- American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution by A. Roger Ekirch
Mutiny, HMS Hermione, Caribbean, British Navy, Fugitives, Extradition
In American Sanctuary, A. Roger Ekirch tells the riveting story of mutiny, murder, escape, and retribution in its full detail. He connects the fate of HMS Hermione sailors to the partisan politics of the United States in the late 1790s. It is a story not just about disgruntled and ill-treated sailors, but it is about fundamental issues of American identity and governance—such as personal liberty, national sovereignty, citizenship, alien rights, and separation of powers. Ekirch asserts that the story of a British mutiny “powerfully influence[d] the momentous election of 1800” and more significantly, “helped to shape the infant Republic’s identity” (xii).
He divides the story into three parts, which are bookended with a preface and prologue and an epilogue and coda. In the first part, Ekirch tells the story of the February 1797 mutiny aboard the Hermione in a vivid, page-turning account. He gives a good sense of how small yet expansive the world was for naval and merchant fleets and crews. The [End Page 356] frigate sailed throughout the Caribbean with a diverse crew from the British Empire, Africa, and Continental Europe. Ekirch estimates that there were about twenty Americans aboard, fewer than half of whom were probably impressed into service. He describes life in the Royal Navy and the cruel treatment by the Hermione’s erratic and impatient captain. After the mutiny, the remaining crew sought refuge in a Spanish port where they surrendered the ship in exchange for their freedom. Many crew members eventually returned to the seas and dispersed throughout the Atlantic, which offered many havens for the fugitives. The British could not abide disobedience in their navy and thus pursued the mutineers with singular focus. Yet, by late 1798, they had captured and hanged only a handful. The British believed that the over 100 men who were still at large were mostly in America or on American ships.
In the second part of the book, the story of the Hermione comes to the United States. Tensions were running high between the U.S. and Great Britain with regard to the treatment of neutral shipping and the issue of extradition, particularly in regard to Hermione’s crew. In a detailed discussion of affidavits, judicial opinions, position papers and letters written by cabinet members, and newspaper pieces, Ekirch explores the English minister’s extradition requests and fugitives’ trials and connects them to the broader political debate and to process. There was no settled method for considering extradition requests: Would they go through the judiciary or the executive? Both processes and various combinations were used. Here, Ekirch turns his attention to the most famous of the mutineers—Jonathan (or Nathan) Robbins, which may have been an alias for the mutiny’s leader Thomas Nash—whom the United States extradited and the British subsequently executed. Ekirch dismisses the question of Robbins’s identity because regardless of whether Robbins was a native-born American, a naturalized American citizen, or the Irishman Thomas Nash, the issues surrounding his extradition were the same. These issues encompassed the integrity of American citizenship, alien rights, and the right to resist tyranny—either British or American. Thus the Robbins affair adds another dimension to the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican divide.
Ekirch’s treatment of the partisan debate of the 1790s will be familiar to most readers. The Federalists were suspicious of immigrants and favored good relations with Great Britain. The Republicans were more committed to immigrant and alien rights. Ekirch has some sympathy for the Federalists’ circumstances. The United States was already engaged [End Page 357] in the Quasi-War with France, and thus if the Federalists refused to cooperate with the British they risked widening the conflict to include Britain. Generally, Ekirch’s sympathies lie with the Republicans.
The last part of American Sanctuary examines Robbins’s impact on American politics...