BY JAMES NORMAN HALL
MAN has long been a seagoing animal, and I have no doubt that if the recorded tales of his misadventures at sea were to be gathered together in one place the building to house them would cover an area larger than that occupied by the British Museum or the United States Congressional Library. As for the unrecorded tales, the air exhaled in vocal narratives by the shipwrecked must equal, in cubic content, the earth’s atmosphere as far as the stratosphere, or that, in violent motion, which has piled vessels on lee shores since the dawn of maritime adventure.
Why then, it may be asked, do I add another bit of superfluous salvage to the enormous mountain heaped up by my predecessors in shipwreck? I can find no adequate reason for doing so. I will merely say, in apology, that one’s first experience of shipwreck seems, somehow, unique, different from the experiences of others, and, I believe, would open up an unsuspected seam of garrulity in the most monosyllabic of men. Of a sudden he is gifted — not, like the Ancient Mariner, with a strange power of speech, but only with a strange and deplorable need for it; and, to carry unlikeness further, he stoppeth, not one of three, but all three, and as many more as he can persuade into listening to his tale. So, I fear, I mean to do, but I take comfort in the thought that no auditor of our times need be in the position of the wedding guest who could not choose but hear.
To begin at the beginning of this affair, I must go back one hundred and forty-six years, to a day late in December 1787, when His Majesty’s armed transport, Bounty, sailed from Spithead for the island of Tahiti, in the South Sea. The Bounty’s errand, it will be remembered, was to collect a cargo of young breadfruit trees for transportation to the English plantations in the West Indies, where, it was hoped, the trees would thrive, providing a cheap and perpetual supply of food for the slaves of the planters.
Copyright 1934, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
The results of that expedition are too well known to require retelling here. Every English-speaking schoolboy has at least heard of the Bounty mutiny. ‘Ill-fated,’ shopworn though it be, is certainly the term to be applied to that vessel and her breadfruit voyage. It is possible that Captain Bligh may have had a premonition of disaster on the morning of December 23, when, after long delays, he at last saw the cliffs of England vanishing in the mists astern; but, whatever his misgivings, they could not have carried him, in thought, close to a century and a half into the future. He could not have fancied that one James N. Hall would say (or, rather, think), as he clung to the starboard rail of a two-masted, ninety-ton schooner, at three o’clock of a pitch-black night in September 1933, while the vessel pounded with appalling violence on a coral reef: ‘I have Captain William Bligh to thank for this!’
Nevertheless, that is what I did think at about 3.10 A.M. on that day, and the realization brought the only trickle of risible juice I was able to extract from the situation. A deal of blame was heaped upon Captain Bligh’s head during his lifetime, and more has been mounded up over his ashes these past six generations. It is with reluctance that I add a small burden of responsibility to this memorial mountain. As I place it gently there, ‘Sir,’ I say, ‘forgive me. Though the responsibility is yours, I well know that you were not guilty of malice aforethought.’
Then I hear, or seem to hear, a short, harsh, explosive, mirthless laugh issuing from somewhere beneath the centre of the mound. ‘Damme, sir!’ comes the reply. ‘Have no compunctions. Lay on what you will — more if you like. I’m used to it.’
I wish that I had something of Captain Bligh’s direct and forthright nature. He would say that I have no clearer conception of a straightforward course in a narrative than ‘that mutinous rogue,’ Fletcher Christian, had of his duty to his commander or his King. Nevertheless, though I know that he would heartily disapprove and condemn, I must proceed in my own way, with, perhaps, a deal of backing and filling. Furthermore, since I am writing this tale, in part at least, to while away the hours and the days following shipwreck on an uninhabited island, I see no reason why I should not be as leisurely in method as I choose; and it interests me to trace back some of the delicate threads of Chance which drew me, as though with the strength of wire cables, to this tiny atoll in the mid-Pacific, three hundred miles from Pitcairn Island, nine hundred miles from Tahiti, and geologic years, it seems, from the day in the late autumn of 1916 when I first became interested in the story of the Bounty mutiny.
