Read CHAPTER VIII  -  THE CRANKS OF THE JULIA BRIG of The Call Of The South 1908 , free online book, by Louis Becke, on

We were bound from Tahiti to the Gilbert Islands, seeking a cargo of native labourers for Stewart’s great plantation at Tahiti, and had worked our way from island to island up northward through the group with fair success (having obtained ninety odd stalwart, brown-skinned savages), when between Apaian Island and Butaritari Island we spoke a lumbering, fat-sided old brig ­the Isabella of Sydney.

The Isabella was owned by a firm of Chinese merchants in Sydney; and as her skipper (Evers) and her supercargo (Dick Warren) were old acquaintances of mine and also of the captain of my ship, we both lowered boats and exchanged visits.

Warren and I had not met for over two years, since he and I had been shipmates in a labour vessel sailing out of Samoa ­he as mate and I as “recruiter” ­so we had much to talk about.

“Oh, by-the-way,” he remarked as we were saying good-bye, “of course you have heard of that shipload of unwashed saints who have been cruising around the South Seas in search of a Promised Land?”

“Yes, I believe that they have gone off to Tonga or Fiji, trying to light upon ‘the Home Beautiful,’ and are very hard up.  The people in Fiji will have nothing to do with that crowd ­if they have gone there.”

“They have not.  They turned back for Honolulu, and are now at Butaritari and in an awful mess.  Some of the saints came on board and wanted me to give them a passage to Sydney.  You must go and have a look at them and their rotten old brig, the Julia.  Oh, they are a lovely lot ­full of piety and as dirty as Indian fakirs.  Ah Sam, our agent at Butaritari, will tell you all about them.  He has had such a sickener of the holy men that it will do you good to hear him talk.  What the poor devils are going to do I don’t know.  I gave them a little provisions ­all I could spare, but their appearance so disgusted me that I was not too civil to them.  They cannot get away from Butaritari as the old brig is not seaworthy, and there is nothing in the way of food to be had in the island except coco-nuts and fish ­manna is out of season in the South Seas just now.  Good-bye, old man, and good luck.”

On the following day we sighted Butaritari Island ­one of the largest atolls in the North Pacific, and inhabited by a distinctly unamiable and cantankerous race of Malayo-Polynesians whose principal amusement in their lighter hours is to get drunk on sour toddy and lacerate each other’s bodies with sharks’ teeth swords.  In addition to Ah Sam, the agent for the Chinese trading firm, there were two European traders who had married native women and eked out a lonely existence by buying copra (dried coco-nut) and sharks’ fins when they were sober enough to attend to business ­which was infrequent.  However, Butaritari was a good recruiting ground for ships engaged in the labour traffic, owing to the continuous internecine wars, for the vanquished parties, after their coco-nut trees had been cut down and their canoes destroyed had the choice of remaining and having their throats cut or going away in a labour ship to Tahiti, Samoa or the Sandwich Islands.

Entering the passage through the reef, we sailed slowly across the splendid lagoon, whose waters were as calm as those of a lake, and dropped anchor abreast of the principal village and quite near the ship of the saints.  She was a woe-begone, battered-looking old brig of two hundred tons or so.  She showed no colours in response to ours, and we could see no one on deck.  Presently, however, we saw a man emerge from below, then a woman, and presently a second man, and in a few minutes she showed the Ecuadorian flag.  Then all three sat on chairs under the ragged awning and stared listlessly at our ship.

Ah Sam came off from the shore and boarded us.  He was a long, melancholy Chinaman, had thirty-five hairs of a beard, and, poor fellow, was dying of consumption.  He told us the local news, and then I asked him about the cargo of saints, many more of whom were now visible on the after-deck of their disreputable old crate.

Ah Sam’s thin lips parted in a ghastly smile, as he set down his whisky and soda, and lit a cigar.  We were seated under the awning, which had just been spread, and so had a good view of the Julia.

The brig, he said, had managed to crawl into the lagoon three months previously, and in working up to an anchorage struck on one of the coral mushrooms with which the atoll is studded.  Ah Sam and the two white traders went off with their boats’ crews of natives to render assistance, and after some hours’ hard work succeeded in getting her off and towing her up to the spot where she was then anchored.  Then the saints gathered on the after-deck and held a thanksgiving meeting, at the conclusion of which, the thirsty and impatient traders asked the captain to give them and their boats’ crews a few bottles of liquor in return for their services in pulling his brig off the rocks, and when he reproachfully told them that the Julia was a temperance ship and that drink was a curse and that God would reward them for their kindness, they used most awful language and went off, cursing the captain and the saints for a lot of mean blackguards and consigning them to everlasting torments.

