A sailor’s life – 34. Monkbarns, court martial 1918
On the 28th June 1918, a British naval court was convened in Rio bay to try six predominantly foreign seamen for “wilful disobedience to lawful commands” on a British ship – Monkbarns. It passed into history as a mutiny, but was it?
The hearing was held on the HMS Armadale Castle, an armed merchant cruiser/former passenger liner, and was presided over by her commander, Captain George Leith RN, her chief officer, Lieutenant William Pawlett Evans RNR, and Captain Robert Smith, master of the British steam ship Messenia, which just happened to be in port.
Monkbarns had sailed desperately into the busy tangle of steamers in Rio bay four days previously flying distress flags and seeking protection from mutineers in her fo’c’sle, and under the quite astonishingly wide-ranging powers of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, section 480 (only repealed in 1994!), this was deemed sufficient to bypass Brazilian jurisdiction.
Captain Leith’s log does not record what Captain James Donaldson was signalling as he came, but whatever it was, Armadale Castle instantly dispatched a dozen armed men out to Monkbarns in a boarding party commanded by sub-lieutenant George Merry Frost, RNR.
Frost knew Monkbarns, having visited her in the Thames at Greenhithe when he was a boy on the nautical training ship Worcester. Now, as he boarded the ship in distress, in wartime, on the other side of the world, he spotted a familiar face – another HMS Worcester boy, Monkbarns 2nd Mate Bill Aplin – and was borne aft to the saloon to hear the officers’ tale.
The crew had forced the ship into port by refusing to work her, in protest at the food aboard. The mate’s log referred to it as mutiny, but until then it was the officers’ word against theirs. A hot headed young American seaman and an inarticulate Peruvian were about to change that.
Corporal Thomas Perkins of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, posted on guard aboard overnight, became the first witness for the prosecution the following morning when three of the crew – Charles Moore, Fausto Humberto Villaverde and the Norwegian cook, Edvard Henriksen – refused to “turn to”, at the start of their watch.
The men claimed they were ill, but when a doctor (second witness) arrived from shore and certified them fit to work they refused again. Moore, 21, and Villaverde, 22, packed their bags and appeared on deck smoking, the subsequent trial was told. So Frost arrested them. They had been warned, he said. Though possibly they underestimated the long arm of British justice.
Edvard Henriksen, also 22, meanwhile had been found asleep in his bunk. When roused and challenged with refusing to get up for work, the Norwegian offered the first excuse that came into his fuddled head: toothache, he said. This proved a bad move, as he was marched off up on deck and the tooth he randomly identified was yanked out on the spot over the main hatch – without anaesthetic. Henriksen too was then ordered back to work and when he refused was also arrested.
Frost told the court later they had all refused to serve further on Monkbarns, “though they said would on another vessel”.
In all, six men finally appeared before court on the Armadale Castle: Moore, Villaverde, Henriksen, an elderly Welshman called David Thomas, an Irishman, Thomas O’Brien and a Dane, Soren Sorensen. Only Henriksen pleaded guilty.