Monday, October 26, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Hermione Massacre

In the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin tells Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey that he is "rather understanding of mutiny." I think that is a modern concept that holds true particularly in the U.S. where we tend to glorify rebellion as a demonstration of freedom. We all know (or think we know) the story of evil Captain Bligh and heroic Fletcher Christian from that Mutiny on the Bounty movie. Mutinies in fact are not glorious at all but bloody messes that usually end badly. One of the most notorious, although virtually forgotten today, occurred on board HMS Hermione in 1799.

In 1797 the ship changed command and Hugh Pigot took charge of her as Captain. Pigot was the son of an admiral who went to sea at age 12 and was appointed Post Captain at age 24. He was a martinet whose spit and polish and flog because they looked at you funny style of command was unfortunately typical of Captains serving on Britain's Jamaica station. On his prior command, HMS Success, Pigot had ordered over eighty floggings and two men had died for the unreasonable number of lashes (as many as 500) they received.

The Captain did not change his ways aboard Hermione. Men were flogged virtually daily and unrest began to brew almost immediately. The incident that seemed to put the men in the mood to mutiny is telling in and of itself. Hermione ran into a squall off Haiti and men were ordered aloft to reef sail. Pigot barked like a dog from the deck that the men needed to hurry up and that the last man down would be flogged. In their haste to complete the taking in of sail, three green hands fell to the deck. Pigot had each man shot and then ordered: "Throw the lubbers overboard!" He then sent the bosun and his mates up to flog the remaining men into quicker activity. The scene was unprecedented to most ordinary sailors and the men decided they had had enough of Captain Pigot.

At eleven the next night, a gang of seamen armed with cutlasses and boarding axes gathered outside the Captain's cabin. The fact that they had weapons indicates that the bosun himself - who kept the key to the arms locker - was in on the mutiny. They knocked the Royal Marine outside the cabin on the head with the flat of a cutlass and rushed in on Pigot. The Captain was hacked up mercilessly and the cabin was awash in blood before someone broke out one of the stern windows and tossed Pigot, who may or may not have been dead, into the sea.

The next few hours saw the Hermione turned into an abattoir. The mutineers got into the rum and the killing escalated with their frenzy. It wasn't just about getting rid of Pigot now. It was about killing anyone you didn't really care for. All three lieutenants were thrown overboard and left to drown in the dark ocean. The surgeon, the purser and the Captain's clerk were pushed into the sea through Hermione's gun ports. The Marine Sergeant - dying of yellow fever in the sick berth - was hauled up on deck, gutted like a fish and thrown overboard. Two other men soon followed including the bosun who evidently was the target of the ringleader Richard Redman.

Redman, after killing the bosun, grabbed another bottle of liquor and went down to the bosun's cabin. The bosun's wife was on board. From the records of the subsequent court-martial it appears that she was raped repeatedly by Redman and may very well have been his sex slave for the duration. One has to feel particularly for innocent Frances Martin, the bosun's wife.

Six months later HMS Hermione turned up at the Spanish port town of La Guaira, Venezuala. The mutineers turned their ship and themselves over to Spain, then an enemy of Britain, and probably imagined that they were safe. The then greatest navy in the world would have none of it, though. Not a month later HMS Surprise showed up and, in a clever attack under cover of night, took Hermione - along with much of her mutinous crew - back to Jamaica. A court-martial was held and twenty four men hanged for their crimes including Richard Redman, Master's Mate.

The post script to this tragic story of slaughter is Mrs. Martin. She evidently managed to escape Hermione in Venezuela. She made her way to the U.S. and from there managed to return to England. In August of 1803 she applied to the Court of Commissioners in London for the pension granted widows of naval officers. "Frances," the entry reads. "Widow of Wm Martin who was murdered while acting as Boatswain of the Hermione." Mrs. Martin was granted her pension from March 15, 1799, the date of the mutiny.

If you want to read all about the mutiny on the Hermione, head out to your local bookseller and have them order you a copy of The Black Ship by Dudley Pope. It will enlighten you not only about the Hermione massacre but about the Royal Navy in general.

Check back tomorrow for a very special Horror on the High Seas: Torture Porn Part I - Francois L'Olonnais.


Dwight said...

Great as always Paula! I've often thought that the true stories of history are infinitely more interesting that the garbage that Hollywood is putting out. This is yet another good example...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Dwight and thankee! Mrs. Martin's ordeal is what led me to read "The Balck Ship" and so this post. Poor woman.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I agree with Dwight. Not only is truth stranger and more interesting than fiction, mankind's capacity for cruelty and atrocity certainly exceeds what is in most so-called horror movies. A good start to Horror on the high seas week. Let your freak flag fly, my Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Your not just whistling Dixie my Yankee friend, as tomorrow's post will show!