Monday, October 7, 2013

Mutiny on the Lady Shore

In May 1797 the barque Lady Shore left Gravesend bound for Botany Bay. She carried 58 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps, 69 (the number is not clear) female convicts and at least one male convict and a crew of 26.

Convicts on the chain gang overseen by soldiers of the NSW Corpos
Major J.G. Semple-Lisle
Among the prisoners was a renowned “gentleman” swindler who went by the name of Major James George Semple-Lisle. Semple-Lisle appears to have been treated more like an honoured guest than a convicted felon with parties being held in his prison cell prior to embarkation.

The ship was commanded by Captain Willcocks and he had at his side, a young man of only 19, his purser, John Black who wrote a long and detailed letter which his father later published about the events that transpired aboard the Lady Shore. The soldiers of the New South Wales Corps were commanded by Ensign William Minchin, a man ill equipped to command his ill assorted rag tag soldiery comprising French and Irish prisoners of war, deserters, and prisoners from the Savoy. 

Even as the ship lay in Torbay (Devon), John Black wrote that the soldiers are the most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains that ever entered into a ship”.

The ship left English waters under escort from the West-India fleet from which it parted after 10 days. Escort duties were resumed by the Intrepid of the East-India fleet but by the time the Lady Shore was off the coast of South America, it was sailing alone. Following the flurry of mutinous behaviour in Torbay, the soldiers had gone quiet, lulling the captain and the officers into a false sense of security.

On 1st August 1797, Black was woken by the report of firearms and cries of murder. The French prisoners of war (recruited as soldiers into the NSW Corps), taken from the capture of the corvette Bonne Citoyenne (in 1796) had recruited a number of others to their cause. Led by Selis and Thierry, the plot to seize the Lady Shore was carefully planned. Each mutineer had his allotted task:  one controlled the hatch to the women's quarters; two, the hatch of the quarters where the soldiers slept, threatening to kill anyone trying to get out; two covered the deck and were to shoot any sailor or soldier present there and who would not surrender; two controlled the hatch of the officers' quarters; two were to arrest the captain; two were to seize the three officers on deck and prevent them from giving alarm; and the last one would open an ammunition box, distribute it to his fellow mutineers, and patrol to prevent anyone from flanking them.

The murder of Captain Willcocks
In the fracas that followed, Captain Willcocks was fatally wounded and the first mate, Lambert was killed. In his last act, Willcocks ordered the ineffectual Minchin to to give up the ship, which he did. Concealed in his cabin, Black watched in horror as three of the mutineers entered his cabin and bayonetted his bed. Black surrendered himself and joined the other survivors in the Captain’s cabin. The casualties were two dead ship’s officers and one dead mutineer. The most senior ship’s officer left alive was young John Black. He performed the service of commitment for his captain.

An uneasy truce fell over the ship for the next few days. Life for the survivors, crammed into the captain’s cabin worsened when a heavy sea stove in the windows, flooding the cabin. On Sunday 14 August the mutineers advised the survivors that they would be given a boat. The formalities of war were observed, with the officers signing a Certificate that they would not fight agains the French for a year and a day, and a certificate absolving some of the seamen who were required to sail the ship. A long boat was provided and 29 people comprising Black, Semple-Lisle (who wrote his own, pompous account of the mutiny), Minchin, an ensign, two sergeants, two corporals and two privates, their wives and children, as well as three female convicts were set adrift somewhere off the coast of Brazil.

Norman Lindsay's depiction of the survivors
Thanks to the seamanship of Black (or Semple-Lisle depending on whose version you read!), the long boat reached the shore safely with all parties alive and well (although some luggage was lost in the heavy seas). The survivors were taken in by the local governor and word was sent to Rio de Janeiro of the Mutiny. Attempts by the ships officers to take sail to Rio were thwarted by the weather and Black and Semple-Lisle set out on foot to Rio to give their account of the mutiny.

The Lady Shore reached Spanish controlled Montivideo on 31 August where it hoisted French colours and claimed a valid capture of war. The female convicts aboard were distributed around the city as servants. Their fates are not widely known, although it seems that some made the most of their situation, marrying and becoming respectable citizens. Others fell into prostitution. None ever made it home to England.

Of the mutineers, one (Prevost) was captured and hanged for the crime of murdering Captain Willcocks. The Lady Shore may have been recovered in 1801 but there is little evidence to support this.

Major Semple-Lisle escaped to Tangiers but eventually returned to England where he was incarcerated and disappears from history.

John Black finally made it to Botany Bay (with a bit of privateering along the way). He took up with a female convict, Mary Hyde, with whom he had 2 children. With his ship, Harbinger, he commanded the 2nd ship to traverse Bass Strait, naming King Island along the way (after the Governor of the day). He was lost at sea in 1801 on a return voyage from Calcutta with a cargo of gin. The Sydney Gazette reports his loss as a young man much esteemed by all who knew him”.

The account of the mutiny written by John Black and published by his father.
You can read his first hand account of the mutiny “An Authentic Narrative of the Mutiny on the Lady Shore” online here. The Life of Major J.G. Semple-Lisle can be found here
And my interest in this story? John Black was my great-great grandfather!


Joanna Lloyd said...

What a story and what a lineage you have, Alison! I love all these amazing stories of sea adventures or misadventures. Thank goodness Black was not bayoneted in his bed or you would not be here to tell the tale :-).

Alison Stuart said...

Interestingly while I was researching this article today I came across another 1st hand account from the ship's carpenter that I had never seen before. He claims Black jumped overboard claiming he would rather die than be taken by the French but emerged later with a blue handkerchief around his head, looking like he had been crying a lot! I prefer the heroic image of my ancestor!!! (which was corroborated by Semple-Lisle!)

Marianne Theresa said...

Wow Alison, what a tale to tell.
And to think I have nothing of importance in my historical wardrobe - that we can trace anyway.
Am anxiously awaiting the book :)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Such a fascinating tale...and ancestor, Alison!

I look forward to reading the book. :)

Alison Stuart said...

This only just part of a much bigger story...and it's all a bit overwhelming!I will be old and grey before it ever gets written...

Suzi Love said...

Loved the story, Alison.
It never ceases to amaze me that truth is always stranger than fiction and this story is going to make a great book.
Can't wait for you to write it.

Alison Stuart said...

What makes it so interesting is having the first hand accounts to hand. It was a surprise to me to discover yet another account, from the Ship's carpenter, today with a different version again (He was one of the sailors forced to sail on to Montevideo). Somewhere in the middle is the truth.

Allison Butler said...

Thanks for the fabulous post, Alison. What a fascinating ancestor to have. How wonderful to have first hand accounts to read after so long:) Love it!

Alison Stuart said...

As a side note, part of the cargo of the Lady Shore was mail bound for Botany Bay. As a consequence of the mutiny, the residents of BB got no mail from England for over a year! Ah...the days before the interwebs :-)

Editors At Work said...

I loved reading this story-sounded so fascinating! Thanks for sharing Alison.