That such petty felonies seem to have been the motive, or perhaps only a pretext, for mutiny owes much to the degeneracy of many seamen in sailing vessels during the nineteenth century. With the exception of diehards who sailed in the elite tea clippers, and after their replacement by steamships transferred with their favoured ships to the Australian wool trade, the best and most reliable men went into steamers, where a more regular life prevailed. Often it was the case that a polyglot crew shipped aboard a sailing ship by a desperate master after doing a deal with a crimp were just eager for trouble. Often they had been cheated of wages earned on a previous vessel, and mutiny seemed their only way of avenging themselves on a harsh world. They did so without any apparent consideration for the consequences, often committing acts of senseless violence and brutality. Such, among many others, were the outbreaks aboard the British sailing vessels Flowery Land in 1863, the Manitoba in 1871 and the Lennie in 1875. Casual murder of the master and mates often accompanied these senseless uprisings, and the mutineers, lacking any sustainable plan, were usually brought to justice. Not infrequently one of their number turned state’s or Queen’s witness, or they were compelled to retain a loyal officer if only to navigate their vessel. The seized ships were usually scuttled once in sight of land, and the consequent losses prompted owners, shippers and consignees to muster the forces of law and order across the globe to apprehend mutineers. As for the criminals themselves, they were incapable of hanging together and so, in Benjamin Franklin’s memorable phrase, they were hanged separately.
The case of the Lennie is typical. She was one of a large number of sailing vessels that earned their living and profits for their owners alongside steamships in the second half of the nineteenth century by being able to compete in the market place because of their low running costs; these were minimal compared with those of steamers, and made lower still by canny owners, agents, crimps, masters and mates. Since they carried homogenous cargoes whose arrival time was not critical, further economies could be achieved. In all this cost-cutting there was no benefit at all to the common sailors who manned them, and these men were often, quite literally, the sweepings of the waterfront.
Registered in Nova Scotia, the Lennie flew the British red ensign and was commanded by a Canadian, Captain Stanley Hatfield, who was under orders to make a passage from Antwerp to New Orleans in ballast. To save money Hatfield did not ship a crew until he was ready to sail, although by 24 October 1875, when the main body of the crew was expected, he already had aboard an innocuous Irish mate named Joseph Wortley, a Scots second mate called Richard MacDonald, Constant van Hoydonck the Belgian steward, and a Dutch steward’s boy with the French-sounding name of Henri Trousselot who was only fifteen years old. That morning a boarding-house runner arrived with the crew from London, garnered among the ‘hotels’ and brothels of Wapping’s Ratcliff Highway. These eleven men were signed on under the eye of the British consul and Captain Hatfield and then taken aboard the Lennie, which was to sail the next morning. Reinforcing the polyglot nature of those already aboard the vessel, the eleven newcomers consisted of three Greeks, four Turks, an Italian, an Englishman, a Dane and an Austrian. Most had given false names and/or false nationalities on the Articles of Agreement at the consular office. The Italian, named Giovanni Caneso, ‘seemed an intelligent man’, spoke fluent English, signed on as George Green, and was appointed boatswain. One of the Greeks, named Cargarlis, had served an eight-year-stint in prison in Marseilles and had a hold over at least one other crew member from the outset.
Two days out, Cargarlis was one of two men who came aft and requested an issue of tobacco. Hatfield was unable to supply it, stating that he had not bought any on board for sale, and that the men had had an advance of wages and enough time to lay in a private stock if they so desired. Carting their resentment at this mild rebuff back to the forecastle, the two began abusing Hatfield, Cargarlis allegedly declaiming that there would be trouble ‘if any of those useless ornaments aft start their monkey tricks on me’. Several men voiced their support of Cargarlis, others wandered out on deck to distance themselves from his wild talk.
Thereafter the ship settled into her routine, working her way down Channel and out into the Atlantic, so that by the night of 31 October she was crossing the Bay of Biscay. The night was dark and blustery and Hatfield decided to put the ship on the other tack ‘at eight bells’, when the watches changed and all hands were on deck together. This was customary in short-handed sailing ships, minimizing the disruption to the crew’s routine of four hours on watch and four hours off. Hatfield would have been within his rights to call for all hands immediately if he deemed the alteration absolutely necessary. He was clearly anxious, but instead of mustering the hands at once, which would undoubtedly have provoked a degree of grumbling, he ordered Wortley to ring eight bells a quarter of an hour early. This not only deprived the watch below of fifteen minutes’ sleep, it meant their watch was extended. It was a silly decision. As soon as the watch below realized what had been done, they interpreted Hatfield’s concern for the ship as an act of spite, and it was with an air of deep hostility that the second mate’s watch came on deck to join the mate’s as they stood waiting at the braces.
When Wortley reported all hands at their stations, Hatfield ordered the helm put hard over and the main and mizzen yards trimmed. Half-way through the turn the yards ceased to swing, the ship bucked into the wind and the Lennie ‘missed stays’, falling back onto the former, starboard, tack. Hatfield, furious as the two mates reported the braces had fouled and not run clear burst into a tirade against the sloppy seamanship of the crew. It was no more than might have been expected of any master in the middle of a manoeuvre, but one of the Turkish seamen named Caludis dropped the brace and rushed at the master, striking him full in the face. Hatfield hit the deck, rolled over, got to his feet, and grappled Caludis. There was a moment when order might yet have been restored, but suddenly Cargarlis was alongside the Turk and drove his knife into Hatfield, swiftly eviscerating him as he fell again. Seeing what had happened MacDonald gave out a roar of horror, but the two mutineers quickly turned upon him and, as he tried to escape, stabbed him to death.
