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