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Chapter 2 — MEN-OF-WAR
1. Naval Training

I HAD never wished to go to sea, but I had learnt to love its beauty — the seething phosphorescence in the night; the graceful curves of sails heeled over to the wind; the raging storm and those great straight roaring waves of the Antarctic seas; the calm and the fairy floating nautilus; and the shanties when we hauled the ropes.

But these belonged to sailing ships, and those craft were already on the wane. A merchant steamer was a very different thing and held out no attractions for me. Trading in the Pacific made some appeal. I had seen those white-sailed and white-awninged schooners in Sydney harbour; they were fascinating, and there were stories of kingdoms in the islands and of great fortunes to be made; but chances there were also on the wane. And anyhow I wanted something more substantial than playing with adventure. So now my idea was to exploit the Navy as far as the regulations of the Naval Reserve allowed; it might lead to something else.

The year of my arrival home was'87, the old Queen's Jubilee, when a great naval pageant took place at Portsmouth; and I got appointed to the Devastation

H.M.S. Devastation
click on the picture for the VIDEO

— as her solitary midshipman. When leaving Plymouth, the Ajax poked her long and vicious ram into our port quarter; —

— but, trusting to a collision mat and the bulkheads of our stout old turret-ship, we kept our way and trailed into Portsmouth with our afterdeck submerged.

My aim now was to do a year's service in the Navy; but the outfit would cost about a hundred pounds, and where could that be found? Not by my father; not by my cousin, who had already done so much for me. But I had a friend, who had given me a second home, treated me as if I were his son, shaped my manners with some severity, and showed me great affection. I owe him more than I can say. This was General George Roberts — an elder half-brother of the famous ` Bobs.' I boldly asked him for a hundred pounds on loan without knowing how huge a favour I solicited, for there was no security other than a life insurance and his faith in me. He was not well off, but he acquiesced at once.

I made my application and was appointed as Sub-Lieutenant R.N.R. to the Leander

— on the China Station with orders to take passage in the Impérieuse, —

—which was commissioned as the new flagship for that station. We put into Plymouth for a day or two. Anchored in our neighbourhood were three small white-painted cruisers under the Chinese flag and pennanted; they were Armstrong-built to the order of Sir Robert Hart, the Inspector-General of Chinese Customs, for preventive work; their four-inch guns were the first quickfirers of their size, and their officers were Europeans and mostly British. How spick and span and smart they looked ! The very thing for me, if only I had known of them before. A year or so later I was an officer in one of them, and fifteen years later I was the administrative chief of the fleet, of which they were a part. But I had no premonition of that as longingly I looked at them.

My year in the Navy was a very pleasant time; every one was nice to me. The fact that I was a reserve officer made no difference; if anything, I was given more consideration. Thus on the passage out when we annexed Christmas Island for the British Crown, I was one of those selected to form the landing- party — a very special privilege. I have no intention of giving details of that time, but there are two stories that I think I ought to tell. The first has reference to poor Cradock who met his fate at Coronel. He wrote a book — Sporting Notes in the Far East — and in it referred to the question as to whether Pincher Martin really shot the bear. I was with the latter when he did it, and so can solve that doubt.

At Karsakov in Saghalien Island, Martin, Foote and I got leave to take the torpedo boat we carried for a sporting expedition. Our destination was a river some twenty miles away, and, because we had heard of the great black Saghalien bear, the biggest and most dangerous in the world, we took between us two cylindrical bullets for our shot-guns, which were all that could be mustered. Martin took also a fishing-rod, also a rook-and-rabbit rifle with a tiny bore on the off- chance of seeing geese, and on arrival he hired a native boat in the hope of hooking trout or salmon. Foote and I landed some distance up the river on the reed-bound shore — reeds some twelve or more feet in height. We had no idea that to enter them without a compass and with a hidden sun was dangerous; we thought they were a fringe along the river side, and that we should get through them to higher land beyond.

