A Black Ship's Cook
The Case of John Palmer, 1876
Note: John Palmer, a black ship's cook who was sentenced to 20 years' penal servitude for buggery aboard ship in 1876. A photograph of him taken in Pentonville Prison on 25 April 1877 is perhaps the earliest photograph of a black man known to have been homosexual.
15 November 1876
SOUTHAMPTON POLICE COURT.
A SERIOUS CHARGE. John Palmer, a man of colour, was charged with an unnatural offence on the high seas, and was remanded till Friday. (Hampshire Advertiser)
18 November 1876
SERIOUS CHARGE. John Palmer, a coloured man, was charged on remand with committing an unnatural offence on board ship. The Mayor explained that a communication had been received from the Secretary of State necessitating a further remand, and, Mr. Leigh acquiescing on prisoner's behalf, he was put back until Wednesday. (Hampshire Advertiser)
25 November 1876
WINTER ASSIZES, 1876.
. . . NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN, that the WINTER ASSIZES for the WINTER ASSIZE COUNTY No. 9 will be OPENED at the CASTLE OF WINCHESTER, on FRIDAY, the 1st day of December next. . . . the undermentioned Prisoners will be removed from the Boroughs of Portsmouth and Southampton for trial at such Assizes at the Castle of Winchester. . . .
BOROUGH OF SOUTHAMPTON.
. . . John Palmer Sodomy. . . . (Hampshire Adve0rtiser)
9 December 1876
HAMPSHIRE, WILTS, AND DORSET ASSIZES.
A BLACK PRISONER.
John Palmer, a negro, and ship's cook, was indicted for the commission of a series of abominable offences on board a British vessel at Monte Video, in June, July, and September last. Mr. Beetham prosecuted, and the prisoner's excuse for his trouble was "drink," and the "hatredness" of the mate. He was found guilty, and sentenced to twenty years' penal servitude, the Judge saying it was one of the most abominable offences that could be committed. (Hampshire Advertiser)
9 December 1876
THE HANTS, WILTS, AND DORSET ASSIZES.
John Palmer, unnatural offence on the high seas within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England Twenty years' penal servitude. (Salisbury and Winchester Journal)
A Calendar of the Prisoners Tried at the Winter Gaol Delivery for the Year 1876, Winchester (HO140, pc. no. 34), gives Palmer's occupation as Ship's Cook, and his age as 48, birth date 1828. The first 'victim'/partner was Frederick Bates, the second was William Lewis. Palmer was said to be able to read (but not write). He was taken into custody on 14 November, and committed to Southampton Borough Gaol on 22 November. He was tried on 6 December 1876, on the charge of "Feloniously carnally knowing one Frederick Bates, on the high seas and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England, on the 10th June, 1876. Further charge. Feloniously carnally knowing one William Lewis, on the high seas and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England, on the 23rd June 1876. Further charge. Feloniously assaulting, with intent to carnally know, one William Lewis, on the high seas and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England, on the 30th June, 1876. Further charge. Feloniously knowing one Frederick Bates, on the high seas and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England, on the 21st July, 1876. Further charge. Feloniously carnally knowing one William Lewis, in the Harbour of Monte Video and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England, on the 24th September, 1876." He was found Guilty of the offence on the first indictment, but was not tried on the other indictments. The fact that he had sex with the men over a period of four months suggests that their relations were consensual, though the fact that the other men were not charged suggests that they were young teenagers.
Palmer was sentenced to 20 years' penal servitude.
The Return of all Persons Committed, or Bailed to appear for Trial, or Indicted at the Assizes, County of Southampton, on the 1st day of December 1876, notes his conviction for "Bgy [i.e. Buggery] on board a British Vessel". He was sent from Winchester Prison to Pentonville Prison on 16 January 1877. He was transferred to Brixton Prison on 12 September 1877. (Register of Prisoners, Pentonville Prison, PCOM2/77.) The photograph of Palmer was taken in Pentonville Prison on 25 April 1877. It is perhaps the earliest photograph of a black man known to have been homosexual.
SOURCE: Newspapers and legal records, as specified.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: I am grateful to the military historian John Ellis for assistance with the source documents.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "A Black Ship's Cook, 1876",
Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 8 June 2020