|Photo from Alfred Bacon, 1930's||Photo Mike Fraser 1982|
This is part of an article written by a correspondent on board the Janet Nicholl heading for New Zealand from Rarotonga from the Herald 31st December 1886 concerning the death and burial of Daniel Blackwood at Raoul island. I start part way through the article at the relevant point where they are approaching Raoul Island.
During the night of Sunday, the 8th August, 1886, at midnight, the second engineer took up his watch. He performed his duties for up wards of an hour, when he utterly failed from exhaustion, swooned, and when found, had to be carried to his cabin. We had noticed several times during the voyage, an individual, emaciated, pale, and wan, evidently much worn by some organic disease, resting at the stair-head of the engine room, as if anxious to inhale the freshness of the sea breeze, and to him apply the remarks found in the twelfth of these articles. When we reached his cabin, his symptoms alarmed those who had borne him thither. So critical did his condition appear that they called the captain, and he, fully recognising the gravity of the case, went to consult one of the passengers. Without loss of time, the two were beside the patient. He was in a comatose state, the eyes glazed and fixed, the pupils dilated, the pulse feeble and intermittent, the mouth open, the breathing laboured. The passenger at once pronounced him dying. Insensible to all around, in one quarter of an hour he had breathed his last. He departed this life at a quarter past two a.m. on Monday, the 9th day of August, 1886. They washed the corpse, laid him out, and prepared him for his final resting, whether ‘neath the ocean wave, or under the sod upon Sunday Island. As there was a prospect of our being detained some hours at the island, bringing off and loading the bales of wool, the captain considerately determined to bury the corpse ashore.
As the daylight broke and the morning advanced, the looming outline of the island became distinguishable. It rose higher and higher, and more clearly defined, as we advanced toward it. On our former visit, when we landed Mr. B as described in article II on the 8th of July, we were off the opposite, or south westerly side of the island, we were now approaching the north easterly side. As the highest peak has an altitude of 1627 feet, when first made out the island was distant nearly 30 miles, which it took Janet Nicholl some hours to measure.
At length, late in the afternoon, the anchor was let go, about a mile off shore, in eight fathoms depth, and that she might ride the more easily to the swell, 30 fathoms of cable were paid out. As we approached the shore, we had pictured to ourselves Mr. B’s whaleboat on the beach ready for launching, and himself, his wife, three daughters, three boys, two babies, and the schoolmaster all grouped beside it, waving handkerchiefs, hailing our arrival with joy, and beckoning us ashore. But alas! our picture, natural and pleasing in its ideal, was but the mirage of that of that which we had a right to expect. We were disappointed! Nothing indicated that living man existed on that island, excepting indications of a ranch among the foliage. The steam whistle was sounded loud and long, and preparation was made to lower a boat and reconnoiter the shore, to ascertain if the surf were too dangerous to land the corpse for internment. Two female figures and a boy were then seen emerging from the scrub. To these we waved our handkerchiefs, they responded and pointed further along the shore.
By this time the boat was in the water, with the second officer in the stern sheets, tiller in hand. The sailors bent to the oars, and soon she was making towards the point indicated by the folks ashore. In a while other living beings came upon the scene, and among them the paterfamilias, the patriarch of the tribe, and they all walked towards the further end of the bay. But there were no indications of gratifications at our arrival, all seemed wrapped in uncertainty and mystery. Someone on the bridge blurted out, “He’s a humbug!”. Another added, “I’ll bet that he hasn’t a single bale of wool. He’s been coming the old soldier over the Janet Nicoll, you’ll see!”. The party, in the prescience of his own instinct, spoke prophetically. It was even so! The boat managed with difficulty, not unattended with danger, to communicate with the shore, and to receive a note from Mr. B, which in substance read as follows:- Mr. B regretted very much what he had done, the trouble and expense to which he had put the owners of the Janet Nicholl, and the misrepresentations which he had made. But the fact was that, being in Auckland at the date of the volcanic outbreak at Tarawera and the Hot Lake region, and knowing that similar volcanic eruptions has taken place within the memory of man at Sunday Island, he became alarmed for the safety of his family, lest the seismic action at Rotorua had extended to his home, and had overwhelmed his family with sudden calamity. Having taken counsel with a “mutual friend” he had adopted the course which had restored him to his family.
As an inducement for the Janet Nicholl to call at Sunday Island, he represented to the firm that he had 50 bales of wool ready for shipment, that if the Janet Nicholl called and landed him, the wool should be consigned to the firm for sale, and the charges for passage and freight could be debited to his account. He was truly sorry, but what else could he do ? The peculiar exigence of the case must plead as his excuse. He was sensible that he had lowered himself in the esteem of his fellow passengers, which humiliated him and he felt ashamed.
THE FUNERAL ASHORE
There being no wool to ship, the Janet Nicholl had come upon a fool’s errand, and it only remained to convey the corpse ashore for internment, and then persue the voyage. Swathed with canvas, laid upon a broad plank, to which it was securely fastened, the corpse was lowered, not without difficulty, into the boat, then followed two of the passengers, the engineer, and some of his staff, who wished to assist at the obsequies of their defunct shipmate and friend. Unfortunately the companion ladder, which should have hanging over the side at the gangway, was not forthcoming. After its last use at Rarotonga it had been thrown into the hold, and ropes had been coiled upon it, and it was not thought worth while to take the trouble to get it out. Hence each one had to watch the heaving of the boat and vessel, and, seizing the critical moment, to slide down a rope and drop into the boat. In this barbarous and monkey like fashion, all, even the elderly gentleman, who was to conduct the solemnities of the funeral, managed to acrobat safely into the boat.
