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Ron Greene --- Ronald Greene, President of the B. C. Historical Federation

04-Jun-10

The King's Oath or Chicken Oath

Introduction
I ran across this topic while reading through GR-0055, Superintendent of Provincial Police Correspondence Inward, dating from 1891 to 1910, some 8.8 metres of records in all. It was one of those occasionally-encountered items that calls out for closer study.

Oaths in General
Let us first look very quickly at oaths in general. Although they are rooted in earlier tradition, testimonial oaths were instituted by Constantine in the 4th Century and later incorporated in the Code of Justinian, from which it was adapted, primarily through canon law to all of European Christendom. During superstitious times the person swearing the oath falsely could expect a swift and certain vengeance of an omnipotent god. But in time as people grew less superstitious the oath was felt more to have an effect on the mind and emotions of the witness.

At common law, initially only Christians were deemed to possess the belief necessary to be sworn as witnesses. Others were not considered competent to testify. But with the development of international trade the exclusions of non-Christians was no longer to Englands advantage. In time Jews were allowed to testify and in the mid 17th century, it was held that Jews sworn on the old Testament had invoked suitable obligations to tell the truth. By 1744 a similar competence to sworn testimony had been extended to other non-Christians. It was still held that only those who believed in a god were competent, so atheists were still excluded.

Some Christian groups such as the Quakers and Moravians held objections to swearing and over a period of 140 years, starting with the greater religious toleration of William and Mary, and ending in an Act of 1838, they gained the right to affirm, a declaration without reference to divine authority that the witness will tell the truth. The Oaths Act of 1888 [England] finally eliminated the discrimination against atheists. Generally the Statutes of Canada and British Columbia say very little on the form that an oath should take.

By the end of the 18th century a policy of swearing a witness by the peculiar method deemed most binding on his conscience had led to judicial approval of some rather bizarre forms of oath. One Chinese oath included breaking a saucer, or snuffing a candle at the witness box with the exclamation that, should he not speak the truth, his soul would similarly shatter or be extinguished. Indian Hindus could assent to the interpretation of the customary English oath by touching the hand or foot of a Brahmin priest. But perhaps the most bizarre oath was that called the Chicken Oath.

The Case of Rex vs Ah Wooey
Ah Wooey was tried at the Westminster Assize [New Westminster] in October 1901 for being an accessory to murder. Upon the witness, Chong Fon Fi, not a Christian, being called to the stand for the Crown, it was proposed to swear him in the manner generally in use in the British Columbia Courts, i.e. by writing his name on a piece of white paper and burning it, at the same time declaring that he would tell the truth. The consumption of the paper by fire would signify his fate should he fail to tell the truth. Charles Wilson, K.C., a Vancouver lawyer acting for the defendant, objected to the proposed form of oath, the Paper Oath, and believed that there was another form of greater solemnity and which would be more binding on the witness's conscience. He said that in this Province [B.C.] it was called the Chicken Oath and asked that it be administered. Justice Archer Martin, questioned the two interpreters in court and after they examined the witness they reported that the oath known to the Chinese as the King's Oath and to the whites as the Chicken Oath was the more binding. The court then instructed the witness to be sworn using the King's Oath. After consultation the wording of the yellow document was modified. Lampman's report gives the following translation.

King's oath made by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .(Witness signs his name here)
(Recites charge against accused and proceeds)
Being a true witness, I shall enjoy happiness and my sons and grandsons will prosper forever.
If I falsely accuse (prisoner) I shall die on the street, Heaven will punish me, earth will destroy me, I shall forever suffer adversity and all my offspring will be exterminated. In burning this oath I humbly submit myself to the will of Heaven which has brilliant eyes to see.
The 27th year of the reign }
of Kwang Su, the 16th day, the 9th moon. } (witness signs here also)

The witness having signed his name twice, and a cock having been procured, the Court and jury then adjourned to a convenient place outside the building where the full ceremony of administering the oath took place. By a block of wood, punk sticks, at least three, and a pair of Chinese candles were stuck in the ground and lighted. The oath was then read out loud by the witness, after which he wrapped it in joss-paper as used in religious ceremonies, then laid the cock on the wooden block and chopped its head off. Finally he set fire to the oath using the candles and held it until it was consumed by flames. Several Chinese witnesses were thusly sworn.

The Yellow Oath is illustrated [see below].

While this trial provided the last reported use of the Chicken Oath in British Columbia, it was not the first use. In 1895 Simon Leiser & Co. submitted an invoice for several chickens and a knife supplied to H.A. Simpson for a trial at Union, B.C. The Government authorities held that the police did not make a Crown prosecution and that Mr. Simpson was acting on behalf of the prosecuting Chinese. The Government therefore declined to pay the bill.

And Ah Wooey's fate?

He was acquitted.
June 2003

This article was originally published in British Columbia History, the Journal of the British Columbia Historical Federation in 2003.

Ron has emailed us the following:

I am attaching the scan of the Yellow Oath mentioned and illustrated in the article. I notice that one of the readers of BCHistory wrote in to say that the Chicken Oath was administered in the 1924 trial related to the murder of Janet Smith in Vancouver. I have not checked that out. Lily Chow checked the translation and provided me with an interesting description of the meaning of it to a Chinese reader.

Our thanks to Lily Chow


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