Admiral Polo having read to Mr. Fish a telegraphic dispatch from his government received this day, Mr. Fish replied that—
The United States, in their own interests as well as in the interest of all maritime powers, cannot admit the right of any other power to capture on the high seas in time of peace a documented vessel bearing their flag. The flag which they give to a vessel must be its protection on the high seas against all aggression from whatever quarter, and they reserve to themselves the right to inquire whether the protection of that flag has been forfeited.
They assert the right not only in their own interest, but in the interest of all maritime and commercial powers, Spain herself included, although now it be asserted apparently against Spain.
On this ground they reserve to themselves the right to inquire into the regularity of the papers of the Virginius, and they are prepared to make this inquiry, on the execution indicated in the telegraphic dispatch from his government, just now read by Admiral Polo, of the reparation to the indignity committed to their flag. And should Spain have complaints or reclamations to make against the United States in consequence of the acts of the Virginius, when the injury to the honor of the flag of the United States is atoned for, they will be received with every purpose to do justice to Spain and to prove that the United States are ready at all times to do justice, to fulfill their duties under treaties and international law, and to observe toward the Spanish Republic a reciprocal and cordial friendship.
The Spanish cabinet cannot fail to see that the United States cannot demand less or could undertake to do more.
No nation has ever been more ready than Spain, or more precipitate, to assert its dignity, or to demand redress to its wounded honor. She cannot justly complain of preciptancy in the same direction in the present case on the part of the United States.
With regard to the Virginius, the identity of the vessel captured cannot be questioned. It is known to be the same that received a United States register, issued at New York in September, 1870, a certified copy of which is now in Mr. Fish’s possession, and is, in fact, on the table before him and Admiral Polo.
If her captain made the declarations which he is alleged to have made, they cannot enter into the grave question of justification of an indignity to the flag of a sovereign nation. If they were made, they were made subsequent to the indignity, and cannot, therefore, justify it.
The alleged discrepancy between the description of the vessel and her papers is technical. It may be that the vessel may have sustained damage requiring repairs, which may have involved some change, as is suggested, in her description; but it is the same vessel, and she has not been within the jurisdiction of the United States since a date immediately after that of her register, and, therefore, could not have such changes noted on that register.
Her papers, therefore, must continue to give her a national character, and, with her flag, must be her protection.