Posts filed under 'At Sea'

1797: Richard Parker, for the Nore mutiny

Add comment June 30th, 2018 Headsman

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.


The Newgate Calendar’s illustration of Parker’s execution.

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’.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Public Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1835: Patrick O’Brien, Francis Spaight apprentice boy

Add comment December 19th, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1835,* a Limerick ship’s boy named Patrick O’Brien lost a casting of lots … then lost his life to feed his ravenous shipmates.

The spanking new 457-ton barque Francis Spaight was on the return leg of her second-ever run to Quebec to fetch timber back to her home port of Limerick. The ship was named for her owner, a big landowner and shipping magnate who had thriftily sent 216 passengers on the voyage’s first leg. As Spaight would explain to a state commission a decade later amid the Great Famine, replacing ballast with emigres on outbound voyages was pure profit. In a sort of microcosm of Ireland’s terrible economic machinery,** Spaight’s own commercial interests on land and sea dovetailed nicely in filling his hulls with Ireland’s surplus population. For example, when Spaight gained the 4,200-acre Tipperary estate of Derry Castle in 1844 he smoothly set about depopulating it** — as Ciaran O Murchada describes in The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852:

He [Spaight] did this by obligating unwanted tenants to emigrate to America on board his own ships and at his cost. It was all done extremely cheaply since the ships were cargo vessels which were empty on each outward voyage in any case. By 1847 Spaight’s businesslike approach had rid him of half the Derrycastle tenants, and by the time his consolidation was completed two years later he had removed some 2,000 persons in an operation which was admired by other landlords for its efficiency and the fact that it was done without arousing any overt protest on the part of the tenants.

As to the ship that bore the master’s name, discharged of her Irish exiles and loaded with Canadian lumber, she departed her last port of call in Newfoundland on November 24. Aboard were eighteen souls: fourteen crew and four boys among whom we find our principal Patrick O’Brien — a penniless 15-year-old bound over from the Limerick workhouse as an apprentice to Mr. Spaight approximately on the eve of the Francis Spaight‘s departure. He was destined never to lay eyes on his native soil again.

On December 3, the ship capsized.† Three men were lost at sea; the other 11 crew and all four boys clambered aboard a dinghy, adrift and unprovisioned in the frigid Atlantic. There the torments of privation worked them until they slaked their hunger on their comrades’ flesh, as the Irish and then the English press related months later to their titillated readers — such as this entry from Manchester Times, June 25, 1836.

On the 19th of December, the sixteenth day since the wreck, the captain said they were now such a length of time without sustenance, that it was beyond human nature to endure it any longer, and that the only question for them to consider was, whether one or all should die; his opinion was that one should suffer for the rest, and that lots should be drawn between the four boys, as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends as those who had wives and children depending on them.

None objected to this except the boys, who cried out against the injustice of such a proceeding. O’Brien, in particular, protested against it; and some mutterings were heard amongst the men that led the latter to apprehend they might proceed in a more summary way. Friendless and forlorn as he was, they were well calculated to terrify the boy into acquiescence, and he at length submitted.

Mulville now prepared some sticks of different lengths for the lots. A bandage was tied over O’Brien’s eyes, and he knelt down resting his face on Mulville’s knees. The latter had the sticks in his hand, and was to hold them up one by one demanding whose lot it was O’Brien was to call out a name, and whatever person he named for the shortest stick was to die. Muville held up the first stick, and demanded who it was for? The answer was “for little Johnny Sheehan,” and the lot was laid aside. The next stick was held up, and the demand was repeated, “on whom is this lot to fall?” O’Brien’s reply was, “on myself,” upon which Mulville said, that was the death lot — that O’Brien had called it for himself.

The poor fellow heard the announcement without uttering a word.

This same story, said to have been related by an unnamed survivor of the Spaight, appeared in a number of papers with slightly varying embroideries around this time. Some versions suggest that this blind man’s bluff lot-drawing was rigged to target O’Brien as the least popular crewman; whether or not that was the case, even the “fair” version of the game was rigged at the outset to exclude the adult crew members and leave only the apprentice boys for gobbling.

The lot having been cast, we resume the ghastly narrative with Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, June 26, 1836:

The men now told him he must prepare for death, and the captain said it was better it should be done by bleeding him in the arm, to which O’Brien made no objection. The captain then directed the cook, John Gorman, to do it, telling him it was his duty; but Gorman strenuously refused. He was, however, threatened with death himself by the men if he continued obstinate, and he at last consented.

O’Brien then took off his jacket without waiting to be desired, and after telling the crew, if any of them ever reached home, to tell his poor mother what had happened to him, bared his right arm. The cook cut his veins across twice with a small knife, but could bring no flow of blood, upon which there seemed to be much hesitation among the men as to what could be done.

They were relieved by the boy himself, who immediately desired the cook to give him the knife, as he could not be looking at him putting him to pain. When he got the knife, and was about to cut the vein, the captain recommended him to try the left arm, which he accordingly did. He attempted to open the vein at the bend of the elbow with the point of a knife, as a surgeon would, but like the cook he failed in bringing blood.

A dead consternation now fell upon all; but in a minute or two the captain said, “This is all of no use, ’tis better to put him out of pain by at once bleeding him in the throat,” and some of them said it was true.

