Monday, 18 January 2010
I'll Learn 'em
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine, September 1923. Digital capture January 2010 by Philip Bolton Jr. and Doug Frizzle.
Not one of the four men in the boat had escaped unscathed. All were wounded, and Kemp was bleeding from a dozen ugly cuts and Cintron thrusts. But no one complained. Tough, hard, rough men, inured to hardships and suffering, the men thought nothing of flesh wounds, and not until the bark was hull down did they cease rowing and, resting on their oars, take long drafts from the keg of precious water and with rough skill bound up their wounds.
Captain Josiah Winthrop paced irritably back and forth upon the after deck and cast frequent apprehensive and appraising glances at the jungle covered bulk of land to leeward. On every side the sea stretched, smooth and glassy as burnished metal, under the burning, equatorial sun. The patched dingy sails hung listlessly from the grimy yards, and so breathless was the suffocating air that the smoke from the skippers pipe rose straight up in a thin blue spiral. For eight hours the dead, flat calm had continued, and the whaling bark Wanderer had lain helpless, rolling slightly to an invisible groundswell, off the island of Perang. Though no slightest breath had stirred the sails, yet hourly —dragged buy some wayward current —the bark had drawn nearer and nearer to the island, until now the steaming green mountainsides were a scant six miles distant. But it was not the possibility that his ship might drift within the danger zone of the breakers that was troubling Joshiah. Dangers of the storm or calm held no terrors for him. In fact, he scarcely saw the land as, each time he turned in his stride, he peered toward the island. It was the stretch of oillike intervening sea he searched, and loft, men whose eyesight had been sharpened by looking for the blowing whales, were also searching that six miles of shimmering sea.
And at last the expected hail came floating through the heavy air from the lookout on the fore-topgallant mast.
“Proa comin’ out from under the land!” he shouted.
With an oath, Captain Winthrop as sprang into the rigging, glasses in hand. One glance was enough. The half-naked horde of Malays who crowded the oncoming craft were plainly visible. All were armed to the teeth, and Captain Josiah knew his worst fears were realized. Malay pirates were coming to the attack. One proa full of the savage Malays would not have daunted the whalemen. Twenty-six Yankees, armed with muskets, whale lances, and irons, cutting spades and boarding knives, could have handled twice their number of the pirates. But back of the first proa came another and another —four in all —a full hundred of the brown, greased, armed savages.
“All hands to the rails!” bellowed to the skipper to Hen Winslow, the first officer. “Serve muskets and lances, and be ready to fight like hell.
Instantly all was bustle, as the officers and crew swarmed about, seizing arms, kicking off shoes, and gathering along the bark’s rails ready for the impending battle.
“Leave her be!” ordered the captain, as he saw Kemp, the second officer, call hands and start to swing in one of the whale boats that, earlier in the day, had been lowered in attempt to tow the bark from land. “No use usin’ up your beef h’istin’ of her in.” he continued, “You’ll need all of it for fightin’.”
Then, as the proas drew close and the whalemen stood waiting with ready weapons, “Don’t waste no powder and ball,” ordered the skipper, “Wait till their close alongside and pepper ‘em good. When the devils board us it’s each man for himself and the double take the hindmost.”
A moment later the foremost proa was within pistol shot, and the hostile intentions of the Malays could not be doubted. With shrill cries the naked boatman dashed toward the bark, the proas separating and approaching from both sides, from bow and stern. There was a roar of muskets from the Wanderer’s decks, and howls of rage and pain from the Malays, as the naked forms pitched forward or toppled into the sea. But the fusillade did little to check the pirates. With knives in teeth and grasping their wicked looking bolos, the Malays swept alongside the bark, and, leaping from their craft, seized ropes and chains, and, like so many monkeys, swarmed up the Wanderer’s sides. Throwing aside their muskets for more familiar weapons, the whalemen seized the razor-edged spades, the keen lances, the heavy boarding knives, and, standing on the rails or leaning over bulwarks, slashed, thrust, and cut down the browned bodies and fierce faces of the attackers. Through bone and sinew and muscles the spades sheared; lances were buried deep in the quivering flesh; boarding knives flashed and clove turbaned skulls; and grunts, screams, yells, shouts, and the clash of arms filled the breathless air.
