Double Ghosts: Oceanian Voyagers on Euroamerican Ships
Pacific islanders have always had a healthy dose of wanderlust. They would never have journeyed the thousands of miles over unmarked seas required to settle all major island groups in the world’s largest ocean otherwise. If further evidence is needed, we have only to recall their massive exodus from these new island nations to Pacific rim countries during the past few decades in search of jobs and a better future. We are told that these recent émigrés number about a half-million. According to David A. Chappell in Double Ghosts, between these two major dispersals occurred another major movement of islanders, one that has been not only unstudied but nearly unmentioned in Pacific literature. This “second diaspora,” as he terms it, began with the arrival of the first Spanish caravels in the Pacific and continued through most of the nineteenth century as islanders were carried off, willingly or involuntarily, on Western ships.
The adventures of islanders on Western ships began very early in the contact history of the region, just a year after Magellan’s short stay off Guam, when the Trinidad seized a Chamorro to provide sailing information on its return to the northern Marianas in 1522. The man proved unhelpful and was soon released, but this incident initiated the practice of kidnapping islanders when a ship needed assistance, whether information on the waters of the region or just another hand to man the pumps or hoist the rigging. The desertion of three of the Trinidad’s crew in the Marianas, who enjoyed the distinction of becoming the first European beachcombers in the Pacific, presaged a common occurrence in the years to come, as ships of every description multiplied. Deserters abounded, and replacements had to be found. In 1526 the Spanish vessel Victoria, which found the only survivor of the three deserters a few years before, also shipped aboard eleven islanders to work the pumps. But they were only the beginning of a long parade of largely faceless islanders who sailed as hands on European and American whaleships, trading barks, and private schooners, or in the holds of blackbirders and slightly more legal labor-recruiting vessels to visit other parts of the world.
There would be thousands of Pacific islanders who traveled abroad on Western ships through the end of the nineteenth century—thirty thousand is the author’s estimate. With hundreds of persons from every major island group included, they represented an enormous acculturative force on their own islands, not to mention the places they visited. [End Page 479] A few made their mark on the West and even, years later through a sort of echo effect, on the islands they had left behind. Omai sailed with Cook, becoming a part of the narrative of the voyage and subsequently a renowned figure in Europe. Lee Boo, the Palauan “prince” who visited England with the captain of a shipwrecked indiaman, was eulogized in a poem by Coleridge and became the tragic hero of a school lesson read by at least two generations of English schoolchildren. Then there was Opukahaia, the Hawaiian notable in New England and the man who was in great part responsible for the first American missionary effort in the Pacific. Most of the islanders who went abroad, however, were nameless souls who may have been noted in a logbook as “Kanaka Joe” or “John Bull” or, more frequently, were not even given such minimal recognition in the ship’s journal or crew muster. For the most part, these islander adventurers who had seen wonders like snow and ice and royal courts and grand opera are, in the author’s words, “fleeting shadows in the tombs of time.” With few exceptions, their stories are lost to us and to their own people. Hence, they are “double ghosts”—persons who vanished from their own society and its history without a trace, but who have likewise disappeared from the society into which they were absorbed.
Double Ghosts is a sampler of the adventures of these island-born travelers, a pastiche of dozens of vignettes or less—mere scraps of information—about the island men (and the occasional woman) who toured the world in Western ships. This book, which resists any attempt at tight analysis, makes the reader want to know more about the fate of these islanders, who were so potentially valuable a resource in their own islands. But what might we reasonably expect to be able to salvage of the tales of humble seamen? What do we know of the thousands of Euroamericans who sailed before the mast into the Pacific, other than the fortunate few whose tale has chanced to be carried to us today? Greg Dening rescued William Gooch for us, but much of this was through inference, and owing to the treasures contained in the British Museum. Literate societies have such resources to be mined for the history of even the most pedestrian sailor, suggesting once again that it is the power of the pen even more than the status of the seaman in question that makes the difference.
Chappell offers us a wealth of names and stories but little help in organizing the enormous mass of material he provides. In a brief chapter near the end of the book, he admits that its “anecdotal nature” has made it “a sea story”—but a sea story, we might add, revealing something of the richness and scope of the experiences of those peripatetic islanders. When the author, in a statistical summary of the best documented [End Page 480] voyagers, reviews the outcomes of their journeys, we are surprised to learn that the islanders fared no worse than Euroamerican sailors of the same period. Impressment was common to both, and shipboard mortality rates were as much a threat to whites as to blacks or browns. Chappell’s summary would seem to undercut the ideological positions that are suggested in the pop-up quotes that we find now and then in the text. In the end, this neglected chapter of Pacific history is not about power differential or racism; it is about an opportunity for adventure and modest wealth, much like the diaspora that we witness in the region today.