Naval law in the 1860s

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
This is split off from a discussion in the What-If forum, where it was cluttering up the thread there a bit. The topic of discussion is international law in the 1860s, as it stood, with regards to blockades and civilian shipping.


Via Chelyabinsk, the laws on registering a ship in a given nation were often quite strict:



Austria: 'The crew shall be composed of two-thirds at least of Austrian subjects' (1852) 'Austrian subjects only being able to be owners of ships, the captain is bound to make known a foreign owner, and denounce him to the authority, as soon as it is known to him, under the lawful penalties, and even of condemnation to death, in case of fraud or damage to the state. (1852)
Hanseatic Towns: 'vessels owned by citizens of either of those republics, wherever built, shall be deemed Hanseatic, provided they are manned by a Hanseatic citizen and that three-fourths of the crew are subjects of those cities' (1850) 'A ship belonging to a citizen of Hamburg, is a Hamburg vessel' (1852) 'To navigate a vessel under the Hamburg flag, it is necessary to be a citizen of Hamburg.' (1852)
Prussia: 'None can be considered Prussian ships, and entitled to use the Prussian flag, but those, which belong to Prussian subjects, and if such ships are held in common ownership by many persons, all must be Prussian subjects... it is not absolutely requisite, that the national character of the crew or the build of the vessel should be Prussian' (1845)
France: 'No vessel is entitled to the privileges of a French ship unless, 1st, she is built in some French port; or, 2d, captured from the enemy and condemned as a prize; or, 3d, after being stranded on the coast of France or of some French possession, and publicly sold to a French purchaser, her repairs cost four times as much at the purchase money. By the laws of France, two-thirds of the crews of French ships must be French subjects; the other third may be foreigners; but owning to the number of seamen unemployed since the late war, the employment of any foreign seamen is forbidden by order of the government' (1834) 'No ship is entitled to national privileges unless the half at least belong to Frenchmen, or to foreigners to whom civil rights have been granted. That a ship may have the privileges of a French ship she must have been built in France. It is therefore unlawful to give ship's papers to any ship built or purchased in foreign countries.' (1863)
Spain: 'The officers and two-thirds of the crew of a Spanish vessel must be Spanish born subjects, on all ordinary voyages; for the slave trade, the captain and one-half of the crew.' (1834) 'None can be captain but a Spaniard, or a naturalised Spaniard, who is capable of binding himself, and resides in the kingdom.' (1852)
Portugal: 'The following only are registered as Portuguese vessels: ships of Portuguese construction, those legally captured and adjudged as prizes, and those purchased by Portuguese subjects, after payment of the duty exacted.' (1852) 'Every captain must be born in the two kingdoms or its colonies' (1852)
Netherlands: 'Foreign built ships, owned wholly by subjects of the kingdom, are considered national. But, after the expiration of five years from the restoration of the colonies, a ship, in order to enjoy the national character, must be built in the mother country or the colonies... It is not required that ships of the country be manned wholly or in part by subjects of the kingdom.' (1834)
Russia: 'The licenses for navigating under the colours of a Russian mercantile marine, must be signed by the council of the Admiralty, and transmitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs, who affixes to it the State stamp, and receives the duties... The emperor alone can give to a foreign vessel the authority to sail under Russian colours... Up to 1840 the crew of a Russian ship might be composed of three-fourths foreigners, dating from 1840 to 1850 of one-half, and after 1850 of one quarter only. It was only up to 1840 that the captain might have been a foreigner; but, since that time, he must be a Russian.' (1852) 'The owners of vessels may complete their crew with foreign masters or seamen, if Russian subjects are insufficient for the service... Merchants of the first and second "guild" have alone the right to purchase foreign vessels. The Russian custom-houses cannot grant the papers to vessels bought from foreigners, until the purchasers exhibit the proper documents showing that all the formalities have been fulfilled.' (1863)



