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Sailors and TradersA Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples$

Alastair Couper

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832391

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832391.001.0001

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Dangers, Mutinies, and the Law

Dangers, Mutinies, and the Law

Chapter Seven Dangers, Mutinies, and the Law
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the dangers and hardships experienced by Pacific sailors at sea, including death and unfair and harsh treatment by the captains of foreign ships, and the laws that were introduced ostensibly to protect them. It begins by citing statistics on the mortality rates of Pacific seafarers and goes on to discuss the various factors contributing to seafarer injuries and deaths at sea, including shipwrecks, whaling and other occupational accidents, diseases, suicides, and murder. It also considers the role of unseaworthy vessels and the hazards of attacks on boats and ships close to shore, particularly piracy; medical care for sailors suffering accidents and illnesses; and desertion and mutiny by sailors as a form of protest against abuses and other kinds of ill treatment. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the various laws governing the rights of seafarers.

Keywords:   dangers, sailors, laws, seafarers, death, shipwrecks, occupational accidents, medical care, desertion, mutiny

PACIFIC SEAFARERS, in common with all mariners, faced dangers at sea. Many ships were lost with all hands in bad weather and on reefs. Sailors were also drowned when washed overboard, were killed by falls from rigging and other occupational accidents, and were exposed to violence and diseases in some trading areas. Periodically they were victims of physical and mental abuse under unscrupulous masters. Many of these situations were considered inevitable components of seagoing. These negatives were compensated for by the mobility and freedom of a temporary seafaring life, and if all went well, the accumulation of money by young Pacific men to obtain land, a boat, or a bride or to meet some other personal goals. Occasionally sailors rebelled against grossly unfair and brutal treatment by resorting to desertion or mutiny, as there was little chance of recourse to law. When modern legal provisions emerged, they were primarily for the protection of property. Seafarers did have residual benefits from this as related economic assets, although they were considered somewhat unreliable but replaceable.

The problems of determining the place of Pacific seafarers in this multinational matrix of life and death on foreign ships is the perennial one of statistics. The fact that there are no reliable statistics on mortality is not surprising, since it was only in the late nineteenth century that approximate returns of the deaths on board British merchant ships were published, covering the two years from 1875 to 1877.1 It was estimated that during this period 12,408 seafarers died on British ships, yielding a mortality rate of 1 in 60 serving seamen. This confirmed work at sea as the most dangerous of all occupations. The statistics were actually gross underestimates, since no account was taken of seafarers who died ashore from injuries and disease sustained while serving at sea. As late as 1924, fleet surgeon W. E. Home commented on records of deaths on merchant ships in the medical journal Lancet: “If the figures referred to bags of coffee (p.119) or tons of coal, that would be alright: it would be in the financial interests of certain people to keep a watchful eye on the returns. But deaths of seamen are nobody’s concern.”2

The only overall indication of deaths at sea of Pacific people is a Hawaiian newspaper item for the period 1841–1858, which reported more than 600 persons lost on Hawaiian interisland vessels.3 It is safe to assume that the mortality rate among Pacific sailors on foreign-going ships was little different from the British 1 in 60 for serving seamen. The main categories of deaths would also have been shared, with some modification for Pacific conditions. In the case of British ships the causes of the 12,408 deaths were drowning by wreck of vessel, 34 percent; drowning by accident other than wreck, 25 percent; diseases (10 recognized), 20 percent. The balance included other accidents, suicides, and murder. Drowning from wrecks due to storms may have been less in the Pacific, but shipwrecks from running on uncharted reefs were more prevalent. There was also the factor of unseaworthy vessels, and there were plenty of these in the whaling and sandalwood businesses. In addition there were the hazards of attacks on boats and ships close to shore.


A factor that increased mortality in all ships was the practice of sailors not abandoning a vessel to save their own lives until all hopes of the ship’s surviving had been exhausted. The reason for such apparent dedication was the rule that wages ceased on loss of the ship, and any accumulated earnings were likewise forfeited. When a ship was lost, insurance was paid to the shipowners and cargo interests, but nothing to seafarers or their families. There were charities in Britain and America that gave some help, and for a time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries British seamen had sixpence per month deducted from their wages to support the Seamen’s Hospital in Greenwich.4 But the families of lost or injured Pacific seafarers could depend only on support from the community. The names and places of origin of Pacific seafarers lost were in any case not always known to the shipowners or authorities.

The ships most prone to loss were the whalers. They tended to range widely after migrating whales, and captains did not build up the detailed knowledge of specific sea areas as did those on regular runs. Charts were inaccurate, and even known dangers seldom carried marks. For example, the Minerva reefs in the southern sea area between Tonga and Fiji claimed unknown numbers of ships. With certainty those shipwrecked there in (p.120) the nineteenth century were the Minerva (1829), Libelle (1848), Caroline (1859), and Sir George Gray (1866). The Canton, which ran on the reefs in 1855, was able to break free by a feat of seamanship.5

