Sunday, October 25, 2009

The mystery of John Matthews

From Genie.

19 December 1831 Monday
CURIOUS DISCOVERY;- Information has reached Sydney of the existence of a young man names MATHEWS, who was captured spout three years ago, by the natives of an Island called Malanta, near the New Hebrides, in the South Seas.- I may be recollected, that, about the time mentioned, the Alfred, whaler, was off that island fishing and in a dispute, between the natives and the crew, the Captain and several hands were murdered, and a mate (the person now discovered), was carried off a prisoner, and never since heard of. The manner in which this unfortunate young man has at last made himself known, was by cutting his name, the particulars of his capture, and his present situation, (which he represents as miserable), on apiece of bamboo, and then giving it to the natives to trade with. Not understanding he characters, and supposing the bamboo to be an original piece of tattoo workmanship, they bartered it away amongst other things to one of our Colonial whaling captains, (CAPTAIN HARWOOD, of the Hashmy), who retains it in his possession. We are informed that a humane attempt will be made to purchase this unhappy fellow from the savages.

Since the above was written, the schooner New Zealander has arrived in Sydney, from Malanta, and other places, and brings up more particulars of the fate of MATTHEWS, CAPT. HEDGES has in his possession a letter, and a carved cocoanut, which were brought on board the New Zealander, by a native, from their prisoner, the subject of the narrative.

The following is literal copy of the letter;
Sir, - Be kind to the natives, as my life is in their hands, I am alive, after a long illness from the wounds I received. Write to me the particulars if a ship killed any of the natives on the other side of the Island. They say our ship killed three men. They keep me close, and will not let me come near the ship. Make him a present of something showey;- his name is Bulowwa. If you will send me a shirt and a pair of trowsers, I will be much obliged to you; I am in a state of nature. A ship may get a good supply on this Island, by making friends with them, Give the men something to eat, as it is great friendship with them. Write to me the particulars what ships are cruising off this island. I live on the north side of the Island. Be careful of the natives- they are forming a plan to take a ship. Do not come on shore without fire arms, they are canibals. If I can once get a note from you, I can form a plan to get away.
I am, your humble servant


This is a most curious story. So what happened? Let's work through this ship in a timeline.

Friday 1 July 1825
Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser
"The Alfred whaler, Captain Eber Bunker, had arrived from Santa Cruz Island, with 1000 barrels of sperm oil, which were procured in five months."

Thursday 4 August 1825
The Sydney Gazette
"The Alfred whaler, Captain Bunker, of the house of Jones and Walker, sailed for the sperm fishery also on Saturday."

Wednesday 16 May 1827
The Sydney Gazette
"On Monday last arrived, from the sperm fishery, the Alfred, whaler."

Wednesday 14 May 1828
The Sydney Gazette
Shipping Intelligence
"Also arrived, the Colonial schooner Haweis, Captain J James, from New Zealand the 26th April, with potatos and flax. The Alfred whaler had arrived at New Zealand, having lost her captain, mate, and three seamen, killed by the natives while in pursuit of a whale in the neighbourhood of those Isles."

Friday 16 May 1828
The Sydney Gazette
"The disaster that befel the captain of the Alfred whaler, second mate, and part of her crew, we understand, ocurred off the Solomon Isles, and not in the vicinity of New Zealand, as reported in our last. At the time the attack was made by the natives on the captain's boat, the whole of the boats were engaged either in pursuing or cutting up whales. The natives were accustomed to traffic with whalers, and the intercourse between them and the Europeans being quite usual, no suspicion of any hostile intention arose in the minds of the ill-fated mariners, until they were struck down by showers of spears, and other belligerent instruments. In a whale- boat it is unusual to take arms, and especially in the vicinity of apparently friendly islanders, on which account our unhappy countrymen had not the means of resistance against the number of canoes that bore them down. The other boats providentially regained the ship, otherwise it was the intention of the assailants to have captured her, and they could not have struck the blow at a more unfavourable crisis for the unfortunate commander and his second officer. The Alfred left this port in October last, and the sanguinary affair occured in Decem- ber following, notwithstanding which, under the Command of Mr. Banks, the chief officer, she has been very successful, having procured upwards of 100 tons of oil when last seen."

