Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 17 - The Venezuela Controversy

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IN HIS annual message to Congress December 3, President Cleveland stated that our relations with Great Britain, always important, had received a larger share of attention than ever, owing to the boundary controversy between Great Britain and Venezuela, in which the claims of the South American republic were indorsed by the United States; the dispute over the Alaskan boundary was also pending, and the Behring seal fisheries had been a source of disagreement since 1891. This had been referred to an international tribunal, held in Paris, for arbitrament, and in 1893 the claims of the United States to jurisdiction over the seals in Behring sea were rejected; but, as a concession, fishing was prohibited within a radius of 60 miles around Pribyloff islands, and a close season between May 1st and August 1st was legalized under the terms of the treaty; the English government was required to furnish three vessels for patrol duty in waters designated. These restrictions proved insufficient, and pelagic sealing threatened the destruction of the fisheries. Therefore, to insure further protection, additional regulations were adopted by the United States and Great Britain jointly on January 18th, by which each sealing vessel was required to have a special license, to fly a special flag, and to employ only such hunters as were skilled in the use of the prescribed weapons; vessels could enter the 60 mile radius during the [-172-] close season and avoid detention by conforming to specified requirements.
    In addition to all this, Great Britain had proposed the enforcement of international rules for the settlement of disputes at sea, based upon the deliberation of a conference held in Washington about that time, and it was decided that the rules then adopted should go into effect March 1st. After this decision had been reached by the conference, Sir Julian Pauncefote, the British Ambassador, was forced to inform the State Department that British ship-owners declined to accept the date fixed, and it was consequently cancelled.
    As the destruction continued President Cleveland issued his proclamation "forbidding the killing of seals in Alaskan waters under the penalty of a fine not exceeding $1,000 nor less than $200, or six months imprisonment, or both fine and imprisonment."
    The chief obstacle in the way of reaching a satisfactory agreement had been the refusal of Congress to pay $450,000 indemnity claimed by Great Britain for the unlawful seizure of British vessels in Behring sea, a refusal which Congress justified upon the ground that indemnity had been refused for serious damages which the fisheries had suffered through violations of the law by British sealers. This, in brief, was the situation so far as the Behring sea controversy was concerned at the date of the President's message, the dispute having been vigorously reviewed by the press in both countries, growing more and more bitter and acrimonious.
    In his annual message Mr. Cleveland recommended either that the money be paid, or that the claims of both contestants be more fully investigated by further arbitration, pronouncing the original terms to have been judicious and advantageous. Such a treaty, he stated, had been already agreed upon and was to be laid before the [-173-] Senate immediately, and he expressed a hope that the means suggested therein might be immediately adopted.
    The question of the Alaskan boundary, less pressing at that time, but destined to become of paramount importance after the discovery of gold in the Klondyke in 1897, was reviewed in the same manner. Especial prominence, however, was given the Venezuela dispute, which the message declared, "was approaching an acute stage." This involved the establishment of a permanent, legal boundary line between Venezuela and British Guiana, and had been a subject of controversy almost from the formal cession of Berbice, Essequibo and Demerara to Great Britain by the Dutch in the London treaty of 1814.
    A survey had been made in 1835-39 by Sir Robert Schomburgk who had been sent out to Guiana by the Royal Geographical Society. He fixed the northern boundary line at the Amacura river and made the Cotinga the dividing line between Brazil and the British territory on the South. There was no ground for the fixing of these limits except the traditions of the Indians as to the extent of the Dutch possessions from whom the English title was acquired; these proofs were supposed to be strengthened by Schomburgk's discoveries of ruins of Dutch fortifications at Point Barima on a parallel with the northern terminus of his survey and not far removed from it. In the extension of the western frontier of British Guiana, Venezuela was deprived of a large tract of territory, and in 1841 the government dispatched its representative, Dr. Fortique, to London to arrange some practicable and permanent settlement of the boundary. He was assured by Lord Aberdeen, who was then foreign secretary, that England did not regard the Schomburgk survey as final, and that arbitrary marks set up by him would be utilized simply as guides in the future discussion of the boundary between the two countries. It was demanded [-174-] by Venezuela, however, that the marks be removed; but this demand was disregarded and Schomburgk continued his survey, which he completed in 1844. In that year the British boundary was removed still farther to the west, and was defined by the east bank of the Asyani river; and in 1881 what is known as the Granville line transferred the boundary to the west bank, though removing it twenty-nine miles south of the northern terminus of the Schomburgk line and leaving Venezuela in undisputed possession of the mouth of the Orinoco.
