The death of Samuel Choate

The death of Samuel Choate

Sketch of Sergeant Edward Marsden which appeared in NZ Truth at the time of his trial for the manslaughter of Staff Sergeant-Major Samuel Choate during the voyage of the Pakeha

Not every man survived the voyage home. Some died from disease or as a result of their wounds. Others drowned, by accident or suicide.

The death of Staff Sergeant-Major Samuel Choate in June 1919 during the voyage of the Pakeha attracted more attention than did most such deaths.

Choate died after a fight with a fellow soldier, Sergeant Edward Marsden, which had broken out when Choate accused Marsden of stealing some of his personal possessions. When Marsden denied having one of these items, Choate accused him of being a liar. Marsden objected loudly and Choate took up ‘a fighting attitude’. After they had punched each other a couple of times, Marsden went to hit Choate again. As he did so, Choate slipped and fell backwards, and the base of his head struck the latrine. He did not regain consciousness and died the following morning.

When the Pakeha arrived in New Zealand a few days later, the police charged Marsden with Choate’s manslaughter. During the hearing, Marsden said he had thought Choate was joking and only took the matter seriously after he fell. His defence counsel argued that the ‘sparring match’ was ‘in no way a serious one’ and that ‘a combination of circumstances’ were to blame:

The slippery deck, the boots which Choate was wearing, the roll of the ship and the fact that he was off his balance when the blow was struck, caused the man to fall before a blow which under ordinary circumstances would not have felled him. [1]

The lawyer argued that Marsden had already been dealt a ‘great punishment’ – having to go through life knowing that he had been ‘indirectly responsible for a friend’s death’.

The court dismissed the charge against Marsden, noting that all regretted ‘the very unfortunate occurrence’ that had followed the scuffle.

Unlike most men who died en route to or from New Zealand, Choate was not buried at sea. As he died only a few days from home, his body was kept on board. He was buried at Linwood Cemetery, Christchurch with military honours.

[1] Evening Post, 19 June 1919, p. 7

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