Friday, March 17, 2017


Photo credits : (L) Dave Lotz; (R) Angelo Villagomez

The northern islands in the Northern Marianas have served as convenient hideaways for people for hundreds of years!

As late as 1906, with these islands now under German control, several whaling men trying to escape intolerably harsh conditions on their ship, the Gotama, hid for many months on both Pagan and Agrigan.

It seems that the captain of the Gotama, named James Wing, fancied himself a tough guy, calling himself "Scar Face Jim" and a "Tiger Fighter." Wing was accused even of lacking mercy for sick crew members, dragging one sick teenage crewman out of bed with a rope! Though the ship made $30,000 one season from the whales they caught, the crew members were given $1 each for the entire period they worked. The deserters also claimed that the ship leaked, and that water wet their beds, making even sleep miserable for them. They had had enough.

So when the Gotama stopped at Pagan on April 29, 1906, they planned an escape. One of the deserters, named Gravenport, was taken ashore with Captain Wing, who wanted to deal with the islanders a bit. When he saw the chance, Gravenport ran away and hid in the brush.

Meanwhile, four others, named Halberson, Fowles, McCaffrey and Chambers, swam from the Gotama while Wing was on shore and also hid in the brush. They all waited till the Gotama sailed away. Then they came out and met the islanders.

The islanders, at the time, were both Chamorros and Carolinians, making a living mainly from copra, the dried meat of the coconut, which was then in demand. The five deserters were welcomed by the islanders, who were gracious and hospitable, according to the five. The five men got to working alongside the islanders in all aspects of island life. By the time their clothes had worn out (they had only the clothes they wore when they jumped ship), the five Caucasians were down to loin cloths, like some of the islanders!

When a Japanese schooner came by, the five decided to hitch a ride up to Agrigan, where they continued to live side-by-side with the people living up there. When the schooner came by again, with Japan as its destination, the five deserters left the Marianas for good. From Japan, they returned to San Francisco, California (one actually got off at and remained in Honolulu when the ship made a stop there).

A San Francisco newspaper announces the arrival of the Gotama, under Captain Wing, after a voyage of 29 days from the Okhotsk Sea (Russia, near Japan) in 1906

The really interesting question is : for nine months, these bachelor whaling men lived in Pagan and Agrigan, among Chamorro and Carolinian islanders.

Are there any Chamorros and Carolinians who are descendants of Gravenport, Halberson, Fowles, McCaffrey and Chambers?

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