Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 17

Lost Ships and Lonely Seas by Ralph D. Paine
XVII. Noble King of the Pelew Islands



MANY kinds of ships and men have endured the eternal enmity of the sea, as these true tales have depicted, but there is one episode of disaster which might be called the pattern and the proper example for all mariners cast away on unknown shores. It reveals the virtues and not the vices of mankind in time of stress, and saves from oblivion the portrait of a dusky monarch so wise and just and kind that he could teach civilization much more than he could learn from it. No white men had ever set foot in his island realm until he welcomed this shipwrecked crew, and the source of his precepts and ideals was that inner light which had been peculiarly vouchsafed him. Naked and tattooed, he was not only a noble ruler of his people, but also a very perfect gentleman.

The packet Antelope, in the service of the East India Company, sailed from Macao in July, 1783, and was driven ashore in a black squall on one of the Pelew Islands three weeks later. All of the people were able to get away from the wreck in the boats, but they made for the beach with the most gloomy forebodings. The Pelews, a westerly group of the Caroline Islands, in the Pacific, had been sighted by the Spanish admiral, Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, as early as 1543, but no ship had ever touched there, and the only report, which was gleaned by hearsay from other islanders, declared that "the natives were unhuman and savage, that both men and women were entirely naked and fed upon human flesh, that the inhabitants of the Carolines looked on them with horror as the enemies of mankind and with whom they held it dangerous to have any intercourse."

Captain Henry Wilson of the Antelope was an exceptional commander, with a reliable crew which cheerfully obeyed him. While the ship was in the breakers and death seemed imminent, it is recorded that

they endeavored to console and cheer one another and each was advised to clothe and prepare himself to quit the ship, and herein the utmost good order and regularity was observed, not a man offering to take anything but what truly belonged to himself, nor did any one of them attempt to take a dram or complain of negligence or misconduct against the watch or any particular person.

A raft was built to carry the stores and supplies, and sent off in tow of the pinnace and the jolly-boat. The ship was fast grinding to pieces, but there was no confusion, and the carpenter was so intent on getting his kit of tools together that he would have been left behind if the captain had not searched for him. A landing was made in a sandy cove, and no natives were discovered. Tents were rigged of sail-cloth, fires built, the arms cleaned and dried, and sentries posted for the night. One might have supposed that this efficient ship's company was in the habit of being shipwrecked.

Two canoes came paddling into the cove next day, and Captain Wilson went down to meet the islanders. Luckily, he had with him a sailor named Tom Rose who could talk one or two Malay dialects, and he managed to struggle along as an interpreter for the reason that a native in one of the canoes could also speak the Malay tongue.

To questions Tom Rose answered that these were unfortunate Englishmen who had lost their ship upon the reef and wished to be friends. Unafraid and cordially disposed, eight islanders left the canoes and accepted Captain Wilson's invitation to breakfast. Two of the guests were found to be brothers of the king. They tasted tea and biscuit for the first time, and were introduced to the officers, with whom they shook hands, having quickly noted that this was the accepted manner of greeting. These Englishmen, mysterious and unknown, were beings from another world, and the guests displayed lively astonishment, but no uneasiness.

It was agreed that Mr. Matthias Wilson, the captain's brother, should go to the near-by island of Pelew, or Coorooraa, to meet the king in formal audience and solicit his friendship. One canoe and three men remained at the sailors' camp. One of them was the king's brother, Raa Kook, commander of the military forces. These islanders were entirely naked, their brown skins glistening with cocoanut-oil, their long hair neatly done up in a roll behind.

While Mr. Matthias Wilson was absent on his mission, the crew of the Antelope went off to the wreck in quest of salvage. It was discovered that natives had rummaged the cabin and sampled the bottles in the medicine-chest. Here one begins to discern the ethical code of these most primitive savages.

Captain Wilson made this transaction known to Raa Kook, not so much as a matter of complaint as to express to him his uneasiness for the consequences which might arise to the natives from their drinking such a variety of medicines. Raa Kook begged that Captain Wilson would entertain no anxiety whatever on their account; that if they suffered it would be entirely owing to their own misconduct, for which he said he felt himself truly concerned. His countenance fully described the indignation he felt at the treacherous behavior of his own men and he asked why our people did not shoot them? He begged that if they or any others should dare again to attempt to plunder the vessel they would be shot at once and he should take it upon himself to justify the punishment to the king.

