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. XLIX, No. 4 (Apr 1879)
pp. 350-356.

350 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      When I shipped as mate of the "Maria Theresa," she was ready for sea, and nearly all her other officers, as well as the crew, were unknown to me until they mustered together on the day of sailing.

      One of the boat-steerers, who answered to the name of Joe Meader, was a long-limbed tawny fellow, evidently a semi-savage from some one of the isles of the South Sea; and in the course of my duties in getting the ship under way, making sail and stowing the anchors, I had discovered that this fellow understood very little English, and was by no means proficient in seamanship, as became the station which he occupied. I had occasion several times to speak sharply to him, when his stupidity had for the moment exhausted my patience; and when at last, after the ship was fairly out in the blue of the Atlantic, and the pilot was discharged, we went down to the supper-table, I asked Captain Taber: –

      "Where did you pick up such a stupid fellow for a boat-steerer?"

      "Which one do you mean?" he asked.

      "Why, the Kanaka, Joe Meader. I hope I haven't judged him too hastily; but he acted to me like a regular blockhead."

      The captain laughed.

      "Why, that's my boat-steerer. I shall take him in my boat, because I understand him, and he understands me better than he can any one else. In fact, he is my man. He'll never learn our tongue so as to talk it fluently, and he'll never be an able seaman in the full sense of the word. But he is as brave as a lion; and if you lay him alongside of a sperm whale, he's there."

      "Indeed," said I, "I'm glad to know that; for it's worth something, in starting on a voyage, to have a boat-steerer who has been proved. And if the fellow can do his duly in the head of a boat, we can overlook many drawbacks in other respects."

      "Especially if he is a kind of favorite with the old man, I suppose you think," added Captain Taber, with another laugh. "By the way, Joe Meader is a queer corruption of the name given to him, which was Omega."

      "Named after the ship he served in?" I inquired; "or was it because he was the last piece in the pot?"

      "I'll tell you the story of our early acquaintance when we are at leisure," said

Our Stupid Boat-Steerer. 351

he, "and you shall judge whether I have reason to believe in Omega – ay, even to love him."

      Later that evening the captain fulfilled his promise, and I was so much interested in the story that I think I can recall it very nearly as related by him.

      I was second mate of the "Alpha," cruising in the low latitudes of the Pacific; and we were, at the time my story begins, steering away southward from the King Mill's group, intending to try our luck in the vicinity of Rotuma and about the Fijis. The lookout from the mast-head reported a sail in sight; but it was late in the afternoon, and only a light air stirring, so that it was nearly sundown before we made out that the sail flapping was that of a boat or canoe, and not of any larger vessel.

      A boat was lowered, of which I was sent in charge; and under the long and strong strokes of a fresh crew, we soon shot alongside the strange craft.

      She proved to be one of those swift but rickety canoes such as you have seen at the Groups, made of hundreds of little pieces of wood seized together with little lashings made of cocoanut-husks, carrying the usual outriggers, and possessing the usual "pump or sink" qualities of vessels of her class.

      In this frail craft were two young men, who had evidently made a sea-voyage much longer than they had wished or intended at starting; for they were worn and emaciated by want of food and drink, and their lower limbs were so cramped from long confinement in one position that they had to be helped into the boat by my crew. When found by us, they had nothing to eat but a remnant of the flesh of a shark in a half putrid state, and for drink they had a single cocoanut-shell half full of water.

      As the craft was of no earthly use to us, she was allowed to go adrift as soon as the men were taken out of her. A few strokes brought us again alongside of our approaching ship, where the poor fellows were taken on board and made comfortable.

      With sufficient food and water, and room enough to move about, they soon revived wonderfully, and were able to give us some account of their adventures.

      They came from the Island of Epemama, commonly known to sailors as Simpson's Island, and had started out to go to another island only thirty miles to the westward; but being overtaken by squally weather, they had lost their reckoning, and had drifted away with little or no idea of direction. According to their count, they had been out fifteen days when they were picked up; and even the sternest hearts among us were moved by their tears of joy at finding themselves on the comparative terra firma of a ship's deck, with plenty of food and water within their reach.

      As we were not bound towards their native island, but to quite an opposite direction, of course the two Kanakas must remain with us, and become a part of our crew for a considerable length of time. They must have names of some sort, and the mate, by way of showing off his classics, proposed to christen them Damon and Pythias; whereupon I suggested that Castor and Pollux would be an improvement. But the captain declared that one of them ought to be named after the ship, so of course Alpha and Omega would be exactly the thing.

