to Mr. Evarts.
Buenos Ayres, March 4, 1879. (Received April 26.)
Sir: Capt. A. A. Duncan, master of the American schooner George V. Jordan, on the 4th of August, 1876, reported to me that he had just cleared his vessel from this port for the United States; that before he was able to obtain his papers from the captain of this port, he was compelled to pay the agent of the Government of Uruguay, in Buenos Ayres, fourteen cents per ton on the tonnage of his vessel for light dues, claimed to be owing and due to that government notwithstanding that on his voyage to this port he did not touch at any point or part of Uruguay, or use the lights on her coast.
He further stated that it had been the custom for many years to demand and collect these Uruguay light dues from vessels of any nationality that came to this port.
At my request, Captain Duncan put his statement in writing, when I at once addressed a note to the minister of foreign affairs, respectfully requesting the information by what authority dues for lights on the coast of Uruguay were demanded and paid by American vessels to the agent of that government in this port.
A few days after sending the note, I received an invitation from the minister to call at the foreign office, where the under secretary informed me that my note was passed to the captain of the port, and an answer had been received, which he read to me, stating that the collection of Uruguayan light does by the agent of that government in the port of Buenos Ayres was simply by sufferance.
The secretary further stated that the government had no knowledge or intimation of such demands or payments until the receipt of my note.
Instructions were at once sent to the captain of the port to put a stop to such demands and collections.
From the date of those instructions no attempt was made to collect the “Banda Oriental light dues” until the 24th of August, 1878, when the President issued a decree authorizing the agent of the Government [Page 17] of Uruguay in Buenos Ayres to collect the “light dues”, fourteen cents per ton on the tonnage of the vessels, for the lights on the Uruguayan coast (known as the Banda Oriental light dues), and instructing the captain of the port to deliver, papers to no vessels without the presentation of receipt of payment. As soon as I learned of this decree from publication in the press, I addressed a note to the minister of foreign affairs, respectfully protesting against the decree, so far as it referred to American vessels, and delivered it in person; when I stated to the minister that I did not question the propriety of the decree, so far as it affected Argentine and Paraguayan vessels, but so far as it applied to American vessels coming direct to this port without calling or touching at any Uruguayan port, or even passing within the waters of that country—and imposed a tax upon them for the benefit of another nation—in my opinion it was unusual, unjust, illegal, and contrary to international law and custom; and if the decree should be enforced against American vessels, and such payment required, in each and every case the masters of American vessels would be instructed to file their protest against such demand and payment in the United States consulate, and that in all probability for the moneys so paid, the Argentine Government would be held responsible.
The minister intimated that he agreed with me that the decree could not be maintained, at least without an act of Congress, and stated that he did not know of its existence until he saw it that morning published by the press, and asked me to wait, as he intended to call it up in cabinet meeting for consideration that afternoon.
The next day, September 13, I received a note from the minister, saying that he had the satisfaction of informing me that in virtue of my note of the 13th instant, the decree was suspended until the definite resolution of the government was known, on the condition that the consignees or the agents of the vessels would become responsible for the payments should the government resolve to sustain and enforce the decree.
* * * * * * *
About the 1st of February last it became known to Mr. E. L. Baker, the United States consul, as well as to the masters of our vessels and their agents and consignees, that the British and German consuls were dispatching their vessels without reference to the payment, or giving of securities for the payment, of “Banda Oriental” light dues. Mr. Baker, United States consul, called the attention of the captain of the port to these facts, and demanded that American vessels be placed upon the same footing, or that the order should be impartially enforced, and received the reply that the captain of the port had no power to prevent them from leaving the port without payment.
At my request, the United States consul put in writing a statement of the facts, that the vessels of other nationalities were leaving this port, and that the British and German consuls gave shipmasters their papers upon receiving their clearance from the custom-house.
The same day I called at the foreign office and presented these facts to the minister, and stated to him that they were known to the masters of American vessels and their agents in this port; that their agents or consignees declined to become further bound for the payment of “Banda Oriental light dues” unless the masters first deposited with them the money; that most of the American vessels were not in the regular trade with this port; that some did not return for years, and others not at all; that the masters of such vessels looked upon their money so deposited as lost to them; that the decree suspended on conditions had become as onerous to American shipmasters as the decree in full force; that [Page 18] justice requires that the decree should be enforced against all vessels entering Argentine ports, or revoked; and that, in my judgment, sufficient time since September 13 last had elapsed for his government to arrive at a definite resolution in the matter; and if the decree were not revoked within twenty-four hours, or enforced against all vessels alike, that in the future American vessels would be dispatched without the payment of “Banda Oriental” light dues, or giving the bonds for the same.
On the next day, February 15, the United States consul informed me that a vessel was ready to clear, that the master had presented his clearance from the custom house, had paid all port dues, but declined to pay light-dues claimed to be owing to the Government of Uruguay, or to give bonds therefor, and that he, the consul, asked for instructions in the case. In reply, I advised him that in the future, or until further advised, as I had called the attention of the minister of foreign affairs to the matter of “Banda Oriental” light dues, &c., in person the day before, and up to 3 p.m. of that date I had received no information from him in regard to the matter, and as vessels of other nationalities were permitted to leave port without payment of the light dues mentioned, that it might be assumed that that part of the port regulations which has reference to such payments was not in force, and to dispatch his vessel without any reference to the payment of light dues claimed to be owing to other nations than this, and in the same manner that the consuls of other nationalities were doing.
I respectfully submit this statement for your consideration, in reference to the course pursued by the United States consul Baker and myself in the matter, and respectfully ask for instructions in view of the fact that it is quite probable that an attempt may be made in the future to collect the “Banda Oriental” light dues, under an act or law of the next Argentine Congress.
In the year 1860, August 31, a concession was given by the Argentine Confederation and approved by President Durqui, to a private company for the term of twenty years, the right to collect in the ports of the confederation a tax of seven and a half cents per ton on the tonnage of all vessels which came into the Rio de la Plata, if the tax had not already been paid at Montevideo for the lights established by the company on the “English Bank” and the “Island of Lobos,” by contract with the Oriental Government. The Argentine Government at the date of this concession had no light-houses, and has none now except in her own harbors. The “English Bank” (it might be called an island) is in the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, but on the “Banda Oriental” side of the channel. The “Island of Lobos “is north of the “English Bank,” and near the oriental coast at Maldonado.
The masters of vessels inform me that the light on the “English Bank” is very important and useful to all vessels entering or leaving the river, and in fact it would be difficult to get along without it, and dangerous if dispensed with.
The light on the Island of Lobos is of little or no importance to vessels not coasters.
No attempt was made to avoid the payment of the dues for these two lights, until it was ascertained that in the port of Buenos Ayres seven and a half cents per ton on vessels, and at the same time three cents per ton in the port of Montevideo, were taxed and collected, when the agent and collector of dues in this port for these two lights received notice that if the tax on vessels coming to this port were not reduced to the same as that at Montevideo, American vessels would probably decline to pay any portion of it, and it was so reduced to three cents per ton.[Page 19]
Three cents a ton for the use of these two lights masters of vessels say they do not object to, and are perfectly willing to pay; but the lights are on the territory of another nation.
The concession by this government has nearly two years yet to run, and in the demand of any payment of the light dues, it appears to me, the same question is involved as in the decree of the President, should it receive the approval of the Argentine Congress.
I have, &c.,