I have a guilty pleasure fondness for what I like to call "expedition disaster" literature--true history tales of a journey to some place that goes bad--not enough food, the maps are bad, the ship gets stranded in ice, the natives are not as helpful as expected, and my favorite--they packed too much junk they don't need in favor of stuff they would. It's amazing how many 19th and early 20th century explorers set out with trunks filled with things like spice racks, tins of caviar, elegant plates, a leatherbound collection of the works of Plato, and an ivory chess set.
That last problem doesn't usually show up in stories about whaling expeditions gone wrong. Whalers were made of tougher stuff, even the captains were rarely from an aristocracy accustomed to fine things, and a whaling ship just didn't have room for extras. There was, however, plenty of room for things to go wrong on a whaling expedition. A failure to kill any whales could turn an average voyage into an ever more desperate search that stretched miles, months, and years long than planned. A captain could be cruel and unreasonable. Bad weather could strike. One of the sailors could be a psychopath. That last one is what sparked the misadventures of the Globe, a Nantucket whaling ship, a story told by Thomas Farel Heffernan in "Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock."
Samuel Comstock, a twenty one year old from a well-off Quaker family, had been trouble practically from the start. He fought, ran away, fought some more, and caused mayhem everywhere he went. He did the kind of things that people, surely even back then, would have a hard time dismissing as just the energy of a lively boy. Instead, his rages and battles were the kind that made anyone around him a little nervous--including his brothers William and George, who both idolized him for his inventiveness, swagger, and confidence, but also recognized that it was right to fear him a little. We know this because William became a writer of some recognition, who detailed his brother's actions; George was on Samuel's final voyage and wrote his own account of his brother's deadly actions.
After being thrown out of several schools, Samuel begged his father to let him go to see. He hated his trip on a whaling ship, loathing the business of whaling. He really wanted to join the navy, but his Quaker father forbade that; in exchange, he promised Samuel that if he did well at sea he would even buy him a ship and captaincy of his own. Samuel came up with a different plan, though, which he confided to William: while on a whaling voyage in the Pacific, he would lead a mutiny and kill the captain, land the boat on an island, win the natives to his cause and turn them into his personal army, and kill his fellow mutineers, leaving him to rule the island as a king. It sounded crazy, but not so much to those who knew Samuel; I don't think William thought Samuel was above doing such brutal things, but I think he doubted his ability to pull it together, especially at such a young age.
On the Globe, a ship chosen by Samuel's father partially because of its well respected captain, Samuel won the respect of the captain because of his work ethic and skill. He also found a crew that, well into the voyage, with no whales in sight, was growing increasingly angry with the captain, apparently because he gave them too little time to eat. Samuel rounded up enough of them to his cause and put his plan into action, murdering the captain in his bed as well as a few of the other officers. With Samuel now in charge, the rest of the crew, terrified, followed his instructions tand sailed on. They landed on an island and followed Samuel's orders to unload many of the items from the ship. Samuel got into an argument with one of his co-conspirators, and was attacked by him and others. He was killed by the group, leaving no one really in charge. Meanwhile, a group of sailors quietly planned an escape--before the others on the island even realized what was happening, they slipped onto the ship, cut the anchor loose and sailed away, low on supplies, crew members, and navigational instruments.
The group remaining on the island now tried to deal with the natives, but when their treatment got a little too high handed, the natives attacked them. William Lay and Cyril Hussey, two of the sailors, who had gone out of their way to be kind to a few of the natives, warned them and hid them. The two white men became workers and curiosities of the tribe, never quite sure when or if they were going to be killed by the natives, who at one point suspected them of bringing an illness that infested the tribe (luckily for them one of the powerful leaders decided instead the illness was punishment for the natives killing the other sailors), or whether they would just live the rest of their days there. Rescue seemed unlikely.
The Globe made it to Valparaiso and told their story. A US navy rescue expedition set off to search the South Pacific for the remaining sailors, both mutineers and innocent men. To the astonishment of Lay and Hussey, they found them and rescued them, and after some precarious interaction with the natives, brought them back to New England. Lay had a ghostwriter put together a book about their experiences (Hussey died on the first voyage he took after his safe return). George Comstock wrote his own version of the actual mutiny, and William wrote tales of his horrible brother. Lt. Paulding, one of the rescuers, wrote his account. It's a story that does not lack for primary sources, though they don't all jibe.
Heffernan's account is brief. Very brief. I had the book with me while visiting family and both people who borrowed it while I was down there finished it in one sitting. In terms of distribution of the story, Samuel is gone very early; Lay and Hussey's life on the island takes up a pretty large chunk; Paulding's takes up perhaps too much, and there is far too little aftermath. Heffernan's style is operatic and sneery while telling about the sheer evilness of Samuel Comstock as he was growing up; later it becomes bland and reportorial, as if he is simply summarizing what was in Lay and Paulding's stories. I would have liked more context, such as about the whaling industry and life on whalers. I also found the book woefully lacking in reaction to the story of the Globe once word about what had happened spread. He shows how newspapers of the day got the initial details wrong, but wasn't there any editorials or articles or letters from people telling what they thought? Did it affect the way whalers went about their business at all? Did it affect the culture? Maybe not, but I don't know because we don't even get a "maybe not."
The book is exhaustively endnoted and has a number of appendices (including the full text of George Comstock's story of the mutiny). Incredibly, though, it lacks an index something that always exasperates me. After putting all that money into producing a book with all the academicary (I just invented a word) of notes, sources, pictures, they can't finish it off with a basic index? I never understand that. Every nonfiction book should have an index.
Overall, I give the book a "pretty okay." It's a quick read, and very interesting at some points, less interesting at others (details from Paulding's story about the return voyage don't do that much to help the cause, at least not nearly as much as details about the reaction back in the US would have). I have a feeling there are other investigations of the Globe's story that are worth your time.