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A Yankee Trader in Yap: Crayton Philo Holcomb

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

History

In May 1867 Crayton Philo Holcomb, A middle-aged whaling captain with many a sea voyage behind him, took leave of his relatives in Granby, Connecticut, for the last time to follow his star. `There is a fortune or utter disappointment ahead and I do not often give up before I make a trial', he wrote to his mother in words that have a familiar ring.(1) Holcomb was on the verge of making an overland journey across the continent that would eventually bring him to far more remote frontiers than post-bellum California. At the time he had no way of knowing just how elusive the `fortune' would prove to be, nor could he anticipate the major role he would play in the commercial development of Yap, an island in the Western Carolines on which no permanent trading station had yet been established.

Born on 24 January 1830, Holcomb appears to have begun his vagabond existence at the age of seven when he first went away to live. It was not long before young Crayton's eyes were set seaward, like those of many another New England youth of the day. At the age Of 20 he left the family farm to sign on a whaler, the Braganza, which sailed from New Bedford on to September 1850 for a two-year cruise in the Pacific.(2) Holcomb must have found the sea more to his liking than the pastures of Connecticut, for within six months of the Braganza's return in 1854 he shipped aboard another whaler, Chandler Price, as first mate, later becoming master of the vessel upon the death of Captain Curn. His first voyage aboard the Chandler Price (1854-57) was followed by another (1857-62) during which he retained command of the ship.(3)

He must have put to sea again almost immediately after the completion of his second voyage on the Chandler Price, for in 1864 we find him writing to his family from aboard an unnamed whaler at port in Honolulu of the hard luck that seems to have dogged him for the rest of his life. He complains in his letter that his ship had been rammed by another vessel and dismasted, and while it was undergoing repairs at the dock it was set afire by 'a nigger one of the damd contrabands from Washington'. As if this were not enough, the ship dragged anchor a few days later in a storm and smashed into a wharf, causing still further damage.(4) His bad luck may have persuaded Holcomb to turn from whaling to another occupation-for this is what he did shortly afterward-but it never tempted him in the slightest to give up his wandering ways in exchange for a placid life in Connecticut. He remained at home no more than two years before setting out again, this time for California. A seasoned traveler by then, Holcomb confessed to his family that `for me to live in Granby is out of the question . . . not that I have not seen many happy days there, but there is nothing I can do to make myself contented'.

Although shortly after his arrival Holcomb declared his intention to make California his home, his letters soon betray the same old restlessness; a year later, in 1870, he pronounced the times dull and the streets of San Francisco `crowded with idle men and women'.(5) After two short voyages to Alaska as master of the schooner Page, Holcomb bought his own vessel (never named in his letters) and sailed to Tahiti on his first trading voyage into the Pacific. His visit there seems to have made a lasting impression on him, for the idyllic vision of 'orange groves and a life of pleasant indolence' becomes a common refrain in his correspondence after that event. Granby, on the other hand, and all that it represented to him-harsh winters, uneventful rural existence, and family squabbles-held less appeal than ever despite frequent promises that he would return home for a visit once he had made a comfortable profit for himself in his business ventures. Soon Holcomb was writing of how weary he was `drifting around the world like a waif upon the water without any settled plans' and telling of his desire to settle on some island of the Pacific and sun himself `beneath the green groves of fruit and flowers that grow there.'(6) Nevertheless, not one month after his return from Tahiti Holcomb had sold his vessel and taken a berth aboard the schooner Sarah, bound for Japan and China.

In April 1873 Holcomb left San Francisco again, this time for good, as captain and part-owner of the 80-ton schooner Scotland. At first his intention was to resell the vessel in China for his underwriters, Messrs C. L. Taylor and Co., at a good profit after completing one or two lucrative trading voyages. But a loss of $2,800 in repairs for damages suffered by the Scotland during bad weather off Japan ate up the profits of the first trading voyage, and Holcomb decided to keep the schooner, making Hong Kong his home port.(7) A subsequent voyage to Borneo in January 1873 resulted in a full cargo of mother-of-pearl shell, camphor gum, rubber and beche-de-mer, and must have served to whet the captain's appetite for further speculative ventures.(8) A few months later Holcomb set sail again, this time for New Guinea and the Western Carolines to procure a cargo of beche-de-mer. It was on this trip that he first visited Yap, the island that was thereafter to become as much of a home for him as any single place had been since the days of his early youth in Granby.

Yap in 1873 was only beginning to sprout a community of resident whites after years of cool and fitful relations with the outside world. The inhospitality of the Yapese people to foreign visitors was remarked upon some years earlier by Andrew Cheyne, whose brig Naiad was almost cut off there at the end of his month-long stay in 1843. The abortive attack on his ship appears to have been precipitated by the outbreak of an influenza epidemic among the Yapese which, by Cheyne's own account, caused the death of some 60 natives within three days.(9) Cheyne also reports that while at anchor off Yap collecting beche-de-mer he encountered two Filipinos, the sole survivors of two Spanish vessels whose crews had been massacred by the natives seven years earlier.(10) A later partner of Cheyne's, Alfred Tetens, who visited the island aboard the Acis in 1862 to establish regular trade there, was told by one of the chiefs that he was the first white man who had been allowed to remain on Yap unmolested.(11) On a later visit, probably in 1866, Tetens was forced to repulse an attack on his ship by night which he thought was motivated by a desire to seize his cargo of pearl shell, a commodity used as money by the Yapese.(12) By 1873, however, a handful of foreigners were permanently living on Yap, and many more were moving freely in and out of the island group. The observation of a passing merchant that `the Yapese were generally well disposed to Europeans' was an accurate enough statement by that time.(13)

