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. XLVIII, No. 2 (Aug 1878)
pp. 152-158.

152 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      The story was told to me by Captain Devoll, who was himself the principal actor in its scenes, and who is still living to attest its truth, if need be.

      I was at the time a boatsteerer in the "Parachute," and belonged to the larboard-boat, which was headed by Tom Anthony, our mate, as smart a whaleman as could be found throughout all the fleet. We struck a large sperm whale near the equator, and had given him his death-wound with the lance. but in hauling near enough for that purpose had received an ugly blow from his fluke, which stove in a couple of streaks of the light cedar board in our frail craft. A moment was sufficient to show that she was filling, and that bailing was quite useless.

      The other boats were near at hand, and the second mate had already fastened to the whale; but, although his spout was tinged with blood, he still proved a tough and lively subject, starting off with race-horse speed, and always working to windward.

      There was nothing for us to do but cut our line, for our boat, despite our efforts, was now full above the thwarts. As soon as the starboard-boat could get near to us, the mate transferred himself and crew to her, desiring to get on board the ship, which was lying to for that purpose, although the whale, with the waist and bow boats in tow, had already crossed her stern, bound to windward, and showing as yet no abatement of his speed.

      "Devoll,"said Mr. Anthony, "I want you to stay on the boat, and secure everything as far as you can, and stay here until we come to you with the ship. The old man won’t run off at present, but will keep working to windward until the whale turns up. Keep your waif set, and we will have the run of you all the time."

      "Ay, ay, sir,"I answered cheerfully, for the whole arrangement was looked upon by whalemen as a mere matter of course in the line of duty.

      It was not the first time in my own experience that I had been left adrift under similar circumstances. And so the starboard-boat, loaded to her gunwales with her double crew, pulled away for the ship, which was lying aback, within a mile and a half of me.

      The oars of our boat had been run athwart the gunwales, and lashed down by lanyards rigged for the very purpose at meeting an emergency like this. The boat was thus secured from rolling over, as she otherwise might have done, lying now completely water-logged, and her gunwales just level with the sea.

      I obeyed the mate’s orders by securing in its place everything which might be liable to float away. and then planting my waif or flag on the logger-head, I sat down by it on the stern-sheets, being in a position a little higher than the other parts of the boat, like a small island rising just above the sea-level.

      Sharks were numerous around me, and bold in their approaches; but they were of the common, gray species, and I did not stand in much fear of them. Now and then, as one appeared too familiar, I would rap him over the nose with a paddle; but after a while I had a new source of anxiety which kept my attention fixed upon the manoeuvres of the ship.

      She had taken up the starboard-boat, and while she was being secured on the cranes had filled her maintopsail, and made sail on a wind to work up toward the fast-boats. The whale must be secured first, it possible and the stoven boat in my charge, being directly under her lee, could be taken care of afterward.

      But it was getting quite late in the day: and the whale led the boats a long and weary siege before he gave up the ghost. To add to my uneasiness, a dark squall loomed up on the weather horizon, and soon assumed rather a threatening appearance. I could do absolutely nothing but await the progress of events; and this very inaction was terrible.

      The sun had already dipped before the squall struck the ship, and at my last view of her she had already taken in all her light canvas, and appeared to be quite near the

Sea and Savages. 153

fast boats, though from my low position at the surface of the ocean my horizon of vision was not very extensive. But the squall and night coming on together, completely hid everything from view, and, unlike most tropical squalls, this was a long one, lasting, as near as I could judge, two or three hours. The force of the wind was not great, after the first puff was over; but the rain poured down in torrents, and everything was shrouded in inky darkness. I had no means of setting a light, even after the rain was over, for the water had found its way into the lantern-keg lashed underneath the stern-sheets, and everything it contained was soaked so as to be useless.

