Monday, 18 March 2019

Career Opportunities; the Attorney General & the Brazilian Slavers; Robert Porrett Collier, 1st Lord Monkswell (1817-1886), Brompton Cemetery

In the summer of 1845 Robert Porrett Collier was a fiercely ambitious 28 year old junior barrister on the Western Circuit, desperately searching for a big case that would show the world what he could do and set him up in his career. His marriage the previous year to Isabella and the birth in the spring of their first child, a son named Robert after his father, only added to his determination to prove himself. His own father, who ran a flourishing business in Plymouth, had been generous in helping him set up home with his new bride and even more liberal on the birth of his first grandson. But Robert was determined to make his own way in the world and his father’s open-handedness was yet another spur driving him on. The brief he was offered in early July didn’t immediately look like it had the makings of a great case, not least because it seemed so open and shut; the trial of a dozen Brazilians who had been taken prisoner by the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy on one of their routine anti-slavery patrols off the coast of Nigeria. They were accused of piracy and murder; having taken control of the ship in which they were being detained they murdered the British crew before trying to make their escape back to Brazil.  Senior colleagues had already taken on the cases of those accused where the evidence admitted to at least some doubt as to their culpability. Probably because no one else wanted them, Robert had been left with the four, Janus Majaval, Francisco Ferreira de Santo Serva, Manuel José Alves, and Sebastião de Santos, whose guilt seemed most well established and almost certain to lead them to the gallows. Not only did the case seem virtually unwinnable but it was also morally distasteful; Robert had been brought up a Quaker and an abolitionist and he could not quite suppress his repugnance for the cut throat, slave trading foreigners who were accused of killing 10 members of the Royal Navy.

Number 11 is Janus Majaval the man who stabbed Midshipman Palmer, No 8 is Serva, captain of the Echo, No 6 is Alves the drinker of spilt blood, and No 10 Antonio Joaquim who cut off Mullins fingers. 1 is Lieutenant Stupart, 2 Lieutenant Wilson and 3 Captain Cerquiera of the Felicidade 
The trial commenced on Thursday 24th July at Exeter Assizes. “At an early hour the Court was besieged with eager crowds,” said the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette “anxious to gain admittance to the interior, so as to witness the proceedings.” At 9.00am prompt the judge, Mr Baron Platt, took his seat and ordered the prisoners to be placed in the dock. The indictments were then read out; 22 year old Janus Majaval was accused of the murder of Thomas Palmer “on the 2nd day of March on the high seas, on board a vessel called the Felicidade, by striking him with a knife upon the belly, giving him a mortal wound of which he died...” or “by throwing the said Thomas Palmer out of the vessel, and drowning him.” The other prisoners were indicted for being feloniously present and with aiding and abetting Majaval.  The next thirty minutes were taken up by legal arguments by Sargeant Manning, one of Robert’s senior colleagues, with interjections from Robert (who had drafted the argument in the first place). The eager crowd who had besieged the courtroom for a place early that morning must have grown restive as the two lawyers and the judge argued the form of the indictment and whether it should have been set out contra formam statuti. The Judge asked what statute makes murder on the high seas a felony? The 28th of Henry VIII said Sargeant Manning. “But that only altered the mode of trial to that of the common law,” the Judge observed. Sargeant Manning tried to explain but Robert interrupted to explain that the common law jurisdiction arose out of an offence committed in some county of the realm but this offence not having been committed in any county but on the high seas, was not cognisable in a common law Court. The two lawyers wanted the trial transferred to the Court of Admiralty but Judge Platt was having none of it and ordered the trial to start. The interpreter was sworn in and Robert interrupted again to object that the interpreter was speaking Spanish and his clients were Brazilian and spoke Portuguese. The interpreter told the judge that the accused understood everything he said and ordered them all to stand up. When they did this was considered sufficient evidence of the interpreters fluency. The jury unusually, de medietate linguae, half English and half foreigners, were sworn in and to the relief of the public the trial proper started. Mr Godson, Queens Counsel, began by addressing the jury and explaining the events that had led up to the murder of Midshipman Palmer and his shipmates and had brought the twelve accused to Exeter to stand trial for their lives.

