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The Strange Adventures of Captain Quinton

Lyle Zapato | 2013-12-05.0890 LMT | Cephalopods | Piratical Yarrings | Lost Worlds | Retro

'The Strange Adventures of Captain Quinton' cover showing man in diving suit battling giant devil-fish in sunken ship
(Click for larger cover and spine)

The above is the cover of The Strange Adventures of Captain Quinton: Being a Truthful Record of the Experiences and Escapes of Robert Quinton During His Life Among the Cannibals of the South Seas, as Set Down by Himself (1912).

It's the memoir of Robert Quinton, originally from Poughkeepsie, NY, who as a young man in the latter nineteenth-century dreamt of visiting Australia and did so, as well as other places around the Pacific. For over thirty years he worked on ships trading and transporting cargo and people, eventually gaining enough experience to be hired as a captain. Along the way he had many incredible adventures and met many different native people whose customs he details for the reader.

(Skip to the end for a free ebook version.)

As should be obvious from the cover, some of his more dramatic adventures involved cephalopods (that's not him in the dive suit, though). I found the book on Google (sans cover) while researching South Pacific tree octopuses (alas, none are in the book) and filed it away for use in a potential historical piece on human-octopus conflicts. I recently wondered what the cover looked like, and, well, it's wonderful and now I own a copy. So I thought I'd post a pic of it, review some of the interesting bits, and include additional information I found about Captain Quinton.

Captain Robert Quinton
Captain Robert Quinton: curio trader, adventurer, and proud binocular owner. (Click to enlarge)

It's an enjoyable mixture of action and amateur ethnography, if you overlook the lapses into patronizing views of natives and cannibal-sensationalism (or enjoy them ironically). It was published by the Christian Herald (located in the Bible House building, NYC), a religious magazine and book publisher, so there's a certain amount of obligatory reassuring of the reader that missionaries are making progress in converting the heathens. But unlike the somewhat similar Life in the Southern Isles, whose author was himself a missionary, Quinton is first and foremost a businessman-adventurer, so such pious interludes quickly give way to fending off pirates, hunting sharks, and obtaining native weapons for the curio trade.

The over-all narrative is mostly a sequential trip through his career, with a few fast-forwards when he needs details for some subject he's digressing on. Annoyingly, Quinton never gives the year in which anything happens to him. For instance, he mentions that he was at Krakatoa "only a little while" before it erupted (which was 1883). Most other events don't even warrant that level of temporal vagueness. The publisher's forward states that it's over thirty years worth of experiences, which would probably place the start of his voyages in the 1870s.

The Terrible Cuttle-fish

During his years of trading, Captain Quinton took numerous breaks to hunt -- and be hunted by -- dangerous animals. One episode involved him and some shipmates taking a steam launch down a river in India, shooting at swarms of crocodiles in the water and tigers on the shore. Another involved them camping out at night in the trees, only to be trapped by leopards and attacked by deadly poisonous snakes. But of all the dangerous animals he encountered, the ones that gave him the most trouble were cephalopods:

Poisonous serpents, man-eating sharks, and giant crabs, and all other enemies which a diver encounters sink into insignificance, however, when compared to the terrible cuttle-fish, or, as more generally known, devil-fish.

Like many non-scientists prior to the mid-twentieth century, Quinton has trouble keeping his cephalopods separate, conflating names and attributes from different orders (as well as calling them fish and, at one point, reptiles, albeit in a loose, pejorative sense of that word).

His initial description in the section marked "Octopus or Devil-fish" only refers to the "cuttle-fish", but matches more closely a giant squid: ten arms, two of which are longer and differently shaped; triangular steering fins used as rudders; "enormous black fiery eyes with white rims almost as large as dinner plates" that "shine like cat's eyes, and the lambent gleams which they emit often betray the creature's presence"; preyed upon by sperm whales and grampus (orcas); and the largest found was seventy feet and weighed two tons. However he also describes it as "lurking in a coral cave or among rocks watching for prey" and changing its skin color for camouflage -- which could describe both cuttlefish or octopuses, but not giant squid; and his descriptions of extra-aquatic incursions could only be octopodal.

Fear of the terrible cuttle-fish shouldn't be limited to divers, as Captain Quinton warns us that larger varieties "sometimes attack boats and endeavor to devour the occupants":

I have known them to suddenly board our schooner at night and drive all hands below, where we stayed until after daylight, because it was too dangerous to attack the creatures in the dark. It is decidedly possible that these ocean monsters have caused the destruction of many a small ship that has gone to sea and has never afterwards been heard of.

He then goes on to recount the great maritime mystery of the Marie Celeste (or Mary Celeste) -- a brigantine discovered adrift at sea with all hands missing -- and suggests that it could be explained by cephalopod attack. As evidence, he points to the fresh hatchet cuts discovered on the railing, as if someone tried in vain to lop off a tentacle. This was apparently a favorite theory in the 1900s (among illustrators at least), although most experts reject it since it doesn't explain the missing chronometer, sextant, captain's papers, and lifeboat.

