An Adventure in the New Hebrides by Louis Becke
More than twenty years ago a fine young Polynesian half-caste, named Alan, and the writer, were running a small trading cutter out of Samoa, among the low-lying atolls of the Ellice and Tokelau groups, in the South Pacific. We had hauled her up on the beach to clean and put a few sheets of copper on her, when, one day, a big, bronze-faced man came to us, and asked us if we were open to a charter to Santo in the New Hebrides. After a few minutes' conversation we struck a bargain, the terms of which were to take him, his native wife, three servants, and twenty tons of trade goods to his trading station on Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, for six hundred dollars. He was an ex-trading skipper, but had given up the sea, married a Hervey Island half-caste, and, after trading some years in the Caroline and Marshall groups, had made a trip to the New Hebrides, where he had gone into partnership with a Frenchman, who, like himself, was a sailor man, and had settled down on Santo. Hannah--for that was his name--had then returned to the Carolines for his family, and brought them to Samoa, from whence he thought he could get a passage down to the New Hebrides in one of the two German brigs then engaged in the Kanaka labour trade--'black-birding,' as it was called. But one, the Iserbrook had been burnt in Sydney Harbour, and the other was away at Valparaiso.
But now arose a difficulty. I was not navigator enough to take the vessel to Santo--a distance of thirteen hundred miles--let alone beat her back to Samoa against the south-east trades. This, however, Captain Hannah soon settled. He agreed to navigate us down, and his partner would come back with me, as his wife, who was a Samoan woman, wanted to pay a visit to her native country, and our vessel would afford her an excellent opportunity; his own services in bringing the cutter back to Samoa to be 'squared' by free passages for himself and wife.
My partner Alan was quite satisfied. The big man planked down two hundred and fifty dollars on account, and we shook hands all round. Hannah was a quiet, silent sort of fellow, but I knew we should get on all right, for he came down to us next morning with his people, helped us heave the cutter off the beach, and covered our decks with pigs and poultry. That afternoon we got our wood and water aboard, and were ready for sea at daylight.
Alan was a splendid type of a man. Brought up to the sea from his childhood, he had served some years as a boat-steerer on American whale-ships, then with 'Bully' Hayes as boatswain in the notorious Rona brig; and a finer seaman never walked a deck. He was very proud of the English blood in his veins, and always talking of the exploits of his father, who had served with the gallant Cochrane in the Chilian navy. At sea he was a man for emergencies--quick, resolute, resourceful and sober. On shore, with money in his pocket, he descended to the level of the lowest beach-comber, and was always in trouble for thumping somebody--generally another half-caste or a policeman. Peace to his bones! He went to a sailor's death long ago; but the writer of this narrative will never forget the dark, handsome face, laughter-filled eyes, and cheery voice of the best shipmate with whom he ever sailed.
We put to sea with a fine breeze, and running between the islands of Upolu and Savai'i, were out of sight of land by dusk. There were but thirteen persons all told on board--our seven passengers, Alan, four native sailors, and myself--but we were in no wise crowded for room, for the hold was used as a sleeping-place by Captain Hannah's wife, her two children and three servants. Mats had been spread over the cargo, and the weather being fine, the hatch was left open from the time we left Samoa nearly till we reached Santo.
The south-east trade wind held steadily, and the little vessel, being clean and in fine trim, ran along at a great rate, till, on the sixth day out, when we had just sighted Pentecost Island, one of the New Hebrides group, it died away, and at sunset we were becalmed. All that night the air was close and muggy, but towards dawn a faint air came from the westward. During the night the strong current had carried us in ten or twelve miles nearer to the shore, and at sunrise we were not more than six miles from the land. Pentecost, from the treachery of its savage inhabitants, had always borne a bad reputation; and so, as the cutter still continued to drift shorewards, Alan, Captain Hannah and myself thought it just as well to be prepared for any canoes that might attempt to cut us off. (As-a matter of fact, however, we need not have been under any alarm in this respect, for although the Pentecost natives were, and are now, a thoroughly bad lot, as the surveying vessels of the Australian Squadron know to their cost, they would never attempt to cut off a vessel unless she were anchored. But no one of we white men knew much of the New Hebrides.) So as we had plenty of arms on board--Winchesters and Sharp's rifles--We got them in readiness; and very fortunate it was that we did so.
We drifted steadily along the densely-wooded shores of Pentecost all that day, the sea as smooth as glass, and the pitch bubbling up in the decks from the intense heat. Towards sunset, Captain Hannah's wife, who was lying on the skylight with her youngest child, called out to us that she could see a boat or canoe on the starboard beam. Hannah and I at once got our glasses, and soon made out a boat, pulling five oars, coming towards us from the island, and not more than a couple of miles away.
