The Peruvian Slavers by Louis Becke

About north-west from turbulent and distracted Samoa lie a group of eight low-lying coral atolls, called the Ellice Islands. Fifty years ago, when the white cotton canvas of the ships of the American whaling fleet dotted the blue of the Pacific from the west coast of South America to the bleak and snow-clad shores of the Siberian coast, these lonely islands were perhaps better known than they are now, for then, when the smoky flames of the whaleships' try works lit up the night-darkened expanse of the ocean, and the crackling of the furnace fires and the bubble of the boiling oil made the hardy whalemen's hearts grow merry, many a white man, lured by the gentle nature and amiable character of the Ellice Islanders, had built his house of thatch under the shadow of the rustling palms, and dwelt there in peace and happiness and overflowing plenty. Some of them were traders—men who bartered their simple wares, such as red Turkey twill, axes, knives, beads, tobacco, pipes, and muskets, for coconut oil and turtle shell. Others were wild, good-for-nothing runaways from whaleships, who then were generally known as "beach-combers"—that is, combing the beach for a living—though that, indeed, was a misnomer, for in those days, except one of these men was either a murderer or a tyrant, he did not "comb" for his living, but simply lived a life of luxurious, sensuous ease among the copper-coloured people with whom he dwelt. He had, indeed, to be of a hard and base nature to incur the ill-will or hostility of the denizens of the eight islands.

Twenty years had passed, and, save for a few wandering sperm whalers, the great fleet of the olden days had vanished; for the Civil War in America had borne its fruit even put upon the placid Pacific, and Waddell, in the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah, had swept northwards from Australia, bent on burning every ship that flew the hated Stars and Stripes. So, with fear in their hearts, the Yankee whaling skippers hurried into neutral ports for shelter; and not a day too soon, for the rebel war-vessel caught four of them at Ponapé Island, burnt them and went up to the Arctic to destroy the rest.

Then followed years of quiet, for only a very few of the whaleships returned, and, one by one, most of the white men wandered away to the far distant isles of the north-west, taking their wives and families with them, till there were but five or six remaining in the whole Ellice Group.

Among those who sailed away one day in a whale-ship was a trader named Harry. His surname was never known. To his fellow white men and the natives of the island of Nukufetau on which he lived he was simply "Harry"; to those of the other islands of the group he was Hari Tino Kéhé, Big Harry.

It was not that he was wearied of the monotony of his existence on Nukufetau that had led Harry to bid his wife and two children farewell, but because that he had heard rumours of the richness in pearl-shell and turtle-shell of the far distant isles of the Pelew Group, and desired to go there and satisfy himself as to the truth of these sailors' tales; for he was a steady, honest man, although he had run away from his ship, a Sydney sandal-wooding vessel; and during his fifteen years' residence on Nukufetau he had made many thousands of dollars by selling coconut oil to the Sydney trading ships, and provisions to the American whalers. A year after his arrival on the island he had married a native woman named Te Ava Malu (Calm Waters). She was the daughter of the chief's brother, and brought her husband as her dowry a long, narrow strip of land richly covered with countless thousands of coco-palms, and it was from these groves of coconuts that Harry had earned most of the bright silver dollars, which, in default of a strong box, he had headed up in a small beef keg and buried under the gravelled floor of his thatched dwelling-house.

Children had been born to him—two fair-skinned, dark-eyed, and gentle-voiced girls, named Fetu and Vailele. The elder, Fetu (The Star), was a quiet, reserved child, and had her father's slow, grave manner and thoughtful face. The younger, Vailele (Leaping Water), was in manner and her ever merry mood like her name, for she was a restless, laughing little maid, full of jest and song the whole day long.

When the time came for Big Harry to say farewell, he called to him his wife and the two girls—Fetu was fourteen, and Vailele twelve—and, bidding them lower down the door of plaited thatch so that they might not be observed, he unearthed the keg of dollars, and, knocking off the two topmost hoops, took out the head. Then he took out nine hundred of the bright, shining coins, and, placing them in the lap of Te Ava Malu, quickly headed up the keg again, and put it back in its hiding-place.

"Listen now to me, O wife and children," said he in the native tongue. "See this money now before us. Of the nine hundred dollars I shall take seven hundred; for it is to my mind that if these tales I hear of these far-off islands be true, then shall I buy from the chiefs there a piece of land, and get men to build a house for me; and if all goeth well with me, I shall return here to Nukufetau within a year. Then shall we sail thither and dwell there. And these other two hundred dollars shalt thou keep, for maybe a ship may come here, and then thou, Te Ava Malu, shalt go to thy father and place them in his hand, and ask him to go to the ship and buy for me a whaleboat, which, when we leave this land together, we shall take with us."