On the following day all the Hawaiian crew bolted on shore and took up their quarters with the natives.  The captain came on shore and tried to get other natives in their place, but failed ­for he had no money to pay wages, but offered instead the privilege of becoming members of what Ah Sam called some “dam fool society”.

There were, said Ah Sam, in addition to the captain and his wife, originally twenty-five passengers, but half of them had left the ship at various ports.

“And now,” he concluded, pointing a long yellow forefinger at the rest of the saints, “the rest of them will be coming to see you presently ­the tam teives ­to see wha’ they can cadge from you.”

“You don’t like them, Ah Sam?” observed our skipper, with a twinkle in his eye.

Ah Sam’s reply could not be put upon paper.  For a Chinaman he could swear in English most fluently.  Then he bade us good-bye for the present, said he would do all he could to help me get some “recruits,” and invited us to dinner with him in the evening.  He was a good-natured, hospitable fellow, and we accepted the invitation with pleasure.

A few minutes after he had gone on shore the brigantine’s boat came alongside, and her captain and three of his passengers stepped on board.  He introduced himself as Captain Lynch Richards, and his friends as Brothers So-and-So of the “Islands Brothers’ Association of Christians “.  They were a dull, melancholy looking lot, Richards alone showing some mental and physical activity.  Declining spirituous refreshments, they all had tea and something to eat.  Then they asked me if I would let them have some provisions, and accept trade goods in payment.

As they had no money ­except about one hundred dollars between them ­I let them have what provisions we could spare, and then accepted their invitation to visit the Julia.

I went with them in their own boat ­two of the saints pulling ­and as they flopped the blades of their oars into the water and I studied their appearance, I could not but agree with Dick Warren’s description ­“as dirty as Indian fakirs,” for not only were their garments dirty, but their faces looked as if they had not come into contact with soap and water for a twelvemonth.  Richards, the skipper, was a comparatively young man, and seemed to have given some little attention to his attire, for he was wearing a decent suit of navy blue with a clean collar and tie.

Getting alongside we clambered on deck ­there was no side ladder ­and I was taken into the cabin where Richards introduced me to his wife.  She was a pretty, fragile-looking young woman of about five and twenty years of age, and looked so worn out and unhappy that my heart was filled with pity.  During the brief conversation we held I asked her if she and her husband would come on board our vessel in the afternoon and have tea, and mentioned that we had piles and piles of books and magazines on the ship to which she could help herself.

Her eyes filled with tears.  “I guess I should like to,” she said as she looked at her husband.

Then I was introduced to the rest of the company in turn, as they sat all round the cabin, half a dozen of them on the transom lockers reminding me somehow of dejected and meditative storks.  Glad of an excuse to get out of the stuffy and ill-ventilated cabin and the uninspiring society of the unwashed Brethren, I eagerly assented to the captain’s suggestion to have a look round the ship before we “talked business,” i.e., concerning the trade goods I was to select in payment for the provisions with which I had supplied him.  One of the Brethren, an elderly, goat-faced person, came with us, and we returned on deck.

Never before had I seen anything like the Julia.  She was an old, soft-pine-built ex-Puget Sound lumberman, literally tumbling to decay, aloft and below.  Her splintering decks, to preserve them somewhat from the torrid sun, were covered over with old native mats, and her spars, from want of attention, were splitting open in great gaping cracks, and were as black as those of a collier.  How such a craft made the voyage from San Francisco to Honolulu, and from there far to the south of the Line and then back north to the Gilbert Group, was a marvel.

I was taken down the hold and showed what the “cranks” called their trade goods and asked to select what I thought was a fair thing in exchange for the provisions I had given them.  Heavens!  Such a collection of utter, utter rubbish! second-hand musical boxes in piles, gaudy lithographs, iron bedsteads, “brown paper” boots and shoes eaten half away by cockroaches.  Sets of cheap and nasty toilet ware, two huge cases of common and much damaged wax dolls, barrels of rotted dried apples, and decayed pork, an ice-making plant, bales and bales of second-hand clothing ­men’s, women’s and children’s ­cheap and poisonous sweets in jars, thousands of twopenny looking-glasses, penny whistles, accordions that wouldn’t accord, as the cockroaches had eaten them up except the wood and metal work, school slates and pencils, and a box of Bibles and Moody and Sankey hymn-books.  And the smell was something awful!  I asked the captain what was the cause of it ­it overpowered even the horrible odour of the decayed pork and rotted apples.  He replied placidly that he thought it came from a hundred kegs of salted salmon bellies which were stowed below everything else, and that he “guessed some of them hed busted”.

“It is enough to breed a pestilence,” I said; “why do you not all turn-to, get the stuff up and heave it overboard?  You must excuse me, captain, but for Heaven’s sake let us get on deck.”

On returning to the poop we found that the skipper of our vessel had come on board, and was conversing with Mrs. Richards.  I took him aside and told him of what I had seen, and suggested that we should make them a present of the provisions.  He quite agreed with me, so turning to Captain Richards and the goat-faced old man and several other of the Brethren who had joined them, I said that the captain and I hoped that they would accept the provisions from us, as we felt sure that our owners would not mind.  And I also added that we would send them a few bags of flour and some other things during the course of the day.  And then the captain, knowing that Captain Richards and his wife were coming to have tea with us, took pity on the Brethren and said, he hoped they would all come to breakfast in the morning.

Poor beggars.  Grateful!  Of course they were, and although they were sheer lunatics ­religious lunatics such as the United States produces by tens of thousands every year ­we felt sincerely sorry for them when they told us their miserable story.  The spokesman was an old fellow of sixty with long flowing hair ­the brother-in-law of the man with the goat’s face ­and an enthusiast But mad ­mad as a hatter.

“The Islands Brothers’ Association of Christians” had its genesis in Philadelphia.  It was formed “by a few pious men to found a settlement in the South Seas, till the soil, build a temple, instruct the savages, and live in peace and happiness”.  Twenty-eight persons joined and seven thousand dollars were raised in one way and another ­mostly from other lunatics.  Many “sympathisers” gave goods, food, etc., to help the cause (hence the awful rubbish in the hold), and at ’Frisco they spent one thousand five hundred dollars in buying “trade goods to barter with the simple natives”.  At ’Frisco the Julia, then lying condemned, was bought for a thousand dollars ­she was not worth three hundred dollars, and was put under the Ecuadorian flag.  “God sent them friends in Captain Richards and his wife,” ambled on the old man.  Richards became a “Brother” and joined them to sail the ship and find an island “rich and fertile in God’s gifts to man, and with a pleasant people dwelling thereon”.

With a scratch crew of ’Frisco dead beats the brig reached Honolulu.  The crew at once cleared out, and several of the “Brothers,” with their wives, returned to America ­they had had enough of it.  After some weeks’ delay Richards managed to get four Hawaiian sailors to ship, and the vessel sailed again for the Isle Beautiful.  He didn’t know exactly where to look for it, but he and the “Brothers” had been told that there were any amount of them lying around in the South Seas, and they would have some trouble in making a choice out of so many.

The story of their insane wanderings after the Julia went south of the equator would have been diverting had it not been so distressing.  The mate, who we gathered was both a good seaman and a competent navigator, was drowned through the capsizing of a boat on the reef of some island between the Gilbert Group and Rarotonga, and with his death what little discipline, and cohesiveness had formerly existed gradually vanished.  Richards apparently knew how to handle his ship, but as a navigator he was nowhere.  Incredible as it may seem, his general chart of the North and South Pacific was thirty years old, and was so torn, stained and greasy as to be all but undecipherable.  As the weary weeks went by and they went from island to island, only to be turned away by the inhabitants, they at last began to realise the folly of the venture, and most of them wanted to return to San Francisco.  But Richards clung to the belief that they only wanted patience to find a suitable island where the natives would be glad to receive them, and where they could settle down in peace.  Failing that, he had the idea that there were numbers of fertile and uninhabited islands, one of which would suit the Brethren almost as well.  But as time went on he too grew despondent, and turned the brig’s head northward for Honolulu; and one day he blundered across Butaritari Island and entered the lagoon in the hope of at least getting, some provisions.  And again the crew bolted and left the Brethren to shift for themselves.  Week after week, month after month went by, the provisions were all gone except weevily biscuit and rotten pork, and they passed their time in wandering about the beaches of the lagoon and waiting for assistance.  And yet there wore two or three of them who still believed in the vision of the Isle Beautiful and were still hopeful that they might get there.  “All we want is another crew,” these said to us.

Our skipper shook his head, and then talked to them plainly, calling upon me to corroborate him.