And the Union was not immune to this desire, which was rooted in the idea that if one was protecting shipping then one should get trained, employed seamen out of it:



'An Act, in addition to an act, entitled "An act concerning the registering and recording of ships and vessels"' (27 June 1797)
'no vessel which has been, or shall be registered, pursuant to any law of the United States... that shall by sale become the property of a foreigner or foreigners, shall, after the passing of this act, be entitled to, or capable of receiving a new register, notwithstanding such ship or vessel should afterwards become American property; but that all such ships and vessels shall be taken and considered, to all intents and purposes, as foreign vessels'

'An act to regulate the registration of vessels' (10 February 1866)
'no ship or vessel, which has been recorded or registered as an American vessel, pursuant to law, and which shall have been licensed or otherwise authorised to sail under a foreign flag, and to have the protection of any foreign government during the existence of the rebellion, shall be deemed or registered as an American vessel'




Note that for the purposes of this thread we are considering law and precedent as it stood, not how it might have been finagled around.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
British law in the area was atypical, which (in concert with the ready availability of sailors, historical ties of language and culture and the number of men with means to purchase a ship) enabled the Flight from the Flag of the Civil War. Chelyabinsk again:



Britain is unusually lax in that it does allow a foreign captain and crew, provided that the owners owe allegiance to the Crown and are subject to British law.




You can see this phenomenon of crew changes historically in the cruise of the Alabama:

Ships destroyed
'At half-past eleven A. M., "sail ho!" was cried from the mast, and about one P. M., we came up with an exceedingly American-looking ship, which, upon being hove to by a gun, hoisted the English colors... The register purported that the stranger was the British ship Martaban, belonging to parties in Maulmain, a rice port in India. Manifest and clearance corresponded with the register; the ship being laden with rice, and having cleared for Singapore- of which port, as the reader sees, she was within a few hours' sail. Thus far, all seemed regular and honest enough, but the ship was American- having been formerly known as the Texan Star-and her transfer to British owners, if made at all, had been made within the last ten days, after the arrival of the Alabama in these seas had become known at Maulmain...

'every line of the ship was American... Passing up the side, I stepped upon deck. Here everything was, if possible, still more American, even to the black, greasy cook, who, with his uncovered woolly head, naked breast, and uprolled sleeves in the broiling sun, was peeling his Irish potatoes for his codfish... In the person of the master, the long, lean, angular-featured, hide-bound, weather-tanned Yankee skipper stood before me. Puritan, May-Flower, Plymouth Rock, were all written upon the well-known features. No amount of English custom-house paper, or sealing-wax could, by any possibility, convert him into that rotund, florid, jocund Briton who personates the English shipmaster. His speech was even more national- taking New England to be the Yankee nation- than his person; and when he opened his mouth, a mere novice might have sworn that he was from the "State of Maine" -there, or thereabouts. When he told me that I "hadn't-ought-to" burn his ship, he pronounced the shibboleth which condemned her to the flames.

'The shrift was a short one. When the papers were produced, I found among them no bill of sale or other evidence of the transfer of the property--the register of an English ship, as every seaman knows, not being such evidence... In half an hour, or as soon as the crew could pack their duds, and be transferred to the Alabama, the Texan Star- alias the Martaban- was in flames; the beautiful, new English ensign being marked with the day, and latitude and longitude of the capture, and stowed away carefully by the old signal-quartermaster, in the bag containing his Yankee flags.' (p.717-9)

Ships saved:

'The next vessel that we overhauled was a "converted" ship--that is, a Yankee turned into an Englishman. I desired very much to burn her, but was prevented by the regularity of her papers and the circumstances surrounding her. She was a Maine-built ship, but had evidently been bona fide transferred, as her master and crew were all Englishmen' (p.625)

