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Collier: "The Blackbirder"

Louis Becke (1855 - 1913)
(From Pacific Tales, 1897)

THE trading brig Airola, belonging to Sydney, dropped her anchor at noon in Papiete Harbour, at Tahiti, after a smart run up from Fakarava, in the Paumotu Group. The skipper had then immediately gone ashore to report, and owing to various causes — the principal of which was his careless and indiscriminate manner of mixing his drinks — had not yet returned, although the lights had begun to glimmer from the shore. The second mate and Allan, the half-caste boatswain, professing an ardent anxiety for their superior officer's welfare, had been allowed to go in search of him, with a parting warning from the mate that if they were found drunk in the streets after gunfire, the "Johnny darms" would run them in till the British Consul took them out again. And so, just before eight bells struck, Jack Collier, the first mate, and Denison, the supercargo, found themselves the only persons in the after part of the ship, the mulatto steward having gone for'ard to pursue his nightly pastime of swindling the copper-coloured Polynesian crew out of sundry pounds of tobacco by means of the cheerful game of poker. Then Collier, ,speaking in his usual quiet tones, said to Denison, as they sat down on the sky light to smoke —

   "I am rather glad the captain isn't likely to turn a while, as I'm expecting a visitor, and I want you to see him — he's likely to be my father-in-law. If all goes well, and the brig isn't collared by the French men for trading in the Paumotus without a license or some other such charge, I mean to leave next voyage, and settle down in Vavitao, in the Austral Group. For'ard there! strike eight bells!"

. . . . .

   The sound of the bell had scarce died away when the tweep, tweep! of a canoe paddle was heard, and then the little craft ran alongside, and an old man and two girls stepped quietly on deck.

   Collier, from the gangway, greeted them in Tahitian, and then the three figures followed him below. As they came in under the full light of the cabin lamp, Denison saw that the man was a native, old, but erect and muscular, and with the keen, hawk-like features peculiar to many of the people of Eastern Polynesia. The girls were both young, with pure olive-tinted skins, and big, dreamy eyes. The old man, straw hat in hand, motioned them to a lounge that ran along the transoms, where they seated themselves demurely, and then turning silently to Collier, almost sprang at him, and with a soft, pleased laugh, embraced him again and again. Then the girls greeted him in low, almost whispered tones.

. . . . .

   But after their first shyness had worn off at the presence of a stranger, they too, came to the cabin table, and the five people all sat and laughed and made merry over the few bottles of wine that were the last shots in the brig's lockers, the girls sweetening theirs with sugar, and smiling at Denison's laboured attempts to follow them in their soft Tahitian tongue

   Melanie — so was Collier's flame called — was the older; and as Denison looked into her dark, melting eyes, glowing with excitement at her lover's return, he inwardly called his shipmate a lucky fellow, and thought this dark-faced daughter of the blue Pacific to be the most witching little creature he had ever seen in all his ocean wanderings.

. . . . .

   They are all gone now, all but Denison. Gone is the tall, erect figure of old Marama, with the sinewy, muscular frame, and keen, eager face. Gone the honest smile and deep tones of Collier; and gone, too, the soft voice and dreamy, love-lit eyes of Melanie and her sister. And to all of them the end came suddenly, when — a year after that night they spent in the cabin of the old brig — Collier's schooner, the Leonie, turned turtle in a squall off Vavitao, and went to the bottom with every soul on board.

. . . . .

   After the old man and girls had gone ashore again, Collier told his story to Denison, who then wondered no longer at the strong affection existing between the wandering, taciturn seaman and the old Aitutaki native, and why Collier had given his rough affection to his daughter, and intended to marry her, "straight, fair, and square in ship-shape fashion." And this was the story he told.

. . . . .

   "Seven years ago I was dead broke in Sydney. I had come out second mate in one of Green's ships. We were over three months in port waiting to fill up with wool, and one day I got too much liquor aboard and the skipper, a drunken, hasty-tempered bully, used words to me that sobered me in two minutes The skippers of the Ascalon and Woolloomooloo, two ships lying near ours, were looking on, and I turned away to go below, when my captain called me a 'soldier.'

   "Then, before I knew what I had done, I knocked out two of his teeth and stove in a rib — and got put in gaol for three months. When I came out I had nine shillings in my pocket and a heart bursting with shame. I knew that as far as my prospects in the old company went I was a ruined man. But I was only twenty-two, and knew I could always get a berth on the coast; so I turned to and spent my nine shillings — mostly in whisky.

. . . . .

