The Rugen/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

It has been contended, that this vessel and cargo were bona fide the property of the appellant, a subject of Sweden, who had a right to trade with the enemy of the United States; and that having done nothing to forfeit his neutral character, both the sentences below were erroneous, and ought to be reversed. To entitle himself to such reversal, the claimant has undertaken to show, and insists that he has shown, that at the time of, and previous to, the departure of the Rugen from the United States, she, as well as the cargo on board, was his property, and that he was then, and still is, a subject of the king of Sweden, with whom the United States were at peace.

The court will now proceed to inquire how far Mr. Buhring has succeeded in establishing the facts on which he relies for a restitution of this property. In pursuing this inquiry, it may become unnecessary to decide whether the papers which were on board were sufficient to entitle the Rugen to the privileges or national character of a Swedish vessel; because, whatever may be their regularity and effect, yet, if the court shall be of opinion that they were only colourable, and that an American citizen, and not the claimant, was owner of the vessel and cargo, it will not be pretended that belligerant rights can be eluded in this way; or that the subject of a state at war can, under cover of neutral muniments, however regularly procured, or formal they may be, violate, with impunity, his duty and allegiance to his own country. So far from such documents, when intended only as a cover, affording any protection to the property, they render the party resorting to them doubly criminal, by the scene of fraud and perjury which must be waded through in order to obtain them; and then, in case of disaster, to make a court believe that such papers disclose nothing but the real truth of the case. The whole controversy will then be resolved into the single question, whether, in point of fact, Mr. Buhring, or Messrs. Samuel and Charles Howard, who are citizens of the United States, were owners of the Rugen and her cargo at the time of her sailing from Savannah, and on her return to the United States. It must ever be a painful task to investigate testimony where a result unfavourable to the claimant can only proceed from a conviction that the principal agents in the transaction have acted either fraudulently, or contrary to their known duty as good citizens. Such is the duty now imposed on the court.

