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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLVII, No. 1 (Jan 1878)
pp. 42-44.

42 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



When I was up in the Arctic, in the "Plowboy" (whaler), in the disastrous season of 1851, we took on board as supernumeraries several men from the barque "Carnatic," which had been wrecked in the icefields. When a ship was lost, the crew were divided round on board other ships, and did duty, working their passage, as it might be, to the Sandwich Islands; and so many whalers were cast away during that season, that almost every ship had more or less of these castaways.

      Among those which fell to our share were two Chinese, who had joined the "Carnatic" at Hong Kong, and, strange to say, a full-blooded Malay also. For it is not often that these Malays get on board American ships. This man – "Othello,"as he was called – was the first of his race with whom I had ever been associated as a shipmate, and I devoutly hope he may be the last I shall ever meet.

      He was not a bad seaman in the main: he was, like the Lascars, good at some kinds of ship duty, and good for nothing at others. He held the two Chinamen in mortal contempt, and omitted no opportunity of showing his aversion. He might well have parodied the words of his great Moorish namesake, "Rude am I in my speech," for he talked very few words of English, though it was evident that he understood it much better than he pretended to be able to. More than once, when some of us were making remarks about him which we thought entirely incomprehensible, his sudden start and vindictive look indicated that he was not half as thick-skulled as we had supposed.

      The season was up, and the "Plowboy," with her hold nearly filled with oil, was making good way toward Honolulu, having already reached the mild climate of lower latitudes, and entered the limit of the north-east trades. I was counted in the same watch with Othello; and on the particular night in question Jack Slade and I were talking about the curious phenomenon of "running a-muck," as practiced in some Eastern countries, – for Jack had been reading about some case of the sort in his first watch below.

      "I can't see how a man can hold his life so cheap," said Jack; "for he must finally be overpowered. It is not to gratify any thirst for revenge, for, as I understand it, the muck-runner does not single out any particular victims, but attacks any one that comes in his way. Religious fanaticism, some travellers say it is, but that is a strange kind of religion."

      "I don't believe half the yarns that are written about it," said I. "A man may be insane, and his insanity may take that violent form. Such cases are liable to occur in civilized lands as well as elsewhere."

      "You don't believe it, eh?" put in old Tom Conway. "Well, I tell you you have never sailed on East-India voyages as I have, or you wouldn't be so ready to disbelieve all that is strange. Why, here's this blackguard of a Malay!" continued Tom, lowering his voice a little. "I've been uneasy ever since that fellow came aboard, and I sha'n't get a sound night's sleep till we are well rid of him."

      Jack and I both laughed loudly at Tom's strong expressions. He was much in the habit of exaggerating, but in this case he appeared to be really in earnest, and his manner became more impressive than before.

      "It does n't become you to laugh at this," he went on. "Why, if I'd been the 'old man,' with my knowledge and experience, I would n't have taken that chap aboard here on any account; or at least, if I did, I'd ha' put him in double irons, under guard, until I got him into port. To be sure, there is n't so much danger from 'em' when they can't get opium; but if this black thief could get a smell at the ship's medicine-chest, he would soon nose out that drug. And if he got just the right dose, there's a fearful chance of his running amuck right here among us. Anyhow, a Malay is n't to be trusted, opium or no opium; and I would about as soon have a powder-magazine about decks as this fellow."

      Othello's tawny face at this moment appeared round the corner of the try-works, where he must have heard the whole colloquy; but whether he had understood it or not was a question no one could solve. I have always thought he had, or at least the purport of it, if not all the words. He stared

Running A-Muck. 43

at us all, but said nothing. He kept mostly apart from the rest during his watches on deck, often soliloquizing in his native jargon, for which nobody was any the wiser.

      When I went aft at four bells to relieve the helm, I saw the Malay sneaking along the lee-side of the quarter-deck in the darkness, as if he had come from the cabin. The Portuguese whom I relieved, and to whom I mentioned the circumstance, had seen nothing of him; nor had Mr. Evans, the third mate, who was walking on the weather-side at the time. The thought of the medicine-chest, in connection with the croaking words of old Tom, flashed for a moment across my mind; but I dismissed it at once, laughing at what I considered his foolish fears.

      When the watch was relieved, I went below, and, being very sleepy, and the hanging-lamp giving hardly light enough to make darkness visible, I turned in at once. I took no notice about the Malay, or any one else, and in five minutes was snoring lustily.

      A general stir in the forecastle and exclamations of alarm roused me to consciousness, and, with the instinct of a sailor, I jumped to my feet, hat and jacket in hand. Several others were up, struggling into their clothes, and some one was trying to light the lamp.

      "I told you so!" said Tom Conway, in great excitement. "That infernal savage is running a-muck. He has killed To-Pang, the Chinee, and will kill all hands if he is n't soon knocked over himself."

