IT WAS TO BE WILKES’S final survey in Fiji—a week-long swing through the westernmost islands of the group. Beginning with the Yasawas to the north, Wilkes would work his way down to the constellation of tiny islands known as the Mamanuca Group, finishing with Malolo, not far from the big island of Viti Levu. Now, with his survey of Fiji almost completed, he could finally begin to look to the future with optimism and pleasure. “I feel I have now got to the top of the hill,” he wrote Jane, “and every day shortens the time [until my return].” In typical fashion, he ended the letter with a word about his nephew, who would be accompanying him on the survey: “Wilkes is quite well & a good boy.”
The survey party left Bua Bay on July 16. Whippy had warned that they were headed toward one of the most dangerous parts of Fiji—a place where no white man dared reside—so Wilkes made sure that the party had sufficient safety in numbers. In addition to three boats—led by Alden, Emmons, and Underwood—there would be the Porpoise and the Flying Fish, with the schooner flying his commodore’s pennant. The large number of vessels prompted Lieutenant Sinclair to wonder if “we must be bound on some war party”—words that would prove tragically prophetic.
By the second day of the survey, Wilkes had already come close to running the schooner up onto the rocks at least twice. He insisted on overruling the pilot Tom Granby at just about every juncture. “I never, in my life, have seen a man handle a vessel as Capt. Wilkes does,” Sinclair wrote. When he wasn’t making Sinclair’s and Granby’s lives miserable, Wilkes continued to harass Lieutenant Underwood. Since publicly vilifying him at Disappointment Bay in Antarctica, Wilkes had suspended Underwood for no apparent reason during the passage to Tonga and was now routinely criticizing his work, even though Underwood was one of the best surveyors in the squadron. At one point Underwood’s boat, the Leopard, broke its mast, forcing him to return to the Flying Fish for a replacement. As Underwood stood on the schooner’s deck, working on the mast, Wilkes untied his boat and let it go adrift, requiring Underwood to drop everything and scramble for the boat. But the lieutenant refused to be goaded into anger. “His politeness was not merely external,” it would later be said of him, “but that of the heart.” Charismatic and kind, with more than a touch of flamboyance, Underwood brought out the worst in a commander who had an astonishing ability to nurse a grudge.
By July 23, a week into the survey, they had reached Drawaqa Island at the southern tip of the Yasawa Group. Wilkes decided to split up the party for the survey of the many small islands of the Mamanucas. Alden and Underwood would proceed ahead in their boats while the Porpoise took the western side of the islands and the Flying Fish, along with Emmons in the cutter, took the eastern route. The plan was for all five vessels to rendezvous at Malolo the following day.
During a stop at Vomo Island later that afternoon, Tom Granby climbed to the schooner’s masthead and saw a large number of canoes heading in their direction from Waya Island to the west. It was time to be off. The wind was from the southwest, forcing them to sail toward the treacherous shore of Viti Levu. Clinging to the masthead, where he had the best possible view of the hazards ahead, Granby guided them through the many reefs and rocks. By sunset the wind had deserted them; as luck would have it, so had the canoes, and they anchored near the shore of Viti Levu. Around two A.M., a light breeze sprang up from the southeast, and under the light of a nearly full moon, they weighed anchor and began sailing for the rendezvous point at Malolo. At eight A.M. the wind once again fell calm. They were near a tiny island that Wilkes named Linthicum for his coxswain. “[N]ot wishing to lose the day,” Wilkes decided to land on the island and make some observations. The anchor was lowered, and Wilkes and Passed Midshipman Henry Eld rowed to shore and began connecting the island by triangulation with Malolo, just five miles to the west. “Would to God that we had kept on,” Sinclair would later write.
After completing their survey of the Mamanucas, Alden’s and Underwood’s boat-crews spent the night of July 23 anchored in a bay on the east side of Malolo, bounded on the south by Malololailai, or Little Malolo. That morning the men had only a few yams to divide among them for breakfast. To the east they could see the Flying Fish at anchor in the distance, and when Emmons and his boat-crew arrived an hour or so later, Alden and Underwood were hopeful that he had brought some food with him from the schooner. But Emmons informed them that the Flying Fish was almost completely depleted of provisions. The officers agreed that they urgently needed to find some food for their men.
That morning, Underwood and a sailor named Joseph Clark were walking the beach, collecting shells, when a group of natives appeared from the island’s interior. With the help of the New Zealander John Sac, who served as an interpreter, Underwood began bartering for food. One of the natives claimed there were four big hogs at Sualib, his village on the southwestern side of Malolo, but they would have to bring a boat around the southern point of the island to pick them up. Underwood insisted that one of the natives, who claimed to be the chief’s son, serve as a hostage to ensure his own men’s safety. The Fijian readily agreed, and Underwood took him back to where Alden’s and Emmons’s boat-crews were eating their meager breakfast on the beach.
