Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 5

 

CHAPTER V

THE ADVENTURES OF DAVID WOODARD, CHIEF MATE

LONG before the art of Joseph Conrad created Lord Jim to follow the star of his romantic destiny to the somber, misty coast of Patusan, an American sailor lived and dared amazingly among the sullen people of those same mysterious islands of the Far East. He was of the race of mariners whose ships were first to display the Stars and Stripes in those far-distant waters and to challenge the powerful monopolies of the British and Dutch East India companies. Only seven years earlier, in fact, the American ship Empress of China had ventured on the pioneering voyage to Canton. The seas still swarmed with pirates and every merchantman carried a heavy battery of guns and a crew which knew to use them. Amid such conditions were trained the sailors who were to man the Constitution and the other matchless frigates of 1812.

The American ship Enterprise sailed from Batavia for Manila on the twentieth of January, 1793, and laid a course to pass through the Straits of Macassar. Head winds and currents kept her beating to and fro in this torrid passage for six weeks on end, and the grumbling crew began to wonder if they had signed in another Flying Dutchman. Food was running short, for this protracted voyage had not been expected, and while the Enterprise drifted becalmed on the greasy tide, another ship was sighted about five miles distant.

Captain Hubbard ordered the chief mate, David Woodard, to take a boat and five seamen and row off to this other vessel and try to buy some stores. The men were William Gideon, John Cole, Archibald Miller, Robert Gilbert, and George Williams. Expecting to be gone only a few hours, they took no food or water, and all they carried with them was an ax, a boat-hook, two pocket-knives, a disabled musket, and forty dollars.

It was sunset when they pulled alongside the other ship, which was China bound and had no provisions to spare. A strong squall and heavy rains prevented them from returning to the Enterprise that night, and they stayed where they were until next morning. Then the wind shifted and blew fresh from the southward to sweep the Enterprise on her course, and she had already vanished hull down and under. Stout-hearted David Woodard guessed he could find her again, confident that Captain Hubbard would not desert him, and his men cheerfully tumbled into the boat after him.

The skipper of the China ship, a half-caste with a crew of Lascars, was a surly customer who seemed anxious to be rid of his visitors. As a friend in need he was a glaring failure. Protesting that he had no fresh water to spare, all that their money could buy of him was a bottle of brandy and twelve musket-cartridges. The Yankee sailors tugged at the oars all day long, but caught never a glimpse of the missing Enterprise. At nightfall they landed on an island and found water fit to drink, but nothing to eat. A large fire was built on the beach in the hope of attracting the attention of their ship, but there was no responsive signal.

It was the land of Conrad's magic fancies, where "the swampy plains open out at the mouth of rivers, with a view of blue peaks beyond the vast forests. In the offing a chain of islands, dark, crumbling shapes, stand out in the everlasting sunlit haze like the remnants of a wall broached by the sea."

The chief mate and his five hardy seamen tightened their leather belts another hole and shoved off again in the small open boat. For six days they sailed the Straits, blown along by one rain squall after another, until they were within sight of the coast of Celebes. Hunger and thirst then compelled them to seek the land and risk death at the hands of the savage Malays. It was their hope to proceed by sea to Macassar, which they reckoned lay about three degrees to the southward.

They must have had a little water during these six days, but David Woodard's statement that the rations were a few cocoanuts is entirely credible. Many a boat-load of castaways has died or gone mad after privations no more severe, while on the other hand a crew of toughened seamen, in the prime of their youth, is exceedingly hard to kill.

Toward a cove on this unknown, hostile shore of Celebes the gaunt sailors wearily steered their boat and beached it in the languid ripple of surf. They had no sooner crawled ashore than two proas skimmed in from seaward, dropping anchor and making ready to send off a canoe filled with armed Malays. Woodard shouted to his men, and they pushed the boat out and scrambled into it before they were discovered. Skirting a bight of the shore, they headed for the open sea and dodged away from the proas.

