Thursday, March 12, 2015

Annals of naval justice

Serendipity is a joy. Here is today's Exhibit A:

On Thursday, February 15, 1810, reformer Sir Francis Burdett, M.P. took the floor in the House of Commons:
Sir Francis Burdett rose to call the attention of the House to a very interesting subject which he thought demanded their most serious consideration. He had no other authority relative to the fact which he wished to bring under the observation of the House, than the statement he had seen in the public newspapers, that a sea captain, in the British service, had been lately brought to trial by a court-martial, for a most inhuman act of wanton and deliberate barbarity towards a British seaman on board his own vessel. It was stated that he had put this seaman ashore upon a barren rock in the Western Islands without provisions, and exposed him to perish by famine; a circumstance which accidentally reached the knowledge of government through theAmerican newspapers. This officer was brought to trial by a court-martial, and on being proved guilty of the fact, he was merely sentenced to be dismissed the service. What the hon. baronet wished to know was, whether the government of the country meant to stop here with such a fact in proof before them, or, whether they meant to take any further steps upon a subject so disgraceful to the service, so materially interesting to the life and security of every seaman in his Majesty's fleet; a circumstance which, if so slightly passed over, might have the most serious effects in the naval service. As no farther steps were taken, nor seemed to be intended by government, he felt it his duty, in his place as a member of parliament, to call the attention of the House to the subject. He hoped, however, that government would not allow it to pass over without taking some further steps; for if such wanton and tyrannical occurrences were once suffered to obtain with impunity, there would be an end of all order and good government in our fleets.
Mr. R. Ward said, he knew nothing more of the transaction than that the captain, to whom he supposed the hon. baronet had alluded, was brought to a court-martial for the fact stated, had been found guilty, and sentenced by the court-martial to dismissal from the service. That sentence had since been carried into effect, and the board had it not in its power to do more.
Robert Plumer Ward, M.P.
Sir Francis Burdett, M.P.
Sir F. Burdett said, that he did not think his question had been answered. Was such a heinous act as the one in question to be allowed to pass with such comparable impunity? If it was, the principle might be carried to such an extent as to affect the security of the country in its most vital point. Was it to be endured--
The Speaker said, if the hon. member had any notice or motion to ground upon his statement, it would be for him then to proceed to make it, but that it was not conformable to the usages of that House to admit of the continuance of any discussion not arising out of a motion, as such must necessarily be productive of much inconvenience to the regular course of business.
Sir F. Burdett said, that he thought the question arising out of the statement he had made of much greater importance than any, involving the temporary convenience of gentlemen. (Cries of Chair! chair!) Matter of convenience ought to give way to matter of life and death, affecting the subject. If indeed they felt nothing for the lives and liberties of English seamen--
Speaker Charles Abbot 
The Speaker said, that it was imperative upon him as long as the House would support him, to insist upon the due observance of the rules and usages that regulated their proceedings. It was contrary to the practice of that House to admit of any debate when there was no question before them, or to entertain any motion of importance without a previous notice.
Sir F. Burdett said, that he felt it exceedingly hard upon him to be beat down in such a manner, in the statement of what he thought a great public grievance. (Chair! chair!) The hon. baronet then said, that he would take a day or two to consider what would be the best form to bring the matter before the House, and that he would for the present content himself with that general notice.
15 Parl. Deb. (1st ser.) 424-26 (1810). The facts and circumstances of R. v. Lake are conveniently summarized in the entry for "Viscount Lake" in W------ia:
HMS Recruit
Warwick Lake, 3rd Viscount Lake (1783–1848). On 13 December 1807, when he was then captain of HMS Recruit, Lake marooned an impressed seaman, Robert Jeffrey, on Sombrero Island for having stolen rum and beer while the crew was on short rations. Eight days later, Capt. John Dennis of the American schooner Adam, out of Marblehead, saw Jeffrey waving his arms and rescued him. Apparently, Jeffrey was only slightly emaciated but initially incapable of speech. He went on to live in Marblehead, where he pursued his original trade of blacksmith. Some months later, Lake's commanding officer, Sir Alexander Cochrane, discovered what had happened and immediately ordered Lake to retrieve Jeffrey. When Recruit arrived at Sombrero, Jeffrey could not be found. Eventually, when the Royal Navy found out Jeffrey's whereabouts, it repatriated him. On 14 June 1810, HMS Frolic arrived at Sombrero Island in the West Indies. A party from the vessel searched the island to assess the survival prospects for someone landed at this place without food and water as Lake was then the subject of an Admiralty investigation. A subsequent court-martial dismissed Lake, who in the meantime had become captain of HMS Ulysses, from the King's service. Lake settled with Jeffrey out of court for £600 to avoid a civil suit. (Footnotes omitted.)


  1. For a barren, guano-encrusted, isolated outcrop, Sombrero Island has played a surprisingly large role in legal annals. Wikipedia tells us, so it must be true, that Sombrero Island (the northernmost island of the Lesser Antilles, lying across the "Dog and Prickly Pear Passage" -- I'm not making this up) was the subject of a disputed claim between the United States and Great Britain. After the United States claimed it, Sombrero island was featured in an August 13, 1860 New York Times article headlined, "Negro Insurrection on a Guano island." (available here: Wikipedia tells us, "The British later intervened and demanded compensation from the United States for the occupation. The conflicting claims to the island were settled in Britain's favour in 1867." The spelling of "favour" also tells us who won.

    My Jayson Werth Garden Gnome is hoping to visit Sombrero Island on his next swing through the Lesser Antilles.

    1. Commodore "Not Jayson Werth Garden Gnome" Genome, is not expected to accompany Jayson Werth Garden Gnome on such a sea trip.


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