HomeBritish ColumbiaCaptain Voss and the Voyage of the Tilikum

Captain Voss and the Voyage of the Tilikum

Captain Voss and the Voyage of the Tilikum

Tilikum” is the Chinook Jargon word for “friend” (Chinook Jargon being a pidgin trade language of the Pacific Northwest). Many people most readily associate this word with “Tilly”, the late, controversial, man-eating captive orca which once performed tricks at Seaworld Orlando and Victoria’s now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific.

Tilikum the killer whale.

Many people might be surprised to learn that the Victoria, British Columbia, is also associated with another extraordinary seagoing “Tilikum”- a 150-year-old Nootkan dugout canoe which made an incredible 40,000 mile journey across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans in the early 1900s, piloted by the notorious Captain John Claus Voss.

An Unlikely Partnership

Norman Luxton holding a miniature model of the Tilikum.

The story of the Tilikum begins in a hotel bar in Victoria, British Columbia, one evening in the spring of 1901. As was typical of seaside watering holes in the Victorian era, the tavern that evening was filled with colourful characters from all over the Pacific. Russian sealers swapped tales with Klondikers newly returned from the Yukon goldfields, and local fishermen spun yarns with British merchant sailors fresh from the opium docks of Hong Kong. Amidst the usual mix of seadogs and stevedores who often frequented such establishments sat an ambitious young newspaperman named Norman K. Luxton.

Today, Norman Luxton is remembered as “Mr. Banff”, one of the most prominent early citizens of Banff, Alberta. The son of William Luxton, founder of what is now the Winnipeg Free Press, Norman founded his own paper, the Banff Crag & Canyon (now the Bow Valley Craig & Canyon)- Banff’s first newspaper. An avid student of First Nations art and culture, he established a curio and taxidermy shop called Sign of the Goat- one of Banff’s first tourist shops- as well as Banff Indian Days, a bygone annual celebration of Stoney Indian culture. And as a devout conservationist, he played an important role in saving the plains bison from extinction.

Captain John Claus Voss

On that evening in 1901, however, Norman Luxton was simply a 24-year-old journalist hungry for a good story. As he nursed his beer, a short, stocky sailor sporting a bushy handlebar mustache sauntered into the bar. Luxton sensed that this weathered seaman had a story or two to tell, and so he pulled up a stool beside him and struck up a conversation.

This character, Luxton learned, was a 43-year-old adventurer from northern Germany named John Claus Voss. A sailor with many years of experience, Voss had taken up residence on Canada’s Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. For several years, he had owned and operated a small hotel and butcher shop in Chemainus, BC, as well as Queen’s Hotel in Victoria, situated at the corner of Store and Johnson Street, and the Victoria Hotel on Government Street (the latter being perhaps the oldest hotel in the city). The German regaled the young reporter with tales of his prospecting adventures in the Colorado Rockies and an erstwhile treasure hunting expedition he took part in alongside members of the British Royal Navy on an island off the coast of Ecuador. He also bragged that he had smuggled illegal Chinese immigrants into California and illegal Chinese opium into Vancouver, and that he sometimes “Shanghaied” his hotel guests, drugging them at the hotel bar and selling them to unscrupulous sea captains in need of crewmembers.

Soon, talk turned to the historic voyage of Joshua Slocum, a Canadian-American adventurer who had completed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe in a sloop called the Spray three years prior. Luxton asked Voss if he thought he had the skills to accomplish a similar feat in an even smaller boat. The sailor assured Luxton that he did.

Joshua Slocum’s schooner “Spray”

Luxton knew, judging from the fame that Slocum’s exploit had garnered, that a first-hand account of such a feat would be the story of a lifetime. Then and there, he offered Voss $2,500 and half the royalties of a book he intended to write if he took on Luxton as his first mate and sailed around the world in a vessel smaller than the Spray. Although Luxton admitted that he had no prior sailing experience, Voss accepted the journalist’s offer. In no time, preparations for the voyage were underway.

The Tilikum

The coast of Vancouver Island.

