A distant relative, Keith Thomsen,
Duluth, Minnesota, wrote Mythic
mutiny that fleshes out Tolleif George Thomsen's story
of my g. g. g. grandfather Tolleif Thomsen's imprisonment and participation
in a mutiny. The story follows below.
I've always found the tale of Tolleif
Thomsen's imprisonment and participation in a mutiny the most
interesting and intriguing of Tolleif
George Thomsen's stories in "Saga
from Western Norway."
I've been doing some reading and
research on the period. My ultimate goal is to discover the date
of the mutiny and the name of the ship. The British maritime insurers
known as Lloyd's of London have kept records of ship losses dating
back to the 16th century. These are called Lloyd's Registers. By
checking 1807-14 registers for ships lost to mutiny on Icelandic
voyages, I hope to identify a possible ship or ships. A British
archive located in Kew, a suburb of London, contains crew lists
for English ships dating back to the 1500s. Finding Tolleif's name
on a roster will confirm the identity of the ship.
Unfortunately, these records are
not available on the Internet. But I have discovered a lot of interesting
information that fleshes out Tolleif's story. Here is George Thomsen's
narrative of the adventure. I've boldfaced parts where I can add
detail or explanation. The explanations keyed to the boldfaced items
follow the story.
"The ship he was on during the
war of 1809-1814 was boarded and captured in the North Sea,
and Tolleif and other unfortunates were taken to England and thrown
aboard the ill-reputed prison ships to rot away. They were
packed like herring in a barrel. Spoiled and meager rations, brutal
treatment and filth and vermin compounded a misery without description.
A protest was made in the English Parliament about the treatment
of the prisoners of war. A member stood up and said, They
are our enemies taken in war. Why should we care about what becomes
"Among the prisoners were some
ship captains and navigators. They took an interest in fellow
sufferers and started a school of navigation for those that
cared to attend. The study material was very poor, but with self-energy
and good will a great deal was accomplished. Many a young sailor
received his fundamental instruction that led to a captain's license
and an independent career. Tolleif was one of them."
"After having endured this life
for two and a half years, he took advantage of an offer made
by the English government to the Norwegian prisoners. England
was badly in need of sailors. The offer was that if they would
go with an English ship to Iceland after sheep, meat and
wool, they would get their liberty when they came back. They didn't
believe too much in the promises, but it was a chance to get out
of the misery for a while anyhow. How many responded I do not know,
but Tolleif and a man named Hans Helland went along. Hans Helland
was said to be from Sogn. Iceland belonged to Norway and Denmark
but laid there as an unprotected land in the North Atlantic and
was often visited by British ships during the long war... They made
the trip to Iceland and were returning to England when the ship
was driven by a northwest storm toward the coast of Norway.
The Norwegians aboard had forseen such a possibility and had planned
accordingly. They overpowered the English crew and shut them
in, and set their course for Norway. Before they got there, they
were observed and chased by a British man-of-war, but they
were able to slip in the rocky coast with their prize. Tolleif,
with his share of the prize money, bought a coast vessel."
This was the final phase of the conflicts
that wracked Europe for more than 25 years following the French
Revolution in 1789. They are usually called the Napoleonic Wars.
The term refers to Napoleon Bonaparte, the charismatic leader who
ruled France during much of the period.
In 1809 the situation was basically
one of stalemate. Napoleon and the French controlled most of Europe
by conquest, occupation, puppet governments or fragile treaty alliances.
The British, following their naval victory over the French and Spanish
fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, ruled the seas. They tried to bring
the French to their knees with a trade embargo enforced by a coastal
The trade embargo hurt Norway far
worse than France or its allies. Only 3 percent of Norway's land
is suitable for farming. To feed its people Norway had to trade
timber and fish for grain from Denmark and other north European
areas now controlled by Napoleon or his allies. When the British
cut off that trade, famine and starvation resulted in Norway. The
worst year was 1812, when Norway's own crops failed. People were
reduced to eating bread made of rye flour and pulverized tree bark.
Also called the hulks, these were
dismasted, rotting and unseaworthy former warships pressed into
service as floating prison camps. They were anchored at British
naval bases at Chatham, Woolwich Arsenal, Dartford, Portsmouth,
Portland, Plymouth and a few smaller stations. Tolleif was probably
held at Chatham, Woolwich or Dartford on the Thames River estuary
near London. The other bases are on the south and west coasts of
England, far from the North Sea trade routes most often used by
Prison ship inmates often had to
perform forced labor, particulary at Woolwich Arsenal, where they
loaded iron shot and powder aboard British warships. Poor food,
lack of medical care and crowded and unsanitary conditions on the
hulks lead to a high death rate from hulk fever (typhus). About
a quarter of those imprisoned on the hulks did not survive the experience,
a death rate higher than that of Nazi concentration camps during
World War II.
Norwegian sailors were considered
prisoners of war because Norway was then part of Denmark and the
Danish king had declared war on England. In theory Denmark-Norway
was supposed to be a dual kingdom but, in fact, Denmark dominated
the union. After the Battle of Trafalgar crippled the French and
Spanish fleets in 1805, Denmark had the largest navy in Europe.
The British were afraid the Danish ships would fall into Napoleon's
hands. They attacked Copenhagen in 1807 and seized the warships,
plus a lot of other Danish and Norwegian vessels. The Danes then
joined the French alliance system, bringing Norway into the conflict.
Since many Norwegians had lost ships to the British, and because
the war presented opportunities for privateering, few in Norway
opposed the war.
Imprisoning ordinary seamen with
ship's officers was a tremendous mistake on the part of the British,
a mistake compounded when they recruited these trained navigators
to crew a ship to Iceland. The imprisoned captains and navigators
taught Tolleif and the other Norwegian mutineers skills they would
need to pilot the seized ship safely to Norway. The excellence of
their training is shown by the fact that they did it and eluded
an English warship in the process.
Moreover, numerous psychological studies have shown that the keys
to surviving the POW experience are group solidarity, a sense of
purpose, religious faith and/or leadership. Prisoners who feel alone
and isolated will crack and collaborate; those who feel they are
part of a close-knit group will support one another and give their
allegience to that group's leaders, not the enemy. The fact that
the captains and navigators started classes shows they were providing
leadership and maintaining a form of ship's discipline. That discipline
paid off later. Tolleif's narrative indicates that he and his fellow
prisoners discussed the possibility of mutiny well in advance and
bided their time until the ship was loaded with cargo and the wind
became favorable. The plot was never betrayed, even though it probably
included as many as 20 to 30 sailors, the approximate number it
would take man a merchant ship after overpowering the British officers.
What the Norwegian sailors were taught
as navigation is not what we would consider navigation today. The
POWs did not have maps, charts, compasses, sextants or chronometers.
But aside from the compass, these were not widely available to Norwegian
ship captains and navigators of the day. An 1839, an investigation
found that of 200 Norwegian ships only five had sextants (for determining
latitude) and only two had chronometers (for determining longitude).
Sextants and chronometers were expensive, and the available maps
were often inaccurate.
Instead, most sailing was done with
a compass and various skills honed by years of personal experience
at sea. For example, most navigation in the Baltic Sea at the time
was done by sounding line. A lead weight capped with a sticky ball
of tallow was heaved overboard periodically. The depth of the water
plus the kind of silt and debris that stuck to the tallowed weight
when retrieved told an experienced captain where he was startling
It was this kind of lore that comprised
navigation in 1800. Other factors that aided navigators were a detailed
knowledge of local winds and currents, seasonal variation in those
winds and currents, weather patterns, tidal features, the behavior
of sea birds and mammals, the presence or absence of driftwood and
seaweed, and differences in the appearance of the sky and clouds
over land or ice.
Navigators also shared some information
among themselves about previous voyages. This information was summed
up under the title of sailing directions. Some sailing directions
were very detailed, such as which landmarks to line up when entering
a narrow harbor. Others sailing directions were far more general,
such as the compass bearing and normal sailing time between two
points with a favorable wind.
The value of this kind of information
is clearly shown in Tolleif's story. He and the other Norwegian
sailors expected a northwest gale near Iceland and waited for it
before carrying out their mutiny. They also managed to slip their
ship into the rugged coast of Norway where the British warship feared
to follow them.
The 2 1/2-year length of his imprisonment
and the general dates of the war given by Tolleif George Thomsen
- 1809 - 1814 - help narrow the time period when Tolleif was captured
and when the mutiny occurred. The war ended in April 1814. Therefore,
Tolleif could have been captured as early as 1809 but no later than
November 1811. The mutiny could have occurred as early as the last
half of 1811 but no later than early 1814.
However, there is a problem with
the beginning date cited by Tolleif George Thomsen. Denmark actually
declared war on England in 1807. Tolleif George may have been referring
to the famine that broke out in Norway during 1809, which first
brought the war home to ordinary people. Or it may simply be an
error; elsewhere in his book he refers to the war of 1807-1814.