Then, giving his wife the two hundred dollars, he placed the rest in a canvas pouch slung round his waist, and, embracing them all tenderly, bade them farewell, and walked down to the shining beach to where the boat from the whaleship awaited his coming.

Drawing her children to her side, Te Ava Malu stood out upon the sand and watched the whaler loosen her canvas and heave up anchor. Only when the quick click, click of the windlass pauls reached their listening ears, as the anchor came up to the song of the sailors and the ship's head swung round, did the girls begin to weep. But the mother, pressing them to her side, chid them, and said that a year was but a little time, and then she sank down and wept with them.

So, with the tears blinding their eyes, they saw the whaler sail slowly out through the passage, and then, as she braced her yards up and stood along the weather shore of the island, they saw Big Harry mount halfway up the mizzen lower rigging. He waved his broad leaf hat to them three times, and then soon, although they could see the upper canvas of the ship showing now and then above the palms, they saw him no more.

Seven months had come and gone, and every day, when the great red sun sank behind the thick line of palms that studded the western shore of Nukufetau, Fetu and Vailele would run to a tall and slender fau tree that grew on their mother's land, and cut on its dark brown bark a broad notch.

"See," said Vailele to her sister on this day, "there are now twenty and one marks" (they were in tens) "and that maketh of days two hundred and ten."

"Aue!" said the quiet Fetu. "Cut thou a fresh one above. One hundred and fifty and five more notches must there be cut in the tree before Hari, our father, cometh back; for in the white men's year there are, so he hath told me, three hundred and sixty and five days."

"O-la!" and Vailele laughed. "Then soon must we get something to stand on to reach high up. But yet, it may be that our father will come before the year is dead."

Fetu nodded her dark head, and then, hand in hand, the two girls walked back to their mother's house through the deepening gloom that had fallen upon the palm grove.

Ten miles away, creeping up to the land under shortened canvas, were a barque and a brig. No lights showed upon their decks, for theirs was an evil and cruel mission, and the black-bearded, olive-skinned men who crowded her decks spoke in whispers, lest the sound of their voices might perhaps fall upon the ears of natives out catching flying fish in their canoes.

Closer and closer the ships edged in to the land, and then, as they opened out the long white stretch of beach that fringed the lee of the island, they hove-to till daylight.

But if there were no lights on deck there were plenty below, and in the barque's roomy cabin a number of men were sitting and talking together over liquor and cigars. They were a fierce, truculent-looking lot, and talked in Spanish, and every man carried a brace of revolvers in his belt. All round the cabin were numbers of rifles and carbines and cutlasses; and, indeed, the dark faces of the men, and the profusion of arms that was everywhere shown, made them look like a band of pirates, bent upon some present enterprise. Pirates they were not; but they were perhaps as bad, for both the brig and the barque were Peruvian slavers, sent out to capture and enslave the natives of the South Sea Islands to work the guano deposits of the Chincha Islands.

At one end of the cabin table sat the captain of the barque—a small-made, youthful-looking man, of not more than twenty-five years of age. Before him was spread a sheet-chart of the Ellice Group, and another of the Island of Nukufetau, which he was studying intently.

Standing at the back of the captain's chair was a short, stout, broad-shouldered man, with a heavy black moustache and hawk-like features, who followed with interest the movements of the captain's slender brown hand over the chart. This was Senor Arguello, the owner of the two vessels, and the leading spirit in the villainous enterprise.

"There is the passage into the lagoon, Senor Arguello," said the young captain, pointing to the place on the chart; "and here, on this islet, the last one of the three that form the western chain of the atoll, is the native village. Therefore, if we can succeed in landing our boats' crews between the islet and the one next to it, we can cut off all chances of the natives escaping in that direction."

"Good, Captain Martinas. But what if they escape into the forest?"

"As you see, Senor," said the captain politely, "the islet is but narrow, and offers no chance of concealment unless there are mangrove scrubs in the wider portions. We can secure every one of them in a few hours. There is no possible way of escape but by the sea, and that we have provided against—the brig's boats will watch both sides of the islet, three on the lagoon side, and two on the ocean side."

