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The schooner Conquest, shrouded in secrecy and mystery

by Jay Underwood on 14 Jan 2013
The vessel America under sail . ©
When the four mutineers of the ship Saladin were hung for piracy in Halifax in 1844, Nova Scotians might well have thought they had seen the last of the seafaring criminals to sail in their waters … but another vessel might well have attempted to carry on the tradition of Captain Kidd or Edward 'Ned' Jordan, the Nova Scotia mariner who raided ships from 1794-1809.

The story of the schooner Conquest is one shrouded in secrecy and mystery, caused largely by the loss of both the ship and its crew, which included ten men from Halifax, in 1883. First mate William Hilchey, second mate Fred Hilchey, cooper Joseph Matthews, and seamen John Spicer, John Carrigan, James Deady, John Purcell, David Fraser, Edmund Little and P. Byrnes, may all have gotten more than they bargained for when the signed up to sail with Captain John Esmond on August 15th of 1882.

Even the ship’s genesis is a matter of speculation. Built either at Aylesford, Nova Scotia in 1858 (hull number 37920, 91 tons) or Maitland, Nova Scotia in 1841 (hull number 9004978, 107 tons), Conquest had been used for fishing off Newfoundland when she ran ashore and lay abandoned there until purchased for $100, by George E. Forsyth & Co. and put back into service. Forsythe sold the ship in 1882 to Captain F. Tarr of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who was said to be the agent of Gen. Benjamin Butler, the Union Civil War hero who had just then become governor of the state.

Butler is an unlovable historical figure, despite his heroics in the Civil War. Chester Hearn wrote in his 1997 biography that the general died in 1893 leaving an estate worth more than seven million dollars, and questions about how he came into such a fortune. It is Hearn who suggests that while Butler was a student in the Lowell, Mass., high school, he developed a habit of stealing from classmates — a practice that followed him all of his life. Part of that estate included the yacht America, the ship that gave its name to the celebrated transatlantic race, and played a part in the strange story of Conquest.

Capt. Tarr took Conquest to Halifax, and began refitting the ship, purportedly for an Antarctic whaling expedition. It was at this point that rumours began to swirl.

Described by the Toronto Daily Mail of Aug. 17, 1882 as a 'a gloomy, black, piratical looking craft, with extraordinarily high bulwarks for a vessel of her size,' the ship was well suited to carrying guns, a large number of which had recently been delivered in Halifax. Enough stores for 'thirty or forty men for nine months' were taken aboard, in spite of the rumour the ship was said to have sailed with only the captain and two boys aboard.

The Halifax Recorder of March 21st 1891 suggested Butler’s yacht America had sailed from Halifax two days before Conquest, and there had been a meeting at sea, when the 10 Halifax men and others went aboard.

Despite Tarr’s claim, it was suggested Conquest had been headed for Cuba for a 'filibustering expedition,' but the clearing papers showed it was bound for Port Crockett, on the Island of Madagascar. There was, however, no such port on the island east of Africa, and a new story was advanced by the Recorder:

'Some time previous to 1882, a Newfoundland captain was engaged in a trading voyage to the South Pacific, loaded with a rich cargo of oil, etc., was cast away on a desolation island in the South Pacific and he was the only man saved, it is said. He succeeded, so the story goes, in having a large part of the cargo, amounting to between $20,000 and $30,000 worth. At last he was picked up by a passing vessel and brought home. He did not forget the wealth he had left behind, however, and he interested a number of Gloucester shipping men in a project to fit out a vessel to the Southern sea and recover it. Gen. Ben Butler was also interested, and it was he who advanced the necessary cash. Capt. Tarr of Gloucester came to Halifax in search of a suitable craft for the work, The schooner '‘Conquest' was purchased, amply provisioned and fitted out, and put in command of Capt. John Esmond, the man with whom the secret lay as to the whereabouts and the extent of the booty.'

Read more | http://thechronicleherald.ca/thenovascotian/421506-the-mystery-of-conquest
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