IN MEMORY OF ALFRED RESTIEAUX
As told by George Westbrook to Julian Dana in "Gods Who Die" The Macmillan Company, New York 1935
My best friend on Funafuti-perhaps the dearest friend of my whole life-was Alfred Restieaux, whom I have mentioned already in these pages. He was trading for the big "German Firm" of Samoa, Der Deutschen Handels und Plantagen Gessellschaft der Sudsee-Islen zu Hamburg, commonly dubbed the "Long Handled" firm.
Restieaux and I both hailed from London-he from Somers Town and I from Brixton-and only two hundred yards separated our homes on Funafuti. Since he was the only other resident white man and we did not see a ship more than a half-dozen times a year, it was gut natural that our association would result in a lasting friendship. We were blood-brothers in a primitive land and the sound of the other's voice speaking our native tongue was a tonic to English ears.
Although we were opposition traders, business never interfered in our companionship. For the seven years and two months that I spent on the remote isle our ties were close and cordial-no rift occurred to mar our comradeship.
During the long, silvered evenings we used to sit together and smoke; our talk would be of the outside world and the daily island gossip - such as it was. At intervals Alfred would tell me of his past life and the strange trails his feet had travelled .
Restieaux's grandfather was a French nobleman who barely escaped the guillotine during the Revolution; penniless, he had fled to England with his young wife. Alfred's father was born during a very low ebb in the family fortune; he grew up in poverty, was forced to house-painting for a living, and finally married a servant girl. Alfred was born February 7th, 1832, in Somers Town, London.
But hard luck still dogged the expatriate family. The boy's father died young and Restieaux, at the age of twelve was apprenticed to the master and owner of a brig. This Captain was a distant cousin of Restieaux's mother - a brutal giant of a man, especially harsh in his cups.
The lad was flogged and abused unmercifully by this skipper; when the big man was tight he was a very fiend with the boy. On one occasion his conduct was so inexcusable and dastardly that his crew mutinied and beat him insensible - nearly killed him in fact. Many a time, Alfred, although only a child, was on the verge of jumping over the ship's rail and seeking relief in the restless waters. There must have been a fierce stuff of youth and living in him to have continued on ..
Finally the brig touched at the Cape; the desperate boy watched his chance and took it. Better starvation in a strange land than the evil bondage of the ship. Only when the vessel was hull-down on the horizon could he at last believe that he was free.
From the Cape he secured passage on a ship sailing for Australia; they needed a ship's boy and took him on. When this craft finally landed at Adelaide he was again at loose ends. While roaming the streets of the port he fell in with a man who advised him to go up country. "There's plenty of work and a young lad like you will get a man's wages," affirmed this plausible fellow.
It was agreed they should go together. The few pounds that Restieaux possessed was to be a common fund for the journey. With meagre swags on their bags the pair headed north.
The youthful Alfred was soon to find that his companion was a migratory sundowner, a wanderer always on the look out for work and praying earnestly that he will never find it.
After tramping seventy miles they arrived at a large sheep station; here Restieaux signed on as a hut keeper at thirty-two shillings a month. His voluble comrade melted into the Australian landscape at the mere mention of work; with him vanished the bit of money that Alfred had landed with.
Six months later the news of the first gold strike ran through the country like wild fire; immediately Restieaux gave up hut keeping and made for Kapunda a mining town to make his fortune. But gold was not as plentiful as rumour made it; he was very glad to get employment with a Mr. Whittiker, a publican, who also conducted a peddling business.
On his very first peddling expedition, Alfred was rushed by a fierce band of bushmen bent on spearing him to death and stealing his trade. Luck held with him; three bush rangers came galloping along and rescuing him at the moment when he had given up all hope. One of the aborigines attacking the boy was shot dead; the others managed to escape with their wounded.
The bush rangers were in a great hurry and decamped at once; they took with them an unwilling but not ungrateful guest. He was given a swift horse, and rode in their company for some twenty miles at a smart pace.
Two more of the gang then joined them; without pause the six went onwards to another hiding place. Alfred gathered from the disjointed conversation that his saviours were suspected of having waylaid and robbed a mounted gold escort some weeks before; at present they were hotly pursued by government officials.
For some two weeks he stayed with these men at their rendezvous. He found them goodhearted chaps, despite their lawless profession. During his stay they never allowed him to take part in any of their robbery or depredations. When, boy-like, he asked to join their bands, they refused him - said it was too risky for a young lad and that he should seek some creditable employment. After a month they decided to proceed to another colony and Alfred was allowed to depart.
Two of the gang were undoubtedly old lags and thought nothing of shooting on the slightest provocation. Another plainly showed himself a gentleman by birth and breeding; Restieaux never heard him used a profane expression or a harsh word.
One of these men was subsequently hanged in Melbourne jail. Three years later Alfred saw another member of the party, mortally wounded, brought into Ballarat for identification. But for the strangest coincidence of all was his meeting with one of his bush ranger friends years later; this man was trading on his own account for coconut oil on Arnho in the Marshalls. In the meantime this fellow had adventured in South America and had seen action in a Chilean war.
For a time Alfred wandered the Australian gold field and was lured by the yellow metal to every new rush. After one fair strike he sailed for South America. There he joined in the usual Latin Revolution and served in a Peruvian battery during two years of fighting.
But he grew tired of South American uncertainties - moreover, the course he championed ran out of gold - and he sailed to San Francisco. There he joined a party of teamsters who planned to cross the plains and mountains to Salt Lake City. This was some years before the Trans-continental Railway was built.
The journey was long and perilous. Indians beset them on one occasion and they lost eighteen of their company; Alfred himself was wounded in the melee by an Indian arrow.
