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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LIII, No. 2 (Feb 1881)
pp. 170-174.

170 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      Old "King George," as he was called at Strong's Island, was a sovereign as absolute in his way as the Autocrat of all the Russias, ruling his subjects with the most despotic power. So far as we could judge from observation during our stay at his beautiful island, every subject, from the highest chief, in authority next to the king, down to the meanest commoner, held his goods and chattels, his wife and children, and even his own life, completely at the mercy of his royal command or caprices. If he chose to enact the part of Appius Claudius, the state of morals and the deference for royalty were such that no Strong's-Island father could have been found to emulate Virginius.

      One of the national games or ceremonies which was highly curious and interesting to us seamen, when on shore, was a dance performed round a large bonfire. In the dances all the able-bodied young men of the tribe took part, while the king and principal chiefs looked on with critical eyes, approving or finding fault as the case might be.

      Every adult male at Strong's Island is tattooed with a stripe up and down the outside of each leg, all the way from the hip to the ankle, not unlike that on the trousers of an army sergeant in our infantry, and the effect is very striking. There was something weird and thrilling in witnessing the gestures and movements, all in concert, by a hundred or two stalwart men arranged in a circle, with the bright glare of the fire shining upon their sleek naked forms, and bringing out everything in bold relief against a background of darkness.

      On one of these occasions when our watch was ashore on liberty, some of our men had been partaking rather freely of the villainous liquor manufactured by the only two white men who were at that time domiciled on the island. For here, as elsewhere in the South Seas, one of the first evidences of civilization is the presence of alcoholic stimulants. As soon as a white man locates, he at once proceeds to improvise a whiskey-still with a pot or teakettle, and an old gunbarrel, and the result is an article of "tanglefoot," which is warranted to kill at as many yards as anything of the sort dispensed across the bar of any of the lower order of saloons in New York or London. The liquor is made from the sap of the cocoanut-tree, is very strong and fiery, and was known to the sailors under the common name of "dent," the word being a contraction and corruption of the Spanish aguardiente.

      Old Jack Spring was the most demonstrative of the liberty men and the chief spokesman, having imbibed rather freely of the fiery dent, and still having a "pocket pistol" half filled with the same, projecting from the breast pocket of his jumper. Jack was a veteran seaman who had sailed in all sorts of vessels, and loudly boasted of having, in his youth, served in one of the mizzen-tops of his most nautical majesty, William the Fourth. Taking him altogether, he was a fair specimen of that eccentric animal of whom Smollet and Dibdin sang, – the British tar.

      The dance progressed very correctly, as we thought, and very much to our delight, but, as it seemed, not to the satisfaction of old King George, who was in one of his surly humors. He several times vented his anger in horrible yells at some delinquent, accompanied by violent threatening gestures, as if he had half a mind to show his despotic power by jumping into the ring and knocking the dancers right and left. All this excited the ire of Jack Spring, and led to counter demonstrations from him, expressive of an itching desire to punch the head of royalty.

      Those of us who were sober enough to realize the folly and danger of such conduct did our best to quiet the old sailor down, and tried hard to reason with him. But Jack, who had been drawing some of the charges from the pocket-pistol, was now just in fighting trim, and we might just as well have tried to reason with a tiger in the jungle.

      "Oh! don't tell me," said he. "about that old blow-hard, calling himself King George! He's a disgrace to the name, and no true-born Englishman ought to hear him called by it. He a king, eh? I'd just like to know who set him up in the king business! I'd think nothing of spoiling his ugly mug for him."

      The old manarch's[sic] attention was attracted by Jack's demonstrations, but his gaze expressed more wonder than fear. We tried to coax Jack away, but he would neither be coaxed nor driven. He struck out blows even at his dearest shipmates, and jerking himself away from us, stepped out nearer to the king with his fists squared for action, showing himself more than ever determined to beard the lion in his den.

