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Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle - Samoa

Cannibal Jack Jones and the Beachcombers of Samoa


One of the most intriguing developments on Samoa, in the early period of post-European contact, began with the arrival of beachcombers; sailors who were shipwrecked or who deserted their ships to settle on the islands.

“…some were paid off at their own request; others deserted or were marooned; some were shipwrecked.” (1) But it was not only sailors who arrived, escaped convicts from the Australian Penal Colonies came too. “Captains who found themselves short-handed were evidently permitted to sign them [convicts] on as crew, on the understanding that they would be returned at the end of the voyage…they came openly as members of the crew, secretly as stowaways, or by purloining [stealing] small craft.” (2) As their ships sailed past the islands the convicts jumped ship and swam ashore for a new life as free men in what must have seemed like an island paradise.

Samoa island

The island paradise of Samoa. Photo source: Wikipedia

Regardless of how they arrived, this rag tag band of convicts, sailors and stowaways shared a common bond; they had “little affection for western society.” The feeling, it would appear, was mutual. The Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society described the beachcombers as “common sailors and the lowest order of them, the very vilest of the whole, who leave their ship and go to live amongst the savages and take with them all their low habits and vices.” It was said they could be found “often drunken, profligate and quarrelsome.” (3)

Reverend John Williams

Reverend John Williams. Image source: Wikipedia

One of these castaways, John Bow, had a reputation for going about entirely naked, and covered from head to foot in blood. Another of the beachcombers, Jack Jones, was a self-proclaimed cannibal who was said to have “eaten all his companions but one, on a boat voyage from Rotuma to Nauru” (4) and then “proceeded to kill off the beachcombers who had arrived there before him, poisoning seven and shooting four in a single night.” Jones was, by all accounts, a rogue. Known throughout his life by many names; John Jackson, Jack Johnson, Jack Jones, William Diapea, William Diaper and, most famously, as “Cannibal Jack” Jones.

“Cannibal Jack” arrived in Samoa in 1840, from where we don’t know, a wanted man on the run from the French. Charged with gunrunning and murder, he lived the life of a “truant and wanderer for over fifty years. Visiting every place in the vast expanse of ocean…adding up to a thousand islands and residing in nearly a hundred.” (5) Jack was often spotted ‘drunk’ on Kava after “imbibing the juice of that very lethargic root.” Despite Jack’s seemingly constant state of drunkenness, and some might say because of it, “Cannibal Jack” Jones worked as a writer. A kind of a proto - Hunter Thompson, writing journals for ship’s captains and adventure stories for the European audience back home. Much of his work is now, sadly, lost, but the foreword to one of his books describes his direct style.

“Cannibal Jack does not write, he talks: he button holes you, he belches in your face; when he is done, it is not the end of a book, but the stopping of a voice; the end of a bottle of whiskey; with a plate full of cigarette ashes on the table and the tropic dawn standing at the door.” (6)

One of the few pieces of Cannibal Jack’s writing that remains is from a manuscript written near the end of his life, and unpublished for more than thirty years after his death.

“Whilst I was enjoying myself as best I could, eating and drinking - drinking…in unlimited quantities and bidding fair to become quite a sot…alternated by mending muskets and amassing property, and living quite content with my three wives, one morning, or perhaps in the middle of the night, as it could not have been much past twelve o’clock, [the chief] Bonavidogo came along, rousing me up from a long sleep, telling me to buckle my cartridge box, and which, by the by, contained sixty rounds of cartridges, shoulder my musket and follow him for the enemy were astir.” (7)

And of course there were the inevitable shipwrecks. Jack was sailing to the island of Tonga with 25 in the crew. After three days sailing a fierce storm hit the boat; “…the main part of the canoe parted from the decking completely.” (8) The crew was washed overboard into the shark-infested waters and Jack, who had lashed himself to the deckhouse, was the sole survivor. Eventually Jack drifted ashore, dehydrated and delirious with sunstroke. When a local lady came to rescue him Jack swore she was an Angel. They later married and had many children.

“My acquaintances, who, by the by, seem to know as much of my antecedents as I do myself, have long since declared that I am the reputed father of 38 children, and 99 grandchildren, and so, that being the case, I shall in a very few years more be the great-grandfather of 999 - perhaps 1,000 - great-grandchildren, and if I live long enough for this to become a fait accompli…I think I shall then be entitled to gratulate [sic] myself on not having lived or written in vain.”(9)

The stories of the wild and drunken beachcomber provide us with a vivid insight into island life during the period of early contact.

