Aug 20

The Posterity of the Ganges

Thursday, August 20, 2015 6:00 AM


Portrait of Thomas Macdonough, who served aboard the Ganges. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Portrait of Thomas Macdonough, who served aboard the Ganges. Courtesy Library of Congress.

It is frequently the case that a ship is given the name of an individual as a honorarium. Names such as Campbell, Fletcher, Porter, and many, many others are accepted in kind. So when individuals are given the name of a ship, suddenly we take notice that something very remarkable is afoot. Such is the case of the surname Ganges. The story of how a family came to be named after a 26-gun sloop-of-war is one that upholds the finest traditions of the U.S. Navy.

“The first naval vessel sent to sea by the United States following the adoption of the Constitution is almost forgotten,” writes Homer C. Votaw in an excellent article in the July 1972 issue of Proceedings. “This ship raised morale at a critical time by boldly sailing out to defend shipping by herself, did much to build naval tradition, made several captures, served as a squadron flagship, and gave a number of our naval heroes their early training.”

That ship was the sloop-of-war Ganges, a converted East India merchantman of 26 guns. Her career in the Navy was a little over three years. Unfortunately, no known images or drawings of her survive. She was purchased in Philadelphia for $58,000 at the height of the Quasi-War with France. She was re-equipped, outfitted, and complemented with a crew of 110 and 25 Marines under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, who was John Paul Jones’ right-hand man on the Bon Homme Richard.

Ganges was sent to Caribbean station on patrol, convoy, and escort duty for much of her career. Her crew were a hearty lot, and prone to future heroism. “[I]t is known,” writes Votaw, “that among the later naval heroes serving on board were Midshipman Thomas Macdonough, who later won the remarkable Battle of Lake Champlain; James Lawrence of “Don’t give up the ship!” fame; and Jacob Jones, who commanded the Wasp in her victory over the Hornet. Also Daniel Carmick, known as the “Fighting Marine,” and who as a major received a death wound at the Battle of New Orleans.”

The men that served aboard the Ganges left an indelible mark. But one of the largest impacts her crew made has until recently remained little more than a undeserved footnote in history.

Towards the end of Votaw’s article, one reads that in May 1800, the Ganges, under the command of Captain John Mullowny, of Philadelphia, “first captured the slaver Prudent, and then retook the former American brig Dispatch which was being sailed by Frenchmen into one of their ports. Soon the Phoebe, another slaver, arrived at Philadelphia as a Ganges prize . . . .”

The Prudence and the Phoebe were more than just slavers; they carried a combined cargo of 135 enslaved men and women — but mostly young children. Stolen from Africa, they were ultimately bound for the Cuban slave markets and the sugar plantations throughout the Caribbean.

Mullowny, son of a commercial shipping captain, and upon whom the Quaker City’s abolitionist disposition had rubbed off, ordered his prizes manned with skeleton crews and sailed to Philadelphia for adjudication as spoils of war. Mullowny knew well that the best chance these people had in life was to be sent to a city largely sympathetic to their plight. The 135 naked and starving African people were brought first to Fort Mifflin, and later to the port of Philadelphia’s quarantine hospital at the Lazaretto, where they were fed, clothed, and sheltered.

The Lazaretto at Philadelphia, the quarantine station that received the enslaved African people rescued from the Prudent and the Phoebe by the Ganges in 1800.

The Lazaretto at Philadelphia, the quarantine station that received the enslaved African people rescued from the Prudent and the Phoebe by the Ganges in 1800. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was unknown from where the captives had been taken, nor were they in a position to indicate where their homes were. As they could not ethically returned to Africa (as would so happen in the much later, much more famous case of the Amistad, a federal judge who was sympathetic to the cause of abolition ordered their release to the care of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The Society’s founders and members included Quaker educator Anthony Benezet, writer Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin.

The Africans were given English names with the surname Ganges, named for ship that had rescued them. They were given two complete suits of clothes, then indentured out to sympathetic families in the surrounding area for a period of four years, or until they became of age. The families agreed to educate them and teach them a trade.

Some of the captives did not last long in the New World. Young Dabbo Ganges, not more than five years old, was bound to Quaker minister John Parker in the rural Brandywine Valley of Chester County, near the current home of renown Longwood Gardens. The bright, energetic child took sick and died within a few months, and his funeral was widely attended by sympathetic neighbors and a number of his former shipmates who were bound out nearby.

But others thrived, lived, married, and had families of their own. They eked out a new life in this country, and their descendants, some still carrying the surname Ganges, can be found throughout Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas today.

Capt. Mullowny served in the Navy until 1801. After the Quasi-War with France ended, Mullowny was discharged from the officer corps along with 500 other men after Congress passed the Peace Establishment Act. He returned to civilian life, went into business, and moved to Pottstown, Pennsylvania in 1818 — into a house that had been the home of two of the Africans he had rescued from certain slavery years earlier. He later was appointed American consul to Morocco, and died in 1830 on the island of Minorca.

A single action in the service can have implications that ripple throughout history, as the eventful career and legacy of Mullowny’s command of the Ganges illustrate. There are, perhaps, no better words to describe the Ganges than the words of another of her captains:

“[B]elieve me Sir, she out-sailed every ship and vessel of the United States that we have been in company with.”

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