      I strained my eyes to get a glimpse of the ship, or of a signal-light; but all to no purpose. My situation was now such as to fill my mind with great anxiety, and this anxiety became the more terrible when, after some hours had passed, I discovered by the bearings of several stars which had come into view that the wind had completely shifted. The long and heavy squall had preceded this great change, and what is known as the westerly monsoon had set in, blowing quite counter to the prevailing trade winds. I was now, therefore, well to windward of the ship.

      I could do nothing by attempting to carry the sail, and run to leeward; for the boat, completely submerged, would be entirely unmanageable as soon as the mast should be stepped. Lying as she was, I should drift off to leeward some distance before daylight; but if the ship lay with the whale alongside she would drift faster than my boat. If she made sail to beat up, towing the whale, her progress would be slow, and a little miscalculation might cause her to pass me too far off for a signal-lantern to be seen. Even if I saw it I had no possible means of answering it, or of making known my own position. I could do nothing but sit where I was, just out of reach of the sharks, and blow fierce blasts from time to time on the little tin fog-horn.

      Thus the terribly anxious hours were away until, in the small hours of the morning, I heard the sound of a gun several miles distant, and apparently dead to windward of me.

      To waste any more breath in blowing my tin pipes would be sheer folly. The ship had passed me, and there was no hope except in the chance of her returning to leeward again during the day. I listened intently; but heard no more guns; and when daylight broke, and the sun came up clear and bright, there was nothing to be seen. I was alone upon the broad ocean.

      There was some water in the boat-keg, which I had taken care to secure as high up as possible, at my side, and now found it tolerably good, though a little brackish from the sea-water which had found its way into it when the boat first sank. A few hard biscuits in a tarpaulin bag had also been taken care of in a partially damaged state, and thus I satisfied the immediate cravings of nature. I opened the wet sail, and festooned it in such a way as to afford some shelter from the rays of a tropical sun, and thus I spent the whole day alternating between hope and despair, and straining my vision to the utmost in a vain wish that relief might come. After a last look around the horizon at nightfall I lay down quite exhausted, and taking a turn of rope around my body and the loggerhead, to guard against the possibility of rolling off into the sea, soon fell into the deep sleep which I so much needed.

      My slumber continued sound and unbroken for many hours, for the first streaks of approaching day were apparent in the sky when I became conscious of the sound of a faint human voice close at hand. I jumped to my feet, all aglow with excitement, and there, looming in gray darkness. within half a stone’s throw of me, lay a boat or canoe of some sort, in which I presently made out four human figures. They appeared to be resting on their paddles, and looking at me in silence.

      "Hollo!" I roared with all the force of a pair of lungs which in those days were none of the weakest. "Boat ahoy!"

      No reply was made to me, but some words were exchanged between those in the canoe, and I heard the voice of a female. I took in the situation at once. I knew that the ship on the day when we struck the whale was not far from the most weatherly island of the Gilbert group, for I had overheard the mate say as much; though I was not in the habit of interesting myself at all in the navigation department. This, then, must be a canoe from one of these islands with a party who had lost their reckoning, and got adrift, as I had heard was quite often the case. I continued to hail them, saying everything I could to make them

154 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

come nearer; but, as all this was said in English, it might as well have been Greek to them. as their own jumble of guttural sounds was to my ears and understanding.

      They continued to be very shy and wary as long as it was dark, and our parley in unknown tongues was not at all satisfactory. But after having reconnoitred by daylight they ventured to paddle up alongside of my sunken craft, and we began to understand each other somewhat better.

      There were two men and two women in the canoe, all very aged, and perfectly hideous in appearance. One of the women was humpbacked, and one of the men a very dwarf in stature, while the taller man had lost one eye, and the best-looking woman had a deformity in one foot.

      It was a complete mystery to me what this crew of old and nearly helpless people were doing out in this frail shallop so far from land, – whence they came, or whither bound.

      The one-eyed man pointed to a cut on his breast in the form of a cross, and seemed to lay particular stress upon this in way of explanation; but I was none the wiser for all this jargon. I now observed that all four of my new acquaintances had this peculiar cross on the breast, the wounds being apparently still raw and sore, as if recently made.

