1811: Arthur William Hodge, brutal slaveowner

Add comment May 8th, 2020 Headsman

West Indies planter Arthur William Hodge hanged on this date in 1811 — a distinctive punishment, for the crime imputed was the murder of his own property, a slave named Prosper.

The Oxford-educated gentleman ruled an estate upon Tortola called Bellevue, aptly called* for Hodge gives every symptom of laboring under some sort of madness, even beyond that madness which might be inherent to a slaveholding society. Famous among other planters for his cruelty long before he came to his own grief, Hodge had allegedly reduced through sheer barbarity his own farm’s slave roster from 140 in 1803 to 35 by the time of his death. (This allegation seems to be contradicted by a post-execution advertisement for the sale of his estate enumerating 160 slaves.)

Documents published in 1811 as a Report on the Trial of Arthur Hodge, Esquire — available here and here — are thick with blood-curdling reports of Hodge’s “repeated and excessive acts of cruelty towards his slaves,” e.g.

That a slave, called “Tom Boiler,” between three and four years ago [i.e., circa 1807-1808 -ed.], was by order of the said Hodge, laid down and cart-whipped without intermission for at least an hour; that the said Arthur Hodge stood by and saw it done … that when the said negro slave “Tom Boiler,” after the infliction of said punishment attempted to rise, he could not stand, but was taken up and carried to the sick-house, from whence he never came out, but died in about a week …

That this deponent hath known the said Hodge to order, at different times, kettles of boiling water, prepared for the purpose of pouring said water down the throats of his negroes, who had offended him.

That Margaret, the cook, and Else, a washer, were served so; that said Hodge said they were going to poison Mrs. Hodge and the children, and he would put an end to them — that this deponent did not see the boiling water poured down their throats, because she had not the heart to be present; but heard the screams of Margaret, and saw both Margaret and Else running afterwards with scalded mouths, &c. …

That this deponent in passing the sick-house saw a child, about ten years of age, named Sampson, with the skin all off … that this deponent made enquiry concerning said child, and learnt by general report on the estate, from the negroes, that said child had been by order of said Hodge, dipped into a copper of boiling liquor.

-Deposition of a free black woman named Perreen Georges who was intermittently employed at Bellevue

Another negro slave, about nineteen years of age, was by order of said Hodge very severely cart-whipped and put in heavy irons, crook puddings, &c. and allowed little or nothing to eat. That he was burnt in the mouth with an hot iron, and that he, this deponent, saw him in consequence thereof, with his mouth all raw, and that he shortly after died …

That a free man, named Peter, was hired by said Hodge … to work as a cooper, on said Hodge’s estate. And that he, this deponent, has seen said Hodge in his presence, cart-whipping said Peter repeatedly, at short quarters,** and every other way, and put chains upon him, and had him worked upon his estate with the field negroes; that Peter died as this deponent believes, in consequence of the ill treatment of said Hodge …

That Bella, a small mulatto child, reputed to be the natural child of said Hodge, by his female slave Peggy, (then about eight years of age, as this deponent believes) was repeatedly cart-whipped by order of said Hodge; and this deponent further saith, he hath more than once seen the said Hodge strike said child with a stick, upon her head, and break her head; and hath repeatedly seen him kick her so violently in the lower part of her belly, as to send her several feet on the ground, from whence, he, this deponent, thought she never again would rise.

-Deposition of Stephen M’Keough, a former overseer on Hodges’s Bellevue estate

It’s a matter of speculation just why it was that Hodge’s excesses were judged by his peers sufficiently outrageous to merit what appears to be the first and only execution doled out in the British empire to a slaveholder for mistreating his chattel. Was it fear in the wake of the Haitian Revolution that his behavior invited a jacquerie on this sugar colony where the slave population outnumbered the white landowners 7:1? A stirring of the advancing abolitionist spirit that had barred the slave trade in 1807? Notably, this prosecution in 1811 for a three-year-old crime took place only with the advent of a new anti-slavery governor.

That crime, however dated when finally brought to bar, was every bit as dreadful as the sampling above from Perreen Georges and Stephen M’Keough — and Virgin Island elites gave short shrift to the planter’s defense “that a Negro, being property, ‘it was no greater offense in law for his owner to kill him, than it would be to kill his dog.'” “My God! Are we patiently to hear such a declaration?” the Crown prosecutor answered in horror. “If we one instant even tacitly acquiesced we could expect nothing short of the vengeance of heaven to overtake us and the judgments of an offended Deity, with plague, pestilence and famine to be our merited punishments.”

Prosper caught Hodge’s fury on account of losing a mango and when he was unable to produce payment for the fruit he was flogged 100 times on consecutive days, until he was too weak even to cry out. Carried to a sick-house and abandoned there without rations, he was “found there dead, and in a state of putrefaction, some days afterwards; that crawlers were found in his wounds, and not a piece of black flesh was to be seen on the hinder part of his body where he had been flogged.” With the colony in a state of outrage at these charges — “I am sensible that the country thirsts for my blood,” Hodge said in his unsuccessful closing statement to his jurors — the court defied all precedent to condemn him. In the few days before the sentence was executed, Tortola was heavily locked down to preempt possible disturbances around the public hanging, which went off without incident.

However anomalous the execution of a slaveowner, Hodge’s tyranny would be invoked again and again in a project to reform judicial administration of the West Indies that stretched into the 1830s. The concern, as Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford describe in Rage for Order, was that these reservoirs of local and private power, barely checked in a distant colony where the justices deciding cases were hopelessly compromised by their membership in the same social circles and economic engines as their fellows, corrupted the law, bringing Britain herself into disrepute. “The flywheel of this project,” Benton and Ford note, “was the subordination of masters to imperial authority, not the championing of the rights of slaves.”

* The New York asylum by which the innocent name Bellevue attains its association with psychiatric disorders did not open until 1879.

** M’Keough’s testimony digresses to define close or short quarters as Hodge’s own term, meaning “the most cruel and severe mode of cart-whipping, as the whip is shortened and goes all round the body, cutting every part, particularly the stomach and belly, making no noise, which he believes to have been an inducement with said Hodge to practice it.” While we’re dallying with definitions, a cart-whip is described as “a certain instrument of punishment … made of wood and rope of the value of one shilling” used to flog and beat slaves.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,British Virgin Islands,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions

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