Tuesday 4 October 2016

The bloody Plattsburg mutiny, 1816

Radio has been an integral feature of maritime operations, whether military or civil, for well over a century and it is difficult to imagine just how isolated all ships were prior to that once they were out sight of land. Large numbers of vessels disappeared annually, the vast majority as a result of storm damage, but there must have been occasions when “lost without trace” meant hijacking by a mutinous crew who thereafter found some way of abandoning or destroying the ship and disappearing with their booty. An instance in 1816, centred on the American schooner Plattsburg, shows just how close one gang of mutineers came to realising their dreams in a world where intercontinental telegraph communication was still a half-century in the future.

The topsail schooner Amy Stockdale off Dover - by William John Huggins (1781 – 1845)
One imagines the Plattsburg to have been generally similar
In the aftermath of the futile but destructive “War of 1812” between Britain and the United States, there was every reasonable expectation or maritime trade picking up. Among those anticipating a bonanza – the more so since so much merchant shipping had been destroyed in the war, and vessels were at a premium – was the Baltimore merchant and ship-owner Isaac McKim. In 1816,  a year after the war’s end, he commissioned a new trading schooner called the Plattsburg, her name commemorating the recent American victory on Lake Champlain. The vessel was built for speed and for transport of small-volume high-value cargoes, somewhat the same role as is filled by air-transport today. The maiden voyage was to carry just such freight – eleven thousand pounds of coffee and forty-two thousand dollars in coins, the latter apparently intended for purchase of opium at the Plattsburg’s destination, the Turkish port of Smyrna – now Izmir – in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Shipping coins – the term for which was specie – was always a hazardous enterprise unless a ship was under naval escort. McKim and the Plattsburg’s master, Captain William Hackett, were well aware of the risk from a mutinous crew and endeavoured to keep details of this part of the cargo secret – though without success. Eight men who shipped as crew appear to have been driven to do so by knowledge of the specie and by recognition of the opportunities that could arise for taking it once the ship was out of sight from land. With the entire North Atlantic and Mediterranean ahead of them, the opportunities for getting booty ashore would have seemed legion. The Plattsburg had a crew of over thirty – the number is indicative of the labour-intensiveness of manning even a small sailing merchantmen –  but eight determined men, with surprise on their side, were likely to have a good chance of pulling off the hijack.

Sail still dominated trade through much of the 19th Century
Here is "Ships at Le Havre" by Eugene Boudin 1887
The leader appears to have been an experienced seaman called Stromer who had some knowledge of navigation and a pronounced ability to sway others. Six others – Smith, Rog, Peterson, Williams, Stacey and Raineaux – appear to have been less clever thugs. The eighth man was a Francis Frederick whom Captain Hackett had refused to ship as crew before relenting on hearing Frederick describing seeing Smyrna as being an ambition of his life.

Stromer’s first move was to sow resentment against the ship’s officers among the members of the crew not yet in the plot. His instrument was to be the brutal thug, Smith. The opportunity came shortly after the Plattsburg left Baltimore on July 1st 1816. The wind was light, so that she merely glided down the Patapsco River and into Chesapeake Bay, where she anchored.  Here the first mate, named Yeiser, began working up the crew, setting them to tasks until the wind should strengthen enough to carry the Plattsburg get to sea. Smith, Stromer’s tool, was reluctant and surly. Yeiser called him to order but Smith’s manner was unchanged.  Authority had been challenged and Yeiser punched Smith on the jaw, precipitating a fistfight that he was quickly getting the worst of. He was saved only by Captain Hackett intervening with a hand spike. Smith was vanquished – and had he been on a man of war would have paid for this action with his life – but the authority of the officers had been challenged and had only been reasserted with difficulty. The atmosphere was now ideal for fostering mistrust and resentment.

The ship’s steward, a black man called Lamberson (who was probably free, as he was working at sea) was drawn into the conspiracy and with his help the officers were to be poisoned when the Plattsburg had reached the Azores.  Lamberson served contaminated coffee but, though it made those who drank it violently sick, nobody died. Stromer’s conspirators suspected Lamberson of losing his nerve and beat him savagely. Poison having failed, there must be recourse to outright violence.

On July 21st, as the Plattsburg was passing Santa Maria, the most southerly of the Azores, the weather began to deteriorate, with a strong wind, rain and low visibility. Darkness fell and Yeiser had the eight to midnight watch while the lookout forward was Williams, one of the conspirators. As the second mate, Stephen Onion, came on deck at midnight to relieve Yeiser, Williams called out “Sail ho!” The danger of a collision was obvious.

