Mutiny on California ships

When passengers for California made a bargain with a ship captain for passage they expected that the terms of that agreement be adhered to fairly and honestly. This was not always done. Many ship captains were as corrupt on land as they were despotic at sea. With the prices in California as high as they were, many captains tried to skimp on their agreements for food and provisions in order to profit from the high prices in the gold rush. Many then found themselves hauled before an unsympathetic Judge Almond in San Francisco where the community found little fault with his judgments against ship owners and captains who had cheated those who traveled with them. But many times the passengers did not wait for the courts and took matters into their own hands.

The modern bark Alexander von Humboldt

In May of 1849 the Dutch bark Alexander von Humboldt, chartered to carry a cargo of coal, found the crowds of men waiting in Panama for a vessel to San Francisco and agreed to carry passengers. In spite of the high prices the ship owners charged, three hundred dollars for a cabin and one hundred for steerage, the owners overbooked the capacity of their vessel by nearly a hundred men desperate to get to the gold fields. When the passengers discovered what had been done they took the owners hostage and refused to release them until they chartered a small brig anchored nearby to carry the overflow of passengers. Eighty-four men were duly transferred. But before the Humboldt sailed the passengers then discovered that the fare aboard ship was far from adequate. When the owners refused to take on new supplies the passengers bought what they needed themselves then placed a lien on the ship for the cost. When the Alexander von Humboldt reached San Francisco it was soon sold to repay its debts, including those for the provisions acquired in Panama.

Flying Cloud

On another voyage originating from Panama in February 1849, the John Ritson took aboard seventeen cabin passengers at two hundred dollars each and forty-nine steerage passengers at one hundred and fifty dollars each with the promise of transport to California and healthy food. But once at sea the passengers were served biscuits full of bugs and worms. When the men objected to this disgusting fare the captain ignored them, but then discovered that his passengers had secured a barrel of edible provisions from the ships stores and helped themselves. He threatened to throw overboard any man who touched another barrel, but the rebellious passengers were not cowed by the captain’s threat so he vowed to run the vessel aground or return it to Panama. To which the passengers replied that he could do as he pleased but they were going to eat decent food. At some point the New Bedford whaler, Equator, had passed the John Ritson at sea and on arrival in Panama reported that its passengers had mutinied and placed the captain and officers in confinement. As a result a British man of war was sent after the John Ritson but the ship, and its mutinous passengers, made its way to San Francisco without interference.




  1. Oh, I do love a good ship story. If I believed in reincarnation I am sure I was a sailor in a past life. These were great stories. Loved them.

    • I love the ships too, Doris. And they were the soul of early California. The gold rush miners could not have survived without the goods and food shipped from the eat coast all the way around South America.

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