The Hudson mutiny



Illustration by Douglas Hunter

Habakkuk Prickett was lying in his cabin, his weakened legs aching from scurvy, when Henry Greene, accompanied by the boatswain, William Wilson, approached him on Saturday, June 21, [1611] with the plan to overthrow Henry Hudson.

Excerpt from God’s Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal, and the Dream of Discovery, by Douglas Hunter. Doubleday Canada, 2007. 

Prickett would have been among the last men they approached. If he were as close to Hudson as he claimed, it would have been a tremendous risk for the mutineers to involve him in advance. Surely he would tip off the master, the way he had already informed on Greene when he had his fight with the barber-surgeon at Iceland.

Greene and Wilson must have been confident of enjoying the support of enough able-bodied seamen both to seize control and steer the ship home. And their idea of shoving the weakest crewmembers into the shallop with Hudson would have terrified Prickett, who was by his own account bedridden. He was surely older than Greene and Wilson, who even in their famished state would have been physically imposing. The threat to the haberdasher was baldly stated, according to Prickett. Greene told him if he did not side with them, “I must take my fortune in the shallop.”

Prickett was given a chance to save himself because the mutineers needed him. He was the supercargo, the investors’ representative. The men who went along with Greene and Wilson would not have relished spending the rest of their lives as outlaws. If control of the ship was to be seized, it was best if it were done in a defensible legal fashion. Prickett’s cooperation was the surest way to save themselves from the gallows.

•     •    •

By the time Greene and Wilson came to Prickett with a crude scheme to wrest control of the ship, both were starving. They had already consumed their bread rations far ahead of schedule, and informed Prickett that there was only enough food aboard to last another two weeks. Greene in Prickett’s telling was violent and headstrong, a gambler, a spoiled young man with a poor record of self-restraint. Prickett wrote that Greene initially stormed out of his cabin in a rage when he would not agree to join him, leaving him alone with William Wilson, to attempt to talk Wilson out of the plan. Greene then stormed back in, demanding to know what Prickett had said. Wilson replied: “He is in his old song, still patient.”

Prickett tried to have Greene and Wilson agree “to stay three days, in which time I would so deal with the master that all should be well.” Prickett never said how he intended to deal with Hudson. He could have proposed to seek a promise from Hudson to sail directly home, and to involve a capable man like Bylot—even Juet—in the navigation. But the conspirators would not hear of three days, or two days, or twelve hours, Prickett claimed. They were determined to act as soon as possible: that night.

Prickett then offered a striking option: “if they would stay till Monday, I would join with them to share all the victuals in the ship, and would justify it when I came home.” While Prickett immediately related that “this would not serve their turns,” in attempting to defend himself from the cast stones by presenting evidence of all of his efforts to discourage Greene and Wilson, he touched on the very heart of the matter. Greene and Wilson had no real plan, except offloading Hudson, his most loyal men and the weakest crewmembers in order to stretch the rations. That would not do. The action needed a more coherent rationale for Prickett to take home with him. And by saving unsavory men like Greene and Wilson, who would gladly see him to his death if he opposed them, Prickett in turn could save himself.

•     •     •

Ironically, the precedent evidently chosen on which to build the insurrection involved none other than Henry Hudson’s own friend, Captain John Smith. To seize the Discovery and rid themselves of Henry Hudson, the mutineers would follow carefully how Smith had helped seize control of the Jamestown colony in September 1607, deposing its first president, Sir Edward Maria Wingfield. Leading men of the Virginia Company like Sir Thomas Smythe, Sir Dudley Digges, Sir John Wolstenholme, and Sir Robert Cecil, all of whom now backed the Hudson expedition, had been satisfied with the legality of the action against Wingfield. To persuade Smythe and his fellow investors of the legality of Hudson’s overthrow, the mutineers needed to adapt the basic script of the Wingfield action. And to persuade some members of the crew to go along with their insurrection, they would have to be convinced that what they were planning to do was no different than how Wingfield had been dealt with by Smith at Jamestown.

The mutiny scheme was far from perfect. In fact, in most ways it was terribly clumsy, and burdened by incongruities that pressed its logic beyond breaking strength. But it had an essential, cohesive shape. And in the end, it may have worked because the people who should have been casting the most critical eye over its uneven, even indefensible details after the Discovery’s return chose to go along with its rationale.

•     •     •

Anyone attuned to England’s overseas colonial ambitions would have been aware of the Edward Maria Wingfield case. Wingfield, who mercifully survived the coup unharmed, demanded a hearing on his return to England so he could refute the allegations made by John Smith and others in deposing him at Jamestown. There is no surviving record of the actual hearing, which may never have been held. But a lengthy draft defense by Wingfield, which he seems to have drawn up to guide him through the hearing, dates from around May 1608.

How many people aboard the Discovery would have known the details of how Wingfield was brought down is unanswerable, although Prickett more than anyone was in a position to know.Regardless, there is no more compelling echo of Wingfield’s unseating at Jamestown in September 1607 than Hudson’s overthrow aboard the Discovery in June 1611.

The many charges against Wingfield were tedious, and quite possibly not without cause, but among them were two basic ones germane to the Discovery mutiny: he played favourites to the detriment of the colony, and he hoarded and squandered food in a time of desperate need. The charges against Wingfield struck someone among the Hudson mutineers as eminently portable to a ship far from home, locked in shifting ice. Especially portable was how Wingfield was dealt with during the investigation into his conduct at Jamestown. On September 10, 1607, Wingfield was seized and placed in a pinnace, anchored off the fort in the river James, while his accommodations were searched for evidence.

The Wingfield-like elements of favouritism and food hoarding would be presented in the Discovery survivors’ High Court of the Admiralty depositions as the main case for having overthrown Hudson, and would also figure in Prickett’s voyage narrative. But none of these elements had been part of the case Greene and Wilson first made to Prickett on the eve of the mutiny. All the duo apparently cared was that they had eaten their rations long before everyone else had, and wanted to wrest control of the ship to get their hands on the food belonging to the people they would put in the shallop. The ravenous pair also complained of Hudson’s lack of forward motion—“that there they lay, the master not caring to go one way or other.” But it was the ice cover on James Bay, which typically does not clear until July, that limited their progress, as the mutineers themselves would discover.

Desperation was Wilson and Greene’s primary motive. When Prickett asked why they, married men with children, would risk an action that would “banish them from their native country,” Greene “bade me hold my peace, for he knew the worst, which was, to be hanged when he came home, and therefore of the two he would rather be hanged at home than starved abroad.”

When Greene refused to divert from the plan to proceed that very night, Prickett wrote that he told Greene he suspected that “it was blood and revenge he sought, or else he would not at such a time of night undertake such a deed.” At that, Prickett alleged, Greene took up Prickett’s bible “and swore that he would do no man no harm, and what he did was for the good of the voyage, and for nothing else, and that all the rest should do the like.”

Prickett did not explain how he was persuaded that no man would be harmed once cast adrift in an open boat among ice floes thousands of miles from home. Or how a man like Greene—who in Prickett’s own words with respect to religion considered himself “an open book” on which Prickett could write whatever he wished—could be relied on to swear to anything on a bible, particularly when he and Wilson had already made clear to Prickett their intention to cast away Hudson, those most loyal to him, and the sick. But swear Greene did, to Prickett’s satisfaction, as did Wilson. And so, Prickett claimed, did the rest of the conspirators, who filed that night into Prickett’s cabin: John Thomas, Michael Perce, Adrian Moter (whom Hudson had promoted to boatswain’s mate when he made Wilson his boatswain back on September 10), the cook, Bennet Mathew, and Robert Juet.

Juet was the first to enter Prickett’s cabin to join Greene and Wilson in taking the oath. Prickett found Juet “worse than Henry Greene, for he swore plainly that he would justify this deed when he came home.” It was the only moment in Prickett’s narrative when Juet undeniably was a ringleader.

Prickett acknowledged that the basis of the case against himself, which might yet see him hanged, was his administering of the oath: “…I am much condemned for this oath, as one of them that plotted with them, and that by an oath I should bind them together to perform what they had begun…” He was careful not to allow that he ever took his own oath. His case was rather that he had organized the conspirators along Christian lines. He made a point of including the actual oath in his account: “You shall swear truth to God, your prince and country: you shall do nothing, but to the glory of God and the good of the action in hand, and harm to no man.”

