Alexander Macdonald’s adventures on Christmas Island

In the book “In the land of pearl and gold; a pioneer’s wanderings in the backblocks and pearling grounds of Australia and New Guinea”, there is a story of Christmas Island. It reads like a “boys own adventure” and is described in a very picturesque manner by it’s author Alexander Macdonald (1878-1939).

Macdonald, who would have been aged around 23, and his companions were sailing the pearl lugger “Rose” from Broome, Western Australia, to Singapore with a shipment of shell (ultimately bound for London). Monsoonal weather blew their labouring vessel off course but they fortunately sighted Christmas Island and were able to take shelter there.1 In his story that appears below, he states there were three white men on the island, but only mentions two: Vincent (Captain Samuel Vincent, the first manager of the island 1899-1903) and Ferrier (the analytical chemist). He was not the first who took shelter on the island due to inclement weather. Robert M. MacDonald was also forced to spend time on the island and has his own romantic story.

Alexander Macdonald also writes of his experiences including a major incident, he describes as “exciting” whereby a mob of very angry Chinese coolies descended upon the men with weapons in hand. Reading why, you can perfectly understand their anger and upset.

A small digression – Mark Bennett, from Hidden Garden Sustainable Farms on Christmas Island, informs me that the stinky tree described in the story below is Celtis timorensis” and does indeed stink. He said that “harsh perfume is a rather flattering way of describing it”. Friends from the Island have also given me the name in their languages. The Malays call it “Pokok kayu taik” (shit wood tree) and the Chinese “Chau see mok” (smelly shit wood). Such descriptive names!

As this story was written in 1901, the language and attitudes (some cringe worthy) of that time, do come to the fore. This was the reality of life on Christmas Island (and for many years later). In itself, it is an education as it gives insight as to how those European men thought and acted in that isolated little outpost of the British Empire.

Despite this, the story still holds value in that it is colourfully describing events and experiences (all be it through the eyes of a European man) that took place in those first few years of phosphate mining on Christmas Island.

1 “A memorable voyage to Christmas Island” – Dundee Evening Telegraph – Wednesday 30 March 1927 page 2

CHRISTMAS ISLAND

Far out in the Indian Ocean, basking in perpetual sunshine, lies Christmas Island, one of the loneliest, yet one of the loveliest spots in the whole world. Few people are aware of its existence, and fewer know that it is inhabited, and little wonder, for this remote part of our empire is well out of the track of vessels, and until very recently was not even marked on the map. It rears its palm-covered heights from the depth of a fathomless ocean one thousand miles S.S.W. of Singapore, and about an equal distance due west from Port Darwin in Northern Australia. In shape it is not unlike an equilateral triangle with sides about eight miles in length, and its contour is as the top of a giant mountain whose greater extent has been submerged. It is bounded by a narrow coral strand over which the bluest of blue waters lap, and beyond this narrow fringe there is not a level stretch to be found throughout the entire limits of the island. Were the sea to be suddenly drained from this quarter of the globe, it is estimated that Christmas Island would stand like a Mount Ararat in the centre of a vast undulating plain.

Many evidences of volcanic disturbance may be noted along its precipitous steeps, and when the eruption of Krakatoa, beyond the Sunda Strait, buried many thousands of natives in lava showers and blotted out a village completely, Christmas Island was swept with an immense wave which dashed high along its luxuriously-clad shores, and strewed the forests with masses of coral and lava.

No wild animals find shelter among its dense coppices, nor do any reptiles have their home on its shores, excepting a small creature of the snake species, which, however, is absolutely harmless, and moreover, blind. Red crabs are the one great feature of the island; they swarm everywhere, and periodically make journeys into the highest points of the mountain-ridge, where they congregate in vast moving armies, and climb along the branches of the succulent sago palms in endless rows. These strange amphibians grow to a great size, some of them measuring as much as nine inches across the back. Their appearance, as may be imagined, is distinctly malevolent, and is certainly not attractive. They burrow at the roots of trees and dig holes in the ground like rabbits. They are most ubiquitous in their habits, and never appear in isolated parties.

Almost every kind of tropical tree is to be found in the great forest which extends all over the island. Cocoa-nut palms grow in profusion along the water’s edge, where also banyan trees and limes flourish abundantly. The sago palm finds root on the upper altitudes along with many other varieties of that prolific family, and the most rare and beautiful flowering orchids blend their radiance with gorgeous fern-like plants and creeping tendril growths unnameable.

Alexander Macdonald
Mining engineer, explorer, author and film producer.

But one strange tree is found here amid the thick underscrub which never recommends itself to the traveller. It gives forth a most baneful odour, and taints the air within a radius of several hundred yards of its presence with its harsh perfume. It further has the property of imparting, and, indeed, forcing its disagreeable characteristic on the person of any unfortunate who may touch, even ever so slightly, its solid oak-like trunk, and, should its aspen branches brush across the face, a course of carbolic treatment is necessary to eliminate the horrid stench conveyed.

At this island I with my two companions arrived. We had been trying our best to connect with Singapore in a pearling lugger from North-western Australia, but the elements had proved very adverse, and we were thankful indeed when, driven out of our course by successive squalls, we sighted the towering headland on the eastern edge of the distant isle through the mists. We entered Flying Fish Cove, on the southern face of the island, after searching in vain for a sheltered nook on the north and west, and sailed into this palm-fringed haven with pump broken down, the gunwales dangerously close to the chasing waves, and baling the swirling pools from our labouring craft with every suitable utensil at our disposal.

We found it impossible to obtain an anchorage in the pigmy bay, and while we were cruising about in the dinghy exploring for rocks which might prevent us from safely beaching the lugger, three white men appeared from among the cocoa palms and welcomed us with loud shouts of delight.

“Hold on a minute, boys,” one of them cried. “We’ll soon fix up a mooring for you.”

Two of them ran to the opposite sides of the harbour, where, for the first time, we observed several long coils of rope at the base of two tall palms; the third came aboard our vessel and directed operations in person. Within five minutes our boat was made fast by hawsers attached to stem and stern and carried out to the trees mentioned. Then we gladly accepted the invitation of our new-found friends to visit their bungalow, and soon after we were being hospitably entertained by the three white inhabitants of the island, who seemed extraordinarily glad to see us.

“But what on earth are you staying here for?” I asked, when we had partaken of lavish refreshment, surprised that three white men should remain on such a lonely shore.

“We are not so much alone as you think,” laughed the youngest of the trio, whose name was Ferrier. “We have about two hundred coolies who dig guano camped close at hand. Don’t you smell them?”

“I never could stand the smell o Chinamen,” objected Mac, my late bos’un and crew combined, sniffing the air in disgust.

“We’re not over happy in their company just now,” observed the eldest of the modern Crusoes. “Are we, Vincent?”

The man addressed as Vincent smiled grimly, and pointed significantly to the rows of firearms standing within easy reach. “Look here, boys,” he said, addressing my party, “we happen to be in a pretty tough fix with them hanged coolies just now, and that is one reason why we’re so mighty glad you’ve come. It’s Ferrier’s funeral, and he’d better explain.”

That cheerful individual, who seemed to be the dominant spirit there, took the cue without demur.

“In the first place,” said he pleasantly, “about fifty of the coolies are down with beri-beri, and they’re dying off a bit too fast for my liking. The fact is, if we cannot stop the disease the whole camp will be wiped out soon —–

“But cannot you do something?” I interrupted. “Haven’t you got any medicines?”

“We have done our utmost,” he replied, “and last night I dissected one of the poor beggars for the purpose of finding out if possible the true cause of the trouble; in consequence, the rest of the camp are in a state of mutiny now, and we daren’t go near them.”

“You made a very serious mistake,” remarked Phil, who knew something about Chinese and their odd beliefs, “if you allowed them to know that you had experimented on one of their number. A coolie’s creed is a complicated arrangement, and you have probably outraged it by your action.”

This was precisely what had occurred. The low caste Chinaman sets very little store on his life, but his religion is cherished with a touching faith.

“We’ll hope they cool down soon,” said Vincent; “but I have had some experience with them already, and they are a treacherous lot.”

At that moment Ferrier, who had gone out to knock down some cocoa-nuts, re-entered hastily.