      They had been out, by their own account, only three days. and had a stock of food, in the form of sheets of sweet paste rolled up like leather, sufficient to last them three or four days more, with six cocoanut-shells full of water, of which they were very careful, now and then barely wetting their parched lips with it.

      I could not learn that they were bound to any particular place, or had any special object in drifting upon the ocean. As they appeared to be in no hurry, but to take their cast-away life very coolly, I kept them in company with me all day, and at night made their canoe fast to the loggerhead. while we all slept, more or less, though one or two were at all times on the look-out. But another morning came clear and pleasant, and still no sign of the "Parachute," which I doubted not must be cruising the ground over in search of me.

      I now proposed to my stoical old cripples to abandon my own craft, and ship on board of theirs; for the canoe was ample enough to accommodate me, and I thought we might reach land somewhere. At any rate, the chance for life was much better than where I then was, to die of hunger and thirst, without the power even to make an effort.

      The old people received the proposal quite as calmly as they did everything else, seeming neither pleased nor displeased. It was enough for me that they raised no objection, and I at once transferred myself to the canoe, taking the boat-keg, still containing a gallon or more of water. I also took a boat-hook and a couple of paddles, abandoning everything else to its fate.

      As I jumped into the canoe I gave her a shove off from the boat, and then, seizing a paddle, began to ply it lustily, heading southward as nearly as I could estimate the course, for I judged our chance was good of finding land in that direction.

      The monsoon had blown out. and we now had the regular trade winds which are to be looked for in that part of the ocean.

      It was soon evident that I could not get much help from my companions in propelling the canoe, for not only were they all old and feeble, but they seemed to have no desire to exert themselves, and did not care which way the craft went, or whether she went at all. I was more mystified at this apathy, which so contrasted with my own eagerness to be doing something, and I confess I had half a mind to knock them all on the head, throw them over to the sharks and take sole charge of the canoe myself. I thought better of that, however. and kept on good terms with them all.

      Our boat was but a rickety affair, and was built, like all those used at this group of islands, of hundreds of small pieces of wood lashed together, – for there are no trees growing there suitable for making dug-outs. The whole fabric is full of small holes; for the seizings, which lash the various pieces together, and to stop these holes, a kind of mortar or cement is used.

      But the canoes are never tight. It is, as sailors would say, "pump, or sink," at all times; and in our case the old humpbacked woman was almost constantly employed in bailing.

      These canoes are generally propelled by a large leg-of-mutton sail, made of matting, under which they can make very swift headway; but these old people, for what cause I did not then understand, were at sea without any sail, and had nothing to depend

Sea and Savages. 155

upon but the paddles in their feeble hands. I kept up my spirits with the thought that I was rather better off now than when lying on the sunken boat; but I was hardly less lonely than before, for there was nothing attractive about my fellow-voyagers, and we were very indifferent company for each other.

      The weather continued moderate, however, and at times I plied my paddles, going always in a southerly direction; but this, after all, was of little consequence, and I decided that I might as well save my strength, and let her drift whither she would, always keeping a sharp lookout.

      Thus matters went on for two days, and our little stock of food and water was growing beautifully less, though we kept ourselves on very short allowances.

      During the second night we heard what I was sure must be the roar of breakers on a coral reef, and the sound filled me with new life. I headed the canoe in the direction of the sound, and putting my strength to the paddles tried to infuse some of my own spirit into the savages; but, to my utter astonishment, they appeared disposed to work against me, and to turn the boat’s head in a different direction.

      I soon became convinced that they as well as myself heard the roar of breakers, and knew of the near vicinity of land, but did not want to approach it. I was more than ever mystified, and felt again the impulse to pitch them all into the sea, – for I had no stomach for starving to death in a canoe to gratify any eccentricity of those old blockheads. I was young and vigorous, and the love of life was all-powerful within me.