The Portuguese salve ship Dignidade captured by the navy in 1834
In January that year (1845) a vessel called the Felicidade (Happiness!) was fitted out at Salvador de Bahia in Brazil for a slave trading mission to the west coast of Africa under the captaincy of Joaquim Antonio Cerqueira. It was not the first slaving mission for either the ship or the captain;  Capitão Cerqueira was well aware that he had to avoid the coastal patrols of the British navy as he made his way through the lagoons and sandbanks of the treacherous West African coast en route to Angola but on this journey he ran out of luck and found himself taken by HMS Wasp not far from Lagos. He didn’t have any slaves on board at the time but the manacles, fetters and chains that were everywhere you turned on the schooner made it pretty clear what his business was. The crew of the Felicidade were transferred as prisoners to the Wasp leaving just Cerqueira and his cook, 22 year old Janus Majaval, on board ship, their places taken by 16 ordinary British seaman, a midshipman called Thomas Palmer and Lieutenant Stupart. The Lieutenant’s orders were to take the Felicidade to Freetown in Sierra Leone where the Prize commissioners would adjudicate on her (as a slaver she would be sold and the proceeds divided up amongst the navy personnel who had taken her). On the morning of 1st March another slaver was spotted by the men aboard the Felicidade. Lieutenant Stupart gave the command to pursue the other ship, a much bigger Brazilian slaver, a 70 ton brigantine called the Echo. It took a couple of days to catch up with her and discover that she had a human cargo of 430 sequestered Africans on board, destined for a life of slavery in the sugar and coffee plantations of Bahia. Lieutenant Stupart was faced with a dilemma; he and his crew of 17 now had control of two ships, 30 Brazilian slave traders, and 430 African abductees. Stupart’s solution was to split up the Brazilians – he transferred half of the crew of the Echo into the Felicidade, locking some of them into the hold and putting some of them into a small boat which was towed behind the ship. With 7 of his own men he went into the Echo leaving midshipman Palmer, 9 other ranks and 2 native sailors, Kroomen, in the Felicidade. 

A sketch of Janus Majaval made at the trial
The first night the tiny flotilla was at sea passed without incident. The nest morning Leitenant Stupart returned to the Felicidade and allowed the master of the Echo, Francisco Serva and his brother in law, and the captain of the Felicidade, Joaquim Cerqueira, up from the hold to take coffee. Stupart then had himself rowed back to the Echo leaving Palmer in charge. Serva tried to convince Cerqueira that they could take back his ship from the English; “I have four men below who I can depend on to kill the English and throw them overboard.” Cerqueira was frightened and said they would be foolish to try when there were English cruisers everywhere. Serva called Cerqueira a cobarde and no doubt added a filho da puta to boot and Cerqueira threatened to inform the British of what Serva was plotting. Serva said no more for the moment but half an hour later, when Midshipman Palmer was washing his hair and the rest of the English were lying on the decks snoozing in the morning sun, he went to the hatchway and called up his men. Once again Cerqueira told him not to be a fool and when Serva ignored him he called to quarter master Mullings and drew his attention to the Brazilians coming up on deck. Mullings grabbed an iron bar and struck Alves, the first man up from below decks, then threw the dazed Brazilian overboard. Grabbing a handspike the quarter master took on three of the slavers and managed to wound them all. Meanwhile Serva was hauling in the boat tied behind the ship and Majaval, the Felicidade’s cook, emerged out of the cabin carrying a long filleting knife. The cook killed midshipman Palmer who was making his way to aid the quarter master, stabbing him in the belly and then throwing him overboard. He then stabbed a sleeping English sailor in the chest. By now the deck was swarming with armed Brazilians. The sentry had been wounded and thrown overboard but he clung to the foresheet to avoid falling into the sea. Two men took it in turns to try and make him let go by striking him over the head with logs of wood. When that didn’t work a certain Antonio Joaquim pushed the others out of the way and pulled out a knife. He cut off he sentry’s fingers and watched him slide insensible into the sea. Two native Krooman sailors brought on board by the English preferred to take their chances with Neptune rather than risk death or slavery with the Brazilians jumped into the sea and swam for the distant shore. Alves, originally pitched into the sea by quarter master Mullings, had by now climbed back into the boat only to find that all ten British sailors had been killed and their bodies tossed overboard. Thwarted in his desire for revenge he used both hands to scoop up blood from a pool on the deck and drank it. According to Cerqueira only Mullings and Palmer tried to defend themselves; the rest of the crew were massacred in cold blood. Now in control of the schooner Serva hoisted the Brazilian flag and sailed over to the Echo where he demanded that Stupart and the remaining British sailors surrender his ship. Stupart refused to yield and told Serva that he had released the 400 slaves from their shackles and chained up the Brazilians in their place. If Serva and his remnant crew fancied their chances of taking the Echo by force they were welcome to try. Serva fired a couple of guns at his ship in frustration and then sailed away intending to take the Felicidade back to Brazil in place of the lost Echo.  Three days later the Felicidade found itself being pursued by HMS Star. The schooner was no match for the cruiser and the Brazilians found themselves taken prisoner again. They were put aboard the Star and taken to Sierra Leone where they were indicted as pirates. The captain of the Star put a Lieutenant Wilson and small crew in charge of the Felicidade with instructions to sail her to Freetown. The fatal ship almost killed another crew when she foundered in a storm and sank. Wilson and his men saved themselves by constructing a raft from the spars of the sinking ship. They spent 20 days adrift in the Bight of Benin before they were rescued, keeping themselves alive by drinking the blood of sharks and eating their flesh. 

