to Mr. Welsh.
Washington, July 11, 1879.
Sir: I inclose herewith, a copy of a dispatch recently received from A. C. Litchfield, esq., consul-general of the United States at Calcutta, in relation to the case of one John Anderson, an ordinary seaman on board the American bark C. O. Whitmore, who, it appears, stabbed and killed the first officer of the ship on the 31st of January last, while that vessel was on her way from New York to Calcutta, sixteen days from her port of departure, and on the high seas in latitude 25° 35’ H. and longitude 35° 50’W.
You will preceive that the consul-general invoked the aid of the local police authorities in securing the safe custody of the accused, who was [Page 436] a prisoner of the United States, until he could complete the necessary arrangements for sending him to this country for trial, against whose municipal laws only he was accused of having offended, and that while thus in the temporary custody of the local police, the colonial authorities took judicial cognizance of the matter, claiming, under the advice of the advocate-general of the colony, that, under a colonial statute which confers upon the courts of the colony jurisdiction of crimes committed by a British subject on the high seas, even though such crimes be committed on the ship of a foreign nation, and that inasmuch as the accused, although appearing on the ship’s articles under the name of John Anderson, subject of Sweden, had declared that his real name was Alfred Hussey, and that he was a native of Liverpool and therefore a British subject, the case came within the jurisdiction of those courts.
The matter is now believed to have reached that point in the judicial proceedings where effective measures for asserting the jurisdictional rights of the United States would be unavailable in this particular case. And whilst I entertain no doubt that the accused will receive as fair a trial in the high court of Calcutta, where it is understood he is to be tried, as he would in the circuit court of the United States, in which tribunal he would be arraigned, were he sent here for trial, I deem it proper, at the same time, to instruct you to bring the question to the attention of Her Majesty’s Government, in order to have it distinctly understood that this case cannot be admitted by this government as a precedent for any similar cases that may arise in the future. No principle of public law is better understood nor more universally recognized than that merchant vessels on the high seas are under the jurisdiction of the nation to which they belong, and that as to common crimes committed on such vessels while on the high seas, the competent tribunals of the vessel’s nation have exclusive jurisdiction of “the questions of trial and punishment of any person thus accused of the commission of a crime against its municipal laws; the nationality of the accused can have no more to do with the question of jurisdiction than it would had he committed the same crime within the geographical territorial limits of the nation against whose municipal laws he offends. The merchant ship, while on the high seas, is, as the ship of war is everywhere, a part of the territory of the nation to which she belongs.
I pass over the apparent breach of comity in the proceeding of the colonial officials as being rather the result of inadvertence and possible misconception on the part of the government law officer of the colony, than any design to question the sovereignty of the United States in this or cases of a similar nature.
You will take an early occasion to present the views expressed in this instruction to Her Majesty’s Government, and inform the Department of the result of your proceedings.
I am, &c.,