Benjamin Franklin Papers
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Charles Thomson to the American Commissioners, 16 July 1784

Charles Thomson to the American Commissioners

ALS: National Archives; copy: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia July 16. 1784

Gentlemen,

In obedience to the order of the Committee of the States, I have the honor to send you copies of the papers relating to the brig L’Amiable Elizabeth a french vessel that was deserted by her Crew at Sea and was boarded and taken up by citizens of the United States and carried into St Johns in Newfoundland, where she was seized by a public Officer and her cargo disposed of; that you may require of the british court that the full value of the said brig and her cargo be restored for the benefit of Robert Shewell by whose order she was taken up at Sea, and other just claimants according to the laws & usage of civilized commercial and friendly nations.8

With great respect I have the honor to be Gentlemen Your most obedient and Most humble Servt1

Cha Thomson

Addressed: The Honble / John Adams, Benj Franklin and / Thomas Jefferson, ministers plenipoy / of the United States of America

Notation: Philadelphia July 16. 1784 from The Secretary of Congress enclosing Papers relative to the brig L’amiable Elizabeth

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8Over the next several months the American commissioners would receive various and contradictory accounts of this incident. The basic story, according to the enclosures sent by Thomson, is as follows. On April 5, 1783, Robert Shewell, commander of the Nancy, bound from Philadelphia to Lorient, responded to a distress signal from the French brigantine Aimable Elizabeth, bound from Lorient to Philadelphia. Shewell took the Frenchmen on board and, judging the Aimable Elizabeth to be still seaworthy, manned her with a crew of Americans led by Lt. John Justice and instructed them to follow the Nancy into Lorient. A storm separated the vessels and at the end of May the Aimable Elizabeth landed in St. John’s, where the judge of the vice admiralty court seized the vessel and cargo and detained the Americans. Without due process, it was alleged, the judge sold the ship and some of the cargo; the rest was destroyed in a warehouse fire.

1The present letter largely reiterates the July 10, 1784, resolution by the Committee of the States (JCC, XXVII, 583–4). The enclosed papers begin with a copy of that resolution, in Thomson’s own hand and signed by him, followed by copies of the following documents: (1) Shewell’s May 23, 1784, petition to Congress, (2) an undated certificate signed by Shewell, two of his officers, and three passengers, (3) a June 5, 1783, summons issued by the Newfoundland vice admiralty court, (4) the Oct. 14, 1783, protest by John Justice, cosigned by three Newfoundland merchants, and (5) a long account of what had happened at St. John’s, dated Oct. 16, 1784, written by Archibald Buchanan (evidently a native of that port), attesting to Justice’s good conduct and protesting the actions of the admiralty. BF endorsed the packet “Papers Relating to the Brigantine Aimable Elizabeth / Capt. Shewell’s Affair”.

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