Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Natal Mutiny, 1889 - how much to believe?


Mutiny at sea is an inherently dramatic subject and few were as dramatic – because of the small size of the crew involved, and the small craft on which it played out – than that on the brigantine Natal in 1889. I learned of it in a book entitled “Revolt at Sea” by Irvin Anthony, published in the United States by Putnam in 1937. The book contains accounts of some twenty-four other mutinies, the last three being those on the Russian pre-dreadnought Potemkin in 1905, in the German Fleet in 1918 and on the Dutch Zeven Provinciën in 1933. The Natal incident is therefore presented as factual but there are areas left unexplained which I will return to at the end of this article.
It appears that in 1889 – days and months unspecified – the “trim but small” brigantine was en route for Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. The registration of the Natal was not specified, but as her captain was called Peter F. Enstrom it is possible that she was Scandinavian. The cargo was described as “of no particular worth” and the size of her crew, though apparently small, was not mentioned. There were apparently “no grim feuds among her people”, a fact that makes the subsequent savagery hard to understood. It should however be borne in mind that working conditions on merchant shipping in this period could be atrocious. (There is a link at the end of this article to an earlier blog on this subject). Even on the best-run ships, accommodation and messing could be unacceptable by modern standards, and the rough discipline often imposed tended to foster deeply felt animosities between owners, officers and crews.
"Winged Arrow and Southern Cross in Boston Harbour" by Fitz Hugh Lee (1804-1865)
This was the romantic view in the Age of Merchant Sail -the reality was often brutally differen
For whatever reason, four of the Natal’s crew decided on murdering the officers and taking over the ship. A seaman called Johannsen armed himself with a capstan bar, while another, Toton, possessed a revolver. The carpenter had his axe while the steward relied on a long sheath knife. Their objective remains unclear – by 1889 telegraphic communications and naval steamships had made it impossible for old-style piracy to succeed and remain undetected for any length of time.
The attempt to capture the ship began on a midnight, when the vessel was in charge of the second mate – who was the captain’s seventeen-year old son – and while the captain himself, and the first mate, were asleep in separate berths in the same cabin.  The second mate had just taken over the watch and was still feeling sleepy. He therefore lowered a bucket over the side, drew up water, and sluiced it over his head to wake himself. He was in the act of doing so when the carpenter crept up behind him and split his skull with an axe. Death was instantaneous and no alarm was raised. (One has the impression that there was nobody else was on deck, or was indeed needed, as there was later mention of “light airs”). The body was unceremoniously dropped overboard.
The reality of life at sea - "Eight Bells" by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
The four mutineers now headed for Captain Enstrom’s cabin. They entered stealthily without wakening either him or the mate. The carpenter was chosen – or had volunteered – to kill the captain, like his son, with the axe, while Toton was to shoot the mate with his revolver. The carpenter moved first, sweeping down his axe on the captain’s head, but shearing past with a glancing blow that drew blood but was not serious. Enstrom was instantly awake and on his feet, punching his assailant. Johannsen tried to intervene, but in the close confines of the cabin he could achieve only enough with his capstan bar to knock of the aim of Totton, whose four successive shots all missed the mate.
Familiarity with the cabin layout, particularly in the darkness, now played in the captain’s and mate’s favour. Fighting for their live,s they punched and kicked and their assailants’ nerve broke. They fled up the companionway and back on deck, leaving Totnes’ revolver in the hands of the mate, who had wrestled it from him. The two officers now locked themselves in the cabin and began to rummage for the small arms the ship carried but never had occasion to use. They located a rifle, three revolvers and ammunition. The captain appears to have been aware by now that his son was dead and was obviously bent on revenge. The remainder of the crew, intimidated perhaps by the mutineers, seem to have remained neutral in what had happened and to have gathered on deck.
Remaining in the cabin was no long-term alternative, especially with the firearms on board being in the hands of the captain and mate. They rushed on deck with loaded weapons and those there – neutral as well as mutineers, one gathers – rushed in panic before them down the forehatch. Captain Enstrom and the mate locked it, trapping the crew below.
The “light airs” referred to allowed the vessel to drift safely without manning and the two officers on deck kept turns on watch, with weapons trained on the scuttle opening from the forehatch. A full day passed and no food or water reached the prisoners. Two more passed, during which the conditions beneath the hatchway must have become intolerable.
On the fourth day a flag of truce was waved from the scuttle but was met with gunfire. With his son dead, Enstrom was not in a forgiving mood. Only on a second attempt at parley did the mutineers suggest surrender, only to be told that it would be unconditional. The prisoners accepted and trooped on deck. Enstrom separated the four mutineers from the others and calmly shot the carpenter and Toton. The steward and Johanssen, trembling, were sent below as prisoners and the Natal resumed her course for Brisbane.
The Age of Merchant Sail captured by British master John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)
"Nightfall on the Thames" - 1880
The story, as told above, is a summary of that in Irvin Anthony’s “Revolt at Sea”. My immediate reaction was “Did it really happen?” for there is so much detail missing – origin of the ship, location of the mutiny, size of the crew. Were there earlier events that triggered such brutal resentment? How did the authorities in Brisbane deal with these events, and was Captain Enstrom held accountable in any way for his summary execution of two of the mutineers? What became of Johansen and the steward afterwards? The whole story seems like incidents in some of Joseph Conrad’s novels that hinge on blindly malignant brutality – one thinks of his “Victory” and “Because of the Dollars”. I had never heard of this Natal incident previously and an internet search has turned up nothing. I did however discover that the book’s author, Irvin Anthony, born in Philadelphia in 1890, had produced a large number of other books with nautical themes. The inclusion of the Natal story with those of other well-known and factually-attested mutinies inclines one to think there must be some truth in it.
But how much truth?
Is there any reader of mine out there who can shed some light on this?

