Is Obedience Always Morally Honorable?

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Alexander Holmes had been at sea since his tenth birthday. By the time he was twenty-six-years old he had a reputation for being a respectful seaman and a competent fellow who followed commands without complaint. He was a good sailor who caused no trouble within the crew and always did his job. He was the type of sailor that Captains wanted on their ships. 

Somehow, his most valued characteristic, his willingness to follow orders, was the thing that got him arrested in 1841, and the reason why he was sitting in a Philadelphia courtroom in 1842. 


United States v. Holmes

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 emigrants 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 seriousness of the encounter with the iceberg was dangerously underestimated and the ship continued its course through the night. Nearly a half an 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. Terrified passengers frantically ran to the deck vainly seeking reassurance and instruction from the crew. The captain with 9 crewmen, were the first to first to board one of the two lifeboats, cowardly fleeing the ship telling the passengers to do the best they could for themselves.

The rest of the crewmen and 32 passengers managed to climb aboard the second lifeboat, a longboat. The remaining passengers– the families, the children, the women, the men– were abandoned and left on the sinking William Brown with no hope for survival. 

The longboat, the lifeboat that held the passengers and the crewmen that survived, was beyond its capacity but managed to remain floating 12 hours after the William Brown went down. During the chaos of lowering the longboat 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 inviting water to constantly spill over the sides. 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, twenty-four anxious 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 who were able to hide in the dark night and evaded the murderous rampage, were found when it became light again and were quickly thrown overboard when they were discovered. A few hours later, the remaining passengers and crew on the longboat were rescued by a passing ship. 

Obedience at Sea

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 to heal.

Dana kept a daily journal about his life as a sailor, and when he arrived home, his writings were published. His book, Two Years Before the Mast, remains a valuable historical treasure today, providing a realistic account of what life on the sea was like in the 1800s.

His words reveal the cultural pressure and expectation that weighed upon Alexander William Holmes that fateful night when he was ordered to lighten the boat. Through Dana’s writings we glimpse the oppressive power that captains of the 1800s held over sailors by demanding obedience. 

Dana wrote these words:

The captain…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.

[Our first day on the ship] 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,” [he said],  “we have begun a long voyage…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’ll fare hard enough.”

Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, p.13, 45

The pressure to obey a captain’s order was enhanced through the threat of physical punishment or death .

Following Orders

Captain Geroge Harris sat in the comforts of his uncrowded life boat as he spoke to his first mate, Francis Rhodes, who sat in the other lifeboat which was overly crowded. Rhodes had asked the Captain to take on a few of the passengers, but the Captain refused saying that his lifeboat was already full. Rhodes then addressed the issue of the longboat’s broken rudder. The Captain responded by giving Rhodes charts and a compass to find his position and chart his course, a course that would be impossible to follow with a broken rudder. Captain George Harris then ordered the sailors in the crowded lifeboat to obey and follow Francis Rhodes’ orders. He made each sailor individually promise to obey Rhodes as their Captain. Then, the Captain satisfied that he had done his duty, rowed away abandoning the aimlessly drifting weighed down lifeboat. 

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 waters to their death. He was at court, standing before the judge and the jury, to determine if his actions were justifiable. 

Defense lawyer Edward Armstrong argued that Holmes was a man of good character and was acting out of obedience and therefore justified. 

Armstrong stood before the judge and jury and boldly defended Holems saying:

“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. 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.

 UNITED STATES v. HOLMES, April 22, 1842. Circuit Court, E.D. Pennsylvania, p.11

Does his obedience to an order given by his superior justify Holmes for throwing innocent people overboard?