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U.S. Supreme Court

The Santissima Trinidad, 20 U.S. 283 (1822)

The Santissima Trinidad

20 U.S. 283


The commission of a public ship of a foreign state, signed by the proper authorities, is conclusive evidence of her national character.

During the existence of the civil war between Spain and her colonies, and previous to the acknowledgement of the independence of the latter by the United States, the colonies were deemed by us belligerent nations, and entitled, so far as concerns us, to all the sovereign rights of war, against their enemy.

The position that if witnesses concur in proof of a material fact, they ought to be believed in respect of that fact, whatever may be the other contradictions in their testimony, maybe true under circumstances, but should be received only under many qualifications and with great caution. If the circumstances respecting which the testimony is discordant be immaterial, and of such a nature that mistakes may easily exist and be accounted for in a manner consistent with the utmost good faith and probability, there is much reason for indulging the belief that the discrepancies arise from the infirmity of the human mind rather than from deliberate error. But where a party speaks to a fact in respect to which he cannot be presumed liable to mistake, courts are bound upon principles of law, morality, and justice, to apply the maxim, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.

The sending of armed vessels or of munitions of war from a neutral country to a belligerent port for sale as articles of commerce is unlawful only as it subjects the property to confiscation on capture by the other belligerent.

No neutral state is bound to prohibit the exportation of contraband articles, and the United States has not prohibited it.

In the case of an illegal augmentation of the force of a belligerent cruiser in our ports by enlisting men, the onus probandi is thrown on him, to show that the persons enlisted were subjects of the belligerent state or belonging to its service, and then transiently within the United States.

The sixth article of the Spanish treaty of 1795, applies exclusively to the protection and defense of Spanish ships within our territorial jurisdiction, and provides only for their restitution when captured within the same.

The fourth article of the same treaty, which prohibits the citizens or subjects of the respective contracting parties from taking commissions, &c., to cruise against the other under the penalty of being considered as pirates, is confined to private armed vessels, and does not extend to public ships.

Quaere whether a citizen of the United States, independently of any legislative action on the subject, can throw off his allegiance to his native country?

However this may be, it can never be done without a bona fide change of domicile, nor for fraudulent purposes, nor to justify the commission of a crime against the country or any violation of its laws.

An augmentation of force, or illegal outfit, does not affect any capture made after the original cruise, for which such augmentation or outfit was made, is terminated.

But as to captures made during the same cruise, the uniform doctrine of this Court has been that they are infected with the character of torts, and that the original owner is entitled to restitution when the property is brought into our jurisdiction.

This doctrine extends to captures by public, as well as private armed ships.

Case of the Cassius, 3 Dall. 121, commented on, and confirmed.

Case of the Exchange, 7 Cranch 116, 2 Cond. 439, distinguished from the present case.

The exemption of foreign public ships coming into our waters under an express or implied license from the local jurisdiction does not extend to their prize ships or goods captured in violation of our neutrality.

Page 20 U. S. 284

This was a libel filed by the consul of Spain, in the district court of Virginia, in April, 1817, against eighty nine bales of cochineal, two bales of jalap, and one box of vanilla originally constituting part of the cargoes of the Spanish ships Santissima Trinidad and St. Ander, and alleged to be unlawfully and piratically taken out of those vessels on the high seas by a squadron consisting of two armed vessels called

Page 20 U. S. 285

Independencia del Sud and Altravida, and manned and commanded by persons assuming themselves to be citizens of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata. The libel was filed in behalf of the original Spanish owners by Don Pablo Chacon, consul of his Catholic Majesty for the port of Norfolk, and as amended, it insisted upon restitution principally for three reasons: (1) that the commanders of the capturing vessels, Independencia and Altravida, were native citizens of the United States, and were prohibited by our treaty with Spain of 1795, from taking commissions to cruise against that power; (2) that the said capturing vessels were owned in the United States, and were originally equipped, fitted cut, armed and manned in the United States contrary to law; (3) that their force and armament had been illegally augmented within the United States.

A claim and answer was given in by James Chaytor, styling himself Don Diego Chaytor, in which he asserted that he was commander of the Independencia, that she was a public armed vessel belonging to the government of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata, and that he was duly commissioned as her commander; that open war existed between those provinces and Spain; that the property in question was captured by him, as prize of war, on the high seas, and taken out of the Spanish ships Santissima Trinidad and St. Ander, and put on board of the Independencia, and that he afterwards, in March, 1817, came into the port of Norfolk with his capturing ship, where she was received

