The Pirate Captain’s Mutiny

Captain Alexander McKenzie, of the barque Saladin, thought it his duty to aid a fellow seaman in distress, so when he was approached by another sea captain who was stranded in Valparaiso, Chile, he offered free passage back to British territory. This act of hospitality resulted in piracy, mutiny, and murder. The 1844 trial of participants was highly publicized and a political battlefield for two of Nova Scotia’s most prominent men.

Figurehead of the Saladin (Nova Scotia Maritime Museum)

If McKenzie had investigated, he would have discovered that his new passenger, Captain Fielding, had been refused passage on two other ships. Fielding had a reputation as a bad officer, one who would starve and mistreat his crews so that they jumped ship, saving Fielding the obligation of paying them. In 1842, Fielding had sailed the Vitula from Halifax to Peru. Unable to find a good cargo, Fielding turned to smuggling guano. Guano was a valuable source of nitrates and the trade was strictly controlled by Peruvian authorities. Fielding’s ship was seized and he was thrown in jail in Callao. But Fielding was travelling with his son, George, a 13-year-old so slight of build that strangers guessed him to be no more than nine years of age. George sneaked a disguise into his father’s cell and Fielding made his escape. He lay hidden under a pile of shavings in the Callao shipyard for several days, then managed to find passage on a British ship. That captain quickly sized up Fielding as a bad lot and refused to carry him farther than the next port of call, Valparaiso.

So, in 1844, Captain McKenzie rescued Fielding and son George from the harbor at Valparaiso. The Saladin had not sailed very far before the two men were at loggerheads. They ceased having meals together and McKenzie said that he wished he had left Fielding in Chile. McKenzie was not a particularly good captain, either. He was a heavy drinker with a nasty temper who sometimes abused his crew — this may help explain why Fielding was able to turn the crew against him.

Fielding discovered that, besides the valuable guano, the Saladin‘s cargo included some silver, copper, and about $9000 in cash. Fielding began asking the crew members what they would do if attacked by pirates, then he answered his own question: he, for one, would join the pirate crew. At first, Fielding concentrated on the sailmaker, George Jones, a County Clare Irishman. After the  Saladin rounded Cape Horn and began sailing for England, Fielding told Jones that he meant to take the ship. He told Jones that he had already enlisted the ship’s carpenter and that if Jones did not join the plot, he would be murdered along with the ship’s officers.

The Saladin‘s cook and steward were ill and Jones was performing their duties. He approached Captain McKenzie at mealtime and tried to warn him of Fielding’s plot. “You damned Irishman!” roared McKenzie, “I want to hear nothing!” So the captain sealed his fate.

Very much afraid for his life, Jones followed Fielding’s orders. He approached another Irishman named Hazelton and told him that he must go along with the piracy or be murdered. Hazelton agreed and then the two used the same argument to enlist a third man, Trevaskiss. The three then approached a Swede named Anderson. Anderson had been struck by Captain McKenzie and readilly agreed to join the plot. He was the only man to be enthusiastic about the idea of taking the ship. Jones, the weakest man on board, had been gulled by the false claim that the carpenter was part of the conspiracy, then had drawn in the others.

Fielding planned to murder the officers and crew members that had not joined him, then sail the Saladin into the St.Lawrence and run her aground on an island. He would return with another vessel and offload her cargo, then scuttle her. The Saladin would be listed as “lost at sea” and no one would be any the wiser. On the evening of April 12, 1844 Fielding told the others that they would seize the ship that very night. At the last minute, Jones got cold feet and stayed below. The others were unwilling to go ahead without him. The next day, Fielding told Jones to be on deck that night or he would kill him. Jones reluctantly agreed. At midnight, the five conspirators gathered on deck.

The plot might have failed even then except for the illness of the first mate who came up on deck and lay down on a hatch cover to get some air. The conspirators had been frightened about going below to kill anyone, but the mate lying asleep on deck was an easy target. Trevaskiss took up an axe and, on Fielding’s order, buried it in the mate’s skull. Now there was no turning back. Jones and Hazelton went below to kill the captain but were too frightened. They came back on deck. Now the captain woke and rang for service. One of the pirates called below and the carpenter came up through the hatch. Anderson struck him down and threw his body overboard. But the carpenter was not dead and shouted for help! Jones was at the wheel and began screaming “Man overboard!”

Captain McKenzie roused himself and came up through the hatch. Anderson slashed at McKenzie and wounded him, but the captain began struggling with the Swede. Fielding struck at the captain and hit Anderson. Desperately, he screamed at Jones to leave the helm and come help kill McKenzie. Jones grabbed at the captain’s arms and Fielding began stabbing him while his son George capered about in bloodthirsty glee. Finally, McKenzie collapsed and was thrown into the sea. “I am master now,” said Fielding. He broke out the rum for his shaken gang.

One by one, the other crew members came up through the hatch. One by one, they were murdered. One man was killed at the head as he prepared to take over the watch, another as he relieved himself over the rail, Hazleton cut down the third. The deck was awash with blood. Two men, the sick cook and steward, were still below. The pirates brought them up on deck. Fielding wanted to kill them but the pirates were by now sick of blood. Fielding gave them the same option that he had given the others: join with me or die. The two agreed and the cook was sent below to make breakfast. Fielding mused that, when they came in sight of land, the cook and steward might go overboard. This did not sit well with the other pirates.

