Howes Norris was married and the father of four when he shipped out as master of the whaler Sharon. He had made quite a few prosperous voyages in the past, hopefully this one would be too. Norris was a hard taskmaster, having already quashed one mutiny, not to mention he turned into a demon once on the high seas.
The Sharon set sail on 25 May 1841 for the Pacific whaling grounds. For the most part the voyage was mundane with very little sperm whales caught. It would be the trend for the next four years. Throughout the months sperm whales had been sighted but none successfully caught. Once whales had been sighted but the capture had been bungled by what Norris referred to as “good for nothing Boatstearers” and on another occasion “a Miserable set of Boatstearers”. November turned into December and things weren’t looking any better. Norris was getting fed up with his crew and he blamed a lot of went wrong on them. Then he took to beating his steward, George Babcock.
One day the officers overheard a commotion between Norris and Babcock. Norris was whipping Babcock for some sort of misdemeanor. When he was unsuccessful Norris ordered the man flogged. After bestowing twenty-four brutal lashes on Babcock, Norris sent the steward back to duty. Instead Babcock found shelter with his crewmates in the forecastle.
The trouble was only beginning. When rang for, Babcock didn’t respond. So First Mate Thomas Smith (Norris two Smith brothers-in-law were first and second mate) and Third Mate Benjamin Clough went off to find him. From the crewmen they learned Babcock would not be returning to duty until he was given better treatment. Clough alerted Norris of the trouble. Since they weren’t getting anywhere with talk the threesome went to below to forcefully extract Babcock. But Babcock wasn’t ready to give up. Smith had to pull at Babcock as the latter clung to a berth. Chaos reined as the seamen stood up in defiance to the captain and officers. Finally Norris had had enough. He called for a rope. No one would get it. Clough ended up fetching it himself. A noose was made and slid around Babcock’s neck as his friends called out their protests. Out on the quarterdeck Norris punched Babcock, knocking him flat and then jumped three times on his chest. Next Norris singled out four men for punishment. One sailor was smashed in the face with a hammer Norris was madly wielding. The sailor’s face would never be the same. Then Norris turned back to Babcock. Faced with threats Babcock gave Jack Baker away as another supporter. Norris had Baker shamefully flogged. In the log surreptitious Norris made no mention of the mutiny. He meant to keep it hush-hush like he had his previous mutiny. If everyone had thought these events bad, they would be extremely surprised what the future held.
On another day Norris locked horns over food with Cooper Andrew White. The exchange ended with White’s demotion. As a testament of Norris’ highhandedness, while replenishing stocks in Rotuma fourteen men deserted the Sharon. Norris managed to recruit some men, but he was still shorthanded.
Babcock was now suffering from scurvy among other things. Norris rarely missed a chance to make the steward’s life miserable. He also no longer allowed Babcock food and continued to, in effect, torture the steward. Other crewmen were not exempt from Norris’ wraths. On another occasion a boatsteerer had misunderstood an order and Thomas Smith has begun beating him. Pretty soon Norris had gotten in on it too. He clocked the 19-year-old before demoting him. When a drunken sailor attempted to desert Norris had the man bound and kicked him in the face. The sailor threatened to kill Norris once he was loose. Norris responded by setting the man adrift in a canoe.
In late 1842 Norris added another offense to his list. After beating Babcock repeatedly and putting him through various tortures Norris succeed in killing Babcock. The crew had stood by in silent horror. In their journals, Clough and Cooper wrote sympathetically of the steward’s death hoping he had found eternal rest with God away from the cruel and vindictive Norris. In the log Norris noted George Babcock had died suddenly after complaints of cramps. With Babcock’s death, something akin to satisfaction came over Norris. Then he started drinking. Clough noted that Norris was oftentimes drunk.
Before setting sail for New Zealand many more desertion took place and the Sharon was forced to sail shorthanded. Then on 5 November 1842 sperm whales were sighted. As shorthanded as they were, an effort was made to hunt the whales. All of the crew, with the exception of Norris, Manuel de Reis and 3 natives, left the ship to hunt in boats. One whale was caught and the Sharon moved to the dead whale.
Sometime later the boats were still chasing whales when they noticed the ship’s flag was at half mast. They immediately gave up the chase and began pulling for the ship. They were shocked to see the Sharon was sailing away. However, they managed to catch up quickly with the slow moving vessel. In the rigging de Reis informed the sailors what had happened. The natives had killed Norris. De Reis had been waiting for some time for the boats to notice the flag. The natives greeted the boats with an assortment of weapons, hurling things at the two boats. It impossible for the rest of the crew to reclaim the ship. Leaving their comrade in the rigging the boats pulled away. De Reis was working at cutting away sails at Thomas Smith’s orders.
Away from the ship Clough formulated a plan which was accepted. When night came Clough swam through shark infested waters armed only with a knife. He entered the ship through a cabin window where he commenced to loading muskets so he could fire a signal to the other boats. Unluckily for Clough, the natives heard him moving around below and one came below to inspect. After a grisly skirmish, the native passed out. Then came another. Clough shot him. In the process the officer was cut to the bone and bleeding badly. The third also arrived, looked around and then left.
From the boats White heard everything, yet the two Smiths hesitated even as Clough struggled to the deck and called to the boats to come. Finally Clough was able to convince the other officers it was safe to come aboard. De Reis too came out of the rigging. The third native was not found until the next day. He would later be taken to Australia for trial and then released after the Sharon sailed on. Whether he was involved in the slaughter of Norris is not known.
To make a long story short, the rest of the voyage was plagued with bad luck and the crew, was eventually forced to hunt an “inferior” type of whale for oil before heading home where they arrived in February 1845.