"Excellent, Captain," said the fat ruffian Arguello. "I must compliment you upon your exactitude of your arrangements. I trust that we shall be as successful here as we were at Nukulaelae.{*} Captain Hennessy," and here he bowed to a man who sat at the other end of the table, "will, I am sure, see that none of these people are drowned in their silly efforts to escape, as occurred at other places."

     * Nukulaelae was almost entirely depopulated by these

Captain Peter Hennessy, once a dashing officer of the Peruvian navy, now a dissipated, broken-down master of a slaving brig, for answer struck his hand heavily on the table, and swore an oath.

"That was not my fault. But, by the God above me, I am sick of this business! I undertook to sail the brig and fill her with natives, but I did not undertake to have a hand in the bloody deeds that have happened. And now that I am on board, I may as well tell you all that the moment I see a shot fired at any of these poor devils I back out of the concern altogether."

"The brave Captain Pedro is tender-hearted," sneered the young captain of the barque, showing his even white teeth under his jet-black moustache.

"No words from you, Captain Martinas," retorted the Irishman. "I am prepared to go on now; but mind you—and you know me—the first man that I see lift a rifle to his shoulder, that man will I send a bullet through, be he black or white."

Then, with a curt nod to his fellow-associates in crime, the captain of the brig Chacahuco strode out of the cabin, and calling his boat, which was towing astern of the barque, he got into her and pulled off to shore.

Just as the first flushes of the rising sun tinged the sea to windward with streaks of reddish gold, the decks of the slavers bustled with activity. Boats were lowered, and the crews of cut-throat Chilenos and Peruvians swarmed eagerly into them, and then waited for the signal to cast off.

Suddenly the look-out on the barque, who was stationed on the foreyard, hailed the deck and reported that three canoes had pushed off from the beach and were paddling towards the ship.

A savage curse broke from Porfiro Arguello. He and Martinas had hoped to get part of the landing party posted between the two islets before the natives could see the ships. Now it was too late.{*}

     * Three vessels were engaged in this nefarious business, a
     barque and two brigs. The most dreadful atrocities were
     committed. At Easter Island they seized nearly the whole
     population; at Nukulaelae, in the Ellice Group, they left
     but thirty people out of one hundred and fifty.

"Let all the boats go round to the port side," said Martinas. "The canoes will board us on the starboard side, Senor Arguello, and once we get these people safely on board we shall still be in time to block the passage between the islets."

The boats were quickly passed astern, and then hauled up alongside on the port side; and Martinas, having signalled to the brig to do the same with her boats, lest the natives, seeing armed men in them, should make back for the shore, quietly lit a cigar and waited.

On came the three canoes, the half-naked, stalwart rowers sending them quickly over the ocean swell. In the first canoe were four men and two young girls; in the others men only. Unconscious of the treacherous intentions that filled the hearts of the white men, the unfortunate people brought their canoes alongside, and, with smiling faces, called out in English—

"Heave a rope, please."

"Aye, aye," responded a voice in English; and the natives, as the rope was thrown to them, made fast the canoes and clambered up the sides, the two girls alone remaining in the first canoe, and looking with lustrous, wondering eyes at the crowd of strange faces that looked down at them from the barque's decks.

Ten minutes before Martinas had ordered two sentries who stood guard, one at the break of the poop and the other on top of the for'ard deckhouse, to disappear; and so, when the natives gained the deck there was nothing to alarm them. But at the heavy wooden gratings that ran across the decks, just for'ard of the poop and abaft the for'ard deckhouse, they gazed with eyes full of curiosity. As for the main hatch, that was covered with a sail.

"Good morning, cap'en," said the leader of the natives, a tall, handsome old man about fifty. "Where you come from?"

"From California," answered Martinas, making a sign to one of his officers, who slipped away down to the main deck.

"What you come here for, sir?" resumed the native amiably; "you want fowl, pig, turtle, eh?" And then, unfastening a small bag tied round his naked waist, he advanced and emptied out a number of silver dollars.

"What is that for?" said Martinas, who spoke a little English.

The native laughed pleasantly.

"Money, sir." And then he looked round the ship's decks as if seeking something. "Me want buy boat. Where all your boat, cap'en? Why boat no here?" pointing to the davits and the pendant boat-falls.

"Sea break all boat," said the Peruvian quickly. And then, seeing the look of disappointment on the man's face, he added, "But never mind. You come below. I have handsome present for you."

