The island of
Johanna. Visit with the Sultan. Exploring the pirate stronghold. The capture
of Black Jeffreys by the Rattlesnake.
There is always something doing
on a warship at a foreign station. After the arrival of Sir Bartle Frere’s
slave commission and its installation on shore, we got up steam and headed for
the island of Johanna, a tiny speck of land in the Indian Ocean five hundred
miles southeast of Zanzibar, near Madagascar. On our way out we passed the
island of Pembla, considerably larger than Johanna, but it was said that the
anchorage was poor and we did not stop.
The island of Johanna, although
only a few square miles in area, is one of the beauty spots of the South Seas.
It has a splendid harbor on one side and a long inlet on the other, both
protected by steep slopes and high promontories that afford a panorama of rare
scenic splendor. Waterfalls drop from the cliffs into pools clear as crystal,
and tropical fruits, tobacco, and yams are abundant. Here I saw the flying foxes
of which I had read. The animals were equipped with wings similar to those of a
bat, had reddish fur, and were as large as the small-sized fox of America. They
made their homes in the tree and joined with the monkeys in raising a continuous
chatter on the approach of strangers.
The island was governed by a
Sultan, and the day following our arrival in the harbor he sent an ambassador to
inform the captain of the “Glasgow” that he was about to honor the ship with
a visit. We therefore prepared for his coming by changing into No. 1 uniform,
polishing the brass work, squaring the yards, and when the royal party hove in
sight, about seven bells in the forenoon watch, the yards were manned and a
twenty-one gun salute boomed forth his honor. The procession was seen coming
through the gates of the royal enclosure, yelept the palace the “place.”
There were no conveyances, and the entire party was on foot, preceded by four
punka holders. These were followed by the Sultan arrayed in spotless white robes
with trimmings of tiger skins. He wore on his head a red silk turban with a
dazzling ruby in front. His feet were protected by sandals. Around his ample
waist was a broad sash which protruded a curved scimitar. He was closely
attended by a number of courtiers and followed by about a hundred of his
subjects, and his every movement was accompanied by the weird ceremonies
surrounding an Oriental potentate.
He came aboard with a white man
at his side who acted as interpreter. The latter was an American castaway from a
wreck of years before, who had settled down among the natives and had cultivated
a sugar plantation, learning the language and customs of the people. Later that
day I visited his “sugar works,” which consisted of a large tub in which was
installed a set of upright rollers, from the top ends of which extended a long
pole. At the end of the pole a water buffalo was harnessed, and as the cow moved
around the circle, a couple of natives fed the sugar cane between the roller and
the juice fell into the tub below. I secured some of the product, but found it
plentifully adulterated with sand.
To return to my story, the Sultan
expressed his astonishment to the captain at the appointment of the warship, and
gazed with awe at the mechanism of the guns between the decks. A modern rifle
was loaded and fired in quick succession, and he dodged behind the captain while
his courtiers raised their hands in fright. His Majesty’s nervousness was soon
allayed, however, and he was bowed and kaytowed into the captain’s cabin,
where I presumed he sampled that officer’s stock of liquors, for on emerging
he was in a quite convivial mood and he waved his farewell to the entire crew as
he stepped over the gangway into the royal barge.
Previous to our arrival, no ship
had anchored there for several years, and the excitement of the natives was
great when the men were given leave to go ashore. As there was no rum on the
island there was no danger of the men getting drunk, and as the currency of the
Suzerain consisted of an assortment of buttons, with which commodity all of our
men were equipped, they were well supplied with “money.” This I found to my
cost when I inspected my dress coat and found all of the brass buttons missing.
One of the most interesting
things about Johanna was the fact that it had been used as the headquarters of
many of the pirates who swarmed those waters for three centuries past. On one of
the high promontories overlooking the harbor is perched a fortress, which we
were told had been built by Captain Kidd. History relates that Captain Kidd did
spend some time at Johanna. Captain Mission, another prosperous pirate, settle
down to make his home on the island of Johanna, there to enjoy in peace the
fruits of his spoils. Johanna was one of the ports to which Black Jeffreys
frequently retired when his victims objected and made matters too hot for him.
The fact that these pirates made such substantial and extensive preparations for
their security by building the stronghold makes it reasonable to suppose that
the wealth of some of them will some day be found on the island, perhaps in the
vicinity of the old fort.
On the island side, the fort is
reached by a long flight of steps, over which stone arches are placed at
intervals of about one hundred feet. Up these steps several of us climbed until
we reached the circular structure of masonry surmounting the crest of the peak,
above a sheer drop of two hundred feet to the sea. Inside the fort the walls are
about three feet thick, pierced by many portholes through which the guns were
fired. Brass Howitzers, probably twelve pounders, point their muzzles from each
port, but they have been spiked at the vent so that they are perfectly harmless.
