Transcribed from the 1899 George Newnes edition by David Price, email email@example.com
THE ADVENTURES OF LOUIS DE ROUGEMONT As Told by Himself
With Forty-six Illustrations
London George Newnes, Limited Southampton Street, Strand 1899
[All rights reserved]
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. At the Ballantyne Press
To my Devoted Wife,
The Noblest Work of the Creator, A GOOD WOMAN,
And to her People, my True and Streadfast Friends, who never wavered in their confidence or attachment, and to whom I owe the Preservation of my Life,
Is gratefully Dedicated
Early life—Leaving home—I meet Jensen—I go pearling—Daily routine—Submarine beauties—A fortune in pearls—Seized by an octopus—Shark-killing extraordinary—Trading with the natives—Impending trouble—Preparing for the attack—Baffling the savages.
I was born in or near Paris, in the year 1844. My father was a fairly prosperous man of business—a general merchant, to be precise, who dealt largely in shoes; but when I was about ten years old, my mother, in consequence of certain domestic differences, took me to live with her at Montreux, and other places in Switzerland, where I was educated. I visited many of the towns near Montreux, including Lausanne, Geneva, Neufchatel, &c. The whole of the time I was at school I mixed extensively with English boys on account of their language and sports, both of which attracted me.
Boys soon begin to display their bent, and mine, curiously enough, was in the direction of geology. I was constantly bringing home pieces of stone and minerals picked up in the streets and on the mountains, and asking questions about their origin and history. My dear mother encouraged me in this, and later on I frequently went to Freiburg, in the Black Forest, to get a practical insight into smelting. When I was about nineteen, however, a message arrived from my father, directing me to return to France and report myself as a conscript; but against this my mother resolutely set her face. I fancy my father wanted me to take up the army as a career, but in deference to my mother's wishes I remained with her in Switzerland for some time longer. She and I had many talks about my future, and she at length advised me to take a trip to the East, and see what the experience of travel would do for me. Neither of us had any definite project in view, but at length my mother gave me about 7000 francs and I set out for Cairo, intending eventually to visit and make myself acquainted with the French possessions in the Far East. My idea was to visit such places as Tonkin, Cochin-China, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, &c. My mother was of the opinion that if I saw a bit of the world in this way I would be more inclined to settle down at home with her at the end of my wanderings. The primary cause of my going away was a little love episode. Whilst at Montreux I fell in love with a charming young lady at a boarding-school near my home. She was the daughter of some high personage in the court of Russia—but exactly what position he held I cannot say. My mother was quite charmed with the young lady and viewed our attachment with delight. But when my father heard of the matter he raised a decided objection to it, and ordered me to return to France and join the army. He had, as I have previously intimated, made his own plans for my future, even to the point of deciding upon a future wife for me, as is customary in France; but I resolutely declined to conform to his wishes in this respect, and my mother quite sided with me. I never quite knew how he got to hear of my love affair, but I conclude that my mother must have mentioned it to him. I only stayed a few days in the wonderful metropolis of Egypt; its noises, its cosmopolitanism, its crowds—these, and many other considerations, drove me from the city, and I set out for Singapore.
I had not been many days in that place when, chancing to make inquiries at a store kept by a Mr. Shakespeare, I was casually introduced to a Dutch pearl-fisher named Peter Jensen. Although I describe him as a Dutch pearler I am somewhat uncertain as to his exact nationality. I am under the impression that he told me he came from Copenhagen, but in those days the phrase "Dutchman" had a very wide application. If a man hailed from Holland, Sweden, Norway, or any neighbouring country, he was always referred to as a Dutchman. This was in 1863. We grew quite friendly, Jensen and I, and he told me he had a small forty-ton schooner at Batavia, in which sturdy little craft he used to go on his pearling expeditions.
"I am now," he said, "about to organise a trip to some untouched pearling grounds off the south of New Guinea, but have not sufficient capital to defray the preliminary expenses."
This hint I took, and I offered to join him. He once agreed, and we commenced our preparations without delay—in Batavia. Now when a pearler engaged a crew of native divers there in those days, he had to deposit beforehand with the Dutch Government a certain sum for each man entering his service, this money being a guarantee that the man would get his wages. Well, I placed all the money that I had with me at Captain Jensen's disposal, provided he gave me a share in the venture we were about to undertake. "We will not," he said to me in Singapore, "draw up an agreement here, but will do so at Batavia," and forthwith we set sail for that place. Before leaving Singapore, however, Jensen bought some nautical instruments he could not get at Batavia—including compasses, quadrant, chronometer, &c. Strange to say, he did not tell me that his ship was named the Veielland until we had arrived at Batavia. Here the contract was duly drawn up, and the vessel fitted out for the voyage. I fancy this was the first time Jensen had embarked on a pearling expedition on a craft of the size of the Veielland, his previous trips having been undertaken on much smaller vessels, say of about ten tons. Although the fitting out of the ship was left entirely in his hands, I insisted upon having a supply of certain stores for myself put aboard—things he would never have thought about. These included such luxuries as tinned and compressed vegetables, condensed milk, &c. Jensen did not even think of ship's biscuits until I called his attention to the oversight. He demurred at first about buying them, but I told him I would not go until we had the biscuits aboard. Jensen was a very bluff, enigmatic sort of fellow, as I afterwards found out. He was of a sullen, morose nature, and I could never get much out of him about his past. He would not speak about himself under any circumstances, and at no time of our acquaintance was he any sort of a sociable companion. He was very hard upon the sailors under him, and was much addicted to the use of strong language. I admit that I was an absolute "muff" in those days, and Jensen was quick to grasp the fact. He was very fond of schnapps, whilst I hated the smell of the stuff. Moreover, he was a great smoker, and here again our tastes differed.
Our preparations in Batavia complete, we next went over to the islands of the Dutch Archipelago, and engaged forty experienced Malay divers to accompany us. Jensen was very particular in selecting the men, each being required to demonstrate his capabilities before us. The way he tested them prior to actually engaging them was to make each dive after a bright tin object thrown into so many fathoms of water. Altogether he spent several weeks choosing his crew. He had engaged a couple of Malays at Batavia to help in the work of navigating the ship, but besides being sailors these men were also good divers. The majority of the other Malays were only useful as divers, and took no part in the working of the ship. A native serang, or "boss," was appointed as chief, or foreman, over the Malays, and he was permitted to take with him his wife and her maid. This "serang" had to be a first-class diver himself, and had also to be acquainted with the manoeuvring of a small boat. He was also required to have a smattering of navigation generally. Above all, he had to be able to assert authority over the other divers; and in all these respects our serang was thoroughly proficient.
I may here explain that shortly after leaving Batavia the captain had the ship repainted a greyish-white colour all over. I never troubled to look for her name, but one day I saw Jensen painting the word Veielland on her. There was a totally different name on the lifeboat, but I cannot remember it. What Jensen's motive was in sailing the ship under another name I never understood; certainly it was a very suspicious circumstance. Perhaps the ship as originally named had a bad name, and if such were the case—mind you, I don't say that it had—the Malays could never have been induced to go aboard. Once out at sea, however, they would be absolutely at the mercy of the captain, and he could treat them just as he pleased. The first thing they did before coming aboard was to look at the name for themselves. No doubt they knew the reputation of every pearler. Jensen did on one occasion exercise his authority to the extent of transferring some of his own Malay divers to another ship when we were out at sea.
At last everything was ready, and when we sailed for the pearling grounds, our crew numbered forty-four all told, not including a fine dog that belonged to the captain. This dog, which played so important—nay, so vitally important—a part in my strange afterlife, was given to Jensen at Batavia by a Captain Cadell, a well-known Australian seaman, who had gained some notoriety by navigating the Murray River for the first time. Cadell, who was a great friend of Jensen, was himself a pearler. But he met with a sad end. He was in a pearling expedition in the neighbourhood of Thursday Island, and among his crew were some of the very Australian Blacks who in after years proved so friendly to me. Cadell treated these men very badly, keeping them at work long after the time for their return home had expired, and one day they mutinied and murdered him whilst he was asleep. The black fellow who called himself "Captain Jack Davies," of whom I shall have more to say hereafter, was amongst the crew at the time. I obtained this information in Sydney from Captain Tucker, a well- known Torres Straits pearler. Bruno, Jensen's dog, was something of a greyhound in build, only that his hind-quarters were heavier.
As you may suppose, my knowledge of seamanship was very limited indeed, but Jensen interested himself in me, so that I soon began to pick up a good deal of useful knowledge. He taught me how to take the sun, I using his old instruments; but I could never grasp the taking of the lunars. On our voyage out I had no duties to perform on board, but I found much to interest myself in the beautiful tropical islands among which we threaded our way; and I took quite a childish delight in everything I saw. It was really a grand time for me. I constantly wrote home to my mother, the last letter I forwarded to her being from Koopang. Occasionally we landed on one of the islands to buy fresh provisions, in the shape of fowls, pigs, fruit, &c. We then set sail for the coast of New Guinea. The voyage thence was accomplished without the slightest hitch, the divers spending most of their time in singing and playing like little children,—all in the best of good spirits. Their favourite form of amusement was to sit round a large fire, either telling stories of the girls they had left behind, or singing love melodies. When the weather was at all cold, they would make a fire in a rather shallow tub, the sides of which were lined with a layer of sand. They were a wonderfully light-hearted lot of fellows, and I greatly enjoyed listening to their chants and yarns. I was more often with them than in Jensen's company, and it did not take me long to pick up bits of their language.