In order to accomplish this audacious endeavour, Voss knew that he’d first have to acquire a suitable vessel. He began to look for such a craft on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

The tale of how Captain John Voss found and acquired the Tilikum is shrouded in mystery. According to the most popular version of the tale, Voss came across a Nootka village where he saw a 38-foot dugout war canoe carved from a single log of western red cedar lying on the beach.

“It struck me at once,” Voss recalled in his 1913 memoir The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, “that if we could make our proposed voyage in an Indian canoe we would not alone make a world’s record for the smallest vessel but also the only canoe that had ever circumnavigated the globe. I at once proceeded to examine and take dimensions of the canoe, and soon satisfied myself that she was solid, and also large enough to hold the provisions and other articles we would have to carry on our cruise.”

A West Coast-style dugout canoe.

While Voss appraised the canoe, he was approached by a Nootkan elder who informed him that he was the craft’s owner, and that the boat had been built by his father fifty years prior. After plying the native with rye whisky, Voss acquired the craft for $80 in silver dollars, which he had brought along with him expressly for this purpose.

In order to make the canoe more seaworthy, Voss, with the help of shipwright Harry Vollmers, fortified it with a wooden frame; raised the topsides; installed a keel, rudder, and ballast; built a 5-by-8-foot cabin and a cockpit; constructed three masts and four sails; and added water and storage tanks. He christened the craft “Tilikum”, the Chinook Jargon word for “friend”, and together with Norman Luxton, set sail on May 20th, 1901, embarking at Victoria’s Oak Bay.

The “Tilikum”

The Nootka Village

The first stop on Voss and Luxton’s epic voyage was a remote Nootka village nestled in a cove on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There, the partners were received by a bewhiskered Scottish trader named McKenzie. Voss and Luxton stayed a week in the village, spending their days harvesting clams and hunting ducks and deer.

A bentwood box.

One night, the two partners, on Luxton’s suggestion, went searching for Indian curios in a Nootka graveyard. Traditional Nootka burial customs dictate that bodies of the deceased, along with most of their earthly possessions, be interred in bentwood cedar coffins which are, in turn, placed on platforms built high up in trees. After observing some of the rotten baskets and rusted guns that lay beneath the funerary trees, having fallen through the decayed wood of the platforms on which they once rested, Voss and Luxton proceeded into a nearby cave. Inside, they found skeletons wrapped in blankets, their skulls bearing evidence of a head-flattening technique practiced by certain tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

When the two partners attempted to take some of the skulls out of the cave, they were confronted by armed and angry Nootkan warriors who had evidently been waiting for them to exit. Voss and Luxton told the furious tribesmen that they did not know about the cemetery inside the cave, having discreetly dropped the skulls when they were still concealed by the cavern’s gloom, and so the natives let them off with a stern warning.

An illustration of a traditional First Nations cemetery in the Pacific Northwest.

The following two days, the adventurers accompanied a Nootkan hunting party on a whaling expedition. On the first of these forays, a monstrous whale smashed one of the party’s cedar canoes to pieces with a single slap of his tail, sending its native occupants swimming for safety. On the second foray, the hunters succeeded in harpooning a whale to death, whereupon its carcass was towed to shore and processed. A huge feast ensued, followed by much singing and dancing. In his autobiography, Voss wrote: “The chief gave me a piece of the whale meat, which I cut up in strips and fried, and it turned out to be excellent steak.”

A sculpture depicting a Nootka whaling canoe.

The Tempest

Voss and Luxton left the Nootka village July 6th and headed out into the open ocean. That day, they watched a pod of orcas hound a whale which breached over and over in a desperate attempt to evade its pursuers. Being sympathetic to the whale’s plight, the sailors drove the orcas away from their prey by shooting at them with their rifles.

The adventurers sailed southwest, bound for the remote Marquesas Islands nestled deep in the South Pacific. Not long into their journey, they were beset by a ferocious ocean gale. In his memoir, Voss related how he was obliged to instruct a frightened and disobedient Luxton, who wished to ride out the storm, on the merits of “heaving to”- the practice of dropping anchor and steering the boat into the wind in order to slow its progress so as to avoid capsizing. After Voss administered a vicious tongue-lashing to his obstinate shipmate, a terrified Luxton dropped the anchor as Voss commanded and the Tilikum began to ride the waves.