Although the first permanent trading station on Yap was only opened in 1869 when J. C. Godeffroy & Son sent an agent by the name of John Nash there, the island group was regularly visited by itinerant trading captains 10 years before this.(14) Cheyne and his business partners--first Edward Woodin and then Tetens--frequently stopped off there to collect copra and beche-de-mer en route to and from Palau, their base of operations. In the late 1860s, after Tetens had dissolved his partnership with Cheyne to captain the trading steamer Vesta for Godeffroy & Son, he felt confident enough of the disposition of the natives to leave one or two Europeans along with a handful of Palauans on Yap while his ship passed on to other islands.(15) When Tetens himself was accidentally wounded on Yap in 1867 (his musket discharged into his leg), he could turn to a European who had taken up permanent residence on the island for help. He implies in his journal that there was more than one white living on Yap at the time, even though the devastation he found clearly indicated that the intersectional warfare which had troubled the island since contact days had not by any means ceased. As was true in many another Pacific island group, the unwary white visitor to Yap was frequently caught up in the inter-island rivalry-in this case, between the people of Rul and Tamil-and was often played off by one of these factions against the other. Even so, the safety of the white trader or beachcomber who chose to live there was virtually assured by the end of the1860s and, unlike Truk in the years following its first sustained contact with whites, there is no recorded(16) instance of any serious attempts made on the lives of traders or of attacks on ships after this time. Any violence in the years to follow could be attributed to the `rough and ready' ways of the small but growing band of seamen and merchants who frequented Yap.'

`THIS is the land that suites me', Holcomb wrote after his first visit to the Carolines, where the natives go nearly naked and appear to enjoy life as well as the fashionables of New York, where the earth produces all that is required to sustain life without labor, and where although it is sometimes warm there is never any cold to freeze a person, where that fruit is always in season and is free to all.(17)

Stirred by these romantic impulses-and even more, one suspects, by the lucrative trading prospects that were still almost unexploited in these islands--Holcomb decided at once to return to Yap and settle there. The Yankee adventurer was then 44 years old with little more than his ship to his name and a fairly long string of commercial failures behind him. His letters sound a strong note of discouragement as time after time he watched the modest profit made on one venture lost on another spectacularly unsuccessful scheme the following year. Even when he was just reaping the first returns from his copra trade in the Western Carolines, he sailed off to Japan in a futile attempt to raise the treasure of a sunken steamer and incurred losses Of $2,000.(18) After seven years on the seas, he was no closer to making his fortune than the day he left Granby.

Though bound for Yap in February 1874 to establish a trading station, Holcomb was not the man to neglect any diversion that gave promise of profit. The Scotland made a brief stop at Guam in March of that year and after selling about 2,000 pesos worth of goods quietly slipped out of port one evening with two political prisoners, or deportados, aboard. The incident did not go unnoticed by the Spanish authorities, as we know from official reports of an inquiry into the matter, and Holcomb was unwelcome on Guam thereafter.(19) The practice of smuggling deportados out of Spanish possessions for a fat fee was becoming popular among those ship captains on the lookout for ways, legal or not, to supplement their income. A similar event a year later, in fact, was responsible for Holcomb's first meeting with Bartola Garrido y Taisague, the Chamorro woman who eventually became his 'wife' after the fashion of the day.

On his return to Yap in April 1874 he found there David Dean O'Keefe, the resourceful Irishman who in later years exercised a virtual monopoly over the copra trade on that island. O'Keefe had sailed to Yap in a Chinese junk two years earlier, and was then working for Webster and Cook of the Celebes Sea Trading Company.(20) A year after Holcomb's arrival, however, the Company failed and O'Keefe's own business genius, aided by his tact in dealing with the Yapese natives, found ample room within which to blossom. In November of the same year another enterprising trader, Edward Hernsheim, put in on the Coeran to fish for trepang and, before he left, founded a permanent station on the island.(21) Meanwhile the Godeffroy enterprise, which had opened on Yap in 1869 and was later taken over by the Deutsche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft (D.H.P.G.) when the former company dissolved in 1879, continued to flourish.(22) Competition was quick in developing on Yap; the number of firms represented there multiplied practically overnight. Nonetheless, with the ready supply of copra and the well-nigh insatiable desire of the Yapese for trade goods, these early years on Yap were still the most promising period in Holcomb's career. So successful was he that by 1877 he was preparing to open a few more trade stations, and two years after that was able to boast of his prosperous business and well-outfitted bailiwick, complete with `stores and wharfs and everything'.(23)

Holcomb, who had earlier written that he was `trying to get enough together to fall back on by and bye in the shape of funds or family', must have reckoned among the foremost blessings of his life on Yap his mistress and helpmate, Bartola Garrido, although he never once mentions her to his kin in Connecticut. `Traders in Yap', a later visitor to the island perceptively noted, `seem to find a life of single blessedness tedious'.(24) Holcomb was no exception. Bartola, `una mujer muy fea' in the opinion of a Spanish seaman who met her some years later, could not have been a great beauty, but she displayed a genuine affection towards Holcomb that must have been truly gratifying to a man who had been spurned by every woman he had courted.(25) Bartola was one of the passengers aboard the schooner Rabbi when in late April 1875 it drifted to Palau, and was rescued from the hands of the natives by Holcomb, who took command of the ship. The crew and passengers of the Rabbi, which included eight deportados smuggled aboard at Agana some days earlier, were obliged to depart from Guam with un expected haste upon hearing that the ship's master, Captain Flages, had been arrested while ashore and that a company of soldiers was being dispatched to take those aboard into custody. The Spanish authorities gave them up for lost when they learned that there was no navigator, and very little water besides, aboard the Rabbi.(26) After Holcomb's display of courage and resourcefulness in Palau, O'Keefe reports, Bartola `fell an easy victim' to the Yankee skipper and was easily persuaded to return with him to Yap.(27) There she was to play a prominent role in the Spanish acquisition of the Western Carolines some10 years later.