The oath-taking was the core of Prickett’s bid for exculpation: he had made every man involved swear to do no harm. Whatever followed that veered from that sacred promise was the sin of the oath-takers, not of Prickett. But at that point, Prickett also became an active co-conspirator. Because whoever ended up in the shallop, whatever the pieties of Prickett’s precious oath, received a death sentence. The men who were convinced to take seats in the shallop (just as Wingfield had been held in the pinnace) were supposed to be allowed back aboard, once the “evidence” for Hudson’s alleged hoarding of food was gathered. But Prickett expected these men to die, and he wished that some of the more useful ones remain with the mutineers to get the ship—and himself—home.

•     •     •

The mutiny, according to the list of oath-takers in Prickett’s journal account, enjoyed the participation of six members of the able-bodied crew, and the cooperation of Prickett. Of the remaining men, Thomas Woodhouse, Sydrack Faner, Michael Bute and Adrian Moore were all unwell and confined to bunks, and so were prime candidates for the shallop. The former boatswain, Francis Clement, was also expendable. While he had suffered a demotion at the same time as Juet and was criticized in Woodhouse’s note for having “basely carried himself to our master and to the action,” he had lost his fingernails to frostbite and may have been too lame to work the ship. Henry and John Hudson were doomed to be cut loose, as was the new first mate, John King. But that still left a significant group of skilled and mobile men: the recently demoted first mate, Robert Bylot, the carpenter, Philip Staffe, the barber-surgeon, Edward Wilson, the cooper, Silvanus Bond, the veteran Hudson sailor, Arnold Ludlow, and the ship’s boy, Nicholas Sims. This list of highly capable hands who were not among Prickett’s oath-takers revealed that the insurrection fomented by Greene, Wilson, and Juet, at least in its formative stages, was a creature of the lower ranks and marginal (or marginalized) voyage participants. And among the co-conspirators was potential instability, for Bennet Mathew had provided some of the most damning testimony against Juet at the September 1610 hearing.

In the hours leading up to the action, there would have been selective bargaining with men considered key to carrying off the uprising and then  getting the ship home. When it came time to act, some of the men who had not taken the alleged oath would have to go in the shallop. Others would be allowed, convinced, or forced, to stay.

Greene told Prickett that, along with Henry Hudson (and, it went without saying, his son John), they intended to put in the shallop King, Staffe, and “the sick men.” To this Prickett helpfully replied that “they should not do well to part with the carpenter.” In a wooden ship that had already experienced a tough overwintering and shuddering groundings, Staffe was a crucial crewmember, and Prickett urged them to keep him. But they disliked Staffe, Prickett alleged, for the same reason they disliked King. The pair was “condemned for wrong done in the victual.”

Edward Wilson, the barber-surgeon, in his testimony before the High Court of the Admiralty in January 1612, would provide the most complete rationale for the conspirator’s actions. He alleged that at the time of the mutiny “their victuals were so scant that they had but two quarts of meal allowed to serve 22 men for a day, and that the master had bread and cheese and aquavit in his cabin, and called some of the company whom he favoured to eat and drink with him in his cabin, whereupon those that had nothing did grudge and mutiny both against the master and those that he gave bread and drink unto…”

The mutiny began, the barber-surgeon would attest, when the boatswain, William Wilson, approached Philip Staffe and asked “the reason why the master should so favour to give meat to some of the company, and not the rest…” Staffe supposedly replied “that it was necessary that some of them should be kept up,” at which Wilson told Greene what he had learned from Staffe. Greene and the boatswain Wilson then hatched a plan to put Hudson and King in the shallop, but to keep Staffe aboard.

According to Prickett, King was also disliked for having displaced Bylot as master’s mate. The conspirators had alleged to Prickett that “the master and his ignorant mate would carry the ship whither the master pleased: the master forbidding any man to keep account or reckoning, having taken from all men whatsoever served for that purpose.” Juet, for one, would have been deeply offended at an illiterate man without apparent navigation skills ultimately having come to serve in his place as master, and further being denied the right to make navigation observations himself.

Prickett, and some of the others who would go along with the mutiny, were trapped between two extremes of insurrection. On the one hand, there was the legitimate concern that Hudson was withdrawing into a scheming shell as the fever dream of discovery overcame him, cutting off all reasonable communication on the ship’s location, course and ultimate destination. Not having others share in the navigation duties was discreditably dangerous. On the other hand, there were violent, starving men at the head of the plot, who wanted nothing more than to stretch the rations by getting rid of about one third of the crew. Where they thought the ship should go next was another matter.

There was a reasonable course for Prickett to pursue, and it had been provided to him by the Reverend Cartwright’s action against George Waymouth on the deck of this very ship in 1602. As the supercargo, Cartwright marshaled a civilized and respectful insurrection, with the crew’s objections to an overwintering written down for Waymouth and an alternative plan proposed, of helping him spend the rest of the season search for possible passages, which led to the probing of the strait beyond the Furious Overfall. Prickett could have followed Cartwright’s example–his position being even more advantageous, as Hudson had already disobeyed his sailing directions. Instead, Prickett allied himself with Greene and his henchmen, racking his brain for some way to make the action they had in mind seem defensible, while saving his own skin.

Prickett wrote that he was successful in convincing Greene and Wilson to keep Staffe, but naturally he claimed noble motives. It was Prickett’s stated hope that after the conspirators “had satisfied themselves” by getting their hands on the ship’s rations, Staffe could work to convince them to allow Hudson and the sick men to come back aboard from the shallop. “Or, I hoped, that someone or other would give some notice, either to the carpenter, John King, or the master; for it so might have come to pass by some of them that were the most forward.” But Prickett could have raised the alarm himself by hollering blue murder, even if he was too ill to get out of his berth. By his own accounts, he would prove himself perfectly capable of communicating by shouting, and of venturing onto deck.

Already, his account of the mutiny’s unfolding was suspect. The idea of a line of conspirators on that small ship, parading unnoticed into Prickett’s cabin, to swear to his noble words on a bible, strained credulity. Prickett’s berthmates in the cabin outside the gunroom were King, Bylot, and Clement, none of whom took the oath. They all must have been elsewhere in the ship that night, if Prickett were to be believed.

But there would be ample reason for Prickett not to be entirely believed. Prickett’s main version of events, set down in his journal narrative, was contradicted by Bylot, who in a court deposition admitted to having foreknowledge of the mutiny. Bylot maintained he was not involved in  planning. But he did allow that he was aware on the night before the coup “that Hudson and the rest were [to be] put into the shallop the next day.” Still, Bylot asserted that he and Prickett together attempted to talk the mutineers out of going through with their plan, but that “Greene answered the master was resolved to overthrow all, and therefore [Hudson] and his friends would shift for themselves.”

Greene’s reasoning was plain. He expected Hudson to obey the conventions of a commercial voyage, in which any deviation from the agreed course required the approval of the crew. With Bylot’s demotion, King’s promotion, and Hudson’s seizure of navigation instruments, the master was suspected of having secret plans for their course. If Hudson intended to operate without the approval of his men—if he was “resolved to overthrow us all”—then he and the men he favoured should “shift for themselves.” The statement was as close as anyone came to acknowledging what remained unspoken. In getting their hands on the remaining foodstores and making with all haste for the murre colony at East Digges Island, the core conspirators may have been determined to return the expedition to its recent state, when Hudson departed in the shallop for points and purposes unknown with what must have been a handpicked crew of loyal people.

Prickett would avow that Hudson and Staffe were his closest friends on the ship. If so, he sorely betrayed that friendship. Both he and Bylot knew something was coming, and found themselves a safe role in the coup, without making any effort to forewarn Hudson or his closest associates of the malice that was closing around them.

•     •     •

Something alerted the Discovery’s captain to the movements against him. Perhaps it was the shuffling of too many feet on the poop deck, above his cabin, or the sound of ice-hardened ropes moving jerkily through blocks as the trim of the sails was changed and course was altered. Whatever it was, George Waymouth was brought fully alert on the night of July 19, 1602, in the waters of Davis Strait to the east of Baffin Island.

