Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Terrible Whaleman

In his page turner Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock, Thomas Farel Heffernan gives us a detailed picture of whaling and life at sea in general. He also shows how the riggers of such a life could turn a man from quirky misfit to bloodthirsty monster in less than ten years. The book is well written but obviously edited with grim resolve. There is a lot to the story and the narrative gives the reader the impression that a lot was left out.

Samuel Comstock was born into a Quaker family at the dawn of the 19th century. The family lived in Nantucket when Samuel, the oldest child, was born and did not move on to New York until he was ten. Samuel seems to have fallen in love with the sea early but he also exhibited some very odd behaviors early too. He was inattentive and unable to keep to the regime of any school he attended (there were at least three). He led other boys in gangs against rivals across town. He was almost impervious to pain: his brother recalls him swigging wine from a barrel in his father's shop while his hand was trapped and obviously bleeding beneath the barrel itself.

Samuel went to sea at 14, first aboard merchants and then aboard whalers. He hated the whaling life and, when he returned home after a particularly arduous voyage, he attempted to sign on aboard a navy ship. His father, who thought the navy was a "bad influence", would not allow it. Samuel, now full of rage on top of everything else, started to fulminate a plan to make his life better, even heroic. He would join another whaler and, when a likely island was found in the South Pacific, lead a mutiny. He would kill the officers, put in at the island, kill his mates and declare himself King. The natives would, of course, recognize him as their lord and he would live out his days as Emperor of a tropical paradise.

The unfortunate whaling ship that took Samuel on as a boatsteerer (the man who kept the helm of one of the small boats from which the whales were harpooned and commanded the men therein) was the Globe of 293 tons out of New York. Her Captain, a veteran of Pacific whaling, was Thomas Worth. The year was 1823.

Samuel was remarked upon by his mates as the cruise wore on. He was seen, particularly at night, ranging the deck in only trousers and shirtsleeves regardless of the weather. He would talk to himself as he paced, working himself into some kind of private frenzy. The men began to avoid boatsteerer Comstock. Globe was not as lucky as she hoped to be and her cruise was prolonged. She put in at Hawai'i to take on provisions and men deserted, forcing Captain Worth to recruit some of the slacker sailors hanging out at the docks. One of these men knew Samuel from time in prison in Valparaiso, Chile. Payne was the man's name and when he and his friend Oliver joined the Globe, Samuel had all the help he needed to carry out his plan.

In January of 1824, the three ringleaders snuck unto the Captain's cabin around midnight and hacked him to death with axes. The first and second mates were next and, despite pleading for their lives, both were killed with equal brutality. By sunrise Samuel was in charge of the ship and he set the unfortunate men who had no part in the mutiny - including his 14 year old brother George - to cleaning the blood and brains off the deck and gunnels and tossing the whale oil in the hold overboard.

On Friday the 13th of February, Globe anchored off the little atoll of Mili Mili north of the equator and southeast of Hawai'i near what was known to whalers as the Japan Grounds. Samuel set up a camp and began enticing the natives with gifts of axes and clothing. He took a local wife almost immediately and, just as quickly, began beating and chaining her when she tried to run away. Meanwhile the sailors who were not part of the mutiny plotted to retake the ship and sail for South America. Early in the morning of the 15th, Gilbert Smith led a group of four other men in cutting Globe's cable and hurrying her out to sea. They left others who would have liked to go with them behind but their plan was to bring back rescue as soon as possible.

On land, things turned ugly. Samuel, angry at being duped and losing a ship he had initially planned to burn, brutalized his fellows. Payne, fed up and wanting to take charge, shot Samuel and then proceeded to hack him up with an axe. He was 21 years old. All semblance of order disappeared after Samuel Comstock was buried on the white beach. Sick of their ignorant disregard for local manners, the Mili Mili natives attacked the remaining sailors, crushing their heads to pulp with rocks.

Only two men - neither one of them mutineers - survived to become slaves of local chiefs. They were treated more like family than chattel and when USS Dolphin appeared at Mili atoll almost two years later, the natives were sorry to see William Lay and Cyrus Hussey go. The two Americans wept at their rescue, happier than they could express to finally be going home.

Samuel's brother, William, wrote a book about the mutiny entitled The Life of Samuel Comstock, the Terrible Whaleman. William, strangely enamoured with his psychotic brother, seems to have tried to work out his conflict over Samuel's actions by writing about them. Heffernan's book is based in part on William Comstock's account.

Tomorrow, Horror on the High Seas week concludes with everyone's favorite ghost ship: The Flying Dutchman.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, yet another nut-ball... It sure seems like there were a lot of 'em on these ships back in the day. So, my only questions are with regard to Comstock's brothers. Was George killed on Mili Mili along with Samuel? And I presume that William was not a part of the voyage, but just wrote about it from others accounts? Just curious.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy and good questions. George left Mili Mili with Gilbert Smith aboard the Globe. They arrived safely in Valparaiso and were then taken back to the U.S. William, who ended up being a writer of sorts (kinda like me), never sailed with the brother he admired, although he did have a brief career aboard whalers.

Good points both!

Timmy! said...

Thankee, Pirate Queen!