Kirkus Star


The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers
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A superb recounting of a strange affair indeed: an incident of mutiny on the high seas that American naval history has long forgotten.

The Somers was not “strictly speaking, a ship, although she was large enough,” a lightly armed cousin to the Baltimore Clipper and one of the finest ships on the ocean in 1842, even though new weapons would soon make such brigs obsolete. She was commanded, writes Melton (Law/Univ. of North Carolina; Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason, 2001), by 39-year-old Commander Alexander Mackenzie, who by all accounts resisted the shipmaster’s temptation to tyranny and instead treated his men with “calmness, gentleness, and refinement” and was well liked for it. His patience was soon tested by the arrival on board of a 19-year-old apprentice, Philip Spencer, the son of President John Tyler’s treasury secretary. Allying himself with a handful of older sailors, Spencer became an adept at goldbricking and shirking, but he was not without imagination: somewhere on the high seas he concocted a plan to take over the ship with 20 hands and convert the Somers into a pirate ship. “Maybe he did what he did because of testosterone,” writes Melton, “the drug that made men become hunters, seeking conquests of sex and blood. Possibly it was due to his parents, one whipping too many, one spanking too few. . . . Perhaps it was simply a mean streak, a manifestation of original sin; perhaps he was simply no good.” Whatever the case, confronted with Spencer’s threat of mutiny, Mackenzie took a possibly reasonable course: he hanged the young man and two accomplices. The case fueled a national controversy, with the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Matthew Perry weighing in; Mackenzie’s career was effectively ruined, though he escaped charges of murder, and the Somers went on to an inglorious end off the coast of Mexico.

Fine seafaring adventure, expertly narrated: for maritime historians and fans of Hornblower and Aubrey alike.

Pub Date: April 9th, 2003
ISBN: 0-7432-3283-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2003