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In the letter written by George Cadogan, which acted as the opening statement for the prosecution at the court martial of the Ferret mutineers, he requested that his conduct should be investigated “for the motives said to be the cause of the Complaint which induced the Ships Company to commit so horrid an act.”   This investigation did not occur during the court martial, which may appear to be a serious omission in the proceedings.   It should be remembered though that the purpose of the court martial was to try the prisoners for mutiny and not the captain for ill-usage. However there is some evidence to suggest that prior to the court martial, Cadogan had indeed been cleared of these allegations.  In a letter dated Oct 13 1806, written to his father, the 1st  Earl, Cadogan states that the mutineers:

charged me with tyranny and oppression and I consequently would never consent to try them until a public investigation had taken place upon me, this happened four (?) days ago and I received a most flattering acquittal.

Cadogan’s dates are clearly confused as the court martial took place on the 8th of October, five days prior to the letter of the 13th.   However the word “four” appears to have been overwritten in the letter and as Cadogan describes his state of mind as “so agitated and wretched”, it is perhaps understandable that he is unclear as to the passage of days.  However Cadogan’s letter does imply that some kind of investigation took place prior to the formal court martial.  This investigation may have been undertaken by a court of inquiry.

In Crime and Punishment in the Royal Navy: Discipline in the Leeward Islands Station 1784 – 1812 John D. Bryn Jr. describes the purpose and constitution of courts of inquiry in some detail.  Courts of inquiry were called by Commanders-in-Chief to address complaints, investigate the guilt or innocence of the parties involved and decide whether there were sufficient grounds to bring the case before a court martial.   As they had no statutory basis, courts of inquiry were less formal than courts martial, evidence was presented orally, witnesses did not testify under oath and reports of proceedings varied enormously in content and detail.  It appears that in some cases, if an allegation was deemed to be unfounded, no formal report was submitted at all, possibly so as not to taint the reputation of the defendants.  No evidence has surfaced of a court of inquiry to investigate the Ferret mutineers’ allegations of tyranny and oppression against George Cadogan, however his own letter strongly suggests that some such investigation did take place.

It is very hard to assess the veracity of the mutineers’ allegations of brutality and ill-usage on the basis of the court martial transcript alone, however some evidence of Cadogan’s conduct was presented to the court.  Seaman Gray testified that on the day of the mutiny:

The captain was exercising the men on the foretopsail yard for not reefing the foretopsail quick enough, and said if they did not reef the foretopsail as quick as the main he would flog them, the Captain then sent for the Carpenters to rig the gratings. Stallard and Martin said that if any of the men was tied up they would cut him down and turn to right good fellows.

Seaman Martin also complained that his arm had been injured by starting but the ships surgeon said that “his arm appeared a little bruised, but not so as to prevent him from doing his duty.”

Detailed evidence of Cadogan’s conduct, and of the punishments he authorized, should have been recorded in the captain’s log of the Ferret, but unfortunately this document has not survived.   However the master’s log is extant and it does indeed reveal that there was a serious discipline problem aboard the sloop. Between the dates of 7th June 1806 and the mutiny on the 26th September the Ferret’s master, P. W. Gawthrop, records a total of 42 separate incidents of punishment, ranging from 12 to 48 lashes, mostly for insolence, drunkenness, disobedience of orders and neglect of duty. Although Gawthrop does not record the identity of all the seamen punished, the names of several of the mutineers do appear in the log, including Armstrong, Whitfield, Lee, Powell and Sybelle. The most severe punishment recorded is an astonishing 90 lashes for drunkenness, which was meted out to Edward Jones, the mutineer who turned King’s evidence and who had already been punished and pardoned for deserting from his previous ship. The master’s log also reveals that the misdemeanour for which boatswain Thomas Simpson was reprimanded was neglecting to square the yard before the wind, contrary to express orders.

The Point of Honour by George Cruikshank, © National Maritime Museum.

The rate and severity of the punishments handed out on the Ferret is indeed harsh, however Bryn’s meticulous analysis of the disciplinary record of 73 ships stationed in the Lesser Antilles between 1784 and 1812 demonstrates that it is by no means excessive for the Leeward Islands station at this time.  As the Ferret does not meet Bryn’s rigorous sample selection criteria 1, the sloop is not included in his survey, however his analysis shows that it was not uncommon for captains to punish upwards of 20% of their crew   It is impossible to make a precise comparison of the Ferret’s punishment record to Bryn’s statistics as the master’s log only records the number of punishments handed out, not the identity of the men punished. So although 42 separate punishment incidents were recorded over a six month period, it is impossible to ascertain the number of individual men that were punished.   Broadly speaking it appears that although George Cadogan was a punitive captain, his punishment record was no more harsh than other captains on the same station.

It is also interesting to compare the punishment record of the Ferret with that of the Cyane, Cadogan’s previous command on the West Indies Station. Cadogan captained the Cyane, 18, from August 1804 to May 1805 during which time the sloop took four prizes including the French brig privateer La Bonaparte, 18 guns, 150 men and Spanish privateer Justitia, 7 guns, 86 men. Over this ten month period the log records just seven individual punishments ranging from 12 to 36 lashes for drunkenness, neglect of duty and insolence. A successful command by any measure, although the severity of the occasional punishments suggests that Cadogan may already have begun to struggle with discipline.

There is no denying the evidence that George Cadogan was a “taut hand”, and although such harsh discipline may have been common on the station at this time, this does little to negate the charges of ill usage and brutality. However the master’s log of the Ferret not only records the apparent tyranny of the captain, it also reveals a considerable lack of discipline amongst the men.  On the evidence of the frequency and nature of the misdemeanors recorded, it is not too far fetched to suggest that there seems to have been a slow burning war of attrition between Cadogan and elements of the crew; with the captain struggling to maintain discipline and resorting to brutal measures, and the crew responding with insubordination and, ultimately, mutiny.

