Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Fatal Adventure - Part II

Continued from Part I

After our intrepid lawyer and would-be merchant adventurer, the now dis-Honourable James Erskine Murray slipped his moorings to his life in Melbourne and scarpered in the Warlock, leaving behind a wife and children, an irate Judge Willis and several writs for unpaid debts, he headed for Hong Kong.

At some stage he fell out with his merchant adventuring companion, Oliver Gourlay, about whom the “incoherency” continued in the colonial newspapers. One reported that Gourlay was killed in a duel off Singapore with Warlock’s commander, one Lieutenant Sullivan, but Victorian Public Records Office probate records for Gourlay’s estate show he died on board the Bencoolen, on 19 November 1843 on a voyage bound from Hong Kong to Sydney (just a few days days after Murray had left in another direction). No-one was arrested in connection with his death and there is no mention in the probate that it might have been a violent end.

On arriving in Hong Kong, Murray had sold Warlock and entered into a new partnership with a well-known local merchant, Charles W. Bowra ** and bought two other vessels, a 90 ton schooner, Young Queen (Yonge Queene in some reports) and a 200 ton brig Anna, the Captains being A. Hart and H. Lewis respectively. Both vessels were heavily armed with both large and small pivot guns and stern chasers. The crew’s personal armaments included cutlasses, pistols and pikes - of which there were so many it was said that there was hardly enough room for the trade goods, stores and water.

When word got around Hong Kong that Murray was mounting a similar expedition to that of James Brooke, with possibly rich pickings for those who participated, it seemed he had no trouble finding 40 men eager to crew the ships plus officers who were kitted out in uniforms remarkably similar to those of the Royal Navy. (One of these officers was Robert L. McNally who was to have his own gruesome adventure a few years later and who features in three earlier blog posts beginning with Mutiny and Horrible Massacre at Sea.)

They sailed out of Hong Kong or Macao around 7-9 November 1843, arriving about two weeks later off the coast of Borneo, calling in at a number of Dutch settlements there. Although the Dutch were well established in much of the East Indies, their hold in Borneo was slender, having just a few ports in the south. Even so, they were fiercely protective of what they had and it isn’t surprising that they were suspicious of Murray’s arrival.

From Views in the Eastern Archipelago


How much local information Murray had when he began his adventure has been debated, but most must have been unreliable because he soon had problems - the seas around Borneo prickling with Bugis pirates although the superior firepower on board his two vessels soon put paid to some of their prahus (boats) when attacks were attempted.


Early in February 1844 the expedition arrived at the mouth of a river then called the Coti or Koti (really the Mahakam) the most important river in south-east Borneo that flowed through a region ruled by the Sultan of Kutei who had his capital at Tenggarong about 90 miles from the river’s delta mouth.

As they travelled above the delta past the town of Samarinda and fired a salute, the ships’ crews were alarmed when the responding salute came from powerful guns. They had good reason to be uneasy. What Murray and his companions did not know was that this town - in fact much of the region - was not controlled by Dayaks or Malays, but was under the ruthless control of the Bugis, once the greatest seamen and traders of the East Indies who had been ousted from their origins in the Celebes by the Dutch East India Company and forced into becoming mercenaries and pirates. There is an apocryphal suggestion that the word “bogeyman” had its origins with these fiercesome people but with their superior seafaring skills and wild ruthless nature, they could rightly be compared to Europe’s Vikings.

If Murray had known the true state of affairs, commonsense should have alerted him to beat a hasty retreat, but he persisted in travelling another 40 miles upstream from Samarinda to the Sultan’s capital, leaving in his wake a dangerously hostile group.

On arrival at Tenggarong, Murray’s envoys were received in the Sultan’s place, at that time a building of thatch and bamboo. Although the Sultan initially gave the impression of being agreeable to giving them permission to trade in the area, he told them it would take time as he had to consult his datus, or chiefs, as was the practice. Amicable events followed, including a feast and a shooting match in which Murray was disconcerted to discover the local marksmen to be extremely accurate.

The Palace at Tenggarong, c. 1930

For a few days everything was peaceful. Then Chinese traders came alongside selling fresh produce and brought alarming news that Europeans were being held captive somewhere nearby, that the Sultan’s prahus had recently pirated an English ship. A surreptitious investigation proved there was truth to this story, but Murray’s crews were refused access to the area where the prisoners were supposedly being held. What Murray didn’t know was that at least 27 other European ships had been pirated in recent years with their captains murdered or kept captive. While this was going on, it was noticed that large numbers of boats full of armed men were passing downstream where they would be capable of cutting off the visitors.

