This article is from The Evening Post 10th August 1912 found on Papers Past
THE SCHOONER MEN
INCIDENTS OF THE ISLAND TRADE
ROMANCE AND ADVENTURE. (Written for The Post.)
It's curious what memories the most trivial incident can recall. The- other afternoon, walking a Wellington street, where the grit flew fast and free, I was transported in the wink of an eye to a very different scene. It was a whiff from an over-ripe orange that did it. A cart was delivering crates of oranges, just in from the Islands, at a big fruit shop; some of those oranges must have been just a trifle too ripe and the heavy fruity flavour prevailed over all other street aromas. And, in a moment I was back on the deck of a little topsail schooner of long ago, beating up Auckland Harbour, with dark-faced Kanaka sailors, wearing big silver rings in their ears, about me, a lean, cadaverous, black-bearded white man standing near the wheel, and the sticky decks piled with boxes of fruit. The little schooner had been nearly a month at sea with that perishable cargo, a month of warm weather, and we could tell half a mile away that she was an orange carrier. In those days my daily news-gathering work lay largely about the shipping, and many a wet coat did I get boarding the incoming English sailing-craft down at the powder-ground in the lower Waitemata, and sailing off to the intercolonial and Island traders as they worked up the harbour to an anchorage above the wharves. There were some beautiful vessels in the South Sea trade then, but this arrival was a scarecrow of the seas, a grotesque little object, with her stained, unpainted sides, her ill-fitting ancient canvas and makeshift spars, and her patched-up look generally. When we boarded her we found that she was the' Julia Pryce, a New Zealand craft that had been wrecked a twelvemonth before on the great coral reef that rings Aitutaki" Island, one of the Cook Group. She lay on the reef for months, abandoned. Then the whole male population of Aitutaki held a big working bee, hauled her off the coral rocks, hove her up on the beach, repaired her, refloated her, loaded her with oranges, and sent her up to Auckland for re-coppering and overhaul. Every man in the island had a finger in the ship, and so she was run on the co-operative principle, with all hands owners. There were over a score of natives on her when I boarded her — about four tunes as big a crew as she needed— and the solitary white man was a trader and sailor whom they had engaged on the same co-operative plan, to navigate her across the Pacific. They had renamed her, as I remember, the "Ara'ura" — the ancient name of Aitutaki Island, synonymous with our Maori West Coast Arahura. The little old Julia Pryce, alias Ara'ura, scented the wharf side for days until she had got clear of her cargo. Half of it was too fargone for sale, but with the proceeds of the remainder the owners managed to get her docked and coppered and painted, and ship-chandlered generally; and then she was off again to the South Seas with her crew of singing Kanakas, proud as Punch of their Number-One Topside schooner.
Some months later news came of her. She had reached Aitutaki safely, but her white' skipper had not. The crew of owners reported that he had fallen overboard in a sudden squall one night, and that it was too dark or too stormy or something, to launch the boat. The sharks got him, no doubt. But there were some curious rumours afloat, some thing about a disagreement between the captain and the Kanakas over finances and the coppering of the chip, and there were hints that the "papalangi's" disappearance wasn't altogether an accident. Presently news came that the schooner was a-missing. She set sail from Aitutaki for another island in the Cook group, with a native crew, from skipper to cook, and a lot of native passengers, and she was never heard of again. The usual Kanaka way, said the white traders— a calm night and all sail set; all hands peacefully slumbering, and a becket on the wheel to keep it steady — a tropic squall, and over she goes. before the dazed crew have time to- spring to the halyards. This was the end of the Julia Pryce, fruity, smelly, cockroach ridden, old topsail schooner.
