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. XLVII, No. 4 (Apr 1878)
pp. 360-365.

360 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      My grandfather, like most old sailors, was fond of recalling the incidents of his active life, and spinning them into yarns, for the delight of us youngsters. I have thought, since I grew older, that the dear old man may have embellished them a little, or at least that, as the phrase goes, a story lost nothing in his telling. I try to remember, as nearly as I can, his account of how he was taken prisoner by the British letter-of-marque, which he always declared was strictly true.

      When the war with England broke out in 1812, I was round Cape Horn, on my second voyage as boat-steerer, in the old "Belinda,"or "B'lindy,"as she was generally called, with Captain Hezekiah Starbuck. Of course we heard about the war, and a great many wild rumors about the British naval fleets coming round into the Pacific, and British privateers fitting out from the Spanish main to cruise for Yankee prizes on the whaling-grounds; but we never knew how much to believe or disbelieve of these wild stories. So we kept steadily about our business, which was to fill the "Belinda" with sperm oil, though we knew we must take a fearful hazard in trying to run the gantlet of the enemy's cruisers on our passage home.

      Well, the old ship was getting deep in the water with her greasy cargo, and wanted only three hundred barrels to fill her up, when we found ourselves one fine morning in sight of Charles's Island, one of the Galapagos, and soon after lowered away for whales, of which many were in sight within a circle of a few miles. I belonged to the larboard boat, which was commanded by Absalom Hussey, our chief mate, a man of great resolution, immense physical strength, and a temper which, when roused, carried all before it. We got separated from the other boats, and fastened to a lively forty-barrel bull, which carted us away several miles to leeward before the mate got a good fatal lance at him; but at last the victory was ours, and our whale turned his broadside up to the sun, while our hurrahs rent the air.

      There was a ship in sight, heading on a wind directly at us, but this was rather a pleasant circumstance. He was a whaler, of course, and we felt the true whaleman's delight in aggravating our rivals by a show of our good luck. So we cut a hole in the whale's nib, and, coiling our line down all ready for streaming, we had nothing more to do but wait for the "Belinda" to run down to us. She was still keeping her luff, as the captain and second mate were fast to another whale, which had run to windward. We were all sitting or lounging at our ease

All's Fair in War. 361

in the boat, watching the strange ship as she rapidly neared us.

      "Doesn't look like any Nantucket or Bedford ship that I know," said Absalom, as he stood up on the stern-sheets and straightened his gigantic frame to its full height. "I thought I knew about all the ships on the ground, but this one is a stranger, a new-comer. She has got some oil, though, by the looks of her waist."

      "It seems to me," said I, "that her bows and head have rather a British look."

      "Just so," asserted the giant, with his eyes steadily and keenly fixed upon her. "And the hoist of her topsails don't look natural for any Yankee whaler. I think I can see quarter-galleries when she yaws a little; and – yes, by thunder! I can see ports. But she may be an old man-of-war turned into a whaler. Ports and whaleboats don't belong together in any of our country's ships, nohow."

      "Well," I observed, "it doesn't matter much, anyway. Even if she is an English whaler, we needn't trouble ourselves, I suppose. There's room enough in the Pacific Ocean for both of us to pursue our business without quarreling."

      "So there is," answered the mate; "but I haven't much opinion of John Bull's politeness when he thinks all the advantages are on his side. He may take it into his noddle to steal our whale, and say all's fair in war-time. And, if he is the strongest, we can't help ourselves."

      As the ship drew near us, we could see that she was much larger than any of our Nantucket Whalers, and had six ports on each side, with guns mounted in some of them at least. But her mastheads were manned after the usual manner of whalers, and there were no more men to be seen on her deck than might have belonged to any four-boat ship. On she came, altering her course just enough to run clear of our whale, and the captain, standing on the quarter-rail, saluted us with, –

      "Boat ahoy! What ship are you from?"

      "The 'B'lindy,' of Nantucket," roared Absalom Hussey. "What ship is that?"

      "The 'Allahabad,' of London," was the answer. "Cast off from your whale, and come alongside when I luff to."

      "What?" demanded our mate, doubtful of his own ears.

      "Leave your whale, and come alongside!" was called again, louder than before.

      "Can't stop!" yelled Absalom. "Much obliged t' ye all the same."

