Williams v. Suffolk Insurance Company
38 U.S. 415

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U.S. Supreme Court

Williams v. Suffolk Insurance Company, 38 U.S. 13 Pet. 415 415 (1839)

Williams v. Suffolk Insurance Company

38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 415

Syllabus

The government of the United States having insisted, and continuing to insist, through its regular executive authority, that the Falkland Islands do not constitute any part of the dominions within the sovereignty of Buenos Ayres, and that the seal fishery at those islands is a trade free and lawful to the citizens of the United States, and beyond the competency of the Buenos Ayres government to regulate, prohibit, or punish, it is not competent for a circuit court of the United States to inquire into and ascertain by other evidence the title of the government of Buenos Ayres to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

When the executive branch of the government, which is charged with the foreign relations of the United States, shall, in its correspondence with a foreign nation, assume a fact in regard to the sovereignty of any island or country, it is conclusive on the judicial department.

Where a vessel, insured on a sealing voyage, was ordered by the government of Buenos Ayres not to catch seal off the Falkland Islands, and having continued to take seal there the vessel was seized and condemned under the authority of the government of Buenos Ayres, the government of the United States not having acknowledged but having denied the right of Buenos Ayres to the Falkland Islands, the insurers were liable to pay for the loss of the vessel and cargo, the master, in refusing to obey the orders to leave the island, having acted under a belief that he was bound so to do as a matter of duty to the owners and all interested in the voyage and in vindication of the right claimed by the American government. The master was not bound to abandon the voyage under a threat or warning of such illegal capture.

This was an action brought by the plaintiff, a citizen of the State of Connecticut, against the Suffolk Insurance Company of Boston, Massachusetts, to recover a loss on part of the schooner Harriet, and part of her cargo, they having been insured by the defendants. There was a similar action against the defendants to recover losses sustained on the schooner Breakwater and her cargo. Both the cases were brought from the Circuit Court of Massachusetts on certificates of division of opinion of the judges of the circuit court.

The cases were stated in the record as follows:

"These were actions of assumpsit on policies of insurance dated 19 August, 1830, whereby the plaintiff caused to be insured by the defendants for nine percent per annum premium, warranting twelve percent 'lost or not lost,' forty-nine hundred and nineteen dollars on fifteen sixteenths of schooner Harriet, and eighteen hundred and seventy-five dollars on board said vessel, at and from Stonington, Connecticut, commencing the risk on 12 August instant at noon, to the southern hemisphere, with liberty to stop for salt at the Cape de Verd Islands and to go round Cape Horn and to touch at all islands, ports, and places for the purpose of taking seals, and for information and refreshments, with liberty to put his skins on board of any other vessel or vessels until she returns to her port of discharge in the United States, it being understood that the value of the interest hereby insured, as it relates to this insurance, is not to be diminished thereby. It is understood and agreed that if the Harriet should not proceed southeasterly of

Page 38 U. S. 416

Cape Horn on a voyage towards the South Shetland Islands and there be no loss, then the premium is to be six percentum per annum, the assured warranting only nine percent; vessel valued at five thousand dollars; outfits valued at two thousand dollars."

"There was a similar policy underwritten by the defendants for the plaintiff on the same day for the like voyage in all respects of thirty-five hundred dollars on the schooner Breakwater, and two thousand dollars on outfits on board, at the same premium, the vessel being valued at thirty-five hundred dollars and the outfits at two thousand dollars, upon which also an action was brought."

"The declaration upon each policy averred a total loss by the seizure and detention of one Lewis Vernet and other persons, pretending to act by the authority of the government of Buenos Ayres with force and arms."

"The causes came on to be heard together by the court upon certain facts and statements agreed by the parties, the parties agreeing that the verdict should be rendered by the jury for the plaintiff and for the defendants according to the opinion of the court upon the matters of law arising upon those facts and statements, and the cause was argued by C. G. Loring for the plaintiff and by Theophilus Parsons for the defendants. It appeared from these facts and statements that both of the vessels insured were bound on a sealing voyage, and proceeded to the Falkland Islands in pursuance thereof, and were there both seized by one Lewis Vernet, acting as governor of those islands under the appointment and authority of the government of Buenos Ayres. The Harriet was seized on 30 July, 1831, and was subsequently carried by the captors to Buenos Ayres, where certain proceedings were had against her in the tribunals and under the sanction of the government of Buenos Ayres. She has never been restored to the defendants, but has been condemned for being engaged in the seal trade at the Falkland Islands."

"The Breakwater was seized at the islands on or about 18 August, 1831, and was afterwards recaptured by the mate and crew, who remained on board, and was by them brought home to the United States, and after her arrival was libeled for salvage in the District Court of Connecticut District, and salvage was awarded of one-third part of the proceeds of vessel and property."

"Copies of the orders and decrees of the courts of Buenos Ayres respecting the seal fisheries, of the appointment of Vernet as Governor of the Falkland Islands, of the proceedings against the Harriet, of the correspondence of the American government with the Buenos Ayrean government, relative to the jurisdiction of the Falkland Islands, were produced and read de bene esse in the case."

The following points and questions occurred in the case on which the judges of the circuit court were divided in opinion, and they were stated and ordered to be certified to the Supreme Court to be finally decided:

Page 38 U. S. 417

"1. Whether, inasmuch as the American government has insisted and does still insist, through its regular executive authority, that the Falkland Islands do not constitute any part of the dominions within the sovereignty of the government of Buenos Ayres, and that the seal fishery at those islands is a trade free and lawful to the citizens of the United States and beyond the competency of the Buenos Ayrean government to regulate, prohibit, or punish, it is competent for the circuit court in this cause to inquire into and ascertain by other evidence the title of said government of Buenos Ayres to the sovereignty of the said Falkland Islands, and if such evidence satisfies the Court, to decide against the doctrines and claims set up and supported by the American government on this subject, or whether the action of the American government on this subject is binding and conclusive on this Court as to whom the sovereignty of those islands belongs."

"2. Whether, if the seizure of the Harriet by the authority of the Buenos Ayrean government, for carrying on the seal fishery at the Falkland Islands was illegal and contrary to the law of nations on account of the said islands' not being within the territorial sovereignty of the said Buenos Ayrean government, and the master of the Harriet had warning from the government of the said islands under the government of Buenos Ayres that he should seize the said Harriet if she should engage in the seal fishery, and after such warning, the master of the Harriet engaged in such seal fishery, and the Harriet was illegally seized and condemned therefor, the loss by such seizure and condemnation was a loss for which the plaintiff is entitled to recover in this case; if the master of the Harriet acted, in engaging in such seal fishery bona fide and with a sound and reasonable discretion and under a belief that he was bound so to do as a matter of duty to his owners and all others interested in the voyage and in the vindication of the rights recognized and claimed by the American government, or whether he was bound by law to abandon the voyage under such a threat and warning of such illegal seizure. "

Page 38 U. S. 418

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