How “killing the messenger” gets you killed too

A fog was dogging the British ships that had just won victories against the French (in the year 1707). Sir Admiral Clowdisley Shovell summoned his navigators together to figure out where his ships were, and they decided they must be safely west of an island off Brittany (France).

Then the admiral was approached by a sailor, a member of his crew, who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet’s location during the whole cloudy passage. Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden by the Royal Navy, as the unnamed seaman well knew. However, the danger appeared so enormous, by his calculations, that he risked his neck to make his concerns known.

Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot.

The sailor, however, turned out to be correct. One ship after another hit rocks, and sank with all the men drowning except for two.

One of those two was Sir Clowdisley himself. He collapsed on the dry sand, and a local woman found him. She saw the emerald ring on his finger, and murdered him for it. 30 years later, on her deathbed, she confessed to her clergyman, producing the ring as proof of her guilt and contrition.

This story raises an important point about feedback. We have organizations that are not, and cannot be, democracies. These include the army, and intelligence agencies, and corporations. However, if the leadership does not listen to feedback from competent subordinates, you could, as the admiral did, lose 2000 people that you have responsibility for, to the depths of the sea.

Feedback is important in war, and should be one advantage that Western armies have over dictatorships. Dictatorships have proven that they can raise very motivated soldiers. Totalitarian ideological movements can produce the best soldiers in the world, like Nazi Germany did, or very motivated ones, as those who served in Japan’s armies. The recent success of ISIS, a Islamic army of true-believers, in taking over half of Iraq against a numerically superior force is partly because they were motivated, and their enemy was not as motivated.

So what advantage do WE have? Maybe one advantage is that we respond to feedback. To illustrate this point a little more, when Hitler sent his forces into the Russian winter, he refused to ever allow his soldiers to retreat, not even for tactical advantage. This proved disastrous for his cause. Stalin had a similar problem with retreat, which meant that large numbers of his troops got encircled and captured.

In the western democracies, we have a free media, and a freedom ethic that should, in theory, lead to learning from mistakes, or avoiding mistakes.


Longitude – The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – by Dava Sobel (published 1995)

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