But against a full hundred fanatical, death-defying savages, the handful of Yankees could not hope to hold back their own. As fast as a bleeding, mutilated, screeching pirate fell back, others took his place, and despite the slaughter, scores gained the deck unharmed and with thrusting knives and swinging bolos leaped at the whalemen. Like fiends both sides fought. Back to back one group of white men retreated slowly, fighting every inch of the way, to the very forepeak, their way marked by a trail of blood and writhing, dying men —white and brown. Captain Winthrop, with Winslow and two men, had been forced back to the after deck and there made a historic stand, facing a full twenty of the Malays. A creese flashed through the air and buried itself in Winslow’s breast, and the next second the thrower’s head seemed to leap from his shoulders as the skipper hurled a blubber spade with unerring aim and the broad blade caught the Malay full in the throat. Stooping, the captain seized the lance that the mate dropped, but ere he could raise it, a pirate sprang like a tiger and the skipper fell with his scull cleft by a bolo stroke. Ten seconds later, the remaining whalemen on the after deck had been cut down, and only the remnant of men forward, and Kemp with four men at the starboard gangway, remained alive. The decks were red and slippery with blood; dead and wounded men lay in piles and contorted, awful groups. It would be but a matter of minutes before the last white man would be butchered. Death was certain for all, not one of the whalemen expected to survive, and yet they fought doggedly on. With their victims aft disposed of, the Malays dashed forward to the aid of their companions at the break of the forecastle, leaving those engaging Kemp and four for men to their own resources. With a bellow of rage, the second officer hurled himself upon the nearest Malay and brought a handspike crashing down upon the fellow’s head. Instantly, the others closed around him. Knives and bolos flashed, but in the writhing, struggling mass friend and foe were too inextricably mixed for blows to fall, and back and forth the men swayed and fought. Kicking out with his heavy boots, the second mate cleared a narrow space, and, bending quickly, grasped the legs of the nearest Malay. With a grunt he straightened up; and using every ounce of his Herculean strength, he swung the struggling, screeching the man aloft, a blood spattered human bludgeon, he soon cleared away through the brown bodies. Towering above the pirates, with his human battering-ram cutting a swath through the leaping forms and flashing weapons, Kemp staggered to the ship’s rails. Three of his men still lived, and gathered around him. Facing them, awed for the moment, hesitating, were eight Malays. The respite was brief, but it was sufficient for Kemp to carry out the plan that had flashed through his mind, as he had fought, swinging that living flail. Below where he stood the whaleboat still lay alongside the bark, secured only by its painter, the oars still in their places. It was a desperate chance, but the only chance of escape, for a glance forward had shown the mate that the battle there was almost over, and in an instant more the entire force of pirates would be upon him and his three comrades. With hoarse, shouted orders to his men to scramble into the waiting boat and cut the painter, Kemp whirled his battered, bleeding club of human flesh, hurled it with all his strength into the face of the Malays, and leaped backward over the bark’s side. With a crash he landed in the boat, recovered himself instantly, as the Malays leaped to the rails with yells of savage rage, the boat was pushed from the Wanderer; oars bent to the strain of the bulging muscles, and amid a shower of flung knives and bolos, dashed from the doomed ship. With shrill cries the pirates rushed to their proas, and, tumbling in, dug paddles into the water and urged their craft in pursuit. But even the proas could not overtake the speedy whaleboat urged on by four desperate whalemen whose lives depended on their efforts. Each minute the distance between the pursued and the pursuers widened, and presently, finding the chase hopeless, the pirates turned about and headed back to the bark to loot, carouse, and destroy.
Not one of the four in the boat had escape unscathed. All were wounded, and Kemp was bleeding from a dozen ugly cuts and thrusts. But not one complained. Tough, hard, rough men, inured to hardships and suffering, the men thought nothing of flesh wounds, and not until the bark was hull down did they cease rowing, and, resting on their oars, take long drafts from the keg of precious water, and with rough skill bound up their wounds.
That they were alone upon the vast expanse of a sea, adrift in a tiny cockle-shell of a boat, with a scanty supply of water and dry biscuit, troubled them little. They were still alive, not seriously injured, and they knew that their craft, though small, was the most seaworthy type of boat ever built by man. The nearest land where friendly natives could be found was fully five hundred miles distant, but many a whaleboat filled with castaway men had covered thrice that distance in safety. But they had no intention of attempting to reach the distant land. Two days before the calm had set in, the Wander had been in company with a whaling ship Comet, and if —as Kemp thought probable —the Comet had also been becalmed, she would still be within one hundred miles —an easy row for the men in the whale boat.
