HC Deb 19 June 1862 vol 167 cc793-7

said, he wished to move for a copy of the correspondence of the Board of Admiralty in reference to the late naval court-martial held at Bermuda, which acquitted the Captain of the Conqueror for the loss of that ship. He also desired to ask the Attorney General whether it was his opinion that the Admiralty had acted legally in punishing by reprimand an officer who had been fully acquitted by the sentence of a court-martial; and also, whether it was in accordance with law to visit with censure an officer for the arguments adduced by him as a prisoner in his defence?

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "there be laid before this House a Copy of the Correspondence of the Board of Admiralty in reference to the recent Naval Court Martial held at Bermuda which acquitted the Captain of the Conqueror for the loss of that ship, —instead thereof.


hoped that his hon. and gallant Friend would not press for the production of the correspondence between the Admiralty and Admiral Milne; but he should have no objection to produce the general order which had been issued in consequence of the court-martial referred to, and the object of which was to correct the erroneous view taken by the officers composing that court as to the responsibility of a captain on occasions when a ship was in danger. The communications between the Admiralty and its officers, although they were conducted as public correspondence, were to all intents and purposes departmental and to a great extent confidential. If that system were altered, the result would be that officers would make their reports with a view to publica- tion. He had no objection, at the same time, to state the circumstances in which the Admiralty order originated. Sir A. Milne, than whom there was not a more zealous or excellent officer, had occasion to remark that several of Her Majesty's ships got aground on the North American station, and that the captains were inclined in those instances to throw the responsibility on the masters of the vessels. Sir Alexander Milne thought it incumbent on him to issue an order to the fleet which he commanded, pointing out that it was a mistake on the part of the captains to suppose that they were not responsible for the grounding of their ships; and the Admiralty, when the order was sent home, taking exactly the same view, issued a general order, in which that point was insisted upon. The hon. and gallant Baronet was quite wrong in stating that the Admiralty had punished the captain of the Conqueror. Under the circumstances, he hoped the Motion would not be pressed.


said, he thought the Admiralty had gone a great deal further than would appear from the statement of the noble Lord. They had not merely expressed a general opinion with regard to the duties of commanders under all circumstances, but they entered into the merits of the particular case and declared that they entirely disagreed from the finding of the court-martial which acquitted the Captain of the Conqueror. They had taken the very unusual course of reversing, to a great extent, the finding of the eight able and distinguished officers who investigated the case on the spot, and who had all the facts before them; and they declared they "considered Captain Sotheby to have been highly culpable in not taking the necessary precautions." After that officer had been tried by his peers with the greatest impartiality, the inquiry lasting eight days, he must say that the Lords of the Admiralty had inflicted extreme hardship upon him by reversing the verdict which acquitted him in the most complete manner, and by holding him up to the country as culpable for the loss of his ship, without giving him any opportunity of being heard in his own defence.


said, that the hon. and gallant Baronet had asked two Questions—whether the Admiralty had acted legally in punishing, by reprimand, an officer fully acquitted by court-martial, and in visiting with censure arguments used in defence? It was in- convenient to discuss abstract questions of law in that House; and he preferred to address himself to the facts of the case. Captain Sotheby was in command of the Conqueror, which was wrecked on a coral reef. In his defence before the court-martial he claimed for captains a large exemption from responsibility, with reference to the navigation of a ship, and sought to cast the main responsibility on the master. The court-martial seemed to adopt that view: for they entirely acquitted Captain Sotheby, and reprimanded the master. It was only natural and right, therefore, when Captain Sotheby had put forward doctrines in his defence which they disapproved, and when those doctrines had been ratified and sanctioned by the officers composing the court-martial, that the Admiralty should declare their opinion that those doctrines were exceedingly dangerous, and were, in fact, a misconstruction of the printed orders issued for the conduct of officers. He thought it was quite within their competence to express such an opinion; and he did not see how it could have been more legitimately made known than in a general order, which Admiral Milne was instructed to communicate to the officers under his command. Captain Sotheby himself, having come home, as a matter of fairness received a copy of the letter addressed to Sir Alexander Milne: but this was no formal act of "censure," as the terms of the Question supposed. The Lords of the Admiralty were Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral, and there could be no doubt that such a functionary, if he existed, being charged with the maintenance of the discipline of the navy, would have full power to publish any order calculated to correct a prevalent opinion fraught with consequences dangerous to that discipline.


said, it must be subversive of all discipline in the navy to learn that a solemn expression of opinion by the Lords of the Admiralty that a particular officer's conduct had been "highly culpable" was not to be looked on by that officer as a punishment. He believed that no punishment could be more severe to a high-minded man than to pronounce that he had been guilty of culpable negligence. It was the very first instance in which such a course had been attempted on the part of the Admiralty. The only way in which it could be attempted to justify the measure was by the Navy Discipline Act of 1860. In the Act of 1860 there was a clause empowering the Admiralty to annul, modify, or suspend the sentence of a court-martial; but it was not intended that the Admiralty should avail themselves of that clause for the purpose of aggravating a sentence. He thought that clause was brought forward in consequence of the old story of Admiral Byng being a victim to the inability of the Admiralty to relieve him from the sentence of a court-martial. The change was made in order that the law might not be so Draconic as it had been. It was quite true the Admiralty had the power of cashiering an officer without trying him by court - martial; but when a court-martial had been held on the captain of the Conqueror, and he had been pronounced innocent, it was contrary to all our notions of English justice that the Admiralty should declare him guilty of culpable negligence. No court in this country, with the exception of the Star Chamber, had ever exercised such a power.


said, he was of opinion that the country viewed with great satisfaction the course adopted by the Admiralty in this case. If they had not interfered, the doctrine would have gone forth that captains were not responsible for the navigation of their ships. The law had been laid down very clearly by the hon, and learned Attorney General.


said, he could not agree with the hon. Member who had just spoken, that the law had been laid down very clearly by the Attorney General. That hon. and learned Gentleman did not think it advisable to treat of abstract questions of law in that House; but the question before them was not an abstract question. It was a question of the honour of an officer, which honour had been most grossly outraged by the Admiralty. Perhaps hon. Gentlemen were not aware of the effect which the words "highly culpable," as applied to a gallant officer's conduct, would have on his prospects. He could not but think it a most outrageous thing for the Admiralty to have come forward and stigmatized Captain Sotheby in the manner they had done, after he had been fully and honourably acquitted by the officers appointed to try him.


Sir, I can quite understand that hon. Members may take an interest in the individual captain the subject of this discussion; but I trust the House will take an interest in the ships of Her Majesty's navy. Now, I think the Admiralty performed their duty in this case. It must have been an unpleasant duty, but a duty they had to perform. It appeared to them, on looking into the statements in the case, that Captain Sotheby was culpable in not having taken the precautions he ought for the safety of his ship; and, however unpleasant it must have been to them to pronounce their opinion on an officer against whom a court-martial had not expressed an opinion, I think it was a duty they owed to the service and the country to make a statement with respect to a matter involving the safety of Her Majesty's navy. It is no light matter that one of the finest ships in the navy has been lost by inattention to those physical circumstances an attention to which might have saved her. My hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General says the Admiralty did not exceed their legal powers, and I agree with my hon. Friend (Mr. Dillwyn) that they only did their duty, however painful the course adopted by them may be to the friends of the officer concerned. They did not alter the sentence. The officer has not been dismissed the service. They in no respect altered his position in the service, though they expressed as they ought to have done, their opinion that sufficient attention had not been paid in a case where attention might have saved one of the finest ships in Her Majesty's navy.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 67; Noes 42: Majority, 25.