      By this time the ship had passed us so far that the skipper used his speaking-trumpet to repeat his order.

      "It you don't come alongside, I'll open fire upon you!"

      "Fire, and be hanged!" shouted our Hercules, in a voice that must have been heard on board, for it was louder than the trumpet's hail.

      "Now what sort of a mean trick is he up to? For I don't s'pose this is a friendly invitation, though I thought it was the first time he spoke. The ' Alley'– What did he say her name was?"

      "'Allahabad,'" said I. "It's an East-Indian name."

      "Well, he's more than an East or a West Injun himself if he means to play any piratical tricks upon me. Hollo! his helm's down, and jib-sheets flying! Going in stays!"

      "Yes, sir," said I. "He's coming for us. If we cast off now, and pull right up to windward, we can pass his bows, though we may not escape a shot, if he's wicked enough to fire at us."

      "Won't do it,"said Absalom stubbornly. "I'll stay where I am, and see it out. He's got guns enough to blow us sky-high, whether we stay here or try to run away."

      The Englishman tacked, and came along a little to windward of us, the captain standing on the rail as before, and at his side a man with a musket in his hand. At a wave of the captain's trumpet, the maintopsail was thrown in aback, deadening the ship's way.

      "Come alongside, or I'll fire at you!"

      "Fire away, if you're mean enough!" retorted Mr. Hussey.

      He had hardly spoken, when the report followed, and the mate, clapping his hand upon his left arm, sang out, –

      "I'm hit! The sneaking cowards!"

      "They're coming for us!" said I; for two boats were in the act of being lowered from the ship. "Are you hurt much?"

      "No,"he answered sullenly. "Nothing serious. Give me the boat's spade, and I will cut some of – But, no: it's of no use fighting against such odds."

      With a few strokes of the oars, the two English boats closed upon us; and, seeing how hopeless it was to resist, we submitted.

      Our captors did not take the whale in

362 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

tow, but left him, that he might be more easily found.

      Absalom Hussey jumped in upon the quarter-deck of the "Allahabad "as if he had been a boarding-officer, come to take possession, instead of a prisoner-of-war.

      He hailed Captain Sinclair in a voice of thunder.

      "What does all this mean? Would you shoot a man in cold blood, and then steal his whale?"

      Captain Sinclair was a short, stout Englishman, with a quick, business-like manner, and a silky, persuasive voice.

      "All's fair in love and war,"he answered carelessly. "Brace full at once, Mr. Derby, and board the main tack! Suppose you have heard, Mr. – what may your name be? – that your country and mine are in a state of war. I am on a whaling voyage myself, but I carry letters of marque, giving me full authority to capture the enemy wherever I may find him on the high seas, and to burn, sink, or destroy as I may see fit. I can't stop to pick up your whale now, for I want your ship first. Pack all sail upon her, Mr. Derby, and have the guns loaded ready for service. You had better go to the surgeon, Mr. American, and have your wound attended to at once. I hope it's not serious."

      "No: it isn't serious," returned Absalom. "But no thanks to you for that. You may call yourself a letter-of-marque, or a privateer, or what not, but I say you're no better than a pirate and a murderer!"

      "Don't chafe, friend," said the English captain. "You'll not be ill-treated, if you just keep your temper, and submit to the fortunes of war. My business now is to get possession of the 'Belinda.' She has hauled her other whale alongside, and will put her helm up directly to run down for you. Mr. Derby! set the Yankee flag at the peak."

      Our giant, though a man of wonderful powers of endurance, found the flesh wound so painful, that he went to the doctor and had the ball extracted. But as soon as the arm was bound up, he returned to the deck, where, with all the rest of us, he watched the proceedings with the keenest interest.

      Our little ship, the "Belinda,"was coming down before the moderate trade-wind; but, having a whale towing in the fluke-rope alongside, her rate of sailing was quite slow.

      Meanwhile, the "Allahabad," with the stars and stripes flying as a decoy, and her guns shotted for action, held her course sharp on a wind, and it was evident that when she tacked she would have the weather-gauge. The English mates and crew were already rubbing their hands in eager anticipation of a prize, and laughing at the idea of the green Yankee running down to put himself right into their hands.