A gun from the archipelago region.

With all these alarm bells ringing, it is astonishing that even after an emergency meeting with Captains Hart and Lewis that Murray still persisted with trying to gain the co-operation of the Sultan with a view to open up English enterprise and manufacture even though all the evidence pointed to the Sultan scheming behind his back with the Bugis, who greatly hated Europeans. Murray even proposed that either he himself, or one of his companions, be allowed to reside at Tenggarong under the Sultan’s protection. The Sultan’s initial benign approach changed, he was dismissive of Murray’s trade goods, including salt and tobacco, told them they must be disposed of at Samarinda - the real heart of Bugis territory.

In hindsight, one wonders at Murray’s continued efforts at sticking around, especially when everyone witnessed houses being pulled down along the shoreline and being replaced with lines of guns just a few hundred yards from the ships. Finally, perhaps under urging of his companions, did he look at the only choices he had, either retreat downstream or to head further upstream or inland and seek help from the Dayaks, but provisions were too low.

Then, in one of the most arrogant and futile moves, Murray took a highhanded approach, demanded hostages from the Sultan in order to ensure a safe withdrawal downstream, plus ordering the Sultan, “as a matter of duty”, to release the European prisoners he had. To add further insults to the list, Murray wanted recompense for the losses incurred through the treatment the expedition had received, presumably meaning those he had incurred by the unprofitable trip to Tenggarong. It is no wonder he had outstayed his welcome.

On 16 February Murray sent off a letter to the Sultan, demanding either a senior minister or member of the Sultan’s family as a hostage within two hours. Of course there was no reply, the response being even more activity on the river. When Murray ordered a shot over the palace all hell broke loose, gunfire from the batteries on shore and numerous war prahus waiting in the shallows.

Amid a barrage of gunfire, Anna and Young Queen managed to slip their anchors and with the aid of a light breeze began to float downstream, pursued by over 50 war prahus that kept up a consistent fire of round shot, grape and musketry. As they sailed, more hidden batteries on the banks opened fire with other boats emerging from streams and other points along the river.

It was slow progress and at one point Anna ran aground, only to be got off with great difficulty by a boat from Young Queen. All this time the running fight continued. When the light and wind died in the pitch-black velvet night of the tropics, the firing from the pursuers ceased and the two vessels were lashed together with a ship’s boat that towed them from the front. All lights were extinguished and it was hoped they might slip past the fortresses of Samarinda unnoticed.

Reports of this night journey downstream differ in certain aspects but it must have been terrifying. The Bugis started huge fires on the riverbank to illuminate the river, firing off shots. When it became unwieldy to have the ships tied together, Murray considered putting all the men on Anna and abandoning Young Queen, with a time-fuse lit in the abandoned ship’s magazine set to blow after Anna had drawn clear. This didn’t happen, but eight volunteers - including our Robert McNally - remained on board the schooner as she limped on behind the brig. With the unremitting battle the men were exhausted, but it seemed the pirates were also too tired to continue so there was a lull in the proceedings.

But by dawn, things had worsened. There were prahus ahead of and between the two vessels. Then both were forced to anchor because there wasn’t enough depth of water to cross the bar at the head of the delta and had to wait for the tide. For a time the attackers ceased and headed off in the direction of a new victim, a Belgian ship Charles which had grounded on a sandbank (the officers and crew of that vessel managed to escape in their small boats and reach the safety of Makassar). But soon prahus were back and the onslaught on Murray’s group became even more violent.

According to the statement of the surgeon, Dr. W. Sael, the vessels were now fired at on all sides. Murray took a hand with the schooner’s guns and while doing so, a shot struck him full in the chest. “My God!” were the only words he was able to say before dropping to the deck dead.

The convolutions of the Makaham Delta.

In spite of the loss of their leader, the men continued to fight for another seven hours until the tide rose and the ships were able to cross the bar and finally the delta. Although still being pursued, once they reached the open sea the vessels were able to pick up speed, with the last shots fired in the evening.

This battle had lasted around 36 hours. As with everything to do with this fatal adventure, none of the various reports are totally reliable. The casualties in the standard reference works and British newspaper reports state there were three dead and five wounded, but a letter written by that other adventurer from Melbourne, James Abrahams, to his father and which appeared in The Port Phillip Patriot  had names that do not appear elsewhere.