Captain Quinton preemptively dismisses such criticism as the opinions of "a certain class of stay-at-home naturalists" and in a later chapter describes at length his own exciting first-hand knowledge of schooner-boarding, oar-stealing octopus-hordes, which I include in its entirety:




We were becalmed while passing through the Celebes Sea, and the vessel began to drift toward the innumerable small islands composing the Tawi Tawi group, at the southern extremity of the Philippines. Seeing no immediate prospect of a breeze, I anchored near a small island named Ubian, about eleven miles east of Tawi Tawi. The calm lasted for three days, during which time some of our party visited the main island; but we were anxious to get away, for this group is the headquarters of the most incorrigible pirates on these seas.

On account of the heat the crew slept under an awning on the main deck. Some time after midnight of the second night I heard a sudden commotion on deck. My first thought was that the pirates had boarded us. We rushed on deck prepared to repel them, but instead of pirates we beheld a wriggling, slimy object which resembled a huge serpent, reaching over the rail and clutching the arm of one of the crew. Instantly we knew it was the arm of either a cuttle fish or an octopus, and we attacked it with knives and cutlasses. But the flesh of these hideous monsters is extremely tough and rubber-like, and while we were hacking at it two more slimy, snake-like arms suddenly shot up into the air, where they writhed and quivered for a moment as if selecting victims. One of the huge arms became entangled in the rigging, but the other descended with almost lightning-like quickness and secured a death-like grip around the neck of another one of the crew. He would have been strangled to death if we had not severed the arm which was choking him.

Besieged by Devil-fish.

While this was going on, the monster drew itself up the vessel's side until its hideous head appeared above the rail. The huge, corpse-like eyes gleamed balefully in the uncertain light and its slimy, shapeless body shone with a diabolical phosphorescence. There was something indescribably hideous and repulsive in the huge, shapeless body with its snake-like arms quivering in the air, like the hair of Medusa; even the arms which had been cut off writhed and twisted about the deck like living serpents. Some one fired a shot into one of its eyes, and in an instant the monster released its hold and fell back with a loud splash into the water, where it lashed about in agony and disappeared in a long streak of phosphorescent light.

It took some time to dress the wounds of the men who had been attacked and we had scarcely more than got to sleep when there was a fresh commotion on deck, and the watchman sang out excitedly, "Plenty devil-fish come 'board!"

Again we rushed on deck where we saw a huge octopus lumbering about near the cabin door. Its long, sprawling legs were so bent, on account of their boneless, gelatinous nature, that its shapeless body was raised only a few inches above the deck. Before I realized the situation the creature shot out one of its arms and seized me firmly by the ankle, but the next instant some one fired a shot into its eye, and it relinquished its hold. This had occupied but a few seconds, and we were glad enough to jump back into the cabin, for the deck was soon swarming with the monsters and more were coming over the rail. I shouted to the crew to go into the forecastle and close the door, which they did. We could see the brutes crawling over the cabin skylight and hear them dragging things about the deck, but it would have been worse than useless to attack them during the night.

As soon as it was light enough to see, we opened the cabin door and looked out. Only three of the brutes were visible on deck, but curiously enough, a number of their arms were dangling over both rails, showing that the creatures themselves were hanging alongside as they are often seen hanging to rocks. After a short consultation, we made a sudden rush on deck and tried to cut off all the arms that were hanging on the rails, before attacking the three which were on the deck. But as fast as one arm was cut off, others shot up into the air and seized hold of the rails or rigging; and the water around the ship was all in a commotion from the octopi which were swimming around us and beating the water with their arms.

In the meantime the crew (which was made up now of South Sea Islanders) rushed from the forecastle with loud yells and began a furious attack with knives and hatchets upon the three which were on deck. The tenacity of the brutes was something amazing. They fought till they were literally cut to pieces, but we soon cleared the deck of them. There were still plenty of them swimming all around us and we tried shooting them, but the bullets produced very little effect unless they happened to strike their eyes, and it was nine o'clock before the last of the loathsome brutes swam away from our side.

When we had time to look around we were amazed at the appearance of the deck, which looked very much as if pirates had boarded us. Practically everything movable had been dragged overboard. The devil-fish had not only torn the tarpaulins off the hatches, but had also torn the covers off the smaller boats, broken the machinery of the launch and dragged the oars overboard.

The more I have thought over this incident the more strongly I am inclined to think that the crew of the Marie Celeste may have met with a similar experience, which in their case ended with dire results.

(The octopus-attack theory was apparently first put forward in 1904 by J. L. Hornibrook in "The Case of the 'Marie Celeste'", published in Chambers's Journal. The similarity of Hornibrook's and Captain Quinton's theories is, I'm sure, purely a case of reasoned deduction from similar evidence.)

In another episode, while serving as second mate on the schooner Coorong, which was trading in trepang and curios on Vanderlin Island near Australia, Quinton was spear-fishing at night with natives, when one named Yurragal was seized and dragged underwater to his frightful death by a deadly cuttle-fish. Quinton himself barely escaped the same fate when he ducked a second arm that shot out of the water to grab him. The natives could do nothing to help Yurragal since:

these savage fish have every advantage at night because they see clearly and then are particularly bold and brazen. Not only will they pursue their prey into shallow waters, but they will venture on to parts of the reef that are high and dry, shuffling about it with a clumsy gallop, the ugliness of which is impossible to put into words.