As for the Rabbi, it was brought to Hong Kong a year later, registered under Holcomb's name and repainted the Rachel. The same week, in one of those characteristic reversals of fortune, Holcomb dispatched his other schooner, the Scotland, under the command of his first mate to the Okhotsk Sea where it was lost with all hands aboard."(28) The loss of $9,000 incurred by Holcomb through this misfortune, together with the losses sustained during his unsuccessful attempt to recover the sunken treasure, absorbed most of the profits of his expanding copra trade during his first four years on Yap.

By the early I880s Yap had become established as the commercial center of the Carolines, largely through the vigorous copra trade carried on there. An average of 1,500 tons yearly-far more than the output for any other island in Micronesia-was exported by the four major concerns: Hernsheim, the D.H.P.G, O'Keefe and Holcomb.(29) Each of these agencies, including Holcomb's, had smaller stations on Palau and on other islands in the vicinity that were supplied from and overseen by regional headquarters in Yap.(30) Between 20 and 30 vessels visited Yap each year, and the island's importance was further enhanced when it became a coaling station for steamers sailing between Guam and Manila.

Meanwhile, the transient foreign population of the area had swelled to include the likes of Walter Amery, an Englishman who had formerly been engaged in the Hawaiian labour trade, and Harry Terry, an escaped convict from Australia who, 35 years earlier while a refugee on Nauru Island, was said to have participated in the attack on the whaling brig Inga and the massacre of her crew.(31) Both of them were later charged with inflicting cruelties on Yapese laborers, as were the British subjects Thomas Shaw and John McGuiness, sometime agents for Hernsheim and O'Keefe respectively. Both Shaw and McGuiness countered with sworn statements of their own, one charging Holcomb and the other O'Keefe with inhumane treatment of natives and fraudulent business practices.(32) One has only to skim through the correspondence in the Western Pacific High Commission Records relating to the Western Carolines to detect the utter abandon with which accusations, many of them later proved to be without substance, were hurled about by the rival agents working in this area. Yet, however baseless many of these charges were, one point is clear-by the early 1880s it was no longer the traders who needed to be defended from the Yapese. It is significant that while the first warship to put in at Yap, the German corvette Herthe in 1876, was dispatched to recover property that had been stolen from a resident trader by the Yapese, the British man-of-war Espiegle, which visited the island in 1883, was called in to investigate charges of injustice against the natives at the hands of the whites.(33)

Not all the new arrivals, of course, were of this type. Some traders remained as long term residents of Yap and became prominent figures in the life of that island-notably Robert Friedlander, the principal agent for Hernsheim & Co., who was still on Yap in 1903; Evan Lewis, the Welshman who lived there off and on until the end of the century; and, of course, O'Keefe himself who for 30 years, until his death at sea in 1901, remained the most imposing foreign figure in Yap.

Even in this period of greatly expanded commercial activity, O'Keefe continued to dominate the copra trade in the Western Carolines. His success was in great part due to his well-known strategem of quarrying and hauling from Palau to Yap the large stone discs used by the natives as money. As often as not during the 1880s he exported more copra than the other principal firms combined; in 1883, a poor year for Yap, he handled 300 tons out of a total of 550.(34) O'Keefe had also acquired exclusive rights to trade at Mapia, which yielded another 220 tons a year, at a lease fee of $50 per annum.(35) As he established an incontrovertible supremacy over trade on Yap, he also acquired a host of enemies from among his business rivals. `There is now not a white man on the island who speaks to O'Keefe', wrote another trader in his testimony against the Irishman at the time.(36) And Holcomb, who was forced to abandon his own business in 1880 under pressure of competition and to work for two years for Hernsheim on Jaluit, could be counted among O'Keefe's most bitter personal enemies.

O'Keefe was easily the favorite target for the recriminations made by the white traders on Yap. He was the defendant of the four cases investigated by the Espiegle in 1883, and afterwards on more than one occasion he was obliged to stand trial in Hong Kong for charges brought to court by his former employees.(37) The charges -which included flogging natives and throwing them overboard in shark-infested waters, forceful abduction of native girls, illegal labor practices, and defrauding employees of their wages -were proved to be totally unfounded. In the judgement of the British Judicial Commissioner, O'Keefe had been maliciously wronged by his rivals owing to their `jealousy at the success of his relations with the natives'. Although frequently painted as a villain by his contemporaries, he was genuinely liked and respected by both Palauans and Yapese. Even the naturalist Kubary, who had no particular reason to come to the Irishman's defence, testified that in the time he had been residing on Palau O'Keefe's dealings with the natives had always been creditable.(38) Over all, the opinion of the British authorities regarding O'Keefe's conduct remained favorable. The Commissioner and his fellows, clearly impressed by the manner in which he handled his business on Yap, concluded their official report on the judicial inquiries there with the observation that `his industry and energy are doing good to the natives and their island as well as to himself'.(39)

