The protagonist of this tale — a story at once sordid and enlightening — had an uncanny knack...

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“Devil on the Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston”

by Mary Malloy

Bullbrier Press, 314 pp., $24

The protagonist of this tale — a story at once sordid and enlightening — had an uncanny knack for appearing repeatedly at important historical intersections and almost always taking the wrong turn. Sam Hill, the subject of “Devil on the Deep Blue Sea,” succeeded not only in helping to poison relationships between the young United States and various peoples with whom he traded, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, but just as often ruined his own chances for the glory, aggrandizement and money that seem to have driven him.

This probably was because, as author and Spokane native Mary Malloy suggests, he was nuts (in her afterword, having struggled with Hill’s complex, violent and enigmatic personality for 275 pages, she enlists a psychiatrist friend who says, “Real sociopaths are few and far between, but Sam Hill probably was one.”). But from the facts laid out in the author’s meticulously researched and engagingly written account, another possible interpretation is that, despite his intelligence, Hill just wasn’t very competent either as a skipper or a businessman. He was a poor navigator, he was unable to command the loyalty of his officers and he often misjudged business opportunities.

Hill was born at Machias, Mass., in 1777 and ran away to sea at age 13 after a savage beating by his father. He progressed somewhat slowly up the maritime ladder and was captain of the small brig Lydia by age 28 with 15 voyages behind him.

He commanded the Lydia and four other vessels on numerous subsequent voyages sponsored by Boston trading houses over the next two decades and married and had two children during his infrequent stays at home. But he was never able to master his demons. He wound up ashore without a command in 1822, separated from his family, and died in obscurity in Boston in 1825 at age 49.

Whether his problems were rooted in mental illness or personal insecurity in the Darwinian world of shipboard life, they were serious. He is depicted here as a rapist (he kept a Hawaiian girl aboard one vessel as his sex slave for 18 months and later replaced her with a Native American), the instigator of conflicts along the coast of Vancouver Island that left scores dead, and a thief.

Despite his bitter wake, Hill often sailed at the edge of great events. He rescued two sailors, John Jewitt and John Thompson, who were the only survivors of an Indian massacre aboard the U.S. merchant ship Boston at Nootka Sound (conditions aboard Hill’s ship were so bad Jewitt soon wished he hadn’t been found). Hill was in the Columbia River at the same time Lewis and Clark were wintering nearby at Fort Clatsop. Though he received a letter from them via a Native American intermediary, he didn’t pursue it.

Later, he spent three years in Chile at the time it was wresting its independence from Spain, in hopes of developing trade that never materialized. He rescued survivors of a Malay pirate attack. He entertained King Kamehameha of Hawaii aboard his ship and witnessed the incipient disintegration of traditional island society after the king’s death. And he became the first American to spend significant time in Japan (four months on a traders’ island in Nagasaki harbor).

“It is one of the intriguing accidents of history that the first encounters of Americans abroad were never carefully planned diplomatic missions, but commercial voyages. The de facto ambassadors were men like Samuel Hill.” Malloy writes.

Trying to sum up her perplexing subject, Malloy confesses that, “For more than five years, I have tried to determine whether Capt. Samuel Hill was representative of the mariners of his time, or an exception. In the end, I still can’t say.”

Tom Brown is associate editor of seattletimes.com