Mr. Webb to Mr. Seward.

No. 22.]

Sir: * * * * * * * *

The case of the four rebel vessels in the port of Rio Janeiro has already been brought to your notice, both by the consul and myself, but as yet no instructions have reached me or the consulate in regard to them. The agent of the owners and the consignees having been foiled in their first movement, inaugurated another which will be brought to a close to-day. On the plea of indebtedness contracted to a citizen of Brazil, they obtained a decree for the sale of these vessels this day. The decree was not published until the 19th, and on the following morning I addressed to the foreign office a despatch, a copy of which is enclosed, marked No. 1, and to the acting consul the instructions marked No. 2. There will not be time to report the result by this steamer, but I feel a conviction that the sale will be suspended.

* * * * * * * * *

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State.

[Enclosure No. 1.]

The undersigned, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the United States, feels it incumbent on him to call the attention of his excellency the Marquis d’Abrantes to a fraudulent attempt of certain parties to change the flag of certain vessels belonging to subjects of the United States, contrary to the laws of the government of the United States regulating the mode in which the flag of the government may be transferred in foreign ports to another nationality, by becoming the property of citizens of the same. The law of the United States provides that an American vessel can only be sold in a foreign port in the presence of, and with the assent in writing of the United States consul; and it prohibits his giving such assent until a power of attorney from the owners, duly executed before the proper tribunals, shall have been filed at the consulate authorizing such a transfer of property; and unless the conditions of said law are fully complied with, it is made the duty of the consul to withhold from any vessel so attempted to be transferred, even to citizens of the United States, the necessary papers to insure her departure from the foreign port in which she happens to be at the time of the contemplated transfer. And it is utterly impossible, by any fraudulent proceeding in the ports of foreign powers, to change the nationality of an American vessel and transfer her to another flag, except in accordance with the law under which she is licensed to sail, and which gives her the protection of its flag. An attempt to do so demands the interference of the representative of the country whose flag is about being fraudulently diverted from the protection of American property in violation of American laws; and such representative being powerless to prevent such a fraudulent procedure per se, has a right to demand of the government to which he is accredited the interposition of its authority to protect the international rights of his government in foreign ports.

[Page 725]

There are now lying in the port of Rio Janeiro four vessels belonging to citizens of the United States, who are in rebellion against the laws and institutions of their country, and whose property is liable to confiscation as traitors. These vessels, however, sailing with American papers, and under the flag of the United States, and for the time being lying in the port of Rio Janeiro, cannot be seized in said port; although having no existence, except as American bottoms with American registers, and protected by the American flag, they are in conformity with international law subject to the laws and regulations of the country to which they belong. Conscious of this well established fact, their owners, some months since, sent to Rio Janeiro an agent to sell said vessels to whomsoever might be disposed to purchase them, and an advertisement accordingly appeared in a public newspaper offering them for sale at public auction. The consul of the United States therefore, by direction of the undersigned, caused a notice to be published in the said newspaper, and to be read to the public at the time of sale, setting forth that any such sale would be illegal and void, because, according to the laws of the United States, no transfer of an American vessel can be made in a foreign port, except in the presence of and with the consent of the consul. The sale progressed, and it was pretended that the vessels were regularly sold to an actual and bona fide purchaser. This pretence, however, resorted to to cover an attempted fraud, was shortly abandoned, and the agent of the rebel owners presented himself at the United States consulate with a power of attorney, which he claimed to have filed in the office, and demanded that the consul should give his sanction to another and legal sale. His papers were discovered to bear upon their face evidence that they had been executed in & foreign country unknown to the officials of the United States, and before parties not recognizing allegiance to the United States, and therefore the United States consul, with the approbation and by the advice and direction of the undersigned, refused to recognize such power of attorney, or to give his sanction to the sale and transfer of the said vessels.

Since then it has come to the knowledge of the undersigned that it was the intention of the agent of the rebel owners to permit the vessels referred to to contract debts to Brazilian citizens, then obtain judgments against them, and a decree for their sale, and thus fraudulently transfer them to British subjects, and take them out of the port of Rio Janeiro under the flag of England; the whole proceeding being under the directions of an English mercantile house who have the vessels in charge. This game, fraudulent alike in its conception and progress, has, it appears, been fully played out; and in the face of the United States consul’s public notice that he would not consent to any sale of said vessels, and in the face of the public and notorious fact that a public sale of these vessels at auction was made and abandoned, because no legal title could be given for them to the purchaser without the consent of the United States consul, it is pretended that debts have been contracted by the vessels, and a judge of a Brazilian court has been found ready to decree the sale of said vessels at public auction on the 23d of the present month of August, that is, on Saturday next. This decree bears date the second day of August, but it only came to the knowledge of the undersigned on the night of yesterday, the 19th instant, a copy of which is hereby forwarded.