An Insult to Royalty. 171

      But his majesty was not looking at him now; he had his royal eyes fixed upon one of his own subjects, a tall and wiry fellow whom he had once before yelled at because he did not keep sufficiently accurate time with the other dancers.

      He did not raise his voice now above an ominous grunt; but, swelling with rage, he picked up a good-sized stone, which lay near, and hurled it with fatal aim into the breast of the unfortunate youth. This was the lost stran[sic] that broke the camel's back of Jack Spring's endurance.

      "Do you call that fair play?" he shouted. "I'll take some of the king out of ye!" And away went his right and left fists, straight from the shoulder into the ugly face of old Georgus Rex, who was just bowled over like a nine-pin.

      To describe in words the melee that followed this rash act would be impossible. The old sailor was attacked by five or six men at once, but defended himself with marvelous agility, knocking his assailants right and left. The dance was broken up in confusion, and the din and uproar of many voices woke the echoes of the night. A cry of "Rescue!" was raised, and the rest of us sailed in to the assistance of our watchmate, but the islanders closed up around him, their only object seeming to be to secure the principal offender, who had so assaulted the sacred person of their sovereign, and made no further resistance to us than was necessary to effect that object.

      "But we were soon sensible of the folly of attempting to help him, and of the madness of getting ourselves into a serious conflict with hundreds of excited savages. We lost sight entirely of Jack Spring, who was overwhelmed by numbers, and carried off bodily within a hollow square of men, while we made our way down to the beach unmolested; the natives seeming glad to get rid of us without resorting to the use of weapons.

      Meanwhile those on board the ships had observed the commotion and heard the clamor of many voices, and the boats were sent in to ascertain the cause of the disturbance. Besides our own ship, the Young Eagle, there was an English whaler lying in the bay. called the Bermondsey, commanded by a Captain Jacobs, who was an old cruiser among those islands, and prepared to deal with the natives summarily in case of trouble arising.

      Three or four of the Bermondsey's men happened to be ashore with us, and had taken part in the momentary attempt at rescue with the rest of us, though the whole difficulty had been originated by old Jack, and the natives justly held him to be the guilty party.

      When the boats touched the landing, we were all ready to jump in, but not a man, woman or child of the whole native population of Strong's Island was to be seen. The whole village was deserted, and dead silence had fallen upon the place. Our story was soon told, and, as might be supposed, Captain Parker was terribly concerned about the fate of the Englishman, who was now so completely in the hands of the Philistines. He must be rescued either by ransom or by force, at all hazards, even as a matter of common humanity. But more than this, Jack Spring was highly esteemed by the captain, and was really one of the best men in the ship when liquor was out of his reach.

      Nothing could be done, at all events, till morning: and then, if the people had not already taken summary vengeance, we must try the virtue of an armed demonstration and a parley. We had a few old flint-lock muskets, brought out for purposes of trade, which looked formidable, but were not very dangerous, unless at the breach or butt end, and one old rusty carriage-gun, a six-pounder.

      The sound of oars was heard, and a boat from the English ship came alongside, bringing Captain Jacobs himself. He was a very different man from Captain Parker; a fierce headlong fellow, who never stopped long to calculate chances, and moreover had been fortifying himself with deep potations of gin.

      "Well, Captain Jacobs, I am very glad to see you," said our skipper calmly. "Indeed I was thinking of coming to see you, for I wanted to consult as to what it is best to do in this fix. Here's one of my men has got himself into a tight place, by his drunken folly, and I don't know whether they'll kill him or hold him for ransom, and let us buy him off in the morning."

      "And don't you pay a ha'penny for ransom, Parker," said the little Englishman, impetuously. "By George, I wouldn't, and I'm all ready to make this quarrel mine, and back you up. It's old Jack Spring, I'm told, and you may depend he'll come out all right, for he has a charmed life. I know him well, for I had him with me a year in the Seringopatam, and I'll bet high on Jack's luck. "What do you think of doing, Parker?"

      "I suppose I can do nothing until daylight comes, and then we can go in with the boat and hold a palaver."

