In the Wake of Madness

I belong to a country that is known as “the Polynesian capital of the world,” where every Maori tribe can trace its origins to one of the seven huge canoes that colonized the uninhabited islands of New Zealand. As a child, I inherited Polynesian legends and superstitions; like my school mates, I readily believed in kehua, ‘atua— ancestor ghosts—and knew about tapu and sacred ground. I was raised in the ambience of Oceania.

That’s why, when I first began research on the grisly fate of Captain Howes Norris of the whaleship Sharon, who was hacked to death on his own quarter deck by three Pacific Islanders, who then tried to run away with the ship, I knew that most of the story had not been told. For over a century the accounts had been focused on the heroism of the young third mate, who had singlehandedly recaptured the Sharon, but no one ever investigated the forces that had driven the natives to their desperate act.

I found the answer in two journals and a long letter written on board the ship. The first was a journal kept by the ship’s cooper, Andrew White. My heart hammered as I read his misspelled descriptions of some of the most violent events on board. His grim revelations were too horrifying to believe at first, but opened up awful possibilities. Then, through the generosity of the third mate’s descendants, I read the private journal kept by the hero of the recapture—and uncovered the terrible truth of the tragedy of the Sharon.

Recent praise from a reader:

Dear Ms. Druett,

I just finished this. I am deeply moved. I read sea stories for entertainment, and have always accepted that the lot of people in old times was often very hard, and didn't worry about it. And you have made this a very entertaining story. But you have caused me to feel for these people, especially poor George Babcock. I don't think I will ever forget him, or ever read a whaling story without remembering him and Captain Norris. Thank you.