Mr. Sanford to Mr. Seward.
Sir : I have had, heretofore, occasion to refer to the question between Belgium and Holland relative to the effect of works undertaken by authority of the latter on the Scheldt, and which, in the estimation of this government, will tend to fill the channel and impede navigation on the only important outlet to the sea which Belgium has for its commerce.
This question is of interest to us in connection with the part we have taken in the extinguishment of the Scheldt dues and the guarantees we have received for the freedom of its navigation, and has assumed proportions which make a more detailed statement of the question proper.
The Scheldt below Antwerp and in Dutch territory divides into two branches, viz : the Western Scheldt or Scheldt proper, which is the route of vessels to and from the sea, and the Oriental Scheldt, which serves as a means of communication for coasting vessels to Holland and the Rhine. Another outlet on the right, called the Sloe, branches off near Flushing and forms a refuge at Remme-kens for vessels detained by contrary winds, and is also used by coasting vessels, but proportionately less than the Oriental Scheldt.[Page 614]
These branches Holland proposes to close by throwing embankments across them for a railroad from Flushing towards the Rhine, and which shall also serve to redeem a large extent of land now submerged by the tide and to substitute for them artificial canals. In place of the Oriental Scheldt it has caused a canal to be dug across the island of Lud-Beverland, and it proposes to substitute for the Sloe a canal across the island of Waleheren.
These works were projected by Holland in 1846, save that it was then pro-posed to bridge instead of bar the Oriental Scheldt ; and Belgium, each time the project has seemed likely to be executed, has protested against it as contrary to rights guaranteed to it by treaties and acquired at heavy cost, (400,000 florins a year being still paid to Holland by it for advantages to commerce secured to Belgium by the treaty of 1839.) The canal of Lud-Beverland has already been opened to navigation; the Oriental Scheldt will be closed the coming spring, and that of the Sloe is to be soon offered for contract ; and the question, which is exciting a good deal of feeling in this country, must soon be solved. Several commissioners have been appointed by this government to examine into the subject, and some of their reports, those of 1850, 1859, 1860, that of the Dutch commission of 1865, and the reply to the same by the Belgian commission of 1860, are annexed hereto, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
The Belgian commission, in a report made in 1865, and communicated by the Belgian minister at the Hague to that government in December of the same year insist—
1. That the embankment across the Oriental Scheldt will have a disastrous influence upon the navigation of the Scheldt from Antwerp to the sea, by causing deposits in the channel.
2. That the canal of Lud-Beverland cannot be considered an equivalent for the Oriental Scheldt for communication between Belgium, Holland and the Rhine, and would occasion practical difficulties, delays, and charges not encountered by the old route.
3. That the embankment across the Sloe, besides the inconvenience of substituting a canal for a natural channel, always accessible, would have the certain result of destroying the roadstead of Rammekens.
The report of a commission appointed by the Dutch government soon after, and communicated by it to the Belgian minister in April, 1866, arrived in every point to contrary conclusions, and that government in its letter communicating it accepts them, and insists that it has acted in this matter with due prudence and regard for treaty obligations.
An international commission was then proposed by Belgium, to consist of Belgian, Dutch and foreign engineers, but was declined by Holland on the ground that there were serious objections to the examination of this question by foreigners ; but the Dutch minister of foreign affairs offered to have investigations made during five or six years by Dutch and Belgian engineers conjointly upon the question of the effect upon the channel below Bath, and which, while declined by Belgium, resulted in the appointment of a mixed commission upon the most important question, only that touching the Scheldt proper. This commission in its report of September 12th agrees that no injury would result to the channel of the river between Bath and Antwerp, but on the contrary that it would be improved. With regard to the influence upon the channel below Bath, the commission divided, the Belgian commissioners affirming that it would suffer serious injury by closing the Oriental Scheldt, and would tend to fill up; while their Dutch colleagues affirmed as positively that so far from being an injury the projected work would be a benefit.
Upon this report Baron Gericke, the Dutch minister here, in a letter to this government on the 24th September last, renewed the proposition for the joint investigation during five or six years under engagement by his government, in case it should appear that prejudice was caused by its works to the channel, to [Page 615]take necessary measures to remedy it ; but that Belgium on the other hand should admit that the interest of its navigation recognized by treaties was not menaced by the works projected on Dutch territory. This proposition was declined, Holland having refused to join, in inviting, foreign engineers to examine into the question on the spot, insisting that the opinion of its engineers of the “ Water-stadt” (which has a great European reputation for scientific ability) was sufficient, and moreover that it had the character of an inquest in a matter where it had sole right of sovereignty. Application was then made by this government to Great Britain, as having most interest in the navigation of the Scheldt, (the commerce upon it under her flag being equal to that of all other countries together,) besides being a party to treaty stipulations in connection with the stream, to cause an examination of the subject to be made through the admiralty as a further means of enlightening this government. Upon the suggestion, I believe, of Lord Stanley, France and Prussia as neighboring States ; also parties to the treaty of Vienna and that for the extinguishment of the Scheldt dues, were also invited to send each an engineer to make, with one from England, surveys and investigations upon the spot, and give an opinion upon the questions at issue, touching the influence of these works upon the channel of the river. This invitation has, after some hesitation, owing to the feeling (aggravated by the fact that it had not been duly informed of this step by Belgium) manifested against it by Holland, been accepted, and I presume that no opposition will be made, as has been affirmed by Holland, to their presence within her jurisdiction.
