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Colonial Cases

Harten, 1864

[arms trading]


Prussian Consular Court, Shanghai
Source: The North-China Herald, 7 May 1864



A man named Harten has been tried at the Prussian Consulate, on a charge preferred by the Commissioner of Customs, of dealing in arms with the rebels.  Harten was a tide-waiter at Ting-ka-doo.  Early in February he took three weeks leave of absence, in order, according to his own account, to go to Ningpo; but, according to the evidence for the prosecution, to visit the rebel country with a cargo of arms.  The principal witnesses against him were two men who are now undergoing imprisonment in their English consular jail, for an offence similar to that charged against Harten.  The latter was, according to their account, in their confidence, and took advantage of the fact to inform against them.  The Prussian Consular Court dismissed the case, on the assumption that the evidence of the witnesses for the prosecution was not worthy of credit.

Source: The North-China Herald, 16 July 1864

In the summary of news for  the week ended May 7th last, we briefly alluded to the trial of Heinrich Harten before the Prussian Vice-Consul and two assessors, on a charge of trading in arms with the rebels.  It was asserted by the prosecution that the prisoner had been into the rebel country with a cargo of arms, for the purpose of trading; that on his return he sold the boat in which he had made the journey - a false-bottomed one peculiarly adapted for the purpose - with the knowledge that she was to be used for the same illicit object; and that he had entrusted to the purchasers a quantity of percussion caps, to be sold to the rebels on his account.

Harten was acquitted at the time, on the ground that the second charge did not constitute a punishable offence, and that sufficient evidence was not forthcoming to establish the others.  We commented upon this decision at the time, in terms which, as a correspondent objected to us, although they were not distinctly condemnatory, shewed that we considered its correctness open to grave question.

Now, as will be seen by a document published in another column, the Prussian Consul-General has, on appeal, reversed the decision of the inferior court, and sentenced the prisoner to fourteen days imprisonment.  Baron von Radowitz concurs with the vice-consular court in declining to believe the testimony which was offered to prove that Harten had actually traded in arms, or had entrusted munitions of war to others, for sale to the rebels on his account; but  holds that the sale of the flat-bottomed boat, evidently effected with a full knowledge of the purposes for which it was to be used, in itself constituted a connivance at the offence charged against him, which is, by Prussian law, equally punishable with the act itself.  We congratulate Baron von Radowitz on having, by this decision, vindicated the principle that any shade of the offence of trading in arms with the rebels is equally reprehensible. 

We have already, on several occasions, dwelt on the guilt of this offence - an offence equally criminal morally as politically, and equally deserving, in either point of view, of severe punishment.  It is politically dishonorable in an individual to aid in fomenting disturbance in a country with which his government is on terms of amity, and still more morally disgraceful in a member of a civilized nations to furnish the means of perpetuating a struggle which has caused so much misery and desolation.  However difficult the Prussian Vice-Consular court may have found it to accept as legally credible the evidenced offered by the prosecution, little doubt could rest on the mind of any impartial observer, after its perusal, that Harten had committed the offences charged against him. The Consul-General declines credence on the evidence of witnesses for the prosecution, as to Harten's having ever been actually engaged in the arms trade, but considers his own admission, that he had sold a boat specially adapted for this traffic, in which he had owned an equal share with a man who was subsequently arrested on board her with a cargo of arms in his charge, sufficient proof of guilty connivance.  The lower court overlooked this point, and dismissed this charge on the incontestable ground that the sale of a boat to a foreigner did not constitute the offence of dealing in arms with the rebels.

Having found Harten guilty, however, M. von Radowitz condemns him only to the nominal punishment of fourteen days imprisonment, in consideration of the fact that he made use of his guilty knowledge to denounce his accomplices.  Legally, this may be held to extenuate his offence, and we do not wish to demur to the justice of the sentence.  But such a contemptible betrayal of his associates, after he had just dismissed them with the means of prosecuting the enterprise for which he caused them to be arrested, rather adds to than detracts from his moral guilt.  Although Harten's double-dealing and treachery have aided him to escape from the punishment he deserved, they will not serve to screen him from the the reproach of conduct so base that men, even of the class whom he has betrayed into the hands of justice, will spurn him as contemptible.

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