Thursday, May 24, 2007

O Captain! My Captain!

The photo is of Captain Silas Jones of Falmouth. Curious readers can find out all about the adventures of Captain Jones and the whaling ship Awashonks in Friday's In Season supplement inside your local Enterprise newspaper. The only question the article doesn't answer is: "When do you think mutton chops will come back in style?"
But seriously, even more interesting than reading about the 1838 Awashonks Massacre as it became known, was reading later accounts of the incident which grew more and more exaggerated every time it was retold. The entries written in the ship's log are pretty straightforward and gruesome enough as is. Not only is the attack enough to get the movie version of the encounter a R-rating, regardless of whether anyone on board was smoking, so to are the descriptions of the "operations" young Silas Jones had to perform on members of the crew following the attack. Future interpretations, though said to be eyewitness accounts, sound as if they took place on an entirely different ship.
A later account published in 1883 in the journal, The Youth's Companion, claims to have based its story on narrative from Silas Jones. It has the third mate staring down the natives and exclaiming "there was one chap that I didn't quite like the look of ... he has a 'hawk-eye'."
This version of the story also has Mr. Jones witnessing the captain being beheaded, an exaggerated event, though no less fatal, that Silas Jones was below deck for, according to the ship's log.
Ironically, the most blown out of proportion detail is that of a keg of gun powder ingeniously used by Silas Jones and the crew members trapped below deck, to set off an explosion in the stern of the ship. The Youth's Companion describes the event this way: "a blinding shock, followed by a terrific crash of timbers and a chorus of yells, screeches and howls from the terrified savages was the instantaneous result."
The Awashonk's log book makes no mention of a keg of gun powder or a subsequent explosion, leading me to believe the event is entirely fabricated.
An even later account, written by William N. Davis and published in the book Falmouth on Cape Cod years after the death of Silas Jones, recounted the story through the eyes of a supposed crew member named Old Tom, who strangely, is not one of the crew members mentioned by name in the ship's log. Old Tom is apparently a bit of a soothsayer as he ambles up on deck the night prior to the attack and tells the second mate, "I don't like the looks of the stars to-night." He then warns the mate that the natives are likely to "rub noses with you one minute and give you a dig in the ribs the next." The article even quotes Old Tom muttering "He's gittin' as proud as a midshipman with his pocketfull of scupper nails." Who ever heard of quoting a muttering?
The next day it's reported that 60 or 70 natives board the Awashonks. According to the ship's log the number was more like 30. Vastly outnumbered by natives in this account, the quick-witted third mate, below-deck members of the crew, and the salty Old Tom, again turn to that non-existent keg of powder to drive back the natives. The account quotes Silas as shouting "Come boys, break out the run. Get up a keg of powder, and we will blow the companionway sky high." The crew respond with: "Give it to them, Sir."
That Mr. Davis, he spins quite a yarn.
So what's the lesson here? Don't believe anything you read? Don't put much stock in narrative published 75 years after the event it describes. Especially when it's based on narrative written 50 years after said event which is equally factually incorrect. Don't trade with the natives, be they "hawk-eyed" or not? Don't grow mutton chops?
Take away from it what you will, but it gives one pause. if I can pick a single event from the history of Falmouth and find so many gross inaccuracies in the story's telling and retelling, can anything we read about history be true?

poem: O Captain! My Captain! • author: Walt Whitman

1 comment:

Barbara Stewart said...

We have the ORIGINAL log from Silas Jones, which was transcribed and published in Atlantic Monthly in about 1920. It has been passed down through his family along with other artifacts.
You can reach me at bstewart@netptc.net