Accurate, fair, thorough, and lively, this penetrating account of a mutiny and its aftermath is compiled from contemporary British documents and the dusty French naval archives. The men, the ship, and the tragic chain of events following a capture by the press-gang are described and this extraordinary 1800 mutiny is brought to life. It tells how the British crew of the Danae—a captured French corvette—mutinied, sailed the ship back to France, turned it over to Napoleon, and received a cash reward. Those who survived, hanged, and died disgraced in a far-off colonial posting are chronicled. This history is also significant in that it encouraged Dudley Pope to try his hand at fiction, resulting in theLord Ramage novels. The historical figures in this true story inspired some of the favorite fictional characters and plot elements in Pope’s novels.
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About the Author
Dudley Pope was a naval defense correspondent for the London Evening News and the author of the 18 novels in the Lord Ramage series.
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The Mutiny of 1800
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1987 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
Any Briton sitting down to read his copy of The Times or Morning Post in March 1800 was by then used to the fact that the long war with France had reached a stalemate and that the French conquering armies stretched from the Netherlands to Rome. Admittedly Sir Horatio Nelson had roundly defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile eighteen months earlier, destroying eleven out of thirteen ships of the line, but in the scales of war this victory was balanced against Napoleon's creation of five republics — the Ligurian (Genoa), the Helvetian (Switzerland), Cisalpine (Milan), Roman (the Papal States) and the Parthenopean (Naples).
The recently collapsed coalition of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia against the citizen armies of Revolutionary France had anyway seemed a feeble affair to a realist, who was rarely disappointed in his wait for news of defeats and duplicity. Nevertheless, life in London went on quite normally; indeed, although the first two weeks of the month were chilly with showers and a brisk wind, theatres were busy.
The Times of 14 March announced the only performance that season of Dryden's Alexander's Feast, set to music by Handel. It listed the singers and noted that Mr G. Ashley was "the leader of the band" while his son, Mr J. Ashley, played the organ. The next day's Times gave the usual Court News. The Duke of York, who presided over the Army's affairs at the Horse Guards as Commander-in-Chief, had spent two hours with the King at the Queen's House, and then the King had held a levee at St James's Palace which was "thinly attended."
The Times also reported that: "Yesterday was the period fixed on some time since for twenty-four of the largest troopships to be in readiness at Portsmouth. We are informed by a very respectable authority that eighteen thousand men are under orders for immediate service. Admiral Knowles will conduct the naval part of the expedition, of which Sir Charles Stuart will have the command-in-chief."
The only thing that The Times did not reveal was the actual destination of the force, but anyone frequenting the fashionable salons would not have needed telling, because secrecy was almost unknown: gossip spread details almost as soon as they were decided at the Admiralty or Horse Guards. For the French the London newspapers were a good source of intelligence.
However, a few days later the roles of newspapers were reversed, although the intelligence reported in the official French newspaper, Le Moniteur, was alarming. On Friday, 28 March, The Times in the section headed "News from France" said:
MINISTRY OF MARINE
Extract of letter from the Ordonnateur of Marine at Brest to the Minister of Marine and Colonies [in Paris] dated March 15th: "Citizen Minister — a frigate or large English cruiser called the Danae, mounting 22 guns of 32 pounders, her crew consisting of 150 men, struck yesterday without firing a shot, in consequence of the movement directed by the intrepid temerity of five French sailors belonging to St Maloes [sic]. She was taken possession of by the corvette Colombe, which has conducted her to Conquet. As soon as I shall have received the details of this extraordinary event I shall instantly transmit them to you.
"Note — I have since heard that the Danae entered Brest at the same time with the convoy of French ships from the Channel, under the escort of the Colombe."
The Times then added:
Telegraphic despatch from Brest of 23rd March. Najac, Ordonnateur of Marine at Brest to the Minister of Marine:
"The convoy, the entry of which into the Road [at Brest] has already been announced to you by a telegraphic despatch, consists of French ships laden with provisions and other stores for the combined naval army. I immediately sent off to Paris the five Frenchmen who prevailed on the crew of the Danae to rise, and three Englishmen, in pursuance of your order of 21st March."
The news item naturally became the main subject of excited conversation and speculation in every London salon and club and, of course, at the Admiralty: mutiny was the most dreadful word in the naval vocabulary. Everyone could remember the bloody mutiny in the Hermione off Jamaica less than three years earlier when some of the crew murdered Captain Hugh Pigot and all the commission officers, tossing them overboard before sailing the ship across the Caribbean to a port on the Main and handing her over to the Spanish.
Since then the public had occasionally been reminded of the Hermione horror when the Navy caught a mutineer, tried and then hanged him. The fact that Pigot was a sadist had never been made public, but most people knew he had been stabbed to death in his cabin one night and his body thrown out through a window.
Now, according to the Moniteur, the Danae's crew had mutinied and handed her over to the French. What had they done to the captain and officers? Surely she was the frigate commanded by the Earl of Carysfort's young son, Lord Proby?
It was an alarming Friday, and everyone waited anxiously for Saturday's edition of The Times, which told them:
Yesterday official advices were received in Town from Plymouth, containing the melancholy circumstances of the capture of the Danae frigate, which was mentioned in the Paris papers.
