The ship Bellas, a prize of war in 1914

By Johanne Noël

The Prize Court in Canada

In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the Prize Court had not sat in Canada since the War of 1812. The Prize Court hears cases in times of war concerning the capture of enemy vessels or vessels belonging to enemy countries. Depending on the era, these cases might require taking into consideration Admiralty Orders, Royal Proclamations, Orders-in-Council, Acts of Parliament, and written and unwritten international treaties and laws pertaining to maritime wars. The objective is to capture enemy vessels on Canadian territory without the country becoming embroiled in disputes with other countries.

The procedure

During international conflicts, the merchant vessels of enemies might be captured. The captain or the first mate, or both, would be interrogated under oath before the registrar. The parties would then be heard before the judge in open court, where exhibits of evidence were read out and recorded on file. If the vessel was proved to belong to British, allied or neutral forces, it would be released or restored to the original owners.

Should the property be deemed as “good and lawful prize,” it would be transferred to the prize master, who would auction it off. An enemy merchant vessel would normally be granted at least one grace day to leave a Canadian port and thus avoid being captured as a prize of war.

The capture of the Bellas in 1914

On August 4, 1914, an imperial decree brought Britain and Canada into the First World War. The Bellas, a merchant ship flying the German flag, had been docked in the port of Rimouski since July 29, 1914, unloading a shipment of timber from Portugal. It was the only enemy ship on Canadian territory when war was declared. In fact, this particular case led the Prize Court to revise its procedures, which dated back to the 19th century.

At the port of Rimouski, a Writ of Summons was served to the ship’s captain by an officer of the court on August 7, 1914. The captain declared that he had seen the original and been given a copy.

On August 10, the ship was brought to the port of Québec by Commander Atwood of the Department of Naval Service, and it was left in the custody of the collector of customs at the port. Atwood had not received the Writ of Summons issued in Rimouski, so he produced a new one upon taking control of the ship. The collector of customs, unaware that a first writ had been issued, took the ship’s papers and sent them to Ottawa, where they were translated from German and recorded on file.

On September 16, the Deputy Minister of Justice issued a Writ of Summons through the Exchequer Court and submitted it to those responsible for the Bellas in Québec on September 22. This writ brought case No. 1 before the Prize Court, under the Exchequer Court. The writ was published in the Montreal Gazette and the Quebec Chronicle by the registrar of the court. The ship was ordered to be detained by the bailiff until further orders issued by the court. On December 15, 1914, a second court order signed by Judge Cassels extended the detention period.

At the time that the ship was seized, the navigation season was closed at Québec. The ship and its cargo would remain docked at the port of Québec, pending a decision.

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada.” Two $1 and one 50¢ Canadian postage stamps were affixed in the lower-left margin of the document to attest that the fees for this document had been paid to the court.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. The bailiff would go on board the ship with the original writ and pin it to the mizzen mast for a few minutes, then replace it with a duly certified copy before leaving the ship. (e011312628)

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada” and a red string in the upper-right corner. It features two signatures.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. Note indicating that this Writ of Summons was served on September 22, 1914. (e011312628)

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada No. 1.” It features a blue ink stamp mark dated September 24, 1914, and a signature.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. Note indicating that this Writ of Summons was served on September 22, 1914. (e011312628)

Was the ship Portuguese or German?

In his testimony before the court, the captain of the Bellas, Conrad Bollen, acknowledged having left the port of Oporto (known today as Porto) in Portugal on June 24, 1914. He received no communication regarding the Bellas between the port of Oporto and Rimouski in Quebec. At the time of its departure from Oporto, the ship was owned by J. Wimmer and Company, a company registered in Germany. On August 7, a telegram from the Wimmer company informed the captain of the sale of the ship. A purchase agreement had been concluded bona fide (in good faith) while the ship was at sea.

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The document is titled Deutsches Reich, under which is featured the coat of arms of the German Empire and the mention Schiffs-Zertifikat.

The certificate of registration of the Bellas states that its home port is Hamburg, Germany, and that it is owned by German shipowner Johannes Alfred Eduard Wimmer (e011312630)

Document typed and handwritten in German.

The certificate of registration of the Bellas states that its home port is Hamburg, Germany, and that it is owned by German shipowner Johannes Alfred Eduard Wimmer (e011312630)

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The document is titled Deutsches Reich, under which is featured the coat of arms of the German Empire and the mention Musterrolle der Mannschaft des deutschen Bellas.

The muster roll of the Bellas lists the crew members who boarded the ship at the port of Lisbon as of August 28, 1912. It states that the ship departed the port of Oporto in Portugal for Rimouski in Canada. (e011312629)

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire).

The muster roll of the Bellas lists the crew members who boarded the ship at the port of Lisbon as of August 28, 1912. It states that the ship departed the port of Oporto in Portugal for Rimouski in Canada. (e011312629)

The Portuguese consulate in Canada tried to regularize the status of the ship by obtaining documents attesting the certification of the ship under Portuguese flag authority, which would have enabled it to return to Portugal. A document written in Portuguese explained that the sale had been concluded and that the new owner, Orlando de Mello do Rogo, had taken possession of the ship on July 3. The document is dated November 10, 1914, three months after the seizure of the ship. This claim was rejected and the ship was considered German, thus making it an enemy ship subject to seizure.

The Bellas in Her Majesty’s service during the war

On July 17, 1915, the ship was requisitioned for imperial service during the war. On the same day, a requisition notice was issued as well as a commission for the evaluation of the ship and its cargo. The ship was used to transport timber during the war, which it survived. The ship’s initial timber cargo was sold for over £1,000. The former owners did not submit any claims for the merchandise.

References

Prize Court rules

Library and Archives Canada, RG13, vol. 1926, file 1916-244

Library and Archives Canada, RG13, vol. 1925, file 1914-1239


Johanne Noël is an archivist in the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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