Robert D. Outbridge vs. Schooner Billow
About This Case
In 1832, the Superior District Court of Middle Florida, located in Tallahassee, considered the case of Robert D. Outerbridge v. Schooner Billow.
The case involved claims made by Robert D. Outerbridge, a sailor aboard the schooner Billow, for unpaid wages. Outerbridge served as the first mate aboard the schooner as it sailed from the port of Matanzas, Cuba, to St. Marks on Florida’s northern Gulf coast. According to his contract, Outerbridge was to be paid $90 at the completion of the voyage (or $30 per month).
Before arriving in St. Marks, however, Ellis H. Buell, Master of the Billow, dismissed Outerbridge and later refused to compensate the first mate for his services on the “high seas.” The first mate sought legal recourse against Buell, and the case made its way into the historical records of the Territorial Court of Appeals.
The Billow case contains rich testimony from several witnesses. The first to testify was José Rodriguez, a fellow sailor with Outerbridge aboard the Billow. He supported Outerbridge and also claimed to have suffered at the hands of the abusive Master Buell. Another witness, William A. Slocum, testified that Outerbridge was “attentive to his duties, regularly took the sun and navigated the vessel…was faithful in the discharge of his duties…and was sober…during the whole voyage.” Slocum added that he “never heard a word of complaint uttered against [Outerbridge by Buell]…”
Samuel Landstrom, the next to testify on Outerbridge’s behalf, overheard Buell call Outerbridge a “damned rascal” before striking him repeatedly. According to Landstrom, Outerbridge was sick the following day and covered with bruises from head to toe. After this incident, according to witness Benjamin Ivy Sworn, Buell decided to expel Outerbridge from the ship. Buell left the former first mate and his effects on an island referred to as Sprague’s Point.
Some of the passengers pleaded with Buell to turn back for Outerbridge. Buell eventually sent a boat, which retrieved Outerbridge and deposited him near the St. Marks lighthouse, near the mouth of the St. Marks River. Evidently the marooned sailor found a passing vessel that brought him up the river and into the port of St. Marks.
The case against Outerbridge was brief. Buell claimed that Outerbridge was not due his full pay because he was only aboard the Billow for “eight or ten days.” During that time, Buell claimed that the first mate exhibited “obstinate, refractory, unreasonable and mutinous” conduct that presented “so evil an example to the crew of said vessel” that he was compelled to remove and replace him.
Apparently the judge was not swayed by Buell’s remarks. The court found in favor of Outerbridge as well as Rodriguez, who, like Outerbridge, was dismissed from the Billow without pay.
The court rejected subsequent appeals by Buell and the owners of the Billow and it appears both sailors received their pay, derived from the court-ordered sale of articles from the schooner.
What is unclear from the case file is what instigated Buell’s treatment of Outerbridge and Rodriguez. No one came forward to support Buell’s claim that Outerbridge created a mutinous atmosphere aboard the Billow. Quite the contrary, fellow crew and passengers alike rallied in support of the first mate.
Did Buell have a personal feud with Outerbridge, perhaps something that failed to emerge during the trial? The only hint of prejudice is a hard to decipher line recorded during the testimony of Benjamin Ivy Sworn, who told the court that Buell apparently held negative feelings towards Spanish sailors in general. It is unclear whether this applied to both Outerbridge and Rodriguez as neither the ethnicity nor the nationality of the two sailors is noted.
Regardless of the reason behind his actions, Buell had crossed the line; he and his employer suffered financial repercussions to the tune of $300 in unpaid wages and court fees.