LII
[Home] [Contents] [Amistad I] [Amistad II] [Forum] [LII]
THE UNITED STATES, APPELLANTS, v. THE LIBELLANTS AND CLAIMANTS OF THE SCHOONER AMISTAD, HER TACKLE, APPAREL, AND FURNITURE, TOGETHER WITH HER CARGO, AND THE AFRICANS MENTIONED AND DESCRIBED IN THE SEVERAL LIBELS AND CLAIMS, APPELLEES.
 
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
 
40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826
 
 
JANUARY, 1841 Term
  Mr. Gilpin, the Attorney General, for the United States, reviewed the evidence, as set out in the record, of all the facts connected with the case, from the first clearance of the schooner Amistad, at Havana, on the 18th May, 1838, down to the 23d January, 1840, when the final decree of the District Court of the United States, for the District of Connecticut, was rendered.

The Attorney General proceeded to remark, that, on the 23d January, 1840, the case stood thus. The vessel, cargo, and negroes, were in possession of the Marshal, under process from the District Court, to answer to five separate claims; those of Lieutenant Gedney, and Messrs. Green and Fordham, for salvage; that of the United States, at the instance of the Spanish minister, for the vessel, cargo, and negroes, to be restored to the Spanish owners, in which claim those of Messrs. Ruiz and Montez were merged; that of the Spanish vice-consul, for the slave Antonio, to be restored to the Spanish owner; and that of Messrs. Tellincas, and Aspe and Laca, for the restoration of a part of the cargo belonging to  [**46]  them. The decree of the District Court found that the vessel, and the goods on board were the property of Spanish subjects, and that the passports under which the negroes were shipped at Havana, were signed by the Governor General of Cuba. It denied the claims of Lieutenant Gedney, and Messrs. Green and Fordham, to salvage on the slaves, but allowed the claims of the officers and crew of the Washington to salvage on the Amistad, and on the merchandise on board of that vessel. It also decreed that the residue of the goods, and the vessel, should be delivered to the Spanish minister, to be restored to the Spanish owners; and that the slave Antonio should be delivered to the Spanish vice-consul, for the same purpose. As to the negroes, claimed by Ruiz and Montez, it dismissed the claims of those persons, on the ground that they were included under that of the minister of Spain. The libel of the United States, claiming the delivery of the negroes to the Spanish minister, was dismissed, on the ground that they were not slaves, but were kidnapped and imported into Cuba; and that, at the time they were so imported, there was a law of Spain declaring persons so imported to be free. The  [**47]  alternative prayer of the United States, claiming the delivery of the negroes to be transported to Africa, was granted.

As soon as this decree was made, an appeal was taken by the United States to the Circuit Court, from the whole of it, except so far as it related to Antonio. At the succeeding term of the Circuit Court, the negroes moved that the appeal of the United States might be dismissed, on the ground that they had no interest in the negroes; and, also, on the ground that they have no right to prosecute claims to property in behalf of subjects of the Queen of Spain. That motion, however, was refused by the Circuit Court, which proceeded to affirm the decree of the District Court, on the libel of the United States. It is from this decree of the Circuit Court that the present appeal to the Supreme Court is prosecuted.

Was the decree of the Circuit Court correct?

The state of the facts, as found by the decree, and not denied, was this. The vessel, and the goods on board, were the property of Spanish subjects in Havana, on the 27th June, 1839. At that time slavery was recognised and in existence in the Spanish dominions. The negroes in question are certified at that time,  [**48]  in a document signed by the Governor General of Cuba, to be ladinos negroes -- that is, slaves -- the property of Spanish subjects. As such, permission is given by the Governor General, to their owners, to take them, by sea, to Puerto Principe, in the same island. The vessel with these slaves, thus certified, on board, and in charge of their alleged owners, regularly cleared and sailed from Havana, the documentary evidence aforesaid, and the papers of the vessel being also on board. During this voyage, the negroes rose, killed the captain, and took possession of the vessel. On the 26th August, the vessel, cargo, and negroes, were rescued and taken on the high seas, by a public officer of the United States, and brought into a port of the United States, where they await the decision of the judicial tribunals.