In his own memoir, Luxton’s Pacific Crossing, published posthumously in 1971 by his daughter, Eleanor, Norman Luxton wrote:

“It is a queer sensation to be thirty-five feet below a wall of water, that looks just as if it were going to fall right on top of you, when suddenly up goes the canoe and there is a roar of water on each side of you that you can’t see over, with a path through the wall that the drag has made up for the boat to go through. Then down once more you go into the trough of the next wave.”

Luxton’s confidence in the Tilikum’s seafaring ability improved greatly as the voyage progressed, as evidenced by the following excerpt of a letter he wrote to his mother:

“I have seen such mountains of water as I never could dream of but the Tilikum went over everything like a bird, and wind has no effect on her at all. I am more than ever convinced that she is safe as any boat on the sea.”

The Wraith of George Grieve

This gale was but the first of many that the Tilikum and its crew of two would weather. As Voss and Luxton neared the equator, they passed through a succession of fierce storms and deceptive calms. On August 18, 1901, when the weather was exceptionally mild, Norman Luxton had a peculiar experience which he related in his memoir:

“I was on watch and I think I must have been dozing. I woke up and the waves had died down considerably with the storm, but there was still white water. Sitting on the cabin roof, I suddenly saw my old friend George Grieve, of Winnipeg, a dear and lovely old friend… Quite plainly to my sleepy eyes I could see him, and while I cannot say that he told me in actual words to get busy and make sail, he told me to do just that, and to do it at once. I did not hesitate a moment to go forward, pull in the sea anchor and hoist everything the Tilikum had, and hit a course southwest. There was a sequel to the appearance of my friend George Grieve, in my dreams. I read in my Canadian papers when I got to Australia that he was dead, and had died shortly before he came and told me to make sail.”

Penrhyn Island

Ultimately, Voss and Luxton were obliged to alter their course towards the isle of Penrhyn, one of the northernmost Cook Islands, instead of the easterly Marquesas, on account of strong winds. After many days of sailing, Voss finally spied Penrhyn Island on the horizon.

Penrhyn Island

“On seeing the land,” Voss wrote, “my mate got so excited that he threw his hat up in the air, and gave three cheers for old Canada. Unfortunately, the hat went overboard, and I had to tack ship to pick it up.”

Although Voss was reticent to set foot on Penrhyn, suspecting that its native inhabitants might be hostile cannibals, Luxton vehemently insisted that they do so, eager as he was to observe the tropical ecology and the native culture. After a violent quarrel, Voss indulged his companion, but only after loading his firearms and fortifying the cockpit with sandbags. His suspicions were allayed when, upon approaching the island, he and Luxton were greeted heartily by American and English crewmembers of a French schooner. Shortly thereafter, Voss and Luxton received a warm welcome from the island natives, who proved to be exceptionally generous and friendly.

Voss and Luxton spent several days on Penrhyn enjoying the hospitality of the locals. In his memoir, Luxton claimed that an island matriarch trapped him into marriage with her daughter, a local princess, out of which he only managed to escape through tact and quick thinking.

After having their boat cleaned and painted and their larder stocked with fresh coconuts, the voyagers bid the natives farewell and set sail for the southwesterly isle of Manihiki, the so-called “Island of Pearls”.

Manihiki

That night, the crew of the Tilikum made landfall at Manihiki. When Voss and Luxton sailed around its western shore, they quickly found themselves surrounded by canoes filled with natives shouting at them to stop. The self-proclaimed chief of the welcoming party nimbly boarded the Tilikum and insisted, in broken English, that the two sailors visit his village before they continued on their journey.

Manihiki

The following day, Voss and Luxton were received by the Pacific Islanders and, through a local trader who served as interpreter, were introduced to the King and Queen of Manihiki. The royal family treated the seamen to a sumptuous feast of roasted pig, chicken, flying fish, and various tropical vegetables, attended by all the natives of the village.