At this O’Brien, for the first time, looked terrified, and begged hard that they would not do so, but give him a little time; he said he was cold and weak; but if they would let him lay down and sleep for a little, he would get warm, and then he would bleed freely.

To this wish there was some expression of dissent from the men, and the captain shortly after said to them, “that it was useless leaving the boy this way in pain; ’twas best at once to lay hold of him, and let the cook cut his throat!”

O’Brien, now roused, and driven to extremity, seemed working himself up for resistance, and declared he would not let them; the first man, he said, who laid hands on him, ‘twould be worse for him; that he’d appear to him at another time; that he’d haunt him after death.

The poor youth was, however, among so many, soon got down, and the cook was again called upon to put him to death. The man now refused more strenuously than before, and another altercation arose: but, weak and irresolute, and seeing that his own life would absolutely be taken instead of O’Brien’s, if he persisted, he at length yielded to their menaces.

Some one at this time brought him down a large case knife that was on the poop, instead of the clasp-knife that he had first prepared, with which, pale and trembling, he stood over O’Brien, who was still endeavouring to free himself from those who held him. One of them now placed the cover of the tureen (which they before used to collect rain) under the boy’s neck, and several cried out to the cook to do his duty.

The horror stricken man, over and over again, endeavoured to summon up hardihood for the deed, but, when he caught the boy’s eye, his heart always failed him, and then he looked supplicatingly to the men again.

Their cries and threats were, however, loud for death — he made a desperate effort — there was a short struggle — and O’Brien was no more.

As soon as this horrid act was perpetrated, the blood was served to the men; but a few of them, among whom was Mahony, refused to partake of it.

They afterwards laid open the body, and separated the limbs; the latter were hung over the stern, while a portion of the former was allotted for immediate use.

Shocked, as, for the sake of human nature, it is to be hoped many were at the scene they had just witnessed, a gnawing hunger came upon them all when they saw even this disgusting meal put out for them, and almost every one, even the unwilling boys, partook more or less of it.

This was the evening of the sixteenth day. They ate again late at night, and some greedily; but the thirst, which was before at least endurable, now became craving, and as there was no more blood, they slaked it with salt water.

They then lay down to rest, but several were raving and talking wildly through the night, and in the morning the cook was observed to be quite insane — his eyes inflamed and glaring, and his speech rambling and incoherent; he threw his clothes about restlessly, and was often violent. His raving continued during the succeeding night, & in the morning, as his end seemed to be approaching, the veins of his neck were cut, and the blood drawn from him. This was the second death.

On the night of that day, Michael Behane was mad, and the boy George Burns on the following morning; they were both so violent, that they were obliged to be tied by the crew, and the latter was bled to death, like the cook, by cutting his throat. Michael Behane died unexpectedly, or he would have suffered the same fate.

Next morning the captain came off deck, and, feeling too weak and exhausted to keep a look-out any longer, desired some one to take his place above. Harrington and Mahony went up very soon after; the latter thought he could distinguish a sail, and raised a shout of joy, upon which those below immediately came up. A ship was clearly discernible, and apparently bearing her course towards them.

Signals were hoisted with as much alacrity as the weakness of the survivors would allow, and, when she approached, and was almost within hail, their apprehension of her passing by was so great, that they held up the hands and feet of O’Brien to excite commiseration.

The vessel proved to be the Agenoria [sic — Agenora is the correct name of the ship], an American. She put off a boat to their assistance without any hesitation, although the weather was so rough at the time, and the survivors were saved.

The Francis Spaight was channeled almost straight from such reports by Jack London into a shocking short story.

The notoriety of cannibalism did not translate to any sense that the famished survivors ought to be prosecuted: they were objects of pity and the survival of those who made it was rather celebrated than disdained since even weeks later as they arrived back at Limerick they presented an appearance “ghastly and spectre like with a singular woe-be-gone expression of countenance.” (Quoted in Neil Hanson’s book about a later instance of cannibalism, The Custom of the Sea)

Francis Spaight — the oligarch, not his barque — wrote an appeal that the public sustain with charity his own invalided employees … for, “mutilated by the frost and otherwise rendered helpless” they would “be unable not only to obtain bread, but to labour for it during the rest of their lives.” What, you think I’m going to hire them? (Actually the skipper who orchestrated O’Brien’s death went back to work captaining Spaight’s ships.) Spaight put in ten quid for the lot of them, something like US $1,000 in present-day money.

And the grief-stricken mother of Patrick O’Brien haunted Spaight’s country estate “where her hysterical cries were truly heart-rendering.” (Source)

* Understandably calendar-keeping was not foremost on the minds of the Francis Spaight survivors. Many sources give the 18th as the date of O’Brien’s sacrifice; I’m gingerly preferring the 19th in deference to the immediate newspaper reports such as the one quoted in this article. This also appears to square with rescue on the 23rd: by the quoted narrative, the cook is slaughtered two days after O’Brien (hence, the 21st), and Michael Behane and George Burns die on the following day (the 22nd), only for the survivors’ salvation to appear “the next morning.”

** “Irish genius discovered an altogether new way of spiriting a poor people thousands of miles away from the scene of its misery … instead of costing Ireland anything, emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of its export trade.” –Marx

† Though useless to our survivors in their hour of need, the Francis Spaight did not sink. She was recovered, pumped out, and returned to service. Years later she went down for good at Table Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Canada,Children,Chosen by Lot,History,Ireland,No Formal Charge,Uncertain Dates

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1807: Jenkin Ratford, Chesapeake-Leopard affair casualty

Add comment August 31st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1807, the British navy hanged Jenkin Ratford from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax off the coast of Maryland — an incident destined to become a rallying cry for the United States in the ill-fated War of 1812.