Update 0930 on 22.06.16:

In answer to the question above, more light was shed on the Natal affair in two splendid comments - with external links - by "Astrodene" and by Mike Rattenbury. Here they are shown here in their entireties:


It seems the Captain gave an interview to his local newspaper when he got back home, which was America. A much more graphic account of the cabin battle and their injuries. The mate was actually shot in his own cabin and subsequently joined the affray in the Captain's. Johanssen was captured when the others fled below and helped man the ship while the crew were confined. It seems the captain was not prosecuted, although they thought about it and the courts let the mutineers go. You can read the article at http://nyx.uky.edu/dips/xt72jm23cs9q/data/0185.pdf


It looks like it happened on November 27, 1883, but the news dosn't get out until the beginning of 1884. There are quite a few newspaper reports online, and entering 'Natal Mutiny 1884' brings them up. By March, the mutineers seem still to be in custody in Australia, awaiting extradition to Sweden for trial. http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP18840301.2.33 gives another detailed account. None of the reports seem to disagree with the captain's shooting of the mutineers.

(Click here to read an earlier blog about abuses in the merchant shipping industry which were uncovered by the great British maritime reformer, Samuel Plimsoll).

Britannia’s Spartan

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click on the links below for further details – you can read the opening via the “Look Inside” feature at the top left of the screen opened.


4 comments:

  1. It seems the Captain gave an interview to his local newspaper when he got back home, which was America. A much more graphic account of the cabin battle and their injuries. The mate was actually shot in his own cabin and subsequently joined the affray in the Captain's. Johanssen was captured when the others fled below and helped man the ship while the crew were confined. It seems the captain was not prosecuted, although they thought about it and the courts let the mutineers go. You can read the article at http://nyx.uky.edu/dips/xt72jm23cs9q/data/0185.pdf

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    1. Many thanks for this - it sheds much more light on a murky incident - and the newspaper link is fascinating!

      Best Wishes: Antoine

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  2. It looks like it happened on November 27, 1883, but the news dosn't get out until the beginning of 1884. There are quite a few newspaper reports online, and entering 'Natal Mutiny 1884' brings them up. By March, the mutineers seem still to be in custody in Australia, awaiting extradition to Sweden for trial. http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP18840301.2.33 gives another detailed account. None of the reports seem to disagree with the captain's shooting of the mutineers.

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    Replies
    1. Many Thanks Mike - this is excellent. I'm copying it, like astrodene's contribution, into a note at the end of the article. Very many thanks - Antoine

      Delete