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
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
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
‘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 “Île 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
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?’
’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,
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?’
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
‘Just so; are you a Frenchman?’ asked
‘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,
‘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
‘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
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 Mani 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 fía aï (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
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, Mani 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
Publisher’s Note. The
half-caste Alan mentioned in this story is the
same ‘Alan’ who so frequently figures in
Mr Becke’s tales in By Reef and Palm,
and his subsequent books.