The cover illustration is taken from yet another cephalopod attack, this time on a sunken shipwreck near Woodlark Island off Papua New Guinea. The native divers had stripped the upper works but couldn't open the hatch of the cargo hold to reach the valuable tortoise shell and pearl shell therein. The captain of the Coorong sent a man in a diving suit, but the diver was attacked by a huge devil-fish and had to be pulled up in order to kill the beast as it clung to him. Later, a second diver (the first still recovering) was also attacked, but couldn't be pulled to safety since the devil-fish clung to the ship. A native had to free-dive down and stab it in the eye to get it to loosen its grip. The diving suit was damaged beyond repair by the sucker barbs and so the captain abandoned the enterprise, going back to the safer pursuit of curio trading with cannibals.

According to Quinton, devil-fish attack was an occupational hazard for pearl divers, who devised a simple means to deal with it: "It is quite common for a number of these savage fish to congregate in one place and render diving highly dangerous; in such a case the pearlers get rid of the brutes by exploding a charge of dynamite among them."

Another Controversial Theory & Assorted Forteana

The ship-ghostifying effect of octo-hordes isn't the only controversial theory he offers. He was convinced that Polynesians could trace their origin to the ancient Phoenicians and Hebrews, who traveled in three-year missions to Mexico and Peru to gather gold, etc. for King Solomon, establishing colonies along the way to process cargo for the fleet to pick up, and that the American pyramids were based on Egyptian architecture. He spends an entire chapter (XXVI) providing evidence for this, the principal points of which he enumerates:

Solomon derived most of his enormous wealth from the long voyages of his fleet. The combined Hebrew and Phœnician fleets must have gone to some far-distant country because each voyage occupied three years, and both parties were far too practical to waste three years upon a voyage if it could have been performed in less time; nor would they have done so unless the profits of the voyage were enormous. No other portion of the world has ever furnished such prodigious quantities of gold and silver as Mexico and Peru. The architecture, civilization, sun worship, human sacrifices, etc., of Mexico and Peru show unmistakable traces of their Phœnician origin. The immense ruins so widely scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean all indicate a common origin with those of Mexico and Peru. The Polynesians show beyond a doubt that their ancestors came from Palestine, for their traditions of the War in Heaven, the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Flood, the eight persons who escaped the Flood, the Twelve Tribes, the Story of Jonah (Naula a Maihea), etc., might almost have been copied word for word from the Bible. All the Polynesian traditions state very clearly and distinctly that their ancestors came from the westward in large decked vessels capable of carrying several hundred people. The Phœnicians were the only people of ancient times who made long voyages and planted colonies and trading posts in distant lands, though they were extremely secretive in regard to the sources from which they derived their wealth. The ceremony of passing through the fire is still celebrated as it was in the time of the Hebrew prophets and the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth still survives; for Hina-nui-a-te-Ahi, the Fire Goddess and Moon Goddess of the Tahitian fire-walkers, is nothing more than Ashtoreth, the Moon Goddess and Queen of Heaven of the Ancient Phœnicians.

By his calculations based on his own experiences, Phoenician vessels could travel from the Red Sea to Mexico in 120 days, and to Peru in 131. "All of which goes to show that the Phœnicians had ample time not only to visit the American continent, but also to stop and trade at many other places on the way during the course of their three-year voyages."

Captain Quinton occasionally delves into topics Fortean and cryptozoological. He mentions the Australian bunyip, but seems skeptical. However, he reports positively on the possibility of living mammoths in Alaska:

Curiously enough, all the natives of Alaska are perfectly familiar with the appearance and habits of the mammoth or mastodon, which the Eskimos call kelig' abuk; and they can draw pictures of it which look exactly like those which we see in books. In fact some of the miners who have penetrated far into the country go so far as to express their belief that living mastodons may still exist in the unknown interior. Quite recently dispatches from Alaska stated that the natives were greatly excited because they had seen one alive.

(Or maybe they saw one frozen while burrowing?)

Also in Alaska was the Silent City, a mysterious spectral metropolis seen floating in the sky over Muir Glacier, first spotted and photographed in 1888 by a gold prospector. Some claimed it was the result of a weird atmospheric phenomenon causing a reflection of an actual city somewhere else on Earth; but most settled on it being just a hoax by the prospector using an overexposed photographic plate of Bristol, England. Captain Quinton begs to differ with the latter explanation, since he had seen the City himself:

The strange mirages which are continually coming and going in the summer sky are quite as wonderful as the northern lights are beautiful. It is common to see ships reflected in the sky with such startling distinctness that they appear to be sailing through the clouds almost over the heads of the astonished spectators. It is common to see well-defined reflections of objects which certainly do not exist in Alaska; and none of these is more curious and interesting than the mirage of the Silent City, which not only is seen every summer, but has been frequently photographed. The Indians were perfectly familiar with this strange phenomenon before the advent of the whites, and gave minute accounts of "the city which was built in the sky." But the white men did not believe the story until they had seen it for themselves.

We saw it at about five o'clock one afternoon in the early part of July. It first appeared like a heavy mist, but soon became clearer and assumed the form of a city with well-defined streets, trees, spires, and large buildings, a city such as would number 25,000 or 30,000 inhabitants. It is now one of the recognized summer sights of the country, but it is well known that there is no city like it in Alaska, nor within a thousand miles of that territory. Some have claimed to recognize it as a city of Russia, others as a city in England, but the fact remains that no one can tell what or where it is. It does not appear to any one like a dead city and shows every indication of being inhabited.

