The Very First Beachcombers

By Rebecca Ruger

beachcomber with shells

beach·comb·er/
ˈbēCHˌkōmər
noun: beachcomber; plural noun: beachcombers;
1. a vagrant who makes a living by searching beaches for articles of value and selling them.
2. a person who searches beaches for useful or interesting items.

The term "beachcomber" as we know and use today originally had quite a different implication and reception. Today, we hear the word "beachcomber" and we think of pleasantries—happy retired couple strolling hand in hand, picking up shells along the Florida coast; the young enthusiast brandishing his newly purchased metal detector, eyes widening with every beep; the amateur artisan, bending and stooping for each hard-to-come-by scrap of sea glass which might one day become a one of a kind piece of jewelry—and we assign no alternate meaning whatsoever to the word. But oh, how times have changed!

Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts was a weekly 16 page magazine started by William Chambers, and published first in 1832, and included topics of history, religion, language, and science. The February 5, 1881 edition included an article, “Beachcomber,” which explained:

Beachcomber is a word of American coinage. Primarily, it is applied to a long wave rolling in from the ocean, and from this it has come to be applied to those whose occupation it is to pick up, as pirates and wreckers, whatever these long waves wash into them.

In its most original form, "beachcomb" indeed referred to the water, the wave rolling in, sweeping—combing—the shore, or the beach. The wave might leave behind debris, perhaps marine waste or carcasses, maybe broken tree limbs or stones from the deep sea, or even pieces of a pirate’s treasure (hundreds of years ago, trash would not have washed up onto the beaches with any regularity). By extension, people who benefitted from the bounty of these constant waves would have been called beachcombers. We first saw the word in print in 1847, in Herman Melville’s Omoo, a narrative of adventures in the South Pacific seas—where, by the way, most early accounts of beachcombing and beachcombers took place; The Caroline Islands, Polynesia, Micronesia, etc. In Omoo, Melville described a populace of Europeans living in some south Pacific islands combing the beaches for valuable finds.

llustrated History of the great Castaway, vintage engraved illustration. Journal des Voyages, Travel Journal, (1879-80)The earliest beachcombers were nearly always male, non-indigenous, who drifted or landed on the islands of the South Pacific. In almost every instance, they are a sea-faring people—sailors, castaways, deserters, whale men—who must find sustenance, and an economy from the beach. Their time ashore, intentionally sought or not, would rarely be permanent but the name "beachcomber" would be ascribed to them, as foreigners initially without a livelihood or industry. This did not, however, specifically mean that they now literally combed the beach for things of value to make a living (though well they may have). It is likely the term was applied to these visitors more because of the manner of arrival upon the islands, swept in by the waves. And upon their initial coming, certainly those who would have been castaways, they would have combed the beach for any useful bits from the ship that had wrecked and may have made it to land just as they had.

The first recorded instances of beachcombers all arrived the same way, as their ships were wrecked upon the sea. In 1783 the East India Company packet Antelope was wrecked in the Palau Group, islands southwest of Guam, where her crew lived for several months. Not only did their castaway time result in great study of the inhabitants of Palau, but they practiced well foreign entry to the island; “That is, they treated the islanders with friendship and respect as equals, and their chiefs with the courtesy due to their rank, while taking great pains to avoid any conduct that might outrage the local norms of behavior,” wrote H. E. Maude in The Journal of Polynesian Society (Volume 73, 1964). “Equally important,” Maude continues, “they readily assisted them with firearms in attacking their neighbours. As a result they were in turn treated by the natives, who could have overpowered them with ease, with the utmost kindness and consideration and kept liberally supplied with provisions.”

Sketch of a beachThereafter, as often before, foreigners were mostly welcomed onto the islands, and into local tribes, sometimes adopted by the chief and afforded a rather celebrity status, sometimes even gifted with numerous wives and land. Less often, they were reviled, tortured and killed, but the majority were indeed welcomed, as evidenced by the existence of dozens of narratives of actual accounts of these beachcombers, written in the first decades of the 1800s. Melville’s aforementioned Omoo is in fact considered his most auto-biographical work and remains largely a record of the personal experiences of a beachcomber, as it describes firsthand Melville’s desertion from the Sydney whaler Lucy Ann on September 23, 1842, and his three and a half month stay on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.

Some estimates conclude that in 1850 there were over 2,000 beach-combers throughout Polynesia and Micronesia. A paragraph in A Voyage Around the World, From 1806 to 1812, by Archibald Campbell, who had been stranded in the Aleutian islands and then brought to the Hawaiian Islands in 1809, states:

At one time during my stay, there were nearly sixty white people upon Wahoo alone; but the number was constantly varying, and considerably diminished before my departure. Although the great majority had been left by American vessels, not above one third of them belonged to that nation; the rest were almost all English, and of these six or eight were convicts, who had made their escape from New South Wales.
Many inducements are held out to sailors to remain here. If they conduct themselves with propriety, they rank as chiefs, and are entitled to all the privileges of the order; at all events, they are certain of being maintained by some of the chiefs, who are always anxious to have white people about them.
The king has a considerable number in his service, chiefly carpenters, joiners, masons, blacksmiths, and bricklayers; these he rewards liberally with grants of land. Some of these people are sober and industrious; but this is far from being their general character; on the contrary, many of them are idle and dissolute, getting drunk whenever an opportunity presents itself. They have introduced distillation into the island, and the evil consequences, both to the natives and whites, are incalculable.

While the European and few American beachcombers did enjoy some distinction on these islands, their consequence did not travel home with them. In March of 1797 a group of missionaries landed on the island of Tongatapu and were quite surprised to find it already contained several Europeans—John Connelly and Morgan Bryan from Ireland, and an Englishman, Benjamin Ambler. The visiting missionaries were aghast to find the men so unkempt, tattooed and naked, as to report in one memoir that the beachcombers were “base and wicked characters”, their appearance and lifestyle transgressing social and racial boundaries, mingling with the “uncivilised” peoples of the Pacific islands. And news, certainly bad news, travelled fast, even then. Soon it was the general opinion of Europeans that beachcombers were a vile and repugnant lot; the fact that the majority of them were of a common origins or lower to begin with (sailors, convicts, etc) only expedited the news and intensified the opinions.

Shipwreck on BeachFor those who returned to Europe, many found that the transition back to society was much more difficult than their acceptance and integration to the island life. Those that were tattooed could not hide the fact of where, and what, they had been. They were considered savages, and often had to make a living taking advantage of their recent beachcombing life, some working in circuses and side shows, or the lucky ones being able to sell their stories. Europeans were horrified by the appearance of the barbaric and permanent face painting, so much so that many returning were compelled to lie, and said they were forced to receive the tattoos, denying the fact that the tattoos indeed were most always voluntary.

The era of beachcombers or of great numbers of beachcombers in the Pacific Islands lasted only several decades. The eventual decline of the whaling industry, depopulation of the islands due to disease, and the increased influence of the missionaries—mostly American after the 1850s—all contributed to the beachcomber’s demise.

For thousands of years, humans have had a predilection for the sea and the beach. Today a beachcomber is not so reviled, and thankfully so, as many an innocent beach walker truly is—or certainly becomes—a beachcomber during that walk. Can you stroll down the length of miles and miles of beach and not observe and investigate the flotsam and jetsam that surround you? Surely, the glint of sun off a particularly shiny shell, the movement of sideways toddling crab, or an unidentifiable piece of debris will call your attention, bringing you lower to scoop it up to investigate—and when you do, you’ve just beachcombed.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July 2017 issue.

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