Mutineers and missionaries
William Lay was barefoot, wore a loin cloth made of leaves and twigs, and was perpetually hungry. He had a long beard and his hair hadn’t been cut in nearly two years. William was trapped on a sparsely populated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, over 7,000 miles (as the crow flies) from Saybrook. The odds of ever setting foot in his hometown again seemed slim.
Three Lay brothers were among the founders of Saybrook and Essex; William was almost certainly descended from that family. A seafaring man, he left Nantucket in late 1822 on the whaler Globe, sailing for the waters off Japan. It would turn into a passage to Hell.
Apparently, the first year at sea was routine as whaling voyages went, but in December 1823, when the Globe stopped at Hawaii for provisions, six members of the crew deserted. The sailors hired as replacements included two troublemakers, Samuel Payne and John Oliver.
A month later, 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, these men, along with another crew member, Samuel Comstock, murdered the captain and the three ship’s officers. The mutineers, hoping to evade apprehension, set a course toward the Marshall Islands. William and the rest of the crew kept their heads down and prayed these violent men wouldn’t murder them, too.
When they landed on Mili Island, a speck of coral in the vast Pacific, their troubles had just begun. The indigenous people were friendly, but a quarrel broke out almost immediately among the mutineers about sharing the ship’s supplies with them. The dispute ended when one of the troublemakers killed Comstock, their ringleader.
After that, six crew members stole away on the Globe in the dark of the night, leaving nine of their companions stranded with no means of escape. The final catastrophe came when the islanders, angered by one of the sailor’s abusive treatment of women, killed all but two of the remaining men. Only William and Cyrus Hussey, a Nantucket native, were spared.
William later recounted his feelings of intense fear and loneliness. He didn’t understand the language, was kept apart from Cyrus, and was constantly under the scrutiny of suspicious eyes. He’d heard rumors about Pacific Island cannibalism, and more than once thought he might be on the menu at an island ceremony. One day when a ship was spotted offshore, rescue seemed imminent. However, when the vessel sailed on by, William was devastated. The islanders, who didn’t want any more intruders, were delighted.
After enduring two years of suffering, William and Cyrus were finally picked up by the schooner Dolphin, which the U.S. had sent to search for them. But before they reached the States, there was one more dramatic episode.
On the way home, the Dolphin stopped in Hawaii for fresh supplies. When William went ashore, he witnessed angry sailors from his ship physically attacking the Rev. Hiram Bingham and threatening his family, who were huddled inside their house. Hiram, a missionary who’d taken a stance against drunkenness, was the target of the sailors’ rage for coming between them and their rum. The intervention of some of Hiram’s Hawaiian friends saved him from possible death.
The perpetrators were put in irons on the Dolphin, and the next day Hiram came on board to press charges. This chance encounter between Hiram, from old Norwich and Saybrook families, and William, a Saybrook man, nicely illustrates the saying "It’s a small world."
Both men eventually returned safely to the United States. William and his fellow survivor wrote a book about their adventures, “A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board the Ship Globe.” Published in 1828 by New London printer Samuel Green, it became one of the best-selling books of that decade.
Hiram wrote a memoir, too, “A Residence of Twenty-one Years in the Sandwich Islands.” You’ll find both narratives online at Internet Archive, where you can admire their courage and enjoy the drama without experiencing the hardships.
Stories that may interest you
After a few tumbles and scrapes at first, I started to get the hang of it, and I was just hooked.