A visit to the Eastern Caroline Islands hints at possible living relatives of the Homo floresiensis (or "Hobbits") of Indonesia:

Little People against The Giants.

On the little island of Nan Tamarui are the graves of the so-called Little People who lived upon this special island. They were very short and black; and when the ancestors of the present inhabitants dispossessed them of their land they retreated to their fastnesses in the interior of the island and maintained a long and desultory war against the invaders.

Their method of warfare consisted chiefly in making sudden raids upon the enemy, burning houses, destroying crops and canoes, killing every one in their way, and as suddenly retiring to the inaccessible fastnesses of the interior. The invaders, who were giants, made repeated attempts to follow the Little People to their retreats, but were so assailed from leafy coverts, which completely concealed the little war men, with sudden and manifold volleys of myriads of poisoned arrows, that the giants were glad enough to beat retreat.

The trail from Nan Tamarui to Ponial, where the graves of the ancient Little tribe are located, is almost impassable, and we reached the place at last and discovered it to contain only nine graves all told, and these were the resting places of distinguished chiefs, which accounts for their elaborateness and for the remoteness of them also.

Newspaper Articles About Captain Quinton

Lest one think Captain Quinton sprung from the fevered imagination of someone at the Christian Herald, evidence of his existence can be found in newspapers from 1890s to 1910s. These fill in some details and dates of events from the book, as well as extending his adventures. (Sorry, casual reader, for the info dump, but this mere blog post will be the closest thing to a proper biography of him online at the time, so I feel obliged to be complete. [UPDATE] I'll add updates as I learn more. [/UPDATE])

He first pops up in the Sep. 19, 1890 Daily Alta California at a Republican political meeting in San Francisco, his home away from the South Seas (all of this is [sic]):


The Doleful Wail of the Golden Gate Republican Club.

The Golden Gate Republican Club, an organization which, according to the statement of its veracious Secretary, Mr. Peter B. Gallagher, has a membership of 600 Republicans, met last evening in lower Metropolitan Hall. The club, on motion of Captain Robert Quinton, according to the statement of Secretary Gallagher, passed the following resolutions, a copy of which was obligingly furnished to the Alta by that gentleman:

Whereas,, It appears from the manner in dispencing out the Federal patronage that a secret understanding exists among the leaders of the Republican and Democratic partys, to the end that the favourites of both partys may be retained in office whereby encouraging a political Cast and a monied aristocracy And Whereas such action on the part, Of the republican Officials who are at the head of the various Departments is inconsistent with the republican platform of (1888) and also against party usuages and rouinouss to the party itself. Therefore be it resolved that we the members of the Golden Gate republican Club do demand of these various Departments (To Wit)

(United States Branch Mint,, Collector of the Port,, Internal revenue Department,, Appraisers Department,. Servour of the port., Navel Officer, and all other Federal Officials,,)

The Immediate discharge of all Democrats who now hold office outside of Cival service restriction. And be it further resolved,, that upon refusal of these said Officials to remove those Objectional partasans that we the members of the Golden Gate Republican Club, do solicite the aide of our sister republican Clubs to call a mass meeting to Denounce those Gentlemen on whom rests the—Responsibility As Traitors to the republican Party Villinaous to the cause of protection and determental to the Gubernatorial Campaigne.

(He's hunted both rhinos and RINOs.)

[UPDATE 2017-10-17:] In the 1891 Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners of San Francisco, the Park Secretary lists a Captain Quinton (presumably ours from the context) having donated "two plants from Samoa" some time between July 1, 1890 and June 30, 1891. [/UPDATE]

Misadventure of the Golden Fleece

But his fame really starts in relation to an imminent court case involving a trading venture gone sour and unpaid crew. On Aug. 2, 1893, The San Francisco Morning Call has him a week back in town, noting that "he has had some trouble with his partners which will be settled in court" before letting him explain the merits of trade in the South Sea Islands, some of the things he's seen there, and his intention to write a book about it all.

He obviously followed through on that last bit, and the trouble with his partners is recounted in the last two chapters: While on a trip to New York, he met two people -- referred to anonymously as a "country doctor" and "Baldy S." (real names Dr. Richard F. Duncan and William Vermilyea Smith) -- with whom he entered into an agreement to go trading in the South Seas. It quickly became apparent to him that neither knew what they were doing. Smith in particular seemed like trouble:

S., who according to his accounts had been at different times State Senator, a factory hand, railroad engineer, laborer, tramp, etc., was over sixty years old, rather corpulent and had remarkably short legs. His fat, puffy face was deeply wrinkled, while his pale blue watery eyes had that peculiar stare which seems to indicate an unbalanced mind. He was an inveterate smoker, was rather erratic in some ways, not the least of which was a desire for drawing public attention upon himself.

In October, 1892 the three signed up as captain (Quinton) and supercargoes (the other two) on the chartered schooner Golden Fleece in S.F. and headed off, having some adventure with bad weather, predatory natives, and a mission to seize a pirated vessel. They made it to the Pelew Islands (now known as Palau), where his two partners decided to take native brides, Smith choosing the twelve-year-old daughter of Palauan King Abbathul. While the two stayed on the island squandering cargo, Quinton was left to do all the work sailing around and trading.

