Archive for February 22nd, 2016

1864: The pirates of the Flowery Land

Add comment February 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1864, four Philippines Spaniards and a Greek Ottoman who once numbered among the crew of the Flowery Land hanged together in London as mutineers and murderers.

The July preceding, that 400-ton merchant barque had set sail from London to Singapore with a cargo of wine. Outfitted for economy,* her crew numbered only 19 souls.**

This floating hamlet manifested in motley miniature Britain’s sun-never-sets empire. Its chief was a Scotsman with the solid name of John Smith; also on board as a passenger was a 20th man, Smith’s brother George.

The skipper’s seconds were two more British mates, names of Carswell (or Karswell) and Taffer (Taffir, Taffar).

Aboard the Flowery Land — aptly named for this metaphor — the Brits had mastery of a mixed-blood crew from many quarters of the globe. It is apparent from the testimony recorded at the Old Bailey that the men had no one lingua franca among them, but got by as can with ad hoc translation and the pidgin cant of the sea. Spanish was frequently heard among the crew: no surprise considering its composition. (The captain was also described as a capable Spanish speaker.)

The accounts identifying the Flowery Land‘s human cargo give perplexing and partial selections, with varying reports of nationalities. The flexible spelling accorded to proper names of the day, a multitude of aliases, and the infelicity most of these men had with English surely contributes to the confusion. But after the captain, the captain’s brother, and the two mates, the ship’s complement appears to have consisted of the following:

  • Six Spanish/Filipino sailors from Manila: John Leone or Lyons, Francisco Blanco, Mauricio Duranno, Basilio de Los Santos, Marcelino Santa Lacroix, and Miguel Lopez aka Joseph Chancis
  • A Levantine Turkish subject of Greek ancestry, Marcus Vartos (called “Watter” in the Old Bailey records)
  • George Carlos, a Greek from Greece
  • Two Spaniards, Jose Williams and Frank Paul or Powell
  • Michael Andersen, a Norwegian
  • Frank Candereau, a Frenchman
  • Frank Early, a 17-year-old English cabin boy
  • A Malay steward, a Chinese cook, and a Chinese lamp-trimmer boy, sometimes described together as “three Chinamen”

According to the evidence, much of it given via translators, during the dark hours before dawn on September 10, several of the Manila crew members surprised first mate Carswell while he was walking a routine nightwatch, beat him wickedly, and pitched him into the sea. The disturbance roused the captain and as he emerged he too was beaten and stabbed to death, as was his brother the passenger.


Are they coming for your daughter next? Cover illustration for the “penny dreadful” Police Crimes.

Having disposed of both the ranking mariners, the mutineers approached Taffer with a classic offer one can’t refuse: as the last capable navigator aboard, he would guide the ship to the Rio de la Plata.

After a three-week journey that was surely very frightening for Taffer, they reached the mouth of that river dividing Argentina from Uruguay and there scuttled the Flowery Land and put ashore in skiffs. Or at least, most of them did so. Ordered off the boat, the Malay steward refused until the Manila conspirators pelted him with champagne bottles from the ship’s store of cargo, finally driving him into the waves where he drowned; John Lyons remarked on some private grievance that must have been shared by his fellows. The Chinese cook and boy apparently suffered a like fate, being left to go down with the sinking ship … or at least that is what the survivors later deposed wish to have understood. Two little boats made landfall from the ill-starred hulk and each boat’s party reports not having the Chinese aboard or seeing what became of them. There is racism, sure — Taffer doesn’t even know the cook’s name — but it seems bizarre and sinister that two people among they this tiny group of seaborne intimates die completely offstage and the rest barely even think to wonder about them. (“I then missed the cook and the lamp-trimmer,” Taffer deposed pre-trial. “Lyons said they had gone down in the ship.” (Glasgow Herald, Jan. 15, 1864)) Be that as it may, the fate of these unfortunates was very far down the list of injuries done by the mutineers to the British Empire and nobody appears to have been inclined to inquire too closely.

So we take them for dead. Strangely, having slain six people, the mutineers did not make Taffer the seventh — a clemency that Taffer did not anticipate, and with which he would soon punish them. Once the remaining crew had made landfall, Taffer well understood how his dangerous position stood in this party and contrived to escape it at the first opportunity.