      "And that will amount to just nothing," put in Captain Jacobs. "We'll have to use force afterward, and I'm for using it in the first place. Egad! that was a good thing, though, Jack knocking over the old barbarian, and I'd have given a five-poun' note to have seen the fun." And Captain Jacobs went into a roar of laughter

172 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

at the amusing picture, in his imagination, of the old king with both his eyes bunged up, and the tipsy old tar plying his fists right and left among the naked islanders.

      "I must confess I don't see this business in the same light that you do," said our captain seriously. "I should hardly wonder or blame them if they killed him with a short shrift. Why, only think of a stranger knocking down Queen Victoria, or the Prince of Wales, on British soil. What would you loyal Englishmen do about it?"

      "Ah, but that's quite another thing. Our gracious majesty is not to be compared with this old milk-and-molasses-colored thief. I've no patience to wait till morning, I want to begin now, and if you say so, we'll carry the war into Africa. Why we might land forty men at once from the two ships, and set fire to the village, while we kept up a covering fire from the carriage-guns. What d' ye say?" asked Jacobs eagerly.

      "I say I will not be a party to anything of the kind. The wrong is all on our side, or at least is all the fault of one drunken man, and I shall not do anything so piratical until I have exhausted all peaceable means."

      "Well, if you won't agree to that," returned the English captain, "I'll open fire with my battery, and give them a terrible scare. This may put the old king in a proper frame of mind to make good terms in the morning."

      "I see no harm in that," returned Captain Parker, "and indeed I think it may have a good effect. Of course you will use only blank cartridges in your guns."

      "I don't know about that," answered Jacobs, as he called his crew to man the boat. "I may fire a ball into one or two of them, – just by mistake, eh? Look out now for a grand explosion!" he called out as he pulled away into the darkness toward his own ship.

      The Bermondsey carried eight guns, four of which were long nines, and at that time had them all mounted and ready for service. Captain Jacobs, as soon as he got on board his own ship, procedeed[sic] to load up and fire both broadsides at once, waking up all the echoes around the concave of the bay. After this formidable display of power, it seemed ridiculous to fire our one little pog-gun[sic], though we had loaded it with that intention.

      No sound was heard in response, after the echoes had died away, but all was silence and darkness. We looked and listened for a quarter of an hour, discovering no sign of life, when at last, a faint glimmer, like that of a lamp or a small torch, was seen in the direction of the large building which stood very near the landing. This was the great council-house for the kara feasts and for other public purposes.

      "Light, ho!" was called simultaneously on board both ships.

      And then followed another deadly silence, while eager eyes were watching this new phenomenon, and awaiting some movement or change in it. The light grew lighter and increased in size, as if it were a bonfire which had been newly kindled, and was gradually gaining strength. Soon the flame made a sudden start, and enlarged as if it had laid hold of some new material, and the increasing glare shone upon the bamboo walls, showing in full relief the form of the structure, and the high thatched roof above, standing out against the dark hill, and the yet darker sky beyond.

      The great council-house was on fire!

      There was but one impulse in every mind, to rush to the rescue. For no human being was to be seen, no voice was heard. The fire was evidently accidental, and we had no doubt it had been caused by a piece of burning wadding from one of the Bermondsey's guns.

      Down went the boats at the word of command, and into them we piled pell-mell, throwing in all the buckets, as well as any hooks and ropes which might serve to aid us in pulling down the structure. The Englishman's crew were not behind in showing the same spirit, and away we dashed across the little space between the anchorage and the shore, as gallant a fire brigade as ever ran with a fancy machine up and down Broadway or the Bowery. And from away inland was heard the approaching tread and voices of many excited men, coming so swiftly, that the two tribes of humanity, white and tawny, were likely to pour into the little clearing, where the burning building stood, at the same moment. It was a little uncertain whether our meeting might be a hostile one, or whether we could understand each other so as to unite our efforts against the common enemy, and the feeling caused a momentary halt on our part. But we were already at the point of landing, the danger from the fire was imminent, for the council-house, being a lofty structure, overtopped the smaller houses which lay directly in the track of the flaming brands and cinders, and the whole village would be doomed to destruction if the fire should get the mastery.

      Those people had no facilities for extinguishing a fire in a building of this size. Smaller cottages could be pulled down by hands, but, practically, fire was almost unknown among them.

      But our hesitation was not long. One of the resident white men, who appeared to have been just roused from a drunken debauch, came straggling down, and begged us to come and assist them in saving the building. The crowd of yelling natives was

An Insult to Royalty. 173

also in plain view now, coming out from the cover of the trees and hills.

      "Tell them to give up my man. Bring him down here quick, and let me see him! Quick! if the king wants us to lend a hand!"

      For Captain Parker felt that now was the moment for him to make terms. The flames were spreading rapidly along the dry bamboo walls, and the conflagration lighted up the whole bay.

      "He's coming," answered the beach comber. "There he comes with King George."

      'And sure enough, the old monarch, with his battered face, soon made his appearance, speeding along as fast as his strength would admit, while Jack Spring, in the background, hove in sight, marching between two stout keepers, and with his arms bound at the wrists.

      "Cut that man free!" shouted Captain Parker. "Let him free before we give the order to strike a blow, or pass a bucket of water."

      The order was obeyed.

      "And tell King George, that if he undertakes any treachery, my ship's guns are all loaded, and with balls, too, this time! Go ahead now, men!" added Captain Jacobs to his own crew, "and do your duty like British seamen!"

      We young eagles were not slow to emulate them, and were re-enforced now by Jack Spring himself, one of the best and bravest of all. A few minutes' work by forty white men, English and American, well organized and working with a will, was sufficient to tear away the blazing walls, and throw them to the ground, where the bucket brigade, assisted by the natives themselves, could bring water to bear in drenching out the fame.

      But, as the end wall farthest from the fire yielded to the pull of the hooks, a human being was disclosed to view, crouching in a kind of loft, upon an upper floor! He seemed to be overpowered by the smoke or by fright, so as to be unable to make an effort to save himself. Old King George uttered a scream of horror, that rings in my ears to this day, whenever I recall the events of that night, and the cry was taken up and related from a hundred throats.

      Our hooks had not yet been brought to bear upon the uprights, we had only torn off the broadside of the structure, and the fire was creeping rapidly along that upper floor toward the victim, who made no effort a save himself.

      "It's the king's brother," said the drunken beach-comber. "He is a paralytic, and has lost his wits too. Nothing can save him!"

      But even as he spoke, Jack Spring rushed past us, into the interior of the building making for the rude ladder which led up to this floor from the inside. He was too late, the floor at the upper end of it was already crumbling into cinders, and even while his foot was on the lower round of the ladder, it fell, cutting off all means of ascent at that point. But the old sailor rushed out through the smoke and falling cinders, dragging the ladder after him with the strength of a Hercules.

      "Lend a hand here!"

      And in an instant it was raised on end, and placed against the corner post of the building. The poor wretch aloft was now quite hidden in a wreath of smoke, but a sort of idiotic cry could be heard above the crackling of the flames, that were now drawing very near the spot where he had been last seen.

      "Steady the ladder at the foot, some of ye!"

      And up darted old Jack, with the agility of a cat, plunging without hesitation into the smoke to re-appear again, almost in a second, with the now insensible man in his arms. He lowered his burden as far down as he could, sitting down to do this, with his legs hanging; over outside.

      "Catch him, there, below!"

      A dozen arms were outstretched to divide the shock, and the poor wretch was rescued, and landed safely on the greensward, where the old king took him in charge. He was still alive, and revived almost immediately in the fresh air.

      Jack hardly seemed to touch the rounds of the ladder in his descent, but rather to slide as down a back stay. He was none too soon, for the whole fabric was now ready to fall, and a single pull of the hook and rope brought it all to the ground in a chaotic mass of ruin.

      The destruction of the council-house was quite complete, but the damage went no further. By pulling it down so soon, and by turning attention to the low, thatched huts, the rest of the buildings were all saved.

      The life of the poor wretch whom Jack had brought out of the fiery furnace was more valued by these people than that of an able-bodied warrior, for, strange as it may seem, they hold any one afflicted with such infirmities, and especially when of unsound mind, as sacred in the eyes of their Great Spirit, Blueskin, and they are regarded with the most jealous care as objects of special veneration.

      The king's brother had been left behind at the royal palace, which was very near the council-house, though being to windward of it was in no danger from the fire: it was thought that the very presence of this stricken man would in some way prove the safety of the village from any attack of bombardment, if we should fire upon it.

174 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      And old woman specially consecrated beforehand was left in charge of him, but she had become frightened and deserted her post, and the poor man, although partially crippled, had managed, nobody knew how, to climb up into the loft where he was found; and but for our having pulled away the side of the building, would have perished in there, and fallen among the ruins.

      When the danger was over, old King George came to the sailor with tears streaming over his bronzed face, and embraced him as if he was something more than human, something to be worshiped.

      "Why, give us your flipper, old chap," said Jack. "I'm glad to see that you bear no malice, and I promise you there's no bad blood on my side. I own I was a little set up at the time, and you must own there was no fair play in plunging a stone at that poor young fellow. He's not hurt so much as I thought, though; I'm glad to know that, and so we'll let bygones be bygones, eh, old boy?"

      The grateful monarch was ready not only to shake hands, but to kiss and rub noses, in short, was even more demonstrative in his affection than Jack would desire.

      "There!" said Captain Jacobs, "didn't I tell you that something would be sure to turn up, so that Jack Spring would come out all right, out of this scrape? I tell you there's luck in the man; but who would have thought of it all growing out of firing a broadside of blank cartridges? For I suppose thats' the way the big kara house was set afire."

      But Jack had had a narrow escape after all. He had been tied hand and foot, and confined in a building, while a pow-wow by the whole population was going on outside. He was informed by one of the white men, that the ceremonies, consisting of invocations to Blueskin, would be kept up all night, and that he would be taken out and knocked on the head, or stoned to death in the house, according to the answer which Blueskin in his wisdom should return, but that he would certainly be put to death one way or the other, exactly at daybreak next morning.

      "Which, of course," said Jack, in telling the story, "was not very encouraging to think about, and didn't help me to sleep sound. When Jacobs fired off his broad-side, the heathens were awfully scared, and stopped their infernal sing-song, that they had kept up so long. And what put my pipe out was that the young fellow that was stoned by the king came up there to sing my death song with the rest of them, and didn't seem to have a bit of gratitude for my having taken his part. After they saw the fire, they were in a doubt what to do, but they couldn't bear to see the whole town burned down, without trying to stop it, and, as they wanted help from the ships, they took me with 'em to make terms. I'm eternally obliged to my old Captain Jacobs, for firing those guns. He might have fired 'em tomorrow morning with red-hot shot, just for revenge, but that would have been too late for me!"

      King George, however, stoutly denied that he had any intention of putting the old sea-man to death, but said he meant to make us some trouble, and get a large ransom if he could, as he wanted to be well paid for the insult to his dignity. I believe, however, that the beach-comber's statement of their intention was correct, and that neither force nor negotiation would have availed the next day, as it would have been too late!

      We sent our carpenters with gangs of men ashore, and in a few days a new and better council-house rose, like a Phenix, out of the ashes of the old one, to the great delight of George, and his loyal subjects.

      The paralytic brother, none the better or worse in his narrow escape, stood higher with Blueskin, and was held in greater veneration than ever before, and certainly no man stood higher in the good graces of the monarch than old Jack, who had begun his acquaintance with him by knocking him down.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: An Insult to Royalty.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 53, No. 2 (Feb 1881)
Pages: 170-174