13 MAY 1882, Page 8


THE trial of Osmond Brand, who was yesterday week con- victed of murder on the high-seas, is a sickening record of brutal cruelty, indulged in without provocation, and for its own sake only. It is scarcely possible that such a crime should be committed on dry land. It needs, to produce it to perfection, conditions which can hardly be realised except on board ship. There must be absolute power on the part of the murderer, and absolute helplessness on the part of the victim. On land, secrecy would be essential to such a murder, and for a long course of cruelty secrecy is not easily secured. In a small vessel, secrecy is not required. The captain exer- cises a despotic authority over the sailors, and the sailors are not, as a rule, men easily shocked by brutality. If the crew were numerous, there might be exceptions to this last statement ; but where there are only a few men on board, the chance that any one will be found to in- terfere with the captain's treatment of an apprentice is very small. The sailors are ordinarily safe from any savage ill-usage, because, though the dread of the law against mutiny is usually strong enough to prevent a man from interfering to protect a companion, it cannot be trusted to prevent him from protecting himself. When a boy is on board, all the condi- tions which make cruelty safe are united. The victim cannot retaliate, and no one else cares to retaliate.

The first impulse, upon reading a trial of this kind, is to ask why no special safeguards have been devised to meet the need of a specially unprotected class. A little consideration, how-

ever, is enough to show that the difficulties in, the way of doing this are almost insurmountable. The only dray in which, a ship at sea can possibly be managed is by making disobedi- ence to the commander an offence of the most heinous kind. But for this, the murderer and the victim might very soon change places. It is easy, when fresh from the evid- ence given in this and similar cases, to imagine a brutal captain sitting half-drunk in his cabin and meditating what fresh cruelties he can inflict upon his apprentice. But if the captain's power over his crew were less absolute there might easily be another side to the picture. We might then have to imagine the captain sitting in his cabin awaiting the attack of a brutal crew. The old joke, " If I shoot you, it's nothing, but if you shoot me, it's murder," is strictly applicable here. The crew are kept in order by the knowledge that in anything which is really essential to the maintenance of discipline the captain will be upheld by the Courts, whereas in anything which the crew may do against the captain the presumption will always be that they have been resisting law- ful authority. If this safeguard were taken away, it would be almost impossible to find captains. Yet, so long as this safeguard is kept in being, a boy to whom a reckless and cruel ship's cap- tain has taken a dislike is for the most part helpless in his hands. It is useless to appeal to the sailors, for the fear of being held guilty of mutiny will usually keep them from offering anything beyond a very mild remonstrance. Often, as in this case, this fear goes further still, and they become actual accomplices in what is going on, rather than set themselves in opposition to the captain's commands. There is, indeed, the possibility that they will give evidence against him when they go home ; but this is a remote, and not very probable, risk. At all events, it is neither near enough, nor probable enough, to have much influence, by the side of the present pleasure which he can secure by giving the rein to his cruelty. It is this consideration that makes trials for murder at sea such pecu- liarly painful reading. There seems to be little or no hope of guarding against a repetition of them in the time to come. Boys will continue to be bound apprentice to ships' captains ; they will continue, in some cases at least, to be ill-used ; and though we are aware of the danger, we can do next to nothing to make its recurrence less frequent.

The only consolation there is in the matter is that con- viction and execution, though they may very seldom follow upon the commission of murder at sea, are likely to make a strong impression on the imagination, in the rare instances in which they do thus follow. The disposition of a man like Brand is to regard a cabin-boy much as a slaveholder of the worst type regarded a negro. He is something so immeasur- ably inferior to himself, that he is quite safe in maiming or killing him. In the days of slavery, the danger was that the falsity of this estimate would never be brought home to the murderer. The question of his guilt or innocence was de- cided by a jury largely composed of men of like passions with himself. Happily, in the case of a murder by the master of a small coasting vessel, he is not tried by a jury of men of the same station and calling. Consequently, if the evidence is suffi- cient to sustain a verdict of guilty, the murderer has not a chance of escape. This consideration may have some influence even on men so utterly brutal as Brand obviously was. They may hope that no evidence will be given against them, but they will know that if it is given against them, they will cer- tainly be hanged for what they have done. Every man on board their vessel who has looked on while the crime was being committed holds their life, to some extent, in his hands. He may give evidence against them, just as the crew of such and such a ship gave evidence against their captain. This reflec- tion may sometimes avail to hold a murderer's hand, and leave the crime one of will and intention only. It is fortunate, from this point of view, that murders committed by the masters of ships at sea are seldom such as excite any sym- pathy on the part of the jury. They are usually the last stage in a long course of wanton cruelty, and as such the story of the steps by which the end was reached is likely to ex- cite the jury to a very high pitch of indignation. The mere recital of the tortures which Brand inflicted on his victim must have made the position of a juryman extremely unpleasant, and no one who has listened for two days to an enumeration of all the suffering which an ingenious tormentor could inflict on a boy who was altogether in his power, for weeks together, is likely to be unduly tender-hearted, yhen the time comes for returning a verdict.

Still, while the opportunities for committing murder at sea are so many, and the detection, or rather the disclosure, of the

crime is so uncertain, it is impossible to feel entirely satisfied with the state of the law. Possibly something might be done towards amending it, by making the punishment of cruelty at sea, when that cruelty does not end in the death of the sufferer, exceptionally severe. As has been said, murders committed by ships' captains have a marked family like- ness among themselves. There is an apprentice, whom they can kick, flog, and starve at their pleasure, and at last they kick and flog him once too often, or starve him a little too long. Apparently, so long as they stop short of this final indulgence, they are pretty safe from unpleasant consequences. The crew are not much impressed by any brutality which does not end in death, and nobody is disposed to listen to the boy's own story, when he comes home. It might be worth while to try whether, by giving cruelty on board ship the dignity of a distinct offence from similar cruelty inflicted on land, and visit- ing it with a heavier penalty, the fears of a ship's captain might not be enlisted on the side of humanity. The cruelty in ques- tion must be of a highly aggravated kind, because the main- tenance of discipline must be properly cared for ; and if a cap- tain had to be nice in counting the blows dealt out in enforcing obedience, he might find the crew slipping out of his hand. But there is a plainly marked difference between the violence natural to a rough man who has to deal with men as rough as- himself, and such deliberate persecution as that detailed in the trial of Brand. There is good reason for making punishment heavier in proportion to the ease with which a crime can be committed and the uncertainty which surrounds its detection, and the penalty on aggravated assaults on the high seas might profitably be reconsidered in the light of this principle.