A King’s Throne
by L. Roger Quilter
Tim Swift’s gnarled, knotted hands rolled the end of a length of rope as he prepared to form a back splice. He unraveled the ends and pulled them apart and wove a crown knot, then turned to his friend John White and said: “Reckon as not we’ll make landfall afore long. I can smell it.”
“Who cares,” muttered John. “Cap’n won’t allow us ashore, anyhow.” John cleared his throat and spat overboard.
“At least this old tub won’t be rolling around for a while.” Tim’s hands moved as fast as they could because the bo’s’n was roaming close at hand with his starter raised, ready to mark the back of any slacker. Discipline in the eighteenth century was harsh.
The two elderly seamen were part of the crew of HMS Martin, a three-masted schooner now plunging across the Pacific with a bottom that was foul and badly in need of repair. The vessel required to be careened in a shallow bay to scrape off the barnacles and replace her rotting timbers.
Bill Williams, the ship’s carpenter, would be kept very busy for several weeks in this task. He now appeared on deck, first peering out of a hatch, blinking his eyes at the sudden brightness of the tropical sun. He scraped the dottle from his pipe with a small knife and refilled the bowl with a small amount of the precious tobacco he had left. He lit the foul smelling weed, took a deep intake of smoke and blew it out, contentedly. Despite a strong breeze the smoke hung around because the Martin was running with the wind with all sails set.
Williams had spent countless hours in the bilges caulking and sealing several leaks in the ship’s hull. Two men manned the ship’s pump continually and the constant hours of work to keep the ocean at bay seared men’s souls. Twelve hours a day running the ship then two hours pumping bilges was enough to tire a man.
The Martin was outward bound from Plymouth in Devon and it had taken her several months to sail across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn to the Pacific. Scurvy had taken hold of several members of her crew and the long spells of inactivity when the ship was becalmed had brought them to a state of bored resignation. Rounding the Cape had been no pushover, with icy squalls attempting to drive them ashore, but they had managed to negotiate the passage without any significant damage, except for the sprung timbers caused by the constant movement. The Martin now had several leaks.
Several of the crew had suffered frostbite during this passage and one man had disappeared overboard when a particularly large wave had swept across the upper deck.
Ten years previously, in 1789, Captain Cook had been killed in Hawaii so the crew was aware that not all the Pacific islands were friendly to outsiders. Cook’s navigator, Bligh, was at this very moment somewhere in the Pacific seeking plants and fruit species. The chance of meeting Bligh’s ship, the Bounty, was remote.
The Martin carried a South Seas native on board who spoke English, as well as several Pacific dialects. He was their only interpreter. Torgo had been selected by Cook on a previous voyage and had been living in England since the end of that journey. He had not settled well in England and was pleased to return to his native land.
“Land, ho! Land on the starboard bow!” The shrill cry from the lookout at the masthead captured the attention of all on deck and hands ran forward to catch a glimpse of what he had seen.
Faintly, on the horizon, a mountainous land could be made out. It seemed dark and ominous with a boiling surf pounding the shore although this did not deter the crew. Thoughts of fresh water to replace the foul, rank sewage they had to live with were uppermost in their minds. There had been some fresh water gathered when the ship traversed through the many downpours, but not enough to slake the thirst of men living under tropical conditions. The ship’s barrels of heavily salted beef and pork were now a green, slimy liquid muck that was crawling with maggots. The best protein was the weevils that abounded in the ship’s supply of biscuits. Hopes for a better diet ran high.
The Martin was carefully navigated through a gap in the coral reef and entered a calm, perfect anchorage. Leadsman called out the depth as the ship eased close to the shore.
The deep blue of the Pacific was now replaced by water of many hues; green and turquoise predominated and pure foaming waves ran up to an almost white, coral shore.
After such a long journey in a seemingly void ocean, the green color of the palm trees and the luxuriously verdant nature of the land was manna from heaven for the crew.
