Marblehead time capsule: Mutiny on the Hannah

Mark Hurwitz
+ posts

I am sure everybody has heard of the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

Capt. Nicholson Broughton’s home at 5 Lee St. COURTESY PHOTO

Whether you read about it in school or saw the Anthony Hopkins film, it was an exciting tale about life at sea in the 18th century.

For those not familiar with it, here is a brief history of the events:

In April of 1789, Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate on the H.M.S. Bounty, led a successful mutiny against Lt. Bligh.

Bligh was an oppressive commander and insulted those under him. On April 28, near the island of Tonga, Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers took the ship by force. Bligh and 18 of his loyal crew were set adrift in a small boat with food, water, and a sextant.

To the amazement of many, Lt. Bligh and his men safely reached East Timor in the East Indies seven weeks later, in June of 1789, after a voyage of nearly 4,000 miles. Shortly after returning to England, Bligh was promoted to the rank of captain and given a new command.

The Schooner Hannah

Unlike the famous case of the H.M.S. Bounty, the uprising by the crew of the U.S.S. Hannah in 1775 is virtually unknown.

The Hannah was not only the first armed vessel in the American Navy but also the first to experience a mutiny by its crew.

The War for Independence

If independence was to be won, ships had to be found to wage battle against the British Navy. General Washington appealed to ship owners throughout the colonies to donate their ships to the cause of independence.

Washington turned to Colonel John Glover of Marblehead for assistance. Glover’s vessel, The Hannah, was available and soon manned by Marblehead Marine regiment members. Washington commissioned Nicholson Broughton of Marblehead to command the Hannah in September 1775 and ordered the vessel to sail the Atlantic and seize British ships and cargo.

A scale model of the Schooner Hannah. COURTESY PHOTO

The Unity

On Sept. 7, Broughton and his crew aboard the Hannah captured the Unity. At the time, it was flying a British flag. The cargo consisted of fish, lumber and munitions brought back to Gloucester. Hoping to sell their “prize” for profit, they were shocked when they were told that they couldn’t keep the cargo.

It turned out that the Unity was a New Hampshire-based vessel owned by John Langdon. Langdon was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a friend of George Washington. The Unity had been seized by the H.M.S. Lively shortly after it had left New Hampshire days earlier.

Apparently, under the rules of rivateering, “if a Privateer captures a ‘friendly’ vessel, the ship and its cargo must be returned to its rightful owner.”

The crew of Hannah couldn’t believe it. They felt robbed of their first prize.

Unfortunately, Washington had made provisions for such a situation in his instructions to Captain Broughton:

“Article 9, September 2, 1775: In case of retaking the vessel of any friend of the American cause, I will recommend it to such a person to make suitable compensation to those who have done such a service, but such vessels are not to be deemed as coming within the directions respecting other vessels.”  

When informed of Washington’s orders, the crew of the Hannah refused to resume their duties aboard their vessel. George Washington ordered the crew of the Hannah to be confined to their quarters.

Captain Broughton wrote to General Washington to convince the commander that Unity was not only a vessel that had acted in an “unfriendly manner” but that her cargo was contraband and rightfully subject to seizure. Washington would not relent, and rather than congratulate the crew as he had once planned, he now planned to court martial them for disobeying direct orders. They were charged with “mutiny, riot, and disobedience of orders.” with only three exceptions, they were convicted.

The court ordered flogging and a dishonorable discharge. Punishment was to be carried out. Thirty-six men were found guilty. One would receive 39 lashes, 13 would receive 20 lashes and 14 would be drummed out of the service. Twenty-two Marblehead men were fined 20 shillings.

Later, after reconsideration, George Washington remitted all sentences but that given to Joseph Searle. It was believed that his punishment of 20 strokes on a bareback and being dishonorably discharged from the army should stand because they thought he was the ringleader of the mutiny.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: