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Stowaways on British Ships - 1895

In future, stowaways discovered on board British ships will be more adequately punished when taken before a magistrate than hitherto. It has been found that, just as there are vagrants on land, so they abound on the sea.

Under section two hundred and fifty-eight of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, it was provided that if a person secreted himself and went to sea in a ship without consent, he was liable to a penalty not exceeding twenty pounds, or to imprisonment, without or with hard labor, for any period not exceeding four weeks.

This short term of incarceration, however, seemed to have no deterrent effect. If the matter is considered for one moment, it will readily be seen that light sentences for such an offence only tended to fit prisoners for another voyage under similar conditions.

Arriving in port after a long and probably stormy trip, the professional stowaway would hardly care to ship himself off again at once. His previous mode of obtaining a livelihood would unfit him for getting one so easily on shore; so Her Majesty's prison for a week or two was a perfect Eldorado to such a being. It prepared him to follow his peculiar calling with renewed vigor.

This is no fanciful picture, as shipowners have found to their cost. For years, complaints were continually being lodged by shipowners before the authorities in London, Southampton, Liverpool, and Greenock, respecting the lenient way in which persons who had defrauded them of their passage-money were dealt with by law.

Many of the rogues were allowed to go free, in order to avoid the expense of a prosecution which resulted in so little. Not only did the shipowners have to pay the costs of the prosecution, but witnesses had to be brought from the ship at considerable trouble and expense. Even then, the magistrate was often not satisfied with the evidence as to 'secretion,' in which case the prisoner invariably got discharged from custody.

Now, however, matters are somewhat improved in this respect. By section three hundred and thirteen of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, the powers of magistrates are extended, and, as one stowaway has already found to be the case, can be sentenced to three months' hard labor. In this instance the prosecution was undertaken by the Castle Line, running steamships between London and the Cape.

They have suffered a good deal at the hands of the free travelling fraternity for a long time past. Indeed, only a few months ago, a stowaway who managed to escape the punishment he so well merited, on a technical point, had the audacity, two days after his dismissal, to apply to the same magistrate in London for a summons against the owners of the vessel, whom he had defrauded to the extent of sixteen guineas, plus the costs of the prosecution, for detaining a box of tools belonging to him. The applicant was referred to the County Court.

An excellent illustration is on record, showing what a number of voyages can be made by one stowaway within a comparatively short space of time. The individual in question began at Glasgow and concealed himself on a boat about to start for Liverpool.

Upon reaching that place, he shipped himself on a liner bound for Boston, Massachusetts. This vessel had to bring him back again, by direction of the United States officials.

The cause of this will be explained later on. Again, an Atlantic liner was patronized; but he was discovered at Queenstown. Some of the passengers, pitying his wretched appearance when brought on deck, subscribed sufficient money to pay the culprit's passage to New York. Two or three more times he managed to reach Liverpool, subsequently having his fare paid, before again reaching American ports.

This game, however, got played out, and he set out for the Far West, travelling as usual free of expense. Arriving at San Francisco, he stowed himself away on a ship loading for Melbourne. Thence he got to Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong-Kong, Singapore, Calcutta, Bombay, Port Said, and Malta. At each place he landed and travelled by another vessel.

At Malta, this enterprising stowaway actually concealed himself on board a British warship—H.M.S. Serapis. At Port Said he was conveyed ashore and given into the hands of the British Consul with instructions to send him to England.

This was done; and in due course the prisoner was brought up at a London police court, where, being remanded, all the foregoing facts were elicited. Were the incidents not so well authenticated, it would be very difficult to credit such a story.

In addition to being a nuisance and expense, stowaways incur great danger of a violent death, In one instance a man hid himself away in a chain locker, and when the anchor was hove-up, the unfortunate creature was crushed to death, the noise made by the steam winch and the 'rattling of the chain drowning his cries.

Upon another occasion, a man was found dead under the main hatch of one of the National Line of steamers. He had concealed himself before the vessel left Liverpool and died of suffocation.

Curiously enough, in his pocket was found a novel entitled Doomed on the Deep. In a third case, a man hid himself in the forepart of a steamer bound for London. While proceeding up the river Thames, she collided with another steamer, and the stowaway was crushed to death.

With regard to vessels in the American trade, the hardships that have to be borne by captains having the misfortune to be patronized by stowaways are very great.

Should one succeed in landing, upon arriving at any of the United States ports, the captain is liable to a fine of one thousand dollars. When a stowaway is found, the authorities have to be informed of the fact directly port is reached.

He is then taken ashore and maintained at the vessel's expense until she is ready to return, when he is conveyed on board again, and has to be taken whence lie came.

The singular number is used in the foregoing, but that is usually exceeded. In August 1891, forty-five stowaways were discovered on board the steamer Hirjhington, when on a voyage from Liverpool to Galveston.

Fortunately, this was done in time to enable part being landed in the Mersey, and the remainder at Waterford—for they were found in two batches. Last November, several sets, varying from five to sixteen in number, were returned from America in the manner already described.

Stowaways are very common in the East, and many as well as curious dodges are resorted to by natives—well able to pay the passage money—in order to obtain a trip for nothing.

Thus, in June last, six Japanese girls packed up in matting were removed from the Japan mail steamer before leaving Nagasaki for Shanghai. In April of the same year, nine Japanese men and one woman stowed themselves away on a vessel sailing from Yokohama to San Francisco, and of course had to be taken back again.

Eight Chinamen concealed themselves on a steamer trading between Penang and Rangoon. When found, the captain had them all well flogged; and upon reaching port, each one received from the magistrate a month's 'rigorous' imprisonment.

The days of the stowaway—so far as this country is concerned—are numbered. Three months' hard labor is too long a spell of industry for such folk. Gradually they will become extinct, and the sooner this comes to pass the better.

“Stowaways,” in the Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Fifth Series, W. & R. Chambers, Limited: London, No. 605, Vol. XII, Saturday, 3 August 1895:489-90

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