      Omega – who is now your stupid friend and shipmate, Joe Meader – was the taller of the two, and by far the better looking, though you will say that there is ample room for improvement even in his beauty. But Alpha, who was short and thick-set, had a very sinister expression about him; in fact, was hideously ugly, both in the English and the American sense of the word.

      Well, the two waifs were turned into the forecastle among the crew, and were called upon like the rest for duty whenever they could be made useful. Omega fell to my lot as one of the starboard watch; and he proved so tractable and willing that I soon became greatly attached to him, though I cannot say that he was apt at learning seamanship. But I always had great patience with even a stupid man if he tried to do the best he could. Not so, however, with Captain Lucas, of the "Alpha," for he was one of those small-souled, overbearing tyrants, who think it a brave act to tyrannize over any poor fellow who has no power to stand his own ground, or no intelligence to defend his own cause. These two poor islanders were fit subjects for his tyranny, and one of his chief delights consisted in bullying and abusing them. Poor Alpha, who was in the third mate's watch, fared the worse of the two, having no one to say a word in his favor; but I determined that my man, who always showed a willing and

352 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

an amiable disposition, should not be without a champion. Whenever I could so manage it I kept him employed somewhere out of the captain's way. When he was attacked and wronged, I defended him, even at the risk of always keeping myself in hot water with Captain Lucas. But I cared little for his enmity or his blustering, knowing that I could do my duty, and that even if I left the Alpha at a Pacific port, I could easily get quite as good a berth in another ship.

      Although our new shipmates were not at first assigned any place as oarsmen in the boats, I had occasion two or three times to take Omega with me in place of some one of my boat's crew temporarily off duty. I found him an excellent man for boat-service, he being full of courage, and anxious, as he ever was, to exert himself to the utmost. He was awkward at the oar, though a little practice would remedy that; but with the paddle in his grasp, and faced about toward the whales, he was the best man of the boat's crew; for he was quite in his element and seemed like one inspired-.

      One day, on lowering, Captain Lucas found one of his crew sick, and took Omega as a substitute.

      We were unsuccessful in our chase of the whales; and when we returned on board, I observed that my Kanaka had his left eye closed and much swollen and discolored, as if from the effects of a very ugly blow.

      Thinking the injury might be accidental, I innocently inquired of Captain Lucas: –

      "What's the matter with Omega's face?"

      "None of your prying business," he answered, in a brutal tone.

      "Oh, yes!" I retorted; "I suppose I understand what's the matter. I thought he might have been hurt by some accident."

      "Well, you see it was no accident at all. If you must know, I cracked him over the head with a paddle, for his laziness; and I only wish I had split his skull, if there's any satisfaction to you. I'll have no sogering in my boat," he added, as if saying, by implication, that I did in mine.

      "You didn't have any sogering on his part," said I, with some indignation; "for I know him better. I don't say that this poor green Kanaka is a sailor; but I'll swear that he's no soger."

      "And I suppose you think," drawled the captain, with his most ironical smile, "that he didn't deserve the crack he got over the eye?"

      "'Think' isn't the word," I answered fiercely; "I know he did not."

      "I'll be the judge in such cases; and you just keep your meddlesome tongue between your teeth, or I'll put your eye in mourning the same as I did your chum's there," he said.

      Captain Lucas was now ready to boil over with rage; and my mercury standing at the same temperature, I was quite as reckless of consequences.

      "Meddlesome or not, I say that it was a cruel blow, – ay, cruel, and worthy of a coward."

      Captain Lucas snatched a capstan-bar from the mizzen-mast, and swung for me.

      I had laid my hand upon another one, but was too late.

      His blow descended upon – not me, but my faithful Omega, who, quicker than thought, had interposed his own head to receive it.

      By this time the mate, who, as in duty bound, must support the authority of the superior, interfered, and called the boat-steerer to render unwilling aid; and I was disarmed and ordered to go below, – off duty for the present.

      I kept my own state-room; and to all the captain's bluster and threats that night I made no more reply than as if I had not heard him.

      But the next day he was in a different mood, and I resolved that he should make the first approaches toward being reconciled, knowing that he could not long afford to lose my services in the midst of a whaling season. I would take no hint; but at the end of three days I went sulkily about my duty, in obedience to positive orders.

