The William Brown tragedy
The William Brown (in 1841) and the Titanic (in 1912) both sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in April after striking an iceberg. Both ships carried emigrants to the USA from Europe, and neither carried sufficient lifeboats to permit the survival of more than half the passengers on board. And both stories have been told in films. However, the William Brown had 65 passengers and 18 crew aboard, whereas the Titanic had more than 2 000 passengers and crew aboard.
The captain of the William Brown was not one to go down with his ship. He, eight crew members, and one lucky passenger, managed to get into the better of the two lifeboats. Nine crew members and 32 passengers were in the other lifeboat, which was woefully overcrowded. And 32 passengers (many of them children) perished with the ship.
The lifeboats did not stay together (the better one had a sail, the other one only oars). The captain’s lifeboat was picked up by a passing ship six days later.
The first mate was in charge of the overcrowded boat. The seamen rowed and the passengers bailed. Soon it began to rain continuously, and the wind picked up. Then the sea grew heavier, and the waves splashed over the boat’s bow. After about 24 hours, at around 22H00, the first mate concluded that sinking was imminent, and he instructed the seamen (including one Alexander Holmes) to implement instructions he had previously given them. They threw 14 male passengers (including one Francis Askin) overboard. Of the males initially on board, they spared only two married men and a small boy; and themselves of course. The very next morning the lifeboat was picked up by a passing ship.
The matter attracted huge public attention. There was much loathing (but also some praise) for the crew’s conduct. The William Brown was a USA registered ship and the passengers aboard were mainly Irish and Scottish. The British and USA authorities decided not to take any action. However, some surviving passengers, who had eventually arrived in Philadelphia, were enraged, and insisted on a prosecution. Of the crew involved, only Holmes was in Philadelphia; so he alone was prosecuted, and only for “manslaughter upon the high seas” (not murder) of Francis Askin.
Holmes’ defence attorney made an impassioned plea based on necessity. But the Judge’s summary to the jury included the following:
‘The sailor … owes more benevolence to another than to himself. He is bound to set a greater value on the life of others than on his own. And while we admit that sailor and sailor may lawfully struggle with each other for the plank which can save but one, we think that, if the passenger is on the plank, even “the law of necessity” justifies not the sailor who takes it from him. This rule may be deemed a harsh one towards the sailor …, but when the danger is so extreme, that the only hope is in sacrificing either a sailor or a passenger, any alternative is hard; and would it not be the hardest of any to sacrifice a passenger in order to save a … sailor?‘
Holmes was found guilty and sentenced to undergo an imprisonment (solitary confinement) at hard labour, for six months, and to pay a fine of USD 20.