HISTORIES AND MYSTERIES – Richard Parker: The Devonian Mutineer

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Well educated and a persuasive orator, Richard Parker was not your normal sailor in Britain’s Royal Navy. He came from a well-off background, the son of a grain merchant and baker, and had gone to grammar school in Exeter. He was good looking, swarthy and described as having flashing black eyes.

For some reason Parker rejected his family business and went to sea as a midshipman where his naval career, even before the Nore Mutiny, was chequered with a history of insubordination, demanding good food and better conditions. He even challenged one of his captains, Edward Riou of HMS Bulldog, to a duel.

Parker married Ann McHardy, a Scottish farmer’s daughter, in 1791, but this union failed to temper his outspoken ways. He was demoted and transferred from his ship until discharged from the service because of persistent rheumatism. After a time as a teacher, Parker ended up in debtor’s prison and in 1797 he accepted an offer of £30 to re-join the Royal Navy. His ship was the Sandwich and a little over a month later, on 12th May, the mutiny at The Nore began. Parker was chosen by the other delegates to be President of the Fleet because he was a gentleman and was smart enough to match clever words with well-educated officers. Despite this Parker’s position was difficult in the extreme and he walked a taut wire between radical fellow delegates and the intransigence of the Admiralty.

King George III demanded Parliament pass draconian laws against mutiny so that anyone trying to “seduce soldiers or sailors from their duty” would receive the death penalty. Although accused of being a traitor, Parker always said he would fight his country’s enemies. But public opinion was against the mutineers with their families being threatened with transportation to Australia. Parker attracted a 500-pound reward for his capture.

Parker wanted to settle the matter with pardons for the mutineers. He went to leave the Sandwich with an offer of submission, but radicals blocked his path. With rations cut and bickering among the mutineers, the so-called Floating Republic was about to disintegrate. One by one ships slipped their cables and sailed away – at great risk from the rest of the mutiny fleet. The Government and Admiralty could now smell blood and there would be no concessions. All ships had to surrender unconditionally and then the sailors would have to wait for a decision on a King’s Pardon. An order went out to obey officers’ orders and the mutiny was effectively over.

The hunt then began for the delegates of the fleet – at least one of whom, William Wallis of HMS Standard, shot himself rather than be tried and hanged. Parker attempted to leave the Sandwich, but was blocked by the crew who feared retribution if he was allowed to escape. He held a vote on the Sandwich to see if his men wanted to continue on or surrender. The vast majority of men called to raise the white flag. He was then given a cabin to stay in while the Sandwich sailed for Gravesend where delegates were identified and arrested by militia troops.

Upon arrival he was shackled and the next day was taken ashore through a hostile crowd who booed him. Parker is reported as having said “Don’t hoot me. It is not my fault. I will clear myself.” Parker was taken to Maidstone prison where he was charged with treason and piracy. The former president of the fleet told his interrogators he had been ignored when he had called for moderation during the mutiny and that he had hoped to “prevent wild men from doing worse injury to the country”.

At the express orders of Prime Minister William Pitt, Parker faced trial before 13 naval captains or higher ranks – including Captain Edward Riou, the man he had challenged to a duel years before – without the aid of legal counsel. His wife, however, did her best by her husband and petitioned Queen Charlotte asking for clemency. On 22nd June, Parker’s trial began aboard HMS Neptune under the presidency of Vice-Admiral Thomas Pasley.  Contemporary reports say Parker walked in with a “respectful, but unintimidated air.” After two days of indifferent evidence, the prosecution closed its case against Parker and called for him to begin his defence. He was denied court transcripts of the proceedings so far, but was given an extra two days to prepare. Parker’s defence was spirited and would have shown to a fair-minded jury that he was neither a revolutionary, nor one of the radical mutineers.

It lasted until the early afternoon – 1.30pm to be precise – and then the captains left to consider their verdicts. By 4pm they had returned and Parker was sentenced to be hanged. On 30th June the yellow flag of execution flew from the gallows ship Sandwich. Parker, dressed in black walked to the quarterdeck where he prayed with a priest. Afterwards he asked for a glass of white wine and with it said: “I drink first to the salvation of my soul and next to the forgiveness of my enemies.”

He then shook hands with Sandwich’s Captain Mosse and was led towards the forecastle followed by his former comrades who would be those soon hauling him by the neck up into the rigging. That was the scene his wife saw when she came near the Sandwich in a rowboat. It was her third attempt to see her husband and it so shocked her that she fainted. A personal enemy placed the noose badly around his neck – and Parker asked for another to do it properly. This time it was done so that his death would be quick and painless as his body was hauled high.

Parker resisted the hood being put over his head and asked that the moment for it be deferred. He turned to his former comrades and smiled at them saying “Goodbye to you.”Requesting a white handkerchief with which to signal for the execution to begin, Parker then mounted the steps leading to where he would die.

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