The Alerta v. Moran
13 U.S. 359 (1815)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Alerta v. Moran, 13 U.S. 9 Cranch 359 359 (1815)

The Alerta v. Moran

13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 359

Syllabus

The district courts of the United States (being neutral) have jurisdiction to restore to the original Spanish owner (in amity with the United States), his property captured by a French vessel whose force has been increase in the United States if the prize be brought in praesidia.

It is general rule that the trial of captures made on the high seas jure belli by a duly commissioned vessel of war, whether from an enemy or neutral, belongs exclusively to the courts of the nation of the captors.

To this rule there are exceptions which are as firmly established as the rule itself.

If the capture be made within the territorial limits of a neutral country into which the prize is brought or by a privateer which had been illegally equipped in such neutral country, the prize courts of such neutral country not only possess the power, but it is their duty, to restore the property so illegally captured to the owner.

A neutral nation may, if so disposed, without a breach of her neutral character, grant permission to both belligerents to equip their vessels of war within her territories. But without such permission, the subjects of such belligerent powers have no right to equip vessels of war or, to augment their force either with arms or men within the neutral territory.

Such unauthorized acts violate the sovereignty and rights as a neutral of such nation. All captures made by means of such equipments are illegal in relation to such nation, and it is competent for her courts to punish the offenders, and in case the prizes are brought infra praesidia to order them to be restored.

It is immaterial whether the persons taken on board in the neutral port were native American citizens or foreigners domiciled in the United States; neither the law of nations nor the act of Congress recognizes any distinction except in respect to the subjects of the state in whose service they are so enlisted transiently within the United Suites.

The facts of the case were stated by WASHINGTON, J. in delivering the opinion of the Court, as follows:

This is the case of a libel filed in the District Court of New Orleans, by Blas Moran, a subject of the King of Spain and a native and resident of the Island of Cuba setting forth that he is the owner of the bring Alerta and cargo consisting of 170 slaves which, on a voyage from the coast of Africa to the Havana, was, sometime in the month of June, 1810, when within a few leagues of Havana, captured on the high seas by the L'Epine, bearing French colors; that a prize master was put on board the Alerta, and 17 of the slaves taken out, after which the prize was ordered to steer for the Balize and was finally brought to the port of New Orleans with the remainder of her cargo, consisting of 153 slaves. The libel alleges that the L'Epine was not duly commissioned to capture the property of Spanish subjects, or, if so commissioned, that she was armed and equipped for war in the port of New Orleans, and manned by sundry American citizens and inhabitants of the territory of New Orleans, contrary to the law of nations. The prayer of the libel is for restitution and damages.

The claim of the prize master admits the capture of the Alerta as lawful prize of war, and asserts that the L'Epine, at the time of the capture, was and still is legally authorized to capture all vessels and their cargoes belonging to the subjects of Spain, as enemies of France. He further states that after the capture he was compelled to enter the port of New Orleans by stress of weather,

Page 13 U. S. 360

want of provisions, and the inability of the Alerta to keep the sea and prays to be dismissed.

The evidence in the cause establishes the following facts. That sometime in April, 1810, this privateer commanded, by captain Batigne and bearing a commission from the French government to make prizes on the high seas, entered the port of New Orleans. The captain had with him a letter of instructions from his owner directing him to deposit what money he might take as prize in the Bank of New Orleans, to put into one of the ports as being in distress, and, in case he should hear of the capture of Guadeloupe, he was to renew his crew for the purpose of conveying his prizes to France. Sometime in the course of the succeeding month, Batigne presented two petitions to the collector of the port of New Orleans, stating that the L'Epine had been compelled by stress of weather to put into that port, and that he had necessarily incurred expenses for refitting and victualing the privateer, and for defending himself against a criminal prosecution for piracy to an amount exceeding $5,000, and praying for permission to enter and sell such part of his cargo, as would enable him to discharge that sum. He also applied to the collector, about the same time for permission to purchase provisions for his crew amounting to thirty persons, on his intended voyage to France, and intimated that he should take with him about ten passengers, if permitted to do so; but this permission being refused, he professed to relinquish his intention of taking passengers on board.

Having obtained permission to purchase provisions and to dispose of a part of his cargo, it appears that he paid off his crew and sailed from New Orleans soon afterwards with a crew of from fifty to sixty men composed partly of persons obtained at New Orleans and partly of those who had entered that port with him. With this force on board, he went to sea, and soon afterwards fell in with the Alerta, bound from Africa to the Havana, which, together with her cargo consisting of 170 slaves, he captured as prize of war, put a prize master on board, and ordered her to steer towards the Balize. On her passage, the Alerta suffered very considerably in a gale, and her crew, together with the slaves on board, were much distressed for want of provisions, when she was,

Page 13 U. S. 361

at the request of captain Batigne, visited and relieved by captain Allen and conducted safely to New Orleans, where he libeled the vessel and cargo for salvage.

The court below, upon the libel of the Spanish owner, decreed restitution to the libellant of the ship and the 154 slaves left on board of her by the privateer, subject to all expenses for the support of the negroes, and such salvage as should be decreed by the court together, with costs of suit, and such damages as the court should thereafter decree.

Page 13 U. S. 364

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