There were “persons of colour” in Regency Britain. They congregated around ports and were the lowest deckhands in the Royal Navy; they were manservants to young gentlemen or plantation owners living in Britain. There was also the occasional celebrity boxer. But most of all, they were sailors. Many had a very hard time; none more so than Dilly Jerome.
Dilly Jerome was a deck hand on a Royal Navy ship and was found naked with his throat cut on Southsea beach, near the Castle, on Wednesday 16th August 1815. He had a reputation of being generous to his comrades to the point of being a little vulnerable to exploitation. When the ship arrived at Portsmouth, Dilly, a man of Caribbean descent was robbed and murdered by three ship mates- Joseph , Antonio and Philip Pique- all Africans. All four men were “people of colour” The three Piques were described by the newspapers as African and Jerome as “not African”- he may well have been from the Caribbean. The Georgian Navy was very multi-racial and so this would not have been a surprise; and the papers, while horrified at the murders, did not seem to suggest that their ethnic origin was significant. It was a violent world everywhere, and everybody knew it.
The Piques were not brothers; indeed not related in any way. They were given their shared surname by the captain of their ship, the HMS Pique. This was rather indicative of the degree of respect the men received. The Ship itself had been captured from the French in 1800 and was originally called the Pallas, and like the seaman, had been given a name that suited the new owner- only one step above a slave name, arguably.
In August 1815 they were discharged from their ship and three days later they had spent all their money and with no prospect of employment, decided to rob Dilly Jerome and murder him if he resisted.
They confronted him on Southsea Common at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and proceeded to attack him in broad daylight. Philip Pique held his legs so he could be robbed, but when he resisted, Antonio cut his throat, and severed his head with a small clasp knife. Philip desposed in court that Dilly’s clothing hid the wound; but would not have hidden the blood that gushed out so badly that the three men had to bathe in the sea to wash it off. Philip was believed, and later turned evidence against the other two and was the only one that was not hanged; so it seemed that the head had not come off completely, as Philip might have noticed that.
In any case, Jerome was soon naked and pushed into a sluice near the Castle. There was a desultory attempt to cover the dead man with shingle from the beach. Finding nothing of value in his pockets, they sold his clothes to a slopman- a second-hand clothes dealer – at the Hard in Portsea for 14 shillings, which they shared between them. As the purchaser was Jewish, the papers did not hesitate to say so and make it part of the story. The fence/ clothes dealer was suspicious that the clothes were wet; and the fact that they might have tried to wash the blood off them was one of the first suspicions he had, which tells you a lot about life in Portsmouth at the time. The three managed to convince the intermediary that the clothes had become wet through falling into the sea when being transported.
Philip was found first because he did not seem to be hiding; this fact was to help him later. Antonio was picked up after a raid on Portsmouth public houses and was asleep at the Market House in a rich man’s coat that he had clearly stole. Joseph was also apprehended and they were all sent to Winchester gaol.
There were two other incidents in Portsmouth in the same week over demobilized sailors who were persons of colour and a panic set in; the magistrates in Gosport combed the streets and public houses to find former sailors who had no livelihood and oblige them to leave the country, chartering ships to do so.
In March 1816, Antonio and Joseph Pique were two of 19 prisoners sentenced to death at Winchester. Only three actually hanged; the two Piques and John Goddard, a child rapist. It was a ludicrous system where far more people were condemned than actually hanged. One third of those committed to hang were pardoned, giving significant power to the Crown to use or withhold a royal pardon. In 1817, for example, the total number of executions was 115, although 1,300 received the death sentence. It was a random and capricious system although it has to be said that the investigation into Jerome’s murder was taken as seriously and the murder of other, native, people.
The Piques died well and in the approved state of mind. This really mattered to public opinion. The two Piques were contrite at the end, despite being (rightly) portrayed as monsters earlier;
The Piques were ideal candidates for the anatomists. In theory, all murderer’s corpses could be used but their families moved heaven and earth to prevent it. The Piques, whatever their real names were, had no-one to speak for them.
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