Monday, January 2, 2023

George Cannon in St. Kitts

George Cannon visited the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean in late 1796 and/or early 1797. As detailed in an earlier post, George was first mate on the ship Helen which visited Angola in Africa and was authorized to obtain 328 slaves. After obtaining slaves the Helen was to sail to Barbados, then Antigua, to sell them. About December 7, 1796 the Helen was captured by the ship Scipio, a French privateer. 
This Muster Roll for the Helen was filed on May 10, 1797 in Liverpool, likely when Captain John Brine got back to Liverpool. Captain Brine notes on the Muster Roll that the Helen was "taken by the French." The crew was discharged on December 7, 1796, likely the date that the Helen was captured. 

This is a portion of the entry from the Muster Roll showing that George "Cannon" was 1st Mate. 
In the lingo of the times, the Scipio was the predator and the Helen was the chase. The captain of the Scipio would have signaled to Captain Brine to bring the Helen to, that is to bring her bow to the wind, come to a halt and await inspection. That is, if the Helen did not want to fight the Scipio. The signal could have been given by a signal flag, by speaking trumpet or by firing a gun.  An officer of the Scipio, accompanied by one other person and the sailors rowing them in a small boat, would have gone to the Helen and boarded. There the Scipio's officer would have inspected the Helen's registry, documents of origin, bills of lading, journals, logs and muster roll. The officer would have interviewed Captain Brine and the crew, called the muster roll and made sure each man was accounted for, then physically inspected the ship. He likely would have required Captain Brine to accompany him to the Scipio with the ship records so that the records could be reviewed further and Captain Brine interrogated. Once the Scipio captain determined that he had a good prize, he could have required the Helen captain and crew to board the Scipio and put some of his own crew on the Helen to sail it to a convenient French friendly port to have it adjudicated as a prize in a French prize court. Possible destinations would have been St. Lucia and Martinique which were controlled by the French at that time. 

Before the Scipio and the Helen could get to a destination for adjudication, the President Sloop, a ship in the British navy and part of Admiral Harvey's squadron, re-captured the Helen and probably the Scipio as well, and directed both ships to St. Kitts, an English possession, for adjudication. A similar interaction to what took place between the Scipio and the Helen, would have taken place between the President Sloop and the Helen and Scipio. 
The British regulation of prizes took place in a vice-admiralty court. Here is a link to an appeal of a prize court ruling in St. Kitts relating to a ship that was taken as a prize in 1799, just a couple of years after the Helen, which shows that St. Kitts had a vice-admiralty court. 

After arriving in St. Kitts, the ships papers would have been delivered to the admiralty-court judge so that the judge could determine the ownership and nationality of the vessel claimed as a prize, the nature and ownership of the cargo, and the origin and destination of the ship and cargo.  The judge then would have received the testimony of the master or mate (which could have been George Cannon in this case) of the prize vessel. The testimony was in the form of standard interrogatories (forms approved by the courts) which were read aloud and answered by the mariners and delivered to the judge. 

If the captor's claim was not warranted, the judge could order the immediate release of the ship and cargo and could issue a judgment for damages against the captor. If the judge found the ship and/or cargo were a good prize, they were sold at auction and the proceeds held by the court for satisfaction of valid claims by neutral claimants, such as cargo shippers, and then for distribution among the captain and crew of the captor. 

Under British law, the captain and crews of naval captors were entitled to prize compensation (the left-over proceeds from the auctioned ship and cargo), which could possibly have applied to the Scipio. However, the doctrine of postliminy provided that if a ship and cargo were captured during wartime, but came under power again by the British sovereign, in this case by the President sloop, the chase was restored to its original status and the naval commander and crew were not entitled to prize compensation.   

We don't know what happened in the admiralty-court, assuming one was involved, but it does not appear that the Helen and its crew was restored to Captain Brine. There could have been lingering questions that took more time to resolve. George Cannon probably signed on as part of the crew of another ship to get back to Liverpool.  

We don't know how long George Cannon spent in St. Kitts, but it could have been several months. Judy and I visited St. Kitts as part of a cruise, on March 14, 2017. When we visited I was conscious of the fact that my third great grandfather had been there 220 years earlier and I looked around for things that may have been there when he was, things he might have seen.

We landed in Basseterre, the capital and largest city of St. Kitts and Nevis. Pall Mall Square, now known as Independence Square, was the administrative, commercial and social center of Basseterre. 
The square was the site of the slave market where men, women and children were sold. The platform used for selling is right where the fountain now is. See Independence Square (Basseterre) in Wikipedia.  
Fort Charles, also known as Cleverley Point Fort, was a British Fort built on St. Kitts in 1670. It was captured in 1690 by French Caribbean forces which was the impetus for building Brimstone Hill Fortress above it. It had 40 guns in 1736. It is now abandoned and in ruins. 
I believe Fort Charles Fort is the greenish area at the point above the sea. We did not visit it, just saw it from above at Brimstone Hill Fortress. 

Brimstone Hill Fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built and maintained by enslaved Africans. It was built on a steep sloping hill on the west side of St. Kitts. By 1736 it had 49 guns. From 1795 it had 40 members of the "St. Christopher Corps of Embodied Slaves" serving there armed with pikes and cutlasses.   

The island of Nevis is in the background, to the right of the flagpole. 

The island of Sint Eustatius, owned by the Netherlands, is in the background. 

Romney Manor was purchased in about 1626 by the Earl of Romney from Sam Jefferson, third great grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S. It was a slave plantation that produced sugar cane, among other things. In 2013 a rum distillery was discovered that had been buried for many years. It had produced rum since at least 1681 and is the oldest intact distillery in the Caribbean. The grounds also have masonry which includes an aqueduct, chimney, mill house for crushing sugar cane, boiling house, lime kiln, and subterranean tunnel in addition to the distillery. 
The distillery.

The discussion of prize courts and process was found in The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail, by Donald A. Petrie, pp. 124, 147-163 (Berkley Books, New York, 1999).   

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like the slave trade was not only immoral, but very risky as well. It's incredible to think that one ship could "capture" another as you describe (and then that ship could be recaptured).