The Role of the Beachcombers in the Caroline Islands
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Beachcombers are a much reviled class of men. Contemptuously dismissed as 'reprobates' or 'abandoned and degenerate characters', they have time and again been charged with infecting the islanders with whom they lived with a moral pestilence ultimately more destructive than the epidemics of smallpox and influenza that ravaged these populations. Yet as H. E. Maude has pointed out in his masterful survey of beachcombers,(1) that motley array of deserters, escaped convicts, castaways and wanderers that gathered on many a Pacific island must be credited with more positive contributions as well–not the least of which was their interpretation of Western culture to the native populations that served to prepare them for changes still to come. Aside from such important general roles as cultural mediator, beachcombers have served more specific functions that have varied with time and place, as Professor Maude clearly shows. In this essay, I propose to explore the uses to which beachcombers were put on those few islands of the Caroline group where they were found in any numbers during the nineteenth century: Palau, Kusaie and Ponape. The prominence of beachcombers and the roles they assumed differed considerably even among these three islands, as will be seen.
The classical era of beachcombing in the Carolines began in 1783 with the wreck of the East India packet Antelope at Palau and the involuntary three-month residence of its crew. Not that this was the first time whites had ever lived ashore in the Caroline Islands; there is an account of seven white men landing on Ulithi in 1684, most likely the survivors of a shipwreck,(2) and there were presumably others of whom no historical record remains. But these were isolated instances of a few whites living ashore over the span of more than three centuries. The founding of beach communities~ awaited the opening of regular ship routes through Micronesian waters, and that occurred only in the late eighteenth century.
The castaways from the Antelope received generous treatment at the hands of the friendly Palauans, we are told. But even after a romanticized account of their stay appeared in the form of a book, George Keate's An Account of the Pelew Islands, Palau never attracted a great number of whites.(3) The majority of foreigners who took up residence there for a time were, with a few notable exceptions, the victims of shipwrecks: the Antelope in 1783, the Mentor in 1832,(4) the Dash in 1834,(5) and the Renown in 1870;(6) and most of these remained for only a few months. The castaways were invariably well treated by the Palauans, it would appear. Even the survivors of the Mentor, whose tribulations were publicized in Horace Holden's Narrative of a Shipwreck, received considerate treatment and help in building the makeshift boat with which they intended to sail to the Indies; their misfortune, according to Holden, was to fall into the hands of the inhabitants of Tobi, an island some two hundred miles to the south-west of Palau. Despite the friendliness of their hosts to the castaways on Palau, only two of them elected to remain permanently on the island. They, together with a handful of other foreigners who were left by visiting ships, made up the small contingent of beachcombers who lived on Palau for any length of time before the 18705. Evidently something more than assurance of adequate food resources and good treatment by the islanders was necessary to turn an island into a haven for discontented whites.
But if Palau could claim few white residents throughout most of the nineteenth century, the other islands in the western Carolines had virtually none. The three seamen from the Duff who were put ashore at their own request on Satawal and Lamotrek in 1797 are about the only whites hardy enough to have made their home on any of the tiny, poorly endowed coral atolls in the region, and they were not heard of again.(7) The high island of Yap proved just as inhospitable to potential beachcombers, if for al together different reasons. Yapese, a strong tradition asserts, discouraged early visitors even to the point of massacring ships' crews whenever possible. The itinerant trading captains Andrew Cheyne and Alfred Tetens, the first foreigners known to have visited that island regularly, were both attacked there and did not feel that it was safe to leave a party ashore in their absence until l866.(8)
Madan Blanchard, one of the crew of the Antelope, was the first white who can be said to have chosen a beachcombers life on Palau, electing as he did to remain there as his companions put to sea one November day in 1783. Like John McCluer who gave up his command aboard the Panther ten years later to become the second voluntary white resident on Palau, Blanchard was adopted by Ibedul (one of the two paramount chiefs), liberally provided with native wives and property, granted chiefly status, and otherwise absorbed into the social system of the island.(9) To a much greater extent than did beachcombers on Ponape and Kusaie, Blanchard and those who followed him took on the ways of the islanders with whom they lived. Blanchard himself soon discarded his European clothes and was tattooed.(10) John Davy, who survived the wreck of the Dash in 1834 and chose to live out his years on Palau, must have done the same, for an officer aboard the U.S.S. Vincennes two years later writes with evident astonishment of finding him 'running as naked as his countrymen' (who, by all accounts, were quite naked indeed!).(11) Charles Washington, a deserter from the English man-of-war Lyon who had spent thirty five years on the island by the time of the Vincennes' visit, was said to have become 'as thoroughly savage as any of the savages'.(12) Deprived almost completely of the companionship of other whites, the handful of beachcombers on Palau would have lacked what we might now call alternative role models. In this respect they differed greatly from whites living ashore in the eastern Carolines who were usually part of a good-sized beach community.