When the worn and weary caravan finally reached its goal, Restieaux was greatly charmed by Salt Lake City. He stayed there for some time and never mentioned that he was a gentile if he could avoid it; the Mormons invariably addressed him as "Brother," and he regarded them as most exemplary and admirable people.
Brigham Young and many of the apostles were intimate with him during this period. Polygamy was then in vogue. The man whom Alfred sheltered with was a cockney tanner who had four wives; Restieaux averred that they got on quite well together.
For a time he went to Nevada City and prospected in the silver country. His luck was bad there and he finally drifted back to the city by the Golden Gate. There he took passage on a ship bound for Honolulu.
He had not been in Honolulu four days before he was approached by a firm trading in the South Seas. Two months later he was landed with his trade on the Island of Milli in the Marshalls. Restieaux traded there for nine months before his firm sold out to a Shanghai organization.
The representative of this new company was Captain Ben Pease a freebooting gentleman almost as notorious as Bully Hayes. Pease transferred him from Milli to Ponape in the Carolines. Alfred would have done quite well here if the Shanghai firm had not failed; little else could have been expected of the company placing its trust in a tiger of Captain Ben Pease's stripe.
To Ponape came Captain Bully Hayes with letters of administration - probably forged - and alleged orders to wind up the business. He took Restieaux aboard the ill-famed "Leonora" and gave him a promissory note for wages due him. A few days later Hayes landed him on Pingalap to buy coconut oil.
You are already familiar with Alfred's trials while waiting for the rascal's return. But when the "Leonora" finally came "off and on" again, Restieaux was forced to board her for the voyage back to Samoa. He had no other means of transport and he hoped to get passage back to Honolulu from the Samoan port.
The personnel of the Leonora at this time was a picturesque one: beside the Bully himself, Captain Eldridge of Ponape was mate, Johnny Kummerfeld second, Kai Su third, Frank Benson interpreter, and Bill Hicks was bos'n. Alec Strickland, Johnny Coe, and some Manila men made up the crew. William Lowden (Billy the Steward), Jim Garstand, Harry Mallond and the three Jack Smiths - Whistling Jack, Lying Jack and Scandalous Jack - comprised the Who's Who of the traders aboard. Mr. Alvord of Apia was a passenger.
Though bound for his home port, Bully had neither trade nor cargo in his hold. There was nothing to eat except bad rice, coconuts, and such native foods as the skipper could lay his enterprising hands on. So something had to be done. Hayes did it.
He promptly made some absurd charge against two Pingalap chiefs and held them prisoner until their people brought aboard a goodly number of coconuts. When this was done he released one of the chiefs; the other he took with him to Kusie, where all hands were set to making copra.
Later he returned to Pingalap where the remaining chief was held captive until a further ransom of coconuts and other island produce were sent aboard.
When this lucrative business was successfully concluded, he set sail to find Providence Island. This heralded coral speck had been discovered by the marauding Captain Ben Pease two years before and it was not yet marked on the charts.
Here Hayes found a very beautiful lagoon surrounded by a number of fruitful emerald islands. His piratical heart was delighted by the pleasing sight of these atolls loaded with coconut trees; the palms marched almost down into the surf and the nuts were thickly strewn about the ground, many even in a rotting condition.
No trader had ever done business with the natives and they had no idea of the commercial value of these coconuts. Bully first organized a man-hunt; all the islanders were brought aboard. These natives were divided into gangs; each passenger and member of the crew took command of a shore party and took them to work on a separate island. Only Hayes and Mr. Alvord remained on board.
Fifty tons of copra were made in six weeks through Bully pressing the islanders. He also sent out parties who collected and dried fish; in addition, some hundreds of robber-crabs were shipped and set loose among the copra.
Then Hayes called in at several of the Line Islands before continuing directly on to Apia. En route he managed to get rid of Benson, Billy, and the three famous Jacks; to each of these he gave promissory notes payable three months from date.
Restieaux said that every crime was committed on that ship except murder, and that, if Bully had killed the Manila native whose jaw he broke with the belaying-pin, murder would have been added to the list.
Alfred was mightily relieved when he walked off the"Leonora's" deck at Apia. Needless to say, he never got his promissory note cashed. He was soon employed by the John Caesar Godefroy Company to trade for them in the Ellice and was successfully in business on Nukufetau in a short time.
After my departure from Funafuti our close friendship became a matter of letter-writing because of the hindering miles. I missed his comradeship and gentle philosophy, our long talks in the tropic night, our little human confidences so solemnly exchanged. It is true that Alfred Restieaux had his faults but I loved him the more because of them. He was honourable, loyal, generous and kind; there is little more that one can find in a friend.
For the last five years of his life he sat in darkness; daily his sightless eyes looked out on the remembered blue of his lagoon. Yet he was always smiling, the gentle smile that I recall so well. It was on Christmas Day, 1911, that the Samoa Trading and Shipping steamer Dawn brought me news of Alfred's death at Nukufetau, in November . Aloha, old friend, may we meet again in the Blessed Isles, and may they be Happier Islands than we knew in the Vanished Years.
Once in a while one wonders
What your life was all about
From a land so far you started to roam
And never once did you ever go home.
You were but a lad when you went to sea
To Australia, America and the Pacific Isles
In search of excitement and adventure
Across those vast and distant miles.
Why you started to wander we will never know
Did the lure of the Pacific Islands not let you go?
Perhaps your home was somehow amiss?
These are the things that we can only guess.
The places you saw on your worldwide jaunt
Perhaps your memory would always haunt
So you died away on a distant shore
Among the family that you did adore.
The sweet memory of you will always remain
Where the sea breezes blow with gentle refrain
And gentle waves lap on sandy shores
You will be remembered forever more.
Yet we still wonder about your life
The things you did and what you were like
Perhaps one day our souls will meet
And all will be told at the end of the street.