Two different books, by two different authors, about exactly the same historical footnote in U.S. maritime history, published at almost exactly the same time? That’s got to be embarrassing for all concerned. I imagine Gregory Gibson and Thomas Farel Heffernan looking rather sheepish, feigning disinterest as they thumb through the reviews sent to them by their respective publishers, secretly eager to learn not only what reviewers are saying about their own work, but also how it measures up to the other guy’s.
At the same time, reading two such similar books at the same time can also be a very illuminating undertaking. Either version of the bloody 1825 mutiny aboard the whaling ship Globe would have been an interesting literary curio if it weren’t for this matter of the same book being published right down the proverbial street.
The story, of course, is essentially the same each time. Samuel Comstock, the real-life unruly offspring of Nantucket Quaker parents, goes to sea at an early age as much to stay out of trouble and find a constructive, parent-sanctioned outlet for his roiling delinquent energy as to seek fortune and adventure in Nantucket’s young whaling industry. The odd thing is, he hates whalers and whalemen and has nothing but ill-concealed contempt for both the coarse and uneducated sailors he’s forced to live with and the ship’s officers who make the rules and enforce discipline.
But he signs on for one last, fateful hitch with a strange and secret fantasy in mind. His plan is to foment a mutiny at sea, kill the officers, put the ship ashore on a South Pacific island, furtively raise a native army to kill the rest of the crew, and then get himself elected king of his private South Seas paradise.
It doesn’t quite work out the way he’d planned, but Comstock makes tragic headway nonetheless, dispatching the captain and his mates with extreme prejudice and taking command of the ship not far from Bikini and Kwajalein in the present-day Marshall Islands. His tropical paradise soon presents itself in the form of the glittering Mili atoll, but the dream ends after just a few days ashore, when Comstock’s fellow mutineers shoot him as he tries to lead the tattooed islanders against them. Five sailors manage to sneak back to the Globe and sail it, shorthanded, under-provisioned and without navigational aids, to the coast of South America.
This really happened, and when news of it got back home, the Nantucketers were shocked and aggrieved that one of their own—and a Quaker, no less—could instigate such a bloody uprising. “Samuel Comstock was a river running underground,” writes Heffernan. “[When it] surfaced, it was a river of blood. It had been flowing underneath appearances.”
Both Gibson and Heffernan outstrip themselves in prose. Gibson, as a whole, prefers the salty tang of seafaring and shipbuilding argot, and lards his descriptive passages with plenty of italicized terms for ship parts, functions and whale behavior.
Heffernan, on the other hand, taps into a rich vein of literary possibilities, alluding to everyone from Melville to Edgar Allan Poe to Hippoclides of the Histories of Herodotus.
Hippoclides, for those of you who slept through Classical Studies, participates in a dancing competition to win the hand of a fair maiden, but cannot stop dancing even when told that he’s overdone his performance and lost the girl.
The same might be said of the books themselves, as both Mutiny on the Globe and Demon of the Waters have become rather tiresome long before the narrative dance is done. Gibson, a specialist in buying and selling rare books and manuscripts relating to U.S. maritime history, has an ace in the hole with a rare manuscript written by a 17-year-old sailor on the U.S. Navy ship sent to capture the mutineers and rescue any survivors. He chooses a few key junctures to place himself rather brashly at the fore of his account (he also visits Mili atoll, which later became a Japanese garrison and was bombed to smithereens by American forces during World War II). Heffernan draws mainly on the other choice bit of source material: an imaginative biography of Samuel Comstock, including the mutiny and its aftermath, written some years after the events by his younger brother, William.
Read together, the books overlap quite tediously in some respects but complement each other nicely in others. Gibson goes into greater detail, for example, about the whale-hunt and the specific dangers faced by “...the six men on a splinter of cedar trying to stab a creature whose size and power were on the order of a steam locomotive.”
It’s a good story, but I was glad to be done with both versions. Still, who hasn’t dreamed about being the sovereign of his own Pacific paradise? Maybe, with the last of our summer reveries now under mulch, the two books aren’t so irrelevant after all. There’s always next summer, right?