Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

A Foiled Mutiny

In 1857, the Norway was loaded with 1,038 Chinese coolies in Macau and departed for Havana, Cuba.

Three days after departure from Macau, there were early signs of mutinous activity.  From the first night on board, pirates, disguised as coolies, killed those that opposed their mutinous plan.  They had even selected a captain and crew to navigate their course after their eventual seizure of the ship.  One coolie was brought to the ship’s surgeon after being severely wounded with a cleaver in an altercation.  The injured coolie informed the captain of the pirates’ plans to start a riot and commandeer the ship.  The captain did not believe the wounded man’s story, but the coolie was quickly proven to be telling the truth.  Two nights later, the uprising began: “... suddenly a bright gleam of flame shot up from the forecastle, and a yell like that of ten thousand demons burst on the still night.”

The coolies’ first attempt to reach the deck was met with resistance.  Rifles and blunderbusses were distributed to the guards to shoot at the trapped coolies below the deck.  To add to the massacre, water was poured down the hatches in an attempt to extinguish the flames.  Unfortunately, the resulting smoke suffocated some of the coolies. 

The next morning, the coolies presented a piece of paper to the captain with their demands written with the blood of their fallen comrades.  The note said, “Three hundred coolies to be allowed on deck at one time. They shall navigate the ship and take her to Siam, where a certain number may leave her, after which she shall be allowed to proceed on her course. No signals of any kind shall be made to attract attention of other vessels.”  The captain was not receptive and responded with, “Burn and be damned.”  The coolies proposed a truce until nightfall.

That night, the ruthless attempt to escape began once again to tear down the hatches.  The crew was able to successfully quell the rebellion by shooting at the coolies through the hatches.  The coolies could not last under fire any longer and eventually conceded.  From that moment, everything was ‘smooth sailing,’ even though it took some time for the crew to be comfortable.  Despite the foreboding outset, the ship successfully arrived at Havana – with 70 dead coolies from the mutiny and an additional 60 from an epidemic of dysentery.

Source Cited:
1. Holden, Edgar. Harper's New Monthly Magazine: COOLIE TRADE, A CHAPTER ON. 29 Vol. Harper & Brothers, 06/01/1864. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. 1-10.

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