Captain Pigot flogs an American Merchant Captain

by | Jan 28, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


Of all the hundreds of officers who rose to the rank of post captain in the Georgian Navy, without doubt the most tyrannical, sadistic, tormented, ill-tempered, and unsuited to the rank, was Captain Hugh Pigot of the frigate Success 32.

Buoyed by the naval and political connections of his late father, the affable and unprepossessing Whig, Admiral Hugh Pigot, the younger Hugh Pigot had been promoted commander in 1794 at the age of 24 and had taken the sloop Swan out to Jamaica that year. On a station where sickness and the desire to avoid it advanced the prospects of promotion more rapidly than in Europe, he had been posted captain of the Success within just a few months of his arrival. Enjoying the favouritism and patronage of the avaricious yet lenient commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, Pigot soon established a reputation as a prize-taker, but more significantly, as a disciplinarian who flogged his men relentlessly and appeared to be brutal for the sake of it, rather than for the maintenance of good order. This latter trait was soon to embroil him in an affair that threatened the fractious relations between Britain and her former colony, the embryonic United States of America.

The incident that was to cause so much outrage began on 30 June, when at 7 a.m. the New York vessel Mercury, commanded by Captain William Jessop, weighed anchor at Saint-Marc on the western coast of Saint-Domingue in a convoy including several transports under the care of the Success, and which was making the short hop south to Port-au-Prince. At the time, oar-driven French privateers coming out of Leogane were a recognised menace in the frequent calms of those waters, and the highly-strung Pigot was on edge.

HMS Success

During their short passage towards Port-au-Prince, Pigot became infuriated with the Mercury’s failure to keep station and her perceived erratic sailing. Frequently, the officer of the watch aboard the Success had to warn the Mercury that she was too close, and matters came to a head when she ranged up on the Success and her jib boom almost pierced the frigate’s jolly boat sitting on the stern davits. Some hours later, the Success ordered her charges to lay to, which the Mercury did, within two cable lengths of the frigate’s quarter. What happened next depended on which version of events one chose to believe.

According to American sources based on Jessop’s later testimony, at 1.30 on 1 July, the Success wore ship and began edging down upon the American vessel before running her foul. According to Pigot and the subsequent testimony of his officers, he was awakened at 1 a.m. by the frigate’s sailing master hailing the Mercury to put about, and then more urgently, as the American vessel bore down on the Success, to throw her sails aback. Either way, the Mercury collided with the Success amidships and her errant jib boom became entangled in the frigate’s main shrouds before breaking off.

Jessop’s testimony was to state that at this point, Pigot ordered his men to go aboard the Mercury and cut away everything they could lay their hands on, including amongst other items, the jib-boom, spritsail yard, several stays, and two strands of the best bower cable. He claimed that Pigot also instructed the men to seize the fore staysail and jib which would be used to make them trousers. Jessop apparently remonstrated with the Success’ officers, whereupon Pigot demanded that his men ‘lay hold of that damned Yankee rascal and bring him on board!’. Three boatswains’ mates were then instructed to flog the American, and ‘flog him well and let him flog his officers’. Jessop apparently did not resist but cried out for compassion, yet such was the ‘starting’ that he fainted under the blows. Once he had recovered, Jessop asked whether he could have one of his sails back, to which Pigot replied ‘You damned rascal! If you say one word more, I will have you to the gangway and flog you to death!’

The later evidence of Pigot’s officers told a different story, which was that upon going aboard the Mercury, they had received no help from the American crew, and that they had cut away only that which was necessary to free the two ships. Nothing else of consequence had been removed, as could be evidenced on the next day when the Mercury was to be seen sailing as well as any other vessel in the convoy. Whilst the frigate’s men were aboard the Mercury, Jessop had moaned about them possibly indulging in theft, at which point Pigot had ordered him brought aboard the frigate and kept aft on the quarterdeck. Jessop had continued to complain, whereupon Pigot had ordered two boatswain’s mates to thrash him, and they had given him about twenty strokes.

On arrival at Port-au-Prince Jessop reported the affair to the American consul, and he was examined by several physicians who expressed surprise and outrage at the extent of his injuries. At this time, it was claimed that he was still vomiting blood. A petition dated 4 July was signed by thirty-seven witnesses to Jessop’s wounds, including passengers from the convoy and the physicians. Endorsed by the consul, it was sent to Admiral Parker, who receiving a contrary report from Pigot, blithely decided to take no action.