The Veielland only drew between seven feet and eight feet of water, so that we were able to venture very close in-shore whenever it was necessary. At length, about a month after starting, we reached a likely spot where the captain thought that the precious shells might be found; here we anchored, and the divers quickly got to work. I ought to have mentioned that we carried a large whale-boat, and about half-a-dozen frail little "shell" boats for the use of the divers.
The comings and goings of the various pearling expeditions were of course regulated by the weather and the state of the tide. The captain himself went out first of all in the whale-boat, and from it prospected for shells at the bottom of the crystal sea. The water was marvellously transparent, and leaning over the side of the boat, Jensen peered eagerly into his sea-telescope, which is simply a metal cylinder with a lens of ordinary glass at the bottom. Some of the sea-telescopes would even be without this lens, being simply a metal cylinder open at both ends. Although they did not bring the objects looked at nearer the vision, yet they enabled the prospector to see below the ruffled surface of the water.
The big whale-boat was followed at a respectful distance by the flotilla of smaller boats, each containing from four to six Malays. When Jensen discerned a likely spot through his peculiar telescope, he gave the signal for a halt, and before you could realise what was going to happen, the native divers had tumbled out of their boats, and were swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea. As a rule, one man was left in each little boat to follow the movements of the divers as they returned to the surface. Not only did these divers wear no mechanical "dress," but they used no stimulants or palliatives of any kind to aid them in their work. All they carried was a small sheath-knife hung from the waist by a piece of string. The water for the most part was only two or three fathoms deep, but sometimes it would be as much as eight fathoms,—which was the greatest depth to which the men cared to go. When he reached the bottom, the diver would grope about for shells, and generally return to the surface with a couple, held in his left hand and hugged against his breast; the right hand was kept free and directed his movements in swimming. Each diver seldom remained under water more than one minute, and on coming to the surface he would take a "spell" of perhaps a quarter of an hour before going down again.
As fast as each man brought his shells into the boat, they were put into a separate little pile, which was respected absolutely, and always recognised as belonging to its owner. The bed of the sea at these pearling grounds is usually coral, with innumerable holes of different depths and sizes dotted all over it. It was in these recesses that the best shells were mostly found.
The marine vegetation down in these seas was always of extreme beauty; there were stately "trees" that waved backwards and forwards, as though under the influence of a gentle breeze; there were high, luxuriant grasses, and innumerable plants of endless variety and colour. The coral rocks, too, were of gorgeous hues—yellow, blue, red, and white; but a peculiar thing was that the moment you brought a piece of this rock up to the surface, the lovely colour it possessed whilst in the water gradually faded away. Some of the coral I saw had curious little shoots hanging from its numerous projections bearing a striking resemblance to bluebells.
The illusion of a submarine forest was further heightened by the droves of gaily-coloured fish that flitted in and out among the branches. Perhaps the most beautiful of all were the little dolphins. The diving expeditions went away from the ship with the ebb tide, and returned with the flow. Sometimes their search would take them long distances away, and on one occasion they were working fully ten miles from the Veielland. When the water suddenly became rough, rendering the divers unable to paddle their own little skiffs back to the ship, they made their way to the whale-boat, clambered aboard, and returned in her, trailing their own craft at the stern. The boats, however, were not always brought back to the ship at night; as a rule they were buoyed near the pearling beds, whilst the divers returned to their quarters aboard. I might here explain that the sleeping accommodation for the Malays was both ample and comfortable. A large room in which the casks of fresh water were stored was set apart for their use. These casks were turned on end and a deck of planks placed over them, on which the Malays laid their sleeping mats and little wooden pillows. They ranged themselves twenty a side. But you may be asking, what was I doing during these pearling expeditions? Well, I was intrusted with the important duty of receiving the shells from the men, and crediting each with the number he delivered. Thus I was nearly always left alone on the ship—save for the dog; because even the two Malay women frequently went out diving, and they were credited for work done precisely as the men were.
If I had no shells to open whilst the divers were absent, I filled in my time by sewing sails, which Jensen himself would cut to the required shape—and reading, &c. My library consisted of only five books—a copy of the Bible, and a four-volume medical work in English by Bell, which I had purchased at Singapore. I made quite a study of the contents of this work, and acquired much valuable information, which I was able to put to good use in after years, more particularly during my sojourn amongst the Blacks. Bruno generally sat by my side on deck when I was alone,—in fact he was nearly always with me. He took to me more than to Jensen from the first. Jensen rarely tried to bully me, though of course I was now very much in his power, as he emphatically illustrated one day. A Malay diver had very much annoyed him, and in his fury he picked up a heavy broom with a stick fully four feet long, and felled the poor fellow senseless to the deck with it. I was shocked at such awful brutality, and ventured to protest against it. "Captain," I said, "don't do anything like that again whilst I am aboard." Turning round in a great passion he ordered me to keep my own counsel, otherwise he would have me put in irons. But for all that Jensen never again let his temper get the better of him to such an extent in my presence. He was always very gruff in his manner, and looked upon me as the "darndest fool he had ever met."
These divers, by the way, never seemed to trouble about the value of the treasure they were constantly bringing to the surface. They thought themselves well paid if they were given plenty of rice and fish, turtles' eggs and fowls, in addition to such luxuries as spices, coffee, and "Brummagem" jewellery, of a kind which is too well known to need description. At the same time it must be admitted that in addition to their wages, which were paid them when they were discharged from the ship, the Malays had practically no opportunity of being dishonest, even though they might have been inclined that way. They never came into actual contact with the pearls; they were rewarded according to the number of shells brought to the surface, and not the value of the pearls they might contain. All the shells were opened by me. A healthy spirit of rivalry was maintained among the divers, and the man who had the best record of shells each week was rewarded with an extra allowance of rum or tobacco; a choice of some article of jewellery, or anything else he fancied from among the stock we had on board. A bottle of chutney or pickles was considered a specially valuable delicacy. No money was ever given to the divers as wages whilst at sea, remuneration in kind being always given instead. Each expedition would be absent perhaps six hours, and on its return each diver generally had between twenty and forty shells to hand over to me. These I arranged in long rows on the deck, and allowed them to remain there all night. Next day I cleaned them by scraping off the coral from the shells, and then opened them with an ordinary dinner-knife. Of course, every oyster did not produce a pearl; in fact, I have opened as many as a hundred consecutive shells without finding a single pearl. The gems are hidden away in the fleshy part of the oyster, and have to be removed by pressure of the thumb. The empty shells are then thrown in a heap on one side, and afterwards carefully stowed away in the hold, as they constitute a valuable cargo in themselves, being worth—at that time, at any rate (1864)—from 200 to 250 pounds, and even 350 pounds a ton. All the pearls I found I placed in a walnut jewel-case, measuring about fourteen inches by eight inches by six inches. The value of the treasure increased day by day, until it amounted to many thousands of pounds; but of this more hereafter. I did not know much of the value of pearls then—how could I, having had no previous experience?
Captain Jensen, however, assured me at the end of the season that we had something like 50,000 pounds worth of pearls aboard, to say nothing about the value of the shells, of which we had about thirty tons. It must be clearly understood that this is Captain Jensen's estimate—I am utterly unable to give one. The oysters themselves we found very poor eating, and no one on board cared about them. Some of the shells contained one pearl, others two, three, and even four. One magnificent specimen I came across produced no fewer than a dozen fine pearls, but that of course was very exceptional. The largest gem I ever found was shaped just like a big cube, more than an inch square. It was, however, comparatively worthless. Actually the finest specimen that passed through my hands was about the size of a pigeon's egg, and of exquisite colour and shape. Some of the pearls were of a beautiful rose colour, others yellow; but most were pure white.
The greatest enemy the divers had to fear in those waters was the dreaded octopus, whose presence occasioned far greater panic than the appearance of a mere shark.
These loathsome monsters—call them squids, or devil-fish, or what you will—would sometimes come and throw their horrible tentacles over the side of the frail craft from which the divers were working, and actually fasten on to the men themselves, dragging them out into the water. At other times octopuses have been known to attack the divers down below, and hold them relentlessly under water until life was extinct. One of our own men had a terribly narrow escape from one of these fearful creatures. I must explain, however, that occasionally when the divers returned from pearl-fishing, they used to rope all their little skiffs together and let them lie astern of the schooner. Well, one night the wind rose and rain fell heavily, with the result that next morning all the little boats were found more or less water-logged. Some of the Malays were told off to go and bale them out. Whilst they were at work one of the men saw a mysterious-looking black object in the sea, which so attracted his curiosity that he dived overboard to find out what it was. He had barely reached the water, however, when an immense octopus rose into view, and at once made for the terrified man, who instantly saw his danger, and with great presence of mind promptly turned and scrambled back into the boat.
