Friday, 2 November 2012

The Curlew and The Panda

The road to promotion in the 1830s may have been to serve in the ships of the line, where you could be seen by Admirals, but for travel and adventure, the little ships were the place to be.

HMS Curlew was a 10 gun wooden sloop launched in 1830. In May 1833 the Curlew called in at Port Antonio on the Portuguese Ilha do Príncipe, off West Africa. There Capt. Trotter was informed of an attack on an American brig, the Mexican, by a Spanish pirate schooner, the Panda, which had seen the crew of the Mexican abandoned at sea in a burning vessel, which they had only just managed to survive. The Spanish captain, who had been identified as "Don" Pedro Gilbert, had reportedly abandoned the crew to their fate with the words "Dead cats don"t mew".

 HMS Curlew, at Rio de Janeiro

This Panda was believed to be in the nearby River Nazareth on the African mainland, and the Curlew set off in pursuit. On the 3rd June she anchored at the mouth of the river, and early the next morning three boats rowed up the river. After three miles they saw the Panda, but they themselves had been seen. Rowing against the current was heavy going and before they could arrive the crew of the Panda had left, and smoke was coming from their ship. Arriving at the Panda the astonished sailors saw the smoke was coming from a trail of cotton and brimstone leading to the magazine, where lay 16 barrels of gunpowder! Fortunately, they managed to put out the fire in time, and took the Panda in the name of the King, sailing it out of the river.

Captain Trotter now wanted the crew. These were now in the town of Nazareth, under the jurisdiction of King Passall, the local chieftain. Actually, he vigorously claimed that they had run off into the bush, but it was pretty clear this was not the case, so Trotter determined to make his message clear. The Curlew was too big to sail to Nazareth, so he sent the Panda back, with a Royal Naval crew. After an ultimatum had expired with no pirates delivered, the Panda fired a warning shot.

Unfortunately, though the crew was Navy, the ship was not. Firing the cannon set off loose powder still on the deck, probably from when the pirate crew had tried to fire the ship before. This time it succeeded, the magazine exploded, three men were killed, with many wounded, including Captain Trotter. Fortunately the water was so shallow that the ship didn`t sink and the wounded could be saved. However, much of the Curlew`s firearms and cutlasses had been lost, as well as members of the crew, and an attack on King Passall was unpractical. Anyway, Trotter learnt from his prisoners that the pirate crew had dispersed, and so he sailed along the African coast hunting them down.

Fernando Po

Fernando Po

After several false leads Trotter was forced to call at the island of Fernando Po, modern day Bioko, where Britain leased two bases for use in anti-slavery patrols. Fernando Po was techniclly Spanish, but in fact run by local chiefteins, whose slave trade Britain had abolished. The Curlew needed supplies, also some of her crew, including Captain Trotter, had come down with fever and needed R&R. Actually this delay was a stroke of luck. An officer Captain Beecroft, had come across 5 Spanish sailors who claimed to be shipwrecked, and he had brought them to Fernando Po to catch a ship from there. Suspecting they might be part of the crew of the Panda, the Governor of Fernando Po, Colonel Nicholls, confronted them with the prisoners already taken, and they were promptly identified. The youngest Spaniard, Jose Perez, turned Kings Evidence, and later he was murdered in Havana by friends of Gilbert.

Cape Lopez

It appeared that the slaver captain, Don Pedro Gilbert, was still at Nazareth, but it wasn`t clear how to get him as king Passall could either fight, or melt away into the dense forest. Fortunately a trader, Captain Fatio of the Princess Elizabeth offered his services and a plan was hatched. Thirteen men of the Curlew, under the mate, Mr Matson, embarked the Princess Elizabeth and it sailed for Nazareth, with HMS Curlew following far behind. The plan was for the Elizabeth to moor like any other trader and when the King came aboard to inspect her, as was his custom, he would be seized and held until the Curlew appeared.

Something about the Elizabeth struck the locals as wrong, and they inspected her by canoe, but would not come aboard. Matson determined that he would have no choice but to go on land, however risky that turned out to be, so with 4 crew he took a row boat and went to Nazareth, only to be told that the King was now at Cape Lopez, 20 miles upstream. Rowing almost all night, Matson and his crew arrived around dawn.

 Cape Lopez

Unfortunately, almost the first person they met shore was "a gentlemanly looking man with a sword by his side", none other than Don Pedro Gilbert himself, who was immediately very suspicious that Matson was the trader he claimed to be. But unaware of this, Matson continued on to the Kings residence where he announced that he and his crew had come to trade for ivory, and they had many dollars to spend. The meeting went well and Passall was won over, even after a messenger came to inform him of Pedro`s suspicions. Walking back to the beach Matson was accosted by Pedro and a group of Spanish sailors and asked to a nearby house for questioning - he considered bolting for the row boat but held his nerve and somehow managed to appear convincing, or at least enough for Pedro to let him go. Matson and the others returned to the Princess Elizabeth with a pilot to direct the ship to Cape Lopes and one of Passalls younger sons, to find that Captain Fatio had almost given up hope of seeing them again. The two natives were plied with as much drink as they wanted, so when the Curlew appeared in the night they slept through the meeting, and had no clue the next morning that the two ships were connected.