They eventually left for Hong Kong where Quinton had had enough, sold out his interest in the venture, and went back to S.F. on another ship. Smith, now placed in charge, took the Golden Fleece back to Palau where things went even worse due to his mismanagement and eventual desertion of the ship and crew. Unable to reach Hawaii, the Golden Fleece ended up in Japan, crew starving, their ship in poor condition, and a hold of coconuts no one wanted. More details can be found in the testimony of the navigator that Smith hired who had to assume the duties of captain without the commensurate pay.

Captain Quinton was interviewed about the Golden Fleece affair and had some unflattering things to say about Smith:

"In some respects he was the most peculiar man I ever met." said Captain Quinton, "and in my judgment he was a born adventurer. Women, butter and tobacco, he claimed, were the only objects of God's creation worthy to be cultivated by any gentleman, and he managed to live up strictly to his principles in this regard. He had four wives and was seeking another, used butter on every article of food, including fruit, and managed to consume tobacco fifteen hours out of every twenty-four. I remember that upon reaching one of the islands of the South Pacific, Smith possessed himself of a rare bird of some sort and proceeded to feed it upon nothing but butter. The bird grew thin, and when some one remonstrated with Smith for not feeding it upon fruit, the latter asserted that a butter diet would make a songbird out of a turkey buzzard if only continued. His pet finally died, but Smith claimed it was caused by asthma or old age."

"Speaking of his passion for tobacco," continued Captain Quinton, "he would after smoking from morning till night place a pitcher of water on a table near his bed, and after filling the room full of smoke retire to rest. The fumes of the tobacco, he claimed, purified the water, which was only fit to drink when so purified. Before sitting in a barber's chair he invariably entered into negotiations with the barber, allowing him to smoke a huge pipe during the entire shaving process."

The skipper states that "Dr." Duncan did not remain with his comrade Smith on his island home, but returned to America, and has dropped completely from view. Smith in all probability is still devoting his undivided attention to women, butter and tobacco on one of the South Pacific island.

[UPDATE 2016-01-23:] Here's a longish article on the misadventures of the Golden Fleece, and Smith in particular. There are discrepancies with the later-printed testimony of the second mate (they ended up in Yokohama, not Hong Kong, according to him). San Francisco Chronicle, 1894-10-14, p.1 (paywalled link):


Bold Captain Smith and His Kingdom in the South Seas.

The exploits of William Vermilyea Smith and Dr. Richard F. Duncan as traders in the South seas in the queer little schooner Golden Fleece have been food for much gossip among the Samoan, Caroline and Marshall groups of islands in the South Pacific. The remarkable career of these men, who for nearly twenty months were supposed to be dead, and the voyage of the Fleece, which was some time ago posted by marine underwriters as missing, have been told by Second Officer George Ewart of the schooner Caleb Curtis and Captain Robert Quinton, the Fleece's skipper, to a choice circle of their acquaintances in San Francisco.

Ewart and Quinton, besides a number of other persons indirectly connected with copra and shell-bartering, recently arrived from Hongkong. They told the sequel to the mystery that has so long shrouded the voyage of the schooner, unfolding a narrative such as is not to be found except in the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson's South sea romances.

The finding of the Golden Fleece is in itself a news item of some importance. Columns were devoted to its strange disappearance by publications all over the world. Fully as interesting, if not so important, is the story of the versatile Smith, who, prior to his departure for the great unknown of the tropics, revelled in the distinction, according to his method of viewing life, of being the "many times married trader of the west."

To-day Smith is King of the Pelews, honored by the simple savages of the group, and the husband of an island belle who has not yet breathed the humid ozone of ten tropical summers.

Nor must Dr. Duncan be forgotten. His home is, or was, in Williamsport, Mass. It was there that he met Smith, who possessed the qualities of a scholar, a gentleman and a scientist of some pretensions. Captain Quinton, a bluff, honest seaman, tall of figure and rotund as a harness cask, left San Francisco three years ago for a voyage to Boston to visit his relatives. Among the retreats of the Hub, where people of the sea swap lies and chew tobacco, the captain made friends with Duncan and Smith, who were looking for a man well enough versed in South sea navigation to pilot them in a trading schooner among the rocks and coral reefs of the poetic section of the universe.

The preliminaries of the voyage of the Golden Fleece were soon arranged. Captain Quinton proceeded to charter a vessel for the trading voyage, finally securing the Golden Fleece from Wright, Bowne & Co. of San Francisco. Duncan seemed to be the capitalist. He settled all bills and paid the charter money. Smith elected himself navigator, master of ceremonies and leader-in-chief of the expedition.

Incidentally Smith found time to court a pretty Oakland girl, but before he got down to an actual proposal she flitted away to Los Angeles, leaving him to ponder over the first of his defeats at fair hands.

The Golden Fleece sailed from San Francisco with the two queer characters on board and went through to Samoa. She had in her cargo all manner of goods for trafficking purposes, but the twain did not understand the art of trading. They found more pleasure between decks dallying with refreshments than on shore bargaining for copra and cocoanuts. The trip was on long dream of indolence and enjoyment until supplies ran short, when a voyage to Hongkong was decided upon, which occupied about thirty-five days. On the trip Smith declared that after touching at the Orient he would return to the Carolines never to leave them again.