Serva's slave Sobrinho de Costa who gave evidence
at the trial
Listening to this sordid saga the Exeter jurymen, foreigners or not, must have found it relatively easy to make up their minds as to the guilt of the accused. Sargeant Manning did his level best to confuse them. When he rose to make his closing statement he was, according to the Western Times “visibly affected by his sense of the awful responsibility which rested upon him.” During his speech he referred to the Brazilian slave traders as ‘unfortunates’ and even managed to squeeze the odd tear or two out when he described their underprivileged  upbringing in the slums of Bahia. He laid into the interpreter, a Frenchman who knew his own language and English well, Spanish passably but was completely ignorant of Portuguese as it is spoken in Brazil. His insistence on speaking Spanish to the accused was ridiculous; Spanish stood in the same relation to Portuguese as Latin did to Italian he asserted (incorrectly). Why it was as though a professor of classics had been called from Oxford to interpret for a organ grinder (who were always, of course, Italians) accused of some capital crime. How accurately would the organ grinder understand a 1500 year old language? The learned Sargeant attacked the legality of the seizure of both the Felicidade and the Echo but particularly the Echo. As both ships were seized illegally they had never, from a legal standpoint, been in the possession of the crown and therefore remained foreign vessels. The court had no jurisdiction over foreign vessels or foreign nationals. How were the crew of the Echo to even know that they had been taken by the British navy when it sailed up to them in a Brazilian slave ship? Was it surprising that they put up resistance? He conceded, according to the Western Times “that Mr Palmer came by his death upon the Felicidade,” it was not a fact he was prepared to dispute. But who killed Midshipman Palmer? He looked slowly around the court and then raised his hand slowly and pointed the finger of accusation at the crown’s principal witness, Joaquim Cerqueira, the Captain of the Felicidade, a ‘clever knowing fellow, a ruffian, a liar, a murderer “the planner and prime actor in this bloody tragedy”. This was the guilty man, not his clients. By the time Robert Collier stood up to address the jury on behalf of his own clients there was little left to say. What he did say, he said well. The Western Times remarked that his “speech indicated great promise. It was earnest, forcible and fearless, though marked with signs of inexperience.” The few snippets of the actual content of the speech given by the newspaper bear no trace of cutting legal arguments. Instead he seemed to rely on an almost certainly misplaced appeal to pity from the jury. “These poor men,” he said, “had come to the castle prepared for death…. They did not dare to ask for a priest, thinking that it would be denied them.” Some of his hyperbole was just plain ridiculous; “if the jury would believe him,” he said, “he would, if he were in the jury box rather lay down his life than convict these men.” It is difficult to imagine the jury believing him, and if they had they would have assumed he was an idiot. He almost went out of his way to prove them right. “He was satisfied,” he told them “that they did not believe that they were committing murder.” After listening to evidence of stabbings and drownings, of the cutting off of hands and fingers and the drinking of blood, the jury must have wondered what on earth he was trying to say. If Sargeant Manning had planted any seeds of doubt in their minds Robert Collier surely overwatered them and made sure they never germinated. The verdicts when they came were that 7 of the 10 accused were guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas.  Judge Platt praised the jury for their fine Christian feelings and for shedding tears over the fate of the Brazilians (perhaps Robert’s speech had affected a few of them after all) “but,” he said, “this is not a case for tears, the justice of the country must be vindicated with all its severity although it will extend to you more time for preparation than you gave to those unfortunate men to met their end… Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed…. The sentence of the court upon you and each of you is, that for this foul murder of which you been respectively found guilty, you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence, at the usual time, you be conveyed to the place of execution and that there you be hung respectively by the neck until you be dead.” The Western Times said an awful scene of consternation took place amongst the prisoners and only Serva maintained his placidity to the end, but even his heart seemed to die within him. They were all removed in handcuffs and taken back to prison.