Apart from shipwrecked seamen and an occasional deserter, there were a few foreigners who came to Palau as members of beche-de-mer curing parties in the 1840s and 1850s, but their residence too was ordinarily limited to a few months. The whites who stayed for longer than a year or two could not have numbered more than ten throughout the entire ninety-year period that spanned the arrival of the Antelope in 1783 and the establishment of the first company trade station by Hernsheim in 1874. This sprinkling of beachcombers cannot be said to have clothed the natives or anything else of the sort; in this regard, as we have just seen, they were more changed themselves than agents of change. Neither did they seem to have triggered a technological revolution among the islanders. In 1788 Palauans already carried 'iron adzes of European manufacture';(13) by 1875 they still had steel adzes and very little more. The beachcombers' main contribution was not their impact upon the material culture of Palau, but their effect on the continuing power struggle between the two competing alliances or federations of Palau. The role of the beachcomber in Palau, then, must be situated in the political context of an ongoing rivalry that has survived, although not in its bloodier forms, up to the present day.
Foreigners who took up residence in Palau immediately became the personal 'property' of either the Ibedul or the Reklai, paramount chiefs of the federations of Koror and Ngetelngal (or Melekeiok) respectively. Most wound up in the court of the Ibedul for the simple reason that the harbour of Koror provided better anchorage and so was more frequented by foreign ships, but a few–Washington, Woodin, and even the great naturalist Kubary –found themselves in the opposite camp. It was dangerous for any white to attempt to play both sides for his own profit, as Cheyne's murder at the hands of the Ibedul vividly demonstrated.
The office that beachcombers performed has been loosely described as 'interpreter to the chief', a title that poorly defines their actual function. Chiefs in Palau seldom, it seems, had to fetch their white retainers to carry on normal barter with a passing ship, but almost always did so when the matter under discussion was a punitive expedition against traditional enemies. The main role of the beachcomber, one concludes from the literature, was to intercede on his chief's behalf for military aid against the rival federation and thereby enable the chief to extend his power base. The success of this diplomatic mission depended in good part upon whether the 'interpreter' could persuade the man-of-war or merchant vessel that the opposing faction were rebels who originally owed allegiance to the kindly chief who was so generously furnishing provisions for the ship, or that his enemies had acted or were preparing to act against the interests of the foreigners themselves. The use of beachcombers in this way was, of course, no novelty in the Pacific. But in Palau, unlike Tahiti and Hawaii, consolidation into a single empire never took place, the result being that beachcombers continued to serve the same political-military function until the visit of the British warship Espiegle in 1883 when a peace treaty between the two federations was at last signed.(14)
For nineteenth-century Palauans, as for us today, military aid meant both an arsenal of modern weapons and trained troops from abroad. The Antelope's crew supplied both for Ibedul when, armed with their muskets, they joined a band of warriors from Koror in battle against the 'enemies of the king',(15) Blanchard became the ordnance man for the chief and was entrusted with the care of the weapons left him after the Duff 's departure, much as Stanford was charged with the same duty by Cheyne in 1843.(16) Not all whites were trained ship's gunners like these two, but the unskilled could be used in other ways to procure weapons for one or the other federation. Two American seamen from the Mentor who fell into the hands of Reklai were held prisoner for four years pending the delivery of a ransom price of two hundred muskets and several kegs of powder. In the negotiations prior to the release of the two captives to an American warship in 1836 each confederation was represented by a white interpreter-diplomat: Washington speaking for Reklai and Davy taking the part of Ibedul.(17) The most desirable form of military aid, of course, was the service of a foreign man-of-war in what might legally pass as a punitive expedition against the other side. Perhaps the most prominent beachcomber to live on Palau, a West Indian by the name of James Gibbons who deserted from a whaleship around 1860, seems to have been exceptionally skilful in winning the sympathy of naval officers for Ibedul and was so employed on a number of occasions. There is good reason to believe that he was instrumental in persuading the British commanders of the Lily and Comus in 1882 to execute a raid against Melekeiok when the people there failed to make full reparation for plundering a ship that had gone aground two years earlier.(18)
We may presume that the paramount chiefs in Palau enlisted the services of their beachcomber subjects in other ways as well. No doubt some of the foreigners practised trades and instructed the islanders in them, as whites did all over the Pacific. But their importance in procuring and maintaining firearms and in enlisting military support for their chief from foreign ships appears to have eclipsed all other contributions they may have made.
