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Not-Quite justice After Never-ITTis ITTir: A French Spoliation Case from the Quasi-War by Jock Yellott hen Captain Jeremiah Yellott died in Baltimore in 1805, his last will and testament bequeathed to his heirs several unresolved claims arising out of French privateering. Following the fate of one of Yellott's captured vessels, the schooner Mary, offers a glimpse of the complexities of the QuasiWar with France and the ensuing litigation, which lasted well over a century. The Quasi-War was, in part, French retribution for American ingratitude. The new United States owed its independence largely to French financial and military support, particularly the arrival at the crucial moment of the French fleet off Yorktown. In 1778, during the Revolutionary War, and again immediately afterward in 1782, the United States had signed treaties guaranteeing France increased trade, protection of their colonial possessions, and safe transit for their vessels. Only a decade later, we began to renege. Instead, we took up again with their perennial adversaries-the English. By the 1790s our lucrative cotton and tobacco trades had returned to their customary channels, with the French largely excluded. We did nothing to discourage British depredations upon French colonial possessions (which then included Santo Domingo, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Tobago, Deseada, Marie-Galante, Grenada in the West Indies, a colony on the mainland at Cayenne, and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland). English privateers, preying on French shipping, were welcome in American ports. John Jay's Treaty of 1794, promising cordial relations with Great Britain, was the last straw for France. In the mid- l 790s French privateers began cruising under letters of marque and reprisal. Though the letters of marque were theoretically valid only against their English enemy, the French started to seize neutral American vessels as well. The increasingly effective British blockade of French ports on the continent and in the Caribbean made American cargoes of foodstuffs particularly tempting. For these reasons, and as a rebuke and warning, the French government found it expedient to look the other way as their privateers swarmed against American shipping.

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Without a formal declaration of war, however, French prize courts resorted to mendacity to maintain the pretense of comporting with international law. US Secretary of State T imothy Pickering reported to Congress in June 1797 that the "monstrous abuse of judicial proceedings," included "frauds, and falsehoods, as well as flimsy and shameless pretexts." The French aurhorities often condemned vessels be-

tempted sailors with bribes "to swear falsely" that they carried English cargo, and if "bribes were refused and threats despised ... endeavor[ed] to accomplish the object by TORTURE" [emphasis in original]. The French tortured Captain Martin of the Baltimore schooner Cincinnatus for three hours with thumbscrews to extract a confession that his vessel carried English contraband. He successfully resisted, and

"Watercolor ofthe American ship Betsey ofPhiladelphia. The scene depicts Betsey, under the command of Captain j. Risbrough, being attacked by seven French privateers in 1797 Note: this is not the same Betsey mentioned in this article. There are records ofat least a dozen different vessels named ''Betsey" having been captured in this time period. Clearly, it was not an uncommon scene in the shipping lanes ofthe Atlantic and Caribbean. artist unknown.

cause of imaginary defects in ship's papers, bills oflading, or "the want of or informality in a cenified list of passengers and crew" (called a role d'equipage). Other US records assert the thin excuses included: "the ship's compass showed an English brand, or the cooking utensils were of English manufacture," or "the American flag carried only 14 stars instead of 15 ." In Guadeloupe, where judges took shares in prizes-so the result was never in doubt-Secretary Pickering reported that American sailors were routinely "beaten, insulted and cruelly imprisoned," stripped of money and clothing, and held incommunicado to prevent their appearance in court to mount a defense. The French

"the marks of the torturing screws will go with him to his grave." 1he French treated Captain William Burgess, master of the schooner Juno, "like a dog," starved and abused him to such an extem that he finally died (H. Doc. 362, 60th Congress, 1st Session). Several cases were filed in Claims Court regarding neutral ships forfeited because an American vessel allegedly carried enemy crew. In the case of the schooner Conrad, Joseph Osborn, Master, the Claims Court noted that a gentleman named "Comad Eiselen, supercargo and one of the owners of the said vessel, according to his own avowel, is a native of Germany, and carried with him no proof of SEA HISTORY 113 , WINTER 2005-2006

Sea History 113 - Winter 2005-2006  

10 Dangerous Voyage, by Roger Tilton • 16A French Spoliation Case: Not-Quite Justice after Never-Was War, by Jock Yellott • 26 Samuel Elio...

Sea History 113 - Winter 2005-2006  

10 Dangerous Voyage, by Roger Tilton • 16A French Spoliation Case: Not-Quite Justice after Never-Was War, by Jock Yellott • 26 Samuel Elio...