John Black (privateer)
|Born||31 October 1778
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England
|Died||c. May 1802 (aged 23)
At sea, on the way
from Kolkata, India
to Sydney, Australia
Cause of death
|Children||John Henry Black
Mary Ann De Mestre
|Parents||(Reverend) John Black
Captain John Black (1778–1802), the son of a clergyman, was a ship's officer who had many adventures in his short career. His best remembered adventure concerned the mutiny on the Lady Shore of August 1797, a ship that had been sailing with a cargo of soldiers and female convicts to Sydney, Australia. In 1798 his father, the Reverend John Black (1753–1813), a prolific writer of prose and poetry, published his son's letters which gave an account of the mutiny on board the ship, when his son had been put into a small boat and left to find his way to safety with several other members of the crew. The book was dedicated as a “small testimony of gratitude to the Portuguese nation” for the “unequalled hospitality” extended to his son and his fellows in the Portuguese colonies that are now part of Brazil.
John Black was also privateer (state-sanctioned pirate) for part of his naval career. He was engaged twice on privateers, once as the ship’s captain. That is, during the time of the English-Spanish war of 1795-1801, he was twice engaged on private warships authorized by the English government to attack and rob the enemy’s shipping. During both engagements he was involved in the successful capture of a Spanish vessel.
In 1798 the 19 year-old sailed into Sydney Harbour, where, after meeting the convict girl Mary Hyde (1779–1864), he made Sydney his base of operations. In between his whaling operations, voyages of exploration, and capturing Spanish vessels, he and Mary had two children. In 1802, in what became his final voyage, the then 23 year-old ship's captain sailed from Sydney to India: to Mumbai (then Bombay) and then onto Kolkata (then Calcutta) before being lost at sea as he sailed for home.
Captain John Black (1778–1802) was born on 31 October 1778 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, the eldest son of Scottish parents the Reverend John Black (1753–1813) and May Logie (1747-?). His parents moved to Woodbridge, Suffolk the next year, and it is here that he spent his childhood, and where his father, who had been a deacon when he was born, was ordained a priest in 1783.
In about 1795, at the age of 17 years and looking for adventure, John Black joined the ship the Walpole, an East Indiaman trader. Nothing more is known about his naval career until May 1797.
Account of the Mutiny on the Lady Shore
On 1 May 1797, John Black wrote to his father that he was at Torbay, Devon, England on board the ship the Lady Shore. John Black was the purser and navigating officer, and the Lady Shore was bound for Sydney (then known as Port Jackson) with soldiers for the New South Wales Corps; Lieutenant William Minchin commanding officer of the detachment; a consignment of 69 female convicts; one male convict; and much needed supplies of food and farm implements for the Colony of New South Wales. Black also informed his father that the soldiers were “the most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains that ever entered into a ship”. With good reason: mutinous because an attempt had already been made to seize the ship to avoid it arriving at its destination; and disagreeable villains because two of the Sergeants had already needed to be placed in irons. Many of the soldiers in the detachment being sent to New South Wales were not there from choice, and one of the attempted mutineers had stated that he had been “sent on board by force from a police officer”. The detachment of troops included French and Irish prisoners of war, deserters avoiding the military discipline of a court-martial, and prisoners from the Savoy Palace in London.
A month later on 8 June 1797, when the Lady Shore was at Falmouth, Cornwall, England, she sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean in company with the West-India Fleet. 10 days later she was withdrawn from that fleet, and the Lady Shore fell in with the 64 gun Intrepid and the East-India Fleet. The threat of mutiny appeared to be in the past, and the soldiers, being very quiet in general, were allowed the possession of firearms and ammunition.
Now sailing on her own, and eight weeks after the Lady Shore had sailed from Falmouth, the mutiny began. In the early morning on 1 August 1797, when the Lady Shore was about four days sail from Rio de Janeiro the soldiers, and several of the sailors, mutinied. During the fray John Black fired his pistol which and took one of the mutineer’s hats off, but was not able to do more damage. The mutineers quickly took over the ship during which time Captain Willcocks and the Chief Mate, Lambert, were killed. All those not in the mutiny, including the soldier’s officers and some privates, were imprisoned below decks.
