The Cutting Off of the Queen Charlotte

by Louis Becke

One day, early in the year 1814, the look-out man at the South Head of Port Jackson saw a very strange-looking craft approaching the land from the eastward. She was a brigantine, and appeared to be in ballast; and as she drew nearer it was noticed from the shore that she seemed short-handed, for when within half a mile of the Heads the wind died away, the vessel fell broadside on to the sea and rolled about terribly; and in this situation her decks were clearly visible to the lightkeeper and his men, who could see but three persons on board. In an hour after the north-easter had died away, a fresh southerly breeze came up, and then those who were watching the stranger saw that her sails, instead of being made of canvas, were composed of mats stitched together, similar to those used by South Sea Island sailing canoes. Awkward and clumsy as these looked, they yet held the wind well, and soon the brigantine came sweeping in through the Heads at a great rate of speed.

Running close in under the lee of the land on the southern shore of the harbour the stranger dropped anchor, and shortly after was boarded by a boat from the shore, and to the surprise of those who manned her the vessel was at once recognised as the Queen Charlotte, which had sailed out of Port Jackson in the May of the preceding year.

The naval officer in charge of the boat at once jumped on board, and, greeting the master, a tall, bronzed-faced man of thirty, whose name was Shelley, asked him what was wrong, and where the rest of his crew were.

"Dead! Lieutenant Carlisle," answered the master of the brigantine sadly. "We three—myself, one white seaman, and a native chief—are all that are left."

Even as far back as 1810 the port of Sydney sent out a great number of vessels all over the South Seas. The majority of these were engaged in the whale fishery, and, as a rule, were highly successful; others, principally smaller craft, made long but very remunerative cruises among the islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, trading for coconut oil, sandal-wood, and pearl shell. A year or two before, an adventurous trading captain had made a discovery that a vast group of islands named by Cook the Dangerous Archipelago, and lying to the eastward of Tahiti, was rich in pearl shell. The inhabitants were a race of brave and determined savages, extremely suspicious of, and averse to, the presence of strangers; but yet, once this feeling was overcome by just treatment, they were safe enough to venture among, provided a good look-out was kept, and the vessel well armed to resist an attempt at cutting-off.

The news of the wealth that lay hidden in the unknown lagoons of the Dangerous Archipelago (now called the Paumotu Group) was soon spread from one end of the Pacific to the other, and before two years had passed no less than seven vessels had appeared among the islands, and secured very valuable cargoes for a very trifling outlay. Among those who were tempted to hazard their lives in making a fortune quickly was Herbert Shelley, the master and owner of the Queen Charlotte.

Leaving Sydney on May 14, with a crew of nine men all told, the brigantine arrived, thirty-one days later, at Matavai Bay in Tahiti. Here she remained some days, while the master negotiated with the chiefs of the district for the services of some of their men as divers. Six were secured at Tahiti; and then, after wooding and watering, and taking on board a number of hogs, fowls, and turtle, presented to Captain Shelley and his officers by the chief Pomare, the vessel stood away north-west to the island of Raiatea, with a similar purpose in view. Here the master succeeded in obtaining three fine, stalwart men, who were noted not only for their skill in diving but for their courage and fidelity as well.

Among those natives secured at Tahiti was a chief named Upaparu, a relative of Pomare, and hereditary ruler of the district of Taiarapu. He was a man of herculean proportions, and during the stay of Captain Bligh, of the Bounty, at Tahiti, was a constant visitor to the white men, with whom he delighted to engage in friendly wrestling matches and other feats of strength and endurance. Fletcher Christian, the unfortunate leader of the mutiny that subsequently occurred, was the only one of all the ship's company who was a match for Upaparu in these athletic encounters, and until thirty years ago there remained a song that recounted how the unfortunate and wronged master's mate of the Bounty and the young chief of Taiarapu once wrestled for half an hour without either yielding an inch, though "the ground shook and quivered beneath the stamping and the pressing of their feet." And although twenty-three years had passed since Upaparu had seen the barque sail away from Tahiti for the last time, when Christian and his fated comrades bade the people farewell for ever, the native chief was still, despite his fifty years, a man of amazing strength, iron resolution, and dauntless courage.

The voyage from the fertile and beautiful Society Islands to the low, sandy atolls of the Dangerous Archipelago was a pleasant one; for not only was the weather delightfully fine, but there prevailed on board a spirit of harmony and comradeship among Captain Shelley, his officers, and crew, that was not often seen. A brave and humane man himself, the master of the Queen Charlotte was particularly fortunate in having for his first and second officers two young men of similar dispositions. This was their second voyage among the islands of the Society and Dangerous Archipelago Islands; and their kindness to the natives with whom they had come into contact, their freedom from the degrading licentiousness that, as a rule, marked the conduct of seamen associating with the natives, and the almost brotherly regard that they evinced for each other made them not only respected, but loved and admired by whites and natives alike. Both were men of fine stature and great strength; and, indeed, Upaparu one day jestingly remarked that he and Captain Shelley's two officers were a match for three times their number.

