Cptn. Henry Mowatt

Captain Henry Mowatt
  • Born:

    1734

  • Died:

    1798

  • Father:

    Cptn. Patrick Mowat

  • Mother:

  • Married:

  • Children:

The following article appeared in The Orcadian on 14 April 2011:-

Immortalised in print and hot sauce

Orcadian families have left their mark all over the world: Mount Sinclair and Sinclair Canyon in British Columbia are named after James Sinclair, son of a Harrayman, who led parties of settlers half way across Canada, from the Red River Valley and over the Rockies; the Flett Theatre in the Natural History Museum got its name from Sir John Smith Flett, Director of the British Geological Survey; the American destroyer USS Spence was named after Robert Traill Spence, an American naval officer whose father Keith came from Kirkwall and Alexander Kennedy Isbister, whose name was given to the annual Canadian prize for non-fiction, was the son of Thomas Isbister and the grandson of Alexander Kennedy, both from South Ronaldsay. But surely none of this can compare with Captain Henry Mowat's Hot Sauce.

Henry was born in 1734, the son of Captain Patrick Mowat of the Bu of Hoy. He joined the navy as a midshipman about 1752 and made steady progress through the ranks, becoming commander of the Canceaux at the age of 30, in 1764.

The Canceaux was a sloop of war, with forty-five men and six guns but, for the first eleven years of Captain Mowat's command, her mission was entirely peaceful, surveying 3000 miles of the coast of Canada and New England. The first years were spent on a thorough survey of Prince Edward Island with Samuel Holland, who had taught Captain Cook how to survey and went on to become Canada's Surveyor-General. This work was part of an enormous project to map the entire eastern coast of North America and resulted in the 'Atlantic Neptune', described as one of the most magnificent marine and coastal atlases ever produced.

In autumn 1775, Mowat was in Boston, his surveying work completed. The first battles of the American Revolution, Lexington and Concord, had been fought a few months earlier and Mowat's superior, Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, was ordered to "carry on such Operations upon the Sea Coasts ... as you shall judge most effective for suppressing ... the Rebellion". He gave Mowat command of four ships, Canso, Symmetry, Spitfire, and Halifax, and told him to "lay waste, burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty's ships.

On 17 October, the small fleet anchored in the inner harbour of Falmouth (now Portland) in Maine, and a lieutenant was sent ashore with a letter from Mowat, warning the inhabitants that he was there to "execute a just punishment" and giving them two hours to "remove without delay the human species out of the said town".

For six hours on the following day, Mowat's four ships bombarded the town with bombs, live shells, musket balls and grapeshot. A party of marines was sent ashore to set fire to any buildings that had been missed. Although there were no reports of death or injuries among the inhabitants, four hundred houses were recorded as being damaged or destroyed, making about half the population homeless.

The attack, of course, caused outrage in America and encouraged Congress to speed up its plans for an American navy but the attack is principally commemorated now in Captain Mowatt's Hot Sauce, "Burning Portland since 1775"

Dan Stevens, a former tug-boat captain, began making what sound like eye-wateringly hot sauces as a hobby with his children and W.O. Hesperus is now a very successful business. According to their website, the sixteen sauces in the Captain Mowat range have won a string of awards with those named after Mowat's ships being especially successful. Spitfire Sauce twice won Best in Show at the Massachusetts Pig n' Pepper Show; Canceaux Sauce, (Jalapenos, African Birdseye, Japones and Cayenne red Chilies) won the People's Choice Award in 2008 and 2009 at the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in Louisana and Halifax Jerk (Habanero peppers, ground allspice & thyme, coupled with fresh squeezed lime juice, a hint of garlic, and a breath of cinnamon) was named Best Jerk Marinade in the Country at a festival in Albuquerque.

This should be enough immortality for any man but Captain Henry Mowat achieved new fame in 2011, as a minor character in a number one bestseller. Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe novels, topped the hardback fiction chart with "The Fort", a historical novel based on the Penobscot Expedition.

This little-known incident in the American Revolution is often described as the worst American naval defeat until Pearl Harbour. In 1779, a British force of seven hundred and fifty men were sent to Penobscot Bay, not far north of Boston, to establish a garrison and a safe haven for Loyalists. Three ships, commanded by Captain Mowat, were sent to support the land force.

The State of Massachusetts sent a fleet of over forty vessels to 'captivate, kill or destroy' the British. Astonishingly, Mowat's three ships with fifty guns held off the much larger American fleet for three weeks, until reinforcements arrived. A contemporary account by Loyalist Dr John Caleff says, "The manoeuvres of the three sloops of war under the direction of Captain Mowat had been such as enabled the king's forces to hold out a close siege of 21 days against a fleet and army more than six times their number and strength." However, his success was very largely due to the complete incompetence of his opponents.

Mowat anchored his ships fore and aft across the harbour mouth, so that his broadsides faced the approaching force. This, and the prevailing wind into the harbour mouth was enough to make the commander of the American fleet, Commodore Saltonstall, refuse to attack until the earthwork fort, which had been built overlooking the harbour, was captured. The army commander refused to attack the fort unless the navy attacked at the same time. Apart from a few skirmishes, this stalemate lasted until the reinforcements arrived.

The British reinforcements were led by the wonderfully named HMS Raisonnable. Aside from the question of why the name was in French, (she was named after an earlier British Navy ship that had been captured from the French) it seems a strange choice for a 64-gun warship. ("Look, I've got sixty-four guns here, let's be reasonable")

Mowat's family had encountered this ship before. Three years earlier, the Raisonnable had captured an American privateer, the Dalton. The crew, who were captured and sent to England, included Thomas Clouston, a son of Mowat's first cousin Robert, who escaped and became captain of a privateer. After the war he settled in Newburyport, Massachusetts and became an instructor in navigation.

Mowat's later naval career seems to have been relatively uneventful. It was spent entirely on the North American Station. In 1782, he was given command of HMS La Sophie and seems to have played a major role in evacuating Loyalists from New York to Nova Scotia. In 1795 he became commander of HMS Assistance and senior officer on the North American station but died on board his ship only three years later and is buried in Hampton, Virginia.

Unsurprisingly, given that most of the available records of the incidents are written by the opposing side, there is almost no record of his personality but a historical account of Charlotte County, New Brunswick does say, "Although little is known of Capt. Mowat's private character, several incidents concerning him which have been preserved place it in a favorable light. His kindness to many suffering families on the Penobscot is not forgotten."

The same article says that a short time before his death he wrote 'A Relation of the Services in which I was Engaged in America, from 1759, to the close of the American War in 1783' but what must have been a fascinating historical document has been lost. Apparently an "exhaustive search was made in the British Museum and in the principal libraries of the United Kingdom" in vain. A "liberal reward" was offered in the Times so it might be worth having another rummage among the old family papers.