Custodian of the Islands

Having performed the last sad ceremony over the remains of our colleagues, we turned our attention to getting back to Queensland, and although we were thus left short handed, we did not consider our position a desperate one.

During all the excitement of the experiences of the incidents thus record, I had lain down to rest, and as I slept a vision came to me of a man of immense stature standing upon our ship’s deck, with this head reaching as it were into heaven. Although immense and glorious in stature, I had no fear of his presence, but entered into a familiar conversation with Him. He was the custodian of the islands, and directed the winds and the waves. His protection and preservation extended to all who mad His acquaintance, for He came to all who sought Him. His brilliance cast a gleam of glory over the Petrel, and all my anxieties about getting back to Australia vanished, so much so that in their place a most exuberant and overpowering confidence, which still sustained me when I awoke. Without acquainting the captain to the cause of my sudden confidence in ourselves, I accosted him the next morning saying, “We will get back to Queensland all right.”

“Aye, aye, how do you make that out?” responds the captain.

“Well,” said I, in reply, “the Port Patterson natives have got splendid sea legs, and they can go aloft like cats. You let Jim Garnet work the bore bowline and head sheets, and I will work the braces with a detachment of natives, putting the weather braces in their hands to haul the fore-yard when directed. You take another contingent to work the main sheet, and we will take the ship back to Port Mackay alright.”

We had already initiated a program of proceedings in this style on the passage between Aoba and our present anchorage, and I saw no difficulty in its continuance. The captain fell in with the idea, so that in anticipation we had already reached Australia. Necessity is the mother of invention and likewise the author of expedients. I recollect at one time, when a boy, being on board a ship short handed, we utilized the presence of some greenhorns to haul when required on black or white ropes, whereby they were taught to distinguish sheets and braces of Manilla from the halyards of European rope.

On the morning of May 1st, we weighed anchor at 7 o’clock, and sailed away on our homeward route from the bay which had proved a commodious haven for upwards of a week, where we had been fortunate in meeting with friendly natives, and received an impressive lesson conveyed to us by the death of the three men who but a week previously had been moving about in health and strength. Our Santo recruits maintained their ardor for emigration up to the last, and were proof against all entreaties o of the closest friendly ties to alter their determination. One woman came off in a canoe and sought to persuade her husband to jump overboard from the ship, but her lord and master was inflexible in his resolution to travel and see the world. We sought to impress upon them the advantage they would gain if they took their wives with them, and received six pounds per annum for their services. They replied to the suggestion by saying that it was requisite their wives should remain behind and feed the pigs. Now, as they scarcely ever possess more than a couple of pigs, and the value of these animals is an eight penny knife, their ponderous calculation is but a short sighted one. The native of Espiruto Santo are very savage and treacherous, and it is only at the mission station that it is safe to be amongst them. The children are very intelligent, and seem good material for missionary labor. At present the tribe lives in a very primitive style, wearing scarcely any clothing, but display a hopeful degree of intelligence; and if they can be secured from the contaminating influence of unprincipled Europeans, a very short period may do much to improved them.

We sighted a barque making for Port Sandwich, another part of the island, where, we heard shortly after our return to Australia, that the chief officer of that ship has been massacred.

Espiritu Santo is a large island some fifty miles long, the habitation of numerous tribes that are continually fighting with each other. Even the neighboring tribe to the mission station could not be trusted, being not peaceable disposed or on terms of communication with the tribe amongst which we landed. We saw a very large fire amongst them as we were sailing away from the island, which we learned was the performance of a great cannibal festivity about to come off. The tribe had returned victorious with some prisoners of war, who were going to be the subject of the cannibal feast, not very far from the spot where we had nearly made an involuntary landing. The massive clouds of black smoke rising from these tragical flames were apt emblems of the works of darkness in operation.

