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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p94  Chapter VII
Islands of the South Seas

The charms of the South Sea Islands have had a special vogue in our generation. The lazy delight of life on some Pacific isle, where the long rollers break on palm-fringed shores and obliging monkeys toss cocoanuts and mangosteens to world-weary travelers, has been sung again and again. But it is not the twentieth century which discovered the South Seas. In their continual voyaging in search of new products to carry to Canton, the pioneers of our commerce with the Far East came to know them well, and there was scarcely an island in all the Pacific which was not visited by an American vessel in the development of the China trade of a century and more ago.

The Marquesas were well known in the eighteenth century. Ingraham had touched there as early as 1791 and given such good American names as Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Knox, Franklin, Hancock, and Federal to the outlying group he had discovered to the northwest. Fanning had followed his trail, and a little island midway between Hawaii and the Society Islands still bears his name as a monument to Yankee ubiquity in the Pacific. The Concord also knew the Marquesas, the brig Franklin in 1800 called at the Fijis, whose treacherous coral reefs presented 'the most intricate and most dangerous navigation ever undertaken by man,' and three years later Amasa Delano called at Wake Island. The Admiralty Islands, the Caroline Islands, the Friendly Islands, New Guinea, and New Britain were familiar to the early traders. The Philippine Islands were of course known as one of the gateways to Canton, as  p95 also Guam, Tahiti, and Samoa. Whether or not they found their place on the official maps, these islands were marked on the charts of American sea captains. Trade did not wait to follow the flag. It did not wait even for formal discovery. It found its own way throughout the Pacific.

[image ALT: missingALT. He is Captain Amasa Delano, a 19c merchant sea captain who is discussed at some length in this chapter.]

The products of these isles which might be expected to appeal to the peculiar tastes of the merchants and mandarins of Canton were many and varied. There was sandalwood which could often be obtained by simple barter with the natives; tortoise-shell and mother of pearl; edible birds' nests, sharks' fins, and bêche de mer — a slimy sea slug — which the Chinese prized for their rich soups. No great trade could be expected in such strange commodities, but in the keen competition with the East India Company they offered the Yankees some chance to keep abreast of their rivals. For England's Eastern possessions afforded a source of supply for the Canton market which the Americans had had to discover for themselves.

When conditions were favorable and all went well, this South Sea trade was highly profitable. As with the Indians of the Northwest Coast, all that was necessary to put the natives to work collecting valuable cargoes was an assortment of trinkets and iron tools. Whales' teeth, hatchets and knives made at the ships' forges, glass bottles, calico, needles, nails, and looking-glasses had an invariable appeal for Fiji Islanders or Marquesans.

Sandalwood was often contracted for as at Hawaii, and on at least one occasion, the voyage of the Hope, Captain Reuben Brumely, a treaty was ceremoniously signed with a Fiji chief, who agreed not only to collect a full cargo, but to forbid any further trading until either the Hope or another vessel sent out by its owners returned. Under direction of the vessel's officers the sandalwood was cut, sawed into  p96 lengths, the bark shaved off, and the wood neatly piled on the shore ready to be taken aboard. Its cost came to about one cent a pound; at Canton it was worth thirty-four cents.

When a second vessel of the Hope's owners, the ill‑fated Tonquin which later came to grief on the Northwest Coast, returned to the Fijis, another lot of wood had been similarly prepared and the native chief was impatiently waiting the Americans' arrival. He had taken such a fancy to one of the ship's officers that he had adopted him as his son. We are told in the account of the Tonquin's voyage that the American sailor's return deeply affected the romantic islander — 'large, pearly drops rolled down his cheeks, and he was, to all appearances, quite overjoyed, and affectionately unmanned in again meeting with his adopted son!'

For bêche de mer and other South Sea products the process of obtaining a cargo was almost as simple as in the case of sandalwood. Sometimes the seamen would gather the sea slugs or birds' nests themselves, but more often the natives were ready to do so at slight cost. Bêche de mer had to be cured by boiling in pothouses on shore, then dried and stowed away in matting bags. This occasionally presented difficulties, but Edmund Fanning tells of one voyage on which he was able within ninety days to secure a cargo which at Canton was sufficient to exchange for a full lading of China goods as well as pay all port charges.

