Mutiny on the Spanish Main, HMS Hermione and the Royal Navy’s Revenge
Osprey Publishing (2020), hardback
In 1963 the late Dudley Pope, author of the fictional Lord Ramage novels set during the wars against France, wrote The Black Ship about the true events of 1797 in which a mutiny occurred on a Royal Navy frigate, the Hermione. The ship’s sadistic captain Hugh Pigot was butchered along with nine of his officers. The mutineers sailed the ship to a harbour on the Spanish Main where they handed the ship over to the Spanish authorities. Two years later the Royal Navy recaptured the ship in one of the most daring ‘cutting out’ operations of the Napoleonic Wars. In this book Angus Konstam using the results of new research updates our knowledge of the events and their aftermath.
Pigot was a successful naval officer as far as capturing prizes was concerned but he was a sadistic bully and, in the way he abused his authority, can only be defined as mad. Konstam shows how the patronage system, which worked well for capable young officers who did not have ‘influence’ in their own families, could backfire and did so spectacularly in Pigot’s case. Pigot, the son of an admiral, and a frigate captain at the age of 25, was a protégé of Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Having already made a name for himself for his brutal treatment of his men, he had ordered the flogging of the captain of an American merchantman. Following the inevitable diplomatic furore which followed Hyde Parker had him moved to the Hermione an already unhappy ship. Pigot then brought false accusations against his first lieutenant, which at a court martial were disproved, but no one acted against him, presumably because Hyde Parker was commander of the Jamaica station. Pigot then went even further flogging a midshipman who would not grovel to him, causing the death of some of his topmen by stating he would flog the last man down the masts, and then ordering the flogging of the remainder. Konstam then brings the events of the night of 21 September 1797 vividly to life and the terror as the mutineers, fuelled by rum, having killed Pigot then went on a killing spree amongst the rest of the officers.
The author gives equal space to the aftermath. In particular, there is an excellent account of the cutting out expedition led by Captain Edward Hamilton of the Surprise (the ship’s name possibly being an inspiration for Patrick O’Brien) and the rigorous manhunt pursued by the navy to bring the mutineers to justice. The author shows that of the 33 mutineers who the navy succeeded in bringing to trial, 24 were hung and one transported. Given the shock caused to the Royal Navy by the incident, the author makes the very telling point that the navy showed remarkable fairness during the various trials. There were of course some mutineers who escaped, particularly those who falsely claimed American citizenship (the Americans refusing to hand them over for punishment) and the author shows how the struggle to extradite led to further embittered relations between Britain and the United States.
The book is well produced, the illustrations well-chosen, and the maps assist the reader greatly in following the narrative. There is a particularly useful ‘scene setter’ at the beginning which will help give understanding of how a fighting ship of the period operated. The real strength of the book is the author’s style and pace. The reader can visualise the events of the 21 September and imagine what it must have felt like to be one of the four remaining officers, not knowing if you would be butchered next; or indeed one of the crew that was not a mutineer and had to decide whether or not to join the mutiny, knowing full well the implications of such an action. Highly recommended.