Whalers did have some advantages when it came to crew survival after foundering or grounding. They carried four or so stout whaleboats, each with a compass, oars, a lugsail, and water tanks, and the Pacific crews were expert at handling them. From ashore on Minerva reef, the crew of the Caroline reached Fiji, over three hundred miles away, in six days. The boats from the Independence, which grounded on a reef in 1835, made it to Tahiti, while the crew of the Thule of Nantucket, which ran on an unknown shoal in 1845, also reached safety in whaleboats.6 Morton refers to a boat crew that survived only because a Maori sailor could make fire and catch and cook fish.7 There are also records of survival when boats were not available. The schooner Shaw, belonging to Captain Bernard of Kaua‘i, ran aground on a tiny island one hour before sunset when bound for Ascension [Palau]. They lived for four and a half months on coconuts, fish, and brackish water before being rescued.8 On the other hand, when the Canton Packet ran ashore in the cold north Pacific in 1867, four of the five sailors who died of exposure were Hawaiians.9

Occupational Accidents

Numerous deaths and injuries occurred on board all vessels, but whaling once again heads the list. This was partly because of the hazards of the work, but also because of a built-in incentive to take risks through the system of lays. This system awarded each of the crew a share in the value of the oil landed at the termination of a voyage. The following is a typical distribution of gross oil profits: captain, 1/12; mate, 1/28; second mate, 1/40; carpenter and boatsteerer (harpooner), 1/90; surgeon, 1/90; and seamen, between 1/100 and 1/180. The earnings of sailors were thereby directly related to the catch, not to the time spent at sea. If few whales were caught over a voyage of several years, then once deductions were made for tobacco, drink, clothes, soap, and fines, there could be little, if any, payoff. Consequently every effort was made to catch whales, regardless of risks.

The dangers of whaling were present at all stages of the operations. On whaleboats men were carried overboard with the rush of rope after harpooning, and boats were also pulled down with a deep-sounding whale (e.g., those of the Flying Childers, 1852; Highlander, 1855; and (p.121) Asia, 1878). A boat could be taken away at high speed with a whale and never recovered, and many more were shattered by the tail flukes of frenzied whales (e.g., Runnymeade, 1849; and Islander, 1876). Smashed limbs were common; for example, the Tahitian mate Cocky died after both of his thighs were broken. Once a whale was towed alongside the ship for butchering, sailors could fall off the cutting stage and be taken by sharks scavenging around the carcass. Many more were injured by razor-sharp flensing knives and cutting spades. On the Wallaby in 1841 a young seaman had his leg severed by a spade and “took ten agonising days to die.” Massive slabs of blubber being hauled on board from masthead purchases were dangerous—Captain Edward Copping was crushed in 1880 during this operation.10

In contrast to whaling, most of the deaths in sealing occurred ashore. Sailors were landed in remote locations to kill and process seals under a system of lays, while a ship went whaling or trading elsewhere. The young Maori chief Ruatara, who served as a sailor, described how he, two Tahitians, and ten European seamen were landed on Bounty Island in 1808. It was five months before their ship Santa Anna returned. They suffered from lack of fresh water and fed only on seal meat and seabirds. Two of the Europeans and one Tahitian died during this time.11 Such circumstances were not unusual, and incidents of cannibalism among sealers left on remote islands were reported in the Sydney Press.12 Loss of ships was particularly common in the interisland and coastal services throughout the Pacific. Dangerous surf, reefs, and missing stays on lee shores were causes, but also the degrading of navigational skills, overloading, and poor maintenance of the new types of vessels were contributory factors. Between 1845 and 1861 there were thirty-one shipwrecks on the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands alone.13

Attacks on Boats and Ships

The cutting off of whaleboats, which were operating close to the coasts of places like Bougainville and Buka Island, was a constant hazard. The boat of the brig Inga was cut off and attacked in the Carolines in 1852.14 There was also the danger of boarding. In 1836 on the whaler Awashonha at Barings Island (Namorik) the captain, officers, and several sailors were killed by boarders who armed themselves with cutting spades; the Society Island sailors and others had to jump into the sea to try to escape.15

The most exposed to danger of attacks were the crews of (p.122) sandalwood vessels. As on whalers, the lay system induced extreme risk taking. John Jackson in 1849 notes that sailors, “collected at Sydney or picked up among the islands,” received 1/72 of the value of the wood. He also described the ships as “nearly worn out, and … unfitted for other branches of commerce.”16 Many of the crews on the sandalwood vessels were Loyalty Islanders of sixteen to twenty years of age. Sailors were drawn also from Erromango, Tanna, and Aneityum. The list of seafarers massacred on the Star of Tahiti at the Isle of Pines in 1842 included Polynesians from the Marquesas, Mangaia, Aitutaki, Rarotonga, and New Zealand, in addition to the captain (Thomas Ebrill) and nine Europeans.17 Shineberg records 34 sandalwood vessels (out of 209 arrivals) attacked between 1842 and 1855. Most frequently such attacks took place on the coasts of Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Some 107 sailors and 9 passengers were killed, and 6 ships destroyed.18

The bêche-de-mer and shell trades held similar dangers. Everyone on the Hawaiian brig Waverly was slaughtered at Kosrae in 1835. Six months later the Honduras of Boston arrived, and all on board were killed, except the mate and a steward. These two survivors managed to slip the cable and remarkably sailed the ship for eleven days to Ponape. There they obtained a new crew of Ponapeans and returned to Honolulu. At the time that the Honduras was sailing to Hawai‘i, other Ponapeans killed Captain Hingston of the whaleship Falcon and several of the crew. This resulted in joint retaliation by the crews of three ships, along with some beachcombers against the local community. The chief was captured and sentenced by Captain Charles Hart of the Lampton to be hanged. Hart arranged a grotesque pantomime for the seamen of the three ships, during which “demons” terrified the chief before he was hauled to the yardarm to hang.19