There were in the boat one of the partners of the firm, two passengers, the second officer, four sailors, the engineer, and three or four of the firemen. After a long pull, riding over the swell, the shore was nearer. Venturing in as close to the breakers as we could with safety, the sailors lay upon their oars, and Mr. B was hailed in stentorian voice to indicate the safest place and moment, when a lull in the swell presented an opportunity for a successful rush through for the beach. This he promised to do. The boat was head to shore, opposite the most favourable spot where the surf was least formidable. The four sailors sat with muscles strung, and the oars firmly grasped, ready to strike the water at the word “Give Way.” All the rest were mute from excited expectation, watching the swell as it rose and fell, listening to catch the shout from the shore, “Now, now’s your time.” The suspense seemed long, but to attempt it rashly was but to rush into danger, to be rolled over and over by the surf, limbs broken or life lost.
Such were the contingencies. Nature in her sterner moods is not to be trifled with. She must be waited upon, her laws obeyed. She will not be driven, neither will she be eajoled. Implacable, yet benign, her forces either bless or destroy. Shoes and stockings had been taken off, strong arms and willing hands held on to the corpse, all were nerved for the venture – the rush ashore. At length, as if wearied and spent with dashing and raging, the swell seaward seemed to have gone down, the auspicious moment had come, from the shore rose the shout, “Now’s your time ! give way ! be quick !” In an instant down dipped the oars as one blade, and bent as all the strength of stalwart manhood pulled its best. The boat, shooting ahead, was borne on and along by the unbroken rolling swell, which passed by and broke with diminished force upon the sandy beach. Another succeeded, and toppled over in the surf and foam just at the bows. As the waters rushed back to meet the next incoming breaker, out jumped the hands, and holding on to the gunwale, with feet firmly planted in the sand, they kept the boat from being sucked seaward under the curving crest of the next breaker. On it came, harmless it passed ! It floated the boat, and the sailors, running along with the foaming waters, bore her up in triumph upon the beach.
We had succeeded, and stood, safe and well, upon the shore greeting Mr. B and making the acquaintance of his family. There they stood, the father and mother, above the average height, on the outer verge of “the prime of life”, yet hale and wiry, with a lot of energy and vim, in reserve. The two eldest of their family, gigantic young women, stood beside them, the eldest at least six feet out of her shoes, the younger growing up to the same stature, both well developed, of splendid physique, rare specimens of nature’s womanhood, albeit innocent of stays and other adventitious civilised gear, required in fashionable circles to compress and distort the beauty of nature’s mold, into the ephemeral contour of popular disfigurement. Able, without flinching, to do the work of a man, but none the less deft at making a shirt, a dress, or a pair of pants, apt at the frying pan, the oven, or the saucepan, whether for fish, flesh or fowl, for bread or pastry, for puddings or for pies, for porridge or for kale. The advent of a couple of steady, hardworking fellows, willing and able to win the maidens hearts, and to throw in their lot with this Robinson Crusoe family, and combine with them for the common weal, would be for the advantage and happiness of all parties. In a few years oranges and bananas, sweet potatoes, and early kidneys could be profitably exported to Auckland. But, as it is, Mr. B’s hands are tied for want of labour and capital. The three boys are younger than the three girls, and, as yet, are not of much account for any hard work. The two youngest are mere babes. The schoolmaster is an elderly gentleman. He once held that position in one of the Government schools in the Auckland province, but lost it through inebriety. Mr. B who ad known him for years, happened to meet him in New Zealand in the last extremity of “hard up.” He knew the worth of the man, if only the drink could be kept from him, and he proposed that he should join his family circle in Sunday Island as resident tutor to the young people. He wisely accepted the offer, and thenceforth, happy in their midst, with board, lodging, and clothing, he looked, when we saw him, the picture of intelligence and cheerfulness. We had no opportunity to examine his pupils, and therefore cannot report upon their proficiency.
By this time the grave had been dug, and everything was ready for the internment. The bier was gently lifted from the thwarts of the boat, and borne up the bank to the rising ground, and there we gathered around the lonely open grave. It seemed so strange to be standing there, a spot in an isle but lately uninhabited and unknown, having at that moment only eleven people dwelling upon it, in the act of committing to the earth – dust to dust, ashes to ashes – the mortal remains of one who only a few hours before had passed away from “the seen, the temporal, into the unseen, the eternal.” Portions of the Holy Scriptures were read, prayer was offered, and an earnest appeal was made to the bystanders as to whether they were saved or unsaved, were believers or unbelievers. Two or three verses of a suitable hymn were sung, and then the earth was shoveled into the grave, but a sealed soda water bottle was placed beside the head of the corpse, containing the following document, duly signed by the captain, the engineer, and the purser:
“S.S. Janet Nicoll, August 9th 1886 – Off Sunday Island, Kermadec Group – These are the remains of Daniel Blackwood, of Port Glasgow, Scotland, 2nd engineer of the above ship, who died at 2.30 this morning, from chronic liver disease. He was well beloved by all who knew him, and this is placed here as a token of affection by his shipmates, who greatly mourn his loss”
Also a headstone, or rather in this instance a suitable baulk of timber, nicely squared, planed, and painted, with the following inscription, cut deeply into the wood, was fixed at the head of the grave, and Mr. B promised to care for the tomb and keep the post painted:
Port Glasgow, Scotland,
2nd Engineer of the S.S. Janet Nicholl
Died at Sea, 9th Aug, 1886, Aged 38
Having thus performed the last kind offices to the dead, we returned to the beach, wished Mr. B and his family good-bye, took our places in the boat, and prepared to attempt to get through the breakers.