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W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol. 59, No. 32 (Feb 8, 1879)
p. 1

A Marquesan Adventure.


      We had been lying at anchor for several days in a bay at Hivaoa, one of the Marquesas group. Our intercourse with the natives had been pleasant and peaceable – uninterruptedly so, until a dispute arose regarding the quantity of cloth to be paid for cutting a supply of wood for the ship. The natives who had cut it demanded much more than the price which had been stipulated in the contract, and the captain naturally declined to submit to the extortion.

      "I'll do what I agreed," said he, "and no more; If they don't choose to take it, I'll just leave the wood on their hands, get under way and go round to Hanaroopoo, on the other side of the island. I can trade cheaper, there, I know; though I shouldn't dare to anchor, or to land among them."

      "How do you propose to manage, a trade?" asked the mate.

      "To get a lot of women aboard first; and keep them aboard, as hostages, you know. There's no danger of treachery, so long us we keep the women in our power. Then anchor our boats at a safe distance from the beach, and let the natives swim the wood out to us, to loud them with."

      "That we might do, sir, I should think."

      "Yes." Tom Watts, the white man who lives in the other bay to leeward, here, told me he was acquainted at Hanaroopoo, and would like to go there with me, as interpreter and to manage the trade. I'll do it, anyhow, for I don't like the manoeuvres of these Pagans, these last two days. There are some little things in their conduct that don't look exactly right. "Archer," said he to me, "take a couple of hands in the boat and go down to Aita-rua and bring up Tom Watts. Set your sail – you'll have a fair wind all the way down – and Tom will bring enough tamarees with him to make a full crew to pull back. If I get underway before you return, I'll set a light outside."

      In a few moments we were running out of the bay, our light boat bounding before the fresh trade-wind. Our passage down to Aita-rua was pleasant enough, but after our arrival, much delay occurred, as is usually the case among a Babel of savages. Tom, who had been domiciled a long time with this tribe, was almost as good a Marquesan in his habits as if to the manor born; and, as Captain Brill quaintly expressed it, "you couldn't drive more'n three knots out of him, with all his royals set." The afternoon was well advanced before we pushed the boat off the beach to return to the ship; and in addition to my own two shipmates, my crew was made up of these natives, who, though muscular enough, were far better skilled in paddling a dugout than in pulling the long sweeping stroke adapted to the oars of a whaleboat. With a dead pull to windward before us, we stood a good chance to make night-work of it.

      The bend of the shore was such that we could not see the bay where the ship was lying, until we should come upon it suddenly in rounding a bluff. We kept at a short distance from the shore, on a parallel line with it; this being done at Tom's request, that he might be within hailing distance of the natives, who kept up a running fire of gibberish with him and his three followers, as long as they could make themselves heard. This did not add at all their efficiency as oarsmen, as it distracted their attention from their work; and I soon gave the boat a gradual sheer off shore, to be beyond the tiresome sound of their voices.

      But as the sea was short and choppy, and the current as well as the wind making directly against us, our progress was most vexatiously slow. In vain I encouraged and scolded them by turns; remonstrated, and even threatened; the sun went down, and the short twilight faded into darkness while we had yet several miles to go. I even sat down to an oar myself, giving the steering up to Watts; but I could not infuse a jot of my enthusiasm into the imperturbable tamarees. It was all one to them, whether we made the passage in half the night, or occupied the whole of it. The only answer to my fierce exhortations was a laugh, half derisive, half idiotic.

      We made way gradually against wind and tide, and I suppose it must have been at least two bells in the first watch, or nine o'clock, when we passed the headland where we expected to see the ship's light. But one light was to be seen, however, and that could not be hers, unless she had shifted her anchorage; it was too far to the left. And a second glance assured me that it was no signal-lantern, but a fire-light on the shore. It flared up, so as to show the gnarled stems of stunted mangroves, and was then partially obscured by a human figure passing across it.

      All was deep darkness on the side of the bay where the ship had been moored when we left her. I turned and looked seaward, but could make out nothing. If outside, she would certainly heave to within a mile or two, and keep the signal displayed, as he had promised to do. She must be still at her moorings; and I gave the word to pull ahead quietly, as we were now in still water, and kept well in under the land on the weather side of the harbor, feeling my way, as it were, through the intense darkness.

      But no ship was to be found, after coursing all up and down that side of the bay. She must have gone to sea, and that, too, since nightfall; for, had she sailed during daylight, she would have been visible to us, as soon as outside the headland. I threw the boat's head seaward, with a prospect of another long pull, a sort of wild-goose chase, in fact. It might be the best course, I thought, to peak the oars, and lie still near the land, until morning.