      They jabbered and sputtered and pointed to those ugly wounds on their breasts; but I was quite at a loss to understand the meaning of it all.

      The noise of the breakers gradually grew louder, and it was plain that the current was setting us bodily toward the island.

      So I gave up exerting myself, and waited quietly for daylight. And there, looming in the mist of the morning, lay a low coral island, with cocoanut and pandanus trees, within three miles of us, – a sight which, while it filled me with hope and delight, seemed to plunge the old people into a kind of stupor. They all sat with their gaze fixed upon the island, and now and then exchanged a few words in low, guttural tones, without the slightest animation.

      Soon a canoe, under sail, was seen approaching us, then another, and then the faces of my companions became more expressive, and there was more earnestness in their conferences. The old lady with the club-foot made a few convulsive dips of her paddle in the water, as if to attempt escape: but the others apparently convinced her of her folly by a few words spoken, as I thought, in a tone of reproach; and, giving up all efforts, she sat like the rest awaiting the coming of the canoes from the islands.

      The first one which bore down upon us was manned by six men, who went so wild with excitement as they saw what sort of prize had fallen into their hands, and roared and shouted so fiercely for the information of their friends in the rear, that I thought Bedlam had indeed broken loose. I was not without some fears as to the treatment I should receive from these barbarians, but my anxiety for my own safety was quite overborne by my curiosity to know the meaning of the strange voyage of my aged comrades.

      The second canoe that came within hail contained among its crew a black man, –a tall, wiry fellow, naked, like the islanders, but evidently, from his speech, an American negro. He addressed himself at once to me, eager to know how I came to be in such strange company, and a few words were sufficient to explain it to him. He then satisfied my curiosity about the old people, revealing to me a chapter of the horrors of barbarian life of which I had heard and read, but which I had never until now fully realized.

      The negro, whose name was Jake, had been living for two years on the island of Arorai, – known to seamen as Hope Island, – which was now in sight. The old folks, it appeared, had been set adrift from Byron’s, which lay in a northeasterly direction from us. It was a general custom, he said, on the islands of this group to call the tribe together two or three times a year, and act upon the case of all those who appeared to be superannuated.

      Old men and women who had quite outlived their usefulness, so as to become a burden upon the community, and had not seen the propriety of dying when they ought to have done so, were put into old canoes, with a small stock of provisions and water, and with solemn ceremonies were pushed out into the Pacific Ocean to take their

156 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

chance. Each person so condemned to be cast upon the waters received the mark of the cross on the breast, deeply cut with a shark’s tooth. and this mark being well understood at all the islands of the group rendered the persons liable to be put to death at sight.

      None of the tribes ever killed their own invalids or aged people, but all looked upon it as a religious duty to kill all those with the fatal mark upon them who might fall in their way after having been set adrift from any other island.

      "These old people will be killed within twenty-four hours after they land," said be. "They will be well fed and cared for tonight, and everything done to get their minds in the right state for the sacrifice, and a grand pow-wow will be held over them at the council-house up there; but tomorrow morning they will all be speared or stoned to death at sunrise."

      "This is too horrible," said I, "even to think of!"

      "Not at all," he answered, "after you once get used to thinking of it. You see, the old codgers don’t mind this kind of death very much, but take it as a matter of course. It’s the law of all the islands."

      "And what will be done with me?" I inquired.

      For I had been so absorbed by these horrors which the black had told me that I had not until now asked what was to be my fate.

      "Oh, you’re in no danger if you carry sail so as to get the right side of the old fellows in authority. I ran away from a ship and came ashore here three years ago, and here I am alive yet, – though I must allow that I have often been in a tight place, and several times would have sold my life mighty cheap. But about that boat of yours that you left drifting? If we could get her now she would be the greatest prize we could have to use in the lagoon. Don’t you suppose we could find her if we started out with the canoes today, and spread our chances? You couldn’t have been at a great distance from this island, for you’ve been only one day and night in the canoe, and, having no sail, you must have come here mostly by the drift of the southwest current."