The U.S. at this moment was an upstart young country and naturally enough chafed at the lordly interpositions of her recent mother country. Great Britain had the navy, however, so the Americans could chafe all they liked. In the words of the tune that had emerged in the 18th century with Britain’s globe-straddling sea power

Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves
Britons never will be slaves.

The Britons who got to do the grunt work of wave-ruling might disagree.

Seaman in the Royal Navy, and that huge navy needed many seamen, was a harrowingly brutal position often filled by press gangs empowered to grab anyone not able to produce immediate evidence of exemption and have them by next morning swabbing the nearest frigate on a ration of wormy hardtack. Desertion was correspondingly popular and more radical resorts not unheard-of; the mutiny on the Bounty had occurred in 1789; two other mutinies much more alarmingly proximate to Old Blighty took place in 1797.

Britain’s willingness to extend impressment to stopping American ships and seizing crew members who couldn’t produce American identity papers made a great affront to the young Republic — an insulting reminder of its third-rate* place among the nations. Years before while American colonists were kicking redcoat ass in the Revolution, they had dreamt among other things of correcting America’s aggravating dependence on the British fleet. “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense. “Ship building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world.”

Congress got a start on that project with a 1794 naval act creating the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. The USS Constitution is the most famous of these; one of her five sisters, the Chesapeake, will figure in the action of this date’s post.

In 1806, two French ships, the Cybelle and the Patriot, struggled into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay for repairs after being crippled by a storm at sea — stalked by British ships that blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake to trap them there.

The proximity of American soil proved an irresistible inducement for at least four sailors on the British ships to desert. Three of them — William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan — were American victims of British impressment. The fourth, our man Jenkins Ratford, was a Limey. They then enlisted in the American Navy.

Great Britain’s demands for their return met with steady refusal on the American side. Knowing that the deserters had been posted to the Chesapeake, which was then outfitting for deployment to the Mediterranean, British ships in the vicinity of the North American coast were ordered to stop the Chesapeake on sight to recover the absconders.

This the HMS Leopard did do on June 22, 1807, and with a singular lack of subtlety: the Leopard battered the Chesapeake with broadsides. Shocked and unprepared, the Americans couldn’t even fire back before striking colors and yielding to a humiliating British search that hauled off Ware, Martin, Strachan and Ratford.


The HMS Leopard (easily recognizable since it’s the only ship firing!) vs. the USS Chesapeake.

While these unfortunates were sailed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia** for their trial, outrage spread on American shores — immediately advised of the incident since the Chesapeake† had had to limp directly back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Outrage at the British, but also outrage at the captain who failed to so much as resist the attack (he was court-martialed, and suspended from command for five years), and outrage for the national honor. Some, more vengeful than sensible, wanted immmediate hostilities with Great Britain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” U.S President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the French emigre Dupont de Nemours.‡

Ratford, the only actual British citizen among the shanghaied sailormen, was the only one executed. The Americans “merely” got prison sentences.

At the political level, President Jefferson had a thorny problem. The British could in no way be induced to meet the American demand to end impressment, for simultaneous with the scandal Napoleon was finalizing victories that would knock Britain’s continental allies out of an altogether more urgent war. No derogation of security interests could be entertained, and so for America, no diplomatic satisfaction could be forthcoming.

Instead of war, Jefferson responded by convincing Congress to enact an embargo on trade with Europe. It proved to be a counterproductive policy that damaged the U.S. far more than the European export markets it had intended to punish.

The U.S. and U.K. would come to blows soon enough, and if the War of 1812 was hardly fought because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, that incident was certainly among the contributing grievances.

Injuries more directly attributable were not hard to come by, however. When James Barron, the suspended former commander of the Chesapeake, sought reinstatement to the navy, early American naval hero Stephen Decatur opposed him with vehemence sufficient to induce Barron to challenge Decatur to a duel. Decatur was slain in the fight, shockingly pinching out one of America’s leading military figures at the age of 41.


(cc) image by David King.

The Chesapeake herself fared little better. The ship was captured by the British in the ill-fated War of 1812, and recommissioned into the hated Royal Navy. Sold off for scrap in 1819, its timbers were repurposed for a long-lived (and now historic) Hampshire watermill — the Chesapeake Mill.

* See what I did there.

** Halifax the city is where they were tried; the HMS Halifax, which was Ratford’s ship prior to desertion, is where Ratford was executed. It’s Halifaxes all the way down.

Thanks to this incident, the very name “USS Chesapeake” became so blackened in American naval history that it has barely been touched for any vessel since.

‡ Father of the DuPont who founded the DuPont chemical company and made that family perpetual American plutocrats down to the present day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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Feast of St. Clement

Add comment November 23rd, 2014 Headsman

Today is St. Clement’s Day, the feast day of the first century Pope Clement I — who, tradition has it, was martyred by the Romans under Trajan at the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus by being pitched into the Black Sea weighted down with an anchor.*


The Martyrdom of St. Clement, by Bernardino Fungai.

The documentary trail for leadership of the Christian community in these embryonic years is a little thin but officially, the Vatican rates Clement the fourth Pope following St. Peter, Linus, and Cletus; Tertullian says he was ordained by Peter’s very own hand.

He’s the earliest of these successors of the Apostle who can still speak to posterity. The First Epistle of Clement,** which might very well be from the pope’s own hand, is among the oldest extant Christian texts outside of the books actually gathered in the New Testament. Clement wrote it to recall the Corinthian congregation to obedience after “no small sedition” challenged its presbyters; by way of a voluminous review of authority both scriptural and natural,† the Bishop of Rome unsurprisingly concludes that folk ought submit to the constituted ecclesiastical authorities.

Forasmuch then as these things are manifest beforehand, and we have searched into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do all things in order, as many as the Master hath commanded us to perform at their appointed seasons. Now the offerings and ministrations He commanded to be performed with care, and not to be done rashly or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons.

And where and by whom He would have them performed, He Himself fixed by His supreme will: that all things being done with piety according to His good pleasure might be acceptable to His will.

They therefore that make their offerings at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed: for while they follow the institutions of the Master they cannot go wrong.

For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the levites their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances.

Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.

Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.

They therefore who do any thing contrary to the seemly ordinance of His will receive death as the penalty.

-1 Clem 40:1 – 41:3 (via)

Presumably in consequence of the device used to sink the pope into the Euxine, St. Clement is honored as the patron of smiths and metalworkers; little-observed now, St. Clement’s Day once saw clanging processions of cloaked, and tanked, blacksmiths answering to Old Clem and belting out tunes at every tavern they passed. Pyromaniacs and Warner Brothers cartoon characters might also wish to honor St. Clement with a good old-fashioned anvil firing.

* Chersonesus, which is the city where the prince Vladimir the Great was baptized en route to Christianizing all of Russia, has gorgeous ruins that can be seen adjacent to present-day Sevastopol. St. Cyril, missionary to the Slavs and fountainhead of the Cyrillic alphabet(s), is supposed to have dug up Clement’s relics during his sojourn and hauled them, anchor and all, back to Rome.

** There’s a Second Epistle of Clement, too, but it is not thought to be a genuine product of Clement.

† And unnatural! Viz. “There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years; and when it hath now reached the time of its dissolution that it should die, it maketh for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into the which in the fullness of time it entereth, and so it dieth.” The phoenix is supposed to be evidence and/or metaphor for the Resurrection and the afterlife.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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1629: Jeronimus Cornelisz and other Batavia mutineers

2 comments October 2nd, 2012 dogboy

It was 2 Oct 1629, Dutchman Jeronimus Cornelisz was noosed along with 15 other men by the Dutch East Indies Company for a reign of terror that included mutiny and murder off the coast of Australia.* Six others would eventually hang in the infamous affair, two marooned on the Australian mainland, and many more punished for the gruesome atrocities committed on the Southern Ocean.

Cornelisz was not such an assuming character when he boarded the vessel Batavia in 1628.

This definitive history of the Batavia mutiny is by one of the web’s best history bloggers, Mike Dash. He reprinted an interview largely about this book here.

Rather, he was a marginally failed merchant, someone who could buy his way on board as an under-merchant** and sail to the southern seas for the prospect of a new life. It has been speculated (here, for instance) that his move to Indonesia was motivated by a desire to put oceanic distances between himself — an apothecary who couldn’t make it in Haarlem — and prosecutors pursuing Anabaptists and other heretics. It didn’t help, either, that his infant child had recently died of the disgracing condition of syphilis. All that is enough to send a man to Indonesia, apparently.

Though Cornelisz was not a successful businessman, he was an energetic protagonist from his own station in life and could, eventually, win over any suggestible person with his intelligence and wit. It didn’t take long to do just that to the ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz — who already held a grudge against the Batavia‘s upper-merchant (and fleet commander), Francisco Pelsaert.

In due time their thoughts turned to the ship’s valuable cargo — silver and trade goods headed for the Mughal Empire. As night follows day, the next thoughts turned to mutiny.

Cornelisz pulled in people from each of the major groups onboard† to help with his mutiny without attracting the attention of the Pelsaert. All the plot needed was a kickstart to turn enough people against the commander.

In the part where the villain reveals his plot, Cornelisz’s goes like this: A group of hooded mutineers assaults the mostly widely lusted-after woman among the socialite passengers, Lucretia (Creesje) Jans; once the assault is reported, the commander must respond; but if the assailants are well-hidden, he must make an example arbitrarily, which pushes his men towards mutiny.

And, like a movie villain’s evil plot, Cornelisz’s didn’t come off.

The captain punished nobody for the assault, as Creesje could not identify the assailants. The shipboard mutiny withered on the vine. But lucky for Cornelisz, the captain had no inkling that the ship’s under-merchant was involved — though he was pretty sure the skipper and boatswain had something to do with it.

In the midst of those days of planned insurrection, the Batavia hit a slightly larger speed bump. On June 4, the vessel ran aground on Morning Reef.

There were few casualties from the initial crash, and the remainder escaped in groups, crammed onto small coral islands in the remote but plausibly survivable Houtman Abrolhos chain off the west coast of Australia.

The ship’s complement was eventually transferred to Beacon Island and Traitors Island — with limited water (but plenty of silver!), it was clear to Pelsaert there would be few people left if they didn’t get some help. Off went the captain with 47 crew and passengers in a longboat, leaving more than 250 behind to fend for themselves on the isles.

Two months later, Pelsaert found himself in the colonial city Batavia (today, the Indonesian capital Jakarta) appealing to the local authorities at the Dutch East Indies Company for a ship to rescue his stranded crew and passengers. He was quickly given the Sardam — another vessel in his fleet — with a skeleton crew to pick up the passengers (oh, and all that silver).

But he wasn’t going to need all those passenger quarters.

Cornelisz, as under-merchant, had technical rank in the emergency, and he had taken over the situation at the islands when the commander left. The refugee pharmacist reveled in the power, certainly amplified by the dozen chests of treasure the Batavia carried.

So here’s your motivation: a fortune in booty and the South Seas as your playground. This is the stuff of rum wishes and buccaneer dreams.

And Lord of the Flies nightmares.

Sensing the the time was ripe to lighten the group’s victual needs, Cornelisz‡ sent 15 men to search a larger island visible to the west for water. This journey, Cornelisz was convinced, would be fruitless, so any possible power rivals he could find went off. As well, Cornelisz shipped a larger group to Long Island to get more space.

And then began the killing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 1647 engraving of the carnage on Beacon Island. Cornelisz had a good 110 homicides on his soul’s account by the time it was all said and done.

Some 20 mutineers formed a tight inner circle with fantasies of having their way on the island until the rescue boat could be commandeered for piracy. The purpose of the killings was simply to knock the number of residents down closer to 40 or 45 so that the mutineers would be overwhelmingly dominant when the rescue boat came. That’s a tough task when starting with almost 200 people.

At first, killings proceeded under faux-juridical cover: theft and slander were enough to endanger everyone in these cramped quarters, so Cornelisz would have his men claim illegal activities were afoot and kill one or more of the people he considered either threats or non-entities among the group.

A few loyal footsoldiers did most of the killing, along with some pressed into service with the threat of violence; pretty soon the numbers on the island had dwindled noticeably.

With vague ideas of riches and a growing bloodlust, killing essentially became sport. Families were done to death wholesale, by whatever means were available — drowning, slitting throats, bludgeoning. Those liable to fight back might be jumped by a group at the beach, sometimes getting all of the above.

And before you go thinking murder was the only thing the mutineers had on their minds, they retained at least a few women (including Creesje) as private consorts.


Now is the time to mention that Cornelisz was personally acquainted with notorious (and then-imprisoned) degenerate artist Johannes van der Beeck. This is van der Beeck’s Faun and Nymphs.

But remember those doomed guys searching for water two islands over?

Turns out they found it, along with ample food, and they were now occupying the largest island in the chain.

They, along with 30 or so who escaped Cornelisz’s clutches over the course of two months, were the Resistance, and they were full of incriminating knowledge about what had been going down over on psycho isle.

One of the original group, Wiebbe Hayes, had taken charge of the island’s affairs, and he had done quite well. Those living on what is now known as West Wallabi Island were far better off than their Beacon counterparts.

Back on Beacon, Cornelisz was forced to ration water — even to his favorites — and had thoughts that the High Islanders might scupper his search party takeover plot. So late in July, he sent an amphibious landing team to attack High Island. Cornelisz’s men were met with a line of opposition at the beach, armed with pikes made of driftwood with nails. The mutineers retreated.

Weeks later, Assault II began; like most sequels, it fell on its face. Assault III, Cornelisz decided, should include cunning, cunning like an ostensible negotiation to trade the clothing Cornelisz had hoarded for water and food.

Hayes was even a little more cunning that that, and when Cornelisz and his four top lieutenants came ashore and began sweet-talking, he and his men seized four of them. (The fifth, Wouter Loos, escaped.)

Knowing that having mutineers on his island would be trouble, Hayes convened his council, which swiftly decided to dispatch any prisoner not named Jeronimus: that one was tossed in a pit and given birds to pluck for Hayes’ army.

Two weeks went by before the mutineers (now led by Loos) got up the courage to attack again, but by the time they took to the channels and began a long-range gun assault, the Sardam was in the archipelago. Hayes got to Pelsaert first and informed him of the planned mutiny. Pelsaert trained all his weapons on the mutineers’ boat until they decided to disarm.

The trials were done in the Dutch way, including some amount of torture. Pelsaert finally decided he had enough evidence against the mutineers, and his small tribunal passed 16 death sentences. (One was commuted to exile.) That included a half dozen who had one or more hands lopped off before their passage to the gallows.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the mutineers’ execution.

Three weeks later, when the Sardam returned to Batavia, five more of the rescued mutineers were executed, and a sixth — the boatswain involved in the assault on Creesje — was put to death while Pelsaert was out.

Once word got out, Cornelisz’s heinous crimes were known around the world and Southern sailors heard the tales for hundreds of years to come.

Pelsaert, meanwhile, was partly blamed for the incident and saw the Company seize his assets: he was dead within a year. As for Hayes, he was promoted, but his further adventures are unknown.

The remains of the shipwreck that commenced this hecatomb are still visible at Houtman Abrolhos, from cannons off the original Batavia to the fort built by Wiebbe Hayes and his men — everyday monuments to a hellish ordeal.

* Technically the first European settlers in Australia.

