Eric Pearson's appointment to "Puako"

Unearthed from the US National Archives by the redoubtable Kay Gibson during her researches for her book concerning "Hellfire" Pedersen (among others), this is a verbatim transcription of a letter from G.H. Murphy, the American Consul-General in Cape Town in 1918, to the US Secretary of State in Washington, which throws considerable light on the circumstances of Eric Pearson's appointment as master of "Puako". Mr Murphy was so stirred by one particular phrase in one of the telegrams he received from the ship's owners (Hind, Rolph, & Co.) that he wrote this letter quoting the complete exchange of telegrams relating to the affair. Perhaps he was trying to ensure that any potential fallout from the events leading to the appointment did not reflect badly upon himself or the local agents, or maybe he was incensed enough to want to bring the apparent bad grace of the owners to further scrutiny. In any event we are fortunate that Rolph included the phrase because without it I feel that the letter would never have been written, and the events lost to history.

Study of the letter shows with little doubt that Eric Pearson was well aware of the strength of his position as being the only suitable man on the spot to command "Puako", and used that fact to negotiate extremely favourable terms and conditions with the owners' agents and Mr Murphy. As near as I can determine in today's money his deal was worth in excess of £5,000 per month, with an end of voyage payout of more than £10,000 to cover wages and expenses for his return to the Cape - no wonder Rolph squealed!

As ever, my grateful thanks to Kay Gibson of Maine for providing me with this stunning bit of history:


Cape Town, South Africa, November 6, 1918

SUBJECT: Apparent Dissatisfaction on the Part of the Owners of the American Barkentine "Puako"




    I have the honor to quote, for the information of the Department, a telegram received by me, on the 4th instant, from the owners of the American barkentine "Puako" whose master and two mates are to be sent to the United States for trial as soon as the opportunity can be found for their transportation:

"San Francisco, October 25th.

    Replying to your telegram just received, have telegraphed captain of sailing ship Lahaina, Durban, instructions to send his mate, if competent, to take command of Puako.
Captain of Lahaina will inform you whether or not mate is being sent. If he is not sent you may engage captain as per your telegram of - -. For your confidential information we consider we are being held up." (The underlining is mine. G.H.M)

    The above telegram is apparently a reply to a telegram prepared and sent over my signature on October 15th by the owners' agents at Cape Town, Messrs. Purcell, Yallop, and Everett, after such agents had arranged terms with Captain Eric Pearson, a British subject, whom I shipped on October 1st as master at the time of the discharge of the former master, A.C.Pedersen, under instructions from the Department. As the ship could not be left without some responsible person left in charge, I on October 1st shipped Captain Pearson as master, in order to protect the company in San Francisco.
The complete correspondence between the owners and this office is as follows:

1.-     From owners, September 14th. (Received September 16th)
Informed by Secretary State that master and mates our barkentine 'Puako' held Capetown under charges, and that advisable procure substitutes. Is it possible to secure them anywhere in South Africa for voyage home? Reply.- - Rolph"

    (I at once made telegraphic enquiries as far up the coast as Lorenco Marques, and received negative replies. I found, however, that the British master, Eric Pearson, was available at Cape Town. - G.H.M.)

2.-     To owners, September 18:
Yours 14th. Master, mates, available if acceptable salary offered master until return Capetown. State maximum prepared pay, and authority to employ. - American Consul-General"

    (Having on September 28th received no reply from the owners, another telegram was sent as follows.- G.H.M.)

3.-    To owners, September 28:
Urgent. Await reply mine 18th stating new master, mates, available, asking what salary you are prepared to pay the new master Cape Town (to) San Francisco and return (to) Capetown, and asking your approval his shipment. Have discharged nine seamen but delaying discharge master, mates, two seamen, pending your reply or Department's instructions.- American Consul-General"

    (The owners have never answered the inquiry as to what they were prepared to pay the new master for his journey from Cape Town to San Francisco and thence back to Cape Town.- G.H.M.)

4.-     From owners, October 8th (Received October 10th)
Your telegram received. Expect send definite reply soon.- Rolph"

5.-     From owners, October 10th. (Received October 12th)
Authorize engaging master new crew best terms possible. Instructing Purcell act as agents, pay disbursements, and despatch vessel Sydney, where loads for Seattle. Will relieve master Sydney and return him to Capetown, unless prefers continue Seattle, but in that event wages cease Seattle and no transportation given to Capetown. Cable arrangements made. Cooperate with Purcell.- Rolph"

    (Upon receipt of this telegram, I at once consulted the owners' agents here, who had discussed terms with Captain Pearson. The latter is reported to be an exceptionally able master and is himself the owner of several vessels. Moreover he was the only master known to be available here, except an old man whom the agents did not think it in the owners' interest to consider. Consequently the owners' agents prepared and sent over my signature the following telegram, to which the telegram from the owners quoted at the beginning of this letter was a reply.- G.H.M.)

6.-     To the owners, October 15th:
Captain asks £100 per month, signing off in Seattle. Then £200 for the salary and travelling expenses return here. Cannot arrange leave from Sydney. Only suitable Captain available. Immediate reply necessary.- MURPHY"

    (On October 19th, having observed that the telegram of October 15th was not signed by me officially, and thinking it possible that the owners might be in doubt as to the identity of "Murphy", I sent the following message at my own expense.- G.H.M.)
Telegram 15th signed Murphy was from me .- American Consul".

7.-     (In answer to the owners telegram of October 25th, the following, presumably final telegram was sent.- G.H.M.)
Yours 25th. Received today. Master Lahaina telegraphs 'Mate Lahaina incompetent take charge Puako'. Your agents therefore say Puako leaving Capetown 6th Sydney under British master shipped October 1st replacing Pedersen.- American Consul".

    I quote these telegrams in full, in view of the final sentence in the owners' last telegram, which seems to me un-appreciative of the efforts which have been made by me and their agents: "For you confidential information we consider that we are being held up."
Probably the meaning is that they consider Captain Pearson's terms too high, but they undoubtedly know that masters are receiving abnormally high wages during the war. Moreover, it would cost them very much more if they held the ship here until they could send a master from the United States to take charge. Furthermore, as the agents could suggest no one else, Captain Pearson was the only master available, in view of the adverse telegram from the master of the Lahaina in regard to the incompetency of his mate.
If the meaning of the owners' statement quoted above is that the "Puako" has been detained here for an unnecessarily long period of time since the discharge of Captain Pedersen on October 1st, I must emphatically disclaim any responsibility for this on my part or on the part of the owners' agents. The telegrams quoted above show that I asked the agents as long ago as September 18th what wages they were prepared to pay, an enquiry which they have never answered. The delay is perhaps partly due to the abnormally long time taken for the delivery of telegrams during the war, but I think an inspection of the dates of the telegrams will satisfy the Department that the owners have not acted promptly and in a business-like manner in arranging with their agents for a prompter dispatch of the ship or making the master a definite offer.

I have the honor to be, Sir,

                Your obedient servant,


                    American Consul-General.

As a matter of historical interest it seems that James Rolf jr., President of Hind Rolph, was quite a famous figure. Apart from being a shipowner and shipbuilder he was Mayor of San Francisco at the time of this exchange - a post he held from 1911 until he resigned in 1931 to become Governor of California. Despite his nickname "Sunny Jim" he earned notoriety as Governor when he condoned the lynching of two men seized from jail by a mob in 1933, stating that he would pardon anyone arrested for the lynching. Evidently not a good man to cross! More of his life and times can be found here.

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