John Ireland: Captured By Cannibals In The South Seas

We have here related incredible tales of suffering, adventure, and endurance.  The little-known account of the adventures of John Ireland ranks high on the list of harrowing stories of nineteenth century explorations.  The world was a larger place then, vastly less explored than now, and some places in the remoter regions of the globe were as isolated as they had been for thousands of years.  Just how isolated and remote, the reader here will soon discover.

In September 1833, young John Ireland was in England, helping outfit the ship Charles Eaton for her voyage to Australia.  The ship left in December of that year with a cargo of lead and calico; it also carried around twenty-five young boys and girls of the Emigration Society.  They reached the Isle of Wight on December 27, but were then detained for a short time to conduct repairs on the ship.  They finally left England in February 1834, and crossed the Equator in March.  After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship finally reached Sidney (as it was spelled then) in New South Wales on July 13, 1834.

For trade purposes the ship captain then decided to sail for China.  On August 14, the Charles Eaton entered the Torres Straits, which separates Australia from Melanesian New Guinea.  Readers should understand that in the 1830s, New Guinea and the islands near the Torres Straits were almost totally unknown to Europeans.  Navigational charts gave a general sense of where things were, but accurate data about oceanic depths and reefs was not available.  Mariners had to find their way around with a mixture of dead-reckoning and intuition.  However, the Charles Eaton soon ran into disaster when the ship hit a reef and began to break up.  In the account Ireland later wrote of his experience, he tells us:

It was happy for us that the upper part kept together as it did, though there was so much danger from the water rising, that every one expected to be washed over.  There was plainly to be heard above the din of the wind and sea, the horrible groaning of the planks forming the sides of the ship, between which the water rushed as through a sieve; and as they were one by one broken away from the ill-fated vessel, we felt that we were approaching near and nearer to a death from which we could not hope to escape, unless by some merciful interposition of Divine Goodness we should be rescued from our watery enemy.

Realizing that the situation was hopeless, the ship’s captain gave orders to abandon ship.  The passengers began to stock the lifeboats and make preparations to set out for land, taking with them as many of the ship’s stores as they could.  The best that the crew could do was to construct a primitive raft; they then loaded it with casks of water and prepared themselves for the Verdict of the Sea.

By this time young John Ireland was close to despair.  Seeing all his dreams dissolve into nothing around him, he could do little more than try to survive as best he could.  Half-starved and parched with thirst, he began to paddle along with the other survivors of the wreck.  They spend the night on a reef; early the next morning, the raft set out again, and this time spotted a canoe filled with “ten or twelve native Indians [i.e., Melanesian islanders].”  Using sign language, the natives offered to transport the shipwrecked survivors in their canoe.  After hesitating at first, the survivors finally decided to accept; they were desperate and felt that they had little to lose.  In this, as we will shortly see, they were very much mistaken.

They soon reached a small island that, Ireland says, “the natives called Boydan.”  Once the survivors were on shore, the natives began to “show signs of their ferocious disposition.”  Leering at their captives, they seemed to take a delight in their sufferings and fear.  Everyone present now began to realize what was in store for them.  They began to pray, and, exhausted from their ordeal and lack of food, they lay on the ground and went to sleep.  The natives seemed to encourage them to do this.  Gradually, however, the natives began to congregate around the survivors with war-clubs.  Ireland relates what happened next:

About as near as I can guess, an hour after I had been asleep, I was awoke by a terrible shouting and noise.  I instantly arise, and on looking round, I saw the natives killing my companions by dashing out their brains with clubs.  The first was that was killed was Mr. Ching, and after him his companion, Mr. Perry; the next victim was Mr. Major, the second officer.  The confusion now became terrible, and my agitation at beholding the horrid scene was so great that I do not distinctly remember what passed after this.  The last person that I recollect seeing alive was Mr. Clare; who, in an attempt to escape, was overtaken and immediately murdered by a blow to the head.

Such was the horrifying fate of the survivors of the Charles Eaton.  By one of those miracles of Fortune, however, Ireland and another boy named John Sexton were spared:

Ireland comments in his narrative on the natives’ curious mixture of violence and tenderness:  “I have frequently seen them fly into a rage, and then recover themselves in a moment, becoming quite calm, as was the case with the man who tried to take my life.”  However, more disturbing sights were in store for Ireland.  He watched in shock as the natives lined up the decapitated heads of his dead shipmates, and begin to eat their eyeballs and pieces of flesh cut from their cheeks, all the while “shouting most hideously.”

Ireland and Sexton were handed over to one of the natives, apparently to become some kind of servant or slave.  The natives then divided up what was left of the possessions of the dead.  The two boys were then taken to another neighboring island, where the native women lived.  They observed a strange native religious ceremony whereby the severed heads of their companions were tied to a pole, and every morning a native would stand below them and blow into a large seashell.

Ireland tells us that he was initially very ill-treated by the natives; they would deprive him of food, and the native women would often tie him to a tree and administer beatings with bamboo canes.  He and Sexton were ordered to collect firewood and do other chores; when the work was not up to native satisfaction, they were beaten.  They would also accompany the natives on spear-fishing forays in the ocean.  For a while they (Ireland, Sexton, and two boys named George and William Doyley) stayed at a place they later learned was Darnley’s Island.

Eventually they were moved to a new location called Murray’s Island, which was only about two miles across and contained between seven and eight hundred people.  The boys came under new masters who were much kinder and willing to teach them practical skills.  Ireland relates how he and the other boys quickly became proficient in the Melanesian language used by the natives, on account of “having no one else to speak to except natives.”  They also learned practical skills such as hunting and fishing.

Ireland also noticed that after a few months, their light skin was nearly as brown as the skin of the natives; they could only be distinguished from them by the “light color” of their hair.  The boys spent much time on Murray’s Island, and Ireland records in detail their customs, habits, weapons, and tribal practices.  Their diet primarily consisted of fish, coconuts, yams, and bananas.  By this time Ireland had gone completely native; his ears had been pierced, and native women had hung wooden and grass ornaments from the, as well as on his neck, wrists, and ankles.  Perhaps the natives saved his life out of curiosity; or perhaps this is nature’s practical way of replenishing the gene pool among island cultures who are often cut off from outside intercourse.

After about a year on Murray’s Island, the natives decided to go on a trading voyage to New Guinea, and took Ireland along with them.  During this trip, he eventually encountered one of his own countrymen, who asked him where he had come from.  He would eventually learn that the man had come from a ship that was sent out to search for the Charles Eaton.  This was how Ireland was ultimately rescued.  His final goodbye with his master (who was named Dupper) was emotional; the old Melanesian islander had become literally a father to Ireland, and the affection was apparently mutual.  Dupper wept and hugged his “son,” unwilling to let him go until the last minute.  But there was nothing he could do.  Ireland bequeathed his possessions to Dupper’s natural son, and left with a ship bound for England.

Ireland sailed back to Sidney and there immediately became a local celebrity.  He gave a narrative of his experiences to the governor of the colony, Sir Richard Bourke.  He quickly recovered his health (he had apparently been afflicted with vitamin deficiencies or tropical ulcers).  And after this, he returned to England, having been gone for more than four years.


Read more incredible tales of suffering, endurance, and survival in my books Pantheon and Thirty-Seven: