THE pantry door was slammed shut and voices were raised.

"Why are you destroying my property, you scoundrel?" the captain raged.

"What do you mean?" ship's steward John Colevin demanded.

Moments later, the skipper cried out as they scuffled in the confined space: "Oh, Mr Bishop, he is killing me."

And when the first mate forced his way in, he found it was only too true. Captain Williams lay on the floor, dying from a knife wound.

But had Colevin committed murder or simply defended himself?

The drama related to jurors at Hampshire Assizes on July 19, 1862, took place as the barque Pasithea ploughed her way through choppy seas some 300 miles north east of the Cape de Verdes Isles.

It was April 20 when Williams was having lunch with the crew as Colevin in his capacity as steward was going backwards and forwards from the saloon to the pantry.

Suddenly a plate was heard to smash on the pantry floor and Williams clearly annoyed went to investigate - fatally.

The evidence seemed clear. Williams was bleeding heavily from his stomach and Colevin was firmly holding a kitchen knife.

The captain was carried to his cabin but little hope was entertained for his recovery. Indeed within half an hour, he drew his last breath.

When questioned, the steward, who was bleeding from his fingers and a thumb, was steadfast in his story.

Williams had a knife and in their struggle they both went to the floor. As he tried to disarm him, the captain fell onto the blade which explained how he had been found with it in his hand.

But the prosecutor Mr Bere ridiculed the notion.

The pantry, he asserted, was too small for both to fall down and could not have done so in the way Colevin had described.

But he was forced to concede that Williams was unarmed when he left the dining room table and to have got hold of the knife, he would have had to either pass the steward or reach beyond him.

Still he ventured: "If you are of the opinioin that he deliberately took away the captain's life, you must come to the painful conclusion that he is guilty of the crime of murder. But if you see anything to lead you to the conclusion that the prisoner is only guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, the prosecution will be thoroughly satisfied with that decision."

Defence barrister Mr Bullen however made the telling point there was no independent witness as to what had taken place in the pantry. It was simply conjecture.

"Everything that had been said, is favourable to the prisoner whose statement, looking at the evidence of the witnesses, you cannot disbelieve."

Williams, whose irritable temper was well known, had jumped up from his seat and gone to the pantry, shutting the door behind him.

"Why did he do that if he had gone in merely to reprove the prisoner? He could not have been afraid of those sitting at the table hearing him merely reprove the steward. His shutting of the door was to inflict violent punishment.

"Everything must lead you to the conclusion that it was the captain who first used the knife and you must be surely satisfied that the knife which inflicted the wounds on the prisoner's right hand could not have been held by himself but rather in attempting to wrest it from the antagonist."

In his summing up, Mr Justice Keating told jurors that there was no doubt Williams had been annoyed.

"But you consider whether his object in going into the pantry was the taking of the steward's life for such trifling provocation of that of a breaking plate. The prisoner's statement as to them both holding the knife however seems to be borne out by his hand being cut."

The judge concluded: "If you are of the opinion these wounds were inflicted by the prisoner in order to protect his own life and limb from the attack of the captain, you must acquit him altogether, but you have to judge whether the evidence really furnishes you with a foundation for a supposition of that kind."

The jury retired but then returned to court to pose one further question to the mate.

"Did the captain leave on his plate the carving knife he had been using?" the foreman asked.

"Yes," replied Bishop. "I am sure the captain did not carry a knife into the pantry."

The panel then retired for a second time and after a further 15 minutes deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty.