In Bad Company, and other Stories/The Story of the Old Log-Book
THE STORY OF AN OLD LOG-BOOK
Notwithstanding our share in New Guinea and the debateable land of the New Hebrides, besides the proposed cession of Santa Cruz, the Sydney of 'the thirties' wore the look of being more in touch with the South Sea Islands and the Oceanic realm generally, than at present. The wharves were redolent of the wild life of The Islands and the mysterious land of the Maori. Weather-beaten sailing-vessels showed a sprinkling of swarthy recruits, whose dark faces, half strange, half fierce, were mingled with those of their British crews. Hull and rigging bore silent testimony to the wrath of wind and wave. There were whale-ships returning in twelve months with a full cargo of sperm oil, or half empty after a three years' cruise, as the adventure turned out.
Schoolboys were fond of loitering about among them, wondering at the harpoons, lances, and keen-edged 'whale spades,' at the masses of whalebone and spermaceti, or the carved and ornamental whales' teeth, of which Jack always had a store.
In the forecastle of one ship might be seen the tattooed lineaments and grim visage of a Maori; from another would peer forth the mild, wondering gaze of a Fijian. Bows and arrows (the latter presumably poisoned), spears, clubs, and wondrous carved idols were the principal curios, nearly always procurable.
The whale fishery was at that time a leading industry. Sperm oil figured noticeably among the first items of our export trade. Merchants made advances for the outfit and all necessaries of the adventure, trusting in many instances for repayment to the skill, courage, and good faith of the commander. No doubt losses were incurred, but the lottery was tempting. The profits must have been considerable. Sperm oil, before the discovery of gas or petroleum, was worth eighty or ninety pounds per ton. A large 'right whale' was good for eighty barrels, eight barrels going to the tun. He was a fish worth landing. To get back to the ship, even after hours of hard pulling and the chance of a stove boat, towing a monster worth nearly £1000, was exciting enough.
The crew, like shearers of the present day, were proverbially hard to manage. They did not receive wages, but a share in the net profits—a 'lay,' as it was called. The ship was, in fact, a floating co-operative society. This did not prevent them—for human nature is weak—from committing acts distinctly opposed to the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement. They got drunk when they had the chance. They occasionally mutinied. They resisted the mate and defied the captain. They proposed to take savage maidens for their dusky brides, and to live lives devoid of care in The Islands. It strikes landsmen as a curiously dangerous and anxious position for a captain, who had to confront a score or two of reckless seamen with the aid only of the officers of the ship. Yet it was done. The peril dared, the ship saved, and order restored time after time, by the resolute exercise of one strong will and the half-instinctive yielding of the seamen to the mysterious power of legal authority.
Before me as I write are the well-kept and regularly-entered pages of a whale-ship's log-book, the record of a voyage from Sydney harbour over the Southern main, which bears date as far back as April 1833. In that year again sailed the stout barque, which had done so well her part in bringing us safely to this far new land. Her course lay through the coral reefs and Eden-seeming islands of the Great South Sea; along the storm-swept coast of New Zealand; among the cannibals of New Ireland and New Britain; among the as yet half-unknown region of the Solomon Islands and Bougainville Group. As to the dangers of such a voyage, one incident of the strange races that people these isles of Eden is sufficiently dramatic. A boat's crew had pulled over to an inviting looking beach within the coral ring for the purpose of watering. As the boat touched the beach, stem on, one of the crew sprang ashore with the painter in his hand. A cry escaped him and the crew simultaneously, as he sank to his neck in a concealed pit, a veritable trou-de-loup. He hung on to the rope fortunately, and so pulled himself up and into the boat again.
Not a native was in sight. But the treacherous pitfalls being probed and laid bare, the intention was manifest. A line of holes was discovered in the sands, nine or ten feet in depth, cone-shaped and sloping to a narrow point, where were placed sharp-pointed, hard-wood stakes, the ends having been charred and scraped. Sharp as lance-heads, they would have disabled any seaman luckless enough to fall in, especially in latitudes where Jack prefers to go barefooted. Forewarned, walking warily, and 'prospecting' any dangerous-looking spot, they succeeded in unmasking all or nearly all of these man-traps, into which the ambushed natives expected them to fall. They were ingeniously constructed: the top covered with a light frame of twigs and grass, sand being sprinkled over all. Any ordinary crew would have been deceived.
When they reached the village they found the property of a boat's crew, who had been surprised or betrayed. One piece of evidence after another came to light. Last of all, the oars, on the blades of which were marks of blood-stained fingers closed in the last grasp which the ill-fated mariner was to give.
Righteous indignation succeeded this gruesome discovery. A wholesale burning of the town and canoes was ordered. A shower of arrows was sent after the departing boat, as the murder isle was quitted with a distinct sense of relief. It is not improbable that similar experiences have been repeated during the last few years. In those days the 'labour trade' did not exist, and to 'black-birding' was no scale of profit attached.
