<% Option Explicit %> Mythic mutiny

Mythic mutiny

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.

Tolleif's 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 of them?"

"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."


"...the war of 1809-1814..."

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 blockade.

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.

"... ill-reputed prison ships ..."

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 Norwegian ships.

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.

"... prisoners of war..."

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.

"... ship captains and navigators..."

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.

"... school of navigation..."

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 accuracy.

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.

"... two and a half years..."

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.

" England was badly in need of sailors..."

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.

"... go with an English ship to Iceland..."

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.

"They overpowered the English crew..."

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.

"...driven by a northwest storm..."

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.

"... chased by a British man-of-war..."

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 rocky coast..."

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.

"... his share of the prize money..."

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 what.

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.


Written by
Keith Thomsen