In this position of things, the minister of Spain demands that the vessel, cargo, and negroes, be restored, pursuant to the 9th article of the treaty of 27th October, 1795, which provides (1 Laws of the United States, 268) that "all ships and merchandise of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of any pirates or robbers, on the high seas, shall be brought  [**49]  into some port of either state, and shall be delivered into the custody of the officers of that port, in order to be taken care of and restored entire to the true proprietor, as soon as due and sufficient proof shall be made concerning the property thereof."

The only inquiries, then, that present themselves, are,

1. Has "due and sufficient proof concerning the property thereof" been made?

2. If so, have the United States a right to interpose in the manner they have done, to obtain its restoration to the Spanish owners?

If these inquiries result in the affirmative, then the decree of the Circuit Court was erroneous, and ought to be reversed.

I. It is submitted that there has been due and sufficient proof concerning the property to authorize its restoration.

It is not denied that, under the laws of Spain, negroes may be held as slaves, as completely as they are in any of the states of this Union; nor will it be denied, if duly proved to be such, they are subject to restoration as much as other property, when coming under the provisions of this treaty. Now these negroes are declared, by the certificates of the Governor General, to be slaves, and the property of the Spanish subjects  [**50]  therein named. That officer (1 White's New Rec. 369. 371; 8 Peters, 310) is the highest functionary of the government in Cuba; his public acts are the highest evidence of any facts stated by him, within the scope of his authority. It is within the scope of his authority to declare what is property, and what are the rights of the subjects of Spain, within his jurisdiction, in regard to property.

Now, in the intercourse of nations, there is no rule better esablished than this, that full faith is to be given to such acts -- to the authentic evidence of such acts. The question is not whether the act is right or wrong; it is, whether the scope of the been done, and whether it is an act within the scope of the authority. We are to inquire only whether the power existed, and whether it was exercised, and how it was exercised; not whether it was rightly or wrongly exercised.

The principle is universally admitted, that, wherever an authority is delegated to any public officer, to be exercised at his discretion, under his own judgment and upon his own responsibility, the acts done in the appropriate exercise of that authority, are binding as to the subject matter. Without such a rule  [**51]  there could be no peace or comity among nations; all harmony, all mutual respect would be destroyed; the Courts and tribunals of one country would become the judges of the local laws and property of others. Nor is it to be supposed that so important a principle would not be recognisd by Courts of justice. They have held, that, whether the act of the foreign functionary be executive, legislative, or judicial, it is, if exercised within its appropriate sphere, binding as to the subject-matter; and the authentic record of such act is full and complete evidence thereof. In the case of Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch, 170, this Court held, that a commission was conclusive evidence of an executive appointment; and that a party from whom it was withheld might obtain it through the process of a Court, as being such evidence of his rights. In the case of Thompson v. Tolmie, 2 Peters, 167, this Court sustained the binding and sufficient character of a decision, made by a competent tribunal, and not reversed, whether that decision was in itself right or wrong. In the case of The United States v. Arredondo, 6 Peters, 719, the whole doctrine on this subject is most forcibly stated. Indeed, nothing  [**52]  can be clearer than the principles thus laid down; nor can they apply more directly to any case than the present. Here is the authentic certificate or record of the highest officer known to the spanish law, declaring, in terms, that these negroes are the property of the several Spanish subjects. We have it countersigned by another of the principal officers. We have it executed and delivered, as the express evidence of property, to these persons. It is exactly the same as that deemed sufficient for the vessel and for the cargo. Would it not have been complete and positive evidence in the island of Cuba? If so, the principle laid down by this Court makes it such here.