The same could not be said of all foreigners living on Yap. On one occasion, when a trader was beaten by several Yapese for failing to deliver a rifle that he had promised them in payment for copra, the entire white community-with the exception of O'Keefe--undertook an armed expedition against the village of the offenders to demand their surrender. The traders were not able to persuade the frightened Yapese to hand over the guilty parties even though they gave assurances that their lives would be spared, for in similar circumstances some years before a Yapese defendant had been hanged on the spot after being surrendered to his white accuser. Angered by the villagers' refusal, the small army of traders set a torch to several meeting-houses and, upon being mistakenly told by one of their party that the Yapese were planning to launch a counter-attack, kept up a steady fire into the bush with their Gatling gun and rifles. The Yapese had fled long before, however, and the only casualty was Holcomb who was accidentally shot in the back of the leg by his own house boy.(40)

Holcomb himself seems to have been one of the principal instigators of this attack. A good deal older than most of the other traders and seamen on Yap, he exercised considerable influence over the others, and it, was at his advice that the band of whites armed themselves for their punitive sortie. For his part in the whole affair Holcomb was later sternly reprimanded by the British, although his nationality exempted him from any stronger disciplinary measures. His own view of the incident, put forth in one of those rare passages from his correspondence that do not deal with his pecuniary affairs, is that the British authorities `took the natives part and punished the few Englishmen here for attacking and burning some canoe- houses for the attempt made to rob and drown one of them'. `Now if this is English law', he adds, 'thank God I am not an Englishman'.(41)

Hot-headed and impetuous, Holcomb possessed neither the restraint and tact necessary to win the confidence of the Yapese nor the business sense that might have made him a match for O'Keefe. He could not but have been painfully aware of these shortcomings, and for the remainder of his life seems to have harbored deep resentment against the Irishman. O'Keefe must have been foremost in his mind when he wrote to his sister of `some great rogues out here . . . who will take advantage of any false move I may make as soon as or sooner than they would do an honest action.'(42) In one instance Holcomb was accused by O'Keefe of attacking him with a weapon and threatening to take his life, although nothing further seems to have come of the incident.(43)

A far more serious charge was brought against Holcomb a few years later in Hong Kong when O'Keefe and another trader testified that he had tortured and killed two Yapese who had reportedly robbed him of $200 worth of trade goods some years before. According to their story, Holcomb clamped wires on the hands, feet and noses of the natives until they were mangled beyond recognition.(44) It is unlikely that this accusation of O'Keefe's had any more truth in it than most of those directed against O'Keefe himself, but the incident is a measure of the ill will that existed between the rivals at that time. Nonetheless, the sworn testimony of O'Keefe and Thomas Shaw prompted the Governor of the Colony of Hong Kong to request that the U.S. Commander in the Far East dispatch a warship to Yap so that the charges against Holcomb could be investigated-just as the Espiegle had been sent there two years earlier to look into charges made against O'Keefe. This measure proved pointless, however, for the American fortune-seeker had been killed on 6 May 1885, just two days prior to O'Keefe's first deposition in court.

Over all, the years between 1880 and 1885, which marked a sharp rise in commercial activity on Yap, were difficult ones for Holcomb. With the falloff in his copra trade resulting from the stiffening business competition on Yap and the financial blow that was dealt when the Scotland was lost at sea, he had no choice but to dispose of his trade station on Yap for a time and take employment with one of his principal rivals, Edward Hernsheim. After a year of 'exile' working for Hernsheim's establishment on Jaluit and several months in New Britain and the Admiralty Islands as the pilot of a German man-of-war, he returned to Yap in the middle of 1882 to find further troubles awaiting him there.(45) The part-owners of the Scotland, was convinced that the company had already recovered the full insurance and now were conniving to wring his last dollar from him.(46) At about the same time, he learned of a suit for $2,000 filed against him in Connecticut for 'board bill and horse hire', and his letters from this time on are filled with invective against the `sharpers from San Francisco and the lawyers of Connecticut.'(47) The following year found him on his back recovering from the gunshot wound in his leg and smarting from the rebuke he had received from the British for his role in the shooting spree.

On top of all else, there were problems brewing with his kin in Connecticut. Barely had he re-established his trading concerns in Yap and Palau when his sister pleaded with him to return to New England to help the family in some financial distress that had lately befallen them. Holcomb, who had always tirelessly protested his affection for his relatives back home and his intention of visiting them at the first opportunity, acidly declined:

I cannot see in strict justice that I should be called upon with a cry of anguish every time that a baby cuts a tooth or loses a toenail. Cannot any of you help yourselves without appealing to me? (48)

This request for financial assistance was the last straw. Holcomb's relations with his kinsfolk, which had already deteriorated during the long years of his absence and were not helped by his frequent caustic allusions to his stepfather even after the latter's death in 1877, were nearly strained to the breaking point. His letters to his mother and sister had always been full of a whining self-pity and were frequently querulous besides, but his last two letters, written only a few months before his death, display an unusual testiness. To his family's suggestion that he `come home soon for God's sake and let the islands go to thunder', Holcomb replied:

Now which do you think would be best for me to do, to throw up my vessel and let her lie and rot or be pillaged by the natives and let my other property go to thunder or for God's sake (a gentleman that I am unacquainted with) to come home and be bullied by a parcel of lawyers and scolded by you, to save I don't know what; this is a pecuniary view of the matter.(49)

The matter was already decided for Holcomb. Within a few months he embarked in the Bartola, a schooner that he had brought from Sydney the previous April, on his fatal voyage to the Admiralty Islands.

