The Case of the Murderous Mutineers
One gloomy September night in 1797, the bloodiest mutiny in the annals of Britain’s Royal Navy erupted off the western coast of Puerto Rico aboard the frigate Hermione. Before being heaved overboard, ten officers, including the captain, were butchered by crewmen brandishing axes and cutlasses.
Although the uprising eight years earlier on the Bounty is better known, the aftershocks of the carnage aboard the Hermione in the middle of the French Wars were far more profound, not just in Britain, but in the United States, to which many of the mutineers fled.
A number of intriguing issues arose from the bloodletting and the subsequent extradition of one of the crew, viewed as an American freedom-fighter, from the United States to British authorities in Jamaica, where he was hanged. Following outcries of injustice, the Hermione affair played a decisive role in Thomas Jefferson’s defeat of John Adams in the tumultuous presidential election of 1800. No less remarkable, the mutiny led directly to the nation’s historic adoption of political asylum for foreign refugees, thereby helping to fulfill the promise of the American Revolution to afford “an asylum for mankind.”
The mutiny itself raises an even more fundamental question. Why, in the midst of war with France and Spain, did 150 crew members commit such “an unprecedented barbarity”? Certainly the radical rhetoric of the French Revolution coupled with the anti-British fervor of Irish and American seamen impressed by the Royal Navy cannot be dismissed, nor can the heat, pestilence, and cramped conditions suffered by the Hermione’s crew, who had few opportunities for shore leave. And yet the frigate’s privations were widely shared aboard other British warships.
More critical is that, seven months prior to the mutiny, the Hermione received a new captain, 28-year-old Hugh Pigot, whose family connections had advanced his naval career. Pigot grew notorious for administering frequent floggings. Worse, so unpredictable was the hot-tempered commander that seamen could not begin to anticipate, much less cope with, his violent outbursts.
It was scarcely coincidental that the day before the mutiny, with a squall on the horizon, the captain ordered the sails to be furled, with the promise to “flog the last man down!” After three skilled topmen, in their haste, plunged 50 feet to their deaths, Pigot coldly ordered that the “lubbers”— a highly derogatory epithet applied to inexperienced sailors—be thrown overboard.
On the morning of the mutiny, Pigot ordered more than a dozen men flogged for lethargy. The day’s savagery had just begun, and its reverberations would last centuries.
A. Roger Ekirch, a professor in the Department of History, is the author of five books, including, most recently, American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution.