General Sickles to Mr Fish.
Madrid, November 7, 1873. (Received December 8.)
Sir: Yesterday the official gazette published a telegram, of which the following is a translation:
Island of Cuba—The captain-general, in a telegram of yesterday, the 5th, reports that the steamer Tornado captured the pirate Virginius six miles from the coast of Jamaica, having made Bemheta, Hernando Céspedes (son) Quesada, Jesus del Sol, and others to the number of 165, prisoners, some of them being of importance. The horses, arms, and provisions of the Virginius were thrown overboard during the chase. The captain-general attaches importance to the occurrence.
In the afternoon I called at the ministry of state for the purpose of suggesting to Mr. Carvajal that this capture afforded an opportunity to inaugurate a more generous and humane policy in the conduct of the war in Cuba; that if it should turn out that the vessel was taken on the [Page 923] high seas it might be the subject of a reclamation, and that in any event it would be well to direct the captain-general of Cuba to await orders from this government before taking any further steps in the case. Learning that his excellency was indisposed, I communicated my views to his deputy and wrote a private note to the minister, inviting his attention to the subject.
In the evening I mentioned the matter to President Castelar, remarking that I had received no information or instructions from my Government touching the incident, and that while we had no desire to extend our protection to the enemies of Spain, yet if it should transpire that the Virginius was an American ship, captured on the high seas by a Spanish cruiser, in time of peace, a demand would doubtless be made for the release of the vessel and all on board. I had, therefore, deem edit proper to remind his excellency of the precipitation which often marked the proceedings of the Cuban authorities in the summary execution of prisoners, and to recommend the dispatch of immediate and explicit orders forbidding any such proceedings without the previous sanction of this government.
President Castelar received these observations with his usual kindness, and told me, confidentially, that at seven o’clock in the morning, as soon as he read the telegram from Cuba, and without reference to any international question, for that, indeed, had not occurred to him, he at once sent a message to the captain-general, admonishing him that the death-penalty must not be imposed on any non-combatant without the previous approval of the Cortes, nor upon any person taken in arms against the government without the sanction of the executive. Now that it seemed possible other questions might arise, further instructions would be sent to General Jovellar in the sense I had indicated.
I expressed my satisfaction in learning that the President had determined to stop the cruel treatment of prisoners of war in Cuba, which had so imbittered the unhappy contest in that island and so increased the difficulties in the way of any scheme of pacification.
Mr. Castelar remarked that it would be well for me to have a conversation with Mr. Carvajal on the subject, in order that the question might be brought through the regular channel before the council of ministers. I answered, that having already in an unofficial way thrown out a sufficient intimation to the minister of state, I preferred to wait instructions before taking any further step in so delicate a question.
I learn to-day that many deputies have united in an address to President Castelar, praying him to interpose his authority to prohibit the infliction of the death-penalty on any of the persons captured in the Virginius. A similar petition has been laid before the parliamentary committee sitting during the recess, and which is invested with certain extraordinary powers. This proceeding is passionately assailed by the reactionary press, which loudly demands the blood of the prisoners.
I am, &c,