      "That’s true,"said I. "I don’t think the boat is more than twenty-five or thirty miles from us, – not so far, indeed; for of course she has been drifting this way all the time."

      By this time our party had become quite numerous, several more canoes having joined us, and the old folks were taken in charge with some ceremony, – being placed under strong escort in the middle of the fleet. I got into the canoe with Jake and his gang, and we started off for the shore amid a chorus of wild yells, constantly swelling by the addition of re-enforcements, – for all the canoes seemed mustering as if for a grand regatta.

      But the recovery of the sunken boat was the subject always uppermost in Jake's mind, and he held long conferences in the native gibberish with a stout chief who plied the forward paddle, and who he told me was his special friend and protector.

      Jake soon announced to me that they had arranged the matter together, and would start on the expedition as soon as they could make the little preparations necessary.

      The scene after we entered the lagoon was one of rare beauty, and entirely novel to my eyes; but my mind was so full of anxiety about my own future, and of horror at the fate in store for the poor old Byron Islanders, that I had no enjoyment of it. The wretched victims, still as stupid and stoical as ever, were hurried away among an excited rabble as soon as they landed, the women and children of all ages joining in the hue and cry, – for these slaughters of the ancients are always occasions of jubilee.

      But the negro and Tackatoo, his friend, took me in another direction; and I was not sorry to feel myself under their special care. Jake’s cupidity was greatly excited about the boat, the very prize which he desired to own, and one which he could never buy from any passing’ ship. If we could find her, and take her back to Arorai, she might. be repaired by any sailor of ordinary skill.

      After refreshing ourselves we put a stock of provisions and water into the canoe, and within an hour after landing were again paddling out of the lagoon, bound away in quest of the disabled whale-boat. I saw no more of the old men and women from Byron’s Island; but Jake told me that their doom was fixed: they were to die at sunrise next morning, and I had no desire to witness their murder.

      Jake and I were together in one canoe,

Sea and Savages. 157

      "Tackatoo having charge of the other, both being well provided with sails, and having a crew of six paddle-men to each. With a favoring breeze we skimmed away to the northward at such a rate that within two hours we had seen the island nearly below the horizon, the tops of the distant cocoanut trees appearing to grow directly out of the sea.

      We had separated, running on parallel courses about two miles apart, so as to spread the chances of catching sight of the waif, or flag, which I had left still floating above the loggerhead when I abandoned the boat. When we judged ourselves fifteen miles from Arorai, – having long since lost sight of it entirely, – we diverged still more, making stretches or zig-zag courses, but still working on a general northerly course through the afternoon.

      It was nearly sundown when Tackatoo, who was then in advance of us, made a signal for us to close with him, for he had discovered the prize.

      We were alongside of the sunken boat in half an hour more, and took full possession, finding everything much the same as I had left it.

      We had hoped to be able to stop the leaks with a quantity of the mortar such as is used for the canoes, and which we had brought with us for that purpose. In this case we might have kept her free by bailing, and thus gone back in triumph. But this, after much effort, we found to be impossible, and there was no better course than to take her in tow, water-logged as she was.

      I got into her myself, taking some water and a bunch of cocoanuts with me, and took up my old position on the stern-sheets to control her with the steering-oars, while the two canoes hooked on, one ahead of the other, like a strong team, exerted all the power of their great sails and paddles.

      But our progress was necessarily very slow, and it soon shut dark, with only the stars to steer by, and a long night before us, though the weather was warm and pleasant enough.

      Tackatoo led the van of the fleet, and seemed to have perfect confidence in his ability to navigate us back to the island.

      Thus we jogged on for several hours, while my mind ran upon the prospects ahead of me in the near future, – which, I must say, were not at all to my taste. I thought of the barbarity which demanded, as a sort of religious duty, that the old people cast upon their shores should be put to death, while those of their own tribe and kin who became superannuated must in like manner he set adrift to take their chance of perishing by sea or savage.

