Chapter 5: A Comedy of Errors, with Some Tragedy

THE Annette made many successful cruises. We found some beautiful pearl specimens ranging from sixteen to twenty grains, and the skipper was as happy as a Spaniard who had found a cache of the Incas. The pearl oyster has a huge shell, weighing several pounds, which is valuable as “mother-of-pearl.” The Polynesian Islands supply the finest black pearls, with a lustre of green moons, and black mother-of-pearl. The small oyster supplies the biggest and most valuable pearls, but it is the mother-of-pearl of the oyster that is the “bread and butter” of the business.

The tranquillity of the life began to irritate me. There was no excitement except the song and music of the natives, and the everlasting drumming of the surf. I saw what the island had done to many husks of men, who were satisfied to linger there forever, and I decided to get out of this poppy-land. When we came to Apia in German Samoa I bade adieu to the skipper and his crew, and took a ship to Newcastle via Auckland and Sydney.

Stranded on the beach in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, another beachcomber came along and said that I was wanted over at the shipping office. The following morning I signed on the English tramp steamer Brookshire for the most fantastic cruise of my career. Brookshire was not the name of the dirty steel tub, but there is no need to embarrass living people with a story of buffoonery on the high seas, for I imagine the ship is still in service and may be earning a pittance for her owners. These old Clyde-built ships have wonderful powers of endurance, changing hands and flags, until finally the Greeks get them, or Davy Jones. Let the nom de guerre stand, therefore, while I recall the voyage of the S. S. Brookshire, a ship that was nearly left without a destination.

Prior to the War the struggle for trade between German and British bottoms was always nip and tuck. Ship-owners did not always trust the discretion of the captains of their vessels, and often sent them to sea under sealed orders. “A sealed order” is what the term implies: a secret destination which the captain learns when he is fifty miles at sea.

The skipper came on board with a Barrier Reef pilot, a man of long experience in the treacherous waters of the north Queensland Coast. Extending all along this shelf of the continent is a reef more than a thousand miles long, and in Lloyd’s histories of marine disasters it is credited with a high casualty list. When we saw the Barrier pilot we surmised that the owners were sending us to an East Indian or Malay Archipelago port. It was the Pilot’s responsibility to, take us between the coast and the reef until we reached Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

On the first day out the trouble began. The shipping office had filled the fire-room with square-rigged sailors who could reef, hand, or steer, but were useless in the inferno of a tropic steamer’s stokehold. It takes skill and tremendous endurance to fire the boilers of a sea-tramp, and the badly stoked Brookshire wallowed along at four or five knots for days. The captain, who liked his bottle, was perturbed, and exhibited his spleen to the amateur firemen. The feud was on, and there was no end to the fight while the voyage lasted.

After a few days the secret leaked out. The Old Man couldn’t find his sealed orders. We said he probably left them in Newcastle in a pub, or dropped them en route to the ship. He charged some consular agent with theft of his orders, but such an alibi for carelessness seemed a little fantastic. There certainly was keen rivalry for cargoes in the Orient, but the skipper’s charge was flimsy. He was worried, and drank more liquor to drown his mental troubles. Here we were ” at sea ” in the most poetic sense of the phrase.

We dropped our pilot at Thursday Island, and from there the captain cabled his owners for instructions, which were received two days later. The orders were to proceed to Tjilitjap, a small port on the south coast of Java.

Thursday Island is a place of many fascinations. The island is active and prosperous with its pearl, shell, and fishing industries. Port Kennedy is a natural harbor, and one of the best in that region. The shoals of the Barrier Reef make a fisherman’s paradise, with a hundred or more species to tempt his hook or seine. The natives around Thursday Island are agile boatmen and clever fishermen.

