Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 33. Monkbarns, mutiny III

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Work aloft - from the cover of The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy

Work aloft, handling sails - from the cover of The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy

“The crew are in a state of mutiny and insubordination whenever there is any work to be done, whether handling sails or braces,” wrote Bert Sivell, the young mate of the sailing ship Monkbarns, in June 1918, as they finally rounded the icy southern tip of South America back into the Atlantic after nearly three months trying.

Two days after the ship turned north, the 2nd mate’s locker was broken into and ropes and gear inside were taken or destroyed. Three men, the Irishman Thomas O’Brien, the Welshman David Thomas and the Dutchman A. van Eijk, reported sick. When the mate went to see them in the fo’c’sle, they “complained of weakness through starvation and lack of good food”. Bert wrote: “The master, using patience and humanity in dealing with the crew, and not wishing to have bloodshed in the ship, refrains from entering the offences in the Official Log Book, because that would be the beginning of very serious trouble.”

On June 12th the metal reflectors were stolen from the sidelights, and only one was found. “There is undoubtedly foul play going on in the ship,” wrote Bert.

On the 14th Fausto Humberto Villaverde, the Peruvian, carrying a breakfast of fish aft to the watch on the poop deck, tipped it deliberately overboard instead. “As far as could be seen the fish was clean and well cooked,” reported Bert, whose breakfast it had been.

The crisis came on the 15th, when the very youngest of the four mates — Ted Chown, six days out of his apprenticeship — began the morning watch by handing Villaverde a grease pot and ordering him to climb up and grease down the foremast and the iron collars of the yards.

It was necessary for the smooth running of the sails, but it was by custom and practice a boy’s job. Villaverde refused, and he refused again when the acting 2nd mate went forward to try his authority. The rest of the starboard watch, listening in from the shelter of the forecastle head, also refused. Bert arrived after breakfast at 8.30am and handed the job onto O’Brien, who was by then on watch instead, but the Irishman said he was too sick. The Welshman said he was sick too, and the rest of the port watch followed. Even the previously loyal young seaman Laurence O’Keeffe, who had been with the ship since Cardiff, dared not break rank.

At that, the court was later told, the mate “considering the job important” went aloft himself. Bert greased down the mainmast, Aplin did the foremast, and Cheetham did the mizzen mast when he came back on duty for the afternoon watch.

Donaldson gave up. After a council of war in the saloon, the beleaguered officers decided to seek refuge in a friendly port. Witnessed by Donaldson, Bert and Aplin, the official log records: “Since shortly after leaving Melbourne the seamen have been in a state of insubordination and insolent defiance or mutinous. Now they, the seamen, have combined to disobey orders and refuse to perform duties except what they choose. Therefore the Master and Officers are doing their utmost to make a port safely in distress with what assistance the seamen will give them.”

Bert’s comments were appended. “The mate had heard a rumour when the ship was a good way west of the Horn, to the effect that as soon as she was round the Horn, the crew were going to refuse to do any work except haul on the braces and wash decks. The master and officers were consequently prepared for this happening,” he wrote.

“The master and officers are waiting with patience and watching carefully the turn of events, hoping that it will smoulder down and die a natural death.”

They set course for Rio de Janeiro and for four days the young mates worked the sails alone. “There is not the slightest confidence to be put in the men,” wrote Bert. “If there is any work to do they are sick.” Food continued to be stolen from the galley, but Edvard Henriksen the Norwegian cook was “apparently unable to throw any light on the matter”.

Within sight of Rio’s Sugar Loaf mountain, however, the steady wind that had wafted them towards land dropped. No tug came out in response to their signals; so – fearful of what might happen if he did, but more fearful of the consequences if he didn’t – Donaldson recklessly steered the old sailing ship straight into the teeming bay, through the middle of a departing convoy, and slap into the arms of HMS Armadale Castle, an armed merchant cruiser awaiting the next convoy out.

Read on: Summary justice on the Armadale Castle, Rio 1918
Previously: Monkbarns, mutiny II

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  1. […] Read on: Monkbarns, mutiny III […]


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