“They’re coming, boys, they’re coming!” he cried, as he quickly barricaded the door; and we silently seized a rifle apiece and crouched down on the earthen floorway.

Then followed a most exciting time. Looking through a chink in the logs of our stronghold, I beheld over a hundred naked coolies approaching through the thick undergrowth, evidently in a wild state of frenzy. When they came near they halted and united in a shrill scream of anger, then they rushed at the bungalow and battered at its stout walls viciously. They were a wild-looking lot. Some of them brandished long knives and hacked at the barred door with vehemence, others were armed with axes and shovels and staves. Assuredly they meant more than a mere playful demonstration.

“This is a deevil o’ a place we’ve struck,” groaned Mac, prospecting warily around for a loophole. Crash! One of the shuttered windows was driven inward by a great stone, which fell with a thud on the floor at our feet. In an instant Phil had levelled his gun through the breach, and before its loud discharge the attacking force fell back, but the seething crowds behind pressed forward in their room.

“For Heaven’s sake shoot low, boys!” yelled the energetic Ferrier, who was keeping guard by the door. “If we damage the mad beggars we’ll have to answer for it in Singapore.”

“It doesn’t seem like as if we would ever see Singapore,” muttered Vincent, reloading hurriedly.

“This is too one-sided a fecht for my liking,” complained Mac, jabbing the barrel of his gun through the broken window as if it carried a bayonet on the end of it. While pursuing these tactics, and successfully beating back the invaders at his quarter, Mac omitted to keep a strict look-out, and one of the enemy, more enterprising than his fellows, watched his chance and seized the punishing weapon, immediately thereafter writhing his greasy yellow head over the window. But the valiant Mac was in no wise disconcerted. “Come awa’ in, my man,” said he, evading a knife-thrust dexterously and gripping the astonished Celestial by the pigtail. “Come richt in, and mak’ yersel’ at hame.”

“Good for you, Mac!” cried Ferrier, rushing forward. “Now we’re safe; let me talk to him,” and as Mac’s mild-eyed prisoner was hauled summarily through the narrow aperture, Ferrier began to address him in very forcible pidgin English, while at the same time a loud wailing from the besiegers intimated that we had bereft them of one of their ringleaders.

When the clamour without had subsided, Ferrier apparently had succeeded in convincing our captive of the error of his ways.

“You make talkee, talkee; no more fight!” instructed he; and the suave Oriental replied: “Me make velly much talkee, talkee. We tink boat come full more dam Englees doctor!”

“Well, I’m Blest!” ejaculated Mac, wiping the perspiration and powder from his forehead. “So we’re dam Englees doctors in this funny place-an’ have had to fecht for our reputations too! I consider the inseenuation maist insultin’.”

“English customs do not always agree with Chinamen’s ideas, Mac,” said Phil gravely, “and in this case perhaps the Chinamen are in the right.”

Opening the door suddenly, Ferrier and his two companions now stepped out, pushing their peacemaker before them; and soon that wily individual was discoursing fluently to his assembled compatriots, eyeing askantly the while the long whips with which we had armed ourselves. As he spoke the crowd rapidly dwindled away, disappearing back to their homes on the hill-slopes; but I noticed that they dispersed sullenly, and without even tolerable grace. Indeed they scowled most fiercely on us as they passed, but that, as Ferrier said, was a general habit of theirs and meant little.

Later on in the afternoon we visited the coolie settlement, and also entered the crude hospital where the victims of the dread native plague lay in all sorts of attitudes. Little attention was paid to our movements, a circumstance which surprised me considerably after the fierce attack of a few hours before.

“That’s the worst of the beggars,” explained Vincent, who seemed to be a fiery-tempered personage. “You never know when you’ve got the right side of them. Probably when you boys go away we shall be annihilated. That’s the danger of living on an island like this.”

Despite urgent invitations to sleep on shore that night, we preferred to remain on board our leaky craft. It was not so much the prospect of a night attack from the coolies that we feared; but the myriad red crabs which started from every corner of Ferrier’s bungalow impressed us most unfavourably. “They would be a deevil o’ a lot worse than muskitties,” Mac grunted, with a shudder.

