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A short story by Louis Becke

The Wreck Of The Leonora: A Memory Of 'Bully' Hayes

Title:     The Wreck Of The Leonora: A Memory Of 'Bully' Hayes
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

The brig _Leonora_, owned and commanded by the notorious Captain 'Bully' Hayes, has, perhaps, been more written and talked about than any other vessel, except the _Bounty_, that ever sailed the South Seas, and her career was as eventful as that of her captain. It was my fortune to fill the distinguished position of supercargo to that eminent gentleman for two years, and, as may be imagined by those who have read anything of Hayes's strange life and doings in the Pacific and the China Seas, I found the berth a remarkably curious one. How and why I became supercargo to the famous alleged pirate is another story; but, in justice to 'Bully's' memory, I may here at once say that the man was _not_ the remorseless ruffian that his enemies and many writers of tales of the South Seas have painted him; furthermore, he was one of the best sailor-men that ever trod a deck. Had he lived in the times of Drake or Dampier, he would have been a hero, for he was a man born to command and lead. _Inter alia_, he was also clever with his fists, and my soul was possessed of the deepest admiration for him in this respect from the very first day I stepped on board the _Leonora_, in Milli Lagoon, in the Marshall Islands, for it was my privilege to see him knock out three men, one after another, in twice as many minutes. These men were 'toughs' from a New Bedford whaler, and had been put ashore at Milli Lagoon by their captain as dangerous and useless characters. They came on board the _Leonora_ and asked 'Bully' to ship them. He refused in such unnecessary language that the leader of the three, in fatuous ignorance of the man to whom he was speaking, threatened to 'put a head on him'; whereupon Hayes at once had the deck cleared, and, taking them in turn, knocked each man out in the first round. Then he gave them a glass of grog all round, a bottle of arnica to cure the malformations he had caused on their countenances, and sent them ashore.

But this is not the story of the wreck of the _Leonora_.

We had made Strong's Island from Ponape, in the Western Carolines, to wood and water and land some cattle, and for two weeks we lay at anchor in the beautiful harbour of Lele. We found the island in a very disturbed and excited state, for a few weeks previously two American sperm whalers had touched at Lele and landed five white men, with a retinue of nearly one hundred savage natives from Pleasant Island, an isolated spot situated in 0.25 S., and these people--white and brown--so terrified the Strong's Islanders that the old King Togusa was in abject fear of them. We (Hayes and myself) soon learnt their story, which was that they had been compelled to fly for their lives from Pleasant Island on account of an engagement between the various clans of that place. The two chiefs under whose protection these men lived had been badly beaten, and the victors gave the five white traders a short notice to clear out or be shot. They at once put to sea in their several whale-boats, but when some three hundred miles away from the island, on their way to Ponape--the North Pacific Cave of Adullam--they were sighted and picked up by the two whalers, the _St George_ and the _Europa_, the captains of which, not caring for their company all the way to Ponape, landed them at Strong's Island. They were now awaiting a chance to continue their voyage to Ponape in a passing whaler, and in the meantime their savage followers were harrying the unfortunate Strong's Islanders to death, robbing their plantations, abducting their women and knocking them about generally.

These wild people were the most noisy and intractable lot of natives I had ever seen, wearing only a girdle of leaves around their waists, and all armed with Snider carbines and short stabbing knives made from cutlasses broken in halves. But, although they bullied the weak and effeminate Strong's Islanders, they were yet very obedient to their white masters, to whom they were all more or less related through the native wives whom the traders had married. The women were very tall and handsome, and every bit as handy with their knives as the men in a quarrel.

Hayes, of course, was well known to both the white men and natives, and at once began his good offices by threatening to open fire on the houses and boats of the former if they did not at once cease to persecute the king and his subjects. This threat he made in the presence and hearing of the king himself, who was deeply grateful, and at once said he would make him a present of two tuns of oil. The five hairy ruffians were considerably startled at first; but Hayes, I regret to say, turning to one of them, named Pedro Diaz, said in Spanish, 'Don't be scared, Peter. I'm not going back on you fellows; but at the same time you'll have to quit knocking these poor devils about. So just go ashore and take away your people's rifles--it means a couple of tuns of oil for me--its just as well in the hold of the _Leonora_ as in that of the missionary brig _Morning Star_. The missionaries would only promise King Togusa credit in heaven. I'll give him enough grog to keep him drunk for a month of Sundays on earth; and as he never possibly could get to heaven, I am treating him better than the missionaries, who would simply be obtaining his oil under false pretences.'