Wednesday 23 July 1828
Sydney Gazzette
"SALE ON ACCOUNT OF UNDERWRITERS. At the Store of Jones and Walker, Hunter Street... a SILVER WATCH, and a Binnacle Timepiece ; a Sextant and other Nautical instruments, together with the Clothing and other effects belonging to the Estate of Captain Philips and other persons who were killed by Natives of South Sea Islands, on board the Alfred, Whaler, during her last Voyage."

Wednesday 3 September 1828
Sydney Gazzette
"A fine whale was struck off the heads four or five days ago, by one of the boats of the Alfred, whaler, which afforded sport to a boat's crew till yesterday morning, when the whale re-appeared, was secured, towed into harbour, and safely moored alongside the go-downs of Jones and Walker, at the entrance of Darling Harbour. This fish is fifty feet long, will furnish 5 tons of oil, and give 500 weight of bone - so that about L. 200 will be cleared by the job."


Was Matthews rescued?

No subsequent reference could be found in the current National Library of Australia digitised newspapers. An on-line forum did make reference to the Historical Records of Australia:

Pages 52 - 53
Governor Bourke to Under Secretary Hay
Government House, 20th March 1833
In reply to your letter of the 8th of November last enclosing a copy of one from Joanna Bate making enquiry concerning a person called John Matthews, said to be detained on the Island of Melanta in the South Seas, and whom she believes to be her brother, I have the honour to inform you that the presence in Sydney of Captain Harewood, Master of the whaler Hashmy, has enabled me to obtain the information, which will be found in the paper herewith enclosed (Sydney Herald). I will not fail to take any opportunity that my offer for procuring the escape of Matthews from Melanta, if he should be still there; but it is quite uncertain when such an opportunity may occur; and to engage a ship to touch at the island would require the expenditure of a larger sum than Lord Goderich has authorised."

The island of Melanta is apparently in the group of Solomon Islands. It appears many whaling ships visited the Island, and as such it is possible Matthews was recovered. I haven't found any subsequent report of his rescue, though the following passage suggests the possibility that contact may have beem maintained with Matthews:

The Perth Gazette
Friday 15 December 1854
On the 15th October a small cutter called the Oberon arrived at Sydney from the Solomon's Archipelago, bringing reports which tend to revive the hopes, never quite extinguished, that Mr Benjamin Boyd may be still alive. The Herald says :-" The co- incidence of the report from the American whaler that the name " Benjamin Boyd" was seen on some trees, with the statement of the natives to Captain Blaxlend, that a tall man with a long beard, and a boy, were on the island, is sufficient to authorise the Government to dispatch a vessel to Guadalcanar to make enquiries. There are many instances on record where white men, falling into the hands of the natives, have been detained for years ; and if this unfortunate gentleman was not killed immediately on his landing, it is very probable that he is still alive."

Mr Boyd is supposed to be held in captivity in the island of Guadalcanar abovementioned, and the efforts of his friends are en couraged by the following testimony of Capt. Williamson, at a meeting held with a view to Mr Boyd's rescue :- "He knew that the natives often kept prisoners for many years. About 20 years ago he was in the Alfred, a ship trading there, and the mate, having gone on shore, was kept by the natives, who murdered many of his companions. He was retained on the island of Melanta' and was made a great deal of by the natives. They were able to communicate with him by writing on strips of bamboo ; but he always told them in the same manner that he was not allowed to get away. The natives made a sort of god of Europeans sometimes, and this man was the subject of wars among the various tribes for his possession. He was fed up with everything that he wanted, and had as many wives as he pleased. (Laughter.) What he (Capt. Williamson) proposed was, that some of the various vessels going down to these islands to trade, should be informed of the sup- posed position of Mr Boyd, and that a reward say of £1000, should be offered to any capt. that should bring him off the island safe. All though they would do a great deal for friend ship, they would do more for money, and they would thus have a direct pecuniary interest to use the greatest exertions." The committee resulted in the appointment of a committee to wait upon the Government.

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