“Which reminds me,” said Phil, “that there does not seem to be any mosquitoes on this island, and that is strange, considering its latitude.”

“The reason is verra obvious,” quoth Mac sagely, “for how could the poor beasties live here wi’ only three white men within a thousand miles? They wad soon dee o’ starvation, I’m thinkin’!”

Next morning the sun rose in a cloudless sky, and the beautiful waters of Flying Fish Cove fairly scintillated with darting fish. The shady palms on shore looked calm and peaceful, and the cooing of multitudes of pigeons in the forest echoed softly through the still air. It was a restful scene, and indescribably beautiful. We had promised ourselves a trip to the top of the island on this day, provided nothing untoward happened to alter our resolution, and we were not long in making ready for the journey. Mac burdened himself with his cherished breech-loader, which was warranted to kill anything up to an elephant that came within range; Phil carried a long rope to aid descents over rocky bluffs, and I contented myself with my revolver and sextant. When thus armed, Ferrier appeared on the coral beech and signalled us to come ashore for breakfast.

“I’m going with you to-day, boys,” he cried over the water. “I want to find the highest point in the mountain, so that we can fix up a signal-staff if necessary.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” I said, as we pulled towards him in the dinghy. “You might manage to intercept ships bound for Batavia if the worst did happen with these coolies.”

“I believe in anticipating matters,” he returned, with a laugh, “but there’s one saving grace on this ocean speck, and that lies in the sago palms; they could keep us alive for days if we were driven into the mountain.”

As we sailed through the placid water I was surprised to notice great numbers of sea-snakes, of very brilliant markings, disporting themselves on the surface; they were so numerous, indeed, that our boat had literally to plough a channel through them.

“They feel nasty when you go in for a swim,” observed Ferrier, noting our disapproving glances, “but they are quite harmless, all the same.”

We had now grounded on the pebbles, and tying the dinghy to a convenient palm, we hiked towards the bungalow, which looked very cool in the calm rays of the morning sun which filtered through the myriad fronds of the enclustering foliage. Certainly it bore no trace of the affray of the day before, and many of the coolies working near, whom I recognized as having taken part in the attack, smiled benignly on us as we approached, and innocent as so many children.

Ferrier’s companions were not a very loquacious couple. They had lived on the island about two years, and knew each other’s thoughts so exactly that speech was almost wholly unnecessary.

“Ferrier has the pull on us,” said Vincent. “He can talk a mongrel kind of Chinese, and that keeps his tongue going for ever.”

“Which is a jolly good thing for you,” retorted that gentleman, “or you would have died of sheer melancholy long before this.”

Breakfast over, we started out on our voyage of discovery.

“Keep wide of the coolies at the guano diggings,” warned Vincent as we left; “it wouldn’t be good policy to let them see where you go;” which was logical enough considering the disturbed state of affairs then existent among them. But Ferrier coolly disregarded the advice.

“You come and see the workings, boys,” he said, when we had penetrated the brush a little way. “Since you have struck our little island, you may as well be made aware of its resources; and hang the Chinamen!”

We steered to the right, and soon emerged on a narrow clearing cut up towards a bluff in the mountain, and in the middle of this channel the tiniest of railways was laid. We traced the pigmy line until it stopped at a kind of quarry in the hillside, and there several dozens of perspiring coolies were digging leisurely at the guano deposits exposed, and entraining it in Lilliputian wagons for despatch to the water’s edge. Everything was worked on the simple haulage system – half a score of coolies pushing up each empty wagon, which descended laden without assistance.

“That’s Christmas Island, Limited,” said Ferrier briefly. “They send a ship to us once in six months or so, and get the stuff taken to Singapore, where it commands a good price. The island’s full of it —– ”

“Is there ony gold?” interrupted Mac.

“Not a speck.”

“Let’s gang on, then,” murmured the discontented one. “Guano disna appeal to me a bit. I thought there micht have been a bit o’ gold in the place.”

While we were surveying operations the coolies paid not the slightest heed to us, and when our guide addressed them they only scowled in reply.

“They’re certainly not pleasant company,” spoke Phil, as we proceeded on our march. “I should have a fit of the blues if I were to stay here a week.”

