No. 771.
Mr. Boker to Mr. Fish.

No. 178.]

Sir: I have the honor herewith to transmit two copies of a resume of the proceedings of the international tonnage commission that recently concluded its labors at Constantinople, together with a copy of a letter, and a translation thereof, addressed by the Ottoman minister of foreign affairs to the Khedive of Egypt, sanctioning and adopting the recommendations of the commission.

It is understood that the inclosed article was written by a prominent member of the commission, and its statements may, therefore, be regarded as authentic. The concluding paragraph, making certain assertions as to the policy of the Government of the United States regarding the questions settled by the international commission, is founded upon an unofficial opinion expressed by me in a conversation with the British ambassador, that if the United States had been represented in the commission, our action would probably have been in harmony with that of the other great commercial powers. The conclusions derived from my words certainly strain the limits of ordinary assumption.

It has been intimated to me, both at the Sublime Porte and by the representatives of the foreign powers, that it would be a satisfaction to them if the Government of the United States would, by an official act, sanction the conclusions of the international commission.

To this I replied by suggesting that proper representations to the Government of the United States, by the Sublime Porte, might probably induce the desired expression of opinion.

It is now generally believed that there will be no opposition, on the part of the Suez Ganal Company to the arrangement for computing the tonnage of shipping, and for the levying of the tolls, recommended by the international commission. In the event, however, of any unexpected difficulty that may be raised by the company, it is understood that the Sublime Porte will insist upon a rigid execution of the recommendations of the commission.

The report of the proceedings of the international tonnage commission is now in preparation, and it will be forwarded to the Department as soon as it is received by the legation.

I have, &c,

[Inclosure 1 in No. 178.]

[From the Levant Herald, Wednesday, December 31, 1873.]

The labors of the international tonnage commission having now been brought to a satisfactory close, it will be interesting to trace, as briefly as the subject permits, the [Page 1144] course of its deliberation, and to describe the manner in which the two questions with which it was called upon to deal have, little by little, been cleared of the difficulties which clustered about them.

The international tonnage commission, taking the two invitations of the Porte to the maritime powers, dated 1st January and 13th August, 1873, and the Porte’s instructions to its delegates, as a guide to its labors, decided on dividing them into two principal parts, viz, the general question of tonnage and the incidental question of the Suez Canal dues, taking the former first in order, as indicated by the abovedocuments.

In treating of tonnage, they again divided their subject into gross and net tonnage. The examination of gross tonnage was of an exhaustive character to determine which is the best mode of ascertaining the gross tonnage, or total capacity of a ship. The commission passed in review all the methods employed for the last three centuries and a half, or since vessels were first measured, and unanimously admitted that Moorsom’s system of measuring the ship’s cubical contents is the best. This system takes account exactly of the vessel’s form, and, with the accuracy of a mathematical formula, furnishes the cubical contents by an arithmetical process, based on measurement, which Moorsom worked out into a practical rule. It was therefore proposed to accept that the measurement of the gross tonnage of a ship is best effected by Rule 1 of the English law of 1854, as defined in its twenty-first and twenty-second clauses. On this, however, a marked divergence of opinion was expressed. The English law, which is the faithful exponent of Moorsom’s intentions, obtains the tonnage by dividing the cubical contents by 100: under it the ship’s ton is a space of 100 cubic feet. The French delegates held that Moorsom’s ton was either 40, 50, or 63 cubic feet, according to the nature of the merchandise embarked, and that the English law had adopted 100 as divisor in order to favor the shipping-interest. They quoted certain isolated passages from Moorsom’s work in support of this view, which, if adopted, is evidently calculated to increase a ship’s tonnage, and, therefore, the revenue of those corporate bodies who levy tolls on shipping. In other words, the French delegates endeavored to displace the discussion from the general grounds on which it had been, taken, in order to procure a decision favorable to the Suez Canal Company. In this they were supported by the Russian delegates, who, throughout the proceedings of this commission, showed an extraordinary subservience to French leadership.

