The Chief of the Mutineers in the British Fleet. Executed at the Yardarm of L'Espion Man-of-War in 1796, at Sheerness
THE magnitude of this man's offence, occurring at a period when the preservation of the state mainly depended on the exertions of the navy, threw the whole empire into consternation. Dissatisfaction had for some time existed, and a mutinous spirit evinced itself among the seamen, who, on this occasion, appointed delegates from all the ships at Sheerness and the Nore, and drew up a statement of grievances, dated 20th of May, 1797, requiring, among other demands, a more equal distribution of prize-money, and some modification of the articles of war. These delegates assembled on board the Sandwich, of 28 guns, and not only superseded all the captains in their command, but elected Parker president of the convention, and his orders were implicitly obeyed as admiral of the squadron.
Richard Parker had received a good education, was bred to the navy, and about the conclusion of the American War was an acting lieutenant in one of his Majesty's ships. He soon came into the possession of a considerable sum of money, and shortly after he arrived in this country and married a farmer's daughter in Aberdeenshire, with whom he received a decent patrimony.
At this time, being without employment, he devoted himself to every species of dissipation, which soon finished his fortune and involved him in debt, on account of which he was cast into the jail of Edinburgh, where he was at the time the country was raising seamen for the navy.
He then entered as one of the volunteers for Perthshire, received the bounty, and was released from prison, upon paying the creditor a part of his bounty. He was put on board the tender then in Leith Roads, which carried him, with many others, to the Nore.
On the passage the captain distinguished Parker, both by his activity and polite address. He was known in the mutinous fleet by the appellation of "Admiral Parker", for Captain Watson, of the Leith tender, before he sailed from the Nore, was ordered, by the crew of the Sandwich, to come on board, which he did, and was then introduced to, and interrogated by, Parker, whom he knew on first sight. Parker also recollected him, and from this circumstance he experienced great favour.
Parker ordered every man on board to treat Captain Watson well, saying he was a seamen's friend, and had treated him well, and that if any man used him otherwise he should instantly be --. Here he pointed to the rope at the yardarm.
Captain Watson took an opportunity of hinting to Parker the impropriety of his conduct, and the consequences that might follow. It seemed to throw a momentary damp on his spirits; but he expressed a wish to waive the subject, and Captain Watson proceeded on his voyage.
The mutiny was happily suppressed, and a considerable reward being offered for the apprehension of Parker, the accounted ringleader, on the arrival of Lieutenant Mott, with the proclamations, etc., the crews of all the ships readily submitted. Parker himself could not oppose this spirit.
In consequence of this the Sandwich came under the guns of Sheerness, and Admiral Buckner's boat, commanded by the coxswain, and containing a picket guard of the West York Militia, went on board, to bring Parker on shore. Several of the officers of the Sandwich were on deck, but very few of the men appeared. As soon as Parker heard that a boat had come for him he surrendered himself to four of the ship's crew, to protect him against the outrages of the other seamen, whose vengeance he feared.
Admiral Buckner's coxswain told the officers on deck his business, and claimed their assistance. The lieutenant drew his sword, and the party, consisting of eight or ten, went down below, where Parker was surrendered into their hands. They tied his hands together behind, and the officers conducted him into the boat, which had eight or ten rowers, and a party of the West York Militia seated in the head, with their faces towards the stern, and their muskets held upright in their hands, ready charged. Parker was seated in the stern part, with his face towards the head; behind him was the coxswain, and before him the lieutenant of the Sandwich, holding a drawn sword over him. On landing, he was much hissed, when he said aloud: "Do not hoot me; it is not my fault. I will clear myself."
He was then sent to Maidstone Jail, under a strong guard, his arms being tied behind his back. After a long trial, which commenced soon after his apprehension, he was found guilty.
After a solemn pause of nearly ten minutes the Lord Advocate rose and, with his head uncovered, read the awful sentence -- viz. "The Court judges Richard Parker to suffer death, and to be hanged by the neck, on board any one of his Majesty's ships, and at such time as the Lords of the Admiralty may think proper to appoint."
The prisoner listened to the sentence without emotion, and addressed the Court as follows:-- "I have heard your sentence; I shall submit to it without a struggle. I feel thus, because I am sensible of the rectitude of my intentions. Whatever offences may have been committed, I hope my life will be the only sacrifice. I trust it will be thought a sufficient atonement. Pardon, I beseech you, the other men; I know they will return with alacrity to their duty."
The president then briefly addressed himself to the prisoner. He said that, notwithstanding the enormity of the crimes of which he had been found guilty, on the fullest and clearest evidence, yet the Court, in order to afford him the necessary time to expiate his offcnces, and to make his peace with God, would then not name any day for his execution, but leave that point to the determination of Lhe lords of the admiralty. The prisoner then withdrew, and was soon put in irons.
The time of his execution was fixed for Friday, the 30th of June, 1797. At eight o'clock in the morning a gun was fired on board his Majesty's ship L'Espion, lying off Sheerness garrison, Vice-Admiral Lutwidge's flagship, and the yellow flag, the signal of capital punishment, was hoisted, which was immediately repeated by the Sandwich hoisting the same colour on her foretop.