Here is a compilation of names from all sources - highlighted in case anyone reading this has family connections to any of the men.

Dead : James Erskine Murray, able seaman James Dance/Dantry and boatswain John Thomson.

Severely wounded were volunteer Robert L. McNally [mis-reported as McNyles] who received a bullet in the thigh, lost a finger and part of one hand; a ship’s boy Constance Fournette and volunteer Benjamin Hart, brother of Captain Hart.

Less serious were the correspondent James Abrahams himself, William Sael/Saul the surgeon, volunteer Augustus Marsetti/Marzetti, another seaman, E. Congrave, John Miller, gunners mate and William Thomson, gunner.

The Honourable James Erskine Murray’s body was wrapped in the shredded company’s flag and committed to the deep in the Makassar Strait the next morning, 18 February 1844.

The two ships arrived in the Celebes where the wounded were landed. But the expedition’s misfortunes were not quite over. On her voyage back to Hong Kong, mutiny broke out on Young Queen, either because of the failure of the promised riches or maybe the men anticipated they would not get paid. Captain Hart was forced to shoot the ringleader. Presumably there was some later action regarding this, but that is beyond the scope of this story.

Murray’s contemporaries with knowledge of Borneo had little sympathy for his ill-advised adventure, for his “imprudent and unguarded conduct” in a known dangerous area. But it was his ignorance of local conditions, plus arrogance, that doomed the expedition. He should never have gone far up river, leaving a hostile settlement between his ships and safety and he should have made better use of local knowledge. Murray thoroughly misjudged the situation. It is no wonder he came to strife.

Opinion over Murray’s real aim is divided. Some say he was only ever interested in setting up a trading base, others that he was intent in creating either a colony or even a personal fiefdom for himself. Either way, his fatal adventure carries echoes of how personal ambition and a toss of the dice can change history.

The Dutch were so alarmed by Murray’s attempt that they tightened their control over Borneo, coming into conflict with the British in the process and followed by years of diplomatic wrangling over rights to the region. This is the closing paragraph from the B.R. Pearn article on the adventure:
Thus Murray’s disastrous adventure had important consequences. It led directly to the imposition of Dutch control over the east coast of Borneo, and it initiated a dispute between the British and Netherlands Governments which continued almost to the end of the century. Abortive though the expedition was, it is nevertheless an episode of some note in the history of the eastern archipelago.”

The exact date of this image is uncertain.
It either shows the Sultan in question, A.M. Salehuddin, or possibly his successor, A.M. Salaiman, who was forced into co-operation with the Dutch.

Meanwhile, what happened to poor Isabella who had been left behind in Melbourne? 

Clearly in straitened financial circumstances, she had to move from Elibank House to poorer accommodation where her fifth child was born, a daughter who sadly died in December 1843. It seems Isabella did not learn of her husband’s death until much very much later in August 1844 and after she had returned to Britain with her children and two servants in the schooner, Hawk.

The book Barristers Solicitors Pettifoggers by Simon Smith contains the only study of Hon. James Erskine Murray to give us some snippets of information on Isabella, some letters, a few extracts from her diary and reminiscences of a granddaughter.

Isabella spent some time in Jersey with her family and many years trying to generate income from her original family estates at Aberdona. She never remarried and endured other tragedies, outliving three of her children - son James Hypolite Erskine Murray who died only aged 18 in 1853, daughter Jane Isabella died age 26 and her other daughter Edith Katherine who married Dr Joshua Bell (the Edinburgh doctor on whom Arthur Conan Doyle based his Sherlock Holmes) and who died in 1874 aged 34. Isabella herself passed away in Edinburgh a few months later in March 1875. Her surviving son, Alexander lived until 1907, with his grandson becoming the 13th Lord Elibank.

Aberdona House
Royal Historical Society Victoria

** The image on the linked webpage to Bowra and purporting to be Murray can’t possibly be correct. The uniform dates to a much later era, possibly early 1900s. The earliest known daguerreotype images of South East Asia were taken in the 1840s by Frenchman Alphone-Eugene-Jules Itier during his travels in that region. These are said to have included Borneo and possibly copies may exist in some museum, but none are to be found online.


Click here for a Youtube video showing the River Mahakam from Tenggarong today, a far cry from what Erskine Murray faced over 170 years ago.