Holcomb's financial position in late 1884 must have been precarious, however mightily he had worked to re-establish his copra trade in the Western Carolines after his two-year absence. Although in a letter of 11 October 1884 he listed the total value of his holdings in the Carolines as $14,500, most of this was in the form of trade goods that had been obtained on credit. Holcomb's new schooner was still unpaid for at the time of his death, and his creditors in Sydney were advised by O'Keefe, to whom they had given the power of attorney, that it was useless to try to collect the $4,000 owed them since `no more than a pittance' remained of Holcomb's estate after other accounts had been settled.(50) The reverses of the early 1880s had been exceptionally hard on him.

In all likelihood it was the realization that his shaky financial position could hardly improve as long as O'Keefe and the German firms maintained their present trade advantage in the Western Carolines that led Holcomb to actively seek the establishment of a permanent Spanish administration on Yap. On 23 October 1884 Holcomb personally presented to the Governor of the Philippines a formal petition-signed by himself, Bartola, and a handful of Yapese--that Spanish rule be extended to Yap and Palau and that a governor be appointed to reside there.(51) The petition speaks of the benefits to be had from Spanish cultural influence, religious beliefs, and education of the natives; but its true spirit is best captured in the line that deplores ' the domination of Yap by foreign powers that are concerned only for their own business interests.' One can scarcely imagine Holcomb enkindled with genuine zeal for the spread of either the Roman faith or the Spanish culture and such sentiments ring far more true of Bartola, whose whole-hearted dedication to the Spanish cause in the Carolines later won her an honorary title and a life-long pension. Yet Holcomb undoubtedly felt that he would fare better under Spanish rule--particularly if he himself were instrumental in bringing it about--than in a free port where the law of the most powerful continued to prevail. He was clearly one of the underdogs and he must have counted on the trade restrictions that he was sure Spanish authorities would impose to offset some of the advantages then enjoyed by his competitors-if not to break their power altogether and enable him to solidify his position in the Western Carolines.

Spain had already cast a long look in the direction of the Carolines and was slowly maturing plans for their occupation. In 1882 a Spanish cruiser visited Yap to reconnoiter the island, and a year later the steamer Castellano carried the personnel and materials for a factory that was planned but never actually built.(52) By the time Holcomb's petition reached Manila, Spanish authorities needed very little encouragement to accelerate plans for the establishment of a Spanish protectorate in the Carolines. The Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, fearing the imperialistic designs of Bismarck's German navy in the Pacific, was beginning to recognize the strategic value of islands like Yap as coaling stations and provisioning stops for merchant ships en route to Asia. Holcomb's petition, which was widely publicized in Madrid, provided some assurance that Spanish rule in the Carolines would be well received by at least a segment of the population, but the Governor of the Philippines was directed to investigate the matter further. At the end of February 1885 the Spanish steamer Velasco, under Butron y de la Serna, was dispatched from Manila to conduct an exploratory voyage preliminary to the establishment of a Spanish government in the Western Carolines and to report on the receptiveness of the people there to the Spanish Crown.(53) On 26 February it steamed into Yap. Hardly had the Velasco been secured at anchorage when Bartola Garrido hurried a party of chiefs aboard to formally declare their loyalty to King Alfonso XII and their recognition of the new Spanish government. This and a similar occurrence in Palau, when the Velasco visited that island two weeks later, confirmed Spanish hopes that its move to colonize the Carolines was timely and acceptable.(54) By the time the Velasco had returned to Manila, a royal decree had been received directing Manila to establish a political-military governor on Yap.

It was not until several months later, on 21 August 1885, that two Spanish vessels arrived at Yap to take formal possession of the island and install its first governor. Even then the official party dallied for four days in selecting a site for their new quarters, and to their surprise and chagrin the German gunboat Iltis sped into port and planted the German flag over Yap on 25 August, a few hours before the Spanish finally got round to unfurling theirs.(55) These events led to the well-known controversy over the possession of the Caroline Islands that was finally settled in favour of Spain by Pope Leo XIII. As the contesting claims of Germany and Spain were being argued at conference tables in Europe's capitals, Bartola--by then a widow-again gave convincing proof of her own loyalties by tearing down the German flag and raising the Spanish colors. When the Spanish steamer Manila arrived in June 1886 with a Spanish garrison and a band of Capuchin missionaries aboard in a second, and this time successful, attempt to set up a Spanish government on Yap, Bartola was the first to greet them. In recognition of her past patriotism as well as the continued assistance she rendered to the civil authorities on Yap, she was given the title doña, made Official Interpreter for the Governor, and granted a stipend of 600 pesos yearly.(56)

Full Spanish dominion in the Carolines, when finally realized in June 1886, came too late to further Holcomb's personal ambitions. In April of the previous year, he set out aboard the Bartola with a work force of some 60 Yapese to obtain a cargo of mother-of-pearl from St Matthias Islands, a group off the north coast of New Ireland, in his last trading voyage. Holcomb had apparently learned from O'Keefe, for his intention was to barter the shell, which was highly prized by the Yapese as a traditional symbol of prestige, in exchange for copra. He had also recently entered the `stone money' trade, hitherto monopolized by O'Keefe, and touched at Palau on this voyage to let off a group of Yapese to cut stones which he intended to transport later to Yap. When the Bartola arrived at the tiny island of Tench in the St Matthias Group on 6 May 1885, Holcomb went ashore to negotiate with the native chiefs for the right to collect the shell that lay at the bottom of the sandy bay. According to the reports given by two of the Yapese who accompanied him, he was standing in the boat showing the Tench Islanders some of the cloth that he proposed to give them when spears began to fly from the beach. Struck by one of them, Holcomb fell over the gunwhale into the shallow water of the bay. The Yapese crew of the boat, all of them wounded in the melee, made a vain attempt to drag Holcomb into the boat before paddling frantically for the Bartola. When they were out of spear range, some of them turned round in time to see Holcomb's body hauled out of the water by his assailants, lifted on a spear point and carried away towards the interior of the island. Despite the loss of its captain, one of the Bartola's Yapese crew who happened to be familiar with the use of a compass managed to guide the ship back to its home port.(57)