But it was no narrow fringe, and we pushed on through the reeds until we lost ourselves completely, and had no idea of where the river lay. And then to our relief we came across a track of tramped-down reeds; but that pleasure was damped when shortly afterwards we saw impressions of monstrous puds and the still steaming evidence of some huge animal; it could be nothing but a bear, and we had heard that they were as large as donkeys and very fierce. So we held our consultation, and our conclusions as to probabilities were these: the beast was either making for the water or leaving it; they were inquisitive creatures, we had read; perhaps this bear had heard our torpedo boat and had come down to see what it was all about. So it seemed more likely that it was heading for the river; and it was the river which we also needed, so to follow on the track seemed the lesser risk. We loaded our chokes with No. 2 cartridge and our other barrels with those solitary solid shot; and as we walked along we wondered what would happen if we met the bear — the choke, we thought, at fifteen yards, so that the pattern would not be too small to blind both eyes, and then the other barrel at quite close quarters. But no such grand adventure happened. We had walked for an hour or so — our ears pricked for the sound of crashing reeds, which never came — when we heard the sharp ping of Martin's little rifle. Then suddenly the track ended at the river bank, and there was Martin in the boat wildly excited and pointing to the beach beneath the steep-to bank; we looked, and there lay a dead bear — as big as the brown bear one sees in a menagerie — yet it was but a cub.

Pincher Martin's tale was this: He was fishing, when the native got excited and pointed to the bank some twenty yards away, and there, framed in the reeds, stood a monstrous bear and its hefty cub. The effect on Martin was to paralyse him with astonishment and interest; he made no attempt to seize and load that little rifle; so he and the bears just stared at one another, and then they turned and went away. The spell broken, Martin loaded his rifle, though he did not expect to get a chance again; but he got it, for the little bear came back to have another look, and Martin fired and got it through the heart.

When we returned, the news of Martin's exploit had been semaphored to all the ships; for he was a character in the fleet — a wag, and popular. Now that evening there was an entertainment on the Constance, and a feature of the entertainment was a stump speech by an Able Seaman, blacked as a nigger; he made his topical allusions, spoke of the Irish situation, and then came his peroration,' But what is the interest of all these matters compared with that great question, in which the honour of the fleet, its reputation for veracity, and its sportsmanship, is now at stake. I need hardly tell you what that question is: Who shot that bear?' That was the sense of it.

Cradock was at that entertainment; I believe he was First Lieutenant of the Constance. The fleet dispersed next day, and hence the nature of the entry in his book. The other story clamours for a record as evidence of a mystery in crustacean life.

It was one of two things. Either the learned professor at the Museum, who was the expert on crustacea, was wrong, or I had told a story which had no foundation in fact. I maintained that at Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, I had seen on a coral beach a number of monstrous spider crabs with a span from claw to claw of not less than twelve feet, and that these beasts, while similar in general shape to the well-known abysmal macrocheira,

were yet materially different.

It is but eight years ago, so I must be discreet about the story of that interview. The professor plainly disbelieved me and I did not get the chance to tell my tale in full. The giant spider crab, he said, was always abysmal and could not come to land. I left him feeling crushed and took my grievance to the fish expert, who was kinder and tried to salve my feelings by telling me that, as an unconscious inventor of a fairy tale, I was in quite good company, and quoted interesting instances.

The story that the expert would not listen to is this:- The Impérieuse went to China by the Cape, and on the way we visited Mauritius. After leaving it there were sealed orders to be opened by Captain May, and these instructed him to annex Christmas Island, to forestall, it was understood, a similar intention by the Germans.

At that time the little island was uninhabited; it was mountainous, richly vegetated and cliff-girt, except where in a few places a combe ended at a coral beach. I was given the privilege of being one of the landing-party for the annexation.

A cairn, surmounted by a boat's mast as a temporary flagstaff, was erected over a copper case containing a declaration of annexation; a briefer statement painted on a board was nailed to a coconut tree; the guard of honour presented arms and the island became British. While the cairn was being built, Surgeon Wales, Midshipmen Field, Potter and Cochrane, and myself strolled to a part of the shore separated by a ridge of rocks from where the party were at work. Coconut palms and other vegetation came within a hundred feet or so of the sea, and that space was a coral beach with the usual steep-to edge.