"All right, cap'en," answered the old man with a pleased smile, as he turned and beckoned to the other natives to follow him.

An exultant smile showed on the grim features of Senor Arguello as he saw the captain's ruse. But just then the second mate came up.

"The girls won't come up on deck," he muttered in Spanish to the captain. "They laugh, and shake their heads."

"Let them stay, Juan, until I get these fellows below quietly. Then let one of the boats slip round and seize them."

Great results sometimes attend upon the merest trifles, and so it fell about now, for by a simple accident were some hundreds of these innocent, unsuspecting people of Nukufetau saved from a dreadful fate; for just as Mana, who was the chiefs brother and the uncle of the two poor half-caste children in the canoe, was about to go below, followed by his people, one of the boat's crew on the starboard side dropped the butt of his musket heavily on the naked foot of a young Chileno boy, who uttered an exclamation of pain.

Wondering where the cry came from, the old native, before he could be stayed, ran to the port side and looked over. There, lying beneath him, were four boats filled with armed men.

Suspicion of evil intent at once flashed through his mind, and, springing back, he gave voice to a loud cry of alarm.

"Back, back, my children!" he cried. "There be many boats here, and in them are men with guns and swords." And then he and those with him rushed for the break of the poop, only to meet the black muzzles of carbines and the glint of twenty cutlasses.

Alas! poor creatures, what hope was there for them, unarmed and almost naked, against their despoilers? One by one they were thrown down, seized, and bound; all but the old man, who, with his naked hands, fought valiantly, till Martinas, seizing a cutlass from a seaman, passed it through his naked body.

With one despairing cry, the old man threw up his arms and fell upon his face, and Martinas, drawing out his bloody weapon, ran to the side and looked over. The canoes were there, but the two girls were gone.

"Curses on you, Juan!" he shouted. "Why did you not seize them?"

But Senor Arguello, with a grim smile, took him by the arm and pointed to where Juan, the second mate, was chasing the two girls in his boat. At the sound of the struggle on deck they had jumped overboard, and, fearless of the sharks, were swimming swiftly for the reef, not a quarter of a mile away.

Standing on the poop-deck of the barque, the captain and Arguello watched the chase with savage interest. Halfway to the shore they saw Juan stand up and level his carbine and fire. The ball struck the water just ahead of the two girls, who were swimming close together. Then, in another two or three minutes, Juan was on top of them, and they saw the oars peaked.

"Saints be praised! He's got one," said Arguello. "They are lifting her into the boat."

"And the other little devil has dived, and they will lose her. Perdition take their souls! A bullet would have settled her," said Martinas. "She will easily get ashore now and alarm the whole village."

Then, with a volley of oaths and curses, he ordered the rest of the boats away to the little strait separating the two islets.

But ere they had sped more than halfway to the shore, the girl who had dived had swum in between the jagged, isolated clumps of coral that stood out from the reef, and rising high upon a swelling wave, they saw her lifted bodily upon its ledge, and then, exhausted as she was, stagger to her feet and run shorewards along its surface.

On, on, she ran, the sharp coral rock tearing her feet, till she gained the white sand of the inner beach, and then she fell prone, and lay gasping for her breath. But not for long, for in a few minutes she was up again, and with wearied limbs and dizzy brain she struggled bravely on till the houses of the village came in sight, and the wondering people ran out to save her from falling again.

"Flee! flee!" she gasped. "My uncle, and Fetu, and all with them are killed.... The white men on the ships have killed them all."

Like bees from their hives, the terrified natives ran out of their houses, and in ten minutes every soul in the village had fled to the beach, and launching canoes, were paddling madly across the lagoon to the main island of Nukufetau lagoon. Here, in the dense puka and mangrove scrub, there was hope of safety.

And, with rage in their villains' hearts, the slavers pursued them in vain; for before the boats could be brought round to the passage the canoes were nearly across the lagoon. But two of the canoes, being overloaded, were swamped, and all in them were captured and bound. Among those who escaped were the wife of Big Harry and her daughter Vailele.

That afternoon, when the boats returned to the ships, Captain Peter Hennessy and his worthy colleague, Captain Martinas, of the barque Cid Campeador quarrelled, and the young Peruvian, drawing a pistol from his belt, shot the Irish gentleman through the left arm, and the next moment was cut down upon his own deck by a sweeping blow from Hennessy's cutlass. Then, followed by Arguello's curses, the Irish captain went back to his brig and set sail for Callao, leaving Martinas to get the better of his wound and swoop down upon the natives of Easter Island six weeks later.

