Thursday, 20 August 2015

Missing Log Spares Ship's Officer From Death

An officer on board a vessel bound for South America was lucky to be found guilty of manslaughter when not all the evidence was made available at the trial.

On 29th July 1875 Second Mate James Collins was in charge of the watch on board the Princess Alexandra which was sailing from Liverpool to the Peruvian port of Callao via Le Havre in France. At 8am boatswain John Christian asked for orders but was sworn at by 29 year old Collins and began to retreat. Collins then picked up a handspike and struck Christian on the back of the head and he died about four hours later.

On arrival back at Liverpool Collins was taken into custody by the river police, telling them ' I am guilty but only in my own defence, until this happened I had always been a harmless and inoffensive man.'

Collins was charged with murder and tried in March 1876 at the Liverpool Assizes, where the evidence given was quite sketchy.One Swedish crew member stated that Collins asked Christian why he was doing nothing and he replied that he was awaiting orders, leading to the attack. It was admitted by both him and an American seaman named Frank Smith that Collins wasn't popular amongst the crew, most of whom were foreign and had been taken on board in France.

In his defence Collins said that he had only intended to strike Christian on the hand and that he needed to maintain order in the absence of the First Mate and Captain as he felt threatened by the other crew members. His defence counsel pleased that there had been no malice aforethought and in an ill-founded moment of passion picked up the nearest thing to hand which turned out to be something that caused death.

In summing up Justice Brett said there was no evidence of provocation that would justify reducing the crime to manslaughter. The question was whether the weapon was used in such a way that death could reasonably be expected to result. Although it was a formidable weapon, the judge said that if it was used to strike the side of the head or body then death could not have been expected. Justice Brett also questioned why senior officers had not given evidence and commented that part of the log was missing and crucially that which should have documented what happened on the watch.

The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter and the judge said prior to sentence; 'I am of the opinion that officers of merchant ships are to be supported in maintaining the discipline. But I am also of the opinion that the crew of the merchant ship are entitled to ample protection against the tyranny of their officers. When an officer shows an act of violent passion as you have done it must be shown that the crew are to be protected.

After telling Collins that he was lucky to have been found guilty only of manslaughter Justice Brett sentenced him to fifteen years imprisonment. Collins thanked the jury for sparing his life as he left the dock, also saying that the crew would have killed him if they could.

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