The terrible creature was after him, however, and to the horror of the onlookers it extended its great flexible tentacles, enveloped the entire boat, man and all, and then dragged the whole down into the clear depths. The diver's horrified comrades rushed to his assistance, and an attempt was made to kill the octopus with a harpoon, but without success. Several of his more resourceful companions then dived into the water with a big net made of stout twine, which they took right underneath the octopus, entangling the creature and its still living prey. The next step was to drag up both man and octopus into the whale-boat, and this done, the unfortunate Malay was at length seized by his legs, and dragged by sheer force out of the frightful embrace, more dead than alive, as you may suppose. However, we soon revived him by putting him into a very hot bath, the water being at such a temperature as actually to blister his skin. It is most remarkable that the man was not altogether drowned, as he had been held under water by the tentacles of the octopus for rather more than two minutes. But, like all the Malays of our party, this man carried a knife, which he used to very good purpose on the monster's body when first it dragged him under the water. These repeated stabs caused the creature to keep rolling about on the surface, and the unhappy man was in this way enabled to get an occasional breath of air; otherwise he must infallibly have been drowned. It was a horrible-looking creature, with a slimy body, and a hideous cavity of a mouth. It is the tentacles of the creature that are so dreaded, on account of the immense sucking power which they possess.
After this incident the divers always took a tomahawk with them on their expeditions, in order to lop off the tentacles of any octopus that might try to attack them in the boats. And, by the way, we saw many extraordinary creatures during our cruise. I myself had a serious fright one day whilst indulging in a swim.
We had anchored in about five fathoms, and as I was proceeding leisurely away from the vessel at a slow breast stroke, a monstrous fish, fully twenty feet long, with an enormous hairy head and fierce, fantastic moustaches, suddenly reared up out of the water, high into the air. I must say that the sight absolutely unmanned me for the moment, and when this extraordinary creature opened his enormous mouth in my direction, I gave myself up for lost. It did not molest me, however, and I got back to the ship safely, but it was some little time before I recovered from the terrible fright.
Occasionally too we were troubled with sharks, but the Malays did not appear to be very much afraid of them. Their great dread was the ground shark, which lay motionless at the bottom of the sea, and gave no indication of his presence. The result was that occasionally the divers would sink down to their work quite unknowingly almost by the side of one of these fearful creatures, and in such cases the diver rarely escaped without injury of some kind. With regard to the ordinary shark, however, our divers actually sought them. Their method of capturing them was almost incredible in its simplicity and daring. Three or four of our divers would go out in a boat and allow themselves to drift into a big school of sharks. Then one man, possessed of more nerve than the rest, would bend over the side and smartly prick the first one he came across with a spear taken out for the purpose. The moment he had succeeded in this the other occupants of the boat would commence yelling and howling at the top of their voices, at the same time beating the water with their paddles, in order to frighten away the sharks. This invariably succeeded, but, amazing to relate, the shark that had been pricked always came back alone a few minutes later to see what it was that had pricked him. Care has to be taken not to inflict a very severe wound, because the moment the other sharks taste the blood of a wounded companion, they will immediately turn upon him and eat him. When the inquisitive shark is seen coming in the direction of the boat, the Malay who has accosted him in this way quietly jumps overboard, armed only with his small knife and a short stick of hard wood, exactly like a butcher's skewer, about five inches in length, and pointed at each end.
The man floats stationary on the surface of the sea, and, naturally, the shark makes for him. As the creature rolls over to bite, the wily Malay glides out of his way with a few deft strokes of the left hand, whilst with the right he deliberately plants the pointed skewer in an upright position between the open jaws of the expectant monster. The result is simple, but surprising. The shark is, of course, unable to close its mouth, and the water just rushes down his throat and chokes him, in consequence of the gills being forced back so tightly as to prevent the escape of water through them in the natural way. Needless to remark, it requires the greatest possible coolness and nerve to kill a shark in this way, but the Malays look upon it as a favourite recreation and an exciting sport. When the monster is dead its slayer dexterously climbs on to its back, and then, digging his knife into the shark's head to serve as a support and means of balance, the conqueror is towed back to the ship astride his victim by means of a rope hauled by his companions in their boats.
After many adventures and much luck in the way of getting pearls, our food and water supply began to give out. This induced Captain Jensen to make for the New Guinea main in order to replenish his stores. We soon reached a likely spot on the coast, and obtained all that we wanted from the natives by means of barter.
We gave them tomahawks, knives, hoop-iron, beads, turtles, and bright- coloured cloth. Indeed, so friendly did our intercourse become that parties of our divers often went ashore and joined the Papuans in their sports and games. On one of these occasions I came across a curious animal that bore a striking resemblance to a kangaroo, and yet was not more than two feet high. It could climb trees like an opossum and was of the marsupial family. The pigeons, too, which were very plentiful in these parts, were as large as a big fowl. The headman, or chief, took quite an interest in me, and never seemed tired of conversing with me, and pointing out the beauties of the country. He even showed me a certain boundary which he advised us not to pass, as the natives beyond were not under his control. One day, however, a party of our Malays, accompanied by myself, imprudently ventured into the forbidden country, and soon came to a native village, at which we halted. The people here were suspicious of us from the first, and when one of my men indiscreetly offended a native, half the village rose against us, and we had to beat a retreat. We were making the best of our way to the coast again, when the friendly chief came and met us. He interceded with the indignant tribesmen on our behalf, and succeeded in pacifying them. On reaching the ship, which was anchored within a mile of the coast, Jensen complained to me ominously that he was getting fairly swamped with natives, who persisted in coming on board with fruit and vegetables for barter. He said he was getting quite nervous about the crowds that swarmed over the vessel, the natives going up and down as though they had a perfect right to do so.
"I don't like it," said the captain, "and shall have to put my foot down."
Next morning, when the usual batch of native canoes came alongside, we declined to allow a single man on board. While we were explaining this to them, our friend the chief himself arrived, accompanied by half-a-dozen notables, most of whom I knew, together with the now friendly dignitary whose wrath we had aroused the previous day. They were all full of dignity and anticipation. Captain Jensen, however, was obdurate, and refused permission to any one to come aboard. That was enough for the chiefs. They went away in high dudgeon, followed immediately by all the other canoes and their occupants. When all had disappeared, a curious stillness came over the ship, the sea, and the tropical coast, and a strange sense of impending danger seemed to oppress all of us. We knew that we had offended the natives, and as we could not see a single one of them on the beach, it was pretty evident that they were brooding over their grievance. We might have weighed anchor and made for the open sea, only unfortunately there was a perfect calm, and our sails, which were set in readiness for a hasty departure, hung limp and motionless. Suddenly, as we stood looking out anxiously over the side in the direction of the shore, we were amazed to see at least twenty fully-equipped war-canoes, each carrying from thirty to forty warriors, rounding the headland, some little distance away, and making straight for our ship. Now my shrewd Dutch partner had anticipated a possible attack, and had accordingly armed all the Malays with tomahawks, in readiness for any attempt that might be made to board the schooner. We had also taken off the hatches, and made a sort of fortification with them round the wheel.
Jensen and I armed ourselves with guns, loaded our little cannon, and prepared to make a desperate fight for our lives against the overwhelming odds. In spite of the danger of our position, I could not help being struck with the magnificence of the spectacle presented by the great fleet of boats now fast advancing towards us. The warriors had all assumed their fighting decorations, with white stripes painted round their dusky bodies to strike terror into the beholder. Their head-dress consisted of many-coloured feathers projecting from the hair, which they had matted and caused to stand bolt upright from the head. Each boat had a prow about three feet high, surmounted by a grotesquely carved figure- head. The war-canoes were propelled by twelve men, paddling on either side. When the first came within hailing distance I called out and made signs that they were not to advance unless their intentions were peaceful. By way of reply, they merely brandished their bows and arrows at us. There was no mistaking their mission.
It was now quite evident that we should have to make a fight for it, and the natives were coming to the attack in such numbers as easily to overwhelm us if they once got on board. Our position was rendered still more awkward by the fact that all round the ship ropes were hanging down to the water, up which our divers used to climb on their return from the day's pearling. These ropes were attached to a sort of hawser running round the outside bulwarks of the ship. We had not even time to haul these up, and the enemy would certainly have found them very useful for boarding purposes had they been allowed to get near enough. It was therefore very necessary that some decisive step should be taken at once. While we were debating what was best to be done, we were suddenly greeted by a shower of arrows from the leading war-canoe. Without waiting any longer I fired at the leader, who was standing in the prow, and bowled him over. The bullet went right through his body, and then bored a hole low down in the side of the canoe. The amazement of the warriors on hearing the report and seeing the mysterious damage done is quite beyond description; and before they could recover from their astonishment, Jensen sent a charge of grape-shot right into their midst, which shattered several of the canoes and caused a general halt in the advance.
Again I made signs to them not to come nearer, and they seemed undecided what to do. Jabbering consultations were held, but while they were thus hesitating ten more canoes swung round the headland, and their appearance seemed to give the advance-guard fresh courage.
