Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Infamous Murphy

     Privateers encountered risks even after a successful cruise.  After capturing an enemy ship, or several enemy ships, the captain of a privateer had to divide his crewmen among the captured prizes.  As the number of prisoners on a privateer increased, and the number of crewmen decreased, the commander could face a prisoner insurrection.  The Connecticut privateer sloop Eagle, captained by Edward Conkling, encountered such misfortune on Sunday, May 9, 1779. 
     Conkling and the Eagle were based in New London, Connecticut.  In the May 13, 1779 issue of the local paper, The Connecticut Gazette; And The General Advertiser, New London residents read this report with a dateline of New London, May 11,

Sunday last, the Privateer Sloop Eagle, Capt. Edward Conkling, then cruizing off Point-Judith, took six Sail of Vessels, chiefly small, except one of them, which was loaded with West-Indian Good.—The manning so many Vessels, reduced the Crew on Board the Privateer to 15, whilst the Number of Prisoners on Board was 16; who taking Advantage of this Circumstance in their Favour, fell upon, and murdered the whole of the Sloop’s Crew, except two Boys; many of them were mangled in a most savage Manner after they had surrendered.  

   After successfully commandeering the Eagle, the British prisoners retook one of the prize ships as well.  The privateers Hancock and Beaver regained the prize, however, and sent it and the five other prize ships to Stonington, Connecticut.  American crewmen assigned to the prize probably heard accounts of the prisoner mutiny from the British seafarers who briefly retook the prize ship. 
     The editors of The Connecticut Gazette noted, “Capt. Conkling’s Death is much regretted by all that knew him.  He was a humane and worthy Man, and a brave Officer.” 
     On May 14, two mariners arrived in Providence, Rhode Island with a slightly different account of the Eagle.  On May 15, The Providence Gazette; And Country Journal reported, “Yesterday arrived here two Men, belonging to a Vessel from Guadaloupe bound to Boston, which had been captured by the Enemy, and retaken by the Eagle Privateer, of New-London, late commanded by Capt. Conkling.”  The two men returning from Guadeloupe communicated a slightly different account the Eagle’s last few days. 
     The Providence Gazette reported of the two returnees, “They inform, that the Eagle had taken and manned seven Prizes, all which are safe arrived in Port, and that her Crew having been reduced to 13 Men and Boys, with 17 Prisoners on board, the latter rose and took Possession of the Vessel on Sunday Evening last, murdered Capt. Conkling and all his Crew, except the Doctor and 3 Boys, and carried the Privateer into New-York.” 
     Both the returnees in New London and the two who arrived in Providence probably acquired their information from British personnel who briefly retook a British ship captured by the Eagle.  The Eagle and at least some of her prizes probably traveled in a tight convoy, facilitating the brief recapture of one ship by the prisoners-turned-mutineers.  Although the number of prizes is different, and the number of crewmen left on the Eagle and the number of crew spared by the mutineers, both accounts agree that seventeen British prisoners were on the Eagle at the time of the mutiny.
     Both accounts also agree the mutineers committed wanton slaughter.  The Connecticut Gazette reported that the mutineers “mangled” the victims “after they had surrendered.”  Based on information from two returnees, The Providence Gazette reported the mutineers “murdered” their victims, implying the deaths were not the result of military engagement. 
      In its June 3 issue, The Connecticut Gazette named the man who purportedly murdered Capt. Conkling.  The Connecticut Gazette reported, “We have certain Advice by several Persons from New-York, That the Sloop Eagle, late commanded by the brave but unfortunate Capt. Conkling, was lately blown up at New York by Means of a Boy’s snapping a Pistol among some Powder, which communicated to the Magazine.  It is said, that a Number of Persons were in the Vessel at the Time, who lost their Lives, among them the infamous Murphy who murdered Capt. Conkling.”
     For more on the Connecticut Privateer Sloop Eagle, please visit the online database American War of Independence—at Sea.  
Whether the captured Eagle crewmen spared by their captors were sent to New York City or Newport, the ordeal of a prison ship probably awaited them.  In New York, British Navy commanders operated prison ships like the notorious Jersey.  Occupying Newport from December 1776 to October 1779, British forces operated the prison ship Lord Sandwich in that harbor.  For mention of the prison ship Sandwich, please check Ralph E. Carpenter, The Arts and Crafts of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1820 (Newport, 1954), page 17.
     For the series of reversals experienced by the American brigantine Andrea Doria, please consult the posts "Reversals" and "James Josiah."  The Andrea Doria captured a transport ship carrying Scottish Highland troops in the British service.  The Highlanders overtook the Andrea Doria, but two American ships captained by the brothers James Barron and Richard Barron recaptured the Scots.  The Convention of Virginia resolved that the Scottish Highland prisoners should be "well used" and thereby "reconciled to the country."  For the Highlanders' changing fortunes at sea, please check the post here.  For Virginia's resolution to treat the prisoners of war humanely, please consult the post here.   

Post a Comment