Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Sailor's Life in Fiji

 John Gaul, lying in his bed in Lakeba with a sore leg, began to write his life story. After more than 30 years in Fiji he was once again communicating with his family and his brother had asked him to relate all that had transpired in the three decades since they had last seen one another. And what a life it had been.

Gaul left Hudson, N.Y.  in 1855, a scrappy 14-year-old full of wanderlust and a deep sadness over the recent death of his mother. He found his way to New York City and then sailed to Fall River, Mass., most likely working for his passage. From there he walked to New Bedford, a 15-mile trek, and shipped out on a whaler, the Elizabeth, headed to the South Pacific.

The sailor’s life was hard: filled with violence, poor food and little sleep. Gaul recalled the beatings he took at the hands of the captain and mates over trivial matters. At one point he was tied to a mast and whipped for fighting with another crewmember. According to Gaul, the fight broke out when he sat down to eat before a Portuguese sailor. The man shoved Gaul out of his seat and Gaul retaliated by slamming a keg of molasses onto the man’s head, nearly drowning him in the thick fluid as the sailor stumbled around blindly before finally being freed with the help of several other men. 

Gaul gave as good as he got, nearly killing one of the mates with whom he had an on-going dispute. The mate would beat the boy savagely any chance he got, but was unfortunate enough to be caught sleeping on his watch by Gaul who stole some gunpowder, piled it near the man’s head and set it alight, burning the man’s hair and face.

Gaul, tired of the beatings, jumped ship, was caught, beaten, and tried again. This time he made his escape by swimming to shore with a sailor from Pennsylvania. Gaul made it to Upolo, one of the islands that make up Samoa, then known as the Navigator Islands by westerners, but his friend wasn’t so lucky. He was killed by sharks as the two made their way to land.

It wasn’t long before Gaul was once again at sea, this time on a schooner shipping coconut oil. This captain seemed only marginally better than the first, since he beat Gaul for complaining about being worked too hard without food or water, but afterward made Gaul a mate, with a $5.00 a month raise. From there Gaul moved on to another trading vessel plying the waters between Australia and Fiji.

Gaul eventually settled in Fiji, a group of islands in the South West Pacific where cannibalism was still practiced at the time. His descriptions of the custom border on the fantastic and are more likely based on hearsay than on personal observation.
According to Gaul, the native people would dig up the dead and feast on their bodies and would steal one another’s children to eat. He also alleged that Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau, who united Fiji under his control in the 1850s, had an island where he would fatten up his victims before eating them. The King Of Bau, as he was known, had in fact repudiated the practice of cannibalism and took up Christianity in 1854, before Gaul settled in Fiji. While cannibalism was practiced there it was usually reserved for special occasions, such as the eating of one’s enemies after a battlefield victory, and the practice died out not long after Gaul’s arrival.

By the 1860s Gaul was married with children — he would eventually have four — and had taught himself to read and write. He said that the little schooling he had in Columbia County before he ran away hadn’t stuck. Gaul held a series of jobs from cotton plantation manager to store clerk, but continued to be drawn to the sea, often working as a sailor when land-based jobs dried up.

He was a conundrum when it came to his views of the aboriginal people of the islands, often describing them as savages, thieves, and “very saucy” to “whites.” At the same time, he married a native woman and treated her well, became fluent in the language and seemed to think more highly of the native people than the missionaries, drunken Europeans and the officials of the British colonial government installed in 1874 when the country became a British possession.

At one point he tells of fighting on the side of a tribe that lived near him against their enemies. Gaul led a charge during a pitched battle that helped secure victory for his neighbors. The next day the tribe, celebrating their success, invited Gaul to the festivities, but he refused and when they left gifts at his doorstep he sent them back.

Gaul was very protective of his wife and children and fought both whites and natives on several occasions when he thought his family’s honor was being trampled. He obviously loved his wife a great deal and described how when a letter from his father eventually reached him, his wife memorized it and would recite it to her children before bed. She, along with thousands of other native people, died from a measles epidemic that struck the islands in the 1870s. Gaul never remarried.

Ten years later Gaul finally wrote home and his personal history may have remained merely correspondence between two long-separated siblings, but for a writer named William Drysdale.

Drysdale was a roving reporter for the New York Times when he received Gaul’s narrative, possibly from Michael Gaul, and published a series of articles in the summer of 1890 on John Gaul’s life. Drysdale was a distinguished newsman during the boom years of the industry in the mid-1800s who started his career at the New York Sun before finding his way to the Times where he remained for two decades. He would eventually become a well-known (at the time) children’s book author.

In 1888, two years before Gaul’s story was eagerly being read at breakfast tables across the country — the story ended up in newspapers as far away as California — he returned to New York, 35 years after he left, and was reunited with his father and two brothers.

Gaul was uncomfortable with life in America, telling Drysdale that he never should have left Fiji where “as long as you lived you knew where your dinner was coming from, and when you were dead you did not care.” It was unclear whether Gaul ever returned to the land where he had spent so much of his life, thousands of miles from the country he had left behind as a child.