Behind the Scenes: Prize-of-War in Historical Context

David W. Trenholm 04 December 2008 HIST 3663 X1 Dr. Stephen Henderson

There was a great deal of power within the Vice-Admiralty courts of the New World, power that extended to the maritime affairs of the people who called the Americas home. As the only route to the Americas lay across the Atlantic, Vice-Admiralty courts had an enormous responsibility when seeing to the legal issues that accompanied any serious volume of maritime traffic. The screenplay Prize-of-War focuses on the Vice-Admiralty court at Halifax, which was unique in its disposition over the colonies of British North America. The court at Halifax, on its creation, enjoyed unique powers that no other court in the New World could match; Halifax had an effective jurisdiction from Canada to Florida, and any enterprising mariner could petition the court for assistance, and would receive it in some manner or another. Prize-of-War revolves around the case of a seized British vessel, a prize, that was captured by a Royal Navy captain. While the characters within Prize-of-War are fictitious, they are based off of a real event in history with a relatively accurate legal approximation. The screenplay also touches on the inherent problem with Admiralty courts of any stature throughout history—the distribution of profits from a seized and auctioned vessel. This manner of incentive engendered a great deal of bitterness from respondents within the system, as any judge would undoubtedly find himself considerably richer if he ruled in the “correct” manner. Vice-Admiralty courts represent an era that is still remembered vividly in literature to this day—the age of fighting-sail—and vestiges of its authority still remain in the maritime law of many Western nations. Most of the history behind Prize-of-War comes from the court of Vice-Admiralty at Virginia and Halifax, where there exists a good source of detailed knowledge, not only on the procedural traditions and conventions of an Admiralty court, but also on specific cases and trials that took place in both courts. The difference between a court of Vice-Admiralty, and a court of Admiralty lay in the distance between the two. Vice-Admiralty courts were located in colonies

and possessions abroad, away from the imperial home of Great Britain.1 The High Court of Admiralty was located in London, and was often the final stop for any litigator concerning appeals and petitions. Notwithstanding the High Court of Admiralty, Vice-Admiralty courts wielded a considerable degree of power before civil bodies began to grow in prominence, which slowly deprived Admiralty courts of any practical application.2 Courts of Admiralty followed certain procedure, laid out quite plainly by George Reese, a scholar who has had a particular strong grasp on the niceties and traditions that were found within these courts. Just like modern courts have a certain procedure, such as the laying of a charge, the calling of witnesses, and the final statement by an attorney, so did Admiralty courts, and many traditions that are followed today can be recognized within the conventions of these courts. The plaintiff was instead a libellant, who rather issued a libel than a complaint. This was usually answered by the defendant, usually represented in the form of a proctor or attorney (as it is done today). The judge, generally a civilly appointed member of the community or jurist sent from Great Britain, issued a proclamation and decree in favour of one of the parties.3 These cases ordinarily lasted a few days, and a judge would often convene a court on his own whim, up until such time courts of Vice-Admiralty became a regularly scheduled affair.4 While certainly these procedures seem simple in such a modest presentation, in all actuality they may have appeared quite inaccessible and complicated if observed by anyone in modern times. Prize-of-War illustrates the procedure of a court of Vice-Admiralty quite simply, but it is important that its potential for complexity is not underestimated.

Donald Fyson, The Court Structure of Quebec and Lower Canada, 1764 to 1860 [record on-line] (Montreal: Université Laval 2004, accessed 17th November 2008); available from http://www.hst.ulaval.ca/profs/dfyson/courtstr/V_adm.htm; Internet. 2 Albert Gray, “Admiralty Jurisdiction in Inland Waters,” Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 12, no. 1 (1911): 33 3 George Reese, "The Court of Vice-Admiralty in Virginia and Some Case of 1770-1775," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 12 (July 1980): 303. 4 Fyson, The Court Structure of Quebec and Lower Canada, 1764 to 1860.
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The plot in Prize-of-War is inspired by a Virginian case that went to trial in 1758, involving the seizure of the Prudent Hannah, a brigantine bound for Port-au-Prince with French prisoners-of-war onboard. Captain Legge, of the H.M.S Chesterfield, was the Royal Navy officer responsible for the seizure. Much like Captain Marinus in Prize-of-War, Legge went on a short cruise while awaiting a fleet of trade ships to arrive for escort duty, and happened upon the Prudent Hannah on its way to Port-au-Prince.5 In addition to a French vessel also seized, the Hannah was brought back to port and Legge began the process of issuing a libel within the court of Vice-Admiralty. In the screenplay, the captain of the brigantine, Master John Hevely, claims to have received a writ of certification legalizing the quantity of goods stored on his vessel the Dart; it was a very similar situation with Legge and the captured Prudent Hannah. The captain of the brig, a Paul Tew, had his cargo appraised and certified—that writ, however, was maintained, and presented in court.6 Such evidence did not save nor help Mister Tew, and his ship, much like the Dart in Prize-of-War, was seized and sold at auction. Although not blatantly illustrated in the screenplay, Judge William Spry would have profited considerably from the sale of the Dart, just as the Judge in the Tew had. Indeed, the profits to be made by Judges and Lieutenants Governor became a serious problem in the colonies, as more defendants became upset with the seizure of their property for what appeared to be unscrupulous reasons. One text, dated 1814, outlines the concerns that had been raised regarding courts of Admiralty and the conflict of interest that existed within them. It called into question a judge’s judicial independence, and whether or not a decision was prompted by a desire to see justice done, or to line one’s pockets.7 James Stewart, the reporter for the Court, details the legislation