** Dutch merchant vessels were headed by an upper-merchant, who had control over decisions on the ship and represented the overriding interest of the Dutch United East India Company. In addition, an under-merchant was taken aboard as his second-in-command Company man. The skipper was considered head of the crew and placed in charge of navigational concerns, but his role was subordinate to the upper-merchant.

† Like all Dutch merchant vessels, the Batavia featured four major classes of people on board:

  • a standard crew to run the vessel;
  • a complement of soldiers who were generally kept below-decks but could be recruited to maintain order and would disembark at the destination;
  • a group which tended to shipboard needs (surgeon, cook, and so on);
  • and merchants and passengers, who had social standing over the rest.

‡ Technically, Cornelisz was part of a three-member council in charge of the shipwrecked. The initial council was selected from among the socially significant survivors, but Cornelisz used his rank to quickly dissolve that group and appoint two of his own future mutineers as his cohorts. Needless to say, the judiciary wasn’t independent after that.

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1802: Jacques Maurepas and his entire family

1 comment November 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1802, a Haitian general, his family, and his men, were butchered by French forces fighting to retain control of Saint-Domingue.

Haing recently mastered the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte — ever one for keeping it in the family — late in 1801 dispatched his brother-in-law* and brother-in-arms Leclerc to suppress the Haitian Revolution.

Over the course of 1802, Leclerc made headway towards accomplishing just that, as much with carrots as with sticks.

Maurepas was one of the Haitian commanders tasked by Toussaint L’Ouverture with defending Saint-Domingue, in his case, Port-de-Paix. Faced with a French landing, Maurepas burned the town to the ground and withdrew for an effective guerrilla resistance in the mountains.

But he eventually came to terms with the French, as did other Haitian officers, L’Ouverture included — reintegrating forces back with the French on the understanding that all that liberte, egalite, fraternite stuff would at least extend as far as not reintroducing slavery.

The French had other plans for their lucrative once-and-future colony, and when the Haitians caught wind of them, trouble resumed — now under the leadership (since the French had sagely deported L’Ouverture) of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.**

Leclerc had the, er, “fortune” of succumbing to yellow fever shortly after Dessalines’ promising revolt got underway; he was succeeded by the brutal Rochambeau, who threw away the carrots and relied on naked violence to control the island. (Again, not uncharacteristic of Napoleonic conquests.)

Maurepas had not actually gone over to Dessalines, but the fact that he was a black Haitian general was reason enough for his white French superior officer to arrest him preventively. Immediately upon assuming command, Rochambeau made an example of Maurepas.

The sea off the Cape was chosen to be the theatre of an execution, unparalleled in what is called civilized life. For fear that Maurepas, who had gained distinction under Toussaint L’Ouverture, after having embraced the side of France, should join the insurgents, Leclerc had written to him to come by sea, with his family and his troop, to take the command of the Cape, which he destined for him as a reward for his services. No sooner had he arrived than he and his soldiers were seized and disarmed. Rochambeau ordered preparations to be made for a barbarous punishment in order to put the negro general to death, with his troop, consisting of 400 blacks. It was also put in deliberation whether death should be inflicted on his children, in order to prevent them from rising up to avenge their father.

After having been bound to the mast of a vessel, Maurepas was frightfully insulted. His wife, his children, and his soldiers were brought to be drowned under his eyes. The executioners were astounded when they beheld a father fix his dying eyes by turns on his children, his wife, and his companions in arms, undergoing a violent death; while they, on their part, turned their eyes away from a father, a husband, a general, whose countenance was disfigured by the tortures he was enduring. After being made to contemplate each other’s sufferings, they were all tossed into the ocean. They died without complaining in a manner worthy the champions of liberty. With a reversal of the order of nature, the father died last; he also suffered most.

Thus died Maurepas, whose character was a compound of frankness and severity. Thrice had he repulsed the French at the gorge of Trois-Rivières; he had at once the glory and the misfortune to go over to the French with victorious arms. The elevation of his soul equalled his valor. He preserved a tender feeling for the master whose slave he had been; he caused funeral honors to be paid to that master, and when his grave had been negligently prepared, he threw off his upper garment in order to perform the pious office properly. Among men of his own blood he was a powerful chief. A spirit of order and justice prevailed in his life. His riches, which were considerable, were given up to pillage. It would almost seem as if so much excellence were subjected to so much ignominy, expressly to show that while black men are capable of any virtue, white men are capable of any crime. Certainly, my narrative is replete with instances which, beyond a question, prove that moral as well as mental excellence is independent of the varieties of color.

This brutal punishment, preceded by vile perfidy, filled the camps of the insurgents with horror. That horror was augmented when Rochambeau, at the Cape, put to death five hundred prisoners. On the place of execution, and under the eyes of the victims, they dug a large hole for their grave, so that the poor wretches may be said to have been present at their own funeral.

Far from cowing the rebels into submission, this savagery fired more ferocious resistance from men, women, and children who now perceived that their race subjected them to wholesale and arbitrary cruelty that no display of loyalty could overcome.

A terrible retribution was determined upon. Dessalines erected 500 gibbets, and hanged half a regiment of French that he had captured by a bold countermarch. A war of extermination followed, and in December, 1803, aided by an English squadron, the French were compelled to evacuate the island.

January 1, 1804 is Haiti’s Independence Day.

