Posts filed under 'Mutiny'

1865: The Jacksonville Mutineers

Add comment December 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1865, six African-American infantrymen were shot in Fernandina, Florida, for the Jacksonville Mutiny.

Formed in 1863, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops served in the trenchworks around Fort Wagner — the grinding siege in the summer of 1863 that followed the bloody attempt to storm the fort immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.

The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.

All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.

Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.

From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.

“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†


The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.

Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?

Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.


From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.


From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”


From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.


From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.

In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?


Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))

For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.

A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.

Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”

Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.

Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.

Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”

Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.

This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.

In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.

The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.

And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.

On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.

The other five shot by musketry this date were:

  • Joseph Green
  • James Allen
  • Jacob Plowden
  • Joseph Nathaniel
  • Thomas Howard

Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.

The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.

* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.

** See I Freed Myself, or this podcast interview with its author, David Williams.

† See here for a fascinating instance of this at sea in June 1865, by the author of Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era

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1792: Three of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers

1 comment October 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1792, three men were hanged from the yardarms of the H.M.S. Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbor.

Their crime was participating in that famous or infamous act of seaborne resistance, the Mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.

Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace confrontation occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.

Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he renders the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti

The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?

The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …

Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*

The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.

Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.

Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.

So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†

Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)

The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.

  • To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.

  • The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.

The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)

In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:

  • Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
  • Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
  • Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.

Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.

  • Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
  • James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
  • Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged was, like Morrison, pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)

* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.

After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.

** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.

† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.

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1876: Four for the Mutiny on the Lennie

1 comment May 23rd, 2013 dogboy

As criminals go, the Lennie mutineers were neither organized nor gifted. Indeed, they likely did not fancy themselves mutineers when they perpetrated a triple-murder of the officer corps on board the vessel during high seas.

Matteo Cargalis, Pascalis Caludis, George Kaida, and Giovanni Carcaris were hanged on this date for that “atrocious conspiracy” in Newgate prison’s largest mass execution behind closed doors.

As they say, you get what you pay for, and Captain Stanley Hatfield apparently didn’t pay too well. His ragtag crew of multinationals — Turks, Greeks, Dutch, Belgians, and possibly others (Hatfield himself was a Canadian) — was in it for the money when the vessel left Antwerp bound for New Orleans on 24 October 1875.

The circumstances of the mutiny’s start are hazy, but what is clear is that the entire ship’s complement excluding first officer, cabin boy, and steward were on deck in heavy seas about 10 days out. What seems to have been a minor labor dispute resulted in Hatfield and Second Mate Richard Macdonald being summarily dispatched by stabbing; the first mate, Joseph Wortley, was sought out below and shot in his quarters.

Since the crew was all in now, the murderers and a small group of associates pressed the remainder of the deckhands into service. The two remaining persons belowdecks were now let out. The Belgian steward, Constant von Hoydonck (spelled in various ways, but Anglicized in what seems to be the most popular way), and the cabin boy, Henri Trousselot, were given the option to join the rest of the crew.

To the now-leaderless and ill-educated rebellious deck crew, Von Hoydonck’s literacy made him was the best hope of finding safe harbor, and Von Hoydonck hammed it up like Mark Hamill going on about Tosche Station.

Trousselot was worth little (though he was also literate), and he gamely followed Von Hoydonck’s lead and elected to join the mutineers.

The rest of the tale reads like a Hardy Boys story, with an implausible plot built around incompetent characters.

Apparently, one of the Greek crew members knew someone back home that he felt would be interested in the vessel, so the crew now had a “plan”. All they needed was a quick trip through the Strait of Gibraltar followed by a trip across the Mediterranean, and they were home free! Von Hoydonck volunteered to navigate the course to the Strait, but rather than head southeast, he led the ship straight back toward the French coast.

The details of the voyage, embellished and colorfully littered with age-appropriate judgments about Greeks, were handled by the newspaper “The Age” in 1958:

When France was sighted he brazenly told them it was Spain, and sailed along the coast.

When they asked why he hugged the shore, he told them it was to avoid the chief traffic routes and the consequent danger of being hailed by another ship…

By November 14 he had navigated the Lennie between the Isle of Rhe and the French mainland. In spite of rough seas he brought the ship almost within hailing distance of the short and then calmly ordered the anchor to be let go.

This was carried out promptly enough by the slow-thinking mutineers, but after some ten minutes what intelligence they had started to function, and they swarmed round remanding to know why they were at anchor.

