Honourable East India Company Mutinies

The East Indiaman Repulse (1820) in the East India Dock Basin.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century and up to its loss of the monopoly of trade between Britain and the East in 1813, Britain’s greatest private merchant-owners were the Honourable East India Company. Mortality was a greater danger aboard an East Indiaman than mutiny, so their commanders – for so the captains of East Indiamen were styled – were compelled to make good the losses of British sailors by the employment of Indian or Chinese, or by picking up indifferent seamen in odd locations. Discipline sometimes broke down when they were wrecked, which was not infrequently in consequence of the poor charts then available, the lack of knowledge of the natural dangers strewn across their route and the lingering difficulties of establishing longitude. As a precaution, and for their passengers’ comfort, East Indiamen invariably shortened sail at night, which made their voyages tediously protracted. This measure did not always work – the grounding and subsequent loss of the Hartwell, Captain Edward Fiott, on Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands in August 1787 being a case in point. The wreck was not attributed to poor navigation, however, but blamed on ‘the bad discipline of the crew, who four days before had behaved in a most extraordinary manner’. Quite what this constituted is now uncertain, but a similar example is provided by the fate of the Fame, a chartered ship which on a homeward voyage from Calcutta to London was cast ashore and lost in Table Bay. The ship ‘was standing out of the Bay [when] the wind fell light; the ship’s company refused to make sail, and, in consequence of this dastardly and villainous conduct, the ship drove on shore and was wrecked. Mrs Mills, a lady passenger, of Calcutta, was drowned. These scoundrels declared [in court] the ship should not leave the port, and many of them are now watermen at the Cape of Good Hope’ – which, since it was known as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’, was probably where the mutinous sailors most wanted to settle.

Personality clashes were not uncommon on these long voyages, and frequently boiled over when the ship was anchored off a port. In such circumstances matters could be dealt with ashore, where the charge of mutiny was ambiguous. In 1798 Second Officer Reid assaulted Commander Colnett of the East Indiaman King George when both were ashore at the Cape of Good Hope. Reid was arrested and court-martialled aboard the naval guardship, HMS Stately, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Had the same incident occurred afloat he would have suffered death.

The quasi-naval nature of the East India Company’s service in distant waters made it possible for courts of inquiry composed of its own officers to sit and hand out sentences. In 1787 the East Indiaman Belvidere, part of the so-called ‘China Fleet’, lay anchored off Whampoa, some miles below Canton in the Pearl River. Her commander was sick ashore with dysentery and the ship was in the charge of her first officer, Mr Dunlop; he found himself confronted with a major uprising by his crew, who it seems were demanding the release of a man confined for insubordination. There may also have been a grievance that the crew had been refused leave to go ashore at Canton (invariably denied because of difficulties with the Chinese authorities, though several sparsely inhabited islands in the river were made available for recreational purposes). Dunlop summoned help from the other Indiamen at anchor and fought off the mutineers with his sword. Commodore Dundas, the senior captain present, convened a court of inquiry which sentenced the ring-leaders to be flogged round the fleet, and others to severe floggings. When Dundas was himself subjected to a civil action on the return of the fleet to London, the Company paid his expenses; he was not only acquitted, but praised by the judges.

Prompt action by East India commanders seems frequently to have put paid to the eruption of small mutinies among disaffected seamen. As in the Belvidere, the spark of solidarity was often kindled by the apprehension of a known trouble-maker. In 1804 Commander Timins extinguished such an insurrection aboard the Royal George with his pistol. The ship was off the coast of Sumatra and had experienced a tropical thunderstorm during which fierce squalls had laid the ship over and ‘the fore topgallant mast [had been] shivered with lightning’. Next morning the crew refused to come on deck. Timins having armed all his officers, brandished a pair of pistols and confronted the crew. They were brought to heel, Timins promising to redress a minor grievance which had been exaggerated into a major issue.

