This bright and serene scene of ships unloading off San Diego, California features a ship with a less than quiet history. The painting shows a typically bright and sunny Southern California day, the deep blue waters of San Diego providing the perfect backdrop for unloading crucial lumber for construction. The painting has Thimgan's eye for detail including the historic ship he's depicted, surely with a knowledge of her history, and his ability to so perfectly depict California's coastal landscape and surrounding waters.
Some ships of legend get their reputations not for speed or daring rescues, but for the amount of chaos which happens onboard. Sailors, being generally a superstitious lot, could spread a ship’s reputation like wildfire. As with the supposedly haunted places on land, the odd instances become larger tales whispered over strong drink in port or at worst, printed in bold newspaper headlines. The best crews don't want to serve aboard such vessels, so only the most hardened men sign on. Tempers flare and conditions deteriorate. Over time a ship gains the nickname of "hell ship" or "blood ship." This was the fate of the Bark HESPER.
HESPER was purpose built in 1882 for the Pacific "Triangle Trade" - carrying lumber to Australia, coal to Hawaii and sugar to California, though she took on other cargoes in her career. The wooden bark of 603 tons was built by the Halls Brothers Shipyard of Port Blakeley, Washington and she was unusually fast and beautiful for ships of her type with a finely carved figurehead which can be seen near the center of the painting.
For the ship’s first seven voyages she operated peacefully for the Halls Yard under their partnership with a Captain Cygnus Ryder. When Ryder sold his interest in the ship to the Halls they put HESPER under the command of Captain J.F. Sodergren- a man known for high standards and getting the most out of ship and crew. Sodergren’s Second Mate, Mr. Fitzgerald, was particularly known as a brute enforcer of discipline.
A March 1893 headline read, “MUTINY AND MURDER. Bloody Work on Board the Bark Hesper. A DARING PLOT FRUSTRATED.” HESPER left NSW, Australia on December 22nd with a load of coal bound for San Francisco. Sodergren had just gotten married and not only was his new wife onboard but among the crew it was whispered that $20,000 was being transported in the ship’s strongbox. A plot was hatched to steal both wife and cash.
Three weeks later, on January 13th, five of her crew attempted mutiny- hoping to do away with the Captain, mates and two other loyal crew, they would take control of the ship and sail to China or Chile, sell the cargo and outfit the ship for piracy. 2nd Mate Fitzgerald was ambushed on deck and fell to a galley hatchet but when Fitzgerald didn’t call for relief at the end of his watch, the First Mate warned the Captain who went on deck, pistol at the ready. The plot relied upon ambush, so upon sight of the revolver the perpetrators surrendered to arrest. The ship rerouted to Tahiti and the men confessed before the US Consul Doty whereupon they were held until another ship could deliver them to a very public and famous trial in San Francisco and eventually up to the US Supreme Court. Three were convicted and one hanged.
You might think that with the poor treatment of sailors mutinies were common, but actually they were rare. Ship’s officers had firearms and crews only knives and belaying pins. If a plot failed it was well known that the punishment for mutiny was hanging. So even though bad pay, short rations and poor treatment were common it often wasn’t enough to make it worthwhile.
The publicized trial made HESPER notorious, and the gossip of the wharf took hold. Before long it was the ship itself, now said to be a haunted hell-ship, that was to blame. Later newspaper reports of the ship simply making port were accompanied by newspaper articles about the mutiny. The Halls found it impossible to get crews aboard her and once there to keep them from jumping ship. She was sold and transferred to British registry, but the new owners went bankrupt. The haunted reputation now firmly cemented, HESPER lay at anchor for three years before she was sold for a voyage to Chile with lumber and to seek treasure at Cocos Island. On the way she would end her career with another mutiny and sinking in shallow water off Peru.
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