On the white sand there lay quiescent a dozen or so of spider crabs. Lying on the sand they did not look so very large; their bodies were the size of a soup plate — I made this comparison at the time — and their legs were bent derrick-wise, with claws tucked under. Squatting thus they covered a space of, say, two or three feet in diameter. And then they moved. Their carapaces rose perhaps two feet, supported on their long thin legs of about an inch in width; they were smooth — or comparatively so — not knobby, as I later learnt the macrocheira to be — and in colour a translucent-looking green. Standing so, the articulation of their legs caused them to cover an area of about five feet in diameter, though with their legs stretched straight they would, I estimated, measure twelve. And then, with their long arms waving in the air, terminated by little claws not much larger than a man's forefinger and thumb, they advanced menacingly on us. We threw lumps of coral at them, on which they retreated slowly but still threateningly; I have an uncertain recollection of having broken the arms of one that was too adventurous, either with a stick or with my sword, which for a ceremonial occasion I may have worn. Half-way up the trunk of a coconut tree one of these creatures clung moveless and seemed to be watching the performance on the beach, and it crossed my mind that our adventure was of a Rider Haggard nature. We returned to the cairn for the ceremony, and my next recollection is that the cutter came round to the beach where the crabs were — presumably at the instance of the surgeon — and that under his direction we captured one — the smallest of the lot — and tied it up; we chose the smallest as being the only one we could conveniently stow in the wide stern-sheets of the cutter. It should be noted that the Captain and the other officers shoved off in a gig abreast the cairn.

Let me here record the names of the officers who landed.

There were: Captain May, now Admiral Sir William; Lieutenant Hewett, dead long since; Lieutenant Duff, now Admiral Sir Alexander. These did not visit the crab beach.

With them perhaps were others, but these are all my notes refer to. Of those who saw the crabs there were Surgeon Wales, no longer living; Midshipman Field, now Admiral Sir Frederick; Cochrane, now Captain retired; and Midshipman Potter, now dead.

There were conditions curiously adverse to notice being taken of our adventure. Normally the interest attached to visiting this little-known island would presumably have resulted in a day or two of exploration; but our deep-draught ship had found no anchorage, the waters were uncharted and the weather was threatening, so as soon as the ceremony of annexation had been completed we were hurried back.

The second adverse circumstance was this. On our returning to the ship we were greeted with the news that there was a case of cholera among the men; so Wales, the surgeon, would have no time for his specimen, and doubtless it was at once thrown overboard.

There was some anxiety for all of us, so what would normally have excited interest and perhaps have been formally recorded passed out of mind. There came, too, a time of quick-changing interests. Krakatoa, whose eruption a few years before had coloured our English sunsets, we passed close to next day; the Straits of Sunda and the narrow Banka Straits, tree-girt to the water's edge; then Singapore with social functions; Hongkong the same; and then Japan and the meeting with the fleet. There was everything against a record of our Christmas Island crabs.

Yet occasionally I told the tale, but always found it taken like that older story of the Barnacle Goose, which was seriously reputed to be hatched in barnacles growing on a tree in the Orkney Islands; and thus in time I grew to doubt my own veracity, and discontinued any reference to the story. But the doubt I had was never as to the nature of the crab but only as regards its size.

Years passed by — some twenty of them — and I was resident at Shanghai. Making my usual midday visit to the club, I saw standing by the bar — famous for being the longest in the world — an officer in uniform. Clean shaven as he was, the years had made but little change; for he was Potter. At once a memory of that beach and the realization of the opportunity to test my long-dropped story. I, too, was recognized at once, and with recognition followed eagerness on Potter's part and then his explanation. ` The chance that I've been waiting for for years ! No ! no ! if you are thinking of those crabs, don't say it yet; don't spoil the evidence. Hear first what I have got to say. I've told the story of that beach, and have never been believed. I've wondered if I had become an unconscious liar, and the thing's got on my nerves. Now write the size you say they were on a piece of paper, and I will do the same.'

We exchanged our notes. His size was eighteen feet. He was pleased with my evidence, but I was not so pleased with his; his exaggeration seemed to me undoubted, and, if so, might not I have done the same? However, the question was not so much the size as the nature of the beasts; on this point we compared alternately our memories. Yes, smooth carapaces, legs and arms, translucent green and claws quite small. And now, with this addition, I occasionally told my tale again and made a note of it, which forms the basis, so far, of the record.

A few years later Cochrane, then the Captain of a cruiser, arrived at Shanghai. His evidence was most unsatisfactory.

He remembered crabs and large ones. How large? ` Oh, about fifteen inches when spread out.' The story of the monster crabs he laughed at. Confronted with this discon- certing evidence, I wrote to Admiral May. He replied most kindly and regretfully to the effect that he knew nothing of large crabs having been seen on the island.

At this stage of my notes appear the words, ` What am I to believe now?'

As more years passed by, other evidence cropped up. At a garden party at my Shanghai house, the late Mr. Stephen — Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank — and I were talking of the war and the recent sinking of the SMS Emden at Cocos Island.


