Seagoing visitor from hell had Nanaimo residents intrigued

It was, in the purplish prose of the Victoria Standard, “a most unparalleled instance of human cruelty on the high seas”.

“Altogether he is the worst sight that has been seen in the hospital here for some time, and if he recovers it will be a miracle”.—Victoria Standard

It was, in the purplish prose of the Victoria Standard, “a most unparalleled instance of human cruelty on the high seas”.

Alas, the records show that the officers of the ship Detroit were anything but unique in their allegedly brutish mistreatment of their crew. In that age of wooden ships and iron men, when maritime laws recognized a ship’s captain as having supreme powers at sea, the Detroit and others of her ilk were known as “hell ships” for the maltreatment of their crews.

Upon her arrival in Victoria from Valparaiso, one of her seamen charged before the U.S. Consul that he’d been denied proper food until he was “literally eaten up with scurvy,” and that he’d been whipped with a rope’s end, by the captain’s orders, for not being able to perform his duties. His legs were said to be blackened by bruising from the thighs down, his teeth ready to drop out, “and altogether he is the worst sight that has been seen in the hospital here for some time, and if he recovers it will be a miracle”.

According to this complainant, just days before arriving in port, Capt. J.C. Adams had kicked a seaman to death and thrown his body overboard. It’s little wonder that Nanaimo citizens were intrigued by the maligned Detroit’s subsequent arrival at Departure Bay to load coal, notwithstanding the fact that not only the ship’s officers but several of its seamen had sworn that the charges made in Victoria were “a tissue of falsehoods”. While being examined by Consul Francis the crew defended their captain, although they damned the first and second mates for what they termed “extreme cruelty”. They told the same story to Collector of Customs T.E. Peck.

As for the seaman allegedly kicked to death and thrown overboard, his body had in fact been brought ashore for burial. Because of the serious accusations being floated about, Dr. Jackson, formerly of the Royal Hospital, was asked to perform a post-mortem. He issued a certificate of death by natural causes.

Despite this conflict of evidence and testimony, with the possibility that criminal charges might be laid against the Detroit’s officers, the Nanaimo Free Press reminded its readers to reserve judgment until they were fully informed of the facts.

The collier’s first and second mates chose to ignore the newspaper’s advice by jumping ship during the night and making good their escape in one of its boats. By this time the Press, which had been non-committal, had had time to interview some of the crew. It now suggested that “matters were getting too warm” for the missing officers, that it was because they dreaded British justice that they’d jumped ships for parts unknown.

“Judging from the conversation of some of the crew, it would appear that they have had a rough time of it, and been terribly ill-treated by the first and second officers… One of the two officers was in the habit of carrying a heavy sling shot [sic] attached to his wrist.”

As for witholding judgment until the case could be tried in court, the newspaper concluded, “He confesses his guilt who flees from judgment.”

Days later, a legal notice appeared in the Press. Signed by Capt. Adams, it stated that neither the owners nor the undersigned master of the American ship Detroit would be responsible for any debts contracted by the crew thereof.

Soon after the Detroit took her leave of Departure Bay, her holds a-brim with Wellington coal, Capt. Adams had bigger concerns than unauthorized expenses. In its last reference to the sordid affair, the Press reported that he’d been placed under a bond of $1,000 to appear before a court in San Francisco.

He’d been ordered to answer a charge of cruelty for having allowed his officers to “beat and wound a seaman during the voyage of the ship from Rio de Janeiro” to the Bay City.

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