The undersigned does not pretend to know what is the Brazilian law in the premises; but he protests most solemnly against this most flagrant attempt under color, but not with the sanction of the Brazilian authority, to withdraw four American vessels from under the flag of the United States and to transfer them to another nationality. If any merchant or other inhabitant of Rio Janeiro had innocently given a credit to these vessels, the fact of having done so could not militate against the jurisdiction of the United States in the matter; but it must be obvious that the alleged indebtedness, which it is susceptible of proof does not exist, (because the amount for freight received on their cargoes to this port, [Page 726] now in the hands of their consignees, exceeds five-fold any expenses they may have incurred,) is a mere fiction, and designed to cover a contemplated fraud; and therefore under no circumstances is it entitled to consideration in a Brazilian court of justice. But even were it otherwise, and the claim ever so just, the laws of the United States are paramount in the premises. The vessels could not be here, because they would be without a nationality, but that they possess American registers, and are enrolled under and protected by the United States flag. These registers are given and the protection of the American flag is afforded them, on condition that they comply in all respects with the laws of the United States. Those laws, as the people of Rio Janeiro have been publicly informed, prohibit any sale of the vessels publicly or privately, for debt or otherwise, except in the presence, and with the sanction of the United States consul. And consequently, if a bona fide credit had been given the vessels, it would have been at the peril of the party giving it, because it is absurd to claim that by such credit, whether bona fide or fraudulent, the laws of the United States in relation to its commercial marine could be set aside by an extrajudicial proceeding in a foreign court, and its flag pulled down and a foreign flag hoisted in its place over every American ship which visits a port of Brazil whenever it may suit her consignees to despoil our commercial marine of its ships, through a fraudulent connivance with those interested in consummating a fraud. If the flag of the Union cannot protect American shipping in Brazilian ports, and if the laws of the United States in regard to its commercial marine cannot be longer respected by the subordinate authorities of Rio Janeiro, in the opinion of the undersigned it becomes the duty, as he is certain it will be the pleasure, of the imperial government to interpose and compel those authorities to recognize their subserviency to the international law. It is idle to quote any previous practice in such a case as is now presented for consideration. These vessels, as property, have no existence but from their official papers, and the permission to sail under and enjoy the protection of the American flag. As a condition of the vitality thus created and the protection thus afforded, they are compelled to regard, and be subservient to, the laws of the United States. Those laws prescribe in what manner such property may be transferred in a foreign port; and yet we have presented the spectacle of a subordinate court of Brazil loaning itself to a fraudulent attempt to violate the laws and dishonor the flag of the United States.

The undersigned, therefore, feels assured that, however unpleasant the task of complaining of the local courts of Rio Janeiro, it is only necessary to appeal to the justice of the imperial government, and to call its attention to the fraud about being perpetrated, and to serious complications which may arise from its being consummated, to induce a prompt interference by those whose duty it is to frown down any such proceeding, as grossly unjust as well as criminal, and at war with the friendly relations existing between the United States and Brazil. He, therefore, protests most earnestly against the proposed outrage upon the flag and the laws of the United States, and calls upon the authorities to prevent it, either by suspending the action of the court in relation to the sale of these vessels, or by a notice at the place and time of sale, that they will now or at any future time, be permitted to clear from the port of Rio Janeiro, except under the flag and with the papers of the United States, unless transferred from their present ownership with the sanction and in the presence of the consul of the United States.

The undersigned avails himself of this occasion to renew to his excellency the distinguished minister of foreign affairs the assurances of his cordial esteem and most profound consideration.


His Excellency the Marquis D’Abrantes, Counsellor of his Imperial Majesty, Minister and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

[Page 727]

[Enclosure No. 2.]

Sir: Your note of yesterday readied me at 7 p.m., and I have this day addressed to the minister of foreign affairs a formal protest against the sale of the vessels, a copy of which I enclose.

I also annex for your adoption a notice and protest, to be read by you to the public at the time of sale, if there should be no action by the government either forbidding the sale or making it subject to the conditions set forth in my despatch of this date. You will, of course, translate your protest into Portuguese, and abstain from mentioning to any person what course you intend to pursue, or whether it is considered incumbent upon you to take any further action in the premises; and at the time of sale you will wait patiently to see whether proceedings will not be stayed altogether, or the transfer of the ships be made subject to the conditions named by me. In either event you will have nothing further to do. But should the sale be about to proceed without any such notice from the government, you will then read to the auctioneer and public in attendance the following protest and notice :

“You, Mr. Auctioneer, and you gentlemen in attendance on the advertised sale of the American vessels Abigail, Ann E. Grant, Virginia, and Fanny Crenshaw, will please to take notice that I, F. A. Cordeiro, acting consul of the United States, am instructed by the envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the United States near the court of his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Brazil to protest against the sale of said vessels under any decree of any court whatever, made in violation of the laws of the United States regulating the manner in which merchant vessels belonging to citizens of the United States, and sailing with American papers under the protection of the United States flag, may be disposed of and transferred to new owners in a foreign port. And I accordingly hereby formally protest against any sale of said vessels, under any proceeding whatever, which is not in conformity with the laws of the United States. And I hereby notify all interested, or who may become interested in the matter, that no legal transfer of said vessels can be made without my sanction, or the sanction of the American minister, under whose authority I am acting as consul of the United States for the port of Rio Janeiro.

“F. A. CORDEIRO, “Acting Consul of the United States.”

I also enclose to you my despatch to the Marquis d’Abrantes, the secretary of foreign affairs, which you will make it your special business, without any unnecessary delay whatever, to place in his hands, or in the hands of the under secretary d’Azembuja, in order that there may be no mistake hereafter in regard to its actual delivery, and the precise time of its delivery. And you will make it your business, on delivering the despatch, to name to the party receiving it its general purport, and the brief time allowed for interference, in consequence of no notice having been furnished to either the consul or minister of the United States of any such decree having been obtained for the sale of the American vessels, and the time when and circumstances under which you became informed of the existence of any such proceedings. And you will promptly note the time of delivering my despatch at the foreign office, and the conversation held with the party receiving it, and report the same to me without delay.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


F. A. Cordeiro, Esq.