On this date in 1797, a president of the floating republic was put to death by an empire of the lash.
The occasion brings us to the era of Great Britain’s protracted war with Revolutionary France. That war’s essential factor from the British point of view was the navy — crewed in its turn by an immiserated working class, sometimes forcibly impressed, and drawing pay on a schedule that had been set in 1658.
In April 1797, after a wage grievance was dismissed out of hand by the Admiralty, the crew of the Channel Fleet mutinied at Spithead, near Portsmouth. For “mutiny” here, think less H.M.S. Bounty* and more labor strike: keeping discipline within their ranks, they used the leverage of refusing to put out to sea to successfully negotiate that pay rise, as well as the transfer of some distasteful officers who went otherwise unharmed. The Spithead mutiny contributes no execution to our pages.
This hostile caricature of the Spithead mutineers nevertheless depicts — however incredulously — the common sailors’ degree of organization.
However, in its waning days in May, a sympathy mutiny ensued at the fleet lying at an anchorage at the mouth of the Thames, called the Nore. These Spithead and Nore mutinies are generally taken together since they had the same grievances … but their resolutions were very different.
The Nore mutiny, less united and disciplined than that at Spithead, saw several ships at Nore mutiny and elect as their leader this post’s principle character, Richard Parker. Parker was an intelligent, veteran sailor with some history of sticking his neck out for better working conditions. He would always insist that he had no part of the mutiny’s planning and was appointed its leader by surprise; whether or not this was so, he exercised his newfound office, President of the Delegates of the Fleet, as best he could. It was a fraught situation; each ship had its own delegates (hence Parker’s title) who did not always agree, and there were radical and moderate factions, and a proclivity among ships inclining to the latter to slip away from the mutinied fleet even as their erstwhile comrades fired upon them.
But the most perilous function demanded of Parker was to present mutineers’ demands to the Admiralty, whose perspective was that the fleet’s complaints had already been disposed of via Spithead — especially when the Nore demands expanded to include peace with France. The mutiny collapsed, and Parker was marched to Maidstone Prison to the jeers of Londoners.
Even the Newgate Calendar, scold for the status quo, could not resist admiring Parker’s bearing, “throughout the whole of his trial … firm and manly; while he was before the Court, decent and respectful, and from the time he received his sentence, till his execution, resigned and penitent” even while abhorring his “wretched existence.”
After a solemn pause of nearly ten minutes the Lord Advocate rose and, with his head uncovered, read the awful sentence — viz. “The Court judges Richard Parker to suffer death, and to be hanged by the neck, on board any one of his Majesty’s ships, and at such time as the Lords of the Admiralty may think proper to appoint.”
The prisoner listened to the sentence without emotion, and addressed the Court as follows: — “I have heard your sentence; I shall submit to it without a struggle. I feel thus, because I am sensible of the rectitude of my intentions. Whatever offences may have been committed, I hope my life will be the only sacrifice. I trust it will be thought a sufficient atonement. Pardon, I beseech you, the other men; I know they will return with alacrity to their duty.”
The president then briefly addressed himself to the prisoner. He said that, notwithstanding the enormity of the crimes of which he had been found guilty, on the fullest and clearest evidence, yet the Court, in order to afford him the necessary time to expiate his offences, and to make his peace with God, would then not name any day for his execution, but leave that point to the determination of the lords of the admiralty. The prisoner then withdrew, and was soon put in irons.
The time of his execution was fixed for Friday, the 30th of June. 1797. At eight o’clock in the morning a gun was fired on board his Majesty’s ship L’Espion, lying off Sheerness garrison, Vice-Admiral Lutwidge‘s flagship, and the yellow flag, the signal of capital punishment, was hoisted, which was immediately repeated by the Sandwich hoisting the same colour on her foretop.
The prisoner was awakened a little after six o’clock, from a sound sleep, by the provost-marshal, who, with a file of marines, composed his guard; he arose with cheerfulness, and requested permission might be asked for a barber to attend him, which was granted. He soon dressed himself in a neat suit of mourning (waistcoat excepted), wearing his half-boots over a pair of black silk stockings. He then took his breakfast, talked of a will he had written, in which he had bequeathed to his wife a little estate he said he was heir to, and after that lamented the misfortune that had been brought on the country by the mutiny, but solemnly denied having the least connection or correspondence with any disaffected persons ashore; and declared that it was chiefly owing to him that the ships had not been carried into the enemy’s ports. [a threat to sail to France was part of Nore mutiny negotiations]
At half past eight he was told the chaplain of the ship was ready to attend him to prayers upon the quarter-deck, which he immediately ascended, uncovered: at his first entrance on the deck he looked a little paler than corn mon, but soon recovered his usual complexion; he bowed to t lie officers, and, a chair being allowed him, he sat down for a few moments: he then arose, and told the clergyman he wished to attend him: the chaplain informed him he had selected two psalms appropriate to his situation; to which the pris oner, assenting, said, “And with your permission, sir, I will add a third,” and named the 51st. He then recited each alternate verse in a manner peculiarly impressive.
At nine o’clock the preparatory gun was fired from L’Espion, which he heard without the smallest emotion. Prayers being soon after closed, he rose, and asked Captain Moss “if he might be indulged with a glass of white wine”: which being granted, he took it, and, lifting up his eyes, exclaimed, “I drink first to the salvation of my soul! and next to the forgiveness of my enemies!” Addressing him self to Captain Moss, he said, “he hoped he would shake hands with him”; which the captain did: he then desired “that he might be remembered to his companions on board the Neptune; with his last breath sent an entreaty to them to prepare for their destiny, and refrain from unbecoming levity.” His arms were now bound, and the procession moved from the quarterdeck to the forecastle, passing through a double file of marines on the starboard side, to a platform erected on the cat-head, with an elevated projection. Arriving there, he knelt with the chaplain, and joined in some devout ejaculations, to all of which he repeated loudly, “Amen.” Rising again, the Admiral’s warrant of execution, addressed to Captain Moss, was now read by the clerk, in which the sentence of the court martial, the order of the Board of Admiralty and his Majesty’s approbation of the whole proceedings were fully recited, which the prisoner heard with great attention, and bowed his head, as if in assent, at the close of it. He now asked the captain whether he might be allowed to speak, and immediately apprehending his intention might be misconceived he added: “I am not going, sir, to address the ship’s company. I wish only to declare that I acknowledge the justice of the sentence under which I suffer; and I hope my death may be deemed a sufficient atonement, and save the lives of others.”
He then requested a minute to collect himself, and knelt down alone, about that space of time; then rose up and said: “I am ready.” Holding his head up, he said to the boatswain’s mate: “Take off my handkerchief (of black silk); which was done, and the provost-marshal placed the halter over his head (which had been prepared with grease,) but, doing it awkwardly, the prisoner said rather pettishly to the boatswain’s mate, “Do you do it, for he seems to know nothing about it.” The halter was then spliced to the reeve-rope: all this being adjusted, the marshal attempted to put a cap on, which he refused; but, on being told that it was indispensable, he submitted, requesting it might not be pulled over his eyes till he desired it. He then turned round, for the first time, and gave a steady look at his shipmates on the forecastle, and, with an affectionate kind of smile, nodded his head, and said “Good-by to you!” He now said, “Captain Moss, is the gun primed?” — “It is.” — “Is the match alight?” — “All is ready.”– On this he advanced a little, and said, “Will any gentleman be so good as to lend me a white handkerchief for the signal?” After some little pause, a gentleman stepped forward and gave him one; to whom bowing, he returned thanks. He now ascended the platform, and repeated the same questions about the gun. He now ascended the platform. The cap was then drawn over his face, and he walked by firm degrees up to the extremity of the scaffold, and dropped a white handkerchief, which he had borrowed from one of the gentlemen present, and put his hands in his coat-pockets with great rapidity. At the moment he sprang off, the fatal bow-gun fired, and the reeve-rope, catching him, ran him up, though not with great velocity, to the yardarm. When suspended about midway his body appeared extremely convulsed for a few seconds, immediately after which no appearance of life remained.
It being ebb of tide, the starboard yard-arm pointed to the Isle of Grain, where scaffolding was erected for the spectators on shore; a considerable number of yachts, cutters, and other craft, surrounded the Sandwich. The last time the prisoner knelt with the chaplain at the cat-head, though he made his responses regularly, his attention was particularly directed the whole time to the armed boats of the fleet, which were plying round on duty. The whole conduct of this awful ceremony was extremely decorous and impressive; it was evident, from the countenances of the crew of the Sandwich, that the general feeling for the fate of their mutinous conductor was such as might be wished: not a word, and scarce a whisper, was heard among them.
Parker was not mistaken to warn his compatriots to brace for punishment, and his hope that his would be the only life paid in forfeit was sorely disappointed. Twenty-nine more men were hanged as Nore mutineers, in addition to a number of others imprisoned, flogged, or transported. (The Sydney, Australia suburb of Redfern is named for the transported Nore mutineer who once owned the land.)
* Speaking of the Bounty, its old notorious captain William Bligh in 1797 captained one of the mutinied ships at the Nore, on which occasion Bligh discovered “that his common nickname among men in the fleet was ‘that Bounty Bastard’.”
On this day..
- 2004: David Harris, Errol Morris subject - 2020
- 1685: Archibald Campbell - 2019
- 1893: A day in the death penalty around the U.S. - 2017
- 1948: Meir Tobiansky, by summary judgment - 2016
- 1921: Richard and Abraham Pearson, the Coolacrease killings - 2015
- 1794: Rosalie Lubomirska, mother of Balzac's antagonist - 2014
- 1278: Pierre de La Brosse, "out of spite and envy" - 2013
- 1680: A Madrid auto de fe - 2012
- 1934: Night of the Long Knives - 2011
- 1704: John Quelch, pirate - 2010
- 1962: Georges Kageorgis, assassin - 2009
- 1882: Charles Guiteau, James Garfield's colorful assassin - 2008