Pacific seamen stood by their European shipmates and were killed, although on one reported occasion, four were spared because of their color.20 Attacks were sporadic and often carried out in revenge for mistreatment or theft by earlier ships. Other causes included insults to chiefs, violations of taboos, and the abduction of women. In the mid-nineteenth century the reason was no longer simply suspicions toward strangers. Andrew Cheyne said of an attack in 1852 that the boarders must have served at sea: “They appeared to understand the management of a ship very well. The moment they got possession of the deck, they put the helm up, and kept the brig away, right for the reef, with the intention of running her on shore.”21

(p.123) Exposure to Disease

The young men from the Pacific were probably initially healthier than most of their European and American shipmates. On the other hand, they were more susceptible to diseases, encountered during foreign voyages, to which they had no natural immunities. Conditions in the foc’sle were also conducive to the spread of infections from Europeans, such as tuberculosis, and they became victims and carriers of venereal disease from multiple contacts with women ashore and on board.

The health of Pacific sailors was undermined generally by poor nutrition. Basic victuals on foreign-going ships on long passages comprised salt meat and hardtack biscuits, to which was added dried peas and other storable items, along with tea, coffee, sugar, and sometimes beer, while fresh water was often noxious. For Pacific men this diet was alien and nutritionally inadequate. They were used to bulky starch food, together with coconuts, greens, fresh fish, and meat as the true food (kaka-nidina), which was prepared and eaten communally as an important component of their cultures.

When the ships were around islands, fresh supplies were available to them. Pacific sailors were sometimes able to obtain fresh food by fishing and by trading tobacco (paid for out of future earnings) for fowls and other items ashore, but this was not always possible on whalers. As a consequence outbreaks of scurvy were common. In 1855 the whaler Pryde called at the Bay of Islands with scurvy on board, and several of the crew then deserted. In 1876 the Runnymeade reported that seven of the crew were ill, including a thirty-seven-year-old experienced seaman Sam Walwo from Hawai‘i, and that another sailor had attempted to jump overboard. In 1878 the Sapphire arrived at Hobart with the majority of crew suffering from the disease, and two already dead. Dr. W. L. Crowther, who was noted for his dedication to recording whalers, wrote an outraged letter to the Hobart Mercury, saying the Sapphire crew were all close to death. For this, he was heavily criticized by the shipowners and the local business community.22

Venereal disease was less serious but more common. It was difficult for many sailors to avoid, and the remedies on board were ineffectual. On the New Hazard it was reported to Captain David Nye that a seventeen-year-old apprentice had “swollen testicles,” who replied, “I’ll cut him tomorrow,” but this sort of treatment was more of a lesson than a cure. The captain demanded to be told of the girls and the sailors who brought them (p.124) on board. The crew said nothing, although Stephen Reynolds ruefully records that the girls had also stolen their “allowances of pork!!!”23 The pox was simply considered another occupational hazard.

Medical Care

Medical care for accidents and illnesses was always inadequate. The surgeons that some British whalers carried were variable in qualifications and status, as is reflected in their share of the proceeds from the lay, which was between that of an AB and of a carpenter. William Dalton, a surgeon on the whaleship Phoenix from 1823 to 1825 and the Harriot from 1826 to 1829, kept a diary. He qualified in 1821 at the age of twenty after paying for an apprenticeship of observing operations in London and obtained membership of the Society of Apothecaries. He went to sea to earn some money and for adventure. He notes that on his first trip to New Zealand he cared for another surgeon, John O’Brien, who died of tuberculosis. He also describes visiting the London whaleship Francis, lying offshore, and finding that all the crew were ill with scurvy. Only the captain and mates were well enough, as they had retained a store of potatoes. Had the weather turned bad, the ship would have been lost, as several undoubtedly were in similar circumstances.24

Like surgeon Dalton, the sailors were aware that fresh vegetables could avert scurvy, and they also knew there were substitutes. On the New Hazard while on the northwest coast the men made spruce beer as an antiscorbutic. In 1844 an act was passed in Britain that all British ships were required to issue lime juice, but it was many years before ships complied with the act. On most vessels the crew relied on the experience of the captain for medical attention. He had a medical chest that contained purgatives, potions, sometimes laudanum, an instruction manual, and simple surgical instruments. A captain who was bold enough to amputate to prevent gangrene could only stupefy an injured sailor with rum and provide a leather thong for the patient to bite on. Death usually followed from trauma, lack of antiseptics, or loss of blood. Morton points out that on whalers there was a “higher proportion of insane people than the normal population.”25

Abuse of Seafarers

The dangers and hardships experienced by sailors were generally considered as “perils of the sea,” which self-preservation and good seamanship (p.125) could ameliorate. It was a different matter when seafarers were at the mercy of unscrupulous masters and violent bucko mates, against whom they had no protection while at sea. Most abuses were directed toward non-Europeans in the crew, although not exclusively.

