The Jungle Fugitives/Lost in the South Sea


Captain William Gooding was commander of the Tewksbury Sweet, of Portland, Maine, and was lost in the South Pacific in the spring of 1889. This fine American bark sailed from New Castle, New South Wales, on the 17th of March, bound for Hong Kong. Everything went well until the 9th of the following month, when she encountered a severe gale. Despite all that skillful seamanship could do, and in the face of the most strenuous exertions, she struck the dangerous Susanne Reef, near Poseat Island, one of the Caroline group of the South Sea.

The wreck was a total one. The vessel broke up rapidly, and seeing that nothing could be done, the captain and crew, numbering ten men in all, took to one of the boats, carrying with them only a single chronometer belonging to the ship. Even after entering the small boat they were still in great danger, and only succeeded after the utmost difficulty in reaching a small islet some miles to the southward. The storm was still raging so violently that the shelter was a most welcome one, though as there were no animals or vegetation, or even water upon the island, their stay of necessity could be only temporary. They had saved nothing to eat or drink, and to remain where they were meant a lingering death.

After several hours waiting, the tempest abated somewhat, and launching their boat once more, they rowed toward the main island.

"The end is likely to be the same in either case," remarked the captain to the second mate, George W. Harrison, as they approached the land.

"And why?" inquired the latter: "we shall find food and water there."

"True enough; but there are no fiercer savages on the South Sea than those of this island, and I have never heard that they were particularly friendly toward the crews of shipwrecked vessels."

"They may not discover us until we can signal some passing ship."

"There is no possibility of any such good fortune as that."

"Stranger things have happened, and—"

"Does that look like it?" interrupted the captain in some excitement, pointing toward the island.

The sight that met the gaze of every one was startling. Fully thirty canoes, each filled with eight or ten natives, were putting off from shore and heading toward them. Several of the crew favored turning about, and putting to sea; but that would have been not only hopeless, but would have invited attack. Nothing is so encouraging to an enemy as flight on the part of his opponent. It impels him to greater exertions and gives him a bravery which otherwise he may not feel.

The savages, in their light, graceful craft, and with their great skill in manipulating them, would have overhauled the white men "hand over hand." There was a faint hope that by presenting a bold front, and acting as though they believed in the friendship of the savages that they might spare the unfortunates. At any rate, it was clear there was no choice but to go ahead, and the white men did so, rowing leisurely and calmly, though the chances in doing so were hastening their own doom.

There could be no mistaking the ardor of the ferocious natives. They paddled with might and main, and fully a dozen, in their eagerness, leaped into the sea and swam ahead of their canoes. They were magnificent swimmers, speeding through the water like so many dolphins. The Americans, even in their frightful peril, could not repress their admiration.

"Did you ever see anything like it?" asked first mate Watchman; "they are like so many sharks."

"They are indeed," was the significant response of Captain Gooding, "and I would like it better if they were real sharks."

"Here they are!"

Sure enough; they surrounded the boat in a twinkling, and shouting and screeching like so many demons, clambered over the gunwales until there was danger of swamping the craft.

Had our friends possessed firearms, they would have made a desperate resistance, and possibly might have beaten off their assailants; but, as it was, they acted the part of wisdom in offering no opposition to the presence or actions of their unwelcome visitors.

The latter proved that they meant business from the first, for hardly were they in the boat when they began stripping the officers and sailors of their property. When they ceased the men had nothing left but their undershirts, their despoilers flinging the garments into the canoes that now crowded around.

No more plunder being obtainable, the fleet headed for land, with their captives in anything but a cheerful frame of mind. The shore was lined with women and children, who answered the shouts of their friends in the boats by running back and forth, screeching and yelling and dancing, as if unable to restrain themselves until the arrival of their victims.

The sailors believed they would be speedily killed and eaten, the latter horror might have been escaped had they known, what they afterward learned, that the savages of those islands are not cannibals.

The poor fellows stepped from their boat upon the shore, where they were immediately environed by the fierce men, women and children, half naked, wild, boisterous, and seemingly impatient to rend them to pieces. The prisoners could do nothing but meekly await the next step in the tragedy.

It was during these trying moments that the sailors were astounded to hear, amid the babel of voices, several words spoken in English. Staring about them to learn the meaning of such a strange thing, they saw a man attired as were the others, that is with only a piece of cloth about his hips, whose complexion and features showed that he belonged to the same race with themselves.

He advanced in a cheery, hearty way, and shaking hands with the new arrivals, said:

"I think you did not expect to find me here."

"Indeed we did not," was the reply; "you appear to be an Englishman."

"So I am, and I am anxious to give you all the help I can, for your situation is anything but a desirable one."

"There can be no doubt of that. But how is it that you are here? Were you shipwrecked like ourselves?"

"No; I may say I was deserted. My name is Charles Irons, and I was left at Poseat by a trading vessel four years ago."

"How came that?"

"I was to act as the agent of a company of traders on the Cocoanut Islands. Well, the vessel left me, as I first told you, and that was the last of it. They forgot all about me, or more likely, did not care to keep their promise, for I have never seen anything of the vessel since."