On the following day the king sent off his gift of oil; the five white men and he became reconciled, and the abducted Strong's Island women were returned to their parents or husbands as a guarantee of good faith. In the evening the traders came on board and made an arrangement with Hayes to proceed in the brig to Arrecifos (Providence Island), a large atoll to the north-west, of which Hayes had taken possession. Here they were to live as long as they liked, paying Hayes a certain quantity of coco-nut oil as tribute, and resisting, by force of arms, any attempt to take possession of the atoll by the German trading company of Godeffroy, should it be made by any one of the three, armed German brigs belonging to the firm, and then cruising in the North Pacific.

Two days later we bade farewell to the old king and his pretty young wife, Se, and the _Leonora_ sailed out of Lele. We were first to call at South Harbour, six miles to leeward, where we were to take in yams, pigs and other provisions for the voyage to Providence Island, as we had now over one hundred additional people on board.

We ran out of Lele at daylight, and at seven o'clock in the morning dropped our anchor in fourteen fathoms in South Harbour, or Utwe,{*} as the natives called it. As quickly as possible the ship's boats, aided by those belonging to the traders, set to work to bring off the yams and pigs, for which, as they were brought on deck by their native owners, I weighed and paid. By dusk we had finished, and I was just dressing to go to supper aboard one of the American whale-ships which were lying near us, when the trade wind, which had been lusty enough all day, suddenly fell--a very dangerous sign at that season of the year. In a few minutes Hayes sent a boat over to the whalers, telling the captains that a blow was coming on from the westward, and advising them to clear out to sea. But the American captains decided not to risk towing out through the narrow passage; and as they were in a much better position than the _Leonora_, they did wisely, for in less than a quarter of an hour a mountainous swell began rolling in, and it soon became evident that even with our own four boats, and the seven belonging to the traders, we could not tow out.

* The Port Lottin of Dupurrcy.

As quickly as possible Hayes had our royal and top-gallant yards sent down, the boats slung in-board from the davits on the deck, the Pleasant Islanders sent below, and every preparation made to ride out the blow, which we were in hopes would not last more than six hours or so. So far not a breath of wind had come, but the brig was rolling so badly that we quite expected to see her go over on her beam ends and stay there. At sunset the air was so close and oppressive that one could scarcely breathe, and the natives in the hold became half suffocated, and could only be kept down by the white traders and some of our officers threatening to shoot the first man that tried to get on deck. Many of them, however, besought to be allowed to swim ashore and remain till morning, and Hayes told them they could go. Some ten men and six women at once came up; and, although it was now dark, and the sharks consequently much more to be dreaded, sprang overboard, and swam in towards the native village of Utwe.

For another twenty minutes or more we remained anxiously awaiting. The sky was as black as pitch, and there was now a tremendously high sea, and the din and thunder of the surf on the reef a couple of cables' length away was most appalling. I had never heard anything like it before, nor have I since; and the weird sound of the huge seas as they tumbled and roared upon the hollow crust of the reef made my hair stand upon end like priming wires. The tide was low, and perhaps that had something to do with the wild, resounding clamour of the seas upon the long line of reef; but there was a strange humming note underlying it all, which was new to many of our ship's company, and seemed to fill even the rest of the Pleasant Islanders who remained on board with a sense of dread, for they earnestly besought Hayes to let them come on deck, for, they said, 'the belly of the world was about to burst.'

To this, most fortunately for themselves, Hayes consented, and in a few minutes they swarmed up on deck, each man carrying his Snider and cutlass-knife, and the women and children loaded up with their sleeping-mats and other gear. Some of the women crawled under the long boat, which was lying on the port side, and made themselves comfortable; and the men brought their arms to me to stow in the trade room, for fear of their getting wet, and then returned to their white masters, who were grouped together on deck.

Then, quite suddenly, the jumping, tumbling sea began to subside, and through the darkness we heard the skipper of one of the American whalers hail us.

'What are you, going to do, Captain Hayes? I guess we're in a pretty tight place. I'd try to tow out if I could see the hole in the wall. We're going to get it mighty hot presently. It's coming on fast.'

'That's so,' Hayes replied, with a laugh; 'but we can't stop it. And, say, look here, captain, as you fellows are lying further out than I am, you might each start a cask of oil to run when the seas begin to break. It won't help you much, but it will me.'

The whale-ship captain laughed, and said that he was afraid that his six hundred barrels of oil would start themselves if the sea began to break--meaning that his ship would go ashore.

The previous heavy rolling of the brig had nearly made a wreck of my trade room, for everything had been jerked off the shelves, and cases of liquor, powder, cartridges, concertinas and women's hats, etc., were lying burst open on the floor; so, calling a couple of native sailors to help me, I was just going below, when I heard Captain Hayes's sharp tones calling out to our officers to stand by.

From the north-west there came a peculiar droning, humming sound, mingled with a subdued crashing and roaring of the mountain forest, which lay about a quarter of a mile astern of us--the noise one hears when a mighty bush fire is raging in Australia, and a sudden gust of wind adds to its devastation--and then in another half a minute the brig spun round like a top to the fury of the first blast, and we were enveloped in a blinding shower of leaves, twigs and salty spray. She brought up to her anchors with a jerk that nearly threw everyone off his feet, and then in an incredibly short time the sea again began to rise, and the brig to plunge and take water in over the bows and waist--not heavy seas, but sheets of water nipped off by the force of the wind and falling on the decks in drenching showers.

Just as I was hurrying below, Hayes stopped me.

'Don't bother about the trade room. Get all the arms and ammunition you can ready for the boats. I'm afraid that we won't see this through. The blubber-hunters are all right; but we are not. We have to ride short. I can't give her more than another ten fathoms of cable--there are a lot of coral boulders right aft. If the wind hauls round a couple of points we may clear them, but it isn't going to; and we'll get smothered in the seas in another ten minutes--if the cables don't part before then.'

Seldom was a ship sent to destruction in such a short time as the _Leonora_. I had not been five minutes in the main cabin before a heavy sea came over the bows with a crash, carried away the for'ard deckhouse, which it swept overboard, killed four people, and poured into the cabin. I heard Hayes call out to the mate to give her another ten fathoms of cable, and then, assisted by half a dozen native women and a young Easter Island half-caste girl named Lalia, wife to one of the five white traders, began packing our arms and ammunition into two or three strong trade boxes. In another chest we stowed the ship's chronometers, Hayes's instruments, and all the charts upon which we could lay hands, together with about six thousand silver dollars in bags, the ship's books and some silver plate. The women, who were the officers' and traders' wives, were fearfully terrified; all but Lalia, who was a fine, courageous girl. Taking a cutlass from the rack in the cabin she stood over them; and, cursing freely in French, English, Spanish and whalers' language, threatened to murder every one of them if they did not hurry. We got the first box of arms safely up the companion, and Hayes saw it lowered into one of the traders' whale-boats, which was standing by under the stern. Then, as a tremendous crashing sea came over the waist, all the women but Lalia bolted and left us alone. Lalia laughed.

'That's the long-boat gone, sir; and all those Pleasant Islands women are drown, I hope--the damned savage beasts, I hate them.'

* The _Leonora_ carried four guns.

I learnt afterwards that the crash was caused by the two guns on the starboard side taking a run to port, and carrying away the port ones with them over the side through the bulwarks.{*} The long-boat was washed overboard by the same sea, but half a dozen of our Rotumah Island sailors had jumped overboard after her, and, using canoe paddles, saved her from being dashed on the reef. She was soon brought alongside, fully manned, and awaiting Hayes's orders.

The captain now called to me to stand by to take charge of her, when a second fearful sea came over the waist, and fairly buried the ship, and Hung, the Chinese carpenter and myself were only saved from going overboard, by being entangled in the falls of one of the quarter-boats. As for the long-boat, it was swept away out of sight, but succeeded in reaching the shore safely, with the loss of one man.

By this time the seas were breaking over the brig with terrible force, and when they came over the bows they swept her flush decks like a torrent. Presently she gave such a terrible roll to port that we thought she was going over altogether, and the third mate reported that six four-hundred-gallon water tanks, which were stored in the 'tween decks amidships, had gone adrift to the port side. Then Hayes told the carpenter to cut away the masts. A few slashes at the rigging, and a couple of snicks at the spars themselves, sent the sticks over the side quick enough; the brig stood up again and rode easier.

Meanwhile, the boat of one of the traders named Terry--an old ex-man-of-war's man--had come off, manned by half a dozen of his stalwart half-caste sons, and although it was still pitch dark, and the din of the gale sounded like fifty railway locomotives whistling in unison, and the brig was only revealed to the brave fellows by the white light of the foam-whipped sea, they ran the boat under the counter, and stood by while a number of women and children jumped, or were pitched overboard, to them. These were quickly rescued, and then that boat, too, vanished.

Again the wind lulled for about five minutes, and Hayes and old Harry Terry urged the rest of the remaining women to jump overboard and make for the shore, as the brig's decks were now awash, and every third or fourth sea swept along her, fore and aft, with irresistible force. One woman--a stout, powerfully-built native of Ocean Island--whose infant child was lashed to her naked back with bands of coir cinnet, rushed up to the captain, and crying, 'Kapeni, ka mate a mate '--('Captain, if I die, I die')--put her arms round his neck, rubbed noses with him, and leaped over the stern rail into the seething surf. She was found the next morning lying dead on a little beach, having bled to death from the wounds she had received from the jagged coral rocks, but the baby was alive, for with her dying hands the poor creature had placed it under shelter, and covered it over with grass and leaves, where it was found, sleeping soundly, by a native sailor.