Once away, he made for Montevideo and presented himself and his shocking story to British authorities. His 13 former mates, many of whom were pretending to have escaped the wreck of an American guano freighter with an eye to hitching on with some other crew and vanishing into the circuits of imperial trade, were soon recognized or rounded up. By December, all 14 survivors were en route to England.

The inexact process of dividing mutineer from bystander had already begun by now, closely tracking racial proximity. The two British subjects, Taffer and Early, shipped home not as pirates but as witnesses, as did the Norwegian and the Frenchmen. The other ten returned in manacles.

Upon inquiry back in London, it was decided that the two Spaniards (the two from Spain, not Manila) could not be shown to have joined or supported the mutiny, only to have gone along with it when it was a fait accompli. They were set at their liberty.

The remaining eight men — the six from Manila plus the Greek from Turkey and the Greek from Greece — faced trial. All but John Carlos were convicted and condemned to death; Carlos, acquitted of the murder of Captain Smith, was vengefully re-indicted that same day for property destruction committed by scuttling the Flowery Land, and caught a 10-year sentence for that.

The why of the mutiny is frustratingly — or conveniently — elided in the testimony that crew members gave the court, and we are perhaps meant to understand broadly, as does this author, that “such a ‘dago’ crew” is ever prone to becoming “saucy” and imperiling all order.

As we query beyond a colonial power’s heart of darkness we quickly enter territory that the original documents did not bother to chart. With any mutiny one’s mind flies to that ancient maritime grievance, “bad usage”. The record gives us only guarded indications, but it touches on poor rations and brutal corporal punishments, albeit isolated ones† (e.g., Michael Andersen: “I have seen the captain strike some of the crew … he struck Watter with his flat hand at the side of the head — I did not see that more than once.”)

Those prosecuted, strangers in a foreign land, do not appear to have made any declaration explaining their own conduct even after sentence was secured though the London Times (Feb. 23, 1864) said that they had communicated to their gaolers that they had been driven to desperation by a mean water ration in the tropical swelter. One British newsman reporting the hanging also marked the omission in a voice that, however tinged with racial condescension, empathizes surprisingly with the hanged.

Nothing can extenuate the ferocity of the group of murders they committed, for the lowest savage is bound to observe the instincts of humanity. But God judges provocations, and weighs the frenzy of ignorant men, goaded to crime, in a finer balance than any earthly one. He knows what secrets are gone down with the Flowery Land, and the dead bodies of her captain and mate; knows whether these five men — now also dead — were treated as it is the custom to treat such poor sweepings of maritime places. The evidence hinted strongly at something of the kind — foul water to drink, and little of it under the tropics, insufficient food, and anger and blows; because, having shipped his crew from Babel, the captain and officers could not understand them or be understood … with decent management this kind of tragedy is next to impossible. Had the crowd at the execution been of the same color and vocation as themselves, sympathy would not have been wanting. It would have been believed — justly or not — from the experience of a hundred miserable voyages, that, knowing no Spanish, their officers had made kicks and cuffs interpret for them, as is the case in many a vessel. If it was so in theirs, how could they explain it? Our language, our courts, our long delays between crime and its penalty, were to them all one mystery. They are of a race that prefers to die and be done with it, rather than to fret and fuss too much against the will of Fate; and though we believe that none of the five were guiltless, we have an uncomfortable suspicion that, had they been English, some different facts would have been brought out at the trial … let us not be suspected of pitying a dusky murderer while we have no compassion for his victims of our own color if we demand that the moral of this offensive sight should be drawn in Manillese as well as English — that captains should learn to treat their lascar like a human being, if they would not have his thick Oriental blood boil into the fury of the brute which they have helped to make him.

The prospect of favoring the London mob with a the group hanging of seven “dusky murderers” — a quantity not seen at Newgate or anywhere else in England in decades — excited quite a lot of fretful commentary both moral and logistical. In the event, Basilio de Los Santos and Marcelino Santa Lacroix both received royal mercy on the strength of a petition, supported by the Spanish consulate and by some of the jurors, claiming diminished responsibility for the maritime coup.

That still left five to swing, which promised a remarkable novelty. There had been hangings of six, seven, and even eight on single occasions at Newgate in the 1800s up until the 1820s. The last such event was a septuple hanging on July 22, 1829. But by the 1840s and 1850s hangings had become solo affairs almost all the time; as of 1864, Londoners had not set eyes on a double execution — to say nothing of larger crops — in full 12 years.

