Monday, 31 July 2017

St Helena 1814-1816

The St Helena Judicial Records 1808

My transcription of the years 1808-1816 from the St Helena Judicial Records is now complete. The years 1814-816 revealed some of the most interesting cases of the whole period.

A most fascinating insight into St Helena Justice was afforded by the case of Aaron Lambe who had beaten a slave who had complained to a magistrate. Considered a serious offence, it went unpunished in this instance. The Governor explained to the court the logic behind this decision: the Code of Slave laws restricted the fine to 40 shillings for a single offence, which was considered far too little, so the Bench had considered bringing him to trial, but had ascertained that such a fine as should form a proper example, would be disproportionate to [his] circumstances , and being unable to pay he would have ended up in the common gaol.

So to avoid the unfortunate outcome of a slave owner ending up in gaol for mistreatment of a slave Mr Lambe was given a public rebuke by the Governor:

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. (1)

In 1815 another slave owner Elisha Isacke, came before the Court on a murder charge. Two magistrates defended his character in Court, and he was acquitted. This brought open dissent in Court from the Deputy Governor J. Skelton. Lt. Col Skelton wrote a considered report to the East India Company explaining the reasons for his dissent, much to the concern of the Governor who penned a short rebuttal:

The practice of recording observations on a proceeding some time closed is I believe contrary to regular routine and its inconvenience is more felt when it occurs on the eve of a dispatch where time does not admit of a deliberate perusal of the proceedings to which it refers.

Governor Wilks pointed out that his fellow magistrates Messrs Leech and Doveton, who had acted as witnesses in the court by speaking up for the defendant and helping to destroy the credibility of a key prosecution witness, concurred in his view! (2)

In contrast two slaves who were tried for killing a calf were sentenced to death. One, later judged by the Court to have a value of £20 was executed, the fate of the other was sent for determination by the Prince Regent. (3) Another slave, Harry, was more fortunate. Convicted of stealing from his master, he escaped execution simply because the words against the form of the Statute had mistakenly been omitted from the indictment. He was therefore sentenced to four years hard labour and imprisonment and to be kept in irons.(4) Two white people, Maria Weager and George Seale, were separately convicted of theft and each sentenced to being whipped behind a cart. (5) Finally, in 1816 (see below), a female slave convicted of theft, had a "t" burned on her hand.

1816: a slave girl sentenced to be branded for theft

One of the surprises of the period 1814-1816 was the frequent appearance of members of the Lowden/Louden/Louding family. As well as commercial cases there were two involving assault, but the most intriguing was that brought for defamation of character by Mrs Lowding (Lowden) against James Lowden, presumably the brother of her deceased husband, who had called her a whore.

Rev Boys

The Rev. Boys had somehow got involved with this lady. He had for a time given her shelter in his house, but she had left early one morning without explanation! Called as a witness, he had to suffer the indignity of speculation as to what favours he had received to make him testify on her behalf. Various witnesses revealed that the lady was rather less virtuous than the Rev. Boys had apparently believed, and she lost the case.(6)

The St Helena Court dealt mainly with cases involving slaves, soldiers and poorer whites or trades people. Unusual was the charge of assault and battery brought against two Gentlemen, Addison George Lowe and James Nicholas Scallan, visitors to the island. The prosecution alleged that the two had headed up the main street of Jamestown with the intent of creating a riot, and had used language in the highest degree gross and injurious, directed against a whole class of the Community , i.e. the soldiers of St. Helena. One was sentenced to a month imprisonment, fined £10 and ordered to remain in prison until the fine was paid. The other was fined £10 and also ordered to be imprisoned until the fine was paid. In a separate civil suit their victim, Sergeant William Kirby, was awarded 40 shillings damages from each.(7)

So that concludes transcription of some 120,000 words for the years 1808-1816. The project has taken far longer than it should have done, at times the hand writing has defeated me, and I am sure I have made a number of errors. The work has given me a valuable insight into the lives of ordinary people on St Helena 200 years ago. Maybe it will form the basis of another project.
1. St Helena Judicial Records, 12 January 1814.
2. Records April 10, 1815. When Napoleon arrived on St Helena, Lt. Col Skelton's summer house at Longwood was made ready for the Emperor, and it became his final home. Col Skelton and his wife were frequent visitors to Napoleon until they left the island in 1816.
3. Records October 5, 1814
4. Records October 4, 1815
5. George Seale got 600 lashes to be administered at three places, Maria Weager an unspecified number of lashes over a period of two hours. Records April 20, 1814
6. Records April 10, 1815.
7. Records July 27, 1814