The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales

Author: Frank Thomas Bullen

Chapter XVII Visit to Honolulu

Right glad were we all when, after much fumbling and box-hauling about, we once more felt the long, familiar roll of the Pacific swell, and saw the dim fastnesses of the smoky islands fading into the lowering gloom astern. Most deep-water sailors are familiar, by report if not by actual contact, with the beauties of the Pacific islands, and I had often longed to visit them to see for myself whether the half that had been told me was true. Of course, to a great number of seafaring men, the loveliness of those regions counts for nothing, their desirability being founded upon the frequent opportunities of unlimited indulgence in debauchery. To such men, a "missionary" island is a howling wilderness, and the missionaries themselves the subjects of the vilest abuse as well as the most boundless lying.

No one who has travelled with his eyes open would assert that all missionaries were wise, prudent, or even godly men; while it is a great deal to be regretted that so much is made of hardships which in a large proportion of cases do not exist, the men who are supposed to be enduring them being immensely better off and more comfortable than they would ever have been at home. Undoubtedly the pioneers of missionary enterprise had, almost without exception, to face dangers and miseries past telling, but that is the portion of pioneers in general. In these days, however, the missionary’s lot in Polynesia is not often a hard one, and in many cases it is infinitely to be preferred to a life among the very poor of our great cities.

But when all has been said that can be said against the missionaries, the solid bastion of fact remains that, in consequence of their labours, the whole vile character of the populations of the Pacific has been changed, and where wickedness runs riot to-day, it is due largely to the hindrances placed in the way of the noble efforts of the missionaries by the unmitigated scoundrels who vilify them. The task of spreading Christianity would not, after all, be so difficult were it not for the efforts of those apostles of the devil to keep the islands as they would like them to be—places where lust runs riot day and night, murder may be done with impunity, slavery flourishes, and all evil may be indulged in free from law, order, or restraint.

It speaks volumes for the inherent might of the Gospel that, in spite of the object-lessons continually provided for the natives by white men of the negation of all good, that it has stricken its roots so deeply into the soil of the Pacific islands. Just as the best proof of the reality of the Gospel here in England is that it survives the incessant assaults upon it from within by its professors, by those who are paid, and highly paid, to propagate it, by the side of whose deadly doings the efforts of so-called infidels are but as the battery of a summer breeze; so in Polynesia, were not the principles of Christianity vital with an immortal and divine life, missionary efforts might long ago have ceased in utter despair at the fruitlessness of the field.

We were enjoying a most uneventful passage, free from any serious changes either of wind or weather which quiet time was utilised to the utmost in making many much-needed additions to the running-gear, repairing rigging, etc. Any work involving the use of new material had been put off from time to time during the previous part of the voyage till the ship aloft was really in a dangerous condition. This was due entirely to the peculiar parsimony of our late skipper, who could scarcely bring himself to broach a coil of rope, except for whaling purposes. The same false economy had prevailed with regard to paint and varnish, so that the vessel, while spotlessly clean, presented a worn-out weather-beaten appearance. Now, while the condition of life on board was totally different to what it had been, as regards comfort and peace, discipline and order were maintained at the same high level as always, though by a different method—in fact, I believe that a great deal more work was actually done, certainly much more that was useful and productive; for Captain Count hated, as much as any foremast hand among us, the constant, remorseless grind of iron-work polishing, paint-work scrubbing, and holystoning, all of which, though necessary in a certain degree, when kept up continually for the sole purpose of making work—a sort of elaborated tread-mill, in fact—becomes the refinement of cruelty to underfed, unpaid, and hopeless men.

So, while the CACHALOT could have fearlessly challenged comparison with any ship afloat for cleanliness and neatness of appearance, the hands no longer felt that they were continually being "worked up" or "hazed" for the sole, diabolical satisfaction of keeping them "at it." Of course, the incidence of the work was divided, since so many of the crew were quite unable to do any sailorizing, as we term work in sails and rigging. Upon them, then, fell all the common labour, which can be done by any unskilled man or woman afloat or ashore.

Of this work a sailor’s duties are largely made up, but when good people ashore wonder "whatever sailors do with their time," it would be useful for them to remember that a ship is a huge and complicated machine, needing constant repairs, which can only be efficiently performed by skilled workmen. An "A.B." or able seaman’s duties are legally supposed to be defined by the three expressions, "hand, reef, and steer." If he can do those three things, which mean furling or making fast sails, reefing them, and steering the ship, his wages cannot be reduced for incompetency. Yet these things are the A B C of seamanship only. A good SEAMAN is able to make all the various knots, splices, and other arrangements in hempen or wire rope, without which a ship cannot be rigged; he can make a sail, send up or down yards and masts, and do many other things, the sum total of which need several years of steady application to learn, although a good seaman is ever learning.

