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Tuesday, November 14, 2023

"A Fate Worse Than Death"


c. Ron Druett 2000

 The new bride of Captain Alonzo Follansbee got quite a shock when she first viewed the furnishings of the captain’s cabin on his ship. It was May 1837, and she had just boarded the Boston merchantman Logan for her honeymoon voyage. This was where she was to live for many months —and there, facing her as she walked into the cabin, was a complete wall “lined with muskets, pistols, cutlasses and boarding pikes.” 

When she gasped in stunned surprise, her husband merely remarked in a casual fashion that the weaponry was necessary, as they were bound to the South China Sea.  And that was all the explanation necessary. Having read the journals and shipping lists, Nancy Follansbee knew exactly what that destination implied. So, being a practical woman, she took precautions—which turned out to be no good at all.

She found this out, much to her discomfiture, just eleven months later. The Logan was lying becalmed in the Straits, the wind having died. The sails hung as limp as washing on a line, and the ship rolled slowly in the mirror-like turquoise sea. If danger threatened, it was impossible to take any kind of evasive action.  Therefore it came as a most unpleasant shock at dawn on April 22, 1838, when the lookout suddenly hollered that a pirate prahu was bearing down on them.

Pirate vessel in sight!” he shouted. And when they all looked, it was to see the pirate prahu coming up with astonishing speed, paddled by lines of powerful native seamen. “Our cannon, swivel guns and pistols were soon got in readiness,” Nancy Follansbee wrote; “swords, cutlasses, boarding pikes and ammunition hustled on deck ready for them.”

By five in the afternoon the ship was still becalmed and helpless, and the pirates were less than a mile away.  Nancy, however, allowed herself to feel a measure of self-congratulation, because, as she wrote, she “had practiced loading and firing guns and pistols at targets all the way out.”  But that, sadly, was also the moment when she learned it was unlikely to do her any good whatsoever. Her husband grimly informed her that her marksmanship “would be of little use.” Even more depressingly, he went on to meditate in remarkably Victorian terms that once she fell into pirate hands, her fate “would be worse than death.” 

But, by the grace of God, she was spared that melodramatic fate—”a good breeze sprang up, and we were soon out of their reach,” and Nancy sailed on, to become the mother of the first American baby born in the Celestial Kingdom.

"Madam" Nancy Follansbee

The Logan

A transcript of Nancy Follansbee’s journal on the Logan 1837-39 is held at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

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