Sunday, 26 July 2015

Flogged to Death for Falling Asleep

A ship's captain who gave a severe flogging to a crew member who had fallen asleep on duty was found guilty of manslaughter and transported for life.

In the early hours of 2nd May 1845 cooper William Angus was at watch with three others on board the brig Challenge which was heading for Liverpool from West Africa. He heard a noise and on going to investigate, found that fellow watchman, 28 year old fisherman Ben Johnson, had came off his ladder having fell asleep.

The ship's captain George Hill then flogged Johnson with a rope and continued to kick and beat him for about ten minutes. However Johnson managed to escaped into the roundhouse but Hill ordered that he be hauled out of his refuge. The captain then threw a bucket of water over his head and hit him with a canoe paddle on the face and shoulders.

Johnson never spoke after this incident and was covered in blood, with severe cuts to the nose, lip and neck. He was left on deck and at around 10am Hill administered him some spirits but he died about an hour later. The cook and chief mate were called to examine the body, as Hill believed the neck could have been broken. Neither of the other two could be certain of this, but both were of the opinion that when the ship reached Liverpool, crew members would be reporting their captain over the death.

Hill ordered that the body be thrown overboard then he rubbed out an account that the chief mate had written onto a slate of the events. He then directed the chief mate to record that Johnson had gone asleep whilst on watch and fell off a ladder, so was given three or four lashes. The chief mate was then ordered to record that in the morning the captain asked how he was due to the injuries having been sustained during the fall, but he died soon afterwards and was given a formal burial.

When the vessel reached Liverpool on 3rd June crew members informed the police and Hill was apprehended. On 22nd August he appeared before Baron Rolfe at the South Lancashire Assizes charged with murder. The Liverpool Mercury described the 26 year old as being 'able to read and write in a superior manner.' After crew members had given their evidence, local surgeon Dr Archer was called to give his opinions. He explained that if the injuries described by Hill had been sustained in a fall, then it would have been impossible for Johnson to escape after the flogging due to paralysis. As such he concluded that if the crew members version of events was believed, then Johnson's death was as a result of the mistreatment by Hill.

Hill's defence counsel Mr Wilkins claimed that he was a victim of  'a wicked and infamous conspiracy' by the crew and that 'such falsehood was never before laid before a jury'. It was maintained that measures of severity were required on board to keep the crew in check and that if Hill had caused the death, he was hardly likely to ask the cook and chief mate to examine the body knowing that they may report him.Concluding his speech Wilkins said that 'the story had been trumped up by those wicked and designing men with the object of destroying the unfortunate man at the bar.'

The judge summed up by saying that the jury had to consider the relationship between the captain and witnesses in determining who was telling the truth, and then decide if the crime was murder or manslaughter. After an hour and a half deliberation the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, leading to Hill replying 'You are about to punish a man who is as free from crime as anyone in the court.'

In addressing Hill prior to sentence, Baron Rolfe said that his crime was 'only just short of murder' due to the character of the violence used. He then said that if this had been a conspiracy by crew members then it was 'a scene of wickedness and depravity greater than I have ever witnessed'. Saying that the jury had determined that the crew members were 'witnesses of truth' Hill, an unmarried Yorkshireman, was then sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived at Tasmania on 16th May 1846 aboard the convict ship China.

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