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The Heywood Diaries Part 1: A Naval Duel, 1807

Posted by Paul Martinovich , on March 7th, 2022


This post is Part 1 of a three-part series of posts from the brilliant Peter Heywood Diaries, held in the collection of McGill University Library, in Montreal, Canada.

During the Napoleonic Wars the captain of one of his Majesty’s ships would often have to deal with unexpected situations, and use his initiative to come up with solutions, all the while knowing his superiors at the Admiralty would hold him to account for any errors or missteps. Peter Heywood (1772-1831) has given us some examples of these challenges in his private journal, now held in the collection of McGill University Library, in Montreal, Canada.

Heywood joined the navy aged fifteen, serving on the Bounty under William Bligh during the notorious voyage that led to mutiny and Bligh being forced out of his ship into an open boat, in the middle of the Pacific. Heywood sided with the mutineers and was later captured in Tahiti, tried and sentenced to death for his role in the Bounty mutiny in 1789 but  received a full pardon from the King and went on to have a successful career in the Navy, specialising in marine surveying. The journal covers the period from 1806 to 1810 when he commanded three warships in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and includes both routine information about the operations of the ship, and wider-ranging accounts of Heywood’s activities and interests.

Duelling was an activity that reinforced the 18th-century cult of the gentleman. Any man who believed his honour had been called into question reserved the right to challenge his accuser to meet him in a test of courage. Following a carefully-defined ritual (there were books setting out the proper procedure for a duel), the two men would meet at some appointed place, and under the guidance of seconds, cross swords or exchange shots until honour was satisfied. Duelling was fairly common, though fatalities were much rarer: in the year of the events recounted below (1807) 154 duels were said to have been fought in England, of which 11 proved fatal. During the Napoleonic Wars, the practice existed in a kind of legal grey area: it was illegal to issue a challenge or to fight a duel, but prosecutions were seldom brought against participants. If one of the combatants died, his opponent could be tried for murder. However in such cases if the appropriate protocols had been followed, judges and juries were reluctant to convict, and the surviving duellist often went free.

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