As she came nearer, and lifted now and then to the swell, we obtained a better view, and saw there were six people in her--five pulling and one steering. They came along very leisurely.
'Shipwrecked people, I imagine,' said Hannah; and then, turning to Alan and myself, he added, with a laugh, 'Perhaps there's a fine big lump of a ship ashore about here, and you fellows are bound to get some fine pickings--might get the ship herself afloat.'
In ten minutes or so a bit of a light air came over the water, and filled our sails, so we stood over towards the boat, which was now drawing close. Presently one of our native sailors hailed us from aloft, and said he could see four or five more men in the boat besides those who were pulling; and at the same time she ceased rowing awhile, then the oars dipped again, and she came on.
Suddenly Hannah, who was scanning the strange boat very closely, turned to me quietly and said, 'I don't like the looks of that boat. We had better not let them come alongside. Perhaps they're escapees from New Caledonia. I thought so at first--they've got the regular "Ile Nou stroke." If they try to board we must beat them off, or we may lose the ship.'
Realising the danger, we at once called the native hands aft, gave each man a loaded Sharp's rifle and half a dozen cartridges, and told him to lay it down handy on the deck, and be prepared to use it. Hannah's wife at once began loading our five Winchester rifles. By this time the boat was within a hundred yards of the cutter. Whether those in her saw what we were doing or not I do not know, but they came on very confidently.
Then, getting up on the rail, I hailed, 'Boat ahoy, there! Don't come any nearer, or we'll fire into you. What do you want?'
There was a sudden commotion among the rowers, and then Hannah and Alan, coming to the rail, stood beside me with their Winchesters in their hands. This display had a good effect, for they stopped pulling at once, and the man steering stood up. The moment I got a full view of him and heard him speak, I knew that Hannah was right about the identity of the strangers.
'We are a ship-a-wreck men,' he called out; 'we wanta water and provis'.'
'Well, pull abeam or us to windward, but don't come alongside just yet.'
'All right,' was the answer.
The wind was very light, and the boat could have soon overtaken us, but we felt confident that, with the arms we possessed, we could easily beat them off if they tried to board. At the same time we were willing to give them some provisions, and such other assistance as lay in our power.
After talking the matter over with Hannah, I again hailed the boat, and told the steersman that he could come aboard, but that the rest of his crowd must keep to the boat.
Hauling our jib to windward, we let them range alongside, and the steersman jumped on deck. During the few minutes that the boat was waiting, we had a good look at her and her occupants. The former, I could see, was German-built, very long, narrow and heavy, and was lumbered up with a quantity of fresh coco-nuts, yams, taro and other native food. As for the crew, they were as suspicious and as desperate-looking a lot of scarecrows as could be imagined.
Some of them were dressed in the heavy woollen garments usually worn by German merchant seamen, but half a dozen of them were wearing the yellow-grey canvas trousers of the New Caledonian convict. As I looked down at them Alan pointed out to me the muzzles of three or four short rifles showing from beneath the edge of a ragged native mat which was spread over the bottom boards for'ard. They had evidently spent the night on shore, for some of them, who were wearing cloth caps, had made themselves peaked sunshades of plaited green coco-nut leaves, which were tied round their heads, native-fashion. Lying amidships was a good-sized water-breaker; and one of the gang, a little, hooknosed ruffian, with a villainous face and wearing a filthy print shirt with the tails outside his pants, kept tapping it with a piece of wood to show us by the hollow sound that it was empty.
'Pass it up on deck, you monkey-faced swine,' said Alan. 'Why didn't you fill it when you were ashore?'
'We no finda water,' said the leader; 'we looka two, tree day--no finda, and too many -------- nigger on shore shoota us all the time witha-bow-anda-arra.'
'Well, you've got some guns there, I see. Couldn't you keep the niggers off while a couple of you filled the breaker?' I asked. 'And there's plenty of water on Pentecost, I believe.'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'Of what-a good the gun? We no have the cartridge. Perhaps you give some--feefty, twenty, ten, eh?'
Alan, who was a bit of a humorist, answered that we would give him as many cartridges as he wanted, if he gave us all the rifles he had in the boat in exchange.
A scowl--which he tried to twist into a smile--flitted across his face, and he turned his head away.
Giving the crowd in the boat a long line, we veered them astern, and as the breeze was now freshening, the cutter slipping through the water pretty fast, and we felt safe, Hannah, Alan and myself turned our undivided attention to our visitor. He was a tall, squarely-built fellow of about fifty years of age, with a thick stubble of iron-grey beard covering his cheeks and chin, and his forehead and neck were burnt to the colour of dark leather by the rays of a tropic sun. He was dressed in a pea-jacket and dungaree pants, but had no boots.
