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On 30th March 1806 George Cadogan took command of His Majesty’s Sloop Ferret, 18. The Ferret was a newly commissioned ship, with a crew assembled from the receiving ship at Plymouth. Cadogan struggled to maintain discipline on board his new command and six months later, on the 26th September 1806, the crew mutinied with the apparent intention of emulating the bloody Hermione affair by killing the captain and turning the sloop over to the French or Spanish at La Guaira.

Several short accounts of the Ferret mutiny have appeared in print over the last 200, years some of which condemn Captain Caodogan for brutality and others which fete him as a hero.

One of the earliest published reports of the Ferret mutiny is a curious third hand account that appears in Blackwoods Magazine, 1886, in the anonymous column “Musing Without Method”. The author, one Charles Whibley, claimed that the account was related to him by one who “knew him (Cadogan) well”. Given that Cadogan lived until 1864, Whibley’s claim is entirely possible. Whibley’s justification for publishing the piece is that no account of the mutiny is included in biographies of Cadogan and that he has a duty to record the event “as the memory of it will probably disappear with the men of my generation.” Whibley acknowledges that Cadogan was a strict disciplinarian, describing him as a “taut hand”, but also speculates that there were probably some “bad spirits” among his crew. Whibley’s tells how Cadogan was woken in the night by a warning from an “old quartermaster” who called “Sir the ship’s company” through the cabin skylight. Cadogan leaped through the skylight, dressed only in “drawers and shirt” and confronted a seaman with a cutlass who confessed his job was to cut him down as he come up the ladder. George “felled him with a stroke of his sabre” saying “Damn you! You’re a brave man at any rate, and I’ll save your life if I can.” The mutineers, staggered by the captain appearing undaunted in his nightclothes, fell back and Cadogan called up the marines and officers. He then ordered the mutineers into the rigging and threatened to shoot anyone who reminded on deck. There they remained for two or three days, with food and water conveyed to them by the ships boys until the Ferret put in to Port Royal two or three days later. Following a court martial eleven mutineers were hung and Cadogan put back out to sea with the remainder of the crew.

While much of Whibley’s version of events ties in with other accounts, the detail of the mutineers being confined to the rigging until the ship reached Port Royal, seems far fetched and appears nowhere else.

Leonard Gutteridge author of Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection takes a more damning view of events, and briefly describes Cadogan as a “carbon copy” of the Hermione’s Captain Hugh Pigot, a man with a long record of dishonesty and brutality. Gutteridge believes that the Ferret’s crew lacked the intent to carry through the mutiny.

They got as far as confronting Cadogan with cutlasses and boarding pikes but he managed to cow them with a pistol, ignored their complaints of “ill usage by flogging and starving” and had his marines arrest the ringleaders.

Following a court martial in Port Royal eleven mutineers were sentenced to hang and Gutteridge claims the Admiralty quickly moved Cadogan to another ship.

Lawrence James takes a similar line in Aristocrats: Power, Grace and Decadence – Britain’s Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present, describing the events of the mutiny as follows:

Captain George Cadogan, later the 5th Earl Cadogan, was a martinet who commanded through fear and flogged the crew of HMS Ferret mercilessly to the point where some mutinied in 1806. A brave man, Cadogan faced the mutineers stark naked and brandished a pistol and cutlass, telling them he had one life to live. They flinched and then submitted; afterwards he told one that he would not have him shot for “I am more than a gentleman”. The spared man turned evidence against the other mutineers. Cadogan rose to the rank of Admiral.

In Mutiny in the British and Commonwealth Forces, 1797-1956, the same author claims that Cadogan was “a pitiless officer whose remorseless use of the lash made Pigot appear gentle.”

Setting aside the comparison with Pigot for the time being, Gutteridge is wrong on two counts. The Admiralty court martial documents reveal that the allegations made against the captain were “flogging and starting”, i.e. beating the men with a boatswain’s starter, rather than “flogging and starving”. Also Cadogan was not immediately transferred to another ship. His service record shows that he continued to command the Ferret for another six months until he left both the sloop and the West Indies Station in June 1807. James is mistaken that Cadogan became the 5th Earl, that title belonged to his grandson, he himself became the 3rd Earl Cadogan.

Pearman, author of The Cadogan’s at War: The Third Earl Cadogan and His Family, 1783-1864 provides a more balanced version of events based on the account of the Ferret’s First Lieutenant White. White describes how, roused by the mutineers, Cadogan appeared naked at the wardroom door armed with a pistol and cutlass shouting “Officers are you armed?” He then turned to face the armed mutineers proclaiming that “he had but one life to loose and he would have one of them”. The mutineer’s courage failed in the face of the captain’s determination and they dropped their weapons. The ringleaders were placed in irons along with Marine Grey, the man chosen to execute the captain. George declined to shoot him, stating “I am more of a gentleman”.

Examination of the original court martial transcript, which will appear in the next post, shows that there are elements of truth in all these accounts, however there is little real evidence to support the allegation that George Cadogan was remotely comparable to the notorious Captain Hugh Pigot.