Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 32. Monkbarns, mutiny II

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Bert Sivell, Mr Mate - Monkbarns 1918

Bert Sivell, Mr Mate - Monkbarns 1918

The Old Man was too old and the mates were too young, the ringleaders of the Monkbarns mutiny told the naval court in Rio in June 1918. The old windjammer had sailed from Melbourne in March, bound for New York with flour for the US army, but within a week the new hands decided they did not like the food. The world was at war, but they wanted butter.

“There have been days I couldn’t eat anything,” the Welshman David Thomas protested later, when he was charged with refusing lawful commands to work. “I complained the first day I saw their stores. I don’t know whether they have been cleaned, but the Pantry, the Lazarette and the Galley are well worth seeing. The conditions of the food made me sick.”

Captain James Donaldson was 69 in March 1918, though the men believed him 76 – and all four of his very young mates were his own former apprentices. The chief officer, only 22 and bursting with pride at his new stripes, was Bert Sivell.

Two grinding months later they were still west of Cape Horn, wrestling with sails and high seas – and mutiny.

The sea soaked bunks never got a chance to dry, and down in the fo’c’sle the eight new men signed in Australia knew their rights. The food was bad, and running out, they said. They demanded to put into port. Donaldson tried reasoning. The food was not the very best, he agreed, but it was difficult provisioning sailing ships in wartime. What they had aboard was sustaining, he said. The “bear’s grease” was indeed not butter but it was margarine, and despite the unusually slow passage they were making there was enough of everything to last to New York. He refused to change course.

"Threatened to cut his throat and drop him overboard". From The Wheel's Kick and the Wind's Song, AG Course (1950)

"Threatened to cut his throat and drop him overboard". From The Wheel's Kick and the Wind's Song, AG Course (1950)

The men retaliated by refusing to work. Pressure mounted on the four remaining apprentices to join the boycott (see right). Apart from the boys and the elderly sailmaker and carpenter there was only a single young ordinary seaman, Laurence O’Keeffe, to work the ship.

By May 19th the weather had improved but it took 17 minutes to get the watch out on duty, Bert recorded. “Since leaving Melbourne the crew have been in an obvious state of mutiny,” he wrote, “causing the Master and officers much anxiety.” With the prospect of mountainous seas, ice and gale force winds around the Horn, the safety of the ship was at risk. The barometer fell and fell.

Under cover of darkness, in the middle watches, dwindling stores began to disappear faster. A tin here, a mouthful there, but Edvard Henriksen the cook knew nothing.

On the 30th the Irishman Thomas O’Brien was spotted at midnight stealing pork from the cask aft. The young 3rd mate, Gilbert Cheetham, who witnessed the theft, did not intervene, a forebearance justified in the certified extracts of the mate’s log as having been due to young Cheetham’s “wishing to find whether this kind of thing was a practice”.

Captain G.R. Cheetham of the Blue Funnel Line later claimed he had in fact made the felon put the meat back. “He remembers the incident clearly,” wrote AG Course, a fellow John Stewart & Co apprentice, chronicling the last days of what would be the last British-registered sailing ship line.

Donaldson had issued the younger mates with revolvers and three rounds of ammunition. Although Bert had been officially standing in as mate since the ship left Newport News, Virginia, twelve months previously, William Aplin the acting 2nd had graduated from the half deck only eight months previously and Cheetham and Chown were in fact still  apprentices. When their time expired in June, they were entered on the ship’s papers as acting 3rd and 4th, but by then the ship had rounded the Horn and was heading north again into steadier winds.

Keeping order at sea was not easy at the best of times. Outnumbered, far from land and responsible for all the lives and cargo aboard but with no means of preserving discipline other than force of personality, masters needed to command the crew’s respect — and they needed tough officers to enforce unwelcome decisions. Mates had to be handy with their fists. There were abuses.

(“Nowadays,” wrote Basil Lubbock, “some crews are composed of such villainous scoundrels that unless you take a high hand with them, and show them you are not to be trifled with, they would soon take advantage of what they would call a softy and a reign of terror would begin. Any sort of discipline would be impossible, the men would do just as much work as they felt inclined for, and they would openly sneer and scoff at you if ordered to do anything they did not wish.”)

When an iceberg suddenly reared up dead ahead of Monkbarns at 2am one night as they battled blind round Tierra del Fuego, all hands had turned out at the mate’s bellow and every muscle had strained to pull the yards round, to avert collision. Terror spurred them all. But as the ice mountain closed, and they heard in their minds the sound of the jagged skirts of ice beneath and round them beginning to scrape, nerve broke. A group of men abandoned their hauling and ran for the lifeboats, believing the ship lost, and the officers pulled their guns. Or so Course said.

Oddly, the incident recalled so vividly and convivially in the former apprentices’ later barside chats (and reproduced in his book) was not among the accusations raised at the naval hearing aboard the armed merchant cruiser Armadale Castle in Rio in 1918.

The certified extracts of the log produced in Rio and held at the Public Record Office in Kew record only that on the morning of June 5th, with land in sight north-east of the Horn, the officers hoisted the international distress flags NC under the red ensign.

All cooperation from the fo’c’sle had ceased. But no help came out from shore.

Read on: Monkbarns, mutiny III
Previously: Monkbarns, mutiny I

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll

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  1. […] Coming next: Monkbarns, mutiny II […]


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