At any rate, Tolleif could have been captured up to two years earlier.
That means he may have been a witness to a very bizarre incident
in Iceland during 1809. I'll explain this incident later.
It is interesting to note that Tolleif
was a surprisingly old man to be a sailor. He was born in 1779.
That means he was 30 to 35 years old at the time of the adventure.
The shortage of manpower was due
to the rapid expansion of the British Navy to meet the needs of
the war. The navy nearly tripled in size from 45,000 men in 1793
to 130,000 in 1800. Naval strength was largely maintained at that
level for the next 15 years.
The manpower demands of the Navy
had to be supplied, at least at first, from the merchant fleet.
In especially short supply were the highly skilled sailors called
topmen. These were the seamen who climbed into the rigging to change
and set sails in all kinds of weather while the masts swayed and
the ship pitched and rolled beneath them. On a British warship,
two-thirds of the crew could be untrained men to pull ropes, man
pumps, manhandle cannons and do other grunt work, but one-third
had to be topmen to actually sail the ship. It took about two years
of on-the-job training to become a good topman.
A merchant sailor's life was a hard
one. The English author and wit Samuel Johnson famously said that
being a sailor was like serving a term in prison - with the chance
of being drowned. Voyages were long and working conditions were
hard. Deaths and injuries from falls were common. Hernias were an
occupational hazard. Although the crew was divided into watches,
the men could be called out at all hours of the day or night to
work. Food was salt pork and salt beef with hardtack for months
on end. Groups of sailors called messmates were given their food
in buckets. All wooden ships leak to a certain extent, but this
was especially true of the bow or forecastle, which is pounded by
waves. That's where the sailors had to sleep, commonly in low-ceilinged
(41/2 feet), damp, unlit, airless quarters.
Conditions in the Royal Navy were
even worse. Navy sailors received only a quarter of the pay given
merchant seamen and were subject to brutal discipline. They were
beaten or flogged with a whip made of knotted rope ends called a
cat-o'-nine tails. The phrases "not enough room to swing a
cat" or "let the cat out of the bag" refer to use
of this instrument of punishment. Flogging was ordered for offenses
as minor as complaining about the food, so its use was common and
widespread. A generation earlier a British Navy captain, James Cook,
made three famous exploring voyages to the Pacific Ocean. He had
a reputation in the British Navy as a particularly kind and humane
commander, but records of his voyages show that he flogged a quarter
of the men who served under him. About the only "benefit"
British Navy sailors received was a daily issue of a half-pint of
rum, but this only meant that sailors sometimes went about their
duties drunk as well as malnourished and exhausted.
The root of the problem was cultural.
England was an extremely class-conscious society with multiple layers
of social snobbery. Those on the low end of the social pecking order
had to be "shown their place." Navy officers considered
themselves gentlemen, and they treated the people they commanded
like the scum of the earth. As a result, the British Navy could
only recruit the scum of the earth to serve on their ships.
When the war began, the British Navy
staffed its ships merely with dregs of society - the poor, destitute
and unemployed, orphans, drunks, runaway husbands and fathers of
illegitimate children. Jails were emptied of those convicted of
minor offenses, such as smuggling and default on debt. But soon
there weren't enough reprobates to meet manpower needs.
At this point, one could think the
British Navy would improve the pay and living conditions of sailors
to foster recruitment, but it didn't. Instead, suspects in serious
criminal cases were offered the choice of long prison terms or joining
the navy. Foreign prisoners of war like Tolleif were forced to serve.
Bounties and quotas were issued to local authorities to provide
recruits with no questions asked. And the British Navy itself resorted
to a form of legalized kidnapping called "the press."
Gangs of eight to 12 armed men under the direction of a naval officer
would scour sea ports to locate men between ages 18 and 55. These
were then "persuaded" to join the Navy. Methods of persuasion
included plying prospective recruits with drink, tricking them into
signing up, threatening them with swords and pistols and even assaulting
and kidnapping them. Recruits gained by these means were then taken
to jails or prison hulks, where they were held until they were taken
aboard ships ready to sail.
This supplied the British Navy with
the unskilled labor it needed but not the prized topmen. To solve
this problem Navy captains stopped merchant ships at sea and took
the topmen they needed by force. This was deemed legal as long as
they replaced the topmen with the same number of unskilled sailors
from their own ships. Soon the British were stopping American ships
seeking British sailors serving there to avoid the press. Then they
started seizing American sailors born before America achieved independence
in 1783, claiming such men were British citizens. The result was
that America joined the war against the British in 1812.
