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Marriages at sea: the captain’s powers, past, present and future
This article examines the legal position in relation to marriages on board British merchant vessels, both on the high seas and within English and foreign territorial waters. The historical position is analysed, followed by a consideration of the present law. The article concludes with a discussion of whether the proposed reforms relating to marriage ceremonies and registration of marriages, set out in the White Paper
“Civil Registration: Vital Change Birth Marriage and Death
Registration in the 21st Century”, should extend to British ships.
On 22 January 2002 the Government published a White Paper entitled Civil Registration: Vital Change Birth Marriage and Death Registration in the 21st Century.
The White Paper deals with projected changes to the registration system in relation to these matters, and also with modernization of aspects of the law relating to marriage. Lloyd’s List
subsequently reported 1
that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency hopes that reform of the marriage laws will enable weddings to occur on board British ships. Apparently, weddings are a lucrative part of the cruise ship industry. Consequently, companies have been reluctant to register cruise ships on the British register because shipowners take the view that marriage ceremonies cannot be conducted on board British ships, although weddings can take place in vessels registered under foreign flags. 2
The position currently taken by shipping companies, namely that valid marriages cannot normally occur on board British ships, runs counter to the popular belief that the captain of a ship had the power to conduct a legally binding marriage ceremony. Indeed, there are scenes in films 3
and novels where weddings are conducted on board ship, with the captain officiating at the ceremony.
The purpose of this article is to examine, under English law, whether, historically, captains of ships had the power to conduct marriages on board ship, and if so, whether that
*. Visiting Research Scholar, Institute of Maritime Law, University of Southampton.
1. 24 January 2002.
2. Enquiries by the author have also confirmed that major British shipping companies consider that marriages cannot normally take place on board British ships.
3. See, e.g., The African Queen,
which is based on the novel by C.S. Forester. Towards the end of the film, the hero, Charlie Allnut (played by Humphrey Bogart) and the heroine, Rose Sayer (played by Katherine Hepburn), are led onto the deck of a German gunboat to be executed. Allnut faces the captain of the gunboat and says, “Will you grant us a last request?” The captain asks suspiciously, “What is it?” Allnut replies, “Marry us” and, in response to the startled “What?” from the captain, Allnut explains, “We want to get married. Ship captains can do that can’t they?” Without hesitation, the captain of the German gunboat replies, “Yes.”
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