He mentioned that he knew Ross — the elder — the owner of that island. When I referred to the fact that Ross was reputed to have been the first white man to Land on Christmas Island, Stephen said, ` It is curious you should mention that. Ross told me about the landing and how he found traces of previous visitors; and he told me also about some monstrous crabs that had a stretch of at least twelve feet.' Later he remembered the following story, which he quoted as confirmatory of mine: In the Straits Settlements he had met a doctor, who had accompanied the first phosphate expedition to the island. The doctor, in speaking of the place, spoke of the beri-beri epidemic which had decimated the coolies, and went on to say that the most distressing feature of the affair was the inability to keep the corpses covered up, as the largest available rocks — presumably lumps of coral — were not heavy enough to prevent their removal by monstrous crabs and the disinterment by them of the bodies.

Again appears the note: ` What now must I believe?' Some years after, at the British Legation at Peking, I met Admirai Sir Alexander Duff, and he reminded me — I had forgotten — that he had landed on the island. Regarding the crabs he said: ` I was busy superintending the erection of the notice board and had little time to look about; I remember hearing that there were large crabs on the beach, but as regards their size I cannot say.'

In 1920 I took my family home via Suez. At Singapore we met the curator of the Museum, John Moulton, a nephew of my wife, and for the first time I had the opportunity of discussing my story with a naturalist. He took it seriously, urged me to represent it to an expert on crustacea and gave me an introduction for the purpose. Further, he found a volume of the records of the naturalists who had visited the island in about 1887, and we studied it. No reference was made therein to spider crabs, but much was made of Birgus Latro, the Robber Crab, of which a specimen was shown me.


My comment on that matter is reserved till later.

Arrived at home, I found that Field, then a Captain, now an Admiral — the only witness so far unapproached — was at the Admiralty, and the following are extracts from his letter on the matter:

I remember very clearly our visit to Christmas Island in the Impérieuse in i888.... I remember very distinctly the enormous land crabs. . . . I should say the solid part of the body ranged from 9 inches in diameter to 18 inches. . . I remember also that a party of officers obtained permission to take guns on shore.... I distinctly remember this party saying on their return that one of them had shot a couple of frigate-birds and that before he could pick them up they were captured by the crabs. . . . It is difficult for me to say exactly what the spread of their legs would be, but a crab able to run off with the body of a frigate-bird, probably with a wingspread of 5 to 6 feet, before a man, who shot it, was able to pick it up, must have been a very large and powerful beast, and I have no hesitation in supporting your evidence that, if stretched out to the full, the spread of their legs would be something approaching to to 12 feet, though in their ordinary attitude this would not be so apparent.'

Later, Admiral Field, having read the draft of this chapter, wrote further: ` You can certainly include what you have said about my evidence. . . . I have often told the story myself, and there is no doubt the crabs were there in 1888, whatever may have happened to them since.'

Let us revert now to the Robber Crab as recorded in the book referred to, and note the disconcerting facts about this creature. It is the largest known of land crabs and it climbs trees; but in all other particulars it is the diametrical opposite of the crabs I say I saw. Its carapace is long and lobster-like, its legs are short, and its claws are huge and heavy; it is a ferocious beast and eats anything that comes its way. Doubtless it was the Robber Crab that ate the Chinese corpses; possibly it was the Robber Crab that stole the frigate-birds.

Could it have been the Robber Crab we saw, and that by some weird antithetic process of imagination we converted its mental picture into its very opposite? It is possible perhaps that a phenomenon of this kind might occur in one; but how account for the evidence of Potter, for the story Stephen told, and now the evidence of Admiral Field?

It remains to be said that at the time of my visit to the island I had, to the best of my knowledge, never heard of a spider crab. I have a clear recollection of my astonishment some years later at seeing a specimen of a macrocheira — it had a span of fourteen feet — with its knobby protuberances: my first assumption that it was the crab I had seen, my disgust that I had so misdescribed it, and then my realization of it being of an abysmal nature and therefore of another species.

And now, what about it? It was one of two things, I said at the beginning; which of the two was it?

The evidence of Admiral May and Admiral Duff is neutral; that of Captain Cochrane and the expert is strongly adverse; but there remains the evidence of Admiral Field and myself, and there remains that of Potter and Mr. Stephen, which however is second-hand to all except myself. 1

1 — A new expert in crustacea reigns at the museum. He was good enough to read this story, was most courteous and kind, and told off an assistant to show me specimens of all the Christmas Island crabs, not one of which had the slightest resemblance to those I saw. But, alas ! he also put me in the category of those who unconsciously tell fairy stories.