On Wednesday arrived at Plymouth a cartel from Brest, which brought over the purser, surgeon and captain's clerk of the Danae, of 20 guns, Captain Lord Proby, with five other English persons that had been taken prisoners.
It appears that Captain Lord Proby had been cruising on the coast of France, with a squadron under his command, and on the evening of the 14th instant, while most of the officers were below, a mutiny broke out on board, in which ten Frenchmen appeared to be the ringleaders, headed by an Englishman of the name of Jackson, said to be of Liverpool. The Frenchmen were lately taken [from] on board the Bordelais, and permitted to enter into the English service ... Captain Proby and the Master of the Danae are wounded ... As soon as the mutineers carried their point, they made sail for Brest harbour, and on their arrival were seized by the officers and crews of the ships lying there ...
The Lord St Vincent schooner, of 14 guns, one of the Danae's squadron, returned to Plymouth on Wednesday, not having been able to find her consort, which is accounted for by her having been run away with.
At the time of the mutiny on board the Danae, Lord Proby's father was 48 years old and serving in Berlin as Britain's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the court of Prussia — a post to which he had just been appointed.
A man with a slow, tedious voice, he had received the Irish earldom of Carysfort in 1789, when he was a few days short of his 38th birthday. The Complete Peerage noted that he was "Esteemed a good and elegant scholar. His temper had yet more goodness and elegance to boast of ..." However, as a public speaker "his utterance is disagreeably slow, tedious and hesitating, perpetually interrupted by interjections Ah! Ah!"
His first wife, Elizabeth, had been the daughter of an Irish baronet, Sir William Osborne, and they had five children — three sons, of whom the eldest was William, who took the courtesy title of Lord Proby, and two daughters, Charlotte and Elizabeth.
Carysfort married again shortly after his first wife died, and Horace Walpole, in a letter describing a supper he attended, wrote:
We had another pair of lovers, vizt. Lord Carysfort and Miss Grenville, who are rather come to a sober time of life for the amusement of courtship, but they did their best. She is much fallen off, though she never was beautiful.
When Mrs Sheridan and her sister were condescending these words, which they dwelt on a long time, "This may soothe but cannot cure my pain," Lord Carysfort fixed his widower's eyes in a most languishing, amorous and significant manner on his love, who did not seem at all at a loss to understand his glances, and whether she was entertained with them or not, there were several of us at the table who were.
Apparently the courtship was genuine because Carysfort, aged 35, married this second Elizabeth, who was a sister of George, the first Marquess of Buckingham, one of the powerful Temple family.
Carysfort decided not to send his eldest son, William Allen, to his old school: instead of Westminster he was sent to Rugby when he was nine years old. Young William had no doubts about the career he wanted to follow: he chose the Navy and joined his first ship as a midshipman when he was fourteen. But the most important aspect of his seagoing career was that one uncle was the Marquis of Buckingham and another was the Marquis's brother, Thomas Temple, while another of the Temple brood was Lord Grenville.
However, life in the midshipmen's berth of a ship of war at this time was hard. It mattered little whether you mustered marquises among your relatives or sheep stealers and higglers: the other midshipmen played cruel tricks, forks were cleaned by digging the prongs into the table cloth (which usually was a large dirty rag) and food was usually little different from that served to the seamen, unless the midshipmen bought extra out of their own pockets. The midshipmen's berth comprised a small cabin furnished with a table and forms, and enough room to sling hammocks and stow the trunks holding their possessions.
Young Proby found that a midshipman's position on board a ship — he was usually one of half a dozen or more — was like that of an officer's apprentice. Seamen old enough to be his grandfather had to call him "sir" but he had no status among the officers: he was little more than a conveyor of messages and, depending on the captain, still at school, except this was a school where lessons were often learned out on the end of a yard in a gale of wind and where one mistake could mean plunging to a sudden death. A lad picked up knotting and splicing as best he could. If he was lucky, the master taught him the mysteries of navigation and how to use a quadrant and then wrestle with trigonometry to work out a sight, and how "D. lat over D. Long" (the difference of latitude and the difference of longitude) could, by some mathematical alchemy, equal the distance the ship had run.
Midshipmen were likely to be of any age. They could be curly-haired twelve-year-olds; they could be sturdy and hard-swearing thirty-year-olds who had more than once failed their examination for lieutenant; they could be hard-drinking fifty-year-olds, failed and disillusioned, whose only sport was baiting the youngsters.
Perhaps the most important lessons learned by young midshipmen were the unexpected ones — how to keep awake during the last half an hour of a long night watch, how to tar tarpaulins so that you stayed dry in torrential rain driven by a high wind, and how to keep a good lookout, scanning a horizon from side to side without your eye jumping over a sail which showed up as a tiny speck ... yes, and how to sleep standing up without the officer of the deck spotting it.
