THE BENBOW MUTINY
Screen Play by William A. Benbow and Fred D.B. Hebbert
Imagine that a 17th century British Admiral is deserted by his cowardly captains during a major battle in the West Indies.
What if this Admiral forges ahead into the battle in order to show his faint-hearted captains what duty and honour are all about?
The Benbow Mutiny is an historic adventure inspired by true events in the vein of Master and Commander and Mutiny on the Bounty about an heroic 17th century British Admiral who battles on against a tenacious enemy in the West Indies, despite the betrayal of his disgruntled captains.
Meet Admiral JOHN BENBOW.
He’s brave and heroic.
The only problem is that he’s bull-headed.
He hungers to do his duty to his King and Country by decisively defeating the enemy in a major battle and in so doing, restore the honour and esteem of his family. But his high expectations and intolerance of half-hearted warriors gets in his way!
An opportunity arises, however, in 1701, when KING WILLIAM offers him the post of Commander in Chief of the West Indies fleet as England and France clash over Spanish treasure, and are on the brink of all out war for European dominance. Determined, he sets out to hammer together a fleet of ships into a mighty sword capable of slaying the French dragon in the Caribbean. This creates a huge problem, however, when most of the Captains assigned to his fleet are discontented dregs coming off three years of unemployment and half pay, whose main interest is in lining their holds with prize money. The only saving grace is that Benbow is able to appoint his flag captain, HENRY MARTIN, an old friend, as his Second in Command or Vice-Admiral, and bring along his Master, ROBERT THOMPSON, who knows the Indies well.
Now, in his flagship Bredah, he must lead his fleet of third and fourth rates to the far Caribbean through Atlantic storms and navigate the perils of the rich but foreboding Spanish Main before the French prevail. They make it to Port Royal Jamaica, but there he loses his Second in Command to the fever and sickness which permeates the Caribbean. This post would normally be filled by the most senior captain of the fleet, who is Colonel RICHARD KIRKBY. Benbow detests him as a feeble fighter and refuses to appoint him as his 2IC.
The English fleet now endures several long months waiting for war to be declared. Tempers flare under the stain of a strange land where the immediate enemy is the heat, fever, dysentery and death. Both officers and crew succumb. Benbow’s force is soon reduced by one third of its strength as men die and desert. Ships are severely undermanned with officers and men stretched to their breaking points. Benbow must navigate the stormy battles that break out among the crew and the officers as Kirkby undermines his authority at every turn. The Admiral reacts by digging in his heels, severely disciplining obstinate officers who do not meet his high expectations, and so drives a number into Kirkby’s camp. In addition Benbow falls out with the Governor over the pressing of locals into the navy, resulting in a shortage of supplies as well as recruits, and further isolating him from support. He turns to his Master, Robert Thompson, for advice and solace.
Once war is declared, Admiral Benbow wants to aggressively seek out the enemy and drive the French from the Caribbean. Kirkby believes it is better to cripple French trade by taking merchant ships as prizes. Benbow with the help of his trusty Master leads a squadron of seven ships against whatever French they can accost around the French half of Hispaniola. Kirkby and his supporters lag behind the Admiral, particularly when the skirmishes involve French warships. Benbow’s response is to ‘show them how it’s done’ by ruthlessly taking, burning or destroying a number of French prizes.
An opportunity arises to decidedly defeat the enemy in a fleet action when the illustrious French Admiral, Jean du Casse, with a squadron of five French warships, escorts a convoy of three troop transports from Hispaniola to Cartagena on the Spanish Main. Benbow intercepts the French near Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of South America. He places Kirkby in the van, hoping to push him into action. He finds himself in the jaws of a dilemma: caught between a foe who flees and a fleet that falters. The French do their best to avoid battle while his own ships dither and take hours to form a battle line. Finally, the English catch up with the French in the late afternoon, and the battle begins. Kirkby lasts but a few minutes, and then breaks it off, leading his supporters out of the fray. Benbow is furious.
He tries to solve the problem by rearranging the order of his ships, taking the lead himself. Over the next five days, Kirkby continues to lag behind, setting an example for his supporters who shirk their duty at will. Though the Admiral would like to replace them, he does not have enough officers to fill their posts and still manage the ships. He seeks to inspire them by tenaciously clinging to the rear most ships of the fleeing foe. Only one of his squadron, the Ruby under GEORGE WALTON, comes to his aid. A small ship, the Ruby is knocked out of action on the third day. The rest of the squadron, led by Kirkby, stay out of the fray. The Admiral, frustrated at the lack of support, fires two cannon shots at the Windsor, under John Constable, to bring her back into line. Kirkby refuses even direct orders from the Admiral to fire upon the enemy, and so moves from passively undermining Benbow to active mutiny. At this point it appears that no one fights for the Admiral.
However, Captain SAMUEL VINCENT, in the Falmouth, the rearmost ship in the line, has had enough, and on the fourth day breaks the rigid line formation to surge ahead and join his Admiral. With this renewed strength and support, Benbow carries on harrying the fleeing French. Finally, during a night battle with an isolated French ship, Benbow is badly wounded by chain shot to his leg. He is determined to carry on the fight and insists on being supported in a makeshift cradle on deck where he continues to direct the battle. The Falmouth is seriously damaged and forced to withdraw. At dawn, with the French ship dismasted and on the brink of surrendering, the rest of the English squadron descend to partake in the pickings. They are however scared off by their still gnashing victim. They leave Admiral Benbow a prey to the rest of the French squadron, who swoop down unopposed and lay siege to the Bredah. The Admiral accepts that his prize is lost and retreats. Too late, he decides to consult with his captains to see where they stand. Kirkby prevails and they all sign a mutinous document claiming they are unable to continue the battle. Deserted by all his captains, Benbow is finally persuaded by his friend Robert Thompson to end the bloodshed and call off the battle.
Benbow’s fight is now with his captains. The fleet returns to Jamaica. Benbow, determined to bring them to account, places all six of the squadron’s captains under arrest. Though dying from his wounds he court martials all of them; seeking the death penalty for the ring leaders, Kirkby and COOPER WADE. With the help of Thompson he is able to prove Kirkby’s guilt. However, he has mellowed through the blood sweat and tears, and does ask the court to spare his own captain, CHRISTOPHER FOGG, and Samuel Vincent who both fought valiantly. However, Benbow dies without knowing if the court’s sentences will be supported by the Queen or if the cautious captains will be saved by their influential friends back home in England. He worries over the effect that his failure and their behavior will have on the future of the English navy. The final scene reveals their fate and sets the stage for Benbow’s canonization as the true pattern of English courage for generations to come.
The Benbow Mutiny is unlike any in its genre because of its high stakes conflict between a Commander and his officers during a major battle.
Audiences will respond to the issue of duty and honour under fire in a war of questionable merit.
And they’ll love scenes such as Benbow’s battle with pirates, where the losers lose their heads.