No branch of the Canton trade, however, was without its risks and hazards, and certainly that with the South Sea Islands was no exception. The Fijis especially were a point of danger, not alone because of their uncharted reefs and shoals held out the constant menace of running aground, but because not every chief was 'affectionately unmanned' in meeting Americans. The islanders were more likely in  p97 the early days of the trade to think of their visitors as tasty morsels for a cannibalistic feast, and many Yankee seamen met a fate which such of their companions as escaped Fiji treachery did not dare to dwell upon. Among other islands, and in time even at the Fijis, the American voyages were made under those idyllic conditions we associate with the South Seas, but at first every ship which picked its way among the Fiji coral reefs found itself surrounded night and day by swarms of native canoes, affording constant evidence, as Captain Fanning writes, 'that if we should be wrecked, immediate massacre was the destiny of all on board.'

One vessel to meet this fate was the brig Union. On its first voyage to the Fijis its captain and a boat's crew had been killed while ashore and the vessel itself narrowly escaped capture. On a second visit a heavy squall blew up, and before the Union could get into the open sea, it had been swept upon the reefs and completely wrecked. Every person on board was either drowned, or, if he succeeded in making his way to land, murdered by the natives.

Some years later, in 1808, the brig Eliza and the Juno, a Providence vessel, were all shipwrecked, but in each case there were survivors. Charles Savage, of the Eliza, won the confidence of the islanders and became a headman at Bau. A rough-and‑tumble foreign community had been established there by shipwrecked or deserting sailors and twenty‑six escaped convicts from New South Wales. Samuel Patterson, of the Juno, was made a slave when his vessel was wrecked, but eventually escaped to tell the story of his captivity in a little book published in 1817. Its title was 'Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Samuel Patterson, experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and many other parts of the world, with an account of the Fegee  p98 and Sandwich Islands.'​a Its authenticity and the deserving worth of the author were attested by the Reverend Timothy Merritt, of Wilbraham, and Abel Bliss, Jr., Esq., 'a Literary and Religious Character of the same place.'

The Juno ran upon the rocks off the Fiji coast near midnight of June 20, 1808. Masts and rigging were quickly cut away, and launching a longboat the crew lay beside their wreck all night in a high sea. With morning they attempted to make their way ashore, bringing with them thirty-four thousand dollars in specie from their ship's cargo. But the islanders had already learned of the wreck and were massed to greet the sailors with bows and arrows, spears, and war clubs. Resistance was hopeless, and so a bargain was struck. The natives promised the shipwrecked crew their lives in return for all their possessions, and, after stripping them even of their clothes, marched them off to a near‑by village. Their fate was to be captivity. Patterson naïvely tells us that he 'retired to a cocoanut tree, and sat down under it and gave vent to a flood of tears.'

After a time one of the chiefs took a fancy to the lamenting sailor and carried him off to a neighboring island. Patterson promptly became very ill, and being of little use to his captor under such conditions was left to lie in forlorn nakedness in an old house used for storing yams. He was given practically nothing to eat, and whenever it rained he found himself half buried in mud. Occasionally the natives would pay him a friendly visit, carefully feeling his legs with the comforting comment of 'peppa longa sar percolor en deeni' — 'white man, you are good to eat.'

For five weeks he endured this life, until one day, feeling somewhat recovered, he found a canoe and attempted to escape. It leaked so badly that he had to turn back and was almost killed by the natives when they learned of his  p99 escapade. He was thrown into his shed again and for three weeks more lay ill. Despairing of freedom, he was so 'awfully tempted with the devil' that he wanted to end his agony. Putting a piece of bark about his neck he tried to hang himself. He was too weak.

Sometime after this experience, when Patterson had again somewhat recovered his health, he was taken back to the island on which the Juno had been wrecked. Here he discovered a canoe and for the second time attempted to escape. The first sail he sighted disappeared into the distance before he could catch up with it, and he almost lost his canoe, but finally his luck turned. He happened upon the English brig Favorite, of Port Jackson, and was safely taken aboard. Patterson had lost the use of his legs as one price of his captivity, he was half dead from fatigue and almost starved, but when the English sailors gave him a chew of tobacco and a drink of grog, he tells us that he thought himself in heaven.

The Tonquin, Captain Brumely, being then at the Fijis taking on its load of sandalwood, the survivor of the Juno was transferred to this American vessel and taken to Canton. Here the United States Consul came to his aid. 'And my heart can never lose a tender affection,' wrote Patterson, 'for his great goodness to me in my bitter affliction.'

If this was the end of his adventures, it was not that of his trials and tribulations. As he was incapacitated for work as a seaman, he could find no one who would take him back to America. Even the captain of the Ann and Hope, a Providence vessel belonging to the owners of the Juno, refused him passage. Patterson's hopes had sprung high when this vessel put into Canton, and its captain's cruel reply to his request to be taken home went to his heart 'like  p100 a naked sword.' It was not until January, 1810, more than a year and a half after the Juno had been wrecked, that the stranded sailor at last found a berth on the Baltic, Captain Eborn.

