Mr. Burlingame to Mr. Seward,

No. 129.]

Sir: Please find enclosed a letter to me from Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British minister, in relation to the relative rank of commanders and consuls. In the British navy a commander ranks with a vice-consul, and must therefore pay the first visit of courtesy to a consul. In our United States Navy Regulations (Article 107, p. 17) the commander of a vessel of the navy on arriving at a foreign port is directed to call in person and pay the first visit to the diplomatic functionaries of the United States thereat, whose rank is of and above that of consul general; if the officer is of lower rank than consul general, he is to offer [Page 456] him a passage to the ship. It may be said in reply to the British minister that these grades are made for one’s own service, and that naval officers are not under official obligations to call upon the consuls of any but their respective countries.

In the east, however, the question of rank may arise in many ways, and it is desirable that there should be an understanding. It would seem by our rule that when a commander is in command of a vessel, he has the rank of captain. or ranks a consul of his own country. Such is now Shufeldt’s position. He commands the Wachusett, and I can well understand why he does not feel it his duty to pay greater courtesy to a foreign consul than to his own.

I am well acquainted with Commodore Shufeldt, and know him to be a gentlemen who would not for himself raise questions of etiquette, but like most of the gallant officers who fought in the late war, he has a pardonable sensitiveness for his country.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D.C.

Sir Rutherford Alcock to Mr. Burlingame

Sir: I have recently received a despatch from her Majesty’s acting consul at Swatow, requesting information as to the relative rank and precedence of commanders in the United States navy and consuls. There appears to be a difference in the rules adopted compared with those of Great Britain, and I believe other European states. With us a commander of the royal navy ranks with a vice-consul, and a captain with a consul; but each takes precedence in these ranks before the consular officers of equal grade. In accordance with this rule, it is the duty of a consul to make the first call on a captain in the royal navy, and to receive it from a commander.

It is the usage for her Majesty’s consuls in China and Japan to pay the same visits of courtesy to the officers in command of ships of foreign states when they enter the ports; but Mr. Swinhoe writes that he was placed in some difficulty lately when the United States sloop of war, the Wachusett, Commander Schufeldt, arrived at Amoy. He was desirous of showing the same attention to that officer that he would have paid to a commander in her Majesty’s navy, but was precluded, by the regulations of his own service, from paying a first visit; and in conferring with his colleague, the United States consul, he was informed that, by the regulations of the United States, a commander when commanding is entitled to the first call from any United States consular officer under the rank of a consul general; and consequently no interchange of courtesies could take place.

If the title of commander does not give the same rank in the naval services of the two countries, I should be glad to receive any information on the subject, and in the event of a difference existing, it might promote a good understanding between the naval officers of the United States and the consular officers of other countries, to the advantage of both, and be otherwise desirable, if some communication took place between the two governments on the subject.

I have the honor to be, sir, your most obedient, humble servant,


His Excellency the honorable Anson Burlingame, &c., &c., &c.