The End of the Marco Polo
By Ed Staskus
William Murphy, Jr. was 21 years old the day the Marco Polo was run aground at Cavendish. She was a three-masted three-deck clipper ship built at Marsh Creek in Saint John, New Brunswick 32 years earlier. During its construction the frame got loose in a storm and was blown all over the shipyard when the wind kicked up. The skeleton had to be reassembled. After the shipbuilding was done the launch didn’t go well. The boat grazed the bank of the creek while sliding down the slipway, got stuck in a mudflat, and went over on her side. A week later a high tide lifted her up, but she got stuck in the mud again. Two weeks later she finally floated free and was fitted with rigging.
The big boat carried emigrant men and women from England to Australia for many years. She set the world’s record for the fastest voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne, doing it in 76 days. More than fifty children died of measles on her maiden voyage and were buried at sea. Coming back, she carried a king’s ransom in gold dust and a 340-ounce gold nugget. It was a gift to Queen Victoria from the colonial government. Pulling into its home port, the ship unfurled a banner claiming it was the “Fastest Ship in the World.”
The gold was delivered to the queen by a fast coach guarded by the King’s Men.
During the gold rush the ship carried loads of standing room only men to Australia. Nobody died of measles, although some of them died of bad moonshine and fights. Fire is the test of gold. Many of the men died of typhus, what they called ship fever, burning up in their hammocks in the South Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Tasman Sea. Many of the original settlers laying claim to aboriginal land, the oldest, flattest, and driest inhabited continent with the least fertile soil anywhere, got there on the Marco Polo.
When she was retired from the passenger trade, she was refitted for the coal, timber, and bat shit trade. The hull was rotting and wasting away. Chains were wrapped around it and drawn tight trying to keep it together. A windmill-driven pump was installed to send leaks back where they came from.
It was a late July morning, clear sunny warm after the storm that had driven the ship to Cavendish. Bill Murphy was in the dunes watching the crew wade ashore. They had been on the way from Montreal to England loaded with pine planks when they got caught in a gale. They plowed ahead but started to take on water. Two days later wind and waves were still pommeling them, and they were still taking on water. The ship was flooding from stem to stern and the hands couldn’t plug the leaks well enough or fast enough. The windmill blew away and the pumps gave a last gasp. Captain Bull decided to try saving the crew and cargo. He put the clipper into full sail and wheeled it straight at Cavendish’s sandy beaches.
The closer they got the better their chances looked until, three hundred feet from shore, he ordered the rigging cut. The masts groaned wanting to snap and the bottom of the boat scraped the bottom. Everybody stayed where they were, staying awake all night, until dawn when the storm finally wore itself out and they rowed ashore. There were 25 of them, Norwegians Swedes Germans. They were tough men. There was a Tahitian, too. It was the beginning of only his second sea voyage. He was barely half-tough but looked tougher than he was. He was speckled with tattoos and wore his hair in long braids tied up at their ends with small shiny fishhooks.
Lucy Maud Montgomery was a pale slim 8-year-old girl, her long crimson hair in braids with choppy bangs, when she and everybody else in Cavendish watched the crew abandon the boat. She wore a white flower hairpiece on one side of her head and took notes on scraps of paper. Nine years later her short story “The Wreck of the Marco Polo” was published. Sixteen years after that her book “Anne of Green Gables” was published.
Bill Murphy was hired by the salvage company stripping the boat. It was welcome work before harvest time. As soon as they started on the grounded vessel, another storm rolled in. Bill was on the boat and had to stay where he was. Trying for the shore was too dangerous. They battened whatever hatches were still left and spent the night being battered. Captain Macleod from French River showed up the next morning. The wind beat him back the first time he tried to reach the Marco Polo, but he made it the second time, saving all the men except one. He and his shipmates got gold watches for their courage. Bill went home wet as a wet dog.
He didn’t go home empty-handed, though. There were twin figureheads of Marco Polo, depicting the boat’s namesake, spearheading the boat. A man from Long River hauled one of them away and hung it in his barn. Bill hauled the other one away and hung it in his barn. It was the end of the road for the far-ranging ship.
Bill was back on the boat two days later as the salvage work went apace. He was taking a break on the poop deck leaning against a gunwale above the captain’s cabin when a young dark-skinned man joined him.
“I am Teva the Tahitian,” he said.
“I am Bill the Murphy,” Bill said.
Teva was the only one of the crew who signed on to help salvage the ship. The rest stayed in Cavendish drinking and chasing farmgirls. The Tahitian and the Irishman worked together for the rest of the week and into August. Teva told Bill he was putting his purse together to get to Maine and sign on as a whaler.
“My grandfather Queequeg was a harpooner,” he said. “He was the best in the world. You could spit on the water, and he could split your floating spit from the deck with one throw. He shaved with his harpoon and smoked from a tomahawk. He was a cannibal, but his favorite food was clam chowder.”
“He was a cannibal?” Bill asked, taken aback.