Paris was the place where this strongest thread of Chance seized me round. I was then learning to fly at the French Bleriot school at Buc, near Versailles, and had already made my first ‘hop’ of several hundred metres in a Bleriot equipped with a 25-horsepower Anzani engine, the same type of plane in which Monsieur Bleriot himself had made his flight across the English Channel in the summer of 1909. Curiously enough, I was spending a holiday in England at the time of that first Channel flight, and I well remember going to Selfridge’s store, in London, where the plane in which Monsieur Bleriot had made it was placed on exhibition. I remember, too, the steady stream of Englishmen who passed before the little ship, gazing at it in silence — thoughtfully, soberly. Where now was Britain’s isolation? Of a sudden the Channel moat seemed narrow indeed — a mere thread of shining water. It was a memorable day. I too had more than a vague realization of its significance, and, as I stood before that frail contraption of wires and ribs and linen fabric, I was conscious of a feeling of mingled uneasiness and disapproval. Not only the English Channel, but the world as a globe, seemed to have shrunk perceptibly; it was nothing like so large as it had appeared to me a few days earlier when I was biking southward from Scotland, thinking of anything but aeroplanes. I peered apprehensively into the future, but my misgivings at that time were by no means so strong as they should have been. I saw there a world unquestionably smaller, whirling about the sun, but it was not the wrinkled pea we now inhabit, where humanity jostles elbows, wrangling with and snarling at one another, fighting for standing room, and all the while engaged in perverse efforts to make it smaller still.
Least of all, as I stood in Selfridge’s sumptuous emporium, did I see myself, seven years and three months later, walking the streets of Paris, a half-fledged Blériot pilot. I was a happy man that gray autumnal afternoon. Had I not made my first flight? Was I not in the process of becoming a pilote de chasse in the French Air Service? Meanwhile I had forgotten, for the moment, the plight of Mother Earth, or, better, that of her misguided and multitudinous children.
Youth learning to fly in these days can know little, I fancy, of the keen delight of the youth of 1916, trying their wings for the first time. The conquest of the air was then so startlingly recent, and nothing of the bloom had been lost from our sense of the strangeness and wonder of the achievement. And then, too, there was the war in the background, just beyond horizons which we could push back at will — widen and enlarge in a few moments of soaring flight. The Great War! We were all bound for it as soon as we had learned to fly. Small wonder that many of us thought of it in terms of adventure, and, in more reflective moments, as the beginning of a new world rather than as the annihilation of an old and better one.
Paris could never have worn her autumnal weeds with a more pensive and becoming grace than she did on that November afternoon. The pavements were wet, shimmering softly in the gray light, and the voice of the streets was the mingled intermittent toot of taxi horns — those chugging little taxis that had helped to win the first Battle of the Marne. As I turned into Brentano’s bookshop (or was it that of W. H. Smith and Son?) I paused to look back through a drizzle that was becoming something much damper; then, entering the shop, I asked an attendant whether he could tell me of any volumes of verse by an Irishman named Francis Ledwidge. A few days earlier I had read, in an English newspaper, a poem by this to me unknown writer, which began: —
My love should mend and sew no more;
But I would buy her a little quern
Easy to turn on the kitchen floor;
And, for her windows, curtains white
With birds in flight and flowers in bloom,
Gaily to front the road to town
And mellow down the sunlit room.
This had convinced me that I wanted to read more of Francis Ledwidge’s verse if it was obtainable. But the attendant could tell me nothing of him, which was not strange at that time; so I loafed about the shop, picking up volumes at random, adding fragments to a large store of literature pilfered in this fashion. Presently I found myself in front of a shelf of small cloth-covered volumes — the World’s Classics series of the Oxford Press. The Mutiny of the Bounty, one of the titles read. I recalled having read something concerning that episode in English maritime history. I remembered Captain Bligh, and that Pitcairn Island was the refuge of the mutineers, but this was about the extent of my knowledge.