    During this period from 1835 to 1881, Venezuela continued to protest, and apparently not without cause, against the gradual encroachments of Great Britain upon her territory; she asked repeatedly for arbitration in which the claims of both governments might be fairly and equitably adjusted. In 1850 the two countries entered into an important agreement to regard the disputed territory as neutral ground "to remain inviolate pending a settlement." Negotiations were interrupted by civil war in Venezuela, but in 1876 Venezuela offered to accept the line fixed by Lord Aberdeen in 1844, which was refused by Lord Salisbury, who was foreign secretary; Venezuela then for the first time appealed to the United States for moral support in her contest with Great Britain, and was assured by Mr. Evarts, Secretary of State, that this government took a deep interest in "all transactions tending to the encroachment of foreign powers upon any of the Republics of this continent," and that "the United States could not look on with indifference to the forcible acquisition of such territory by England."
    To add to the interminable complications, in 1883 valuable gold mines were discovered within the disputed territory, which it must be borne in mind lay far beyond the British line fixed by the Schomburgk survey. In 1882, the year preceding the discovery of gold, Venezuela made [-175-] another urgent appeal to the United States and Mr. Frelinghuysen, Secretary of State, replied that while unwilling to propose "prejudiced terms favorable to Venezuela," the United States would willingly arbitrate the matter, if its services were desired by both disputants. It was further declared that all such questions were regarded as essentially and distinctively American and that the United States would always prefer to see such contentions adjusted through the arbitrament of an American, rather than a European power. This attitude has been maintained by the United States unaltered. In 1884 Mr. Lowell was instructed to use his influence with Lord Granville, Foreign Secretary under Gladstone, and acquaint him fully with the position which the United States had resolved upon toward the weaker American Republics.
    No greater progress was made, however, either in the direction of arbitration or in fixing a permanent boundary line acceptable to both countries, successive English Ministries refusing all propositions that looked to a peaceable solution of the question.
    In 1894 the dispute assumed a still more serious aspect; a British police station was established adjacent to the gold mines beyond the limits of even the Granville line and 100 miles west of the Schomburgk line. The Venezuela military authorities in that vicinity ordered the removal of the station, and when the order was disregarded sent a detail of soldiers and arrested the inspector and sub-inspector who were in charge of the station. This act was repudiated by the government of Venezuela when the news of the arrest reached Caracas; the men were released and reimbursed for their personal losses, while those who had ordered the arrest were punished. Notwithstanding this, an indemnity of 12,000 was asked as additional reparation by the British government, which Venezuela refused on the ground that such payment [-176-] would be a virtual recognition of British sovereignty over the disputed territory.
    What is known as the Monroe doctrine formed the basis of the grounds upon which the United States justified her interference; and this, succinctly stated, opposed the further extension of monarchical institutions in the western hemisphere, which it declared to be peculiarly dedicated to the maintenance of democracy. Arbitrary as such an assumption of authority may appear, it was asserted that its validity had been tacitly acknowledged by Great Britain for more than fifty years.
    A joint resolution was adopted by Congress February 22, 1895, to the effect that "the President's suggestion that Great Britain and Venezuela refer their disputes as to boundaries to friendly arbitration be earnestly recommended to the favorable consideration of both parties in interest."
    The British government paid no attention to this resolution, and on July 20 Mr. Olney, Secretary of State, dispatched a letter to Mr. Bayard, then American Ambassador at the Court of St. James, in which he discussed the situation at length, reaffirming the Monroe doctrine and asserting its validity as a rule of procedure for the United States; the Schomburgk line was declared a matter of convenience and expediency, which had no other justification; and that all other lines proposed by Great Britain, to which the assent of Venezuela was desired, were conventional lines that could not be claimed as a matter of right; no claims of either party were vested in strict legality, Great Britain not having formulated any such demand and Venezuela charging that concessions already yielded had been made the stronger power only "from motives of prudence and moderation."
    The formulated statement of the situation made by Mr. Olney was substantially as follows: 
   [-177-] 1.-That the title to a large tract of land was contested between Great Britain and Venezuela.