[Von Hoydonck] surveyed them coldly and pointed out that that the coast of Spain (which, of course, was some 250 miles away) was rocky and dangerous, and as they could not risk standing out into the traffic lanes they must anchor here until the heavy sea subsided.

The mutineers were not satisfied with this explanation and angrily threatened to send him after the ship’s officers.

[Von Hoydonck], playing his part superbly, indignantly informed them that as they seemed to have so little faith in his handling of the ship they could sail her themselves. He then went below, slamming the companion door behind him as if in a temper.

Von Hoydonck then had Trousselot write up notices of the mutiny in French, English, and Dutch; these letters were placed in a dozen or more bottles and slipped out a port hole, hopefully to quickly reach shore. Meanwhile, the mutineers decided they really needed that navigationally competent steward and urgently repaired relations with him.

The storm subsided during the night and Von Hoydonck got some sleep. By morning, the mutineers had taken the initiative, and they rounded the Isle of Rhe and traced down the Isle of Oleron toward a lighthouse that — to the geographically confused crew — looked mighty like the Pillars of Hercules.

Unfortunately, it failed to meet the one critical test: the pinch of island and shore lacked the distinctive Rock of Gibraltar.


… and Gibraltar’s distinctive Barbary Apes.

Von Hoydonck offered the lame excuse that, instead of risking the Mediterranean, he had led them to a nearly uninhabited part of the French coast, where they could get off the boat without risk of being found out. Six of the more aggressive members of the mutineers took this bait, so they hopped a life boat and scuttled to shore.

Five mutineers now remained, and none of them was particularly big on the cause. So Von Hoydonck followed up his successful bluff by clambering up the rigging in the dead of night to raise the flag of distress. He then took to the deck with a pair of revolvers and waited for morning.

The bottles had done their job, and the French man-of-war Tirailleur was dispatched immediately when authorities heard of the trouble; her crew quickly spotted the Lennie.

The six who had gone ashore were almost as swiftly rounded up on the mainland.

In all, eight of the 11 on board were put on trial, and only the four implicated directly in the murders of the officers were found guilty* and sentenced to death.

At the time, the Lennie was quite well-known; the actions of Von Hoydonck were celebrated in the local press, and the crown awarded Von Hoydonck 50 pounds for his actions.**

Strangely, the ship’s story has slipped into obscurity,† perhaps because reality in this case sounds like a plot written for 8-year-olds.

* Though the vessel’s occupants had mutinied, the British had the crew extradited under charges of murder. Two of the defendants were released by the technicalities of the extradition treaty.

** Constant von Hoydonck went on to own a pub in Middlesex and was bankrupt by 1892. Henri Trousselot moved to New Zealand, where he and others are memorialized for attending to a double shipwreck in Timaru; he lived to 66.

† The Record of Yarmouth Shipping reports that the Lennie was refitted and carried on to New Orleans with a new crew.

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1629: Jeronimus Cornelisz and other Batavia mutineers

1 comment 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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1915: 22 Singapore mutineers

1 comment March 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”

A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.

This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.

The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*

On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)

Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.

Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.

And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.

And not only in the event, but in the aftermath. Prof. C.M. Turnbull noted (pdf)

In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.

* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.

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1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

3 comments June 25th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)

This book is also available here, and via the author’s Portland, Me., History Blog, or on order from any bookstore.

Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.

Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.

This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?

The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.

They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.

The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.

And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.

In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.

Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)

When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.

Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.

Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:

You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?

There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.

My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.

And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!

And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.

I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.

These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.

Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird’s hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]

All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.

Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.


Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.

How did you come by this story?

When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.

In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.

He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.

-Goold

For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.

The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.

Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.

It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.

How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?

There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a family genealogy.

After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.

Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.

Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.

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1649: Robert Lockyer, Leveller

1 comment April 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Robert Lockyer (or Lockier) was shot before the scenic backdrop of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral* for the Leveller-inspired Bishopsgate mutiny.

These weeks following the epochal execution of the late king Charles I were also the climax of a pivotal intra-party conflict among the triumphant Parliamentarians … one whose class dimensions map a lot more readily to a modern template. Levellers were, “in a small way, the precursors of the ‘Socialists’ of 1849″ in the words of this popular history.

