Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
867 of 1105



PRIZES, Maritime. A maritime prize is a vessel or cargo or other property which is lawfully captured in war at sea by authority of a belligerent state.


—By modern international law the fact of maritime capture does not vest the thing seized with the character of prize, nor pass a perfect title to the belligerent state under whose authority the capture is alleged to have occurred, or, through it, to any of its agents, until, upon satisfactory proof that such seizure was made in accordance with the usages of war, a competent court of the belligerent state by whose authority the captor acts, has pronounced a sentence of condemnation. Nor can property in the thing captured at sea be transferred in favor of a neutral vendec or recaptor, so as to bar the original owner, until such a court has pronounced sentence of condemnation; and the possession of the thing captured at sea by the belligerent state of the captor, until such court has pronounced sentence of condemnation, is a trust for the benefit of those who may be ultimately found to be entitled.


—A competent court, for the purpose above described, is any court of the belligerent state under whose authority the capture is alleged to have occurred, which has jurisdiction in cases of maritime capture. Such a court is commonly called a prize court. In the United States such jurisdiction is confined to the federal courts, beginning with a district court, with appeal up through the circuit courts to the supreme court. A prize court may sit either in the territory of the state of the captor or in that of any allied state, but not in that of a neutral state, and its sentence of condemnation may be valid, though the thing captured has never been in its actual custody, or is in a neutral port or is not in existence, when pronounced.


—The necessity of inquiry by a prize court into the lawfulness of maritime captures results from the responsibility of belligerent states to neutral states for aggressions upon the persons and property of their subjects, and the fact that a large proportion of maritime captures are neutral property "charged as involved in violation of rights of war, or property whose nationality as neutral or hostile is doubtful."


—The duty of a captor in war on stopping a vessel, according to the authorities below cited, is to make such examination as circumstances permit, and to release the vessel unless there is probable cause for a fuller examination by a prize court. If such cause is found, the captor's duty is to send the vessel, as speedily as possible, into a convenient port of his own state (the modern practice of neutrals prohibiting the use of their ports by the prizes of a belligerent, except in cases of necessity, and only while the necessity exists) for such fuller examination, together with all the papers, cargo and other evidence on board, unaltered, and with all persons on board likely to be useful to the owners as witnesses. If the vessel stopped is a neutral vessel, the captor's duty is, after examination, either to release the vessel absolutely with her cargo, papers and passengers, or to complete his capture, and send her into a convenient port of his own state for further examination by a prize court. He can not take any middle course in such a case. Necessity will excuse the captor from sending in the vessel seized. If she is unseaworthy, or there is imminent danger of immediate recapture, or if an infectious disease is on board, he may destroy or abandon the vessel seized, but he must preserve all papers and persons on board, for the validity of his acts is, even in such cases, matter for the adjudication of a prize court.


—If, after seizure of a vessel, she escapes from her captor, or is retaken, or if the owner ransoms her, before sentence of condemnation, the property is thereby revested.


—Even though no controlling necessity prevents the sending into a convenient port of the thing seized, some states (among them, the United States) allow their captors to release the vessel or other property captured at sea, upon a written agreement, made and delivered by or on behalf of its owners, to give something of value to the captor. This written agreement is called a ransom bill, and with it hostages have sometimes been given to the captor as collateral security for the fulfillment of the contract. The receipt for the ransom bill is a passport, entitling the releasee to pursue a definite voyage within a definite time without liability to capture by any one acting under authority of the state of the captor, or its ally. Failure to comply strictly with the terms of the ransom bill revives the liability to capture, unless it can be clearly proven that such failure is due to unavoidable necessity. If the ransomed vessel or other property is lost before completion of the prescribed voyage, the ransom is still due, unless the captor expressly insured the releasee against the perils of the sea. If the ransomed vessel or other property is recaptured on a different voyage from that described, or after the time limited, and is adjudged a lawful prize, the price of the ransom is deducted from the proceeds of the prize, and given to the first captor, and the residue is given to the second captor. The recapture of the ransom bill discharges the obligation of the releasee, but the death or flight of hostages given with the ransom bill does not.


—If a captor, stopping a vessel at sea, is not relieved, after such examination as circumstances there permit, from the duty of sending her in for adjudication, and if she is not revested in her original owner by recapture or ransom, a fuller examination of the vessel or other property will be made by the prize court, and the property will either be restored to its original owner or condemned. The procedure in prize courts is summary, and not in the nature of litigation inter partes, or ex parte. Prima facie the vessel or other property captured is the property of the state. Opportunity is given to any person or state, not an enemy, who has an interest in the vessel or other property, to establish a right of restitution. If no claimant establishes a right to restitution, the vessel or other property is condemned. If any claimant establishes a right to restitution, he is entitled, not only to the captured property, but to damages from the captor, if the seizing and sending were without probable cause. If a state does not submit the question of prize to adjudication, or if its prize court is not constituted, or does not proceed, in the manner recognized by the usages of nations, or if the state should confiscate property against the decision of its own prize court, the state whose rights or whose subject's rights are affected has cause of complaint, and the question becomes political.


—Upon condemnation, the disposition of the proceeds of a prize depends upon municipal law. Some states distribute such proceeds, called prize or head money, among the captors as a reward for bravery, and to encourage future maritime captures from their enemies.


—The compensation to which recaptors are entitled, called salvage, is determined by municipal law between vessels of the same state, and by treaty betwen vessels of allied states, and, commonly, by the principle of reciprocity between vessels of other states.


—See Wheaton's International Law, secs. 359-396, and Dana's note, pp. 480-488; Kent's Commentaries, vol. i., pp. 100-116; Woolsey's International Law, secs. 148-153; Revised Statutes of the U. S., secs 4613-4653.


867 of 1105

Return to top