Saturday, 11 March 2017

St. Helena 1813: Two Governors, One Execution and the Mistreatment of Slaves

St. Helena in the time of Governor Beatson

After too long a delay I have got back to my work on St. Helena's Judicial Records. My last entry was on St Helena in 1812, but now 1813 has been finished, and I am well into 1814. So Napoleon is on Elba, and he will soon be back in Paris en route to St. Helena.

1813 was notable on St. Helena for the change of Governor. The formidable Alexander Beatson was replaced by Mark Wilks, who was still Governor when Napoleon stepped ashore some two years later.

Governor Beatson

One of the last cases tried in the Court under the Presidency of Alexander Beatson involved William Balcombe, who in 1811 had named his youngest son, Alexander Beatson Balcombe.

In this case Balcombe was trying to get back some £650, a considerable sum in those days, which he had paid to Robert Leech in trust for the estate of Richard Lane, who had died at sea when the appropriately named "True Briton" foundered. Ironically another party to the affair, a sea captain who might have been able to shed light on Balcombe's claims, was also drowned when his own ship foundered.

This was a complex and sorry affair involving the alleged non-payment of a bill exchange by a third party. Balcombe lost the case. It must have been a big blow to his finances, and in some ways encapsulates his life.

Probably the last significant event under Beatson's Governorship took place on May 19th 1813. On that day a soldier,William Alexander was executed. Alexander had been found guilty of Grand Larceny for stealing eight pairs of boots and five pairs of shoes with a total value of £14. Beatson had in his view no choice but to hang the man.

"The daily instances that occur of Burglaries, depredations on Sheep and Poultry, on Gardens, and Washing Ground, and on Goods landed on the Quay, are so many proofs of the greatest depravity – It is but too evident that most of these flagrant Crimes have originated in an insatiable desire of gratification in a vice, that is disgraceful and degrading to the human character. I mean excessive intemperance in Drinking, - For the sake of this unmanly gratification, there are yet too many in this small place, who would run every hazard to attain it; without reflectin upon the consequences to which they expose themselves."

The very first case to be heard under the new Governor, Mark Wilks, was the trial of Mary Braid in October 1813 for "wilful murder" of one of her slaves. The defendant was acquitted both of murder and manslaughter, but the case revealed a horrific story of cruelty and wilful mistreatment. Mary Braid's husband was subsequently found guilty and fined £75 for neglecting to prevent the ill treatment of his slaves.

Governor Mark Wilks

Perhaps the new Governor's arrival signalled a new attitude towards the treatment of slaves, because in the first session of 1814 he hauled Aaron Lamb before the court, and gave him a public dressing down for having beaten a slave for having made a complaint about his treatment to the magistrates.

The punishment of offences has not only a reference to the offender himself, but is intended to operate as an example to others ; and adverting to the time and the place at which this public admonition is given I am disposed to hope that both these objects will be suitably attained. I am happy at being enabled to observe that the offence which has been described is rare indeed in this place. The Community seems generally to feel, and it is indispensable that you in future should distinctly understand that the act of punishing a slave for having complained, and even pending the trial of that complaint, approached the nature of a direct insult to public authority ; and it is proper for me to add that you are indebted to the lenity of the Magistrate whom you have insulted for being saved from the Consequences of a trial. If you have the feelings which ought to belong to your place in Society, you have already been sufficiently punished – and you are dismissed without a fine.