'another American ship passed us, but she proved, upon being boarded, to have been sold, by her patriotic Yankee owners, to an Englishman, and was now profitably engaged in assisting the other ships of John Bull in taking away from the enemy his carrying-trade. I examined the papers and surroundings of all these ships, with great care, being anxious, if possible, to find a peg on which I might hang a doubt large enough to enable me to burn them. But, thus far, all the transfers had been bona fide. In the present instance, the papers were evidently genuine, and there was a Scotch master and English crew on board.' (pp.631-2)

'On the afternoon after leaving the Strait of Malacca, we overhauled another American ship under neutral colors--the Bremen ship Ottone. The transfer had been made at Bremen, in the previous May; the papers were genuine, and the master and crew all Dutchmen, there being no Yankee on board. The change of property, in this case, having every appearance of being bona fide, I permitted the ship to pass on her voyage' (p.722)
 

USS ALASKA

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 16, 2016
So two of the most economically powerful maritime nations had the least restrictive qualifications. Britain and the Netherlands...seems like there is a lesson here somewhere...

Cheers,
USS ALASKA
 

chelyabinsk

Private
Joined
Nov 4, 2016
Not only was it difficult to transfer ships to neutral ownership, but British prize courts look at the substance rather than the form of the transaction. As per the digested records of the High Court of Admiralty:
Endraught, Bonkins, 1 Rob. 20: 'An enemy's ship ostensibly transferred to a neutral, condemned. Where a ship so transferred continues habitually in the enemy's trade, the neutral is not entitled to carry on that trade, merely because his own country has no sea ports.'
Noydt Gedact, Wallrave, 2 Rob. 137: 'The sale of vessels by the enemy to neutrals in time of war, must be absolute and indefeasible; and not a mere transfer to cover the property during war. A condition by the purchaser to reconvey at the end of the war, vitiates the sale in a court of prize'.
Susa, Barzilla Hussey, 2 Rob. 255-6: 'Persons carrying on the trade of the enemy, without any visible connexion with their own country, to be considered in the character of natives of the enemy's country, and their property so employed liable to confiscation.'
Jemmy, Nosten, 4 Rob. 31. 'Ships purchased of the enemy, but left under the management of the former owner in the enemy's trade; not admitted to further proof, conclusive evidence of a covered and pretended transfer.'
Sechs Geschwistern, Jobs, 4 Rob. 100: 'The purchase of the ships of the belligerent in time of war by neutrals, not prohibited by the British Court of Admiralty. But they must be bona fide, and absolutely transferred, so as completely to divest the enemy's title. Anything tending to continue the interest of the enemy vitiates the sale altogether.'
Success, Smith, Dod. 132: 'Where parties agree to take the flag and pass of another country... Their real character may be pleaded against them by others.'

Some more recent examples, from the Crimea:
The Baltica: 'What is the meaning of "interest in the ship" according to the sense in which Lord Stowell intended to express himself?... he did not mean what would be called in municipal law any legal title to the whole or part of the property, but rather - howsoever effected - what would give the enemy vendor a pecuniary claim to or against the ship itself, or anything connected with the ship, either directly or indirectly' 'what after all is really the true character of all these transactions? Not the fair and ordinary employment of neutral capital in commercial transactions, but, war being on the very point of breaking out... certain Russian shipowners, anxious to withdraw their property in ships from the naval power of Great Britain... devise a scheme whereby all these ships should be transferred... it is not the honest employment of neutral capital in any ordinary sense of the word; nor is it to be expected that any neutral state will be prepared to maintain that their national character and their national flag should be assumed for the avowed purpose of withdrawing the shipping of the enemies of Great Britain from her just right of capture.'
The Nina: 'if a Russian owner was desirous of changing her character by sale, it was competent for him so to do, and equally competent to the Austrian subject to buy it, provided only the transaction was fair, and the Russian interest was divested, and the Austrian flag properly assumed under the authority of that country, that country not being deceived by any false representation, and the owner being entitled to a national Austrian character... The Court will never restore on any claim, unless it is satisfied that the property is bona fide the property of the individual who claims it, and if it finds any other interest lurking out in any shape it is quite sufficient for me to pronounce against that claim.'
The Johanna Emilie: 'in section 4. of the bill of sale is the following important statement: "The purchase money for the sold ship with her appurtancences, is fixed at the sum of 8,000 rix-dollars, which have already been carried into account between the contracting parties before the signing of these presents." Here I must say this is a very unsatisfactory mode of effecting a sale... the mode of payment by merely carrying the purchase money to an account, which of course is hidden from the view of any Court having to investigate the transaction, produces in a matter of this kind a considerable degree of doubt.'
 

