Marine Insurance Frauds in Scotland 1751-1821: Cases of Deliberate Shipwreck Tried in the Scottish Court of Admiralty

By Gordon Jackson, published August 1971


In 1821, the marine insurance fraud case, of Rex versus John McDougall of Glasgow, was heard in the Scottish Court of Admiralty. This case is of particular interest because of the defendant’s, the defence lawyers’, the prosecution’s and the judge’s manipulation of the facts and the law, in order to avoid the execution of the guilty culprit. It is used as an example, in this article, to demonstrate the differences and difficulties between English and Scottish laws during a period of evolving legislation on the matter of marine fraud. McDougall first claimed there had not been any crime, then asserted his innocence, if a crime had been committed, then that the law did not apply and, finally, that if it did, he could not be condemned to death. He succeeded on the last point.  Two factors drove the rapid expansion of the shipping industry in the eighteenth century, part-ownership and marine insurance. They also drove the associated increase in fraud, which involved deliberate shipwrecking. Long before the advent of ‘coffin ships’ unscrupulous owners and masters were sinking, or ‘casting away’, ships to defraud both merchants and underwriters. Here Jackson demonstrates how one such individual, John McDougall, was apprehended and how his defence lawyer sought to make a mockery of the Law to secure his freedom. The defence case failed but McDougall cheated the gallows, only to be transported for life.

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Filed under: Atlantic | Other (Nineteenth C)
Subjects include: Merchant Marines | Miscellaneous

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