Liberal-minded British elites and especially Fleet Street gasbags were already at this point in high dudgeon at the uncouth behavior of the rabble that flocked to public hangings. They approached this spectacle, whose victims had been hissed by the throngs who hemmed the Old Bailey when they arrived for their trial, pre-outraged, as it were — certain that their countrymen and (what is worse) women would soon set a-gnash all the teeth of the right-thinking.

Under the pious headline “Morality, as taught by Professor Calcraft” — that is, the notorious public executioner — the Newcastle Daily Journal of February 17, 1864 wrote (prior to the reduction of two of the seven sentences):

Next Monday morning, at eight o’clock, the gentle successor of Mr. John Ketch, “assisted” by some twenty thousand blood-thirsty ruffians of every grade and station, — ruffians with “handles to their names” from Belgravia, and ruffians with a score of aliases rom the Seven Dials, — will have the gratification of butchering seven of his immortal fellow-creatures, in the name of Justice and with the sanction of the Gospel — as represented by the Rev. John Davis, Ordinary of Newgate. What a thrill of delight will run through his veins as he draws the bolt and offers up this seven-fold sacrifice! How intensely pleasing must be the effect produced upon the spectators by the sight of seven dying men writhing in the agonies of the last struggle at the self-same moment! And what a grand sensation picture will the whole affair form for the pen of Monsieur Assolant, or any other French critic on English manners who may chance to be present!

[W]e are compelled to inquire whether something cannot be done to put a stop to those public exhibitions, so brutal in themselves, and so demoralising in their results, of which we are on Monday next to have so terrible a specimen. Public opinion may, for many years to come, sanction the punishment of death, but it cannot much longer permit the most awful of all spectacles to be made a show for the gratification of the vilest of either sex.

Only those whose misfortune it is to have been compelled to attend public executions, can form any conception of their unspeakable horrors, or of the injurious influence they exercise upon the mob who witness them. Let our readers thank God that it has never been their awful duty to … stand upon the scaffold whilst one of God’s creatures, made in His own image, is thrust into Eternity amid shrieks and blasphemies so appalling that the infernal world itselff could scarcely equal them. And let them on no account imagine that this is an over-drawn picture. It was such a spectacle as this that a few heart-sickened men were compelled to witness, less than twelve months since, in this very town of Newcastle, as they gathered round George Vass in his cell and on the scaffold; and those who heard the yells of positive exultation, the screams of delight with which the victim of the law was hailed on that occasion when he appeared before the herd of brutes assembled to see him die, and who afterwards heard the conversation which filled every tavern in the neighbourhood, must have had all preconceived notions with respect to the beneficial influence of capital punishments upon the public forevver dispelled … it is only gross ignorance or hardened sin that can venture to maintain that a public execution is other than a public lesson in blasphemy, murder, and infidelity.

Certainly execution day turned out the city in quantity. Following the funereal procession from within prison walls, the Times of London (Feb. 23, 1864) heard “the shouts and cries and uproar of the mob” as “a loud indistinct noise like the roar of the angry sea.” This sea swelled 20,000 strong or 25 or 30, and adjacent apartments with suitable sightlines reportedly renting for 75 guineas. As he zoomed upon the end of his life in the insane eye of such a spectacle, one of the mutineers, Duranno, swooned in vertigo and sagged against the already-attached noose until warders could retrieve a stool to prop him up while his fellows were marched out in turn.

Was it wise, just, and conducive to moral hygiene to expose such scenes to the general public? Even if the tide was turning against that classic tableau, and would before the 1860s were out be resolved to the permanent detriment of public executions, many still rose to defend their propriety. The exceptional character of the Flowery Land case made it a sure candidate for the respective partisans in that argument who wished — to appropriate a latter-day shibboleth — to control narrative. Each found on the Newgate gallows what they wished and expected to see; indeed, found with suspect familiarity.

The Feb. 23 Daily Telegraph, which supplies us the humane remarks on treating lascars like human beings extensively excerpted above, was full aghast.