chelyabinsk

Private
Joined
Nov 4, 2016
It was surprisingly difficult to find the information on registration requirements: even when I found specialist books on comparative international mercantile law, they weren't anywhere near as comprehensive and organised as I would have expected them to be. By contrast, as soon as you search for anything approximating 'Netherlands merchant ship registration law' you get helpful websites instructing you on how to transfer your ship registry to the nation of your choice. What I didn't realise- and I probably should have done earlier, but it's still worth pointing out now- is that the paucity of information on how to transfer ship registration is proof positive of how rarely it was done. And the reason it's done so rarely is because the structure of ship ownership in this period doesn't support it.

In this era, the concept of limited liability is still very much in its infancy. Most ships are owned by a single person or by a partnership, and they own them in their own right and not as an agent or director of a corporate entity. When the ship suffers losses, the owner or the partnership becomes personally liable for those losses. Take the case of Zachariah Pearson, for instance. Pearson was a shipping magnate who branched out into blockade running, and suffers a series of serious losses as a result. Nowadays, Pearson's liability would be limited to his capital in 'ZCP Blockade Busters Ltd'; despite the failure, he could have shrugged his shoulders and gone on with his life. Back then, when Pearson's business capital wasn't enough to pay his debtors, his own property was seized and sold to raise the funds.

This also has repercussions for the way we understand trading in multiple companies. The free movement of global capital means that nowadays you can set up a local limited company in a particular territory and run your operations through that. However, we're in an era here where trading entities are, for the most part, individuals rather than companies. Notice that in the case of the Baltica the way in which the ship was to be transferred was not through the creation of a local subsidiary, but by Mr Sorensen junior occupying property at Altona and Hamburg and being admitted as a burgher. So the idea of somehow disguising the ownership of vessels behind a series of corporate firewalls is basically impossible: it simply doesn't work that way.

This is also why talking about the American Civil War seeing a 'flight from the flag' is really misleading. It implies that owners, masters, vessels and crews transferred their allegiance en masse from the Union to the United Kingdom- 'flying' from one flag to another to find greater security. It also implies that, if Britain had not been there to accept the vessels, those owners, masters, vessels and crews could have gone to any other country's flag without any greater difficulty than they encountered historically. However, even the most cursory study of British trade policy between the repeal of the Corn Laws and the 1906 election's focus on Tariff Reform will show that Britain is exceptional in its openness during this period. It's exceptional even in comparison to the United States, whose legislation on foreign merchant vessels and tariffs are both far more closed than the British equivalents.

There are a number of reasons that countries would not be welcoming to a sudden influx of foreign merchant vessels, even if we leave aside the fact that in a Trent War those new merchant vessels would apparently be doing their best to create an international incident by running the blockade. Some countries ban ships built in foreign countries from their registry, because they want to preserve their own shipbuilding industry. Some countries ban foreign owners, on the grounds that they want their own trade to enrich their own subjects. Others ban foreign crews, to preserve their merchant sailors to man ships in wartime. Having a vast merchant marine requires you to invest in a navy sufficient to protect it in both war and peace, a cost which many countries are either unable or unwilling to pay. Furthermore, they are unlikely to have any interest in protecting Union merchant ships, and provoking the British by doing so, when that risks the same merchant ships transferring back once the war is over. The reason that the standard for ship registry detailed above are so high is to ensure that the only merchants these neutral nations have to protect are unquestionably their own.