All of Waymouth’s men had “conspired secretly together, to bear up the helm for England, while I was asleep in my cabin, and there to have kept me by force, until I had sworn unto them, that I would not offer any violence unto them for so doing. And indeed they had drawn in writing, the causes of their bearing up of the helm, and thereunto set their hands, and would have left them in my cabin: but by good chance I understood their pretense, and prevented them for that time.”

Waymouth’s fortune was shortlived: at eleven the next morning the crew “bare up the helm, being all so bent that there was no means to persuade them to the contrary.” When he came out of his cabin to ask them who had changed the ship’s course, “They answered, One and All. So they hoisted up all the sail they could and directed their course south and by west.” He managed to reassert his command, and even punish the ringleaders, while acceding to the crew’s demands. And not only did these mutineers spare his life: by refusing to overwinter in the arctic, north of latitude 60, they may well have saved it.

Nothing caused Henry Hudson to stir in the darkness of the Discovery’s cabin, nine years later, as another crew planned another, far more malevolent insurrection.

•     •     •

As the conspirators waited for the right moment to act on the night of June 21, King’s whereabouts were a concern, as he was the key person after Hudson that they were determined to cast away. They at first thought he was with Hudson, although Greene kept Hudson company for some time, despite their estrangement. King turned out to be up on the poop deck with the carpenter, probably enjoying a summer night under a half moon, breathing in fresh air that was chilled by an ice-strewn sea. Bylot must have been on watch in the early morning hours. Clement, who was Prickett’s bunkmate, was who knows where.

King returned to the cabin, apparently with Bylot. The current and former first mates were bunkmates, and Bylot had given nothing away. This was around four in the morning, at the changing of the four-hour watch, as Prickett attested “it was not long ere it was day” and the sun rose around 4:45.

Bennet Mathew, the cook, arose to fetch water for the kettle. King also awoke and went into the hold—lured there probably by Mathew for a discussion of the stores. King was trapped as the hatch was shut down on him. Who kept it closed Prickett claimed not to know, but Prickett said Mathew was quickly on deck. Meanwhile, Greene and “another” went to Staffe, and occupied the carpenter in conversation while Hudson was taken.

Prickett’s journal described how John Thomas—a bunkmate of Juet’s in the gun room—and Mathew led Hudson onto deck, while William Wilson pinioned his arms behind him. But Prickett would later testify in February 1617 that he never actually witnessed any of this, or that he ever saw Hudson pinioned. And the barber-surgeon, Edward Wilson, remembered the sequence differently.

The first that the barber-surgeon knew of a mutiny, he insisted in his court deposition in January 1612, was when Hudson “was brought down pinioned and set down before this examinant’s cabin…” Wilson looked out the door and saw men he declined to name—were they Mathew, Thomas, and William Wilson?—struggling to force Hudson onto the floor and secure his arms behind his back, by passing a length of pole through the crook of his elbows and tying his arms in place.

Edward Wilson offered up a surreal exchange: like a solicitous physician he “asked Hudson what he ailed, and he said that he was pinioned…” The barber-surgeon then apparently hoped to come out of his cabin to share in the victuals he would have known the mutineers were after, but those who had pinioned Hudson told him “if he were well he should keep himself so.”

Hudson, according to Prickett, asked his captors “what they meant.” And “they told him he should know when he was in the shallop.” But since Prickett wasn’t even on hand, this was entirely hearsay.

Down in the hold, with the hatch slammed shut over him and held in place, John King would have known immediately that something was terribly wrong. Bennet Mathew had suddenly disappeared, and by Prickett’s telling had rushed to help roust and pinion Hudson. An otherwise quiet morning, which should have given way to another laconic day of waiting for the ice to shift out of the anchored Discovery’s way, was alive with urgent activity.

The hold was a cramped, frigid prison. Cold air sank into it; the subarctic sea on the other side of the hull kept it refrigerated. The bilge water fouled its air, and condensation made the beams and planking slimy. Different levels of deck above him transmitted staccato shocks of scurrying feet. Some percussions were distant and muffled and moving with urgency. Others were crisp and sharp and purposeful and directly overhead.

The hatch was being lifted. Descending into view was the man who had promised Bennet Mathew there would be manslaughter and action that proved bloody to some before the voyage was over. Robert Juet was coming for him.