There is a pathetic simplicity about this unvarnished record of perilous adventure, after the close of half a century. One looks reverently upon the yellow pages which photograph so minutely the daily life of the floating microcosm. The course, the winds, the storms, the calms, the days of failure and good fortune! The huge sea-beast harpooned and half slain, yet cunning to 'sound' deeply enough to pay out all the line, or, the iron 'drawing,' finally to elude capture altogether. Then again what a day of triumph when the hieroglyph shows six whales killed and 'got safely alongside.' Midnight saw the boilers still bubbling and hissing; the tired crew with four-and-twenty hours' severe work before them, after, perhaps, half a day's hard pulling in the exciting chase.
Then out of the endless waste of waters rises the lovely shape of the fairy isle. 'Mountain, and valley, and wood-land'—a paradisal climate; a friendly, graceful, simple race, reverencing the stranger whites, with their big canoe and loud reverberating fire-weapons; or, on the other hand, sullen and ferocious cannibals, sending flights of poisoned arrows from their thickets, or surrounding the ship with a swarm of canoes, full of hostile savages, eager to climb her deck to slay and plunder unchecked.
It is characteristic, perhaps, of the greater simplicity of manners, and steadfast inculcation of the religious observances of that era, that on board the ship referred to, Divine service was regularly performed on each recurring Sunday. If whales were sighted, however, the boats were lowered; and on one Sunday afternoon two whales were killed. It was obviously a part of the unwritten code of salt-water law that whales were not to be allowed to escape under any circumstances, upon whatever days they were sighted by the look-out man. As it was tolerably certain that the ship would be more than once in jeopardy from hostile attacks, a few guns and carronades were mounted; boarding-nettings were not, I presume, overlooked. The old Ironsides' maxim, 'Trust in Providence and keep your powder dry,' was in effect a strictly observed precaution.
How strange it seems to think of the altered conditions made by the passing away of a generation or two! Cold is now the hand which traced the lines I view; stilled the hot blood and eager soul of him who commanded the ship—a born leader of men if such there ever was.
Of the crew that toiled early and late at sea, through sun and storm,—that drank and caroused and fought and gambled on shore when occasion served,—how small the chance that any one now survives!
With reference to the Solomon Group, which has been visited by many a vessel since the barque safely steered her course through shoal and reef, insidious currents and treacherous calm, matters seem to have been much about the same as at present. At some islands the natives were simple and friendly; at others, sullen and treacherous, ready at all times for an attack if feasible; merciless and unsparing when the hour came.
To refer to the Log-book.
'Monday, July 22, 1833.—At Bougainville; several canoes came off, trading for cocoa-nuts and tortoise-shell.
'Monday, July 29.—Beating along the coast of New Georgia. Canoes came off; traded for cocoa-nuts and tortoise-shell. Shipped Henry Spratt, who left the Cadmus last season. [A bad bargain, as future events showed.]
'August 8.—Sent the boats ashore at Sir Charles Hardy's island. At 7 P.M. boats returned, having purchased from the natives, who were very friendly, a quantity of cocoa-nuts and a pig. Discovered an extensive harbour on the west side.
'September 4.—Sent boats ashore at New Ireland; natives particularly friendly.
'Saturday, October 5.—Bore away for the harbour of Santa Cruz. At 2 P.M. cast anchor in thirty fathoms, one mile rom shore. There an adventure befell which altered existing relations.
'Sunday, October 6.—Sent casks on shore and got them filled with water. Next day got two rafts of water off, and some wood. Purchased a quantity of yams from the natives.
'Tuesday, October 8.—Hands employed in wooding, watering, and stowing away the holds. The natives made an attack on the men while watering, and wounded one man with an arrow. Brought off natives' canoes, and made an attack on their town, which was vigorously contested. Another of the ship's company severely wounded. All hands employed getting ready for sea.
'Wednesday, October 9.—At 4 A.M. began to get under weigh. Discharged the guns at hostile village. Men in canoes shot their arrows at the ship. Volley returned
'October 19, 1 P.M.—Henry Stephens, seaman, died of tetanus, in consequence of a wound inflicted by a native of Santa Cruz with an arrow. The burial-service read over him before the ship's company. Strong winds and high seas at midnight.
His midnight requiem, mariner's fitting dirge,
Sung by wild winds and wilder ocean surge.
The conclusions arrived at (Mr. Romilly states) by the Commission are only what were to be expected. 'It has long been known to me, and to many other men in the Pacific who have studied the question, that the so-called poison was, if not exactly a harmless composition, certainly not a deadly one. Of course, ninety per cent of the white men trading in the Pacific believe, and will continue to believe, in the fatal effects of poisoned arrows. The Santa Cruz arrow, usually considered the most deadly, is very small, commonly about two feet in length, while the New Hebrides arrows are much heavier, capable of inflicting a mortal wound on the spot. Carteret, more than a hundred years ago, was attacked by the natives of Santa Cruz. Of the ten men hit, three died from the severe nature of their wounds. No mention is made of tetanus. If any of his men had died from so remarkable and terrible a disease, Carteret could hardly have failed to mention the fact.'
