The King's Oath or Chicken Oath
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
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
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
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.
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