Currently I am reading a wonderful book, Under Enemy Colors, by S. Thomas Russell. A novel about a British maritime mutiny set against a backdrop of the French Revolution. I won't give away any of the story, but the principal character, who is a person of honor, has his honor questioned, and must attend a court martial of his captain that threatens ruin. I looked into the court martial, and find the following:
In the 18th Century, naval officers of the British Royal Navy, kept order on their ships by use of the Articles of War, established in the 1650's, amended in 1749 by an act of Parliament, and again in 1757. There are 35 Articles that govern behavior, and establish discipline, rules of conduct and the penalties for trespassing them. They are extremely serious, almost a holy writ, and so, many a Sunday, what was read out to the crew instead of a religious sermon, were the dreaded Articles.
These Articles served as the law aboard His Majesty's ships, and offences were dealt with swiftly, especially for the ordinary seaman, including floggings, clapping men in irons and sending them below decks to a small "prison", shootings or hangings on deck. But where the behavior of officers came into questions, they were given the benefit of a trial, or court martial. There were court martials, or military tribunals, for ships destroyed, loss of command by mutineers, refusing to fight when duty called, refusing to take a prize (boarding an enemy ship and taking control), for instance.
The court martial is the name of the institution, but also the process, with a court of naval officers appointed by a commander to try offences under military law. Here's a case for you: the 1757 court-martial of Admiral Byng. Sent on the relief of Minorca without what he claimed were sufficient forces, he finally gave up the attempt. Found guilty of neglect of duty, he was taken to his ship and publicly and promptly executed (by shooting) on the quarterdeck of his own ship in Portsmouth Harbor. Following that event, probably few English captains felt it proper to give up a ship without the death of much of the crew!
Here also are a couple of the Articles, that give indication of how serious things could get:
- Every person in the fleet, who shall not duly observe the orders of the admiral, flag officer, commander of any squadron or division, or other his superior officer, for assailing, joining battle with, or making defense against any fleet, squadron, or ship, or shall not obey the orders of his superior officer as aforesaid in the time of action, to the best of his power, or shall not use all possible endeavours to put the same effectually into execution, every person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of the court martial, shall suffer death, or such other punishment, as from the nature and degree of the offence a court martial shall deem him to deserve.
- Every person in the fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep back, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty's ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death.
- Every person in the fleet, who though cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall forbear to pursue the chase of any enemy, pirate or rebel, beaten or flying; or shall not relieve or assist a known friend in view to the utmost of his power; being convicted of any such offense by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death.