Mutinies occur much more frequently than most navies care to admit. They have been a part of life on board warships for centuries. The majority are non-violent, with the crew refusing to work or leave port until their grievance is resolved. But for every rule there is an exception, and few mutinies have approached the levels of violence seen during the one which took place in September 1797, on board the Royal Navy frigate Hermione.
Most commentators, including those at the time, agree that the captain of the frigate, Hugh Pigot, was a quite unsuitable man to be put in command of a ship. Good connections and interest had been behind his rapid rise to post captain at the age of twenty five. A contemporary, described him as “one of the most cruel and oppressive captains belonging to the Royal Navy”, and the Hermione’s log book bears out this description. In the twelve months leading up to the mutiny, seventy-nine separate floggings were ordered. This in a ship with a compliment of only 180, of who at least 30 were officers not subject to that punishment. One unfortunate sailor, Michael Sheddy, was flogged seven times in seven months. Even for the 18th century, this was exceptionally savage.
The trigger for the mutiny came on the 21st of September, when Pigot threatened to flog the last man down from the mizzen top yard, and in their haste to come down two men fell to their deaths. The Hermione was sailing off the coast of Porto Rico in company with another Royal Navy ship at the time, but the vessels parted the following day. Once she was sailing alone, out of sight of land, her crew decided they had had enough. As darkness fell they gathered on the forecastle, drinking stolen rum supplied by the gun-room steward. Fortified by that, it was a determined, angry mass of men who first broke into the arms chest, and then advanced on the rear of the ship.
Any modern observer will have some sympathy for a crew driven to take such desperate action by a brutal regime. What is harder to justify is the slaughter that now followed. Few tears will be shed for the sadistic Captain Pigot, who was the first to die. He was cornered in his cabin, repeatedly stabbed, and then thrown out through the window to drown at sea. As the frigate sailed on, his pitiful cries for help receded into the dark. But after his death, the killing continued, with many more of the ship’s officers dragged from their beds, set upon by the frenzied crew, and then thrown overboard to drown. The victims included the murder of fourteen year old Midshipman Smith, and that of the ship’s marine commander, Lieutenant McIntosh. This last killing is particularly hard to understand, given that the officer was bedbound and certain to die as he was suffering from the final stages of Yellow Fever.
Once the initial orgy of killing had subsided, things became calmer on board, if no less brutal. A sort of Kangaroo Court was convened on deck. The remaining officers were brought up before the crew, and their fate was decided by a show of hands. Six more went over the side to drown, with only a handful of officers surviving the night. They were the carpenter, the gunner, a second teenage midshipman called Casey, and the ship’s popular sailing master, Mr Southcott.
Now in full control of the ship, the mutineers turned the Hermione south, and sailed her towards the coast of Spanish-controlled South America, who was at war with Britain at the time. A week later the frigate dropped anchor at the port of La Guaira, and after a brief negotiation with the authorities there, the mutineers handed their ship over to the Spanish government, in return for twenty five dollars per mutineer. The few surviving officers, along with some loyal members of the crew, became Spanish prisoners of war for a brief time, and where then exchanged and returned to Britain. Before leaving the ship the mutineers divided up Captain Pigot’s and the murdered officer’s possessions, and then gathered around the capstan head. Here they all took an oath to change their names and to never speak of the mutiny again, in the hope that this might protect them against the justice of the Royal Navy that would stalk them until their dying day. Then they scattered to the four winds.
News of the mutiny made a deep impression on both the navy, and the public at home, and no effort was spared in hunting down those responsible. Descriptions were circulated, rewards were offered, and identities were checked. Over the succeeding years, one by one, most of them were run to ground and hanged. Some were apprehended when they were pressed from merchantmen back into the navy, and then recognised. This was the fate of William Bowen, who had managed to serve for over five years aboard a brig trading with the United States, before being identified. Others were caught whilst serving onboard enemy warships that were captured by the Royal Navy. Several fell into the Royal Navy’s hands when the Dutch island of Curacao surrendered to the British. This included a mutineer called Johnson, who had been serving as clerk and cashier to the American consul. Thomas Nash, one of the ringleaders was working on board an American schooner and as the years went by, he began to feel safe. One Christmas he boasted of the mutiny whilst drunk, and was betrayed by a shipmate, in return for the hundred dollar reward on his head. David Forrester, another leader, was more discreet, and managed to evade capture for nearly five years by hiding in plain sight. He coolly volunteered for the Royal Navy, served as a bargeman for the captain of HMS Bittern, and there he might have remained had he had not been recognised while walking down a Portsmouth street.
The Hermione herself was commissioned into the Spanish navy, and continued to operate in the West Indies, as an intolerable reminder of the mutiny. But in September 1799, intelligence reached the British that the ship was moored in Porto Cabello. The frigate Surprise was sent to capture her, and did so in a brilliant cutting-out expedition from right beneath the Spanish defences. The Hermione was now a name of such ill-omen in the navy that it was changed before she returned to service. Fittingly she became the Retribution.