HC Deb 19 March 1852 vol 119 cc1302-3

said, he was blamed by the hon. and gallant Member for Gloucester (Admiral Berkeley) for putting a question to him the other night, with reference to the shooting a sailor by the peremptory command of Captain Shepherd, of Her Majesty's ship Inconstant, because he had not addressed his inquiry to the present Secretary to the Admiralty. He (Mr. W. Williams) had since done so, and the hon. Gentleman had just informed him that he was now ready, after inquiry into the matter, to give an answer to that question.


said, the hon. Member for Lambeth had correctly stated that since the important question was addressed to the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Admiral Berkeley), his attention had been very strongly called to the circumstances of the case, and with the permission of the House he would state them as shortly as he could—at the same time fairness to all parties demanded that he should trespass some little time on the attention of the House. In October, 1849, the Inconstant, under the command of Captain Shepherd, was at the urgent request of certain merchants at San Francisco sent to see what could be done in arresting the desertion of several crews belonging to the vessels of those merchants. When the Inconstant arrived at San Francisco, upwards of 100 vessels were lying off that place, deserted by their crews. To four of those vessels Captain Shepherd sent from ten to twelve men to each, to assist in navigating them to their destinations, and to two, out of the four, he sent lieutenants to command. The crew of the Inconstant consisted of 360 seamen, and 55 marines. The state of the shipping interest at San Francisco at this time might be imagined from one or two facts, which he would state to the House. The French Admiral had been on shore, and on returning he found that, as soon as he had left, the boats' crews with one consent all deserted, and had not since been beard of. A midshipman in the United States navy was thrown overboard from the vessel in which he was serving, by the crew, who all deserted, and he was only picked up after he had been some hours in the water. A deserter from the Asia was convicted of this attempt, and executed by the authorities of the United States. The crew of the Inconstant were constantly tempted, by the inducements of others, to go to the diggings, and upon one occasion, when one of the crew had died, the officer in command undertook to bring all the men back if they were allowed to bury the dead man on shore one of the crew deserted under pretence of going for a stone to put at the head of the grave. Captain Shepherd found it necessary to place sentinels with loaded muskets upon deck, and pickets were kept on duty, whose muskets were also loaded with ball, and who had orders to fire at any seaman who attempted to escape. One day Captain Shepherd, looking out of the cabin window, saw a man jump overboard and swim away from the ship. He went on deck and ordered the sentinel to fire, which he did. A boat manned solely by officers—for, in consequence of the inducements held out to the crews to desert, it was not thought safe to trust the men in her—went in pursuit of the man who was swimming away. It was nearly dark, but they were directed to where he was. They found him and brought him back. Another seaman, named Nicholls, was then discovered to be missing. The man brought back received punishment on the following day. It was true that a body was then seen floating near the vessel, but there was no reason to suppose that it was the body of the missing seaman, Nicholls, because it was that of a person who had been in the water some time. There was a good deal of fever up the river, and many bodies were floating down, but there was no proof that, Nicholls was wounded by the discharge of firearms aimed at the other seaman. From the best information he could obtain, Nicholls had jumped overboard about three minutes previous to Captain Shepherd's seeing the other man in the water, and there was every reason to suppose that he had got away. He was ready to lay all the papers on the subject on the table.