Four miles beyond, after they had rounded a green point of land, a feathery cocoanut-grove ran to the water's-edge, and they could go no farther. The mate left two men to guard the boat, and the three others went with him; but they were too weak to climb the trees, and had to hack away at the trunks with an ax. Two of them were mere lads who made such bungling work of it that Woodard sent for a couple of the stronger men in the boat, leaving Archibald Miller alone with it. They were busy gathering cocoanuts to carry to sea with them when poor Millar was heard to "scream aloud in the bitterest manner." The mate ran to the beach and saw his precious boat filled with Malays, who were just shoving oif in it. On the sand lay Miller, who had been hacked to death with creeses.

David Woodard and four sailors were therefore marooned with no resources whatever, but they talked it over and agreed to try to get to Macassar by land. Leaving the swampy coast, they slowly toiled toward the blue mountains and, afraid of discovery, concluded to hide themselves in the jungle until night. Then with a star for their guide they bore south, but progress was almost impossible, and they lost their bearings in the dense growth. After blundering about in this manner for several nights, they turned toward the sea again in the hope of finding some kind of native boat. They had existed for thirteen days since losing their ship, and it is evident that the indomitable spirit of the mate kept the other men going.

"Woodard was himself stout in person," explains the narrative, "and much accustomed to fatigue and exercise, whence he felt less exhausted, particularly from keeping up his spirits and having his mind constantly engaged."

At length they came to a deep bay between the mountains, and lay hidden all day in a leafy ambush while they watched the Malay fishermen in their canoes. Three of the sailors were taken desperately ill after eating some yellow berries and thought they were about to die; but the mate could not tolerate this kind of behavior, "although his comrades now resembled corpses more than living men." He used rough language, damned them as worthless swabs if a stomach-ache was to make them lie down and quit, and then went in search of water for them until he found some in a hollow tree. But his strength and courage could haul them along no farther and reluctantly he admitted that they would have to surrender themselves to the natives.

They went down to the beach of the bay, wondering what their fate might be, John Cole, who was a stripling lad of seventeen, blubbering that he would sooner die in the woods than be killed by the Malays. The canoes had gone away, but three brown-skinned girls were fishing in a brook, and they fled when they saw the tattered castaways. Presently a group of men came down a forest path,
 
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WOODARD RAISED HIS EMPTY HANDS TO ASK FOR PEACE AND MERCY

 
and Woodard walked forward to meet them, raising his empty hands to ask for peace and mercy.

The Malays stood silent for a long time, and then the chief advanced to lay down his creese and ceremoniously accept the strangers as captives. They were given food and conducted to a little town of bamboo huts, there to await the pleasure of the rajah in what Woodard called the judgment hall, while all the villagers gathered about them.

Soon the rajah strode in, tall and straight and warlike, a long, naked creese in his hand. These were the first white men that had ever been seen in his wild domain. He gazed admiringly at the stalwart chief mate, who looked him straight in the eyes, while the people murmured approval of the captive's bearing, for "he was six feet and an inch high, strong in proportion, and the largest-boned person they had ever beheld."

These were two bold, upstanding men who stood face to face in the judgment hall, and the rajah, after consultation with his chiefs, gave each of the five American sailors a betel-nut to chew as a token of his gracious inclination to spare their lives.

For twenty days they were closely held as prisoners in this forest settlement, during which time two old men arrived from another town and displayed a lively interest in the situation. They toddled off into the jungle, but came again with a Mahomedan priest called Tuan Hadjee, who was a bit of a linguist in that he spoke a few words of English, some Portuguese, and a smattering of the Moorish tongue. He was a man of the world, having journeyed to Bombay and Bengal on his way to Mecca, and displayed a letter from the British governor of Balambangan, on the island of Borneo, to show that he was a good and trustworthy person and was empowered to assist all distressed Englishmen.

This Tuan Hadjee lived up to his credentials, for he offered the rajah a hundred dollars in gold-dust as ransom for the five seamen, which price was haughtily refused, and the kindly priest went away to see what else could be done about it. Nothing more was seen of this amiable pilgrim, and the Americans were set to work in the forest to clear the fields or to gather sago. After two months they were left unguarded by day, but shut up in a house at night. Week after week dragged by in this wearisome drudgery, but they kept alive, and their spirit was unbroken, although the food was poor and scanty and the tropical heat scorched the very souls out of them.