Several outrigger canoes were seen moving towards the ship and Captain Andrews ordered the crew to get ready with muskets in case the islanders were on the warpath. It was soon discovered that they were friendly and within minutes, dozens of excited natives swarmed over the Martin’s sides to gaze in awe and wonder at this strange craft.
Out of the third canoe stepped a man of monstrous girth. He stood well over six feet and had an air of authority about him that could not be misconstrued. That he was the chief there could be no doubt, as his minions backed to the ship’s rail in deference to this magnificent figure when he strode aboard.
Captain Andrews stepped forward and greeted the chief. Interpreter Torgo was able to translate readily enough.
The incongruity of that meeting was obvious to the crew. Captain Andrews was slight of build and very short and Wakiti, as the chief was named, towered over him. He was well over three hundred pounds in weight and was well aware of his position as the headman of this small island.
It was soon apparent that the chief was a man who thought a lot of himself. He accepted several proffered gifts of beads and mirrors, admiring himself and preening in front of his followers who cheered and danced up and down at the adorned chief’s antics. His appearance commanded attention and it looked, at one time, as if he was about to order the crew to do his bidding.
It was the ship’s padre, Reverend Davies, who averted his attention by offering him a bible. The chief stared at this heavy tome and turned over the pages. He laughed at several of the illustrations and then turned and descended into his canoe with his followers carrying his loot. This was the sign for all the natives to leave and the Martin seemed to heave a sigh of relief.
There was very little sleep that night. Gone was the cool sea breeze and the familiar creaking of timbers and the noise of flapping sails was now silent. There was little movement, save for the occasional small pull against the anchor cable, and a far different atmosphere prevailed aboard. The excitement generated by their landfall served to keep men’s minds focused on new adventures. What lay ashore on this mystic island? Where were the women? If the ship was careened, they would have to live ashore as the angle of the ship would curtail any comfortable existence. To make matters worse, the atmosphere below decks was oppressive with the buildup of heat as a tropical storm slowly approached.
The storm, which hit early the next morning, lashed the mountainous terrain for several hours, but the Martin was snug at her anchorage and rode out the relatively small waves that entered the lagoon. With the storm’s passing, some hours later, fine weather ensued and the Martin started her repair work.
The ship was brought closer to shore, tugged by the ship’s boats, and lines passed to several palm trees, where huge blocks and tackle were strung up to tilt the ship in the shallow water. Curious natives, including some women and children, scuttled back and forth watching the procedure. While the natives smiled and sprung about with glee, the Martin’s crew sweated and cursed in the fierce heat as they hauled the weight of their vessel into an unnatural angle.
They knew that there was going to be a lot of hard work cleaning the ship’s bottom. To offset this hard labor, arrangements were made to allow the crew to take shore leave in several vermin-filled huts near the beach. Used to living with rats and cockroaches on board, they noticed no hardship in this venture.
Within days friendships had sprung up between the two different cultures, including some amorous liaisons with some of the unattached females. Hunting and fishing parties replenished the sour food aboard and fresh water was available in abundance.
Tim, John and Bill shared one hut and, as the oldest members of the crew were treated in high regard by the natives. Life, though hard, was at least enjoyable. It wasn’t long before a language was established to communicate with each other. Sign language, using hand gestures and constantly repeated sounds, soon made it easy for the two groups to come together in a manner that satisfied everyone.
However, one well-meaning individual spoiled their idyllic existence through his religious fervor. Reverend Davies and the chief engaged in several conversations through Torgo. As a result, the good reverend disclosed more about English life than he should. “We are ruled by a great king,” Davies informed Wakiti.
George the Third was as mad as a hatter, but Davies did not let this little gem slip by. He wanted to convert these heathens, and everything that Davies said lauded the way of life in civilized countries. “King George sits on a beautiful throne.” Davies smiled when he saw the awe in Wakiti’s face.