With all due respect and deference to Mr. Romilly, we must take the liberty of siding in opinion with the 'ninety per cent of white men trading in the Pacific,' and believe that the arrows are poisoned—are deadly and fatal, even when only a scratch is produced. The deaths of the unknown sailor, Henry Stephens, sixty-seven years ago, and of the late lamented Commodore Goodenough recently, both from tetanus, surely constitute a marvellous coincidence. It is hard to believe that nervous predisposition was the proximate cause of tetanus in two persons so widely dissimilar in mind, station, and education. Carteret's three seamen possibly died from the same seizure; though, having many other things to attend to, the ancient mariner failed to record the fact.
In addition to the excitement of killing and losing their whales, being wrecked on a coral reef or hit with poisoned arrows, our manners were fated not to run short of dramatic action in the shape of mutiny.
This was how it arose and how it was quelled:
'Thursday, September 1883, off New Ireland.—At 4 P.M. calm, the ship being close under the land and driving rapidly, with a strong current, farther inshore. The captain ordered the starboard bow boat to be lowered for the purpose of towing the vessel's head round in such a position that the current might take her on the starboard bow, and cause her to drift off shore. The boat was consequently lowered, and the mate ordered Henry Spratt to take the place of one of the boat's crew, who was at that moment on the foretop-gallant masthead looking out for whales. Spratt refused to do so, saying that he didn't belong to any boat, and that it was his watch below. He continued to disobey the repeated orders of the mate till the matter was noticed by the captain, who called out, "Make that man go in the boat," when he at length did so, but in an unwilling manner and muttering something which was not distinctly heard.
'On the boat being hoisted up, the captain addressed Spratt in the most temperate manner on the subject of his insubordination, and warned him as to his future conduct.
'Spratt became insulting in his manner and remarks, and ended by defying his superior officers and forcibly resisting the mate's attempt to bring him from the poop to the main deck for the purpose of being put in irons. While the irons were preparing, he bolted forward, and evading every attempt to secure him, stowed himself below in the forecastle. The crew evincing a strong disposition to support this outrageous conduct, the captain armed himself and his officers, and ordered the chief mate to bring Spratt from below. He refused peremptorily, and struck the mate several blows, attempting to overpower him and gain possession of his sword. After receiving two or three blows with the flat of the sword, he was, with the assistance of the third mate, conveyed on deck and made fast to the main-rigging.
'While the prisoner was being made fast, the greater part of the crew came aft in the most mutinous and tumultuous manner, exclaiming against his being flogged, and questioning the captain's right to do so.
'They were ordered forward, and some of them (Murray in particular) showing a disposition to disobey and force themselves aft, the captain found it necessary to strike them with the flat of his sword, and to draw a rope across the deck parallel with the mainmast, warning the crew to pass it at their peril.
'The captain then, calling his officers around him, instituted a trial, and the whole of Spratt's conduct being 'calmly considered, he was unanimously sentenced to three dozen lashes.
'One dozen was immediately inflicted, and the prisoner was then asked if he repented of his misconduct, and would faithfully promise obedience for the remainder of the period that he should be permitted to remain on board. This promise being given, and the greatest contrition being expressed, he was unbound, and the remainder of his sentence commuted. As, however, he was considered a dangerous character, orders were issued that he should be treated as a prisoner (having the liberty of the deck abaft the mainmast) till he could be landed at New Georgia (the island from which he shipped), or elsewhere, if he thought fit.'
This émeute, which might have ended easily enough in a second Mutiny of the Bounty,—or as did happen when the crew of a whale-ship threw the captain overboard on the coast of New Zealand,—having been quelled by the use of strong measures promptly applied, the ordinary course of events went on uninterruptedly. On September 8 (Sunday, as it happened) two whales were killed. The canoes came off and hailed as usual. A violent gale seems to have come on directly the boiling was finished. They were alternately running under close-reefed topsails, wearing ship every four hours, being at 5 P.M. close under the high land under Cape St. Mary. Pumps going every watch, sea very high, ship labouring heavily—then close to Ford's Group. The gale lasted from Monday to the following Friday at midnight. One fancies that from the 'captain bold' downwards, they must have had 'quite a picnic of it.'
Spratt was what is known to South Sea mariners as a 'beach-comber'—one of a proverbially troublesome class of seamen. He had, probably, left the Cadmus for no good reason. However, the treatment seems to have cured him, as on September 1 we find the entry:—'Returned Spratt to his duty at his own request, he having promised the utmost civility, attention, and obedience. Fresh breeze and head sea till midnight,' etc,
On Saturday, April 27, 1833, the good teak-built barque cleared the Sydney Heads, outward bound, and on Saturday, May 10, 1834, at 4 P.M., saw the heads of Port Jackson, and at midnight entered, with light winds from north-east.
'Sunday, May 11, 1834.—Calm; the boats towing the ship up harbour. Pilot came on board. [They had come in without one—such a trifling bit of navigation, after scraping coral reefs by the score and being close inshore, with strong current setting in, not being worth considering.] At 5 P.M. came to anchor abreast of batteries. Most of the hands went ashore.'
And here, as 'Our Jack's come home again,' let us conclude this story of an old Log-book.