* By way of marriage to Napoleon’s sister Pauline. Pauline enjoyed the Saint-Domingue adventure more than did her spouse; she sported with lovers and balked at returning to France. “Here,” she noted, “I reign like Josephine; I hold first place.”

This character is the subject of a recent biography.

** After expelling the French and becoming the first ruler of independent Haiti, Dessalines took a page from Napoleon’s own playbook and crowned himself Emperor.

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1821: Owen Coffin, main course

5 comments February 6th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1821, a first-time whaleship crewman named Owen Coffin was executed by a comrade to feed three starving mates.

Coffin was the second-to-last victim of an event which shocked the whaling community and inspired the novel Moby Dick.

Owen Coffin was a 17-year-old aboard a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex. He was cousin to George Pollard, Jr., who was making his first trek to the Pacific whaling grounds as a ship’s captain.

The Essex sailed from Nantucket Island in 1819, one of dozens of ships to leave port in search of whales and, ultimately, whale oil. In spite of the large numbers of whales slaughtered by whalers around the world, the Essex had the unfortunate honor of taking part in the first documented violent encounter by a sperm whale on a whaleship.

Of the whales available to the whalers of the day, the sperm whale was most prized: aside from the typical blubber found on all whales, which could be processed for its “oil” (actually a free-flowing form of wax), this whale’s head was filled with the clean-burning substance called spermaceti, a name inspired by its resemblance to the sexual fluid. Spermaceti fetched a high price at market when sperm whales were in sufficient abundance to hunt them.


A 1902 photograph of whalers cutting into a sperm whale’s jaw. (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

There Once Was a Crew from Nantucket

At the time, Nantucket Island was the center of the whaling world.

The industry was primarily run by Quaker businessmen, who negotiated profit-sharing rates for young, largely local crews willing to risk their lives in search of whales. To fill out the ship numbers, poor non-Nantucketers were imported from other New England ports. The Essex was no different: the ship originally held 21 crewmembers, eight of whom came from off-island.

The ship’s journey began inauspiciously by being flattened in a squall, but after repairs, she continued on in pursuit of whales. The ship made its classic trip around the southern tip of South America, put in to port in Ecuador, then traversed 2000 miles of ocean westward in search of a recently-discovered sperm whale hunting ground.

The Essex being rammed by a sperm whale, sketched by crewmember Thomas Nickerson.

And the crew did find whales and made a mildly successful trip of it … until it really pissed off the wrong whale.

The Essex discovered a group of sperm whales consisting of two females and one male. When the call went out, the three small whaleboats — built to be light and fast for the pursuit — launched.

These boats separated the females from the male, and one of the crews made a kill. It was around that time that the male, probably already distraught at being partitioned from his group, first ran into the 38-foot Essex. The jostle, which may have been accidental, apparently further upset the abnormally large whale, which briskly left the area, made a sharp turn, then swam all-out on a direct collision course with the Essex.

The old timber ship didn’t stand a chance.

The crew which had stayed aboard the main vessel watched in horror as the Essex was shattered beneath them. Two of the whaleboat crews noted the sinking and returned quickly, and Captain Pollard immediately set his crew about saving as many of the provisions as they could, including water and food.

But the speed with which the Essex went under left them with too little of both. As the final whaleboat made its way to the carnage, it was clear that the full crew complement was doomed to a long trip on a trio of very small boats.

Call Me Ishmael

Pollard and first mate Owen Chase hatched a plan (crewman Thomas Nickerson indicates that it was largely Chase who pushed the plan) to set sail for South America, thousands of miles distant and through unfavorable currents and winds, rather than for the Pacific Islands, about half as far away and in the direction of both favorable winds and currents.

The choice was sealed by fear of the unknown and a century of tales of South Pacific cannibals. Hopefully they came to appreciate the irony.

The crew went through its supplies in the first month at sea, and finally came ashore at Henderson Island, a raised, uninhabited coral reef that they mis-identified.

The fortunate crew found a temporarily available freshwater spring from which to refill their casks, and they subsisted on local fauna for several days while deciding their next course of action. Though Tahiti lay just a few hundred miles westward (again, in the direction of favorable winds and currents), our wayfarers opted to continue towards South America.

Three of the crew decided to stay behind. The remaining 17 crewmembers set out in late December 1820, and again quickly depleted their supplies.

One of the ships — carrying the second mate but no navigational equipment — was separated from the others during a storm and never heard from again, leaving two to carry on under increasingly desperate circumstances.

Cannibal Corpse

Passengers on both boats began succumbing to want and exposure, and their starving former comrades had little choice but to devour their remains.

The boat containing Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence was eventually rescued by the Indian off the coast of Chile, and both Nickerson and Chase wrote accounts of the the survivors’ cannibalism.

Yet it was aboard Pollard’s boat that the most gruesome events unfolded.

The deaths of two crewmen had provided for the others — but not nearly enough to hope for landfall.

Short on food and water and despairing of bringing all four remaining souls to port, Charles Ramsdell suggested that the quartet draw lots to both remove one consumer from the boat and provide for the remaining three. Pollard objected to subjecting his crew to such a fate, but Barzillai Ray and Owen Coffin agreed to the plan. The lots were cast, and Coffin pulled the black spot. The other three cast again to decide his executioner, and Ramsdell was chosen.