The officers and men were ecstatic to hear that Underwood had found a possible way to get them some food. It was a low, incoming tide, and Underwood volunteered to go to the village on the other side of the island. His boat was considerably smaller than the two cutters, enabling it to sail over shoals that would have grounded the larger craft. To reduce his boat’s draft even further, Underwood had elected to leave many of his muskets aboard the Porpoise. While this was a clear violation of Wilkes’s orders, Underwood was convinced that the risk of attack from the Fijians had been greatly exaggerated. As he had repeatedly told Alden and Emmons, “the best way to gain their confidence was to trust and show that you did not fear them.”
Underwood prepared to set out for the village. Instead of the ten muskets he had initially been given, he had only three. In addition to the Fijian hostage, he brought along Sac as an interpreter. As Underwood and his men pushed off from the beach, Alden called out to him, “in a jocose manner, to, ‘Look out for the Fijis.’” Emmons added that Underwood had better take a life preserver—after all the water was all of a foot deep.
The Leopard soon grounded on the shoals that connected the southern tip of Malolo to Malololailai. While Underwood stayed aboard to guard the hostage, his men jumped out and began dragging the boat over the reef. When a group of natives waded out from shore, the sailor Joseph Clark became fearful that they were about to claim the boat in accordance with Fijian salvage customs, especially when some of them insisted on getting into the boat. “[E]very mark of treachery was apparent in their countenances,” Clark insisted.
As sailors often do when performing difficult work, one of the seamen began singing a chantey as they attempted to drag the boat across the shoals. Soon the natives were singing along with them; a few of them even jumped out of the boat and started helping the sailors pull and push the boat over the shallows. “[T]hey had marked us as their victims,” Clark wrote. “[But] so great was the effect of the music that they not only permitted us to escape, but literally aided us by grasping the rope and attempting to sing with us.” As soon as the boat had reached deeper water, Underwood’s men leapt back in, and after ejecting the Fijians who were still in the boat, they were on their way to the village of Sualib.
About a quarter mile from the village, the boat grounded on the beach. Leaving the hostage under armed guard in the boat, Underwood and seven men, including Clark and the interpreter John Sac, walked to the village. They found a group of natives waiting for them in the shade of a tree, its branches festooned with an imposing array of war clubs. The clubs were of two basic types: some had long handles and were used for crushing skulls and breaking bones; others were much smaller and were designed to be thrown at their victims. But of more importance to Underwood and his men were the two skinny pigs tied to the trunk of the tree.
When Underwood asked about the hogs, he was told the chief was away fishing but would return soon to speak to him. About a half hour later, the chief arrived. He wore a white tapa headdress that he drew over his eyes to protect them from the sun. The chief said he would only give them his pigs in exchange for a musket, powder, and ball.
By this time, the tide had risen far enough to enable Alden to sail up beside the Leopard. Underwood sent a man to report to Alden that the chief would only trade his hogs for arms. Alden, who did not share Underwood’s faith in the natives’ trustworthiness, said it was time to cease the negotiations. More than enough time had already passed if the natives really wanted to make a trade.
As the sailor began to wade back to the village with Alden’s message for Underwood, Midshipman Wilkes Henry asked if he could go along to assist in the negotiations. Alden hesitated, then allowed the boy to go.
Not long after Henry had left, some natives in a canoe paddled up and spoke briefly with the hostage, who had been transferred to Alden’s cutter. Alden noticed that the hostage “displayed a little anxiety to return with them to shore” and even tried to jump out of the cutter when the canoe started back for shore. Alden grabbed the native by the arm and insisted that he remain seated and quiet.
By now, Underwood’s protracted negotiations were making Alden extremely apprehensive. He ordered the crew of Underwood’s boat to move the vessel in as close as possible to the village. About a half hour later, the sailor Jerome Davis came to Alden with another message from Underwood. All they needed was one more hatchet and they would have their hogs. Alden gave Davis the hatchet, insisting that Underwood “should come off as soon as possible with what he had.”
At this point, Emmons arrived. He had sailed over to Malololailai to scout out some possible places where they might enjoy the meal Underwood was trying to arrange for them. Alden was telling him about the hostage’s earlier attempt to escape, when the native suddenly leapt over the side and began running for shore. Instead of heading for the village, the hostage ran in the opposite direction, as if to distract them from what was happening on the beach. Both Alden and Midshipman William Clark raised their muskets and aimed at the hostage, who was looking back at them over his shoulder as he ran through about two feet of water. Realizing that a dead hostage would provide them with little leverage with the natives, Alden lowered his musket and told Clark to fire over the hostage’s head.