These were all lessons that William Allen, Lord Proby, midshipman, had learned before taking a run at the first professional hurdle he had to face: passing for lieutenant. This meant travelling up to London (the commander-in-chief set up a special board for midshipmen on a foreign station) with certificates from all the captains he had served with, giving the length of time served and a report on his conduct. The certificates had to add up to a total of four years. At the time that Proby took his examination for lieutenant there were ways round the four-year qualification: carrying a young boy's name on the ship's books while he was in fact still at school on shore was one method of getting a year or so's extra service, providing a captain was agreeable, and most were only too glad to help the son of an old friend or placate a dunning tailor.
So Proby passed for lieutenant on 1 March 1796, aged sixteen years and nine months. Soon the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty would decree that a youth had to be twenty years old before being actually appointed a lieutenant, but this regulation was countered by a youngster taking the examination before he was twenty and (providing he passed) being made lieutenant on his twentieth birthday.
As soon as he was a lieutenant, Proby was sent out to the Mediterranean to serve under Admiral Sir John Jervis (later Lord St Vincent), who was, with his firm but understanding discipline, the best commander-in-chief for a young officer. However, Sir John had many more officers than ships to command. Fortunately in September 1796 the commanding officer of the 14gun fireship Tarleton was sent back to England (with a letter from Sir John recommending him to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer) and Proby was given command.
She was old and leaky; Proby's ship's company spent much of the time at the pump. In fact in the stiff Mediterranean lop in which she frequently found herself in the Tyrrhenian Sea, she was "pumped to windward." But she was a lieutenant's command, and Jervis, who favoured only those officers he reckoned deserved it (a Captain Horatio Nelson among them), no doubt reckoned that if Proby could keep the Tarleton afloat he would eventually merit a better command.
The chance came a couple of months later, and Sir John wrote to Lord Spencer: "... I have the pleasure to assure you that Lord Proby acquits himself well in his command and I am very happy that he is clear of the Tarleton, for she was in extreme danger of going down in the passage from San Fiorenzo to Porto Ferraio [Corsica] ..."
Proby was even luckier than perhaps he deserved: he had been in his new command, still a lieutenant, when Captain Richard Bowen of the 32-gun frigate Terpsichore captured the 34-gun Spanish frigate Mahonessa off Cap de Gata. Sir John Jervis, writing to the First Lord from Gibraltar, said: "The Spanish frigate captured by Captain Bowen in so skilful and officer-like manner, being a beautiful and formidable ship of her class, I have directed Commissioner Inglefield* to cause her to be surveyed, valued and purchased for His Majesty's service; and it is my intention to appoint Captain Giffard to the command of her, to promote Captain Woodhouse to La Mignonne, to remove Lord Proby to the Peterel ..."
The capture of La Mahonessa was particularly lucky for Proby because in the game of musical chairs among the captains started by her purchase into the Navy, it resulted in him going to a 16-gun sloop. Not only was the Peterel a bigger ship than anything he had yet commanded, but she was of a size that rated a "master and commander" in command. So Lieutenant the Lord Proby, given command of the Peterel, automatically became (two days before Christmas in 1796, and aged seventeen and a half) a master and commander. But although he was the captain (i.e. in command) of the Peterel, he was not officially a "captain": he had not been given command of a ship which was rated the command of a post captain.
However, Lord Spencer, who saw Proby's father frequently in Parliament, told Sir John Jervis in a letter: "I made Lord Carysfort very happy this morning by mentioning to him the good account you give me of Lord Proby. You have established so good a school for young officers that if a lad has anything in him, it must come out."
The Peterel, being only a 16-gun sloop, was one of the smallest in the "List of King's Ships now in Commission," but she was an essential rung in Proby's climb up the ladder of promotion. In her, he learned the most valuable lesson of all — that command is a lonely business; that the captain of a ship (which he was, even though his rank was "master and commander") has to remain remote from his officers and ship's company, living and eating in isolation. It was no easy task in a vessel the size of the Peterel, which would stand comparison with the Brixham trawler of later years.
He stayed in the Peterel in the Mediterranean for fourteen months, when interest obtained him the next vital promotion: he was sent back to the Channel and "made post," which meant he was "posted" to command a ship of a size that had to be commanded by a captain. The Peterel merited only a "master and commander," but the 36-gun frigate Belle Poule, captured from the French, was a ship of the size to be commanded by a post captain, even if she was simply lying in Plymouth out of commission. Proby was given command of her on 17 February 1798.
Excerpted from Devil Himself by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1987 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Chapter One Melancholy Circumstances,
Chapter Two A Voyage to Cayenne,
Chapter Three A Prize for the Indefatigable,
Chapter Four Vaillante to Danae,
Chapter Five The Jersey Flotilla,
Chapter Six The Channel Fleet,
Chapter Seven Trials for Two Captains,
Chapter Eight The Danae's Last Muster,
Chapter Nine The Organizers,
Chapter Ten "The Ship's Ours Now!",
Chapter Eleven Surrender at Le Conquet,
Chapter Twelve The Sale of the Danae,
Chapter Thirteen Inquest on Board the Gladiator,
Chapter Fourteen Revolutionary Red Tape,
Chapter Fifteen The Price of Mutiny,
Chapter Sixteen The Trial of John McDonald,
Chapter Seventeen King George's Mercy,
Chapter Eighteen A Death in Barbados,
Notes and Bibliography,