Black History Collection
SLAVEHOLDER HANGED FOR CRUELTY TO SLAVE: Arthur William Hodge (1763–1811) was a plantation farmer, member of the Council and Legislative Assembly, and slave owner in the British Virgin Islands, who was hanged on 8 May 1811, for the murder of one of his slaves.
He was the first West Indian slave owner to be executed for the murder of a slave considered his property, and perhaps the only British West Indian slave owner, or British subject, to be executed for murdering his slave.
He was born in the British Virgin Islands, studied at Oriel College, Oxford and served in the British Army. His wife was a sister-in-law of the Marquess of Exeter. He was described as a man of great accomplishments and elegant manners. After his father's death, he returned to the British Virgin Islands to assume control of the family's plantation.
In 1811, Hodge was indicted for the murder of a single male slave, part of his estate, named Prosper. Restrictions on similar fact evidence were more casual in colonial courts. Trial reports suggest that Hodge was a sadistic and disturbed man. During the trial evidence was presented that Hodge caused the deaths of other slaves in his estate, including: Tom Boiler, Cuffy, Else, Jupiter, Margaret, and Simon Boiler.
Three male slaves: Jupiter, Tom Boiler and his brother Simon Boiler, were whipped to death. Slaves Margaret and Else died after boiling water was poured down their throats. Evidence was presented that Hodge was cruel to child slaves, including his own offspring: Bella, a small mulatto girl of about 8 years of age, who was his offspring by his slave, Peggy; and that he held the heads of several mulatto children, possibly more off springs, under water until they lost consciousness, then revived them, and repeated the process. Hodge previously had over 100 healthy negro slaves on his plantation, but when his wife died there were no longer enough slaves to dig a grave for her according to witness Daniel Ross.
Hodge had a reputation on Tortola for cruelty towards slaves.
The main evidence given at the trial relating to the death of Prosper was given by Perreen Georges, a free woman of color. She testified that:
"I was present when he [Prosper] was laid down and flogged for a mango which dropt [sic] off a tree, and which Mr Hodge said he should pay six shillings for; he had not the money and came to borrow it of me, I had no more than three shillings; he said to his master that he had no more money; his master said he would flog him if he did not bring it; he was laid down and held by four negroes, on his face and belly, and flogged with a cartwhip; he was under the last better than an hour; he then got up and was carried up to the hill; and his master said he should be flogged again if he did not bring the other three shillings; he was tied to a tree the next day; and the flogging was repeated; he was licked so long that his head fell back, and he could not bawl out any longer; I supposed he was faint; I then went from the window, as I could not bear to see any more of it."
The assaults took place on 2 October 1807 and the following day. On 15 October 1807, Prosper died of his wounds. Hodge was not indicted until 11 March 1811. He then fled from his estates and was arrested by warrant.
The evidence against Hodge was strong and credible, and Hodge's defense was not strong. The two strongest prosecution witnesses were Stephen McKeough, a white man who inspected the Hodge estate, and Perreen Georges. Hodge tried to discredit them by alleging that McKeough was a drunk, and Georges was a thief. Hodge did not try to impeach the reputation of the third prosecution witness, Daniel Ross, Justice of the Peace.
Hodge called his sister, Penelope, and a witness described as an "old black woman" to give testimony to his innocence, but reports suggest that their evidence was not regarded as credible.
As is customary in common law legal systems, the defendant was allowed to address the jury before they retired to consider their verdict, and Hodge said this:
"As bad as I have been represented, or as bad as you may think me, I assure you that I feel support in my afflictions from entertaining a proper sense of religion. As all men are subject to wrong, I cannot but say that the principle is likewise inherent in me. I acknowledge myself guilty in regard of many of my slaves, but I call God no witness to my innocence in respect to the murder of Prosper. I am sensible that the country thirsts for my blood, and I am ready to sacrifice it."
However, the jury were also charged with the words of Richard Hetherington, President of the Council of the Territory:
"...the law makes no distinction between master and servant. God created white and he created black creatures; and as God makes no distinction in administering justice, and to Him each is alike, you will not, nor can you alter your verdict, if murder has been proved - whether on white persons or on black persons, the crime is equally the same with God and the law."
On 30 April 1811, the jury retired to consider their verdict at about half past six in the morning. By eight o'clock, they returned with a guilty verdict. A majority of the jurors recommended mercy for Hodge. Such recommendations were not binding, and the presiding judge, Chief Justice Robertson, pronounced that Hodge should be "hanged by the neck on Wednesday the 8 May following, until he was dead, on a spot near unto the common prison."
At the time of Hodge's trial, slavery was still legal, but the trade in African slaves had been abolished by the Slave Trade Act 1807. Enslaved Africans were not formally freed till the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
While some slave owners proscribed rules of conduct for the disciplining slaves to remove fear of arbitrary or excessive punishments, these rules were not binding in law. During his unsuccessful bail application, Hodge's counsel argued that "A Negro being property, it was no greater offense for his master to kill him than it would be to kill his dog," but the court did not accept the submission. Indeed, the point was dismissed without any serious discussion.
Part of the answer is that the boundaries of the legality of slavery were little explored under the common law, and it does not seem implausible that slavery could be permitted under the common law on the one hand, but for it to constitute a crime to kill a slave on the other. Most cases dealing with the status of slaves are well documented and well considered (see generally, slavery at common law). Hodge did not have an opportunity to appeal his conviction in the eight days before execution.
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