"Imperial Claims, Local Justice": History Colloquium with Missouri Western's Dominic DeBrincat


In November 1752, the Spanish cargo ship St. Joseph and St. Helena was towed into New London, Connecticut, after being rendered unseaworthy by a reef near the entrance to the city’s harbor. As Missouri Western Assistant Professor of History Dominic DeBrincat outlined in his January 29, 2016, presentation at the Kinder Institute’s Friday Colloquium Series, the events that followed the arrival of the St. Joseph and St. Helena in New London make up one of the more fascinating and understudied episodes in early American legal history. After anchoring, the contents of the ship—which included stores of indigo, gold, and silver—were divided between various “secure” locations around the city, where they were to stay until provisions were made for the cargo to be returned to Spain. Within weeks, however, New Londoners and Spanish crewmembers alike had taken to looting the warehouses and honorable homes where the ship’s inventory was stashed, setting the stage for a protracted legal battle that would reveal much about the legal infrastructure in colonial Connecticut, including the often overlooked importance of local courts.

Intent on retrieving—or at the very least being compensated for—the lost goods, the ship’s supercargo, Don Joseph Miguel de St. Juan, first petitioned the admiralty court in New York for restitution and, after failing to secure compensatory justice there, turned to the Connecticut General Assembly. There, too, however, he found little in the way of assistance, with the Assembly determining that no Connecticut officials were blameworthy in the looting and recommending only that then-Governor Roger Wolcott be granted license to investigate the incident (a concession which Prof. DeBrincat described as “a limp offer of justice” at best). It was only after pursuing the matter in the New London County Courts that Don Miguel’s efforts to collect on his losses began to bear fruit. While much of the justice he received was symbolic, given that a majority of defendants had escaped incarceration and fled the county with their portions of the cargo, the local court rewarded Don Miguel with “treble damages” (to be split between himself and the County) in many of the theft cases and aided him in retrieving stolen property in the few instances when it could be recovered. Not only did the local court prove itself to be the best venue for effecting justice during “the Spanish Ship Affair”; it also set new legal precedents during the prosecution of the Spanish mariners by accepting testimony from typically non-franchised individuals, including co-defendants and members of the community who were of African descent.

DeBrincat Bio PicDominic DeBrincat received his M.A. in History and his J.D. from Wayne State University in Detroit and his Ph.D. in History from University of Connecticut. He currently serves as an assistant professor in the Department of History and Geography at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, MO. Prof. DeBrincat has published articles and reviews in Connecticut History, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and American Journal of Legal History, and he is currently at work on a book manuscript entitled Judicial Discretion, the Courts, and Legal Culture in Colonial Connecticut.