The prisoner was awakened a little after six o'clock, from a sound sleep, by the provost-marshal, who, with a file of marines, composed his guard; he arose with cheerfulness, and requested permission might be asked for a barber to attend him, which was granted. He soon dressed himself in a neat suit of mourning (waistcoat excepted), wearing his half-boots over a pair of black silk stockings. He then took his breakfast, talked of a will he had written, in which he had bequeathed to his wife a little estate he said he was heir to, and after that lamented the misfortune that had been brought on the country by the mutiny, but solemnly denied having the least connection or correspondence with any disaffected persons ashore; and declared that it was chiefly owing to him that the ships had not been carried into the enemy's ports. At half past eight he was told the chaplain of the ship was ready to attend him to prayers upon the quarter-deck, which he immediately ascended, uncovered: at his first entrance on the deck he looked a little paler than common, but soon recovered his usual complexion; he bowed to the officers, and, a chair being allowed him, he sat down for a few moments: he then arose, and told the clergyman he wished to attend him: the chaplain informed him he had selected two psalms appropriate to his situation; to which the prisoner, assenting, said, "And with your permission, sir, I will add a third," and named the 51st. He then recited each alternate verse in a manner peculiarly impressive.
At nine o'clock the preparatory gun was fired from L'Espion, which he heard without the smallest emotion. Prayers being soon after closed, he rose, and asked Captain Moss "if he might be indulged with a glass of white wine": which being granted, he took it, and, lifting up his eyes, exclaimed, "I drink first to the salvation of my soul! and next to the forgiveness of my enemies!" Addressing him self to Captain Moss, he said, "he hoped he would shake hands with him"; which the captain did: he then desired "that he might be remembered to his companions on board the Neptune; with his last breath sent an entreaty to them to prepare for their destiny, and refrain from unbecoming levity." His arms were now bound, and the procession moved from the quarterdeck to the forecastle, passing through a double file of marines on the starboard side, to a platform erected on the cat- head, with an elevated projection. Arriving there, he knelt with the chaplain, and joined in some devout ejaculations, to all of which he repeated loudly, "Amen." Rising again, the Admiral's warrant of execution, addressed to Captain Moss, was now read by the clerk, in which the sentence of the court martial, the order of the Board of Admiralty and his Majesty's approbation of the whole proceedings were fully recited, which the prisoner heard with great attention, and bowed his head, as if in assent, at the close of it. He now asked the captain whether he might be allowed to speak, and immediately apprehending his intention might be misconceived he added: "I am not going, sir, to address the ship's company. I wish only to declare that I acknowledge the justice of the sentence under which I suffer; and I hope my death may be deemed a sufficient atonement, and save the lives of others."
He then requested a minute to collect himself, and knelt down alone, about that space of time; then rose up and said: "I am ready." Holding his head up, he said to the boatswain's mate: "Take off my handkerchief (of black silk); which was done, and the provost-marshal placed the halter over his head (which had been prepared with grease,) but, doing it awkwardly, the prisoner said rather pettishly to the boatswain's mate, "Do you do it, for he seems to know nothing about it." The halter was then spliced to the reeve-rope: all this being adjusted, the marshal attempted to put a cap on, which he refused; but, on being told that it was indispensable, he submitted, requesting it might not be pulled over his eyes till he desired it. He then turned round, for the first time, and gave a steady look at his shipmates on the forecastle, and, with an affectionate kind of smile, nodded his head, and said "Good-by to you!" He now said, "Captain Moss, is the gun primed?" -- "It is." -- "Is the match alight?" -- "All is ready."-- On this he advanced a little, and said, "Will any gentleman be so good as to lend me a white handkerchief for the signal?" After some little pause, a gentleman stepped forward and gave him one; to whom bowing, he returned thanks. He now ascended the platform, and repeated the same questions about the gun. The cap was then drawn over his face, and he walked by firm degrees up to the extremity of the scaffold, and dropped the white handkerchief, and put his hands in his coat-pockets with great rapidity. At the moment he sprang off, the fatal bow-gun fired, and the reeve-rope, catching him, ran him up, though not with great velocity, to the yardarm. When suspended about midway his body appeared extremely convulsed for a few seconds, immediately after which no appearance of life remained.
It being ebb of tide, the starboard yard-arm pointed to the Isle of Grain, where scaffolding was erected for the spectators on shore; a considerable number of yachts, cutters, and other craft, surrounded the Sandwich. The last time the prisoner knelt with the chaplain at the cat-head, though he made his responses regularly, his attention was particularly directed the whole time to the armed boats of the fleet, which were plying round on duty. The whole conduct of this awful ceremony was extremely decorous and impressive; it was evident, from the countenances of the crew of the Sandwich, that the general feeling for the fate of their mutinous conductor was such as might be wished: not a word, and scarce a whisper, was heard among them.
The behaviour of this unhappy man, throughout the whole of his trial, was firm and manly; while he was before the Court, decent and respectful, and from the time he received his sentence, till his execution, resigned and penitent. The uncommon fortitude he displayed during his trial did not forsake him even in the last moments of his wretched existence.