   "Three months afterwards I landed in Tahiti from the barque Ethan Allen, from Sydney to 'Frisco. We put in for repairs, and I took the liberty of remaining on shore until the barque had left. Most of her foremast hands were dead-beat Sydney men, and as the skipper knew I was about the only seaman on board except himself and his officers, I was afraid he would have search made for me, but he didn't. He was too anxious to beat the barque James Hannell, also from Sydney, that had sailed the same day.

   "There was plenty doing in the blackbirding trade then (God's curse rest on those who first started it in Polynesia, I say), and I soon got a berth in a barque bound to the Gilbert Islands as first mate. The skipper was a Frenchman. Most of the others aft were of mixed nationalities, and a ruffianly crowd they were, too; and the barque was armed like a privateer of fifty years ago. We were to bring back labourers for Stewart's swell plantation at Atimaono, in Tahiti.

. . . . .

   "We sailed first for Aitutaki, in Cook's Group, to get some natives for boats' crews; and when in about latitude 17 deg. 50 min. S. and longitude 158 deg. W., we sighted a disabled vessel. I boarded her, and found her to be a native-owned schooner from Mangaia (one of Cook's Group) to Aitutaki. She had lost seven of her people overboard by a heavy sea, which made a wreck of her, and the rest — ten men and two female children — were almost dead from starvation.

   "The two children were old Marama's daughters. Marama himself we had found lying on the deck with a broken arm. The little girls soon picked up, and their father and the rest of his people — Aitutaki and Mauke natives — agreed to do the cruise in the barque and work the boats — white sailors are no good for working boats where there is much surf — and our captain was very pleased to get them. So we headed N.W. for the Gilberts, and in another two weeks we had made Arorai Island and begun our work of getting in a cargo of copper-coloured Line Islanders.

. . . . .

   "Villacroix, our French skipper, was new to the trade, and had not had time to become brutalised. He gave Melanie and her little sister a cabin to themselves, and told me to see to their welfare. After Marama's arm had got all right again he was put into my watch and from that time began our friendship. He was a good sailorman, always had a willing heart for his work, and, if for nothing else, thought much of me because I was an Englishman.

   "Things went very well at first. So far we had got thirty or forty natives without using violent means to bring them on board; then one day we made Peru, or Francis Island, one of the Gilbert Group. Villacroix and the second mate went ashore and did the 'recruiting,' and in two days we had nearly two hundred fierce, wild-eyed, black-haired natives on board.

   "Marama — who was in charge of one of the boats — told me on the second evening that many of these people had been driven down to the beach by the chiefs and forced into the three boats. Those of them that didn't hustle and get in quick were cut at and slashed about with sharks' teeth swords and spears. And when the boats came alongside the barque I saw that they were splashed with blood from stem to stem.

. . . . .

   "At nightfall we had them all under hatches, and made sail on our long beat back to Tahiti; and when I turned in that night I swore to God that once I got out of that barque I would never ship in such a bloody trade again. All that night we made no headway, as the wind had fallen light. At eight bells in the morning the skipper let a batch of fifty natives come up on deck to get something to eat and wash their bruised and blood-stained bodies. They seemed quiet and docile enough now, but none were hungry, and all turned away from the food offered them. Most of them crowded together on the deck, talked in low tones, or looked blankly at one another. And the skipper — who, to do him justice, showed compassion for their condition — let the whole lot up from below during the day in batches of fifty.

   "Night came, and again the breeze died away. From aloft I could see the glimmer of the natives' fires on the island beach, by which I knew that the strong westerly current had set the ship very fast towards the land. The night was close and muggy, and on account of this the captain did not send all the natives below as he would otherwise have done, but allowed about a hundred of them to bring up their sleeping-mats and lie on deck.

   "When my watch below came, after seeing that the guard were all posted with loaded rifles, some for'ard, some at the break of the poop, and some on top of the deck house, I laid down in one of the quarter boats and soon fell asleep, for I was tired out for want of rest I had slept about an hour when I was awakened by loud cries-and groans and rifle shots, and looking over the side of the boat I saw that the whole of the main deck was in possession of the natives, and that the crew were being savagely slaughtered.

. . . . .

   "As I jumped out of the boat, Marama and two of the native crew rushed on deck from the cabin, all carrying Vetterli rifles, and, standing at the break of the poop, they began firing into the blood-maddened Crowd on the main deck. But it was too late to save any of the watch on deck or those of the crew who had turned in. The captain, second mate, and third mate and carpenter were already killed, as well as thirteen of the crew; and then the natives attempted to carry the poop and finish those of us who were left. Marama handed me a seaman's cutlass, and for a space of five minutes or so we tried to beat them back, shooting, slashing, and thrusting at them as they tried to ascend the poop ladders. Presently the two native sailors ran out of cartridges, and made a bolt down into the cabin. Marama and I followed; but the boys had shut the doors in their flight, and shot the bolts inside. We just had time to fling ourselves bodily through the open skylight into the cabin and make it fast from below, when the blood-stained mob got entire possession of the poop.

