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6.       Multiple Captors

In some cases, several predators, in squadron under the command of a senior officer (Navy) or in ‘wolf pack’ (privateers) were involved in a chase. Several ships may have been engaged during the chase (that could last for days). If the chase surrendered to one of these ships (called the ‘actual captor’), the question raised of how to divide the prize money between all protagonists.

As D.A. Petrie puts it, “the general rule [in the Navy] was to divide the proceeds among all captors vessels that were in sight at the same time the chase lowered her national flag, the universal signal of surrender. Apportionment was based on the relative “force” of each vessel, being the weight of the cannon balls that each could fire, or on the size of their crews.”  Of course, this rule caused much controversy and prize litigation in court between the officers involved (who was or was not  in sight at the very moment the prey surrendered).

Among privateers, the rules were the same, unless a different arrangement had been contracted by the hunters before the cruise. If a naval vessel (from the same country as the privateer) was in sight, she could claim a part of the prize. But when a privateer witnessed the capture of an enemy ship by a naval vessel, it was more difficult to claim anything to the Navy (except if help had been granted to capture the prize).

French frigate Danaé (1807) - Wikipedia

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Hi  On smuggling in the 18th century in England, I found interesting sources:  - E.K. Chatterton, 1912. King's Cutters and Smugglers, 1700-1855, George Allen & Company, London, 425 pp.,

1        1. Career overview   a.       The privateer’s colourful life included: -          negotiations with a ship owner (not always the investor) and the authority to allow a ship to

Great siege of Gibraltar.

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7.       Selection of the Prize Court

The prize had to be sent to a port with a prize crew. This would be decided by the master of the captor, according to te proximity of the port, the condition of the chase, the chance to be intercepted by the enemy, etc., but also, under prize law, according to the convenience of the prize’s owners or cargo shippers who might appear in court as claimant against the condemnation of their ship/cargo. As put by D. A. Petrie, “A flagrant disregard for the convenience of claimants could result in a loss of the prize in court and an assessment of damages against her captors”.

Great Britain had a High Court of Admiralty in London (in the ‘Doctors’ commons’, see here under the picture and the map) and Vice-Admiralty Courts in its colonies all over the world. Other nations (American, Dutch, French, Spanish) had no such ‘external’ courts but used to designate their own judges on allied territory (for instance, Benjamin Franklin was US minister plenipotentiary in Paris, and also a judge for prize captured by American privateers and brought into French ports).

Fichier:Doctors Commons edited.jpg — WikipédiaK is for Knightrider Street | Anne's Family History

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8.       Recapture ‘en route’ to the Prize Court

A prize could be recaptured with the prize crew on her way to the port by the enemy. In such case, persons and cargoes seized by the enemy were restored to their original status. The fact is that it occurred often (during the American War of 1812, of 1500 British merchant ships captured by the US Navy, 750 of them were recaptured by the Royal Navy or British privateers).

The merchant ships re-captured were reverted to their original owners and “the re-captors could not make prize of them”. But the owners had to pay to the recaptor a financial reward, generally a share of the value of the ship and her cargo (this charge was called by the prize courts a “military salvage”).

Prisoners of war aboard a prize could stage an uprising and overthrow their captors (the prize crew). Thus, the choice of a prize crew was difficult and risky (if too many men were allocated to the prize crew, the privateer lost its fighting and manoeuvrability capacities; if the prize crew was too limited, then the risk of a successful uprising of the prisoners would increase).

Triton (1787 EIC ship) CareerและRecapture and subsequent career

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9.       Before the Prize Court

The proceeding before the prize court was designed to avoid unnecessary delay and risks for the cargo.

The first question discussed before the court was to determine whether the captured ship was a prize or not ? This question was decided promptly and based only on: a) the ship’s documents and b) testimony of members of both crews (these were interrogated under specific procedure and separately to avoid any mutual influence; their testimony was then transmitted with the ship’s documents to the prize judge). Only when documents presented to the court raised questions impossible to resolve quickly, was further evidence admitted.

That crucial question could be resolved in three ways:

o   if the judge found that the chase was not a good prize but that the captor had legitimate causes of suspicion, the chase was released immediately without financial compensation;

o   if the judge found that the chase was not a prize and that the captor’s suspicion was unwarranted, the captive was entitled to immediate release but also to a judgement for damages against the captor…

o   if the judge found that the chase was a good prize, the judge “condemned” the ship and her cargo (remember, this is a legal proceeding against a ship, not against a person).

Here under the building of the Admiralty Court (Doctors Commons) in London

The College of Advocates, Doctors'' Comm - Thomas Hosmer Shepherd en  reproduction imprimée ou copie peinte à l'huile sur toile

The Hall of Doctors' Commons, also called the College of Civilians, was a  society of lawyers practising civil law in London. Like the Inns of Court  of the common lawyers, the society


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10.       The Fate of the Prize and her Cargo

When they were condemned as good prize, the ship and her cargo were sold and the court held proceeds :

-          to the satisfaction, first, of neutral claimants (cargo shippers in particular) who could intervene before the court during one year and one day (consequently, the prize money was only paid to the captor one year after condemnation !)

-          for distribution, second, to the captor’s sovereign and crew (in accordance to domestic rules in force).

Complications came when neutral cargo was found in an enemy ship, or enemy cargo in a neutral ship… Without going into details, the position of Britain was :

a) lawful goods of a friend found on board an enemy ship had to be restored to its owner;

b) goods of the enemy found on board a neutral or friend ship, could be taken.  

The position of other nations (FR, US, RU, Scandinavian nations) was that the nationality of the ship is presumed to be stamped on her cargo (‘free ships make free goods’).

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