Is it Virtuous to be Obedient?

The courtroom grew quite with subdued anticipation as prosecutor Oliver Hopkinson asked his lead witness Bridget McGee to describe the events as she experienced them. 

A year earlier, she had left the port of Liverpool, England in the spring of 1841 joining 65 Scotch and Irish emigrants passengers leaving their homelands behind with anxious hope of creating a better life on different land. Five weeks into their journey across the Pacific ocean the ship struck an iceberg.

The passengers were asleep below the deck when the impact happened. The ship continued on with its course through the night dangerously underestimating the seriousness of the encounter with the iceberg. Nearly a half and hour later, a sailor realized that the ship was taking in water. As the captain investigated the damage, the fate of the ship became clear and he ordered for the lifeboats to be readied. 

Below deck, the passengers were awakened with panicked shouts alerting them of the sinking ship.  Confusion and chaos took over the ship. The terrified passengers frantically put on more clothes to protect them from the cold. People ran on deck seeking reassurance and instruction in vain. The captain had already boarded one of the lifeboats with 9 of his crew, cowardly fleeing the ship thinking only of their own life, telling the passengers that they must all do the best they can for themselves.

The rest of the crew secured their spot on the second lifeboat and allowed 32 passengers to crowd on with them before turning others away. 

The rest of the passengers, the families, the children, the women, and the men were abandoned and left on the sinking William Brown with nothing to protect them except for their warm clothes that they were able to put on moments before. 

The longboat was beyond its capacity but still managed to stay afloat 12 hours after the William Brown sank beneath the dark icy waters. During the chaos of lowering the long-boat into the water, it’s rudder was broken, crippling the boat and making it impossible to steer and control. The extra weight in the boat caused it to ride low on the ocean allowing water to easily spill over the sides constantly. Complicating the already compromised situation, the plug in the bottom of the boat had also become dislodged and lost. A makeshift plug was created, but it only slowed the water’s ability to enter from the bottom of the boat. With water coming over the sides and seeping in from the bottom, the passengers and the crew were constantly engaged in bailing out the sea water in order to stay alive.

Tired from bailing water. Cold from inadequate clothing. Wet from the icy sea’s spray. Fear of drowning. Hopeless of ever reaching the shore on a cripppled, weigh-down, leaky boat. The situation provided fertile ground for the seeds of fear to take root in the hearts of those still alive.  The fear of death still haunted them, taunting them, numbing their minds and hearts. They had escaped a sinking ship by climbing aboard another sinking boat. 

They were powerless, except for perhaps only one unthinkable thing that might improve their chances for survival. 

Around ten o’clock, after surviving for twenty-four hours after the William Brown sank, first mate Francis Rhodes ordered his men to lighten the boat. 

At first his men did not respond, but the passengers on the boat continued to cry out in fear that the boat was sinking. Rhodes again ordered his men to go do work lightening the boat. 

Sailors Charlie Smith, Alexander William Holmes, Joseph Stetson, and the cook, Henry Murray, approached a male passenger, tapped him on the shoulder or grabbed his arms, told him it was time, and then threw him overboard into the sea.

That night, twelve male passengers and two female passengers were thrown overboard to lighten the boat. In the morning two more male passengers were thrown overboard. A few hours later, they were rescued by a passing ship. 

Nearly a decade before the William Brown left Liverpool, Richard Henry Dana contracted measles during his junior year at Harvard College leaving him with poor eyesight. Unable to continue with his school work, he traded his studies to become a sailor. He was told that there was nothing more that the doctors could do for his eyes.  He, however, was convinced that taking time away from books would give his eyes a chance for his eyes to heal.

Experiencing the work as a sailor for the first time, his senses were alert not having the years of service to dull the day to day into a mundane blindness. He recorded in great details, his two year experience of life, creating a memoir and a sailors guide which would be published after returning back to land.  His book, Two Years Before the Mast, remains today a valuable historical account of sailing. 

His writings also take us back in time, revealing the cultural pressure and expectation that weighed upon  Alexander William Holmes that fateful night when he was ordered to lighten the boat. Dana’s writings offer us a glimpse of the oppressive power that captains of the 1800s held over sailors by demanding obedience. 

The sea captain gave a short characteristic speech, walking the quarter deck with a cigar in his mouth, and dropping the words out between the puffs. “Now my men, we have begun a long voyage. If we get along well together, we shall have a comfortable time; if we don’t we shall have hell afloat. All you’ve got to do is to obey your orders and do your duty like men, then you’ll fare well enough; if you don’t, you don’t, you’ll fare hard enough.”

The captain, in the first place, is lord paramount… he must be obeyed in everything, without a question even from his chief officer. A [sailor] must not refuse his duty, or be in any way disobedient.” The second mate is expected by the captain to enforce obedience.

The pressure to obey a captain’s order was enhanced through the threat of physical punishment or death by lashing, keelhauling, immediately shot, or hanged from a yardarm.


Captain Geroge Harris, while sitting in the comforts of the Jolly Boat, spoke to his first mate, Francis Rhodes, who sat in the crowded longboat. Rhodes had asked the Captain to take on a few of the passengers, but the Captain refused saying that he was already full. Rhodes then addressed the issue of the longboat’s broken rudder. Ironically, the Captain gave him charts, a compass, and a quadrant to find his position and chart his course. A course he would not be able to follow with a broken rudder. Captain George Harris then ordered the sailors in the longboat to all follow Francis Rhodes’ order and made each sailor individually promise to obey Rhodes as their Captain. Then, the Captain Satisfied that he had done his duty, rowed toward land, abandoning the aimlessly drifting longboat. 

On the year anniversary of the William Brown’s tragedy, Alexander William Holmes stood in court on trial for the deaths of those thrown overboard the longboat. He was the only one that went on trail. He was the only one arrested when the survivors reached land. Captain Harris was never arrested or tried. Francis Rhodes, who gave the order, was never arrested or tired. Sailors Charlie Smith, Joseph Stetson, and the cook, Henry Murray, who also threw men and women overboard, were never arrested and tried. 

A year later, in the Philadelphia court house, it was Alexander Holmes who was on trail for murder. 

Alexander Holmes, now twenty-six, had been at sea since his tenth birthday. He had grown up in a culture that pressured him to believe that it was not his place to question a superior’s command. He had the reputation for being respectful. He followed commands without complaint. A captain is in charge and the crew are expected, even forced, to operate under a state of subordination. Were there not moments, afterall, when in the midst of a storm, the crew’s ability to execute the Captain’s orders quickly and precisely, kept the boat afloat and the crew alive?  

In court, Alexander Holmes did not deny his actions. He was not in court after all, to prove whether or not he threw passengers into the icy water. He was at court, standing before the judge and the jury, to determine if his actions were justifiable. 

The defense lawyers argued that Holmes was a man of good character acting out of obedience and therefore justified. 

Edward Armstrong: The crew were in their ordinary and original state of subordination to their officers…if in [this] state, they are excusable in law, for having obeyed the order of the mate, an order twice imperatively given. Independent of the mate’s general authority in the captain’s absence, the captain had pointedly directed the crew to obey all the mate’s orders as they would his, the captain’s; and the crew had promised to do so. It imports not to declare that a crew is not bound to obey an unlawful order, for to say that this order was unlawful is to postulate what remains to be proved. Who is the judge of unlawfulness? The circumstances were peculiar.

Did obedience justify Holmes for throwing innocent people overboard? Was he justified because he was obeying an order given to him by his superior?

June 12, 2020

Time writing: 4 hours

Total time writing: 249 hours