A raider of 1813-14: Retaking of the Seringapatam [10 July 1920]

[Editor: An article about a planned invasion of Australia, by American and French forces, during the War of 1812 (fought between the USA and Great Britain, 1812-1815). Published in The Argus, 10 July 1920.]

A raider of 1813-14.

Retaking of the Seringapatam.

By T. Dunbabin.

The Germans were not the first to establish a hostile base of operations in the islands to the east and north-east of Australia, nor was the German raider Wolf the first enemy cruiser to harry British shipping in the South Pacific Ocean. For over a century there has been peace between the British Empire and the United States, a peace which will, it is to be hoped, never again be broken. But in the last war between them, that of 1813-1814, the Americans carried out a strange and long- forgotten adventure, the building of a fort on one of the Marquesas Islands, as the starting-point for an active campaign against the British whaling-vessels in Pacific waters. There is some reason to suppose that the original plan was for a much greater undertaking, an attack on the British settlements in Australia, in which France and the United States were to join. In August, 1813, Lord Bathurst sent to Governor Macquarie a despatch in which he states that information about a plan for attacking New South Wales had been given by Jorgen Jorgenson, the ex-King of Iceland, who was soon afterwards transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Jorgenson asserted that four French frigates, each with 250 soldiers on board, were to slip out of a French port, and make for the Falkland Islands, where they were to be joined by an American frigate, with 300 men on board, and a store ship. As pilots the French vessels were to have two American South Sea whalers, named Kelly and Coleman. From the Falkland Islands they were to make for Twofold Bay, the harbour on which Eden now stands, and then go on to attack Sydney. As there was a battery on South Head the troops were to be landed in Broken Bay, occupy the Hawkesbury, call the prisoners of the Crown to arms, and advance on Sydney by way of Parramatta. If possible, 250 troops were to be landed at Botany Bay to make a diversion. Another and a somewhat different outline of the plan for an attack on New South Wales is given in a memorandum written in June, 1813, by H. Stuart, preserved in the Public Records Office, London.

According to Jorgenson’s autobiography, published at Hobart Town in 1835 and 1838, two French vessels did manage to elude the British blockade and set out on the expedition under Count Dillon, but were wrecked near Cadiz. However that may be, the American frigate Essex went round Cape Horn into the Pacific in 1813, and did great damage to British shipping, using the Marquesas Islands as a base. Jorgenson tells us that she captured and burnt 17 whaling vessels. How a band of British seamen got the better of their captors will be seen presently. The idea of attacking Sydney came to nothing.

On July 1, 1814, there arrived at Sydney the London whaler Seringapatam, 370 tons, manned by 14 British seamen, who had a strange and stirring story to tell. The names of these humble heroes, of whom six could not even sign their names, have luckily been preserved in the Historical Records. They were:— Thomas Belcher, James Duncan, Samuel Sewell, Robert George, James Bantum, Martin Stanley, Lewis Ransom, Richard Power, James Morrison, Robert Lambress, William Clarke, William Styles, Robert White, and Jeremiah Workman.

In a sworn statement these seamen deposed that their vessel, commanded by Captain Stivers, was captured off the Galapagos Islands (where, by the way, a steamer of the Commonwealth line was wrecked the other day). Captain David Porter was then in command of the Essex, and he sent Captain Stivers as a prisoner to the United States on the British whaler Georgiana, which had been captured at an earlier date. The other officers and several of the crew of the Seringapatam were sent to Rio de-Janeiro, on the Charlton, another British whaler which had been captured. Of the 14 men whose names are given above one only had originally shipped on the Seringapatam, the rest coming from other British vessels which had been seized by the Essex. The Seringapatam and several other captured vessels were anchored off the American head-quarters on one of the islands of the Marquesas group. The seamen were landed and forced to work at building a fort, in which they were afterwards confined.

For some time they plotted and planned in vain for a way of escape, but their chance came on May 6, 1814. The Seringapatam was then used as a store ship at the fort, and had on board a quantity of stores removed from other captured ships. The 14 seamen were sent on board to do some work, and at a given signal they over-powered the three American “prizemasters” then on board, and seized the ship. They took a quantity of arms and ammunition from the Greenwich, another captured vessel, spiked the guns of the fort, “which they effected with great Difficulty and Danger,” as their statement briefly puts it, and slipped out to sea. They placed the three prizemasters in a boat, with some arms and provisions, when they were clear of the coast. Though they were all ignorant of navigation, they contrived to make Tahiti, and sailed from that place to Sydney. From their statement it appears that the Americans had converted the Seringapatam into an armed cruiser of 22 guns, and that she had accompanied the Essex on one cruise before she was recaptured.

Joseph Underwood, merchant and ship-owner, acting as agent for the captors, sought to secure an award as to salvage of the vessel and her valuable cargo from the Court of Vice-Admiralty at Sydney, but the Court referred the matter to London. So the 14 marines, with Ebor Bunker, a well-known whaling captain, who had been trading out of Sydney off and on for 22 years, to navigate for them, decided to take their prize to London. On October 16, 1814, they cleared from Sydney, and the Seringapatam passed out of Australian history.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 10 July 1920, p. 5

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