THE more he heard, the more his heart sank, sickened by the relentless brutality a young black American endured on a British-registered ship.

Standing in front of Mr Justice Hawkins was bewildered Robert Fisher, thousands of miles away from home and facing the death penalty.

Some reports put him as 17, others said he was as little as 15, and how he came to work on the Voyageur, a three masted schooner, is unknown. Slavery had long been abolished and one can only surmise he had come aboard on his own volition, but there he was subjected to the tyrannical regime of the first mate and captain.

Eventually, his patience snapped.

In the middle of the night in mid-ocean, the teenager was ordered aloft to grease a mast. When he was eventually allowed down, he left the pot on the dock and it overturned, another excuse for the mate James Macauley to vent his anger.

No one saw the fatal incident. The mate was found lying on his back after being knifed in the heart. Within minutes he breathed his last and Fisher was clapped in irons, deep marks on his back illustrating he had been injured in a struggle.

At his Hampshire Assizes trial in 1882, the prosecutor was highly sympathetic.

"There was considerable violence from the man who took hold of his neck," Mr Warry told jurors in his opening address. "If you are of the opinion that he wilfully intended to murder the mate, you must find him guilty."

But then he significantly added: "If you can see your way to any other conclusion, no one will be more glad than myself whose job is to probe a crime of this character to the very bottom."

Fisher was making his first trip on a boat and the Voyageur was laden with flour to be unloaded in the north east state of Pernambuco in Brazil.

It was December 20, 1881, and the abused youth was ordered up the mizen mast at midnight, a practise unknown to seasoned sailor Antoine Hellgren.

"It is usual to scrape the masts in the day time," the Finn told jurors. "Night would be an unusual time to send a boy up. He would not have gone up in such a manner without orders. He was new to the work and did not understand it."

Hellgren was asked by defence counsel Mr Coleridge: "Was he brutally beaten in consequence?"

He replied: "Both by the captain and the mate. I had seen the mate strike him four times with his hands but never with a rope's end or a belaying pin."

That night he had only just returned to duty when he heard "a moaning or crying" and found Macauley lying on the deck bleeding. Nearby lay a bloodstained knife. Macauley died four minutes later and his body was committed to the deep.

Fisher was clapped in irons and taken ashore to be questioned by the consul before being transferred to the West India Company's Neva which arrived in Southampton Docks in company with two witnesses, the knife and relevant papers.

The following morning, January 30, 1882, in a state of distress, he appeared before the local magistrates who told him it was impossible to proceed with his case until they had received instructions from London.

After he had been granted a week's bail on the unusual condition he remained at the seamen's hostel, the court clerk informed Fisher he would contact the American consul in Southampton as to the appropriate steps that could be taken in his defence, but owing to his illness and difficulty in acquiring a suitable interpreter for foreign witnesses, he did not return until February 23 when the magistrates were told of the mate's bullying attitude and the ship's cook had to step between the pair the morning before the fatal drama.

Joseph James told him: "You're always striking the boy and if you do it again, you will have me to lick."

Following the production of the dead man's bloodied clothing, Fisher was committed to stand trial on a charge of wilful murder, eventually appearing before Mr Justice Hawkins on May 19 when his constant ill-treatment formed the basis of his defence.

"This boy's life was a succession of unmerited insults and he was made the victim of intolerable outrage and cruelty," said Mr Coleridge. "The result was that he was goaded nearly to frenzy, and although that does not justify the use of a knife, yet it will account for the hatred which he had of those on board the vessel.

"No one knows what foul insult he was subject to that night but what we do know that at midnight when the ship was in mid ocean, he was sent to grease the mast, a work which all the men admitted they had never been asked to at such an hour.

"I suggest the defendant had a fair right on this night to assume he was to be made the subject of greater violence than an ordinary beating. He was in such a situation that the act was justifiable, he only acted in self defence."

In his summing up, the judge said Fisher was little more than "an inexperienced child" and condemned the severity of the punishment which could only arouse the utmost indignation. There was, he maintained, no justification for sending him up the mast at such an hour.

"But there is no doubt the wound was inflicted by him, and you have to decide whether this amounted to murder or manslaughter, or was there such justification as will entitle him to his dismissal."

Jurors retired for only a minute and in finding him guilty of manslaughter, they recommended him to mercy because of his suffering.

"Do i understand you to mean that in your opinion he has been ill-treated all along or only on that night?" the judge asked.

"All along," the foreman firmly replied.

Passing sentence, the judge said he had listened to the case with "a sickened heart" that his shipmates had not treated him as well as they should have done.

"I hope the details of this case will be brought before those who have the power to express an opinion and to act with propriety and justice towards those persons who are guilty of the brutality practised upon him. I am very much afraid there are many cases of helpless children at sea being the victim of heartless cruelty."

He then told Fisher: "It seems you lost your temper and was goaded to commit this unlawful act."

Mindful he had been held clapped in irons and the length of his remand, the judge jailed him for one month with hard labour for his friends to arrange his plans.

"At the same time act I hope this will act as a lesson that in future he should govern his temper.