Read CHAPTER XXV  -  A BIT OF GOOD LUCK of The Call Of The South 1908 , free online book, by Louis Becke, on

Between the southern end of the great island of New Guinea and the Solomon Group there is a cluster of islands marked on the chart as “Woodlark Islands,” but the native name is Mayu.  Practically they were not discovered until 1836, when the master of the Sydney sandal-wooding barque Woodlark made a survey of the group.  The southern part of the cluster consists of a number of small well-wooded islands, all inhabited by a race of Papuans, who, said Captain Grimes of the Woodlark, had certainly never before seen a white man, although they had long years before seen ships in the far distance.

It was on these islands that I met with the most profitable bit of trading that ever befel me during more than a quarter of a century’s experience in the South Seas.

Nearly thirty years passed since Grimes’s visit without the natives seeing more than half a dozen ships.  These were American or Hobart Town whalers, and none of them came to an anchor ­they laid off and on, and bartered with the natives for fresh provisions, but from the many inquiries I made, I am sure that no one from these ships put foot on shore; for the inhabitants were not to be trusted, being warlike, savage and treacherous.

The master of one of these ships was told by the natives ­or rather made to understand, for no one of them knew a word of English ­that about twelve months previously a large vessel had run on shore one wild night on the south side of the group and that all on board had perished.  Fourteen bodies had been washed on shore at a little island named Elaue, all dreadfully battered about, and the ship herself had disappeared and nothing remained of her but pieces of wreckage.  She had evidently struck on the reef near Elaue with tremendous violence, then slipped off and sunk.  The natives asked the captain to come on shore and be shown the spot where the men had been buried, but he was too cautious a man to trust himself among them.

On his reporting the matter to the colonial shipping authorities at Sydney, he learned that two vessels were missing ­one a Dutch barque of seven hundred tons which left Sydney for Dutch New Guinea, and the other a full-rigged English ship bound to Shanghai.  No tidings had been heard of them for over eighteen months, and it was concluded that the vessel lost on Woodlark Island was one or the other, as that island lay in the course both would have taken.

In 1868-69 there was a great outburst of trading operations in the North-West Pacific Islands ­then in most instances a terra incognita, and there was a keen rivalry between the English and German trading firms to get a footing on such new islands as promised them a lucrative return for their ventures.  Scores of adventurous white men lost their lives in a few months, some by the deadly malarial fever, others by the treacherous and cannibalistic savages.  But others quickly took their places ­nothing daunted ­for the coco-nut oil trade, the then staple industry of the North-West Pacific, was very profitable and men made fortunes rapidly.  What mattered it if every returning ship brought news of some bloody tragedy ­such and such a brig or schooner having been cut off and all hands murdered, cooked and eaten, the vessel plundered and then burnt?  Such things occur in the North-West Pacific in the present times, but the outside world now hears of them through the press and also of the punitive expeditions by war-ships of England, France or Germany.

Then in those old days we traders would merely say to one another that “So-and-So ‘had gone’”.  He and his ship’s company had been cut off at such-and-such a place, and the matter, in the eager rush for wealth, would be forgotten.

At that time I was in Levuka ­the old capital of Fiji ­supercargo of a little topsail schooner of seventy-five tons.  She was owned and sailed by a man named White, an extremely adventurous and daring fellow, though very quiet ­almost solemn ­in his manner.

We had been trading among the windward islands of the Fiji Group for six months and had not done at all well.  White was greatly dissatisfied and wanted to break new ground.  Every few weeks a vessel would sail into the little port of Levuka with a valuable cargo of coco-nut oil in casks, dunnaged with ivory-nuts, the latter worth in those days L40 a ton.  And both oil and ivory-nuts had been secured from the wild savages of the North-West in exchange for rubbishy hoop-iron knives, old “Tower” muskets with ball and cheap powder, common beads and other worthless articles on which there was a profit of thousands per cent. (In fact, I well remember one instance in which the master of the Sydney brig E.  K. Bateson, after four months’ absence, returned with a cargo which was sold for L5,000.  His expenses (including the value of the trade goods he had bartered) his crew’s wages, provisions, and the wear and tear of the ship’s gear, came to under L400.)

White, who was a very wide-awake energetic man, despite his solemnity, one day came on board and told me that he had made up his mind to join in the rush to the islands to the North-West between New Guinea and the Solomons.

“I have,” he said, “just been talking to the skipper of that French missionary brig, the Anonyme.  He has just come back from the North-West, and told me that he had landed a French priest{} at Mayu (Woodlark Island).  He ­the priest ­remained on shore some days to establish a mission, and told Rabalau, the skipper of the brig, that the natives were very friendly and said that they would be glad to have a resident missionary, but that they wanted a trader still more.  Furthermore, they have been making oil for over a year in expectation of a ship coming, but none had come.  And Rabalau says that they have over a hundred tuns of oil, and can’t make any more as they have nothing to put it in.  Some of it is in old canoes, some in thousands of big bamboos, and some in hollowed-out trees.  And they have whips of ivory nuts and are just dying to get muskets, tobacco and beads.  And not a soul in Levuka except Rabalau and I know it.  You see, I lent him twenty bolts of canvas and a lot of running gear last year, and now he wants to do me a good turn.  Now, I say that Woodlark is the place for us.  Anyway, I’ve bought all the oil casks I could get, and a lot more in shooks, and so let us bustle and get ready to be out of this unholy Levuka at daylight.”

