Roberts v. Cargo Ship Ajax
About This Case
With its long coastline, numerous bays, inlets, and treacherous reefs, Florida presented unique problems for the creation and enforcement of maritime law.
In 1836, the Superior Court for the Southern District of Florida, located at Key West, considered the case of Roberts v. Cargo Ship Ajax. As with many cases originating in the Southern District, this case involved the business of salvaging. Indeed, numerous shipwrecks and the subsequent legal battles over salvaged goods provided the impetus for the creation of a branch of the Territorial Court at Key West.
In October 1835, the cargo vessel known as Ajax, en route from New York to Mobile, ran aground on Carysfort Reef in the upper Florida Keys. Beginning on October 14, wrecking vessels arrived on the scene to usher crew, passengers, and cargo to safety. The first wrecker to arrive was the Splendid, whose crew worked for several hours until “wind and waves” forced them to seek shelter on the leeward side of Key Largo.
Next came the Sudlow, whose crew successfully evacuated about 40 passengers and their baggage before sailing for Key West. The Hester Ann and the Mount Vernon followed, sending men into the submerged portion of the Ajax to recover cargo. Over the ensuing four days, these vessels quickly filled their decks with crew, cargo, and passengers salvaged from the Ajax and set sail for Key West.
The next month, the owners of the four wrecking vessels petitioned the high court to recover costs associated with salvaging the Ajax. As the case unfolded, more vessels appeared who claimed a part in the operations. These included the Caroline, the Fair American, and the Thistle. Also, the Van Buren and the Sarah Isabella joined in salvage operations between October 20 and 25.
The judge presiding over this case ordered a public auction to take place at the warehouse of O.O. Hare in Key West. Before the sale could commence, the owner of the Ajax pleaded with the court to further examine the circumstances of each wrecking vessel as it pertained to the salvage of the Ajax. The owner of the Ajax claimed that while several of the vessels did indeed prevent the loss of life and valuable goods, two ships, Sarah Isabella and Thistle, should forfeit their portion of proceeds from the public auction.
Based on evidence supplied by the captain and crew of the Ajax, it appeared that both the Sarah Isabella and the Thistle absconded with the goods they recovered, rather than depositing them in Key West as was required by the law. Apparently, they made off with valuable items including “linens, silks, cottons” and other “ready made” goods.
The judge agreed with the evidence presented against the Sarah Isabella and the Thistle. He ordered the public auction to continue, and excluded the offending vessels from partaking in the profits.
This case highlighted some of the complex issues arising in cases involving salvaging in Florida waters. As demonstrated here, salvaging was not an easy process; multiple parties often became involved in the quest for profits derived from the many unfortunate vessels wrecked along the Florida Keys.