Uncle Robinson

Chapter II

The Vancouver—Engineer Harry Clifton—Boatload of Kanakas—The Pacific Ocean—The second mate Bob Gordon—imprisoned—Family at the mercy of the waves’s devotion.

The Vancouver was a three-masted Canadian vessel displacing five hundred fluid tons 1. It had been chartered to take a group of Kanakas to San Francisco, emigrants who voluntarily hire themselves out for work abroad. One hundred fifty of these emigrants took passage on board the Vancouver.

Travelers ordinarily avoid crossing the Pacific in the company of these Kanakas, who are coarse people. Their society is not desirable and they are always inclined to revolt. Mr. Harry Clifton, an American engineer, and his family had not planned to embark on the Vancouver. Mr. Clifton, who had been employed for several years in improving the approaches to the Amour River, was looking for an occasion to get back to Boston, his native city. He had made his fortune and he waited, there being almost no connections between North China and America. When the Vancouver arrived on the coast of Asia, Harry Clifton found the captain who commanded her to be a compatriot and a friend. So he decided to take passage on board, with his wife, his three sons and his small daughter. He had acquired a certain fortune and he aspired only to retire even though he was still young, barely forty years of age.

His wife, Mrs. Elisa Clifton, felt some apprehension in boarding this vessel full of Kanakas: but she did not wish to oppose her husband, so eager to see America again. The crossing, besides, would be a short one. The captain of the Vancouver was experienced with these sorts of voyages, and this reassured Mrs. Clifton a little. So she and her husband embarked on the Vancouver with their three sons, Marc, Robert, and Jack, their young daughter, Belle, and their dog, Fido.

Captain Harrison, the vessel’s commander, was a very competent sailor who knew that there was little danger on the Pacific Ocean. Mixing socially with the engineer, he carefully saw to it that the Clifton family would have no contact with the Kanakas who were lodged in the steerage.

The crew of the Vancouver was composed of some dozen sailors of no particular nationality. It was difficult to avoid this kind of crew when hiring in far away places. They were often in conflict with each other. The crew of this vessel was composed of two Irishmen, three Americans, a Frenchman, a Maltese, two Chinamen and three Negros hired for service on board.

The Vancouver left on the 14th of March. At first all went well but the wind was not favorable. In spite of Captain Harrison’s skill, the currents and the wind from the south drove the vessel too far north. That presented no serious danger, it would only make the trip longer. The real danger came from certain of the crew who were inciting the Kanakas to mutiny. These scoundrels were encouraged to disobedience by Bob Gordon, second in command, a notorious rogue, who betrayed the captain’s trust with whom he was travelling for the first time. Several times already the crew had heated discussions and the captain had to act with authority. These regrettable incidents would have disastrous consequences.

In fact, serious symptoms of insubordination were not long in declaring themselves among the crew of the Vancouver. The Kanakas were difficult to control. Captain Harrison could only depend on the two Irishmen, the three Americans and the Frenchman, a brave sailor barely americanized, having lived for some time in the United States. This worthy man was a native of Picardy. His name was Jean Fanthome but he answered only to the nickname of Flip. This Flip had been everywhere in the world; all that could happen to a human being had happened to him but he still maintained his good humor. It was he who warned Captain Harrison of the dangerous conspiracies on board; he urged him to take energetic measures. But what could be done under these conditions? Would it not be best to be tactful while waiting for a favorable wind to drive the vessel in sight of San Francisco Bay?

Harry Clifton was informed of the second mate’s intrigues and his anxieties increased each day. Seeing the alliances that were forming between the Kanakas and certain members of the crew, he seriously regretted going on board the Vancouver and exposing his family to the perils of this voyage; but it was too late.

The evil conspiracies began to turn into acts of violence and Captain Harrison ordered a Maltese who had insulted him into irons. This occurred on March 23rd. The Maltese’s companions did not oppose the execution of this sentence; they merely murmured while their companion was seized by Flip and an American and put in irons. The punishment by itself was a small thing; but, on their arrival in San Francisco the act of insubordination could have serious consequences for the Maltese. However, he did not resist, doubtless being certain that the Vancouver would not reach its destination.

The captain and the engineer often spoke about the regrettable state of affairs. Harrison, truly anxious, thought of arresting Bob Gordon, who did not hide his intention of taking control of the vessel. But this could provoke an explosion because the second mate was supported by a large majority of the Kanakas. “Evidently,” Harry Clifton replied, “this arrest will accomplish nothing. Bob Gordon will be freed by his supporters and we will be worse off than before.”

“You are right, Harry,” replied the captain. “I know only one way to get him out of the way! That is to put a bullet through his head! And if he persists, I will do just that, Harry! Ah! If only the wind and current weren’t against us.”

In fact, the wind continued to blow the Vancouver off route. The vessel often labored. Mrs. Clifton and her two youngest children did not leave their cabin. Harry Clifton judged it best not to tell his wife what was happening on board, not wanting to alarm her unnecessarily.

However, with the sea so rough and the wind so strong, the Vancouver was steered 3 with the staysail 4 and its two topsails 5 lowered. During the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of March no observation was possible. The sun was hidden by thick clouds and Captain Harrison no longer knew to which part of the north Pacific the storm had driven his vessel. This was a new concern to add to those he already had.

On the 25th of March, about noon, the sky was a bit improved. The wind shifted a quarter toward the west which favored the vessel’s progress. The sun showed itself. The captain wanted to profit from it by making an observation, made more necessary by the fact that land appeared some thirty miles to the east.

