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- September 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
ON 26 NOVEMBER 1812 HMS Samarang, sloop-of-war commanded by Captain William Case, arrived at Port Jackson from Madras with a quantity of specie in dollars for the use of the colony. Welcome though the dollars were at that time, the gallant captain and his crew soon became somewhat less than a delight to the Governor and his officers. Trouble began over a private requisition from Captain Case to the Governor for some coal for his own use on board the Samarang. As the government colonial vessel Estramina had just arrived with a lading of coal from Newcastle, Governor Macquarie arranged for her to be hauled alongside the sloop-of-war. Mr. Robert Watson, the Harbour-master, was ordered to repair on board to see that the transhipment was effected with the least possible delay. From the official records we can read four versions of what transpired.
Watson stated that he stayed on board to watch about one hundred baskets of coal being transferred, when Mr. John Ballard, sailing master of the Samarang, came on board the Estramina and said that the total supplied should be calculated by taking the actual weight of one basket to be the average of all. This would have been quite reasonable had Ballard taken a basket at random and weighed it as it was, but he chose to strike off about twenty pounds’ weight of coal from his sample basket so as to make the contents level with the rim before it was weighed.
Watson objected strongly on behalf of his son Edward, who was master of the Estramina and who, as he later explained, was a young and inexperienced man who was fearful to make the objection himself.
Watson followed up his objection by commencing to shovel the displaced coal back into the basket. At this Ballard, according to Watson, grabbed him by the collar, shook him and, after Edward Watson had intervened, abused him ‘in gross and unbecoming terms’.
On then being threatened with arrest and being put in irons, Watson stood on his dignity, and went on board the Samarang of his own accord – and was immediately put in irons within the main hatchway for his pains. Here he was left for about fifteen minutes. He was then taken before Captain Case and was told that he would be released if he apologised to the sailing master.
This Watson refused to do. He was again put in irons, and not released until another forty-five minutes or so had passed.
Captain Case’s version of the story was that a man on board the colonial schooner, in a state of inebriety, had struck the sailingmaster while in the execution of his duty, upon hearing which the Captain himself had ordered Watson on board the Samarang, to be taken charge of until sober, at which time he found that Watson was Boatswain of the Dockyard, and had released him. Oh! the wicked Captain to dissemble thus! Besides which, he added that the master of a King’s ship is considered as a gentleman, and in reviewing the evidence there certainly should be some distinction made between Ballard and Watson on this score. Case had the gall to quote the Naval Articles of War, conveniently forgetting that Watson could not be held liable as ‘an officer, mariner or soldier in or belonging to the Fleet’ by any stretch of the imagination, as Macquarie soon pointed out in his reply.
The sailing-master, John Ballard, had an even better explanation, in that Edward Watson had told him that each basket of coal weighed one hundredweight, which Ballard doubted. He alleged that, when in the act of weighing a basket James Watson directed more coals to be added and on his stating that the basket was sufficiently full, and begging Watson to desist, that both Watsons collared him. A likely yarn?
This episode led to a long series of letters between Governor Macquarie and Captain Case, both of whom exhibited evidence of righteous indignation and of inter-service acrimony. The Samarang sailed for India within a few weeks of these events, no doubt to the relief of all the colonial officials. Their relief was short-lived, however, for the Samarang reappeared only one day later, on 8 January 1813, because she was found to be in such a leaking condition almost as soon as she had cleared the Heads that they feared for her safety.
Official feeling against Captain Case hardened when several convicts, missing after the sloop had sailed, were found to be serving on board under fictitious names. They can hardly have been acquainted with Dr Samuel Johnson’s statement the ‘no man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail: for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned . . .a man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company .
Governor Macquarie had reason to believe that Captain Case knew full well that he had shipped convicts, but was willing to suppose that they had passed themselves off as free men, and he wrote to the Captain accordingly. Five convicts were returned on shore who had so deceived the noble captain, but he would not permit anyone to come on board to attend a muster of the whole crew; no doubt the other convicts had already shown themselves to be seamen and not utter land-lubbers. Governor Macquarie wrote in a subsequent despatch of the need to prohibit captains of men-of-war from pressing any seamen, either afloat or on shore, without first checking their status at the Police or Secretary’s office.
The next trouble with the Samarang arose from a breach of the peace committed by certain officers of the ship who, despite their status as officers and gentlemen, ‘assaulted and destroyed the premises of Thomas Clarkson, a peaceable, industrious inhabitant, and forcibly rescued and released from the civil power a sailor who had been taken up and confined in one of the Watch Houses for rioting and for assaulting the premises of poor Mr. Clarkson earlier in the evening.’
The Governor sent for Captain Case to apprize him of the circumstances as reported by the civil officers, and stated that it was not his wish to expose the officers to any trial or punishment provided that they would apologise to him in writing ‘in appropriate terms of Sorrow and Regret for the Offense they had Committed and the Insult they had thereby offered to Me and my Government’. He also required them to pay for the damage they had caused – it appeared that the sailor, who happened to be the servant of Ballard the sailing-master of the Samarang, had knocked a stone ball off a pillar in front of Clarkson’s house and, after his release by Ballard and two other officers, they had returned, armed with bludgeons, knocked off two more of the balls, and then run away. Captain Case appeared to be in agreement with the governor’s proposal, but after several days had passed, he called to say that he could not prevail upon the officers to make a written apology although they were prepared to pay for the damage they had caused.
Now, understandably, began another series of acrimonious letters between the Governor and the Captain, the former demanding that the officers should stand trial, which eventually they did. All three declared themselves to be gentlemen of honour, whose word should be preferred to that of a mere watchman: what they had done was obviously a mere harmless prank. All three officers were acquitted of having forcibly rescued the sailor confined to the Watch House although it was agreed that through the use of very threatening and abusive language to the Constable in Charge they had induced him to open the cell door. The ship and her unruly crew stayed in the harbour for some weeks without any further untoward incidents being reported. However, Captain Case changed his mind about merely patching up his ship here, and in June announced that he intended to undertake an extensive refit before returning to India. He called on the Governor to furnish him with a number of naval stores, timber and workmen to enable him to effect this plan.
From the limited resources at his disposal, Governor Macquarie provided as much as could be spared without bringing to an entire stop the Public Works of the colony, and without actually depriving himself of the necessary means of keeping the government colonial craft in repair. His best was not good enough, however, for Captain Case complained that Macquarie had thrown every impediment in his way, and that he was refused almost everything that he asked for. Poor Governor Macquarie! He really does seem to have done his very best to help patch up an old and decayed ship that did nothing in return to help his government, and which in point of fact, was sold out of the service because of her bad physical condition as soon as she reached her base in India.