Once more they made for our ship, but I was ready for them with the little cannon we had on board; it had been reloaded with grape after the first discharge. With a roar the gun belched forth a second deadly hail against the advancing savages, and the effect was to demoralise them completely. One of the canoes was shattered to pieces, and nearly all the men in it more or less seriously wounded; whilst the occupants of several other canoes received injuries.
Quite a panic now ensued, and the fleet of canoes got inextricably mixed. Several showers of arrows, however, descended on our deck, and some of them penetrated the sails, but no one was injured. The natives were too much afraid to advance any farther, and as a wind had now sprung up we deemed it time to make a dash for liberty. We therefore quietly slipped our anchor and, heading the ship for the open sea, glided swiftly past the enemy's fleet, whose gaily decked, though sorely bewildered, warriors greeted us with a Parthian flight of arrows as we raced by. In another half-hour we were well out to sea, and able to breathe freely once more.
The three black pearls—The fatal morning—Jensen and his flotilla drift away—Alone on the ship—"Oil on the troubled waters"—A substitute for a rudder—Smoke signals—The whirlpool—The savages attack—I escape from the blacks—A strange monster—The Veielland strikes a reef—Stone deaf through the big wave—I leap into the sea—How Bruno helped me ashore—The dreary island—My raft—A horrible discovery.
This adventure made our Malay crew very anxious to leave these regions. They had not forgotten the octopus incident either, and they now appointed their serang to wait upon the captain—a kind of "one-man" deputation—to persuade him, if possible, to sail for fresh fishing-grounds. At first Jensen tried to persuade them to remain in the same latitudes, which is not to be wondered at, seeing the harvest he had secured; but they would not listen to this, and at last he was compelled to direct his ship towards some other quarter. Where he took us to I cannot say, but in the course of another week we dropped anchor in some practically unexplored pearling grounds, and got to work once more. Our luck was still with us, and we continued increasing every day the value of our already substantial treasure. In these new grounds we found a particularly small shell very rich in pearls, which required no diving for at all. They were secured by means of a trawl or scoop dragged from the stern of the lifeboat; and when the tide was low the men jumped into the shallow water and picked them up at their ease.
One morning, as I was opening the shells as usual, out from one dropped three magnificent black pearls. I gazed at them, fascinated—why, I know not. Ah! those terrible three black pearls; would to God they had never been found! When I showed them to the captain he became very excited, and said that, as they were worth nearly all the others put together, it would be well worth our while trying to find more like them. Now, this meant stopping at sea longer than was either customary or advisable. The pearling season was practically at an end, and the yearly cyclonic changes were actually due, but the captain had got the "pearl fever" very badly and flatly refused to leave. Already we had made an enormous haul, and in addition to the stock in my charge Jensen had rows of pickle bottles full of pearls in his cabin, which he would sit and gloat over for hours like a miser with his gold. He kept on saying that there must be more of these black pearls to be obtained; the three we had found could not possibly be isolated specimens and so on. Accordingly, we kept our divers at work day after day as usual. Of course, I did not know much about the awful dangers to which we were exposing ourselves by remaining out in such uncertain seas when the cyclones were due; and I did not, I confess, see any great reason why we should not continue pearling. I was inexperienced, you see.
The pearl-fishing season, as I afterwards learned, extends from November to May. Well, May came and went, and we were still hard at work, hoping that each day would bring another haul of black pearls to our store of treasure; in this, however, we were disappointed. And yet the captain became more determined than ever to find some. He continued to take charge of the whale-boat whenever the divers went out to work, and he personally superintended their operations. He knew very well that he had already kept them at work longer than he ought to have done, and it was only by a judicious distribution of more jewellery, pieces of cloth, &c., that he withheld them from openly rebelling against the extended stay. The serang told him that if the men did once go on strike, nothing would induce them to resume work, they would simply sulk, he said; and die out of sheer disappointment and pettishness. So the captain was compelled to treat them more amiably than usual. At the very outside their contract would only be for nine months. Sometimes when he showed signs of being in a cantankerous mood because the haul of shells did not please him, the serang would say to him defiantly, "Come on; take it out of me if you are not satisfied." But Jensen never accepted the challenge. As the days passed, I thought the weather showed indications of a change; for one thing, the aneroid began jumping about in a very uneasy manner. I called Jensen's attention to the matter, but he was too much interested in his hunt for black pearls to listen to me.
And now I pass to the fatal day that made me an outcast from civilisation for so many weary years. Early one morning in July 1864, Jensen went off as usual with the whole of his crew, leaving me absolutely alone in charge of the ship. The women had often accompanied the divers on their expeditions, and did so on this occasion, being rather expert at the work, which they looked upon as sport.
Whenever I look back upon the events of that dreadful day, I am filled with astonishment that the captain should have been so mad as to leave the ship at all. Only an hour before he left, a tidal wave broke over the stern, and flooded the cabins with a perfect deluge. Both Jensen and I were down below at the time, and came in for an awful drenching. This in itself was a clear and ominous indication of atmospheric disturbance; but all that poor Jensen did was to have the pumps set to work, and after the cabins were comparatively dry he proceeded once more to the pearl banks that fascinated him so, and on which he probably sleeps to this day. The tide was favourable when he left, and I watched the fleet of little boats following in the wake of the whale-boat, until they were some three miles distant from the ship, when they stopped for preparations to be made for the work of diving. I had no presentiment whatever of the catastrophe that awaited them and me.
A cool, refreshing breeze had been blowing up to his time, but the wind now developed a sudden violence, and the sea was lashed into huge waves that quickly swamped nearly every one of the little cockle-shell boats. Fortunately, they could not sink, and as I watched I saw that the Malays who were thus thrown into the water clung to the sides of the little boats, and made the best of their way to the big craft in charge of Captain Jensen. Every moment the sea became more and more turbulent as the wind quickened to a hurricane. When all the Malays had scrambled into the whale-boat, they attempted to pull back to the ship, but I could see that they were unable to make the slightest headway against the tremendous sea that was running, although they worked frantically at the oars.
On the contrary, I was horrified to see that they were gradually drifting away from me, and being carried farther and farther out across the illimitable sea. I was nearly distracted at the sight, and I racked my brains to devise some means of helping them, but could think of nothing feasible. I thought first of all of trying to slip the anchor and let the ship drift in their direction, but I was by no means sure that she would actually do this. Besides, I reflected, she might strike on some of the insidious coral reefs that abound in those fair but terribly dangerous seas. So I came to the conclusion that it would be better to let her remain where she was—at least, for the time being. Moreover, I felt sure that the captain, with his knowledge of those regions, would know of some island or convenient sandbank, perhaps not very far distant, on which he might run his boat for safety until the storm had passed.
The boats receded farther and farther from view, until, about nine in the morning, I lost sight of them altogether. They had started out soon after sunrise. It then occurred to me that I ought to put the ship into some sort of condition to enable her to weather the storm, which was increasing instead of abating. This was not the first storm I had experienced on board the Veielland, so I knew pretty well what to do. First of all, then, I battened down the hatches; this done, I made every movable thing on deck as secure as I possibly could. Fortunately all the sails were furled at the time, so I had no trouble with them. By mid-day it was blowing so hard that I positively could not stand upright, but had to crawl about on my hands and knees, otherwise I should have been hurled overboard. I also attached myself to a long rope, and fastened the other end to one of the masts, so that in the event of my being washed into the raging sea, I could pull myself on board again.
Blinding rain had been falling most of the time, and the waves came dashing over the deck as though longing to engulf the little ship; but she rode them all in splendid style. The climax was reached about two o'clock, when a perfect cyclone was raging, and the end seemed very near for me. It made me shudder to listen to the wind screaming and moaning round the bare poles of the sturdy little vessel, which rose on veritable mountains of water and crashed as suddenly into seething abysses that made my heart stand still. Then the weather suddenly became calm once more—a change that was as unexpected as the advent of the storm itself. The sky, however, continued very black and threatening, and the sea was still somewhat boisterous; but both wind and rain had practically subsided, and I could now look around me without feeling that if I stirred I was a doomed man. I clambered up the lower portion of the main rigging, but only saw black, turbulent waters, hissing and heaving, and raging on every side, and seemingly stretching away into infinity. With terrible force the utter awfulness and hopelessness of my position dawned upon me, yet I did not despair. I next thought it advisable to try and slip my anchor, and let the ship drift, for I still half-fancied that perhaps I might come across my companions somewhere. Before I could free the vessel, however, the wind veered completely round, and, to my horror and despair, sent a veritable mountain of water on board, that carried away nearly all the bulwarks, the galley, the top of the companion-way, and, worst of all, completely wrenched off the wheel. Compasses and charts were all stored in the companion-way, and were therefore lost for ever. Then, indeed, I felt the end was near. Fortunately, I was for'ard at the time, or I must inevitably have been swept into the appalling waste of whirling, mountainous waters. This lashing of myself to the mast, by the way, was the means of saving my life time after time. Soon after the big sea—which I had hoped was a final effort of the terrible storm—the gale returned and blew in the opposite direction with even greater fury than before. I spent an awful time of it the whole night long, without a soul to speak to or help me, and every moment I thought the ship must go down, in that fearful sea. The only living thing on board beside myself was the captain's dog, which I could occasionally hear howling dismally in the cabin below, where I had shut him in when the cyclone first burst upon me.
Among the articles carried overboard by the big sea that smashed the wheel was a large cask full of oil, made from turtle fat, in which we always kept a supply of fresh meats, consisting mainly of pork and fowls. This cask contained perhaps twenty gallons, and when it overturned, the oil flowed all over the decks and trickled into the sea. The effect was simply magical. Almost immediately the storm-tossed waves in the vicinity of the ship, which hitherto had been raging mountains high, quieted down in a way that filled me with astonishment. This tranquillity prevailed as long as the oil lasted; but as soon as the supply was exhausted the giant waves became as turbulent and mountainous as ever.
All night long the gale blew the ship blindly hither and thither, and it was not until just before daybreak that the storm showed any signs of abating. By six o'clock, however, only a slight wind was blowing, and the sea no longer threatened to engulf me and my little vessel. I was now able to look about me, and see what damage had been done; and you may imagine my relief when I found that the ship was still sound and water- tight, although the bulwarks were all gone, and she had all the appearance of a derelict. One of the first things I did was to go down and unloose the dog—poor Bruno. The delight of the poor creature knew no bounds, and he rushed madly up on deck, barking frantically for his absent master. He seemed very much surprised to find no one aboard besides myself.
Alas! I never saw Peter Jensen again, nor the forty Malays and the two women. Jensen may have escaped; he may even have lived to read these lines; God only knows what was the fate of the unfortunate fleet of pearl- fishers. Priggish and uncharitable people may ejaculate: "The reward of cupidity!" But I say, "judge not, lest ye also be judged."
As the morning had now become beautifully fine, I thought I might attempt to get out some spare sails. I obtained what I wanted from the fo'c'sle, and after a good deal of work managed to "bend" a mainsail and staysail. Being without compass or chart, however, I knew not where I was, nor could I decide what course to take in order to reach land. I had a vague idea that the seas in those regions were studded with innumerable little islands and sandbanks known only to the pearl-fishers, and it seemed inevitable that I must run aground somewhere or get stranded upon a coral reef after I had slipped the cable.
However, I did not see what advantage was to be gained by remaining where I was, so I fixed from the stern a couple of long sweeps, or steering oars, twenty-six feet long, and made them answer the purpose of a rudder. These arrangements occupied me two or three days, and then, when everything was completed to my satisfaction, and the ship was in sailing trim, I gave the Veielland her freedom. This I managed as follows: The moment the chain was at its tautest—at its greatest tension—I gave it a violent blow with a big axe, and it parted. I steered due west, taking my observations by the sun and my own shadow at morning, noon, and evening. For I had been taught to reckon the degree of latitude from the number of inches of my shadow. After a time I altered my course to west by south, hoping that I might come upon one of the islands of the Dutch Indies,—Timorland, for instance, but day after day passed without land coming in sight.
Imagine the situation, if you can: alone on a disabled ship in the limitless ocean,—tortured with doubts and fears about the fate of my comrades, and filled with horror and despair at my own miserable prospects for the future.
I did not sail the ship at night, but got out a sea-anchor (using a float and a long coir rope), and lay-to while I turned in for a sleep. I would be up at day-break next morning, and as the weather continued beautifully fine, I had no difficulty in getting under way again. At last the expected happened. One afternoon, without any warning whatsoever, the vessel struck heavily on a reef. I hurriedly constructed a raft out of the hatches and spare spars, and put biscuits and water aboard, after which I landed on the rocks. When the tide reached its lowest point the stern of the Veielland was left fully twenty feet out of water, securely jammed between two high pinnacles of coral rock. The sight was remarkable in the extreme. The sails were still set, and the stiff breeze that was blowing dead against them caused them to belly out just as though the craft were afloat, and practically helped to keep the vessel in position. The bows were much higher than the stern, the line of the decks being at an angle of about forty-five degrees. In this remarkable situation she remained secure until the turning of the tide. My only hope was that she would not suffer from the tremendous strain to which she was necessarily being subjected. It seemed to me every minute that she would free herself from her singular position between the rocks, and glide down bows foremost into the sea to disappear for ever. But the sails kept her back. How earnestly I watched the rising of the waters; and night came on as I waited. Slowly and surely they crept up the bows, and the ship gradually assumed her natural level until at length the stanch little craft floated safe and sound once more, apparently very little the worse for her strange experience. And then away I went on my way—by this time almost schooled to indifference. Had she gone down I must inevitably have succumbed on those coral reefs, for the stock of biscuits and water I had been able to put aboard the raft would only have lasted a very few days.
For nearly a fortnight after the day of the great storm I kept on the same course without experiencing any unpleasant incident or check, always excepting the curious threatened wreck which I have just mentioned.
Just before dusk on the evening of the thirteenth day, I caught sight of an island in the distance—Melville Island I now know it to be; and I was greatly puzzled to see smoke floating upwards apparently from many fires kindled on the beach. I knew that they were signals of some kind, and at first I fancied that it must be one of the friendly Malay islands that I was approaching. A closer scrutiny of the smoke signals, however, soon convinced me that I was mistaken. As I drew nearer, I saw a number of natives, perfectly nude, running wildly about on the beach and brandishing their spears in my direction.
I did not like the look of things at all, but when I tried to turn the head of the ship to skirt the island instead of heading straight on, I found to my vexation that I was being carried forward by a strong tide or current straight into what appeared to be a large bay or inlet. I had no alternative but to let myself drift, and soon afterwards found myself in a sort of natural harbour three or four miles wide, with very threatening coral reefs showing above the surface. Still the current drew me helplessly onward, and in a few minutes the ship was caught in a dangerous whirlpool, round which she was carried several times before I managed to extricate her. Next we were drawn close in to some rocks, and I had to stand resolutely by with an oar in order to keep the vessel's head from striking. It was a time of most trying excitement for me, and I wonder to this day how it was that the Veielland did not strike and founder then and there, considering, firstly, that she was virtually a derelict, and secondly, that there was no living creature on board to navigate her save myself.
I was beginning to despair of ever pulling the vessel through, when we suddenly entered a narrow strait. I knew that I was in a waterway between two islands—Apsley Strait, dividing Melville and Bathurst Islands, as I have since learned.
The warlike and threatening natives had now been left behind long ago, and I never thought of meeting any other hostile people, when just as I had reached the narrowest part of the waterway, I was startled by the appearance of a great horde of naked blacks—giants, every one of them—on the rocks above me.
They were tremendously excited, and greeted me first of all with a shower of spears. Fortunately, on encountering the first lot of threatening blacks, I had prepared a shelter for myself on deck by means of the hatches reared up endwise against the stanchions, and so the spears fell harmlessly around me. Next, the natives sent a volley of boomerangs on board, but without any result. Some of these curious weapons hit the sails and fell impotently on the deck, whilst some returned to their throwers, who were standing on the rocks about fifty yards away, near the edge of the water. I afterwards secured the boomerangs that came on board, and found that they were about twenty-four inches in length, shaped like the blade of a sickle, and measured three or four inches across at the widest part.
They were made of extremely hard wood, and were undoubtedly capable of doing considerable injury when dexterously and accurately thrown. The blacks kept up a terrific hubbub on shore, yelling like madmen, and hurling at me showers of barbed spears. The fact that they had boomerangs convinced me that I must be nearing the Australian mainland. All this time the current was carrying the Veielland rapidly along, and I had soon left the natives jabbering furiously far behind me.
At last I could see the open sea once more, and at the mouth of the strait was a little low, wooded island, where I thought I might venture to land. As I was approaching it, however, yet another crowd of blacks, all armed, came rushing down to the beach; they jumped into their catamarans, or "floats," and paddled out towards me.
After my previous experience I deemed it advisable not to let them get too near, so I hoisted the mainsail again and stood for the open sea. There was a good supply of guns and ammunition on board, and it would have been an easy matter for me to have sunk one or two of the native catamarans, which are mere primitive rafts or floats, and so cooled their enthusiasm a bit; but I refrained, on reflecting that I should not gain anything by this action.
By this time I had abandoned all hope of ever coming up with my friends, but, of course, I did not despair of reaching land—although I hardly knew in what direction I ought to shape my course. Still, I thought that if I kept due west, I should eventually sight Timor or some other island of the Dutch Indies, and so, for the next three or four days, I sailed steadily on without further incident.
About a week after meeting with the hostile blacks, half a gale sprang up, and I busied myself in putting the ship into trim to weather the storm, which I knew was inevitable. I happened to be looking over the stern watching the clouds gathering in dark, black masses, when a strange upheaval of the waters took place almost at my feet, and a huge black fish, like an exaggerated porpoise, leaped into the air close to the stern of my little vessel.
It was a monstrous, ungainly looking creature, nearly the size of a small whale. The strange way it disported itself alongside the ship filled me with all manner of doubtings, and I was heartily thankful when it suddenly disappeared from sight. The weather then became more boisterous, and as the day advanced I strove my utmost to keep the ship's head well before the wind; it was very exhausting work. I was unable to keep anything like an adequate look-out ahead, and had to trust to Providence to pull me through safely.