      But at this moment an unwonted stir and clamor was observed near the fire-light on the opposite shore of the bay. Fresh fuel had been added, or oil poured upon the flame, so that it shot up suddenly with a bright glare, and revealed a considerable number of dusky forms in its vicinity. A cry, mournful and dirge-like, rose from many voices blended, ringing out clearly on the night air.

      "They are having a wake," said Tom Watts. "Somebody has been killed."

      "How do you know?" I asked.

      "Why shouldn't I know? If you had lived among 'em as long as I have, don't you suppose you would know their customs? They never make that kind of shout, except the person has died some sort of violent death. Let's pull across a bit, where we can see what's going on."

      "We shall raise an alarm," said I, "the rowlocks make so much noise. Take the paddles and work quietly."

      The order was gladly obeyed; for it gave all a chance, facing forward, to see all that was to be seen. The paddles could be plied without noise; and the savage part of my boat's crew, in particular, were quite at home with that instrument. They were impelled by the feeling of curiosity common alike to all of us; while, at the same time, they desired to reconnoitre without being seen; for the two tribes were not on the best terms. Though not in a sate of actual war, a strong mutual jealousy existed, and our three boatmen would by no means have desired to be cast alone into the power of the howling mourners under such circumstances as these.

      We approached as near the shore as we thought prudent, to keep beyond the reach of observation; when I made a silent signal to cease paddling. The fire had just then blazed up with a fierce glare, and the nearly naked figures of more than fifty men were plainly visible, while the corpse lay uncovered upon a mat, close by the fire. I thought of all the accounts of cannibal orgies which I had heard or read, going back even to the veritable history of Crusoe and the rescue of Friday. Could it be possible they were going to make a feast of that body? I whispered a word of my suspicions to Watts.

      "O no," said he, "it's one of their own people. They never eat any but their enemies. These are the relatives and particular friends of the deceased, and they have brought him across the bay to this out-of-the-way place, to have a wake over him. Afterwards, he'll either be buried, or laid up on a shelf."

      "He may have died a natural death," I suggested.

      "No, I tell you I know their customs, and I know that this man has been killed, and not by accident, either. It may have been in a quarrel with one of his own tribe; but it is very likely that there has been some sort of a row with your ship, and she has gone to sea."

      The same idea had occurred to me, even while he was speaking. I made up my mind at once; and run no further risk, but, plying my steering-oar as silently as possible, headed the boat away from the shore and made the signal to paddle. But I had not done this so silently as not to be perceived. I heard a peculiar grunt, altogether different from the wailing noises, which had suddenly ceased; then a dash of cocoanut-oil upon the fire sent up the flame again, flashing far out over the bay, and a warlike yell from numerous throats informed us that we were revealed to the view of all the savages.

      "Pull ahead!" I shouted. "Oars, quick, and give way!"

      My crew needed no second exhortation. There was no further occasion for silence, and the measured thud of our rowlocks was added to the fierce yells of the infuriated mourners, as they saw the boat gliding rapidly into outer darkness. We heard the dip of paddles in pursuit; but it was plain enough that even if they could overtake us, they would not dare to attack without being in overwhelming force. We had no occasion to fear any single canoe; but our chief anxiety was lest we might be headed off by a fleet putting out from some point below for the alarm had spread with telegraphic rapidity, and already we could hear responsive cries from all sides of the bay. But keeping as near mid-channel as possible, it was not many minutes ere I had the satisfaction of finding myself outside of the headlands, safe from pursuit, and the angry voices dying away in the distance astern.

      I now thought of lying to with the boat, at a safe offing from the land, keeping a bright lookout for the ship, and waiting for daylight. It was useless to tire ourselves at the oars, when we knew not whether we were going towards or from her. But just as I had given tho sword to peak the oars and set a watch, the boom of a gun came down on the breeze, an assurance that she was several miles to windward of us. There was nothing for it, but down to the oars again.

      "We are all right, now," said Watts. "The old man has acted wisely in bearing up to windward while he can, If he is going round to Hanaroopoo, he'll gain several hours' time by being up there in the morning, as he'll be quite likely to have it nearly calm at daylight."

      "Yes, that's all very well," said I, "but it makes the more hard work for us,"

      But pulling square to windward for a couple of hours, we made out the distant sparkle of the signal light; and another hour brought us within hail. We found, when we arrived on board, that the ship was in charge of the mate, and Captain Brill a prisoner on shore among the savages.

      It appeared that soon after I left the ship to go down to Aita-rua, he went ashore, not then intending to go to sea until after our return. Everything appeared as us- [sic] usual, and the chief quite friendly. The Captain imprudently accompanied him to his house, and entering it, was at once confined and detained there. The natives soon came down and drove the crew into the boat, stoning them off the beach. In the course of the melee that ensued, the bowsman had seized a musket which was under the stern-sheets, ready loaded, and had shot one man, it was supposed mortally.

      The mate, fearing to await an attack at his anchorage, at once gave orders to get underway; and the ship stood out just after dark, which accounted for our not having seen her. He seemed to have been so much excited and preoccupied in mind as to have forgotten to hoist the lantern for us. He was puzzled, as indeed were we all, by the conduct of the natives in seizing the captain, and allowing all the rest to escape; for their only object appeared to be to drive us off. It was thought most unfortunate that the musket had been fired at all, as it was pretty certain Captain Brill's life would now be sacrificed in revenge for the man killed by the shot, It could be only the desire of ransom which had prompted the original movements; but the matter had now become more serious, and there was little hope that we should ever again see our commander alive.

      But there was a ray of hope in the words of Tom Watts, who alone doubted that instant vengeance had been wreaked upon the prisoner.

      "It may be," said he, "that the chief had laid a taboo upon the shedding blood, at the outset. It looks so, by driving you off with the boat, and using no weapons but stones. If so, they will not put the captain to death until the taboo is lifted, and that will only be at the last extremity. They mean to get a heavy price in powder and cloth for their prisoner, but if the blood-taboo is really on, they won't brit him."

      "But wouldn't they break it as soon as their man was killed?"

      "Not at all. In any ordinary case, they would take life for life, instantly; but not in a case where they are thus sworn not to, as one may say. You have no idea how sacred this is held. The chief himself wouldn't dare to break it, but must go through all the ceremonies of repeal before the assembled tribe. Until then, even be can draw no blood, of man or animal, unless in defence of his own life when attacked."

      "But they chased us in the boat, last night," said I.

      "Not far. Merely to frighten us off. And I am the more satisfied now of the captain's safety, as the taboo would account for their not pushing the chase any harder, and for their firing no guns at us. If they had been on a regular war-path, they wouldn't have let a single boat get away so easily."

      "What would you advise us to do?" the mate asked.

      "Well, if you go in with your boat in the morning for a parley, they would most likely ask an enormous ransom – more than your whole stock of cloth and powder. That's the way they always do, in driving n bargain; and, every hour they will come down a little, if you refuse to pay their price. I should say the better way would be, to go to Hanaroopoo, and so appear to have given him up entirely. Depend upon it, you'll get him back at a low rate of ransom, such as the ship can afford to pay. If they have not killed him already, he is safe enough. They won't be likely to do it afterwards."

      His advice was followed. We beat up round the weather point of the island, and the next day ran down for Hanaroopoo on the other side. But the news had crossed the mountains in advance of our arrival; and we found it impossible to entice the women on board for hostages, as we had desired. It would never do to trust ourselves in the power of these people without the hostages; this was an especially wild and treacherous tribe, and the risk would be too great. Even Captain Brill, as we have already seen, would not have ventured; still less would Mr. Cole, now acting commander, who was more likely to err on the side of over-cautiousness.

      Nor would Tom Watts advise it, under these circumstances; he having hoped and expected to get the women on board before the news spread so far as Hanaroopoo. He was safe enough himself, by reason of a taboo which had been laid upon him by the reigning chief, on the occasion of a previous visit to this village by the overland route. He volunteered, therefore, to go ashore himself, if he could get any conveyance. No canoe from Hanaroopoo would come near the ship; but, as some of them came out to reconnoitre from a safe distance, one of our boats was lowered and pulled towards them, making signals for a parley. The natives were exceedingly wary, however, and fell back as we advanced. By sheer labor at the oars, we gained upon one of them, so as to come within a couple of hundred yards, when Tom Watts jumped overboard and struck out, swimming; and we hove about, returning to the ship. Seeing this manoeuvre, and recognizing Tom's voice and signals, those in the canoe received him on board, and made for the shore; landing, in plain view of us, just as we arrived on deck, and commenced making sail to hold our position.

      Though we kept making short tacks near the land, we could make out nothing to relieve our anxiety. Tom was not seen after he landed and went up among the houses. Very few natives approached the beach, and no canoes were pushed out for the day. During the night, the officers held a consultation, and the younger members of the party, growing impatient, were for returning to the old anchorage, to land and attempt the captain's rescue. But such fool-hardiness was at once overruled by the mate, who had put the case in the hands of Tom Watts to be worked up, and meant to do nothing more until we heard some report from him.

      It was noon the next day before we observed any movements of note on the shore. Then the people began to gather down, women and children leading the van, running on and then looking back, expectantly, as if something of great general interest were about to happen. Soon, a large number of men, all armed, came in sight, among whom we made out Tom Watts, walking by the side of one who appeared, by his bearing and movements, to be a leading chief. The warriors deployed along the water-side in a sort of irregular phalanx, and now for the first time, we observed two old savages wearing plumes, and red and white mats, the dress of taboo priests, and between them Captain Brill, naked above the waist, and his arms bound. Signals were made of a desire to communicate with us.

