American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution

Image of American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution
Release Date: 
February 20, 2017
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It is always gratifying to learn history you don’t know. In this case, the subject is a specific incident with which the vast majority of Americans are unfamiliar but revolves around one of the major controversies between the nascent American Republic and its former mother country, Great Britain, and questioned the fundamental American belief in the provision of asylum to the oppressed and persecuted.

Indeed, the issue of impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy was a sticking point for years and eventually became one of the reasons for the War of 1812. Not that the problem began in 1797, the starting point for this publication, but, given its circumstances, it did lead to a political crisis involving the Federalist and Republican parties and continued to hold some measure of political sway for years to come.

The extradition from America and subsequent hanging of sailor and mutineer Jonathan Robbins, aka Thomas Nash, was also a factor in the hotly contested United States presidential election of 1800, influencing the outcome of the electoral votes in multiple states and threw the outcome into the House of Representatives where Thomas Jefferson emerged the winner in a stunning upset of the Federalist Party.

A bloody mutiny aboard the HMS Hermione, the worst in the Royal Navy’s history and eight years after that on the Bounty, led to a Royal Navy manhunt for the mutineers who eventually spread out across the Caribbean in the hope of evading British justice.

Although many of those involved were captured across the Caribbean or aboard ship elsewhere (and many of whom managed to escape justice completely), Robbins’ ultimate capture, incarceration in South Carolina, and the diplomatic and legal maneuverings involved the nature of who was and was not an American citizen and who should receive protection and asylum, citizen or not.

As it was, Robbins claimed American nationality by virtue of his alleged birth in Danbury, Connecticut. However, his claims were not fully investigated during the judicial process even as the investigation eventually reached the White House and President John Adams.

Adams, a Federalist, interfered to the extent of directly writing the judge or magistrate in the case, a fact which precipitated the political acrimony between the Federalists who were considered too chummy with the British to suit many, even as the Republicans, especially Thomas Jefferson, were seen as Francophiles with the attendant controversy of the terrors of the French Revolution, the XYZ affair, and the quasi-war with France at the end of the 18th century.

The British, for their part, were adamant that Robbins should be delivered up as they could in no way countenance mutiny onboard their ships even as they persisted in their belief that anyone previously subject to the Crown’s authority was still just as subject. Considering the discipline meted out on Royal Navy ships and the controversial impressment of those perhaps not the king’s subject, it is not surprising that it had such problems.

The intrigue and machinations involved in this case also drew in a number of other prominent Americans of the time, such as Timothy Pickering, and provided enough drama such that the case of Jonathan Robbins drew references for years to come from many politicians and statesmen.

The case stayed in the public consciousness as the nation struggled to reconcile our national identity and the Revolutionary-era concept that the United States should be an asylum for the world’s oppressed, one that continues to resonate today.

The text is interspersed with illustrations, woodcuts, and portraits, particularly of dramatis personae. The two maps are found on the respective inside covers and are of the United States in 1806 and the Atlantic Ocean.

Although there is no bibliography, as an academic historian, the author has provided traditional footnotes that demonstrate the research necessary to tell this story, from the papers of participants and other official documents to more contemporary secondary sources.

Even as the British found themselves having to deal with their former colonies on a formal diplomatic basis, they were at times perplexed and frustrated by the fractious nature of American politics. Those politics were a result of the establishment of parties with competing interests whose main objective was to obstruct the loyal opposition while maintaining control of the reins of power in order to implement their own policies.