The five pirates have died that horrible death by which it is still believed evil natures are terrified from crime, and society edified as to the sacredness of human life. We wish that we could think so in view of that surging, blasphemous, excited crowd that treated the occasion as a drama of the liveliest sensational kind — with nothing to pay for a place — and homicide, not fictitious, but natural and authentic, perpetrated before their eyes. In grimy, haggard thousands, the thieves and prostitutes of London and the suburbs gathered about the foot of the big gallows, jamming and crushing each other for a share of the spectacle. … The accounts of the demeanor of the crowd answer the question, whether it is good to gather for such a sight the scum and dregs of a vast city. Coarse, heartless, bestial, and brutalised by the official manslaughter which they had witnessed, the drabs and pickpockets made a “finish” of it in the public-houses, canvassing the skill of Jack Ketch and the “gameness” of each of his swarthy patients. The hideous roar that went up at the various stages of the sight was not the expression of gratified justice: it was the howl of the circus at the smell of blood — the grunt of what is hog-like in our nature at suffering we do not share. … Let us dismiss this devilish carousal of agony on one side, and eager excitement on the other, with its accompaniment of brutality and disorder ten times aggravated, and ask whether such a sight was wisely furnished, since we cannot call in question its jutice, so long as blood is purged with blood and a Mosaic law governs a Christian nation?

Whew!

The Times for its part had no use for the fainting-couch routine, insisting that reverent “deep silence” had reigned among the rude multitude once the moment of execution arrived, broken only as “the gibbet creaked audibly.” Opposite the detailed report of its delegate to Newgate, it presented a pseudoymous letter quite at odds with the Telegraph:

Sir, — I am not ashamed to avow that I went this morning to the hanging of the five pirates at the Old Bailey, and I am concerned to state my impressions at this public spectacle, because they were so utterly different from all which I have heard or read, or which it is the current fashion or folly to express at such exhibitions.

It was to me the most solemn sight I ever witnessed — an instance of the punishment which awaits a bloody crime, where mercy is not prostituted or justice defrauded by the mitigation, without reason, of a salutary doom.

As I watched from a commanding position an enormous crowd of spectators, which I should not hesitate to compute at as many as 20,000 or 25,000, chiefly men, and surveyed the sea of faces at the fatal instant when the drop fell and their expression was generalized by a sudden and common emotion, I should say that the pervading feeling was a cordial acceptance of the act then transacted before them, and a complete recognition that it was just and inevitable.

I am convinced that there were few present who could have escaped this emotion and conviction, from the sudden silence and entranced interest of this multitude of men; and if there had been previously some levity on the part of the lowest who had waited for this catastrophe, I am satisfied that at the last moment the better nature of all responded in concert to the terrible appeal, and that the sum total was a public good.

This is so different from the effect which others ascribe to such scenes that I ask to state my own conviction, and to subscribe myself

Yours faithfully,
VIGIL

Neither the dignified decorum nor the raucous carousing of the crowd under the Newgate gallows prevented the infamous crime from doing a sharp trade in the mass entertainment ventures of the day, from disposable true-crime pulp to Allsop’s Waxwork Exhibition. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a boy still shy of his fifth birthday at the moment the traps opened, surely absorbed some of this cultural ejecta in his growing-up years; he eventually dramatized “The True Story of the Tragedy of Flowery Land” in a short story.

* Since barques could be handled by a small crew, they had carved out a large slice of the world’s shipping lanes in the Golden Age of Sail … right before steam power showed up and relegated them to the sideline.

** Compare to the likes of the HMS Bounty, with a complement of 46 — requiring a numerically wider network of plotters. This vulnerability a minimalistic crew had to a mere handful of malcontents appears again a decade later with the mutiny of the Lennie (crew: 16).

† One possible way to interpret the evidence is that the first mate Carswell was the brutal overseer. In a deposition that Taffer only passingly alludes to during his Old Bailey testimony, he described how Carswell thrashed John Carlos when the latter, citing sickness, refused to take his turn at the watch, and even lashed Carlos to the mast. The captain arrived a few minutes later and had Carlos untied and sent back to berth, with medicine. The mate is also the man to whom Taffer attributes some “corrective” beatings with ropes.

One can at a stretch imagine what occurred on September 10 as an attempt “only” to murder Carswell, perhaps then to attribute his absence come morning to some mysterious nighttime accident overboard — but that the personal settling of scores mushroomed into a full-blown mutiny when the captain presented himself and the logic of the situation required his destruction, too. Taffer said that the mutineers had to confer among themselves where to make him steer the ship they had taken possession of, perhaps corroborating a more improvised series of events. This, however, is an entirely speculative reading; there is plenty of other evidence to suggest intentional coordination.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Public Executions

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