At the court martial

On Monday morning, 3rd July 1699, the court martial to examine the complaint of Captain Edmond Halley against Lieutenant Edward Harrison and other officers of the Paramore is held on board HMS Swiftsure with Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the Blue, presiding:

(National Archives ADM 1/5261 f.35, dated 3 July 1699)

At a Court Martiall held abd: his Majties: Ship ye Swiftsure in ye Downes ye 3° July 1699


The Hon:ble Sr Clowdsly Shovell Kt: Admll of ye Blew.


[Captains]: Beaumont, Knapp, Haddock, Haugton, Jumper, Trevanion, Price, Wynn, Underdown, Elwes, Symonds

All duely Sworne pursuant to a late Act of Parliamt:

Enquiry was made into ye Complaint exhibited by Capt: Edmd: Halley Comander of his Majties Pink ye Paramour against Mr Edwd: Harrison Lt: & Mate & other Officers of ye Sd: Pink for Misbehaviour & Disrespect towards him their Comander. Upon a Strickt Examination into this Matter ye Court is of Opinion That Captain Halley has produced nothing to prove yt ye said Officers have at any time disobey’d or denyed his Comand thô there may have been some grumbling among them as there is generally in Small Vessels under such Circumstances & therefore ye Court does Accquitt ye Sd: Lt: Harrison & the other Officers of his Majties Pink ye Paramour of this Matter giving them a Severe reprimand for ye Same.

So Harrison found not guilty – but was this fair?

Was the civilian Halley over-sensitive to his officers’ behaviour as the court suggests? or did he fail to make his case adequately? or was the court perhaps prejudiced against him, the “philosophicall” captain?

I don’t think Halley was over-sensitive to Harrison’s behaviour (for a reason that will become apparent), but I do think his personality may have contributed to his difficulties. As a civilian captain and intellectual, he was always likely to have difficulty commanding the respect of his more experienced officers, and I think that probably needed a more authoritarian personality than Halley’s. Alan Cook describes him as a “masterful man” but I can’t say he comes across like that to me. [1] Cook knew far more about Halley than I do – so I may revise my opinion as I learn more – but Halley strikes me as someone who generally won people round by being pleasant and amiable towards them and I’m not sure he had strategies for dealing with people who weren’t amenable to that approach and who were determined to cause trouble – although he was certainly capable of standing up for himself.

The court ruled that Halley had failed to prove disobedience to, or denial of, his command, and as we’ll see tomorrow Halley didn’t actually accuse them of this – but I notice from looking through other reports of courts martial that “disobedience to command” often accompanied charges of disrespectful behaviour and so I wondered if Halley failed to make the most appropriate charge? In any event I would have thought he could have proved disobedience to command as his logbook details the event when Harrison tried to sail round the north end of Barbados, contrary to Halley’s orders, and then persisted in the course until Halley came on deck to remonstrate with him. [2]

But while I think that Halley’s kindly disposition was part of the problem and that he may not have presented his case as effectively as he would wish, I do wonder if the court may have been prejudiced against him. I don’t know the background of the captains but the president, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, had risen from cabin boy to flag officer and might perhaps have been more inclined to favour the sea-bred Harrison than the intellectual Halley? I take the remark “under such Circumstances” to be a reference to tarpaulins serving under an inexperienced commander and perhaps some of the court sympathised more with Harrison on that account? [3] However, when Halley saluted Admiral Benbow with “5 peices” at the start of his voyage, Benbow returned him the same number – which was a great compliment to the civilian Halley from a Rear-Admiral of the fleet.

But the most important fact that emerged this day was the existence of Harrison’s long-time grudge against Halley, which Halley will reveal in a letter the next day. His letter is ambiguous as to whether this came out during the court martial or just after; but if it came out during the trial then that strongly suggests the court was not as sympathetic towards Halley as I think his case merited, and if it came out afterwards, then Harrison was fortunate to be acquitted by a court that was unaware of all the relevant information.

So what was this grudge that lay behind Harrison’s voyage-long ill-behaviour towards Halley? Come back tomorrow and we’ll take a close look at that letter and find out…


[1] Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p 317

[2] Many records of courts martial held at the National Archives include the depositions made by the main players and witnesses, but disappointingly none were present for Halley’s case; they would surely have provided a fascinating insight into what happened aboard the Paramore and the interplay between Harrison and Halley.

[3] I also noticed when looking through the courts martial reports that where the charge was disrespectful behaviour to a superior, the inferior officer would usually be required to apologise to the superior officer, so it seemed notable that Harrison wasn’t required to do this. Although he was acquitted, he did receive a severe reprimand and so an apology would have seemed in keeping with other reports.