Two weeks later, during the late afternoon of Monday 15 August 1797, John Black and 28 others were released from their imprisonment, put in a longboat with their luggage and some provisions, and cast astern. The others, men, women and children, were: the second and third mates, the steward, the cabin boy, the commanding officer of the company of soldiers on board and his wife, five other officers, two privates, four wives, three children, one male passenger with his wife and two children, three female convicts, and the only male convict Major J. G. Semple Lisle. For provisions they were given "three small casks of water, containing about ninety gallons, four bags of bread and three pieces of salt beef” and managed to smuggle aboard “two hams, two cheeses, and a small keg containing about four gallons of rum”, and for navigation a quadrant, and a small pocket compass. The Lady Shore mutineers (soldiers and sailors) then sailed away with the ship’s surgeon, and 66 female convicts. The 29 castaways in the longboat hoisted sail and headed for Rio Grande, Brazil, the nearest settlement on the Portuguese coast of South America, about 300 miles away.
Nearly exactly two days later, on 17 August 1797, after being battered by heavy seas, drenching rain, and contrary seas, they finally, with the assistance of a boat of people who had seen them from the shore, made landfall near to Rio Grande, Brazil. It was a “miraculous escape” as the locals could not believe that a boat could have survived in such weather. The castaways were hospitably received by the locals, and the Governor of Port St. Pedro promised them a passage to Rio de Janeiro by the first available ship.
After a frustrating wait of seven weeks, many false starts, and the loss of all his luggage and journals, Black decided to travel north overland to Rio de Janeiro. It was arranged for him to instead travel north overland to the Portuguese settlement on the island of St. Catharine (the island on which modern day Florianópolis is situated), and catch a ship from there. He left by horseback on 4 October 1797 with Major J.G. Semple Lisle, the male convict who had proved himself trustworthy back in Torbay when he had reported the first attempted mutiny. Also on the journey, and provided by the Portuguese, were: two servants; two Portuguese dragoons as guides, and an Indian to take care of the baggage horse. It was not an arduous journey with many stops to rest, eat and be feted by the local population along the way.
On 16 October 1797, after travelling overland by horse about 770 km (480 mi), Black and Major Semple caught a whaleboat to St Catharine’s, where they found part of the Portuguese Squadron of ships anchored. They were well entertained during their stay, and left the island for Rio de Janeiro three and a half weeks later on 9 November 1797 in separate ships. Semple was on the Portuguese Admiral Antonia Januario’s ship, and Black was on board a Portuguese battle ship commanded by the English Captain Thompson. It was to take 10 days for the ships to sail north the 1,100 km (680 mi) north to Rio de Janeiro, and they arrived on 19 November 1797.
Before travelling north to Rio de Janeiro, Black had learnt that the Lady Shore had arrived in the enemy Spanish port of Montevideo, Uruguay about 500 km (310 mi) south of Rio Grande. The men had been jailed, and the female convicts placed in different homes throughout the town. He later learnt that only the pretty girls were in the homes, and the rest of the women had been imprisoned. The Lady Shore was sold in Montevideo for forty thousand dollars. What happened to the seventy soldiers (the mutineers of the New South Wales Corps), or what happened to the remainder of the sixty six, not so pretty, female convicts who were not taken into homes of the amorous Spanish is not known.
As the convey of English ships in the port of Rio Janeiro would not reach England before eight months, and sick at the thought of being idle for so long a time, Black instead decided to join as navigator Captain William Wilkinson’s ship, the Indispensable, a ship with 14 guns and a crew of 32, that was being used as a privateer, but could also be used as a whaler. Black on the Indispensable was under sail two months after arriving in Rio de Janeiro. The Indispensable sailed down the coast of South America from Rio Janeiro on 20 January 1798. Looking for adventure and riches, they were hoping to capture a Spanish ship and take it over to the Cape of Good Hope.
