La Amistad De Rues/Opinion of the Court

La Amistad De Rues
Opinion of the Court by Joseph Story

We pass over the question, whether, supposing there was an illegal augmentation of the crew of the privateer in our ports, the American captors had any right forcibly to bring in the prize for adjudication. It is an important question, and when it shall be necessary to decide it, it will deserve serious consideration. The present cause may well be disposed of without any discussion concerning it.

Two questions have been made at the bar. 1. Whether, in point of fact, the illegal augmentation of the crew is so established as to entitle the Spanish libellants to restitution. 2. If so, whether the damages were rightfully awarded.

The last question will be first considered. And as to the item of damages for loss of market, we are all of opinion that it is clearly inadmissible. In cases of marine torts, this Court have deliberately settled, that the probable profits of a voyage are not a fit mode for the ascertainment of damages.a It is considered that the rule is too uncertain in its own nature, and too limited in its applicability, to entitle it to judicial sanction. The same principle must govern in the present case.

But a more general objection is to the allowance of any damages in cases of this sort, as between the belligerents. The doctrine heretofore asserted in this Court is, that whenever a capture is made by any belligerent in violation of our neutrality, if the prize come voluntarily within our jurisdiction, it shall be restored to the original owners. This is done upon the footing of the general law of nations; and the doctrine is fully recognised by the act of Congress of 1794. But this Court have never yet been understood to carry their jurisdiction, in cases of violation of neutrality, beyond the authority to decree restitution of the specific property, with the costs and expenses during the pending of the judicial proceedings. We are now called upon to give general damages for plunderage, and if the particular circumstances of any case shall hereafter require it, we may be called upon to inflict exemplary damages to the same extent as in the ordinary cases of marine torts. We entirely disclaim any right to inflict such

The other question presents more difficulty. It must be admitted, that there is positive testimony directly to the point of the illegal augmentation of the crew of the privateer; and if it stood uncontradicted, and were liable to no deduction, the libellant would certainly be entitled to restitution. But the testimony as to the augmentation, comes chiefly from very obscure persons, and is, in itself, in many respects, loose and equivocal; and that of one, atleast, of the principal witnesses, is, in a most material fact, directly contradicted by a written document, whose verity has not been questioned. It is proved, by the report of an inspector made to the custom house, that at the arrival of the privateer in port, she had on board 49 men; yet, the witness alluded to, expressly alleges, that at the time of her arrival at New-Orleans, she had not more than ten or twelve persons on board. It appears, too, that the crew of the privateer was wholly composed of foreigners, principally persons from the Spanish Maine, and from St. Domingo. Being arrived at New-Orleans in the course of a cruize, which is not proved to have ended there, the natural presumption is, that her original crew continued attached to her; and this presumption is considerably fortified by the fact, that though the officers of the custom house of that port vigilantly inquire into cases of this nature, there is nothing in their testimony, that in the slightest degree affects the conduct of the privateer in an unfavourable manner. It certainly cannot be said, that the evidence is free from all reasonable doubt. And, in cases of this nature, where the libellant seeks the aid of a neutral Court to interpose itself against a belligerent capture, on account of a supposed violation of neutrality, we think the burthen of proof rests upon him. To justify a restitution to the original owners, the violation of neutrality should be clearly made out. If it remains doubtful, the Court ought to decline the exercise of its jurisdiction, and leave the property where it finds it. We cannot say that the present case is clear from reasonable doubt; and, therefore, we reverse the decree of the District Court, and order restitution to be made to the original captors; but, under all the circumstances, the parties are to bear their own costs.

Decree reversed.

DECREE. This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record of the District Court of the United States for the district of Louisiana, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is DECREED and ORDERED, that the decree of the said District Court, in this case, be, and the same is, hereby reversed and annulled. And this Court, proceeding to pass such decree as the said District Court should have passed, it is further DECREED and ORDERED, that the libel be dismissed, and the said ship La Amistad, her tackle, apparel, and furniture, and cargo, be restored to the claimants. And it is further ORDERED, that each party pay their own costs.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).