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February 6, 2012

The fate of Captain Rowland and his privateer brig Holkar

Stranded on her tropical island, it’s likely that Susannah Lalliment didn’t know or care what happened to her would be rescuers turned deserters, Captain Rowland and his Holkar privateer.

To the British navy and merchant marine, however, the brig Holkar was a menace.

Slowed only by the captured ships and other prizes they had to sell, Captain Rowland and his crew turned back home to turn in his prizes. The Emu was taken to New York, and other prizes to other ports.

After he’d sold his prizes, Rowland found himself near the coast of Rhode Island. There, his relatively small boat came across a massive British frigate, or ship of the line.

The HMS Orpheus searches for privateers to destroy

As for Captain Rowland, he continued capturing boats until he came across a British frigate, the Orpheus. Frigates tend to have around fourty guns, and according to author William James (who is decidedly conservative when it comes to British firepower) the Orpheus had 36 guns. The brig Holkar, the first time it appeared in British newspapers, had 16. (It also had 16 guns when an Australian author wrote about it nearly two centuries later. Not surprisingly, however, at the quick defeat of the Emu, British reports exaggerated the Holkar’s gun-power to 18.)

The Orpheus was well over twice the size of the brig Holkar, and more likely three or four times. HMS Orpheus was a professionally built ship made of the finest materials for the world’s most powerful navy. The Holkar was a quickly made private investment commanded by an obscure captain in an impoverished nation.

The Orpheus was at that time commanded by Thomas Hardy. Hardy knew that his ship had superior strength to most of the privateers. For the most part, American privateers weren’t worth capturing, so Hardy aimed to destroy.

Hardy blew other little privateer vessels to pieces, some were probably not even worth mentioning. I don’t even know how many of their crews or captains survived, if any.

11 May 1813, the Orpheus meets the Holkar

However, Captain Rowland would not go down without a fight. The spectacle must have at first been comical to Hardy, when the tiny Holkar dared point its guns at the massive Orpheus.

Edgar Morton Maclay, in his “A History of American Privateers”, says that through determined firing, Captain Rowland initially succeeded in repelling the Orpheus. A few well placed shots, and Thomas Hardy retreated to look for easier prey.

Despite this small triumph, the men of the Holkar couldn’t celebrate yet. Soon after the action, the Holkar’s crew had noticed fifteen bodies in British uniforms floating in the water, and being washed onto the shore. Among those floating bodies was a “captain of marines”, “Captain” or Lieutenant Collins.* The British frigate Orpheus came quickly into view, and the Orpheus was hungry for revenge.

The Holkar runs for its life

Captain Rowland knew that vengeance from the HMS Orpheus would be nasty. So, to save the lives of his men, Rowlands landed the Holkar and had his men flee, leaving the brig behind.

British reports say that the Holkar’s men didn’t run far.  They waited nearby, with rifles aimed at the ready, ready to protect their ship if the British tried to steal it.

As it was too shallow for the massive frigate to follow, Hardy sent in a Commander Dance to go after the Holkar, presumably to destroy it, as the brig was considered unfit for the imperial navy.

The legend of Captain Dance and ticking bomb

Captain Christopher Claxon once told a tale, intended for “juvenile readers”, about Commander Dance’s run in with the Holkar. Like all stories about this period, it began believably enough, Captain Hardy had sent Dance with his boats to destroy the privateer.

At the start of the story, the American crew, with Captain Rowlands, was waiting on the beach with rifles, ready to defend their brig. (The stereotype spread at that time by the like of William James was that Americans, due to living out in the wild, were all born sharp-shooters. So, juvenile British readers would have had goose bumps to hear that their hero Dance was faced by Americans with rifles.)

Well, in this juvenile story, Dance didn’t simply destroy the Holkar by setting it on fire and shooting it to bits as commanded. No, instead Dance boarded the Holkar and went below deck.

Once there, Dance saw a trail of gunpowder (just like in the cartoons) which was lit and the flame was moving fast. Almost all of the gunpowder had been burnt up, so that the flame was nearly at the magazine. For those who know a little about ships, the magazine usually has a pretty intense concentration of gunpower, and many a ship has exploded by accident when a careless seaman drops a match.

According to Claxton’s story, if the fuse reached the magazine, the explosion would blow up not only Dance and his party who entered the Holkar, but all the men in boats around. (Unlike in the cartoons, they could not survive such a blast.)

Apparently, Dance then “with coolness and intrepidity” put the flame out with his finger, getting a booboo in the process.

Well, in the story Dance’s finger did get a little burnt, but even if the story were true, I don’t see that as being particularly brave. I mean, burn your finger or get blown to bits? Really, I hope most people would sacrifice the finger.

I’m amazed that Captain Rowlands would have time to come up with such a scheme.

It’s true, Americans had used fire ships in other wars, a practice which goes back centuries in naval warfare.  But those well documented fireships were carefully planned. Considering Captain Rowland’s conduct elsewhere, I find it unbelievable that he’d destroy his own ship in such a fashion, and risk the lives of his own men as well as his own, just to take a few small landing boats and a few seamen. (Captain Rowlands probably knew that some of those men may have been Americans were who forced to sail under impressment.)

Whatever the case, Commander Dance is then said to have set the Holkar on fire, destroying the ship anyway (and risking that the magazine would explode in a similar fashion.)

My guess is the reason that this story didn’t seem to appear anywhere else is because either Dance or his friend Captain Christopher Claxton made it up.

That’s not the only thing made up.

How many guns did Captain Rowland’s Holkar really have?

Privateers like Captain Holkar and his crew earned their living by selling prizes, but privateers weren’t the only people paid on commission in 1812. Sailors in the official navies got prize money when they captured or destroyed a ship, and the British were especially apt at rewarding their war heroes with money.

Captured ships were put into classes. If the defeated ship had over a certain number of crew, or over a certain number of guns, the victorious crew would get more money for its capture or destruction.

So it’s no surprize that, after the Holkar (and the evidence of her size) was destroyed, the British papers reported her as having 20 guns. Had the brig Holkar only 16 or fewer guns as official American records said, then Commander Dance and his men wouldn’t get as much prize money for destroying her.

When he brought in his prisoners, Captain Rowland said something which could have later cost the captain of a the “Holkar II” his life.  Meanwhile, Susannah Lalliment and the other convicts were still stranded on a small island in Capo Verde.

(And then…)

* The British account printed in the London Gazzette in July 1813, repeated in many other places, says that Lieutenant Collins was killed by the Wampoe, an 8 gun letter of Marque, which had been destroyed by the boats of the Orpheus the previous month.  This account also says that Collins was the only person hurt, and implies that there were no casualties in the struggle against the Holkar. While these facts are possible, the Gazette’s assertion that the Holkar had 20 guns is just not credible.

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