At the end of half a year of this enslavement another rajah who seems to have been a kind of overlord of the region summoned them into his presence at a town on the sea-coast. There Woodard almost died of fever, but a woman befriended him and greatly helped to save his life. The episode suggests a romance, and this viking of a sailor who drifted in so strangely from an unknown world was a man to win the love of women. In this respect, however, he was discreetly silent when it came to relating the story of his wanderings in Celebes, and the interest which he inspired is sedately described as follows:

 
At her first visit she looked at him some time in silence, then went to the bazaar and bought some tobacco and bananas which she presented to him, as also a piece of money. Seeing him scantily clothed, she asked whether he had no more clothing and whether he would have some tea. Then carrying one of the other sick men home with her, she gave him tea and a pot to boil it in. She likewise sent rice and some garments, with a pillow and two mats. This good woman was of royal blood and married to a Malay merchant. These were not her only gifts, for she proved a kind friend to the seamen while they were at that place. Another house being provided for the five men, Woodard, unable to walk, was carried thither accompanied by a great concourse of young females who immediately on his arrival kindled a fire and began to boil rice. His fever still continued very severe and on the morning of the fourth day of his residence an old woman appeared with a handful of boughs, announcing that she was come to cure him and that directly. In the course of a few minutes four or five more old women were seen along with her, according to the custom of the country in curing the sick. They spent the day in brushing him with the boughs of the trees and used curious incantations. The ceremony was repeated in the evening and he was directed to go and bathe in the river. Although he put little faith in the proceedings, the fever abated and he speedily began to recover.
 

From a Dutch fort seventy miles away the commandant came to see Woodard and invited him to return with him, offering to buy him out of slavery. The chief mate refused, because he was afraid of being compelled to join the Dutch military service. He was shrewd enough to perceive that this was what the commandant had in mind, and he therefore begged to be sent to Macassar, whence he could make his way to Batavia. At this the commandant lost interest in the castaways and made no more attempt to help them.

Soon after this they were carried back to the village of their first imprisonment, but Woodard had seen blue water again and he was resolved to risk his life for liberty. Eluding his guards, he took a spear for a weapon and followed the forest paths all night until he emerged on a beach, where he discovered a canoe and paddled out to sea. Rough water swamped the ticklish craft, and he had to swim half a mile to get to land again. Back he trudged to his hut on the mountain-side and crawled into it before dawn.

Undiscouraged, he broke away again, and made for a town called Dungalla, where he had a notion that his friend Tuan Hadjee, the priest, might be found. He somehow steered a course through the forests and ravines and fetched up at the stockade which surrounded Dungalla. As a disquieting apparition he alarmed a nervous old gentleman, who scampered off to shriek to the village that a gigantic white devil was sitting on a log at the edge of the clearing. The old codger turned out to be a servant of Tuan Hadjee, who warmly welcomed the chief mate and took him into his house as a guest.

The rajah to whom Woodard belonged got wind of his whereabouts and wrathfully demanded that he be sent back. The prideful rajah of Dungalla refused in language no less provocative. Woodard smuggled a message through to his men, urging them to escape and join him.. This they succeeded in doing, and the people of Dungalla were delighted to receive them. This episode strained the relations of the two rajahs to the breaking-point, and war was promptly declared.

Inasmuch as they were the bone of contention, Woodard and his seamen promptly offered to fight on the side of the rajah of Dungalla; so they proceeded to imperil their skins in one of those tribal feuds which eternally flicker and smolder in the Malaysian forests. Woodard was placed in command of a tower upon the stockade wall, where he served a brass swivel and hammered obedience into a native detachment. His sun-blistered, leech-bitten sailors, clad only in sarongs, held the other barricade with creeses and muskets, and were regarded as supernatural heroes by the simple soldiery of the rajah.

A drawn battle was fought, with about two hundred men in each army, and a good many were killed or wounded. After that the war dragged along and seemed to be getting nowhere, and the chief mate lost all patience with it; so he bearded the rajah and flatly told him that his men would fight no longer unless some assurance was given that they would be conveyed to Macassar.

The rajah was stubborn and evasive and bruskly commanded the high-tempered Yankees to return to their posts on the firing-line. Woodard argued no longer, but marched back to his watch-tower, sent for his seamen, and told them to turn in their muskets. Before the astonished rajah had decided how to deal with this mutiny, the five mariners broke out of the town under cover of darkness and stole a canoe, carrying with them as much food as they could hastily lay hands on. They were delayed in a search for paddles, and a sentry gave the alarm.

Twenty soldiers surrounded them and dragged them back to the rajah, who locked them up, while he chewed betel-nut and meditated on the case of these madmen who refused to be tamed. Just then the priest Tuan Hadjee was sailing for another port, and he vainly petitioned the royal assent to taking the American sailors along with him. The rajah's wrathful refusal so annoyed the impetuous chief mate that he organized another dash for freedom. Captivity, privation, and disappointment seemed to daunt him not at all.

This time the five mariners surprised the sentries at the gates, deftly tied them up, and lugged them to the beach. There a large canoe was discovered, and the fugitives piled aboard and hoisted the sail of cocoanut matting. Unmolested, they moved out of the starlit bay and flitted along the coast until sunrise. Then they hauled in to hide at an island until night. While making sail again, one of the men carelessly stepped upon the gunwale of the cranky craft, and it instantly capsized almost a mile from shore.

They climbed upon the bottom, managed to save the paddles, and navigated the canoe back to the island by swimming with it. There they rekindled their fire, dried and warmed themselves, and were ready to try it again. They had lost the sail and mast, but they paddled all night and began to hope that they had gone clear of their troublesome rajah.

In the morning, however, a proa swooped down like a hawk, and again the unlucky seamen were taken captive. They told the Malay captain that they were bound to the port for which Tuan Hadjee had sailed, as he was a friend and protector of theirs, and requested that they be landed there. Apparently the amiable priest had some power and influence even among the cutthroats who manned these proas, for the captain agreed to do as he was asked, and he proved to be as good as his word.

In this manner the chief mate and his men were carried to the port, which they called Sawyeh. Tuan Hadjee was there, and he gave them a house and was a genial host while they looked the situation over and endeavored to unravel the strands of their tangled destiny. The priest entertained them with tales of his own career, which had been lurid in spots. He was now sixty years of age, with a girl wife of sixteen, and a man of great piety and much respected, but in his younger days he had been a famous pirate of the island of Mindanao.

Among his exploits was the capture of a Dutch settlement in the Strait of Malacca, when he had commanded a proa of ten guns and two hundred men. He had been in a fair way of becoming one of the most successful pirates of those seas, but while chasing a merchant vessel his proa had turned turtle in a gale of wind, and he thereby lost all his property and riches. After this misfortune he had forsaken piracy and turned to leading an honorable life.

He was an excellent companion to these exiled sailormen from faraway New England and even gave them the use of an island where there was fruit and wild game and a pleasant house to live in, but they were no more contented. After several weeks, Tuan Hadjee anounced that he had some business to attend to on another part of the coast, but would return in twenty days and then attempt to send the chief mate and his men to their own people at Batavia. While he was gone, a merchant proa came into port, and Woodard found that she was bound to Stilu, in the Philippine Islands, whence he felt certain he could get passage in some ship trading with Manila. In high hopes he arranged matters with the master of the proa, and the five castaways sailed away from Celebes.

Alas! this Malay skipper was an honest man, according to his lights, and the gossip of the town had led him to draw his own conclusions. His inference was that these white men belonged to Tuan Hadjee and were bent on running away during his absence. No hint was dropped to Woodard and his companions, and they happily beguiled themselves with visions of deliverance. But the captain of the proa had taken pains to inform himself of the destination of the absent Tuan Hadjee; wherefore he shifted his helm and bore away, to turn his passengers over to their proper owner. To their amazed disgust, they sailed into a little jungle-fringed port called Tomboa, and there, sure enough, was the no less surprised Tuan Hadjee.