During the feast, two island princesses placed colourfully-beribboned panama hats on the heads of their guests of honour. Soon afterwards, other island girls followed suit, removing the panama hats and adoring the sailors’ crania with their own headgear. Immediately after this, two more girls repeated the performance.

“This was as much as my mate could stand,” Voss wrote. Luxton stood up and asked the interpreter to inform their hosts that the next young lady who changed his hat was going to be kissed. This elicited much laughter and chatter from the locals.

“The next thing we saw,” wrote Voss, “the oldest woman of the lot (she must have been about a hundred years of age, for she was all doubled up and could hardly walk), came along with a straw hat, and as she got nearer Mr. Luxton turned pale. I said, ‘Courage, Norman, courage: don’t go back on your world’; but I am sorry to say that my mate did on that occasion. However, the young ladies and hats continued arriving, and by the time we got through with our feast, we had quite a few hats.”

That evening, the native girls of Manihiki adorned the Tilikum with colourful ribbons and presented the sailors with the leftovers from the feast, carefully wrapped in huge leaves. After spending two more music and dance-filled days on the island, Voss and Luxton thanked their hosts and departed for the southwesterly Samoan Islands.

Danger Island

On the night of September 28, 1901, Voss and Luxton reached an island known today as Pukapuka, situated roughly halfway between Manihiki and the Samoan Archipelago. In 1901, this island bore foreboding name “Danger Island”. Knowing little about the isle aside from its sinister appellative, the sailors decided to spend the night anchored offshore in the Tilikum rather than hazard a nocturnal disembarkment.

Danger Island

The following morning, Voss and Luxton sailed the Tilikum towards the shores of Danger Island. There they were greeted by natives who were eager to host them. As Voss could not find a suitable location to anchor his craft, he declined their invitation to visit their village, to their obvious displeasure. When they saw that they would not change the German’s mind, the Polynesians presented him and Luxton with eggs and coconuts, which the sailors gratefully accepted before setting sail for Samoa.

Cabin Fever

Nearly every seaman to sail with Captain John Voss and live to tell the tale commented upon the German’s extraordinary ability as a sailor and his abominable qualities as a sailing companion. Norman Luxton was no exception. In addition to extolling his virtues as mariner, Luxton described Voss as unbearably egotistical, alarmingly aggressive, and subject to violent moods when under the influence of alcohol.

Several days out of Danger Island, Voss took issue with Luxton’s nautical performance. He grabbed the Canadian by the collar and shoved him into the cabin, threatening to murder him and dump his body overboard. Luxton kept a cool head and proceeded to calmly wash the dishes. That accomplished, he seized a .22 calibre revolver, aimed the gun at Voss’ head, and locked his belligerent companion in the cabin of the Tilikum, intending to keep him there until they reached Samoa.

“Dangerous as were the storms and calms of the Pacific,” Luxton wrote in his memoir, “they were as nothing compared to the clash of our personalities. Before we ever reached Apia, Samoa, we hated each other, and I was certain Voss intended to do me harm.”

Samoa

After three days of hard sailing, the Tilikum arrived at Upolu, the second largest of the Samoan Islands. By this time, the two sailing companions had made amends, and Luxton had released Voss from the cabin.

As they made their way into the harbour at Apia, the capital of what was then German Samoa, Luxton and Voss found all the ships’ flags flying at half-mast. Shortly thereafter, they learned that word had reached the island that morning of the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley, who had succumbed to gunshot wounds on September 14.

Apia, Samoa

Voss and Luxton spent several days in Apia, during which they met the former King of Samoa. One evening, the ex-monarch invited them to a traditional Samoan dinner. At this event, their host introduced them to three beautiful Samoan women and asked Luxton to examine their teeth. When Luxton determined that the ladies’ teeth were clean and healthy, the three women sat on a mat around a wooden bowl half-filled with water and proceeded to chew pieces of kava root, a plant endemic to the Pacific Islands. After chewing the root to a pulp, the women squeezed the product of their mastication with their hands so that the juice dripped into the bowl. Once the kava juice was thoroughly incorporated into the water, it was served to the sailors in coconut shells. Although the juice was bitter and unpleasant to drink, the sailors drained the bowl out of courtesy, and in doing so learned first-hand the powerful narcotic effects of kava consumption.

