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Chapter 90 Heads or Tails

  • “De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam.”
  • BRACTON, L. 3, C. 3.
  • Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with th_ontext, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of tha_and, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and th_ueen 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 thi_aw, under a modified form, is to this day in force in England; and as i_ffers in various respects a strange anomaly touching the general law o_ast—and Loose-Fish, it is here treated of in a separate chapter, on the sam_ourteous principle that prompts the English railways to be at the expense o_ separate car, specially reserved for the accommodation of royalty. In th_irst place, in curious proof of the fact that the above-mentioned law i_till in force, I proceed to lay before you a circumstance-that happene_ithin the last two years.
  • It seems that some honest mariners of Dover, or Sandwich, or some one of th_inque Ports, had after a hard chase succeeded in killing and beaching a fin_hale which they had originally descried afar off from the shore. Now th_inque Ports are partially or somehow under the jurisdiction of a sort o_oliceman or beadle, called a Lord Warden. Holding the office directly fro_he crown, I believe, all the royal emoluments incident to the Cinque Por_erritories become by assignment his. By some writers this office is called _inecure. But not so. Because the Lord Warden is busily employed at times i_obbing his perquisites; which are his chiefly by virtue of that same fobbin_f them.
  • Now when these poor sun-burnt mariners, bare-footed, and with their trowser_olled high up on their eely legs, had wearily hauled their fat fish high an_ry, promising themselves a good 150 pounds from the precious oil and bone;
  • and in fantasy sipping rare tea with their wives, and good ale with thei_ronies, upon the strength of their respective shares; up steps a very learne_nd most Christian and charitable gentleman, with a copy of Blackstone unde_is 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 th_oor mariners in their respectful consternation—so truly English— knowing no_hat to say, fall to vigorously scratching their heads all round; meanwhil_uefully glancing from the whale to the stranger. But that did in nowise men_he matter, or at all soften the hard heart of the learned gentleman with th_opy of Blackstone. At length one of them, after long scratching about for hi_deas, made bold to speak,
  • “Please, sir, who is the Lord Warden?”
  • “The Duke.”
  • “But the duke had nothing to do with taking this fish?”
  • “It is his.”
  • “We have been at great trouble, and peril, and some expense, and is all tha_o go to the Duke’s benefit; we getting nothing at all for our pains but ou_listers?”
  • “It is his.”
  • “Is the Duke so very poor as to be forced to this desperate mode of getting _ivelihood?”
  • “It is his.”
  • “I thought to relieve my old bed-ridden mother by part of my share of thi_hale.”
  • “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 Wellingto_eceived the money. Thinking that viewed in some particular lights, the cas_ight by a bare possibility in some small degree be deemed, under th_ircumstances, a rather hard one, an honest clergyman of the town respectfull_ddressed a note to his Grace, begging him to take the case of thos_nfortunate mariners into full consideration. To which my Lord Duke i_ubstance replied (both letters were published) that he had already done so,
  • and received the money, and would be obliged to the reverend gentleman if fo_he future he (the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling with othe_eople’s business. Is this the still militant old man, standing at the corner_f 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 th_hale was a delegated one from the Sovereign. We must needs inquire then o_hat principle the Sovereign is originally invested with that right. The la_tself 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 o_ts superior excellence.” And by the soundest commentators this has ever bee_eld 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-pin-money, an old King’s Benc_uthor, one William Prynne, thus discourseth: “Ye tail is ye Queen’s, that y_ueen’s wardrobe may be supplied with ye whalebone.” Now this was written at _ime when the black limber bone of the Greenland or Right whale was largel_sed in ladies’ bodices. But this same bone is not in the tail; it is in th_ead, which is a sad mistake for a sagacious lawyer like Prynne. But is th_ueen a mermaid, to be presented with a tail? An allegorical meaning may lur_ere.
  • There are two royal fish so styled by the English law writers— the whale an_he sturgeon; both royal property under certain limitations, and nominall_upplying the tenth branch of the crown’s ordinary revenue. I know not tha_ny other author has hinted of the matter; but by inference it seems to m_hat the sturgeon must be divided in the same way as the whale, the Kin_eceiving the highly dense and elastic head peculiar to that fish, which,
  • symbolically regarded, may possibly be humorously grounded upon some presume_ongeniality. And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law.