The volume I took from the shelf was Sir John Barrow’s narrative, first published in 1831: a clear, factual account of the breadfruit expedition, the long sojourn at Tahiti, the mutiny and the chapters of consequences. My interest was immediately engaged and held, to such an extent that I bought the volume to carry with me back to Buc.
A boyhood interest in the islands of ‘the great South Sea,’ as it was called in George the Third’s time, was thus reawakened, and I promised myself that, if I should survive the war, I would visit the archipelagoes toward which I felt particularly drawn: the Society Islands, the Marquesas, the Tuamotu Group, the Cook Group, and the Australs. And, further, that if an opportunity to visit Pitcairn Island should present itself, I would by no means let it pass.
Two years later I was again on leave, in Paris, where I met a fellow countryman and fellow airman whose wishes, with respect to the South Seas, coincided with my own. The war was ended, the Armistice signed, and we were awaiting orders for home.
Meanwhile, we discussed plans for the future, now that a future seemed reasonably certain. But what kind of future would it be? We were none too sanguine as we discussed the matter. The moment of hope, of splendid opportunity, when, it seemed, humanity was in truth about to take a new turning, — to profit by the mistakes of the past, — had come and gone. There were the statesmen, at Versailles, led by the Tiger, sowing dragon’s teeth, and tiger’s teeth, to every corner of the habitable world. How soon would the harvest be? We believed that we should see it and continue to see and partake of it to the end of our days, and our children after us. ‘Our best course,’ said my friend, ‘is to retire as far as possible from the mess and muddle to come.’
I agreed. We were neither of us conceited enough to believe that our joint disapproval of the Peace Conference proceedings could affect them in any way, or that the mess to come would be any the less messy if we should be struggling in the midst of it. A discreet withdrawal before we should be sucked into the bog seemed a sensible proceeding, and what better refuge could we find than on some remote island in the Pacific?
My friend was an amateur in the literature of South Sea exploration and travel, and he put me in the way of many a fascinating volume — in particular, those concerned with Polynesia. Meanwhile we had arrived at home, to discover that the war was far from ended in many sections of the U. S. A. So fiercely did the winds of hatred yet blow that the Teutonic blood in the body politic was still flowing, perforce, in secret subterranean channels. And there seemed to be a kind of hysteria everywhere, a natural reaction, perhaps, to the sudden release from the strain of war.
My friend urged me on to the point of joining him in making definite plans for departure, but another six months was to pass before we were ready to leave. By that time the army of Babbitts, as yet unnamed, was gathering numbers and impetus and confidence. They were organizing their battalions, and their leaders were beginning to shout the ecstatic battle cries from the fortieth-floor windows of Chambers of Commerce. ‘Produce — Consume!’ was gathering currency as the watchword, and the word ‘SERVICE,’ in capital letters, was used to describe the latest brand of commercial ethics. Presidents of universities, attended by trustees and boards of regents, were laying the corner stones of the sumptuous palaces to house the Schools of Business Administration where, among others, would be taught the new economic doctrine that thrift was no longer a virtue, and that those who failed to consume more to-day than they had yesterday were enemies of the state.
My friend and I were more than ever convinced that the Golden Gate would be a beautiful sight viewed from the stern of a vessel bound in a southwesterly direction across the Pacific. Therefore we hastily packed our bags, and, late in January 1920, we were outward bound, with Tahiti as our destination.
I will now pass over twelve years as rapidly as, in truth, they seem to have passed. They were years of pure gain, and, as I looked back over them, my only regret was that I could not promise myself a cycle of lustres to be spent in the same quiet way. I had ample time for the pleasures of reading and reflection, and to make a belated start at raising a family. I had time, as well, for those periods of reverie so refreshing to the spirit; one comes out of them feeling renewed, reborn, and seems to leave behind a scaly integument like the cast-off skin of a snake.
