During the 1860s, a flamboyant American named Captain William Henry ‘Bully’ Hayes blazed a path across Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, he acquired ships through pseudo-legal legerdemain, vanished over various horizons to avoid large liabilities, got engaged to one woman, married another, was sued for abduction and attempted seduction, and managed a circus. In Otago, New Zealand, he continued his scandal-ridden theatrical career until his past caught up with him. In Nelson, he was accused of murdering his family; in Akaroa, it was claimed that he abducted yet another girl; in Wellington, he acquired yet another ship by nefarious means; and in Auckland he bilked yet another impressively large number of merchants. And throughout, his combination of flamboyant showbiz and commercial chicanery never failed to pull headlines, because his antics made such compulsive reading.
A retreat to the tropics was by no means the end of newsworthiness. Hayes went in for the disreputable ‘blackbirding’ trade — he was one of the captains who transported natives from various islands to the labour markets of Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa, the draw being the head money paid by plantation owners who were anxious for a cheap workforce. Some of the Islanders were happy about it — they were glad to escape the restrictions of the missionaries, and have fun and make money on the sugar plantations. Others met a miserable fate. Hayes, as it happens, was not one of the monsters of the business. Indeed, whether he was any good at it is open to question. In one of the many farcical episodes of his career he was arrested by a Samoan chief with a band of mighty warriors, who then seized his ship, along with the men and women on board.
Confined at large in Apia (because there was no prison), Hayes staged another of his breathtaking escapes, this time by absconding on a ship owned by one of the really nasty men of the time, Captain Ben Pease — and he rewarded Pease by stealing his ship, painting her white and giving her a new name. Thus the ship that had belonged to another rogue became the infamous Leanora. Hayes, as the raconteurs would say, probably chuckled as pirates characteristically chuckle. Dissolute beachcombers were picked up as crew, and all about the north-western Pacific lonely copra traders were robbed of their stock. No less than eight British navy ironclads roamed the seas in search of the notorious Hayes, but still he remained at large. It took a sailor with a grudge to put an end to the man, by knocking him over the head and then tossing the body overboard. Which should have been the last of the story — but instead Captain William Henry ‘Bully’ Hayes became the Pirate of the Pacific.
Not only did he become the Pirate of the Pacific, but he became the Romantic Pirate of the Pacific, the predecessor of Captain Jack Sparrow of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fame. Somehow, Bully Hayes has gone down in history as a famous buccaneer. No book about the Pacific is complete without him. Documentaries include far-fetched yarns attributed to his name, and fiction writers revel in bloodcurdling tales. No one is even sure what he looked like, and yet Hayes stars in a number of swashbuckling films. His name is used to promote shirts, pubs, restaurants, and exotic holiday destinations.
Throughout my writing life, I have specialised in the stories of the unusual people who roamed the world under sail — the captains’ wives, the children on board, whaling surgeons and female pirates, the Polynesians who sailed for adventure. Of these, the Bully Hayes saga has to be one of the most bizarre. Was he a real pirate, or just a smooth-talking crook who attracted sensational headlines? He never boarded a ship with a sword in his hand and a knife between his teeth. He never killed a man. He didn’t even drink! But still he is ‘the last of the pirates’, a legendary corsair, the leading man of a myth that endures today.
A friend in America said to me, ‘Bully Hayes would make a fantastic nonfiction book — if you succeed in the formidable task of separating fact from fiction.’ To which I lamely concurred, ‘There was certainly a lot of garbage written about him.’ So that has been my job — to sort out the facts by reporting what was written about him in his day (often by men with their own agenda), and to solve the mystery of his mythic status by exploring what has been written since.