All this time I did not want for food. Certainly I could not cook anything, but there was any quantity of tinned provisions. And I fed Bruno, too. I conversed with him almost hourly, and derived much encouragement and sympathy therefrom. One morning sometime between the fifteenth and twentieth day, I was scanning the horizon with my customary eagerness, when suddenly, on looking ahead, I found the sea white with the foam of crashing breakers; I knew I must be in the vicinity of a sunken reef. I tried to get the ship round, but it was too late. I couldn't make the slightest impression upon her, and she forged stolidly forward to her doom.
A few minutes later her keel came into violent contact with a coral reef, and as she grated slowly over it, the poor thing seemed to shiver from stem to stern. The shock was so severe that I was thrown heavily to the deck. Bruno could make nothing whatever of it, so he found relief in doleful howls. While the vessel remained stuck on the rocks, I was looking out anxiously from the rigging, when, without a moment's warning, a gigantic wave came toppling and crashing overboard from the stern, overwhelming me in the general destruction that followed. I was dashed with tremendous force on to the deck, and when I picked myself up, bruised and bleeding, the first thing I was conscious of was a deathly stillness, which filled me with vague amazement, considering that but a few moments before my ears had been filled with the roar and crash of the breakers. And I could see that the storm was still raging with great fury, although not a sound reached my ears.
Gradually the horrible truth dawned upon me—I was stone deaf! The blow on the head from the great wave had completely deprived me of all sense of hearing. How depressed I felt when I realised this awful fact no one can imagine. Nevertheless, things were not altogether hopeless, for next morning I felt a sudden crack in my left ear, and immediately afterwards I heard once more the dull roar of the surf, the whistling of the wind, and the barking of my affectionate dog. My right ear, however, was permanently injured, and to this day I am decidedly deaf in that organ. I was just beginning to think that we had passed over the most serious part of the danger, when to my utter despair I again heard that hideous grating sound, and knew she had struck upon another reef. She stuck there for a time, but was again forced on, and presently floated in deep water. The pitiless reefs were now plainly visible on all sides, and some distance away I could see what appeared to be nothing more than a little sandbank rising a few feet above the waters of the lagoon.
While I was watching and waiting for developments the deck of the vessel suddenly started, and she began rapidly to settle down by the stern. Fortunately, however, at that point the water was not excessively deep. When I saw that nothing could save the ship, and that her deck was all but flush with the water, I loosened several of the fittings, as well as some spars, casks, and chests, in the hope that they might drift to land and perhaps be of service to me afterwards. I remained on board as long as I possibly could, trying to build a raft with which to get some things ashore, but I hadn't time to finish it.
Up and up came the inexorable water, and at last, signalling to Bruno to follow me, I leaped into the sea and commenced to swim towards the sandbank. Of course, all the boats had been lost when the pearling fleet disappeared. The sea was still very rough, and as the tide was against us, I found it extremely exhausting work. The dog seemed to understand that I was finding it a dreadful strain, for he swam immediately in front of me, and kept turning round again and again as though to see if I were following safely.
By dint of tremendous struggling I managed to get close up to the shore, but found it utterly impossible to climb up and land. Every time I essayed to plant my legs on the beach, the irresistible backwash swept me down, rolling me head over heels, and in my exhausted condition this filled me with despair. On one occasion this backwash sent me spinning into deep water again, and I am sure I should have been drowned had not my brave dog come to my rescue and seized me by my hair—which, I should have explained, I had always worn long from the days of my childhood. Well, my dog tugged and tugged at me until he had got me half-way through the breakers, nor did this exertion seem to cause him much trouble in swimming.
I then exerted myself sufficiently to allow of his letting go my hair, whilst I took the end of his tail between my teeth, and let him help me ashore in this peculiar way. He was a remarkably strong and sagacious brute—an Australian dog—and he seemed to enjoy the task. At length I found myself on my legs upon the beach, though hardly able to move from exhaustion of mind and body. When at length I had recovered sufficiently to walk about, I made a hasty survey of the little island or sandbank upon which I found myself. Thank God, I did not realise at that moment that I was doomed to spend a soul-killing two and a half years on that desolate, microscopical strip of sand! Had I done so I must have gone raving mad. It was an appalling, dreary-looking spot, without one single tree or bush growing upon it to relieve the terrible monotony. I tell you, words can never describe the horror of the agonising months as they crawled by. "My island" was nothing but a little sand-spit, with here and there a few tufts of grass struggling through its parched surface. As a matter of fact the sand was only four or five inches deep in most places, and underneath was solid coral rock.
Think of it, ye who have envied the fate of the castaway on a gorgeous and fertile tropical island perhaps miles in extent! It was barely a hundred yards in length, ten yards wide, and only eight feet above sea-level at high water! There was no sign of animal life upon it, but birds were plentiful enough—particularly pelicans. My tour of the island occupied perhaps ten minutes; and you may perhaps form some conception of my utter dismay on failing to come across any trace of fresh water.
With what eager eyes did I look towards the ship then! So long as she did not break up I was safe because there were water and provisions in plenty on board. And how I thanked my God for the adamant bulwarks of coral that protected my ark from the fury of the treacherous seas! As the weather became calmer, and a brilliant moon had risen, I decided to swim back to the ship, and bring some food and clothing ashore from her.
I reached the wreck without much trouble, and clambered on board, but could do very little in the way of saving goods, as the decks were still below water. However, I dived, or rather ducked, for the depth of water was only four or five feet, into the cabin and secured some blankets, but I could not lay my hands on any food.
After infinite trouble I managed to make some sort of a raft out of pieces of wood I found lying loose and floating about, and upon this platform I placed the blankets, an oak chest, and one or two other articles I proposed taking ashore. In the oak chest were a number of flags, some clothing and medicine together with my case of pearls and the four medical books. But after I had launched it, I found that the tide was still running out, and it was impossible for me to get anything ashore that night. The weather was beautifully fine, however, and as the forepart of the ship was well out of water, I decided to remain on board and get an hour or two's sleep, which I needed badly. The night passed without incident, and I was astir a little before dawn.
As the tide was now favourable, I loosed my raft and swam it ashore. When I gained the island, I made another survey of it, to find the most suitable spot for pitching my camp, and in the course of my wanderings I made a discovery that filled me with horror and the anguish of blackest despair. My curiosity was first attracted by a human skull that lay near a large circular depression in the sand about two feet deep. I commenced scratching with my fingers at one side, and had only gone a few inches down, when I came upon a quantity of human remains.
The sight struck terror to my heart, and filled me with the most dismal forebodings. "My own bones," I thought, "will soon be added to the pile." So great was my agony of mind that I had to leave the spot, and interest myself in other things; but some time afterwards, when I had got over my nervousness, I renewed my digging operations, and in an hour or so had unearthed no fewer than sixteen complete skeletons—fourteen adults, and two younger people, possibly women! They lay alongside one another, covered by sand that had been blown over them by the wind.
On the wreck—Efforts to kindle a fire—My flagstaff—Clothing impossible—Growing corn in turtles' blood—My house of pearl shells—How the pelicans fished for me—Stung by a "sting-rae"—My amusements—A peculiar clock—Threatened madness—I begin to build a boat—An appalling blunder—Riding on turtles—Preaching to Bruno—Canine sympathy—A sail—How I got fresh water—Sending messages by the pelicans—A wonderful almanac—A mysterious voice of hope—Human beings at last.
That morning I made my breakfast off raw sea-gulls' eggs, but was unable to get anything to drink. Between nine and ten o'clock, as the tide was then very low, I was delighted to find that it was possible to reach the wreck by walking along the rocks. So, scrambling aboard, I collected as many things as I could possibly transfer ashore. I had to take dangerous headers into the cabin, as the whole ship's interior was now full of water, but all I could manage to secure were a tomahawk and my bow and arrows, which had been given me by the Papuans. I had always taken a keen interest in archery, by the way, and had made quite a name for myself in this direction long before I left Switzerland. I also took out a cooking-kettle. All these seemingly unimportant finds were of vital importance in the most literal sense of the phrase, particularly the tomahawk and the bow, which were in after years my very salvation time after time.
I was very delighted when I secured my bow and arrows, for I knew that with them I could always be certain of killing sea-fowl for food. There was a stock of gunpowder on board and a number of rifles and shot-guns, but as the former was hopelessly spoiled, I did not trouble about either. With my tomahawk I cut away some of the ship's woodwork, which I threw overboard and let drift to land to serve as fuel. When I did eventually return to my little island, I unravelled a piece of rope, and then tried to produce fire by rubbing two pieces of wood smartly together amidst the inflammable material. It was a hopeless business, however; a full half- hour's friction only made the sticks hot, and rub as hard as I would I could not produce the faintest suspicion of a spark. I sat down helplessly, and wondered how the savages I had read of ever got fire in this way.
Up to this time I had not built myself a shelter of any kind. At night I simply slept in the open air on the sand, with only my blankets round me. One morning I was able to get out of the vessel some kegs of precious water, a small barrel of flour, and a quantity of tinned foods. All these, together with some sails, spars, and ropes, I got safely ashore, and in the afternoon I rigged myself up a sort of canvas awning as a sleeping-place, using only some sails and spars.