To return to Captain Bligh and the rest of the Bounty’s company, they had been often in my thoughts during these years. My home, on the island of Tahiti, was within a quarter of an hour’s walk of One-Tree Hill, which encloses the western side of Matavai Bay, where the Bounty had first anchored. A five minutes’ walk in the opposite direction would bring me to the place of her second anchorage, where she had lain during the early part of the austral summer, and so accurate was Bligh’s chart of that bit of coast line that I could paddle to the precise spot in the lagoon where the ship had swung gently at moorings over her mirrored reflection. Near by flowed the small spring-fed stream where the casks had been filled before the departure for the West Indies and home, as they then thought, with the cargo of more than two thousand young breadfruit trees, in tubs.
My house stands at the entrance to a little valley between these two points, within fifty paces of the lagoon beach; and many an afternoon, as I sat on my verandah, I had only to close my eyes to see Captain Bligh striding along the strip of foreshore on one of his multitudinous errands. He must have made many journeys back and forth, past the very spot, and, in doing so, seemed to have left something of himself there: an impalpable dust of energy to mingle with the rich volcanic soil; a spiritual hardness and stubbornness, so to speak, which appeared to have lacquered, among others, a great boulder in my back yard, giving it increased resistance to the weathering action of wind and rain. As for Fletcher Christian, I felt his presence, his mercurial spirit, variously: sometimes on sunny mornings, when the sea was as blue and placid as the sky; but more often on nights of tempestuous weather, when the chafing limbs of the purau trees groaned and complained, and the broad leaves of plantains were frayed and tattered by the wind.
Yes, mine was an excellent vantage point for viewing, not alone the principals in the Bounty tragedy, but the other members of the company as well: the skylarking midshipmen; Mr. Huggan, the hard-drinking surgeon, who was to leave his alcoholic carcass on the island, to inebriate the very soil for a hundred yards around; Purcell, the carpenter, who was, apparently, an inferior Bligh in character and temper, and who was to have his inferiority pointed out to him so unmistakably during the open-boat voyage to Timor; Mr. Cole, the boatswain, whom I saw invariably as a broad-shouldered, powerfully built man, rather below middle stature, with a rugged, kindly face, and a disposition as gentle and forbearing as his character as a seaman was trustworthy. Officers and men alike, they passed and repassed along the Arue beach, with the glamorous aura of far-awayand-long-ago enveloping each one, and none of them knowing what I knew: that, within a few weeks’ time, they were to be scattered far and wide over the Pacific, to meet ends as various as the points of the compass to which they were dispersed.
But Pitcairn was still unvisited. In the imagination, I seemed to know it as intimately as I knew the decks of the Bounty and the men who had trod them, but I longed to go there in the flesh. Although the island is but little more than twelve hundred miles from Tahiti, it is rare, in these days, that an opportunity for direct communication presents itself. I had been compelled to pass by two such opportunities, widely separated. I resolved that the third — should there be a third — would find me attached to it with octopus-like tentacles.
It came precisely forty-eight days ago. I had biked into Papeete for my monthly mail from the U. S. A., and while at the bureau de poste, glancing over the list of trading-schooner sailings, I read: ‘Pro Patria: Îles Tuamotus — Manga Reva — Pitcairn. Le 17 aout.’
The Pro Patria is, or was, a few weeks since, a two-masted, ninety-ton schooner owned by a firm of Chinese merchants who sometimes used her for their own affairs and sometimes chartered her for other ventures. I lost not a moment in making inquiries, and when I learned that she was under charter, for the Pitcairn voyage, to Monsieur Pierre Miller, I was more than ever content with my opportunity. I knew that the companionship on board would be as enjoyable as the food would be excellent, and the schooner as free from the customary cockroaches, copra bugs, and dirt as a man with a passion for order and cleanliness could make her. I learned that the ultimate destination, Pitcairn, had been decided upon for no other reason than that Mr. Miller himself wanted to see the place.
‘I’ve always meant to go there,’ he told me, ‘and I think it high time I did, after all these years.’