For some eight or nine days the Queen Charlotte beat steadily to the eastward against the gentle southeast trades, which, at that time of the year, blew so softly as to raise scarce more than tiny ripples upon the bosom of the ocean. Then, one day, there appeared against the horizon the faint outline of a line of coco-trees springing from the ocean, and by and by a white gleam of beach showed at their base as the vessel lifted to the long ocean swell, and then sank again from view; but up aloft on the brigantine's foreyard, the native pearl-divers, with their big, luminous eyes shining with excitement, gazed over and beyond the tops of the palm-trees, and saw the light-green waters of a noble lagoon that stretched northwest and south-east for fifty miles, and twenty from east to west.

Aft, on the skylight, Captain Shelley and his mate, with Upaparu, the chief, leaning over their shoulders, peered over a rough chart of the Dangerous Archipelago which showed a fairly correct outline of the island before them. Twelve months before, the master of the brigantine had heard from the captain of a South Seaman—as whaleships were called in these days—that this island of Fakarava abounded in pearl shell, and had determined to ascertain the truth of the statement. As he carefully studied the chart given him by the captain of the whaler, and read aloud the names of the villages that appeared here and there, the Tahitian chief nodded assent and confirmation.

"That is true," he said to the white man, "I have heard these names before; for long before Tuti the Wise{*} came to Tahiti, we had heard of these people of Fakarava and their great lagoon, so wide that even if one climbs the tallest coconut-tree on one side he cannot see across to the other. And once, when I was a boy, I saw bonito hooks of thick pearl shell, that were brought to Taiarapu from this place by the Paniola.{**}

     *  Captain Cook.

     *  The Spaniards—two Spanish ships fitted out by the
     Viceroy of Peru had visited these islands before Cook.

"But then," he went on to say, "O friends of my heart, we must be careful, for these men of Fakarava are all aitos (fighting men), and no ship hath ever yet been inside the great lagoon, for the people swarm off in their canoes, club and spear in hand, and, stripped to the loins, are ready to fight to the death the stranger that sets foot on their land."

Somewhat disquieted at this intelligence, the master of the Queen Charlotte was at first in doubt whether to venture inside or not; but, looking round him and noting the eager, excited faces of his white crew and their native messmates, he decided at least to attempt to see for himself whether there was or was not pearl shell in the lagoon.

By this time the brigantine was within a mile or so of the entrance, which, on a nearer inspection, presented no difficulties whatever. As the vessel passed between the roaring lines of surf that thundered and crashed with astounding violence on the coral barriers enclosing the placid lagoon, a canoe shot out from the beach a quarter of a mile away, and approached the ship. But four natives were in the tiny craft, and when within a cable-length of the brigantine they ceased paddling, and conversed volubly with one another, as if debating whether they should venture on board the strange ship or not. Paddles in hand, they regarded her with the most intense curiosity as a being from another world; and when, the ship bringing up to the wind, the anchor was let go, a loud cry of astonishment burst forth from them, and with a swift backward sweep of their paddles the canoe shot shorewards like an arrow from a bow full fifty feet astern.

Clambering out on the end of the jib-boom, Upaparu seized hold of a stay and hailed them in a semi-Tahitian dialect, the lingua franca of Eastern Polynesia—

"Ia ora na kotore teie nei aho!" ("May you have peace this day!"), and then, bidding them await him, he sprang overboard and swam to them. In a few minutes he was alongside the canoe, holding on the gunwale and holding an animated conversation with its crew, one of whom, evidently the leader, at last bent down and rubbed noses with the Tahitian in token of amity. Then they paddled alongside, and after some hesitation clambered up on deck.

Tall and finely made, with light copper-coloured skins deeply tattooed from their necks to their heels, and holding in their hands wooden daggers set on both edges with huge sharks'-teeth as keen as razors, they surveyed the vessel and her crew with looks of astonishment. Except for a narrow girdle of curiously-stained pandanus leaves, each man was nude, and their stiff, scanty, and wiry-looking beards seemed to quiver with excitement as they looked with lightning-like rapidity from one object to another.

Advancing to them with his hand outstretched, the master of the brigantine took the leader's hand in his, and pointed to the poop, and Upaparu told them that the white chief desired them to sit and talk with him. Still grasping their daggers they acceded, and followed Shelley and the Tahitian chief to the poop, seated themselves on the deck, while the crew of the brigantine, in order not to embarrass or alarm them, went about their work as if no strangers were present.