Onion, alarmed, ran to the bows to peer into the darkness and Yeiser, who had not yet gone below, followed him. As they searched for the non-existent sail three of the conspirators crept up behind them. Yeiser was knocked senseless and flung overboard. Onion managed to break free and fled aft, where he locked himself in the bread locker. The noise had drawn Captain Hackett on deck and as he stepped into the darkness he too was beaten down and thrown into the sea. 

The remainder of the crew do not seem to have participated actively but they offered no resistance to the mutineer’s take-over. The only opposition remaining was likely to come from the supercargo – the owner’s representative, responsible for sale of the cargo – and the second mate, Onion. The supercargo was known to have close relations with the shipowner, McKim, and was therefore likely to be a hostile witness should he survive. The mutineers invited him on deck under a guarantee of safety. He hesitated, but when he did emerge he too was thrown overboard. Now only Onion remained.

The brutal reality of life at sea that triggered so many mutinies in merchant ships in the 19th Century
An illustration from an early edition of Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”
The mutineers’ leader, Stromer, felt confident of being able to navigate the ship in the open sea, but with an intention now formed of landing the cargo in Northern European waters – a decision that seems crazy in retrospect – he realised that he would need assistance from somebody with more detailed knowledge of coastal waters. This could only be Onion, who was familiar with the English Channel and the North Sea. It was however important to enforce Onion’s future silence by forcing him to accept a share of the plunder, thus making him complicit in the mutiny. Onion, with no option but death, agreed to this. By this time the core of eight mutineers had expanded to thirteen, all of whom were committed to bringing the vessel to Norway, with the remainder of the crew cooperating under fear of violence.

Under Onion’s pilotage the Plattsburg passed through the English Channel and sailed up the English and Scottish east coasts to the Orkney archipelago, and from there eastward to the small port of Christiansand, close to the southern tip of Norway. Its isolation made it an ideal location for smuggling ashore the eleven thousand pounds of coffee in the ship's hold. It was now however that the enterprise began to unravel. Stromer seems to have been able to impose discipline on the crew while they were at sea, but this failed once the men got ashore. They drank and caroused, challenged Stormer’s authority, talked without caution and ignored his warnings. They also insisted on having the specie split fourteen ways, each conspirator to have his own share.

Many now abandoned the Plattsburg and took passage in other vessels for the Danish capital. Copenhagen, little more than a day’s sail way. Among these were Onion and the steward Lamberson. They broke away from the group and contacted the American Consul, providing full details of the whole affair. The consul moved fast and action by the respective authorities followed in both Norway and Denmark.

"Entrance to Copenhagen" by J. C. Dahl, 1830
The Platttsburg was seized at Christiansand but Stromer, the brains behind the mutiny had disappeared, never to be found. Six mutineers were arrested in Copenhagen, one in Christiansand. The shares of these seven should have totalled twenty-one thousand dollars but when they were arrested they had only five thousand. It seems inconceivable that they had spent sixteen thousand dollars in two weeks ashore and one wonders if Stromer had not taken much of the remainder with him – if so, he would have had enough to set himself up in respectable affluence for the rest of his life. Two mutineers were captured in Europe – one in Prussia and one in France, but the authorities in both countries refused to deport them to the United States. In total some twenty-seven of the crew were rounded up in various places but most were let go after questioning. The remainder were shipped to America. Here, four – Williams, Rog, Peterson and Frederick – were convicted of murder and hanged at Boston Neck on February 18, 1819. It was noted at the time that "Their conduct in prison is said to have been exemplary and they met their fate with firmness.” Onion and Lamberson had acted as state witnesses and a seaman named White was cleared on the grounds that he had been forced into the mutiny.

The Plattsburg was to have a less than honourable future. She was brought home from Christiansand and McKim put her up for sale by public auction. Her speed fitted for carrying another high-value cargo – in this case human – and she was bought by slavers based in Cuba. Furnished with Spanish papers, she was captured in 1820 off the coast of West Africa by the United States sloop-of-war Cyane, which was tasked with slave-trade suppression.  The seizure of the Plattsburgh gave rise to a US Supreme Court case, with the court finding in favour of her seizure as a slaver, despite a number of subterfuges.

And Stromer? Nobody knows what became of him, but if he had indeed taken the money, he might well have died decades later, under some other name, as a revered pillar of society.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...

 Britannia’s Shark brings historic naval fiction into the dawn of the Submarine Age.

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