John Black’s later adventures
Writing to his father from the Cape of Good Hope on 15 April 1798 John Black disclosed that he had just arrived at the Cape after captaining the 10 gun Spanish vessel the La Union from Malaga in Spain, which Captain William Wilkinson of the Indispensable and his crew (including Black) had captured. The Spanish ship had been on a voyage from the Plata River (Buenos Aires) in Argentina to Lima in Peru, and had been captured on 19 February 1798, one month after Black had sailed from Rio de Janeiro. He also mentions Cape Horn in his account, but does not specify when he may have been near there.
Over the next two months the cargo of the captured La Union was sold, and the ship disposed of. Among the cargo was tallow, candles, and dried beef, sought after commodities in the port. 19 year old Black invested his share of the windfall in cargo to be sold in Sydney, and wrote to his father on 7 June 1798 “I have laid in a considerable investment for Port Jackson” (Sydney)”, which I hope to turn to good account, and I expect to sail to-morrow night.”
It would have been easy for Captain Wilkinson of the Indispensable to convince Black to invest in a trip to the port of Sydney. The Indispensable captained by William Wilkinson had previously visited Sydney twice before: in May 1794 departing for Bengal in July 1794; and then in April 1796 when he delivered 131 female convicts. On the second trip the Indispensable had lingered in the port until 21 September 1796, giving Captain Wilkinson an insight as to the type of cargo that would raise the most money in Port Jackson.
With the strong westerlies along the southern coast of Australia it would have taken about 2 months for the Indispensable to sail from the Cape of Good Hope to Sydney, and it should have arrived in early August 1798. It was a stormy passage across the Indian Ocean and then around the south of Van Diemens Land, when the ship lost two boats and one man overboard. The same storm stove in two boats and carried away several spars. On 8 September 1798, after he had been in port long enough to assess the situation, Black wrote to his father: "I am still amongst the living. By my last letter I informed you of having laid in an investment at the Cape for this place" (Sydney) ". The market is very bad. The Barwell brought a large cargo from England, a vessel from Bengal and an American vessel with cargo of tabasco and spirits. These vessels have drained the place of all cash…Wheat, corn, beans, cabbages and fruit trees flourish, the cattle are of an uncommon size, and very fierce. An old horse, which in England would be valued at five pounds for dog's meat, sells here for 100 guineas."
Black went on to say that he chased a flock of black swans fifteen miles (24 km) down the river, but as they were shy never got a shot at them. He mentioned that the Governor (John Hunter) was a pleasant, sensible old man. John Black also informed his father of the doubtful monetary dealings in the Colony; and described the agricultural and natural aspects of the country. He also described the harbour as "one of the best in the known world", and that he expected in a fortnight to sail on a cruise for two months to fish (catch whales). This was the first time that Black was to go whaling, the most dangerous and masculine of sea trades.
What he didn’t mention in his letter was that he had met a girl, and made her pregnant. But then it's highly possible that he didn't yet know that he was to become a father. In August 1798, when they were both 19-years-old, John Black met Mary Hyde, a convict girl and who the month before had arrived in Sydney on board the Britannia II. Mary came under John’s "protection" and fell pregnant almost immediately.
John Black, however, wasn’t long in port. As planned, in late September 1798 his boat the Indispensable left to do some "fishing" (whaling). Governor John Hunter wrote on 25 September 1798 that some of the whalers that were in the harbour (including the Britannia II on which Mary Hyde had arrived) had proceeding on their fishing, and the town had been freed from the nuisance of the seamen who could not resist the two temptations of spirits and women. The ship didn’t return until 27 October 1798, and left again "immediately" on a second "fishing" trip, not returning again until 29 December 1798. The Indispensable returned from this second trip with 54 tons of sperm whale oil from whaling within a range of 125 miles (201 km) above and below Sydney, and within 90 miles (140 km) of the coast. The Indispensable then needed a refit, and John Black needed to stay in port for a considerable time.