Near to the top of the mountain-ridge the trees were less embellished with creeping vegetation, and a path was forced between the talk trunks with comparative ease. Every branch seemed to be alive with pigeons, and Mac brought down a goodly number with his gun before we had gone far; but observing that his prowess only gave himself greater weight to carry uphill, he desisted, and found interest in chasing the formidable-looking red crabs instead. Occasionally we were almost stifled by the overwhelming odour of the strange tree already mentioned, and which, I believe, is peculiar to Christmas Island; then we would traverse a wildering forest of palms, with drooping orchids, in places forming a blaze of splendour overhead.

We reached the summit after an hour’s severe exertion, and I calculated roughly that we must have ascended fully a thousand feet. The ridge on which we stood was bare of foliage, and formed a rude and narrow plateau, extending a little way, then dipping to east and west, and from this eminence we could survey the entire coast-line. Underneath, on every side, was a gently moving expanse of trees and shrubs, descending abruptly to the water, where a white line of foam marked the junction of land and sea; beyond, the boundless ocean stretched and shimmered into the vast distance.

“I used to climb up here and watch for ships,” said Ferrier. “Sometimes I could see one pass far on the horizon making for Sunda Strait.”

“But you could never signal them, I’m afraid,” I said. “All ships will give this island as wide a berth as possible, for it would be a dangerous obstacle in the night-time, or when there are heavy mists on the waters.”

“It is a lonely spot,” admitted Phil, “and I for one should not care to remain on it long.”

We did not trouble to explore further; the island was forest-clad from summit to coral strand, and contained no appreciable valleys or water-courses. One indentation only could be seen in its glistening seaboard, and that was the harbour of Flying Fish Cove, where our lugger lay reflecting back the sunlight from her dripping spars and coppered hull.

“A little bit of Christmas Island goes a long way, boys,” I said to my companions, “and we’ll make another try for Singapore to-morrow if the coolies don’t break out again.”

Soon after we retraced our steps, and within half the time it had taken us to ascend, we reached the bungalow among the cocoa-nut palms. The coolies in our absence had given no trouble, and their native “medicine man” assured us that the beri-beri was abating, thanks to the drugs administered by the resourceful Ferrier, who had endangered his own life so coolly in the cause of science and humanity. That night we repaired our storm-driven craft, and fixed a whaleback deck of canvas along the forward bows, so that we might have a chance of reaching the shelter of Sunda Strait before being swamped by the waves sweeping over us as formerly.

Next morning we headed out of Flying Fish Cove to the strains of “Rule Britannia”, bellowed lustily by the lonely trio on shore, and re-echoed heartily by our entire ship’s company until an out jutting peninsula of palms hid the three white pioneers from view.

Some hours later, when we had rounded the western extremity of the island, and were scudding north before a fair breeze, I descried Ferrier on the top of the mountain energetically semaphoring a last good-bye; and there he remained until the gathering haze of ever-lengthening distance enshrouded the lonely isle in a cloud of misty vapours.

In the land of pearl and gold; a pioneer’s wanderings in the backblocks and pearling grounds of Australia and New Guinea by Alexander MacDonald, F.R.G.S – Publication date 1907 pages 305-318

Who was Alexander MacDonald?

A death notice notice in the Cairns Post, Saturday 1st April 1939 briefly sums up his life:

COLOURFUL LIFE ENDS
MR ALEXANDER MACDONALD F.R.G.S.

Mr. Alexander Macdonald, F.R.G.S., who died last week at Rose Bay, Sydney, at the age of 60 years, was at various times mining engineer, explorer, author and film producer. Mr. Macdonald, who was born in Perthshire, Scotland, was, in his twenties, with Jack London in Alaska, where, snowbound on the way to Nome, the party, it is said, exchanged two bags of gold for five sacks of flour.

After spending some time in California he came to North Queensland. He shipped a considerable quantity of molybdenite to the British Government during the Great War. He later floated several gold-mining companies.

His boys’ adventure books are still widely read. Mr. Macdonald was a member of the Savage Club, London, and the Australian Club, Sydney. He is survived by his widow, his son, and a daughter.