   "We lay there awhile, utterly done up, beside the two native sailors, one of whom had a great, gaping wound in his chest, from which the blood poured and ran along the cabin floor. His mate seemed to be all right, and getting his courage up again, he went to the captain's cabin and brought out more rifles and commenced to load them. Melanie and her sister then crept out of their cabin, and at a few quick words from their father brought us water to drink and then fled again to their retreat to be away from the sound of the firing, the thick smoke, and the yells and groans of the bloody pandemonium that followed.

. . . . .

   "That was the first time in my life I had ever shed blood. But we were all mad by this time — mad with the scent of blood and the hot lust of slaying; the natives had taken about twenty cutlasses from the sailmaker's room, and others, with axes, were hacking and hewing at the skylight and companion doors to get at us. And we loaded and fired as quick as we could through the glass sides of the skylight, until both sides of it were smashed, and all the brass bars cut away with bullets. And scarcely a bullet went astray.

   "At last they drew off and left us, and we got together in the steward's pantry. Marama pulled a wicker bottle of brandy out of a locker and served us out a drink each; all except the boy with the wound in his chest, who didn't want any kind of drink — his wound had stopped bleeding and his heart beating.

   "If I live to be a hundred, the horrors of that night will never fade from my memory — only when I get drunk and try to drown them — as I did do pretty often for a long time afterwards.

. . . . .

   "They were now again all crowded together on the main deck. Marama had crawled up and opened the companion door, listened, and then looked out. The land was not more than six miles distant, and some of the natives had tried to alter the ship's course by hauling the yards about, but had only succeeded in putting the ship in irons.

   "Then Marama, drawing me aside, whispered something to me, and I, God forgive me, consented to do what he proposed.

   "In the lazarette were ten kegs of powder, belonging to the four six-pounders the barque carried. We lifted off the hatch under the cabin-table, got up one of the kegs, and then hurriedly bored a hole through the head and put in a very short fuse.

   "Then, covered by the Aitutaki boy, who carried three loaded rifles in readiness, in case we were blocked at the companion, we quietly crept up and unshipped the door bolt. In my hand I carried a lighted piece of twisted rag; Marama had the keg.

   "For a minute or so we listened anxiously, and then, throwing open the door, we sprang out and gained the break of the poop on the port side. The moment we were seen there was a wild yell of rage and half a dozen shots were fired at us — they had evidently got some cartridges from the pouches of the murdered crew, and knew how to use them. Then they made a rush, but quick as lightning the Aitutaki sailor unshipped the heavy poop ladder and turned it over on top of them; we had, during the first attack, hauled up and hove the ladder on the starboard side overboard. Before they could get together for another rush I lit the fuse, and Marama, with blazing eyes and a fierce oath, hurled the keg right among them, and we rushed back towards the companion.

   "But as we gained the door the shock came, and the crazy old bark trembled from truck to keelson. I did expect to see a bit of a burst-up, but I never, as Heaven is my witness, thought that the thing would cause such awful slaughter among the poor wretches, who were so closely packed together that the explosion took full effect on them. There was a great hole torn in the deck; from the after-coamings of the main hatch right up to the poop deck there was nothing left but a wreck of timbers.

   "And then, after that bursting roar had pealed over the quiet, starlit ocean, there came silence, and then the moans of poor, mutilated humanity. All those who were not much injured sprang overboard and made for the shore — six miles off; and I was told by Frank Voliero, the trader who lived on Peru Island afterwards that thirty-seven of them did get ashore safely, but twice as many perished in the long swim from exhaustion — and the sharks."

. . . . .

   Collier paced the deck awhile in silence, and then knocked the ashes of his pipe out against the rail.

   "Well, that's all, Denison. As for us three men and the two girls, we managed somehow to get the ship before the wind at daylight, and then I let her run steadily to the westward for a couple of days. . . . I daresay you've heard of how we did eventually get her back to Tahiti again. I left her there, sick at heart, and as long as I can go aloft with a slush-pot in an honest trading ship, I'll never ship in another blackbirder.

   "Two days after we had hauled up to try and make a south-east course, I looked down through the shattered skylight and saw the two girls kneeling on the cabin floor, clasping each other's hands. They were crying. I went below quietly to ask what was the matter. The younger one raised her face and said —

   "Nay, we are well. But Melanie and I have been praying to God to forgive my father and thee for the shedding of blood."