Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Cabin Boys and the Sodomite Master

Mr. Sowle was not the
cabin boys' favorite
Sure, we know the jokes about the function of cabin boys on nineteenth-century ships. Their official function was to wait on the officers of the ship, but it’s clear from eighteenth-century and nineteetn-century records that some cabin boys were expected to provide sexual favors, willing or no. All in all, I’d rather look at documents that hint at early gay love, but this is one case where the situation is a clear case of a young men being raped. Jonathan Ned Katz does mention this case in his book Love Stories; Sex Between Men before Homosexuality, but he makes it clear this is not a love story.

The law cases of Manuel Enos vs. N. W. Sowle and Manuel Viera vs. N. W. Sowle came up as a question of admiralty law in the Hawaii Supreme Court, with the decision published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser of December 20, 1860. At this time, Hawaii was nearly a century away from becoming the fiftieth state; it wasn’t even part of the United States at that point, since it hadn’t even been annexed by the U.S. This is a case of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and the main issue that had to be decided by the Hawaii Supreme Court was whether the court had any jurisdiction.

Nathaniel W. Sowle was the master of a whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. His cabin boys, both called Manuel (though Mr. Enos gets the parenthetical name of Ignacio), were both from the Azores. Neither the plaintiffs (in the language of the decision, the “libellants”) nor the defendant (Mr. Sowle) were subjects of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The United States Counsel argued that as Mr. Sowle was an American citizen and that the if they alleged acts occurred, they occurred on an American ship, then the proper place for the case to be heard was in a court in the jurisdiction of the United States.

The decision is long and filled with issues that don’t have a lot of relevance to my blog (I have no plans whatsoever to start blogging about celebrated cases of questions of jurisdiction). The report in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser can be found on the Chronicling America web site, but it’s much easier to read in the Hawaii Reports for 1860.

The court summed up the background of the case:
The libel allies that libellant is a native of the Western Isles; that, being at New Bedford, in America, in November 1857, he shipped as cabin boy on board of the “Montreal,” Nathaniel W. Sowle, master; that, soon after sailing, Sowle attempted to commit sodomy upon him, which he resisted; that subsequently, upon the arrival of the ship on the coast of California, he ran away from her; that, being at Lahaina, Island of Maui, the said Sowle caused him to be brought back on board the said ship, in which he sailed again on a cruise to the North, during which the said Sowle succeeded, by threats and his physical powers, in committed the crime of sodomy; that, again on arriving in Honolulu from that cruise, libellant again deserted from the “Montreal,” and escaped on board of the “Dromo,” in which he sailed to Nangasaki, in Japan, where he was again retaken by Sowle and forcibly carried back on board the “Montreal,” and went North for another cruise, during which he was again compelled by Sowle to submit to his unnatural embraces and desires.
The court looked at the various facts of the case, and other pertinent cases, and concluded:

Is there a necessity in this case to exercise jurisdiction to prevent a failure of justice? It is not contended that the powers of the Consul are adequate for redress. Then the only remedy is to appeal to the home form, or to the Courts of this country. If we decline jurisdiction; the only remedy is to follow the vessel to its destination, which is a distant country—after crushing we know not how long, or in what seas—and poor and defenseless the youth arrives at the home port of the vessel and seeks redress in the court, with what probable success would he seek for his witnesses?


The Montreal left New Bedford in 1857; it would not return until 1862. While the United States Consul claimed that both Sowle and Enos were citizens of the United States, the court noted that Enos
swears that he was born at St. George, one of the Western Islands or Azores, under the dominion of the Kingdom of Portugal, of Portuguese parents residing on said island ; that he has never been in the United States except of the space of five months, and is not a citizen of the United States.


Given the difficulties that many would put in the paths of immigrants who wish to become citizens today, the position of the United States in 1860 is surprising:
It is said further that all foreigners who enlist for service on American ships become American citizens.

That’s quick and easy. Sign up, step on board, and you’re an American. No word on what happens if after that you sign up for a ship under a different flag. The Hawaiian court didn’t buy it:
But if the construction of the United States Consul obtains, Hawaiians who ship on a French vessel become subjects of France, and therefore the provisions of the treaty which contemplates that there may be French subjects and Hawaiian subjects in the service of the same vessel, is an impossibility, for on an American vessel everybody is American. I this is the construction given by American law to the act of shipment, of which we refrain from giving an opinion, this high prerogative of citizenship is not given by the laws of France or by the laws of this Kingdom, by the mere act of shipment on their vessels, and therefore the treaty must be construed according to its terms.
The court pointed out that the United States didn’t hold to this when their own citizens were employed on foreign ships, as the U. S. courts had concluded that a native of Boston could sue his British employers in the U. S. courts, and was not obligated (as the British Consul claimed) to file the suit in the British courts.

I have not been able to find any outside details about the cabin boys, though the court describes Mr. Enos as “a youth of tender years and fragile frame.” They rejected the defendant’s claim that the whole thing was “a plot or conspiracy gotten up for the purpose of ruining the defendant.” Mr. Enos was awarded $2,500 and court costs. The case was decided on December 11, 1860.

Immediately thereafter, the Hawaiian court had another case, also involving one of Nathaniel W. Sowle’s cabin boys, this time Manuel Vieira, also a native the Azores. He became a cabin boy on the Montreal in November 1859 in Honolulu. The ship set to whaling and
>that during such cruise the respondent, by force and threats, succeeded in treating the libellant in an unnatural manner, repeatedly committing upon him the act of sodomy, and compelling him to submit to other unnatural indulgences, which caused him much pain and suffering.

Again, the United States Consul had protested that the case should be heard in the American courts. No dice. Manuel Vieira was, however, judged to be
>Of somewhat more mature age, and of stronger frame, however, than Manuel Enos, he had probably endured far less actual pain and suffering; nor has he, like him, been subjected to years of persecution.

Mr. Vieira received only $1,500 and the costs of the suit.

Although I did not find any information about the cabin boys, the ship’s master was easy to find. Nathaniel W. Sowle was born on 14 April 1815, so when this occurred, he was forty-five years old. At home in New Bedford were his wife, Mary Ann (ten years older) and their daughter Marianna (born in 1845). He did return to New Bedford, but after that, he was in San Francisco, working as a carpenter, though he returned to New England, dying in Rhode Island at the age of sixty, less than fifteen years after his trials in Honolulu.

Did his (deserved) infamy lead to his separation from his wife? The sources are silent on that one. What happened to the boys he raped? There too, only silence.
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