      Meanwhile my poor savage was effectually disabled for some weeks, having one side of his head laid open by the capstan-bar. But he bore his sufferings with stoical patience, but seemingly with pride and delight, satisfied that he had shielded me; for he understood perfectly well the cause of my quarrel with my superior. I felt that I owed my life to his impulse of gratitude; for, if the terrible blow had been stopped by my skull instead of his, Captain Lucas would certainly have had murder upon his soul.

      I continued to do my duty on board the "Alpha;" but my situation was anything

Our Stupid Boat-Steerer. 353

but a pleasant one. There was bad blood between the captain and myself, though it did not burst its bonds; the state of our feelings appearing only in the form of coolness and restraint toward each other. Indeed, he seemed to take some pains to avoid any collision with me. While there was no change in his general abusive course toward others, Omega, after the episode, fared better than before; for although Captain Lucas lost no opportunity of hazing him with abusive language, and "working his old iron up" with disagreeable and menial jobs, he made use of no active violence. Whether the sight of the ugly scar on Omega's head, which you may have noticed to-day, had any terror for the conscience of Captain Lucas, I cannot say. But he seemed to be more severe than ever upon the poor fellow, Alpha, who was beaten and abused at any and all times, without the slightest provocation on his part.

      In pursuing this course, the captain was stirring up a demon that he little thought of. All the ferocity of the rude savage, Alpha, was roused within him, and he burned with the one natural desire for final revenge. At such times as the captain was most abusive to him, – though he submitted, whether to blows of the fist or to a thrashing with a rope's-end, – there was a gleam in his eyes like that of a tiger. As his wild emotions agitated his stout though dwarfish frame, and flashed darkly across his features, Caliban himself could not have been more hideous in appearance.

      Thus matters went on until the year rolled round, and we again turned our ship's head northward for another cruise among the low islands near the equator.

      I had told Omega that we were nearing his home; but grateful as was the news to his ears, his rapture seemed tempered with a feeling of regret at parting from me. He suggested what seemed to me the insane idea of my going ashore with him when we should arrive at Epemama, and either living always with him, or reshipping in some other vessel, where the commander would be more congenial to me. He seemed much affected at my rejection of this proposal, and for several days before we made the land he showed a desire to hover near my person, often looking at me as if he had something on his mind to say to me, yet never saying it. I did not notice this so much at the time, but it came to my memory in an exceedingly forcible manner afterward.

      But the savage joy of our ship's ugly namesake when he had his native land plainly in sight had no drawback to its intensity. He made no noisy demonstrations; but I could see every fibre of his frame quiver with delight as we neared the island, and the fleet of canoes was seen coming out to meet us, under the impulse of their great leg-of-mutton sails. There were more than forty of them to be seen before the nearest one arrived alongside; and each of these contained four or five men, while some of them had also one or two women on board.

      As soon as the ship was hove to, they crowded alongside, and the men swarmed on board until our deck was filled with them, driving a smart trade, chiefly in cocoanuts and mats, which they exchanged for bits of tobacco.

      Alpha, still quivering with excitement, stripped off his clothing, which had been furnished to make a civilized man out of him, and mingled with the yelling crowd, at once transformed back again into the savage Epemaman. Not so with my man, who, although he exchanged hearty salutations with his old acquaintances, still retained the sailor's toga with a certain half-civilized dignity about him; and, as before, he remained near me wherever I went, but with his keen eyes ever directed upon the crowd where it was thickest. Many of the men were armed with short spears, made of cocoanut wood, with the edges at one end serrated by rows of shark's-teeth; and some carried heavy clubs. No precautions against treachery had been taken by Captain Lucas; and, mingled together as the natives and the ship's-crew were, I observed with some concern that nearly every one of our men was surrounded by a ring of the tawny barbarians. I looked over the side towards the coral reef, now within a mile of the ship, and saw that several canoes filled with women were quietly paddling away towards the shore.

      Feeling this to be a dangerous omen, I was in the act of turning to speak a word of warning to Captain Lucas, himself surrounded by a large group of savages, when I was seized in a vise-like grasp, and half pushed, half carried towards the companionway and down the stairs into the cabin. It was Omega who was my assailant; and, as

354 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

he forced me into the gangway, I saw his ugly comrade Alpha, with the expression of a demon on his face, deal a blow at his old enemy, the captain, nearly severing his head from his shoulders. Not with a rude, serrated spear was the deed done, but with a far more effective weapon, – one of our own blubber-spades. I had just time to catch the dreadful sight in my eye; and then I was bundled down below, Omega closing the door and fastening it inside as he followed..

      "Get gun, sir!" he cried impetuously.. "Get gun! fight!"

