horrible light! I stood up on my little raft and made all sorts of frantic signals with my paddle. I knew the very instant when I was discovered by those on board, for I saw them rush to lower away a boat, but I knew little more until some hours after I found myself comfortably stowed in my own bunk on board the old whaler. I recalled my wandering senses, and went on deck to join my shipmates; but no island was in sight, nothing but the vast gloomy expanse of sky and water. We sailed over and over the spot yesterday occupied by Phantom Island. Where it had been submerged the ocean had a different hue, a tint of green merging with the darker color of the great deep, but there was no breaker, and our sounding-line failed to reach the bottom. A few fragments of the wrecked ship were met with, but nothing worth the delay of picking it up.

      When I arrived home from that voyage I sent all this information with my sworn affidavit to the French Minister of Marine, and thus settled beyond a doubt the question concerning the fate of the long-missing corvette. Through this channel I was made known to a brother of poor Jerome Regnier, and we exchanged letters. The hatch, upon which I went to sea from Phantom Island when it sunk is still carefully preserved at my home, being the only remnant or relic of the ill-fated "Bucephale." The island stood just long enough to destroy this noble ship with a hundred and twenty brave men, being itself in the very throes of death when the wreck occurred, and the one seaman who drifted ashore was indeed the only one left to tell the tale – literally to tell the tale, and nothing more.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Phantom Island.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 46, No. 5 (Nov 1877)
Pages: 446-452