With such manpower problems, it is
not surprising that Tolleif and the other Norwegians were signed
for the Iceland voyage. But they may also have been recruited because
of their language and possible knowledge of Iceland trading. Icelanders
spoke Old Norse, a language dating back to the Middle Ages. Norwegian
was the closest modern language to Old Norse.
Interpreters were needed because
Iceland was completely new territory to English merchants. Until
the early 1800s, the island nation was the most isolated place in
the western world. Like Norway, it was ruled by Denmark but with
a much heavier hand. The Icelanders, descendants of famous sailors
called Vikings, were now without timber to make their own ships
and so were completely dependent on the Danes. The Danes monopolized
Iceland's trade, restricting business to just six Copenhagen merchants.
Ships from other nations were forbidden to enter Icelandic ports,
and smuggling or trading goods with merchants from other countries
was a crime. When Denmark entered the war on the side of Napoleon
and France, the British acted to break this business monopoly, sending
ships to Iceland to trade for fish, mutton and wool.
That leads us to the bizzare incident
I mentioned earlier. Among the sailors on the first British trading
expedition to Iceland in 1809 was Jorgen Jorgensen, a Dane born
about 1780 in Copenhagen. His father was a clockmaker for the Danish
king. Jorgen was well educated and could speak and read English,
Latin, French and German, but he sought his fortune as a sailor.
The early details are murky, but he had made at least one long voyage
on a whaling ship that visited British colonies in South Africa,
Australia and New Zealand. In 1809, he was incarcerated aboard a
prison hulk, ostensibly for non-payment of gambling debts. Normally,
debtors were held in less restrictive debtors' prisons, so there
must have been more to his crimes than meets the eye. Perhaps he
was being held as an enemy alien because of the war. As an experienced
sailor and Dane who could speak English, he was recruited for the
first Iceland voyage as an interpreter.
When the unarmed British ships arrived
in Iceland, their captains found that the goods they wanted were
in the hands of Danish shippers and that Danish government officials
were still ruling the island. The Danish governor, Count Trampp,
stubbornly refused to allow trade with the British despite threats.
He was not entirely motivated by Danish patriotism. He owned one
of the few ships that escaped British seizure in 1807 and the only
one licensed for the Iceland trade. He stood to lose a great deal
of money if the British were allowed into the market.
In the midst of this standoff, the
30-year-old Jorgensen somehow persuaded the British ship captains
to allow him to declare Iceland independent, imprison Trampp, name
himself "king" and begin issuing trading licensis. Within
a month, Jorgensen had designed a national flag of three codfish
rampant on a blue background and was issuing governmental proclamations
signed by "his Excellency, the Protector of Iceland and the
Commander in Chief by Sea and Land." He was also constructing
a fort as his headquarters and had formed a personal bodyguard of
12 armed sailors.
At that point, A Britsh Navy frigate,
H.M.S. Talbot, arrived in Iceland to check on the trading expedition.The
captain, Alex Jones, was appalled by Jorgensen's unauthorized overthrow
the Icelandic government and hijacking of British foreign policy
in regard to Denmark. Jones immediately invited Jorgensen to leave
under armed escort, thus ending Icelandic independence for the moment.
Jones' heavily armed frigate convinced the Danes to part with the
trade goods without Jorgensen's help.
Jorgensen's quixotic career did not
end with this incident. Details are again somewhat murky, but he
served as a British spy and was present at the Battle of Waterloo
in 1815, performing unspecified duties. In 1826 he was sentenced
to death by the British, this time for selling the sheets from his
bed at an inn to pay more gambling debts. The death sentence was
commuted, and he was transported as a convict to the island of Tasmania,
a part of Australia. There he became an explorer and naturalist
of sorts, wrote several books and received a pardon for his crimes.
In a final ironic twist to his career, he became a British police
officer. He died in poverty in Hobart, Australia, in 1841.
This was an extremely desperate and
dangerous act carried out by desperate men. The rebellion of sailors
against a ship's officers is mutiny. The stealing of a ship and
its cargo is piracy. Both were capital crimes in the eyes of the
British, ranking alongside premediated murder and treason. Sailors
on British ships signed an agreement called the Articles of War
when they shipped out on a voyage. Article XIX says: "If any
Person in or belonging to the Fleet shall make or endeavor to make
any mutinous Assembly upon any Pretense whatsoever, every person
offending herein, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of
the Court-martial, shall suffer death."