“Kingi! What is kingi?” Wakiti demanded “Throne! What is throne?”
Through many gestures and mime the Reverend and Torgo got their message across. It was to prove disastrous for Bill Williams.
“Kingi Wakiti want throne. Big throne. Now!” Wakiti’s voiced thundered his demand.
Davies realized the error of his ways, but Captain Andrews, who was passing, caught the gist of what had happened. “Get the carpenter to build the idiot a throne,” he hissed to the nearest officer, Lieutenant Dawes, “gotta keep these savages happy.”
He left, leaving Dawes with the unenviable task of beseeching Williams to construct a throne. Dawes returned to the ship’s hull where Williams was working and asked if he would please make a throne. “Williams, you will build a throne immediately. Have it ready by noon.” Lieutenant Dawes, a recently promoted eighteen-year-old midshipman, stalked ashore with Williams rudely gesturing behind his back.
”Damn that little snotty,” muttered Bill, “You’d think I had fifty pairs of hands.”
Williams was a good carpenter. He knew his trade, but a fancy carpenter he was not, and after all his hard work on the ship’s bottom he was not enthused with this new project. With the help of Swift and White, who both owed the carpenter favors for services previously rendered, he soon had a very heavy chair built and glued together. The fact that he used some of the rotting timbers recently ripped from the ship’s bottom did not deter him as he filled in the worst holes with all kinds of junk and covered the blemishes with thick paint.
King Wakiti was well pleased to receive such a magnificent throne. The dedication was performed by the Captain and Reverend Davies with due pomp and ceremony, albeit that Captain Andrews was hard pressed not to smile.
For two weeks the sojourn on the island was peaceful, until Reverend Davies put the idea into the king’s head that maybe a better throne was called for.
Bill Williams blew his top when he was ordered to build a second throne. It took two days to complete, but the wood was local hardwood and looked better than the rotted pieces in the first. The king graciously accepted his now customary accolades from the foreign crew.
It seemed that the king became displeased every second week and wanted a new piece of furniture. Williams suggested improving one of the old ones, but the king insisted on keeping each used throne. He had a large grass shack built behind his palace and armed guards saw that nobody stole the thrones from this hut.
Meanwhile, the work of cleaning and repairing the schooner’s hull went on. After four months the captain assessed his position as being untenable. All spare wood from the ship and the best timber surrounding the village had now been used, so where were they going to get enough lumber to be able to satisfy the king’s demands?
At least the reverend had finally learned to keep his mouth shut. The day before the ship sailed, Williams and his two mates managed to turn out a reasonable piece of furniture with the last scraps of wood in sight.
They presented the king with this latest creation and the three sailors hoisted the throne that the king had now discarded and took it out back, where they were allowed inside by the guards, to stack it in the now full hut. There were over a dozen used thrones piled close together.
“He’ll need a new hut soon,” Williams said, knocking the ash from his pipe onto the floor with several taps of his hand. “I won’t be too sad to leave this place,” he added.
The three exited and ran to the beach where the tide was high. They joined the rest of the crew in righting the now sound Martin, and the ship’s boats towed the vessel to deep water, where she anchored for the night.
A short while later, at sunset, the on watch crew assembled to renew or replace the lines used to hold the ship at an angle. New cordage was cut to length and Tim and John and several other seamen began the monotonous chore of back-splicing the ends of the new lines.
Bill Williams appeared on deck and commented, “That’s a real bright red sunset tonight.” He stared, and then yelled: “It’s a fire! Sunset is in the west, not the north!”
Smoke and flames could be seen issuing from behind the palace and soon it was determined that it came from the shack that housed the used furniture. Within minutes the entire structure and its contents were destroyed. Dusk revealed only hot embers glowing in the soft trade wind.
“You know,” opined Bill, staring at the ruins, “I always said that people who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones!”
Several knots, in various stages of completion, descended on Bill’s skull.
Copyright © 2005 by L. Roger Quilter