Among the things I brought from the ship on a subsequent visit were a stiletto that had originally been given to me by my mother. It was an old family relic with a black ebony handle and a finely tempered steel blade four or five inches in length. I also got a stone tomahawk—a mere curio, obtained from the Papuans; and a quantity of a special kind of wood, also taken on board at New Guinea. This wood possessed the peculiar property of smouldering for hours when once ignited, without actually bursting into flame. We took it on board because it made such good fuel.
As the most urgent matter was to kindle a fire, I began experiments with my two weapons, striking the steel tomahawk against the stone one over a heap of fluffy material made by unravelling and teasing out a piece of blanket. Success attended my patient efforts this time, and to my inexpressible relief and joy I soon had a cheerful fire blazing alongside my improvised shelter—and, what is more, I took good care never to let it go out during the whole lime I remained a prisoner on the island. The fire was always my first thought, and night and day it was kept at least smouldering by means of the New Guinea wood I have already mentioned, and of which I found a large stock on board. The ship itself, I should mention, provided me with all the fuel that was required in the ordinary way, and, moreover, I was constantly finding pieces of wreckage along the shore that had been gathered in by the restless waves. Often—oh! often—I reflected with a shudder what my fate would have been had the ship gone down in deep water, leaving me safe, but deprived of all the stores she contained. The long, lingering agony, the starvation, the madness of thirst, and finally a horrible death on that far-away strip of sand, and another skeleton added to that grisly pile!
The days passed slowly by. In what part of the world I was located I had not the remotest idea. I felt that I was altogether out of the beaten track of ships because of the reefs that studded these seas, and therefore the prospect of my being rescued was very remote indeed—a thought that often caused me a kind of dull agony, more terrible than any mere physical pain.
However, I fixed up a flagstaff on the highest point of the island—(poor "island,"—that was not many inches)—and floated an ensign upside down from it, in the hope that this signal of distress might be sighted by some stray vessel, and indicate the presence of a castaway to those on board. Every morning I made my way to the flagstaff, and scanned the horizon for a possible sail, but I always had to come away disappointed. This became a habit; yet, so eternal is hope, that day by day, week by week, and month by month the bitter disappointment was always a keen torture. By the way, the very reefs that made those seas so dangerous served completely to protect my little island in stormy weather. The fury of the billows lost itself upon them, so that even the surf very rarely reached me. I was usually astir about sunrise. I knew that the sun rose about 6 A.M. in those tropical seas and set at 6 P.M.; there was very little variation all the year round. A heavy dew descended at night, which made the air delightfully cool; but in the day it was so frightfully hot that I could not bear the weight of ordinary clothes upon my person, so I took to wearing a silk shawl instead, hung loosely round my waist.
Another reason why I abandoned clothes was because I found that when a rent appeared the sun blazed down through it and raised a painful blister. On the other hand, by merely wearing a waist-cloth, and taking constant sea baths, I suffered scarcely at all from the scorching tropical sun. I now devoted all my energies to the wreck of the Veielland, lest anything should happen to it, and worked with feverish energy to get everything I possibly could out of the ship. It took me some months to accomplish this, but eventually I had removed everything—even the greater part of the cargo of pearl shells. The work was rendered particularly arduous in consequence of the decks being so frequently under water; and I found it was only at the full and new moons that I could actually walk round on the rocks to the wreck. In course of time the ship began to break up, and I materially assisted the operation with an axe. I wanted her timbers to build a boat in which to escape.
The casks of flour I floated ashore were very little the worse for their immersion; in fact, the water had only soaked through to the depth of a couple of inches, forming a kind of protecting wet crust, and leaving the inner part perfectly dry and good. Much of this flour, however, was afterwards spoiled by weevils; nor did my spreading out the precious grain in the sunlight on tarpaulins and sails save it from at least partial destruction. I also brought ashore bags of beans, rice, and maize; cases of preserved milk and vegetables, and innumerable other articles of food, besides some small casks of oil and rum. In fact, I stripped the ship's interior of everything, and at the end of nine months very little remained of her on the rocks but the bare skeleton of the hull. I moved all the things out day by day according to the tides.
In a large chest that came ashore from the captain's cabin I found a stock of all kinds of seeds, and I resolved to see whether I could grow a little corn. Jensen himself had put the seeds aboard in order to plant them on some of the islands near which we might be compelled to anchor for some length of time. Another object was to grow plants on board for the amusement of the Malays. The seeds included vegetables, flowers, and Indian corn, the last named being in the cob. The Malays are very fond of flowers, and the captain told them that they might try and cultivate some in boxes on board; but when he saw that this would mean an additional drain upon his supply of fresh water he withdrew the permission. I knew that salt water would not nourish plants, and I was equally certain I could not spare fresh water from my own stock for this purpose.
Nevertheless, I set my wits to work, and at length decided upon an interesting experiment. I filled a large turtle shell with sand and a little clay, and thoroughly wetted the mixture with turtle's blood, then stirring the mass into a puddle and planting corn in it.
The grain quickly sprouted, and flourished so rapidly, that within a very short time I was able to transplant it—always, however, nourishing it with the blood of turtles. This most satisfactory result induced me to extend my operation, and I soon had quaint little crops of maize and wheat growing in huge turtle shells; the wheat-plants, however, did not reach maturity.
For a long time I was content with the simple awning I have described as a place of shelter, but when I began to recover the pearl shells from the ship, it occurred to me that I might use them as material with which to build some kind of a hut. Altogether there were about thirty tons of pearl shells on board, and at first I took to diving for them merely as a sort of pastime.
I spent many weeks getting enough shells ashore to build a couple of parallel walls, each about seven feet high, three feet thick, and ten feet in length. The breeze blew gratefully through them. I filled the interstices of these walls with a puddle of clayey sand and water, covered in the top with canvas, and made quite a comfortable living-place out of it. The walls at any rate had a high commercial value! When the wet season set in I built a third wall at one end, and erected a sort of double awning in front, under which I always kept my fire burning. I also put a straw thatch over the hut, proudly using my own straw which I had grown with blood.
In course of time I made myself crude articles of furniture, including a table, some chairs, a bed, &c. My bedding at first consisted of sails, but afterwards I was able to have a mattress filled with straw from my corn patch. The kettle I had saved from the wreck was for a long time my only cooking utensil, so when I had anything to prepare I generally made an oven in the sand, after the manner of the natives I had met on the New Guinea main. I could always catch plenty of fish—principally mullet; and as for sea-fowls, all that I had to do was walk over to that part of the island where they were feeding and breeding, and knock them over with a stick. I made dough-cakes from the flour whilst it lasted; and I had deputies to fish for me—I mean the hundreds of pelicans. The birds who had little ones to feed went out in the morning, and returned in the afternoon, with from three to ten pounds of delicious fresh fish in their curious pouches.
On alighting on the island they emptied their pouches on the sand—too often, I must confess, solely for my benefit. Selfish bachelor birds on returning with full pouches jerked their catch into the air, and so swallowed it. It used to amuse me, however, to watch a robber gull, perched on their back, cleverly and neatly intercepting the fish as it ascended. These fish, with broiled turtle meat and tinned fruits, made quite a sumptuous repast.
After breakfast I would have a swim when the tide was low and there was no likelihood of sharks being about. A run along the beach in the sun until I was dry followed, and then I returned to my awning and read aloud to myself in English, from my medical books and my English-French Testament, simply for the pleasure of hearing my own voice. I was a very good linguist in those days, and spoke English particularly well long before I left Switzerland. After breakfast, my dog and I would go out to catch a peculiar sort of fish called the "sting-rae." These curious creatures have a sharp bony spike about two inches in length near the tail and this I found admirably adapted for arrow-heads. The body of the fish resembled a huge flounder, but the tail was long and tapering. They would come close in-shore, and I would spear them from the rocks with a Papuan fishing-spear. The smallest I ever caught weighed fifteen pounds, and I could never carry home more than a couple of average weight. They have the power of stinging, I believe, electrically, hence their name. At all events, I was once stung by one of these fish, and it was an experience I shall never forget. It fortunately happened at a time when some friendly blacks were at hand, otherwise I question very much whether I should be alive to-day.
I was wading slowly along the beach in rather deep water, when I suddenly felt a most excruciating pain in my left ankle. It seemed as though I had just received a paralysing shock from a powerful battery, and down I fell in a state of absolute collapse, unable to stir a finger to save myself, although I knew I was rapidly drowning. Fortunately the blacks who were with me came and pulled me ashore, where I slowly recovered. There was only a slight scratch on my ankle, but for a long time my whole body was racked with pain, and when the natives got to know of the symptoms they told me that I had been attacked by a "sting-rae." The spike or sting measures from two to six inches in length according to the size of the fish.
But to return to my solitary life on the island. The flesh of the sting- rae was not pleasant to eat, being rather tough and tasteless, so I used it as a bait for sharks. Turtles visited the island in great numbers, and deposited their eggs in holes made in the sand above high-water mark. They only came on land during the night, at high tide; and whenever I wanted a special delicacy, I turned one over on its back till morning, when I despatched it leisurely with my tomahawk. The creatures' shells I always devoted to the extension of my garden, which became very large, and eventually covered fully two-thirds of the island. The maize and cob- corn flourished remarkably well, and I generally managed to get three crops in the course of a year. The straw came in useful for bedding purposes, but as I found the sand-flies and other insects becoming more and more troublesome whilst I lay on the ground, I decided to try a hammock. I made one out of shark's hide, and slung it in my hut, when I found that it answered my purpose splendidly.