Sailors caught in a mutiny or piracy
were in some cases executed by hanging from a yardarm after brief
kangaroo courts. For corroboration, see the story of Taulerius Thomsen's
encounter with Chinese pirates and the British response in "Saga
from Western Norway." The British were still summarily executing
suspected pirates in the1850s.
However, there was more than a little
hypocrisy in the British position on piracy. For one thing, in times
of war the British government actually issued licenses to private
individuals to fit out armed ships to prey on enemy merchant shipping.
These people were called privateers. Moreover, the British allowed
men in the British Navy to keep and sell ships they captured in
the pursuit of their duties. They
even instituted an elaborate system for distributing the proceeds
to crewmen based on eighths - three-eighths going to the captain,
three-eighths going to the other ship officers, and two-eighths
to ordinary seamen. There were several hundred sailors splitting
the final two-eighths so each got very little, but British Navy
officers could and did become fabulously wealthy during the Napoleonic
Wars based on this system.
It should be noted that the British
weren't alone in this. Almost all nations at war at the time winked
at piracy waged on their own behalf, including the United States.
John Paul Jones, a Revolutionary War hero, was primarily a pirate.
At first glance this detail would
seem to be wrong. Norway is east of Iceland. A northwest wind would
blow a ship to the southeast - directly toward England. But the
physics of a sailing ship are such that it can travel as rapidly
and efficiently with the wind on one of its stern quarters as it
can with a direct tailwind. With a tailwind, the sails and masts
of the ship act as a giant lever driving the bow deeper into the
sea, and the ship faces marginally greater resistence to forward
movement. But sails can easily be set to catch a stern quarter wind,
and the ship heels over to slice more efficiently through the water.
In Tolleif's case, that meant the northwest storm was ideal for
the crew to sail rapidly east to Norway.
A storm with heavy wind and rain
would also have provided cover for a mutiny if the ship was part
of a convoy or had a military escort. Gales commonly scattered fleets
as sailing ships maneuvered to meet the danger, usually by quartering
away from the wind and taking in sails.
The British man-of-war was probably
enforcing the blockade off the coast of Norway, not escorting the
trading ships. It was most likely a frigate, schooner, bark or brig
- all small, fast sailing ships from 100 to 200 feet long with fewer
than 20 guns and about 100 sailors aboard. Although lightly armed
by standards of the day, they were more than a match for any merchant
ship. A full-size British warship of the time carried an average
of 74 cannons and had to be broad of beam to be a stable gun platform.
These ships were little faster than similarly built merchant ships.
The speed of small, deadly ships like frigates made them a good
choice for blockade work that involved finding and running down
the slower, bulkier trading ships. The fact that the Norwegian sailors
were able to evade one of these ships is a testament to both their
luck and their skill.
The Norwegian coast is a dangerous
one when approached by inexperienced sailors from the open sea.
It is a maze of offshore islands, reefs, headlands, skerries, tidal
rips, currents and shifting winds. Sailing ships are extremely difficult
to stop or maneuver in unfavorable wind, so they are in greatest
danger when approaching an unknown shore. The pursuing British captain
would have been reluctant to risk his ship in such waters to nab
a pirated ship, but the Norwegians had nothing to lose since they
faced possible execution or imprisonment if captured. They were
experienced in sailing such waters and may have known exactly where
they were. And the training they got in those prison hulk navigation
classes may have come into play.
First, some definitions. A ship and
cargo taken by force at sea is called a prize. When such ships and
cargoes are sold at a neutral port, the money is split among all
the sailors who seized it. This is called the prize money.
I've already explained the hypocritical
attitude taken by most nations toward piracy at the time. Basically,
it was a heinous crime if it happened to one's own merchant ships
but it was a noble act of war if carried out against an enemy vessel.
This hypocrisy extended to the selling of such ships. Certain ports,
including the port of Bergen at the time of the Napoleonic Wars,
had reputations as ready markets for pirated ships. Special courts
were set up to administer such sales and settle disputes about the
splitting of the prize money. Sometimes more than one ship took
part in a capture, causing endless wrangling about who should get
This is how Tolleif got his share
of the prize money. The amount must have been substantial, the prize
rich and the number of sailors involved in the mutiny rather small.
His prize money was large enough that he bought his own small trading
vessel, and his friend Hans Helland became a Bergen merchant.
Copyright © 2006, Roger Fossum
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