    2.-That with her inferior strength Venezuela could hope to establish her claim only by agreement with England direct or through the medium of arbitration.
    3.-That the controversy had existed for half a century, Great Britain varying her claims and disregarding the persevering efforts of Venezuela to establish the boundary by agreement.
    4.-That after a quarter of a century of controversy Venezuela recognized the futility of her efforts.
    5.-Great Britain had steadfastly refused to arbitrate except upon condition of the renunciation of a large part of Venezuela's claims and the surrender of a large portion of the territory involved.
    6.-By supporting the claims of Venezuela, by continually urging the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, by insisting upon arbitration and offering to act as arbitrator, and by other unaggressive means the United States had shown Great Britain that her personal honor and interests were involved and that the continuation of the dispute had become a matter which it could no longer disregard.
    Mr. Olney submitted this interpretation of the Monroe doctrine: "that no European power or combination of powers should forcibly deprive an American state of the right and power of self-government and of shaping for itself its own political fortunes and destinies;" and he further affirmed that the United States was practically sovereign on this continent because of its resources and its isolated position, which rendered it master of the situation and invulnerable. These advantages, he maintained, were imperiled, if it were once acknowledged that European powers could convert American states into colonies or provinces of their own.
    [-178-] To this letter, which was lengthy and indignant, Lord Salisbury did not reply until it had been very carefully considered by able counsel for the crown, who spent some weeks in reviewing its several propositions. On November 26 Lord Salisbury addressed a note to Sir Julian Pauncefote, British Ambassador at Washington, who communicated its substance to the Secretary of State. In this note the Prime Minister replied that the Monroe doctrine, which had never been recognized as a principle of international law, had been brought forward by the United States for the first time as a justification of its acts; that it had developed remarkably since its promulgation in 1823, and that the conditions in Europe which had influenced President Monroe in preparing the message in which the doctrine was embodied were now non-existent.
    At that time, certain European countries had combined by force of arms to prevent the adoption in other countries "of political institutions which they disliked and to uphold by internal pressure those that they approved." Certain South American countries, dependencies of Spain and Portugal, to which nearly the whole continent was subject, had declared their independence which had not been recognized by the countries from which they had freed themselves. It was not an imaginary danger, therefore, which President Monroe had foreseen, as implied in the French invasion of Spain, which might inspire powerful European governments to attempt imposing upon South American republics by force of arms the government they had thrown off. The policy of President Monroe, which had declared resistance to such an enterprise if it were attempted, received the entire sympathy of the English government at that time. Lord Salisbury further stated that he could not understand why Mr. Olney should bring forward an authority, highly popular with his fellow-countrymen, but which had no relation to the existing state of [-179-] things at that time. Mr. Olney was also reminded that the controversy lay between Great Britain and Venezuela, a matter with which the United States had no apparent concern; he had declared that political union between an American and a European power was unnatural, which would imply that the union between Great Britain and her American possessions was unnatural.
    The note concluded with the assertion that Great Britain "was not prepared to admit that the interests of the United States were necessarily concerned in every frontier dispute which might arise between any two of the states which possess dominions in the Western Hemisphere; or that the United States were entitled to claim that the process of arbitration should be applied to any demand for the surrender of territory."
    In a second note, of a little later date, Mr. Olney was informed that the British title to the disputed territory was lawfully acquired from the Dutch, while that of Venezuela was based upon the original occupation of the continent by Spain, it having been construed that the original Spanish possessions must necessarily belong to Venezuela as the self-constituted inheritor of those regions.
    Schomburgk had neither invented nor discovered any new line; his survey had been supported by history, by actual exploration, by information obtained from the Indians and by local traditions that had determined the extent of former Dutch possessions from which all Spanish influence was absent. The Schomburgk line reduced the area claimed by Great Britain, and England had always been willing to waive a portion of its claim, and, for the rest, was and always had been, ready to submit the title to arbitration.
    As for territory lying within the limits of the so-called Schomburgk line, Lord Salisbury decided "it was not con-[-180-]sidered that the rights of Great Britain were open to question."
    Arbitration was refused, which threatened "the transfer of a country occupied with British settlements, and involved the transfer of a large number of British subjects who for years had enjoyed the settled rule of a British colony, to a nation of a different race and language, whose political system was subject to frequent disturbances and whose institutions as yet afforded very inadequate protection to life and property."