So, having rested and done what they could for their wounds, the men once more bent their oars, and, though they suffered tortures from the heat and thirst, all hoped and prayed that the flat calm might continue, that no breeze might spring up to relieve them, and enable the ship they sought to move. Even as it was they stood but small chance for finding her —a tiny speck upon that the vast oily sea —but they knew that a whaling ship, when cruising, sails in circles, and, that unless some unusual event had occurred she would still be in almost the same spot as where they had last seen her, and that if she was boiling, the black smudge of smoke from her try-works would be visible for many miles during the day, and would serve as are red flair to guide them at night. All through the afternoon they rowed on; through the silent, star bright night they toiled at their long oars, and when the day dawned the sea still stretched, unbroken by land or sea, before their aching eyes. Almost like automatons they rowed steadily throughout the forenoon; never speaking, scarcely thinking; their brains sleeping though their muscles still worked on with the regularity of machinery; only stopping at intervals to munch a biscuit or wet their parched mouths with a spoonful of water. Now and then Kemp would rise, painfully, stiffly, from his seat, and with reddened eyes sweep the horizon; but still there was no complaint, no thought of giving up. It was mid-afternoon when as the second mate again staggered to his feet and peered about, he caught a faint smudge on the shimmering horizon to the north, and with a glad, half choked, gurgling cry announced the tidings. With renewed hope and vigor the men swung the boat toward the smoke, and when, half an hour later, they saw that the smoke remained stationary and that it was far clearer, they felt for a certainty that they had won, that the smudge was from the whaling ships try-works, and almost joyously, forgetting their aching heads and tortured muscles, they fairly lifted the thirty-foot boat through the sea.
Soon the mastheads of the vessel rose to view; the heavy yards and the smoke grimed sails became visible; the squat, bluff-bowed, weather-beaten hull appeared, and as the men’s practised eyes took in lines and rigging, they knew that the ship they sought was there, and that within the hour they would be upon the Comet’s decks.
As they swept alongside and painfully —aided by their fellow whalemen —reached the deck and told of the fate of their bark, a chorus of curses went up from the listening men’s throats that should have shriveled the blistered, scaling paint on the ship’s sides.
“By Judas!” exclaimed grizzled Captain Tilden. “I’ll learn ‘em, the consarned blasted heathens! I’ll learn ‘em to kill honest Yankee whalemen. Yes, by cripes, I’ll learn ‘em a lesson they won’t forget, and I’ll add interest for a murderin’ of Captain Josiah and Hen Winslow to boot.”
Although an eighty-barrel sperm whale was alongside, and not one half the blubber had been cut in, yet so thoroughly aroused were the whalemen, and so intent on evening scores with the Malays, that the carcass was cut adrift, and a light breeze springing up, yards were squared and the Comet wallowed eastward. With his crew of twenty odd men, Captain Tilden knew it was useless to attempt to deal with the Malays, but he knew where he could secure reinforcements, and was in a fever of impatience to obtain the needed force and hurry back to Perang. Lying in a bay at a small island off the Borneo coast were several Yankee whale ships, and on the third morning after Kemp and the survivors of the Wanderer had reached the Comet, the island loomed above the horizon and an hour later the yards and masts of the vessels were sighted just where the captain had expected to find them.
Scarcely had the Comet’s anchor dropped when her skipper and Mr. Kemp were rowing swiftly to the nearest vessel, the brig Ruby, and once more the second officer of the ill fated Wanderer told his story, Captain Crosby of the Ruby, and Nye of the Pole Star instantly and heartily agreed to aid Captain Tilden in avenging the massacre of Captain Winthrop and his men. No time was lost, and with fifteen men from the Pole Star, ten from the Ruby, his own 24, and Kemp and his three comrades —fifty-three in all —Captain Tilden felt he could handle any number of Malays that might appear, and, hoisting anchor, he set sail for Perang. Moreover, the skipper of the Ruby and Pole Star had placed all their valuable arms at the disposal of the Comet’s Captain, and every man aboard was provided with a firearm of some sort.