“You will never get a crew.  No sailor-man would ever come to sea in a crate like this.  And you’ll find no islands anywhere in the Pacific where you can settle down, unless you can pay for it.  The natives will chivvy you off if you try to land.  I know them ­you don’t.  The people in America who encouraged you in this business were howling lunatics.  Your ship is falling to pieces, and I warn you that if you once leave this lagoon in her, you will never see land again.”

They were silent, and then the old man began to weep, and said they would there and then pray for guidance.

“All right,” said the skipper, “go ahead, and I’ll get my mate and the carpenter to come and tell you their opinion of the state of this brig.”

The mate and carpenter made an examination, told Captain Richards in front of his passengers that the ship was utterly unseaworthy, and that he would be a criminal if he tried to put to sea again.  That settled the business, especially after they had asked me to value their trade goods, and I told them frankly that they were literally not worth valuing, and to throw them overboard.

Ten days later the Brotherhood broke up ­an American trading schooner came into the lagoon and her captain offered to take them to Jakuit in the Marshall Islands, where they were certain of getting a passage to Honolulu in some whaleship.  They all accepted with the exception of Richards and his wife who refused to leave the Julia.  The poor fellow had his pride and would not desert his ship.  However, as his wife was ailing, he had a small house built on shore and managed to make a few hundred dollars by boat-building.  But every day he would go off and have a look round the old brig to see if everything on board was all right Then one night there came a series of heavy squalls which raised a lumpy sea in the lagoon, and when morning broke only her top-masts were visible ­she had gone down at her anchors.

Richards and his fellow-cranks were the forerunners of other bands of ignorant enthusiasts who in later years endeavoured to foist themselves upon the natives of the Pacific Islands and met with similar and well-merited disaster.  Like the ill-fated “La Nouvelle France” colony of the notorious Marquis de Ray, all these land-stealing ventures set about their exploits under the cloak of religion.  One, under a pretended concession from the Mexican Government, founded a “Christian Redemption Colony” of scallywags, loafers and loose women at Magdalena Bay in Lower California, and succeeded in getting many thousands of pounds from foolish people.  Then came a party of Mormon Evangelists who actually bought and paid for land in Samoa and conducted themselves decently and are probably living there now.  After them came the wretched Percy Edward band of pilgrims to found a “happy home” in the South Seas.  They called themselves the “United Brotherhood of the South Sea Islands”.  In another volume, in an article describing my personal experiences of the disastrous “Nouvelle France” expedition to New Ireland,{} I have alluded to the Percy Edward affair in these words, which I may be permitted to quote:  “The Percy Edward was a wretched old tub of a brigantine (formerly a Tahiti-San Francisco mail packet).  She was bought in the latter port by a number of people who intended to found a Socialistic Utopia, where they were to pluck the wild goat by the beard, pay no rent to the native owners of the soil, and, letting their hair grow down their backs, lead an idyllic life and loaf around generally.  Such a mad scheme could have been conceived nowhere else but in San Francisco or Paris....  The result of the Marquis de Ray’s expedition ought to have made the American enthusiasts reflect a little before they started.  But having the idea that they could sail on through summer seas till they came to some land fair to look upon, and then annex it right away in the sacred name of Socialism (and thus violate one of the principles of true Socialism), they sailed ­only to be quickly disillusionised.  For there were no islands anywhere in the North and South Pacific to be had for the taking thereof; neither were there any tracts of land to be had from the natives, except for hard cash or its equivalent.  The untutored Kanakas also, with whom they came in contact, refused to become brother Socialists and go shares with the long-haired wanderers in their land or anything else.  So from island unto island the Percy Edward cruised, looking more disreputable every day, until as the months went by she began to resemble in her tattered gear and dejected appearance her fatuous passengers.  At last, after being considerably chivvied about by the white and native inhabitants of the various islands touched at, the forlorn expedition reach Fiji.  Here fifty of the idealists elected to remain and work for their living under a Government...  But the remaining fifty-eight stuck to the Percy Edward, and her decayed salt junk and putrid water, and their beautiful ideals; till at last the ship was caught in a hurricane, badly battered about, lost her foremast, and only escaped foundering by reaching New Caledonia and settling her keel on the bottom of Nouméa harbour.  Then the visionaries began to collect their senses, and denounced the Percy Edward and the principles of the ‘United Brotherhood’ as hollow frauds, and elected to abandon her and go on shore and get a good square meal.  What became of them at Nouméa I did not hear, but do know that in their wanderings they received much charitable assistance from British shipmasters and missionaries ­in some cases their passages were paid to the United States ­the natural and proper country for the ignorant religious ’crank’.”

      Ridan the Devil:  T. Fisher Unwin, London.