The prosperous gentry represented by the Grandee faction were just fine with the whip hand they’d obtained in government by overturning the monarchy; against them were arrayed the more radical Levellers (or “Agitators”) who could not fail to notice that they had no say in electing the Parliament upheld by their victorious arms, and an oligarchy governing them that bore a suspicious resemblance to the supposedly defeated nobility.

So there was that.

Meanwhile, up in high statecraft, Oliver Cromwell was preparing to make his name accursed of Ireland by smashing up the island and the Grandees hit upon an arrangement as expedient for fiscal ambitions as for territorial: the soldiers assigned to this expedition would have the opportunity to opt out of it, for the low low price of forfeiting the substantial back pay they were due from those years of civil war — pay whose fulfillment was naturally a chief Leveller demand.

How did this cunning plan to pillage the soldiery’s pensions to conquer Ireland go over in the ranks? Reader, not well.

Since the same reason that shall subject them unto us in generall, or any of us singly, may subject us unto them or any other that shall subdue; now how contrary this is to the common interest of mankind let all the world judge, for a people that desire to live free, must almost equally with themselves, defend others from subjection, the reason is because the subjecting of others make(s) the subdued strive for Dominion over you, since that is the only way you have left them to acquire their common liberty.**

So there was that, on top of that.

Grumblings gave way to refusals to march, and the refusal by a regiment stationed in Bishopsgate to leave London lest it also leave its leverage soon became the eponymous mutiny of this post — the Bishopsgate Mutiny.

Grandees quelled this particular insubordination without need of bloodshed, but thought it meet to deliver a little anyway as proof in this fraught political environment against the next such affair. Six of the soldiers drew military death sentences; Cromwell pardoned five, but let known Leveller/Agitator firebrand Lockyer go to his death over the appeals of Leveller leaders like John Lilburne and Richard Overton.

The signal was unmistakable — certainly to the thousands who donned Leveller colors to follow Lockyer’s funeral procession through London.

In the days following Lockyer’s execution, several Leveller-inspired regiments would openly rise … what proved to be the movement’s last great stand, efficiently crushed by Cromwell.

*The Parliamentarians had twisted high church dogmatists by putting Old St. Paul’s Cathedral to profane use as a cavalry stable, which employment actually made it a sort-of suitable place for a military execution. (The current structure was rebuilt on the same site after the previous church succumbed to the Great Fire of London.)

** From Mercurius Militaris, quoted by Norah Carlin, “The Levellers and the Conquest of Ireland in 1649,” The Historical Journal, June 1987 — which, however, makes the case that while the Levellers were obviously not cool with the pay expropriation, their opinion on the Ireland conquest in the abstract was far from uniformly anti-imperial.

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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

4 comments August 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Thomas Nash was hanged in Jamaica for the bloody mutiny on the HMS Hermione.


Before there was Hermione Granger, there was the HMS Hermione. Painting by Thomas Whitcombe.

The Admiralty’s most notorious mutiny this side of the Bounty was actually a far bloodier affair. Dig the description from one of the conspirators who later turned state’s evidence.

“The captain,” said he, “was very severe with the men, who were all good seamen, and they were determined to either run the ship on shore and desert, or else take her by force. This had been in their minds for months before it happened. At last,” said he, “on a dark night, when the young lieutenant had the watch, our minds were made up. A party went to the cabin-door, knocked down the sentry, and entered it. The captain was in his cot, and he was soon overpowered. We threw him out of the cabin-window. Another party threw the officer of the watch over the larboard quarter, but he, being young and active, caught hold of the hammock-stanchion, when one of the men cut his hands off, and he soon dropped astern. The first lieutenant had been ill and keeping his cot, but on hearing the noise, he came up the hatchway in his shirt, when one of the carpenter’s crew cut him down with an axe, and he was sent overboard with several others.”

(There’s a fine audio lecture about this mutiny in the context of maritime class violence at the Bristol Radical History Group, which reminds that in a context where most of a ship’s manpower was marshaled with the violence of involuntary conscription, mutiny bids were a regular feature of Old Blighty’s maritime empire. London Times archives are available from 1785, and searches on the word “mutiny” in those early years reveal dozens of episodes — and those were just the reported ones.)

After making sharkmeat of that tyrannical captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, the Hermione mutineers got drunk, and then delivered the frigate to the Spanish.

A Royal Navy vessel aptly named the Surprise* was able to surprise the wayward warship and cut her out of the Venezuelan harbor Puerto Cabello. The Hermione was then aptly renamed the Retaliation (and later, Retribution). Then, the British put the ominous word into action with a global manhunt for the mutineers.