'Sit down,' I said, c and tell us what we can do for you. But take a glass of grog first.'
He drank the liquor eagerly, first bowing to Mrs Hannah and then to us all in turn, and at the same time taking a sweeping glance along the deck at our crew, who were grouped for'ard. As he raised his hand to his mouth I saw that the back of it was much tattooed.
'Where did you lose your ship?' I asked.
'Astrolaba Reefa,' he answered quickly, 'three hundreda mila to south-a-ward.'
'What was her name?'
'The Airdale,' he replied glibly. 'Belonga to Liverpool--fine biga ship. We bound to Pam in New Caledonia to load chroma ore, and run ashore on dark night. Ship break up very quick'--and then he spun off the rest of his yarn, and a very plausible one it was, too. The ship, he said, was not injured much at first, and on the following morning the captain, with the second mate and four hands, had left in one of the boats for Pam to get assistance. The first mate, bos'un and three hands were drowned. After waiting for ten days on the wreck the rest of the crew took to the long boat, for bad weather came on, and the ship began to pound on the reef.
'But what are you doing here so far to the northward?' asked Hannah, in his slow, drawling tones. 'Why didn't you steer for New Caledonia? You were only two days' sail to there from Astrolabe Reefs. Now you are three hundred miles to the north.'
The man was a marvellous liar. Yes, he said, that was true, but 'Goda help him,' he would 'speaka true.' He and the nine men with him did not want to go to New Caledonia, and did not want to have anything more to do with the captain, who was a very 'harda' man, and so they had stood to the northward, meaning to land on one of the New Hebrides.
'What was the captain's name?'
'Smeeth--Captain Johna Smeeth. Belonga to Liverpool.'
'Are you one of the ship's officers?'
'I am carpenter,' he answered promptly. 'I all the time sail in Englisha ship.'
'Just so; are you a Frenchman?' asked Hannah, casually.
'No; I come from Barcelon'.'
'Well,' I said, 'I hope you will get along all right in your boat, wherever you go. I'll give you a 50-lb. tin of biscuits, some tinned meats, and as much water as you can take.'
He thanked me effusively, and said he would remember me in his prayers to the Virgin, etc.
'Have you a compass?' I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders despairingly. No, they had no compass; the 'gooda Goda must be compass' for them.
Mani, Hannah's wife, who was sitting near us, with her youngest child on her lap, apparently taking no heed of our talk, held the infant up and smiled; and, as if speaking to it, said in Samoan,--
'He lies. I saw a boat compass in the stern sheets of the boat.'
'Well, I'm sorry I can't give you a compass,' I said. 'Alan, pass up a tin of biscuit and a case of meat. The breeze is freshening, and we must get along.'
Then our visitor made an earnest appeal. His boat was leaky, his comrades were worn out, yet if we would let them come aboard they would, after a little rest, tow the cutter in a calm, and not trouble us in any way. Then, when we sighted Santo, they would leave us and make for Leper's Island, which was the place they wanted to reach. The natives there were very friendly, and there were some white men there.
'No,' I said, 'our vessel is too small for so many people. If you follow Pentecost along to the north, you will sight Leper's Island as soon as you round the north point. Now, haul your boat alongside. And here are a couple of bottles of brandy for yourself and crew, some matches, and a small box of tobacco.'
The boat hauled alongside, and our visitor, again thanking us, got in. In a few minutes we saw their leader serving them out a nip; then the night blotted them from view.
At daylight we were again becalmed and drifting steadily to the northward. The boat was not in sight, and the only signs of life visible around us were some slender columns of smoke ascending from the native villages along the coast, which was less than three miles away. The heat at ten o'clock was intense, and, to add to our discomfort, a heavy swell set in and caused us to roll incessantly. However, we lowered our mainsail, tried to be philosophical, and waited for a breeze. Towards four in the afternoon a sharp rain squall swept down upon us from the land; it lasted barely ten minutes, and was followed by others at short intervals, and then we knew we were in for a night of it. Whenever one of these squalls came tearing over the water we made good use of the wind by running before it to the east, so as to get away from the land; but at midnight we found we were still a great deal too close; and that the current was very strong, and now setting in-shore very rapidly, we could tell by the sound of the surf. There was nothing for us but to tow off, for the water was too deep to anchor, even within thirty fathoms of the reef. Just as we got the boat over the side there came a tremendous downpour of rain, and we could only make ourselves heard by shouting to each other at the top of our voices. This continued for half an hour, and through it all, the boat, with Alan and three hands, continued to tow. Suddenly the rain ceased--for about five minutes--only to fall again with a deafening uproar. At two o'clock it toned down to a misty drizzle, and we called to Alan to come alongside, as Hannah, two of his natives and myself would give him a spell. The rain had beaten the swell down, but the current was terribly strong, and when the mist lifted a bit we saw we were still too close to the reef. After taking a cast of the lead, and finding no bottom, Hannah and his two natives and myself tumbled into the boat. We had just about tautened the tow-line when Alan's voice rang out.
