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The Prometheus Affair

As reported in the New York Daily Times

December 2, 1851 -- On leaving the harbor at San Juan, the Prometheus was fired into by the English brig of war Express, under the following circumstances, as related by the Captain:

Steamship Prometheus,
San Juan, Friday, Nov. 21, 1851
In order to correct any misstatement that may be made of the circumstances of the English brig of war Express firing into the Prometheus, I beg of you to give the following statement an insertion in your paper:

At 2 P. M., I proceeded to get my ship under weigh to proceed to sea, having but just received the last of our passengers from the Pacific steamer, numbering in all about 500. At this moment the city authorities of Greytown,* constituted, as they stated, by authority of the Muskete King, came on board the ship with a police force, and served a process of attachment on the ship and myself for the amount of $123, claimed by the authorities for present and arrearage port dues charged on the ship, which we supposed to be illegally demanded, and had consequently refused to pay them, as I did in the present instance.

The port dues are made up from the weight of anchorage in the harbor, Captain of the Port's fees and pilotage.

I hove up my anchor and dropped down the harbor with the current, having alongside one of the river steamers, receiving from her the baggage of the passengers. The English brig-of-war laying a short distance from us, immediately got underweigh, made sail for us, and when within a quarter of a mile from us, fired a round shot over our forecastle, not clearing the wheel-house over ten feet. In a few moments another shot was fired, which passed over the stern so near that the force of the ball was distinctly felt by several passengers. I sent a boat on board the brig to inquire the cause of the firing into us.

The Captain stated that it was to protect the authorities at Georgetown in their demands; and if we did not immediately anchor he would fire a bomb-shell into us, and ordered his guns loaded with grape and canister shot; at the same time, our small steamer left us, and I proceeded under steam back to our anchorage, and anchored. The brig stood up the harbor, and anchored very near us; sent a boat on board of us with orders that our fires should be put out, and that an officer would be sent to see that the fires were extinguished. The shore authorities then came on board, and, under the circumstances of the case, the amount demanded was paid, and we were permitted to proceed to sea by the Captain of the brig.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Henry Churchill,
Captain of Steamship Prometheus

January 12, 1852 -- The British brig of war Express, was at San Juan at the last accounts. She had been ordered to Kingston, Jamaica, in order that the conduct of her commander relative to the insult to the Prometheus, may be investigated by the Admiral.

A Kingston letter says:
"I hear that Admiral Seymour is to have an inquiry made about the brig Express firing into the steamer Prometheus. The brig is ordered up from Graytown* for that purpose. We have several vessels of war in port."

"Sir George Seymour, the Admiral of the fleet on the West India station, has arrived at Kingston in the frigate Cumberland, and it is expected that he will sail in a few days for Havana."

January 26, 1852 --

Washington, Friday, Jan 23.

Admiral Seymour, of the West India squadron, held an investigation on this subject, and the results of it were lately transmitted to Mr. Crampton, and is now on its way to England. When it shall arrive, a prompt disavowal of the outrage, it is thought, will be made by the British Government.

The Steamer Prometheus, Capt. H. Churchill, arrived at this port yesterday morning from San Juan, bringing news from San Francisco to the 2d of January...

The Prometheus sailed from New York, Jan. 5th, at 3 P. M. ---- Arrived at San Juan on the evening of the 13th, at 6 o'clock. The U. S. steam frigate Saranac, Com. Parker, and sloop-of-war Albany, Capt. Platt, and the English steam frigate Arrogant, Capt. Robinson, sloop-of-war Calypso, and brig Express, were lying in the harbor.

The British frigate Arrogant had been dispatched by the Admiral of the West India station with the assurance to Com. Parker that the British Government entirely disavowed the acts of the consul and the Capt. of the brig Express in the exercise of any authority whatever in connection with the Musquito** Government, or interfering in any way with any commerce with San Juan.

The most friendly feelings existed between officers of both countries. Salutes were exchanged, on the 16th, on the Commanders visiting each other's ships. Com. Parker was highly complimented by Capt. Robinson, of the Arrogant, by hoisting the American ensign at his main during the salute. It was returned by the Albany, with the English ensign at her main -- a compliment rarely if ever shown but to crowned heads or Presidents. The officers were informed by Com. Parker that the subject of the Musquito question with the United States and Great Britain was in process of adjustment, and that the whole matter would, without a doubt, be soon arranged to the satisfaction of all parties.

The Saranac and Arrogant would leave in a few days. The U. S. sloop-of-war Cyane was expected daily from Chagres, to relieve the Albany.

February 13, 1852 -- Correspondence in the Prometheus Affair.
The correspondence between our Government and that of Great Britain, respecting the affair of the Prometheus, was transmitted to the Senate on Wednesday, and was received by the House yesterday.

The first dispatch is from Mr. Webster to Mr. Lawrence, dated Dec. 3, instructing the American Minister to inquire whether the conduct of the captain of the brig Express, was in consequence of instructions from his Government, and protecting against the outrage.
Several dispatches follow, in which the British Secretary requests a delay until he receives a report from the Admiral of the station.

On the 10th of January Lord Granville addressed the following letter to Mr., Lawrence, viz.:


The undersigned, her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, has the honor to acquaint Mr. Abbott Lawrence, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States of America, that her Majesty's Government have just received the Vice Admiral commanding her Majesty's naval forces in the West Indies, a report upon the subject of the Prometheus, which is to the following effect: That on arriving at St. Thomas, the Admiral received a dispatch from the commander of her Majesty's sloop Express, stating that on the requisition of Mr. James Green, her Majesty's Consul at Greytown, who is also a principal officer of the Mosquito** government at that place, he had, by force, compelled the American steamer Prometheusto pay the port dues demanded of her by the authorities of Greytown.

To this dispatch Vice Admiral George Seymour had immediately replied by saying that neither he, nor, to his knowledge her Majesty's consul had received any orders to allow her Majesty's ships to be employed in such service, or in enforcing the fiscal regulations of Mosquito (sic), the sole object of the presence of a British ship of war at Greytown being to defend the town and inhabitants from aggressive attempts to deprive the Mosquito Government of possession, pending a settlement by negotiation of the question relative to its relative position. Sir George Seymour had further expressly forbidden the commander of the Express from again employing force to compel the levy of duties for the Mosquito Government.

The undersigned has now to state to Mr. Abbott Lawrence, for the information of his government, that her Majesty's government fully approve of the vice Admiral's conduct in this matter, and that they entirely disavow the act of violence committed by the commander of the Express and also the requisition from her Majesty's Consul, under which the commander acted, so far as he acted by any authority derived from the British crown. Under these circumstances, her Majesty's government have no hesitation in offering an ample apology for that which they consider to have been an infraction of treaty engagements; and her Majesty's government do so without any loss of time, and immediately upon receipt of the official intelligence above alluded to, inasmuch as in their opinion it would be unworthy of the government of a great nation to hesitate about making due reparation when the acts of their subordinate authorities have been such as not to admit of jurisdiction.

As Her Majesty's Government have full confidence that the Government of the United States is actuated by a similar feeling, they hope that this mutual confidence will induce each other , in all cases of such disputes, and until due time has elapsed for the necessary explanations to be received to defer taking any steps which might lead to collisions, and thus much aggravate the original difficulty. The undersigned request, &c., GRANDVILLE
Foreign-affair office, Jan. 10, 1852
Mr. Lawrence replied, expressing his gratification, and trusts that the question out of which the difficulty grew, will be speedily settled.

See: Log of HMS Express during "Prometheus Affair."

* spelling varies (Graytown/Greytown)
** spelling varies (Mosquito/Musquito).

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