Aboard the Minerva Commander Kennard-Smith used his sword to similar effect when the crew rushed the quarterdeck where a man was about to be flogged, and in 1823 Commander Mitchell of the Bridgewater found himself in similar circumstances. This mutiny appears to have arisen from the insubordinate behaviour of one man, Thomas Jones. Jones had been insolent to the Bridgewater’s fourth officer, but had so worked upon the men’s fears that his arrest brought the entire ship’s company to his support, confronting Mitchell and his officers with a wholesale breakdown in obedience. With his officers in support, Mitchell drew his sword and waded in, cutting three of the ring-leaders down and seizing a fourth, whereupon the rest fled and later returned to their duty sufficiently contrite to mollify Mitchell. One possible cause of these almost casual mutinies may be revealed in a letter written in 1830 by the first officer of the East Indiaman Susan, Mr Henry Hyland. Hyland signed on an able seaman named John Murray, and he deliberately provoked trouble by inciting his fellow shipmates to refuse to obey orders while the Susan lay at anchor off Port Louis. In the ensuing days Hyland ‘observed Murray to be active in stirring the sailors up to disobedience of orders, asserting that he did not go to sea for wages, but that he depended upon getting damages in law, by provoking the captain and officers to strike him; and that he generally got from £50 to £100 damages’. Such trouble-makers were justifiably known as ‘sea-lawyers’. Murray suborned two other men, who gave Hyland such trouble that he ‘was obliged to keep them in irons until I got into St Helena, and I then delivered them over to the civil power.’ Murray himself dodged such a fate, but equally failed to provoke Hyland or his fellow officers during the rest of the voyage. In a last desperate throw, however, he waited until the Susan was working her way up the Thames with a pilot on board before confronting Hyland on the quarterdeck. Shouting abuse, Murray shook his fist in Hyland’s face and claimed that as they were in pilotage waters he could not be charged with mutiny. Busy with working the ship, Hyland had ‘to pass over such conduct in the best manner I could, and would subsequently have had him committed for trial, was it not for the excessive trouble, expense, and loss of time attending such a prosecution’.

Commander Christopher Biden, who commanded the East Indiamen Royal George and later the Princess Charlotte of Wales, collected a large body of evidence, including Hyland’s, adding to the sorry tales of insubordination aboard East Indiamen further incidents on the British-flagged and -officered ‘country ships’, often Parsee- or Anglo-Parsee-owned, which traded between India, the Malay peninsula and China.

Although a High Tory and typical of his generation and type, who enforced obedience to lawfully appointed masters irrespective of grievances, Biden was not insensible to the plight of the common sailor, particularly his vulnerability to licensed abduction by the naval press-gang. The purpose of his endeavours was to promote a proper code of regulation for the merchant service in order to improve its general quality, and he began to attract a number of like-minded reformers to his cause. As he ably adumbrates, most mutinous conduct arose not from any deep-seated tyrannical cruelties but from trivial causes, the malevolence of individuals, or the deprivation of reasonable liberties. Others were quick to point out that the commanders of Indiamen were not themselves free of blame, for by and large merchant seamen were not actually averse to discipline itself – though the justice of its dispensation was another matter. Aside from mutiny on board ship, merchant seamen had struck for better wages when ashore, notably in the English north-east coast ports in 1792, 1806 and 1815. These incidents have a curious similarity to the naval mutinies of 1797, in that the seamen were conscientious about their own discipline. Biden recounts how in 1815 the ‘seamen in the ports of Newcastle and Sunderland preserved the most systematic order and very severe discipline. Any seamen of their party who missed muster (which took place twice a-day) was paraded through the principal streets of the town, having his face smeared with tar, and his jacket turned inside out. He was afterwards mounted on a platform attached to poles set up in triangles for the purpose, where he remained at the mercy of the mob.’

The removal of the East India Company’s monopoly in 1813 was followed by other major changes in the maritime world. The first was a new method of measuring tonnage which gradually transformed sailing ship design, greatly improved speed and opened the way for innovation; the second was the repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1826, which rapidly opened up the world’s trade to competition. It was this expansion that had stretched British resources and led to the decline in the old Honourable Company – a term now used with the utmost irony. A corresponding invigoration and expansion of the British Admiralty’s Hydrographic Department also brought about a swift improvement in charts, with a corresponding improvement in the safety of navigation. But this general air of technical progress did not extend to the area we should today call Human Resources.