Page 20 U. S. 286

and acknowledged as a public ship of war, and the captured property, with the approbation and consent of the government of the United States, was there landed for safekeeping in the custom house store. The claimant admitted that he was a native citizen of the United States, and that his wife and family have constantly resided at Baltimore, but alleged that in May, 1816, at the City of Buenos Ayres, he accepted a commission under the government of the United Provinces, and then and there expatriated himself by the only means in his power, viz., a formal notification of the fact to the United States consul at that place. He denied that the capturing vessel, the Independencia, was owned in the United States, or that she was fitted out, equipped, or armed, or her force augmented, in the ports of the United States, contrary to law. He denied, also that Altravida was owned in the United States, or that she was armed, equipped, or fitted out in the United States, contrary to law, or that she aided in the capture of the property in question. He further asserted, that the captured property had been libeled and duly condemned as prize in the tribunal of prizes of the United Provinces at Buenos Ayres on 6 February, 1818. He denied the illegal enlistment of his crew in the United States, but admitted that several persons there entered themselves on board as seamen in December, 1816, representing themselves to be, and being, as he supposed, citizens of the United Provinces or in their service, and then transiently in the United States, and that he refused to receive citizens of this country, and

Page 20 U. S. 287

actually sent on shore some who had clandestinely introduced themselves on board.

It appeared by the evidence in the cause that the capturing vessel, the Independencia, was originally built and equipped in the port of Baltimore as a privateer during the late war between the United States and Great Britain, and was then rigged as a schooner, and called the Mammoth, and was fitted out to cruise against the enemy. After the peace, she was converted into a brig and sold by her original owners. I n January, 1816, she was loaded with a cargo of munitions of war, by her new owners, who were also inhabitants of Baltimore, and being armed with twelve guns, constituting part of her original armament, she was sent from that port under the command of the claimant, Chaytor, ostensibly on a voyage to the northwest coast of America, but in reality to Buenos Ayres. By the written instructions given to the supercargo on this voyage, he was authorized by the owners to sell the vessel to the government of Buenos Ayres if he could obtain a suitable price. She arrived at Buenos Ayres, having committed no act of hostility but sailing under the protection of the United States flag during the outward voyage. At Buenos Ayres the vessel was sold to the claimant, and two other persons, and soon afterwards, in May, 1816, assumed the flag and character of a public ship, and was understood by the crew to have been sold to the government of Buenos Ayres, and the claimant made known these facts to the crew, asserting that he had become a citizen of Buenos Ayres, and had received

Page 20 U. S. 288

a commission to command the vessel as a national ship, and invited the crew to enlist in the same service, and the greater part of them accordingly enlisted. From this period the public agents of the government of the United States, and other foreign governments at that port considered the vessel as a public ship of war, and this was her avowed character and reputation. No bill of sale to the government of Buenos Ayres was produced, but the claimant's commission from that government was given in evidence.

Upon the point of the illegal equipment and augmentation of force of the capturing vessels in the ports of the United States, different witnesses were examined on the part of the libellant, whose testimony was extremely contradictory; but it appeared from the evidence, and was admitted by the claimant that after the sale at Buenos Ayres in May, 1816, the Independencia departed from that port under his command, on a cruise against Spain, and after visiting the coast of Spain, put into Baltimore early in the month of October of the same year, having then on board the greater part of her original crew, among which were many citizens of the United States. On her arrival at Baltimore, she was received as a public ship and underwent considerable repairs in that port. Her bottom was new coppered, some parts of her hull were recaulked, part of her waterways replaced, a new head was put on, some new sails and rigging to a small amount, and a new mainyard were obtained; some bolts were driven into the hull, and the mainmast (which had been

Page 20 U. S. 289

shivered by lightning) was taken out, reduced in length, and replaced in its former station. For the purpose of making these repairs, her guns, ammunition, and cargo were discharged under the inspection of an officer of the customs, and when the repairs were made, the armament was replaced, and a report made by the proper officer to the collector, that there was no addition to her armament. The Independencia again left Baltimore in the latter part of December, 1816, having at that time on board a crew of 112 men, and on or about 8 February following, sailed from the Capes of the Chesapeake on the cruise in which the property in question was captured. During the stay of the Independencia at Baltimore, several persons were enlisted on board her, and the claimant's own witnesses proved that the number was about thirty.

On her departure from Baltimore, the Independencia was accompanied by the Altravida, as a tender or dispatch vessel. This last was formerly a privateer called the Romp, and had been condemned by the district court of Virginia for illegal conduct, and was sold under the decree of court, together with the armament and munitions of war then on board. She was purchased ostensibly for one Thomas Taylor, but immediately transferred to the claimant, Chaytor. She soon afterwards went to Baltimore, and was attached to the Independencia as a tender, having no separate commission, but acting under the authority of the claimant. Some of her guns were mounted, and a crew of about twenty-five men put on board at Baltimore. She dropped

Page 20 U. S. 290

down to the Patuxent a few days before the sailing of the Independencia, and was there joined by the latter, and accompanied her on her cruise.

The district court, upon the hearing of the cause, decreed restitution to the original Spanish owners. That sentence was affirmed in the circuit court, and from the decree of the latter the cause was brought by appeal to this Court.

Page 20 U. S. 334

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