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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Pirates of the Wellington Brig. — How the Chief Mate of The Sisters captured a Convict Crew

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The Pirates of the Wellington Brig.
How the Chief Mate of The Sisters captured a Convict Crew.

“I DON'T like the looks of that brig, sir,” said Mr. Tapsell, the big red-bearded chief mate of the London whaleship The Sisters. He addressed his captain, Robert Duke, who had just returned from a brig called the Wellington, which had anchored off the beachside settlement of Kororareka, in the Bay of Islands. It was the custom of masters of vessels lying at that whaleship resort of a century ago to put off in their boats and meet strangers outside and pilot them in, and Captain Duke, with Captain Clarke, of the whaling barque Harriet—the only other vessel in the bay—had gone out to the brig when she was reported in the offing.

“Why, what's wrong with her, mister?” asked Duke, in an abrupt, surly tone, eyeing his officer unpleasantly.

“There are a great many people on board,” replied Tapsell, who had been scanning the brig intently through his long spyglass, “and they all seem to be quarterdeck hands.”

“Oh, no, it's all right,” said the captain, “she's got convicts from Sydney for Norfolk Island, as I've already told you. I saw them below. She was blown out of her course and she needs water and firewood.”

But Tapsell was not satisfied. He was a greatly-experienced sailor, had commanded ships himself, and his keen eyes and his seamanly sense told him that all was not right. He was a far more alert, intelligent man page 23 than Duke, who was an ignorant fellow, a bully, and a drunkard withal. He had often had to take charge of the ship while Duke applied himself to the brandy bottle in his cabin for days at a time, leaving everything to his big reliable officer. All that day Tapsell continued to watch the Wellington narrowly; she lay a cable's length from the whaleship, and between that vessel and the beach. There was an unusual number of people on her main-deck and poop, some walking about in groups, loudly talking, several carrying muskets, and all apparently on a footing of familiarity. The more he scanned the vessel and thought over Duke's words the stronger his suspicions grew. He came to the conclusion that she had been run away with. He recalled several stories of pirated vessels, stolen by convicts who overpowered the crew and military guard.

Walton, the man in command of the brig, was invited on board The Sisters to dinner. The Harriet's captain was also invited. Tapsell studied the guest closely. Walton seemed uneasy, furtive.

Tapsell rose when the meal was over, and addressing the man from the Wellington said, sternly:

“Walton, you have run away with that vessel.”

Walton, greatly startled, trembled and clutched the table edge. “I have!” he replied. “I couldn't help it.”

“That will do for me,” said Tapsell, and he went on deck.

The pirate commander of the Wellington was permitted to return to his ship; an armed boat's crew came for him.

A gale of wind blew next day. Mr. Tapsell was restless, uneasy about that brig. He wondered what had page 24 become of her officers and crew, for he had thought it useless the previous day to ask Walton what he had done with them. Had they been set adrift in a boat, or had Walton got rid of them by murder? It might be that they were locked up below—and that, as it turned out presently, was the fact.

∗ ∗ ∗

The Wellington was owned by Joseph Underwood, of Sydney, and had been chartered by the Governor of New South Wales to take sixty-five convicts to the penal station on Norfolk Island. Many of these were desperate characters; all were sentenced to “rigorous treatment.” Too well the wretched men realised what that meant. Hanging was preferable, if anything. Mutiny and seizure of the brig offered the only hope of liberty and life.

Just before dawn one morning, when they were within a hundred miles of Norfolk Island, Walton and some of his mates contrived to get free and secure arms, and with a concerted rush about thirty overpowered the captain and crew and the small military guard. There was a hot encounter for a few moments, but the crew and the soldiers were overcome, and were transferred in irons to the hold.

Then the mutineers discussed their immediate future. Walton pressed his mates to sail for the South Sea Islands, land the unwanted crew somewhere, and then go cruising eastward ho!—perhaps as far as South America—in search of pleasure and plunder.

But, unluckily for their plans, the Wellington was short of water. Walton, who took command of the brig, page 25 decided to run for the New Zealand coast, and water at the Bay of Islands before making for the tropic seas. If any of them were questioned, the explanation arranged was that the vessel was bound with passengers and a few men of a military guard to the mouth of the Thames (Waihou) River, in the Hauraki Gulf, to found a white settlement. This tale, however, was not adhered to, at any rate not by Walton. It was on Friday, January 5th, 1827, that they arrived at Kororareka anchorage. Five of the convicts went on shore and took up their quarters with the Maoris. The missionaries were alarmed; they soon discovered that these fellows, who were armed, were pirates.

The Rev. Henry Williams—the gallant Royal Navy Lieutenant who had become a missionary—boarded “The Sisters” in his boat from Paihia to communicate his suspicions about the brig. Some of the crew had been buying gunpowder from the traders on shore. Mr. Fairburn, one of the missionaries, had gone on board the Wellington soon after her arrival and was passing the captain's cabin, when a note was slipped into his hand. When he opened it, unseen, he read that the brig had been seized by the convicts and that the captain was forcibly detained below. Mr. Williams told Duke and Tapsell that he had mustered all the Maoris he could and urged them to capture the brig, but they would not risk an encounter with the well-armed desperados.

As Mr. Williams went over the whaleship's side into his boat, he said to the chief mate: “I hope you will not let her go.”

“She shall not go,” said Tapsell.

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The brig's people were busily engaged that day in filling their water-casks at the Waipara spring, the usual watering-place of shipping under the wooded Maiki Hill, in the northern corner of Kororareka Bay. Walton hurried on his preparations for sea. He realised now his fatal mistake in putting into the Bay. Next morning he was ready, and Captains Duke and Clarke went on board to pilot him out. One anchor was hove up and the other hove short on. Some hands went aloft and loosed the foretopsail, ready to hoist, but the wind was very light.

When Tapsell saw the brig hoist her foretopsail, he blew his whistle and summoned all hands. When the crew came aft, he said, standing at the break of the poop:

“Men, you see that brig. She's in the hands of a lot of bloody pirates. They've got the officers and crew and the guard down below locked up, and they'll murder them when they get to sea. It will be disgraceful if we let her go.”

“We're with you, sir!” said the spokesman of the crew. “You give the word and we'll obey.”

Tapsell gave orders for some of the crew to get the hawser up and clap a spring on the cable, and the rest to mount the guns and gets the muskets and ammunition ready. Most of the ship's carronades were down below; a swivel gun was permanently mounted on the poop.

Walton, in the Wellington, desperately anxious to get to sea, did not miss any of the warlike preparations in the whaleship lying outside of him. He said to the two captains who were with him: “You are here to sail page 27 me out of the harbour and now you are getting ready to give me a broadside. I'll keep you both on board.”

The pusillanimous Captain Duke protested that it was not his doing and that whatever his chief mate was about it was for his own protection in case the brig should drop alongside The Sisters. He gave his word of honour that the Wellington should be allowed to go to sea. On this the two whaleship commanders were allowed to leave the brig.

There was an angry scene when the two captains reached The Sisters. “What the devil d'ye mean by it—getting ready to fire on the brig?” Duke demanded.

“I'm going to prevent that damned rogue from going to sea!” declared Tapsell.

The cowardly Duke made a gesture of helplessness. “What can we do?” he asked. “Consider; there are eighty-five desperate characters on board.” (The real number was about sixty.)

Tapsell stuck to his guns. He turned to Captain Clarke, who was just as chicken-hearted as Captain Duke—and asked if he would permit the Harriet's crew to take a hand.

“I'll have nothing to do with it,” said Clarke, “but you can go and ask them.”

Tapsell went off in one of his whaleboats and saw the Harriet's mate. “I've got a wife and family,” said the mate, “and I'll not interfere.”

