Friday, December 2, 2011

December 2, 1842 --- Murder on the High Seas

The chief mate and four seamen aboard the East India Company's Clydesdale are charged with killing the ship's cook.  The barque, had just docked at Liverpool, home from Bombay. 

The victim was Philip Keal, a "colored" man, actually Jamaica-born. Only a few days out from port, Keal had taken to his berth, complaining of stomach cramps. The first mate, John Bowman Reynolds, went below and ordered Keal to make breakfast. Keal refused. According to the testimony of another colored sailor, Reynolds then said, "You skulking ------, I'll send down some tackle and bouse you up." Assisted by the others, Reynolds lowered a rope into Keal's cabin and with a noose around the sick man's neck hauled him up to the deck. There, wearing only a shirt, drawers and socks, Keal was left "in a stagnant state" exposed to November sea conditions in the north Atlantic. The ship's captain came upon the scene and ordered Keal taken below; but by then, the poor man was dead.

The case had caused "a considerable sensation" in the port city and a large crowd attends the inquest. The coroner concludes that "with little doubt, death is due to suffocation." There is widespread outrage at the conduct of the seamen; The Illustrated London News is sorry to report, "all of whom are white men, and, we regret, for the sake of our country and of humanity... natives of England."

The accused are brought to London and tried at the Old Bailey for "murder on the high seas."  On the opening day of the trial, however, the men are ordered freed. The indictment had specifically charged them with causing the cook's death by strangulation or suffocation. Yet, the coroner admits that Keal's death might have been caused by exposure or even by the poor man's constipation - the source of his pre-existing stomach pains - which, in the doctor's opinion - might have produced "congestion of the brain." Baron Alderson, presiding, said it was "regrettable" but he had no alternative but to dismiss the charges. He did lecture the men, saying that their conduct had been "extremely bad... for which they ought to be sorry for the rest of their lives."

The slipshod handling of the case is a scandal. The Times demanded action, noting that there are 10,000 ships flying the British flag around the world: "We are bound to see that each one of these, in her longest and
most distant separation from the shores of her mother country, shall ever feel the presence within her of English law."

Joseph Heard's Port of Liverpool, painted a year later (1843)


  1. Hi Tom. I am interested in the provenance of this blog post... is it based on fact, or is it fiction? Sorry, but I happened upon this post cold when doin research on a topic and it intrigued me. If the account is faction, where did you happen upon it, and how might I find out more details about this? I would be most pleased to hear back from you. (

  2. Hi Tom. My Great Great Grandfather was John Bowman Reynolds. His occupation on his Wedding Certificate (5 May 1841 Sydney, Australia) was "Mate". He went on to become a Master Mariner in Australia. As his first child was not born until 1844 it is possible that he is the first mate referred to in the above incident. Do you have any further details? I have searched the online records of the Old Bailey without success. Would love to hear from you.

  3. G'day John. JBC Reynolds was my Great Great Great Grandfather and I and some other 'cousins' have gathered quite a bit on this man and his remarkable career. If you are interested, drop me a line at - Cheers, Stephen Matthews.

  4. A comprehensive report of this short trial (which took place at the Old Bailey on 15th December 1842) may be found on Google Books - The ebook is entitled The Annual Register Or a View of the History and Politics of the Year 1842 and was originally published by J.G.& F.Rivington of London - see pp338/340 - the five Defendants (John Bowman Reynolds, David Barnes, George Deane, James M'Donald and George Sole) were all acquitted of a charge of Feloniously Killing and Slaying Philip Keal upon the High Seas within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England on the 1st/2nd December 1842 (actually just off Holyhead)