Mutiny on the Veronica

A notorious mutiny in which guns were taken aboard by the crew, and which like the mutiny on the Lennie captured the public interest because it ended in the English courts, was that aboard the Veronica. This wooden barque was another Canadian vessel, owned in New Brunswick. In October 1902 she was 23-years old. Commanded by Captain Alexander Shaw, an easy-going master, her crew were once again a polyglot mixture. Acknowledged to be the finest of her seamen was an Irishman named Patrick Doran; the other ten were Germans, Canadian, Dutch, a Swede and an Indian, the cook being a black man named Moses Thomas. Thomas, a Dutchman named Smit and three Germans named Rau, Flohr and Monsson were the only survivors, and it was from their confusing evidence that the court had to determine the course of events.

The Veronica left the Gulf of Mexico bound for Montevideo loaded with timber. She was last seen off the Florida coast on 24 October, and all was reported well on board. At the end of the year her five ‘survivors’ were taken aboard the Liverpool-bound steamship Brunswick, Captain Browne, from the island of Cajueira off the coast of Brazil; they claimed to be genuine distressed British Seamen, whom Browne was duty-bound to assist. They had, they said, been ship-wrecked. Gradually however the Brunswick’s crew grew suspicious of their story, suspicious of the well-caulked boat they had had on the beach, of the fact that Smit was wearing his shore clothes, and of the lack of evidence of their having been in contact with the fire they claimed had consumed their ship. They also kept themselves to themselves, eschewing the bonhomie shipwrecked sailors might be expected to share with their rescuers. Then, on the tenth day after leaving Brazil, Moses Thomas asked to speak confidentially to Captain Browne. He told him the story peddled by Rau was a pack of lies. Shaw summoned his chief officer, made Thomas repeat his version of events as he wrote the cook’s words in the Brunswick’s Official Log Book, got Thomas to sign this statement and his chief officer to witness it. Then he ordered the other four ‘distressed British Seamen’ clapped in irons. On his arrival in Lisbon Browne reported the case to the British consul and received instructions to carry the men on to Liverpool, whither the Brunswick was bound. Here the men were arrested. Thomas was kept under close police observation, and in due course the suspects were brought to trial. Eventually the occurrences aboard the Veronica were revealed to a horrified yet fascinated British public.

Apparently Able Seaman Gustav Rau had conceived a hatred for Doran based on the fact that the Irishman was a first-rate seaman who enjoyed the confidence of the officers and got all the sailorizing jobs in which technical skills were required. In the hermetic world of a ship such pragmatic favouritism could work on an unstable mind, in unpropitious circumstances, and this is what seems to have happened to Rau. The German sailor had seen previous service in the Imperial German Navy, from which he may have been dismissed but from which he had certainly acquired an authoritarian air, and he was able to orchestrate the factions that inevitably developed in a mixed-nationality crew during the prelude to the affair that followed. Rau led a German clique which included Smit and ridiculed the rest of the crew. Meanwhile Doran and his mates ignored any warning signs, attributing them to the normal unpleasant atmosphere that prevailed aboard a vessel manned like the Veronica. Doran and his shipmates were quite unaware that Rau had told his own cronies he had heard the officers discussing a plan to throw all ‘the Dutchmen’ over the side. This brought into play a racial prejudice prevalent at the time which lumped Germans and Dutchmen together colloquially as ‘Dutchmen’, and was calculated to inflame his fellow-Germans, whose country had not long been welded into a unified nation. Rau offered no explanation as to why Captain Shaw and his officers would want to deprive themselves of half their deckhands. Was it necessary he should, with Doran so fine a paragon of his profession? Rau decided that they ought to seize the ship before it was too late, reminding his men that they had two revolvers between them. With his diabolically inclined inferiority complex at work, he wanted Doran and a Canadian knifed before they went aft to deal with Shaw and the mates. Young Flohr demurred and Rau dropped the matter until three days later when, with the ship making little headway on the equator, he and Doran had a blazing row. Rau then suggested that when Doran was middle-watch lookout and the mate, Mr McLeod, had the deck, they should strike. Again Flohr cried out against the plan, and Rau began a systematic terrorizing of the younger man. Early the next morning Rau accosted Doran on the forecastle, and split Doran’s skull with a belaying pin. Flohr and Smit afterwards carried the wounded man away and shut him in a locker. Aware that something was amiss, McLeod came forward from the poop and saw the forecastle deserted. ‘Where’s the lookout?’ he called, only to be felled by Rau and Smit, as a horrified Flohr looked on. McLeod, probably still living, was thrown overboard.

Rau led his men aft, he and Smit bearing revolvers, to seek out the master and Second Mate Abrahamson. The latter, thinking he was being called for his watch, sat up from sleep only to be shot at by Rau. Leaping from his bunk, Abrahamson ran past Rau and into the saloon, calling out to Shaw that he had been shot. Rau and Smit seem then to have gone to the poop to deal with the man at the wheel, a Swede named Johannson who was a chum of Doran’s. Rau ordered Flohr to kill the Swede, but again Flohr failed, and Johannson ran forward while Flohr took the helm just as Shaw appeared on deck, confused as to what was happening. ‘Where’s the mate?’ he asked. ‘Why has the second mate been shot?’