George Reese, "A Case of 1758 in the Vice-Admiralty Court of Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89, no. 4 (October 1981): 406. 6 Reese, “A Case of 1758 in the Vice-Admiralty Court of Virginia,” 414. 7 James Stewart, Reports of Cases, Argued and Determined in the Court of Vice-Admiralty, at Halifax, in Nova Scotia, from the Commencement of the War, in 1803, to the end of the year 1813, in the time of Alexander Croke, LL.D. Judge of that Court (London: J. Butterworth and son, Fleet-Street, 1814) vii.
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that had been put into place, including limits on salaries for judges, and the amount of possible profits gleaned from the seizure and auction of prize-vessels. This extra revenue was made not to exceed the certain total salary for a Admiralty court judge—provisions that were broadly welcomed in the colonies. 8 Before such a reform, Admiralty judges had sweeping, unchecked powers in the matter of prizes seized lawfully, powers that they enjoyed exclusively within the legal community.9This is even more of an improvement from earlier maritime law, when if such a case was brought to court, there was very little in the way of convention or written law that could deprive the captor of a prize once seized.10 In Prize-of-War, the pretentious William Spry would have had good reason to rule in favour of Captain Marinus—indeed, his cut would have exceeded four hundred pounds, which would have accounted for nearly a quarter of a judge’s annual salary if Stewart’s records are to be believed.11 It is worth pointing out that many of the characters in Prize-of-War are entirely fictitious —save the actual Judge, which certainly may have presided over the Vice-Admiralty courts at Halifax in 1764. Much of the procedure and process was derived from George Reese’s article, which did not make clear the role of the admiral, if any (though there is some mention, though dubious, of a vice-admiral in attendance in some courts).12 Any format or formula the court followed was not described in any great detail, notwithstanding the issuance of a libel from the libellant, and the response that normally followed. The screenplay, however, accurately demonstrates the authority a court of Vice-Admiralty had over maritime affairs, and the helplessness many defendants were at the hands of an overbearing justice system that, until a later period, were vulnerable to unscrupulous motivators; motivators such as the amount of
Stewart, vii. George F. Steckley, “Litigious Mariners: Wage Cases in the Seventeenth-Century Admiralty Court.” The Historical Journal 42, no. 2 (1999): 317. 10 R.G. Marsden, “The High Court of Admiralty in Relation to National, Commerce and the Colonization of America. A.D. 1550-1650.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 16, no. 0 (1902): 73. 11 Reese, “A Case of 1758 in the Vice-Admiralty Court of Virginia,” 420. 12 Virtual Museum of History, “William Spry, Famous Americans.” (Virtualology.com: Appletons Encyclopedia 2001, accessed 03 December 2008); available from http://famousamericans.net/williamspry; Internet.
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money to be made in the seizure and sale of otherwise honest and lawful vessels and merchantmen. David Trenholm

Bibliography

Fyson, Donald. "The Court Structure of Quebec and Lower Canada, 1764 to 1860." Montreal: Université Laval 2004, accessed 17th November 2008; available from http://www.hst.ulaval.ca/profs/dfyson/courtstr/V_adm.htm George Reese, "The Court of Vice-Admiralty in Virginia and Some Case of 1770-1775," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 12 (July 1980) 301-337. George Reese, "A Case of 1758 in the Vice-Admiralty Court of Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89, no. 4 (October 1981) 405-424. Gray, Albert. "Admiralty Jurisdiction in Inland Waters." Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 12, no. 1 (1911): pp 33-43. Marsden, R.G. "The High Court of Admiralty in Relation to National History, Commerce and the Colonisation of America. A.D. 1550-1650." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 16.0 (1902) 69-96. Steckley, George F. "Litigious Mariners: Wage Cases in the Seventeenth-Century Admiralty Court." The Historical Journal 42.2 (1999) 315-345. Stewart, James. Reports of Cases, Argued and Determined in the Court of Vice-Admiralty, at Halifax, in Nova Scotia, from the Commencement of the War, in 1803, to the end of the year 1813, in the time of Alexander Croke, LL.D. Judge of that Court. London: J. Butterworth and Son, Fleet-Street, 1814. Virtual Museum of History. “William Spry, Famous Americans.” Virtualology.com: Appletons Encyclopedia 2001, accessed 03 December 2008; available from http://famousamericans.net/williamspry; Internet.

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