Main published sources:

Also British Newspapers and Australian Newspapers available online via TROVE, Findmypast, or National Library of Australia

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Fatal Adventure - Part I

I’ve always been fascinated with the exploits of merchant adventuring trading schemes throughout history such as the East India Company or Hudson’s Bay Company, and perhaps there is a genetic component to my interest as my own ancestors were instrumental in opening up vast tracts of the Siberian Far East during the 19th Century, where they established their own commercial empire that included stores, shipping and mining, only to lose everything after the Russian Revolution.

But it is the private individuals with grandiose plans that I find the most intriguing. The most successful and famous include Sir Stamford Raffles of Singapore and Sir James Brooke of Sarawak, and that other individual who put his name to the country in which I was born, Cecil Rhodes. They had many qualities in common: charisma, drive, energy, self-belief and, not least, varying degrees of ruthlessness and rat-cunning. 

Two of my historical novelshave featured a couple of lesser-known men (female merchant adventurers being rather thin on the ground) who created their own unique empires. The subject of one of them was the Scotsman, Benjamin Boyd, who sailed into Sydney in his luxury yacht Wanderer in July 1842 full of grand ambitions. Due to poor timing, errors in judgement and just bad luck, he failed spectacularly and less than a decade later ended up as the main ingredient in a Solomon Islands hot-pot.

Benjamin Boyd  1801-1851 (family collection)

When Boyd’s private Royal Bank went bust, one of its main creditors was a friend of his, the Honourable James Erskine Murray. Both had been members of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron, based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and the two men most likely met up again in Melbourne where Murray had established himself as a barrister. Murray was troubled financially and the loan from Boyd, reputed to be £10,000 (relative value today upwards of £500,000), probably had no other security than the trust in a fellow Scot and gentleman. It appears that rather than using the funds to settle his own debts both in Australia and back home in Scotland, Murray may have used them to plan his own wild scheme in merchant adventuring.

James Murray was born in 1810, the third son of 63 year old Alexander Murray, the 7th Lord Elibank, MP for Peebleshire. Lord Elibank had lived well beyond his means and when he died ten years later left a messy estate, but that didn’t seem to stop his son acquiring an enlightened classical education that provided him with an excellent grounding in history, French and art. As he was never likely to inherit the title and he had to make a professional life that provided a good income, he chose the law and was called to the Scots Bar in 1831.

Alexander Murray, 7th Lord Elibank, father of James (National Gallery of Scotland)

An advantageous marriage within the landed gentry would also be advantageous and a year later Murray married Isabella Erskine, the only child of James Erskine of Aberdona, whose father had been Lord Alva. The family had long connections with the Scots judiciary. Under terms of the marriage settlement James and Isabella adopted the family name of Erskine Murray.

Isabella's grandfather, Lord Alva (National Gallery of Scotland)

By 1838, they had four children and were living for some reason in France from where James undertook a walk that would bring him a degree of fame as an author after he wrote a book about the experience. A Summer in the Pyrenees was followed by a number of articles in magazines of which Charles Dickens was the editor.

But Murray seems to have had a restless streak, ambivalent about where he wanted to go in life. He had a wide range of interests that included supporting charities, giving speeches on free trade, was a member of the Reform Club and also keen on sports that encouraged health and fitness. He even considered standing for parliament as member for Leith, but money problems were an issue as Isabella’s dowry didn’t stretch far.

Why Murray decided on Australia is not clear, but given that he was friends with men like Benjamin Boyd, who was planning his own enterprise after witnessing his cousin Archibald Boyd do well in New South Wales, it may have been at Boyd’s suggestion that he looked at opportunities to be had there. Also, given the ultimate direction Murray was to take, it may be no coincidence that another fellow member of the Royal Yacht Squadron had been James Brooke, that future White Rajah of Sarawak, who had sailed his yacht Royalist to Borneo in 1839.

With Isabella and all four children, plus a younger brother Robert Dundas Murray, the Hon. James Erskine-Murray arrived in the ship Tasmania at Port Phillip in September 1841 and was soon immersed in the life of the tiny settlement that would one day be the city of Melbourne.

Landing at Melbourne, 1840, Wilbraham Liardet

Initially, the couple rented a house described by Isabella as having the exorbitant rent “of 16 guineas a month” and “only wooden and of so frail a texture that the light is quite visible through many parts of the wall and a word spoken in one end may be easily heard in the other.” 

The flimsiness of the houses can be seen in this image of the banks of the Yarra, also by W. Liardet,

Soon, however, they built their own house that could accommodate all members of the family, plus servants and the furniture they had brought with them. They called it Elibank  and it had grounds stretching down to the banks of the Yarra River.