Pollard’s account indicates that he immediately spoke up for Coffin, offering himself up in place, but Coffin demurred and prepared himself for the execution.*

The following day, February 6, Coffin dictated a short note to his mother and declared, as per Pollard’s diary, that “the lots had been fairly drawn.”

Charles Ramsdell shot Owen Coffin, then joined Ray and Pollard in consuming his remains.

Ray died just days later, and Ramsdell and Pollard barely survived the next two weeks. When the Dauphin came up alongside the whaleboat on February 20, its crew thrilled to the spectacle of Ramsdell and Pollard sucking on the bones of their dead crewmates, emaciated beyond recognition.

Based on their statements about the events of the previous 95 days, a vessel was dispatched to find the three Henderson Island survivors. Because the crew had mis-identified the island, however, the search took longer than expected. Not until April 5, 1821, were the three located … out of fresh water and also scarcely alive.

A few books about the Essex

The Essex was a legend in its own time, and the story of the sinking and the harrowing events which followed continue to circle around Nantucket Island. Though the island’s economy collapsed less than 30 years later, Herman Melville kept the story alive through his literary classic Moby-Dick, whose story revolves around the captain of a whaling ship attacked by a vengeful whale.**

It is also suspected that a portion of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 novel† The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is based on the Essex disaster.

Closer to modern times, the rock group Mountain’s album and eponymous song “Nantucket Sleighride”, which was used as the theme song to London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, is dedicated to Coffin.

Coffin is not the only sailor adrift ever selected for cannibalism by lot, but his case is unusual because the particulars are so well-documented. Several other cases are provided in Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Arthur Gordon Pym uses a victim by the name of Richard Parker, coincidentally the same name as a man who was actually cannibalized in 1884‡ in an affair leading to the famous common law case R v Dudley and Stephens, wherein the killers were charged with murder and sentenced to 6 months in prison — unlike the 1835 incident of the Francis Spaight, which saw the crew acquitted for three such killings.

* One of the crueler accounts of such lot drawing occurred aboard the Peggy, where crewman David Flatt pulled the short straw. However, prior to the execution the following morning, the crew was rescued. Flatt, however, had a breakdown in the intervening hours and suffered mental illness which persisted even after their rescue.

** He was also inspired by the story of Mocha Dick, a notorious white whale which survived dozens of encounters with whalers and is now available in trenta sizes.

Arthur Gordon Pym is Poe’s only full-length novel.

‡ Richard Parker was also the name of a man executed for the Nore Mutiny, as well as one killed in the wreck of the Francis Spaight in 1846 — not to be confused with the Francis Spaight on which cannibalism occurred 11 years prior.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Chosen by Lot,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Massachusetts,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Volunteers

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1582: Philippe Strozzi, corsair

2 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1582, Philippe Strozzi, the Florentine-born commander of a French naval expedition against the Spanish was summarily executed as a pirate.

The Strozzi were long one of Florence’s wealthy and powerful families, as evidenced by, say, the Strozzi Palace, or the Strozzi coat of arms on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

That made the Strozzi sometime-allies, sometime-rivals* of Florence’s more famous powerbrokers, the Medici. It is in both capacities that we meet Philippe (English Wikipedia entry | Italian | French).

To cut a centuries-long story short, the Strozzi had basically come out on the wrong side of the power struggle in the 16th century.

Philippe’s father, Piero Strozzi, was the child of a Strozzi-Medici union, and Piero too married a Medici. He also fought the Medici for power and ended up in exile whereupon he gravitated to the French court of … Catherine de’ Medici. (Catherine had been educated at the home of Philippe’s grandfather, Filippo Strozzi.) Catherine then turned around and used Piero as a French Marshal, including sending him to back Tuscan city-state Siena in opposition to its (and France’s) rival, Florence.**

Your basic tangled geopolitical-genealogical web.

Bottom line, Piero’s son Philippe was born in Florence but grew up Gallic, and fought in the French army all over the continent from the time he was a teenager.

When France got involved in the War of Portuguese Succession, they put this warlike fellow aboard a boat and sent him to dispute Spanish King Philip II‘s attempt to claim the Portuguese throne and unify the Iberian peninsula.

Strozzi’s armada got its clock cleaned at the naval Battle of Ponta Delgada near the Azores, with devastating loss of life.


The Spanish galleon San Mateo, which did yeoman service at this battle.

Since Spain and France were putatively at peace, Spain treated its captives not as prisoners of war but as pirates, and proceeded to execute several hundred in Vila Franca do Campo. Strozzi didn’t even get that much ceremony, however; the day after the battle, he was mortally stabbed, then tossed into the waves.

Happily, the name and the fame of the Strozzi outlived Spanish justice. In the next century, a distant relative by the handle of Barbara Strozzi became one of the most renowned composers of Baroque vocal music. (As befits wealthy Italians of the Renaissance, the Strozzi were big on the arts; Philippe was supposed to be a fine musician himself.)

* The Strozzi-Medici conflict frames the action in the play Lorenzaccio, in which the titular Brutus-like character mulls assassinating the Medici dictator in order to restore the Republic, only to find no such restoration in the offing once he actually does the deed; the father and grandfather of our day’s protagonists are both principal characters.

** That didn’t work. Strozzi was trounced at the Battle of Marciano, which signaled the permanent demise of the ancient city-state‘s independence.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Piracy,Pirates,Portugal,Power,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

5 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,England,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Jamaica,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions

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