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Colonial Cases

The China 1898



The China

Court of the Resident, Aden
May, 1898
Source: North China Herald, 30 January, 1899

  The following correspondence, which has been courteously handed to us for publication, will be read with much interest.
The Shipmasters' Society,
60 Fenchurch Street, London. E.C.
25th October, 1898.
The Assistant Secretary,
Marine Department, Board of Trade,
Whitehall, S.W.
 SIR, - I am directed by the Shipmasters' Society to draw your attention to the Investigation which was held at the Court of the Resident at Aden from the 7th to the 23rd of May, 1898, into the circumstances attending the stranding of the British steamer China on Perim Island. The print of the report is numbered 5763. The officer Mr. Crawford who by the judgment of the Court was severely censured and reprimanded under the circumstances hereinafter named is not a member of the Society but my Committee deem it their duty in the interests of the officers of the Mercantile Marine to lay their views before your Board in order that the sentence of the Court so far as it regards M. Crawford may be reconsidered on the following grounds.
 [1.] By the Constitution of the Court from the printed Report it appears to have been held before the Political Resident, who was an officer in Her Majesty's Army, and the Assessors assisting him were the Commander of H.M.S. Cossack and Commander Simpson of the Royal Indian Marine. From that it would appear that one of the Assessors only, that is Commander Simpson, can have any experience with Mercantile affairs, though there is no evidence before my Committee to show that the said Commander Simpson had any such experience of Mercantile Marine.
  By the Merchant Shipping Act, 1864, Sec. 466, sub-section 4, it is provided that where an Investigation is likely to involve any question as to the cancelling or suspension of a Master, Mate, or Engineer, the Court shall have the assistance of not less than two Assessors having experience in the Mercantile Marine. By the Indian Merchants' Shipping Act 1883, section 13, the same language is used, namely, that persons having experience in the Merchants' Service shall act as Assessors where the Investigation is likely to involve the cancellation or suspension of such Certificate, and although the Act was altered by Act No. 6 of 1891, the alteration did not affect the clause in the Indian Act above referred to.
 It appears, therefore, to my Committee and I am directed to draw your particular attention to the fact, that the Court in question was not properly constituted under the Act of Parliament authorising such investigations to be held, in that at most one Assessor only, and that is a matter of doubt, had experience in the Mercantile Service, and that therefore the Court not being properly constituted the sentence was invalid. I might mention in this connection that there would be no difficulty in getting as Assessors at Aden persons having experience in the Mercantile Service as can be proved if necessary by the number of British vessels there at the time of the Enquiry and those Masters would have been competent persons to act as Assessors.
 [2.] Apart from the question of the legality of the constitution of the Court I am directed to draw the Board's very serious attention to the effect of the decision not only as regards Mr. Crawford but also as regards officers in the Merchant Service other than Captains. It is perfectly clear from the evidence which the Committee have perused that M r. Crawford who was severely censured by the Court had left the bridge and gone off duty for a period of 19 minutes anterior to the vessel getting ashore, and that anterior to his leaving the bridge and down to the time of her sinking, the Captain had been in command and Mr. Crawford had been, as stated, relieved by the Third Officer.
 During the 19 minutes after Mr. Crawford had been relieved there was certainly ample time for those in command of the bridge to have avoided the casualty. It further appears from the Report of the evidence in this case that the orders given by the Master through the Officer that Mr. Crawford was relieved, were punctually and properly carried out by him, the orders being as stated in the Report of the evidence that on Perim High Light being seen he was to let the Captain know at once and to haul the ship up to bring Perim High Light right ahead.
 It is not contested in the evidence that both those orders were carried out and that when the Captain came on the bridge his attention was directed to the Perim High Light and its bearing and the alteration of the course that had been made in pursuance of his instructions.
 [3.] The grounds upon which the severe censure was passed upon Mr. Crawford is stated in the Judgment to be, that he neglected to see that the Master comprehended the representation which he has stated he made to him upon the vessel's course and which the Master states and the Court believes that he never heard.
 We would point out as a matter of evidence the statement of the Second Officer about the danger of the alteration of the course to N 48 W was made by him to the Third Officer, Mr. Brookes, and to the Chief Officer. The Chief Officer does not appear to have contradicted Mr. Crawford; the Third Officer in his evidence confirms Mr. Crawford and the result of the evidence as between the Captain  on the one side and Mr. Crawford on the other, simply amounts to this, while Mr. Crawford  sayd he did tell the Captain, the Captain says he does not recollect his mentioning anything of the kind to him, the Captain, and the court censures Mr. Crawford  because he neglected to make the Captain comprehend the representation and they only find the  Master did not hear it, and their own impression upon the matter was  that he was steering too fine, and in this connection the Court further finds that they consider that the Officer of the Watch should have his responsibility fixed as well when the master is on the bridge as when he is not,  and that so far as legal responsibility goes  the Officer of the Watch,  so far from being of assistance to the master, might disappear when the master takes over.
 This finding of the Court appears to my Committee to be open to very grave questions. To what extent is an Officer to differ from the captain? Mr. Crawford in this case carried out the orders of the Master in the direction of the course, and it is singular that having told the Chief Officer and having told the Third Officer who relieved him on the bridge of his views  of the position of the vessel, and  having also told the Captain, which the Captain says he did not hear, what course was Mr. Crawford or any other officer under the circumstances to take? If he puts himself in absolute conflict with his Master there would be  an end of discipline and it is perfectly clear that if the Captain had understood Mr. Crawford's representation he would not have altered his course because  in his defence he says that the orders he gave for altering the course was in accordance with his usual custom on sighting Perim Light, and that the bearings when he came on deck and the position of the vessel as reported to him were exactly similar to those  when making the Strait  at night on former homeward voyages.
 We submit for the consideration of your Board that there was nothing in the conduct of Mr. Crawford to justify the Court in the severe censure that was passed upon him, and further that the expression of opinion by the Court seeking to fix the responsibility, not only in this case but all others, on the Officers who may be on the bridge when the Captain is in charge, would lead to the most dangerous results.
 Finally, we have to request your Board on the ground as above stated to exercise their right in the matter and to reverse the decision of the Court so far as it affects Mr. Crawford.

I am, &c., A. G. FROUD, Secretary.
Board of Trade (&c.)
17th December,1898.
 GENTLEMEN, - With reference to previous correspondence relating to the Enquiry held at Aden into the stranding of the s.s. China, I am directed by the Board of Trade to inform you that, having regard to questions which have been raised with regard to the Constitution of the Court and other circumstances connected with the finding of the Court, they have decided, in pursuance of the powers vested in them by Section 475 of the Merchant Shipping Act, to order the Investigation to be re-heard generally by the High Court of Justice in England.
  I am, &c., WALTER J. POWELL.

TO: The Secretary, Shipmasters' Society, &c.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School