For years after his death, rumors circulated in Connecticut that Holcomb had amassed a fortune of five million dollars that included a fleet of ships and the legal title to the whole of Yap.(58) These tales probably had their source in wild inferences made from certain statements in Holcomb's letters: that he had bought a small island, purchased another schooner, constructed wharves and storehouses, and the like. The trading captain's relatives and their descendants periodically reopened their inquiry into the whereabouts of the supposedly rich legacy he left behind in Yap and Palau, latest investigation occurring in 1947. Letters from the U.S. Consulate in Manila and the Registry of the Supreme Court in Hong Kong certifying that Holcomb had no assets recorded there were unable, it seems, to disabuse his kinsfolk in Granby of this fantastic notion. The fact is, however, that the Yankee captain who had spent the last 11 years of his life on Yap in pursuit of a fortune left his wife 'a small island with a thatched but and little more.'(59) When accounts were finally settled after Holcomb's death, Bartola was obliged to apologize in a letter to his mother that she had not even enough cash left to send her a small present.(60) Holcomb, who remained a hard-headed businessman to the end despite his fondness for declaiming on the virtues of a life of South Seas indolence, in terms of his personal ambitions would have to be judged a dismal failure.

But if the ex-whaling captain Crayton Philo Holcomb is typical of that group of hapless adventurers whose dreams of a fortune to be made in the Pacific never materialized, he still played a far from insignificant role in the 'domestication' of Yap through his trading activities and his political intervention on behalf of Spain. Coming, as he did, at a time when the copra trade was in its infancy in the Western Carolines, Holcomb was one of the handful of foreigners who established the trade on an expanded and permanent basis there. He and a few other traders guided the copra industry through the critical years of the late 1870s, and thereby succeeded in exposing the island to later commercial and political influences. Although overshadowed by O'Keefe and other trading concerns in later years, Holcomb watched the island group in which he had pioneered trading activities develop into the commercial centre of the Carolines. By 1885 Yap had become the major single source of copra in Micronesia, a radial point for trading voyages in other islands among the Western Carolines, and an important stop for trade vessels of all nationalities. Years later the island would assume further importance as a coaling station for Spanish and German naval steamers and as a cable station under the German administration. By 1885, too, Yap had been brought into the sphere of Spanish colonial rule as Madrid made a last attempt to assert its sovereignty in the Pacific against what it viewed as the encroachments of German expansionism.

Holcomb's part in the acquisition of Yap and the rest of the Carolines by Spain can hardly be called decisive, but he and Bartola did greatly facilitate the actual establishment of the local Spanish administration in Yap. Not only did they rally support for Spanish rule among the Yapese and thereby assure the new government of a good measure of acceptance on that island, but Bartola continued long after Holcomb's death to act as an intermediary between the Yapese and their Spanish administrators. Even if Holcomb failed in his quest for a fortune, he stands as an important figure in the pivotal years of the 1870s and 1880s on Yap.

CAROLINE ISLANDERS, 1878

Gouap [i.e. Yap] Island

All these Caroline Group natives may be described at once by saying that they are a little darker in color than the Chinese or Japanese whom you see in Australia. Many of them resemble the Chinese to some extent in the shape of their features, they are a medium sized race of people, on most of the Islands the hair of the men is as long as that of the women (say 2 feet) and whereas the women take no care of theirs, the men are very particular in their hairdressing and after carefully combing and oiling they tie the hair up in a knot over one ear, or on top of the head. The unfortunate women have to do all the work such as planting & digging food and fishing while the men do all the boasting and fighting, and they are perpetually fighting either with other islands or amongst themselves. On this island alone of all the Carolines, the custom so prevalent in Solomons, New Britain and the whole of the Malayan Archipelago-that of chewing the betel nut-is prevalent. The natives take the nut, which resembles in size & shape a green almond and roll it up in a leaf of a peppery or spicy taste, they then shake a little finely powdered lime on the whole and chew the mass; while chewing it, the crimson juice of the nut causes their mouths to appear as if filled with blood and the use of the betel-nut permanently blackens the teeth, not darkens them only but turns them as black as ink. Every native here without exception, man, woman and child (if over 8 years old) uses this nut, and the only ill-effect it seems to produce is that the teeth decay prematurely.

The natives claim that it is a pleasant stimulant and satisfies the appetite when they are hungry, but of course it is really only an acquired taste, and is not one whit more ridiculous than our civilized custom of smoking tobacco (of which custom I am I must acknowledge one of the votaries). All these natives are of a mercurial temperament, very quick to take offence and reckless of consequences when aroused; it therefore requires a little tact to deal successfully with them, but anyone accustomed to natives finds but little real difficulty if he is willing to give a little latitude to the natives and at the same time be always, prepared to resist any attempt on their part to coerce or frighten. James Lyle Young to his sister Alice,13 March 1878. Young Papers, MF, Canberra, Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, PMB 23.

