Early Island Raconteurs


Early Island Raconteurs

  • Fernando da Noronha

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of May, 1963:

As in almost every happening on the Vineyard during the 19th century, the whaling industry enters the local Civil War picture. The first whaleship burned by the Confederate raider, Alabama, was an Edgartown vessel, the Ocmulgee, Capt. Abraham Osborn Jr., and the story is probably the most repeated of our ships' encounters with Captain Semmes.

Less quoted, but equally dramatic is the experience of Ulysses E. Mayhew who, aged 13, was cabin boy aboard the bark Lafayette, Capt. William Lewis, when she was captured off the island of Fernando da Noronha, then a Brazilian convict colony. The LaFayette had been cruising for about a year in company with the Kate Cory, Capt. Stephen Flanders of Chilmark, when the two captains "Concluded," according to Mayhew's account, "to stop in order to get fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, etc.

"When first we sighted the Island," he continues, "on the morning of April 16, 1862, we caught sight of three vessels, innocent looking enough. We suspected nothing, worked our way in nearer, and the wind being very light, Capts. Lewis and Flanders, each taking a boat crew started for shore. On arriving at the roadstead they leaned the nature of one of the trio. But they had no way of communicating the fact to us.

"We aboard the Lafayette and Cory knew nothing, suspected nothing. Imagine, then, to our dismay, when one of the three ships we had seen got up steam and underway, coming out around the south end of the island. The Cory was about a half mile astern of us. By the maneuvering of the Alabama, we now realized the game was up. We had evaded privateers for long months of our cruise only now to run into the worst and most dreaded of them the Alabama . . . . the Alabama put a crew aboard the Cory and . . . . 'haul back your yards, shorten sail, and we'll send a boat aboard' came the order. It was from Semmes himself."

A boat came across in charge of the chief boatswain, and a second boat followed in charge of the first lieutenant. This officer ordered us to get our belongings 'together at once and leave the ship within 15 minutes'. We had already hidden about us what we wanted to keep from rebel eyes. The boarding crew first took the nautical instruments, and then demanded the slop chest. Mate Cottle refused to tell where it could be found. Our men were thereupon ordered to get into boats without delay, we using our own boats. 15 minutes later, the Lafayette had been hove to, she was a mass of flames.

"The Cory was determined on by Semmes as our refuge. In all there were about 130 prisoners . . . . They were landed on the Island with provisions . . . . " The Cory was later towed out to sea and burned. When the Alabama claims were finally settled, Mayhew received $650, which was probably far more than any 185th of a lay he would have received as a cabin boy, even of a full ship.

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