The honest Malay skipper explained the situation and sailed away again, while Woodard and his disconsolate shipmates stood on the beach and cursed their luck and shook their fists at the departing proa.

Their reunion with Tuan Hadjee was a painful episode. As a reformed pirate he could swear harder and louder and longer than a Yankee seaman. He took the Malay skipper's view of it, that these guests of his had broken faith with him by absconding while his back was turned. The chief mate had learned to adorn his language with an extra embroidery of Malaysian profanity, and the interview was not only eloquent, but turbulent. Then Tuan Hadjee, having exhausted his breath, turned sulky, and the villagers took the cue. They ignored the white visitors as though they were under a ban of excommunication until Woodard delivered a speech in the crowded market-place.

Speaking to them in their own tongue, he eloquently declaimed that the unfortunate strangers had been guilty of no other crime than that of yearning to behold once more the faces of their own dear wives and children. The feelings of Tuan Hadjee were profoundly stirred by the oration. Amid the applause of the fickle populace he clasped the chief mate to his breast, and vowed that while a mouthful of rice remained to him, his friends should share it with him.

Nothing was said, however, about setting the captives free, and these energetic sailors began to plan another voyage on their own account. Tuan Hadjee shrewdly suspected something of the sort, and all the canoes were carried away from the beach and guarded when the sun went down. A pirate proa came winging it into the harbor of Tomboa to fill the water-casks and give the crew shore liberty. Woodard noticed that the men came ashore in a canoe unusually large and seaworthy, and resolved to steal it by hook or crook. He asked the sociable pirates to let him use the canoe to go fishing in and offered to share the catch with them. To this they consented, providing he went out in the daytime and stayed well inside the bay.

After several fishing trips, Woodard sauntered down to the beach in the dusk as though to overhaul the canoe for an early start next morning. The villagers had ceased to watch his movements. The proa rode at anchor only a few yards away, where the channel ran close to a steep bank. The pirates were lounging on deck and in the cabin, and none of them happened to glance in the direction of the canoe. Woodard waited a little, and slid the canoe into the quiet water. As silent as a drifting leaf it moved away with the tide, while he lay in the bottom with a fishing-line over the side as a pretext if he should be hailed from the proa.

Unobserved, he landed at another beach, where his comrades awaited him. They embarked, and stole out of the bay with food and water to last them several days. At last they were bound for Macassar and again ready to defy the devil and the deep sea. For three days they held on their way and began to think the luck had turned when a small proa tacked out from the land and overtook the canoe. Woodard recognized the crew as acquaintances of his from Tomboa, and frankly told them where he was going. They commanded him to fetch his men aboard the proa, and they would be given up to the rajah of Tomboa; but the odds were so nearly even, five Americans against seven natives, that Woodard laughed at them. Hoisting sail, he drove his canoe to windward of the proa, and handled it so well that he fairly ran away from pursuit.

The wind was too strong for the fragile canoe, and they had to seek refuge in the mouth of a river, where they built a fire to cook some rice. Here they encountered two natives who had come ashore from a trading proa, one of them a captain who had seen the fugitives while at Tomboa. He insisted that they surrender and return with him. Tired of so much interference, the chief mate knocked him down, and held a knife at his throat until the Malay mariner changed his opinion.

The proa chased them, however, when the canoe resumed its voyage; but night came on, and a thunder squall enabled them to slip away undiscovered. Eight days after leaving Tomboa they began to pass many towns and a great deal of shipping on the coast of Celebes, but they doggedly kept on their course to Macassar. They fought off a war-canoe, which attacked them with arrows and spears, but had no serious misadventures until a large boat came swiftly paddling out of an inlet and fairly overwhelmed them by force of numbers.