Nor were all captains guilty of abuse; many were highly respected by crews for their fairness. Captain William Campbell of Sydney, who was part owner or full owner of several ships that he operated with Pacific crews, was well regarded, but he gave up the sea when his ship the Harrington was captured by convicts in 1807.26 When the sailor Richard Copping and his shipmates decided not to sail on the whaler Endeavour in 1840, because they considered the ship unseaworthy, Copping nevertheless recorded how sorry he was to leave Captain Studley and noted that “he was always kind to me.”27 Nor was it always true that black seafarers were discriminated against. Many Nantucket whaleship owners held antislavery sentiments and hired ex-slaves, not simply as cooks. Edward Stackpole writes,

On board the whaleships from Nantucket and New Bedford, early in the nineteenth century, the negro was a valuable member of the crew and his advance to an officer’s berth was not unusual. When the Loper arrived at Nantucket on September 7, 1830, with 2,280 barrels of oil, after having made one of the shortest voyages ever recorded—fourteen months and fourteen days—the owners, including Captain Obed Star-buck, gave a dinner to the almost entirely negro crew.28

However, Spate notes that “there was a sharp decline in decency after 1825 as the Quaker element lessened.”29

A general form of abuse of Pacific seafarers was the theft of their identities. They were almost all given a single European name or nickname when they joined a ship. This was not part of the Pacific tradition of exchanging names; rather, it was more akin to the practice of slave owners. It meant that those with indigenous names or titles signifying chiefly status were suitably put in their place below the Europeans.

When it came to remuneration, it was the rule that Pacific sailors received less than Europeans of the same rank. Samuel Marsden indicates that they were accustomed to this when he wrote in 1814, “I told the New Zealanders who acted as sailors, that I would pay them for their services, the same as I paid the Europeans according to the work they did—at this they were astonished and much gratified.”30 Some on other ships received no remuneration whatsoever for their labors. The case of “George,” a (p.126) chief of Whangaroa, is recalled. He spent about one year on the sealer Elizabeth, and partly because of the unfair lay system, he received nothing in return. After further abuse, he was avenged by the massacre of the crew of the Boyd in 1809 (see chapter 5). As late as 1877 W. G. Giles records that when the Bobtail Nag was supposed to be paying off its Efate sailors after a labor-recruiting voyage, Captain Inman simply said, “They are niggers[;] let them wait for their pay,” pay that it seems they never ever received.31

In most ships the non-European sailors were beaten to a greater extent than others, as in the treatment of the black cook and steward on the New Hazard. Likewise, on this ship the Hawaiian sailors were unfairly treated. When the mate found a cask of molasses, the head of which had been gnawed by rats, he took his displeasure out on a Hawaiian: “Mr. Hewes struck one of the Kanakas with a large rope over the head so that he fainted.”32

Some of the ill treatment on several ships was an attempt to drive long-serving sailors into deserting, whenever it was possible to find replacements. A sailor who deserted forfeited all his earnings and share of the lay he would be entitled to at the end of the voyage. The money then accrued to the captain. Treatment was so bad for the steward on the New Hazard that he voluntarily offered “all his wages” to the captain if he would simply permit him to transfer to another ship and “allow him to go home.” The armorer of the same vessel tried to jump ship, but as there was no opportunity to replace him, he was caught and suitably restrained. The second mate, having trouble in shackling the armorer, was shouting for assistance to “knock the booger stiff with a stick or a hammer.”33 Some captains, from whatever causes, had continuous difficulty in keeping a crew. The whaler James Steward entered Sydney for repairs in 1847, and “as the original crew had given trouble a practically new crew was signed on and the ship left for the Gilberts.” After whaling in the North Pacific, it arrived in Hawai‘i, where once again all the crew deserted. Their desertion was attributed to news of gold finds in California.34

When seamen could not be driven to desert, or for other reasons were unwanted, they were simply abandoned and once again lost all their belongings and wages. In January 1813 while the New Hazard was at anchor below Canton, an offending sailor referred to only as Jack (who does not appear in the crew list) was ordered into the ship’s boat and set ashore in a paddy field “without his being allowed to wait for his chest and bedding or money” (although his shipmates did slip him four dollars).35 Similarly the captain of the Roman II, after flogging and confining (p.127) members of the crew in irons, landed “seven troublemakers” on Nukunau Island in 1851.36

Very occasionally accusations of abandonment came to a court of law. The Hobart Town Courier reported on 19 July 1848 that Captain Hudespeth of the brig Patriot had been accused of forcing three men ashore on a remote part of the coast of Australia. Two of them died from starvation during a three-hundred-mile walk, but the third tried to bring a case against the captain, who was absolved because they were troublemakers.37

There are a few documented accounts of abandonment and related abuses. In 1811 Captain Michael Fodger of the Trial left a party on the uninhabited Palmerston Island. The group comprised four Europeans, one American, one Brazilian, and several Tahitian sailors who were to collect bêche-de-mer, pearl shells, and shark fins. The ship never returned for them. One year later Fodger passed the island on the Daphne. Even though one of the abandoned sailors swam out and reported that two of the Europeans were dead and one injured with a spear wound, Fodger refused to pick them up. The crew of the Trial offered to forgo wages to compensate for the time and provisions involved, but still Fodger refused. Later the same captain threw fourteen Rimatara Islanders over the side to drown and also abandoned sailors on an island in Tahiti, shooting one and recommending to the local chiefs that the others “have their brains beaten out with stones.”38

