The bloody Plattsburg mutiny, 1816 – Part 1

Radio has been an integral feature of maritime operations, whether military or civil, for well over a century and it is difficult to imagine just how isolated all ships were prior to that once they were out sight of land. Large numbers of vessels disappeared annually, the vast majority as a result of storm damage, but there must have been occasions when “lost without trace” meant hijacking by a mutinous crew who thereafter found some way of abandoning or destroying the ship and disappearing with their booty. An instance in 1816, centred on the American schooner Plattsburg, shows just how close one gang of mutineers came to realising their dreams in a world where intercontinental telegraph communication was still a half-century in the future.

The topsail schooner Amy Stockdale off Dover  – by William John Huggins (1781 – 1845)
The Plattsburg would probably have been generally similar

In the aftermath of the futile but destructive “War of 1812” between Britain and the United States, there was every reasonable expectation or maritime trade picking up. Among those anticipating a bonanza – the more so since so much merchant shipping had been destroyed in the war, and vessels were at a premium – was the Baltimore merchant and ship-owner Isaac McKim. In 1816,  a year after the war’s end, he commissioned a new trading schooner called the Plattsburg, her name commemorating the recent American victory on Lake Champlain. The vessel was built for speed and for transport of small-volume high-value cargoes, somewhat the same role as is filled by air-transport today. The maiden voyage was to carry just such freight – eleven thousand pounds of coffee and forty-two thousand dollars in coins, the latter apparently intended for purchase of opium at the Plattsburg’s destination, the Turkish port of Smyrna – now Izmir – in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Sailing vessels, often small, dominated 19th sea trade – Painting by David James (1872-1904)

Shipping coins – the term for which was specie – was always a hazardous enterprise unless a ship was under naval escort. McKim and the Plattsburg’s master, Captain William Hackett, were well aware of the risk from a mutinous crew and endeavoured to keep details of this part of the cargo secret – though without success. Eight men who shipped as crew appear to have been driven to do so by knowledge of the specie and by recognition of the opportunities that could arise for taking it once the ship was out of sight from land. With the entire North Atlantic and Mediterranean ahead of them, the opportunities for getting booty ashore would have seemed legion. The Plattsburg had a crew of over thirty – the number is indicative of the labour-intensiveness of manning even a small sailing merchantmen –  but eight determined men, with surprise on their side, were likely to have a good chance of pulling off the hijack.

The leader appears to have been an experienced seaman called Stromer who had some knowledge of navigation and a pronounced ability to sway others. Six others – Smith, Rog, Peterson, Williams, Stacey and Raineaux – appear to have been less clever thugs. The eighth man was a Francis Frederick whom Captain Hackett had refused to ship as crew before relenting on hearing Frederick describing seeing Smyrna as being an ambition of his life.

Stromer’s first move was to sow resentment against the ship’s officers among the members of the crew not yet in the plot. His instrument was to be the brutal thug, Smith. The opportunity came shortly after the Plattsburg left Baltimore on July 1st 1816. The wind was light, so that she merely glided down the Patapsco River and into Chesapeake Bay, where she anchored.  Here the first mate, named Yeiser, began working up the crew, setting them to tasks until the wind should strengthen enough to carry the Plattsburg get to sea. Smith, Stromer’s tool, was reluctant and surly. Yeiser called him to order but Smith’s manner was unchanged.  Authority had been challenged and Yeiser punched Smith on the jaw, precipitating a fistfight that he was quickly getting the worst of. He was saved only by Captain Hackett intervening with a hand spike. Smith was vanquished – and had he been on a man of war would have paid for this action with his life – but the authority of the officers had been challenged and had only been reasserted with difficulty. The atmosphere was now ideal for fostering mistrust and resentment.

The ship’s steward, a black man called Lamberson (who was probably free, as he was working at sea) was drawn into the conspiracy and with his help the officers were to be poisoned when the Plattsburg had reached the Azores.  Lamberson served contaminated coffee but, though it made those who drank it violently sick, nobody died. Stromer’s conspirators suspected Lamberson of losing his nerve and beat him savagely. Poison having failed, there must be recourse to outright violence.

On July 21st, as the Plattsburg was passing Santa Maria, the most southerly of the Azores, the weather began to deteriorate, with a strong wind, rain and low visibility. Darkness fell and Yeiser had the eight to midnight watch while the lookout forward was Williams, one of the conspirators. As the second mate, Stephen Onion, came on deck at midnight to relieve Yeiser, Williams called out “Sail ho!” The danger of a collision was obvious.

 The mutineers’ dream: “Drifting into a Continental harbour” – Charles Lacy (1856 – 1929)

Onion, alarmed, ran to the bows to peer into the darkness and Yeiser, who had not yet gone below, followed him. As they searched for the non-existent sail three of the conspirators crept up behind them. Yeiser was knocked senseless and flung overboard. Onion managed to break free and fled aft, where he locked himself in the bread locker. The noise had drawn Captain Hackett on deck and as he stepped into the darkness he too was beaten down and thrown into the sea.

The remainder of the crew do not seem to have participated actively but they offered no resistance to the mutineer’s take-over. The only opposition remaining was likely to come from the supercargo – the owner’s representative, responsible for sale of the cargo – and the second mate, Onion. The supercargo was known to have close relations with the shipowner, McKim, and was therefore likely to be a hostile witness should he survive. The mutineers invited him on deck under a guarantee of safety. He hesitated, but when he did emerge he too was thrown overboard. Now only Onion remained.

And there we’ll leave Onion for now, his future, and that of the Plattsburg uncertain in the extreme.

Part 2 of this article- due soon – will tell how events developed afterwards. Watch out for it!

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