We were to sail at eight o’clock that same evening, and I biked home to make my preparations. A considerable amount of schooner travel in the eastern Pacific had acquainted me with the needs for such a voyage, but, as usual, I halted in doubt before my bookshelves. What should I take for reading matter? After the customary period of painful indecision, I chose Wordsworth, my old and well-worn Sir John Barrow (to refresh my memory on points in the Bounty story), and, at random, a volume of the Encyclopœdia Britannica. I had only recently acquired my set of the Britannica — having longed for one in vain for at least twenty years. For the Pitcairn voyage I chose Volume XVIII, covering that area of human knowledge extending from MED to MUM. It occurred to me that a voyage across this immense tract would be as profitable as one over any of the others; therefore I laid the volume, with Wordsworth and Barrow, on top of the spare shirts in my suitcase, and, thus provided, set out for the Low Islands, Manga Reva, and Pitcairn.
My thoughts were often with Fletcher Christian as we proceeded on our leisurely voyage. It will be remembered that after the mutiny, which occurred near Tofoa, in the Friendly Islands, as they were then called, and after Captain Bligh had been set adrift, with eighteen loyal men, in the ship’s launch, the Bounty eventually returned to Tahiti, the mutineers having first made a disastrous attempt to establish themselves on the island of Tubuai. At Tahiti the men parted company, most of them having decided to remain on the island, come what might. But Christian well knew that Tahiti offered no safe refuge, remote though it was, in those days, from Europe. Therefore, having taken in a supply of fresh provisions, water, and live stock, consisting of fowls, goats, and pigs, he set out again, with eight of the mutineers, six native men, and twelve women who had been persuaded to follow him. He knew of Pitcairn Island, which had been discovered, in 1767, by Captain Carteret, in the Swallow. It was far from the tracks of any vessels likely to cross the Pacific in whatever direction. If he could be safe anywhere from the long arm of the British Admiralty, he would be safe there.
It is known that the Bounty sailed on this last voyage late in September 1789, and that Christian, having found Pitcairn, — one hundred and fifty miles from the position as given by Carteret, — carried ashore his supplies, partly dismantled the vessel, and then burned her, on January 23, 1790. The presumption is that he must have spent two months at least, possibly three, in reaching Pitcairn. Following him to the same destination, one hundred and forty-four years later, I wondered how nearly our course coincided with his own. Not closely, perhaps, except in general direction, and yet we must have crossed the Bounty’s track more than once during our voyage. The Pro Patria proceeded, first, to Niau, in the Low Archipelago, then to Apataki, after which, heading southeast, we sailed down that vast ‘cloud of islands’ to Fakarava, where we deposited two Mormon missionaries. We then crossed the forty-mile Fakarava lagoon, studded with innumerable small islands, and went out at the pass in the southern reef. Then, having called at Hikueru and Amanu, we set our course for Tematangi — Bligh’s Island, to give it its English name, for Bligh discovered it on April 5, 1792, when on his way to Tahiti in the Providence, on his second, and successful, breadfruittree voyage. In these days the island is as lonely as a dream of loneliness, lonelier even than when Bligh passed it, for its handful of inhabitants have long since gone, leaving the small islands threaded along the reef to the sea fowl and the hermit crabs, and its lagoon as a mirror for clouds and moon and stars. Here the Pro Patria stood off and on for a day while some of us went ashore in the whaleboat to fish and to cut firewood for the galley stove. I did neither the one nor the other, but immediately set off alone toward the far end of the island.
I have often been tempted by the prospect of an experiment in solitude. It was the war, I think, and the herded, minutely regulated existence soldiers were compelled to endure in the battle areas of northern France, that set me to dreaming of solitude as an actual, realizable state of being. I discovered in myself, during the years 1914 to 1918, a hoarded-up, seemingly immeasurable capacity for it — for solitude as distinguished from mere privacy. This latter was well enough, I thought, but it was a good precariously held, at the mercy of Chance and the first passer-by. Solitude was one man alone in nature: in a desert place; on some uninhabited island in the farthermost seas. It was that I wanted — at least, what I then believed I wanted.