Beachcombers made their first appearance in the eastern Carolines somewhat later than in Palau–not on Ponape or Kusaie, as one might expect, but in the Truk area. Two English seamen left Duperrey's Coquille in 1824 to live on one of the islands in the Truk lagoon,(19) and another Englishman, William Floyd, was landed by a whaleship on the near-by island of Murilo in l827.(20) None of the three remained for very long, however; the two sailors from the Coquille made their way to Guam within a year and Floyd was picked up by Lutke eighteen months after his arrival. By late 1828 the short beachcombing venture in Truk had come 10 an end and, except for the castaways of the Norna who spent a few months there before they were picked up by the British warship Sphinx in 1862, no foreigners were known to have lived in the Truk area until the first traders were landed in the 1870s.(21)
Ponape and Kusaie, by contrast, attracted a sizable throng of white residents during the early 1830s, most of them escaped convicts or deserters from Sydney ships. It was on these two islands, alone of all the Carolines, that what may be properly called beach communities sprang up. James O'Connell, the earliest and bestknown beachcomber by reason of his book, A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands, appears to have been living on Ponape by 1830–just two years after the island was rediscovered by Lutke.(22) In 1833 Captain Knights of the Spy found a small colony of ex-convicts living on the island, several of whom had arrived as stowaways aboard a trading vessel from Botany Bay.(23) Others may have come off the Sydney whalers Albion and Nimrod that touched at Ponape in 1832, or from any of the other British whalers that were beginning to call at the islands. Two such ships, we know, left a good number of their former hands on Kusaie at about this time: the John Bull reported ten desertions there in late 1830, and the Australian recorded about as many in 1832.(24) By 1835 there were said to be thirty Englishmen: living on Ponape, and there were probably almost the same number on Kusaie.(25)
These early beach communities were far from models of harmony and good fellowship, if we believe contemporary accounts. Cheyne, who lived on Ponape for five months in 1843, tells a sorry tale of seemingly endless murders and intrigues among the whites residing there. The surgeon of the Gypsy in 1841 writes of one white shooting another after a quarrel, then hacking his body to pieces with a sword. 'What', he asks, 'can be expected of runaway felons from Sydney or deserters from whaling ships? The very scum and dregs of society!(26) The Sydney press, meanwhile, grew indignant at the excesses being perpetrated by former members of its colony and demanded that a man-of-war take immediate action.(27) A warship was, in fact, given orders to visit Ponape and Kusaie for this purpose–not a British vessel, but the U.S. expeditionary ship Peacock cruising the area in 1841–but lack of time forced the commander to abandon his plans to 'break up the nest of rogues' in those places(28)
What, we might ask, was the reaction of the islanders to the roguery of their foreign guests? On Kusaie, to judge from the evidence, it was the swift and brutal massacre of all the whites living on the island–not for their 'base and unprincipled conduct', but because of a wholly different kind of threat they posed to the native population. In 1835 two American vessels, the brig Waverly the schooner Honduras, were attacked at Kusaie, possibly with the complicity of the beach community. One of the few survivors aboard the Honduras later reported that large guns were fired from the shore with remarkable accuracy and conclude that beachcombers had a large hand in the attempt to take the ship.(29) Even if the whites there did not take an active part in either of these incidents, they could not have been ignorant of what happened then and in 1842 when the British whaler Harriett was cut off and its crew murdered. A ship that lay at anchor for nine weeks in early 1843 found no whites on Kusaie and the captain presumed that they had all been killed to prevent disclosure of the natives' misdeeds.(30) Within a year there were beachcombers again established on Kusaie, but upon the visit of a British ship in February 1844 most of these new arrivals requested passage to Ponape out of fear for their lives if it ever became generally known that they were familiar with the circumstances of the Harriett's loss.(31) The lot of a beachcomber on Kusaie at this time was clearly a risky one. Desertions continued as whaling traffic grew heavier and many seamen must have spent a short time on the island after taking leave of their ship, but the number of whites on the island at any single time thereafter remained small. The beach community on Kusaie never again approached its former size during the 1830s.