In March 1799 Governor Hunter granted a lease of land to “Mr. John Black, late purser of the Lady Shore transport”. This allotment is shown on surveyor James Meehan’s map of Sydney on the eastern side of George Street, between Hunter Street and Martin Place, where De Mestre Place is today. This land was later held in trust by for John Black’s two children, and became the land on which Black’s son-in-law Prosper de Mestre resided and ran his business from.
From then on, while John Black sailed in and out of Sydney, Mary Hyde resided on this allotment backing onto the Tank Stream. Black's family was fending for itself whilst John was often away for months at a time, or even longer, either whaling or otherwise working his trade as a ship's officer.
On 31 May 1799 John Henry Black, son of John Black and Mary Hyde, was born at home. Fortunately John was home at the time to see his new-born son. But three days later he sailed again.
It was reported that the Indispensable sailed for "fishing" about 3 June 1799. David Collins wrote “About this time the Indispensable sailed on her fishing voyage. This ship had been careened and completely repaired in the Cove.” There is no record of her return to port, but it had to have been before the baptism of Black's son on 2 September 1799. It was not long after that Black again left his family and sailed back to Cape Town from Sydney in what was then regarded as the shortest passage (time-wise). It was a long tedious voyage up the east coast of Australia, above New Guinea, and through the islands of Indonesia using the more favourable winds of the south-east monsoon (as compared to the adverse strong westerlies along the southern coast of Australia) before sailing upwind or beating across the Indian Ocean down to Cape Town.
After arriving in Cape Town some months later, John Black became engaged in adventure that continued to keep him away from his family. The Englishman was engaged for the first time as a Captain on the privateer Chance owned by Michael Hogan. As Spain was then at war with England Black was engaged to sail from Cape Town seeking Spanish ships. His mission was successful as on 8 July 1800 a Spanish Brig of 70 tons arrived in Cape Town carrying prize colours.
After taking his share of the spoils from the sale of the Spanish Brig and its cargo, Black took command of the brig Harbinger also owned by Michael Hogan. Carrying a cargo of 2,800 gallons of spirits and 3,000 gallons of wine, in November 1800 Black began to sail back to Sydney, and his family.
As an aside, in 1800 it was recorded that ‘’Mary Hide(sic) and her son were off the’’ (government) ‘’stores’’. This was because Mary "living on the lease of Mr. Black; and owing 7 sheep, 4 pigs and 3 goats’’ had been able to meet a level of self-sufficiency, something the government greatly encouraged in an effort to cut costs.
Heading east across the Indian Ocean for Sydney, with instructions to take the short cut through the newly discovered Bass Strait (which separated Australia from Tasmania), he followed in the wake of the brig Lady Nelson, the first ship to sail eastward through the new-found Bass Strait. The Harbinger embarked on an investigation of the strait tracking around Cape Otway, Cape Danger and Cape Patten down to the northern part of King Island, and around Wilsons Promontory. He had sheltered near two small islands which he named the New Year Isles, and then sailed on and named the larger island King Island after Governor Philip Gidley King. He also named the Harbinger Rocks, and sighted the Hogan group of islands. A chart drawn later by Governor King shows John Blacks course through Bass Strait. Governor King's report on the voyage reads: "A small brig from the Cape of Good Hope, commanded by Mr. Black (a person of good abilities as a surveyor and navigator) passed thro and keeping more to the Southward made Cape Albany Otway and standing to the southward made an island lying in the centre of the west entrance of the strait which he named King Island and afterwards passed thro the centre of the strait unadvisable to attempt from the east only from the west." A copy of Blacks writing on the passage through Bass Strait in the Harbinger was sent to England with Governor King's letter.
Black arrived back in Sydney on 11 January 1801 after having been away for 14 months, at which time his partner Mary Hyde promptly became pregnant with their second child. This was the beginning of his longest time in port and with his family, and lasted nearly 12 months.