It is clear that insofar as crew discipline was concerned, by the 1830s matters had slid from bad to worse and the East India Company in particular had seriously degenerated. Neither commanders nor their crews were, it was asserted, up to the mark. The former were often guilty of a ‘supercilious pomposity’ and treated their crews ‘like animals’. The crews, on the other hand, showed evidence of ‘insolence, drunkenness and negligence’. However polarized this point of view, one commander at least seems to have been from the same mould as Pigot and Slidell Mackenzie, and generated a tirade of criticism. A naval officer, having studied the events aboard the East Indiaman Inglis in June 1829, opined that ‘The India Company are the shabbiest set of shipowners whose vessels traverse the oceans.’ This was strong stuff, but the Inglis’s captain, a Commander Dudman, was a foul-mouthed bully who verged on sadism, sanctioning ‘some disgusting occurrences’ aboard the Inglis. When his crew remonstrated with him over their brutalized existences, he saw fit to flog them without mercy. Matters came to a head when Dudman ordered a ship’s boy to attend to duty better suited to an able seaman, forcing the reluctant youth to go out on a spar from which the lad fell into the sea and drowned. Once again the troubles of a single individual provided the spark to dry tinder: the crew rose against Dudman. In due course, although brought to justice and found guilty, the mutineers were given lenient sentences, and the case brought the plight of seafarers generally into the public arena. It soon became clear that it was not just among the prestigious Indiamen with their traditional place in the British public’s imagination, that matters had deteriorated, but that things were rotten elsewhere in the British merchant fleet. The debate spread beyond the courts and the waterfront, bringing in an era of reform that began with the first of a series of regulating Merchant Shipping Acts of Parliament – the provision of proper wage-scales, victualling allowances and standards of competency, administered by the Board of Trade and Plantations – and culminated with the prevention of excess profits being made from overloaded and unsafe ‘coffin’ ships, provided for by the Act of Parliament sponsored by Samuel Plimsoll in 1876.

Under the new conditions that emerged after the end of the ‘Great War’ against Napoleonic France the United States merchant marine expanded alongside the British and, as will be seen, both suffered from similar malaises. As the dynamic nineteenth century unfolded, mutinies became increasingly common aboard merchant ships other than East Indiamen, both British and American. In the large mercantile marines, possessed by these nations at the time, the hierarchy was flatter than that in men-of-war, making confrontation with authority easier. Merchantmen had always suffered from the curse of occasional disorder but usually the matter was smoothed over or solved by quick, summary intervention, often by the master himself but usually by the mates. In the absence of proper regulation a master dominated a fractious crew or an incorrigible individual by sheer force of personality; on occasion, a mate would lay out a rebellious crew-member, scotching incipient mutiny before it had gathered any momentum. Often this was taken too far by tough young officers being over-zealous and over-bearing with members of a crew, dominating them with pre-emptive violence for the smallest infraction of conduct. ‘The second mate struck the man at the wheel in the face because he was half a point [about 5.6°] off the course . . .’ was how an old shell-back recalled one circumstance in the steady disintegration of discipline aboard a sailing ship. ‘The helmsman knew better than to do it, but he let go of the wheel and she came up all standing and shook the main and fore topgallant masts out of her. Hell broke loose . . .’

During this vigorous age of expansion and exploration a crew often had cause to complain about poor food, overloaded ships, or lack of faith in the master and mates. Often a ‘hard-case’ mate would terrorize a crew simply to keep them jumpily obedient, a practice known as ‘hazing’. The same old seaman told how ‘The third day out [from New York] we went aft in a body and complained about the food, which was the very worst any of us had ever had. The Captain told us the food was good enough for a bunch of wharf-rats, and he said some other things that I cannot put on this page, ordered us forward, and as we did not move fast enough to suit the mates, they waded into us with belaying pins and beat us up plenty. If we hit back, that would be mutiny, of course.’

In addition to the old problems always associated with sailing ships, early steamships also bred anxiety. Their boilers had a disturbing propensity to explode, while the gangs of ‘firemen’ signed-on to tend their voracious appetites for coal were drawn from the roughest fringes of waterfront society. These men often feuded among themselves or sought to terrorize the remaining crew, presenting their officers with intractable problems. Equally, masters and mates were sometimes driven to ruling their crews with extreme vigilance, most especially after the discovery of gold in California, Australia and New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century, events that dramatically increased the number of passengers travelling the seas. As ships arrived in ports near the gold fields with excited ‘diggers’ and prospectors eager to get ashore and make their fortunes, it was often the case that among those landing were the entire crew. In response to this crisis, masters often forced the local constabulary to lock up their crews on trumped up charges for safe keeping, the men being released to sail the ship away after she had completed cargo-work.