19 US 235 La Conception

19 U.S. 235

5 L.Ed. 249

6 Wheat. 235

The Spanish Consul, Claimant.

March 8, 1821

APPEAL from the Circuit Court of South Carolina.

This was an allegation filed in the District Court of South Carolina by the Vice Consul of his Catholic Majesty, claiming restitution of the ship La Conception and cargo, as the property of Spanish subjects to him unknown, which had been illegally captured by the armed ship La Union, sailing under the flag of Buenos Ayres, and pretending to have a commission or letter of marque from that government, but actually built, equipped, armed, and manned in the United States. A claim was interposed by one Brown, claiming the property as having been taken by him, as commander of La Union, on the high seas, under a commission from the government of Buenos Ayres, authorizing him to capture the property of the subjects of Spain. The District and Circuit Courts decreed restitution of the property to the captors, no sufficient evidence being produced of the capturing vessel having been equipped, or having augmented her force in the ports of the United States. On appeal to this Court, farther proof was taken, showing conclusively, that the capturing vessel was originally built, owned, and equipped in this country, and after proceeding to Buenos Ayres, and sailing from that port on a cruize, had touched at the port of New-Orleans, and there illegally augmented her force, since which, the capture in question was made. This evidence was attempted to be repelled on the part of the captors, by testimony tending to show a transfer of the capturing vessel at Buenos Ayres to domiciled subjects of that country, and that the subsequent augmentation of her force at New-Orleans, if any, was very trifling, and only amounted to a replacement of her former equipment.

The Attorney-General, and Mr. Hopkinson, for the appellant and claimant, the Spanish Consul, argued, that the original owners were entitled to restitution, according to the uniform series of decisions in this Court, upon the ground that the capturing ship was built and equipped in the United States, with the intention of cruizing against the subjects of Spain, in violation of our neutrality, and actually belonged to citizens of the United States, when the present capture was made; or had illegally augmented her force in our ports, previous to the capture.a That the pretended transfer at Buenos Ayres was evidently colourable, and was not proved by the production of the bill of sale, or any of the other documentary evidence usually expected by maritime Courts, to establish a change of this species of property. That the enlistment of additional seamen to the crew at New-Orleans, being proved, the onus was thrown back upon the captors, to show that the persons so enlisted were subjects of Buenos Ayres, transiently within the United States.b

Mr. Winder, contra, insisted, that it must be a clear case of the violation of our neutral rights, or the Court would not interfere to restore a capture made under a commission from a sovereign state, and that the onus probandi for this purpose was on the Spanish claimant.c We have an unquestionable right to build ships for sale, and to export any kind of contraband subject to the risk of capture: And even if a ship be expressly built for war, it may be sold to a belligerent, and afterwards equipped in his own ports to cruise against his enemy.d Here the purchaser was actually domiciled at Buenos Ayres, and there is nothing to impeach the bona fides of the transaction. He then sailed again from Buenos Ayres on a cruize, and the alleged augmentation of the crew at New-Orleans was, in effect, nothing but a replacement of the original force, the vessel having lost by desertion nearly the same number of men which she acquired by enlistment. Such a replacement, this Court has already determined not to afford a ground for restitution.e It is true, that the case cited was under the French treaty of 1778. But the 19th article of that treaty provides nothing more than a right of asylum and hospitality, the same as is enjoyed by the South American cruizers in our ports, under the President's instructions.

The counsel on both sides also argued on the same grounds which are stated in the case of the Bello Corrunes, ante, p. 155. and which it is not thought necessary to repeat.

Mr. Justice STORY delivered the opinion of the Court.

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In this case, if the cause had stood solely upon the evidence before the Circuit Court, we should have no difficulty in affirming its decision. But upon the new proofs which have been since taken, and are now produced to this Court, it is apparent that the capturing vessel was originally built, equipped, manned, and armed in the United States for a cruize, being owned by citizens of this country, and sailed with the intent of cruizing against Spain. It is true that she went to Buenos Ayres, and sailed under the colours of that government on a second cruize, during which this capture was made; but, there is no satisfactory evidence that the American ownership ever ceased, or that there was a real, bona fide sale at Buenos Ayres. If such a sale had really taken place, it was perfectly in the power of the captors to have proved it, in the clearest manner. A bill of sale is the customary and universal document by which the ownership of vessels is evidenced; and the want of any document of this nature, or of any direct and positive evidence of an actual sale, leaves no doubt in the mind of the Court, that no such sale ever was made. The consequence is, that the capturing vessel must still be considered, as owned in the United States; and, according to the decisions which have already been made, the capture was illegal, and the property must be restored to the original Spanish owners.


Sentence reversed.


The Alerta, 9 Cranch, 359. The Divina Pastora, 4 Wheat. Rep. 298. The Estrella, 4 Wheat. Rep. 298. La Amistad de Rues, 5 Wheat Rep. 385. The Bello Corrunes, ante, p. 152.


The Estrella, 4 Wheat. Rep. 298.


La Amistad de Rues, 5 Wheat. Rep. 385.


The Alfred, 3 Dall. 387.


Moodie v. the Phoebe Ann, 3 Dall. 319.