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French Or Prussian Merchant Ships—Question

Volume 203: debated on Thursday 28 July 1870

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said, he wished to ask Mr. Attorney General, Whether a French or Prussian merchant ship, now in a British Port, if purchased bonâ fide by a British subject, and duly registered, would be exempt from liability to capture, as being indisputably British property?

Sir, I must remind the hon. and gallant Admiral that I am not entitled to give an authoritative opinion on this Question. I may also remark that these queries are points of International Law which it is obvious cannot decide the questions involved, and may lead to embarrassing discussions with Foreign Powers. According to my understanding of the decisions of the British Courts, such a vessel would be held exempt from capture, and I believe that is also the American doctrine. But I am bound also to state that the French have maintained a different doctrine. The French have maintained that if the subject of a belligerent State possesses a vessel liable to capture he cannot get rid of it by sale; and if a Prussian ship is captured the tribunal to decide the question would be a French one. Transactions of this kind are always looked on with a certain amount of suspicion by Prize Courts, which are very careful to inquire whether the transactions are altogether bonâ fide or only colourable; and if they come to the conclusion that the transactions are colourable, notwithstanding the apparent sale, the original owner retaining some interest, or having made some bargain to have the vessel restored after the cessation of hostilities—if the sale was not out and out, it is liable to capture.