1. Holcomb to his mother, Mrs Betsy Dean, 15 May 1867. C. P. Holcomb's correspondence is in the possession of Mr Louis Gutierrez of Buffalo, NY, who kindly made available to the author photocopies of all letters.

2. Holcomb to mother, 5 Jan. 1852. The Braganza, Capt. W. Devoll, returned to New Bedford on 22 Apr. 185,4 with a cargo of 198 bbl of sperm oil and 947 bbl of whale oil. Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery From Its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876 (Washington 1878), 466.

3. Starbuck, op. cit., 512-46, gives particulars of the two voyages of the ChandlerPrice. Crayton's older brother, Jay Newton Holcomb, was also at sea aboard a whaler at this time. Family records relate that he was lost overboard on 2 1 June 1859 while serving on the Java.

4. Holcomb to mother, 12 Jan. 1864.

5. Holcomb to sister, Mrs Arlesta Holcomb Gutierrez, 24 Mar. 1870.

6. Holcomb to sister, 22 Aug. 1871.

7. Holcomb to mother, 11 Apr. and 26 Nov. 1872; Holcomb to sister, 19 Apr. 1872.

8. Holcomb to sister, 23 Mar. 1873.

9. Dorothy Shineberg (ed.), The Trading Voyages of Andrew Cheyne: 1841-1844 (Canberra 1971), 270-8.

10. Ibid., 245-6. Spanish ships had evidently visited Yap even earlier, for William Cary reports meeting three Yapese living in Fiji in 1825. The three, who had been recruited at Yap some years before, took part in a mutiny against the captain of their Manila brig and saw him killed. William S. Cary, Wrecked on the Feejees (Nantucket 1928), 44-5. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help of Dr Saul Riesenberg of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, who first brought to my attention many of the sources cited in this article

11. Alfred Tetens, Among the Savages of the South Seas (Stanford 1958), 12.

12. Ibid., 69-70.

13. Russell Robertson, 'The Caroline Islands', Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, V (1876), 48.

14. W. T. Wawn's Journal, Wellington, Alexander Turnbull Library, M 1971/291, 95-6., 15 Tetens, op. cit., 64.

15. Tetens, op. cit., 64.

16. Ibid., 98.

17. Holcomb to sister, 27 Jan. 1874.

18. Holcomb to sister, 10 May 1875; Holcomb to mother,12 July 1875.

19. Aniceto Ibanez del Carmen, OSA, and Francisco Resano, OSA, 'Cronica de lag Islas Marianas', trans. Marjorie Driver and Sr Felicia Plaza, MMB (Agana, University of Guam 1970), 61. Depositionas given at an official inquiry into the Scotland affair are preserved in 'Records of the Spanish Colonial Government in the Mariana Islands, 1678-1899', Washington, Library of Congress, MS Division, Items 65 and 66.

20. Statement of D. D. O'Keefe, Encl. on judicial Proceedings in J. R. LeHunte to G. W. DesVoeux, 'Report of the Cruise by Huts Espiegle, io October 1883', Sydney, Mitchell Library. See also W. Muller, Yap (G. Thilenius (ed.), Ergebnisse der Siidsee Expedition 1908-1910, II, B, 2, Hamburg 1917), I, 4-5.

21. A. Kramer, Palau (G. Thilenius (ed.), Ergebnisse der Sudsee Expedition 1908-1910, II, B, 3, Hamburg 1917), 1, 151.

22. Godeffroy's extensive holdings at this time included a cotton plantation-which failed a few years later-and a slip for repairing ships. H.B.Sterndale, 'Memoranda by Mr Sterndale on some of the South Sea Islands', New Zealand, Appendices to the journals of the House of Representatives (Wellington 1874), A-3B, 24.

23. Holcomb to his brother Nelson, 29 June 1877; Holcomb to sister,12 Nov. 1879.

24. F.W.Christian, The Caroline Islands (London 1899), 262. Christian, who spent two months on Yap in 1897, notes that 'as white women in these parts are as rare as snowflakes in summer', the preference of traders ran towards Chamorro girls. Not only were they in good supply-for the female population of the Marianas far exceeded the male then-but they were reputed to make excellent housewives and were considered more attractive than the swarthy Yapese.

25. Holcomb wrote home just before meeting Bartola that, much as he would have liked to start a family, he was unable to do so 'as the women all refused me'. Holcomb to sister,10 May 1875.

26. Ibanez del Carmen, op. cit., 68-9.

27. O'Keefe to US Consul in Manila, 24 June 1887, Buffalo, Gutierrez Collection.

28. Holcomb to sister, 12 Nov. 1879.

29. Emilio Butrbn y de la Serna, Memoria Sobre las Islas Carolinas y Palaos', Boletln de laSociedad Geografica de Madrid, XIX (1885),106.

30. Holcomb himself acquired the small island of Rugur in Palau for trading purposes. Letter of Fr John Condon, SJ, to Louis Gutierrez, 22 Jan. 1970, Buffalo, Gutierrez Collection.

31. Terry is implicated in the seizure of the Inga according to the journal of Frederick Mallard, 'A Two Years' Cruise in the South Pacific, 1853-1855', MS, Dunedin, University of Otago Library. Other accounts of the incident, however, make no mention of his part in it: G. D. Jones, Life and Adventures in the South Pacific by a Roving Printer (New York 1861), 257; L. U. Hammet, 'Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.s. Serpent' in Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle, XXIII (1854), 66 and 190-1; 'Diary of Thomas Bowles, aboard Early Bird, Tanna to Hongkong, 28 October 1853 to 13 February 1854', Canberra, National Library of Australia, MS 2264.

