One of Bermuda’s most important Court cases: the case of the Enterprise (1835)

One of the Bermuda Supreme Court’s most important contributions towards international jurisprudence is the case of the Enterprise, a story which can never be told enough times.

The Enterprise was a United States merchant vessel, active in the slave trade in the early 19th century along the US Atlantic Coast. Forced into Bermuda waters by bad weather on February 11, 1835, it carried 78 slaves in addition to other cargo.

It became the centre of an international incident when the British/Bermudian authorities freed nearly all of the slaves.

Britain had abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies with effect from 1834, and it had advised “foreign nations that any slavers found in Bermuda … waters would be subject to arrest and seizure. Their cargoes were liable to forfeiture” without compensation.

Bermuda customs officers called a gunboat and naval forces to detain the Enterprise ship so that the slaves could be freed.

Richard Tucker of a local Friendly Society in Bermuda served the captain of the Enterprise with a writ of habeas corpus, ordering him to deliver the slaves to the Bermuda Supreme Court so that they could speak as to their choice of gaining freedom in the colony, or returning with the ship to slavery in the United States.

The Bermuda Supreme Court sat from 9 p.m. to midnight on February 18, 1835, and the Chief Justice of Bermuda interviewed each of the slaves. Seventy-two of the seventy-eight slaves from the Enterprise chose to stay in Bermuda and gain their freedom.

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