This is actually a key case from English contract law – but at the same time almost unbelievable. Apologies to any readers who know all about the case already.
It is the story of two ships with identical names, doing an identical voyage, carrying identical cargoes. One the parties involved is even called Raffles (for those who don’t know him, there was a ‘gentleman thief’ character of the same name, created by a relative of Conan Doyle).
Suspend your disbelief for a moment, and read on…
Raffles v Wichelhaus, Court of King’s Bench, 20 January 1864
Declaration. For that it was agreed between the plaintiff and the defendants, to wit, at Liverpool, that the plaintiff should sell to the defendants, and the defendants buy of the plaintiff, certain goods, to wit, 125 bales of Surat cotton, guaranteed middling fair merchant’s Dhollorah, to arrive ex “Peerless” from Bombay; and that the cotton should be taken from the quay, and that the defendants would pay the plaintiff for the same at a certain rate, to wit, at the rate of 17½d. per pound, within a certain time then agreed upon after the arrival of the said goods in England. Averments: that the said goods did arrive by the said ship from Bombay in England, to wit, at Liverpool, and the plaintiff was then and there ready, and willing and offered to deliver the said goods to the defendants, &c. Breach: that the defendants refused to accept the said goods or pay the plaintiff for them.
Plea. That the said ship mentioned in the said agreement was meant and intended by the defendants to be the ship called the “Peerless,” which sailed from Bombay, to wit, in October; and that the plaintiff was not ready and willing and did not offer to deliver to the defendants any bales of cotton which arrived by the last mentioned ship, but instead thereof was only ready and willing and offered to deliver to the defendants 125 bales of Surat cotton which arrived by another and different ship, which was also called the “Peerless,” and which sailed from Bombay, to wit, in December.
If you want to know more about the legal implications of this landmark case, you might like to read this article by A. W. Brian Simpson, Contracts for cotton to arrive: the case of the two ships Peerless.