The claimant is said to be a Swede. If this be admitted, and it seems not to be denied, we are compelled, by the very suspicious circumstances of this case, to look beyond his national character, and to inquire very particularly into his situation at the time he embarked, or became connected with this adventure. Had he ever been a merchant in his own country, or elsewhere? Had he ever resided in any of our seaports, or carried on business of any kind there, or in any other place? Had he, at any time, means to purchase this vessel and cargo; or was he sufficiently known to have acquired a credit to that extent? These questions were all asked by the advocate of the captors, to which no satisfactory answer was given on the argument; and it is in vain that the proceedings are searched for a solution of either of them at all favourable to the present claim. On the contrary, easily as every difficulty on these points might have been dispelled, if this were a fair proceeding, no attempt of the kind has been made, or if it has, it has terminated in establishing that Mr. Buhring's situation and circumstances were such as preclude all reasonable doubt of his being any other than the ostensible owner of the vessel and cargo. He was a young man, only twenty-one years old, residing, as well as his brother William, in South Carolina, with Mr. Scarborough, Vice Commercial Agent of the king of Sweden, for the state of Georgia. From this retirement he is drawn, and, for the first time, introduced to the notice of the mercantile world by the Messrs. Howards, who appear to be merchants of considerable property and credit, residing at Savannah, in the State of Georgia. Between these gentlemen and Mr. Buhring there could have been but very little previous acquaintance; for the latter arrived at Savannah from Europe only two or three months before we find him engaged in the concerns of the Rugen; and after remaining not more than three or four days in that city he went to reside in the country of South Carolina, whence he did not return to Savannah until he came back with Mr. C. Howard, a very few days before the Rugen sailed. It is not, then, harsh to presume, that the strongest and only recommendation of Mr. Buhring was his national character. The Messrs. Howards appear, at the time, to have been in search of a Swede, and were not long in meeting with one whose youth and inexperience well fitted him for the purposes for which, there is so much reason to believe, he was wanted. A feeble attempt, however, has been made to show that Mr. Buhring was not without credit as well as funds. To the former point one witness has been examined, and to establish that he was not entirely destitute of property, it has been shown that he actually gave two notes, amounting, together, to about 4,300 dollars, for the Rugen and her cargo, in the month of May, 1813, payable in four months after date; that these notes, as they became due, were taken up by him with great punctuality at one of the banks in Savannah. Whether these notes were really made at the time when they bear date, may well be doubted; but it admits of no doubt that they were discharged with the proper moneys of the Messrs. Howards, which had almost the moment before been drawn, by one of them, out of the bank, and put into the hands of Mr. Buhring for that purpose. With the funds, then, of Mr. Howard, and not with those of Mr. Buhring, were these notes taken up; and a contrivance, which was intended to make Mr. Buhring appear as a man of property, has not only altogether failed, but has added very considerable weight to the suggestion of the captors, that he was a young man totally destitute of the means of purchasing and paying for the property which, it is now alleged, belonged to him. But we now find Mr. Buhring at Savannah; and what is done with him? or what does he do with himself, on his arrival there? Does he go about to purchase a vessel? Does he, when he is told that the Rugen belongs to him, take any measures to fit her out? Does he provide a crew? Does he agree for their wages? Does he purchase a cargo? Does he see to its being put on board? Does he effect insurance? or is he found doing any one act which might naturally be expected from an owner? All this trouble had already been most kindly taken off his hands by his new friend and acquaintance, Mr. Howard. This gentleman had already (if we are to believe the history of this transaction as it is narrated by the claimant) provided him with a vessel and cargo, although it does not appear that he had instructions or funds of Mr. Buhring for the purpose. It is true, that with a caution that was very excusable, considering the circumstances of Mr. Buhring, the bill of sale which had been executed by the marshal, with a blank for the name of the vendee, was not put into the possession of Mr. Buhring, but carefully retained by the Messrs. Howards, they executing to him one in their own names, although they now say they never were the owners of the vessel. And even this bill of sale, it is very probable, remained in the custody of Mr. Samuel Howard during the whole of the voyage to Jamaica and back to the United States. Every thing being now in readiness for their departure from Savannah, Mr. Buhring appears on board, and is introduced to the mate and crew, not merely as owner of vessel and cargo, but as master for the voyage. Whether any surprise were excited on board by the new character in which the claimant appeared, or whether they expressed and reluctance at placing themselves under his command, we know not; not is it a fact very necessary to ascertain, because they must soon have discovered that Mr. Samuel Howard, whose friendship for Mr. Buhring seems to have had no limit, and in whose seamanship they may have had full confidence, intended to go with the vessel, and relieve Mr. Buhring from the troublesome task, if he were equal to it, of navigating the Rugen. For this conduct, on the part of Mr. Howard, no other reasonable motive can be assigned than an interest in the vessel and cargo. The allegation of his going after certain funds in Carthagena is not at all made out. The Rugen leaves Savannah on the 5th or 6th of May, bound, as is alleged, for Carthagena, but arrives at Kingston, in the island of Jamaica. The court is not at all satisfied with the excuses which have been made for her going there. It does not appear that a vis major or any kind existed. She was neither forced in by adverse winds, nor was she under any restraint from capture. When within only four leagues of the island she was boarded by a British brig of war called La Decouverte, whose commander ordered her into Kingston. He put no prize-master on board; nor did he endorse any of her papers; nor did he keep company with her: and yet we find her doing exactly what she was verbally directed to do. It is faintly pretended, that if she had attempted, after that, to go to Carthagena, she could not have escaped the British cruisers which swarmed about the island. But what greater danger, if the property were neutral, would ensue on a capture by any other British vessel than by her going to a British port as prize to the Decouverte, or by her orders? It is believed, then, that her going to Jamaica was voluntary, and formed part of the original plan; which opinion derives considerable support from the fact of insurance having been made, not only for Carthagena, but also for a port in the West Indies; from the nature of the outward cargo; from the readiness with which they consented to dispose of it at that place, and procured another for this country promising a much greater profit than any which at that time could have been imported from Carthagena. There is yet a still stronger circumstance to prove that the destination of the Rugen to Carthagena was fictitious; and that is, her meeting at Kingston a ship called the Wanschop, which had sailed from Savannah but a little before the Rugen. On board of that vessel we find Mr. William Buhring, a brother of the claimant, and we have every reason to believe that she belonged, with her cargo, to the same concern. The Wanschop, it is also said, was destined for Porto Bello, on the Spanish Main; but by a strange coincidence of events, which can scarcely have been the effect of chance alone, she also gets out of her course, falls in with the same British vessel of war which afterwards boarded the Rugen; receives the like order to proceed to Kingston, which she also very promptly, and without any apparent reluctance, complied with. The business of these two vessels is managed by the same house in Kingston, and the proceeds of both of their cargoes are invested in molasses, rum, &c., which composed the return cargo of the Rugen. If the property claimed were bona fide Swedish, it would be superfluous to inquire whether the Rugen's going to Jamaica were voluntary, or by coercion, a subject of Sweden having, for aught that appears, as good right to trade there as at Carthagena. But if it belonged to the American gentlemen, who have had an agency so conspicuous in the whole of this business, (and that it did is our unanimous opinion,) it will not be pretended that they could go to Kingston unless by compulsion, or that they had any right during the late war to purchase and bring a cargo from any British port to this or any other country.

The court having already expressed its opinion, that this vessel and cargo did not belong to the claimant, but to citizens of the United States, the latter having been purchased at Kingston, as is believed, with their funds; it becomes quite unnecessary to inquire what was the real destination of the Rugen on her leaving Kingston; whether she were bound, in fact, to Amelia Island, or to the United States; although it might not be very difficult to come to a satisfactory conclusion that Hardwicke, in Georgia, was her real port of destination. But this examination is unnecessary; for the owners, being American citizens, are equally guilty of trading with the enemy, whether that trade were carried on between a British port and the United States, or between such port and any foreign nation; and in the present case, if the court be correct in the view which it has taken of the evidence, the offence of trading with the enemy was complete the moment the Rugen sailed from Savannah with an intention to carry her cargo to Kingston, in Jamaica. Upon the whole, without taking notice of many of the arguments urged by the advocates of the captors in favour of condemnation, and which are entitled to great consideration, the court is unanimously of opinion, that the decree of the circuit court, rejecting the claim of Mr. Buhring, was correct, and must, in all things, be affirmed.

Sentence affirmed with costs.


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).