Alden and Emmons would later insist that the escape of the hostage had been the prearranged signal for the killing to begin on shore. But for those on the beach, it seemed as if the bloodbath began with the firing of Clark’s musket. As its report echoed over the water, the chief cried out that the Papalangi were killing his son and ordered his men to attack. Two natives immediately grabbed Joseph Clark’s musket and attempted to rip it out of his hands. Clinging to the firearm with one hand, Clark pulled out a knife with the other and shouted out a question to Underwood: Should he give up the musket or fight? “Fight!” was Underwood’s cry. Clark proceeded to stab one of the natives with his knife, then knocked the other down with the butt of his musket.
A mob of natives began pouring out of the nearby mangrove bushes. There were just nine officers and men on the beach, and several of the sailors began to run for the boat. Others fired their muskets and, realizing that they had no chance of reloading, followed their shipmates in a mad dash through the knee-deep water. By now there were close to a hundred natives on the beach, and almost all of them seemed to be hurling some kind of weapon. “The air around our heads was literally filled with clubs and spears,” Clark remembered. Underwood shouted out to Midshipman Henry to help him cover the retreat of the men behind them. Henry replied that he had just been hit by a short club and would “first have a crack” at the native who had hurled it. Henry ran into the midst of the natives and killed the man with his pistol. As he ran back to take up his position beside Underwood, he was struck in the back of the head by a short club and fell face-first into the water. He was instantly surrounded by natives, who began stripping off his clothes.
As the rest of the men ran for the boats, only Clark and one other sailor remained to fight beside the two officers. Out of the corner of his eye, Clark saw a native, about fifteen feet away, with a spear in his hand. “[M]y ignorance of the force of these missiles very nearly cost me my life,” he later wrote. “It came like a flash of lightning, struck me full in the face, tearing my upper lip into three pieces, loosening my upper fore teeth, and glancing out of my mouth, passed through the left arm of Mr. Underwood.” Incredibly, Clark was able to raise his musket and shoot the native through the head before another native came up from behind and knocked him senseless into the water.
The bite of the saltwater on his cut and bleeding face revived Clark, and he was soon back on his feet, only to see Underwood succumb to a blow to the back of the head. Clark did his best to get to Underwood, who was now lying on his left side and using his right arm to fend off the natives’ clubs, but Clark was hit on the head and shoulder and once again fell to his knees. He could see blood streaming from Underwood’s mouth, nose, and ears; he could also see that a huge native with an upraised club was standing over the fallen lieutenant. Finding reserves of energy he didn’t know he possessed, Clark sprang to his feet and attacked the native from behind, stabbing him three times with his knife. He then stooped down and pulled Underwood’s head out of the water. “Tell her,” whispered Underwood, who had been married just a few weeks before the Expedition sailed, “that I loved her until the last moment.”
An eerie change came over the lieutenant’s face. “[H]is eyes flashed, and he seemed for a moment to recover himself,” Clark remembered, “his countenance gleaming in all the fierceness of the war spirit; he tried to speak, but his mouth was so filled with blood that I could not understand what he wished to say.” Clark later realized that Underwood had seen a native approaching him from behind, and “giving him that keen, piercing look of defiance, in the last agonies of death, he wished to warn me of the danger.” But it was too late. The last thing Clark remembered was an explosion to the head, as if a cannon had been fired a few inches away, then all was blackness.
As soon as the fighting had broken out, Alden and Emmons headed for shore. Riding the newly risen tide, with a fresh breeze behind them, they sailed for the scene of the conflict. They soon came upon the Leopard, her terrified crew pushing the boat out into the water as they shouted that Underwood was dead. “The boats had not yet grounded,” Alden wrote, “but we immediately jumped overboard, and with all speed hastened to the beach.” They were now gripped by the fear that the natives would carry away Underwood’s body before they could retrieve it.
But before Alden reached the shore, he came upon a man staggering in the shallows, his face a horrible mess of blood and mangled flesh. It was Joseph Clark. Even as the natives “clubbed and speared us until they supposed that there could be no life in us,” Clark had somehow managed to get back on his feet. He was in a state of shock and would have no memory of his actions, but others would later tell him of how he had walked among the natives, his torn lip hanging from his face as he laughed and sang. The natives didn’t know what to make of this gruesome apparition and made no further efforts to harm him.
As the others took Clark back to the boats, Alden forged ahead. “When I reached the beach nothing living was to be seen.” He found Underwood, stripped of most of his clothing, lying on his back on the shore. Alden cradled his friend’s head in his arms and realized that the back of Underwood’s skull had been mashed to jelly. “Your poor, poor wife,” Alden murmured. “Joe, little is she thinking of this!”
He then turned and saw for the first time the body of Wilkes Henry, almost completely naked. Unlike Underwood, Henry seemed virtually untouched. (It would later be established that he had drowned soon after being knocked unconscious.) By this time Emmons and the men had arrived. The sailors were “excited to fury” and wanted revenge. The bodies of ten Fijians were scattered on the beach, and when one of them proved to be still alive, the sailors immediately set upon him, shooting and stabbing the body with their bayonets and even cutting off the head. Several of the men urged Alden and Emmons to pursue the natives back to the village. Knowing that hundreds of warriors might soon be headed their way, and that there were less than two dozen of them, Alden ordered that they return to the boats.
The bodies were placed in the stern sheets of Alden’s cutter, and after covering them with jackets, they set sail for the Flying Fish. When Underwood’s leg fell from the thwart, it was all Alden could do to lift it back up. For the duration of the eight-mile sail to the schooner, no one said a word.
At that moment Wilkes and Eld were rowing back to the Flying Fish after finishing up their observations at Linthicum Island. Eld was the first to notice the three boats sailing toward them from Malolo. He said to Wilkes that it looked as if the boats’ ensigns were at half-mast. With what Reynolds called “his usual habit of contradiction,” Wilkes replied, “Oh, no, you are mistaken.” Eld took another look and said, “They are not only half mast, but they are Union down, & something must have happened.”
“No, sir, it can’t be,” Wilkes shot back, “you are mistaken.”
Eld repeated his claim “as peremptorily as he could.” Wilkes remained silent for a few moments, then attempted to hail Alden’s boat, but his voice failed him.
Wilkes’s gig came up to the port side of the Flying Fish just as the cutter sailed up on the starboard. Alden was standing at the bow, his face pale and his clothes smeared with blood. “Great God, Sir,” he cried out, “Underwood and Henry are murdered. We have been attacked by the natives, and they are both dead.”
Wilkes immediately climbed out of his gig and jumped into Alden’s cutter. As soon as the jackets were pulled back from the bodies, Wilkes fainted dead away. Eld took Wilkes into the Flying Fish’s cabin, and as Dr. Fox tended to Clark’s lip, Underwood’s and Henry’s bodies were moved to the port deck of the schooner and covered with a tarpaulin. Upon regaining consciousness, Wilkes began to weep inconsolably. When he finally emerged from below, red-eyed and sobbing, he made his way to the two bodies and asked that the tarpaulin be withdrawn. First he knelt beside his nephew. Moaning “the poor boy and his poor mother,” he kissed and patted his face. He then turned to Underwood and whispered, “poor fellow.”
Alden was still so full of emotion that it was impossible to extract any coherent information from him. But as far as George Sinclair was concerned, “the bloody and bruised bodies of our murdered messmates told a tale [that needed no words]. . . . My whole soul was lost in one all absorbing feeling, and that feeling was anger.”
To a man, Wilkes’s officers demanded that immediate and crushing action be taken against the natives of Malolo. Although no one had been more personally attached to the victims than Wilkes, it was now his responsibility to, in his words, “prevent a just and salutary punishment from becoming a vindictive and indiscriminate massacre.” But before the natives could be punished, the bodies of the victims must be laid to rest. A burial at sea was out of the question. From Paddy O’Connell, Wilkes had learned of what had happened to the victims of the Charles Doggettmassacre. Not long after the captain consigned them to the shallow, shark-infested water, the decomposing bodies had burst out of their cloth shrouds and floated to the surface. O’Connell claimed that the natives had quickly collected the corpses and feasted on the putrid flesh.
About sixteen miles to the east, Wilkes had seen a beautiful islet that he judged to be far enough away from Malolo that they might bury Underwood and Henry, “without risk of exhumation.” That evening Alden, Emmons, and Eld, who was given command of the Leopard, took up stations around Malolo to ensure that no natives escaped during the night. Early the next morning, the Flying Fish departed on what Wilkes called “our melancholy errand.”
They arrived at the island around nine A.M. Dr. Fox and the artist Alfred Agate were rowed to shore to supervise the digging of a common grave. An hour later, they signaled that all was ready. The bodies had been sewed up in two hammocks, which were already soaked with Underwood’s blood. Wilkes ordered that the bodies be placed together in his gig and wrapped in the American flag. With Sinclair following in the tender’s boat, they rowed for shore.
About twenty sailors, all dressed in white, made up the procession that took the two bodies to a grove of banyan trees in the center of the island. “It was a lonely and suitable spot . . . ,” Wilkes wrote, “in a shade so dense that scarce a ray of the sun could penetrate it.” The grave had been dug deep into the white sand, which was soon stained red with blood. Agate read the funeral service, and when three volleys were fired over the grave, a flock of birds took wing overhead. “Poor Capt. Wilkes,” Sinclair wrote, “his heart seemed nearly broken. He sobbed like a child and I felt for him from the very bottom of my soul.” Once the grave had been filled, tree branches were used to erase their footprints from the sand, while footprints were purposely left in an entirely different part of the island in hopes of diverting any natives that might come looking for the burial site. Wilkes decided to name it Henry Island, while designating the islands of which it was a part the Underwood Group.
On their return to Malolo that evening, they found the Porpoise anchored in the bay. Emmons had told Ringgold about the killing of Underwood and Henry, and Ringgold’s men were already cleaning their muskets and pistols, filling their cartridges with gunpowder, and making other preparations for the impending conflict. Although Wilkes would later claim that he attempted to exercise due restraint in his actions against the natives, the journals of his officers tell a different story. “[W]ar was now declared against the Island,” Emmons wrote, “& orders issued by Capt. Wilkes to spare only the women & children.”
That night Emmons and Alden patrolled the shores of Malolo in their cutters. It was evident that the Fijians were also preparing for battle. Warriors dabbed with paint and armed with muskets patrolled the shore, shouting out taunts and occasionally firing at the boat-crews. When the sailors had the opportunity to fire back, the Fijians dropped down at the flash of the musket in an attempt to dodge the ball.
The next morning three divisions of about seventy officers and men under the command of Lieutenant Ringgold were rowed to shore at the southern tip of Malolo. Wilkes had instructed them to march across the island to Sualib, the village where the murders had occurred. Sualib was reputed to be an impregnable fortress, and Wilkes ordered Ringgold to kill as many warriors as possible and burn the village. On the northeastern side of the island was the lightly defended village of Arro (today called Yaro). Wilkes, who led the fleet of boats commanded by Alden, Emmons, and Midshipman Clark, would be responsible for burning Arro while also pursuing any natives attempting to escape by canoe. The Flying Fish and the Porpoise would stand by with their guns trained on shore.
As the men were being rowed in, three canoes were seen sailing for Malololailai, and Emmons and Alden were sent off in pursuit. Serving as Emmons’s interpreter was a Hawaiian known as Oahu Jack. Once they were in firing range, Jack asked the natives where they were from. When they replied “Malolo,” Emmons unleashed his blunderbuss, immediately killing six natives as the rest dove into the water. “[A]s it was mere slaughter to kill them unresistingly,” Alden ordered that the remaining natives be taken alive. But his men refused to listen. Crying, “Kill! Kill!,” they raised their cutlasses and prepared to spear the natives like fish. When one of his men grabbed a Fijian by the hair and drew back his sword, Alden trained his pistol on his own man, who was about to behead a woman. There were also several children, and after putting the male captives in irons, Emmons and Alden returned the women and children to shore.
George Sinclair was in the shore party’s second division commanded by Robert Johnson. As he and seventy others took up their positions around the village, he could not help but be impressed by the size and sophistication of the Fijian fortress. It was completely surrounded by a twelve-foot-wide ditch. Behind the ditch was a ten-foot-high palisade built of large coconut tree trunks knitted together by a dense wicker-work. Inside this imposing wall of wood was another ditch, probably dug the night before, with the dirt piled up in front to form a four-foot-wide parapet. Natives were already standing in the ditch, with only their heads exposed, prepared to fire their muskets and shoot their arrows through narrow openings in the palisade.
Several chiefs, distinguishable by their white headdresses, stood outside the stockade, taunting the sailors as they approached. A Congreve war rocket was fired, followed by a volley of gunfire, and the natives quickly retreated into the fort. Waving their spears and clubs in the air, the villagers behind the stockade shouted out, “Lako-mai!” or “Come on!”
Ringgold wanted to avoid a direct assault, preferring instead to fire on the fort from a distance in hopes of setting the village aflame with a rocket. Unfortunately, Robert Johnson didn’t learn this until some of the people in his division, led by George Sinclair, had already begun to storm the barricade. Sinclair scurried across a narrow causeway that led to a gate. There he saw a warrior about to hurl a long spear. “I gave him the contents of the left barrel of my gun,” Sinclair wrote, “fifteen buckshot, which sent him to Kingdom Come.”
