Murder in the Dockyard

November 5, 2018

In the old naval dockyard at English Harbour, Antigua there used to be an anchor that was known locally as “Peterson’s Anchor”. It was reputed to mark the spot where Lieutenant Lord Camelford shot Lieutenant Peterson dead in 1798. Local legend tells that the two officers fell out because they were rivals for the love of the same woman. Both men were in their early twenties, living in the sultry tropics, so perhaps there may be some truth in the story. What is certain is that the two officers were not on speaking terms at the time, and that fact was to have fatal consequences for Peterson.

 

In January 1798 there were only two ships in harbour. The first was the small sloop Favourite, which was commanded by Lieutenant Lord Camelford. The other ship was the much larger Perdrix. She was commanded by Captain Fahie, who was away at the time, and had left his first lieutenant, Charles Peterson in command. Both lieutenants studiously ignored each other and went about their duty. All might have been well, if one of the forts defending English Harbour had not signalled that two enemy ships were approaching the island. Action needed to be taken, but which of the two men was in charge?

 

Lieutenant Peterson considered that he was senior, because he had been promoted to lieutenant a full two years earlier than Lord Camelford. On the other hand Camelford considered that he was the more senior, because he was the commander of a warship, while Peterson was merely a first lieutenant. In normal circumstances the two men could have met and amicably sorted out the command structure between them, but thanks to their rift, this did not happen.

 

Confident in his position, Camelford sent a message to Peterson, telling him to hold his men in readiness, while he went ashore to arrange concerted action between the naval ships and the military garrison of the island. Peterson replied that he “was surprised at Lieutenant Camelford having the presumption to send him orders.” A further written order was sent by Camelford, this time signed as "Senior Officer of HM Ships and Vessels lying in English Harbour, Antigua," instructing Peterson to send a guard boat to patrol the harbour entrance. Back came an order from Peterson to Camelford, requiring him to supply the guard boat, and signed  “Lieutenant Charles Peterson, Senior Officer of HM Ships and Vessels for the time being in English Harbour." Things began to escalate.

 

The next move in the dispute was made by Lord Camelford, who sent an order to the Sailing Master of Peterson’s ship, telling him to have Peterson arrested, and to take command himself. The officer concerned wisely kept his head down, but Peterson responded by arming his crew. He was ready to do battle, but whether with the enemy ships in the offing, or his fellow lieutenant was unclear.

 

It was now evening, and Camelford decided to push matters further. He sent a junior officer called Milward with a file of marines to take Peterson “dead or alive.” Peterson was ashore at the time, dining with his officers. He had taken the precaution of placing two armed sailors with fixed bayonets at the mess door, and they prevented the marines from entering. After some discussion, Milward was allowed in, whereupon he attempted to carry out his orders. A confused brawl followed, with Peterson making a pass at the arresting officer with his sword. The two were separated, and both withdrew to collect reinforcements. Peterson summoned up his crew, while Milward sent word to Lord Camelford, who arrived shortly afterwards with an armed party from his ship.

 

By this time it was dark, and on the dimly lit wharf the two groups of armed men faced each other. Peterson stood at the head of forty of his men, all armed with muskets. He himself still had the sword he had attacked Milward with. Camelford, had a smaller number of his crew present and was armed with a pistol. It was Peterson that made the first move. He ordered his men to load with ball and cartridge, and fix bayonets. Expecting the next order to be to fire, Camelford stepped forwards and called out to ask where Peterson was. ‘I am here, damned sir!’ came the reply. Camelford then asked if he persisted in disobeying his lawful commands, and when Peterson answered ‘I do, sir,’ he shot him at close range through the heart. After this, his men dispersed quietly.

 

No attack was made by the enemy on Antigua, which was fortunate, given the state of chaos existing on board the two Royal Navy ships. In a private report compiled by Captain Mitford of the Matilda, who investigated the affair, he reported that "the whole has arisen from a vast deal of bad blood long existing between the parties.'' Lord Camelford was cleared by a Courts Marshal, which agreed that his actions had been justified. It also noted that the regulations were unclear as to whether the appointment of a lieutenant "to command gave him seniority over other lieutenants.” The Admiralty promptly changed this, ruling that seniority amongst lieutenants should solely be determined by length of service, and this has remained in place right down to today. So, in a way, Lieutenant Peterson was right all along.   

 

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