And then, on top of those recollection, of the Kanaka craft, there Were memories of other South Sea schooners and the men who sailed them. Most of the Island traders that made Auckland their headquarters in the 'Eighties and 'Nineties were smartly-rigged, smartly-kept, and smartly-handled craft, of which their captains and crews were very proud indeed. There was a whole fleet of fore-and-aft schooners and topsail schooners and brigantines sailing out of the Waitemata, exploring the wide Pacific for copra and pearl shell, and beche-de-mer, and booming in wing-and-wing with holds and decks filled with oranges and limes and coconuts from the Friendly Islands and Rarotonga, and the high-peaked islands of the Societies. It was fine to see the way they were sailed in the schooner races that used to be a big feature of the Auckland anniversary regattas. There were such vessels as the Maile — a handsome three-masted schooner in the Tonga and Samoan trade, making her round trips with the regularity and punctuality almost of steam; the Sybil, the Olive, the Cygnet, the Wave of Life, the Daisy, the Agnes Donald, the Jessie Niccol (she left her bones on the far South Macquaries not long since), the Ryno, a real sea beauty, rigged as a brigantine, built up on the East Coast of Auckland by an old Nova Scotian Highland shipwright. The Ryno — her name suggests that her builder and owners were lovers of old Ossian's pages — was a fast and favourite Island packet; and the brown children of Niue, or Savage Island, had a little song about her, with the chorus —
" Oh, the Ryno is the ship of Niue— e ! Haul away, 0 haul away !"
Like many another smart South Sea craft, she knocked her brains out, as sailors say, on a coral reef.
There were a score or more of other vessels in the trade, kept in real yachting style; the afterguard only were white, the foromast hands mostly Raritonga or Aitutaki or Niue men, and good schooner sailors and splendid whaleboat handlers they were. In the 'Seventies and 'Eighties there were some heavier rigged vessels in the trade, such as the Vision brig, in which Mr. Louis Becke once sailed as supercargo. But the fore-and-aft rig was most favoured, and those fore-and-aft skippers could take a schooner through a Scotch reel, as Robert Louie Stevenson, I think, wrote of one of his seafaring characters. Steam has killed them. Splendid red-funnel liners now cut through the waves where, once the fruiters lay with too-quickly ripening cargoes, tumbling about on the oily blue swell, sails banging uselessly from side to side, skippers whistling for wind and cursing loud and free. Still, spite of calms and head winds, tome of those schooners used to make very smart runs. The Three Cheers passage of six days, the Torea— about the fastest of the Eastern Pacific fore-and-afters — more than once covered the 1500 miles between the Hauraki Gulf and Niue Island in seven days, and frequently sailed all the way from Rarotonga to Auckland in a fort-, night, landing her oranges in fine condition.
And there were schooners from further off islands, the copra and pearl shell hunters that "cleared for Guam" to avoid publicity as to their exact destinations, that were credited with doing a bit of profitable smuggling now and then, and that went up to the islands far to the north of the Equator. And there were some that exploited the dangerous groups of Melanesia, where the fuzzy-headed darkies shot poisoned arrows as well as used the white man's Suider — the Solomon Islands and the Now Hebrides, where boats' crews pulled ashore fully armed, and always backed in to the beach, bow out, and yet in spite of their precautions often lost a man or two. They brought a breath of romance and adventure, back with them, those little white ships from the atolls and islands of the Great South Sea—
"Where Summer on her shelly shore,
Sits down and rests for evermore."
There was a ship-chandler's store down in Lower Queen-street, near the wharf, where the Schooner Men used to congregate. There was the place to hear yarns of the Sea and the Islands! The first time I read Mr. John Masefield's description of the "Johnny Dago's" marine store in the city of Panama, in his " Mainsail Haul," I minded me of that ship-chandlery place. It smelled beautifully of tarred rope and paints and oils; there were rubber seaboots and oilskins and sou’ westers hanging on the walls, and strings of jib-hanks; and there were ships' binnacle compasses, and ships' sidelights, and tomahawks and steering-wheels, and boat-anchors, and everything that a ship wanted. Behind the counter was a presiding genius who fitted the place, a fine whiskered sailorman who had been bo’s’n on big English clipper ships. And about the time the sun was over the foreyard, or a little later maybe, you'd find a gathering of the skippers there - foreign-going, intercolonial, coasting, and Island. The nautical debates and the reminiscences and the "cuffers" there'd be! Often the old blind sailor, Captain M'Cabe, would be there, making rope fenders for his daily bread, for there was no more sea for him, and some of his old friends would bear him company as he worked. There were men who had seen the sharks eat their shipwrecked comrades, and there were men who had sailed with the celebrated "Bully" Hayes and liked him, and there was one man whose hand had been fearfully carved by a New Hebridean hatchet.
