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Surprise and the Hermione

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The Hermione Mutiny


While cruising off the west end of Porto-Rico during September 1797, the crew of the Hermione mutinied against their captain, Hugh Pigot, and officers.
On September 21, 1797, with the crew reefing topsails, Captain Pigot called aloud that he would flog the last man off the mizzen topsail yard.
"The poor fellows, well knowing that he would keep his word (and though the lot would naturally fall on the outermost, and consequently the most active), each resolved at any rate to escape from punishment: two of them, who from their position could not reach the topmast rigging made a spring to get over their comrades within them; they missed their hold, fell on the quarterdeck, and were both killed. This being presented to the captain, he is said to have made the answer, 'Throw the lubbers overboard.'"†
It also appears that all the other men, on coming down, were severely reprimanded, and threatened with punishment.
By all accounts Captain Pigot was known as one of the most cruel and oppressive captains belonging to the British navy and this latest act of tyranny against his already motley and, from numerous similar acts of oppression, ill-disposed ship's company, produced a great deal of discontent. The crew's animosity continued to grow until the next evening when, as well as the loud murmurs that were uttered, the men now began throwing double-headed shot about the deck. When the first lieutenant advanced to inquire into the cause of the disturbance he was wounded in the arm with a tomahawk. After retiring for a while, the lieutenant returned and was subsequently knocked down with a tomahawk, his throat cut and his body thrown overboard. "The captain, hearing a noise, ran on deck, but was driven back with repeated wounds: seated in his cabin he was stabbed by his coxswain and three other mutineers, and forced out of the cabin windows, was heard to speak as he went astern."†
The mutineers dispatched of eight other officers in a similar manner; cutting and mangling their victims in the most cruel and barbarous manner. The only officers to escape destruction were, the master, Edward Southcott, the gunner, Richard Searle, the carpenter, Richard Price, one midshipman, David Obrien Casey, and the cook, William Moncrief: those murdered were the captain, three lieutenants, purser, surgeon, captain's clerk, one midshipman, the boatswain, and the lieutenant of the marines.
Having rid themselves of every possible opponent, the mutineers carried the ship into La Guayra, a port of the Spanish Main; representing to the Spanish governor that they had turned their officers adrift in the jolly boat. The governor, soon afterwards, fitted the Hermione as a Spanish national frigate, in spite of the remonstrance's of Rear-admiral Henry Hervy, the British c-in-c on the Leeward-island station, who fully explained the horrid circumstances in which the ship had been taken possession of.
Many of the Hermione's mutineers were afterwards taken, and suffered for their crimes. If the Ali Pacha of the ship had been the sole victim of their rage, the public indignation might have been appeased, the instant the daily practices of the tyrant became known; however, the indiscriminate slaughter of their officers, even to the young clerk and midshipmen gave such shock to the public feeling that their actions were inexcusable.

† Brenton, vol. ii, p.436.
James, The Naval History of Great Britain, vol. ii.


HMS Surprise Cutting Out the Hermione


In the British service the Hermione, a ship of 715 tons, had mounted, with her carronades, 38 guns ; but the Spaniards, it appears, gave her 44; to do which, they must have cut at least four additional ports. Her complement had been 220. That was increased to 321, exclusive of a detachment of soldiers and artillery-men numbering 72; and the command of the frigate, thus strongly armed and manned, was given to Don Raimond de Chalas.

