Demon of the Waters
by Gregory Gibson (Little, Brown and Company)
(This column was first published in the October 10, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Although the title of this book, Demon of the Waters is accurate, the sub-title lets us know what it is about: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Whaleship Globe. This is indeed the story of a bloody mutiny aboard an American sailing ship in the Pacific. As an early 19th century story in the Nantucket Inquirer summarized put it: "Of the ship's company, which consisted of 21 persons, one third were massacred by the mutineers; one third were destroyed by savages; and of the residue, five have lived to return in the Globe; the other two, Cyrus M. Hussey, of this town, and William Lay of Connecticut, are accounted for...."
This is a remarkable story of how a single amoral crew member of a whaling ship, Samuel Comstock, gathered around him -- some by persuasion, others by force -- a group of deckhands to murder their officers, take command, and sail to remote Mili Atoll in the Marshall chain southwest of Hawaii.
But that is only the beginning of the tale. While unloading the ship onto the island, five non-mutineers retake the vessel and make off with it carrying one of the mutineers with them. Unfortunately, they are forced to leave several of their comrades ashore with the mutiny leaders.
The story of their 7000 mile trip back to Valparaiso in South America is an epic in itself for the Globe was not a simple yacht. Here is a description of this 100 foot long vessel:
"The Globe was a ship‑rigged vessel, and while the term 'ship' in its modern usage might apply to any floating thing bigger than a boat, it had a very specific meaning in the days of sail. A true ship had three masts, all of which were square rigged, with the main driving sails laced to yards that lay square to the mast. Traditionally, a spar, called a bowsprit, and its extension, known as a jib boom, projected beyond the bow of the vessel. The three masts (proceeding from the bow to the stern) were the fore, main, and mizzen. On the Globe, each of these masts was composed of four sections: mainmast at the bottom, topmast in the middle, topgallant mast above that, and royal mast uppermost. A horizontal spar, or yard, supported each square sail at its top edge from the top of each section of the mast. Thus, the foretopsail would be that sail hung from the second yard of the foremast. This basic scheme was complicated by the mizzenmast, which would be gaff rigged on its after side, with a sail called a spanker suspended by a gaff on top and a boom at the bottom. Additionally, at the bow, triangular sails known as headsails ran from the bowsprit to the foremast by means of supporting lines, or stays.
"In practice, matters were considerably more complex. Dozens of additional sails and spars put in their appearance. The lines for supporting all these parts and for hauling them up and down numbered in the hundreds, each with its own particular name and function."
It took four men to reef a sail and there were just six aboard.
Meanwhile back on Mili, still more problems. An insurrection within a mutiny, the leader killed. The island's natives are mistreated and rise up against the remaining eight men, killing all but two who have been adopted by a childless couple.
Enter the U. S. Navy ship Dolphin, sent to save them.
Gibson also provides a modern setting for his story. He tells as well of the research he undertook to gather his evidence, research that even took him to Mili. And here I found one of his most charming passages, a section that added much to my enjoyment of this book. I share it with you:
" On the eve of our departure from the urban island of Majuro to Mili Atoll, I was still jet lagged. Our preparations, a process of learning over and over how ignorant we were, had been stressful. I had a touch of food poisoning to boot, and was suffering its flu‑like symptoms. When I went for my final interview with Mr. Chutaro, I must have seemed too ardent, feverish even, in my declaration that, after all he had done for me, I needed now to do something for him, and what could I bring him, or buy him, or cause to be done for him?
"He smiled. 'We're all the same in God's sight. You're the great writer, and I'm the old man, but I'm no better than you. You're no worse than me. So He will take care of these things, and you don't need to feel like you have to thank me.'
"I don't know why I was so unprepared for that utterance, but he might as well have turned into an orchid. The smile broadened as he sensed my confusion. Then, probably to reassure me, he told me a story.
"He had arrived in the United States in the early 196os, just as the Civil Rights movement was taking hold. He was being sent, by missionaries, I guessed, to Heidelberg College in Ohio. He'd never been off his little island, and suddenly he was in Honolulu and then Los Angeles and then Houston.
"'Oh, Boy!' He laughed. 'There was still segregation then. But I didn't know. I didn't know anything. I hadn't eaten in a day. There was no time to eat in Los Angeles. So I went to a lunch counter at the airport in Texas.' Predictably, he was ignored. When he finally mustered the nerve to show his money to the man behind the counter and ask for food, the man told him flatly he couldn't serve niggers. Young Chuji walked away, disconsolate, and bumped square into a tall man standing at the edge of the dining area.
"'Just like John Wayne, I swear. Big tall guy, cowboy boots. He even had a white hat. No kidding! And he asked me, 'What's the matter, son?' And I told him about the guy at the counter. And he just walked over there in those cowboy boots ‑- stepped right over the counter! And he said something to the guy, and next thing I know I'm sitting in front of a big steak. Boy, was I hungry!'
"The plane flew to Columbus, Ohio, and landed in the middle of the night. No one was waiting for him at the airport, and he had no idea what to do. When the sun came up, he left the terminal and found himself in a city surrounded by cornfields. No one could help him get to his college. Desperate, he went to a phone booth, picked up the phone book, and, because he didn't know where else to look, dialed a government number. Next thing he knew, by some absurd miracle, he was talking to Governor James Rhodes. The governor patiently listened to Chuji's story, and then told him to wait right where he was, not to move.
"'So I waited. And all of the sudden I hear sirens. And up pulls a police car, and I think, 'Oh no! They're coming to get me. They're going to throw me in jail.'
"Instead, they took him to a hotel, where Governor Rhodes had booked him a room and left him an envelope containing fifty dollars. 'Can you imagine being on an elevator after living on Mili? There was a shower in the hotel room, and I didn't know how it worked. I walked in there all dressed up and turned a knob... Soaking wet!'
"But he was too wrought‑up, too close to his destination to stay in the hotel. He went out and walked to the cornfield. He'd never seen anything like that, and it amazed him as much as the shower or the elevator. Then he found cabs lined up outside the hotel and asked the way to his college. But the college was too far away. No one would drive him there.
"Just as he was about to give up, a cabbie approached him. The man had been to the Marshall Islands as a GI during the war. He drove Chuji right to his dorm. Wouldn't even take any money. And that was how he came to America.
"Mr. Chutaro leaned back in his chair and beamed at me. I was much calmer now. 'So,' he said, 'people take care of each other. Those two boys, Lay and Hussey, and the great mystery of why they survived? I think it was because God meant them to.'
"I liked that leap and its implied connection to the two of us. I liked thinking that the pious Lay and Hussey would have agreed wholeheartedly. Seeing me smile, Mr. Chutaro said, 'I truly believe that.'
"'I do, too,' I told him."
It was good to be among the white-hats for a change.-- Gerry Rising