Ruatara, a young Maori chief of the Ngaputi in the Bay of Islands, left a more detailed account of treatment on board a sequence of foreign ships. He told his story to John Nicholas and Samuel Marsden of the Sydney Mission, who befriended him. From this and other sources the main events are summarized as follows:39

In 1805, at the age of eighteen, Ruatara joined the whaler Argo as a common sailor. The ship was commanded by Captain Baden, and Ruatara was allocated by him to one of the whaleboats. They went whaling in New Zealand waters for about twelve months before the voyage terminated in Sydney. Ruatara was discharged there but received no remuneration for his services.

At Sydney, Ruatara joined the Albion, which was commanded by Captain Richardson and also engaged in whaling around New Zealand. After six months or so, Ruatara was paid off at the Bay of Islands with “various European articles.” He stayed ashore for six months before joining the sealer Santa Anna, commanded by Captain William (p.128) Moody. The ship landed him and others on Bounty Island (the deaths of three of the sailors have already been mentioned). When the Santa Anna returned, Ruatara and the survivors loaded eight thousand sealskins, and they sailed for England.

The Santa Anna arrived in the Thames during July 1809. Ruatara was confined on board to assist with the unloading. He was then discharged without money or proper clothing. The captain told him to go aboard the convict transport vessel Anna and the owners would pay him his due when he arrived in New South Wales. He was in effect abandoned, sick and impoverished. He saw little of London and nothing of King George III, which was one of his life’s ambitions.

When Ruatara eventually found the Anna lying downstream, the commander, Captain Charles Clark, described him as naked and sick. Clark managed to prevail on the captain of the Santa Anna to issue Ruatara with some seagoing gear before he would take him. There appears to have been no payment on the Anna, nor did he ever receive money due for sealing or work done on the Santa Anna. It was on the convict transport vessel that he met the missionaries who assisted him.

At Sydney, Ruatara joined the whaler Frederick. The captain promised to land him in New Zealand when the ship called there during the voyage. The ship did lie off the Bay of Islands at one stage, quite close to his home village of Rangihoua. He was not allowed to land, and the ship bore off for Norfolk Island. Ruatara was highly distressed, having been missing from his family for three years. The captain did promise that on the return voyage from Norfolk to England, he would be calling at the Bay of Islands and would pay him off.

At Norfolk, Ruatara and three Maori sailors were occupied handling workboats through heavy surf and nearly lost their lives. The captain then abandoned them without money, provisions, or clothing and sailed for England. Fortunately for Ruatara, Captain Gwyn of the whaler Ann called at Norfolk and found him in a distressed condition. The captain signed him on, and after five months he was paid off in Sydney. At Sydney, Ruatara was looked after by Samuel Marsden and the mission. He found work again on the Anne and eventually was landed in New Zealand. He gave up seagoing and took to agriculture. Surprisingly Ruatara remained friendly toward the pakehas, but not surprisingly he died at the age of twenty-eight.

Most other Pacific sailors who died at sea or were abandoned were never heard of again. They became what David Chappell aptly terms (p.129) “double ghosts,”40 both themselves and their memories having been lost forever. When Robert Louis Stevenson arrived on the yacht Casco at Nukuhiva in the Marquesas on 28 July 1888, he met “an old, melancholy, grizzled man of the name of Tari (Charlie) Coffin”:

He was a native of Oahu, in the Sandwich Islands; and had gone to sea in his youth in the American whalers. … [O]ne captain, sailing out of New Bedford, carried him to Nuka-hiva and marooned him there among the cannibals. The motive for this act was inconceivably small; poor Tari’s wages, which were thus economised, would scarce have shook the credit of the New Bedford owners.41

Mutiny and Piracy

The maritime traditions of the Pacific included respect for the navigator who guided the ship through the dangers of the ocean. The crew could be relied on to follow his orders. In turn they expected the captain to show an unfailing duty of care toward the ship community and to consult on many aspects of the voyage, as is still the custom in the less formal interisland vessels (see chapter 10). They brought these social mores on board foreign ships and met with some similar views in the foc’sle on the customary rights of seafarers. The difference was resorting to the act of mutiny at sea, which was something new for Pacific island seafarers.

The tougher of the foreign captains that Pacific seafarers encountered on these foreign ships recognized only two responses to their orders, either “duty or mutiny”; there was nothing in between. A member of the crew who made a suggestion or a complaint would risk being accused of disobeying the lawful commands of the master. This was not mutiny, but captains could draw a fine line between complaints and mutiny in the legal isolation of a ship.

A mutiny meant the takeover of a ship at sea by its crew and was always a hanging offense. It was not a frequent occurrence in the Pacific, even if the most famous mutiny occurred there. More common was the expression of a personal grievance by an individual sailor, the representation by the crew of a foc’sle acting as a spokesman, or, less common at sea, a refusal to work. The latter strike action was traditionally resorted to by sailors in port. The very term “strike” emanates from sailors in its original warship meaning of stopping a ship by striking at its sails and masts, or striking the ship’s colors as a signal of surrender.