After a lengthened passage down the western side of Malicola we arrived at Apie, in Tasikah, on May 4. We happily succeeded in landing all the Apie men and their belongings before evening, and stood off the land, intending to proceed to Tonga, if possible, on the next day. This we accomplished, anchoring on the western side of Tonga shortly after noon on the 5th instant. The principal object of the vessel calling in here was to procure a supply of yams for the voyage to Port Mackay, and probably obtain some few recruits. We lay here for two or three days, and had no difficulty in obtaining yams, but any prospect of recruits was hopeless. We found the natives very friendly, but by no means unwary.

Tonga has always been regarded as a friendly island. We found many of its islanders understood a smattering of English. One canoe came off to us with a load of yams, the canoe being manned by eight men, who were armed with four loaded muskets and four tomahawks, which they did not put out of hand until they saw that they had nothing to apprehend from us. Still they exhibited nothing but the most friendly demeanor, and after a short time laid down their weapons and went over the ship perfectly unsuspicious. The arms they carried seemed but a precaution dictated by the bucanneering habits of Fiji cruisers in these seas. They sold their yams and departed, giving very little prospect that any of their countrymen would emigrate to Queensland; they say many of their men go away, but none come back. We understood from those who spoke English that they had been in Brisbane, New Caledonia, and Tanna, and all of them complained of the very trifling remuneration they had received in those places – merely a musket, a few bullets, some powder, strips of calico and other minor trinkets, for a service of three years. We bought down one Tongan native, and he had returned with a good quantity of luggage. We pointed to this as an indication of what they could likewise obtain by proceeding to Queensland; they replied they had plenty of yam on shore, and that their island supplied them with all they wanted.

After the loss of the mate and seaman from their wounds at Aoba, it was impossible for the vessel to recruit further for laborers, there not being hands to man the ship and the boat also, as recruiting vessels generally stand off an don while the boat recruits along the shore. The Petrel could no longer proceed in this manner, and as we had called at all the islands where it was safe to anchor, we could now do no other than return to Port Mackay. We accordingly weighed anchor from Tonga on the 8th May and stood on our course homeward. During the day we sighted a large brig, a stranger to us, evidently recruiting in these seas, as we caught sight of her top gallant sails occasionally during several past days; she seemed to have met with little success, for we did not see a Polynesian on board of her; we made her out to be painted black, with brown varnished yards and spars, an after deck house, and apparently her recruiting boat (a large one with two masts) towing astern. With a fine fresh breeze we stood to the southward, passing between Mai and Cook’s Reef, and at noon the northern end of Sandwich bore E.S.E. For several days we experienced a succession of very fine weather – a moderate air in the morning, which, towards afternoon would die away to dead calm; thus our long protracted hope of squaring the yards for Australia would seem threatened with indefinite postponement. We encountered thus a succession of light airs and calms until the morning of the 15th when we were off to Walpole Island, about five miles to the south-east of it; here we encountered a hard gale from the south-east, which prevented our rounding New Caledonia for two days. On the 17th it veered to E.N.E. and at 4 p.m. we lost sight behind us of Walpole Island, while we were going eight knots an hour, standing to the southward, all of us in cheerful hopes of a good run to Australia. Patience is a virtue, and for a cruise amongst the New Hebrides at the time we have been amongst them, an exercise of this said virtue has been necessary; calms and baffling winds have protracted the voyage beyond ordinary calculations and oftentimes rendering very appropriate the poetic line

Far more the treacherous calm I dread
Than tempests bursting o’er my head

A sailor says that it is only a hurricane that is a greater calamity than a calm, for on the open sea the rolling swell is terrible, the ship losing steerage way and wallowing in the trough of rollers, with the heavy booms, gaffs and yards swinging and surging; the running rigging is subjected to wear and tear imperilling our future safety, of which we had a moderate experience when weathering Walpole Island; seeing the cliffs and breakers in under our lee the captain remarks, “If anything was to carry away just now it would be ugly.” A few hours afterwards the throat halyards of the mainsail parted and down came the jaws of the gaff; providentially the wind was light and the seas smooth. Had the incident occurred when weathering Walpole Island a ship would not have cleared it.