'My joy I cannot describe,' Patterson wrote, but in an attempt to do so he burst into poetry, and with these verses we may leave him sailing back to Providence and to the publication of his adventures and sufferings:

'I have seen the world abroad,

Plow'd the briny ocean road;

Now my soul transported chimes,

Happy, happy native climes.

'Now I hope to see again,

Long estranged Fredonia's plain;

Mortal tongues can never show,

Pleasures like to those I know.'

Other wrecks on the Fiji Islands were those of the Oeno, a Nantucket vessel, whose entire crew were massacred in 1827, and of the Glide, a Salem ship, whose crew were spared as had been the seamen of the Juno. The story of the latter has been preserved, but it differs little from that told by Patterson except that the captured sailors were given the protection of a friendly chief. In time they were taken off by the Harriet, New York, and the barque Peru, Salem.

The grand old man of the South Sea trade seems to have been Benjamin Morrell, a Stonington sea captain who turned to trade in sandalwood and bêche de mer after his voyages throughout the Pacific in search of sealskins had proved no longer profitable. In his experiences we get not only a picture of the danger of dealing with treacherous natives, but a first glimpse of those delights of the South  p101 Sea Islands which have given them their popularity to‑day.

[image ALT: missingALT. He is Captain Benjamin Morrell, a 19c merchant sea captain who is discussed at some length in this chapter.]

Morrell sailed for the Pacific in 1829 on board the schooner Antarctica, taking his wife with him on the long voyage. This was not an altogether unusual occurrence, but Mrs. Morrell had had difficulties in winning her husband's consent. 'She bathed her pillow with tears at night, and drooped all day like a fading lily,' the obdurate sea captain tells us, and it was only fear for her health which at last persuaded him to let her accompany him. Perhaps she might better have stayed at home. Sickness and fever marked the voyage until the Antarctica took on fresh supplies at the island of Tristan da Cunha, where some time before a Yankee seaman, Jonathan Lambert, of Salem, had set himself up as king and ruled supremely for several years.​b

The Auckland Islands, New Zealand, and the New Hebrides were all visited on the voyage out, and then, heading for the Philippine Islands, Captain Morrell came upon an unknown group of islands which he named Bergh's Group. Here the natives were instructed to collect bêche de mer and mother of pearl, which the Antarctica would call for after stopping at Manila. After re‑provisioning at the Philippine Islands, this was done, but first the schooner stopped at some other islands, known as Young William's Group, and at a place which in the narrative of the voyage is called Massacre Island.

At the first islands Captain Morrell found the inspiration for some poetic passages on the beauty of the females of the South Seas. Their eyes, he wrote, were 'sparkling like jet beads swimming in liquid enamel! . . . lips of just the proper thickness for affection's kiss. . . and I believe that I could have spanned . . . their naked waists with both my hands . . . imagination must complete the bewitching portrait; I will only add the shade — their skin was a light  p102 copper color.' Perhaps it is needless to add that Mrs. Morrell had been left temporarily in Manila.

But the loveliness of the women did not prevent the men from being cruel and treacherous. The Antarctica barely escaped capture at Young William's Group, and at Massacre Island had an even worse experience. Trade for bêche de mer was started, and Captain Morrell set up his drying-sheds on the shore, and also a forge where the schooner's armorer might make the iron hoops and axes which the natives sought in exchange for gathering sea slugs. On board ship full precautions were taken against any possible attack. Sentinels were always posted, the men all armed, cannon and swivel-guns loaded with grape and canister, battle lanterns kept at hand, and in the arrow-proof cross-trees men stood to their guns with lighted matches. But all seemed to be friendly. Then one day a shore party was suddenly surrounded by three hundred painted savages with bows and war clubs.

A whaleboat was promptly sent to their rescue, but the natives had surprised the men on shore away from their guns, and in the bitter fight before the boat's arrival it was war clubs against cutlasses. Fourteen of the twenty‑one men on shore fell before the attack, and of the seven who fought their way to the whaleboat as it landed in the surf, four were badly wounded and the others almost overcome by exhaustion. They put back to their ship, but the natives as quickly jumped into their canoes and followed the retreating Americans with showers of arrows. Not until the whaleboat came within range of the Antarctica's guns could the natives be driven off, and even then Captain Morrell did not know whether he could save the ship if an attack was made in force.