There were men like M'Kenzie of the Borealis brigantine,a sea-toughened Nova Scotian Highlander, a grand old sailor of many curious experiences; a man without an ounce of fear in him, and with children like himself. The M'Kenzie didn't talk overmuch of his Island cruises, but everyone knew the tragic story of the Borealis — how the brigantine was suddenly attacked and carried by a horde of Solomon Islanders as she lay at anchor at Ugi one day in 1880, and how the captain returned from the shore to find six of his crew lying hacked to pieces on the bloody decks- — and one of them his son. The marks of the tomahawks where the sailors had been murdered by the savages of the Cannibal Islands were still to be seen on the vessel's deck and rail when she returned to Auckland.
There was Jack M'Liver, tall and powerful and slow of speech, who had seen a thing or two in the Melanesian ilsland labour trade called "blackbirding" for short, and who for years ran an old, Danish- built topsail schooner, the Christine, to Norfolk Island and New Caledonia. Later he lost much money in an unfortunate whaling venture — out eight months from Auckland, and got not a single whale; whenever one was sighted there was a gale, of wind blowing. Hard luck !
There was the grey skipper of the sightly and rakish labour brigantine Ika Vuka, who, with his shipwrecked crew, had to keep armed watch for the "long-pig" hungry "man-a-bush" when his vessel piled herself up on a New Hebrides reef.
There was Captain Tom Fernandez, with .his thin, erect soldierly figure and his tightly-buttoned coat, the most scientific sailor of them all, with an experience ranging from the piloting of gunboats on the Waikato River in the Maori War days to dodging a beachcomber's bullet on Suwarrow atoll. Suwarrow was No Man's Land then, and Fernandez found, when he brought this particular beachcomber up to Auckland for trial, that it was a case of "no jurisdiction".
There was a big, red-bearded Highlander of the Isles, who had hunted for treasure on one of the haunts of the early Spanish navigators in the Pacific, and who had bossed plantations in Samoa. Also, round and jolly Jimmy Dickson, with his merry, honest face, tanned Kanaka-colour by the tropic sun; he was the master of that , fast sailer the Torea.
There was poor Simon M'Kenzie, with the wonderfully broken nose, who was lost with all his crew, if I remember rightly, in the Linda Weber.
A picturesque old salt was Jack Austen, who had commanded all sorts of Island craft, from cutters to brigantines, and who stayed at sea till he was well over seventy; he was "a Devon man, clean-shaved like a man-of-warsman, and he wore gold rings in his ears. Ross of the Ysabel, three-masted schooner — he has her still, the last of the Mohicans — made his pile in the Island trade; an excellent schooner sailer, and always ready for a race — had some narrow squeaks, such as swimming a mile through shark-infested waters after a surfboat capsize in the Friendlies.
Now and then a "Johnny Francewar" from French Oceania, or a Scandinavian who said " Yah" for " Yes." An Eastern Pacific French-Italian trade-skipper by the name of Micheli used to come in with a vessel under the Chilian flag, a venerable, black-hulled, square-sterned brigantine, called the Nautilus. She brought pearlshell from the Gambier Islands, or Mangareva, where Micheli had a trading station, and she knocked about all over the Eastern Pacific, from Tahiti to Easter Island, where the mysterious stone images are, and down to romantic Pitcairn Island, the retreat of the Bounty mutineers. Micheli was well off; he used to exhibit little bags of pearls his divers had got in the Mangareva Lagoons. I think he is a Count, or something of that sort, now in his native Italy.
They're gone now, most of them, like their schooners. Some, like Lane, of the Maile, foundered in foul weather with all hands; one or two are "in steam" ; some are staid, shore-living citizens, who wear bell-toppers on Sundays and sit on the Harbour Board. They were a fine, breed, those schooner men and their names and their smart white ships will be talked of for many a year yet on the Auckland wharfside and on the palm-shaded coral beaches of Rarotonga, and Nukualofa, and Papeete and Apia.