In the month of September, 1799, intelligence reached Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, the British commander-in-chief at the island of Jamaica, that the Hermione was about to sail from Puerto-Cabello, whence she had recently arrived from Aux-Cayes in the island of St.-Domingo, bound, through the channel between the island of Aruba and Cape San-Roman, to Havana. For the purpose of intercepting the Spanish frigate in this her voyage, the admiral detached from Port-Royal, on the 20th of the month, the 28-gun frigate Surprise, Captain Edward Hamilton.
It appears that Captain Hamilton proposed to Sir Hyde Parker at Jamaica, to attempt the cutting out of the Hermione if the commander-in-chief would add a barge and 20 men to the crew of the Surprise; but Sir Hyde thought the service too desperate, and refused the request. The next morning Captain Hamilton sailed under sealed orders to be opened off the east end of Jamaica. Arriving there, Captain Hamilton found directions to proceed off Cape Della-Vella, on the Spanish main, a point of land about 60 or 80 leagues to leeward of Puerto-Cabello, in which port the Hermione was anchored. The orders further instructed Captain Hamilton to remain off the Cape as long as his provisions, wood, and water would allow, and to endeavour to intercept the Hermione, supposed to be bound to the Havana. Accordingly Captain Hamilton proceeded to his station, and there remained several weeks. When finding his provisions growing short, and not certain but that the Hermione might have eluded his vigilance during the night, he resolved before he returned to Jamaica, to ascertain if the frigate was still in Puerto Cabello, and accordingly he worked to windward for that purpose.
On the 21st of October, in the evening, the Surprise arrived off the harbour of Puerto-Cabello, and discovered the Hermione moored head and stern between two strong batteries situated at the entrance of the harbour, said to mount nearly 200 guns, with her sails bent and ready for sea.
Captain Hamilton having stood within gun-shot of the enemy on the 21st of October, continued off and on until the evening of the 24th, he never having mentioned one word of his intentions to any officer onboard the ship until that evening after his dinner, when he detailed his plans to the officers present, and desired them to second his wishes when he addressed the ship's company. After quarters, the hands were sent aft, and Captain Hamilton reminding his crew of the frequent successful enterprises they had undertaken, concluded a stirring address, nearly thus

"I find it useless to wait any longer; we shall soon be obliged to leave the station, and that frigate will become the prize of some more fortunate ship than the Surprise; our only prospect of success is by cutting her out this night." (Three tremendous cheers convinced Captain Hamilton that his men would follow him and were eager for the service.) "I shall lead you myself," he continued, "and here are the orders for the six boats to be employed, with the names of the officers and men to be engaged in this service."

The crews were instantly mustered, and every thing placed in readiness for the service. Every man was to be dressed in blue, and no white of any kind to be seen. The pass-word was Britannia; the answer, Ireland. At half-past seven the boats were hoisted out, the crews mustered, and all prepared. The boarders were to take the first spell at the oars, to be relieved as they neared the Hermione by the regular crews, proceeding in two divisions; the first consisting of the pinnace, launch and jollyboat, to board on the starboard (or inside) bow, gangway and quarter; the second division, consisting of the gig, black and red cutters, to board on the outside or larboard bow, gangway and quarter. The captain to command in the pinnace, having with him the gunner, Mr. John Maxwell, one midshipman, and sixteen men. The launch, under the orders of Lieutenant Wilson, contained one midshipman and twenty-four men: the jollyboat to contain one midshipman, the carpenter, and eight men; these boats composed the first division. The pinnace was to board on the starboard gangway, the launch on the starboard bow; to retain three men who were to cut the bower cable, for which purpose a platform was erected over her quarter, and sharp axes provided. The jollyboat to board on the starboard quarter, to cut the stern cable, and to send two men aloft to loose the mizen topsail. The gig, with sixteen men, to board on the larboard bow, under the directions of Mr. John M'Mullen the surgeon, to send four men aloft to loose the fore topsail, and to take good care to cut the bunt-lines and clew-lines, and to foot the sail well clear of the top rim. The black cutter, under the command of Lieutenant Hamilton (no relation whatever to the captain), with the acting marine officer, M. de la Tour du Pin; and with 16 men in all, to board on the larboard gangway. The red cutter under the command of the boatswain, and containing likewise 16 men, to board on the larboard quarter. Each division to be in tow. The concluding orders to the whole six being, that in the event of reaching the ship undiscovered, only the boarders were to board; the crews to remain in the boats, and take the ship in tow directly the cables were cut, hook ropes being provided for such emergency. If, however, the enemy, always watchful when an adversary was near, should be prepared, and see the advancing boats, and thus destroy any favourable approach, then the crews of each boat were to board, and each man lend his best aid in the perilous enterprise. The rendezvous to be on the Hermione's quarterdeck. Such were the orders of Captain Hamilton - clear, impossible to be mistaken, and yet not so conclusive as to have rendered a failure improbable; nay, a circumstance did arise which nearly frustrated the whole.
From the moment of quitting the Surprise, till the Hermione was boarded, Captain Hamilton never lost sight of her for a moment - he stood up in the pinnace with his night-glass, by the aid of which he steered a direct course towards the frigate. When within a mile of the Hermione the advancing boats were discovered by two gun-boats armed with a long gun each. The instant the English were discovered, the alarm was given, and the firing commenced. Captain Hamilton instantly cut off the tow, gave three cheers, and pushed for the frigate, concluding that all would do the same, and that the concentrated force might reach the Hermione at one moment, leaving the Spanish gun-boats, as too trifling an opposition when so much was at stake; but in this idea Captain Hamilton was deceived, for some of the boats immediately engaged the gun-boats, and by this disobedience of orders nearly caused the failure of the gallant enterprise.
The alarm created by the firing, soon awakened the crew of the Hermione to the meditated attack. Lights were seen at every port, and the ship's company were at quarters, ready for immediate service. On the pinnace crossing the frigate's bows in order to reach her station, a shot was fired from the forecastle, which passed over her, whilst a rope which ran from the bows of the Hermione, to the buoy over her anchor, caught the rudder of the pinnace, and stopped her. The coxswain reported the boat aground; but Captain Hamilton knew that to be impossible, as the frigate was evidently afloat; he desired the coxswain therefore to unship the rudder, but as the starboard oars of the pinnace touched the bends of the Hermione, Captain Hamilton gave the orders to lay in the oars and board, the boat being then under the starboard cat-head and fore chains, laying head and stern with the frigate. The crew obeyed the word instantly, and the captain would have been the first on board, but from some mud on the anchor, which was hanging from the cat and shank painter, and which had been weighed that day, his foot slipped, but he retained his hold on the foremost lanyard of the fore-shrouds, by which he recovered himself, his pistol going off in the struggle. Having succeeded in gaining a footing on the forecastle, the English freed the foresail ready for bending and hauling out to the yardarms, laying over the forestay, and this served for an excellent screen to these few daring men now aboard. On advancing to the break of the forecastle, the English were much astonished to find the crew of the Hermione at quarters on the main deck, and firing at some object which their fears had magnified into two frigates coming to attack them, and still unconscious that the enemy was actually on board. Not so those on the quarterdeck, who, when Captain Hamilton, the gunner, and fourteen men pushed on the starboard gangway, having cleared the forecastle, prepared to give a warm reception, they formed themselves in a compact body, and advanced to dispute the possession of the gangway, with the gunner and his party leaving the quarterdeck unoccupied; but the surgeon's party forgetting the order, to rendezvous on the quarterdeck, followed the Spaniards as they advanced on the starboard gangway, thus placing them, between two fires from which they suffered severely; still, however, the Spaniards advanced and succeeded in beating back the gunner's party, and of gaining possession of the forecastle. In the mean time Captain Hamilton was alone on the quarterdeck, waiting the arrival of those who as yet had not boarded, when he was attacked by four Spaniards, one of whom felled him to the deck by a blow from the butt of his musket. He fell on the combing of the after hatchway stunned by the blow, which even broke the weapon which inflicted the wound. The timely arrival of two or three of the Surprise's men, saved their captain who recovering from the blow, had soon sufficient occupation in resisting the attempts of the Spaniards to gain the quarterdeck by means of the after-hatchway, and at this critical moment Monsr. de la Tour do Pin boarded with the marines from the black cutter over the larboard gangway, and gave a favourable turn to the then not over-promising affair.
It appears from Mr. Hamilton's account, that when he first attempted to board, his men mounted the gangway steps, following their officer, who, as he advanced up the side was knocked down, his fall occasioned that of the men on the steps, and some were much injured by this retrograde movement. They instantly shoved off and tried the other side, and this not succeeding, they returned again to the larboard gangway, and at last accomplished their desires. The marines were instantly formed; a volley was fired down the after-hatchway, and the gallant English rushed down with bayonets fixed on the main deck. About 60 Spaniards retreated to the cabin and surrendered; they were instantly secured, and the doors closed. The fighting still continued on the main deck and under the forecastle. By this time the carpenter had cut the stern cable, and the ship was canting head to wind, when the bower cable which ought to have been cut before, had the launch instead of idling with the gun-boats been at her proper station, was cut, the foretopsail was loose, the boats had the frigate in tow, and the gunner and two men, all three severely wounded, stood at the wheel and steered the ship; and those can best comprehend the feelings of Captain Hamilton, and his few brave companions, when the foretopsail filled, the mizentopsail became useful, and the Hermione was standing out of Puerto-Cabello, who have been engaged in enterprises of this sort, and who have had their exertions crowned by success.
The batteries now opened upon the frigate, the main and spring stays were shot away, the gaff came down, several shot took effect below the water-line, and Antonio, the Portuguese coxswain of the gig, who spoke Spanish, reported that he overheard the Spaniards making preparations and resolutions to blow up the frigate. A few muskets fired down the hatchway restored quiet; and by one o'clock, nearly one hour after the pinnace had boarded, all opposition ceased, and the Hermione was a prize. At 2 a.m., the ship being out of gun-shot from the batteries and in complete possession of the captors, the towing boats were called alongside. It was now, for the first time, that the people from them set their feet on board the frigate.
In effecting this surprising capture; the British sustained so comparatively slight a loss as 12 wounded,* including Captain Hamilton, by several contusions but not dangerously, and Mr. Maxwell, the gunner, dangerously and in several places. Of their 365 in crew, the Spaniards had 119 killed and 97 wounded, most of them dangerously. The survivors were afterwards put on board a captured schooner, and landed at Puerto-Cabello. (*Mr. Marshall, by mistake (vol. i , p. 826), has included in the loss on this occasion acting Lieutenant John Busey, who had been killed nine days before in cutting out some vessels at the island of Aruba).
It is impossible to do justice to Captain Hamilton, the gunner Mr Maxwell, and the first boarders from the pinnace; they were unsupported for more than ten minutes, and this gallant handful of men succeeded in possessing themselves of the quarterdeck. The history of naval warfare, from the earliest time to this date, affords no parallel to this dashing affair: it was no surprise, no creeping upon the sleepy unawares; the crew of the frigate were at quarters, standing to their guns, aware of the attack, armed; prepared, in readiness; and that frigate was captured by the crews of three boats, the first success being gained by sixteen men. It is useless to waste words in endeavouring to do justice to Captain Hamilton, Mr. Maxwell, and Mr. M'Mullen: the first received an adequate reward in the honour of knighthood, the second received a sword from the lieutenants, and the third shared prize-money with that class; but the best record of this well-planned, well-executed, daring, gallant enterprise, is to be found in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital - there it remains to gratify the eyes of all who are willing to do justice to English seamen and their gallant commander.
Captain Hamilton, with his prize in company, made sail for Jamaica, and on the 1st of November anchored in Port-Royal. Having while in the Spanish service undergone a thorough repair, the Hermione was immediately restored to her former rank in the British navy; at first under the new name, as given to her by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, of Retaliation, but subsequently, on her return to England, under the more appropriate name of Retribution.