Often, during my years on Tahiti, I have gone so far as to make plans against the day when I might be free for an authentic experiment in solitude. My idea would be not to depend for food upon my own resources and those of an island. On the contrary, I would take an adequate supply of necessities, even luxuries, for the physical man, so that I should need to waste no time in thought or worry over such matters. Mine would be what might be called a spiritual experiment, for the purpose of learning something of the nature of pure solitude, and of an average man’s capacity for enduring and, perhaps, enjoying it over a considerable period of time.
For an authentic experiment one would need to be thus cut off from the world for at least six months, on an island such as Tematangi, uninhabited, remote from any other, where there could be no possibility of companionship other than that of sea fowl, hermit crabs, the fish and sharks in the lagoon, and that of one’s own thoughts.
Mr. Santayana, in one of his Soliloquies, says: ‘That the wilderness to which hermits flee must be peopled by their fancy, could have been foreseen by any observer of human nature. Tormenting demons or ministering angels must needs appear, because man is rooted in society and his instincts are addressed to it. . . . If ever he finds happiness in solitude, it can only be by lavishing on objects of his imagination the attentions which his social functions require that he should lavish on something. Without exercising these faculties somehow his nature would be paralyzed; there would be no fuel to feed a spiritual flame.’
Musing over this observation, I have sometimes, but not often, doubted its wisdom. I have tried to persuade myself that none but the ministering angels need appear; and they would, I believe, appear early, in shapes of surpassing loveliness. But how long could they hold the field against the tormenting demons ? What forms would these latter take? And how many might one be forced to entertain as the long months passed? The demon of Self-Doubt — that is, doubt of one’s own identity — might easily be among the most formidable. What stored-up resources of humor, of spiritual health, might have to be drawm upon to exorcise this mocking demon, if, indeed, his persistent, insidious attacks could be as persistently repelled!
At Tematangi I went far from the little knot of Tahitian sailors spearing fish along the leeward reefs. I crossed the narrow strip of land to the lagoon beach, where, behind me, lay my solitary footprints in the yellow sand. I imagined that my experiment in solitude was begun — that I was, indeed, alone. The silence was that purity of stillness which only a lagoon island can hold in such perfection, enclosed, locked up, within its narrow fringe of reef and scrub and palm. The faint thunder of the surf on the outer reefs and the sound of the small waves in the lagoon, sparkling in the morning sunlight and lapping gently on the coral sand, seem to be the silence itself, made visible and audible.
On I went, crossing the wavering tracks of the hermit crabs and the occasional petal-like prints of sea fowl. There were only a few coconut palms here — I counted no more than twenty in all; the island was covered, for the most part, with pandanus trees and the pithy kahaia, and there were thickets of vavai Paumotu and parahirahi, vines that creep everywhere over the broken coral, finding their nourishment, it would seem, in the coral itself. Two small shadows passed swiftly across the smooth sand in front of me. Looking upward, I saw a pair of ghost terns, the most beautiful, surely, of all the great family of sea fowl. They fluttered round and round my head, almost within reach, as though they were the first of the ministering angels, destined to appear in this form. But, as I observed them more closely, I noticed that the alert, jet-black eyes had in them nothing of a compassionate, angelic light. They were turned upon me curiously, it seemed, but with an aloof, disinterested curiosity, soon satisfied. A moment later I lost sight of them far in the depths of blue distance.
It was late afternoon when I retraced my way toward our landing place at the leeward end of the atoll. I had had what might be called a specimen day, not of pure solitude, but of something approaching it; for, on an island so fitted to contribute to the illusion, it was easy to add what was lacking, or, better, to conjure away what was incongruous: the Pro Patria and her company. Rarely have I spent a happier day, but, at the close of it, I was not certain that I should have found six months of such days, on end, equally happy. Perhaps, I mused, it may be best to leave this wished-for experiment untried; to let the dream content me.