      To approach the shore with boats was a work of great delicacy, and we did not fail to observe all the precautions possible. But so long as we kept out of darting distance, we had a vast superiority of firearms, and were equally prepared to fight or to run, at any moment. A canoe came out to meet us, the men laying aside their arms to ply the paddles, while Watts and the chief sat in the posts of honor, amidships.

      All had turned out as Tom had supposed. They had no intention of killing Captain Brill, and would ransom him for the best price they could get. They demanded three kegs of gunpowder and eight muskets, a stock far beyond what we had in the ship at that time. Watts advised us not to pay it, but to wait. Of course, the word sent from Captain Brill was, for us to negotiate as fast as possible, and liberate him at once if we could. But to pay what the ship did not contain was quite impossible. No compromise in the way of cotton cloth or tobacco would be accepted. They must have the gunpowder.

      There appeared to be a perfect understanding between the tribe of Hanaroopoo and that which had taken the captain. But one was bound by the taboo, while tho other had no such scruples, and might make an attack upon us at any moment. There remained nought for us to do, but to give him up and return to the ship, in accordance with the advice of Watts, to wait until they should lower their demands.

      The canoe returned to the shore, and we lay off, looking to see what should be done next. A cry arose, as soon as Tom and the head chief had landed, which seemed to be a sort of proclamation by the two heralds or taboo-men. The chiefs immediately rallied towards au opening in the cocoanut-grove, where a raised platform of stones was surmounted by a small building of peculiar construction, which we know to be one of their morais or temples. The common people followed at a respectful distance. Something was to take place at which they were to be mere spectators, while the men of rank were to be the chief actors.

      A profound silence fell upon the whole assembly as soon as they had taken their places. Then the two old priests chanted a few strange words, the head chief advanced into the centre of the platform. But before he could speak, our attention was fixed by a sudden outcry from Tom Watts; two men who had relieved the priests in the duty of guarding the prisoner were knocked right and left, and Tom dashed down to the water-side, followed by Captain Brill, unbound.

      "Pull ahead! cried the third mate, who was in command of the second boat. "Pull ahead, now or never! If it's gunpowder they want, they shall have it!"

      So swift and sudden had been the movement of Watts in his attack upon the guards, and in cutting the bonds from the captain's wrists, that they were in the water before the assembled chiefs had fairly recovered their wits. The boats advanced rapidly to the support, and some of us were ready to pull them on board, while others covered the operation with levelled muskets. The tribe of Hanaroopoo gave chase with a terrible hue-and-cry, and a lively skirmish resulted, which lasted not above a minute or two, when we were again safe on our way, with the captain uninjured, and Tom Watts severely wounded in the side by a spear. Several shots had taken effect among the savages, but we did not stay to ascertain particulars of their losses. There were no guns among this tribe; but the others, who had been the immediate aggressors in the capture, from the more frequent intercourse with ships, possessed quite a number. They were but indifferent marksmen, however, and did not join in the attack upon us, until they were engaged at the moral.

      This ceremony, as we learned from Watts, was no other than lifting or repealing the taboo. Finding himself foiled in making the bargain for ransom us he had expected, the king had formed a sudden resolution to change his tactics and put the captain to death. Tom was taken entirely by surprise; but as soon as he saw the rites commence, he understood the state of affairs, and realized that his own life would be in imminent peril at the hands of this hostile tribe.

      He might have made his own escape, perhaps, and left the prisoner to his fate; but seeing at a glance that the ceremonies had attracted all from the spot but the two guards, and that even they had relaxed their vigilance, he decided that the chance was too good to be lost, and made the bold strike for his rescue, as already seen.

      The bold "beach-comber" soon recovered from his wound, and we did our best to persuade him to quit his Marquesan adventures, and return with us to civilization. But no arguments could prevail upon him to break his family ties, he having a wife and two children at Aita-rua. We took him back there as soon as he was restored to health, and landed him, the possessor of more wealth than any one man in the group. The captain's gratitude had taken the form of calico, tobacco and gunpowder, sufficient to make him esteemed as a millionaire among his follow-islanders. We could not help feeling anxious, lest he might, in his wanderings, fall into the hands of the hostile tribe, and lose his life for what he had done for us. But he seemed quite willing to take his chances, and even thought, that, with the riches he possessed, he could buy the good-will of all the petty sovereigns of Hivaoa.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Marquesan Adventure.
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 59, No. 32 (Feb 8, 1879)
Pages: 1