Land in sight in this part of the Pacific where the most recent maps showed nothing? Captain Harrison was astonished. Had his vessel drifted as far north as the Aleutians? It was important to verify this. He shared this information with the engineer who was no less surprised than he was.

Captain Harrison took his sextant, went to the upper deck and waited for the sun to reach its highest point so he could make his observation and determine the exact moment of noon at this place.

It was then 11:50 and the captain placed his eye to the lens of the sextant when shouting erupted from the steerage.

Captain Harrison rushed to the front of the deck. At this moment, about thirty Kanakas overpowered the English and American sailors and rushed out of cover uttering terrible cries of rage. The freed Maltese was in their midst.

Captain Harrison, followed by the engineer, immediately descended to the bridge, surrounded by those seamen of his crew that had remained loyal to him.

Ten feet from them, in front of the main mast, the coarse rebellious Kanakas stopped. Most were armed with anspect bars 6, awls, and mooring hooks. They brandished these arms and their frightful shouting blended with the cries of the Maltese and the Negros. These Kanakas wanted nothing less than to seize the vessel. This revolt was the result of the intrigues of the second mate, Bob Gordon, who wanted to make the Vancouver a pirate ship.

Captain Harrison resolved to finish with this scoundrel. “Where is the second mate?” he demanded.

No one answered. “Where is Bob Gordon?” he repeated.

One man moved out from the mutineers. It was Bob Gordon. “Why are you not on the side of your captain?” Harrison asked him.

“There is no other captain on board but me!” the second mate responded insolently.

“You wretch!” shouted Harrison.

“Seize this man,” said Bob Gordon, pointing out the captain to the mutineers.

But Harrison, advancing a step, took his pistol from its holder, aimed at the second mate, and fired.

Bob Gordon moved aside and the bullet was lost in a wall.

The pistol firing was the signal for a general revolt. The Kanakas, incited by the second mate, rushed toward the small group surrounding the captain. It was a frightful scuffle whose outcome could not be in doubt. Mrs. Clifton was frightened and rushed out of the cabin with her children. The English and American mates had been seized and disarmed. When the crowd thinned, a corpse was slumped on the bridge. It was that of Captain Harrison, mortally wounded by the Maltese.

Harry Clifton wanted to rush on the second mate, but Bob Gordon held him down firmly and, on his order, was locked in his cabin with his dog, Fido.

“Harry! Harry!” Mrs. Clifton shouted, joined by her children’s cries.

Harry Clifton could not resist. Judge his despair when he thought of his wife and his children at the mercy of this furious band... A few moments later he was imprisoned in his cabin.

Bob Gordon then found himself master of the vessel. The Vancouver had fallen into his power. He could do whatever he wished with it. The Clifton family was a nuisance on board and the measures to be taken against the unfortunates would barely inconvenience anyone’s scruples.

At one o’clock the vessel was nearing a land twenty miles windward. A lifeboat was brought out and thrown into the sea. The crew threw in two oars, a mast, a sail, a sack of biscuits and some pieces of salted meat. Flip followed these preparations, having been left at liberty. What could he, alone, do against the crowd?

When the boat was ready, Bob Gordon ordered Mrs. Clifton and her four children to embark, pointing first to the boat and then to the land.

The poor woman tried to sway the rascal. She cried and begged him not to separate her from her husband. But Bob Gordon banished her with a gesture. He would listen to nothing. Doubtless he wanted to deal with the engineer Clifton more firmly. He responded to the poor woman’s prayers with only a single word: “Get in!”

Yes! Such was this rascal’s design! He would abandon this woman and her four children in a frail craft on the high seas, knowing full well that without a sailor to guide them they would perish; as to his accomplices, as inflamed as he, they remained deaf to the prayers of the mother and the tears of the children! “Harry, Harry!” the poor woman repeated.

“Father! Father!” shouted the children.

The oldest, Marc, seized a rod, and rushed toward Bob Gordon but the latter brushed him aside, and soon the unfortunate family was dropped into the boat. Their cries were heartrending. Harry Clifton heard them from the cabin where he was imprisoned. His dog, Fido, responded with furious barks.

At this moment, at Bob Gordon’s order, the rope that held the boat to the Vancouver was cast off and the vessel began to move away.

Valiant Marc, like a true sailor, stood at the helm in order to steady the boat, but the sail could not be hoisted. The boat, caught in a cross-wind, threatened to founder.

Suddenly a body fell into the sea from the height of the Vancouver’s poop deck. It was the mate, Flip, who, throwing himself into the water, was swimming vigorously toward the boat in order to come to the aid of these abandoned people.

Bob Gordon turned back. For a moment he thought of pursuing the fugitive. But he looked at the threatening sky. An evil smile was on his lips. He set up the foresail and the two top-gallants 7. Soon the Vancouver moved a considerable distance away from the boat which now only appeared as a point in space.

  1. A fluid ton is a unit of volume equivalent to 2.83 cubic meters
  2. Translator’s note: “Kanakas” may also be correctly translated as Polynesians or as natives of New Caledonia.
  3. Reducing the sail area lowers the speed and the vessel is steered while drifting
  4. The forward three-cornered sail closest to the foresail mast
  5. The square sails on the topmast
  6. Bars used to heave at the capstan
  7. Sails above the topsail

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Translation Copyright © 2000 Sidney Kravitz
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:42 $