Some of the more arrogant captains on both merchant and naval ships (p.130) allowed simple complaints to escalate into strikes and sometimes mutinies. This even occurred in the British Royal Navy during wartime. Complaints over wages and food in the 1790s led to strikes in British ports, which were then classed as mutinies. Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood told the captains thereafter that “they would be unwise not to redress the first complaint or grievance” and perceptively added that sailors “should not be allowed to feel what power there is in so numerous a body.” When this failed, it was customary to hang one or two mutineers (often chosen by lot), commute a few to transportation, and pardon the rest.42

Strikes and mutinies were usually a last resort planned and agreed to by badly abused foreign and ultimately island sailors. The Hawaiian sailors on the John Little mutinied in 1834 and threw the captain over the side. The crew of the Thetis mutinied in 1835 and killed the captain and mate while they were sleeping. The sailors of the whaleship Planter of Nantucket were so incensed by their treatment that on 18 December 1849 they assembled on deck and refused duties. The captain loaded a musket and “shot dead the ringleader” and then one other, after which “the rest submitted.”43 On the whaler William Penn on 6 November 1853, the crew of fifteen kanakas had come to the end of their tether. Led by the harpooner Henry, a native of Hawai‘i, they armed themselves with whaling lances and spades and took over the ship. In the mutiny Captain Isaac Hussey was killed, along with the cook George Reed. The chief mate Nelson was wounded, as was the Chinese steward. Only two of the five Europeans on board were unharmed. The Hawaiian sailors said they had no wish to kill anyone or to take the ship; they clearly just wanted to get off. They took two whaleboats and landed ashore. The ringleader Henry was later shot, and the boats retrieved by the Herald of Fairhaven.44 There are many such accounts in court and local records.45

These types of mutinies seemed to be unplanned spontaneous responses to brutal incidents. They were most likely to occur on a trochus shell and pearling vessel carrying large numbers of sailor-divers and enforcing dangerous deep diving by bullying. Not surprisingly, the tyrannical Captain Michael Fodger met his end in such a venture during the latter part of the 1812 voyage of the Daphne, mentioned above. The Sydney Shipping Gazette on 13 November 1813 gave the first account of this incident:

Captain Fodger, having shipped 25 Tahiti divers proceeded to Palisers. On 29th August he was knocked down with a club on his own deck, and rose no more. Mr Marcus Vanderdyne, chief mate, was next assaulted and wounded, but ran below and making his way out of (p.131) the cabin window, was seen no more. Wm Gill seaman, desperately wounded, got below but after was brought on deck and deliberately killed. Three others were wounded and put on an uninhabited island without provisions, w[h]ither five of their unhappy companions had leaped overboard and escaped.”46

The Gazette added the news that the Queen Charlotte (Captain Shelley) was also “captured at Paliseer Island by Tahitians who had been taken on as divers.” They murdered “Leslie mate, Harris second mate and Watson Australian boy.”47 Both ships were later rescued and returned to their owners. In the case of the Daphne, Captain Theodore Walker of the whaler Endeavour repossessed her. He then acted as judge and jury and hanged one of the mutineers from the yardarm. This was an illegal act on his part, as a merchant ship captain, but he was never brought to account.48

There were several other mutinies that involved Pacific seafarers. Accounts of these appeared in the press of the time, drawn from evidence given in court against the mutineers and from horrifying stories then circulating. Little of this information is likely to have been objective regarding the conditions on board and the circumstances of the mutiny. Sailors, knowing the dire consequences that would result from such actions, would not have embarked on them lightly.

Other mutinies were planned in the foc’sle, and oaths of secrecy taken. Sometimes a paper was drawn up and signed by each of the seamen as a customary round-robin, on which there was no first or last signature or mark. The leader was usually one of the best seamen—a foremastman, bosun, or harpooner—well respected by the others. He was articulate and prepared to speak to the captain on behalf of the rest of the crew to avoid the more drastic measures. It is not known who the leader was who was shot by the captain of the Planter when the crew assembled. The Hawaiian harpooner Henry, who led the crew of the William Penn, also remains anonymous as a person, as do many other seafarers who spoke or acted against injustices and were hanged from yardarms.

Other mutinies were planned ashore by sailors before they joined a ship. Most of them were motivated, not out of grievances or desperation, but by monetary gain, and as such they were, in law, closer to piracy on the high seas than to mutiny. Some, however, may have been acts by embittered sailors at having been abandoned or forced to desert from other ships without wages and possessions. The mutiny on the whaleship Globe of Nantucket was probably an act of piracy. When the ship called (p.132) at Hawai‘i in 1824 after two years of whaling, it was deserted by six of its young sailors. The captain signed on a group of six or seven replacements led by a harpooner, Samuel Comstock, and including one Hawaiian, one of “Indian blood,” and a black steward. Some had clearly planned to hijack the ship, and within one week they had killed Captain Thomas Worth and the first mate and thrown the second and third mates over-board. They then proceeded to sail the vessel to the Marshall Islands.49 Most were subsequently killed by local people, including the Hawaiian, who, it seems, had not mutinied.

