Monday, August 22, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE NOTORIOUS CAPTAIN HAYES” by Joan Druett (Harper-Collins, $36:99)

Whenever I hear the words “pirate” or “buccaneer”, the historian in me at once starts a fight with my imagination.
Of course the first thing that comes to mind is the swashbuckling image perfected by old Hollywood, with the likes of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power duelling dashingly on a sound-stage version of a ship’s deck, posing in the crow’s nest, or swinging from the rigging with knife in teeth and cutlass in hand. Or else I click into images of the fictitious Long John Silver going “Arrr, Jim lad!” as he hunts for buried treasure. Names like Captain Kidd and “Blackbeard” (Ned Teach) spring to mind. But a millisecond later, my reason tells me that the Treasure Island and Hollywood versions of piracy are as far removed from historical reality as Hollywood’s Wild West is. Read any reliable history of 17th and 18th century piracy and you find little but sordid criminality with not a dashing swashbuckler in sight. Kidd and Teach (real historical figures) were their era’s version of drive-by shooters, ram-raiders, conmen and the like – that is, criminals who happened to be in sailing ships which now look irrationally romantic to us. Only imagination has turned them into adventurous heroes.
 Joan Druett has by now produced seventeen works of non-fiction (many well-received) and eight works of fiction (not so well received). Her speciality is popular historical versions of maritime events in the Pacific in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I greatly enjoyed her best-received book Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator when it came out in 2011 and later won New Zealand’s top book award for non-fiction. (My review of Tupaia appeared in Landfall #223, May 2012). With her latest book The Notorious Captain Hayes, however, she has her work cut out for her.
There was a time – quite a few decades ago now – when the American “Bully” Hayes was presented in Australia and New Zealand as some sort of roguish buccaneer of the Pacific: the equivalent of the romanticised versions of Kidd, “Blackbeard” and others. His (mostly fictional) adventures appeared in sensational newspaper articles and penny-dreadfuls. But the cruel fact is that he is largely forgotten now, even as romanticised legend. Conscientiously, Druett works to set the record straight about the historical Hayes, and to debunk the legend. Her book is subtitled The Remarkable True Story of William ‘Bully’ Hayes, Pirate of the Pacific. But this means debunking what nobody now “bunks” (if there is such a usage). So the book is really telling us earnestly not to believe what popular culture has already forgotten.
Trawling through archives for shipping records, private letters, official communiques and yellowing newspaper reports, Druett quizzes all dates and conflicting accounts to question whatever romantic notions about Hayes may linger in a very few elderly minds.
The story she comes up with goes something like this:
Williams Henry Hayes was born in the USA in either 1828 or 1829 (nobody is sure) and died in 1877, so he didn’t reach the age of fifty and was young and agile enough to have done many of the things he was reported as having done. He appears to have served briefly in the US navy as a teenager, but headed for the Pacific and by his mid-20s was captain of his own commands. Chapters in this book are mostly titled after the names of his successive commands. In the 1850s he was engaged in the tea-trade to Australia, but was also involved in the grubby business of taking payment and then dumping on shore, far from their desired destination, Chinese who had come to join in the Australian gold-rushes. He began the practice of buying goods on credit from trusting traders, and then sailing off without paying. He cheated creditors in this way after lingering in Oz for the first South Australian regatta. It was this habit which led to a newspaper in Honolulu, in 1859, printing an article about him headed “The History of a Consummate Scoundrel”. This was where his notoriety began. In later years the article was often reprinted by other newspapers. But please note that it was simply confidence-trickery that set off the negative reputation of “Bully” Hayes – not anything resembling piracy in the accepted sense.
But later (the story is told in Chapter 6), Hayes was in command of a ship that sank in mid-ocean. Before it went down, Hayes had a raft built for some of the crew. However, he left them to their own devices while he and a smaller group rowed off in the ship’s one lifeboat. It was sheer luck that his abandoned crew were rescued by another ship. His reputation for callousness became even blacker and the article from the Honolulu newspaper was now reprinted by the Sydney press. True to his methods, Hayes undertook to transport a cargo to the East Indies, but when he reached his destination he sold it off for his own profit, without remunerating the owners, and absconded.
His connection with New Zealand was brief. He became manager of a woebegone family theatrical troupe, the Buckinghams, whom he brought to Otago in the hopes of attracting large paying audiences during the Otago gold-rush. Although he was already married to a woman whom he had abandoned, Hayes set himself up in a hotel with one of the Buckingham women. The theatrical troupe didn’t make much of a go of it, and Hayes performed his usual manoeuvre of absconding with unpaid debts. There was an incident where a yacht sank, drowning some of the Buckinghams, but not Hayes. Hayes was suspected of arranging these deaths, but nothing was proven. Nevertheless, his reputation sank lower. When Hayes attempted to abscond from Nelson leaving merchants out of pocket, he was caught and briefly imprisoned while his ship was seized and auctioned off. Nevertheless he acquired another ship and abducted a naïve teenage girl from Picton before he was intercepted and forced to give the girl up. Hayes’ final farewell from New Zealand was so rancorous that he ever afterwards avoided the port of Auckland, where merchants had become wise to his tricks.