One lesson the native learned from nature was the use of the remora, or sucker-fish. The remora is the islander’s sea-falcon. With a few of these parasites, which are equipped with suction cups on their heads, the islander shoves off in search of sea-turtles. The pet remora has a string through its tail and gill, and he is kept swimming in the bottom of the canoe until a hawksbill turtle is sighted. The paddler hurries towards the prize, and then the sea-falcon is tossed overboard. With a fine homing instinct the remora races to the turtle and fastens his sucker on the under shell.

The rest is simple. The helpless “hawksbill” is retrieved by a gentle drag on the towline, and he is soon on his way to the factory, where his shell is made into tortoise-shell combs for duennas of Barcelona, and rims for comedians at Hollywood. The rich flesh is preserved or made into turtle soup, or canned.

After leaving Thursday Island, the “black gang” grew mutinous, and most of the coal passing was done by the engineer and his two aides. The firemen would go down into the sweltering boiler-room for a few minutes, heave in a few shovelfuls of coal, and dash up the steel ladder for fresh air. Meanwhile the ship limped through the sweltering Arafura Sea with the speed of a rowboat. The captain, chief engineer, and mate drank and wrangled day after day, knowing full well that they were slated for dismissal when the Brookshire came back to Australia.

One day at noon, as the captain was taking a meridian sight, all the firemen came out on the forehatch holding their mess-kits. The food on the ship was abominable. There were no fresh vegetables and the meat was unpalatable. The potatoes were a preserved type of spud that cooked into a gluey pulp. Standing beneath the bridge, irate firemen rolled their food into balls and the stuff cohered like a soggy snowball.

“Ready, aim, fire! ” yelled the leader, and the gang heaved their missiles like trench-mortars in barrage. Some overshot the target, and the stinking balls spattered against the chart-house. But at least two fellows were accurate. One ball hit the skipper full in the face, and another landed amidships. The Old Man jumped a foot in the air, and dropped his sextant. The sensitive instrument was broken by the impact, and was useless for the rest of the voyage.

I was at the wheel, and was hit by considerable ” shrapnel.” There was a small cross-bunker hatch, abaft the bridge, which was full of coal. Abandoning the ship to any whim of the sea, I answered the battle-cry of the black gang, and heaved a hunk of coal that raised a lump on a fireman’s skull.

The men went down to the galley and seized everything edible and throwable for ammunition. Food smeared all over the bridge, and, when that gave out, coal became the only ammunition. The mate deserted us when a black projectile hit him on the back; thus the captain and I were left to hold the bridge. Coal smashed the glass on the chart-house, littering and scarring the woodwork. It was a glorious battle there, in the peaceful tropic seas, and the scrap only ended when everything loose on deck had been heaved towards the bridge.

The chief engineer had cabled from Thursday Island to the shipping office in Singapore to send a “black gang ” of experienced Chinamen to Java to replace the rebellious and indifferent white firemen. The latter were permitted to stay aboard, as British Board of Trade laws specify that a sailor must be carried back to the port where he was signed on. The white men, no longer on the pay-roll became a sullen and dangerous crowd. The whites were ousted from their quarters, and forced to sleep in the open on the fo’c’sle head under the awning. This, however, was no hardship in the tropics, except in the rainy season, when a place of shelter is needed during a torrential downpour.

It was a quiet run to Tjilitjap, where we spent three weeks in a Javanese paradise. Natives emptied the cargo in tiny baskets, while the crew philandered through the town, squandering every penny earned on the bungling trip. Rain-squalls held up the tedious discharging, and many of us were in the mood to quit the ship and accept the role of beachcomber again. That “lotus-eating” mood quickly passes, however, when your money is spent, for no sailor with empty pockets is popular.

Our next port was to be Christmas Island, a small island south of Java, where we were to load phosphate rock for Fremantle, Western Australia.