There was not now the slightest hope of saving the ship, unless the sea went down; and Hayes, who was as cool as if he were taking his morning coffee, told the rest of the crew, who were now all gathered together aft, to get ashore the best way they could. Three of the white traders were still aboard, awaiting the return of their boats, which, manned by their faithful Pleasant Islanders, we now and again could dimly discern, as they appeared on the summit of the heaving seas, waiting for a chance to pull up astern and rescue their masters.

There were still two chests full of valuables in the main cabin to be got on deck, and Lalia (sweet Lalia), the young woman of whom I have before spoken, although her husband had gone ashore, refused to jump to the boats, and said she would stay and help us to save them.

'Go, ashore, Lalia. Go to your husband,' said Hayes, sternly pushing her to the stern rail; 'he is an old man, and cannot come off again in his boat for you. Perhaps he is drowned.'

The girl laughed and said it was all the better--she would get another and a younger husband; she would stay with the _men_ on board and not swim ashore with the old women. Then she ran below. In a few minutes she reappeared, with a fine powerful Pleasant Island native named Karta, carrying our Chinese steward, who was paralysed with drink and terror. Hayes took the man up in his arms and, seeing one of the boats close to, threw him overboard without further ado. Then Lalia and I again went below for another of the boxes, and, aided by Karta, we had got it half-way up the companion ladder when the brig rose her stern high to a mountain sea, and then came down with a terrific crash on to a coral boulder, ripping her rudder from the stern post, and sending it clean through the deck. Lalia fell backwards into the cabin, and the heavy chest slipped down on the top of her, crushing her left foot cruelly against the companion lining, and jamming her slender body underneath. Karta and myself tried hard to free the poor tortured girl, but without avail, and then some of our Rotumah Island sailors, hearing our cries for help, ran down, and by our united exertions, we got her clear, put her in the steward's bunk--as she had fainted--and lugged the chest on deck.

One of the traders' whale-boats was lying close to, and the chest was, by the merest chance, dropped into her just as the brig came down again on the coral boulder with a thundering crash and smashed a big hole into her timbers under her starboard counter. In a few minutes she began to fill.

'It's all up with her, boys,' cried the philosophical 'Bully.' 'Jump for the boats all of you; but wait for a rising sea, or you'll get smashed up on the coral. Bo'sun, take a look round below, and see that there are no more women there. We must take care of the women, boys.'

Karta, the brave Pleasant Islander, a Manila man named Sarreo, and myself then went below for Lalia. She was sitting up in the steward's bunk, stripped to the waist, and only awaiting help to get on deck. Already the main cabin had three feet of water in it, and just as we lifted the girl out, another sea came in over deck and nearly filled it; and with it came the bruised and battered dead body of a little native boy, who, crouching up under the shelter of the companion, had been killed by the wheel falling upon and crushing him when the rudder was carried away.

Half-drowned, we managed to struggle on deck, Karta carrying the girl, and the Manila man and I helping each other together. The brig was now quite under water for'ard, but her after part was hanging on the coral boulder under it, though every succeeding sea rolled her from side to side. Hayes snatched the girl from Karta's arms just as the ship lobbed over to starboard on her bilge, then a thumping sea came thundering down, and swept the lot of us over the stern.

The poor Manila man was never seen again--barring a small portion of his anatomy; to wit, his right arm and shoulder, the rest having been assimilated by Jack Shark. Hayes got ashore by himself, and the writer of this narrative, with Karta, the Pleasant Islander, and Lalia, the trader's wife, came ashore on the wreck of a boat that had been carried on top of the after-deck house.

We were all badly knocked about. Karta had a fearful gash in his leg from a piece of coral. This he had bound up, whilst swimming, with a strip of his grass-cloth girdle. Lalia, in addition to her dreadfully crushed foot, had her right arm badly cut; and the writer was so generally excoriated and done-up that he would never have reached the shore, but for the gallant Karta and the brave-hearted Lalia, who both held him up when he wanted to let go and drown quietly.

At dawn the gale had ceased, and whilst we, the survivors of the _Leonora_ stood up and stretched our aching limbs we saw, as we glanced seaward, the two 'blubber hunters,' who had ridden out the storm safely, heave-up and sail through the passage. I don't think either of the captains was wanting in humane feeling; but both were, no doubt, very much afraid that as 'Bully' Hayes had lost his ship, he would not be particular about taking another near to hand. And they were quite correct. Hayes and his third mate, some of the white traders, and twenty or so of our crew were quite willing to seize one of the whalers, and sail to Arrecifos. But the Yankee skippers knew too much of 'Bully,' and left us to ourselves on Strong's Island; and many a tragedy resulted, for the crew and passengers of the _Leonora_ with some few exceptions, were not particular as to their doings, and mutiny, treachery, murder, and sudden death, were the outcome of the wreck of the _Leonora_.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: The Wreck Of The Leonora: A Memory Of 'Bully' Hayes