Furthermore, what we see is not a 'flight from the flag'. It's actually a fire sale of Union merchant ships, whose owners can no longer ply their trade profitably, and who are trying to cut their losses by selling off their assets. Notice that all the ships described above have functionally lost their American identity: owner, masters and crew are all different. It's the equivalent of a high street chain buying the stores of a bankrupt rival. However, if Britain hadn't had the capacity to absorb these spare vessels in its own merchant fleet, it's highly unlikely their owners would have been able to find alternative purchasers. The only alternative would have been the one taken by the China fleet in the American Civil War, and the New England merchant marine during the War of 1812: to lay up and wait for the end of the war.
 
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Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
That's a fascinating point, Chelyabinsk, both for the implications in the Trent War scenario (in which I have a particular interest) and in the window it offers on a very different world indeed. The idea of shell companies and limited liability is such an ingrained one in our modern world it's almost a mental lurch to think of a world that wasn't the case, or where it was a very recent thing.
 

AndyHall

Colonel
Joined
Dec 13, 2011
According to William Watson, a British subject living in Baton Rouge when the war began and who had success running the blockade under sail in the Gulf of Mexico, acquiring British (and therefore neutral) registry for a vessel was not difficult at all in practice, through what was known as "godfathering":

To effect this the usual way was to procure a British subject to assume the
ownership, or stand godfather, as it was called, and a bill of sale was made
out transferring the vessel to him, and if the transfer was made within the
United States, the British Consul granted a provisional register to take the
vessel to a British port.

The British subject, or godfather, granted back to the real American
owner letters or power of attorney to do what he pleased with the vessel,
so that it often happened that some British subject — often a clerk or lad
in a shipping-office — was nominal owner of several vessels…[As] a
provisional register holds good for only six months, it was necessary to send
the vessel at once to a British port, to be entered upon the British shipping list,
and obtain a permanent register and official number.

The vessel was generally loaded with American goods, and dispatched to
some British port, where the goods were sold cheap for specie, and the vessel
put under a permanent register, and that port then became the hailing port
of the vessel. This was the cause of the West India market being at that
time glutted with American goods.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
According to William Watson, a British subject living in Baton Rouge when the war began and who had success running the blockade under sail in the Gulf of Mexico, acquiring British (and therefore neutral) registry for a vessel was not difficult at all in practice, through what was known as "godfathering":
Though the process, as described, would only work for transfer to the British flag. It wouldn't work for the French flag, for example, because neither the ship nor the crew would be French.
 

AndyHall

Colonel
Joined
Dec 13, 2011
Though the process, as described, would only work for transfer to the British flag. It wouldn't work for the French flag, for example, because neither the ship nor the crew would be French.

True. But at least for blockade runners I've encountered, the Red Ensign seems to have been the flag of preference.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
True. But at least for blockade runners I've encountered, the Red Ensign seems to have been the flag of preference.
Yes, for several reasons. One of them was simple volume (there were so many British ships around because Britain was reaping the benefits of what would become a decades-long peak in carrying trade), another was that the second-largest owner of merchant ships in the world at the time was the USA (and of course USA ships are generally not going to take part in blockade running...)

But what also plays into it is that, especially late-war, there were purpose-built shallow-draft blockade runners (built in Britain, naturally) serving for that specific purpose. As they were built in Britain then British registry was natural.
 

chelyabinsk

Private
Joined
Nov 4, 2016
According to William Watson, a British subject living in Baton Rouge when the war began and who had success running the blockade under sail in the Gulf of Mexico, acquiring British (and therefore neutral) registry for a vessel was not difficult at all in practice, through what was known as "godfathering"
Yes, you'll find I quoted him in the original thread. You'll also find, however, that Watson's case was a bona fide sale, and that (as I described above) Watson himself bore the entire risk of the voyage until he resolved to run the blockade and took on a Confederate partner:
'I knew of no other port to which I might go where there was the slightest chance of selling the cargo or getting employment for the vessel, and it was evident to me that whatever might be the loss there was no other course open for me but to lie still... I found myself in a very bad and almost ruinous position, for the expenses of the vessel and wages of the crew were going on.'