Soon reports of the incident filtered through to the influential American Press which published comments to the effect that although the British Navy was a respected institution, Pigot himself was a scoundrel and should be brought to account. Back in London, the Admiralty became aware of the incident when it received the American newspapers in late September, and the secretary to the board, Evan Nepean, was instructed to write to Parker seeking an explanation. Meanwhile, Robert Liston, the British Envoy Extraordinaire and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States, who had taken up his appointment on 1 May that year and had quickly assumed cordial relations with his hosts in Philadelphia, had read of the incident in the American papers and had despatched a furious complaint to the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Lord Grenville, demanding that the government give it urgent attention. Received in early October, this missive exacerbated matters when Grenville showed it to the King, who in turn counselled the Admiralty to arrange a court of inquiry on Pigot. Nepean thus changed his instructions to Paker and directed him to assemble the court of inquiry, which should return a report that would allow the Admiralty to decide whether Pigot should be court-martialled.

The American Press may have been quick to escalate the incident, but the American government was less bellicose. On 10 September President George Washington wrote to his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, seeking to include the affair with another complaint against the British Navy, stating that ‘This conduct of G. Britain, must not be suffered with impunity’. Pickering in turn wrote to Rufus King, the American minister in London, but lacking any official report on Jessop’s indignities, he simply referred him to the American newspapers, claiming that they were ‘without doubt substantially correct’. Not until 9 December, some weeks after the British Admiralty had ordered the court of inquiry, did King reply to Pickering that he had lodged a protest.

Sir Hyde Parker

On 20 January 1797 at Cape Nicolas Mole on Saint-Domingue, the court opened in Pigot’s cabin. The head of the inquiry, the self-serving Commodore John Duckworth of the Leviathan 74, could not have been a better choice for Pigot, as he too was renowned as a brutal disciplinarian. He was joined by Captain James Bowen of the Thunderer 74, a kindly if eccentric man, and Parker’s flag-captain aboard the Queen 98, Man Dobson. Crucially, Parker gave carte-blanche to Pigot to select his own witnesses.

The inquiry opened with Jessop’s petition being read, to be followed by a reading of Pigot’s own version of events. The captain was then called before the court, and after detailing the circumstances of the incident, he justified his actions by affirming that he had previously bore witness to the incivility of the Americans to the Navy and of their partiality to the enemy, and that the Mercury driving aboard the Success had been a deliberate act of sabotage aimed at neutralising the frigate, thereby allowing the French privateers to swarm out and snap up the British merchantmen. He did accept that he should not have ordered Jessop’s thrashing, and that ‘passion overcame my reason’, but he qualified his admission by stating that the American Press had over-egged the incident, particularly the severity of the flogging, and that Jessop would have accepted the punishment had not the Americans in Port-au-Prince sought to encourage him to extol money from Pigot as a compromise.

Four officers from the Success were then called as witnesses, and although none concurred with Pigot’s accusation that the accident had been by design, they unanimously agreed that the Mercury had caused the collision by inattention and negligence. In addition, the first lieutenant, William Hill, claimed not to have heard any comment about the fore staysail and jib being removed to make trousers, the surgeon, John Crawford, a man who knew from Pigot’s severity just what floggings could do to a man, affirmed that he did not think that the punishment could have injured Jessop materially, let alone deprive him of his senses, and two other officers claimed that on going back to his ship, Jessop had sworn that he would serve his mate the same way that he had been served. Finally, one of the boatswain’s mates testified that the beating had not been such as to render Jessop of his senses, and that the rope used had been a piece of the ratlines cut during the disentanglement of the two vessels.

The court of inquiry’s subsequent report to Admiral Parker concluded that the collision had been caused by the Mercury running abord the Success either from ‘negligence and inattention, or from wantonness and design’, and that the two vessels had only been separated through the prompt action of the men from the Success under Pigot’s direction. Only the sails and rigging necessary to free the vessels had been removed from the Mercury, nothing had been plundered, and Captain Jessop had not gone abord the frigate under duress, but rather under his own free will. Having praised Pigot’s conduct to date, the report then lamented the ‘agitation and torment’ that had caused him to prescribe Jessop’s impromptu beating, but it accepted that he had acted out of a genuine conviction that the Americans had purposefully instigated the collision, and in doing so had put the rest of the convoy at risk by attempting to disable the Success.

Addressing the diplomatic aspect of the affair, the report claimed that Pigot had not for one moment considered any disrespect to the United States, and it effectively deplored Mr Liston’s letter to Lord Grenville and his conclusion that the incident was just another act of injustice and insult perpetrated by the Navy against the Americans in the West Indies.

Writing to the Admiralty with the report and minutes of the inquiry, Admiral Parker appears to have made such a strong case for Pigot that the captain did indeed escape a court martial. A month later, in February 1797, the Success was ordered home, whereupon the admiral removed his favourite to another of his raiding frigates, the Hermione 32, so that he could keep him on the Jamaican station. Such blind loyalty proved to be misplaced with the worst possible consequences, for just seven months later, and having been almost de-humanised by their new captain’s horrific regime, the Hermione’s men mutinied and slew nearly all their officers, including Pigot, who was cut to ribbons and thrown alive into the sea.