The British delegates resisted the view of Moorsom taken by the French, and successfully refuted it by quotations taken from every part of Moorsom’s writings, both before his system became law in 1854, and subsequently to that date, when, in 1860, he reviewed the working of it. They had no difficulty in showing that the passages quoted by their opponents were isolated extracts, in which Moorsom had intended to demonstrate how, in the event of his system being adopted, merchants could practically deduce from the ship’s papers how much merchandise of any kind she could carry. They successfully maintained that the ship’s ton of measurement, or capacity, is a distinct and wholly dissimilar unit from any ton of merchandise, whether of weight or volume. In other words, the ship’s ton, or ton of capacity, is a containing space of fixed dimensions, which cannot be compared with the contained measure of merchandise, which is expressed by so many different and varying units. In this line of argument they were supported by the vast majority of their colleagues, who, by a great variety of argument, marked by an intimate knowledge of the subject in all its bearings, as well as of its past history, triumphantly refuted the flimsy arguments of the French and Russian delegates. It was right that a question of such universal interest should thus be treated on the broad grounds on which it naturally rests, and protected from the injury which its treatment on local and partial interests would have inflicted upon it.

This discussion on gross tonnage had a very singular effect. The French delegates now discovered that they had no mission to discuss the general question of tonnage, clear as the invitations of the Sublime Porte and the instructions of the Ottoman delegates had been on this point. They refused to take further part in the deliberations of the commission, unless they were directed to ascertaining the utilizable capacity of a ship. Their colleagues replied that they would discuss this partial question in its proper order. The best mode of ascertaining the total capacity was under consideration; the examination of what portion of that capacity is utilizable would naturally follow, but could not precede it. The French delegates, therefore, declared that they could no longer take part in these deliberations. Their colleagues regretted this inability, but could not on that account change the order of the commission’s labors. The demand of the French delegates was entirely illogical and out of place; in conformity neither with the officialdocuments before the commission, nor with the requirements of the subject. But even had it been so, it would have been impossible to submit to the dictation of a minority. It has been advanced by certain journals that the commission lost its international character from the moment that the French withdrew. If such an inference were correct, it would amount to this: in a conference where adozen nations are represented, one power alone may dictate the order and even the issue of its discussions by holding out the threat of withdrawal, [Page 1145] and of thus depriving the conference of its international character. The pretension has only to be thus stated in order to expose its absurdity. But in the present instance the position was the more untenable because, in accepting the rules which the commission had laiddown for the conduct of its discussions, the French delegates admitted the possibility of the commission retaining its character of an international body, even in the absence of one-third of its members, and the validity of its discussion even should some of its members be unprovided with instructions. The commission, therefore, continued its discussions in spite of the French delegates’ withdrawal. The Russian delegates showed a disposition at first also to abstain, but they soon changed their tactics and re-entered the council-chamber, perceiving that the only result of abstaining would be that the questions in hand would be treated without them, and that perhaps, if present, they might help their friends. The vote on gross tonnage was taken, under which the provisions of the English law of 1854 were accepted as the basis of the international mode of ascertaining gross tonnage. According to this law the cubical contents are ascertained by Moorsom’s rules, and if taken in feet are divided by 100, or in meters by 283. This vote, then, recognizes the ship ton of capacity to be 100 cubic feet, or 283 cubic meters. It was further agreed that the spaces of which, the cubical contents are to be measured for gross tonnage are all those below the upper deck, and all covered and closed in spaces above that deck which can be used for the berthing of passengers, officers, or crew, and for-the stowing of cargo.

The international commission then proceeded to determine the rules by which the net tonnage of all ships should be ascertained. They subdivided this subject into: 1. The general deductions applicable alike to sailing and steam ships; 2. The special deductions applicable to steamships alone.