Dr. Duncan's coin was lavishly spent at Hongkong and quickly gave out. The authorities inspected the Fleece and condemned her spars. The result was that Duncan had to send to New England for a fresh supply of money, which necessitated a long delay. The new spars provided and the embargo lifted, the Fleece again set out with her prow headed toward the south.

Traders came and went from the South seas, steamers plied regularly between Samoa and other ports, but no tidings of the Golden Fleece were received. It was reported that she had been wrecked, and inquiry was made by her owners, but all to no end. The vessel had dropped completely out of existence, to all appearance.

Twenty months passed and the chooner was posted as lost. Smith and Duncan were supposed to be dead. All manner of rumors were circulated as to the probable fate of the craft. During that period Wright, Bowne & Co. failed, and the Fleece was figured by the assignees as a possible, but doubtful asset.

When the Fleece left Hongkong she did not have Captain Quinton on board as commander. He had seen how matters were going, and left her there; so Smith had to navigate her to the Carolines. The adventurers had a scheme to kill fish with dynamite in the Pelew group, and headed their vessel toward these isolated islands after leaving the Carolines. They voyaged about there for a while, and then suddenly took a notion to abandon the outside world altogether and live with the natives. At an island seldom if ever visited by white men they anchored their craft, and in a short time the ship's company was traveling about on terra firma, clad in grass cloth and gee-strings.

The Golden Fleece voyaged no further than the circumference allowed by the play of her anchor chain. She grew decrepit looking, and seaweeds clung to her copper in great bunches of slimy green. A year of unalloyed bliss, such as the doctor and Smith had often wished for, passed quickly. Duncan grew weary of lotus eating, and one night, with two natives who had sailed before the mast on the Fleece, he took a canoe and put off for the next island. He turned up in Paris a few months ago.

Smith laughed at his companion's desertion. He calmly smoked his pipe with the chief of the island, and assured that dignitary that he intended to stay right where he was for the rest of his natural life. The chief was delighted, and decided to offer Smith his youngest daughter in marriage, which he did with due ceremony, at the same time making the white man a big chief, with power to rule over certain islands in the immediate vicinity of the one on which he resided.

"King" Smith was inaugurated one calm, starry night before a crowd of natives, who had gathered in large numbers from the neighboring isles. The old King advanced into an open space, about which were grouped his naked subjects, leading his nine-year-old daughter. So the bold master of the Fleece was united to his child wife. The festivities lasted until day-break.

Another six months slipped by. Two half-breed sailors who has come from Hongkong with Smith had remained on the island with him, and these men he decided to send back to China with the vessel. He gave them two natives as helpers, and loaded the Fleece with cocoanuts and what food could be spared.

Imagine the surprise of the people of Hongkong when, just before the trans-pacific steamer Peru left port on her last trip toward San Francisco, a dilapidated schooner, her sails torn and rugged, her hull trailing with weeds and her crew half-starved, dropped anchor in the harbor. It was the long-lost Golden Fleece, and as soon as those who came with her could settle up their affairs they deserted, leaving no one on board the battered craft, which is now without any one to claim her.

The news of the Fleece's return spread rapidly, and with it the story that Smith is still a king among the Pelews, satisfied to live out his days on a coral reef, where winter never comes, and where nature makes it unnecessary for man to toil.


[UPDATE 2016-11-01]

Pen Name: Neptune?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 1895-10-30 repeated the details of an article published in the San Francisco Bulletin (can't find original online) under the pseudonym "Neptune", whose purpose was to "protest against the employment of unlicensed sailing officers and to favor a law providing a remedy, such as required for steamers". To illustrate the need for this, Neptune "charged that the schooner Moonlight, which sailed from Seattle to Honolulu about a year ago, carried as captain an illiterate hodcarrier named 'Ted' Simpson, whose whole knowledge of navigation was gained as a dishwasher on a coasting steamer." Neptune, "who it appears was one of the crew, states that Simpson claimed to have some wonderful method of navigation, wherein he used two sticks to determine a vessel's position. It is also stated that the terms used were anything but nautical and that Simpson once claimed to have seen an iceberg in the region of the Gulf of California."

The P.I. found that Simpson was in Seattle and tracked him down (or did he approach them?) for a rebuttal in the 1895-11-03 issue. He discounted the attack as a practical joke, called the claim that he used sticks to navigate as "silly" (instead he used two triangles, but refused to go into detail), noted his 12 years of experience, denied that he claimed to have seen the iceberg, and said he was ready at any time to pass an examination to prove his capability.

He did however acknowledge that "Yes, I have carried the hod, and would do it again if necessary to support my children, for it is no disgrace."

Before producing friendly letters from various authorities, he revealed Neptune's identity:

"I hired Robert Quinton as a common sailor, and once on the dock at San Francisco he called me a liar, and I slapped his mouth, and was fined $5 for it. Now he is trying to get even by writing for the papers about me. He was formerly master of the bark Equator, and on one of his trips to the South Sea islands ruined her owners. He also took the Golden Fleece to China, and left her. He is a regular sea lawyer, always making trouble."

The P.I. ends with a note that "several shipping men, however, say there is more truth than poetry in Quinton's letter."


The Prosper Didn't

In 1895 Quinton was hired to captain the Prosper to Alaska on a gold-hunting expedition. The ship's owner, F. C. Bender (referred to as "B." in the book), convinced eighteen men to pay $100 each (plus provisions) for a share in the venture, promising them riches. But it was a scam; Bender didn't know where to find gold. After a falling out over Bender's "rascalities", he abandoned them. They tried to find gold on their own, but failed, and so headed back to San Francisco. On the way, they experienced a hurricane, but survived. A day after they returned home, in an Oct. 4, 1896 San Francisco Call article about their expedition, the would-be miners publicly expressed their thanks to Captain Quinton for bringing them through all right. Quinton was apparently quite proud of this and reprinted a longer testimonial in his book.

The Always-in-the-Offing Expedition of the Mermaid

In a Mar. 20, 1897 Call article, Captain Quinton and Captain Alex McLean announced they had purchased the old whaling bark Mermaid (and intended to buy a schooner to accompany it) for a new South Seas trade venture to an island ("a new Eureka") Quinton had discovered, and they were looking for a "party of 150 men who are after money and fame." Quinton described the island as rich with valuable native woods, fruit, great herds of animals, "all the fish the heart of man can desire"; where copper ledges crop out all over, gold could "be found in the bed of almost every stream", and coffee, cotton, and sugar-cane grow wild. Also the climate was almost perfect. It included this interesting note:

This earthly paradise was discovered by Captain Quinton when as master of the schooner Equator he was taking Robert Louis Stevenson around the Southern seas. The locality will not be disclosed to any one except members of the expedition.

Quinton describes in his book being captain of the Equator, just prior to the Golden Fleece debacle, while it was "engaged in carrying supplies to the American missionaries in various islands", including the Gilbert Islands. This was the same ship and route on which Robert Louis Stevenson traveled in 1889 and wrote about in his In the South Seas. However Stevenson's book names Dennis Reid as the Equator's captain during his trip, and Quinton's book never mentions Stevenson, so I'm not sure what's going on. (The remains of the Equator are on display in the Marina Park at the Port of Everett, WA.)

[UPDATE 2014-07-02:] Here's another article (also dated Mar. 20) from the Apr. 2 Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu). It has most of the same information as the Call article, but includes this quote from Quinton allaying fears of cannibal attacks:

There is no particular fear of the cannibals. I have eaten with them. They live on wild pigs, game and fish, except when there is a battle, and then those slain are eaten just as if they were pigs or goats. Because they are cannibals does not indicate that they are going to kill you in order to eat you. Where we are going, however, there are very few natives, and they are not troublesome. We would out-number them and they would fear us.


Anyway, an Apr. 25 follow-up places Quinton's island in the Solomon group, and adds that the Mermaid was in dock for overhaul, the captains wanted 100 men who would each have to pay $100 to join, and that the ship wouldn't sail until May 15. A Jul. 12, 1897 article in a New Zealand paper still had them preparing to leave San Francisco. This is the last mention I can find of the venture.

[UPDATE 2013-12-07:] An article from the Apr. 23 Honolulu Evening Bulletin gives the name of their venture as the "South Sea Island Mining and Colonization Company". A share in the company entitled one to a bunk on the Mermaid and a promise of "a chance to be a millionaire". They planned to erect a sawmill on the island and build ships, beside agriculture and mining. The Sep. 9 Bulletin still had the venture in the offing. It doesn't mention Quinton and puts his business partner, Captain McLean, as head of the expedition, and adds that they had a schooner, Sophia Sutherland, which "will go armed and resist any British interference".

Alexander McLean was the basis for the antagonist from Jack London's The Sea-Wolf and had a history, before and after this period, of getting into criminal trouble for seal poaching and possibly opium-smuggling. In a Sep. 21, 1905 Call article about his arrest for conspiracy against sealing laws, he and his crew are described as as "choice a band of robbers and cutthroats as have manned a pirate craft since the days of Captain Kidd."

A 1907 article about the life of Alex "Sandy" McLean says that the Sophia Sutherland was built and owned by him and that in the spring of 1898 McLean was involved in a similar sounding venture, only in Samoa. Officials suspected he was using respectable business as cover for gun-running, but they couldn't find any evidence onboard. The crew consisted of McLean and sixteen "mechanics and small traders", whom the officials believed innocent. There's no mention of Quinton, and I don't know if he was among them or had severed ties with McLean before things got too piratey. [/UPDATE]

In Command of a Lightship

In 1905 Captain Quinton was given command of the lightship LV-76 (more info and a photo) with orders to take the newly constructed lightship, in company with its sister-ship LV-83, under Capt. Trott, from New York to San Francisco -- a 15,000-mile trip around the southern tip of South America. LV-76 was to serve as the west coast relief lightship while LV-83 was to be stationed at Blunts Reef (source).

[UPDATE 2019-01-12:] An article bylined by Quinton titled "15,000-Mile Trip is Made by Lightship" (and modestly subtitled "an accomplishment admittedly the most daring ever undertaken by an American seaman") was reprinted in the 1905-09-29 Black Hills Union and Western Stock Review (and marked as originally from the Pioneer Press). It explains the reason for, and details of, the mission, including a drunken fracas among the crew where the chef cut up several men badly in self-defense and the drowning death of Capt. Trott's pet bulldog.[/UPDATE]

Presumably to pass time on the long trip, a mate pulled a media prank by sending a letter to Baltimore claiming to be "Captain Moon" of Lightship No. 76 and that, while in the Straits of Magellan, they raised their anchor to find it plated in gold. News of this spread and when they arrived in S.F., Captain Quinton had to disclaim all knowledge of discovering gold. During his disclaiming in the lightship's dining-saloon, the culprit revealed himself:

"I'm the Moon that caused the excitement in the newspapers," bellowed the voice, "and it's all true."

