In August 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, the U.S. steamer Crusader, under the command of a Lieutenant Maffitt, came across a ship in the waters north of Cuba. The other ship (a brig named the Joven Antonio) claimed to be headed to Havana carrying flour and wine, but when crew members from the Crusader boarded the ship, they “discovered that she had neither wine nor flour, but was armed with two six pound cannon, muskets, revolvers & cutlasses, and had a slave deck & boilers.” There were no slaves on board because, as the captain explained, “he had been to the Coast of Africa for a load of Negros, but the factor ran away with the money and he did not get any.” Despite being of Spanish and Portuguese origin, the crew of the brig claimed no nationality and provided no official documents, so Maffitt and his crew seized the vessel.
After the brig was brought in, the Spanish consul interposed a claim with the court in Key West, Florida, for the ship on behalf of its owner, José Colon of Cuba. On the day of the hearing, a bill of sale and other evidence was provided to prove the ship’s ownership. No decision was made regarding the brig at the hearing, but after deliberation, Judge William Marvin reluctantly ruled that the ship had to be returned to Colon, because despite the fact that the brig was a slave ship, it wasn’t American built, owned by an American, or sailing in or out of an American port, so the U.S. laws governing slave ships didn’t apply. Marvin also ruled that the ship couldn’t be condemned on terms of piracy (because there was no evidence of it) or for not having any documentation of nationality (because there were no foreign or domestic laws prohibiting that).
But Marvin also ruled that Maffitt didn’t owe Colon any money for damages or detention of the ship, stating:
I think that Lieut. Maffitt was entirely justifiable in capturing the vessel under the actual circumstances in which she was found, and in bringing her into port for adjudication, & altho’ the vessel must be restored to the claimant because of a defect in the authority of the Court to condemn her, yet no damages or costs ought to be allowed to the claimant.
On January 23rd, an order of restoration was issued, and the slave ship was returned to its owner.