      I had always held the beach-comber’s life in contempt, and did not at all relish the thought of existing at the mercy of such heathen, any one of whom might, at short notice, take it into his eccentric pate to knock me on the head with a lump of coral, or impale me upon his spear.

      It must have been past midnight when my attention was attracted by a flash of light against the dark sky to windward. I was not the only one who saw it, for I heard the grunting comments of those in the canoe ahead of me; but when I called out to Jake to ask his opinion he at once ignored the whole matter. But it was not long before it was seen again and again, evidently coming nearer to us; and now the odor of scraps and boiling oil, always so grateful to the whalemen’s senses, came down on the breeze. It was a ship boiling, and, by the appearance of things, she must pass very near to us.

      Of course all the party but myself were interested in letting her pass without knowledge of our presence, while I was equally determined to communicate with her, even at a great risk of my life. On she came, until in the flashes of light portions of her sails and rigging could be seen.

      I heard a few earnest words pass between the black and Tackatoo, and presently perceived the canoe of the latter, which until now had been leading, drifting silently down toward me. The intention was evidently to surprise and secure me before I could give the alarm.

      The moment for action had come. I rushed to the bow of the boat, severed with a single cut the warp by which I was being towed, raised the tin fog-horn to my lips, and sent a long blast through it. I then caught up the boat-spade, – a terrible weapon in the hands of a desperate man, – and, taking my position amidships, up to my waist in water, stood at bay, resolved to fight to the last for liberty.

      My determined attitude caused a hesitation on the part of my savage assailants, and I improved every moment of the delay by sounding repeated blasts on the horn.

158 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      My defensive position was a strong one, I had a long, slender warp attached to the pole of the spade expressly for darting and hauling it back, – while those in the canoe had no weapon with them more effective than paddles, at which I could laugh.

      My horn was already heard by those on board, for the fire-light now showed several men on the bow and knight-heads, as if looking eagerly for something. I had a canoe and six men on each side of me, watching for an advantage; but it was plain to my foes that if either of them ventured beyond safe limits some of the party must almost certainly lose their lives before they could overpower me, and indeed, if the ship interfered in the contest, they would stand no chance at all.

      Something must be done quickly, and Jake made a bold push by a couple of strokes of his paddles, bringing him within easy dart of me. My spade missed him, but a yell of mortal agony told that one of his boat’s crew had probably paid for his rashness with his life. While in the act of hauling back my weapon, a paddle, hurled from the canoe on the other side, struck me on the shoulder; but as I faced about, ready for another dart, the wary Tackatoo and his boats were slipping swiftly away into the darkness, and my warp brought up with a jerk, the spade falling short of its mark.

      I was safe, for the ship – my own ship, the "Parachute" – was rounding to, and lowering a boat to come to the rescue, and the light of her try-fires fell upon the two great sails of matting receding in the distance as the barbarians fled with all speed, abandoning any further attempt to save the much-coveted whale-boat.

      "Hollo, Devoll!" cried Mr. Anthony, as he recognized me; "what have you been doing, – been fighting sharks all time?"

      "Human sharks," said I. "There they go; you see their sails looming up down yonder. You were just in time to save me from being carried back to Arorai. I have been there once already."

      "What?" roared the mate. You must have been dreaming, my boy."

      "Well, if your shoulder was as lame as mine, you ’d know it was no dream; and I reckon one poor savage, cut open with this boat-spade, has found it a most dreadful reality."

      "Well, never mind; keep the yarn until we get aboard, and then we’ll all listen to it. I’ve got back my favorite boat, and it will be as good as new with a little tinkering, and, what’s more to the purpose, we’ve got you safe and sound, when we all thought you had gone to Davy Jones's locker long ago."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Sea and Savages.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 48, No. 2 (Aug 1878)
Pages: 152-158