Very anxious had been Captains Nye and Crosby to join in the expedition of vengeance, but Tilden would not listen to it.
“This here’s my a couple of fish,” he declared with finality. “Kemp and his men come to me and, by Geoffry, I swore I’d settle them devil’s hash for ‘em and damme if I don’t. And sides, ‘twouldn’t do no tarnation good for the three us to go after ‘em. They ain’t no fools, and soon’s they see three ships they’ll take to the bush and never show hide nor hair of their consarned, devil born, blasted carcasses. No sir this here’s a one man job, and I’m the man what’s goin’ to put it through, so help me.”
The others realized the truth of the skipper’s words. The Malays would be far too cautious to attempt an attack on three ships, and so, wishing Captain Tilden godspeed and the best of luck, they watched him sail from the bay and head into the west.
In due time the bulk of Perang rose above the rim of the sea, and Captain Tilden gave his orders. As long as the ship was under control there was little likelihood of the pirates attempting to board her, and if they approached and saw an unusual number of men aboard, they would become suspicious. Hence the crafty skipper gave explicit orders that all hands except those necessary for handling the Comet should remain below decks, or out of sight, until called, and that that all should have weapons ready; and with grins of anticipation of the coming fight, the men looked to their arms and melted from sight. Bearing close in toward shore, Captain Tilden shortened sail, steered his vessel erratically, and presently, bringing her aback, had a boat lowered and manned, and a tow line paid out as though the Comet were disabled and he was making every effort to get clear of the island.
Anxiously he and his officers searched the shores for signs of proas. Would the Malays take the bait so tempting offered? Would they dash forth to attack, or would they suspect that those who had escaped from the Wanderer had reached friends, and that the Comet was a trap? No one could say, but Captain Tilden was hopeful. He had spent years in these waters; he was familiar with the ways of the natives, and he felt sure that, flushed with their recent victory and success, the pirates would come forth from their lairs, lured by a very apparently helpless, Comet.
And his deductions were borne out. Out from the shelter of the jungle covered shores came the proas once more, the naked brown bodies of their cutthroat crews glistening in the sun, bolos and creeses flashing back the light. Hurriedly the boat’s crew came pulling back to the ship. Word was passed, and from the hiding places the heavily armed whalemen poured out and, still hidden from the Malays by the ship’s bulwarks, took their places. Onward swept the pirates. Once again a hapless vessel was before them. Once more they felt sure they could satiate their lust for white men’s blood and rum, and confident of victory, they dashed alongside the Comet, leaping from the proas with wild cries and savage shouts, and swarmed up the ship’s sides. Not until the Malays’ heads appeared above the rails did Captain Tilden give the word to his impatient men. Then, with lusty shouts, worse curses, triumphant yells, the fifty-three whalemen sprang up. With blazing muskets and pistols, flashing spades and heavy lances, they fell upon the astonished pirates. Turbaned heads were sliced from shoulders by the broad-edged spades; lances were plunged through naked bodies; broad axes clove through skulls and limbs, and shot and bullets brought down scores. Not a Malay lived to set foot on the Comet’s decks. Not one remained alive or uninjured to drop back to the piratical proas. Dozens, terrified, utterly demoralized, and thinking only to escape the fearful weapons and the demoniacal fury of the whalemen, flung themselves shrieking into the sea, to be torn to pieces by the swarming sharks attracted by the blood that crimsoned the water. Within ten minutes it was over. Without the loss of a single man the whalemen had annihilated the Malays, had exacted a terrible vengeance for the murder of Captain Winthrop and his crew. With grim satisfaction Captain Tilden looked about upon the carnage he had wrought, as yards were swung, and the Comet headed for the open sea. Then he spat reflectively to leeward, glanced at the receding bulk of Perang, at the drifting empty proas, at the sharp black fins cutting the surface the water.
“I calc’late that’s what you might call a good deed well done,” he remarked to Mr. Kemp. “I said I’ll learn ‘em a lesson, and by Judas I done it.”
And he had. For years thereafter, no Yankee whaleship was ever attacked by the savage pirates of the islands. The mere sight of a dingy, weather beaten, bluff-bowed vessel would send them quaking with terror to their lairs, and for generations the natives of Perang spoke in awed tones of the white devils who bore charmed lives.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.