I walked slowly back, over outcroppings of ancient reef, mounds of heaped-up corals, and along the sandy beaches where my outgoing track of the early morning now appeared, somehow, forlorn, infinitely lonely, in the clear westering light. The footprints appeared to be another’s — those of someone who had gone that way not to return; who was in search of the farthermost, innermost recesses of midocean solitude. I shivered, inwardly, as I thought of him there at the undoubted end of his quest, in the very presence of the mighty spirit he had gone to seek. Taking up a fragment of purple seaurchin spine, I wrote in the sand beside his track the date, September 6, 1933, and, having done so, stuck the pencil upright, beneath, as a memorial to his adventurous spirit. I regretted leaving him, and yet I was glad that it was he and not I who trusted so confidently to his own self-sufficiency and the powers of the ministering angels.
I was belated in reaching the landing place. The sailors had gone aboard with their load of fish and firewood, but the schooner was at hand, and a boat was sent off to pick me up.
‘I was beginning to think you were lost,’ said Mr. Miller as I clambered aboard. ‘What kind of a day have you had?’
‘A very profitable one,’ I replied.
‘You’ve at least had ample time to explore Bligh’s Island. When was it, did you say, that he discovered the place? ’
‘In April 1792.’
The boat was hoisted in and made fast, sail was gotten on, and we proceeded along the southern reef. Mr. Miller and I were standing by the rail, looking across stretches of reef awash to the islands on the far side of the lagoon.
‘Seventeen ninety-two,’ said Mr. Miller, musingly. ‘Nearly a century and a half ago. And in all the time that has passed since, how many white men, I wonder, have ever set foot on the place? This is my first visit in fortyfive years.’
Yes, it was still Bligh’s Island — his more than ever now that there were none but sea fowl to dispute the claim. An hour later it was only a wavering thread of black outlined against the afterglow.
We were still more than three hundred miles from Manga Reva, our last port of call before proceeding to Pitcairn. The wind was at east, a head wind for us. It occurred to me that the occasion favored a departure, at least, upon my 968-page voyage across the MED to MUM sea of human knowledge; so I went below, switched on the light at the head of my bunk, and propped Volume XVIII of the Britannica against my updrawn knees.
MEDAL (Fr. medaille, from Lat. metallum), strictly the term given to a memorial piece, originally of metal, and generally in the shape of a coin, used however not as currency but as an artistic product. . . . Although the striking of medals to commemorate important events is a practice of considerable antiquity, yet the custom of using the medal as a decoration, and especially as a decoration to do honor to those who have rendered service to the state in time of war, is comparatively modern. . . . No medal awards were made to either the naval or military services for the Seven Years’ War, and the American War of Independence. In fact George III had been more than thirty years on the throne when the first medal award by the Crown was given, in the shape of the navy gold medals, first issued in 1794.
I read with considerable interest, and with undivided attention, to this point, and with the virtuous feeling one has when adding to one’s store of useful, or even useless, information; but, with the mention of George the Third, His Majesty’s armed transport Bounty again appeared over the horizon of consciousness. It was during his reign and at his express command that the Bounty set out on the breadfruit voyage: and, in 1794, all that remained of the vessel was the blackened hulk sunk in the small cove on the northern side of Pitcairn Island.
It was curious to reflect that, had Fletcher Christian been a more selfrestrained and patient man, under Bligh’s command, willing to endure in silence the outbursts of unmerited abuse, he might easily have lived to be the honored recipient of one of those navy gold medals first issued in 1794. He was a man of good birth, breeding, and education, a fiery-spirited, courageous, and thoroughly competent officer. His later career in the navy might well have been a distinguished one.