The recovery of a frigate, so infamously acquired by the Spaniards as the Hermione, could not fail to be gratifying to the re-captors: how much more so must it have been, when the achievement was effected under circumstances so transcendently glorious to the British name and character. Undoubtedly, the cutting out of the Hermione, by Captain Hamilton and his brave shipmates, stands at the head of that desperate class of services; and on no occasion was the honour of knighthood more deservedly bestowed, than upon him who had planned, conducted, and bled in the attack.

Captain Hamilton's wounds, indeed, although not vitally dangerous, were of a very serious nature, and merit a more particular account than we have given of them. He first received a tremendous blow from the butt-end of a musket, which broke over his head and knocked him senseless on the deck; he next received a severe sabre-wound on the left thigh, another wound by a pike on the right thigh, and a contusion on the right shinbone by a grape-shot. One of his fingers was much cut, and his loins and kidneys were so much bruised, that he continued at times to require the best medical advice and assistance.
Owing probably to the severity of his wounds, Captain Hamilton, in his official letter, has not given a very explicit account of an achievement that has done him so much honour. He does not name an officer as present in the attack, except the surgeon and gunner; and yet he disclaims any intention of making an exception by saying, "Every officer and man on this expedition behaved with an uncommon degree of valour and exertion."
"In the month of April, 1800," says Mr. Marshall, "Sir Edward Hamilton, returning home in the Jamaica packet for the cure of his wounds, was captured by a privateer and carried into a French port; from whence he was sent to Paris, where he was taken particular notice of by Buonaparte, who at length agreed to his being exchanged for six midshipmen." * Previously to his departure from Jamaica, the house of assembly of that island, with its accustomed liberality, voted Captain Hamilton a sword of 300 guineas value; and, on his arrival in England after his exchange, the common council of London voted him the freedom of their city.

* Marshall, vol. i., p. 827.
ibid., James, The Naval History of Great Britain, vol. ii.



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