An ancient flagpole rose from the roof, from which the skull and crossbones were
wont to fly during the palmy days of the bloodthirsty pirates. I made an effort
to climb the pole, but an ominous crack warned me of the danger and I gave up
the effort. The roof of the fort affords a view of the entire island and an
obstructed vision of the Indian Ocean for many miles.
Many were the tales of pirates
and their adventures which were told to us by the white castaway. The story of
Black Jeffreys still clings to my memory, so I will tell it to you as it was
told to us. The capture of Black Jeffreys was brought about by his chase of a
clipper ship from Melbourne on her way around the Cape of Good Hope to England
with a valuable cargo. After sighting her, the chase lasted several days, and
the pirate would undoubtedly have overhauled the clipper if the bark’s foretop
hamper had not given way under the strain. Night was falling, and before the
spare rigging could replace the damage aloft the pirate ship, the clipper got
away in the darkness, and changing her course ran into Simon’s Bay, where the
“Rattlesnake” lay at anchor. There the master of the clipper told his story
to the commander of the gunboat and gave the position of the pirate ship.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey’s, whose
ship already had a fair cargo of loot taken from an East Indiaman, had given up
the chase and headed for Johanna. There the cargo was unloaded and stored in
some hiding place back in the woods. The reserve force that had been left at the
fort was then taken on board and Jeffreys immediately put to sea. The second day
out, the lookout at the masthead reported a sail on the starboard bow, and
Jeffreys, thinking that another prize was in his grasp, pointed his ship for the
stranger while all the ship’s telescopes were trying to identify it. They were
not kept long in suspense. Quickly the faint speck on the horizon grew, its
outline became bolder, and a column of smoke was seen coming from its funnel.
Then consternation and fear spread among the crew, for it could be none other
than the dreaded “Rattlesnake” that was racing toward them under steam and
sail. The captain roared out to the helmsman to put the helm down, and the sails
were trimmed as the ship started to run for dear life before the stiff wind with
all sails set, studdin’ sails on both sides bellying out to the breeze. The
crew were huddled in the stern, which raised her bow almost out of the water,
and the pirate tore along at fifteen knots.
Had the conditions been equal,
she would have escaped her Nemesis. The “Rattlesnake,” however, with every
inch of canvas she could carry, aided by her steam power, was rapidly closing
the gap between them, and soon her bow chaser was throwing shot clear over the
pirate as a signal to heave to and shorten sail.
The pirate’s crew had not been
idle following the discovery of the character of her pursuer. They scurried
around to clear her decks of all traces of her bloody business and to try to put
on the appearance of an honest merchantman endeavoring to escape from a
suspicious character. They knew that they were no match for the man of war, so
they masked the guns, stowed away the firearms, cutlasses, and pikes.
A second shot went through her
main topsail and cut away the port stun’ sail boom. This dropped the big
canvas into the sea and it became a drag that almost stopped the ship. By this
time the corvette was abeam, her ensign flying at the masthead. A shout came
from her bridge” “What ship is that? Heave to! I am about to board you!”
Black Jeffreys, realizing that it was useless to put up a fight and that he had
a better chance of bluffing innocence, ordered his ship hove to. The
“Rattlesnake” also stopped, her decks cleared for action. Lowering a boat
manned with an armed crew, a lieutenant in charge pulled over to the bark. With
the guns of the “Rattlesnake” trained on the pirate ship and other boatloads
of armed seamen and marines on the way, the first boat’s crew clambered over
the side of the captive vessel. The lieutenant covered Black Jeffreys with his
revolver and called on him to surrender; and that worthy stepped forward with
his hands down. By this time the other boats had arrived alongside and their
crews were climbing aboard. The first lieutenant beckoned to a rifle of marines
and they took positions on either side of Jeffrey’s. His first and second
mates were next singled out from the crowd and put under arrest, and the
pirate’s crew ordered below. Those cutthroats, realizing that with their own
arms hidden away resistance was out of the question, then slunk down the
ladders; the gratings were closed over them and locked; while a guard of marines
paraded the deck.
Jeffreys, with his two officers,
trying to fabricate a story which was innocent of any piratical activities but
being unable to make it hold water, was taken to the “Rattlesnake” and
confined in the brig for safe keeping. A prize crew was placed on the bark, and
both ships laid their course for Simons Bay. From there the prisoners were sent
to England. Jeffreys and his mates were tried and hung. The crews were sentenced
to penal servitude for life and were sent to the Botany Bay penitentiary.
The “Rattlesnake,” after delivering the pirate ship and prisoners at
Simon’s Bay, resumed her patrol, and stepping at Johanna two years afterward
discovered the fort. The guns were put out of commission by filling the bores
with cobblestones and a spike driven into the vent of each. From all
appearances, at the time of the visit of the “Glasgow” no damage had been
done to the fort itself, and beyond the ravages of sixty years’ time, it is
probably in about the same condition today. A search was made for the treasure
and other booty that had been left hidden by the pirates, but no trace of it was
found. It is still there.