"What an outrage!"

"It was, and there couldn't have been a more wretched person than I was for several months. I looked longingly out to sea for the ship that never came, and chafed like a man who is bound hand and foot. But," added the Englishman with a smile, "there is nothing like making the best of things. You can accustom yourself almost to anything if you will only make up your mind to do so. I was among these people and there was no help for it, so I decided to adopt their ways and become one of them."

"You decided when in Rome to do as the Romans do," suggested the captain, who, like his companions, was greatly cheered, not only by the presence and friendship of the Englishman, but by the fact that the savages, who watched the interview with interest, showed no disposition to interfere.

"That's it. There are a great many worse people in this world than these. They are not cannibals, as are many of their neighbors, and they have never harmed me."

"But what about us?" was the anxious inquiry.

The Englishman looked grave.

"I cannot say what their intentions are, but I am afraid they are bad. They have been used ill by some of the vessels that have stopped here, and are naturally suspicious of all white people. Then, too, they are revengeful, and like all barbarians are satisfied, if aggrieved against our race, to get their satisfaction out of any member of it, whether he is the one who injured them, or is entirely innocent."

"You seem to be regarded with high favor here."

"I am. I stand next to the chief in authority, so you see I have reason to believe I may be of some service to you. You may be sure that I shall leave no stone unturned to help you."

The captain and his companions gave expression to their deep gratitude, and Irons continued in his bluff, pleasant manner:

"I guess I am about as much a savage as any of them. If I hadn't been I never would have obtained any control over them. I have seven native wives, and find I am forgetting a great many details of civilization, while my desire to return home is growing less every day. After all, what difference does it make where you are? A man has only a few years to live, and as long as he is contented, he is a fool to rebel."

There may have been good philosophy in all this, and the captain did not attempt to gainsay it, but, all the same, it was hard for him to understand how any one could be so placed as to lose his yearning for his home and his native land.

It was several days afterward, when the captives had become somewhat accustomed to their surroundings, that Captain Gooding found he and his men were mixed in their reckoning.

"It is a question among us whether this is Thursday or Friday," said he, addressing Irons; "can you settle it for us?"

The Englishman looked at the captain in an odd way and replied:

"I haven't the remotest idea of what day in the week it is, nor what is the month. It seems four years ago that I was left here, but I am not sure of it. Will you please give me the year and month?"

"This is April, 1889."

The Englishman bent his head for a few minutes in deep thought. He was recalling the past, with its singular incidents of his career. When he looked up he said:

"Yes; it is four years and more since I was abandoned, and if you stay that long you will be content to remain all your lives."

The captain shook his head, and his eyes were dimmed as he replied:

"I never could forget the loved ones at home, Irons; I would prefer death at once to a lingering imprisonment here."

"Well, I am going to help you all to leave just as soon as it can be done. I understand how you feel, and sympathize with you."

The Englishman proved himself the most valuable kind of a friend. The authority which he possessed over these savage South Sea Islanders was stretched to the utmost, but he never hesitated to employ it. But for his presence the Americans would have been put to death within a few hours at most of their arrival on the mainland, and without his aid it would have been impossible for them ever to have gotten away.

When everything was in shape, Irons hired a canoe of the natives for the use of his friends. The craft was not large enough to contain all the party, and since all real peril had passed, there was no fear in following the course that had been agreed upon.

Captain Gooding, second mate Harrison; and one of the sailors left Poseat in the canoe, first mate Watchman and his six companions remaining on the island. This was ten days after the loss of the Tewksbury Sweet.

Captain Gooding and all the sailors were in the best of spirits, for they were confident that their wearisome captivity was substantially over. The three made their way from island to island, stopping at eight different points, sometimes for days, and even weeks. Finally they arrived at Ruk, where they found a missionary station, and received the most hospitable treatment.

The good men owned a boat abundantly large enough to carry twenty persons, and the captain asked its use with which to bring the rest of his crew from Poseat. This was asking more than would be supposed, for the missionaries told them that they were surrounded by hostile natives, who were liable to an outbreak at any hour, in which event the only means of escape the white men possessed was the boat.

The missionaries, however, gave their consent, and Captain Gooding, hoisting sail in the staunch centre-boarder, set sail for Poseat, where he safely arrived, without unnecessary delay. He found the first mate and his sailors well and in high spirits, though they were beginning to wonder whether their captain, like the friends of Irons, had not forgotten, and concluded to leave them to themselves.

No objection was offered to their departure, and bidding an affectionate good-by to the Englishman, who had proven the best kind of a friend, they returned to the missionary island. Two months later the missionary vessel, the Morning Star, arrived, and carried them all to Honolulu, which was reached in November. Thence Captain Gooding and a part of the crew were brought by the steamer Australia to San Francisco, from which point the captain made his way to his home in Yarmouth, where his family and friends welcomed him back as one risen from the dead, for they had long given up hope of ever seeing him again.