Thomas Nash aka Jonathan Robbins, The Cruelest Captain & “The Bloodiest Mutiny Ever”
An Intriguing tale of one Thomas Nash aka Jonathan Robbins, The Cruelest Captain in The British Royal Fleet & The Bloodiest Mutiny Ever!
Midshipman David Casey was an experienced junior officer who had distinguished himself to Captain Pigot during the previous months, but his disrating was one of the primary triggers to the mutiny. About a week before the mutiny, Casey was at his station on the main top, and the captain noticed that a gasket, one of the ties that held the sail securely, had not been tied by one of the sailors under his supervision. Casey was brought before the captain, and apologized for the oversight and took responsibility for it. The captain demanded that Casey apologize on his knees, a completely unacceptable and debasing demand for a gentleman. Casey refused to be humiliated in such a way. Pigot offered him one more opportunity and when Casey once more refused, the captain ordered that Casey receive 12 lashes (more commonly a sailor’s punishment than that of a junior officer), and he was disrated, which would effectively end his career as a naval officer. Casey was a popular officer amongst the crew and they felt that he was punished unfairly. The topmen began to plot mutiny.
Pigot had also developed the practice of frequently flogging the last sailor down from working aloft. On 20 September 1797, Pigot ordered the topsails to be reefed after a squall struck the ship. Dissatisfied with the speed of the operation because “these would be the yard-arm men, the most skilful topmen” he gave the order that the last men off the yard would be flogged. This policy was particularly unreasonable as the men would be spaced along the yard, and the two whose stations were furthest out would always be the last down. Three young sailors, in their haste to get down, fell to their deaths on the deck. One of the sailors hit and injured the master, Mr. Southcott. Pigot ordered their bodies thrown into the sea with the words “throw the lubbers overboard”; a particularly offensive insult in the seaman’s vocabulary. He then instructed two bosun’s mates to flog the rest of the topmen when they complained. The topmen were also flogged the next morning.
The combination of the humiliation of Casey, the deaths of the topmen, and the severe punishment of the rest of the sailors appears to have driven the crew to mutiny. These factors, however, were arguably the final events in a series of harsh and brutal punishments by the captain. Dudley Pope, in his book The Black Ship, argues that it was not Pigot’s cruelty that drove the men to mutiny but the general injustice that he showed in his favoritism to some and overly harsh punishment of others. Had Pigot remained more even-handed in his leadership, the mutiny might have been avoided.
The evening of 21 September 1797, a number of the crew, drunk on stolen rum, rushed Pigot’s cabin and forced their way in after overpowering the marine stationed outside. They hacked at Pigot with knives and cutlasses before throwing him overboard. The mutineers, probably led by a core group of just 18 men, went on to murder another eight of Hermione ‘s officers: the first lieutenant, Samuel Reed; the second lieutenant, Archibald Douglas; the third lieutenant, Henry Foreshaw; the marine commander, Lieutenant McIntosh; Bosun William Martin; Purser Stephen Turner Pacey; Surgeon H.T. Sansum; and the captain’s clerk. Two midshipmen were also killed, and all the bodies were thrown overboard. Three warrant officers survived: the gunner and carpenter were spared because they were considered useful to the ship, and Southcott the master was spared so he could navigate. Southcott lived to be a key witness, along with Casey, who was also spared, and their eyewitness accounts and testimony were key to the trials of many of the mutineers. Three petty officers joined the mutiny, one midshipman, Surgeon’s Mate Cronin, and Master’s Mate Turner.
Fearing retribution for their actions, the mutineers decided to navigate the ship toward Spanish waters. One reason the master’s life was spared was that Turner could not navigate the ship properly without his help. The Hermione sailed to La Guaira, where they handed the ship over to the Spanish authorities. The mutineers claimed they had set the officers adrift in a small boat, as had happened in the mutiny on the Bounty some eight years earlier. The Spanish gave the mutineers just 25 dollars each in return, and presented them with the options of joining the Spanish army, heavy labour, or refitting their ship. The Spaniards took Hermione into service under the name Santa Cecilia; her crew included 25 of her former crew, who remained under Spanish guard.
