Mutiny on the Madagascar

The Blackwall Frigate Madagascar (lithograph, c. 1853)

The most mysterious mutiny of them all – motivated, it must be presumed (in the absence of any real evidence), by a lust for rich pickings – occurred aboard the Madagascar in 1853. The ship was one of a thoroughbred type of sailing vessel known as ‘Blackwall frigates’, from the famous yard on the Thames. These fast cargo and passenger ships serviced the gold fields and bore the growing number of emigrants to Australia, making rapid passages in which the public began to take an interest. Their masters became household names and their passage-times were followed in the newspapers, but they mostly attracted attention when they were lost, homeward-bound, laden with gold and with happy and successful prospectors. One such was the Madagascar.

She was due to leave Port Philip, near Melbourne, in July 1853, under Captain Fortsecue Harris, a competent and popular master who was well regarded by his passengers. Just before the sailed, police officers arrived and apprehended two of the passengers in connection with a recent robbery. A great deal of gold dust was discovered in their baggage but this, the men claimed, was the fruit of their labours at the diggings. More to the point, the protracted delay to the Madagascar’s sailing resulting from the consequent legal proceedings caused Harris a further problem. Harris had fully manned his ship, but the lure of the gold fields led to desertions. Finding himself in a common predicament, Harris sent his officers to recruit any likely hands from among the unemployed men ashore – men who had tried their luck in the gold fields and failed, men who might have thought easier money lay aboard the delayed Madagascar than at Ballarat.

As she lay at anchor awaiting the resolution of her problems, an outward-bound vessel, the Roxburgh Castle, arrived with a lady passenger, her three children and their nurse. Mrs de Cartaret was intending to join her husband, a prominent member of the Melbourne Bar. Sadly, as she read the Melbourne papers which came aboard with the pilot, Mrs de Cartaret learned she had been recently widowed; she immediately asked the Roxburgh Castle’s master to arrange for her to transfer to the next homeward-bound ship – the Madagascar – and this was duly accomplished.

Captain Harris finally sailed towards the end of July. Thereafter he, the Madagascar, her crew, her passengers and her cargo vanished. Weeks later she was posted missing at Lloyd’s, and there the matter rested. More than thirty years later a persistently enduring rumour surfaced: a dying woman in New Zealand who sent for a clergyman had told how she had been a nurse and had taken passage aboard the Madagascar. After the ship passed into the South Atlantic, the woman stated, a savage mutiny took place during which most of the crew and a few of the passengers seized the ship, murdered Harris and all his officers, and confined all but the youngest and most attractive women below. The boats were then lowered, all the gold found aboard the ship was put into them, along with water and provisions, and the Madagascar was set on fire. After a protracted and difficult passage, only one of the boats, bearing five men and six women, reached the Brazilian coast, where it capsized in the breakers and the conspirators lost most if not all the gold. The survivors struggled ashore and were swiftly reduced by yellow fever to two men and herself, who had been Mrs de Cartaret’s children’s nurse. What happened in the intervening years, and how the woman reached New Zealand, was never made clear. That the poor creature had been obliged to live a degraded life was hinted at by a further revelation that one of the survivors was later hanged in San Francisco for murder; beyond that – nothing.

It was not unknown for ships to be overwhelmed and founder in the Southern Ocean, or to run into icebergs and sink, but there was usually corroborative, albeit circumstantial evidence, of other ships having experienced heavy weather or ice in the estimated position of the lost vessel which had been posted missing. It is more likely that the Madagascar was overwhelmed not by the forces of nature but by the malice of man. If so, the rising was comparable with the horrors aboard several slavers, such as the Amistad or the Creole, or convict ships like the Lady Shore, and may not have been mutiny, pure and simple. The horror and indignity of the young woman is only to be guessed at, but the burning of the ship and her passengers is equally dreadful – if that is what took place. The obscurity of the fate of the Madagascar simply emphasizes the isolation of a ship at sea, where the rule of law, howsoever arbitrarily administered, is preferable to the rule of lust and disorder.

The mystery is compounded and the waters muddied by another version of the story which places the death-bed revelation in Brazil in 1883 – a more credible location, given the alleged position of the Madagascar at the time of the mutiny. However, the focus returns to New Zealand with yet another account which states that a Maori reported witnessing the loss of a Blackwall liner on Stewart Island. This version is accepted in New Zealand as the real account of the loss of the Madagascar. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between: the position of the ship has been mixed up, and the old woman did die in New Zealand and had been badly used by some survivors. That undesirable characters were on board Harris’s ship is entirely probable, as is the likelihood of their trying to seize any available gold. While one can speculate on what happened, any of these resolutions seems plausible, and all offer insights into the curious nature of shipboard life, with its necessary hierarchies and its carefully contrived social checks and balances. The end of the Madagascar has a metaphorical quality which stands for all mutinies. In the end, despite any provocations, the greater good is achieved in standing by the ship, since the artificial constructs of order and discipline are not conceived for the aggrandisement of the commander but for the survival of the entire company embarked.

A similar rising occurred the following year when her crew was seduced by the amount of gold in the lazarette of the Sovereign of the Seas. Built in the United States, she had been the largest merchant ship in the world and flew the American flag, but by 1853 she had been chartered by the Black Ball Line of Liverpool for the Australian emigrant trade. It was when she was homeward bound from Melbourne on her first voyage under the British ensign that the mutiny attempt was made. Captain Warner was equal to the occasion, however, and quickly mastered the situation and confined the mutineers to irons, where they were kept during the greater part of the vessel’s remarkable 68-day passage to Liverpool.

Occasionally a political motive might influence a crew, especially in time of hostilities when allegiances were tested. On 29 December 1856, during the Second Opium War, the Chinese crew of the British-registered coastal steamer Thistle mutinied while the vessel was on a passage down the Pearl River from Canton to Hong Kong. Eleven European officers and passengers were decapitated by the Chinese crew, who wore the badge of Imperial Commissioner Yeh, the Emperor’s Viceroy and a man opposed to the British insistence on their right to import opium into the Middle Kingdom.

The gold rushes subsided but a steadier emigrant trade continued, and was taken over by steamships. Steam power, with its augmentation of a ship’s crew by firemen and engineers, and the establishment of regular, scheduled passenger routes, increased the numbers of people aboard a merchant ship. This in turn had implications for the social order on board, and for the job of a master and his officers.

Huáscar in Peruvian service before her foremast was removed in June 1879

In times of dissent, one thing a ship-master could rely upon was the presence of a Royal Naval ship in most waters of the world: if he could contact her, he could demand assistance to quell any crew trouble. As the century progressed and more nations joined the imperial camp it was a duty assumed by most national navies, and provision was made in the emerging internationally agreed codes of flag signals for a ship’s master to summon help if his crew was mutinous. Having offered armed assistance to quell mutiny, even a junior commander of a minor warship was empowered to convene a Naval Court. This, calling on the help of any other independent British master in port, could try and condemn mutineers, though its powers of sentence were limited. Indeed in 1877, when the crew of the Peruvian man-of-war Huascar were caught up in a revolution, took control of their ship and raided trading vessels in the Pacific, HMSs Shah and Amethyst engaged the rebel warship. Although the Huascar escaped, later to be taken by the Chileans, her piratical activities were thereby curtailed.