In a very short time Upaparu had so far gained their confidence that they began to talk volubly, and answered all the questions he put to them. "Pearl shell? Yes, there be plenty of it. Even here, beneath the ship. Let us show thee!" and one of them, springing over the side, in another minute or two reappeared with a large pearl shell in his hand, which he placed in the hands of the master of the brigantine.

Convinced that he had done well in venturing inside, Captain Shelley strove his utmost to establish friendly relations with his visitors, and so far succeeded, through the instrumentality of the Tahitian chief, that the leader of the natives, who was a leading chief of the island named Hamanamana, promised to show them where the thickest patches of pearl shell lay in the lagoon. Then, after making them each presents of a sheath-knife and some other articles, the master and his officers watched them descend into their canoe again, and paddle swiftly back to their village, which lay within full view of the ship, a quarter of a mile away.

At a very early hour on the following day, the ship was surrounded by some fifty or sixty canoes, all filled with natives of both sexes, who proffered their services as divers, and seemed animated by the kindliest feelings towards the white men. Lowering the largest boat, the master, accompanied by Upaparu and the other Tahitians, was soon on his way to a place in the lagoon, where his guides assured him there was plenty of pearl shell. For some hours the first and second officers watched their captain's movements with the liveliest anxiety; for, despite the apparent friendliness of the natives, they were by no means confident.

But when, four hours later, the master returned with nearly a ton of pearl shell in the boat, and excitedly told them that their fortunes were made, the young men could not but feel highly elated, and sought by every means in their power to increase the good impression that they and the rest of the ship's company seem to have made upon the islanders.

That night, when the natives had returned to the shore, and the bright blaze of the fires shot out across the sleeping lagoon, and their voices were borne across the water to those in the ship, the two young officers sat and talked together on the poop. A month or two in such a place as this and they would be made men, for it was evident that no other vessel had yet been inside the lagoon, which undoubtedly teemed with pearl shell. And up for'ard the white sailors and their dark-skinned shipmates grew merry, and talked and sang, for they, too, would share in the general good luck. Then, as the lights from the houses on shore died out, and the murmur of voices ceased, the crew of the Queen Charlotte, officers and men, lay down on deck and went to sleep.

One for'ard and one aft, the two sentries paced to and fro, and only the slight sound of their naked feet broke the silence of the tropic night. Now and then a fish would leap out of the water and fall back again with a splash, and the sentries watched the swell and bubble of the phosphorescent water for a minute or so, and then again resumed their walk.

But though so silent, the darkness of the night was full of danger to the unsuspecting ship's company of the Queen Charlotte. A hundred yards away, swimming together in a semicircle, were some two hundred savages, each with a dagger in his mouth and short ebony club held in the left hand. Silently, but quickly, they swam towards the dark shadow of the brigantine, whose lofty spars stood silhouetted against the white line of beach that lay astern.

Suddenly fifty naked, dripping savages sprang upon the deck, and ere the sentries could do more than fire their muskets the work of slaughter had begun. Nearly all the white seamen, and many of the Tahitians, were lying upon the main hatch, and these were slain almost ere they had time to awake and realise their dreadful fate. As the loud reports of the sentries' muskets reverberated across the motionless waters of the lagoon, the master of the brigantine and his two officers awoke, and, cutlasses in hand, tried bravely to defend those terrified and unarmed members of the crew who had not yet been slaughtered. For some ten minutes or so these three men, with Upaparu beside them, defended the approaches to the poop, and succeeded in killing no less than fifteen of their assailants. Swinging a short, heavy axe in his right hand, the Tahitian chief fought like a hero, till a club was hurled at him with such force that it broke two of his ribs. As he sank down he saw the wild rush of naked bodies pass over him, and heard the death-cries of the first and second officers, who, borne down by numbers, were ruthlessly butchered. After that he remembered no more, for he was dealt another blow on the head, which left him stunned.

When he came to his senses in the cold grey of the morning he found the ship in possession of the people of Fakarava, and of all his shipmates but two remained alive—Captain Shelley and a seaman named Ray; all the rest had been slain and thrown overboard.

Apparently satisfied with the dreadful slaughter they had committed, the natives now began plundering the ship, and Captain Shelley, who seems to have been spared merely for the same reason that Upaparu was not killed—because he was a chief, and therefore sacred—had to sit by and watch them.

After stripping the vessel of everything movable, and even taking all her canvas except the spanker and topsails, the natives went ashore, and their leader, addressing Upaparu, told him that the ship was at liberty to go away.

With the aid of the seaman Ray and the gallant chieftain, Captain Shelley managed to get under weigh, and sailed for Tahiti, which he reached safely. Here he stayed for some months, and then, having made a new suit of sails from native mats, he returned to Port Jackson to relate the story of his fateful voyage.