Nearly thirty men ultimately hanged for the affair, though that meant that most of those involved escaped the noose.

And Executed Today never** deals with the lucky ones.

Mind if I do a Jay?

And so we come at last to our day’s protagonist, one of the Hermione mutineers who was at length recognized in the breakaway former British colonies now constituting themselves the United States of America.

Upon catching this intelligence, British envoys demanded the extradition of this character — who now claimed to be an American citizen by the name of “Jonathan Robbins” — under the terms of the recent and controversial Jay Treaty. After several months under lock and key without any American charge against him, Robbins/Nash eventually had a habeas corpus hearing before Judge Thomas Bee, who decided† that this “American citizen” was no such thing. With an okay from the Adams administration, Bee had the man delivered to the crown.

Nash was immediately shipped down to the British colony of Jamaica, put on trial on Aug. 15 (he had no defense), and hanged on Aug. 19.

Little could the Waterford-born seaman imagine the legacy he bequeathed his fake-adopted country.

I know my rights, man

The Nash extradition became a political firestorm in the U.S., with anti-British Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans decrying the Federalist administration’s handling of the case. For the infant republic, formulating juridical precedent on the fly, this played as a separation-of-powers issue: was it within the president’s power to fulfill the treaty unilaterally, absent executing legislation passed by Congress? Was it within a judge’s purview to approve an extradition request without the constitutionally assured right to trial by jury?

Sounding eerily contemporary, New York Rep. Robert Livingston denounced a system whereby “a citizen of the United States might be dragged from his country, his connections and his friends, and subjected to the judgment of an unrelenting military tribunal.” Less measured, a Philadelphia Aurora headline announced: “BRITISH INFLUENCE threatens destruction of these United States!” (Source of both quotes)

Though it was surely not decisive, this issue provided great fodder in the 1800 elections swept by the Democratic-Republicans and standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s home state of

Virginia, the stronghold of inimical feeling to Great Britain … passed a law forbidding under heavy punishment a magistrate to be instrumental in extraditing any person out of the state. Thus desertions from British ships in a Virginian port became a regular event. Captains of British vessels sailing to United States ports in no long time would meet their men strolling in the streets, furnished with naturalization papers, who set them at defiance, for their arrest was impossible.

“This passage of history,” the otherwise hostile-to-Nash source is obliged to concede, “tells unfavourably on the character of the treatment of British seamen … the Discipline was harsh and oppressive, one of pure repression. The consideration of others, enforced by benevolence and duty, was often regarded as weakness.”

Hard to imagine why anyone would want to mutiny! It calls to mind, at the end of this passion play as at its start, the words supposed to have been hurled at the Hermione‘s doomed Captain Pigot as he pled with his assailants for mercy: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none.”

A real reactionary

Despite the electoral slam dunk, the real last word on the case ultimately belonged to the administration’s defenders.

Among these rose in Congress a first-term — for he would only serve a single such term — member of the House of Representatives also from the Old Dominion, John Marshall.

Just months later, Marshall would be one of outgoing President Adams’s “midnight judges” appointed to the federal courts: in Marshall’s case, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his epochal 34-year term as Chief Justice would shape the future evolution of American jurisprudence.

Rising on March 7, 1800, in defense of President Adams’s conduct in the Nash case, Representative Marshall gave a preview of the strong federalist perspective that would define his time on the bench. (Read it in full here.)

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations … He possesses the whole Executive power. He holds and directs the force of the nation. Of consequence, any act to be performed by the force of the nation is to be performed through him.

This passage was exhumed from Congressional archives for citation in a 1936 Supreme Court case on federal supremacy, and has proceeded thence into a go-to bullet point for every latter-day defender of any arbitrary executive authority.

Of consequence (as Marshall might put it), Marshall’s speech about Nash gets an approving reference in Bush administration lawyer — and possible future extradition subject?John Yoo‘s September 25, 2001 memorandum on “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them”.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, too, quotes this phrase in his Hamdi v. Rumsfeld dissent, further to the doctrine that a man consigned to a presidential oubliette has no recourse to the courts; Justice John Harlan used it (with the rather grandiosely exaggerated qualifier that “from that time, shortly after the founding of the Nation, to this, there has been no substantial challenge to this description”) in his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case to claim that Richard Nixon could prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the embarrassing classified history of the Vietnam War.‡

So in this imperial age, Thomas Nash is more with us than ever he was. Who knows but what noxious monarchical theories are even now being buttressed with footnotes resolving to the vindictive execution of that obscure mariner two centuries past?

* The Surprise features prominently in novelist Patrick O’Brian‘s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventure novels, the most widely recognized of which is Master and Commander.

Given the vessel’s centrality in this popular series, there’s a book all about the colorful history of the Surprise. In reality, the Surprise — actually a captured French ship herself — was sold out of the service in 1802, prior to the notional 1805 setting of both the cinematic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the book in the series when Jack Aubrey first commands her.

** … hardly ever.

† Rightly, it’s generally presumed; “Robbins” is alleged (albeit by his self-interested executioners) to have confessed to being Nash before his execution. This entry garners the Wrongful Execution tag on the basis of its contested American jurisprudence.

‡ The limited aim of Marshall’s speech in context, and its subsequent (mis)appropriation, is the subject of an interesting and accessible-to-laypersons law review article here. (pdf) This tome gets a bit more into the weeds on the way the separation of powers operated practically as the Nash case unfolded in Judge Bee’s court.

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1976: Valery Sablin, Hunt for Red October inspiration

4 comments August 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1976, the real-life Soviet political officer whose naval mutiny inspired Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October was shot in Moscow for treason.

No, unlike his fictional counterpart Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, in the 1990 cinema adaptation excerpted above), Valery Sablin didn’t make it to the West.

But the real Valery Sablin wasn’t trying to make it.

Sablin was the political officer aboard the submarine-killer Storozhevoy. He was also a dedicated Leninist incensed at the notoriously corrupt gerontocracy of the Leonid Brezhnev era.

When he led his mutiny in Riga, his plan was to take the Storozhevoy to St. Petersburg and, Aurora-like, sound the tocsin for a Soviet Tea Party to restore the ideals of the Revolution.

Basically, Sablin had the exact opposite intent of his literary offspring.

This being the 1970s, when figuring out what the devil was happening in the black box of the USSR constituted its own academic discipline, the incident was misinterpreted in the western media — but understandably so.


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The sea route from Riga to St. Petersburg begins in a westerly direction, towards Sweden, and the spectacle of Soviet fighters turning back a vessel steaming for Gotland (combined, of course, with the natural susceptibility of the western audience to the notion) suggested that the mutineers had aimed not at revolution, but at defection.

Under the headline “Newspaper Reports Soviet Ship Mutiny” sourced to Agence France-Presse and datelined Stockholm, Jan. 22, the Jan. 23, 1976 Washington Post reported:

Crewmen on board a Soviet coast guard vessel in the Baltic mutinied and tried to sail the ship into Swedish territorial waters in November, the evening newspaper Expressen said today.

Citing foreign visitors recently returned from Riga, the paper said the mutiny took place Nov. 7 after celebrations in Riga marking the Soviet revolution.

The paper said a Soviet submarine and a number of helicopters forced the ship to return to Riga.

This was the version of the story that aspiring spy novelist Tom Clancy encountered. In his reworking, it became the bold (and successful) defection of a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine and its deft commander … effected, of course, with a little help from the derring-do of the spooks at Langley.

Moscow was pleased to let this be the version that people heard, to the extent they heard anything at all of the incident. Though not exactly flattering, it was much less threatening than the potential storyline of “Soviet officers are so fed up with party corruption that they’re trying to revolt”.

Not until 1990 did the real story get out.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Valery Sablin who died this day would not have had a lot of sympathy for Marko Ramius,* and still less for the Reaganite writer who turned Sablin’s deed inside-out and made it the cornerstone of his own personal mint.

Trust the fact that history will judge events honestly and you will never have to be embarrassed for what your father did. On no account ever be one of those people who criticise but do not follow through their actions. Such people are hypocrites — weak, worthless people who do not have the power to reconcile their beliefs with their actions. I wish you courage, my dear. Be strong in the belief that life is wonderful. Be positive and believe that the Revolution will always win.

-Sablin’s last letter to his son

Russian speakers may enjoy this documentary about the Sablin mutiny.

* Another inversion: in order to make his break for the Free World, the fictional (and, significantly, ethnically Lithuanian) Ramius murders the ethnically Russian political officer, Ivan Putin, assigned to his ship; the real Sablin was himself that zealous political officer, and imprisoned the ship’s captain in the course of the mutiny.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lithuania,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR

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