Several men now hid, including the mate, who made for the foretop – but suddenly shots rang out. The two mutineers had hidden pistols. Wortley was driven out of the foretop and fell to the deck, breaking his headlong drop by grabbing at the rigging. However, once at the feet of Cargarlis he too was swiftly butchered. The two men now dominated the deck and overawed the remainder, who sheepishly did as they were bid. The steward and boy were locked in the after accommodation under the poop. Woken by the fracas on deck and realizing that he was a prisoner, van Hoydonck went to Wortley’s cabin and secured the dead mate’s revolver, loading it and hiding it. He also removed the brace Hatfield kept in his own cabin, and hid them with some ammunition. Van Hoydonck and Trousselot now nervously settled down to await the outcome. At six in the morning the mutineers crowded into the saloon, demanding that the steward, who had some knowledge of navigation, should see them into the Mediterranean. They had ‘dealt with’ Hatfield and the two mates and were now determined on reaching Greece, where they could sell the empty Lennie. They promised to cut van Hoydonck into the deal if he acted straight.
Having secured an agreement that little Trousselot would not be harmed, van Hoydonck agreed to sail the Lennie wherever they wanted, provided that they would all obey his orders as to the handling of the ship. Van Hoydonck had shrewdly and courageously judged that the mutineers’ plan had been extemporized only moments before, and that the perpetrators were not men of the keenest mind. He therefore set himself the task of saving his own life and on the pretext that they must avoid any pursuit, ordered a course set which would close the French coast. The mutineers, who had no knowledge of their precise whereabouts, swallowed all he said. They were further deceived by the false positions van Hoydonck pencilled on the chart as in due course he brought the Lennie to anchor off Sables d’Olonne, where he and Trousselot threw bottles containing messages requesting assistance out of the saloon ports under the cover of darkness. Caludis and Cargarlis were told they were off Cadiz, and only waiting suitable conditions to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar unobserved by British naval forces stationed at the Rock. Van Hoydonck then proceeded to do nothing, provoking the mutineers – who by now had enlisted most of the remainder of the crew – to demand what he was up to. Incredibly, the story van Hoydonck now spun them, about waiting for an overcast night with fog and a light westerly breeze, was delivered so effectively that he convinced the mutineers to go along with him. Some division began to manifest itself among the mutineers as the steward eventually headed again for the French coast, where a pilot cutter intercepted them.
They claimed their chronometer was stopped and they had lost their way, but the presence of the strange vessel apparently aimlessly standing on and off the coast had become known to the French authorities. Several of the crew, including Cargarlis and Caludis, decided to abandon ship, and went over the side in one of the boats. On landing they claimed they had been shipwrecked, and a kind-hearted lady named Madame Diritot fed and boarded them. She also told them that they were not in Spain, but not far from La Rochelle in France. They agreed on a story with which to bamboozle the authorities as they sought to sign on a ship at La Rochelle, in happy ignorance that one of van Hoydonck’s bottled messages had come ashore at Sables d’Olonne. The appearance of ship-wrecked seamen without a ship-wreck raised suspicions at La Rochelle, suspicions compounded by the arrival of the police report from Sables d’Olonne. All were arrested. On 11 November the French corvette Le Tirailleur put to sea and soon located the Lennie, still at anchor. A boarding party secured the five remaining mutineers and accepted van Hoydonck’s version of events. The Lennie was towed into the Loire and berthed at Nantes, where an enquiry began. After several weeks during which the difficulty of establishing the identities of several of the mutineers delayed matters, the case was turned over, with the accused, to the British authorities, and on 28 February 1876 eleven men were charged with the murder of Hatfield and his officers at Bow Street. Van Hoydonck and Trousselot appeared for the Crown. On 7 April three of the men who had attempted to avoid being caught up in the mutiny were released, and the rest were committed for trial. These were arraigned at the Central Criminal Court on 4 May and before the first day was over two more had been released, one on a technicality. Of the six men left in the dock, four were found guilty by the jury and the other two acquitted, deemed simply to have been caught up in events after the murders had been committed, and to have gone in fear of their lives as a consequence.
Van Hoydonck deservedly received the trial judge’s warm praise and was awarded an ex gratia payment of £50. He later received other monetary presents and several awards for courage; Trousselot was also feted. The four condemned men, who included Cargarlis and Caludis, were hanged unlamented at Newgate on 23 May.
A similar recovery of a seized ship by a number of dissenting crew members had been made almost simultaneously aboard the Caswell, while another in the Wellington ten years later was defeated by the weather when the mutineers, unable to handle the ship, asked for assistance and were towed ignominiously back to Plymouth. It was not surprising for a master and his officers to be in possession of firearms, and was common in many merchant ships – anti-piracy small-arms were maintained in a few British ships into the 1960s. A century earlier, in 1860, the former East India Company ship Tudor carried ‘fourteen carronades on the main deck. There were stands of arms in the saloon, cutlasses, pistols and muskets . . .’ Faced with a minor insurrection among ‘some half a dozen men from Glasgow, rough blackguards and insubordinate . . .’, Captain Armstrong, ‘a smallish man, with a florid complexion, blue eyes and a rather more than sufficient nose’, defied the mutineers led by one Alexander Braid as they attempted to storm the poop with a double-barrelled gun. A few male passengers appeared from the saloon with loaded pistols while several seamen, the boatswain and his mates, led by the officer of the watch, appeared on deck well armed. Braid and his fellows were ‘overpowered after a struggle, and placed in irons.’