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Colonial Cases

The Seaton, 1867


The Seaton

Source: The North-China Herald, 22 April 1867



THE case of the barque Seaton probably ranked among the list of grievances on which the Taotai based his memorable despatch of the 17th January, claiming pity for the "many hundred innocent native merchants who had been brought to ruin" through the defalcations, nominally of Chinese compradores, but inferentially, of foreign merchants.  And it must be admitted that he had, here, some apparent ground of complaint.  Even an English Court of Law has declined to recognize the validity of the bond, so far as regarded the hypothecation of the cargo; and to Chinese, unacquainted with the principle of bottomry, the detention of their property must have seemed singularly unjust.  That the ship should come to so condign grief, was bad enough; but then, in addition to the loss and annoyance sustained through this delay, the cargo itself should be withheld from them to pay for her repairs, was an anomaly that called for vigorous protests.

The case arose out of severe injuries sustained by the Seaton, during a voyage from Swatow to Shanghai undertaken last November.  Fifteen days after leaving port she was caught in a violent storm, which reduced the vessel nearly to a wreck.  The bulwarks were washed away, the main hatch stove in, the long boat smashed, the main and fore yards carried away, and the mizen mast sprung, besides minor injuries.  Sufficient sail could not be got up to return to Swatow, and the ship had to anchor temporarily in a bay a few miles distant.  When eventually she returned to port, the extreme process of hypothecating cargo as well as hull had to be resorted to, to raise sufficient money for her repair.  On the wisdom of the outlay of $14,000, - by which her agent succeeded in raising her value from the $8,000 at which he estimated it on her return, - to $12,000, - we will not comment.  The proceeding savours of throwing good money after bad; but was doubtless suggested by a laudable anxiety to forward the views of Chinese shippers.  They expressed a desire that their cargo should be forwarded to its destination, and the alternative of doing this by another ship, instead of repairing the unhappy Seaton for the purpose, was overlooked.  True, they are said to have opposed the hypothecation of their cargo for the purpose; but they only expressed their dissent in ordinary instead of formal language, and it was disregarded.  The required sum was accordingly raised and, after two months delay, she again proceeded on her voyage.

Arrived here, her difficulties recurred, with all the difference in force that events between contracting a loan and meeting it.  The Chinamen wanted their cargo, the agents could not deliver it.  The good offices of the Taotai were, as usual, invoked; and, as usual, His Excellency's ready pen was at the disposal of his suffering countrymen.  The hardship of the case was pointed out to the British Consular authorities, and the unconditional release of the cargo sought.

The case, however, was already in the hands of the Court, and His Excellency was no doubt reminded, as pertinently as in the case of Chequai's silk, that no interference with the due course of the law could be recognised.  This course has now been run, and the cargo released from durance.  The Chief Judge was not satisfied that the Chinese had had a fair opportunity of expressing formal assent or dissent from the proposed hypothecation of their cargo, and released them on this ground from liability.  The view he has taken will, we think, be generally concurred in.  The conversational mention made by Mr. Vincent of the course he intended to pursue, might have held good with Europeans, who clearly understood the position.  But a very vast amount of explanation would be needed to lead Chinamen up to this point.  Being utterly ignorant of the nature of British "respondentia" law, they would immediately demur, as Mr. Vincent admitted they did, when the suggestion of selling their cargo was made.  With an equally vague notion that money would, somehow or other, be supplied by Insurance Companies, they would equally desire that the ship should be repaired as soon as possible.  And it would be manifestly unjust to hold them bound by expressions thus uttered in the dark.  The loss that must ensue to the bond-holders is a hard one; but, as any informality in the transaction lies at their door, it is obviously fair that they, rather than the Chinese, should suffer.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School