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United States Supreme Court

70 U.S. 155

The Thompson

THE brig 'Thompson,' on her return voyage to Halifax from Nassau, was captured at sea with a cargo of 486 casks of turpentine and 81 bales of cotton, on the 16th of June, 1863, by the government steamer, the United States, and sent into the port of New York for adjudication. The capture was made on suspicion that the vessel had broken the blockade of our Southern coast, established by our government during the rebellion, or had on board a cargo brought from a blockaded port, and transferred to her under circumstances justifying condemnation. One Clements, of Nova Scotia, in behalf of himself and of a certain Martin & Co., of Nassau, all parties being British subjects, put in a claim for the cargo; another British subject claiming as owner the vessel.

In favor of the claimants were the facts that the vessel when hailed had surrendered without opposition and submitted freely to search; that her papers were unspoiled, regular, and apparently fair; that the master and ship's company were British subjects, without any interest in either the vessel or cargo; that, so far as the face of things showed, the voyage commenced at Halifax and was to have ended there; that the vessel made no port between Halifax and Nassau on her outward voyage, nor any between the same places on her return, and that she was not near any port when captured; neither were any proofs given that the cargo was procured from a blockaded port by any person or persons on board of or interested in the prize vessel, or that it was the property of such person.

On the other hand was the fact well known that, during the rebellion, the subjects of Great Britain, actively engaged in attempts to break our blockade, made the British island of Nassau an entrepot, thus dividing their operations into two parts; first running vessels from the blockaded port to this 'neutral' island, and then transhipping their cargoes at it to other vessels, on which they were carried as if on a new voyage to some other, the originally real port of destination; and so vice versa.

In the specific case before the court it was shown that a schooner, named the Argyle, from Wilmington, North Carolina, with a valuable cargo of cotton and spirits of turpentine, having escaped the vigilance of our fleet, had reached the harbor of Nassau; that she did not discharge her cargo at the wharf, but hauled alongside the Thompson, which was at anchor, and that she transferred enough of her cargo to the latter vessel to load it. 'I was told,' said the cook of the Thompson, one witness who proved these facts, 'that the captain of the Argyle owned part of the vessel. He was a Southern man, from Wilmington.'

In addition to this it was obvious that Martin & Co., claimants of the cargo, were more or less in sympathy with the rebel cause and with the interests of blockade runners. They write to their correspondents at New York and Halifax as follows:

NASSAU, N. P., June 5, 1863.


DEAR SIRS: We are in receipt of yours of 8th May; contents noted; your craft has not yet arrived. Will care for her when she does.

We have sent by this brig a cargo consisting of 486 casks spirits of turpentine and 81 bales of cotton. We desire it disposed of most to our advantage, either by shipping to England or America, as may appear. We shall write Messrs. Dollner, Potter & Co., of New York, immediately on arrival of the brig. You will telegraph to them and request their instructions. We are happy to announce the arrival of the schooner Argyle with a full and valuable cargo, about $42,000. The old thing is about being used up, her bottom being badly wormed. You will, of course, upon consultation with Captain Clements, and Dollner, Potter & Co., if they so decide it most to the interests of all concerned, sell at Halifax. We do not like to have our property shipped on our account to the United States. Captain Clements is the owner of one-half the cargo, being that brought out by 'Argyle.'

We are largely into steamers; one leaves about the 10th for Dixie with valuable cargo; will bring back 1200 bales cotton. Don't you want to invest three to five dollars in a good company. One company's stock is already worth 1200 per cent. in cost in gold.

We are doing quite well. Write often.

Yours, respectfully,


NASSAU, N. P., June 5, 1863.


DEAR SIRS: We inclose herewith invoice and bill of lading of cargo on board brig 'Thompson,' consigned to Messrs. B. Wier & Co. We have instructed them to confer with you in regard to its disposition, as under our present situation we cannot ship our stuff to you direct. You will order it wherever you may, on consultation with them, agree is most to our interests. We have instructed them of this fact. The cargo is jointly owned by the owners of the A 1 boat.

We are happy to tell you the famous boat arrived ten days ago with 460 casks spirits, 90 bales cotton, and 50 to 60 barrels No. 2 rosin in bulk, which we shall send to you as soon as a chance offers. We've also 28 bales on hand. We will write you by steamer at once so as to go on Monday.

Yours truly,


The District Court for New York, where the libel was filed, considering that there was sufficient cause to bring the vessel and cargo in for adjudication, but not enough to condemn them, restored them both, but restored them without damages or costs. From this last part of the decree the claimants, who insisted on recompense in damages, severally appealed.

Mr. Donohue, in their behalf.

1. As to the vessel. No cause whatever existed, either at the time of seizure or trial, for her capture. All her papers were regular and fair; she was bound on a legitimate voyage, and in its due prosecution. Being a neutral, owing to us no allegiance, and taken on the high seas, she is entitled to recompense for her damages.

2. As to the cargo. It is clear that this cargo, if proved to have run the blockade, had reached the territory of a foreign nation, the home of one of the claimants, and was within his power in such neutral country. The mere fact of so having run the blockade, no more subjects it to forfeiture than does the same fact subject most of the cotton to be found on the high seas between Havana, Matamoras, Nassau, and European or American ports. Almost all such cotton has been run out from blockaded ports. In fact, every day shows the arrival and entry of such cotton in our own ports. Blockaderunning is not a crime. It is but an enterprise attended with peril. Neutrals have rights quite as good as belligerents. Because two nations have got into a quarrel-an absurd or wicked one perhaps-a third nation, which did nothing to bring it on, and cares nothing, perhaps, about it, except that it shall come to a conclusion, is not to have her commerce ruined. The restriction upon the rights of third parties must not be made too oppressive.

3. As to both vessel and cargo. By the nature of prize evidence, the claimant has but little means of proving bad faith, or showing bad faith in the captors; but, in this case, we submit that the seizure was a speculation, proving an intent to make the appearance of official duty cover an ulterior and interested motive. Extraordinary conduct, in such cases, is liable to severe censure. [1] When dealing with foreign nations, a frank and generous system is to be established. Foreigners will thus understand, as they have understood, that while we can and will protect and enforce our rights, we are not disposed to cover speculative efforts to get prize-money.

Finally. No amount of good intention or good faith can excuse a damage to a neutral, if the captor is mistaken in law as to his rights, and he has the means before him to ascertain the facts. In the Acteon, [2] where the vessel was in good faith, but without right destroyed, the court says:

'There are circumstances that may have afforded very good reason for destroying the vessel, and made it a meritorious act in Captain Capel, as far as his own judgment is concerned; but these furnish no reason why the American owner should suffer. It does not appear that Captain Capel is charged with having acted with corrupt or malicious motives. If, as I believe to have been the case, he has acted from a sense of duty and of obedience to orders, I can have no doubt that he will be indemnified. I must pronounce for costs and damages, and this without imputation in the conduct of the captain.' 'If the captor has acted from error and mistaken duty, the suffering party is still entitled to full compensation (if not contributing to the loss).'

In The John, [3] the court says:

'Most certainly it is not sufficient for a party to plead ignorance as a legal excuse for making compensation to another, if his ignorance was vincible to himself at the time at which the transaction took place. In an unfortunate case like the present, the court would certainly be disposed to give the captain all possible relief; but I need not add, that no relief is possible which cannot be given consistently with the justice due the claimant-that is the true rule.'


^1  Le Louis, 2 Dodson, 240.

^2  2 Dodson, 51, 52.

^3  2 Dodson, 51, 339.

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).