Annotate this Case
14 U.S. 125 (1816)
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U.S. Supreme Court
The Astrea, 14 U.S. 1 Wheat. 125 125 (1816)
14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 125
APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
An enemy's vessel was captured by a privateer, recaptured by another enemy's vessel, and again recaptured by another privateer, and brought in for adjudication. Held that the prize vested in the last captor. An interest acquired in war by possession is divested by the loss of possession.
This was an enemy's vessel captured by the privateer Ultor in sight of Surinam on 17 May, 1813, and on 13 June, 1813, recaptured by an enemy's vessel of war, about two leagues from the coast of Georgia, and, on the same day, recaptured by the privateer Midas and brought into the port of Savannah for adjudication. The prize was adjudged to the last captors, by the decree of the court below, from which the first captors appealed to this Court.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL.
An interest acquired by possession, divested by the loss of possession from the very nature of a title acquired in war. The law of
our own country as to salvage settles the question, and the case of the Adventurer is directly in point and conclusive.
The vessel remained liable to British recapture on the whole voyage, and on her arrival in a neutral territory, the donee sank into a mere bailee for the British claimant, with those rights over the thing in possession which the municipal law (civil and common) gives for care and labor bestowed upon it. The question then recurs is this a case of salvage? On the negative of the proposition it was contended that it is a case of forfeiture under the municipal law, and therefore not a case of salvage as against the United States; that it was an unneutral act to assist the French belligerent in bringing the vessel infra praesidia, or into any situation where the rights of capture would cease, and therefore not a case of salvage as against the British claimant.
But the Court entertains an opinion unfavorable to both those objections. This could not have been a case within the view of the legislature when passing the nonimportation act of March, 1809. The ship was the plank on which the shipwrecked mariners reached the shore, but to have cast into the sea the cargo, the property of a belligerent, would have been to do him an injury by taking away the chance of recovery, subject to which they took it into their possession. Besides, bringing it into the United States does not necessarily presuppose a violation of the nonimportation laws. If it came within the description of property cast casually on our shores, as the Court is of opinion it did, legal provision existed for disposing of it in such a manner as would comport with the policy of those laws. At last they could but deliver it up to the hands of the government, to be reshipped by the British claimants, or otherwise appropriated under the sanction of judicial process. And such was the course that they pursued. Far from attempting any violation of the laws of the country, upon their arrival they delivered it up to the custody of the laws, and left it to be disposed of under judicial authority. The case has no feature of illegal importation, and cannot possibly have imputed to it the violation of municipal law. As to the question arising on the interest of the British claimants, it will at this time (war having supervened) be a sufficient answer that they who have no rights in this Court cannot urge a violation of their rights against the libellants. But there is still a much more satisfactory answer. To have attempted to carry the vessel infra praesidia of the enemy, would, unless it could have been excused on the ground of necessity, have been an unneutral act. But where every exertion is made to bring it into a place of safety, in which the original right of the captured would be revived and might be asserted, instead of aiding his enemy, it is doing an act exclusively resulting to the benefit of the British claimant. A salvage of one-half was allowed by the court, and as to the residue it was determined that it must stand on the same footing with other property found within the territory at the declaration of war, and might be claimed upon the termination of war unless previously confiscated by the sovereign power. The court therefore made such order respecting it is would preserve it subject to the will of the court to be disposed of as future circumstances might render proper.
Sentence of the circuit court affirmed.