Seeing Shaw, Rau shouted that he had been looking for the master, threw a belaying pin at Shaw and then shot at him. Clutching his side, Shaw made for the companionway to the saloon, where he and Abrahamson were battened down. Rau now headed for the galley, determined to execute Thomas. Fortunately Smit restrained his maddened leader, pleading the usefulness of the cook and extracting a promise from the terrified man that he would stay away from the poop where the master and second mate were confined.

Forty-eight hours after Shaw and Abrahamson had been made prisoner, during which they were held without food or water, Rau allowed them a drink in exchange for the charts and instruments. Three days later he convinced his fellow mutineers that the two must be disposed of. Assembling his men on the poop, Rau released the wounded men. Abrahamson emerged first, to be confronted by Rau, Smit and Monsson, all armed with revolvers, the third having been looted from Shaw. The young Flohr held a belaying pin. Seeing what was about to happen to him, Abrahamson made a run and dived over the side, Rau shooting at him until he disappeared. Shaw was now ordered on deck. Flohr was given Monsson’s revolver and, in order to implicate him, told to kill the captain. He fired three shots, but the kick of the gun made him miss. In contempt, Rau fired point-blank into Shaw, then ordered the body cast over the side.

Having dressed himself in Shaw’s uniform, ‘which revealed a cheap conceit in his character’, Rau determined they must now set fire to the ship and leave her, concocting a mutually agreed story: there had been an accident on board, after which the ship had caught fire and the crew had been obliged to take to the boats. Of course, they had no idea what had happened to the other boat. Johannson and the Indian seemed unable to commit the story to memory, and Rau decided they too must die. Ordered onto the bowsprit to furl the flying jib, Johannson was shot in the stomach. In agony he worked his way back onto the forecastle head and ran aft, pleading for his life. Smit caught him and blew his brains out. Flohr was given the job of shooting the Indian, but again muffed it. The poor man leapt overboard, whereupon Rau and Smit shot at him.

Having carefully readied a boat, on 20 December the mutineers set about preparing the Veronica for burning, dousing the upper deck and deckhouses with Stockholm tar, linseed oil and kerosene. Having ensured the vessel was well alight, they took to the single boat and pulled away, resting on their oars until the wooden-hulled Veronica disappeared. Then they hoisted sail and headed south-west, landing on the island of Cajueria, off Tutoia, midway between Fortaleza and Sao Luis. The island was owned by a company of Liverpool merchants and was uninhabited except when regular shipments of sugar and cotton were brought down the rivers of the mainland and ferried out to it. Steamers called to load when a sufficient consignment had been amassed, and it was in these circumstances that Rau and his party were discovered by the crew of the Brunswick in the New Year.

Although Rau had taken care to coach his fellow mutineers, once they were held and questioned in individual custody, his statement and those of Monsson, Flohr and Smit were found to be inconsistent in detail. They attempted to insinuate that there had been trouble between the officers and the crew as a whole, a class-based confrontation between the ‘British’ (though in strict fact Shaw was a Canadian), and the crew of helpless foreigners. Rau added spice to this by claiming that the black man, Moses Thomas, was the leader, of the mutineers. Matters had come to a head one night, and in an altercation the mate McLeod had jumped overboard to save himself from being murdered by Thomas, who had killed Shaw and Abrahamson. Not long after making his statement, Flohr asked to revise it, and told a story that corroborated the original account given to Browne by Thomas aboard the Brunswick and reiterated by him under interrogation.

In the preliminary hearings the Crown decided to withdraw the charge of murder against Flohr, his defence counsel arguing that he was a young man who had been utterly compromised by the others. Flohr had now turned King’s Evidence and substantiated Thomas’s story, so that on 13 May 1903 Rau, Monsson and Smit were brought to trial at Liverpool Assizes. A large model of the Veronica was placed in the centre of the court for all to see.

The prisoners Rau, Monsson and Smit were defended by counsel and pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the initial single charge of murdering Shaw. They persisted in their assertion that Thomas was the leader of the mutiny, that Flohr had seconded him, and that the very men whose testimony was being used to condemn them were in truth the guilty parties. The case for the Crown was led by the distinguished King’s Counsel Lord Birkenhead, who asked why they had not told this story immediately they were rescued by the Brunswick; the inadequate explanation given was that ‘they had trouble enough of their own’. As to their carrying revolvers, this was entirely for self-defence against the cook, Moses Thomas.

Systematically Lord Birkenhead and his assistant Mr Tobin demolished the case for the defence, and in his summing-up the judge spoke of the defendant’s part in ‘a most horrible story’. After seventy-five minutes the jury returned with a verdict of guilty, though Monsson was recommended for mercy on account of his youth and previous good character. In passing sentence on the murder of Captain Shaw the judge also referred to the defendants’ almost casual killing – after that of the three officers – of ‘four or five of your fellow sailors’.

They were all sentenced to death and Rau and Smit, ‘maintaining their stolid, sullen demeanour to the end’, were hanged at Walton Gaol on 2 June 1903; Monsson escaped death, his sentence being commuted to penal servitude for life.

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