COURT-MARTIALLED FOR DESERTION
CANADA – 1813 to 1814
On 5 May 1813 the de Meuron regiment embarked at Malta on the HMS Regulus, HMS Melpomene and HMS Dover for British North America, and at the end of August the 1,200 officers and men landed in Canada. On arrival the regiment was at or near full strength: on board the three ships were 6 military captains, 20 lieutenants and ensigns, 54 sergeants, 22 drummers and 1001 rank and file.
Leaving Gibraltar on June fourth at four in the morning, the regiment crosses the ocean on the last episode of this story. We are going to reinforce the British army in Canada, “ces quelques arpents de neige” [these few acres of snow] according to Voltaire, to protect his possessions from the pushy American. We crossed under the protection of the English frigates. The Dover advances to the front position and the Regulus, heavier, has trouble following; in the heavy mist the Melpomene touches bottom in the vicinity of Newfoundland, but can depart the following day, June 25, by high tide. After a short stay from the sixth until the tenth of July, at Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, the convoy arrives on August 5th in Quebec. (1)
After just three weeks in Canada, Jean Pierre went AWOL. On the muster roll for 24 September 1813, it is noted that he “deserted 27 August returned 3 September”.(2) His was the only desertion from the regiment in August, and there were a further 9 in September.(3) As a fifer and drummer he was being paid at a regular rate of £2/19/5 for each three-month period,(4) and although he was not paid during his absence, and was on a charge when he returned, the meticulous paymaster credited him £2/15/6½ for the 86 days of the quarter he was present.(5) Ten days later, on 13 September, he was court-martialled at the regiment’s headquarters in Chambly, and sentenced to life imprisonment. (6)
Fort Chambly, Quebec, 1814 (7)
There are various levels of desertion, the most serious being ‘desertion to the enemy’. This, and the slightly more ambiguous ‘desertion towards the enemy’ demanded the death sentence in the British Army. The record of Jean Pierre’s court martial does not detail the seriousness of his desertion, but the relatively light penalty (for the time) indicates that his may have been a simple case of being absent without leave. The record reads:
Adjutant General’s Office
Head Quarters Montreal
8th October 1813
At a General Court Martial held at Chambly the 13th Septr 1813 and continued by adjournment to the 14th of the same Month, was arraigned. Jean Pierre Munier Drummer in De Meurons Regiment, confined by Lt. Col. H. De Meuron Bayard for deserting from the Regiment De Meuron on the 27th day of August last or thereabouts, until the 3rd day of September when he was brought back a Prisoner.
Opinion and Sentence"
The Court having maturely weighed the evidence adduced on behalf of the prosecution together with what the Prisoner has alledged [sic] in his defence, the Court is of opinion that the Prisoner J. P. Munier Drummer in deMeurons Regiment is guilty of the Desertion laid to his charge, the Court therefore adjudge him the said Prisoner J. P. Munier Drummer in DeMeurons Regiment to be marked on the left side, two inches below the armpit with the letter /D/ half an Inch long; and then to be transported as a Felon for life, to any part of H. M’s Dominions beyond the seas, as H. R. H. The Prince Regent in the Name and on the Behalf of H. M. may be graciously pleased to direct.(8)
Discipline was harsh in the military. At the same court martial three of Jean Pierre’s compatriots were found guilty of deserting ‘with the intention of going to the Enemy, and for Resisting the party sent against them to bring them back’, and were sentenced to death by hanging. We also find Thomas Orr being pronounced guilty of having deserted on 23 July and ‘not returning until taken prisoner at St Therese[?]’ on 27 July, for which he was sentenced ‘to suffer Death by being shot’. In November 1813, Private Thomas Beckwith was convicted of having wounded himself “in the leg, with intent to disable himself for the service”. He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes “on his bare back” with a cat-o’-nine-tails, which probably disabled him more than his own action.(9) Jean Pierre’s sentence might point to some extenuating circumstances, or a good defence.
Being branded with a D for deserter was common in the British Army. The mark was not made by a branding iron, but by a tattoo, in which the skin was punctured by a set of sharp points in the shape of a D, and afterwards gunpowder was rubbed into the wound to introduce a permanent blue pigment. Tattoos were commonly called ‘gunpowder spots’ from the 17th century,(10) and Jean Pierre’s was probably administered with a spring-loaded tool as shown. Apart from any stigma this practice might have engendered, it was meant to foil those serial deserters who would leave their own regiment, and then present themselves to another to obtain the signing-on bonus.
All verdicts from courts martial had first to be confirmed by the British army’s headquarters at Horse Guards in London. Some time after these formalities had been completed, Jean Pierre was shipped to England.
26th February 1814
Having received the directions of the Prince Regent for carrying into Execution, the Sentence of a General Court Martial, held at Chambly, in the district of Montreal, on the 13th September 1813, (of which you had approved) whereby Jean Pierre Meunier, Drummer in De Meuron’s Regiment was adjudged to be transported as a Felon for Life; I am to acquaint you, that his Royal Highness, was pleased, in the Name and on the Behalf of His Majesty, to Command that the Prisoner should be Transported accordingly to New South Wales. -
You will therefore take the proper steps for the Conveyance of Jean Pierre Meunier to this Country.
Commander in Chief
Jean Pierre’s sentence confirmed
Jean Pierre was shipped back to England, where he was received on board the prison hulk Dido on 21 September 1814, more than a year after his court martial. Three days later he was ‘disposed of’ to New South Wales.(11) He sailed on the Indefatigable, via Rio de Janeiro (where there was a delay of five weeks), and arrived in Sydney on 25 April 1815. Of the 200 male convicts loaded, 198 reached their destination.(12) The "Sydney Gazette" reported that the prisoners were landed in a healthy condition ‘and of particularly clean appearance’,(13) indicating a well-managed voyage. Jean Pierre appears on 29 April 1815 as Pearce Manier on a list of convicts disembarked from the Indefatigable who were sent to Liverpool, near Sydney, for distribution.(14)
Next: A Frenchman in Australia
©Brian Wills-Johnson, 2020
(1) From the memoirs of Alain Bosquet, His Majesty’s Regiment de Meuron, http://mlloyd.org/gen/macomb/text/hmd2.html accessed May 2020.
(2) Canada, British Army and Canadian Militia Muster Rolls and Pay Lists, op. cit.
(3) British Army individual units strengths, 1805-1850, from www.napolean-series.org
(4) Drummers and fifers were paid more than privates, who received £2/6/- for each three months – PRO W.0.12/11966, muster books and pay lists, Regiment de Meuron, 1812. The regiment had 21 D&Fs at the time.
(5) Canada, British Army and Canadian Militia Muster Rolls and Pay Lists, op. cit.
(6) State Archives NSW; Series: NRS 12202; Item: [4/4080], tickets of leave 1810-1869.
(7) J Bouchette, A Topographical Description of the Province of Lower Canada, London, W. Faden, 1815, opp. p. 171.
(8) Public Archives of Canada, record group 8, C series, British Military and Naval Records, vol. 1167½, p. 646.
(9) Public Archives of Canada, record group 8, C series, vol. 165, p. 229.
(10) See, for example, William Wycherley’s play The Plain Dealer, 1665.
(11) HO 9/9, Convict hulks moored at Portsmouth, register of prisoners, p. 27
(12) Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 2004, pp. 340-1.
(13) Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 29 April 1815, p. 2.
(14) Reel 6004, 4/3494, p. 66, Colonial Secretary’s Records (www.colsec.records.nsw.gov.au)