    At the date of President Cleveland's first message this note had not been received, but it arrived shortly afterwards and was made the subject of a special message, which was laid before Congress December 17. The President called attention to the fact that the first communication addressed by the British Prime Minister to Sir Julian Pauncefote, the British Ambassador at Washington, had been devoted to a discussion of the Monroe doctrine, it having been charged that its latest application was a new and strange extension and development; that the reasons justifying an appeal to the doctrine by President Monroe no longer existed, and that it was especially inapplicable to a controversy involving the boundary line between Great Britain and Venezuela.
    The propositions laid down by Mr. Olney with great emphasis in his letter to Mr. Bayard were reiterated by President Cleveland in the special message, but in a somewhat milder and more conciliatory tone. He insisted that the dispute came within the jurisdiction of the Monroe doctrine; that the interests of the United States were involved, and that the government was justified not only in its demands for arbitration but in a further demand that its interests be specifically recognized. He thought that the course to be pursued by the United States admitted of no serious doubt, and he boldly stated that having la-[-181-]bored for years to induce Great Britain to submit the dispute to impartial arbitration and having been definitely apprised of its refusal, nothing remained but to accept the requirements of the situation "and deal with it accordingly." It was further declared that "the dispute had reached such a stage as to make it incumbent upon the United States to determine, with sufficient certainty for its justification, the true divisional line between Venezuela and British Guiana. Mr. Cleveland's message concluded as follows:
    "An inquiry to that end should of course be conducted judiciously and carefully, and due weight should be given to all available evidence, records, and facts in support of the claims of both parties. In order that such examination be prosecuted in a thorough and satisfactory manner, I suggest that Congress make an adequate appropriation for the expenses of a commission, to be appointed by the executive, who shall make the necessary investigation and report upon the matter with the least possible delay. When such a report is made and accepted, it will, in my opinion, be the duty of the United States to resist by every means in its power, as a wilful aggression upon its rights and interests, the appropriation by Great Britain of any lands or the exercise of governmental jurisdiction over any territory which we have determined of right to belong to Venezuela."
    In making these recommendations the President declared finally:
    "I am fully alive to the responsibility incurred and keenly realize all the consequences that may follow. I am nevertheless firm in my conviction that, while it is a grievous thing to contemplate the two great English speaking peoples of the world as being otherwise than friendly competitors in the onward march of civilization, and strenuous and worthy rivals in all the arts of peace, there is no calamity which a great nation can invite which [-182-] equals that which follows submission to wrong and injustice and a consequent loss of self-respect and honor, beneath which is shielded the people's safety and greatness.
    The message was received by Congress with the wildest enthusiasm, and, disregarding party feuds, $100,000 was instantly voted to defray the expenses of the commission which was recommended by Mr. Cleveland. This was immediately appointed, and the following members were named: Justice David Brewer of the United States Supreme Court; Chief Justice Alvy of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia; Andrew D. White of New York; Frederick R. Coudert of New York, and Daniel G. Gilman, President of Johns Hopkins University. It was a fairly strong and representative body and, with the exception of Mr. Coudert, was generally approved by the English press; Mr. Coudert was objectionable upon the ground that, as one of its attorneys, he had been too closely identified with Tammany.
    The American press at first almost unanimously applauded Mr. Cleveland's ultimatum; but in a few days a more moderate spirit prevailed and the intelligent classes were heard, and they condemned both the letter of Mr. Olney and the President's message as foolish and ill-advised. General Miles, a man of unquestionable ability and experience, deprecated the prospect of war with England, courageously explaining his position at a public banquet in New York, perfectly aware that it would draw upon him the abuse of hundreds who refused to admit that, with but the semblance of an army, an inadequate navy, and with thousands of miles of unprotected seaboard, we were inviting certain disaster.
    When the reaction set in, the conservative spirit asserted itself, and in Chicago it went to the extreme of a great public mass-meeting at which the President's propo-[-183-]sitions were repudiated, and the formation of a permanent board of arbitration for the adjustment of disputes between Great Britain and the United States was recommended. Other meetings of a similar character were held in New York and elsewhere.
    In Caracas the open championship of the powerful government of the United States, so long sought for and at last secured, was the occasion for popular demonstration, torch-light processions and the most extravagant rejoicings.