      This was Monseigneur d’Anthipelles the head of the Marist
     Brothers in Oceania.

We did “bustle”.  In twenty-four hours we were clear of Levuka reef and spinning along to the W.N.  W. before the strong south-east trade, for our run of 1,600 miles.  ’Day and night the little schooner raced over the seas at a great rate, and we made the passage in seven days, dropping anchor off the largest village in the island ­Guasap.

In ten minutes our decks were literally packed with excited natives, all armed, but friendly.  Had they chosen to kill us and seize the schooner, it would have been an easy task, for we numbered only eight persons ­captain, mate, bos’un, four native seamen, and myself.

We learned from the natives that two months previously there had been a terrible hurricane which lasted for three days and devastated two-thirds of the islands.  Thousands of coco-nut trees had been blown down, and the sea had swept away many villages on the coast.  So violent was the surf that the wreck of the sunken ship on Elaue Island had been cast up in fragments on the reef, and the natives had secured a quantity of iron work, copper, and Muntz metal bolts.  These articles I at once bargained for, after I had seen the collection, and for two old Tower muskets, value five shillings each, obtained the lot ­worth L250.

I had arranged with the chief and his head men to buy their oil in the morning.  And White and I found it hard to keep our countenances when they joyfully accepted to fill every cask we had on the ship each for twenty sticks of twist tobacco, a cupful of fine red beads and a fathom of red Turkey twill!  Or for five casks I would give a musket, a tin of powder, twenty bullets, and twenty caps!

In ten minutes I had secured eighty tuns of oil (worth L30 a tun) for trade goods that cost White less than L20.  And the beauty of it was that the natives were so impressed by the liberality of my terms that they said they would supply the ship with all the fresh provisions ­pigs, fowls, turtle and vegetables that I asked for, without payment.

As White and I, after our palaver with the head men, were about to return on board, we noticed two children who were wearing a number of silver coins, strung on cinnet (coir) fibre, around their necks.  We called them to us, looked at the coins and found that they were rupees and English five-shilling pieces.

I asked one of our Fijian seamen, who acted as interpreter, to ask the children from where they got the coins.

“On the reef,” they replied, “there are thousands of them cast up with the wreckage of the ship that sank a long time ago.  Most of them are like these” ­showing a five-shilling piece; “but there are much more smaller ones like these,” ­showing a rupee.

“Are there any sama sama (yellow) ones?” I asked.

No, they said, they had not found any sama sama ones.  But they could bring me basketfuls of those like which they showed me.

White’s usually solemn eyes were now gleaming with excitement I drew him and the Fiji man aside, and said to the latter quietly: ­

“Sam, don’t let these people think that these coins are of any more value than the copper bolts.  Tell them that for every one hundred pieces they bring on board ­no matter what size they may be ­I will give them a cupful of fine red beads ­full measure.  Or, if they do not care for beads, I will give two sticks of tobacco, or a six-inch butcher knife of good, hard steel.”

(The three last words made White smile ­and whisper to me, “’A good, hard steal’ some people would say ­but not me".)

“And Sam,” I went on, “you shall have an alofa (present) of two hundred dollars if you manage this carefully, and don’t let these people think that we particularly care about these pieces of soft white metal.  We came to Mayu for oil ­understand?”

Sam did understand:  and in a few minutes every boy and girl in Guasap were out on the reef picking up the money.  That day they brought us over L200 in English and Indian silver, together with about L12 in Dutch coins. (From this latter circumstance White and I concluded that the wrecked vessel was the missing Dutch barque.)

On the following morning the reef at low tide presented an extraordinary spectacle.  Every woman, boy and girl from Guasap and the adjacent villages were searching for the coins, and their clamour was terrific.  Whilst all this was going on, White, and the mate, and crew were receiving the oil from the shore, putting it into our casks, driving the hoops, and stowing them in the hold, working in such a state of suppressed excitement that we were unable to exchange a word with each other, for as each cask was filled I, on the after-deck, paid for it, shunted off the seller, and took another one in hand.

At four o’clock in the afternoon we ceased work on board and went on shore to “buy money”.

The village square was crowded with women and children, every one of whom had money ­mostly in English five-shilling pieces.  Some of these coins were bent and twisted into the most curious shape, some were imbedded in lumps of coral, and nearly all gave evidence of the terrific fury of the seas which had cast them up upon the reef from a depth of seven fathoms of water.  Many were merely round lumps, having been rolled over and over among the sand and coral.  These I demurred to accepting on the terms agreed upon for undamaged coins, and the natives cheerfully agreed to my decision.

That day we bought silver coin, damaged and undamaged, to the value of L350, for trade goods worth about L17 or L18.

And for the following two weeks, whilst White and our crew were hammering and coopering away at the oil casks, and stowing them under hatches, I was paying out the trade goods for the oil, and “buying money”.

We remained at Mayu for a month, until there was no more money to be found ­except a few coins (or rather what had once been coins); and then with a ship full of oil, and with L2,100 worth of money, we left and sailed for Sydney.

White sold the money en bloc to the Sydney mint for L1,850.  The oil realised L2,400, and the copper, etc., L250.  My share came to over L400 ­exclusive of four months’ wages ­making nearly L500.  This was the best bit of trading luck that I ever met with.

I must add that even up to 1895 silver coins from the Dutch barque were still being found by the natives of Woodlark Islands.