A similar instance was mutiny on the whaler Sharon. The captain needed to replace eleven of the crew who had deserted at Ascension Island (Ponape). Among those who came on board was a group of Kingsmill (Kiribati) Islanders. They were clearly experienced sailors, as they took over the ship while the rest of the crew and mates were away on whaleboats. They killed Captain Norris and others on board. Only because the ship’s boy was able to signal a warning from the masthead to the returning boats was the ship recaptured by the rest of the crew, after a fight. Possibly also planned as a pirate act was the attack on board the sloop William Little. The Hawaiian leaders Napalac and Kaheniau, after killing Captain Carter and then ransacking and scuttling the ship, returned on boats to Honolulu with others of the crew, claiming to be castaways. They were eventually arrested and both ringleaders hanged on a yardarm of the king’s ship Niu in 1834.50

Seafarers and the Law

Considering the neglect of legal rights and the conditions at sea until well into the nineteenth century, it is surprising there was not more violence. Most captains acknowledged that seafarers had rights to complain and to negotiate on certain matters under the “customs of the sea.” Remnants of these customs were inheritances from the ancient rules of the Rhodian Sea Code of the eighth century and the Rules of Oleron in the fourteenth century. They originated in the medieval city ports of Europe, and while they were primarily for the protection of shipping and trade, embedded in them were some basic rights of seafarers that actually far exceeded the then legal rights of workers on land.51

In the course of time, separate states adopted laws on employment, including prohibiting forced labor, withholding wages, and protecting health and safety in different occupations. Seafaring was generally excluded from these, in the mistaken belief that ships were covered by (p.133) inherited customs of the sea that had the force of law under the master. On occasions when incidents on board came to court, it was seldom that the actions of the master were ruled against.

Because of their legal isolation from national laws, multinational crews continually appealed to the customs of the sea, as preserved in their oral traditions that had been carried between ships. Before signing on a ship, they would negotiate wages and a scale of provisions and would assess what they considered to be a safe ship and safe manning. The success or otherwise of these efforts would depend on labor supply and demand. At sea in the absence of clearly defined safety rules, the crew would be vocal regarding who was capable of going aloft, how many hours they should work, the quantity and quality of food, and what constituted brutal treatment as distinct from acceptable punishments. Most masters recognized the rights of seamen to express opinions on these matters without being accused of mutinous behavior.

Pacific sailors would soon have assimilated these aspects of crew culture. In addition a few new laws that applied to Pacific seamen on foreign ships were introduced by the colonial authorities during the nineteenth century. Governor King of New South Wales issued a general order on 26 May 1805, prohibiting the “beating or ill use of Otaheitans, Sandwich Islanders or New Zealanders” and “it is to be clearly understood that such Otaheitans etc are protected in their properties, claims for wages, and the same redress as any of His Majesty’s Subjects.” The order also stated that “they should not be left in the colony without employment.”52 Primarily designed for the regulation of the labor trade generally, this legislation also covered seafarers.

In 1814 Governor Lachlan Macquarie followed with a Government and General Order stating that “no master or seamen of any ship or vessel belonging to any British port, or any of the colonies of Great Britain … shall in future remove or carry there-from any of the natives without first obtaining permission of the chief or chiefs of the districts.” Similarly, masters could not leave natives in a district without permission of chiefs or magistrates. It was added that disobedience of masters would be prosecuted with the “utmost rigor of the law.”53

These orders were not entirely paternalistic in their motives. King and Macquarie were concerned with reprisals against ships in the Pacific as a result of the abuse of crews by some masters, and they were nervous about the concentration of unemployed sailors in colonial towns, especially in proximity to recalcitrant convicts. In general the legislation was ineffective. In 1816 Samuel Marsden charged Captain John Martin with seizing (p.134) canoes, kidnapping several natives from Santa Christina Island (Tahuata) in the Marquesas, and forcing them to leap into the sea, But “the bench was prepared to do no more than find the charges substantiated.”54

Subsequent laws that were introduced ostensibly to protect sailors were influenced by the perceived behavior of riotous seamen in port towns, and there was much of that at times. These laws had an adverse effect on seafarers. Craig Forsyth correctly observes, “Since the early 1800s American seamen have had a very low status, which maritime laws and codes have caused and helped perpetuate.”55 The type of legal opinion to which Forsyth no doubt refers is that stated by US Justice Story in the case of Harden v. Gordon in 1823. In part this opinion states, “Every court should watch with jealousy any encroachment upon the rights of seamen, because they are unprotected and need counsel; because they are thoughtless and require indulgence.”56 In 1825 Lord Stowell, the leading British Admiralty judge, delivered a similar opinion when he compared the thoughtless improvident seamen with their prudent ship-owning gentlemen employers:

On the one side are gentlemen possessed of wealth, and intent, I mean not unfairly, upon augmenting it, conversant in business, and possessing the means of calling in the aid of practical and professional knowledge. On the other side, is a set of men, generally ignorant and illiterate, notoriously and verbally reckless and improvident, ill provided with the means of obtaining useful information, and almost ready to sign any instrument that may be proposed to them; and on all accounts requiring protection, even against themselves.57

These apparently paternalistic views belied the professionalism of seafarers and reduced their credibility when they complained of bad conditions and abuses at sea.

