Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

108: “Mutiny of Blacks in the Mersey”, 1857

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 25 January 1857 was just one of many British newspapers which reported on events in Liverpool that involved sixteen black sailors in early 1857 (others were in Leeds, London, Edinburgh, Hull and Dublin). They told of fourteen police officers boarding an American sailing ship, the James L. Bogart following the sound of gunshots and the showing of a flag of distress, the reports from courts and hospitals, testimony of Mersey river pilots and the uncertainty of the legal position as the ship was American and possibly not subject to English laws.

The London Daily News (20 January 1857) reported the police found “a regular battle going on on the deck”. “The captain and officers charged the crew with mutiny, and the latter accused the officers of brutally ill-treating them”. Sixteen sailors were arrested along with the second mate (he was accused of shooting and wounding able seaman John Christie). The men had gone on strike because of the ill treatment, shots were fired at them, Christie fell, and the men “then seized whatever was at hand and attacked the officers”. It was not the first time that officers on American ships in the Mersey had been reported for ill treating crew, but they paid better wages than British ships. Violence was not the only concern for the crewmen who “were nearly all black or coloured men” and most had joined the James L. Bogart believing it was to sail to New York. “On learning that the vessel was bound for Mobile they refused to go, that being a slave state where they would all be retained in slavery, and the ship was certainly cleared for Mobile”.

Mobile, Alabama was a major port and from there (and New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston) were shipped tons of cotton every month, to feed the mills of Lancashire. Scared of the influences that free British blacks would have on their slaves, these states imprisoned visiting black sailors and if the cost of that was not refunded by the ship’s captain or port agents, the victims could be and were sold as slaves. Manuel Pereira’s imprisonment had led to questions in parliament in 1852, and in the early 1830s John Glasgow (born in British Guiana, with an English wife and children in Lancashire) had been sold as a slave (see page 133 of this site). Blacks were “hauled to goal through the streets of Charleston for no offence but their colour” noted the Daily News of 13 August 1853, which mentioned Glasgow. The Morning Chronicle of London noted on 27 January 1857 “this shipping of free-coloured men to the Southern States of the Union is nothing more nor less than the revival of the slave trade on a small scale”. The numerous dark-skinned sailors of Britain knew all about this.

So did the officers of ships seeking crew in Liverpool and elsewhere (including France and the Bahamas). Two of the crew had signed on for the British ship Robin Hood bound for Antigua; others who were illiterate were told they were bound for New York. The Morning Chronicle headed its report “Kidnapping black seamen”. Many people in Liverpool and Birkenhead were fascinated, and there was “much sensation” as well as a “densely crowded” police court in Birkenhead. Thirteen of the sailors were released apparently because mutiny on an American ship was outside the responsibility of the court. Three men known to have used weapons were retained as was second mate Peter Campbell who had fired a revolver.

A local gentleman (sometimes “gentlemen”) financed the defence team and two men were discharged and Jeremiah Jones was bailed (Examiner, London 24 January). The first mate remained in hospital, where he died on 21 February. The second mate (Peter Campbell) was sent to Chester, to be tried at the April assizes. Crew members who were needed as witnesses were promised funding, but they missed sea-going employment as the days passed. Not everyone in Liverpool was sympathetic, and the couple who ran a sailors’ boarding house there were charged with threatening one sailor who was a witness. They were fined £20 each (Liverpool Mercury 4 March). The James L. Bogart reached Mobile on 22 March 1857 having been forced to shelter from a winter storm near Wales. Justice had been done elsewhere, for the unlicensed shipping master Thomas Hudson who lied that the destination was Antigua not Mobile was charged by a solicitor employed by the Board of Trade and fined £20 or three months in prison (Dundee Courier, 11 February; Hull Packet 13 February – the latter said the destination was said to be China).

Peter Campbell went on trial at Chester Assizes at the beginning of April 1857. Aged 28, he was accused of shooting James Chrystie (sic). The jury discussed the details for several hours, and found him guilty of intent to do grievous bodily harm. He was sentenced to be transported for life, a verdict that “created considerable excitement in court” (Daily News 4 April 1857). His victim still retained a bullet in his leg. And a sailor named Wesley or Wellesley, who had testified that as soon as he stepped foot on the ship he had been beaten and abused, sued the solicitor who had been involved in the prosecution of Campbell, claiming that he had not been paid all the money sent to the solicitor to keep him during the enforced spell of unemployment (Liverpool Mercury 10 June 1857).

The ill-treatment of sailors in general, and the threat of slavery faced by black sailors when docked in Southern ports, were well-known to the minority of Britons who read the newspapers as well as the sailors themselves. Who the sympathetic gentleman was remains unknown, as does the long term fate of the James L. Bogart which has the same name as a ship that took emigrants to Australia in 1853 and may have been one of Grinnell’s swallowtail line that took emigrants to New York in 1857 (Liverpool Mercury 16 January 1857).

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