Terranova: An Extra-Territorial Tale

There was in the nineteenth century an Italian sailor called Terranova, who worked on an American ship, the Emily, chartered in Baltimore but also working out of Salem, Massachusetts. Terranova was swabbing the decks one day when the ship was at port in Canton, China, when a Chinese woman, standing on her little junk which was perched up against the ship, began to call to him. He was angry at the way the Chinese edged up against the ship; they had been asked not to, several times. He also obviously didn’t understand what she was saying, and after a while her persistent calling to him began to get on his nerves. At some point, either by accident or perhaps otherwise, Terranova’s jug, which was standing on the rail full of water to use in his swabbing, fell off the rail and landed on or near the woman below. She fell into the water, and, because she was stunned and also didn’t know how to swim, she drowned.

A life had been lost; Chinese authorities believed that harmony would not return until something had been done to redress the balance. They therefore demanded that Terranova be given up to the Chinese authorities for determination of what his responsibility had been for her death, and also for possible punishment. The captain of the Emily, believing Terranova’s violent protestations that the whole thing had been an accident, doubted the ability of the Chinese to give Terranova a fair trial as he understood it. He also felt that he ought, as captain, to act as if he were a father to Terranova.

Questions to ask:

  • Who is to blame for the woman’s death?
  • Must the captain follow Chinese law in this case? If so, why?
  • If the captain decides not to follow Chinese law, how can he justify his action to himself?
  • What are the various options open to the captain? What are the explanations of each?
  • What would be the most moral response on the captain’s part?

Reprinted with the author’s permission from MAKING DECISIONS, by Nancy Faust Sizer (White Plains, NY: Longman Publishing Group, 1984).