Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Women At Sea: Witness For The Prosecution

Elizabeth Bowden (or Bowen) seems to have had it rough from the very beginning. Born into obscurity and poverty some time in 1793 in Truro, Cornwall, she seemed destined to a bleak life. Things went from bad to worse when she was orphaned at age twelve or thirteen.

Elizabeth had an older sister who, to the best of the girl's knowledge, lived in that haven of the Royal Navy: Plymouth. Being nothing if not hardy, Elizabeth walked from Truro to Plymouth with the idea that she would take up residence with her sibling. Unfortunate as usual, Elizabeth could not find her sister. Elizabeth, who in our day and age would be termed a little girl, was penniless, starving and alone. Like so many nameless others of her generation, she turned to the sea.

Dawning a boy's trousers (and perhaps looking similar to the drawing by Thomas Rowlandson at the header), Elizabeth signed aboard HMS Hazard at Plymouth in the last half of 1806 using the name John Bowden. Deemed fit to serve, she was rated a boy 3rd class and given the usual advance on her pay. Hazard left for sea not long after the new boy was taken aboard. No one seems to have questioned her sex, at least not right away.

Within six weeks something occurred, history is silent as to what, that gave Elizabeth's gender away. One wonders if her menarche wasn't the culprit but that is purely speculation. At any rate, rather than being turned ashore at the next port, Captain Charles Dilkes gave Elizabeth a separate sleeping space and made her an assistant to the officers' stewards. This would have kept her out of the general ship's population and put her more closely in contact with not only the stewards but the galley crew as well.

With all this, Elizabeth would probably have fallen through the cracks of history as did so many other women at sea. But a well publicized case of sodomy aboard HMS Hazard, and Elizabeth's insistence that she had witnessed at least one of the incidents in question, brought her briefly into the lime light.

In August of 1807, while the ship was underway, Lieutenant William Berry was accused of regular abuse of a boy named Thomas Gibbs. Berry was twenty-two at the time but Gibbs, a ship's boy second class, had to have been younger than fourteen as he was not charged at the court-martial. According to the trial records, Gibbs finally got fed up with Berry's actions and told the gunroom steward, John Hoskins, what was going on. From the young man's testimony it sounds as if there was physical as well as sexual abuse going on, although Hazard's surgeon would say that he could "find no marks on the boy" and that Gibbs had only "complained of being sore".

Hoskins took Gibbs to Captain Dilkes and had him repeat his story. Berry was questioned by the Captain who was evidently inclined to believe the boy. The Lieutenant was arrested and a court-martial was arranged in October, aboard HMS Salvador del Mundo, when Hazard reached Plymouth once again.

I won't go into the details of the trial, which was presided over by Admiral John Duckworth, as that is not the focus of this post. What is interesting is that Elizabeth Bowden, known to be a girl, felt comfortable enough to step up and offer her story in the case. Even more fascinating is that the Royal Navy court took her testimony, it seems without batting an eye.

Elizabeth claimed to have seen an exchange between Berry and Gibbs by peering through the keyhole of Berry's cabin. She was asked if she observed Gibbs entering Berry's cabin frequently and answered yes. When asked "...and what induced you to look through the keyhole?" Elizabeth replied, quite simply, that Gibbs in Berry's cabin seemed curious, and "...I thought I would see what he was about." The court recorded this testimony and noted that she was "Elizabeth alias John Bowden (a girl) borne on the Hazard's books as a Boy of the 3rd class."

Lieutenant Berry, who called in family and friends to vouch for his good character and even had a girl come along side ship and offer to marry him, was found guilty under the 29th Article of War and hanged from the starboard fore yardarm of Hazard on October 19th.

And that is all we know about fourteen-year-old Elizabeth "John" Bowden. Whether she continued on in navy service, like the intrepid William Brown, found a husband and settled down, or came to what would then have been called a bad end is impossible to say. Her brief story, however, gives us another example of the much debated acceptance of women at sea.


Undine said...

That's really the last we hear of Elizabeth?! Strange, that--she hardly seemed like the type to just disappear without a trace, eh?

But history is like that. This may be a bit OT, but it always bugs me when some obscure individual does or says one thing to enshrine themselves in the history books, and then they vanish from our view forever. I always find myself wondering whatever became of them.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! I agree, particularly in Elizabeth's case. She had the wherewithall to look after herself, and even to step up in a situation where she may have felt an injustice had been done (although some historians - interestingly usually the female ones - treat her as a busy-body) and then she just falls off the face of the Earth. It's hard not to wonder about her... and imagine.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And congratulations on having your blog listed on the Best History Sites:

Some well deserved recognition at last. Huzzah!

I have to agree with you and Undine that it is curious how people like Elizabeth just disappear from the historical records, but I will also say that at least our ancestors knew how to deal with child molestors, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee. Triple P is in stellar company over at BHS!

There is some debate among historians as to Berry's actual guilt. Some testimony at the court-martial called Gibbs a liar and a thief, while others - like Elizabeth herself - were adamant that they had seen (and heard) the indecencies.

Given that hangings for sodomy were actually quite rare in the Royal Navy, it has to make you wonder. Another of history's mysteries...

Daggar said...

Interesting story. There are two things going on here: Elizabeth's tale itself. The captain of the ship set her a position with aplomb, and the Admiralty later accepted her testimony. Both of these play into your pet theory that women aboard ship were not as rare as previously believed.

The other bizarre thing is that a case of sodomy was brought to trial. It's not like such things were terribly uncommon at the time. (According to Winston Churchill, it's one of the three cardinal traditions of the Royal Navy). On top of that, the Admiralty took the testimony of a commoner, and a female commoner no less, over the reputation of a landed gentlemen. The case must have been absolutely outrageous or the gentleman must have made some very powerful enemies.

Timmy! said...


Well, you know my feelings on the subject: "Kill 'em all. Let God sort 'em out."

But then that's just the kind of reactionary a-hole that I am...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! Although we have the testimony in the case, it is pretty cut and dry aside from the occasional impeachment of Gibbs' character. I have to agree with you that some other issue was at play.

Berry may have been disliked or down right despised a la Thomas Cochrane and put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gibbs, whose age is never stated, may have been quite young and therefor tagged as more vulnerable than usual. Then again, maybe Berry was just a scapegoat for other more powerful men in the service who had previously gotten away with the very crime he was accused of to the point where the Admiralty had to take action somewhere.

It's almost impossible to say now. Although I do think the court-martial would make a wonderful novella or one act play; open ended of course so that the reader/viewer was left to judge.

Undine said...

I've been reading online about this case, and it really is full of ambiguities. However, there was one thing about all the accounts I saw that I found striking--while there were efforts from Berry's friends and family to save him from "the ultimate penalty," no one, at least from what I read, (please correct me if I'm wrong here) tried to present him simply as the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. In fact, all these accounts describe him in the end as "penitent."

That, coupled with the fact that the Admiralty accepted the word of a fourteen year old girl and a young ship's boy against his, as well as the seemingly extreme sentence, makes me believe Berry must have been guilty of something very nasty.

Pauline said...

Undine, thank you for the follow up. I tend to side with Gibbs on this one because, once testimony got underway, a number of people came forward - people who might just have kept their mouths shut had there not been a court-martial - and said that the incidents were frequent enough to be noticed.

Then there is the fact that prosecution under the 29th Article of War rarely resulted in hanging. Being flogged around the fleet and excused the service was a far more common punishement, if "common" is an appropriate word for an unusual crime.

Thanks again; I think we may have another post here. This one focusing specificly on the Berry court-martial. Maybe I will write that novella after all...