Such seamen are fast becoming extinct. They are almost totally unnecessary in steamships, except when the engines break down in a gale of wind, and the crowd of navvies forming the crew stand looking at one another when called upon to set sail or do any other job aloft. THEN the want of seamen is rather severely felt. But even in sailing ships—the great, overgrown tanks of two thousand tons and upwards—mechanical genius has utilized iron to such an extent in their rigging that sailor-work has become very largely a matter of blacksmithing. I make no complaint of this, not believing that the "old was better;" but, since the strongest fabric of man’s invention comes to grief sometimes in conflict with the irresistible sea, some provision should be made for having a sufficiency of seamen who could exercise their skill in refitting a dismasted ship, or temporarily replacing broken blacksmith work by old-fashioned rope and wood.

But, as the sailing ship is doomed inevitably to disappear before steam, perhaps it does not matter much. The economic march of the world’s progress will never be stayed by sentimental considerations, nor will all the romance and poetry in the world save the seaman from extinction, if his place can be more profitably filled by the engineer. From all appearances, it soon will be, for even now marine superintendents of big lines are sometimes engineers, and in their hands lie the duty of engaging the officers. It would really seem as if the ship of the near future would be governed by the chief engineer, under whose direction a pilot or sailing-master would do the necessary navigation, without power to interfere in any matter of the ship’s economy. Changes as great have taken place in other professions; seafaring cannot hope to be the sole exception.

So, edging comfortably along, we gradually neared the Sandwich Islands without having seen a single spout worth watching since the tragedy. At last the lofty summits of the island mountains hove in sight, and presently we came to an anchor in that paradise of whalers, missionaries, and amateur statesmen— Honolulu. As it is as well known to most reading people as our own ports—better perhaps—I shall not attempt to describe it, or pit myself against the able writers who have made it so familiar. Yet to me it was a new world. All things were so strange, so delightful, especially the lovable, lazy, fascinating Kanakas, who could be so limply happy over a dish of poe, or a green cocoa-nut, or even a lounge in the sun, that it seemed an outrage to expect them to work. In their sports they could be energetic enough. I do not know of any more delightful sight than to watch them bathing in the tremendous surf, simply intoxicated with the joy of living, as unconscious of danger as if swinging in a hammock while riding triumphantly upon the foaming summit of an incoming breaker twenty feet high, or plunging with a cataract over the dizzy edge of its cliff, swallowed up in the hissing vortex below, only to reappear with a scream of riotous laughter in the quiet eddy beyond.

As far as I could judge, they were the happiest of people, literally taking no thought for the morrow, and content with the barest necessaries of life, so long as they were free and the sun shone brightly. We had many opportunities of cultivating their acquaintance, for the captain allowed us much liberty, quite onehalf of the crew and officers being ashore most of the time. Of course, the majority spent all their spare time in the purlieus of the town, which, like all such places anywhere, were foul and filthy enough; but that was their own faults. I have often wondered much to see men, who on board ship were the pink of cleanliness and neatness, fastidious to a fault in all they did, come ashore and huddle in the most horrible of kennels, among the very dregs and greaves of the ’long-shore district. It certainly wants a great deal of explanation; but I suppose the most potent reason is, that sailors, as a class, never learn to enjoy themselves rationally. They are also morbidly suspicions of being taken in hand by anybody who would show them anything worth seeing, preferring to be led by the human sharks that infest all seaports into ways of strange nastiness, and so expensive withal that one night of such wallowing often costs them more than a month’s sane recreation and good food would. All honour to the devoted men and women who labour in our seaports for the moral and material benefit of the sailor, passing their lives amidst sights and sounds shocking and sickening to the last degree, reviled, unthanked, unpaid. Few are the missionaries abroad whose lot is so hard as theirs.

We spent ten happy days in Honolulu, marred only by one or two drunken rows among the chaps forward, which, however, resulted in their getting a severe dressing down in the forecastle, where good order was now kept. There had been no need for interference on the part of the officers, which I was glad to see, remembering what would have happened under such circumstances not long ago. Being short-handed, the captain engaged a number of friendly islanders for a limited period, on the understanding that they were to be discharged at their native place, Vau Vau. There were ten of them, fine stalwart fellows, able bodied and willing as possible. They were cleanly in their habits, and devout members of the Wesleyan body, so that their behaviour was quite a reproach to some of our half-civilized crew. Berths were found for them in the forecastle, and they took their places among us quite naturally, being fairly well used to a whale-ship.


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Chicago: Frank Thomas Bullen, "Chapter XVII Visit to Honolulu," The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales Original Sources, accessed March 23, 2019,

MLA: Bullen, Frank Thomas. "Chapter XVII Visit to Honolulu." The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, Original Sources. 23 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Bullen, FT, 'Chapter XVII Visit to Honolulu' in The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, trans. . cited in , The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales. Original Sources, retrieved 23 March 2019, from