Ringgold shouted out to Sinclair to return, but Sinclair quickly realized that the gate he had partially entered was constructed like a fish weir—it was easy enough to get in, but getting out was a different matter. He also realized he would be more exposed to enemy fire by retreating back across the causeway than by staying close under the stockade. He could see the natives, “thick as pigs,” in the ditch on the other side of the palisade. “The bullets from our men were pouring in thro the Stockade as thick as hail,” Sinclair wrote, “but the natives were in a measure protected by this inner ditch.” In addition to warriors firing muskets, there were women with bows and arrows. An arrow glanced off a gatepost and struck Sinclair on the lapel of his jacket, but caused him no injury.
He had an easy shot at a native just four feet inside the gate, but when he fired his gun, the native dropped down to the ground, and the ball passed over his right shoulder. Sinclair had heard rumors that the Fijians could dodge a musket ball, and now he knew they were true. When the native sprang back to his feet, William Hayes, captain of the maintop aboard the Porpoise, was waiting for him and stabbed the native in the eye with his bayonet.
The action continued at a frantic pace, the air filled with the crackle of gunfire and the angry sizzle of Congreve rockets. Sinclair had just shot a native with his pistol when someone shouted out that a warrior was about to throw a short club at him. He ducked and the club ricocheted off a nearby gatepost. Before the native could get a second club out of the maro tied around his waist, Sinclair fired his pistol, and the native dropped to the ground. Suddenly there was much shouting and confusion within the fort as several warriors carried the native’s body to a nearby hut. Sinclair later learned that he had killed the chief of Sualib.
All the while, sailors were coming up to the gate, two by two, and firing into the village as Ringgold continued to pepper the village with rockets, but to little effect. About fifteen minutes into the battle, a rocket hit the thatched roof of one of the houses and burst into flame. If the fire should spread, the village would soon become an inferno. A warrior climbed up onto the roof and attempted to dislodge the rocket, but more than a dozen guns were quickly trained on him, and he fell, his body riddled with musket balls.
Soon the fire was spreading throughout the village. An interpreter shouted out that all the women and children would be allowed to escape out the rear gate. As the flames increased, the warriors were forced to abandon the inner ditch, which exposed them to unrelenting fire from the sailors’ muskets. Sinclair’s double-barrel gun became so hot that he couldn’t touch the barrel. “The scene was grand, and beautiful and at the same time horrible,” he wrote, “what with the volleys of musketry, the crackling of the flames, the squealing of the Pigs . . . , the shouting of men and women and the crying of children. The noise was deafening, above which you could hear rising now and then, the loud cheers of our men with ‘There they go,’ ‘Down with them,’ ‘Shoot that fellow,’ etc. etc.”
A weeping girl was seen stumbling about the village with her arms outstretched. Henry Eld ordered the men not to shoot in the child’s direction. Pushing his way through one of the gates, he attempted to reach her, but the scorching heat forced him back.
Soon the entire village was engulfed in flames. Ringgold and his men retreated to a nearby coconut grove where they waited “until the conflagration should have exhausted its fury.” After about an hour, some of the men attempted to enter the village. The heat was still so intense that Sinclair feared his cartridge box might explode. They found calabashes of water, hampers of yams, and many pigs, all burned to death; the villagers had clearly anticipated a long siege. They found spears, clubs, and muskets that had been abandoned by the natives in the ditch. In one of the houses they found Underwood’s cloth cap—“all mashed by the blows which had felled him.” Most of the dead had been burned to cinders in the fire, with only four or five bodies, including that of the young girl, found lying amid the ashes. One of the victims was identified as the chief whom Sinclair had dispatched with his pistol. “[T]o satiate their revenge,” several of the sailors threw the body onto one of the smoldering houses “and roasted him.”
The trees surrounding the village were stuck full of arrows, most of them fired by the women of the village. Everyone agreed that the natives had put up a stiff resistance, and yet the sailors had sustained only a single significant injury—one man had received a bad gash in the leg from an arrow. As smoke billowed into the clear blue sky and the inescapable smell of burning flesh filled their nostrils, the sailors attempted to slake their thirst with coconuts. Soon it was time to march to Arro. “We continued as we had commenced,” Sinclair wrote, “to destroy every house and plantation that we came across, and as we marched in three lines, I do not think that one escaped us.” The villagers who were still alive had fled to the hills, and Ringgold and his men encountered only one native (who was quickly stabbed by several bayonets) during their march to Arro.