On the first of these points there was considerable divergence of opinion, one fraction of the commission desiring to deduct every space that could at any time be used for other objects than those of carrying cargo and passengers; the other fraction desiring to limit the deductions to spaces only that could never be utilized for earning freight. It was evident that if the former principle were admitted, adoor would be opened to much abuse, under which the tonnage of vessels would be liable to such large deductions as would materially affect all revenues depending on navigation dues. The views, therefore, of those who sustained the latter principle prevailed, and the general deductions were further limited by the vote that they should not exceed 5 per cent, of the gross tonnage.

The second section of this subject—the net tonnage of steamers—was one of considerable difficulty, and may be termed the turning-point of the tonnage discussion. The difficulty lay in the following circumstances: The present English law is, in this respect, admittedly defective. Every merchant-shipping-bill introduced into Parliament during the last five years has contained an amendment of this part of the tonnage law. Those of 1869 and 1871 adopted a system recommended in 1860 by Moorsom, which applies to the engine and coal spaces the same principle as is applied to the whole ship, viz: absolute measurement of the space thus lost for earning freight, and its deduction from the gross tonnage. We will call this the rule of 1871, otherwise known as the rule of fixed bunkers. Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary, and France have successively adopted it with the Moorsom system, and it is now the law in those countries. But in England it has not become law, and while it was in the shape of a bill, an examination of the working of it led to the conviction that it is faulty, and it has been withdrawn. In its place has been put a system first tried on the Danube, and for that reason now termed the Danube rule, though it was derived from, the English board of trade.

The Danube rule is a very slight modification of section b of the twenty-third clause of the English law. The defect of the latter lies in its having two sections—a and b—very dissimilar in operation and causing great inequalities between ship and ship, and in the absence of any limitation to the working of section b. The Danube rule attaches this limitation and eliminates section a. Section a of the law enacts that if the space occupied by the machinery of a screw-steamer is above 13 or below 20 per cent, of the gross tonnage, she receives a deduction of 32 per cent, of that tonnage on account of engine and coal-bunkers.

Section b says that if the machinery occupies a proportion of the gross tonnage beyond those limits, then 75 per cent, of the machinery-space shall be added to it, and the total deduction from the gross tonnage to give the net tonnage. This may be carried to such an excess that the vessel will have very little tonnage at all.

The Danube rule adopts section b, with the limitation that the total deduction cannot exceed 50 per cent, of the gross tonnage.

The above figures concern screw-steamers only; there are others for paddle-wheel vessels. As the German government was unwilling to change the law so recently adopted—and it was not to be supposed that the English Parliament would adopt as law a change which has been shown to be defective—it was evident that no uniform law could for the moment be agreed upon. Colonel Stokes, therefore, hit upon an expedient, which the commission has adopted, and by which, without changing its law, [Page 1146] any country possessing the Moorsom system of gross tonnage can deliver to any of its vessels a certificate, to be attached to the papers, which will give the net tonnage, either according to the Danube rule or according to the rule of 1871, as may be selected by the owner; and that this certificate shall be valid in all foreign ports for the payment of dues.

This expedient will secure uniformity of practice until the maritime powers have agreed upon a uniform law. Practically, it will lead to all vessels receiving net tonnage under the Danube rule, as the latter is more favorable to ship-owners than the rule of 1871 by about 5 per cent.

This decision on net tonnage closed the debates on tonnage questions; and, although no formal decision was at that time pronounced defining utilizable capacity no one could fail to conclude from the debates on net tonnage, that the net tonnage of a ship, as agreed upon by the commission, is the nearest approximation to her utilizable capacity.

The second subject which the commission discussed was the Suez Canal question. The inquiry was contained in the following extract from the instructions to the Ottoman delegates:

“Is the mode of levying the dues at the present time practiced by the Suez Canal Company in harmony with the provisions of the concession and of the imperial firman, according to the interpretation which has been given to them by the vizieral letters addressed to his highness the Khedive?”

It was not difficult for the British delegates, who opened the discussion on this subject, to prove that the practice of the company is not in harmony with the law thus established, and they were supported by a large number of their colleagues in proving the illegality of the company’s present proceedings. Most important individual statements were made by the Austrian, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish delegates, and the English delegates drew up a series of resolutions, which are entered on the minutes of the commission, and which pronounce in a formal manner what had been stated on so many sides, that the company’s proceedings are illegal. They adduced, in addition to the arguments already brought forward, M. de Lesseps’s own publication of speeches in England at the time the concession was made, which showed what was the real meaning of the words by which he then defined the rights of the company, although he has since endeavored, to explain them away.

When the large majority of the commission were ready to vote these resolutions, it became possible to realize, in the interest of the company, a scheme of compromise by which, instead of compelling it suddenly to resume the levying of its tolls on net tonnage at the maximum of 10 francs per ton, which would have had a ruinous effect on its finances, a gradual return would be made to that only legal course by conceding to the company a surtax decreasing in amount as the net tonnage increases.

Negotiations were unofficially set on foot, through the instrumentality of the delegate of Sweden and Norway, so far back as the end of last October, with a view to bringing about an understanding. This led to the matter being privately discussed, at first between the English and French delegates, then in presence of nearly all the delegates. The first English delegate set himself to examine the conditions on which an arrangement could be effected, looking first at the receipts and expenditures of the company, and then at the amount of traffic past and present and likely in the future. Colonel Stokes calculated that a surtax of 3 francs a ton, until the net tonnage should reach 2,000,000 in one year, and decreasing till it should finally cease on the net tonnage in one year amounting to 2,300,000 tons, would give the shareholders a dividend at first of 3 per cent., rising to 5½-per cent., and remaining between that and 5 per cent, until the surtax should cease.

The French delegates wanted to have the surtax at 4½ francs, and that it should not finally cease until the yearly tonnage should reach 3,000,000. The English delegates declined to advance beyond the amount they had offered. The English government promptly sanctioned the actions of its delegates in this affair; but for a long time it did not seem likely to have any result, as the French government did not approve of the negotiation.

The businees of the commission went on as above described. When the commission began to discuss the question of the legality of the company’s proceedings, the Russian delegates offered to renew the negotiations for an arrangement which the other delegates were ready on their part to resume at the point where the others had broken off, and on the basis of Colonel’s Stoke’s proposal.

The English delegates were willing to treat on a so-far-extended basis that they would admit an extension of the amount of yearly tonnage at which the surtax should cease, and they were willing to allow the company the benefit of the increase of the net tonnage which would result from the adoption of the commission’s rules since the suspension of negotiations for a compromise, and which they calculated as equal on an average to one franc a ton on the old tonnage.

On these bases the following terms were privately agreed to as bases of transaction between his highness the Khedive of Egypt and the company:

[Page 1147]

The company is to levy its tolls on the net tonnage of a ship as shown on her papers. The tall to be levied on each ton of this tonnage is to be the maximum of 10 francs, pins a surtax as follows:

Vessels measured under the Moorsom system.

For each vessel whose net tonnage is derived from section a of clause 23 of the English law the surtax is to be 4 francs a ton.

For each vessel whose net tonnage is determined by section b of that clause the surtax shall be 3 francs.

For each vessel which has the certificate recommended by the commission the surtax shall be 3 francs.

Vessels measured by other than the Moorsom system.

The gross tonnage of these vessels shall be reduced to English gross tonnage by applying the Danube factor of reduction; the net tonnage shall be determined by section a of clause 23 of the English law.

The surtax of 3 francs is to remain in force until the net tonnage of any one year is 2,100,000; thenceforward it will stand at 2½ francs until the net tonnage in a year reaches 2,200,000, and so on each yearly increase of tonnage by 100,000 will be followed by a decrease of half a franc in the toll, so that when the yearly net tonnage is 2,600,000 the surtax will cease forever. It is stipulated that, once reduced, the surtax cannot be increased, or, if abolished, cannot be re-imposed, even should the tonnage fall. The calendar year is that understood.

Ships of war and troop-ships to pay no surtax.

As soon as these bases took such a shape, and were so far authorized that there appeared a prospect of success, the Sublime Porte requested the commission officially to complete the work it had begun, in lieu of pronouncing formal judgment on the company’s proceedings. The following is a translation of the letter addressed by his excellency Rashid Pasha to the president of the comniission, his excellency Edham Pasha:

“Sublime Porte, December 9, 1873.

Monsieur le President: As you have been good enough to inform me, the international tonnage commission has just discussed and established successfully rules concerning gross and net tonnage and the utilizable capacity. In presence of the inevitable consequences of the legal situation, which has thus been just fixed in a way to put an end to the disputes anddoubts of the past, the imperial government has been happy to learn the efforts successfully made by the delegates of several maritime powers in order to bring about practically relief in the shape of a compromise in favor of a work unique of its kind. The utility of such relief seems all the more evident, as in the instructions addressed to its commissioners the imperial government had already declared that, considering the urgent character of the Suez Canal question, it reserved to itself the right to appropriate the conclusions of the commission which might be of a nature to receive immediate execution and to regulate the mode of applying them. In order, then, to respond to needs and interests universally felt, and to give an official character to the new task which the commission has so honorably assumed, I have to beg your excellency to engage the delegates to be so good as to complete their labors by layingdown in the name of their governments, and of course in a spirit of equity, new conditions, the benefit of which can be insured in the future to the Universal Company of the Suez Canal.


This letter enabled the commission to enter officially upon the work of compromise, hitherto conducted privately. The terms above stated were formally adopted, and the goverments gave their sanction, the English government taking the lead in sodoing.

The English delegates then proposed to the commission not to take a vote on the resolutions which they had previously submitted. This was followed by the French commissioners adopting the decisions of the commission on tonnage.

The commission embodied the results Of its discussions in a report which reproduces its recommendations on tonnage, including the detailed rules for measurement which it had carefully drawn up, and the above-mentioned bases of a transaction for regulating the Suez Canal question. This report was signed by the delegates of all the powers represented.

It is to be understood that the labors of this commission as regards tonnage are purely recommendations, and that the several governments have reserved to themselves entire liberty of action with regard to them. The unanimity of the commission willdoubtless lead to the eventual adoption of a uniform system of tonnage-measurement, very few reserves only on special points having been maintained. The recommendations on the Suez Canal question occupy a very different position, as they are [Page 1148] all approved by the governments, and only await the final action of the parties more directly concerned to receive, their immediate application.

Universal regret was felt at the absence of a delegate of the Government of the United States of America from the commission. It is understood that this arose from no want of interest in the subject to be discussed, but from an accidental misunderstanding.

The general conclusions of the commission are entirely approved by the American Government, and its approbation will, we believe, be shortly made public.

[Inclosure 2 in No. 178.—Translation.]

Ottoman minister of foreign affairs to the Khedive.

sublime porte.

ministère des affaires étrangères.

Pursuant to my preceding communications, I have the honor to forward to your highness herewith a duplicate copy of the proceedings and the final report of the international tonnage commission which has just finished its labors.

As your highness will perceive by reading thosedocuments, all the questions relating to tonnage have been so settled as to avoid for the future all uncertainties of interpretation and all objections.

Independently of the adjustment of these points, an adjustment that fixes the basis of the tolls to be collected by the company of the Suez Canal, your highness will find in the proceedings and the final report before mentioned the details of a recommendation expressed by the international commission embodying a plan to regulate the mode of collecting the tolls.

The terms of this arrangement have been adopted by virtue of special authorizations.

The opinion adopted on this point having been unanimously expressed by the international commission and approved by the Sublime Porte, your highness is invited to make it known to the canal company.

At all events, it is essential that the tolls shall be collected on the basis of the net tonnage established by the international commission at the expiration of three months, which will give sufficient time to concert all the measures necessary to putz, into execution the arrangement advised by the international commission.