By Caleb Estabrooks, Hanover
The year 1821 was not a particularly busy year for North River Shipyards: The Panic of 1819 had set in and few people were investing in shipping. As a result only eight ships were launched on the North River that year. Despite this, John B. and Elijah Barstow managed to build two ships at Barstow’s Lower Yard in Hanover, MA in 1821, one of these was the OENO: a 328 ton Whale Ship built for Aaron Mitchell of Nantucket. Building Whale Ships was a successful enterprise for the Barstows who built 43 ships at this location between 1818 and 1845, 14 of them were built for the capture and rendering of whales.
On the OENO’S first voyage she was mastered by Capt. George Worth. Worth brought her to the South Pacific where she landed 1943 barrels of whale and sperm oil and discovered an island in the Pitcairn Island Chain (now known as Oeno Island). The ship OENO was named for the ancient Greek goddess of grain. Now the name is passed along to this, lonely and uninhabited island whose sole connection to the Hellenes is through a wooden vessel born on the banks of the North River.
The book, Wrecked on Feejees by William Cary, gives an account of the sole survivor of the second Whaling voyage of the OENO. In November of 1824, the OENO went whaling in the South Pacific, this time under the command of Capt. Samuel Riddell. By March 17th, 1825, the crew of the OENO had captured eight whales and put 150 barrels of oil into her hold. She was a vessel in her prime, crewed by seasoned whaler men and cruising in the the South Pacific; an area well known to sailors by the 1820s. Despite all this, the risks of sailing the wild oceans are never fully negated.
About 2am on April 14, 1825 the OENO struck a reef off of Turtle Island in the Fiji Island group. The ship was a total loss, but the crew got off safely and landed on the island. Native inhabitants greeted the crew of the OENO on the beach. There was much apprehension between the two groups at first, but the foreign sailors were taken in, given food and shelter and enjoyed relative comfort and friendship with their hosts. After two weeks of living in relative harmony the crew of the OENO began to hatch a plan to locate a ship that could bring them to a familiar port.
During the early 19th century the Fiji Islands were a popular stopover for merchant vessels traveling from the Americas or Europe on their way to China. The sea cucumber found in the islands named Bech De Mer was used in a popular dish in China and could be traded readily for tea and other goods. The Bech De Mer trade led to many western materials being infused into economy and culture of the Fiji Islanders, but most of these materials quickly degraded without proper maintenance, of which the locals lacked knowledge. This made any European or American sailors high value asset in these islands.
Before the crew of the OENO had a chance to venture out and look for a vessel a band of warriors from a neighboring island, this was a rival group who may have seen the whaler men as an upset to the balance of power in the region. For one reason or another, the band of warriors attacked the crew and massacred all but one; William Cary survived the massacre by hiding in a cave. Cary sensed the danger to the crew but he was unable to convince his mates to heed his warning. After hiding for several days the warriors left and the local islanders took Cary back in, he was out of danger, but he had no certainty of his future.
William Cary moved about the islands with local traders, often traveling from place to place on the prospect of meeting up with a ship that may be able to take him home. After several months he found himself on the Island of Ambow where he met the first American he had seen since he lost his crewmates. The American addressed William Cary by name, which was astonishing since they had not been introduced, the American then asked “…don’t you know David Whippey” to which Cary responded: “Yes… He was a townsman of mine and an old playmate”. “Well, I am that David Whippey” was the reply… now William Cary had the company of an old friend, despite being stranded half a world from home. David Whippey had been left in Ambow by the brig CALDER on which he served. His business was to collect a shipment of turtle shell to be loaded on board the CALDER when she returned in a few months. That was over a year ago at this point and Whippey had given up hope of returning to his ship, but he had been made a chief in the Kingdom of Ambow and had become quite comfortable and respected in his new home.
So William Cary decided to follow the lead of David Whippey. He took part in local trade, developed close friendships with the local king and chiefs, fought in their wars and shared in many of their customs. His book does not mention him practicing cannibalism, which was common in Fiji at that time. For about nine years, they lived a life of adventure and fortune. They lived well by the standards of their environment and their status was significantly elevated compared to the life they were born into. Both Cary and Whippey had achieved the status of chief, they may have taken wives, but Cary didn’t write about it.
By 1830, William Cary began to yearn for home and resolved to find passage back to Nantucket on a vessel bound for the Northeast United States. He signed on as crew on the schooner GLIDE, a trading vessel out of Nantucket! It seemed like a ticket home… until the GLIDE wrecked on another island in Fiji! One step forward, two steps back. Cary and the rest of the crew got off the GLIDE safely, but it took another three years and several ships before he made Nantucket. Cary kept a log of his adventures in Fiji which was published as a series of articles in the Nantucket Journal in 1889. Eventually these articles were compiled the book Wrecked on Feejees. This book is out of print, but it can be found in local libraries and the dusty corners of the internet.