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.