Posts filed under 'At Sea'

1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

5 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,England,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Jamaica,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions

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1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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1842: Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small, on the ship yardarm

11 comments December 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1842, three American sailors were hanged at sea for attempted mutiny.

To meet the circumstances of the only Americans put to death for mutiny, we travel a long way back to a time long before the U.S. Navy was (or could claim to be) this:

Here in the antebellum Atlantic, bereft for weeks of any outside communication, every ship is a world — and sometimes a law — unto itself.

Philip Spencer. From the Chi Psi Fraternity, which Spencer co-founded and which maintains a Philip Spencer Memorial Trust.

Aboard the USS Somers, the law was a disciplinarian captain named Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, who received report that ne’er-do-well brat Philip Spencer — whose dad just happened to be John Tyler’s Secretary of War — was talking mutiny with enlisted sailors chafing under Mackenzie’s liberal use of the flog.

Spencer was a midshipman; the cadets largely untested youth whose purpose in going to sea was to get their feet wet.

Rashomon-like, the viewer can draw dramatically different conclusions from the actions thereupon ensuing. Underneath it all is this: aboard a ship that had no recourse to outside aid or communication, that was its inhabitants’ sole lifeline athwart a vast ocean, and that was held by its officers against the overwhelming numerical superiority of its crew, every misapprehension became magnified and every decision became one of life or death.

The bare facts are that Mackenzie became convinced that the intention was real, and as he held first Spencer, and then two supposed conspirators, Samuel Crowell and Elisha Small, in chains on the deck, his fears hourly grew that the plot was metastasizing and might strike with effect at any moment.

No semblance of due process attended this determination; Mackenzie got the officers he did have to vouchsafe their opinion of the situation in writing:

the evidence which has come to our knowledge is of such a nature, that, after as dispassionate and deliberate a consideration of the case as the exigency of the time would admit, we have come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion, that they have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of a most atrocious nature, and … we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our charge, requires that … they should be put to death.

Spencer, Cromwell and Small were hanged with ten minutes’ notice from the yardarm of the ship, Spencer protesting that the others were innocent.


The USS Somers … with its supposed mutineers hanged from the yardarm, just under the American flag. This and other images of the Somers can be found at a Department of the Navy page.

As one might imagine, there was a bit of an uproar when the vessel finally made port stateside. Oddly (or maybe not so odd) Mackenzie was initially the toast of the town for putting down a mutiny, before that Secretary of War guy and others started picking apart the case.

Though Mackenzie won acquittal at a court martial* — a verdict that could not possibly not have been colored by the competing pressures of Spencer’s influential (and enraged) father on the one hand, and the navy’s institutional need for a whitewash on the other — the cloud of the USS Somers would hover over him for the rest of his life.

And no wonder.

The ominous suggestions of treachery that Mackenzie perceived all around him looked to some others like phantoms; having taken the conviction into his head that a mutiny was afoot, he perceived it everywhere — a doodle of a pirate ship! stealthy glances! men standing about talking! — and panicked. One politician of the day even wrote years later that he believed “the éclat which would follow the hanging of a son of the Secretary of War as a pirate” influenced the captain towards hanging, the opposite of one what might assume.

And even if Spencer really were guilty, Mackenzie had less good cause for suspicion about Small, and practically nothing but his gut on Cromwell. Other sailors Mackenzie considered certainly culpable were returned to dry land, held in chains, and eventually released uncharged because the evidence was so paltry. These three were hanged in part because Mackenzie thought he would have more prisoners than he could control on his small ship.

It’s a debatable premise, and among the point author James Fenimore Cooper later assailed in Mackenzie’s defense.

That these are complaints issued after the fact and from the safety of land does not invalidate them. Mackenzie had command of the ship, and with power to order boys hanged from the yardarm came as much responsibility for steady judgment as for a firm hand. At the same time, others look at the same set of facts and approve Mackenzie’s actions.

Mackenzie may have been a Queeg-like commander, temperamentally ill-suited to his charge of blooding young cadets. And Spencer may have been a dangerously irresponsible character with no business aboard a ship at all. Neither man’s character flaws, however, resolve the inquiry however much they may have contributed to the tragedy.

The Somers incident was the spur towards important reforms in the navy. Three years later, the U.S. Naval Academy opened at Annapolis, Md., institutionalizing cadet instruction away from the haphazard stick-a-boy-on-a-boat routine that was understood to have set the scene for this day’s hangings.

George Bancroft was the father of the professional school at Annapolis, but Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, in association with Philip Spencer, were among the academy’s remoter forebears. (The Captain Called It Mutiny, by Frederic Franklyn Van de Water)

In 1850, flogging was abolished — another issue that permeated the Somers case.**

And Spencer et al may have left a literary legacy as well: this event is often cited as a likely inspiration for Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, through Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort, a lieutenant on the Somers and one of the signatories of the officers’ opinion that the prisoners ought to hang.†

Of less literary pretention but more suitable for sending-off as we return young Masters Spencer, Cromwell and Small to the deep: this weirdly wonderful anime mashup to the shanty “Curse of the Somers” falls in the category of “you can find anything on YouTube.”

* The court of inquiry which preceded the court martial produced a report that can be read here.

** Ironically, the USS Somers was returning from a trip to the African coast to deliver dispatches to the USS Vandalia, which in 1838 had become a pioneering vessel in the reduction of corporal punishment under the command of Uriah Levy.

Aptly, the Somers never caught up with the Vandalia to deliver those dispatches.

† Gansevoort retired an admiral; a World War II destroyer was named for him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wrongful Executions

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