The great thing was to ward off the dull agony, the killing depression, and manias generally. Fortunately I was of a very active disposition, and as a pastime I took to gymnastics, even as I had at Montreux. I became a most proficient tumbler and acrobat, and could turn two or three somersaults on dashing down from the sloping roof of my pearl-shell hut; besides, I became a splendid high jumper, with and without the pole. Another thing I interested myself in was the construction of a sun-dial.
Indeed, I spent many hours devising some means whereby I could fashion a reliable "clock," and at last I worked out the principle of the sun-dial on the sand. I fixed a long stick perfectly upright in the ground, and then marked off certain spaces round it by means of pegs and pearl shells. I calculated the hours according to the length of the shadows cast by the sun.
But, in spite of all that I could do to interest or amuse myself, I was frequently overwhelmed with fits of depression and despair, and more than once I feared I should lose my mental balance and become a maniac. A religious craze took possession of me, and, strive as I might, I could not keep my mind from dwelling upon certain apparent discrepancies in the various apostles' versions of the Gospel!
I found myself constantly brooding over statements made in one form by St. Matthew, and in another by St. Luke; and I conjured up endless theological arguments and theories, until I was driven nearly frantic. Much as I regretted it, I was compelled at last to give up reading my New Testament, and by the exercise of a strong will I forced myself to think about something totally different.
It took me a long time to overcome this religious melancholia, but I mastered it in the long run, and was greatly delighted when I found I could once more read without being hypercritical and doubtful of everything. Had I been cast on a luxuriant island, growing fruits and flowers, and inhabited at least by animals—how different would it have been! But here there was nothing to save the mind from madness—merely a tiny strip of sand, invisible a few hundred yards out at sea.
When the fits of depression came upon me I invariably concluded that life was unbearable, and would actually rush into the sea, with the deliberate object of putting an end to myself. At these times my agony of mind was far more dreadful that any degree of physical suffering could have been, and death seemed to have a fascination for me that I could not resist. Yet when I found myself up to my neck in water, a sudden revulsion of feeling would come over me, and instead of drowning myself I would indulge in a swim or a ride on a turtle's back by way of diverting my thoughts into different channels.
Bruno always seemed to understand when I had an attack of melancholia, and he would watch my every movement. When he saw me rushing into the water, he would follow at my side barking and yelling like a mad thing, until he actually made me forget the dreadful object I had in view. And we would perhaps conclude by having a swimming race. These fits of depression always came upon me towards evening, and generally about the same hour.
In spite of the apparent hopelessness of my position, I never relinquished the idea of escaping from the island some day, and accordingly I started building a boat within a month of my shipwreck.
Not that I knew anything whatever about boat-building; but I was convinced that I could at least make a craft of some sort that would float. I set to work with a light heart, but later on paid dearly for my ignorance in bitter, bitter disappointment and impotent regrets. For one thing, I made the keel too heavy; then, again, I used planks that were absurdly thick for the shell, though, of course, I was not aware of these things at the time. The wreck, of course, provided me with all the woodwork I required. In order to make the staves pliable, I soaked them in water for a week, and then heated them over a fire, afterwards bending them to the required shape. At the end of nine months of unremitting labour, to which, latterly, considerable anxiety—glorious hopes and sickening fears—was added, I had built what I considered a substantial and sea-worthy sailing boat, fully fifteen feet long by four feet wide. It was a heavy ungainly looking object when finished, and it required much ingenuity on my part to launch it. This I eventually managed, however, by means of rollers and levers; but the boat was frightfully low in the water at the stern. It was quite watertight though, having an outer covering of sharks' green hide, well smeared with Stockholm tar, and an inside lining of stout canvas. I also rigged up a mast, and made a sail. When my boat floated I fairly screamed aloud with wild delight, and sympathetic Bruno jumped and yelped in unison.
But when all my preparations were complete, and I had rowed out a little way, I made a discovery that nearly drove me crazy. I found I had launched the boat in a sort of lagoon several miles in extent, barred by a crescent of coral rocks, over which I could not possibly drag my craft into the open sea. Although the water covered the reefs at high tide it was never of sufficient depth to allow me to sail the boat over them. I tried every possible opening, but was always arrested at some point or other. After the first acute paroxysm of despair—beating my head with my clenched fists—I consoled myself with the thought that when the high tides came, they would perhaps lift the boat over that terrible barrier. I waited, and waited, and waited, but alas! only to be disappointed. My nine weary months of arduous travail and half-frantic anticipation were cruelly wasted. At no time could I get the boat out into the open sea in consequence of the rocks, and it was equally impossible for me unaided to drag her back up the steep slope again and across the island, where she could be launched opposite an opening in the encircling reefs. So there my darling boat lay idly in the lagoon—a useless thing, whose sight filled me with heartache and despair. And yet, in this very lagoon I soon found amusement and pleasure. When I had in some measure got over the disappointment about the boat, I took to sailing her about in the lagoon. I also played the part of Neptune in the very extraordinary way I have already indicated. I used to wade out to where the turtles were, and on catching a big six-hundred-pounder, I would calmly sit astride on his back.
Away would swim the startled creature, mostly a foot or so below the surface. When he dived deeper I simply sat far back on the shell, and then he was forced to come up. I steered my queer steeds in a curious way. When I wanted my turtle to turn to the left, I simply thrust my foot into his right eye, and vice versa for the contrary direction. My two big toes placed simultaneously over both his optics caused a halt so abrupt as almost to unseat me. Sometimes I would go fully a mile out to sea on one of these strange steeds. It always frightened them to have me astride, and in their terror they swam at a tremendous pace until compelled to desist through sheer exhaustion.
Before the wet season commenced I put a straw thatch on the roof of my hut, as before stated, and made my quarters as snug as possible. And it was a very necessary precaution, too, for sometimes it rained for days at a stretch. The rain never kept me indoors, however, and I took exercise just the same, as I didn't bother about clothes, and rather enjoyed the shower bath. I was always devising means of making life more tolerable, and amongst other things I made a sort of swing, which I found extremely useful in beguiling time. I would also practise jumping with long poles. One day I captured a young pelican, and trained him to accompany me in my walks and assist me in my fishing operations. He also acted as a decoy. Frequently I would hide myself in some grass, whilst my pet bird walked a few yards away to attract his fellows. Presently he would be joined by a whole flock, many of which I lassoed, or shot with my bow and arrows.
But for my dog—my almost human Bruno—I think I must have died. I used to talk to him precisely as though he were a human being. We were absolutely inseparable. I preached long sermons to him from Gospel texts. I told him in a loud voice all about my early life and school- days at Montreux; I recounted to him all my adventures, from the fatal meeting with poor Peter Jensen in Singapore, right up to the present; I sang little chansons to him, and among these he had his favourites as well as those he disliked cordially. If he did not care for a song, he would set up a pitiful howl. I feel convinced that this constant communing aloud with my dog saved my reason. Bruno seemed always to be in such good spirits that I never dreamed of anything happening to him; and his quiet, sympathetic companionship was one of the greatest blessings I knew throughout many weird and terrible years. As I talked to him he would sit at my feet, looking so intelligently at me that I fancied he understood every word of what I was saying.
When the religious mania was upon me, I talked over all sorts of theological subjects with my Bruno, and it seemed to relieve me, even though I never received any enlightenment from him upon the knotty point that would be puzzling me at that particular time. What delighted him most of all was for me to tell him that I loved him very dearly, and that he was even more valuable to me than the famous dogs of St. Bernard were to benighted travellers in the snow.
I knew very little about musical instruments, but as I had often longed for something to make a noise with, if only to drown the maddening crash of the eternal surf, I fashioned a drum out of a small barrel, with sharks' skin stretched tightly over the open ends. This I beat with a couple of sticks as an accompaniment to my singing, and as Bruno occasionally joined in with a howl of disapproval or a yell of joy, the effect must have been picturesque if not musical. I was ready to do almost anything to drown that ceaseless cr-ash, cr-ash of the breakers on the beach, from whose melancholy and monotonous roar I could never escape for a single moment throughout the whole of the long day. However, I escaped its sound when I lay down to sleep at night by a very simple plan. As I was stone-deaf in the right ear I always slept on the left side.
Seven weary months had passed away, when one morning, on scanning the horizon, I suddenly leaped into the air and screamed: "My God! A sail! A sail!" I nearly became delirious with excitement, but, alas! the ship was too far out to sea to notice my frantic signals. My island lay very low, and all that I could make out of the vessel in the distance was her sails. She must have been fully five miles away, yet, in my excitement, I ran up and down the miserable beach, shouting in a frenzy and waving my arms in the hope of attracting the attention of some one on board; but it was all in vain. The ship, which I concluded was a pearler, kept steadily on her way, and eventually disappeared below the horizon.