Never Give Up the Ship: The Raid on the SS Bawnmore
Written and researched by Donna Sacuta
JANUARY 18, 1893: A light snow fell on Nanaimo harbour. The British steamer Bawnmore – a coastal freighter carrying a non-union crew – was anchored at Esplanade Wharf. The crew had not been paid for months.
Shortly after 11 pm a small boat pulled alongside the Bawnmore and several Union organizers scrambled onto the steamer. The ship’s crew were in their cabins when the boatswain heard a disturbance and went to investigate. He met two strangers carrying revolvers who offered him $20 – more than a month’s pay – to leave with them. When he refused, the boatswain was locked in his cabin. Later, he told police at least 15 and as many as 40 men were in the raiding party.
Five half-asleep seamen were rounded up, hustled overboard into the waiting boat and disappeared into the night with their captors.
Around midnight, the First Mate was awoken by the boatswain and the mess boy who told him the crew had been kidnapped at gunpoint. Scrambling out of his bunk the Mate searched the ship thoroughly. He then scurried to the local police detachment and enlisted the Chief and Constable to search the surrounding area. At 4 am the trio returned to the Bawnmore empty-handed.
On January 20 the BC Provincial Police posted a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the kidnappers. Two crew members of another ship, the JB Brown, were fingered as culprits but the Second Mate and Watchman provided alibis in Police Court. Two stowaways on the Bawnmore said they did not recognize either man.
The kidnapped crew had been taken to a cabin on Newcastle Island where they were persuaded to join the Coast Seamen’s Union. One of the five was transported to the Union office in Nanaimo where he promptly signed a membership card. Back at the cabin, the four remaining crew soon agreed to become Union members, but upon arrival in Nanaimo found the Union Office was closed.
It was agreed to transport the purloined men to Vancouver to sign Union cards and then be dispatched to a Union vessel. The seamen were promised the Union would see they were paid monies owing them from the SS Bawnmore. Everyone boarded a union-owned sloop and set out across the strait. The group was spotted and stopped off Grover Point by authorities and returned to Nanaimo.
Within three weeks five men including the Union’s Secretary were at trial charged with kidnapping. The Bawnmore trial was of such importance that BC’s Premier and Attorney General Theodore Davie acted as Crown Prosecutor. It was clear the state had no patience for the skullduggery of the Seamen’s Union. Davie’s argument in court included a verbal tirade against the Seamen’s Union as a spurious American organization, tyrannizing Canadians by creating a “reign of terror”.
The Union’s lawyer accused the Attorney General of “damning unionism with scant praise and then condemn[ing] this Union as a bastard. “Unionism is not on trial today,” declared the defence. “Whether innocent or guilty be the verdict, unionism has come to stay and will remain.”1
Four of those charged were found guilty and sentenced to between one and three years each in the Penitentiary. One of the accused was acquitted.
A message published in the Coast Seamens’ Journal from the four who were jailed read:
“It is our hope that although we failed in this instance…that it will not dampen the efforts of the Union, but on the contrary strengthen and intensify the feeling to ‘never give up the ship,’ and to continue the struggle to the end, never admitting failure.”2
The SS Bawnmore left Nanaimo two days after the incident. The Captain was only slightly perturbed by what had happened. He expressed “annoyance of having the Union beat him” but was not “particularly concerned about the affair”. He planned to simply pick up a new crew in Victoria.
Trouble followed the ship for months. In March and June 1893, dynamite was found on board and naturally the union was blamed. The SS Bawnmore was sailing from Nanaimo to Peru when she sank on the Oregon coast in 1895.
Schwartz, Stephen. Brotherhood of the Sea: A History of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, 1885–1985. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, Rutgers, 1986.
Nanaimo Free Press, Nanaimo Daily News, Vancouver Daily World, various dates.
- The Kidnappers on Trial, Nanaimo Free Press, 18 Feb 1893.
- Was This Revenge?, Nanaimo Free Press, 29 Mar 1893