Tapsell heartily cursed the cautious mate as he returned in hot anger to his ship, and reported the result of his quest.

“There you are, Mister,” said Duke. “No one but a madman would have anything to do with it.”

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“Then I shall act the madman's part,” exclaimed Tapsell, and he went ahead with his gunnery preparations.

The wind had dropped to almost a calm; the pirated brig could not move. She lay at anchor all that night.

∗ ∗ ∗

There was a light breeze at daylight next morning Mr. Tapsell took command of the operations. His captain contented himself with looking on. The Harriet's captain had now decided to assist in the capture.

Both the whaleships hoisted the British ensign. Mr. Tapsell saw that all his guns were loaded and more ammunition ready. Then he carefully laid and fired the swivel gun on the poop.

It was well aimed. The nine-pound round shot struck the Wellington's foretopmast, and so damaged it that it presently carried away.

A cheer went up from the crew of The Sisters. Tapsell and his gun-crew reloaded the long swivel, and fired another shot. This, too, was a lucky one. The cannon-ball struck the brig's mainmast and cut it half through, two feet above the deck.

The main-deck guns now were fired. Tapsell ordered the gunners to fire at the masts and rigging, to avoid injury to the soldiers and crew in the hold.

By this time, Captain Duke, seeing that the brig was not going to make a fight of it, had plucked up courage. He stamped up and down the poop; he yelled, “Go it, me hearties! Give it to her! At her, me lads, let them have it hot!”

Now the Harriet took up the firing, and delivered four or five cannot-shot. Altogether the two ships fired about a dozen rounds.

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It was quite enough, for the convict brig was crippled. And not a single shot was fired in reply. Walton and his pirate crew had bolted down below when the one-sided naval engagement began.

Tapsell ordered “Cease firing.” He lowered a boat, and with an armed crew pulled over to the brig and took possession.

Walton was in a state of abject submission. He sat in his cabin, shivering. The crew—such of them as had not joined the pirates—and the soldiers were released and their irons knocked off, and the captain, Harwood, was restored to his command. The convicts were put in irons.

The Maoris now came off to the ship bringing several of the convicts who had been on shore; they had tied them up like pigs, with thongs of flax. Five or six remained uncaptured.

The Sisters and the Wellington, when the brig had been repaired, sailed in company for Sydney. At Captain Harwood's request thirty-two of the prisoners were taken on board The Sisters for safe keeping, leaving twenty-seven in the brig. The vessels kept in touch at night by signal lanterns. It was a terribly anxious voyage for Tapsell. The convicts were handcuffed with their hands behind them, but a clever scoundrel named Drummond slipped out of his manacles and loosed some of his companions. Drummond was sentenced to be flogged, and was triced up to the main rigging. After receiving two or three lashes he offered to reveal a plot for the seizure of the ship, and he was cast loose. The convicts had planned to seize the vessel and murder Tapsell. Captain Duke was to be spared.

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The plucky chief mate scarcely dared to take any rest on the voyage to Sydney. He went constantly armed, sometimes he continued to walk the deck while he dozed. Everything depended on him. It was a tremendous relief when at last the two ships sailed in through Sydney Heads, on the 9th. February, 1827, and dropped anchor.

The prisoners were charged with piracy. Of the fifty-nine, nine were sentenced to death. Four of these had their sentences commuted; the other five were hanged. All those not hanged were sent to the Norfolk Island hell.

As for Mr. Tapsell, his reward was to be “broken” by his mean-spirited captain, deprived of his position as chief officer, a coward's revenge. Presently, however, the brave sailor was off to New Zealand again, this time in command of a large Sydney schooner. But for his resolute action at the Bay of Islands, the captain, crew and guard of the Wellington brig would probably have gone the way of many a ship's crew in the old pirate traditions. At the best, they would have been cast adrift in an overcrowded boat in mid-ocean, perhaps to perish, or marooned on some desert island in the Pacific.