But this general principle is strengthened by the particular circumstances of the case. Where property on board of a vessel is brought into a foreign port, the documentary evidence, whether it be a judicial decree, or the ship's papers, accompanied by possession, is the best evidence of ownership, and that to which Courts of justice invariably look. In the case of Bernardi v. Motteux, Douglas, 575, Lord Mansfield laid down the rule that a decree of a foreign Court was conclusive as to the right of property under  [**53]  it. In that of the Vigilantia, 1 Rob. 3. 11, the necessity or propriety of producing the ship's papers, as the first evidence of her character and property, and of ascertaining her national character from her passport, is expressly recognised. In that of the Cosmopolite, 3 Rob. 269, the title of the claimant, who was a Dane, to the vessel, was a decree of a French Court against an American vessel; the Court refused to inquire into the circumstances of the condemnation, but held the decree sufficient evidence for them. In that of the Sarah, 3 Rob. 166, the captors of a prize applied to be allowed to give proof of the property being owned by persons other than those stated in the ship's documents, but it was refused. In that of the Henrich and Maria, 4 Rob. 52, the very question was made, whether the Court would not look into the validity of a title, derived under a foreign Court of Admiralty, and it was refused.

These principles are fully sustained by our own Courts.

In the case of the Resolution, 2 Dall. 22, 23, possession of property on board of a vessel is held to be presumptive evidence of ownership; and the ship's papers, bills of lading, and other documents, are prima facie  [**54]  evidence of the facts they speak. It is on this evidence that vessels are generally acquitted or condemned. In that of the Ann Green, 1 Gall. 281. 284, it is laid down as the rule that the first and proper evidence in prize cases is the ship's papers; and that only in cases of doubt is further testimony to be received. The Court there say that as a general rule they would pronounce for the inadmissibility of such further evidence. So in that of the Diana, 2 Gall. 97, the general rule laid down is, that no claim is to be admitted in opposition to the ship's papers; the exceptions stand upon very particular grounds. In that of Ohl v. The Eagle Insurance Company, 4 Mason, 172, parol evidence was held not to be admissible to contradict a ship's papers. In that of M'Grath v. Candelero, Bee, 60, a decree of restitution in a foreign Court of Admiralty was held to be full evidence of the ownership, and such as was to be respected in all other countries. In that of Catlett v. The Pacific Insurance Company, Paine, 612, the register was held to be conclusive evidence of the national character of the vessel; and a similar rule was held to exist in regard to a pass, in the case of Barker  [**55]  v. The Phoenix Insurance Company.

Similar principles have been adopted in this Court.

The decree of a foreign Court of Admiralty, on a question of blockade, was allowed in the case of Croudson v. Leonard, 4 Cranch, 434, to be contradicted in the Court below; but this Court reversed that decision, and held it to be conclusive. In that of the Mary, 9 Cranch, 142, this Court sustained the proof of property founded on the register against a decree of a foreign Court of Admiralty. In that of the Pizarro, 2 Wheaton, 227, the Court look to the documentary evidence, as that to be relied on to prove ownership; and although the papers were not strictly correct, they still relied on them in preference to further extraneous proof. Add to all this the twelfth article of the treaty with Spain, (1 Laws of United States, 270,) which makes passports and certificates evidence of property; and the principle may be regarded as established beyond a question, that the regular documents are the best and primary evidence in regard to all property on board of vessels. This is indeed especially the case when they are merely coasting vessels, or such as are brought in on account of distress, shipwreck,  [**56]  or other accident. The injustice of requiring further evidence in such cases, is too apparent to need any argument on the subject. Nor is it a less settled rule of international law, that when a vessel puts in by reason of distress or any similar cause, she is not to be judged by the municipal law. The unjust results to which a different rule would lead are most apparent. Could we tolerate it, that if one of our own coasters was obliged to put into Cuba, and had regular coasting papers, the Courts of that country should look beyond them, as to proof of property?