Unfortunately Watson doesn't name the ships he believed to be paper transfers. Assuming they actually existed in the first place, and weren't a rumour he was reporting or a misunderstanding on his part, there's no way to see whether the ploy actually worked. However, given the Crimean precedents listed above, it's almost certain that the transactions that Watson describes would have been voided in the event of the ship being boarded by a Confederate commerce raider, on the grounds that the former owners had not transferred their interests.

Union merchants made many other attempts to protect their cargos through quasi-legal measures, most of which failed to work. One of the most popular, for instance, was an un-sworn statement that what was being carried was neutral property (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). In light of these failures, and the lack of clear documentary guidance, I'd be very cautious in assuming that Union merchants had a full understanding of the legal framework of neutrality in which they now had to operate.
 
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leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
This is split off from a discussion in the What-If forum, where it was cluttering up the thread there a bit. The topic of discussion is international law in the 1860s, as it stood, with regards to blockades and civilian shipping.


Via Chelyabinsk, the laws on registering a ship in a given nation were often quite strict:



Austria: 'The crew shall be composed of two-thirds at least of Austrian subjects' (1852) 'Austrian subjects only being able to be owners of ships, the captain is bound to make known a foreign owner, and denounce him to the authority, as soon as it is known to him, under the lawful penalties, and even of condemnation to death, in case of fraud or damage to the state. (1852)
Hanseatic Towns: 'vessels owned by citizens of either of those republics, wherever built, shall be deemed Hanseatic, provided they are manned by a Hanseatic citizen and that three-fourths of the crew are subjects of those cities' (1850) 'A ship belonging to a citizen of Hamburg, is a Hamburg vessel' (1852) 'To navigate a vessel under the Hamburg flag, it is necessary to be a citizen of Hamburg.' (1852)
Prussia: 'None can be considered Prussian ships, and entitled to use the Prussian flag, but those, which belong to Prussian subjects, and if such ships are held in common ownership by many persons, all must be Prussian subjects... it is not absolutely requisite, that the national character of the crew or the build of the vessel should be Prussian' (1845)
France: 'No vessel is entitled to the privileges of a French ship unless, 1st, she is built in some French port; or, 2d, captured from the enemy and condemned as a prize; or, 3d, after being stranded on the coast of France or of some French possession, and publicly sold to a French purchaser, her repairs cost four times as much at the purchase money. By the laws of France, two-thirds of the crews of French ships must be French subjects; the other third may be foreigners; but owning to the number of seamen unemployed since the late war, the employment of any foreign seamen is forbidden by order of the government' (1834) 'No ship is entitled to national privileges unless the half at least belong to Frenchmen, or to foreigners to whom civil rights have been granted. That a ship may have the privileges of a French ship she must have been built in France. It is therefore unlawful to give ship's papers to any ship built or purchased in foreign countries.' (1863)
Spain: 'The officers and two-thirds of the crew of a Spanish vessel must be Spanish born subjects, on all ordinary voyages; for the slave trade, the captain and one-half of the crew.' (1834) 'None can be captain but a Spaniard, or a naturalised Spaniard, who is capable of binding himself, and resides in the kingdom.' (1852)
Portugal: 'The following only are registered as Portuguese vessels: ships of Portuguese construction, those legally captured and adjudged as prizes, and those purchased by Portuguese subjects, after payment of the duty exacted.' (1852) 'Every captain must be born in the two kingdoms or its colonies' (1852)
Netherlands: 'Foreign built ships, owned wholly by subjects of the kingdom, are considered national. But, after the expiration of five years from the restoration of the colonies, a ship, in order to enjoy the national character, must be built in the mother country or the colonies... It is not required that ships of the country be manned wholly or in part by subjects of the kingdom.' (1834)
Russia: 'The licenses for navigating under the colours of a Russian mercantile marine, must be signed by the council of the Admiralty, and transmitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs, who affixes to it the State stamp, and receives the duties... The emperor alone can give to a foreign vessel the authority to sail under Russian colours... Up to 1840 the crew of a Russian ship might be composed of three-fourths foreigners, dating from 1840 to 1850 of one-half, and after 1850 of one quarter only. It was only up to 1840 that the captain might have been a foreigner; but, since that time, he must be a Russian.' (1852) 'The owners of vessels may complete their crew with foreign masters or seamen, if Russian subjects are insufficient for the service... Merchants of the first and second "guild" have alone the right to purchase foreign vessels. The Russian custom-houses cannot grant the papers to vessels bought from foreigners, until the purchasers exhibit the proper documents showing that all the formalities have been fulfilled.' (1863)



