Mutiny on the Santa Monica – 16 July 1781
At the end of 1780 the frigate Santa Monica 36, Captain John Linzee, left home waters with Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s reinforcements to join Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet in the Leeward Islands. Not long afterwards, in May 1781, she performed excellent service when helping a small squadron repel the French fleet’s attack on St. Lucia. Nonetheless, there was little joy to be had amongst the crew for their part in that noble defence, for the Santa Monica was not a happy ship.
The Santa Monica had been built at Cartagena during 1777, but after a mere two years in the Spanish service she had been captured off the Azores on 14 September 1779 by the Pearl 32, Captain George Montagu. After repairs and a coppering at Portsmouth she had been commissioned by Linzee in August 1780, prior to joining Hood’s reinforcements. Her crew was inexperienced, undermanned, and included a number of pressed Scots, Shetlanders, and Orkney-men, but the 43-year-old Linzee, although only a post captain of four and a half year s seniority, had a great deal of experience, much of it under the no-nonsense Hood who had married Linzee’s much older cousin in 1749. He was however a fussy man who was prone to inflicting arbitrary and undignified punishments, and these conflicted with the normal naval discipline which the seamen were accustomed to and respected.
Given the marital connection and their familiarity, it was perhaps of little surprise that upon receiving an anonymous letter alleging Captain Linzee’s brutal conduct towards the crew of the Santa Monica, Hood haughtily discounted its content. The letter, which claimed that the crew had been excessively flogged, beaten, and even confined below decks, was deemed to be ‘frivolous’, and the sentiments contained within were held to be those of a new crew unused to the ways of the Navy. The negative reception to their appeal only spurred the downtrodden crew of the Santa Monica into a more radical protest.
On 16 July the Santa Monica was at anchor in English Harbour, Antigua, in company with the frigate Pegasus 28, Captain John Stanhope, the sloop St. Eustatius, Captain Andrew Sutherland, and the bomb Etna, Commander Edward Iggulden, when about a hundred of her crew refused their duty. The officers went below to try and persuade the men to return to order, but a significant number remained immune to their protestations, and whilst claiming their loyalty to King and Country they demanded to be allowed either another captain, or to move to a different ship.
Accompanied by Captain Stanhope, Linzee now entered into negotiations with the men, but still they refused to return to duty. By 4 p.m.it was clear that his argument was leading nowhere, so after conferring with Stanhope, Sutherland, and Iggleston, Linzee called his marines to arms and formed them up on deck. Although he was anxious to avoid the shedding of blood, order had to be restored, and accompanied by four marines including the sergeant, Linzee went back down below deck to confront the apparent mutineers.
The sight of the red coats was the final straw for the disaffected seamen, and rather than submit they began hurling all the objects they could lay their hands on at the captain and the marines. With his personal safety under threat, and with the situation rapidly spiralling out of control, Linzee gave the order for the marines to open fire, resulting in the death of one man by the name of Donovan, and the immediate surrender of the remainder.
On 20 July a court martial was convened aboard Rear-Admiral Hood’s flagship Barfleur 98 at St. John’s, to try both Captain Linzee and the mutineers over the events. Linzee appeared anxious to portray himself as a conventional disciplinarian, and he demanded of each witness whether he had been over-zealous in the use of his authority. In return the men repeated their accusations, and in particular referred to an incident when in the process of weighing anchor from Gros Islet Bay, St. Lucia, Linzee had raged that the men at the capstan were not heaving energetically, and had ordered the petty officers to beat them with sticks.
Whilst it appeared that the men of the Santa Monica had a case there could be no truck with outright mutiny, and although a number were acquitted, sixty-four were found guilty and sentenced to death. Unsurprisingly, Captain Linzee was acquitted of any blame for the insurrection.
Now the commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir George Rodney, took control of events, and typically he decided that a touch of theatre would not only allow him to make an example of the condemned men to the rest of the fleet for the purpose of reinforcing the tenets of naval discipline, but also, in his self-aggrandising manner, allow him to convey an apparent reputation for magnanimity. On the pretence that the remainder of the crew of the Santa Monica could not be expected to hang their sixty-four condemned shipmates, as was the custom, he dispersed the mutineers around the ships of the fleet and set a time for their execution.
Come the appointed hour the mutineers were brought up on the decks of the appointed vessels and the crimes for which they had been given the death sentence were read out before the assembled crews. Only then, as they stared up at the halters hanging from the yardarms, were the men told that the commander-in-chief had revoked their sentences. Such was the tense and emotional aspect of Rodney’s scheme that when the young Captain Lord Robert Manners of the Resolution came to reprieve the thirteen mutineers who had been assigned to his ship for execution, all he could do was blurt out ‘you are all pardoned!’ before breaking down and fleeing for his cabin.
One man who had been tried separately, a ringleader by the name of Hirst, did suffer execution, but the pardoned men were accepted aboard the ships to which they had been assigned for hanging. Time would prove many of them to be fine seamen whose behaviour was exemplary, and this to some extent confirmed that the earlier claims against Linzee had in fact been far from frivolous .
The Santa Monica was clearly not destined to enjoy a happy service in the British Navy, for she survived only a further nine months before on 1 April 1782 she was run aground on the island of Tortola in the Virgin Islands to prevent her from foundering, one man being lost and the ship being wrecked.