Fiji

After several days of rest and relaxation, during which Luxton visited the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, Voss and Luxton boarded the Tilikum and departed for the westerly Fiji Islands. At a point nearly halfway between Samoa and their destination, they arrived at Niuafo’ou, the most northerly island in the Kingdom of Tonga, a protectorate of the British Empire.

Tongan ladies.

On the shores of Niuafo’ou, Voss and Luxton encountered a mounted British official who informed them that they could not enter the island without a permit from the Tonga government. He also warned the sailors that the locals had a penchant for “long pig”, or human flesh, and that it was in their best interest to leave as soon as possible. Sure enough, on their way out, the men of the Tilikum were accosted by a band of Tongan pirates, whom they only managed to drive away with a warning shot from an old Spanish cannon.

Voss and Luxton continued on towards the Fiji Islands. They arrived on one of the northernmost of the Fijian isles two days later. Luxton decided to explore the island, taking his gun and camera with him, while Voss opted to stay by the boat and cook dinner.

The Fiji Islands

When Luxton did not answer the gunshots he fired to signal that dinner was prepared, Voss grabbed his rifle and waded onto the island. He quickly found an old footpath that led towards the heart of the island and decided to follow it. Not far from the beach, at the edge of the jungle, he came across an abandoned hut fronted by a sizeable pile of human bones. Cognizant of the fact that the Fiji Islands were once justifiably known as the “Cannibal Isles” Voss decided to return to the Tilikum and wait for Luxton. He found a tiger shark encircling the canoe, and after shooting it through the head, learned that Fijian sharks have a proclivity for cannibalism rivalling that of their human neighbours.

Fortunately, Luxton returned to the Tilikum that evening no worse for wear, having bagged a brace of tropical fowl.

The voyagers continued on towards Suva, the capital city of Fiji, situated on Viti Levu, the largest of the Fiji Islands.

Man Overboard

A short distance from Suva, the Tilikum ran aground a coral reef. Immediately, an errant wave rolled the canoe onto its side, and Luxton was swept overboard. When he came to, Luxton found himself stranded on the reef, his body torn by the sharp coral, and the Tilikum nowhere in sight. Knowing that the waters off Fiji were infested with sharks, he struggled to stay atop the reef, battling with the incessant waves that seemed hell-bent on pushing him over the edge.

“Extra large waves,” he wrote, “casting tons of water over the reef, would throw me further into the lagoon. Frantically would I put on more steam to reach the reef away from the sharks, only to get more Hell from the coral.”

After a Herculean struggle, Luxton somehow managed to work his way onto an uninhabited beach where he was picked up by Voss, who had left him for dead.

Suva

After resting for some time, the inconsonant pair sailed on to Suva. There, Luxton sought medical attention while Voss paid a visit to a local tavern.

The doctor who treated Luxton’s wounds urged the newspaperman to abandon the voyage. This was all Luxton needed to hear. The Canadian left the hospital and set out to find Voss, intending to inform him that it he hoped to complete his voyage, he would have to do it with another mate.

Suva, Fiji

Fortunately for both parties, Voss had already found Luxton’s replacement in the person of Walter L. Begent, an adventurous 30-year-old soldier and sailor from Tasmania, whom the German had met in a bar and enticed into service. Before Voss headed out into the Pacific with his new partner, Luxton privately warned Begent of Voss’ quarrelsome disposition and urged him to dispose of Voss’ liquor stash, which the German had restocked in town, as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Sydney

Norman Luxton took a steamer from Suva to Sydney, Australia, where he and Voss planned to reconnect. Luxton waited in Sydney for some time, but when Voss failed to arrive ten days after his expected landfall, the Canadian gave him up for dead.

Sydney Opera House

Then, one sunny afternoon, Voss arrived in Sydney Harbour alone on the Tilikum. He told Luxton and a local journalist that he and his new mate, Walter Begent, had encountered some of the worst storms he had ever seen en route to Sydney. One night, when they were but five days out of Suva, he “saw a large breaking sea coming up near the stern.” He shouted a warning to Begent, who had not secured a lifeline around his waist in accordance with his advice, but it was too late. An errant wave swept the Tasmanian overboard, along with the Tilikum’s only compass. Voss was unable to save his companion, and was forced to abandon him to his fate.