      There was no room at that moment for anything but action; not an instant to be wasted in thought upon the horrible tragedy going on above. The captain and mate were both killed, of course; they would be the first victims. The din and clamor overhead was perfectly terrific; for before I had seized a gun which chanced to be ready loaded in my state-room, the fiendish rabble were in full possession of the upper-deck. We heard them bracing the main-yard to fill the topsail, and, looking up through the sky-light, could see that three or four of them had hold of the wheel, wrangling furiously, each pretending to know more than the others about steering the ship. The well-known voice of Alpha was heard trying to direct their operations, for he had picked up a little knowledge of seamanship during his year's experience, and he now appeared to be the master-spirit among his countrymen.

      I had two faithful allies at my side, – my preserver, Omega, and the black steward, who chanced to be in the cabin at the moment the attack was made, and had thus escaped death. We made all haste to load more of the guns, including a pair of pistols which belonged to the mate, and which I knew where to lay hold of. But I confess I knew not what course I should pursue after we were well armed; for it would be madness to rush out among a hundred armed savages thirsting for our blood.

      I told Omega and the steward that we must stay where we were, and wait for them to make the attack on us, where we would then sell our lives as dearly as we could.

      "No come down here," said Omega decidedly. "No come. Epemama too much 'fraid gun."

      This was true, and I ought to have thought of what my savage friend had so well considered, making it the means of saving my life. His countrymen, except the very few who had "gone down to the sea in ships," had the most terrible dread of fire-arms as something quite beyond their comprehension. Cold steel they could understand, and made it a game for two to play at; but gunpowder and balls savored of the supernatural. They would not attack us in our stronghold; but would try to work the ship in, and run her ashore, where they could dispose of the few survivors at their leisure.

      This, however, was no easy task to perform, unless the ship could be put under a press of sail, and then skillfully handled. She had been laying with her maintopsail aback, directly under the lea[sic] of the coral reef, in a perfectly safe position for our purpose; as the set of the current was sweeping her off-shore, and, the wind now dying away to a very light breeze, her drift would be considerable, even if well steered on a wind. But the savages were making wretched work of it; for we could see, from the window in the stern, what a crooked wake the vessel was leaving behind her, being now off several points free, and the next minute nearly aback, with all her canvas fluttering. As Omega understood their language, he knew that they were soon getting discouraged at their lack of success, and that, in spite of their efforts, the ship was going away from the island instead of nearing it.

      I had heard the main hatch lifted off two or three times, and after a minute shut down again, as if those above were peering cautiously down; but it was drawing near sundown, and I knew that they would not risk coming down after the daylight was gone, such was their wholesome fear of the guns.

      But a different noise now called my attention. – a gentle pounding on the door in the bulkhead between us and the after-hold, and a voice asking in English to be admitted.

      The voice was recognized, and three of our crew jumped through the doorway, it 'being opened for the purpose, and as quickly secured again.

      These three had been lucky enough to get down into the forecastle, thus escaping the general massacre, and had crawled aft over the casks, between-decks, to join our

Our Stupid Boat-Steerer. 355

party in the cabin. One of these men had his arm broken by a blow from a club intended for his skull. But, thus re-enforced, I felt much stronger than before; for we mustered five able-bodied men beside the half-crippled one. There were two more, I supposed, at the mast-head, – one at the main, and one at the fore; but they would, for safety, stay where they were, and could not co-operate with us while the islanders held possession of the upper deck.

      My faithful Omega, as soon as all the men were armed with loaded guns, suggested to me the line of tactics which I ought to pursue. The Babel of guttural voices overhead, a complete abomination to the rest of us, was quite intelligible to him, and his quick ear was ever open.

      "No can get ship ashore," said he. "Ship all right go to leeward. Some men talk, leave ship, go ashore. Big Eree Rootara say stay all night. He all the same cap'n. Alpha say he wants to go ashore."

      There was little in the ship that they cared for, except tobacco and cloth; and all this was below the deck, where they did not dare to venture.

      Not even into the forecastle would they put their heads after dark, though they might have done so with safety after our party was concentrated in the cabin. They would stay by the ship as long as Rootara, the leading chief, held his present mind; but I presume that Alpha cared less than his superior about running any risk of life to get possession of the vessel. He had accomplished his main object in wreaking his full vengeance upon the tyrant, Captain Lucas.

      "Now," said Omega, "two man – good gun-man – stand here," placing me and Tom Dawes, one of the men from the forecastle, where we could see obliquely up through the skylight. "Come dark now. Epemama man no see you."