The beachcombers typically spent years among the islanders. They married, fathered children and were adopted into local tribes. They learned the language, fought in local wars and wrote about the islanders’ customs and events. What one gets from their accounts, as scarcely anywhere else, is a raw and vital picture of life in the Pacific at the dawn of European.

“…They treated the islanders with friendship and respect…and their chiefs with the courtesy due to their rank…equally important, they readily assisted them with firearms in attacking their neighbours. As a result they were in turn treated by the natives, who could have overpowered them with ease, with the utmost kindness and consideration and kept liberally supplied with provisions.” (10) But, perhaps most importantly of all, unlike the Missionaries that followed them, the beachcombers arrived on the island “wishing to change no one.”

The castaways worked as translators, vital go-betweens with the growing fleet of foreign trade ships, as teachers, sailors and as warriors. During the beachcomber era in Samoa, wars were frequent. The beachcombers joined in and were formidable warriors. Reverend John Williams said of them “They entered with savage delight into the native wars, having muskets and blunderbusses with powered and shot.” (11)

What is clear is that the beachcombers could “enjoy for the first time a measure of power, prestige and even relative wealth” (12) such, as they could not have aspired to in Europe. They were outcasts in their own countries who had found a home in the Pacific and once they had settled into island life, they never wanted to leave. The ship’s journal of the HMS Zebra records the day they rescued Craven Nicholson, a beachcomber and the sole survivor of a wrecked whaling ship, “he was extremely anxious to return with the natives; in fact, he was so pleased with their mode of life, that he stated his wish to remain among them.” (13)

The relationship between the beachcombers and the islanders was, it seems, beneficial to both. The sailors gained the life they desired and the Samoans had access to new technology. Access to the beachcombers meant access to traders, access to traders meant access to guns and access to guns meant power over their rivals.

Along with the desire for new technology, and likely because of it, came a desire for knowledge about the Europeans’ religion. The Samoan chiefs began to actively recruit beachcombers and even kidnapped shipwrecked sailors, anyone who would “preach Christianity, baptise and administer the sacraments.” And so began perhaps the strangest episode in post-contact Samoan history, the advent of the Sailor Cults. But that, dear reader, is a story is for another day, for we have reached the end of this bottle of whiskey and the tropic dawn is standing at my door.

Featured image: Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle', John Curtis, 1838, John Oxley Library negative 31363, State Library of Queensland. Image source.

By Maya McNicoll


(1)(Maude, Harry. “Beachcombers and Castaways.” Journal of Polynesian Studies. 17.3 (1964): 254-293)

(2)(Pg 45 Smith Vanessa. Literary Culture and the Pacific: Nineteenth-Century Textual Encounters.)

(3)Garrett John. To Live Among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania.

(4)(page 119 Campbell Ian Christopher. “Gone Native in Polynesia: Captivity narratives and experiences from the South Pacific.” LOCATION Greenwood Publishing Group 1998)

(5) [Aborigines Protection Society] 1837:25; Sydney Gazette 19/2/1827; Cheyne n.d.:135; Fitzroy 1837:97.

(6) (Page 266 Barker Francis, Hulme Peter, Iversen Margaret. “Cannibalism and the Colonial World.” Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1998)

(7) (Page 173 Obeyesekere Gananath. Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas)

(8)(Page 267 Barker Francis, Hulme Peter, Iversen Margaret. “Cannibalism and the Colonial World.” Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1998)

(9) (Pg 44 Smith Vanessa. Literary Culture and the Pacific: Nineteenth-Century Textual Encounters.)

(10)(Page 725 - Ring Trudy, Salkin Robert M., La Boda Sharon. International Dictionary of Historic Places: Asia and Oceania)

(11)(Page 4 - To Live Among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania By John Garrett)

(12) (Page 129 Campbell Ian Christopher. “Gone Native in Polynesia: Captivity narratives and experiences from the South Pacific.” LOCATION Greenwood Publishing Group 1998)

(13) (Page 37 Richards Rhys. “The decision to Lotu: New perspectives from whaling records on the sources and spread of Christianity in Samoa.” Pacific Studies 17.1. Wellington. 1994)

© Maya McNicoll. Published with permission.



Maya is a Scottish writer, strategist and creative living in the wilds of New Zealand. Over the last three years she has embarked on an in-depth study of the archeology, ancient myths and belief systems of pre-Christian Oceania.

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