“Him, not me,” Teva said. “I never met him, but my father told me about him before he went whaling. He never came back, either.”
“They both went to sea and never came back?”
“Both, never. A friend of my grandfather’s stopped on our island when I was a boy and told us about what happened to him. He was a white man. He and grandfather sailed and slept together.”
“In the morning his arm was thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner,” Ishmael said. “You had almost thought I had been his wife. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian, I always say.”
Teva asked the white man what his grandfather had been like, what he was about.
“There was no hair on his head, nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead, large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold. He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had a creditor. His bald purplish head looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. His body was checkered with tattoo squares. He seemed to have been in a war, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his legs were marked, as if dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms.”
Teva lapped up water from a barrel with his hands and spat on the deck.
“Grandfather saved Ishmael’s life when their ship was head-butted by a white whale they were hunting. The coffin they had built for him when he was dying during the hunt was thrown overboard and Ishmael hung on to it like a buoy. He was the only sailor who survived when Captain Ahab the crew my grandfather and the Pequod all sank to the bottom.”
“Since your father and grandfather both went whaling and never came back, why are you going southways to take up whaling?” Bill asked
“It’s in my blood,” Teva said. “There will be blood.”
Every day when the day was fair and the sun shining families picnicked on the beach at Cavendish, watching launches with two-masted ketch rigs go back and forth, taking what they could to Alexander MacNeill’s for auction.
It was a Sunday when Sinbad the Sailor walked up to Bill Murphy, looked him up and down, and meowed. “They say our boat had no rats the whole last year,” Teva said. “This cat drove them off and those who thought they could stand up to him, they disappeared.” Teva tossed a piece of salt pork at Sinbad, who snagged it midair and gulped it down.
Sinbad was a two-tone Norwegian Forest cat.
“One of the Vikings brought him aboard,” Teva said.
Sinbad was a twenty-pound bruiser with long legs and a bushy tail. His coat was a thick, glossy, water-repellent top layer with a woolly undercoat. It was thickest at the legs, chest, and head. His ears were large, tufted, wide at the base, and high set.
“He’s a good climber, very strong,” Teva said. “He can climb rocks and cliffs.”
When he leaned on Bill and reached up stretching flexing his front legs, his claws extended themselves slightly. They were sharp as razors. Bill rubbed Sinbad’s head.
“He’s big enough to be a man-eater,” Bill said. “What’s going to happen to him when our work is finished?”
“I don’t know,” Teva said. “The Viking left him behind.”
That evening, when Bill was walking back to the rude shelter he had thrown up for himself behind the dunes, Sinbad the Sailor followed him. Bill put a bowl of fresh water out for the cat but left breakfast lunch dinner up to him. He was sure Sinbad was not going to starve. He was a vole shrew deer mouse snowshoe hare red-bellied snake widow maker. Even racoons, coyotes, and foxes gave him a wide berth.
Sinbad went back and forth to the boat with Bill the rest of the month and into August while the vessel decayed and fell apart piece by piece until a wild thunderstorm barreled up from the United States. It broke up along the coast, going down to the bottom of the sea, to Davy Jones’ Locker. It was the end of the Marco Polo.
When Bill packed up his bedroll and shelter and walked home, Sinbad walked beside him the five miles back to Murphy’s Cove and North Rustico. Biddy and Kate were shucking oysters on the porch, a pot at their feet. The oysters were from Malpeque Bay. Hundreds of boats were in the fishery there and at St. Peter’s Bay. Until the 1830s oysters were plentiful and few people ate them. They were spread over land as fertilizer. The shells were burned, too, for the lime they produced.
After the Intercolonial Railway got rolling in 1876 new markets for Prince Edward Island oysters opened in Quebec and Ontario. But oyster stocks started to fall and kept falling as more boats joined the harvesting. Oysters fled for their lives. They didn’t like being eaten alive. Biddy and Kate didn’t know anything about overfishing or the deep-seated fears of shellfish, and didn’t much care, either, so long as they got their fair share.
“Oh my gosh, what a beauty!” Kate exclaimed when Bill walked up to the porch with Sinbad the Sailor beside him.
“He landed here on the Marco Polo,” Bill explained. “The ship broke up yesterday in the storm and he needed a new home, so here he is.”
Sinbad walked straight past the girls to the pot and started pulling oysters out, gulping them down without a single word of hello.
“Hey, stop that,” Biddy scolded, covering the pot. “You’ll ruin your appetite, silly goose.”
Sinbad’s ears pricked up. He had taken goose for dinner last Christmas, and it was delicious. He shot a look in all directions. He didn’t see any birds, but had no doubt there had to be one or two somewhere nearby. He was by nature a nomad, but as there was a pot full of oysters and silly slow geese to eat, he thought, I’ll stay for the time being.
He was a back door man, but when the front door was wide open, that was the door he went through. God might or might not still believe in the garden path, but he was only a cat and didn’t know anything about the divine. When there was an easy way of doing things, that was always the way he took.
Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.