Druett tells us (Chapter 12) that as Hayes’ notoriety spread, the legends began to be fabricated. There was the first of many false reports of his death when newspapers spread the story that he had been killed in a duel. His name was confused with that of a completely different Captain Hayes who had been accused of gun-running to Maori during the New Zealand Wars. Later, a fabulous (and patently untrue) tale was spun about his importing Chinese coolies into Australia and tricking another ship into landing then ashore, so that he didn’t have to pay the poll tax that was then levied on all Chinese.
It seems clear, though, that as his public reputation fell, his activities really did become more sordid and violent. By the late 1860s he was involved in “blackbirding” – that is, the practice of luring onto his ships (by promise of payment or sheer fraud) Pacific Islanders who were then taken to work, for a pittance, on distant plantations run by Europeans. In many respects, the practice of “blackbirding” was just one step up from slavery. This was realised by British officials, who often sent out naval ships to intercept “blackbirders”. But as Druett explains: “Consular agents were often ambivalent about the business, as they were planters themselves, or dealt with planters in a trading capacity, and were always conscious of the need for cheap labour.” (p.164) One astute Samoan chief, Mauga Manuma, took Hayes on when Hayes inveigled aboard his latest command Samoan men and women whom he was going to take to work in Fiji. On his own cognizance, Mauga Manuma arrested Hayes and appealed to European authorities to put Hayes on trial. Hayes was imprisoned for some months, but both the British and the American consuls were too hesitant and spineless to take decisive action, and as they dithered Hayes was able to abscond again.
In the final chapters of The Notorious Captain Hayes, the sordid stories pile up. Hayes was able to make off with the ship of a rival shyster called Ben Pease (Druett unravels a bundle of myths related to this). Hayes took to robbing islanders and traders at gunpoint to get his hands on valuable cargoes of copra and coconut oil. He had been married twice and had had one long-term mistress, but as he neared 50, his tastes ran more to under-age island girls. Stories of his raping pre-pubescent Polynesian girls seem well attested.
The circumstances of his death in 1877 have never been verified, but he appears to have died in a violent argument with one of his crew, who smashed his skull in with an iron bar.
There are a number of indications in The Notorious Captain Hayes that “Bully” Hayes could be a charmer (essential to the arts of a conman). He was at various times able to persuade respectable people like traders, missionaries and consular officials of his good intentions. Perhaps this accounts for what was to me one of the ongoing mysteries of this book: How was Hayes so often able to raise the capital to buy his successive ships? Often he did so just after having been declared bankrupt or having been caught out in some fraud. He must have been very plausible until his very last years, by which time most people had learned not to trust him.
There are some very interesting episodes in this book. To my tastes, the most intriguing are in Chapter 8, dealing with Hayes’ Otago sojourn. It contains semi-farcical accounts of the rivalry between the hotel Hayes has purchased and the one his former colleagues the Buckinghams had purchased. Apparently the Buckinghams entertained their rough gold-seeking audiences with a farce based on Hayes’ misdeeds. The coarseness of old colonial entertainments is handily evoked.
Regrettably, though, much of this book is a dry recital of undramatised facts – names, dates, ships and scrupulous comparisons between sensationalised fictions about Hayes and what the archives reveal. It is easy to lose track of which ship is which, and whom Hayes is bilking at any given time. Sometimes information seems off the point. (Why does Chapter 4 give us a long account of what happened to the ship “Orestes” after Hayes had ceased to have anything to do with it?).
In the debunking line, the very last chapter, entitled “The Manufacture of a Modern Buccaneer”, is the most informative as Druett ticks off, for their inaccuracy, racy fictions about Hayes such as Rold Boldrewood’s A Modern Buccaneer (1894) and Louis Brecke’s Bully Hayes, Buccaneer (1913) and some of the output of the prolific Aussie hack Frank Clune. As for the Errol Flynn-ish knife-in-teeth roguish buccaneering image, it really appears only once in this book, where Druett is describing (p.20) Hayes’ youthful service in the imperial Chinese navy and his reputed capture in Hong Kong of the American pirate Eli Bloggs.
Otherwise, this is mainly a dispiriting, and sometimes confusing, account of an unpleasant criminal who happened to exist in the days of sail.
The irresponsible part of my mind keeps repeating that famous line spoken by a newspaperman in John Ford’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” As an historian, I of course regard this creed as reprehensible. Facts are sacred and Joan Druett is acting like a good historian in winkling out the facts. But I understand how the story of the unpleasant “Bully” Hayes might have been a livelier read if it had been treated as pure legend.


  1. Hello Nick - you read the whole thing! So p,eased you did. Must admit I could not resist following the Orestes in Honolulu, as the courtcase was so farcical, though was aware all the time that it was off topic. Agree with most of your comments, very perceptive. But I had set myself the job of sorting fact from myth, and so the boring (?) facts had to take precedence.

  2. Thanks for your magnanimous comment, Joan. I thought you might have been more displeased at my confusion in reading some parts of the text (I lost track of his commands and misdeeds sometimes); but i know that setting the historical record straight is a prime virtue. What a horrible man!

    1. I thought the point you made about Hayes being to raise the backing to take over yet another ship was very perceptive. I found it interesting that when the editor of the Maitland newspaper asked readers for reminiscences of Hayes, no one replied -- and yet Clift, who backed the Launceston venture, was apparently robbed blind. Was he embarrassed about his foolishness? Or was he, very quietly, part of the scam in Java? It is the unwritten history that is everlastingly fascinating.