They reached the village around sunset. “It must have been a most beautiful place,” Sinclair wrote, “situated as it was beneath the shade of a grove of lofty trees.” It was now a wasteland. The village had been abandoned by the time Alden had begun the work of burning it. “Thank God we have taught these villains a lesson,” Sinclair wrote that night. “[A] load has been taken off my conscience; I hope, however, we have not yet done with them.”
Even as Sinclair was writing these words, George Emmons was finishing up the last engagement of the day. He had spent much of the afternoon in pursuit of a group of five canoes sighted leaving Malolo that morning. He figured they must have escaped to Malololailai, and around four P.M., he sailed his cutter in among the mangrove swamps of the island in search of the missing canoes. Sure enough, there they were—five canoes making their way along the outer reef of the island. The canoes each contained eight warriors; the vessels’ sides had been built up to shield the natives from attack. Emmons had half his normal crew—just seven men. “I thought the odds were too great to allow [the Fijians] any more advantages than they already possessed,” he wrote. Emmons raised the cutter’s sails, which enabled the men who had been pulling oars to take up their muskets, and sailed for the nearest canoe. Once they were within range, Emmons opened fire with his blunderbuss. “Many were killed at the first discharge,” he wrote, “and others were thrown in so much confusion that but little resistance was made.” One native, however, was able to throw three spears at Emmons. After successfully dodging all of them, Emmons could see that the native was reaching for yet another spear. “[ H ]aving discharged my last pistol,” he wrote, “I jumped into the canoe and jerked [the] spear out of his hands while Oahu Jack dispatched him with a hatchet.”
One of the canoes managed to escape as the rest of the natives jumped into the water and swam in various directions. After shooting at a group of four natives who had reached the shallows (killing one and wounding two), Emmons and his men set to work butchering those still in the water. He later told Sinclair that the Fijians’ “heads were so hard that they turned the edges of the cutlasses and our men had in some cases to finish them off with their boat axes.” With two of the canoes in tow, Emmons returned to the Porpoise just before midnight.
That night a large number of sharks were seen swimming about the schooner and brig. “[The sharks] must have had their fill of Fiji meat,” Sinclair wrote, “as they refused even to taste a piece of fat pork that was put over for them.”
Belowdecks, the officers and men settled into their berths and hammocks and tried, as best they could, to sleep.
Early the next morning a group of natives appeared on the beach near where the schooner was anchored. Wilkes and an interpreter got in his gig and pulled for shore. It was low tide, and as they approached the edge of the reef, the men withdrew, leaving a woman with a white chicken in her hands, which she offered to Wilkes as a token of peace. She also had several articles that had belonged to Underwood and Henry.
Wilkes took the personal effects but refused the bird. He had learned that it was Fijian custom for a defeated people to sue for mercy before “the whole of the attacking party, in order that all might be witnesses.” He felt that if he didn’t insist on these terms, the people of Malolo would “never acknowledge themselves conquered.” Wilkes told the woman that he would assemble his men on a hill in the southern part of the island around noon. If her chiefs and her people did not appear soon after, the attack would begin again.
Late that morning Wilkes and close to a hundred officers and men climbed the hill. “The day was perfectly serene,” he wrote, “and the island, which but a few hours before, had been one of the loveliest spots in creation, was now entirely laid waste, showing the place of the massacre, the ruined town, and the devastated plantations. The eye wandered over the dreary waste to the beautiful expanse of waters beyond and around, with the long lines of white sparkling reefs, until it rested, far in the distance on the small green spot where we had performed the last rites to our murdered companions. A gentle breeze, which was blowing through the casuarina trees, gave out the moaning sound that is uttered by the pines of our own country, producing a feeling of depression inseparable from the occasion, and bringing vividly to my thoughts the sad impression which this melancholy and dreadful occurrence would bring upon those who were far away.”
About four P.M. Wilkes heard the sound of “distant wailings.” A long line of natives could be seen making their way over the hills toward them. When the line stopped at the foot of the hill, Wilkes threatened to destroy them with his war rockets if they did not climb the hill to do obeisance. Falling to their hands and knees, with their faces toward the ground, the natives crawled up the hill to within thirty feet of Wilkes and his officers. As the natives behind him uttered “piteous moans,” an old man stood and begged Wilkes for mercy, “pledging that they would never do the like to a white man.” Offering Wilkes two young girls, which were quickly refused, the old man said that they had lost close to eighty men, and that they considered themselves a conquered people.
Through an interpreter, Wilkes lectured them about the power of the white man, insisting that if anything like this should ever occur again, he would return to the island and exterminate them. He also insisted that early the next day they must come to the town of Arro with all the provisions they could gather and that they would spend the entire day filling casks of water for his ships. Wilkes later claimed that “this was according to their customs, that the conquered should do work for the victors.”