On Ponape there are stories of two early attempts by islanders to exterminate the white residents, both of them unsuccessful. In 1835, the island chiefs, angered at the refusal of a group of white castaways to comply with island etiquette and surrender their boat to their Ponapean benefactors, had all but decided to wipe out every white on the island. The plan was aborted, however, when the spokesman for one of the most influential chiefs refused to abide by the decision and declared that he would protect the whites in his own territory.(32) A year later an impetuous young chief from Metalanim, smarting from an insult he had received at the hands of the captain of the whaleship Falcon, led a party of Ponapeans in an attack on the ship's crew, killing the captain along with five others and announcing his intention to do away with every foreigner on the island. But he and his followers were soon hunted down by a combined force of whites living ashore, crew members of visiting whaleships, and four hundred Ponapean warriors; and the chief was ceremoniously hanged from the yardarm of a British cutter. At his death some followers who remained implacable in their hatred of whites went into voluntary exile on a tiny island just off the north-eastern coast of Ponape where they were later joined by three black American deserters.(33)
It appears that on Ponape, in contrast to Kusaie, it was all but impossible for the natives to take concerted action against the beachcombers. Kusaie had a single paramount chief with jurisdiction over the entire island, while Ponape was divided into five autonomous chiefdoms. The rivalry among the five paramount chiefs of Ponape who ruled over different sections of the island virtually guaranteed that the whites would be able to find protection somewhere in situations of extremity. But it seldom came to that. Individual chiefs customarily adopted foreigners into their household, provided spouses and property, and furnished whatever else was necessary for a reasonably comfortable life. The chief was generally anxious to avoid alienating his foreign 'subject' whom he came to regard as not only a prized possession but also as something of a son.(34)
With the influx of deserters from an increasing number of whaleships during the 1840s, the population of resident whites on Ponape grew steadily–from about fifty in 1840 to one hundred and fifty ten years later. Occasionally the greater part of the ship's crew remained behind: the Eliza in 1836 had sixteen deserters; the Offley in 1841 lost so many men that it could not make sail; the Sharon in 1842 left eleven ashore; and the Fortune in 1843 lost seven hands, leaving only four men before the mast.(35) Whites living ashore often furnished liberal assistance to seamen in making good their escape, although few were prepared to go quite as far as Thomas Boyd when, after reportedly inciting several of theMaguet's crew to desert, he held two of its boat crews at gunpoint until the deserters' clothes were put ashore.(36) The establishment of a bounty of between ten and twenty dollars for the return of deserters proved to be only partially effective as a counter-measure. A boat from the Martha in 1856 that went ashore laden with a keg of tobacco and a barrel of beef as a reward for the capture of four of its men returned to the ship empty-handed.(37) As desertions continued, the composition of the beach community on Ponape changed to become predominantly American, with a good number of Portuguese and some Englishmen added.