In his posthumously-published biography, Luxton voiced his suspicion that Voss had actually murdered Begent in a drunken rage and thrown his body overboard, as he himself had regularly feared for his life while sailing with the testy Teuton.

Although Luxton did not plan on doing any more sailing with Voss, he still hoped to publish a book on his experience, the royalties from which he had agreed to split with Voss, and knew that the success of this book would depend on the Tilikum’s successful circumnavigation of the globe. As such, the German and the Canadian teamed up once again and toured Australia with the Tilikum, hoping to raise money for provisions and repairs.

The Rest of the Voyage

After raising sufficient funds, Voss and Luxton parted ways again in Melbourne, Australia.

Accompanied by a succession of nine different mates, none of which suffered his company for long, Voss managed to sail the Tilikum to Tasmania, New Zealand, the New Hebrides (a cluster of islands east of Australia), and into the Indian Ocean by way of the Torres Strait (which separates Australia from Papua New Guinea), taking her past the Great Barrier Reef. He sailed her across the Indian Ocean to the remote Mauritian island of Rodrigues, nearly running out of water in the process. From there, he sailed to the city of Durban, South Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and headed across the Atlantic to the island of St. Helena. He completed the Atlantic crossing, making landfall in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. After that, he sailed back across the Atlantic, riding the Gulf Stream to the archipelago of Azores off the coast of Portugal and onward to Margate, England, his final destination, which he reached on September 2, 1904. In total, the 40,000-mile voyage of the Tilikum took three years, three months and twelve days.

A map depicting the voyage of the “Tilikum”

The Fate of the Tilikum

The epic voyage of the Tilikum did not bring Voss and Luxton as much success as they had initially hoped. Norman Luxton never ended up publishing the book he had hoped to write (at least, not in his lifetime), and went on to become one of the most prominent citizens of Banff, Alberta. Voss, on the other hand, returned to Victoria, where he dabbled in the hotel business for some time before moving to Yokohama, Japan, where he published The Adventurous Voyages of Captain Voss. He later worked as a sealer in the Bering Strait off the coast of Siberia before finally settling down in Tracy, California, where he spent the rest of his days working as a taxi driver.

As for the Tilikum, it was exhibited at the 1905 Naval, Shipping, and Fisheries Exhibition- a world fair intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (a crucial British naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars)- held in Earl’s Court, a district of London, England. It passed through a number of different hands before it was finally abandoned on the shores of the River Thames. In 1929, the Tilikum was rescued and restored by citizens of Victoria, British Columbia, and returned to its home in the Pacific Northwest. For many years, the vessel was displayed in Victoria’s Thunderbird Park alongside Nootka and Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles. On June 8 1965, it was transferred to Victoria’s Maritime Museum of British Columbia, where it resides to this very day.

The Tilikum on display at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.

Sources

  • A almost forgotten Odyssey- 40,000 Miles in an Indian Dugout, by Francis Dickie, published in the September 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss (1913), by John Claus Voss
  • MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Captain John Claus Voss FRGS. Nauticapedia.ca 2002. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Tilikum_Voss.php
  • MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Norman Kenny Luxton. Nauticapedia.ca 2002.
  • Captain Voss and Tilikum, by Robert Holtzman, on November 8, 2011 issue of IndigenousBoats.Blogspot.com
  • The Voyage of the Tilikum: Walter L. Begent is drowned. Captain accused of throwing him overboard, on Begent.org/Voss
  • Captain Voss, from TelusPlanet.net
  • Around the World by Canoe, by Graham Chandler, in the May 2001 issue of The Beaver

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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2 Responses to “Captain Voss and the Voyage of the Tilikum”

By Gerry Burnie - 8 September 2018 Reply

An excellent story, Hammerson.

By Hammerson Peters - 8 September 2018 Reply

Thank you, Gerry. Glad you enjoyed it!