The Notorious Captain Hayes

The making of a modern buccaneer

Romance has imbued the stories of the Pacific ever since the day in 1769 when the first European seamen came home from Tahiti, firing the public imagination with tales of lithe bare-breasted girls beckoning seductively from groves of swaying palms. Tales of travel in remote, exotic places have always found an audience, and an enduring passion for stories about tropical islands in barely charted seas was triggered as amazing yarns drifted back from those who were exploring this great new ocean. The trouble was, the Pacific did not have a swashbuckler — America had Captain Kidd, the Caribbean had Captain Morgan, the Mediterranean had Barbarossa, and the Atlantic had Blackbeard, but the Pacific had just whalers and explorers. Though hardy and adventurous folk, they were not material for sensational headlines.

But then, in the mid-nineteenth century, Captain William Henry Hayes arrived.

No one is even sure what this American looked like, and yet his impressive physical appearance is part of the “Bully Hayes” legend. Most of the people who met him agree that he was six feet tall, and hefty in physique, that he had a bluff and hearty manner and a soft, persuasive voice. Otherwise, the stories vary. Some say he had blue eyes, others that they were brown. Sometimes he was bald, while in other yarns he has long, curling hair. Everyone agrees that he had a beard, but whether it was cut to a point (like Captain Morgan) or flowing down to his belt varies according to the narrator, and whether it was brown, black or gray is equally vague. What everyone does say, though, is that he loved women. Captain Bully Hayes had several wives on shore, and a harem of beautiful brown girls on board his dashing little ships. And they also say that he had a magnetic personality. Today they would call it charisma.
Hayes was accused of every possible kind of crime — seduction, rape, bigamy, blackbirding, barratry, horse-stealing, cheating at cards, and the murder of his own family — but throughout his remarkable career none of this was proved. He was notorious for sailing away from ports without paying his debts, but that kind of easy dishonesty was so common in the days of sail that a term was made up for it — “paying with the foretopsail.” It was a shabby sort of crime, and one he committed often, but not one to merit the “Bully Hayes” legend. Yet, though he never sank a ship with a broadside, somehow William Henry Hayes became the pirate of the Pacific. Wherever he went, headlines sprang into the papers. As hundreds of editors knew, everyone wanted to read about “the notorious Captain Hayes.”

“Romance is weaving itself around this picturesque character,” wrote a journalist for the Sydney Mail in 1928; “and it becomes more and more attractive as the years roll on.” Time has proved the writer right. Travel guides to exotic destinations like Rarotonga, Pohnpei, Guam and Hawaii all have some yarn about Bully Hayes to tell. Local histories of towns and cities in Australia, California, Hawaii and New Zealand never fail to say what Captain Hayes got away with there. No academic study of the history of the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand is complete without a mention. Some part of the legend is quoted in every learned discussion of topics ranging from the coconut oil and copra trade to European colonization of the atolls, political maneuvering in Samoa, the markets in Tahiti, the shipping trade in New Zealand and Australia, gold rushes in California, New South Wales and Otago, and the establishment of law and order.

His name pops up in popular culture, too. In Pearl City, on the Hawaiian island Oahu, there is a Bully Hayes club. In Fiji they brew a Bully Hayes hard cola, and in a Maryland saloon you can buy a “Bully Hayes” rum cocktail. In 1979 a racehorse was named after him, galloping on to make his owners a lot of money. In 1983 a film was made by Paramount, called either "Nate and Hayes" or "Savage Islands," depending on where it was released. Starring Tommy Lee Jones as the hero, Hayes, and Australian actor Max Phipps as the villain, Pease, it still has a loyal following. In 1986 the Federated State of Micronesia issued a five-stamp souvenir block of postage stamps commemorating Hayes, and on Kosrae Island the international airport is nicknamed “Bully Hayes Airport.” In the South Harbor of that same island archaeologists study the wreck of one of his ships, Leonora, while equally earnest parties scavenge the interior for the three chests of bullion that Hayes is rumored to have buried there. There are websites devoted to him. Courtesy of a restaurant called Bully Hayes Cafe, in Akaroa, New Zealand, he has a facebook page.

Somehow, the media storm this common crook created wherever he went turned him into the famous corsair demanded by the popular history of that most romantic of oceans, the Pacific. This is the story of how it happened.