I read no more that evening in Volume XVIII. Instead, I returned on deck and sat by the rail, aft, looking out over the moonlit sea; and, as often before, I gave my thoughts over to speculation as to what had happened on Pitcairn between the year 1790, when the Bounty arrived there, and 1808, when Captain Folger came, in the Topaz, and carried to the outside world the news that the refuge of the mutineers had at last been found. We have a meagre outline of the principal events, but it is wavering and uncertain at best. The only authentic source of information was Alexander Smith (or John Adams, as he later called himself), the solitary survivor of the mutineers at the time of Folger’s visit. The story he told Folger differs from those he told later arrivals: notably, Captain Staines, in 1814, Captain Beechey, in 1825, and Moerenhout, in 1829. The tale as Captain Beechey recorded it at the time of his conversations with Adams is probably as near as we shall ever come to the truth of the Pitcairn tragedy.
It will be remembered that matters went smoothly enough during the first year or two at Pitcairn. Then Williams, the blacksmith, lost his native woman, Fasto, in a fall from the cliffs where she was searching for birds’ eggs. Williams demanded, and eventually seized, the wife of one of the Tahitian men. This led to serious trouble, resulting in the massacre, on one day in 1793, of Christian, Williams, Brown, Martin, and Mills, followed shortly afterward by the massacre of the four remaining native men. Four of the mutineers were thus left: Midshipman Young, Smith (Adams), Quintal, and McCoy, with eleven native women and the increasing flock of small children. As though there had not been trouble enough, McCoy had to start more by converting one of the Bounty’s copper kettles into a still by means of which he made alcohol from the roots of the ti plant. It was certain to be a Scot who would set that Pandora’s kettle to brewing. At length, in a fit of delirium tremens, he threw himself from the rocks into the sea and was drowned. Quintal was next. Young and Adams together killed him with an axe, to preserve their own lives, so Adams told Beechey. That was in 1798. Midshipman Young died of asthma, two years later, — the first person on the island, white or brown, male or female, to die from natural causes,—and Adams was left alone at the head of the little colony of women and half-caste children.
Tragedy enough for one small fertile rock in mid-ocean to contain — for one man to see and to carry in memory to his last day. But I have always been glad that it was Adams and not Christian who survived to bear such a burden of memories. Adams was a simple man, by all accounts, with the rugged, cheerful, unreflecting disposition of the average British tar. Furthermore, although he had taken an active and willing part in the mutiny, it was none of his ordering, and he was thus free from the awful burden of responsibility which Christian had carried. Had Christian been the survivor, he must have gone mad long before the arrival of the Topaz.
My desultory musings concerning him were broken in upon three days later when land was sighted from the masthead. Going aloft to view it, I saw a triangle no larger than the corner of a five-cent United States stamp, and as blue, appearing and vanishing on the horizon. It was one of the twin peaks of Mount Duff, the highest land on Manga Reva. The other peak appeared immediately after, and it was a beautiful sight to watch the land emerge during the course of the afternoon: a pinnacle here, another there, to be joined as we came up the slope of the world.
It was another English vessel that placed Manga Reva and the other Gambier Islands on charts of the Pacific. The name of the highest peak commemorates the discovery, for it was Captain Wilson, of the Duff, who thus added to the world’s knowledge.
The Duff, it may be remembered, sailed into the Pacific only ten years after the Bounty, but she had come, not for a cargo, but to bring one: a cargo heaped up with piety and running over with zeal for the salvation of the souls of the heathen — the first band of missionaries sent out by the then recently organized London Missionary Society. Their destination was Tahiti, where, thanks to the earlier visits of Wallis and Bougainville and Cook and Bligh, they might hope to be received in a friendly spirit; and so they were, although they labored for eighteen years before they made their first converts from heathendom.
But let me say no more of the Gambier Islands matter, nor of their conquest by fathers of the Picputian Mission; for, the moment I begin to discuss the work of missionaries in Polynesia, prejudice comes in to cloud my vision.
It will be best to leave a hole in my narrative at this point, one with the forty-mile circumference of the Gambier Islands lagoon, and proceed on the last three-hundred-mile lap of our outward journey to Pitcairn.
(To be continued)