Case Analysis |The Paquete Habana Vs United States :: 175 U.S. 677 (1900)

Brief of Facts: 

Two fishing vessels, namely Paquete Habana and the Lolo were captured by the US squadron in the territory of southern Florida around the coast between Cuba and America. 

The Paquete Habana left for Havana on March 25th,1898 and sailed along the coast of Cuba to  Cape San Antonio at the western end of the island. The sloop was forty-three feet long on the keel, with a burden of twenty-five tons. It fished for twenty-five days within the territorial water of Spain, and by the end, it managed forty quintals of live fish. The ship was captured by the  United States gunboat Castine. 

The other vessel, Lola was a schooner, fifty-one feet long on the keel. She had a crew of six  Cubans including a master with no commission or license. The ship carried a burden of thirty-five tons.

The schooner left for Havana on April 11th, 1898, and fished at Campeachy Sound off Yucatan for eight days. A cargo of about ten thousand pounds of live fish was captured before they were to start to leave for Havana. On April 26, 1898, near Havana, Lola was interrupted by the United States steamship Cincinnati and instructed not to go into Havana.

They directed her to rather head for Bahia Honda, where she would be allowed to land at. As per the directions of the steamship, Lola changed her course from Havana to Bahia Honda, but as soon as they arrived near that port another United States steamship, Dolphin captured her. 

Both the vessels would regularly fish on the coast of Cuba, move in and out in Havana, and focus on catching the fish as the main occupation. The crew was not aware of the ongoing war between the two countries and showed no mala fide intention. The crew after getting caught did not try to run or attack. Also, there were no weapons and ammunition found with them. 

Both the fishing vessels were brought by their captors into Key West. A libel for the condemnation of each vessel and her cargo as a prize of war was there filed on April 27, 1898.  Thereafter, both the owners who were Spanish appealed to the court that the coastal fishing vessels were exempted as per the customary international law. Furthermore, evidence was collected, showing the facts stated above.

Admiral William T. Sampson, who commanded the blockade, justified the seizures by stating that most fishing vessels flying under the Spanish banner were manned by well-trained seamen with prior naval experience who could be called up to fight for Spain.  

A final decree of condemnation and sale was entered on May 30, 1898, by the District Court. 

Thereafter, Paquete Habana and the Lola were sold in an auction for $490 and $800  respectively. The evidence regarding the value of their cargoes was not found to have been recorded.  

Issue Raised: 

1. Was it proper for the court to issue a decree of condemnation and auction the fishing vessels? ▪ Judgment: 

The District Court held the shipping vessels and their cargoes liable. The District Court was of the view that in absence of any treaty, proclamation, or ordinance it cannot be established that the fishing vessels were exempted from seizure. 

In a 6–3 decision authored by Justice Gray, the Supreme Court decision reversed the district  court and ordered that the proceeds of the auctions, as well as any profits made from the  vessels’ cargo, be restored to the claimants “with damages and costs.” Thus, barred any  “controlling executive or judicial decision” and directed its incorporation into the corpus of the  United States law. 

The Supreme Court asserted that the fishing vessels, cargoes, and the crew shall be exempted from seizures or from capture as prizes of war as it is a customary international law even if not reduced into a treaty or ordinance.

The fact that it has not been established as a statutory law does not allow the capture of the fishing vessels pursuing their vocation of catching fish as it is a rule under customary international law. 

With that, the court asserted the obligation should be taken into effect on that ground. Consequently, the decrees of condemnation were reversed. Thus, the claimants of the 

respective vessels were provided the compensatory damages and costs and ordered the restoration of the proceeds of the sales of both the vessels to them. 


The Supreme Court relied on the legal precedents which supported the exemption of leaving the fisherperson out of the war. It highlighted it as an “ancient usage among civilized nations,  beginning centuries ago, and gradually ripening into a rule of international law while citing the decree signed in 1403 by King Henry IV of England to his officers to leave fishermen alone during times of war.

Later a treaty with France was signed to reaffirm the act between both parties. Similarly, the Holy Roman Empire and France entered a treaty in 1952 to exempt the fisherperson from capture in the interest of the states as it would otherwise lead to widespread hunger if the people did not feel safe fishing. 

In addition to that, several other countries followed the same practice and it has been done over a period thus making the particular practice of exemption customary in nature. 

The decision of the Supreme Court was shown dissent by Chief Justice Fuller. His opinion was so far as to assert that the coastal fishing vessels did not fall in the category of exemption, Justice  Harlan and McKenna also stood by the same view. 


The expression ‘customary international law’ concerns, on the one hand, the process through which certain rules of international law are formed, and, on the other, the rules formed through such a process. While these rules are not necessarily general in scope, all existing general rules of international law are customary. 

Presently, nations function by the established rule of international law which exempts coast fishing vessels, cargoes, and crew from capture or prize of war by belligerents as long as they are carrying out their duties with honesty. The general law is laid with the consideration and mutual harmony amongst nations with conflict.

By common consent of the nations has enabled its functionality independent of any express treaty or public act. The case lays down the applicability of the exemption with the required conditions and probable causes that could justify the confiscation or seizure. The case of Paquete Habana and The Lola has played a pivotal role in establishing and giving scope to further required amendments to Customary international law and seizure of enemy’s property as a prize of war. 

Moreover, over time the United States now incorporated the international customary law into practice without it being codified by Congress and referring as a part of the law. 

References : 



• Paquete Habana v. United States 175 U.S. 677.  

• Tullio Treves, Customary International Law, OXFORD PUBLIC INTERNATIONAL  LAW (November 2006),  

• e1393.  

• The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677 (1900).  

• William S. Dodge, The Story of the Paquete Habana: Customary International Law as  Part of our Law (2005).

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