Beachcombers on Ponape earned their living in a number of ways. Some practised their trades as carpenters, smiths and coopers as need for their services arose. From the very beginning there were some who served as harbour pilots aboard visiting ships, for which the customary fee was twenty dollars. In time the island was divided into several 'beats' which were assigned to particular individuals, one anchorage becoming known as 'Hadley's Harbour' after the white pilot who had worked this area for twenty years. Above all, white residents also played a major role in trade with foreign ships. For a good many years the Ponape chiefs seem to have entrusted to whites most of the responsibility for organizing and conducting trading operations, making of them middlemen of sorts. It was the whites who established the price of yams, taro and bananas, and set fees for supplying wood and water with the help of island labour. The sale of pigs and fowl was almost exclusively the prerogative of the whites until the supply was all but depleted in the l850s.(38) For all practical purposes, the foreigners on Ponape held a corner in the island's most important market commodities, at least prior to the middle of the century. According to one early report, the payment for island produce went directly to the foreigner, who then distributed to the chief a quantity of trade goods: muskets, axes, adzes, cloth, powder and tobacco. The chief presumably used a part of this to compensate the commoners who had supplied the produce or labour; the beachcomber himself gave them nothing except for 'occasional small payments of tobacco'.(39)
White domination over the trade with whaling vessels was soon extended from Ponape to its satellite islands as well. When whites from Ponape settled on the neighbouring island of Ngatik after the infamous massacre of its male population in 1837, and later on the atolls of Mokil and Pingelap, they rapidly developed a flourishing trade in local produce. Within a short time they were breeding swine, fowl and ducks to sell to the whaleships that were laying over at these islands with greater frequency. By 1852 the Eugenie could report of the two Americans living on Mokil that their earnings reached as high as forty dollars a month and their wives were nicely outfitted in pretty cotton blouses.(40)
In time the islanders came to acquire greater control over their own trade. The A.B.C.F.M. mission that began on Ponape in 1852 worked actively to break the trade monopoly held by whites and provided instruction for the islanders to this end. In 1857 a pastor wrote that their efforts had already achieved a certain measure of success: the people in two of the five municipalities were able to trade directly with ships.(41) Eventually the elimination of the white middleman was complete, but not before 1870 or so; and by that time many of the fifty whites who remained on Ponape had taken positions with the companies that were already establishing outlets there.
The beachcomber on Kusaie seems to have been far less indispensable than his opposite number on Ponape. His role in trade with ships was a minor one, we might infer from the logs of visiting ships; negotiations were usually carried on directly with the chief rather than with an intermediary. The chief himself, not the beachcombers, raised livestock and poultry for barter with ships, even supplying cattle for them on occasion. Indeed, one of the reasons for Kusaie's growing popularity as a port of call for whaleships seems to have been its relative freedom from meddlesome white traders.(42) Beachcombers were not ordinarily called upon to act as interpreters, for Kusaieans were reported–as early as 1844–to possess a 'very extensive knowledge of the English language'.(43) An education in their mother tongue, we may assume, was the legacy of the early British beachcombers on the island–along with a craving for rum. Some of the habituees of whaleships could carry on good conversations that ranged over a surprising variety of topics, as one seaman aboard the Cavalier learned while listening to a young Kusaiean woman chat on the subject of ice and snow.(44) Whites did not even serve as harbour pilots; 'kanakas' normally performed this duty, as many of the ships' logs show.
The relative insignificance of the beachcomber on Kusaie is reflected in the number of whites living ashore there in 1850–only four, compared with one hundred and fifty on Ponape.(45) Among other reasons for the small size of the beach community, the paramount chief of Kusaie apparently felt free to evict whomever he regarded as undesirable. As the sole ruler of the island, he had no need to accumulate a large retinue of beachcombers to be used for the political purposes of enhancing his own authority or undercutting that of rivals. Moreover, the beachcomber was not nearly as economically vital to Kusaie as he was to Ponape. Kusaie's chief could aflord to be discriminating in allowing whites to settle on the island–and he was! In 1850 one beachcomber was dismissed from the island for reasons that are not stated.(46) A former whaling master, on the other hand, was encouraged to take up residence on Kusaie and made notable material improvements there before his departure two years later.(47) At the visit of the missionary brig Morning Star in 1857, the chief was engaged in a military campaign against two whites and a group of Rotuma natives, the purpose being to make life so unpleasant for them that they would leave the island voluntarily. It was only through the intercession of the missionaries that the chief was persuaded to allow the expatriates to remain on the island, and even then on the condition that they were not to wander out of their compound.(48) Whether the strong control exerted by the chief was responsible for keeping down the number of whites or not, the fact is that Kusaie did not have the large and rowdy beach community that Ponape had, and in 1870 there was but a single white living on Kusaie.(49)
It is not easy to single out the precise effects that the beach community had in the eastern Carolines, even on the material cultures. A few things, however, may be ascribed with certainty to beachcombers: the introduction of coconut toddy to Ponape and Kusaie, the construction of the first alcohol distillery on Ngatik, and the building of nine-pin alleys on Ponape and Kusaie.(50) Their achievements were not all of this order, it must be added; one of their number built a chapel and pulpit on Mokil so that he could instruct the natives in Christianity. Visitors to that island long afterwards testified to the 'order and decency' that were so evident among the islanders.(51)
Not all the whites living on these islands were villains and knaves, of course, and even the more disreputable beachcombers appear to have changed in the course of time. Several settled down to what might be judged by any standards a respectable life. A few–such as Louis Corgat, James Striker, and Henry Worth– even became known for their religious zeal and provided invaluable assistance to later missionaries. Others may have retained their several wives and their fondness for the bottle, but even they 'turned respectable' in that they found steady employment and ceased their homicidal quarrels.