The only ornament worn by Raa Kook was a polished bracelet of bone, which he explained to be a mark of high distinction, conferred by the king upon his own family, officers of state, and military men of commanding rank. It was readily perceived that such a decoration had precisely the same significance as the ribbon of the order of the Bath or the Garter as conferred by English royalty.

All of which is no more extraordinary than the exemplary behavior of the crew of the Antelope. Captain Wilson called his officers together and suggested that no more liquor be drunk in camp. It made the men quarrelsome, interfered with their work, and was likely to cause trouble with the natives. The officers approved, and the boatswain called all hands next morning to hear the verdict. The seamen agreed to go without their grog, and offered to go on board the wreck and stave in every cask of spirits that could be found. This they scrupulously did, and it is a fair comment that "circumstanced as these poor fellows were, nothing but a long and well-trained discipline and the real affection they bore their commander could have produced the fortitude and firmness which they testified on this occasion."

After a few days a canoe returned from Pelew Island with a son of the king as messenger. He brought word that his Majesty Abba Thulle bade the Englishmen welcome to his country, that they had his full permission to build a vessel on the island where they then were, or that they might remove to the island on which he lived and enjoy his personal protection. Mr. Matthias Wilson would soon return to the camp and had greatly enjoyed his visit.

When at length the king himself arrived in state to make the acquaintance of Captain Wilson and his company, he came with squadrons of canoes filled with armed men who blew sonorous salutes on conch- shells. Upon a stage in a larger canoe, or royal barge, sat King Abba Thulle, and the English commander was carried through the surf to meet him. These were two courtiers, the dignified shipmaster and the Micronesian savage, and after expressions of mutual esteem the king explained that this island was held to be sickly and subject to attack by hostile clans. For this reason he felt anxious for the welfare of the visitors. Captain Wilson answered that the shore was admirably suited for building and launching a small vessel and his men were well drilled and armed. And his surgeon would keep an eye on their health.

Landing at the camp, King Abba Thulle was escorted by his chiefs and three hundred bronzed fighting men. He wore no clothing and carried on his shoulder a hatchet which seemed to be a kind of scepter. A man of uncommon force and intelligence, a king in deed as well as name, this was to be read at a glance. It was his surmise that Captain Wilson, attended by his officers and armed sailors, must be a prince in his own country, but this error the modest commander was at pains to correct. Musketry drill and the discharge of the pieces astounded Abba Thulle, as did also the clothing and implements of these strangers, and the narrative of the shipwreck sagaciously comments:

The king remained awhile pensive and bewildered, and this circumstance impressed on every one the idea that there was every cause to suppose that there had never been a communication between these people and any other nation, that they and their ancestry through ages too remote for human conjecture, might have lived as sovereigns of the world, unconscious that it extended beyond the horizon which bounded them, unconscious also that there were any other inhabitants in it than themselves. And in this case, what might not be the sentiments that burst on a mind thus suddenly awakened to a new and more enlarged notion of nature and mankind."

King Abbe Thulle was not a man to ask for gifts, but was anxious to bestow favors. He offered to send some of his own craftsmen to help build a vessel and to provide such native food as might lend variety to the ship's stores. One thing only he desired. He was about to wage war against the rebellious people of an island which had done him grave injury, and it would be of great advantage if Captain Wilson would permit four or five of his men to go along with their muskets. The whole crew volunteered for this sporting adventure, but four young single men were chosen, with the third mate, Mr. Cummings, in charge. Wearing blue jackets and cocked hats with light blue cockades, they sailed blithely away with the army of the king.

Meanwhile the crew had begun work on a small schooner after electing Captain Wilson as their superior officer, the narrative explaining that "as every reader may not be acquainted with maritime proceedings, to such it will not be improper to remark that when a merchant ship is wrecked all authority immediately ceases, and every individual is at full liberty to shift for himself." It was faithfully promised that in all things the men would obey Captain Wilson as when the Antelope had been afloat.

The second officer, Mr. Barker, had been a ship-wright in his youth, and he aided the carpenter in laying out the work. The tasks were methodically distributed, Mr. Matthias Wilson, Surgeon Sharp, and Captain Wilson sawing down trees, the boatswain in charge of the blacksmith shop, the gunner acting as chief of police, and a number of Chinese coolie passengers fetching water, hauling timbers, and running a laundry. Most of the sailors were employed in the carpenter's gang. A stout stockade was built around the little shipyard and two swivel-guns were mounted against a possible attack from seaward. From the wreck of the Antelope the boats brought cordage, oakum, iron, and copper, planking and timbers. It was an orderly bit of Old England transplanted to the remote and barbarous Pelew Island. And of course Captain Wilson read prayers to the assembled crew every Sunday evening.

The schooner's keel had been laid and the stem and stern-post bolted on, with the frames taking shape in the busy yard, when the five bold sailormen came back from the war with a tale of victory won over the forces of the King of Artingall. Their own sovereign, Abba Thulle, and his commander-in-chief, Raa Kook, had mustered a hundred and fifty canoes and a thousand men armed with spears and darts, which they handled with amazing skill. The enemy had fled after a spirited skirmish in which musketry-fire made a complete rout of it. At Pelew the victors had delayed for feasting and dances, and the English seamen volunteers seemed highly pleased with the soldier's life. They cheerfully set about their allotted tasks in the shipyard, however, and doffed the blue jackets and cocked hats.

In token of their service, Abba Thulle formally presented to the English party this island of Oroolong on which they dwelt, and in the native language it was rechristened "Englishman's Land." Captain Wilson thereupon ran up the British ensign, and three volleys of small arms were fired. By way of entertainment, one of the king's brothers came to spend the night "and brought with him all his spirits and gaiety, diverting them wonderfully with the pleasant description of the late engagement and acting with his accustomed humor and gestures the panic which had seized the enemy the instant they heard the report of the English guns."

It was proper that Captain Wilson should journey to the island of Pelew to return the royal visit, and this was done with becoming ceremony on both sides, banquets and music, and the attendance of many chiefs in the thatched village and the impretentious palace. It was a smiling landscape, very lush and green, with cultivated fields of yams and cocoanuts and a contented people. The war with the islanders of Artingall was unfinished, it seemed, and they deserved severe chastisement because of several murders committed. Another expedition was therefore planned, and ten of the British sailors took part with Captain Wilson's approval. The details were arranged during this meeting at Pelew.

A naval action was fought, and the strategy of General Raa Kook was so brilliant that it deserves mention. The enemy's squadrons of canoes held a position close under the land and refused to sail out ind join battle. Raa Kook thereupon detached one of his own squadrons and concealed it behind a promontory during the night. In the morning the main fleet of canoes closed in, led by King Abba Thulle, and fought at long range. Pretending to be thrown into disorder, he ordered the conch-shells to sound the retreat, and this main fleet fled seaward. In hot pursuit dashed the squadrons of Artingall. No sooner were they well clear of the land than Raa Kook told his hidden squadron to advance and cut the enemy off. The luckless warriors of Artingall were between the devil and the deep sea, attacked ahead and astern, and mercilessly bucketed about until they broke and scattered. Many prisoners were taken, as well as canoes, and this campaign was a closed incident.

The interesting statement is made that Abba Thulle had previously notified the King of Artingall that in a few days he intended to offer him battle, and also that it was a maxim of his never to attack an enemy in the dark or take him unawares. This chivalrous doctrine is not expounded in detail by the narrator who compiled the personal stories of Captain Wilson and his officers, but it finds explicit confirmation in the memoirs of another gallant sailor who visited the Pelew Islands a few years later. This was Captain Amasa Delano, an American shipmaster, who also formed a strong friendship with King Abba Thulle and felt the greatest admiration for him.

Captain Delano was a mariner whose career embraced all the hazards and vicissitudes that could be encountered in that rugged and heroic era of endeavor. In Macao he fell in with Commodore John McClure of the English Navy, who was in command of an expedition setting out to explore a part of the South Seas, including the Pelew Islands, New Guinea, New Holland, and the Spice Islands. The Englishman took a fancy to this resourceful Yankee seaman and offered him the pay and station of a lieutenant. While the ship tarried at the Pelews, the chronic war against the rebels of Artingall had flared up again, and Captain Delano had this to say of Abba Thulle:

The king, according to his usual generosity, had sent word to the people of Artingall that he should be there in three days for war. Although I was a Christian and in the habit of assuming the Christian peoples to be superior to these pagans in the principles of virtue and benevolence, I could not refrain from remonstrating with the king. I told him that Christian nations considered it as within the acknowledged system of lawful and honorable warfare to use stratagems against enemies and to fall upon them whenever it was possible and take them by surprise. He replied that war was horrid enough when pursued in the most open and magnanimous manner, and that although he thought very highly of the English, still their principles in this respect did not obtain his approbation and he believed his own mode of warfare more politic as well as more just.

He said that if he were to destroy his enemies while they were asleep, others would have good reason to retaliate the same base conduct upon his subjects and thus multiply evils, whereas regular and open warfare might be the means of a speedy peace without barbarity. Should he subdue his rebellious subjects by strategy and surprise, they would hate both him and his measures and would never be faithful and happy although they might fear his power and unwillingly obey his laws.

Sentiments of this elevated character excited my admiration the more for this excellent pagan and made an impression upon my mind which time will never efface. Christians might learn of Abba Thulle a fair comment upon the best principles of their own religion.

Captain Henry Wilson of the Antelope was therefore not alone in his high estimate of the character of this island ruler. The English castaways, industriously framing and planking their trim little schooner, had many evidences of a sentiment both delicate and noble. For instance, the royal canoes came bringing many cocoanuts ready for planting. At the king's desire they were set out to grow and form a wall of green around the cove where the camp stood. It was noticed that while covering each nut with earth, the king's brothers murmured certain words. They were dedicatory, it was explained, meaning that there would be fruit for the captain and his friends whenever they should return to the island, and should other strangers be wrecked on this shore, they would thank the English for their refreshment.

The schooner was finished and launched without mishap and christened the Ooralong. The ship's company had been almost four months on the island, and were all fit and strong and happy. The anchors, cables, and other fittings were placed on board, and it remained only to put in the stores and water-casks. Then it was that King Abba Thulle sent word to Captain Wilson that he wished to invest him with the order of the bone bracelet and to knight him as a chief of the highest rank. The ceremony was impressive, a great concourse of natives attending in profound silence, and when the bracelet was slipped on the wrist of Captain Wilson, the king told him that "the emblem should be rubbed bright every day and preserved as a testimony of the rank he held amongst them, that this mark of dignity must on every occasion be defended valiantly, nor suffered to be torn from his arm but with the loss of life."

At last the schooner Ooralong, taut and sea-worthy, swung at anchor with sails bent and everything ready for the voyage. To the pleasure and surprise of Captain Wilson, the king announced that he had resolved to send his second son, Lee Boo, to England if this was agreeable to the commander. Although his subjects respected his knowledge, explained Abba Thulle, he felt keenly his own insignificance at seeing the common English seamen exercise talents so far surpassing him. It was certain that his son would learn many things which might greatly benefit his people. And so this young prince of the Pelew Islands sailed on a marvelous voyage to lands unknown. In one of the farewell conversations, the king said to Captain Wilson:

I would wish you to inform Lee Boo of all things which he ought to know and to make him an Englishman. The distress of parting with my beloved son I have frequently considered. I am well aware that the distant countries he must pass through, differing much from his own, may expose him to dangers, as well as to diseases that are unknown to us here, in consequence of which he may die. I have prepared my thoughts to this. I know that death is to all men inevitable, and whether my son meets this event at Pelew or elsewhere is immaterial. I am satisfied, from what I have observed of the humanity of your character, that if he is sick you will be kind to him. And should that fate happen which your utmost care cannot prevent, let it not hinder you or your brother or your son or any of your countrymen from returning here. I shall receive you or any of your people in friendship and rejoice to see you again.

