Annotate this Case
17 U.S. 298 (1819)
U.S. Supreme Court
The Estrella, 17 U.S. 4 Wheat. 298 298 (1819)
17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 298
The seal to the commission of a new government, not acknowledged by the government of the United States, cannot be permitted to prove itself, but the fact that the vessel cruising under such commission is employed by such government, may be established by other evidence without proving the seal.
Where the privateer, cruising under such a commission, was lost subsequent to the capture in question, the previous existence of the commission on board was allowed to be proved by parol evidence.
Where restitution of captured property is claimed upon the ground that the force of the cruiser making the capture has been augmented within the United States by enlisting men, the burden of proving such enlistment is thrown upon the claimant and that fact being proved by him, it is incumbent upon the captors to show by proof that the persons so enlisted were subjects or citizens of the prince or state under whose flag the cruiser sails transiently within the United States in order to bring the case within the proviso of the second section of the Act of June 5, 1794, c. 226, and of the Act of 20 April, 1818, c. 83.
The right of adjudicating on all captures and questions of prize exclusively belongs to the courts of the captors' country, but it is an exception to the general rule that where the captured vessel is brought or voluntarily comes infra praesidia of a neutral power, that power has a right to inquire whether its own neutrality has been violated by the cruiser which made the capture, and if such violation has been committed, is in duty bound to restore to the original owner property captured by cruisers illegally equipped in its ports.
No part of the Act of 5 June, 1794, c. 226, is repealed by the Act of 3 March 1817, c. 58; the Act of 1794, c. 226, remained in force until the Act of 20 April, 1818, c. 83, by which all the provisions respecting our neutral relations were embraced and all former laws on the same subject were repealed.
In the absence of any act of Congress on the subject, the courts of the United States would have authority, under the general law of nations, to decree restitution of property captured in violation of its neutrality under a commission issued within the United States or under an armament or augmentation of the armament or crew of the capturing vessel within the same.
This vessel and her cargo were libeled in the District Court for the Louisiana district by the alleged former Spanish owner.
The libel stated that he was owner of the schooner and cargo, which sailed from Havana for the coast of Africa on 23 April, 1817; that on the next day she was lawlessly and piratically captured on the high seas and held as prize by an armed schooner called the Constitution, of Venezuela, and forcibly brought within the jurisdiction of the United States, when she was recaptured by the United States ketch The Surprise and conducted to New Orleans. That the captors had no lawful commission from any sovereign state to commit hostilities at sea, but that the said schooner and cargo, until their recapture, were forcibly withheld from the libellant in open violation and contempt of the law of nations. That if they had such commission, the same was issued or delivered within the waters and jurisdiction of the United States with intent that the said vessel, the Constitution, should be employed in the service of Venezuela to commit hostilities at sea against the subjects of the King of Spain, with whom the United States then were and now are at peace, in violation of their laws and of the laws of nations. The libel further stated that the Constitution had, previously to her cruising, been fitted out and
armed or increased or augmented in force within the jurisdiction and waters of the United States, and also that she had been manned by sundry citizens or residents of the United States with the intent that she should be employed to commit hostilities as aforesaid in violation of the laws aforesaid. For these causes, the libellant prayed a restitution to him of the Estrella and cargo.
A claim was interposed by J. F. Lamoureux, prize master of the Estrella which stated that the Constitution was duly commissioned by the Republic of Venezuela and authorized to capture all vessels belonging to its enemies, under which authority she had captured the Estrella, which, with her cargo, belonged to the enemies of the said republic. That before he could receive his prize commission, the Constitution upset in a gale, and her commission and papers, with the greater part of the crew, were lost. The claimant further represented that as he was carrying the Estrella into port to have her condemned before a court of competent jurisdiction, she was captured by the United States ketch Surprise and conducted to New Orleans, and therefore claimed that the Estrella and cargo might be adjudged to be restored to him.
It appeared from the transcript of the proceedings in this case that the Estrella was also libeled on the part of the United States, although it was not stated for what cause such libel was filed, but the same was dismissed, from which decree there was no appeal.
It appeared in evidence that the Constitution had a commission from the government of Venezuela at the time the capture was made which was issued and delivered at Carthagena, but that the same was lost by the sinking of the privateer immediately after the capture. There was some contradictory testimony as to her having increased her armament in the United States, and it was proved, that she had augmented the number of her crew in the port of New Orleans.
On the libel filed by the Spanish owner, decree was made that the claim of Lamoureux, the prize master be dismissed with costs, and that the Estrella and cargo be delivered up and restored to the libellant, from which sentence the cause was brought by appeal to this Court.
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