 In later years Elibank was renamed Yarra Bank House. (Image State Library of Victoria)
An accomplished public speaker, James was in demand. He was the first President of both the Melbourne Debating Society and the local Society of St. Andrews and, as would be essential in Melbourne high society then as now, a keen supporter of horse-racing at the newly-established track at Flemington.

In a community that was still struggling to shake off the rough and raw nature of its convict heritage, Murray participated in several trial “firsts”. He acted in the first breach of promise case, the first criminal libel case, the first for forgery, plus assorted “… assaults on police officers, stabbings, wounding with intent to kill, larceny, false pretences, robbery and murder.”

Opening of the first courthouse in 1841 (Liardet)

One of his notable cases involved the defence of three of the Plenty River bushrangers. He lost the case and it resulted in Melbourne’s second public execution - and the first of white men - before a crowd of more than 7,000 in 1842.

The first execution was of two Aborigines (Liardet)
Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner (their story here)

As often happens in small tight societies, personalities were bound to clash. After increasingly public spats in the newspapers and a major fracas involving his friend, Oliver Gourlay, a local merchant who had a fight with police over their brutality towards a prisoner, Murray eventually fell foul of the irascible Judge John Walpole Willis who had been appointed by Governor George Gipps as the resident judge for Port Phillip. Perhaps Willis had discovered certain certification irregularities in Murray’s advocacy qualifications back in Britain but it was when he appeared to be getting involved in trade and land speculation, after being strictly warned against such behaviour, that Willis had him struck off. (Willis himself got into trouble with Gipps soon afterwards and was sent back to England in disgrace.)

It is possible that it was the advance from Boyd’s Royal Bank that helped Murray purchase and fit out in style the brigantine Warlock and in which, together with Gourlay, Murray decamped in January 1843, not openly from Port Phillip, but from the less-obvious Westernport Bay where the departure was more likely to go unnoticed - or for a while at least. This vessel itself had a murky past, having been seized by the British as having been engaged in the illegal slave trade. How it ended up in Australian waters is unknown, but refitting a former slaver into a suitable vessel for gentlemen would have taken considerable cash.

Several of the colonial newspapers published what they admitted were “incoherent” reports on this decampment calling it “A Curious Affair” and “The papers are filled with mysterious paragraphs, relative to the sudden disappearance of Mr. Murray from the province”.

A typical brigantine of the 1840s

Here is how The Melbourne Times of 21 January 1843 reported it.

THE ‘WARLOCK’ - This vessel, having left Melbourne a fortnight since, made for Western Port, when she remained up to Friday the 13th instant. On that morning the Honorable James Erskine Murray was seen on the beach sitting before a fire which it appears he made a signal for the vessel to send a boat on shore for him, which was immediately done, and the Honorable gentleman soon lodged on board. He was well armed, having had with him a double barrel gun, a brace of double barrelled pistols, and also a brace of single barrelled ditto. We understand that the late tempestuous state of the weather at sea, has created a feeling of the most painful and distressing alarm among his friends in Melbourne, lest he should meet with any mishap while on the bosom of the ‘vasty deep’.

This was apparently witnessed by a Mr Cobb and/or others who said there was another heavily armed man with him [either Gourlay or someone called Abraham - probably the James Abrahams referred to in Part II] and the pair “looked remarkably fierce”. There were also allegations that they had left Melbourne on “borrowed horses” which they abandoned in the bush. All of this did little for Murray’s reputation even if it wasn’t wholly true.

Another newspaper, The Gazette of 17 January 1843 offered this more pragmatic standard shipping notice:

WARLOCK - The Hon. James Erskine Murray embarked on board the Warlock, in Western Port, last Friday. The vessel cleared out for Guam, and said to be bound to China for tea.

One has to wonder how much the Hon. James Erskine Murray had shared with Isabella about his real ambitions, that he couldn’t care less about tea and was interested in a remote part of the world that held many dangers but also opportunities to earn vast quantities of cash and perhaps even build an empire of his own.

Left behind, and possibly ill-provided for given the state of Murray’s finances, plus being pregnant with her fifth child, did Isabella know what he was up to or even have the slightest inkling that she would never see her husband James again?

(Note: unfortunately no images of either James or Isabella are to be found in the public domain.)

Main published sources:

* Currently both out of print, although new e-editions are being contemplated.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"The Wear at War"

A remarkable new film from Lonely Tower Films, "The Wear at War", tells the story of the people of the Wear Valley in North East England during the First World War.

This beautifully-crafted film is intensely moving and will be of interest not only to local residents or those with ancestral and family ties to the region, but it is a brilliant resource for anyone interested in the history of WW1 in general or how it impacted on a group of real individuals from the North East.

Click here to view the film

Image from This is Durham

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"Mutiny and Horrible Massacre at Sea" (3)

So what else can be found for some of the other people involved in this drama? 

Captain Robert L. McNally, who knew he was about to die and left the poignant note reproduced in the first instalment of this saga (read it here) is variously described as simply British or as a native “of Dublin” in the news reports of the day, and with not much else to go on, proves difficult to establish his exact origins. There are a number of mariners of the same name and similar age to be found in the records, but none can be confirmed beyond doubt as being him. 

Just one of the possibles from records on merchant seaman,  Robert McNally of Dublin 1836  

Hong Kong c.1840 as McNally would have known it
What is intriguing, however, are the couple of sentences from The South Australian of 9 March 1949 indicating that Captain McNally was well-known in China and had also escaped another violent adventure some years earlier. 
“… Poor McNally was well known and much respected in China. He escaped the dangers of the Borneo expedition, in which the Hon. Mr Murray was killed, but he was fated to a death of violence …”
This refers to an almost forgotten episode from the era when a new generation of merchant adventurers had ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Sir Stamford Raffles and open up trading opportunities in the Far East and other areas coming under British influence. While the story of Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak is well-known, much less so are the escapades of The Honourable James Erskine Murray who looked to the other side of the island of Borneo. It appears that Robert McNally was wounded in the escape and this is an interesting enough story to warrant a separate blog post in due course. 

Thomas Gannon, the sixteen year-old navigator hero in this saga, appears likely to be the son of Thomas Gannon, a grocer, of 4 Duke Street [now Sardinia Street] in Lincoln's Fields Inn, London, and his wife, Ann Morling. The couple were married in Stepney in 1829, and their son Thomas baptised on 2 September 1832. 

Thomas the apprentice a year before the mutiny

Other than this one for Second Mate in 1852, there are no further maritime certificates available for Thomas Gannon and his whereabouts remain a mystery until a surprising death notice for a Thomas Gannon born in 1832 (parents Thomas Gannon and Ann Morling) who died at the Alfred Hospital in Prahran [Melbourne] Australia in 1905. Unfortunately, the Melbourne cemetery records do not show where he was buried and the notice in local newspapers does not mention any family members.

When did he arrive in Australia? What else had he been doing between his brief moment of fame out in the Pacific Ocean at the age of sixteen and his death aged 73? Did he leave a widow or any descendants and did they know about his adventure on board the Amelia?

John Smith, the leader of the group against the mutineers was also known as Jan Smit, born in Rotterdam. With such a common name both in England and Holland this makes for even greater difficulty in trying to track him down. 

The Glasgow Gazette of 18 August 1849 is one of the few newspapers to go into financial detail about what was saved and lost during the mutiny and massacre on the Amelia.
“The dollars amounted to 287,634. Among the papers found on board were three bills of lading with corresponding letters of advice and instructions from Jocker, Torre and Co. of Mazatlan, one for 150,000 dollars, consigned to Messrs. Turner and Co. Hong Kong but for account and risk of Messrs. Finley Hodgson and Co. of London, another for 120,000 dollars to Messrs. Turner and Co. of Hong Kong in payment for a cargo previously ordered for shipment in the Amelia on her arrival in China. The third bill of lading was for 1,379 dollars, in favour of Mr J. A. Durran of Macao; 16,304 dollars were landed, for which no bills of lading or other document could be found.
We have now the gratification to state that Jan Smit of Rotterdam, whose conduct on this occasion is above all praise, has been presented with 1,100 pounds by several of the insurance companies and also with a sextant by Ashdown of Finch Lane, with the following inscription:
Presented to Mr Jan Smit of Rotterdam, by the Corporation of the Royal Exchange, the Corporation of the London, Indemnity Mutual Marine, the Marine, and the Alliance, Marine Insurance Companies of London, in testimony of their high estimation of Mr Smit’s services, and their special appreciation of the fidelity and courage displayed by him in securing the schooner Amelia of Glasgow, and her valuable cargo, out of the hands of mutineers during her voyage from Mazatlan to China, in the year 1848. London, August 1, 1849.
£1,100 was a vast fortune for an ordinary sailor to receive and would be around £80,000 today. Did Smit/Smith use his windfall to retire from the sea?

What happened to the inscribed sextant? Is it still held in some family collection or museum, or was it disposed of? 

Not an Ashdown sextant, but probably similar to that presented to Jan Smit
With every discovery, there are still many more questions flowing from this saga of death and drama on the high seas. If anyone reading this can shed more light on the story or has knowledge of any of the individuals involved, please do contact me via the comments.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Mutiny and Horrible Massacre at Sea" (2)

Finding out about the individuals involved in the tale of mutiny and massacre at sea from my previous post (read here) has had its challenges, not least in the various spelling of names.

Francis Cooke (or Cook) and his business ventures are mentioned in rather obscure works such as Commerce and Contraband on Mexico’s West Coast in the Era of Barron, Forbes and Co., 1821-1859 and Notes of Cases in the Ecclesiastical and Maritime Courts, Volume 6, but surprisingly, it is items from February 1849 editions of the Indian newspaper Friend of India that provide much more information about who Francis Cooke was, that his brother was Charles Northcote Cooke of the Bank of Bengal whose name appeared on Indian banknotes of the era and wrote books on banking.

The confirmation of Francis' death comes later in an obituary column:
October 3. Murdered, at Sea in the Pacific Ocean, on board the schooner Amelia, of Glasgow, on her passage to China, FRANCIS COOK, Esq., formerly of Great Prescot Street, London, but late of Mazatlan, new Mexico, North America, aged 44 years.
Francis’ wife was Sarah Selina Patterson, daughter of William and Sarah Patterson of No. 4 White Bear Court, Aldgate. She was born on  3 March 1804 and baptised on 1 April at St. Botolph, Aldgate, LondonShe married Francis Cooke on 19 May 1832 at All Hallows, London Wall.

A daughter, Sarah Eliza, was born in December 1834, but died in May 1835. Another child, Francis Cobon, was born in January 1843 but sadly also did not survive and his death is recorded in the following year at the age of only 18 months. These losses add another tragic layer to all that Sarah Selina had to endure. If other children were born when they lived in Mexico and who may have survived, the records are not easy to trace.

Nor can anything be found from the tantalising snippet in the Friend of India article that states Mrs Cooke was forced to witness an earlier mutiny at sea and was detained in Rio de Janeiro for two to three months giving evidence. 

Sarah Selina is missing from all the English Census Returns, perhaps because of living abroad or there are errors in her name, but she died in London on 13 July 1869, her last address being 45 Gloucester Street Belgrave Road and she is buried at Norwood Cemetery, Lambeth, London. Her effects were less than £800 in her Probate.

The next post will see what can be found about some of the other individuals involved.

Monday, July 25, 2016

"Mutiny and Horrible Massacre at Sea" (1)

This business announcement in The London Gazette of Friday, November 10, 1848, may seem routine but behind it lies an amazing and terrifying tale of mutiny and murder on the high seas.

NOTICE is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between William Ballingall, John Kelly, and Francis Cooke, at Mazatlan, in the Republic of Mexico, under the firm of Ballingall, Kelly, and Co. was dissolved, on the 21st of August last, so far as respects the said Francis Cooke. - Dated this 6th November 1848.
Wm. Ballingall.
Jno. Kelly,
By Wm. Ballingall, his authorised agent.
Francis Cooke,
By Wm. Ballingall, his attorney duly authorised.

Mazatlan, c. 1845, Wikipedia
This was years before international telegraphic communication became viable. What could not possibly have been known in London at the time the Notice was published was that Francis Cooke, the ex-partner of Ballingall Kelly and Co, was dead - cruelly murdered at sea on 3 October 1848.

The first reports came from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) via The Polynesian and the Quaker publication The Friend. They were picked up a few months later in Australian newspapers but it was to be almost a year before the story finally filtered into the British press, all with slight variations in names, fact and focus.

Most of the reports were copied from the original with the heading of “Mutiny and Horrible Massacre at Sea” and this synopsis from The Friend of 1 November 1848 sounds like the blurb of a swashbuckling historical novel or movie, except it all happens to be true:

“Three Spanish Americans mutiny, and murder English and Spanish Captains, Mates and a passenger - Mutineers take the vessel - A Hollander, a Norwegian, a Portuguese, a Frenchman and a Spaniard concert to recapture the vessel - They are successful - The Hollander kills the three mutineers and takes command of the vessel - The vessel navigated to Sandwich Islands by an English apprentice boy, 16 years old - Two females on board arrive safe - etc. etc.”