A mood of suspicion settled over the ship. The four killers and Fielding swore an oath on the Bible not to betray one another. Then all the ship’s firearms were tossed overboard. More grog was issued. Sometime that night, a carving knife disappeared. The next day, Anderson, Trevaskiss, and Hazelton went to have a word with Captain Fielding. While in his cabin, Trevaskiss spotted a pair of pistols hidden under a table. He signalled to Hazelton and the two went outside to talk. While they were gone, Fielding tried to talk Anderson into murdering them. The other pirates re-entered the cabin and demanded an explanation for the pistols. Fielding expressed surprise at their existence and suggested that the vessel be searched for any other hidden weapons. The missing knife turned up in Fielding’s locker along with two bottles of liquor that the pirates believed to be poisoned. Now Anderson told them of Fielding’s attempt to have him murder them. The pirates seized their captain and tied him up.

The following day, the pirates-turned-mutineers demanded that the cook and the steward kill Fielding. Immediately they tossed him overboard and then grabbed George and threw him into the sea with his father. Of the fourteen who had sailed on the Saladin, only six were now alive.

For the rest of the voyage, the crew stayed as drunk as possible. One man, who was supposed to know some navigation, tried to follow the original plan of running for an uncharted island in the St.Lawrence. Instead, the ship ran aground in Country Harbor, Nova Scotia.

Investigators were suspicious right away. They found a boy’s clothing, but no boy aboard; the pirate/mutineers had covered over the ship’s name board; and they told a series of very improbable tales of what had happened to the missing men. Finally, one by one, they broke down and confessed.

S.G.W.Archibald (Nova Scotia Archives)

By this time, Vice-Admiralty judge S.G.W. Archibald took over, impounding the ship and all its cargo, taking it to Halifax along with the crew. It was determined to try the men in Admiralty Sessions courts, S.G.W.Archibald presiding. Admiralty Courts had been created to try matters arising at sea and could be convened at most British locations, but these courts were being phased out to be replaced by local jurisdiction courts. There was considerable friction involved in this transition as Admiralty Court officials sought to maintain their prestigious positions. In fact, though, Admiralty Sessions courts in the colonies were usually tried by the Chief Justice, aided by a panel of several other judges, and a jury.

Archibald requested that the Nova Scotia Supreme Court allow him the use of their courtroom and the judges agreed. But when Archibald arrived to try the case, he was met by Chief Justice Sir Brenton Halliburton who said that he would be presiding judge, although Archibald could be on the judge’s panel. Archibald and Halliburton were old political foes; in 1830 both had begged the Crown to be named Chief Justice, but Hallibuton had prevailed. An unpleasant scene now unfolded in the hallway of the Supreme Court, but Archibald finally gave way. He refused to sit on the panel and stomped off in high dudgeon.

Halliburton named other judges to his panel (one was Thomas Haliburton, a former Solicitor-General, remembered today as the author of Sam Slick, the Clockmaker) and a jury was empanelled. The four pirates were tried together for murder and piracy but the cook and steward were to face a separate trial for the murder of Fielding and his son only. Nova Scotia’s Attorney-General, J.W. Johnson, prosecuted. All in all, this was a blue-ribbon panel for a very high-profile case that would add to the prestige and political reputation of everyone who participated.

The men’s confessions were the main evidence against them. They pled Not Guilty. The jury took fifteen minutes to return a Guilty verdict on the charge of piracy. The men then changed their murder plea to Guilty. Possibly this was part of a deal to keep from being executed as pirates, which would mean their rotting corpses would hang in chains on Maugher’s Beach on MacNab Island to be viewed by ships and crews sailing in and out the harbor.

Now the cook and steward were tried for the murder of Fielding and his son. They pled Not Guilty because they had been coerced into the crime. Their first trial ended in a hung jury. A new jury was quickly sworn and a new trial held. This time the two men were found Not Guilty.

The four pirates were hanged on July 30, 1844 on Halifax Common near the Holy Cross cemetery. The Acadian Record noted: “It was a melancholy sight… It was revolting to see so many females present at such an exhibition. …a majority of them were of the poorest class of our population, but the moral effect is just the same…” The papers also reported that Fielding’s widow, “in a condition the reverse of affluent”, was now a member of that class.

S.G.W. Archibald still rankled over not having top billing at the trial and wrote a letter to the Admiralty outlining why Sessions procedures should not be given over to non-Admiralty judges. This went nowhere and, by 1849, Admiralty Sessions courts had pretty well ceased to exist. Nevertheless, Archibald enjoyed one small victory: when the Advocate-General requested the Vice-Admiralty for reimbursement of some of the costs, Archibald refused Admiralty funds, noting smugly that it was the duty of all civilized states to provide for the prosecution and punishment of criminal offenders, especially pirates.

On the legal matters in the Saladin case, see: Douglas Howell, “The Saladin Trial:  A Last Hurrah for Admiralty Courts” online here.

Other info is from newspapers of the day summarized in:  M.O.Culpepper, “The Pirate Captain’s Mutiny”, Canadian Frontier Annual 1978, Antonson Publishing.





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