And the Union was not immune to this desire, which was rooted in the idea that if one was protecting shipping then one should get trained, employed seamen out of it:



'An Act, in addition to an act, entitled "An act concerning the registering and recording of ships and vessels"' (27 June 1797)
'no vessel which has been, or shall be registered, pursuant to any law of the United States... that shall by sale become the property of a foreigner or foreigners, shall, after the passing of this act, be entitled to, or capable of receiving a new register, notwithstanding such ship or vessel should afterwards become American property; but that all such ships and vessels shall be taken and considered, to all intents and purposes, as foreign vessels'

'An act to regulate the registration of vessels' (10 February 1866)
'no ship or vessel, which has been recorded or registered as an American vessel, pursuant to law, and which shall have been licensed or otherwise authorised to sail under a foreign flag, and to have the protection of any foreign government during the existence of the rebellion, shall be deemed or registered as an American vessel'




Note that for the purposes of this thread we are considering law and precedent as it stood, not how it might have been finagled around.
Bruce Canton pointed out that by mid 1863 or thereabouts over half of U.S. shipping was registered under a foreign flag to prevent their capture by the Confederacy.
Apparently it's less expensive in the ling term to register a ship under foreign registry then risk capture by the Confederacy.
Leftyhunter
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Apparently it's less expensive in the ling term to register a ship unde foreign registry then risk capture by the Confederacy.
As Chelyabinsk notes above, it's more like "selling a ship was more likely to recoup some of the investment"
Furthermore, what we see is not a 'flight from the flag'. It's actually a fire sale of Union merchant ships, whose owners can no longer ply their trade profitably, and who are trying to cut their losses by selling off their assets.

- remember that a ship is an expensive thing to run.
 

SeaTurtle

Private
Joined
Jun 14, 2021
Sorry to bump this thread, but is anyone familiar with Mexico's laws during this period re: ship registration, ownership, and crew? Or any of the Central-American nations?

Panama was a popular "flag of convenience" for Americans during the early 20th century, but I'm not sure if the practice of registering vessels in Latin-America was used much in the 1860s. It would be interesting to know. Mexico was undergoing French intervention at that time, so maybe not the safest "neutral" flag to have ... but what about some of the nations to its south (Honduras, Nicaragua, etc)?
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Panama was a popular "flag of convenience" for Americans during the early 20th century, but I'm not sure if the practice of registering vessels in Latin-America was used much in the 1860s. It would be interesting to know.
To the best of my knowledge there was no such thing as a flag of convenience at the time - as noted above, the requiremnts were usually quite stringent, and prize law established that a sale had to be real and substantial.


It's probably best to assume that the requirements were too strict to make it workable unless proven otherwise.
 