A bloodcurdling new book reveals the story of the most savage mutiny in British history – and why it made The Bounty look civilized
As the bows of the Hermione, a 32-gun frigate of His Majesty’s Navy, cut through the Caribbean waters on a routine patrol, her officers slept soundly in their cabins.
It was 11 o’clock on the night of September 21, 1797, and what was about to unfold would go down in history as one of the most savage and shameful episodes in the Navy’s history.
In his cabin on the upper deck, the ship’s captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, was asleep, unaware that at that very moment his fate was being decided by a small group of men gathered around a bucket of rum.
Minutes later, Pigot was awoken by the sound of splintering wood: his door was being kicked in. Leaping from his cot, he snatched up a short dirk (a dagger) as several men armed with cutlasses, tomahawks and a bayonet burst in. As the men began to slash at him, Pigot desperately tried to fight them off, shouting for help.
The overthrow of Captain Hugh Pigot made the mutiny on The Bounty (pictured in the 1962 film) appear civilised
But none came. He landed several blows, but his attackers kept thrusting at him, taunting and jeering. At last, his white nightshirt soaked with blood from more than a dozen wounds, Pigot collapsed over the barrel of a cannon.
Up on the quarterdeck, another group of men seized Lieutenant Foreshaw, chopping at him with bayonets and tomahawks. As he tried to ward off the blows, pleading for mercy, he retreated to the ship’s side until, bleeding and weak, he slipped over the edge and was gone.
With the quarterdeck under the mutineers’ control, several of the ringleaders returned to the captain’s cabin. They found him drenched with blood, but still alive, and set upon him again as he begged in vain for mercy. ‘You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none,’ shouted one, running Pigot through with his bayonet.
Still he did not die. Exasperated, the mutineers seized him and heaved his blood-sodden body into the sea. Some later claimed that they heard his cries as the ship sailed on without him.
Men seized the opportunity to settle old scores
As word of the mutiny spread through the ship, other men saw the opportunity to settle old scores. By the end of the night, ten men were dead. What had begun as the overthrow of the captain had turned into the bloodiest mutiny in the history of the Royal Navy.
Unlike the mutineers who had seized HMS Bounty eight years earlier, but had given the captain and his loyal men a boat and supplies, the Hermione’s mutineers showed no mercy to their officers.
Today, as pirates of a very different kind once more stalk the oceans’ trading routes, an enthralling account of one of the most shocking massacres on board a ship is being published.
Using testimony from the courts martial of those who were eventually brought to trial for the murders, it provides a fascinating snapshot of just how brutal life at sea could be 200 years ago, and of how one man’s cruel tyranny resulted in his own murder and that of nine of his officers.
An illustration of the Hermione, the location of a violent mutiny
The Hermione set sail from Cape Nicholas Mole on the eastern end of Santo Domingo island in the West Indies on April 16, 1797.
They had stores to last three months, and orders to patrol the Mona Passage, between the eastern point of Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and Puerto Rico, for enemy ships: Britain was at war with both Spain and France.
Some men had been pressed into service against their will
As the principal thoroughfare between the Spanish Main (South America) and the Atlantic, it should have provided rich pickings. The prize money from seized ships would, eventually, be shared out in a strict ratio by rank.
Most of the 170-odd men on Hermione had served on her for more than three years, with many of them not allowed on shore in all that time. They were, effectively, imprisoned in a cramped wooden jail with no idea when they would be free again.
Although the majority had volunteered for a life at sea, some had been ‘pressed’ into service against their will.
As well as British, there were men and young boys from Denmark, Italy, France, Sweden and the Caribbean. Life on a warship in the West Indies was tough.
In rainy squalls, sailors had to reef the sails (roll them up and tie them to the cross spar with a reef knot), clinging tightly to the yardarms (the horizontal spars across the masts) as the ship lurched below.
When it was not stormy, the weather was oppressively hot, sapping energy and spirits. Thanks to the lack of vegetables and fresh meat, many suffered from scurvy, which left them exhausted while their gums became swollen and bloody.
There was also the threat of yellow fever or ‘Black Vomit’, as it was known — the scourge of sailors in the West Indies — which brought a painful, grotesque death. At least one man on the Hermione was already in its grip as it set sail.
Under a benevolent, competent captain, such conditions would have been tough, but bearable.
The Hermione’s captain boasted no such qualities. Hugh Pigot, who had transferred to the Hermione from another ship, HMS Success, just weeks earlier, had been at sea since the age of 12.
The son of an admiral, he had powerful connections and, at the age of 25, had been handed his first ship’s command, with the power of life and death over his men.
Pigot was the cruellest captain in the Royal Navy
Captains could act as judge and jury to a seaman, and order them to be reprieved or flogged with the infamous cat o’nine tails — the nine ropes held together with a handle that, wielded by a muscular boatswain’s mate, would reduce a man’s back to a raw and bloody mess.
Most captains exercised this absolute power with restraint, but Hugh Pigot wielded his with tyranny and uncontrolled sadism.
He demanded instant, unquestioning obedience to his orders. He bullied and abused his men, acting inconsistently and giving preferential treatment to his favorites (mainly the 20 or so men he had brought with him from HMS Success), and persecuting others.
Pigot was the cruelest captain in the Royal Navy. On the Success he had ordered 85 floggings — nearly half his crew — in the space of nine months.
Captain Pigot regularly ordered his crew flogged with cat o’ nine tails, pictured
Regulations stipulated that a dozen lashes was the maximum any man should receive, but Pigot frequently ignored this, ordering three or four times that number. Two men died from the effects of repeated floggings.
Two incidents tipped the ship’s company from misery into mutiny. Five weeks into the voyage, Pigot ordered midshipman David Casey to be flogged because he had dared to remonstrate with Pigot over his abusive language. It fuelled the men’s loathing for their captain.
On the evening of September 20, a few days after Casey’s flogging, the men were working frantically to reef the sails as a tricky squall sent the tall masts gyrating wildly.
Below, Pigot watched the men on the mizzentop mast with mounting impatience and fury. Through his speaking trumpet he hurled up a chilling threat: ‘I’ll flog the last man down.’
In their panic and haste, three young sailors, one a lad of 16, lost their grip on the yardarm and fell screaming onto the deck 50ft below, one landing on Edward Southcott, the master.
Pigot gave the crumpled bodies a contemptuous look before ordering the men to ‘throw the lubbers overboard’ — a terrible insult to sailors.
The incident, as Casey later observed, ‘greatly increased the previous dislike of the Captain and no doubt hastened, if not entirely decided, the mutiny’.
Their lives had little value to the captain
Pigot ordered those remaining on the masts to be whipped with ropes as they completed their task, swearing to flog them in the morning.
It now dawned on some of the crew that, in the captain’s eyes, their lives had little value. It had become a case of kill or be killed.
Next day, the threatened floggings took place and the men’s resolve hardened. Pigot’s bloody reign must be brought to an end.
That night, a secret meeting was called below decks. And shortly after the lieutenant of the watch, Henry Foreshaw, called out his 11pm time check, Pigot’s door was kicked in.
Many of the mutineers would have stopped with the captain’s death, but others, whipped up by bloodlust and the opportunity to settle old scores, insisted that all the officers must die.
One by one they were dragged from their cabins or hiding places, hacked and stabbed by the jeering mob and, to the cries of ‘Cut the b****rs . . . Launch the b****rs! . . . Heave the b****rs overboard!’ were hurled, bleeding and mutilated into the sea.
Most were young men; one a ‘little boy’, as one sailor described him, aged only 13.
Lieutenant Foreshaw, having cheated death by landing on planks jutting from the side of the ship, reappeared on deck. But he was seized again and his hand chopped off before he was thrown into the waves.
The boatswain, William Martin, was put to death to satisfy the lust of one man: not for revenge, but for Martin’s wife, Frances. Though women were not supposed to be on board ship when it sailed, Pigot, like many captains, turned a blind eye to the presence of an officer’s wife.
During the voyage, Frances Martin would have kept a low profile, knowing that most of the 170 men on board had not seen a woman for months, if not for years.
But she had not escaped the notice of Richard Redman, the quartermaster’s mate. After the first four murders, there was a lull, during which a drunken Redman made his way to the boatswain’s cabin, growling: ‘By the Holy Ghost, the boatswain shall go with the rest!’
He wrenched open the cabin door, dragged the man on deck and hauled him over the side. Redman then returned to the cabin, where Frances remained, and closed the door. He was not seen again until morning, when he emerged red-eyed and swaggering.
The ringleaders realized they would be wanted men
None of the witnesses who later gave their testimony reported hearing any screams or cries for help. Did Frances willingly acquiesce to her husband’s murderer’s demands or was she terrified into silence? We cannot know.
Of the officers, only Southcott, the Master, and Casey — himself a victim of Pigot’s violence — were allowed to live, along with the cook, carpenter and gunner, and even then, only after they had had to listen to the men debating their fate for hours, eventually voting to spare them.
The mutiny had been plotted by a group of 18 men, swiftly joined by at least 40 others. The rest of the ship’s company could do little more than stand witness. To protest would be futile, maybe fatal. The mutineers had replaced one reign of terror with another more murderous one.
Their savage mutiny completed, the ringleaders realized that, though they were free, once their deeds were discovered they would be wanted men and face death by the hangman’s noose.
To avoid capture, they headed for the Spanish port of La Guaira, 500 miles south on the Spanish Main. Every man swore on oath never to speak of the mutiny, and most took aliases.
Five days later they dropped anchor in La Guaira and a small party went ashore under a white flag of truce. Using their aliases, they explained that the captain had been overthrown because of his cruelty and savagery. Claiming that he and several officers had been put afloat in a boat, as on the Bounty, they begged asylum in exchange for the ship.
The Spanish believed them and the men were taken ashore. A few men who had taken no part in the mutiny, such as Casey and Southcott, declared themselves prisoners of war and were handed over to the Spanish, who eventually returned them to the British. The rest were destined to remain wanted men for the rest of their lives.
When sailors drink, they talk
Despite the mutineers’ oath of silence, sailors drink — and when drunk, they talk. It was not long before word of the mutiny reached the commander- in-chief of the Jamaica station. He immediately ordered a manhunt to bring the mutineers to justice.
Most of the men who went ashore at La Guaira soon found themselves at sea once more, as seafaring was the only trade they knew. Many joined Spanish and French ships. Within five months, five men had been captured from a French privateer, identified and brought to trial.
Captain Edward Hamilton, pictured right in a painting by Pompeo Batoni, was knighted for his role in recapturing the ship
Four were sentenced to death and hanged on board a ship at St Nicholas Mole. Spectators watched their death struggles as they swung from the yardarm. Their bodies were then hung in chains from gibbets erected on the harbour — a grotesque warning to any would-be mutineers.
Over the next nine years, 32 of the Hermione’s former crew were brought to trial and 24 hanged. The rest escaped justice, either remaining in South America or building a new life in the U.S.
Frances Martin went to the U.S., but in 1802 she was back in Britain petitioning a naval charity for a widow’s pension. Her rapist (or lover) Richard Redman had been captured from a Spanish ship and hanged in 1799.
Casey, Southcott and the three other senior loyal men were tried for losing the ship, but acquitted. As for the Hermione — or the Santa Cecilia as she had become — the British authorities, furious at the Spanish refusal to hand over the mutineers, were determined to get their ship back.
Two years after the mutiny, in a daring night attack, six small boats from HMS Surprise, a British warship under the command of Captain Edward Hamilton, stole into the heavily fortified Spanish harbour of Puerto Cabello, where the Santa Cecilia lay at anchor.
While some men used axes to cut the Santa Cecilia’s anchor cable, others scrambled up her sides. After a desperate fight on the decks, the British sailors took control of the ship (those Spanish crew men who had not been killed, escaped overboard or surrendered) and towed it out of the harbour under heavy fire from the fortresses.
The ship was renamed the Retribution, and Hamilton knighted for his brilliant coup.
It was a glorious end to an inglorious chapter in naval history; an example how one man’s obsession with discipline ended up destroying it, and how relentless cruelty and terror could drive ordinary men to murder.
■ The Black Ship by Dudley Pope