By the time we had discharged our cargo of coal all of the sailors had drifted back to the ship (much to the disgust of the captain, who had hoped they might desert). En route, a race-war broke out. The Chinks were a cocky lot, and they didn’t stand for any bullying by the dispossessed white men. One Liverpool Irish fireman made a pass connecting with the chin, but the Chink replied with a knife that ripped the ex-fireman’s arm from elbow to wrist. The whites decided to wipe out the yellows right there, but the yellow men were all well armed with knives, and made no secret of their weapons. The intensity lessened, but a dangerous calm prevailed until we headed back to Australia loaded with phosphate rock.

At Christmas Island we anchored in eighty fathoms of water that was transparent to the very bottom. The floor of the sea, with its fanciful groves and bowers, made the mind receptive for a vision of a mermaid disporting through the coral arbors. The pink and pearl mansions seemed a foot away, but the relative sizes of the fish soon dissipated that illusion.

On the way back to Australia hostilities were resumed. A white sailor slammed a Chinaman on the chin. Fortified with this success, the other whites tried to punch every Oriental that passed by. The Chinese now moved warily in pairs, and hung about the deck in groups. The captain had no standing in the dispute, and his pleadings and threats were scorned.

One morning before one bell in the middle watch, after calling the watch below, I was going aft through the shelter-deck at 3:45 A.M. for a reading of the patent log. Ahead of me I saw a Chinese coal-trimmer dumping ashes overboard through the chute in the shelter-deck. As I approached the Chink was shaking out the last bag, and was bent over the chute to avoid spilling the cinders about the deck. Out of the darkness a man moved with three cat-like strides. A shovel flashed in a glistening arc, and the sharp end cut off the coal-passer’s head in a single stroke. I stood still by the fiddley door, not wishing to be observed. It was my intention to slip back and go aft on the starboard side, but the deft executioner saw me.

I recognized him, and for a moment we glared at each other. Then another Chinaman came along from forrard, going towards the galley, so I slammed the door of the ‘tween deck alleyway, forcing him to use the other side. It was a case of choosing between an Irishman and a yellow man. If the Chink saw the headless torso, Paddy was due for butchering himself-probably all of us.

The murderer picked up the body and pushed it down the chute. Then he seized a bucket of salt water standing by and sloshed out the blood-stained runway. After this maneuver there was no evidence left. Paddy turned to me, blanched with excitement, looking perfectly hideous in the dim light.

“You never saw a thing, Mac!” he muttered.

“Divil a thing, Paddy,” and I hurried aft to get the log reading. The Chinaman was missed at four o’clock, but no one thought it serious until breakfast time, when the skipper had the ship searched fore and aft, without finding hide or hair of the fireman.

Another fireman nearly lost his life in an embarrassing situation. Due to racial prejudice, a special latrine was constructed for the Chinamen. This affair was a rude stage of boards made box fashion, hung over the stern of the ship and made fast to the deck with a heavy rope. A flap of canvas offered a little privacy. To use the stall was a hazardous venture for any Chink, but he had no choice, and usually they went in pairs.

One night the Chinese No. I fireman entered the stall without an escort, and almost immediately an axe, wielded by an unknown hand, cut the rope on one side, causing it to capsize, supported by only one line. The Chink, however, was as quick as a monkey. Managing to grab the stem rail, he hung on. The next moment the other rope was skilfully cut and the latrine dropped into the sea. The would-be executioner ran forward, thinking his job satisfactorily accomplished. Although I never knew who he was, I can imagine his surprise the following day when Fireman No. I appeared as large as life and twice as ugly. The Chinks now packed up and moved aft, taking all their dunnage with them. They lived in a state of perpetual dread, and by the time we reached Fremantle were bordering on hysteria.

In Fremantle there was an abortive inquiry. We were all paid off-or, rather, sacked–captain and officers included.

The Chinamen promised vengeance, especially on Paddy, whom they somehow suspected. They never got him, for I saw him many months later blind drunk in a Fremantle bar. He was a peculiar character. He gave most of his pay to beggars and children, and would sob violently at a sentimental song of home and mother. In the World War he probably won the V. C.

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