In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship

An account of a disastrous voyage in 1841-45 under Captain Howes Norris (until he was murdered for good cause) on the Sharon out of Fairhaven, Mass.

p. 175-6, when in Sydney Australia one of the sailors, George Black was accused of the murder [of Captain Norris) and incarcerated on Goat Island, but one of the seamen had gone to the Sydney Bethel and talked about the case: The Sydney Bethel had been founded back in 1822, when a small group of quietly concerned men of good will, led by Chaplains William Cowper and Richard Mill, recognized the need for a charitable institution for sailors.

Bethels were (and still are) found in most major ports, attending to sailors in trouble—men who might have been rescued after shipwreck with nothing but the clothes they stood up in; who might have deserted ships because of dreadful conditions on board, men discharged sick or marooned by heartless captains. Bethels also catered to seamen who preferred reading to carousing the waterfront taverns, providing libraries and reading rooms. They held religious services and stages inspirational lectures; pious or spiritually troubled seamen could go to the Sydney Bethel to pray, or simply talk into a sympathetic ear.

In Sydney, the Bethel Union flourished despite an unusual difficulty—the lack of a meeting house. For twenty years the good men who were willing to tend to sailors in need rowed about the ships that lay at anchor in the labor, carrying out services on their decks, handing out books and Bibles, helping with the writing of letters, and taking down details so they could notify the families of sailors who had died. Just six months before the Sharon arrived, however, a wealthy Quaker, Joseph Phelps Robinson, had come to Sydney on his private steamship, Cornuba. Not only did he join the ranks of the mission to seamen, but he also gave them the use of the Cornuba, to serve as a floating chapel and reading room. By flying the white bethel flag, it signaled that troubled sailors could find comfort here, and because one or more men from the Sharon took advantage of the opportunity, Joseph Robinson and his fellow philanthropists learned about the plight of George Black.

[Benjamin Clough, the hero of this book, became a prosperous pillar of Martha’s Vineyard, and a prominent Mason, who never in fact told the full story of the death of Captain Norris.]

[ From the publisher’s blurb online, 12/16/17: After more than a century of silence, the true story of one of history’s most notorious mutinies is revealed in Joan Druett’s riveting "nautical murder mystery" (USA Today). On May 25, 1841, the Massachusetts whaleship Sharon set out for the whaling ground of the northwestern Pacific. A year later, while most of the crew was out hunting, Captain Howes Norris was brutally murdered. When the men in the whaleboats returned, they found four crew members on board, three of whom were covered in blood, the other screaming from atop the mast. Single-handedly, the third officer launched a surprise attack to recapture the Sharon, killing two of the attackers and subduing the other. An American investigation into the murder was never conducted–even when the Sharon returned home three years later, with only four of the original twenty-nine crew on board. Joan Druett, a historian who’s been called a female Patrick O’Brian by the Wall Street Journal, dramatically re-creates the mystery of the ill-fated whaleship and reveals a voyage filled with savagery under the command of one of the most ruthless captains to sail the high seas.]