As there was no wind and the schooner lay becalmed,  p103 nothing could be done but prepare for every emergency. Orders were given that should the natives gain the deck, the magazine should be fired. Fortunately things did not reach this extremity. The natives returned to shore, and instead of fighting off an attack, the crew of the Antarctica had the even more harrowing experience of lying becalmed and helpless while they watched the natives roasting before immense fires the flesh of those of their companions who had been killed on shore.

Captain Morrell could not revenge the death of his men with such a weakened crew, but returning to the Philippine Islands he added a force of Manilamen to the nineteen surviving Americans and immediately returned. This time he anchored off the native village and without warning opened a general attack with full fire of all the cannon, swivel-guns, and muskets which the Antarctica commanded. Ten minutes of this cannonade and the village was leveled. One lone survivor of the first attack was rescued, a man named Leonard Shaw, who had seen the cannibals eating the flesh of his companions and himself been tortured and half-starved, expecting hourly to be roasted in his turn.

It seems almost impossible to believe, but an attempt was then made to renew the trade which had met such a tragic interruption. An improvised fortress was built on shore, and with that protection the seamen once again began to collect bêche de mer and to cure it in their drying-sheds. But they were constantly harassed by the natives and had to be on continual guard. The work could not go on successfully, and at last Captain Morrell admitted himself defeated and gave up all hope of collecting a cargo.

For a while he continued to cruise about the South Seas and discovered some new islands which he felt confident would yield the products he sought for the Canton market.  p104 For some reason, however, he made no attempt at this time to open trade, but instead returned to America. With him he took two natives, called Sunday and Monday, as proof of his mysterious discovery, and in a few years he had persuaded some New York merchants to put him in command of another venture to the Far Pacific.

His new ship was the Margaret Oakley, which sailed from New York in 1834. It carried as a special passenger Thomas Jefferson Jacobs, whose account of Captain Morrell's adventures takes up the story where Morrell himself leaves off.

When the Margaret Oakley reached tropical Australasia, its captain became secretive and mysterious. No one should know the bearings of his islands and all the ship's nautical instruments were carefully locked up to prevent any of the officers or crew from taking observations. When they at last came upon the first of them, it was the isle of dreams, whether of the nineteenth century or the twentieth.

'Not a sound broke the solemn stillness,' Jacobs wrote, 'save the murmuring of the surf upon the beach and the carolling of birds among the verdure of the paradisiacal garden that almost hung over the vessel, shading us with its dense and lofty foliage.' The trade winds were cool and invigorating; the pure, transparent waters of the lagoons flashed with fish; tropical fruits grew in abundance, falling into the hands of the happy sailors; and the friendly natives, freed of all artificial restraints and knowing no wants, led lives which were a continual round of enjoyment.

'Who would change such a life,' asked Jacobs, 'for the toils, and cares, and constant miseries of a moneyed slave?' This was in 1844.

It was a life which Captain Morrell at least could not resist very well. He seems to have forgotten all about the  p105 owners of the Margaret Oakley and to have cruised happily and leisurely about his new‑found islands. It was many months before he managed to collect a cargo and carry out his original plans of going to Canton. But once in that port, he called the crew together and regretfully told them that now the romance of the voyage was over, the Margaret Oakley was no longer a pleasure ship sailing about the South Seas according to whim and fancy, but a practical, matter-of‑fact merchantman.

At this point Jacobs left the vessel to proceed directly home and the Margaret Oakley quietly but effectively disappeared. Its owners never learned of its fate and mysterious legends floated about concerning Captain Morrell and the South Sea colony he was supposed to have founded.

They were not quite true. Years later, Jacobs was visited by one of his old shipmates and learned the real story of the fate of the Margaret Oakley and its captain. The vessel had not returned to its idyllic islands, but had sailed for home and been wrecked off the coast of Madagascar while most of the crew were ashore. Captain Morrell had accepted this misadventure as the hand of Fate. Without reporting to his owners, he had taken passage on another ship bound back to the South Seas. Somewhere en route he died.

Thayer's Notes:

a The book is online in facsimile, at Archive.Org.

[decorative delimiter]

b Be that as it may, Lambert had died in 1812 and Tristan da Cunha had fallen under permanent British control in 1815, fourteen years before the incident related here. For the details — from a British point of view — of Lambert's control of the island (1810‑1812) see M. M. Mackay, Angry Island, pp30‑32, and for his death under suspicious circumstances, the next chapter of the same book, p33. For the warm hospitality extended to Captain Morrell by the British inhabitants in 1829, see p71.

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