The rights upon which Belgium bases its claims are—
1st. The article 113 of the treaty of Vienna, which is referred to and confirmed by section one of article nine of the treaty of 19th April, 1839, which is as follows :
Each state lying upon the stream shall execute such works in its bed as may be necessary to prevent any impediment to navigation.
And section two of article nine of the treaty of 19th April, 1839, terminates as follows :
The two governments (Belgium and Netherlands) mutually engage to keep up (entretenir) the navigable passages of the Scheldt.
Belgium insists that under these explicit stipulations Holland not only cannot close the navigable passages of the Western Scheldt, but that it is under obligations to take care of them, and that what it cannot do directly it has not the right to do indirectly, and that such would be the effect of the closing of the lateral communication known as the Oriental Scheldt, according to the opinion of the commissioners successively appointed by this government.
2d. Paragraph eight of article nine of the treaty of 19th April, 1839, is as follows :
If through natural causes, or by reason of works accomplished, the navigable passages indicated in this article are rendered impracticable, the government of Holland will give other means of communication for Belgian commerce equally sure and as good and commodious in place of the passages which have become impracticable.
According to the Belgian view of it, this claim imposes not only upon Holland the obligation to furnish new ways for navigation in place of those become impracticable, but gives it in no manner the right to suppress channels which, like the Oriental Scheldt, are perpetually practicable, and that in the opinion of competent authority, the canal of Lud-Beverland will not constitute a way as sure, good, and commodious as the Oriental Scheldt, and consequently, that the conditions laid down in the provision of the treaty above cited are not fulfilled ; and
3d. This government asserts that the closing of the Sloe would be contrary to the stipulation quoted above, in that while on the one hand the passage of the Scheldt would be rendered more difficult and dangerous even for vessels deprived by the shelter which they now have at Rammekens ; on the other hand this canal of Walcheren would not be an equivalent for coasting navigation to the Sloe.[Page 616]
The Dutch government on its side comes to contrary conclusions, and declines giving any other satisfaction to the protestations of Belgium than already indicated.
It denies that its right of sovereignty over its waters has been in any manner ceded to Belgium, but that certain, special, and precise obligations touching navigation were alone incurred: that article 9 of the treaty of 1839, quoted above, only referred to communication between Antwerp and the Rhine, and a fair interpretation of its true intent and meaning does not impose upon Holland the necessity to keep open all the channels, or when one is closed to replace it by a new one ; and with regard to barring the Sloe, it asserts that its own coasting trade through that channel, being four-fifths of the whole, it had acted with a due regard to the interests of commerce, and that an advantage, instead of an injury to it, will result from substituting for a defective means of communication a more certain one; and touching the asserted suppression of its roadstead of Rammekens, it replies that owing to a change in the bar it no longer affords the same protection as in former years, and on the other hand, that the roadstead of Flushing has improved and is more frequented.
The feeling on this subject, already warm here, has been further excited by the language held in a discussion on the subject in the upper house of the Dutch chambers, on the 28th ultimo, when Baron Von Zuyland Nyefeldt, the minister of foreign affairs, attacked Mr. Rogier personally, and in terms that naturally have caused irritation here.
I think it quite possible that the opinion of the British, French, and Prussian engineers, invoked by Belgian, may coincide with that of the Dutch engineers of the “ Waterstadt,” which, as before said, is of great authority in Europe: and in such event this goverment will probably pursue the question no further. In the contrary case, it is likely to assume more serious proportions. It is an unfortunate moment for alienation of these two powers who have need at this time of all the stength which close friendly relations can give, and especially is the time unpropitious for giving a pretext for intervention in any form by the States upon either border.
I have the honor to be, with great respect, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.
P. S.—I have the honor to enclose herewith (7) a map showing the position. of the Scheldt and its branches, and of the embankments to be thrown across them, and will, when communicated to Parliament, transmit to you the correspondence on this subject which has passed between the two governments.
H. S. S.