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Monday, February 8, 2010

From Liverpool to Portsmouth

On December 17, 1838, the Captain Ross entered the mouth of the River Mersey and dropped anchor in the mist and fog of Liverpool harbor:

There was not one of our number that did not feel thankful to that Providence, who had so wonderfully preserved our lives, and given us strength to endure our sufferings; which were so great that we deemed it almost impossible that all our lives would be spared to the end of the voyage.(1)

A large crowd of curious townsfolk gathered on the dock as the men marched in chains to the carriages. After such degrading treatment aboard the Captain Ross, they were heartened to hear sympathetic sentiments from the crowd: “God bless the brave Canadians, and speedily release and return them to their wives and to their homes.”(2) The prisoners were conveyed to the Liverpool borough jail, known as “the old French prison.”(3) It was a massive and foreboding structure that could accommodate 1,000 prisoners. At the arrival of the Patriots, it held about 700 convicts—200 of them were women, and 200 were boys under the age of ten.(4) (Typical of this era in England was harsh treatment of children as described in the novels of Charles Dickens.)

Here the men were treated with kindness by the prison surgeon, and especially by the chaplain, the Reverend Dr. Buck. He met several times a week with some friends in his parish to pray for the Canadian prisoners, and vowed to continue doing so until “Providence should open some door for [their] deliverance from bondage.” Immediately Wait and Miller began writing letters on behalf of the Niagara District prisoners to some influential men of England (Hume, Roebuck, and Lord Brougham)(5) who might be sympathetic to their plight. Parker and Wixon did the same on behalf of the nine men from the Toronto and London Districts.(6) They found that some had already begun investigating their case.(7) John Arthur Roebuck, Esq., M.P., and a Mr. Waller, clerk of London solicitor W. H. Ashurst, came from London to visit them at the Liverpool jail.(8) Their visit resulted in a decision to move twelve of the twenty-three men to London, “under writs of habeas corpus in her Majesty’s court of Queen’s Bench.”(9)

At the suggestion of Mr. Roebuck, the prisoners demanded of the jailer, Mr. Bacheldor, a copy of the warrant “under which he held [them] in custody, which was furnished accordingly”:

James Gemmel, [et. al.]…severally indicted and convicted in due course of law in the courts of the said province of Upper Canada of the crime of high treason --and Linus Wilson Miller, [et. al.]…in like manner severally indicted and convicted of all of which said persons and convicts our gracious pardon hath been extended upon condition nevertheless that they and each of them be transported and remain transported to our penal colony of Van Dieman's [sic] Land…(10)

Christmas Day (1838) was celebrated in Liverpool jail with a double portion of rations for all. In addition, the Canadian prisoners asked for permission to prepare their own boiled Christmas pudding with flour and dried fruit that had been given them by friends when they left Fort Henry. This improvised pudding lifted their spirits and evoked feelings of gratitude and memories of Christmas at home. Having been informed about the dire condition of England’s poor, they knew that they were, at least on this day, better off than many free men outside the prison walls who had nothing at all to eat. They also knew that many within the prison, especially the young boys, had learned to steal only to stave off hunger. To have a meal at all was a great blessing.(11)

A little more than a week later came another sad parting with friends and comrades. James was one of the eleven men to be sent via the steamship Meteor to Portsmouth, sailing from Liverpool on January 4, 1839.(12) Before the departure Reverend Buck prayed with the whole group and gave each one a hymnal as a token of his friendship. As they filed out of their cells, shackled in irons, their twelve comrades (those who had been selected to go to London) lined up in the hallway, just as they had done before the execution of James Morreau at Niagara. Again, with tears in their eyes, they wrung each hand and bid each one “God bless you,” not knowing if they would ever see their friends again. From the jail they were transported in carriages to the dock. Reverend Buck and Mr. Bacheldor, the governor of the jail, accompanied them to the ship and “reported an extraordinary character for the state prisoners, and recommended them to the especial favor of the officers.” Reverend Buck prayed with them again before he left the ship.(13)

