Libel on a bottomry bond

I have at hand an 1820 letter from a Rhode Island businessman who gripes that he has had a libel filed against him on a bottomry bond. What’s going on here? I thought libel was slander, but I’m guessing this wasn’t about slandering somebody’s bottom.


Submitted byEEon Sun, 10/27/2013 - 19:58


You're right that it likely has nothing to do with slander. It does have to do with bottoms, but not human bottoms.

The word “libel” has multiple meanings. The coupling of that word with “bottomry bond” suggests that your businessman was engaged in the maritime trade in one form or another.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th ed. (an excellent edition for history research because it carries many entries that have since been dropped for obsolescence), p. 1060:

Libel, n. (p. 1060): “The initiatory pleading on the part of the plaintiff or complainant in an admiralty or ecclesiastical cause, corresponding to the declaration, bill, or complaint."

Bottomry Bond (p. 232): “A contract for a loan on the bottom of the ship, at an extraordinary interest, upon maritime risks, to be borne by the lender for a voyage, or for a definite period.”

Of course, the issues are likely to be far more complex than these basic definitions. For a better understanding, you may wish to study these two works:

  • Andrew Dunlap, A Treatise on the Practice of Courts of Admiralty in Civil Causes of Maritime Jurisdiction: With an appendix containing rules in the admiralty courts of the United States … (New York: J. R. Halsted, 1850).
  • Henry Wheaton, A Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States: from February Term, 1821, to January Term, 1829; and also of the cases in the district courts of the United States … (New York: R. Donaldson, 1829), particularly 224–26, for “Bottomry and respondentia bonds.”

Both of these are available as free e-books from Google Books.