      But it was evident that Absalom Hussey did not share in their opinion. "Let them laugh that win,"said he. "And it's my belief that these John-Bull pirates will soon laugh out of the other side of their mouths. You may depend on it that Kiah Starbuck has got his eye peeled; and, if I know him, he already smells a rat. He must soon make out that this is an armed ship, even though she does carry whale-boats on her cranes. And he must know Absalom Hussey better than to suppose he would neglect his business, and leave a whale afloat on the water, to go yamming on a mere friendly visit to a strange ship. Then again, the English second mate was stupid enough to put his own waif – a black waif – upon the whale, instead of taking one of mine. Kiah knows well enough that I never had a black waif in my boat. The 'B'lindy' will soon be near enough to make out all this; and if she once lets go that whale, and makes sail on a wind, she'll soon show a clean pair of heels to this fellow, who is no sailor at all."

      Absalom was right in his predictions, for the "Belinda"was still three miles to windward of us, when it became evident that Captain Starbuck had woke up, and was keenly alive to the whole situation. The "Belinda "came suddenly to the wind, on the opposite tack from that of the Englishman, and everything was trimmed sharp for a race; while the rate at which the little ship forged ahead showed that she had shaken off the burden by cutting the whale adrift from alongside.

      "Hurrah!" yelled Absalom. "Cheer, boys, Ki Starbuck! Now, Mr. Pirate,"said he to Captain Sinclair, "you may as well shorten sail, and pick up the whales, if you want 'em; for you can't catch the 'B'lindy ' with any such dull wagon as the 'Alleyhay-bad,' if that's her name; and bad enough, too, she is in point of sailing."

      A half-hour's trial satisfied the English captain that the chase was useless, and he gave the order to abandon it, and go back for the whales. Both of them were se-

All's Fair in War. 363

cured, and the ship hove to for cutting-in; while our dear old "Belinda" was, before sundown, hull down in the eastern horizon.

      Meanwhile, Absalom, who could not seem at all to understand the status of a prisoner-of-war, continued to taunt and aggravate Captain Sinclair, not scrupling to address him to his face as pirate and murderer, and threatening all sorts of vengeance if chance should ever offer for him to pay off the old score. Sinclair at last, irritated beyond all endurance, ordered that he should be put in irons and confined below.

      "You haven't got men enough to put me in irons," said Mr. Hussey defiantly.

      "We'll see about that," returned the other, foaming at the mouth with rage, and calling his mates and half a dozen of the crew. They succeeded, after a hard struggle, in executing his orders. Absalom knocked one after another sprawling, and would really have remained master of the field but for being stunned by the blow of a capstan bar, wielded by Captain Sinclair himself. He was ironed, and carried down into the cabin, cursing all his foes for a pack of cowards, and demanding, with bitter sneers, if this was their boasted idea of fair play.

      He was kept in the cabin, under the immediate eye of the captain, but was allowed to come up and walk the quarter-deck at will, though always with his irons on. A place was assigned to me in the half-deck or steerage, where I messed with the petty officers; and, having laid out a line of tactics opposite to that of my superior, the Englishman and I got on amazingly well together. I was quiet and cheerful, showing a disposition to make the best I could of the circumstance; a course of proceedings which I recommended in vain to Mr. Hussey, who assured me that he would never knuckle to any John Bull, and that he meant to be defiant to the very last. The remaining four men of our crew were quartered among the English seamen in the forecastle, and our boat had been hoisted up on the starboard-bow, where the ship carried spare davits for such a purpose. We learned that the "Allahabad" carried, as her full complement, forty men all told; but, as she had taken and manned two prizes, the number was reduced to twenty-eight. The prizes had been sent to Guayaquil, where a few pieces of gold would blind the eyes of the Spanish officials, and make them wink at violations of neutrality, as well as at many other things not strictly regular.

      I asked my messmates in the steerage why the captain wished to detain us, as we were only eating up his provisions; and why he did not get rid of us by sending us ashore at one of the Galapagos Islands. But I was informed that the ship would probably soon go to the coast, and make a port either at Guayaquil or Callao. That it was expected the "Phebe" frigate, and perhaps other British men-of-war, would be there; and that, as seamen were scarce, and His Majesty's wooden walls must be manned, not even American protections, supposing we had them with us, would be allowed to stand in the way. Indeed, Captain Sinclair might expect to get something in the way of head-money for six good men who had no such papers to show; and certainly so rare a physical specimen as Absalom Hussey would fetch double price in that great human market, the British navy.

