John Black was born on 31 October, 1778, in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. He spent his childhood at Woodbridge in Suffolk. His father, also called John, was curate at Butley from 1789 to 1813, Chaplain at the Woodbridge House of Correction, Headmaster of the Woodbridge Free School and Chaplain at the army camp at Bromeswell. He was also a classical scholar and a prolific author.
Most of what we know about the son’s life comes from his published letters to his father: An authentic narrative of the mutiny on board the ship Lady Shore; with particulars of a journey through part of Brazil: in a letter, dated “Rio Janeiro, Jan. 18, 1798”, to the Rev. John Black, Woodbridge from John Black, one of the surviving officers of the ship. (Rev. John Black, Ipswich, 1798).
“The most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains”
Young John first went to sea in 1795, aged 17, in the Walpole, a trading vessel and East Indiaman. His real adventures began in May, 1797. That was when he wrote to his father from Torbay, where he had signed on as purser and navigator of the Lady Shore, bound for Sydney, Australia.
The ship was carrying soldiers as reinforcements for the New South Wales Corps, who guarded the convicts, plus food and farming equipment. Both were sorely needed. There were also 69 female convicts, one male army prisoner, some wives and children of the crew and a single passenger and his wife.
Many of these so-called soldiers had been conscripted forcibly. They included former deserters and dissident Irish. There were even some French prisoners of war, who had already tried to escape and were suspected of plotting another attempt. Nearly all were unwilling to go to Australia and had been causing problems before the ship even set sail. In his letter to his father, Black described them as “the most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains that ever entered a ship.”
After eight weeks at sea, off the coast of Brazil, the threatened mutiny broke out. The soldiers, led by the French prisoners-of-war, began it. They were joined by some of the sailors, the ship’s surgeon (under duress) and 66 of the female convicts. Together they seized the ship and killed the captain and first mate.
“One of the ringleaders, a Frenchman, mounted the arm chest, and, through the interpretation of Major Semple, read the rules they had adopted; and desired we would follow them under pain of death. They also informed us … that they intended to give the officers the long boat, and to put into her thirty-two people, as soon as they had passed the latitude of Rio de Janeiro … ”
After being confined below decks for two weeks, Black, with with twenty-nine men, women and children were put in a longboat and set adrift. Their number included the remaining ship’s crew, the army convict, the passenger and his wife, four other wives, four children and three female convicts. They had a little water and some basic provisions. They were also allowed a pocket compass and a quadrant to help them find land. The nearest was some 300 miles distant.
“They put into the boat three small casks of water, containing about ninety gallons, four bags of bread, and three pieces of salt beef. We, however, were fortunate enough to evade the search of the sentries in the confusion, and got into the boat two hams, two cheeses and a small keg, containing about four gallons of rum …”
“Lightning and rain, and a tremendous sea”
The Lady Shore sailed away under command of the mutineers, leaving the longboat behind. The castaways hoisted sail and headed for the Portuguese coast of South America. It was no easy journey.
“We had the wind from the N. E. and fine weather for the first eight hours, after which we had variable winds, with heavy thunder, lightening and rain, and a tremendous sea … At noon [the next day], it cleared up a little and we had land in sight, from about two points on the larboard bow to right astern: we supposed ourselves, from the run we had had, to be about twenty miles to the southward of Port St. Pedro.”
As luck had it, they were spotted by a local boat, despite more heavy seas and driving rain. It helped them find their way to land at the harbour at St. Pedro, now Rio Grande in the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul. They had been only two days in the boat. Black thought it a miracle. The local people could scarcely believe their tale.
A passage to Rio
John Black and his companions were received kindly by the local Portuguese authorities. They also promised passage to Rio de Janeiro to find a British ship to take them home. Yet delays mounted. Some of their remaining goods were stolen and Black became increasingly impatient of the long wait. Instead, he decided to make his own way overland to a port where he might take ship for Rio. He left, accompanied only by Major Semple, the former army prisoner from the Lady Shore.
The generous Portuguese provided a baggage horse, two guides and even two servants for the pair. The 480 mile journey to Santa Caterina now became something of a triumphal progress as the enthusiastic natives provided feasts along their way and safe places to rest.
“A great superfluity was provided for our supper, and at least twelve or fourteen dishes went away untouched; among which were a roast turkey, pig, ducks, fowls, mutton, pork and beef, cooked different ways; sweetmeats of all kinds and good wine.”
When they reached Santa Caterina Island, Black and his companion found some ships of the Portuguese navy which took them on to Rio de Janeiro. The whole journey had taken six weeks.
“We were upon our arrival conducted to the Palace, and having produced our letter from the General at Rio Grande, we were kindly received by the Governor; and had each separate apartments allotted us at the palace. We found here part of the Portuguese squadron, stationed on this coast, consisting of four ships of the line, three frigates and a brig, under the command of Admiral Antonio Januario, who received up with great politeness, and very kindly offered us a passage to Rio Janeiro, for which place he would sail in about a month.”
John Black was safe. The fate of the mutineers and the Lady Shore was not so benign. The ship reached Montevideo in Uruguay, where it was seized and sold by the Spanish authorities for 40,000 dollars. The male mutineers were thrown into jail. The women “judged pretty enough” were shared out among favoured Spanish in Montevideo, doubtless for the pleasure of the menfolk. The other women joined the men in jail. What happened next is not known, but it was unlikely to have been good. Nothing was ever heard of men or women again.