      Tom seized the mincing-knife, which was kept in cleets over his bunk, and, removing the sheath so as to expose its thin, keen blade, took it by one of the handles, and started up the ladder. I was close behind Tom, and all the rest followed. No one wanted to be caught in a cul de sac, if it came to a death-struggle: it was better to be above-board, with plenty of room.

      The tableau that met my view as my head rose above the level of the spar-deck was fearful enough to account for all this excitement. The central figure in it was Othello himself, standing on the top of the caboose-cover on the try-works, brandishing that most fearful of all the keen, cutting implements peculiar to the whaling business – a "boarding-knife."His brawny form was naked to the waist; his black hair streaming loose to his shoulders; and his person from head to foot, as well as his duck trousers, splashed all over with blood. The moon had risen since we went below. and her bright beams fell directly upon this horrible figure, bringing it out in the boldest relief. The body of poor To-Pang lay near the end of the windlass, in a pool of blood, with the head cut nearly off from the trunk, and the ghastly face upturned to the moon. The men of the watch on deck, after giving the alarm to us below, had scattered in various directions. to escape the first rush of the mad Malay, and to get weapons of defence.

      The captain had just reached the deck, and was hastily loading the only available musket, – for the ship was quite guiltless of other-firearms, save a single pistol belonging to the chief mate, and two old "King's-arms,"with flint locks, which might have done good service at Bunker Hill, or the Cow-pens, but of which the butt was now by far the most effective end. The officers were all on the quarter-deck, arming themselves with lances or cutting-spades. Some of the men had climbed into the boats for weapons, and two or three were mounted up in the rigging, looking down upon the frightful panorama and quaking with fear.

      I had caught up a hand-spike as soon as I reached the deck, this being the only fighting implement at hand. But we had little time for preparation. The Malay, who had been rolling his eyes as if in a delirious ecstasy, gave a yell that froze the blood in our veins, as he sprang from his elevated platform, right down toward us. Old Tom, taken by surprise, fell back so suddenly that he lost hold of the mincing-knife. which went ringing away to leeward; the awkward blow of my hand-spike just grazed Othello's back as he dashed by me; several of my watch-mates tumbled headlong back down the fore-scuttle to save their lives; but the gleaming boarding-knife found its victim in Manuel, the poor little Portuguese, who fell with his arm laid open clear to the bone. With a back-handed slash of his terrible weapon, Othello gave the death-stroke to our pet dog Sailor, who was barking at his heels; and, wheeling short round, sprang back to his former perch on the caboose-cover. A shot from the captain's gun passed clear of his head; and several blows from hand-spikes and other wooden missiles thrown at him only seemed to infuriate him, for he cared nothing for the bruises

44 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

inflicted. Nothing short of killing him could be a safe policy for us; and it was awkward darting weapons in the night, as we might be as likely to hit our friends as the common enemy. With his advantage of position, and his surprising agility, he thus far held us all at bay.

      Another yell rent the heavens, even more piercing than the former one; the bright, two-edged knife, reeking with blood, flashed aloft in the moonbeams, and the Malay, with a single bound from the try-works to the main-hatches, rushed aft to the quarterdeck. The second shot from the musket pierced his left arm instead of his head, as intended; and we could no longer look to firearms for our safety. The captain and mate jumped or rather fell down the companionway, as that terrible knife gleamed above their heads. Our party rushed aft, however, headed by Tom Conway, to attack Othello in the rear. But, quick as a tiger, he turned, and stood at bay, erect and defiant as ever, though smarting from the pain of the musket-ball. Tom hurled the mincing-knife edgewise full at his face; but he dodged just low enough to escape a fatal wound, the knife just slicing off the top of his scalp. A lunge from my cutting-spade was cleverly evaded by a quick, cat-like movement on his part; and again that unearthly yell rose, seeming to split the drums of our ears. With it came the cry from the strong lungs of the second mate in the starboard quarter-boat, –

      "Clear the way there! give me a fair chance!"

      He had cleared away a long lance, and was poising it ready for a dart. We tumbled backward upon each other, to get out of range; the Malay, for a single moment off his guard, was passing the mizzen-mast when the fatal javelin sped on its mission, passing like a flash through his body, and pinning him literally to the mast! His lifeblood gushed even into our faces as his weight and the convulsive movement of the body bore him to the deck, wrenching the lance-head out of the soft wood. A quiver or two, and all was over.

      "Look to Manuel!" was the first order from the captain; and the Portuguese was brought aft, and his wound taken care of at once, as well as circumstances would permit. His life was saved, but the arm was worthless ever afterward, and he was discharged as a cripple at the next arrival in port.

      The bodies of Othello and the unfortunate Celestial were committed to the waters of the Pacific, and the "Plowboy "sped on her way to Honolulu. It was found, upon investigation, that Othello had really robbed the medicine-chest, and had intoxicated himself with opiates, the doses of which he well knew how to regulate so as to produce the ecstatic delirium. But I venture to say no one of my shipmates can repress a shudder when he thinks of the scenes enacted on that moonlight night in the North Pacific Ocean.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Running A-Muck.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan 1878)
Pages: 42-44