      We took our station in the darkness, selecting the best guns, and holding ourselves ready for decisive action at the proper moment.

      "Want to kill two man," whispered Omega, as coolly as if they had been two pigs instead of human beings, his own countrymen.

      "Stand by when I tell you. Me touch you so."

      We could see, even in the half-obscurity, the legs of the savages, as from time to time they walked back and forth past the skylight.

      But Rootara was unknown to us, and I said as much to my preserver.

      "Me tell you when Rootara comes," said the sharp-eyed fellow. "Got mark – fay – fay – one big leg, one small one. Keep still now."

      Many dusky forms passed and repassed my line of vision outside the skylight, and two or three times I half raised my gun, thinking I had the right man; but my adviser silently put his hand upon it to restrain my haste.

      At length I became tired, and lowered the weapon into one hand at my side; but just then Omega's eyes fairly flashed in the darkness as he reached over me and touched the shoulder of Dawes, who was already in the act of taking aim. The flash and report followed instantly, and the stalwart form of Alpha dropped heavily to the deck. A yell of agony, blending with the noise of the fall, and a wailing cry, not unlike that of the croon at an Irish wake, swelled from a score of throats.

      Then there was a general pattering of naked feet overhead, all moving rapidly aft.

      "Keep close and still now," said Omega to me, "and be all ready."

      Dawes had seized another gun, the next but one, and stood again prepared for a second shot. Meanwhile there was some fumbling at the door of the companion-way, as if the islanders were becoming desperate, and meant to attack us in our den. But it was well for them that they did not open the door; for the steward and another man stood at the foot of the stairs in the dark, with their cocked and loaded guns pointed upward.

      There was much clamor now among the crowd, and apparently more diversity of opinion; for I could hear Omega chuckle as he listened. But as a peculiar, uneven step was heard coming aft, while a voice, well known to him, thundered out some angry order to the stupid fellow at the helm, the lynx eyes snapped again, and a hand was laid lightly on my shoulder.

      A pair of legs, sustaining a massive body, moved into my range of vision. They were hardly a pair, though, to speak correctly; for one was of ordinary size, as human legs run, while the other, in respect to circum-

356 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

ference, would certainly have filled a deck-bucket.

      "Now," said Omega; and I needed no second call.

      My bullet passed upward through the head of Rootara, and the great sun of Epemama had set forever.

      "Go on deck now," said the impassive Omega, as if the whole business were now settled. "Kanaka all go now. Kill big Eree; no fight no more."

      He understood his countrymen well; for never was a sinking ship deserted by rats more quickly than was ours by these barbarians when the fall of their chieftain was known. Their horrible cries still ring in my ears whenever I recall the events of that night.

      We threw open the cabin doors, and sallied forth into the moonlight just in time to see the last of them rush overboard, caring not for the moment whether they dropped into a canoe or into the sea; for these people, in their native tropical waters, are quite as amphibious as are so many seals or otters

      We had only to put the helm hard up, and, the ship's head falling off, we soon put a convenient distance between us and the frightened Epemamans. They had taken the bodies of Rootara and Alpha with them when they fled the field, and they had also previously thrown overboard all our slaughtered shipmates, and washed down the deck. No damage had been done, beyond the theft of some few portable articles from above deck.

      Including the two that had remained at the mast-head, we mustered eight men, all told, as the remnant of the ship's-crew. Of course, I, as the superior officer, took charge, and, thus short-handed, steered away for Manilla, where more men were shipped; and, after another very successful cruise, I took the Alpha home to her owners with a full cargo of oil.

      You may judge now, if you can, what my feeling must be towards the man who has thus twice saved my life, – once from the blow of the capstan-bar, which left the strange scar on his head, and which would have killed me; and again from the murderous hands of his own countrymen, when he might very naturally have joined with them in capturing the ship, and killing the entire crew. But he deliberately chose for himself the part he would act, even though he saw great risk of his life by so doing; for his own people would have shown him no mercy had they succeeded in running the ship on the coral reef, in accordance with their designs.

      Omega has never expressed any wish to revisit Epemama, thinking no doubt that his chance of life would not be worth a single head of tobacco if he should land there. He has told me that he had an old grudge against the chief, Rootara, and wished to see him killed, especially by my hand. He has sailed with me two voyages as boat-steerer, the tie of affection between us being more strong than ever; and it shall never be from word of mine that we part company.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Our Stupid Boat-Steerer.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 49, No. 4 (Apr 1879)
Pages: 350-356