'Boat ahoy! Come back, quick, for God's sake! Here's the Frenchmen coming!'
We backed alongside and jumped on board, just in time; for almost at the same moment the Frenchmen's boat came up with a rush, and half a dozen men sprang on to our decks and instantly closed with us. The rest would have followed, but the ever-ready Mani began firing into their boat with a Winchester. This kept them off. Had they, too, gained the deck we should probably have lost the ship. The struggle on board was short but sharp. Hannah, who was possessed of enormous strength, had seized the first man who jumped over the rail round his waist, and slung him clean across the deck against the port bulwarks, were he lay stunned; and then went for the next man, whom he knocked backward into the boat with a terrific blow. Meanwhile, Alan, two native sailors and myself, where tied up in a knot with three others on the port side. It was so dark that it was impossible to tell friend from foe at first; and one of our hands, a Savage Islander, named Puniola, was just about to put a knife into me, as he, two of the boarders and myself were struggling together, when by chance he felt the big square buckle of my leather belt and recognised me. He quickly let go of me, seized one of the convicts by the throat, and choked him into insensibility, and we soon quietened one of the other two by the same method. The third man, who was as wiry as an eel and as strong as a horse, fought desperately, knocked two of us down, and was then himself laid out by Hannah, who had come to our assistance. Poor Alan, however, had fared badly; for the leader of the gang had half-stunned him with a weapon of some sort, and we found him lying across the cutter's tiller, bleeding profusely from a cut on the head. His assailant, seeing that the attempt to capture the ship had failed, jumped overboard and swam to his boat, which was drifting near to us in the darkness.
As quickly as possible we got lights and examined the gentry lying about on the deck. One of them was still unconscious, the rest were pretty badly mauled about in the tussle; and ManÓ suggested that we had better drop them overboard to save further trouble. Her blood was up, and she was full of fight; but Hannah merely laughed, and told her not to be such a pun fia ai (tiger cat).
Showing a light, we hailed the Frenchmen's boat, and told them to come alongside again.
'If you don't look smart we'll drop these five men overboard. So hurry up.'
The gentleman from 'Barcelon'--who was certainly possessed of inimitable cheek--after telling us to go to Hades, added that he had but one oar in the boat, the others had gone adrift. So we had to dump our prisoners into our own boat, and pull out to the other. Then, while Alan and I covered those in the Frenchmen's boat, Hannah and two hands flung our prisoners out of our boat into their own. Their leader took matters very coolly, cursed his returning comrades freely as cowards, and then had the face to ask us for some oars.
Then Hannah, who, we now found, spoke French, boiled over. Jumping into the other boat, he seized the gentleman from Barcelona by the throat with his left hand and rapidly pounded his face into a pulp with his right.
Whilst Hannah was taking his satisfaction out of the big man, we struck some matches and examined the rest of the crowd in the boat. One man, we saw, was badly wounded, ManÔ having sent two bullets through his right shoulder and one through his thigh; another had his cheek cut open, but whether this was caused by a bullet or not I could not tell. I, being young and green, felt very pitiful and wanted Hannah to bring the badly-wounded man on board; but he, like a sensible man, said he would see me hanged first, and that we ought to shoot the lot of them.
But, anyway, we gave them three oars, and then pushed clear of their boat just as another rain squall came seething along.
At dawn we saw them, about two miles abeam of us, pulling slowly in towards Pentecost.
We heard afterwards that they were sighted by the Sydney steamer Ripple Captain Ferguson, off Torres Island, in the Banks Group. Most probably they abandoned the idea of stopping at Leper's Island, where they would not be safe from recapture by the French cruisers, and were then making for the Solomons. But that they ever reached there is doubtful; or, if they did, they were probably eaten by the natives. The boat, we heard, they had captured from a German vessel loading nickel ore at one of north-eastern ports of New Caledonia, and they had then raided a small settlement on the coast and obtained some arms and provisions. Long afterwards I was told that their leader was a sailor who was serving a life sentence for killing his mistress at La Ciotat, in the South of France.
It is quite possible, however, that they may have been picked up by an American whale-ship making northwards to the Moluccas from the New Zealand ground. In those days there were quite thirty ships still remaining of the once great American whaling fleet, which traversed the Pacific from one end to the other.