By 1870 or so the era of the beachcomber was over in the Caroline Islands. The decline of whaling traffic, the drastic reduction in the native population, the mounting influence of missionaries, and the growing sophistication of the islanders all contributed to the demise of the beach community. But the real death blow was the arrival of the company trader who tended his well-stocked post, provisioned regularly by a company schooner. It was not long before the beachcomber was replaced by a 'more decent, clean-living type', as one visitor to Ponape chose to put it.(52) With very few exceptions, those foreigners who lived on any of the islands after this could claim that they were there on business.
Even during the years prior to 1870–a period that could rightly be called the age of the beachcomber–we have seen that the size of the beach community, its peak years, and the role of beachcombers varied widely in Palau, Kusaie and Ponape. Palau had a constant trickle of whites throughout most of the nineteenth century, with seldom more than two or three living there at one time. Beachcombers there were immediately adopted by one of the two paramount chiefs and were used to help the chief secure a political advantage over his rival, either by actually bringing his firearms into battle or by persuading European vessels to do so in his role as foreign diplomat.
On Ponape, an island that also had more than one paramount chiefdom, beachcombers did not play any great military role in island rivalries. Instead, the large beach community organized and regulated commerce with visiting ships. Even as Ponapeans gradually began to assume control of their own trade in the two decades after 1850, the beach community continued to flourish although the number of whites dropped to fifty. On Kusaie the beach community must have reached its greatest size in 1840. After that the island seems to have been less a home than a way station for deserters who were bound elsewhere. Long before 1870 the number of whites living ashore shrank to just one or two. The role of the white on Kusaie was not well defined and clearly of less importance than that of the beachcomber on Ponape. If there is anything to be learned from all of this, it may simply be that beachcombers generally did what a particular society needed them to do.
NOTES AND REFERENCE
1. 'Beachcombers and Castaways' in Maude 1968:134-47. I am indebted to Professor Maude not just for the ideas presented in his classic survey of beachcombing, but also for the generous assistance he offered in helping me locate many of the sources cited in this contribution.
11. Notes on the South Sea Islands by R.L. Browning, Lt. U.S.N., on board the U.S. Ship Vincennes circumnavigating in 1835-6, J.H. Aulick Commander, in Browning Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, Box 141, 405A-012, 4:224.
14. There are cultural reasons to suggest that neither of the paramount chiefs ever wanted to bring the other federation completely under his own power. Palau is a society that is organized around binary divisions on every level: intra-village, village, municipal and federational. The people seem to thrive on the competition that is so deliberately built into its entire social structure.
34. The paternal loyalty shown to the beachcomber by his chief could itself serve to check the 'bad propensities of some of the renegade European characters' as one visitor to Ponape shrewdly noted, N.M. 39 (1870):247-8.
35. Ward 1967:VI, 123; Log of Gypsy, entry for 18 April 1841; Ward op.cit.: 141-3; Log of Bark Fortune of New Bedford, David E. Hathaway, Master, Nicholson Whaling Collection, Providence Public Library, Providence, R.I.
47. This was Captain Isaac Hussey of the Planter who came to live on Kusaie in December 1850 after he shot a seaman while suppressing a mutiny aboard his ship. Hussey signed on the William Penn in July 1852 as its master, but a short time later he was killed when another munity broke out. Jones 1861:136-7, 250, 261-2.
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