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Walt Whitman to the Editors of The Daily Crescent, 22 September 1848

While so much sympathy is exhausted on all kinds of suffering, upon land, it is often forgotten that there exists an unreaped field for the exercise of the philanthropic spirit, at sea. At sea, there is still no republicanism; absolute power prevails. Leaving the yet mooted point whether official despotism is requisite to safety on shipboard, I think few will refuse to agree that cruelty and oppression are not; it is undeniable, however, that an immense amount of such cruelty continues to be exercised from officers to their crews. The proportion of good officers, manly, and well-liked by their men, to those who are always dictatorial and brutal is perhaps great, the latter being in a considerable minority. But this minority have it in their power to cause much suffering, and do cause it in a way the heart revolts at.

When a case comes before our courts involving the relation between officers and their men, I have noticed that the court generally takes it for granted that the officers are right and the men wrong, unless plainly proved to the contrary. This probably arises from the conservatism which is in the very nature of law and lawyers. So poor Jack, opposed to wealth, cunning and rank, does not often get the best side of the argument, even when he deserves it.

Yesterday there came up in this city, before the U. S. District Court, a case where the crime charged is of so revolting a nature that public indignation could hardly be too severely visited upon the offender, if proved guilty. It involves a vessel which sailed lately from your port, (for Antwerp, but it seems has put in here,) and whose officers and men are doubtless known in New Orleans. Charles A. Bertrand,1 master of the ship Alhambra, and Henry Watson,2 mate, were arraigned for the murder of Albert Burgess,3 one of their crew. The first witness examined was Edward Murphy,4 who testified as follows:

Oppression and Cruelty at Sea

Was a seaman on board the Alhambra; she is an American ship; sailed on board the ship about three weeks since from New Orleans, bound to Antwerp; the deceased boarded in the same house with witness in New Orleans; does not know the right name of the deceased; he was known in New Orleans by the name of Davy, and on the vessel by the name of Albert; and he died on the Saturday after the Tuesday we left New Orleans; at four o'clock on that day he was brought aft to receive punishment, and all the sailors and passengers were called to witness it; witness said to the captain, "I beg your pardon, sir; ask the man," meaning the deceased, "what he has to say; is he drunk, or what is the matter with him?" Captain said, "silence, sir;" another Dutch boy then came, crying, to intercede for him; the purport of what he said was to let the man go; cannot say what it was the captain said, but he took no notice of the boy; the next man that came up was an Italian; he seemed, to witness, to come in a blustering sort of way; the captain took notice of him, but I did not understand what he said; the captain then went to the deceased, and said to him, "if I let you go will you do your work?" the man made no reply; he was lashed at the time, by both wrists, to the rigging, and stood pretty straight; the next thing the captain ordered him to be flogged, but I don't remember the words; does not know to whom the orders were given; but the orders were followed by a flogging by a second mate, with a fifteen thread rope, which appeared to be a little swollen from wet; there was a rope brought up here yesterday, but it is not the same; the order was to give him a dozen; several blows were given to him, but witness did not count them; the captain called out to give it to him harder; the mate did as he was ordered, and the man cried out "good sailors help," or something like that; the rope was about two feet and a half long; after the captain had given the second order, the mate took both ends in his hand, and lashed him with the rope doubled; the captain asked the mate, "are you counting these blows?" The second mate seemed confused and made no reply, but moved out and gave him a very heavy blow across the loins; he flogged him all along across the loins; the man had only a light cotton shirt on him; the unfortunate man never murmured a bit; after he was let down the captain went to him and said, "will you now go to your work?" the reply was, "yes, sir;' he was kept lashed up for about half an hour afterwards; the captain sat on the rail; witness saw irons under the captain and the mate, but did not see them put on; when he was cut down, he fell on his back and lay there with his mouth open, gasping; the mate got a piece of canvass and put it under his head; every time that witness passed him, for about three-quarters of an hour, he heard a rattling or gurgling in his throat; after that witness saw two men, one at his head and the other at feet, dragging him along; witness thought that that was not the right way to bring him, and he went and got something under his back, and with the others brought him into the forecastle and laid him in his bunk; witness then looked at him, and remarked to the other men the deadly glaze of his eyes and that those were the rattles in his throat; cannot say when he died, but thinks it was between four and eight o'clock; one of the men came to witness about midnight and said the man was dead; witness then went into where he was; took him out of his bunk and put him in a chair, and we overhauled him; he was black-and-blue about the mouth, which was full of blood; witness turned up his shirt and found that he was black-and-blue about the loins; the mate came then and saw him, and in some time after some old canvass was procured and he was sewed up; he was then brought up and laid on deck, a little aft of the forecastle; at day-light we came up to inter him; witness asked the mate would they not read prayers over him; the mate said to witness he might get a paper and read as much prayers as he liked; no prayers, however, were read; he was then thrown over. He was about twenty-three years of age, a Scotchman by birth, from what witness could learn; he was in good health and was a very stout young man; does not know the cause of coming in here, but witness was very glad to get in; thinks it was Providence that drove them in; it was about eight hours after his death that he was thrown overboard.

No attempt was made to invalidate this testimony. The principal facts were corroborated, indeed, by the second mate, who was brought on for the defence. This being a preliminary arrangement, the judge committed both Bertrand and Watson for manslaughter, telling them that they might apply to him in the morning in relation to bail—that from the captain he should require heavy bail, but with the mate he would deal more leniently.

It is time Congress passed an explicit law to prohibit this disgusting practice of whipping naked men on board ship, at the pleasure of masters. One is tempted to inquire, when hearing repeatedly of these whippings, whether we are really in advance of the bambooing Turks, and knouting Russians, in many points. Of a truth we are not. Do you recollect that a short cruise of the U. S. brig Somers, (manned by young apprentices from the U. S. Naval School,) under command of Slidell Mackenzie,5 a few summers since, was signalized by the bestowal of some twenty-five hundred lasheson the bare skin of those "free born" American youths?



  • 1. Charles A. Bertrand was the master of the ship Alhambra, which left New Orleans for Antwerp on August 29, 1848. A few days later Bertrand gave the order for the second mate to flog a sailor named Alfred Davoy (he was also referred to as David Cooper and Albert Burgess in newspapers of the period) for not performing his duties to the Captain's satisfaction (see "Law Intelligence," New York Daily Herald, September 22, 1848, 4). Davoy died as a result of his injuries, and Bertrand was tried for Davoy's murder in New York in August of 1848. According to a November 18, 1848, article, Bertrand was not convicted of the crime (see [In the Case of Captain Charles A. Bertrand], Alexandria Gazette, November 18, 1848, 2). [back]
  • 2. Henry Watson was the second mate on the ship Alhambra. [back]
  • 3. Albert Burgess, as Whitman calls him here, was also known as Alfred Davoy and David Cooper in 1848 newspapers. He is described as a Scottish sailor on the Alhambra, who was flogged so severely that he died as a result of his injuries. [back]
  • 4. Little is known about Edward Murphy, who was an Irish sailor, and member of the crew of the Alhambra. He testified at the trial of Charles A. Bertrand and Henry Watson for the murder by flogging of the sailor Alfred Davoy. [back]
  • 5. Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (1803–1867) was an officer in the United States Navy, where he served for more than thirty years. He served as Captain of the USS Somers, and his crew on at least some voyages was made up primariliy of naval apprentices. He was captaining the Somers in 1842, when a mutiny occurred, and Mackenzie ordered the three suspected mutineers executed. Although Mackenzie was later exonerated from any wrongdoing, the controversial incident would shape the remainder of his career. [back]
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