The story did not end there. In November all seven accused were tried again in absentia in front of 13 judges at the Court of Exchequer . According to the D.N.B after the trial, unhappy with the outcome and with Judge Platt’s refusal to accept the arguments about the legality of the seizure of the two Brazilian ships “Collier hurried to London and laid the matter before the home secretary (Sir James Graham) and Sir Robert Peel. Both ministers appear to have been convinced by Collier's argument, and on 5 Aug. it was announced in both houses of parliament that Baron Platt had yielded.” The matter still had to go before the courts however, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister not having powers to overturn a decision of the Exeter Assizes. The Brazilians were not required to attend as this was to be a trial of legalities. The murder of Midshipman Palmer and his crew mates were not the issue. What mattered was the right of the Royal Navy to seize a foreign ship for the offence of slaving when there were no slaves on board. The 13 judges listened to Sargeant Manning’s exposition of naval law back to 1570, his analysis of the various treatises with Brazil, Portugal and Spain, and his argument that all this made the seizure of the Felicidade and the Echo illegal. He won the argument and the 10 accused were all acquitted, much to the consternation of the country. The Examiner commented acidly “The point or quibble of law by which they [the accused] have been enabled to escape is one thing, the effect that will be produced on the slave coast and in Brazil is another. Hitherto the British officers and seamen who captured slavers and who remained very often in small numbers to guard and conduct to trial a much more numerous crew, as was the case with the Felicidade, relied upon the rights by which they boarded and seized, on the respect and awe excited by the British name, and on the certainty of vengeance overtaking those who sought to set British authority at nought. The result of the acquittal or escape of those tried at Exeter will be first of all to acquaint foreigners engaged in the slave trade that they may resist, rise upon and murder with impunity, the British seamen and officers who have captured them.”
Robert Porrett Collier, 1st Lord Monkswell, in later life.
The trial and subsequent controversy did no harm to Robert Collier’s career; “On his next visit to Exeter he had nineteen briefs,” says the D.N.B. He went on to become a very successful trial lawyer and eventually Recorder of Plymouth, then counsel to the admiralty and fleet. He also became an MP, a member of the Privy Council and eventually the attorney general. He was made a peer in 1885. The D.N.B’s summary of his private life was “He married in 1844 a daughter of Mr. William Rose of Woolston Heath, near Rugby, and her sudden death in April 1886 shook him severely. In failing health he went to the Riviera, and died at Grasse, near Cannes, on 27 Oct. 1886, and was buried in London on 3 Nov. He was highly versatile and accomplished. He was a good billiard-player, an excellent scholar, and wrote some very pretty verses both in Latin and English. His memory was most retentive. But it was chiefly in painting, of which he was passionately fond, that he was distinguished. As a young man he drew very clever caricatures in the H.B. manner. When solicitor-general he painted in St. James's Park, and he exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery, especially pictures of the neighbourhood of Rosenlaui, Switzerland, where he spent many vacations.” He had three children, the eldest, Robert, followed him into the law, John became a professional artist and his daughter Margaret was a writer, author of “Prince Peerless, an original fairy tale” and “Our Home by the Adriatic.”         

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