And down below in the stifling, sweating hold, with two hundred miserable captives like herself, torn from various islands and speaking a language akin to her own, lay the heart-broken and despairing daughter of Big Harry of Nukufetau.

And now comes the strange part of this true story. Two years had passed, when one cold, sleety evening in Liverpool, a merchant living at Birkenhead returned home somewhat later than his usual hour in a hired vehicle. Hastily jumping out, he pulled the door-bell, and the moment it was opened told the domestic to call her mistress.

"And you, Mary," he added, "get ready hot flannels, or blankets, and a bed. I found an unfortunate young foreign girl nearly dead from cold and exhaustion lying at the corner of a side street. I am afraid she is dying."

In another minute the merchant and his wife had carried her inside, and the lady, taking off her drenched and freezing garments, set about to revive her by rubbing her stiffened limbs. A doctor meanwhile had been sent for, and soon after his arrival the girl, who appeared to be about sixteen years of age, regained consciousness, and was able to drink a glass of wine held to her lips. For nearly an hour the kindly hearted merchant and his wife watched by the girl's bedside, and with a feeling of satisfaction saw her sink into a deep slumber.

The story she told them the next day, in her pretty broken English, filled them with the deepest interest and pity. She had, she said, been captured by the crew of one of two slave ships and taken to a place called Callao. On the voyage many of her ill-fated companions had died, and the survivors, upon their arrival at Callao, had been placed upon a vessel bound to the Chincha Islands. She, however, had, the night before the vessel sailed, managed to elude the sentries, and, letting herself drop overboard, swam to an English ship lying nearly a quarter of a mile away, and clambered up her side into the main-chains. There she remained till daylight, when she was seen by one of the crew. The captain of the ship, at once surmising she had escaped from the slave barque, concealed her on board and, the ship being all ready for sea, sailed next day for Japan. For nearly ten months the poor girl remained on board the English ship, where she was kindly treated by the captain and his wife and officers. At last, after visiting several Eastern ports, the ship sailed for Liverpool, and the girl was taken by the captain's wife to her own lodgings. Here for some weeks she remained with this lady, whose husband meantime had reported the girl's story to the proper authorities, and much red-tape correspondence was instituted with regard to having her sent back to her island home again. It so happened, however, that the girl, who was deeply attached to the captain's wife, was one day left alone, and wearied and perhaps terrified at her mistress not returning at dark, set out to look for her amid the countless streets of a great city. In a very short time she was hopelessly lost, and became so frightened at the strangeness of her surroundings that she sank exhausted and half-frozen upon the pavement of a deserted street. And here she was found as related.

For some months the girl remained with her friends, the merchant and his wife, for the captain of the ship by which she had reached Liverpool had, with his wife, consented to her remaining with them.

One evening, some few months after the girl had been thus rescued, a tall, sunburnt man, dressed like a seaman, presented himself at the merchant's house and asked to see him.

"Send him in," said Mr.——

As the stranger entered the room, Mr. —— saw that he carried in his hand a copy of a Liverpool newspaper.

"I've come, sir," he began, "to ask you if you are the gentleman that I've been reading about——"

Just then the door opened, and the merchant's wife, followed by a girl, entered the room. At the sound of their footsteps the man turned, and the next moment exclaimed—

"My God! It's my little girl!"

And it was his little girl—the little Fetu from whom he had parted at Nukufetau two years before.

Sitting with his great arms clasped lovingly around his daughter, Big Harry told his tale. Briefly, it was this:—After reaching the Pelew Islands and remaining there a few weeks, he had taken passage in a vessel bound to Manila, in the hope that from that port he could get a passage back to Nukufetau in another whaler. But the vessel was cast away, and the survivors were rescued by a ship bound for Liverpool. Landed at that port, and waiting for an opportunity to get a passage to New Bedford, from where he could return to his island home in a whaler, he had one day picked up a paper and read the account of the slavers' onslaught upon the Ellice Islands, and the story of the escape of a young half-caste girl. Never dreaming that this girl was his own daughter—for there are many half-castes in the eight islands of the group—he had sought her out, in the hope that she would be pleased to hear the sound of her native tongue again, and perhaps return with him to her native land.

Nearly a year passed before Big Harry, with his daughter Fetu, sailed into the placid waters of Nukufetau Lagoon, and of the glad meeting of those four happy souls there is no need to tell.