When Dumont d’Urville visited Guam in 1828, he reported that the whole of the Marianas was administered by a single governor who ……
…. maintains a shadow of a militia of one hundred to one hundred and fifty poorly dressed men, whom he pays in cloth from his stores, and who would be incapable of opposing the slightest resistance to the smallest regular force. Without a doubt, one frigate could easily take possession of the entire Marianas archipelago. [d’Urville: p262]
Louis de Freycinet was so impressed by Don Jose de Medinilla y Pineda, who was governor of Guam during his stay on the island in 1819, and also during d’Urville’s visit, that when he return to France he arranged for him to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur.
The chorus of approval from the Uranie was not, however, without dissent. Jacques Arago, the expedition’s draftsman, had a more jaundiced view, and amongst other things riticised Medinilla for allowing one member of his staff to run what was almost a parallel government ruling by brute force. In a remarkable admission, the governor described to him the action he took when one of the senior military officers on the island attempted to seduce his mistress.
I was enraged, and, resolved on vengeance, deferred it only until the next day. In the evening, the captain, returning from his country house, was assaulted by a dozen domestics, against whom he at first defended himself courageously but, overpowered by numbers, he fell, and the fellows were about to dispatch him, when I came forward, and said: “Let him alone, he is dead”. [Arago Volume 1: pp 252-254]
Medinilla was not the only governor to employ strong-arm tactics. For a short period between the visits by the two French expeditions he was replaced by Ganga Herrera, a supporter of the Liberals in Madrid, who was popular on Guam because he allowed the inhabitants to trade freely with foreigners but who was replaced when the supporters of absolute monarchy, the Absolutos, regained the upper hand in Spain. His ejection was largely political, but there was at least one other reason; Ganga was implicated in the murder of an English whaling captain called John Stavers. The Hobart Town Gazette for Saturday 10 March 1827 recorded that “Captain Stavers, of the whaling ship Coquet, has been barbarously murdered by order of Don Herrero, governor of Guam, ….. A duty of 80 per cent had been arbitrarily imposed on certain goods left for sale by Captain Stavers and which he resisted. The English have left the settlement.”
Since the actual event took place in 1824, this was pretty old news, but a much more complete version of the story told by Thomas Beale in his ‘Natural History of the Sperm Whale’, suggests that when it came to exacting private revenge Herrera and Medinilla were two of a kind. Beale wrote that:
It was at this island that the sanguinary and cowardly murder of Captain Stavers was committed, even in the centre of the town, and opposite the governor’s palace, as it is called ; which affair was certainly the most blood-thirsty and barbarous that stains the annals of any people.
Captain Stavers was the master of a whaler, and had put into the harbour of Guam to refit his ship and refresh his crew,—and had, a few days’ previous to the transaction which cost him his life, held some dealings with the governor, who it appears acted in a very sinister manner with some of Stavers’ property, and had afterwards refused to admit him into his house, or give him any kind of redress whatever. This conduct of the governor irritated the mind of the captain to an ungovernable extent, and he left his ship for the purpose of going up to the town, observing at the same time that he would also go to the palace, and oblige the governor to give him some kind of satisfaction for the injuries and insults he had repeatedly received from him.
In the afternoon of the same day, the captain, who was a most bold and resolute man, and who was also unfortunately addicted to habits of intemperance, but still possessed of many excellent and amiable traits, was observed opposite the palace in a state of intoxication, armed with a brace of pistols, with which he challenged the governor out to fight. Many of the people who knew him – for he had often visited this island before – were well acquainted with his boisterous though harmless nature – they well knew that his words were “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” – they therefore smiled at him as they passed, and thought of his conduct no more than that it was a mere petty brawl between him and the governor; every generous mind would have felt the same towards him, when all the circumstances are considered, but in this island there are wretches who require blood for an angry word – and so it happened with Stavers, who continued to call upon his cowardly acquaintance until near sunset, but no one up to that time molested him in the least, although there was a Spanish guard near the palace—or more properly, white-washed barn—of eight or ten men, whom I believe he also challenged.
The captain, however, having called for a long time in vain, became quite exhausted from the heat of the sun and other causes, and he therefore retired at last into the house of an Englishman who resided near the palace; when he had retired thither, he placed his pistols upon a table, and seating himself began to relate the particulars of the transaction which had occurred. But while in the act of so doing, it being at the time quite dark, a man entered the house under the pretence of speaking to Stavers, when approaching close to the table, he suddenly seized the pistols, and retreated from the house immediately, followed by the captain, who was not the kind of person to brook conduct such as that without explanation. But the poor fellow by his precipitation only fell into an ambush which had been cunningly contrived and laid for him—for the moment he passed over the threshold of the house, in chase of the man who had taken the pistols, he was assailed by nine or between himself and the governor. ten hired assassins, armed with various kinds of deadlyweapons. But the captain, as I have stated before, being a man of most resolute mind, defended himself in the most courageous manner against their united arms – he struggled against them, unarmed as he was, with amazing strength and resolution, until he fell, covered with wounds; between forty and fifty mortal injuries being found afterwards in various parts of his body. He defended himself with his clenched hands against their bayonets, swords, and choppers, for his hands and arms were found shockingly mutilated, his left arm being cut to the bone in many places, while his chest and abdomen exhibited frightful and numberless wounds – and it is even stated, that several of these were inflicted upon him, by these sanguinary, but still cowardly fiends, as he lay expiring upon the ground. Thus was the life of a brave Englishman wantonly sacrificed by a gang of hired wretches, who so unworthily bore the name of men ; – may this recital act as a warning to the intemperate.
I have heard that the governor, who was a Spaniard, was punished, in some way or other, by his own government at home, for the part which he took in exciting his guard to commit the horrid act, and it is even said at Guam to this day, that he was himself among them at the time, and prompted them on the spot; for which, if he did not receive any punishment on his arrival in Spain, certain it is that he was deprived of the government of the island.
I have related the particulars of this atrocious case because I am aware that every whaler will feel excited by its recital, more particularly those who have heard it spoken of, but who have not had an opportunity of witnessing the scene of the massacre; and I have related the particulars as they were related to me in the house in which the captain sat, where the pistols were seized, and at a short distance from the spot where the tragedy was consummated, and by an Englishman who lived close by at the time of its enactment. [Beale pp335-338]
Beale wisely concluded that:
…. I saw quite enough [on the island] to convince me that it was not a place for an Englishman to commit any act of insult or imprudence; the passions of the inhabitants were raised to a deadly height in an instant,—when “their hands were readier for the knife than their tongues for words of anger.” [Beale p 338]
Almost all the English residents on the island were expelled a few years later, following a failed attempt to remove Medinilla by force. They were initially successful, but after celebrating their success with the contents of the governor’s cellar they were too drunk to resist the counter-coup.