The continued increases in the losses of ships led to further legislation, which contained a belated recognition that, in order to reduce losses, more improvements were required at every level on board ships. From the 1830s to the 1860s a plethora of government bills became law, including requirements for minimum space in the foc’sle, a scale of medical provisions, the issue of lime juice for the prevention of scurvy (in Britain), examinations for certificates of competency, articles of agreement, and much more.58 There were still anomalies. The US statutes of 1857 prohibiting compulsory labor left seamen as the sole exceptions, and shanghaiing to obtain crews for US ships was not effectively prohibited until (p.135) 1906.59 The independent government of Hawai‘i in the 1840s to its credit tried to secure bonds for the return of its nationals from foreign ships and also appointed a representative in Sydney to look after the interests of island sailors between ships.60

The subsequent improvements in living and safety conditions applied equally to all seamen on the multinationally crewed, foreign-going American, British, and other European and colonial flag vessels. When it came to remuneration, a negative differential usually continued to exist between Pacific seafarers and others. Improved pay, safety, and living conditions attracted more European, American, and Australasian crews. Attitudes of enlightened self-interest began to prevail on board that either Pacific island seafarers received equal pay with the European races or they should be excluded from national flag vessels, together with Chinese and other lower-cost crews. Many European seafarers supported equal-pay proposals, especially since shipowners were against them. Owners frankly stated they saw “restrictions on the employment of foreigners as the unnecessary blunting of a useful, tactical weapon in labour disputes,”61 and Marion Diamond has noted that “the first occasion in Australia of the use of islanders as strike breakers” occurred in shipping during 1846.62 These conflicts of interest became an increasingly common feature of Pacific seafaring in the age of industrialization and colonization, which is discussed in chapter 8. (p.136)


(2.) W. E. Home, “The Health of Merchant Seamen,” Lancet (8 November 1924): 981.

(4.) Sarah Palmer and David Williams, “British Sailors 1775–1870,” in Those Emblems of Hell? European Sailors and the Maritime Labour Market 1570–1870, ed. P. C. Van Royen, J. R. Bruijn, and J. Lucassen (St. John’s: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1997), 99.

(5.) R. Gerard Ward, ed., American Activities in the Central Pacific 1790–1870 (Ridgewood, NJ: Gregg Press, 1966), 4:596, 598, 600.

(6.) Ibid., 4:596, 598.

(9.) Ibid., 3:360.

(11.) Memoirs of Duaterra as given by Mrs. Marsden, Parramatta, 28 October 1815, in Nicholas, Voyage to New Zealand, 380–381.

(12.) Morton, in Whale’s Wake, notes that these reports and also the news brought by the ship Vittoria reported in 1832 that “two Europeans on sealing voyages were devoured by their Maori crew mates” (115).

(13.) Jim Gibbs, A Maritime History of Hawaii: Shipwrecks in Paradise (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1922), 79–81.

(14.) Andrew Cheyne, A Description of Some Islands of the Western Pacific (London: J. D. Potter, 1852), 67.

(17.) Ibid., 390–391.

(24.) William Dalton, Two Whaling Voyages to the South Seas 1823–1829, ed. Niel Gunson (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1990), 85.

(28.) Ward, American Activities, 4:570, 576–577. See also Edward A. Stack-pole, The Mutiny on the Whaleship Globe: A True Story of the Sea (Nantucket, MA: published by the author, 1981).

(33.) Ibid., 34.

(34.) Thomas Creighton, “Canadian Whalers in Micronesia (1840–1850),” Journal of Pacific History 24, no. 2 (1989): 228.

(36.) Barrie MacDonald, Cinderellas of Empire: Toward a History of Kiribati and Tuvalu (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1982), 20.

(41.) R. L. Stevenson, In the South Seas, 22. Tari’s name could have been derived from the ship Charles and Henry, which was owned by Charles Coffin and his brother of Nantucket. Some Pacific sailors were stuck with the names of their last ship.

(44.) Ibid., 3:39, 4:360–362, 5:36–37.

(45.) See Mallacoota Memories 1841–1948 (Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia: Mallacoota District Historical Society, 1980), 12:87–88, for a detailed example of the combination of press reports and local oral history, which shows crew conditions and complaints leading to brutal punishment and mutiny on the Junior.

(46.) Sydney Shipping Gazette, 13 November 1813.

(48.) H. E. Maude and Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe, “Rarotongan Sandalwood: An Ethnohistorical Reconstruction,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 71 (1962): 34–35.

(50.) Ward, American Activities, 6:141–151, 193. See also the account of the mutiny on the William Little in Gibbs, Maritime History of Hawaii, 52.

(53.) Government and General Order, 9 November 1814, in ibid., 328–329.

(56.) The persistence of the views by authorities on seafarers is demonstrated by the quotation 119 years after Justice Story by the US Supreme Court in the case of Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co. Inc. in 1942 (317 US 239, 247, AMC 1645). Similarly the views of Lord Stowell in 1825 regarding the case of the Minerva (contained in British Admiralty 1 Hagg Adm 347) persisted.

(58.) Ibid., 15–18.

(60.) Marion Diamond, “Queequeg’s Crewmates: Pacific Islanders in European Shipping,” International Journal of Maritime History 1, no. 2 (1989): 126.

(61.) Sarah Palmer, Politics, Shipping and the Repeal of the Navigation Laws (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990), 174.