University of Virginia Library

Search this document 




“De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam.”

Bravton, l. 3, c. 3.

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken
along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by
anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary
Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be
respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the
whale, is much like halving an apple; there is no intermediate
remainder. Now as this law, under a modified form, is to this
day in force in England; and as it offers in various respects a
strange anomaly touching the general law of Fast and Loose-Fish,
it is here treated of in a separate chapter, on the same
courteous principle that prompts the English railways to be at
the expense of a separate car, specially reserved for the accommodation
of royalty. In the first place, in curious proof of the


Page 445
fact that the above-mentioned law is still in force, I proceed to
lay before you a circumstance that happened within the last
two years.

It seems that some honest mariners of Dover, or Sandwich, or
some one of the Cinque Ports, had after a hard chase succeeded
in killing and beaching a fine whale which they had originally
descried afar off from the shore. Now the Cinque Ports are partially
or somehow under the jurisdiction of a sort of policeman or beadle,
called a Lord Warden. Holding the office directly from the
crown, I believe, all the royal emoluments incident to the Cinque
Port territories become by assignment his. By some writers
this office is called a sinecure. But not so. Because the Lord
Warden is busily employed at times in fobbing his perquisites;
which are his chiefly by virtue of that same fobbing of them.

Now when these poor sun-burnt mariners, bare-footed, and
with their trowsers rolled high up on their eely legs, had wearily
hauled their fat fish high and dry, promising themselves a
good £150 from the precious oil and bone, and in fantasy
sipping rare tea with their wives, and good ale with their
cronies, upon the strength of their respective shares; up steps a
very learned and most Christian and charitable gentleman, with
a copy of Blackstone under his arm; and laying it upon the
whale's head, he says—“Hands off! this fish, my masters, is a
Fast-Fish. I seize it as the Lord Warden's.” Upon this the
poor mariners in their respectful consternation—so truly English
—knowing not what to say, fall to vigorously scratching their
heads all round; meanwhile ruefully glancing from the whale
to the stranger. But that did in nowise mend the matter, or at
all soften the hard heart of the learned gentleman with the
copy of Blackstone. At length one of them, after long scratching
about for his ideas, made bold to speak.

“Please, sir, who is the Lord Warden?”

“The Duke.”

“But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?”


Page 446

“It is his.”

“We have been at great trouble, and peril, and some
expense, and is all that to go to the Duke's benefit; we getting
nothing at all for our pains but our blisters?”

“It is his.”

“Is the Duke so very poor as to be forced to this desperate
mode of getting a livelihood?”

“It is his.”

“I thought to relieve my old bed-ridden mother by part of
my share of this whale.”

“It is his.”

“Won't the Duke be content with a quarter or a half?”

“It is his.”

In a word, the whale was seized and sold, and his Grace the
Duke of Wellington received the money. Thinking that viewed
in some particular lights, the case might by a bare possibility in
some small degree be deemed, under the circumstances, a rather
hard one, an honest clergyman of the town respectfully addressed
a note to his Grace, begging him to take the case of
those unfortunate mariners into full consideration. To which my
Lord Duke in substance replied (both letters were published)
that he had already done so, and received the money, and
would be obliged to the reverend gentleman if for the future he
(the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling with other
people's business. Is this the still militant old man, standing
at the corners of the three kingdoms, on all hands coercing alms
of beggars?

It will readily be seen that in this case the alleged right of
the Duke to the whale was a delegated one from the Sovereign.
We must needs inquire then on what principle the Sovereign is
originally invested with that right. The law itself has already
been set forth. But Plowdon gives us the reason for it. Says
Plowdon, the whale so caught belongs to the King and
Queen, “because of its superior excellence.” And by the


Page 447
soundest commentators this has ever been held a cogent argument
in such matters.

But why should the King have the head, and the Queen the
tail? A reason for that, ye lawyers!

In his treatise on “Queen-Gold,” or Queen-pinmoney, an old
King's Bench author, one William Prynne, thus discourseth:
“Ye tail is ye Queen's, that ye Queen's warbrobe may be supplied
with ye whalebone.” Now this was written at a time
when the black limber bone of the Greenland or Right whale
was largely used in ladies' bodices. But this same bone is not
in the tail; it is in the head, which is a sad mistake for a sagacious
lawyer like Prynne. But is the Queen a mermaid, to be
presented with a tail? An allegorical meaning may lurk here.

There are two royal fish so styled by the English law
writers—the whale and the sturgeon; both royal property under
certain limitations, and nominally supplying the tenth branch
of the crown's ordinary revenue. I know not that any other
author has hinted of the matter; but by inference it seems to
me that the sturgeon must be divided in the same way as the
whale, the King receiving the highly dense and elastic head
peculiar to that fish, which, symbolically regarded, may possibly
be humorously grounded upon some presumed congeniality.
And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law.