The next morning the Flying Fish and the Porpoise were brought to Arro, where seventy natives were already waiting for them. By the end of the day, three thousand gallons of water had been loaded into the brig and schooner, along with twelve pigs and about three thousand coconuts. The natives also produced Underwood’s pocket watch, which had been melted in the fire at Sualib, and Henry’s eyeglasses.
With the task of revenge completed, Wilkes was left with nothing but the enormity of his loss. For the next few days he would be, by his own admission, “unfit for further duty.”
On Friday, July 31, Reynolds was aboard the Vincennes, at anchor beside the Peacock off Vanua Levu, talking with William May. May was at work on a chart of the harbors of Tutuila in Samoa, which Reynolds had surveyed with Joseph Underwood. The two men got to talking about Underwood and began to speculate about when the surveying party might return.
Soon after, Reynolds was seated beside the stern window of the Vincennes’s cabin, working on a chart of Bua Bay, when a boat, followed by several others, rowed past the ship’s stern. He knew it must be the surveying party, but chose to continue with his work, being in the middle of a particularly difficult calculation. Suddenly May burst into the cabin, shouting, “Oh, Reynolds! Underwood and Henry are killed, murdered by the natives.”
That night, Alden told his tale—recounting the slow, agonizing unfolding of events that had led to the massacre on the beach and then the swift and overwhelming response. Like all of them, Reynolds felt nothing but anger and hatred for the natives of Malolo. “[L]et no one say that there was one life too many taken,” he insisted.
For Wilkes, the need for retaliation had not yet been laid to rest. Privately, he blamed Alden for allowing Underwood and Henry to go on shore and for not keeping better track of the hostage. “[I]t is extremely difficult after such a distressing calamity to find fault,” he wrote Jane, “particularly when one is so nearly interested as I am in its results and when no possible good could come from the investigation.”
But it was Underwood whom he blamed the most. “[ I ]t was owing to the overconfidence of Lt. Underwood,” he wrote Jane. “[He] must have perceived the suspicious appearances about the natives but did not act upon them until it was too late.” Underwood was dead, but Wilkes would have his revenge. He ordered that the lieutenant’s personal effects be put up for auction. “There was a general feeling of indignation among the officers when this order was known,” Reynolds wrote. “They felt it would be sacrilege to deprive the widowed wife of the relics of her lost husband.” Underwood had been one of many officers who had drawn up his will prior to the Fiji survey, and the executor of that will, James Blair (who had been Wilkes Henry’s second during the duel at Valparaiso), protested Wilkes’s actions as “illegal and without precedent.” Wilkes’s malice and hurt would not be thwarted, however, and the auction went forward. “Decency and humanity were outraged in the Exhibition that followed,” Reynolds wrote.
But Wilkes was not finished. Upon the completion of the survey, Veidovi was transferred from the Peacock to the Vincennes. Under Hudson’s charge, the Fijian chief had been allowed on deck and had spoken frequently with the officers. But everything changed when he arrived on the Vincennes. “He soon found that Lieut. Wilkes was a very different white man from the humane Lieut. Hudson,” Reynolds wrote. Wilkes ordered that Veidovi be kept in confinement. Like any Fijian chief, he took great pride in his immense crop of hair, which extended as many as eight inches from his head. Before being taken prisoner, he had more than a dozen barbers to attend him; instead of a pillow, he had slept on a finely crafted neck-stand that prevented his hair from being crushed at night. Wilkes decided it was time to remove this last vestige of his former life. “A close crop was made of his head by our ship’s barber,” Wilkes wrote, “who was much elated by the job and retained locks for presentation.” Veidovi, on the other hand, was devastated. “[I]t was some time before he became reconciled to his new costume,” Wilkes wrote, “and the mortification he experienced in having his huge head of hair [chopped] off.”
None of these actions seemed to quell Wilkes’s anger and anguish as the squadron set out from Fiji in the middle of August. As late as October, he wrote Jane that “the fate of poor Wilkes . . . continues to grieve and depress me. I have borne up against the shock it gave me as well as I could but I feel so in the land of strangers even in my own ship that I have little if any communication with my officers.”
Whether it was by death or by dismissal, the squadron had lost its best and most capable officers. Reynolds didn’t know how the rest of them could continue under Wilkes’s spiteful and vindictive leadership. Making matters worse was the addition of another year to the cruise. “[T]his slapping on an additional twelvemonth, makes a horrible abyss,” he wrote, “the bottom of which no one can see, or have the heart to look for. Our spirits are broken.”
Under partial rations, against light and baffling headwinds, the squadron sailed for Hawaii.