The Meteor made her departure at 6:00 P.M. against a strong head wind. The winds continued to increase during the night, and the ship was barely able to make any progress at all. What they could not have known as night fell and the rain began—this would be the worst storm to hit the west coast of England in more than a century (afterwards known as the Great Hurricane of 1839.) For three days and two nights the ship was tossed by the storm; “the engine disabled and stopped, the wheel houses, bulwarks, binnacles, and compasses were all swept away,” and only one sail remained, “the others having been shredded to ribbons by the force of the wind.” The only chance for survival was to re-enter Liverpool—without the usual markers, buoys, or light ships to guide the way. Those had all been displaced by the storm. Occasional bolts of lightning illuminated the darkness, exposing the wreckage of other ships lining the banks of the channel. Near midnight on January 7th they were able to drop anchor again at Liverpool.(14)

It had been a pitiful scene in the cabin during the three-day deluge. Out of necessity the skylight was covered and battened down, leaving the men in complete darkness. Water poured down in torrents, setting their bedding afloat. All of them were overcome by violent seasickness. No food was provided; nor did they have any desire to eat. Given their miraculous survival, Benjamin Wait had no complaints about the crew:

It is, indeed, hard to conceive the wretched appearance we made, when we first emerged from that sink, and the horrid stench that arose from the cabin, when the skylight was first unbattened. The marines who did it, swore they never had experienced anything half so nauseous. Yet no blame could be attached to the commander or any of the officers; for it would scarcely be supposed that they could pay much regard to us, when the whole ship, lives, and every thing, were in such imminent jeopardy. Much credit is even due them, for their intrepid management; and endless gratitude is due the Almighty, for again bringing us to port through every vicissitude and suffering, while many ships were wrecking, and hundreds of fellow creatures were sinking to a watery grave in our sight.(15)

After essential repairs were made, the Meteor departed a second time for Portsmouth at noon on January 11th. It was a calm, sunny winter day, in stark contrast to the violence of the hurricane just a few days before. From the deck the men could see the hulls of wrecked ships in the channel and the visible evidence of the destruction and fallen trees on the shore. By January 16th they reached Portsmouth. Before leaving the ship Benjamin Wait presented the commander, Mr. Pritchard, with a letter he had written at the request of all his companions. The letter was the only means within their power to express their “deep regard for his humanity, and the intrepid conduct he manifested during the late gale.” Pritchard said he would “long retain it, as a memento of more value than the applause of the rich or the powerful.”(16)

  1. Miller, p. 126.
  2. Wait, p. 73.
  3. The prison was used during the war between England and France to confine French prisoners.
  4. Wait, p. 74.
  5. Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux (1778-1868) was a British writer, scientist, lawyer, Whig politician and abolitionist, and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain (1830-1834.) In Lord Grey’s famous Whig government, he was responsible for the passing of the Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
  6. Wait, p. 78. Miller also wrote to the United States Ambassador to England, Andrew Stevenson.
  7. Paul Romney and Barry Wright, “The Toronto Treason Trials, March-May 1838,” Canadian State Trials, Vol. II: Rebellion and Invasion in the Canadas, 1837-1839, p. 88.
  8. Wait, p. 81. All the men (except Beemer) signed a document naming Ashurst (serving “under the eye of Roebuck, Brougham, Hume, etc.,”) as their solicitor.
  9. Miller, pp. 127-130. A writ of habeas corpus is a protection against illegal imprisonment.
  10. Miller, pp. 131-132. The warrant had been issued on 17 November 1838.
  11. Wait, pp. 83-86.
  12. Wait, p. 89-90. The eleven French convicts from Quebec were sent to Portsmouth along with Gemmell, Wait, McLeod, Waggoner, Chandler, NcNulty, Vernon, Mallory, Cooley, Van Camp, and Beemer.
  13. Wait, pp. 87-90.
  14. Wait, pp. 90-91.
  15. Wait, pp. 83, 91, 93. Captain Morton, of the ship Captain Ross, and Mr. Frost, the ship’s owner, called on the prisoners in Liverpool jail. As an apology for the publication of the dishonest report of the mutiny, Mr. Frost offered to forward for free any letters they would like to send to America on board the Pennsylvania and the St. Andrew, which were about to sail for Boston. The men gave Frost a large number of letters. Both of these ships sank during the storm. All the letters were lost.
  16. Wait, pp. 93-94.

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