Captives again, the five long-suffering seafarers were carried into Pamboon, where the rajah found them unsatisfactory to interview. David Woodard, chief mate, was in no mood to be thwarted, and it is related of him that "he was examined in the presence of the rajah and all the head men of the place. He made the same answers as before, saying that he must not be stopped and must go on immediately, thus being more desperate and confident from the dangers and escapes he had experienced. The rajah asked him if he could use a musket well, which he denied, having formerly found the inconvenience of acknowledging it. The rajah then showed him a hundred brass guns, but he declined taking charge of them. His wife, a young girl, sat down by the mate and, calling her sister and about twenty other girls, desired them to sit down, and asked Woodard to select a wife from among them. This he refused and, rising up, bade her good night and went out of the house, where they soon brought him some supper."

In the morning this redoubtable Yankee mate who, like Ulysses, was deaf to the songs of the sirens and was also as crafty as he was brave, waited on the rajah of Pamboon and very courteously addressed him in the Malay tongue, requesting prompt passage to Macassar on the ground that the Dutch governor had urgently summoned him, and if he were detained at Pamboon, it would be most unpleasant for the rajah, whose proas would be seized and his ports blockaded, no doubt, by way of punishment.

This gave the haughty rajah something to think about. The fearless demeanor and impressive stature of this keen-eyed mariner made his words convincing. After due reflection, the rajah sent for the captain of a proa, and told him to take these troublesome white men to Macassar with all possible haste. Woodard was worn out, his bare back terribly burned and festered, his strength almost ebbed, and he had to be hoisted aboard the proa upon a litter; but he was still the resolute, unconquerable seaman and leader. The accommodations were so wretched that after three days of suffering he ordered the proa to set him ashore and to send word to the nearest rajah.

This was done, and the dusky potentate who received the message did all in his power to make the party comfortable, fitting out a proa, which enabled them to make the final run of the voyage with no more hardship. Tales of Woodard had passed by word of mouth along the coasts of Celebes until he was almost a legendary character. It was on June 15, 1795, that these five wanderers reached their goal of Macassar after two years and five months of captivity among the Malays. They were not only alive, every man of them, but not one was permanently broken in health.

The Dutch governor of the island and the officers of the garrison of the Dutch East India Company treated them with the most generous hospitality, providing clothes and money and refusing to listen to promises of recompense. They soon sailed for Batavia, where the four sailors, William Gideon, John Cole, Robert Gilbert, and George Williams signed articles in an American ship bound to Boston, and resumed the hard and hazardous toil of the sea to earn their bread. Their extraordinary experience was all in the day's work, and it is unlikely that they thought very much about it.

Woodard took a berth as chief mate in another American ship that was sailing for Calcutta and while in that port was offered command of a country ship engaged in the coastwise trade. During one of his voyages he was strolling ashore when he came face to face with Captain Hubbard of the Enterprise, which had vanished in the Straits of Macassar and left its unlucky boat adrift. The delighted captain explained that he had waited and cruised about for three days in a search for the missing boat and had given it up for lost.

He warmly urged Woodard to join him in his fine new ship, the America, and go to Mauritius. The former chief mate gladly accepted the invitation, for he was homesick for his own flag and people. At Mauritius Captain Hubbard gave up the command because of ill health and turned it over to David Woodard. Thus the true story all turned out precisely as should be, and it was Captain Woodard who trod the quarterdeck of his taut ship America as she lifted her lofty spars in the lovely harbor of Mauritius.

Coincidence is often stranger in fact than in fiction. Before he left Mauritius, Captain Woodard ran across three of his old sailors of the open boat and the two years of captivity among the Malays. They had been wrecked on another China voyage, and were in distress for lack of clothes and money. Their old chief mate, now a prosperous shipmaster, with a share in the profits of the voyage, outfitted them handsomely and left them with dollars in their pockets.

In later years Captain David Woodard traded to Batavia, and met more than one Malay who had seen him or had listened to fabulous tales of his prowess during his long durance in the jungles and mountains of Celebes. In 1804 this splendid adventurer of the old merchant marine was able to retire from the sea with an independent income. Near Boston he bought a farm and lived on it, and this was the proper way to cast anchor, for such is the ambition of all worthy mariners when they cease to furrow the blue sea.