HC Deb 27 February 1912 vol 34 cc1329-30W

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether his attention has been called to the arrest of the captain of the steamship "Benhead," at Sulina, for refusing to sign a clean bill of lading for a damaged cargo and demanding a re-survey; whether it is the fact that the owners of the ship have been called on to pay £4,000 to the Roumanian authorities as a condition of the release of the vessel; whether any report has been received from the British Minister; and, if so, whether he will lay Papers on the subject?


I would point out to the hon. Member that the master of the "Benhead" was not arrested for refusing to sign a clean bill of lading. He was tried and found guilty on a charge of using, in the presence of witnesses, insulting language to the Roumanian port authorities at Sulina, and sentence of twenty-five days imprisonment was passed upon him. An appeal against the sentence was lodged, and has, so I am informed, been postponed until April at the master's request. The master meanwhile is not suffering detention of any kind, and has, I believe, left the country. The facts of the case in connection with the detention of the vessel are briefly as follows:—Whilst a cargo of Indian corn was being shipped on the "Benhead," at Sulina, the master, suspecting that a portion of the grain was in an unfit condition, stopped loading and demanded a survey. The surveyors appointed by the British Vice-Consul pronounced the grain fit for shipment. As soon as the news reached the charterer that loading operations on the "Benhead" had been suspended, he pleaded an infringement of the charter party, and put in a claim for damages against the owners of the vessel for £4,000, and as there was nothing but the ship to distrain upon, he caused a sequester to be put upon her. In order to take such action the charterer had to pay into Court one-third of the amount of the damages claimed. Had the owners seen fit to pay the £4,000 into Court at once the case would have followed the usual legal course, the vessel would have been released, and the charterer would have had to pay the owners' heavy damages, had they been able to prove that his claim against them was in any way frivolous or unfounded. The money so paid into Court would, moreover, have been repaid with interest. As a matter of fact, the owners have since paid the £4,000 into Court, and the case will be decided by law. The master of the "Benhead," dissatisfied with the finding of the survey conducted under Consular auspices, called upon the Roumanian authorities to hold a second survey, with the result that, despite a sour odour from a portion of the maize, it was considered fit to travel. The master thereupon signed bills of lading, with the annotation upon them of the result of the second survey, and these bills were accepted by the charterer. As the owners had not paid into Court the sum required by law to free the ship, she remained sequestered at Sulina, although fully laden. The charterer thereupon had recourse to Article 575 of the Roumanian Commercial Code, and, after depositing in Court half the freight of the "Benhead" to her destination, as fixed by contract, demanded that the cargo on board should be discharged. The Court issued the necessary order, against which the owners appealed. The appeal was given against the owners, and the discharge of the grain loaded on the vessel was proceeded with. The entire proceedings connected with this case were carried out in strict accordance with the law of the country, and there is no evidence of any illegality having been committed. I have received numerous reports on the case from His Majesty's Minister at Bucharest, who has throughout been watching the case closely. I see no reason at present for the intervention of His Majesty's Government in the matter, and I do not think it necessary to lay Papers, on the subject, at any rate at this stage.