THE Pacific in the 1860s was a wild place, full of explorers, seafarers, heroes, scoundrels, and decent people trying to make a living and raise good families. The man known as Black Tom was a little of all of these.
Tom began life as a slave in Delaware in the United States. When his master whipped him he promptly returned the favor, beat the man and covered him in grease, and ran away. He took up life as a fisherman out of a New England port and was much in demand owing to his enormous strength and his uncanny abilities in the kitchen. No one is sure where or how, but somewhere along the way Tom learned to cook.
Next, he joined a whaling vessel working the Arctic Ocean. It was a difficult occupation but held obvious advantages over the life he knew previously. After one successful voyage, Tom heard of a whaler that was headed to the South Pacific. It did not take much to convince him that the route was preferable to one headed north.
He signed on and eventually made landfall in Samoa where he married a woman from a powerful island family and became a man of influence. Owing to his social position and uniqueness, for Tom was not only the first African man many Samoans had seen but he was also immense, standing six and a half feet tall and built like a bull ox, Tom grew popular and life on Samoa would have been comfortable if it were not for his tendency for thieving.
Apia was a thriving harbor and a popular spot for ships crossing the ocean in all directions. Tom ran a kind of boarding house with a store, restaurant and saloon attached. While other boarding houses did well to serve fresh meet to their customers once or twice a week, Tom fed them twice a day. The food was plentiful and always tasty, yet his livestock never diminished. He kept a few chickens, a half dozen rabbits, and two or three pigs, certainly not enough to sustain the kind of fare he offered. In fact, while he stuffed his guests with plentiful meat, his pigs increased.
On one occasion, Tom ran frantically into the dining room carrying a squealing pig, which he quickly tied up under a table where guests were playing cards. He urged them to ignore the ruckus and carry on with their game. Shortly after, a neighbor entered the room out of breath and fit to be tied. He accused Tom of stealing one of his pigs and proceeded to search everywhere for him, everywhere except under the table, where he did not want to intrude on the game. The neighbor left frustrated but vowed to watch his pigs like a hawk watches field mice. As for the guests, they kept quiet, knowing they would dine on tasty pork over the next few days.
Black Tom could not keep up this lifestyle for long, however. Eventually he would answer for his crimes. That day came when he stole the wrong animal from the wrong man. Elisha Hamilton was a boarder at Tom’s house and a ship’s pilot, who had recently spent a large sum on a well-bred black retriever dog from Sydney. One day, Elisha opened the door and caught Tom skinning his prized pet and the secret to Tom’s abundant menu became clear to all. His boarders left him in a group and his reputation was destroyed. No one stayed at his boarding house again and he was forced into a different line of work, but not for long.
Tom was arrested for theft again and was deported from Samoa with orders never to return, and he made mischief on a few more islands around the Pacific before he was through. Think about Black Tom and his gourmet restaurant the next time someone tells you, “This tastes like chicken.”
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.