The Glasgow schooner Amelia sailed from Mazatlan, Mexico on 9 September 1848, bound for Hong Kong. On board were two Captains, Ramon Alva and Robert McNally, in charge of an international crew. Francis Cooke and his wife Sarah Selina, and her maid, Mary Hudson, were the passengers. There was also approximately $300,000 gold and silver specie on board (equivalent of upward of $7 million today). It would have been difficult to keep such a valuable cargo secret and three Mexicans on board hatched a plot to get rid of the ship’s officers, take over the vessel and sail it and its contents to Peru.

A commotion on deck in the early hours of 3 October was the first indication of trouble. Captain Alva and Francis Cooke went topside to investigate, whereupon both men were attacked by the Mexicans. Alva managed to alert Captain McNally before dying. When Francis Cooke tried to escape to his cabin he was stabbed in the back and then thrown overboard. The first and second mates were also killed. McNally barricaded himself in and wrote this last note, clearly sure of his fate:

“Half-past four, a.m. - Captain Alva lying stabbed to the heart, in the cabin; the mutineers have got a muster, and are determined on my death. It will soon be daylight, and then the scoundrels will see their way. At present, they are afraid of my pistols. I will sell my life very dearly. Unto the Almighty I commend my spirit. Robert L. McNally”

Mrs Cooke and her maid must have been terrified as they locked themselves in their cabin while the mutineers negotiated with McNally who promised to show them the necessary course for Puerto Malabrigo in Peru in exchange for putting him and the two women in a boat. “Trusting to their faith”, McNally went on deck without his pistols. He called to the two women through the cabin skylight not to come up as the boat was not yet ready, but they were his last words. He probably knew that the men had no intention of letting him live. He had just stepped away from the skylight when he was picked up and thrown overboard.

The three mutineers then ordered all sail to be made, collected up the gold and silver and forced all crew members to sit with them and take a share. Many other documents and valuables were destroyed as they revelled in dressing up in the clothes they found belonging to the dead men, as well as indulging in Captain Alva’s private supply of cigars and claret. Their ultimate plans for the two women can only be imagined.

As the mutineers got progressively more drunk and excitable while gambling with the gold doubloons and silver, five of the surviving crew members plotted to take back the ship. Led by John Smith (Jan Smit in later accounts), they eventually succeeded, with Smith personally despatching the three Mexicans with an axe. But the ship had been damaged and a return to Mazatlan out of the question. Thomas Gannon, aged just sixteen, one of the ship’s two apprentices, was the only one who understood something about navigation. After consultation with Mrs Cooke, it was agreed they would try for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) where they eventually arrived on 12 October 1848.

The local authorities made a thorough examination of the ship’s inventory and were pleased to announce to the British Consul General that not one member of the loyal crew had secreted or appropriated anything for themselves and the specie was deposited intact into government vaults.
From "Hawaiian Islands", 1848 by Rev. Hiram Bingham

And it is here that the story abruptly ends as far as most newspaper reports go. But it is what happened to the participants both before and after the event that always intrigues me in such extraordinary tales.

The London Gazette announcement adds an extra bit of mystery. Why did Francis Cooke resign from the partnership? Was he striking out in business on his own account? Who is the mysterious Carlos Cook[e], an extra passenger for China listed in some early reports but not others? 

Not least, the fact that Mazatlan, the Mexican port city from which Amelia had just sailed with all that cash on board, had just experienced great turbulence in having recently been occupied by the United States during the Mexican-American War. Surely this must have had some bearing?

From Hawaii, obviously all survivors went their separate ways and there are some snippets to be found. The Polynesian reported that Mrs S. S. Cooke and servant sailed to Mazatlan on the John A. Robb on 4 November 1848. Some British newspapers report in August 1849 that Jan Smit/John Smith received a £1,100 reward from the insurance companies and a sextant engraved with their appreciation. Did the young navigator, Thomas Gannon, not get any similar token in recognition of his achievement?

My next post/s will delve further into some of these individuals via what is accessible through genealogical and other sources in an attempt to find out more about this interesting collection of people. What is astonishing is that it looks as if this wasn't the first mutiny at sea that Sarah Selina Cooke had to endure.

If anyone reading this knows about Mazatlan during this era and the British businesses that operated there, or anything else about the lives of major players in this saga please do contact me.