The Douro and its Piratical Captain

A typical trading schooner in the South Seas. Source: Picturesque atlas of Australasia, 1886.

In the 19th Century ship captains were often considered undisputed masters of their domain, especially while they were at sea.   Most, to varying degrees, kept a rein on their power, others ruled their vessels with an iron fist, and a few, like Neil Peter Sorensen, went completely rogue.

In August 1885 a portion of the crew from the schooner Douro arrived in Cooktown with a harrowing story of kidnapping and piracy.   The culprit being their former captain.

The Douro’s first mate Otto Ashe and two other members of the crew claimed that Captain Sorensen was out of control and terrorising communities in the Solomon Islands.  They had grown so concerned that they were prepared to chance being charged with deserting their ship rather than risk being implicated in their captain’s depredations.

Ashe and the others had signed on the Douro at the Portuguese consulate in Sydney in April 1885.   The Douro had previously been named the Albert and had been a British registered vessel.   The ship’s owner said the change of registration had been made to spare it from capture should the Russians go to war with the British, a genuine concern at the time.  In reality, it was more an attempt to place the ship outside the bounds of the British legal system.     Sorensen, no stranger to the South Pacific or operating outside the law, was made captain of the ship.  He had previously served on the Albert but this would be his first time in command.

Map showing Australia and the Solomon Islands.

The Douro sailed from Sydney in late April bound for San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands where they hoped to recruit men to collect beche-de-mere and pearl shell for them.      Sorensen got no takers as the village chiefs remembered him from his visit a year earlier.  He had promised to return the men after his fishing trip, but he never did.   Now, no one wanted to venture out with him.

The Douro stopped at a couple of other islands but only managed to recruit men on the promise they would be gone for four or five months.   This was a lie for Sorensen expected to be away for at least a year and probably longer.   While anchored off Guadalcanal he beat his cook senseless over some perceived minor infraction.  Otto Ashe also claimed that Sorensen continuously bullied and threatened the rest of the crew.   No one was prepared to challenge him, not least because he always went about heavily armed.   But, the treatment of his crew was nothing compared to how he treated the Islanders.

Newspaper coverage at the time.

At Isobel Island he had two chiefs brought out to the schooner.   He only released them when they had six recruits sent onboard in exchange.   Off Wagina island he came across a chief and several of his men out fishing from their canoes.   He welcomed them aboard and then invited the chief to dine with him in his cabin.   Sorensen clapped the chief in irons and went back upstairs with his rifle and threatened to shoot the rest of the Islanders if they did not leave his ship.   Sorensen kept the chief hostage until his people handed over 4,000 beche-de-mer, 24 sea turtles, 1 pig and three “boys,” to be used as unpaid labour.

On one of the Carteret Islands he took his plundering to a new level.   Sorensen kidnapped four girls and brought them on board the schooner for the men’s entertainment.   He went ashore armed to the teeth with a party of men taken from islands earlier and forced the chief to sign over possession of the island to him.   He and his men then went from hut to hut collecting all the weapons they could find.  The haul included an assortment of spears, clubs, and tomahawks, a Snider rifle and two shotguns.   Now that the Islanders were disarmed, he ordered the men to go out and fish the reefs for pearl shell and beche-de-mere to fill his ship’s hold.

A typical South Sea Islands trading schooner circa 1885.

By now the first mate had seen enough.   Fearing that Sorensen would continue his reign of terror through the islands he took the first opportunity to escape his captain’s madness.   On 23 June he, with two other white seamen and seven Solomon Islanders, took off in the schooner’s longboat.    They reported Sorensen’s crimes to the German Consul in New Britain and eventually made their way to Cooktown where they told the Queensland authorities what they had witnessed.

When the Douro sailed into Brisbane in March 1886 it was immediately seized and Sorensen was placed under arrested and charged with assault and robbery.   He was also charged with sodomy but that was later dropped because the principal witness was, “now in a lunatic asylum.”1   Sorensen denied the allegations but he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.    It is a sad indictment that the conviction and hefty sentence were unusual in a time when similar depredations in the South Seas went largely unpunished.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

1    Brisbane Courier, 25 Mar 1886, p.6.

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