SeaTurtle

Private
Joined
Jun 14, 2021
To the best of my knowledge there was no such thing as a flag of convenience at the time - as noted above, the requiremnts were usually quite stringent, and prize law established that a sale had to be real and substantial.


It's probably best to assume that the requirements were too strict to make it workable unless proven otherwise.

You could well be right. Although I know that in the 1850s there had been one or two American businessmen running companies through Nicaragua related to the California Gold Rush (e.g. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his Accessory Transit Company), so it seems the Nicaraguan government, at least prior to William Walker's intrusion, had been somewhat receptive to foreigners operating transport businesses in their territory. Don't know if that openness extended to allowing foreigners to run Nicaraguan-flagged ships though...
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
You could well be right. Although I know that in the 1850s there had been one or two American businessmen running transport companies through Nicaragua related to the California Gold Rush (e.g. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his Accessory Transit Company), so it seems the Nicaraguan government, at least prior to William Walker's intrusion, had been somewhat receptive to foreigners operating in their territory. Don't know if that openness extended to allowing foreigners to run Nicaraguan ships though...
Don't forget that shipping registry means an obligation by the country to protect that shipping, which might not be something the Nicaraguan government of the time was willing to take up.

In addition to that, if it were possible to legally transfer a ship's flag to Nicaragua or some other South American country in this period, and by doing so actually make it officially a neutral vessel with respect to the Civil War, then Union merchant seamen would have done it. They certainly tried everything else, and if this was an option they would have done it.
 

SeaTurtle

Private
Joined
Jun 14, 2021
In addition to that, if it were possible to legally transfer a ship's flag to Nicaragua or some other South American country in this period, and by doing so actually make it officially a neutral vessel with respect to the Civil War, then Union merchant seamen would have done it.

Sure, that's why I asked if anyone had heard of it happening, or knew what the laws were. I hadn't, but 1860s maritime law ain't my specialty.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Sure, that's why I asked if anyone had heard of it happening, or knew what the laws were. I hadn't, but 1860s maritime law ain't my specialty.
As Chelyabinsk notes, this sort of thing is very hard to search up which in and of itself suggests it was not done very often.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Generally speaking, the modern concept of "flags of convenience" starts in reaction to the era of Prohibition in the United States. The USS Zafiro (collier, US service 1898-1904) was struck from the Navy list and sold to a private citizen in 1910, who sold her to the government of Mexico. By 1917, that ship is French-owned with the name Bowler and in British Columbia. Having insurance issues, she was converted to coastal steamer use and registered in Panama as Belen Quezada on August 20, 1919 -- just in time to start carrying alcohol down the Pacific coast from Canada to the US. Belen Quezada is regarded as the first example of modern "flag of convenience" (the term is not used until the 1950s). There were also some machinations by US shipowners during the First World War to try to avoid German U-boats and get through various difficulties (like shipping to Sweden)

That led to things like the Declaration recognising the Right to a Flag of States having no Sea-coast in 1921 at a League of Nations convention:
The undersigned, duly authorised for the purpose, declare that the States which they represent recognise the flag flown by the vessels of any State having no sea-coast which are registered at some one specified place situated in its territory; such place shall serve as the port of registry of such vessels.
Barcelona, April the 20th, 1921, done in a single copy of which the English and French texts shall be authentic.
Back in the Nineteenth Century, ship registries were usually about economics and/or blockades. Example: during the Crimean War, the British and French blockaded Russia and prohibited British/French merchantmen from trading with the Russians. US ships rushed to grab the business, reaping big profits. When the war ended, the British and French merchantmen came back after the trade with a vengeance, elbowing the US merchants out, helping to cause a glut of carrying capacity in the US shipping industry -- part of the Panic of 1857. Goods carried on US-flag ships also got a 10% discount on import tariffs in the US (helping the US importers and the shipowners).

Foreign flags would not help anyone trying to run the Union blockade in the Civil War.
 
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