      I did not fail to report all this to Absalom himself, who swore that the British navy should never have his services; and even threw out threats that the pirate "Alleyhay-bad" would come to a bad end, and would never drop her anchor in Guayaquil, or any other port of the Spanish main, though what hidden meaning there might be in these threats, I could not then for my life imagine.

      As the two whales taken or stolen by the Englishman from the "Belinda" would make about a hundred and twenty barrels of oil, the trying-out occupied some time, and all of us, except our own officer, took some part in the work, lending a, hand here and there, for the sake of doing something, for it was very hard work to do absolutely nothing. But Absalom spent a great part of the time walking the quarter-deck in his handcuffs, with a face blacker than a thunder-cloud, and muttering threats of vengeance, which certainly seemed to me an idle waste of breath.

      The fires had been going night and day for seventy-two hours, and we were drawing toward the last end of the rich "fare," when I had occasion to come on deck in the middle watch of the night; and, tempted by the cool breeze, which felt so grateful after the heat below, I stretched myself out upon the booby-hatch to enjoy it for a while. The officer of the deck, with all the

364 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

men of his watch, were forward of the tryworks, all plainly visible to me in the glare of the fire; but everything was still elsewhere, there being no man on deck abaft the mainmast except the helmsman, who could not be seen by reason of the intervening house. As I lay there, seeing but not seen, I thought I observed a figure moving in the dark smoke, close up to the tryworks, at the lee side, where the black pall was thickest as it rolled away in volumes off our lee-quarter. Presently the figure emerged from the smoke, creeping aft on all fours. As he reached the quarter-deck, he straightened up to his full height, and I had no longer any doubt; that gigantic form could be no other than that of Absalom Hussey. With a quick jerk of his arm, he threw something – I knew not what – over the lee-rail; and then, turning his face for the first time, caught sight of me. With a simple bound, he was at my side, one hand upon my throat, the other covering my mouth.

      "Hush!" he whispered. "Don't speak. As you value your life, whatever may happen during the next hour, don't speak; don't dare even to remember you have seen anything."

      All this was said under his breath, but with the utmost eagerness and intensity of feeling. I signified by a nod that I heard and understood. His grasp at once relaxed, and he was gone, had vanished into the cabin. I lay for a moment as if stupefied, then the whole thing was clear to my mind, and I knew well enough what he had been doing. I looked out off the weather-bow. There was Chatam Island looming not many miles off, and I said to myself, –

      "All right! There's no danger of life or long-suffering in open boats. Anything for a change."

      But I could not go below again, knowing what I did. It was not many minutes before I could smell smoke, when I put my head down to the scuttle of the booby-hatch; and soon my messmates, who were sleeping down there, awoke, and turned out, talking and wondering about it. Then I saw a wreath of smoke starting up the main hatchway, which was standing open, then some of the men leaping, half-choked, up out of the forecastle. The cry of "Fire! fire!", was raised. The flames burst forth through the deck on both sides of the tryworks. Everybody was on deck, and all was confusion and terror such as I cannot describe.

      There was some talking for a minute or two of efforts to put out the fire; but this was quickly abandoned as hopeless, and no thought was given to anything but saving our lives by getting clear of the burning ship. To get the boats down, and collect a small stock of provisions and water, was all that we could do, for tongues of flame were shooting up the hatchways, and the good ship "Allahabad "was fated.

      The helm was put hard up, and she was run off before the wind, which drove the fire forward, and gave us a better chance to work. Absalom rushed up to Captain Sinclair with the handcuffs on.

      "Here," said he, "set me free! You wouldn't keep any human being in irons now, would you?"

      "No, no: of course not! Take your own boat and crew, and save yourself. You shall have the same chance as the rest."

      The mate turned to me with a knowing look and a wink. While I was fumbling with the key of the handcuffs, he gave them a peculiar shake, and they dropped to the deck. Of course I knew well enough that he was not in irons when his grasp was on my throat and mouth.

      "Here, my 'B'lindy's!" he cried. "Where are you all? Clear away our boat, and follow her right down! Don't stop for provisions, or anything else. Let's be the first boat to get clear of the cursed pirate!"

      As we were pushing off from her sides, there was a crash and a rumbling, and then a solid body of flame shot way up, masthead high, lighting up the ocean for miles around us. The try-works, with the full pots of boiling oil, had settled down through the deck as the carlines below had burned off, and the whole mass was mingled with the roaring and blazing wreck underneath!

      The English boats got clear of the ship as fast as they could, and, like Macbeth's guests, "stood not upon the order of their going." As the man at the helm left the ship to her own guidance, the power of her after-sails, which were not yet ablaze, brought her speedily up to the wind, driving the flames and smoke aft, so that in a moment more the whole ship became a roaring mass of fire below and aloft. After pulling to a safe distance, we lay on our oars, looking at the awfully sublime sight,

All's Fair in War. 365

five boats of us, within easy talking distance of each other.

      "Our dear old ship is gone!" said Captain Sinclair, with a sadness in his tone that well expressed that feeling of affection which every old sailor feels for the vessel that has carried him safely on the ocean. "And there's some strange mystery about it too. Mr. Derby, how in the name of wonder could this have happened?"

      "Don't know, sir,"answered the English mate stolidly. "'T wasn't my fault."

      "Didn't you let the caboose-pen run dry?"

      "No, sir: it was filled with water as soon as I came on deck, at eight bells. I saw it done myself."

      "Well, if there was no carelessness in that way, then it must have been incendiary. Somebody was evil-minded enough to burn us out of our home, but I suppose we shall never be any the wiser for it now," added the captain, dismissing the matter in a very unsatisfied way.

      "Serves you right for a dirty pirate," muttered Absalom Hussey, not loud enough to be heard by the English boats. "Well, captain," he cried, raising his voice, "I suppose you don't want any more of my services or of my company. I am quite willing to take my chance on my own hook; and as for my sore arm and the two whales you stole from the 'B'lindy,' I hope to be even with you for all that some day. Goodnight. Pull ahead, boys." And away we glided toward the distant land, which was still visible in the bright glare from the burning ship.

      "Let 'em lie on their oars and look at her all night if they want to," he said, as we stretched to our oars. "I said I hoped to be even with him some day, but I reckon I've pretty well squared accounts already. I guess his 'Alley-hay-bad' is in rather a bad fix just now, and she won't do any more piracy on the high seas at any rate."

      After pulling a few miles to windward, we perceived a ship running down by the end of the island, and shaped our course so as to head her off. We lost the run of her two or three times in the darkness, for the firelight of the burning ship had gradually died out. When at last we got near enough to hail, the answer thrilled us with joy, for it was given in the well-known voice of Captain Kiah Starbuck, and the welcome that awaited us on board the "Belinda" was a joyous one indeed. The next morning at daylight we saw the English boats coasting along under the lee of the island, but, as they recognized our ship, they would not come near us, preferring to take their chances of going ashore and waiting to be taken off by one of their own countrymen.

      We prosecuted our voyage with good success, and were fortunate enough to bring the "Belinda" home safe, with a full cargo, though we had narrow escape from the British cruisers, even after we had arrived in sight of our own coast.

      Captain Sinclair was no wiser as to the cause of the fire that destroyed his ship until some years later, after the two nations were at peace, when Captain Absalom Hussey, commander of the "Ruby," met him in a foreign port, and after, as he expressed it, taking satisfaction out of his hide by giving him a sound thrashing, had also the further satisfaction of boasting to him how it had been done.

      "You know, boys, that there is a space under every whaler's try-works, between the masonry and the deck. which is always kept filled with water while the fires are burning, and these few inches of water swashing about prevent all danger of the ship taking fire. Absalom, having by his great strength, sprung and bent the shackles of his slender handcuffs, until he was able to work them on and off at will, had taken an auger from the ship's tool-chest, and, creeping under the lee of the try-works in the smoke, had bored a hole down through the deck in the 'caboose-pen,' as it is called, thus letting the water all run off. It was this auger that I had seen him toss overboard when he crept aft again; and he knew then – and so did I, after what he whispered to me – that if the trick was not discovered the ship would be in flames within less than half an hour."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: All's Fair in War.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 47, No. 4 (Apr 1878)
Pages: 360-365