A sailor’s life – 35. Monkbarns: crimes and punishment
What ordinary seaman Fausto Humberto Villaverde thought of his trial aboard the HMS Armadale Castle in June 1918 was not clear. Charged with “combining to disobey lawful commands” – or mutiny, as his officers saw it, the evidence had to be translated into Spanish for him, and even the translator appeared to have struggled with his replies. The Peruvian’s defence is given as one line: he had “illness in the stomach”.
The Dane Soren Sorensen had been heard first. Unlike the other men, he was accused only of insubordination – for having answered back when Monkbarns’ master, Captain James Donaldson, criticised his steering. He denied using bad language. He claimed the master had sarcastically asked what time he, Sorensen, would be able to steer the ship and that when he had complained he was feeling sick Donaldson had threatened to “smash him in the face”. The only witness on the poop at the time was the young 2nd Mate, Aplin, who did not support this version of events.
As Sorensen had technically already been punished, by the imposition of the five shilling fines – which was all the authority Donaldson had under British maritime law – he was found guilty but no further action was taken.
The Irishman Thomas O’Brien was called next by the impromptu naval court in Rio bay and was asked to explain his refusal to grease down a mast when ordered to do so. His defence that he was starving met short shrift from both British ship captains officiating. “You don’t look like a man that had been starved,” they said.
They wanted to know why, if the food was so bad, O’Brien had bothered to steal more of it during the voyage from Melbourne, as he admitted. He claimed he had only disobeyed orders because he was “played out from starvation” and too weak to work, “except where it was necessary”. But his judges jumped on the rider.
Was he to be the judge of that, asked the president. “Suppose you were ordered aloft to furl a royal [sail], am I to understand that you wouldn’t go unless you thought it necessary? Who is the best judge of what is necessary, you or your properly appointed officers?”
When the American, Charles Moore, also complained about the food, and particularly the substitution of grease for butter the president exclaimed “Butter! Do you expect to get butter in wartime. Margarine is considered a luxury in London.”
The Welshman David Thomas’ evidence is the most poignant. “I thought I was going home,” he told the hearing. Perhaps Captain Donaldson – desperate to replace deserters in Australia – had been a little economical with the truth. By the time the ship left Melbourne their cargo of flour was destined for New York, not wartorn Europe.
At 45, Thomas was the oldest man in the fo’c’sle, and he had suffered rheumatism and cramps from sleeping in a wet bunk during the long, stormy passage round the Horn. Though only rated able seaman on Monkbarns, he had done two voyages as bo’sun on his previous ship, he said, which showed he was not of such bad character as painted. He had not been looking for “any bother”. He had gone aloft when he could. His handwriting in the crew list is shaky like an old man’s and there is no year against his last ship.
He was scathing on the subject of the pantry however. The food was so bad it made him sick, he said, and he had seen some of the boys in the ship so hungry they would get a cup of flour and fry it in fat in the galley to have something to eat.
The mate (Bert Sivell) half stuck up for him, telling the court that Thomas would usually go aloft to make sail fast, although he had refused to do so for the greasing, but the president wasn’t having any of it. “Well, if he can go aloft to take in sails he can go aloft to grease down the mast,” he said, firmly.
Thomas and O’Brien were found guilty of continued wilful disobedience. Moore, Henriksen and Villaverde were found guilty of combining to disobey.
All five men were sentenced to twelve weeks in prison in the UK and the cost of their “board” on the passage home, which was calculated at three shillings a day for 38 days. Thomas and O’Brien were also fined six days pay, and O’Brien was further charged £2 for the food he had admitted stealing. They set off in convoy under lock and key aboard the Armadale Castle in July and arrived in Newport, Wales, after an uneventful crossing on August 4th.
Sub-lieutenant George Frost’s last sight of them was handcuffed together on the railway platform at Newport, waiting for a train to take them to prison. They had six weeks of their sentence left to serve. For them, the war was over.