Black discharged his cargo of rum and wines in Sydney into the warehouse that the businessman Simeon Lord had built specifically for this purpose. (Coincidentally Simeon Lord was later to be the step-father to Black’s children.) In selling his cargo Black had entered Sydney’s liquor trade, and established a shop on his leased land. It was reported "Simeon Lord sells rum at 32/- a gallon, Capt. Cox ditto, Black his gin at 10 gns”(guineas) “a case, etc. these are Governor King’s regulations for the benefit of the Colony while American ships who would be glad to sell their liquor at 5/-, 6/- or 7/- per G.”(gallon) “are turned away! Why!"
Black also he negotiated with Governor King to sell him the Harbinger on behalf of its owner. On 1 May 1801 the Governor wrote to the Duke of Portland, stressing the old age of vessels used by the Government and the need for replacements. “The Master of the brig Harbinger, recently arrived from the Cape, has offered her for sale. As a vessel is needed to go between Norfolk Island to carry supplies and bring salt port from thence, I directed a survey to be taken of that vessel, also an inventory of her masts, rigging and furniture. The sum demanded by the owner was 1500 pounds and the offer I made him was 700 pounds, though much less than her real value.” Because of money shortage in Sydney, there was no other bidder for the Harbinger, so Black was compelled to accept the Governor's 700 pounds.
The documents relating to the sale of the Harbinger were signed by John Black in June 1801 where he described himself as a resident of Sydney, and receipted by him on 3 August 1801.
On 7 September 1801 Governor Philip Gidley King granted Black's partner Mary Hyde an Absolute Pardon 18 months before her sentence would have expired. From the wording of the pardon, it would appear that John Black used his credit with the Governor King to obtain this Absolute Pardon for his partner.
It was on 1 January 1802 that 23-year-old John Black next left Sydney. His partner Mary Hyde was left at home as the sole parent of two children under the age of three, and one only 3 months old. John Black was employed as Captain of the Campbells & Co. brig the Fly sailing for Mumbai (then Bombay) and then Kolkata (then Calcutta) to pick up goods from India for the Sydney warehouses of Robert Campbell. Black managed to make the voyage up the east coast of Australia, above New Guinea, through the islands of Indonesia, and across to Mumbai and then Kolkata in very good time. In April 1802 the Fly departed Kolkata for the return voyage to Sydney. The Fly left the pilot on 14 May 1802 to continue sailing south across the Indian Ocean, along the bottom of Australia, through the Bass Strait above Tasmania, and then up the east coast to Sydney, or so was the plan. However sometime after 14 May 1802 the ship was lost at sea with all hands, if not on its passage across the Indian Ocean then somewhere in the stormy and ice-berg strewn ocean below southern Australia.
News did not reach Sydney until nearly 12 months later that Black's ship was missing. News of the probable loss of the Fly was reported by Captain Allan M'Askell of the Castle of Good Hope when it arrived in Sydney in February 1803 to find that the Fly had never arrived. The Ship News in the Sydney Gazette & New South Wales Advertiser of 5 March 1803 reported the loss "we have been informed of the more than probable loss of the Fly, a vessel of about 100 tons burthen, laden with piece and other valuable goods, also bound for this place" (Sydney)", and belonging to the House of Campbells, at Calcutta" (Kolkata) ". She left Calcutta in the month of April last" (1802) ", and has not since been heard of; was commanded by Mr. John Black, a young man much esteemed here by all who knew him."
Black's death was not publicly confirmed until April 1804 when the Ship News in the Sydney Gazette & New South Wales Advertiser of 15 April 1804 reported: “The brig Fly, Captain Black, that sailed from Calcutta for this colony on April 1802 has never been heard of.”
- William Minchin - ensign and adjutant of the New South Wales Corps
- Reprinted by his father Rev. John Black in the St. James Chronicle of 31 October 1799.
- The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey, 1966, Sun Books Pty Ltd
- Guide to King Island
- King Island
- It has been suggested that John and Mary might have married about this time, but no record of this marriage has been found, she is shown as Mary Hide(sic) on the 1811 muster, and she married as Mary Hyde in 1814.
- An Authentic Narrative Of The Mutiny Aboard The Ship Lady Shore by Rev. John Black - digital copy available at National Library of Australia
- The Black Family, Elizabeth Draper – de Mestre Family Tree