Abba Thulle promised to cherish and preserve a copper plate affixed to a tree near the cove, upon which was cut the following inscription:

The Honorable
English East India Company's Ship
HENRY WILSON, Commander,
Was lost upon the reef north of this island
In the night between the 9th and 10th of
Who here built a vessel,
And sailed from hence
The 12th day of November, 1783.

When the little schooner hoisted the union jack and fired a swivel in token of good-by, the king and his young son came aboard from a canoe, to be together until the vessel had passed out through the channel of the reef. A multitude of natives followed in canoes, offering gifts of fruit and flowers, yams and cocoanuts, which could not be accepted for lack of space. Gently they were told this, but each held up a little something, crying: "Only this from me! Only this from me!" Other canoes were sent ahead to pilot the schooner or to buoy the reef. When it came time for the king to summon his own canoe he said farewell to his son, and then embraced Captain Wilson with great tenderness, saying:

"You are happy because you are going home. I am happy to find you are happy, but still very unhappy myself to see you going away."

In this manner two rare men saw the last of each other. Captain Henry Wilson was far too modest to claim credit to himself, but it is quite obvious that the happy ending of this tragedy of the sea was largely due to his own serene courage, kindliness, and ability as a seaman and a commander. An inferior type of man would have made a sorry mess of the whole affair.

The schooner pluckily made her way through fair weather and foul until she safely reached the roadstead of Macao. There the little vessel was found to be so stanch that she was sold for seven hundred Spanish dollars. Captain Wilson then took passage for England in an East Indiaman, and the young prince Lee Boo went with him. Arrived home, the commander made the guest a member of his own household, and sent him to school at Rotherhite, in London. He was of a bright mind and eager to learn, and his experiences and impressions make most entertaining reading.

Alas! he fell ill with small-pox after less than a year of exile from his distant island, and died in a few days. At the foot of his bed stood honest Tom Rose, the sailor who had served as an interpreter. At the sight of his tears, the boyish prince rebuked him, saying,

"Why should he be crying because Lee Boo die?" The doctor who attended him wrote in a letter to an official of the East India Company:

He expressed all his feelings to me in the most forcible and pathetic manner, put my head upon his heart, leant his head on my arm, and explained his uneasiness in breathing. But when I was gone he complained no more, showing that he complained with a view to be relieved, not to be pitied. In short, living or dying, he has given me a lesson which I shall never forget and surely for patience and fortitude he was an example worthy the imitation of a Stoic.

Thus died a worthy son of his father, the good king Abba Thulle of the Pelew Islands. Over his grave in England was placed a stone with this inscription:

To the Memory
A native of the Pelew, or Palos Islands,
and Son to Abba Thulle, Rupack or King
of the Island Coorooraa;
Who departed this life on the 27th of December, 1784,
Aged 20 Years.
This Stone is inscribed
by the Honorable United East India Company
as a Testimony of esteem for the humane and kind
Treatment afforded by his Father to the crew of
their ship, the ANTELOPE, Captain WILSON,
which was wrecked off that Island
In the Night of the 9th of August, 1783.

Stop, Reader, stop—let NATURE claim a Tear—
A Prince of Mine, Lee Boo, lies bury'd here.

As a memorial of the Antelope packet and the fortunate sojourn of her company in the Pelew Islands, a stately volume was prepared at the direction of the East India Company. This passage is worthy to be quoted in remembrance of King Abba Thulle:

The night before the schooner sailed, the king asked Captain Wilson how long it might be before his son's return to Pelew. Being told that it would be about thirty moons, or perhaps longer, Abba Thulle drew from his basket a piece of line and after making thirty knots in it, a little distance from each other, left a long space and then adding six other knots carefully put it by.

Thirty months to be counted one by one, and six more in the event of longer delay before the return of Lee Boo! A hundred and forty years have gone since the king of the Pelew Islands and Captain Henry Wilson of the Antelope were brothers in spirit, and the curse of civilization has long since blighted the manners and the morals of those simple people of the Pacific; but this story of a shipwreck survives with a certain noble distinction, and it helps to redeem the failures of weaker men to play the gallant part amid the cruel adversities of the sea.