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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Libellants & Claimants of The Schooner Amistad - 40 U.S. 518 (1841)


Although public documents of the government, accompanying property found on board of the private ships of a foreign nation, certainly are to be deemed prima facie evidence of the facts which they purport to state, yet they are always open to be impugned for fraud; and whether that fraud be in the original obtaining of these documents, or in the subsequent fraudulent and illegal use of them, when once it is satisfactorily established, it overthrows all their sanctity, and destroys them as proof. Fraud will vitiate any, even the most solemn transactions; and an asserted title to property, founded upon it, is utterly void.


Libellants and ship salvagers filed an action seeking salvage from the ship and cargo owners, for a ship of Spanish registry they rescued. The United States intervened, filing a suggestion on behalf of Spain. The trial court granted salvage and determined that the slaves on board were not property of the claimants and should be returned to Africa. On appeal, the United States maintained that under the Treaty of 1819, art. 9, the trial court should have returned the cargo and slaves to the cargo owners because they had provided evidence of ownership. The cargo owners concurred and also asserted that the allowance of salvage was improper. 


Was the trial court's order granting salvage and determining that the slaves on board were not property of the claimants and should be returned to Africa proper?


Yes, in part; however, the order to return the slaves was erroneous.


The United States Supreme Court affirmed the decision with the exception of the order to return the slaves to Africa. The cargo owners failed to prove the slaves were ever lawfully held under the laws of Spain or recognized by the laws of Spain as property capable of being bought and sold. Spain had abolished the slave trade and thus the slaves, having been introduced into the dominions of Spain, were free. The ships documents, though prima facie evidence that the slaves were bought in Cuba, were impugned as being fraudulent, and therefore, they could not be used as proof of proper ownership. Because the slaves were deemed to be free men and not the property of the Spanish cargo owners, the Treaty of 1819 was not applicable to them. Further, because the slaves were not imported into the country in contravention of United States laws, they could not be sent back to Africa under those laws and were required to be set free.

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