32. 'Testimony of John McCuiness regarding charges against O'Keefe and others trading in the Caroline Islands', 5 Aug. 1882, Suva, Central Archives of Fiji, Records of the Western Pacific High Commissioner: Secretariat 1875-1914, Ser.4 (hereinafter WPHC), 152/82.

33. Russell Robertson, op. cit., 49; LeHunte to Desvoeux, 'Report of the Cruise by HMS Espiegle'.

34. El Conflicto Hispano-Aleman sobre la Micronesia (Madrid 1886), 134.

35. 'Testimony of John McGuiness', WPHC 152/82; Statement of O'Keefe, 19 Aug. 1883, Encls on judicial Proceedings, 'Report of the Cruise by HMs Espiegle'.

36. Statement of Walter Amery quoted in 'Report of the Cruise by HMS Espiegle', 30

37. An account of one such trial appears in The Hongkong Telegraph, 17 Apr., 18 Apr., 25 Apr. and 2 May 1885. Clippings of this and other court proceedings are preserved in Madrid, Archivo Historico Nacional, Ultramar: Filipinas, Leg. 5354

38. Kubary's testimony on O'Keefe's fair treatment of the natives was corroborated by James Gibbons, a West Indian who had taken up residence on Palau in 1850 and who was 'by no means on terms of friendship' with O'Keefe. 'Report of the Cruise by HMs Espiegle', 25.

39. Ibid., 31.

40. 'Regina v. Amery and Shaw', in Judicial Proceedings, 'Report of the Cruise by tills Espiegle'. The episode is also recorded with other observations on Yap in R. S. Swanston Journals, VI (entries 4-11 Mar. 1883), Canberra, Australian National University, Dept. of Pacific and Southeast Asian History, M 121.

41. Holcomb to sister, 24 Aug. 1883.

42. Holcomb to sister,11 Oct. 1884.

43. 'Statement of O'Keefe', Encls on judicial Proceedings, 'Report of the Cruise by tests Espiegle'.

44. The Hongkong Telegraph, 14 May 1885.

45. Holcomb to brother, 7 July 1882.

46. Holcomb to mother, 10 July1881.

47. Ibid.

48. Holcomb to sister, 6 Nov. 1884.

49. Holcomb to sister,11 Oct1.1884.

50. O'Keefe to US Consul in Manila, 24 June 1887, Buffalo, Gutierrez Collection.

51. Madrid, Museo Naval, No 785, ff 72-3, 'Instancia que promueven los habitantes de Yap y Palaos, judiendo se establarsa en aquellas Islas una autoridad española'. The petition, dated 29 Sept. 1884, was brought by Holcomb to Manila the following month.

52. El Con flicto Hispano-Aleman sobre la Micronesia, 89.

53. For a published account of the Velasco's voyage see Butr6n y de la Serna, 'Memoria sobre ]as Islas Carolinas y Palaos', loc. cit.

54. El Conflicto . . ., 88-9; Jose Montero y Vidal, El Archipielago Filipino y las Islas Marianas, Carolinas y Palaos, su Historia, Geographia y Estadistica (Madrid 1886), 485-7.

55. Jan Kubary, who was residing on Yap at this time, described these events in a letter to A. Bastian, 30 Aug. 1885, quoted in W. Müller, Yap, I, 5-6.

56. Analecla Ordinis Minoris Cappuchinorum, IIl (1887), 365-7; Manila, Philippine National Archives, Carolinas Islands: 1884-98, Leg. 12, 'Expediente promovido por el Gobierno General nombrando a Dona Bartola Garrido Interprete . . . 8 May 1886'. Bartola lived on in Yap well into the period of Japanese administration (1914-45), when she died a very old woman. She was reputedly buried on Yap, although no trace of her grave can be found today.

57. The account of Holcomb's last voyage and his fate at the hands of the Tench Islanders was retold for years by Yeloth, the Yapese native who served as boatswain of the Bartola on this cruise. Fr John Condon, SJ, to Louis Gutierrez,22 Jan. 1970, Buffalo, Gutierrez Collection . The commanding officer of the USS Ossipee, which had been sent to Yap to investigate the charges made against Holcomb by O'Keefe and Amery in Hong Kong there learned the details of Holcomb's death from Yeloth and another Yapese crew member of the Bartola. Cmdr John McGlensey, USN, to Mrs Manuel Gutierrez, 14 Sept. 1886; Official communication from US State Dept. to Mrs Manuel Gutierrez, 18 June 1886. Buffalo, Gutierrez Collection.

Inasmuch as the place and circumstances of Holcomb's murder were well established by 1886 and notices to this effect circulated through consular reports, it is difficult to believe that the warship Falke, which was dispatched to punish the natives of northeast Bougainville in 1898, was meant to make reprisals there for Holcomb's death, as is maintained by Kramer, op. Cit.,152, n 3.

58. Several newspaper clippings, the most recent from an unknown source with no dateline other than the year 1957, take up the story of the mysterious disappearance of Capt. Holcomb's enormous estate. They are contained in the Gutierrez Collection.

59. Manila, Philippine National Archives, Carolinas Islands: 1884-98, Leg. 7, Mariano Tomes to Governor General of Philippines, 19 Aug. 1887.

60. Bartola Garrido to Mrs Betsy Dean, 26 Aug.1886, Buffalo, Gutierrez Collection.


Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1975: 3-19. Also published in: More Pacific Island Portraits, Edited by Deryck Scarr, Canberra: ANU Press, 1979: 59-74.

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