If this point be established, is there any difference between property in slaves and other property? They existed as property at the time of the treaty in perhaps every nation of the globe; they still exist as property in Spain and the United States; they can be demanded as property in the states of this Union to which they fly, and where by the laws they would not, if domiciliated, be property. If, then, they are property, the rules laid down in regard to property extend to them. If they are found on board of a vessel, the evidence of property should be that which is recognised as the best in other casse of property  [**57]  -- the vessel's papers, accompanied by possession. In the case of the Louis, 2 Dodson, 238, slaves are treated of, by Sir William Scott, in express terms, as property, and he directed that those taken unlawfully from a foreigner should be restored:

In the case of the Antelope, 10 Wheaton, 119, the decision in the case of the Louis is recognised, and the same principle was fully and completely acted upon. It was there conceded, (10 Wheaton, 124,) that possession on board of a vessel was evidence of property. In the case of Johnson v. Tompkins, 1 Baldwin, 577, it was held that, even where it was a question of freedom or slavery, the same rules of evidence prevailed as in other cases relative to the right of property. In the case of choat v. Wright, 2 Devereux, 289, a sale of a slave accompanied by delivery is valid, though there be no bill of sale.And it is well settled, that a title to them is vested by the statute of limitations, as in other cases of property. 5 Cranch, 358. 361. 11 Wheaton, 361.

If, then, the same law exists in regard to property in slaves as in other things; and if documentary evidence, from the highest authority of the country where the property belonged,  [**58]  accompanied with possession, is produced; it follows that the title to the ownership of this property is as complete as is required by law.

But it is said that this evidence is insufficient, because it is in point of fact fraudulent and untrue. The ground of this assertion is, that the slaves were not property in Cuba, at the date of the document signed by the Governor General; because they had been lately introduced into that island from Africa, and persons so introduced were free. To this it is answered that, if it were so, this Court will not look beyond the authentic evidence under the official certificate of the Governor General; that, if it would, there is not such evidence as this Court can regard to be sufficient to overthrow the positive statement of that document; and that, if the evidence were even deemed sufficient to show the recent introduction of the negroes, it does not establish that they were free at the date of the certificate.

I. This Court will not look behind the certificate of the Governor General.It does not appear to be alleged that it is fraudulent in itself. It is found by the District Court to have been signed by him, and countersigned by the officer  [**59]  of the customs. It was issued by them in the appropriate exercise of their functions. It resembles an American register or coasting license. Now, all the authorities that have been cited show that these documents are received as the highest species of evidence, and that, even if there is error in the proceedings on which they are founded. The correction must be made by the tribunal from which it emanates. Where should we stop if we were to refuse to give faith to the documents of public officers? All national intercourse, all commerce must be at an end. If there is error in issuing these papers, the matter must be sent to the tribunals of Spain for correction.

II. But if this Court will look behind this paper; is the evidence sufficient to contradict it? The official declaration to be contradicted is certainly of a character not to be lightly set aside in the Courts of a foreign country. The question is not as to the impression we may derive from the evidence; but how far is it sufficient to justify us in declaring a fact in direct contradiction to such an official declaration. It is not evidence that could be received according to the established admiralty practice. Seamen  [**60]  (1 Peters, Ad. Dec. 211) on board of a vessel cannot be witnesses for one another in matters where they have a common interest. Again, the principal part of this evidence is not taken under oath. That of Dr. Madden, which is mainly relied upon, is chiefly heresay; and is contradicted, in some of its most essential particulars, by that of other witnesses.

Would this Court be justified, on evidence such as this, in setting aside the admitted certificate of the Governor General? Would such evidence, in one of our own Courts, be deemed adequate to set aside a judicial proceeding, or an act of a public functionary, done in the due exercise of his office? How, then, can it be adequate to such an end, before the tribunals of a foreign country, when they pass upon the internal municipal acts of another government; and when the endeavour is made to set them aside, in a matter relating to their own property and people?

III. But admit this evidence to be competent and sufficient; admit these negroes were brought into Cuba a few weeks before the certificate was given; still, were they not slaves, under the Spanish laws? It is not denied that negroes imported from Africa into Cuba, might  [**61]  be slaves. If they are not, it is on account of some special law or decree. Has such a law been produced in the present case? The first document produced is the treaty with England, of 23d September, 1817. But that has no such effect. It promises, indeed, that Spain will take into consideration the means of preventing the slave trade, and it points out those means, so far as the trade on the coast of Africa is concerned.But it carefully limits the ascertainment of any infringement to two special tribunals; one at Sierra Leone, and the other at Havana.The next is the decree of December, 1817, which authorizes negroes, brought in against the treaty, to "be declared free." The treaty of 28th June, 1835, which is next adduced, is confined entirely to the slave trade on the coast of Africa, or the voyage from there. Now, it is evident that none of these documents show that these negroes were free in Cuba. They had not been "declared free" by any competent tribunal. Even had they been taken actually on board of a vessel engaged in the slave trade, they must have been adjudicated upon at one of the two special courts, and nowhere else. Can this Court, then, undertake to decide this  [**62]  question of property, when it has not even been decided by the Spanish Courts; and make such decision in the face of the certificate of the highest functionary of the island?

It is submitted, then, that if this Court does go behind the certificate of the Governor General, and look into the fact, whether or not these persons were slaves on the 18th June, 1839, yet there is no sufficient evidence on which they could adjudge it to be untrue. If this be so, the proof concerning the property is suffiicent to bring the case within the intention and provisions of the treaty.

The next question is, did the United States legally intervene to obtain the decree of the Court for the restoration of the property, in order that it might be delivered to the Spanish owners, according to the stipulations of the treaty? They did; because the property of foreigners, thus brought under the cognisance of the Courts, is, of right, deliverable to the public functionaries of the government to which such foreigners belong; because those functionaries have required the interposition of the United States on their behalf; and because the United States were authorized, on that request, to interpose, pursuant  [**63]  to their treaty obligations.

That the property of foreigners, under such circumstances may be delivered to the public functionaries, is so clearly established, by the decisions of this Court, that it is unnecessary to discuss the point. In the case (2 Mason, 411, 412. 463) of La Jeune Eugenie, there was a libel of the vessel, as in this case, and a claim interposed by the French consul, and also by the owners themselves. The Court there directed the delivery of the property to the public functionary. In that of the Divina Pastora, 4 Wheat. 52, the Spanish consul interposed. In that of the Antelope, 10 Wheat. 68, there where claims interposed, very much as in this case, by the captain as captor, and by the Vice Consuls of Spain and Portugal, for citizens of their respective countries; and by the United States. The Court directed their delivery, partly to the Consul of Spain, and partly to the United States. It is thus settled, that the public functionaries are entitled to intervene in such cases, on behalf of the citizens of their countries. In the present one, the Spanish minister did so intervene by applying to the United States to adopt, on his behalf, the necessary proceedings;  [**64]  and, upon his doing so, Ruiz and Montez withdrew their separate claims. The United States, on their part, acted as the treaty required. The executive is their agent in all such transactions, and on him devolved the obligation to see this property restored entire, if due proof concerning it was made. The form of proceeding was already established by procedent and by law. The course adopted was exactly that pursued in the case of M'Fadden v. The Exchange, 7 Cranch, 116, where a vessel was libelled in a port of the United States.Being a public vessel of a foreign sovereign, which the government was bound to protect, there intervened exactly in the same way. The libel was dismissed and the vessel restored to the custody of the public officers of France.
 

  • It is, therefore, equally clear, that the United States, in this instance, has pursued the course required by the laws of nations; and if the Court are satisfied, on the first point, that there is due proof concerning the property, then it ought to be delivered entire, so that it may be restored to the Spanish owners. If this be so, the Court below has erred, because it has not decreed any part of the property to be delivered entire, except the boy Antonio. From the vessel and cargo, it has deducted the salvage, diminishing them by that amount; and the negroes it has entirely refused to direct to be delivered.