079: Seaman John Brown of HMS Cossack, 1855

The war between Britain, France and Turkey with Russia (1853-1856) saw major battles in the Crimea and is known as the Crimean War. British naval power was exerted in the Baltic and in the Arctic, the former involving a blockade. Finland was then part of Imperial Russia but its people were not seen as enemies, so seven Finns captured when British ships attacked their vessels were placed in a cutter (small boat) of HMS Cossack and taken to Hango (now Hanko, Finland 80 miles from modern Helsinki) on 5 June 1855.

Lieutenant Genestre (aged 25) flew a flag of truce and as well as the prisoners had two stewards who were to seek for provisions. The party landed and was attacked, the cutter held four dead and one seriously wounded ordinary seaman, who was revived when water came through the many bullet holes in its hull. In the early morning of the next day this sailor, using his good left arm, cut the ropes and sculled (placing an oar over the back of the boat) it out into the Baltic where it was picked up by the Cossack, which was seeking news of the cutter. John Brown said he was the sole survivor of what was soon being called the Hango Massacre.

The House of Commons heard the report on 18 June, which The Times said was a “massacre of English sailors”. The details had come from “a black man”. “He being the only one of the boat’s crew left living” which caused a “considerable sensation” in parliament (Times, 19 June 1855, p 5).

The Bury and Norwich Post and the Derby Mercury (20 June) both said this survivor was a “black man”, London’s Daily News detailed him as “a man of colour, named John Brown” and two days later the Newcastle Courant (22 June) said he was “John Brown, ordinary seaman, a young man of colour”. So readers of British newspapers were aware of this black sailor.

The Russian view was that they feared a ruse, pointing out that the cutter carried muskets. The British said that muskets were carried in the cutter in the same manner as oars – part of the basic equipment – and added that none of the party had ammunition, and if it was an aggressive action why carry those Finnish prisoners (most had been killed). The Russians said five had been killed, four had been wounded, and eleven were captured so Brown had been mistaken. (The Times, 7 July, p 9). Two of the officers were exchanged at Odessa but Lt Genestre was still a prisoner (The Times, 12 October, p 4). On 8 December 1855 Genestre’s “plain, unvarnished story, of the massacre” was published in The Times (p 6) and the event was called “a foul blot on the name of Russia”.

John Brown was awarded the service medal, the Baltic Medal, for service in the region. The Rear Admiral in charge of Royal Navy activities was later promoted, but Sir Richard Saunders Dunbar died in 1861, aged 60, famed for his effective blockade and for conducting the first ever naval mine clearance campaign. Hango now Hanko is a small port, its inhabitants speak Finnish and Swedish, its main buildings have replaced those destroyed by the Soviets, and has a memorial to the thousands who migrated to America through that port. The 20-gun HMS Cossack, which was being built in Northfleet, England for the Russians when the Crimean War broke out, was scrapped in the 1870s. And we are still seeking details on John Brown, ordinary seaman – or extraordinary seaman?

In June 2020 historian Stephen Lewis supplied details from the National Archives in Kew, where file ADM 139/166/16577 states Brown was born in April 1821 in St Andrews, New Brunswick (in Canada close to Maine) and joined the Cossack in August 1854 for ten years, having served in the merchant navy. In the Royal Navy he became an Able Seaman in July 1855.


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