Then a form in keeping with the vocal effort suddenly appeared, eclipsing the sun and darkening the cabin as his bulky and opaque body came to rest in front of several port holes.

"I'm the Moon," he repeated, giving his superior officer a look which on most ships would have led to the speedy appointment of a new mate. But Captain Quinton merely smiled a tired smile.

Moon acknowledged himself the author of the letter to Baltimore and vowed that what he saw was gold because "California Charley" told him so.

They also apparently stopped along the way long enough for Quinton to visit a native South American business office, whose strange customs he later explained to the San Francisco Chronicle:

South American Letter Press.

"Cigarettes and conversation, and ragtime dancing on ledgers," said Capt. Robert Quinton of the lightship Blunt's Reef, which recently completed a unique voyage of 15,000 miles from New York to San Francisco, "constitute the chief reasons why the races of South America are behind those of North America in all important particulars. As to the cigarettes and the conversation, I will arrive in a minute, but first of all I will speak of the ragtime dancing. In our business office in San Francisco when the clerks wish to take a copy of a letter or any other business document, why, of course, they take a copy in a proper and ordinary copying machine. But down in these South American countries when they wish to do that trick, why, the letter or other document is put between the carbon sheets in a big book, which is put on the floor, and then the clerks do a dance upon the book to take the copy. Say, it is the funniest sight in the world to see all those clerks, every one of them with a cigarette in his lips, dancing upon the books."

While back home in S.F., he commanded, at least briefly, LV-83 (I think) while docking (Dec. 28, 1905 Call):

Has Hard Time Docking.

The Blunts Reef lightship, which came into port the other day as the result of having broken away from her moorings, docked yesterday at the bulkhead between Mission street wharves 1 and 2. The lightship has no telegraph from bridge to engine-room and passing orders by word of mouth made the operation of docking a difficult undertaking. From wharf to wharf the lightship bumped. She knocked a lot of gingerbread work from the tug Pilot and so jarred Beadle Bros.' office as she caromed against the building that the clerical force deserted in a body and stood on the wharf pointing their pens menacingly at Captain Quinton, who finally worked his unwieldy charge to the bulkhead, where he tied her up.

At Home in San Francisco

In 1906, Captain Quinton's sister, Mary, moved from New York to live with him in San Francisco. Following the earthquake and fire of that year, the Call published a column of notices for missing loved ones that included the Quintons: "Anybody knowing the whereabouts of Mary Quinton of 1219 Mission street, (just out a month from New York) or her brother, Captain Quinton, will please communicate with Mrs. Belle Alison, Point Richmond. Trunks are safe."

They presumably turned up safe too. According to a short bio attached to a newspaper reprint of one of his adventures, by 1913 he had moved to Berkeley. The Archive.org scan of his book has a comment from a great-godchild of Quinton's confirming that he was a "longtime resident of Berkeley, CA, living with his sister Mary Quinton. Both Quintons died in the 1930s."

[UPDATE 2014-02-23:] The Feb 5, 1937 Berkeley Daily Gazette has an article about the death of Mary Quinton, who died four days after her brother, both from an unnamed illness. Biographic details: They were both born in Australia (not Poughkeepsie, NY, as Quinton's book might suggest -- they must have emigrated while children), and had no other relatives in the US at the time of their deaths. Captain Quinton never lost a life during his career. He was 82 when he died, which would put his birth in 1854-5. His last trip was taking a steamer from San Francisco to New York in 1906. He retired after the fire.

Their home in Berkeley was 2609 Fulton Street. Also, the Maritime Heritage Project's list of 1800s San Francisco sea captains gives Captain Quinton's pre-fire residence at 20 Clementina Street. It's now an underpass. [/UPDATE]

Excerpts with Illustrations

After the publication of his book, a number of excerpts were republished in newspapers and at least one magazine. Some of these have illustrations, which might be of interest:

  • Tiger vs Boar (Call) & Tiger vs Boar (Sydney Sunday Times, different illustration)
  • The Chicago Daybook (and others) ran an illustrated mini-serialization, with text slightly different from the book, from Feb. 2-6, 1914:
  • Wide World Magazine, Sep. 1914, "Our battle with the head-hunters", illustration by John A Bryan (I haven't seen this yet; Google has snippet-view only)
  • The only illustration I could find of his cephalopodic adventures was an odd 1953 Western Mail (Australia) retelling of the "horde of devil-fish" story above titled "Ogled by octopuses". I can't tell if it's written sarcastically, for small children, or if that's just how Australians in the 1950s wrote.

Free eBook

As mentioned, Google and Archive.org have scanned copies of the book. They also have OCRed versions, but because the book uses floating section titles, they are not very readable. Starting with Google's version, I've fixed the text and formatting to match the original and added a table of contents, cover image, and better scan of Captain Quinton's portrait. Here it is in the popular ebook formats:

End of post.