02 Jul Searching for Captain Marshall

If you followed my blog last year, you know that I spent 5 months in the Marshall Islands establishing the Marshall Islands Story Project. This scattered island nation lies 7,500 miles west of Baltimore and covers 750, 000 square miles of the mid-Pacific. I’m now writing a book about my experience there. To be thorough, I feel obliged to research the life of Captain John Marshall, whose name identifies these islands. But it hasn’t been easy getting close to this man’s life–he died in 1819. Next week I’ll go to London to see if I can get closer.

Marshall is an obscure figure in history and, though he apparently had a respectable career as a merchant marine in the 1700’s, there was no reason to name the islands after him. The first Westerner to “discover”the islands was actually Alvaro de Saavedra Ceron in 1527, when the Spanish were sailing all over the globe–an especially crazy thing to do because their boats were small and clumsy and nobody knew how to fend off scurvy and they had no way to gauge longitude, which meant they were lost half the time. (And they still believed in sea monsters.) Saavedra stayed with these islanders for several days and was treated as an honored guest. Their tattoos so impressed them, he named the natives “Los Pintados,”The Painted.

260 years later, when Marshall stumbled onto these islands, his chronicler reported that the natives “appeared . . .to have some ideas of civilization: all of them had decent coverings around the waist, and necklaces made of beads, to which a cross was suspended in the catholic style.”Was this “cross”a remnant of the long-departed Spanish?

You should know that Marshall did not
name the islands after himself. Upon his “discovery” in 1788, he named them after Lord Mulgrave (aka Sir Henry Phipps), a member of Parliament. Marshall knew who buttered his bread. One mystery I’m trying to solve is why Lord Mulgrave lost the name game. For a time the islands were called “Mulgrave’s Achipelago.” But by 1850, they were known as the Marshalls. Our long-dead Captain Marshall might have been pleased by this, but then again he might have been embarrassed too. I’d like to think of the Captain as a modest man.

In 1788, the year of his discovery, Marshall was sailing from New South Wales (aka New Holland)–which would be called “Australia” about forty years later—to China, where he was to pick up tea for the East India Trading Company. He had just emptied his cargo of 208 English prisoners at NSW’s Botany Bay. There were 10 other ships of prisoners in the convoy, unloading a total of 735 male and female convicts (plus 13 convict children). This was the first shipment of “transported” criminals to hitherto uncolonized Australia. It was a very controversial attempt at crime control in Britain, precipitated by the loss of the American colonies, which had absorbed 50,000 British criminals by 1775. We share this in common with Australia: ours was a country of rogues

The New South Wales’s “natives” (later called “aborigines”) were not friendly, by the way. Here’s how they were described by an 1837 children’s geography text: “The natives are small, ill-shaped, and among the most degraded of the human species. They have no regular religion and but a faint idea of a future state.”

Marshall and all the other captains were simply sub-contractors put in charge of the convict transport ships. They were under the command of a Royal Navy Captain, Arthur Phillip, and in the company of 197 Royal Naval Marines (with their wives). Nonetheless, it was a messy job–attempted mutinies, officers consorting with women prisoners, bouts of scurvy, all manner of disease and vermin. But by this time, navigators could determine longitude (with charts for measuring the travel of the moon) and the Pacific wasn’t nearly as wild as it used to be, thanks to the three voyages of Captain Cook, who was murdered by the Hawaiians just ten years previous.

In 1790, Marshall made the voyage again with the Second Fleet but had such a bad time of it (another mutiny and lots of disease), he didn’t do it again. The only reference you’ll find to Captain John Marshall on the internet is a Wikipedia article that claims he saw duty in both the American War for Independence (it’s possible) and the Napoleonic War (unlikely, given his age–it was a different John Marshall). It also claims he wrote a journal of his adventures, but no library in the world shows evidence of this. If anybody has the answer, it will be the British Library. That’s where I’ll be on Monday.