The next morning both ships arrived at Cape Lopez, but separately, the Curlew flying the Brazilian flag. The King was on a Portuguese ship in the harbour, but his son Prince Nazeen and several head men boarded and were promptly seized, though well treated, and assured they would be released as soon as the Spanish were given up.

There now followed a day of haggling, and probably many threats from Don Pedro, but eventually a message was sent, and next morning Don Pedro was send to walk along the beach where, sword in hand, he was met by Captain Trotter and taken into custody. Meanwhile, predictably, Passalls men looted the Spaniard's stores in Cape Lopez. The prisoners were released, with gifts and even a full Naval uniform for Nazeen.

Sao Tome (St Thomas)

It had become clear for some time that the Esperanza was extremely suspicious, and this was confirmed by documents seized with Don Pedro. In fact she had been seen earlier at the Portuguese island of St Thomas, though the Governor there had sworn she was innocent of wrong doing. Trotter now sailed with all speed back to St Thomas, hoping to catch her there, accompanied by the Princess Elizabeth who could sart her normal trade again.

On October 4th 1833 the Curlew was back at St Thomas, anchoring at the port of St Ana de Chaves. The Esperanza had gone, but they were tipped off by an American merchant that some of the Spanish pirates had stayed, and infact had bought a boat from the Governor himself, despite his official claim that they had never been on the island at all! Another American, Captain Pollard of the Henry Hill, told him that the Esperanza was in fact moored on the far side of the island, waiting for the Spaniards to cross the island and join her. Matson was promptly dispatched with a crew in row boats and they captured the Esperanza just after dark, bringing her back to St Ana de Chaves.

The Governor now changed his tune, claiming that he had been hunting for the Spaniards, and had word that they were on a distant part of the island. With no way of forcing the issue Trotter had to be content with seizing the Esperanza, and the ex-ship of the Governor, and sailing for the neighbouring Portuguese island of Principe.

Cape Lopez again

Trotter now had most of the crew of the Panda, including the officers, but in January 1834 he received news that one of the pirates was still at Cape Lopez. The Curlew had been back since, and been recieved well, so they didn't anticipate trouble, but when Matson went ashore with a small party he was seized, as was Lt McNeale and a group of sailors who were searching a Portuguese ship in the harbour.The prisoners were stripped naked, apart from Matson who had a degree of protection from his friend Prince Nashin. They were questioned about how many people remained aboard and Matson invented the huge number of 125, which he later believed was what dissuaded an outright attack on the Curlew.

It was unclear even afterwards what had prompted this sudden hostility by Passall, other that the fact he was extremely drunk at the time. In any event he now demanded 3000 dollars ransom for the hostages. When this was brought down to 100 dollars it was paid, only for Passall to demand another 300 and several more days passed. Fortunately at this point the HMS Fair Rosamund, another sloop, arrived, and Passall send the hostages back.

Clearly this could not be tolerated and another sloop, HMS Trinculo, was summoned. The water was too shallow to approach Cape Lopez directly but the combined boats for the squadron were loaded with sailors, and also a 12 pounder cannon and some rockets , and sent in. The rockets drove Passalls forces out of the town, but they assembled in large numbers in the forest and a plan to burn the town was abandoned.


The Curlew and the captured Esperanza returned to Ascension island, and then England, the Esperanza being eventually handed over to the Portuguese authorities in Lisbon, and entered the Portuguese navy. The Spanish pirate prisoners were sent to be tried in Massachusetts for their part in the seizure of the Mexican. They were carried on HMS Savage, the first time in 50 years that a British warship had entered Salem harbour, which naturally caused great excitement. By chance the Mexican, with her original captain and mate were in harbour, and of course were called as witnesses. It was a cause celeb, with even the President being involved, but finally most of the prisoners, including Don Pedro, were hanged.

 A contempory print of de Soto and Gilbert. Gilbert was noted for his "gentlemanly aspect" and seemed to be always carrying a sword. The crew of the Panda were noted at the time for having red caps.

Trotter went on to command the Niger Expedition in 1841, and by 1857 he was a Commodaore, commanding the newly established Cape of Good Hope squadron based in Simonstown. 

Matson was to visit Havana again, two and ten years after the trial, and on both occasions he met up with the former Chief Mate of the Panda, Bernardo De Soto, who had been pardoned. Matson was a captain in the Royal Navy, and De Soto a well established and respectable trader

"The world had gone well with him since his trial, and he was now undoubtedly a reformed character. He never looked like a pirate, he had a benevolent expression of countenance, and was particularly mild and gentlemanly in his manners. During ten years he had commanded a large steamer, running between Havana and Matanzas, and latterly had become part owner. He told me he had made a considerable sum of money, but had never been engaged in the slave trade since his liberation. This was strictly true, for I heard it, confirmed from other sources. He was then moving in a very respectable sphere at Havana, and was known generally as "Don Bernardo."

Further Reading

The full story of the Curlew and the Panda can be found in The Nautical Magazine, volumne 20 (1851), in Google books.

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