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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Voyage of the "Captain Ross"

The last outbound vessel of the season was the Captain Ross, a 250-ton lumber transport sailing for Liverpool. The river had already begun to freeze over, so there was no time for delay. James and his fellow prisoners did receive permission to write letters to their friends and family before departing, but, as they found out later, not one of the letters was ever received. Their loved ones knew nothing about the deportation until it was announced in the newspapers. Early on November 22nd the blacksmith and his assistant arrived with hammer and anvil, chains and cuffs. The prisoners, again chained in pairs, were immediately transported on sleds to the dock. The ship lay anchored two miles from the shore. As Linus Miller stepped into the yawl that delivered them to the ship, his heart was aching: “I [feared] that I might never place my foot upon the American continent again.” (1)

Benjamin Wait recorded how he was able to endure the unbearable suffering of the journey to Quebec, as well as his fear of much more pain to come:

Yet I saw myself borne up through all I had yet experienced with unanticipated fortitude. However, had all things been opened at once to my view, and all the evils I had felt been poured down on my devoted head at once, despair, or at least, despondency would have been my lot. Even then I knew not the amount I had yet to endure, and well for me that the dim uncertain future was shaded by the curtain of merciful silence, so that when it was withdrawn, and slowly as I could bear, came sorrow and severe anguish, the spirit was enabled to abide all, for it knew not the worst.(2)

On the deck of the Captain Ross the men were searched and then thrust into the hold of the ship, which had been hastily converted to accommodate human cargo, in addition to a full load of lumber. In this “living tomb,” twelve feet by fourteen and a height of less than five feet, thirty-four men (the twenty-three Patriot prisoners plus eleven French Canadian convicts) were confined for sixteen hours a day. When the hatchway was closed, as it usually was during those hours, they were deprived of any fresh air and all daylight, except what little came through two small skylights. The prisoners were chained together in pairs; thus, even at night, they had to endure the constant rattling of the irons. They slept in narrow berths (5 ½ feet by 3 ½ feet), stacked six on a side and one at each end of the hold. Those men who didn’t have a berth had to sleep on the floor.(3)

Benjamin Wait and John Parker were the first to be sent below. Shocked by what he saw, Wait couldn’t imagine surviving more than a week in these quarters; he “looked upon death as inevitable.” Even after a year in Van Diemen’s Land, he hadn’t seen any torture worse than “in the hold of the barque Capt. Ross.” McNulty’s reaction was the same: “…we’re done for now…being buried alive in such an infernal hole as this!” Linus Miller confessed that he wanted to die: “I lay in my berth, chained to my poor friend Reynolds; and if I murmured against the decrees of Providence, or prayed for death, it must have been wrong in me to do so, but I fear that I did.”(4)

On the third day of the voyage, gale force winds helped speed the ship from the St. Lawrence River out into the gulf. It was bitter cold, and soon the whole ship was covered in ice and surrounded by a dense fog. The gale lasted twelve days, causing unbearable suffering for the prisoners. The hatches were battened down most of the time, and the stale air inside became putrid. At times there was some relief from the stench when seawater would pour down on them in torrents from the deck above while they were chained together in their berths. As the ship leaned from side to side during the storm, the contents of the two open buckets (toilets) were often spilled out on to the floor. These chamber buckets were only emptied once a day, and the foul odor greatly aggravated the nausea and seasickness.(5)

During the storm “the weather was intensely cold, and the vessel was so thickly covered with ice as greatly to impede her progress. Every sailor and soldier on board was more or less frozen and disabled.” As soon as the prisoners discovered the condition of the crew, they hatched a plan to commandeer the ship and navigate her back to a port in the United States, where they could all go ashore. Whether or not this was a serious plan or just a flight of fancy, they imagined it could be done with little resistance and without bloodshed. Less than one half an hour before the planned strike, the hatchway above them was suddenly battened down and barred. They could hear Captain Morton, with a trembling voice (either from the cold or from fear of the suspected mutiny) call for "All hands on deck!" When the captain dared to open the hatchway again, he snatched Parker and Wait out by the coat collar, and then pushed them back down into the hold wearing 50-pound chains. The prisoners tried to deny the charges of mutiny, but the guards soon discovered that some of their chains had been "nearly sawn asunder.” For the reminder of the voyage the crew was constantly on guard. It wasn't until after their arrival in England that they discovered how the captain had learned about the plot. At Liverpool Captain Morton printed "an exaggerated account of the suppressed mutiny," which revealed that one of their own men, Jacob Beemer, had betrayed them to gain a pardon. (The previous April Beemer had spoiled an attempt to free seven patriots from the Hamilton jail. Several months later aboard the York, he squealed again, but he never received a pardon.)(6)

Captain Morton charged Parker and Wait with planning the mutiny. As proof he pointed to a small incision on their chains. (When the blacksmith had fitted all the chains again at Quebec, this particular set fell to Parker and Wait.) James Gemmell stepped forward to defend the two accused men. He explained to the captain that he and Vernon had worn those chains in Montreal, and that he was the one who had made the incision. The other men confirmed the truth of Gemmell’s story, but to no avail. Parker and Wait were kept in the heavy chains for another twelve days, and Wait’s leg became severely swollen.(7)

At some point before the ship left the gulf, most of the men went on deck to take what they all feared was their final look at their native land. As they sailed further out to sea, the weather gradually became warmer, and the thick coat of ice covering the ship soon melted. When the winds were calm, the prisoners were allowed, a few at a time, to spend one hour a day on deck, but were always carefully watched by armed guards. On one of these occasions Miller spotted a Yankee ship, a new Baltimore Clipper with the Stars and Stripes “gracefully floating from her mizzen-mast…to my heart, that flag was dearer than life itself, under present circumstances; for it was the emblem of my country’s greatness.”(8)

At the end of the 25-day voyage, James Gemmell, age 24, and Linus Miller, 21, were physically depleted. Gemmell was admitted to the hospital ward a few weeks later at Portsmouth. Miller’s condition was especially grave, but with the improved lodging and decent food at Liverpool, he soon recovered:

…for twenty-one days in succession, I had no occasion to leave my berth for the purpose of parting company with the little I had eaten, unless it was to vomit, which I generally essayed to do, whenever the lobscous and stir-about(9) made their appearance. If the voyage had been much longer, I must have perished, as I was reduced to a mere skeleton, and so weak that I could scarcely stand.(10)
  1. Miller, p. 117; Wait, pp. 62-63.
  2. Wait, p. 49.
  3. Miller, p. 119; Wait, pp. 65-66.
  4. Miller, p. 118, 121; Wait, p. 64, 67.
  5. Miller, p. 120-21.
  6. Miller, p. 122; Wait, p. 115. Wait describes Beemer as a loner, a liar, and “very illiterate, only able to write, yet not to compose or spell.”
  7. Wait, p. 57, 62, 68-70.
  8. Miller, p. 124.
  9. Lobscous, a mixture of boiled meat and potato, was served at breakfast, and stir-about, a kind of gruel made of oatmeal (with an ample amount of dirt in it), was served for supper.
  10. Miller, p. 127.

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