It is significant that when Cadogan took command, the Ferret was a newly commissioned sloop, fresh off the blocks at Dartmouth, with a new crew, commissioned and warrant officers. The Ferret’s muster reveals that many of the crew came from the Salvador del Mundo, the massive 112 gun, first rate ship of the line captured during the battle of Cape Saint Vincent, and subsequently commissioned as a receiving ship at Hamoaze in 1803.   Receiving ships were hulks that housed seamen between commissions, newly pressed or recruited men, prisoners awaiting trial and those already convicted of offences.  So a crew such as the Ferret’s, assembled from the receiving ship would not only have been new to the ship and her officers, they would also have been new to each other.   In addition, it is quite likely that a good few of them were indeed “bad spirits”; pressed men, the sweeping’s of the county gaols, the dregs of the quota act or men that had been turned out of other ships. Forming such a mixed bunch into a competent and disciplined crew would have required considerable strength of character and ability to command, which it appears George Cadogan lacked.

The role of the boatswain, Thomas Simpson, is key to both the mutiny and the lack of discipline on board the Ferret.  Although Simpson was a warrant officer of several years standing, his appointment to the Ferret represented his first boatswain’s warrant.  Prior to joining the sloop, he had been appointed as acting carpenter of the Cerf 2. Despite playing no active part in the insurrection, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Simpson, the warrant officer who should have been responsible for maintaining discipline among the men, incited them to mutiny instead.

Simpson appears to have been careful not to have been seen on the night of the insurrection and to have absented himself after calling the mutinous assembly in his cabin, however the testimony of the seamen is consistently against him and ultimately the court martial condemned him as the ring leader of the mutiny.

It is possible that Simpson was motivated purely by a sense of injustice and outrage at the captain’s ill-usage of the men. However the evidence put forward at the court martial suggests that the boatswain’s actions were at least partially motivated by a more personal grudge. Simpson had already been removed from duty and was facing the threat of a court martial and disrating prior to the mutiny; although he had not been confined to the brig or his cabin. As the boatswain of a sloop, Simpson would have been appointed by Admiralty Warrant and consequently could not be disrated by the captain alone, hence the necessity for the court martial. Perhaps Simpson hoped to dispose of the captain and make off with the ship rather than face the prospect of loosing his warrant and his livelihood before a court martial.

Whatever the case, any breakdown in the chain of command between the captain and the boatswain on a ship as small as the Ferret would have had a disastrous impact on the discipline of the crew. In Frigates, Sloops and Brigs James Henderson has pointed out that commanding small ships of war, such as brigs, sloops, barques and cutters, presented a unique challenge. The Ferret, with 18 guns, was a small ship, just 100 feet in length, but she carried a large crew of 121 men with almost a full complement of commissioned and warrant officers including captain, master, two lieutenants, several midshipmen, gunner, carpenter, surgeon, boatswain and a small company of marines. Conditions would have been extremely cramped and as Henderson notes “Discipline in close quarters is always difficult, and depends very much on the personality of the commander.” With officers and men crammed together in such confined quarters it could be difficult to maintain the distance and authority of command. Some men, such as Cochrane, excelled at commanding these small ships, others such as Pigot and Bligh failed and resorted to brutality to enforce their authority. Few men were as gifted as Cochrane or as cruel as Pigot and this is equally true of George Cadogan, though it is undeniable that he was unable to command the Ferret without reporting to force.   However James and Gutteridge’s allegations that Cadogan was a “carbon copy” of Pigot still appear wide of the mark.

Bryn acknowledges the difficulty of “drawing the line between strict discipline and tyranny” but he agrees with Dudley Pope, author of an account of the Hermione mutiny; The Black Ship, that “…the Pigots…were rare.  In fact between 1784 and 1812 only three officers were convicted of tyrannical behavior on the Leeward Islands station.” Bryn also notes that all genuine complaints of brutality were normally investigated by courts of inquiry, and if there were sufficient grounds, the accused was brought before a court martial.  In addition to the three officers convicted, a further eight officers were tried and acquitted on charges of tyranny and brutality on the Leeward Islands station during the same period.  It is unclear whether the eight officers acquitted were tried by courts martial or courts of inquiry and, as Bryn does not name the officers in question, we do not know if Cadogan is included in these figures.

After the court martial Cadogan was not transferred to another ship as Gutteridge claimed, he remained in command of the sloop until July 1807.  In the final six months that Cadogan commanded the Ferret, the master’s log continues to record a number of punishments for neglect of duty, although their rate and severity diminishes noticeably. This may be due to the fact that the sloop spent considerable time in port from February 1807 onwards, however it is more than likely that the capital sentence handed down to the mutineers discouraged further insubordination. It is also possible that there was less discontent amongst the crew once the “bad spirits” had been removed. However it is telling that Pearman claims in The Cadogan’s at War that the Ferret’s next commander also found her crew to be “obdurate”.


1.  Bryn’s sample was based on the following criteria: “only those vessels sent to the Lesser Antilles between 1784 and 1812 for which a complete captain’s of master’s log exists for the entire cruise were considered for inclusion in the survey. Moreover of this group, only those men-of-war whose complete book matches exactly the surviving portions of it’s other log actually have been included in the sample.”  The Ferret does not meet these criteria as only the master’s log is extant.

2. Somewhat confusingly, the Cerf, had originally been George Cadogan’s previous command the Cyane.  After her capture the Cyane remained in French hands for only a matter of months before she was retaken by the British.  However, by the time she was recovered, a new Cyane had been commissioned, so the original Cyane was re-commissioned as the Cerf.