No. 148.
Lord Granville to Mr. West.

Sir: In my dispatch No. 279a of the 13th ultimo I informed you that the United States minister at this court had communicated to me the substance of a dispatch which he had received from Mr. Blaine, then Secretary of State, on the subject of the convention of the 19th April, 1850. Finding that Mr. Lowell was authorized to give me a copy of this dispatch if I wished it, I requested him to do so, and I have already forwarded to you a copy for your information.

Her Majesty’s Government have given their careful consideration to the views set forth in this paper. They entirely agree in the statement made towards its conclusion as to the cordial relations so happily existing between the two countries, and as to the opportunity which this state of things affords for a frank exposition of the views held by either government without risk of misconstruction. They have no hesitation, therefore, in proceeding to examine the grounds advanced by Mr. Blaine for desiring a modification of the convention.

The principles upon which the whole argument of the dispatch is founded are, as far as I am aware, novel in international law. If a discussion of the subject on the abstract grounds of public right were deemed useful or opportune, it would not be difficult to quote passages from publicists of acknowledged authority in both countries in support of this opinion. But for several reasons it will be better to treat the matter from the side of the practical considerations which it involves, without, of course, being precluded from reverting at any future stage, in case of need, to its other aspect.

Her Majesty’s Government cannot admit that the analogy which it is sought to draw from the conduct of Great Britain in regard to the Suez Canal is correct or justified by the facts. They have made no attempt to fortify the island of Cyprus, or to establish it as an armed position on an important scale, though they have an undoubted right to do so. The fortress of Gibraltar, the island of Malta, and the military establishment at Aden came into the possession of England at a date long anterior to the time when the Mediterranean and the Red Sea could be regarded as a military route to India. For years afterwards the whole mass of reinforcements for India was sent by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Nor has any serious addition been made to the strength of these positions since the opening of the canal beyond what has been a natural consequence of the improvements in military science. Although no doubt well adapted by its situation to command the Straits of Bab-el-mandeb, the island of Perim has not in any real sense been made a fortified position. The fort and garrison on the island are, in fact, sufficient only to protect the light-house, which has been erected there for the general benefit of navigation, from possible attack by predatory Arabs.

The Navy Department of the United States must be well aware that Her Majesty’s Government have never sought to bar or even to restrict the use of the canal by the naval forces of other countries, and that even during the recent war between Russia and Turkey, when the canal itself formed a portion of the territory of one of the belligerents, when the seat of conflict was close at hand, and when British interests might in [Page 303] many other respects have been nearly involved, they contented themselves with obtaining an assurance that the sphere of operations should not be extended to the canal.

Her Majesty’s Government cordially concur in what is stated by Mr. Blaine as regards the unexampled development of the United States on the Pacific coast, and the capacity which they possess for further progress. That development has been watched in this country with admiration and interest, and will continue to be so regarded. But though in rapidity it may, and probably has, exceeded the most sanguine calculation, Her Majesty’s Government cannot look upon it in the light of an unexpected event, or suppose that it was not within the view of the statesmen who were parties on either side to the Clayton-Bulwer treaty. The declarations of President Monroe and of his cabinet, in 1823 and 1824, whatever may be the view taken of their scope and bearing, and of the admissibility of the principles which they involve, or which it is sought to deduce from them, show at least that at that period—twenty-six years anterior to the treaty now under discussion—there was a clear prevision of the great future reserved to the Pacific coast. It is, in the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government, an inadmissible contention that the regular and successful operation of causes so evident at the time, and in their nature so irrepressible, should be held to have completely altered the condition of affairs to the extent of vitiating the foundations of an agreement which cannot be supposed to have been concluded without careful thought and deliberation.

While recognizing to the fullest degree the extent to which the United States must feel interested in any canal which may be constructed across the Isthmus of Panama, Her Majesty’s Government would be wanting in regard to their duty if they failed to point out that Great Britain has large colonial possessions, no less than great commercial interests, which render any means of unobstructed and rapid access from the Atlantic to the North and South Pacific Oceans a matter for her also of the greatest importance.

The development of these possessions and interests has steadily continued, possibly with less rapidity, but on a scale which has some relation even to that of the Pacific States. Her Majesty’s Government do not wish to ignore the share which other nations have acquired in the commerce of Central and South America, nor to exclude from consideration the interest of those countries in any canal which may be made across the isthmus. They are of opinion that such a canal, as the waterway between two great oceans and between all Europe and Eastern Asia, is a work which concerns not merely the United States or the American Continent, but the whole civilized world. This is a view which finds its expression in the VIth article of the treaty of 1850. Her Majesty’s Government are as anxious as that of the United States that, while all nations should enjoy their proper share in the benefits to be expected from the undertaking, no single country should acquire a predominating influence or control over such a means of communication; and they will not oppose or decline any discussion for the purpose of securing on a general international basis its universal and unrestricted use.

With all deference to the considerations which have prompted the proposals made in Mr. Blaine’s dispatch, Her Majesty’s Government cannot believe that they would promote this object or be beneficial in themselves. The relations of the United States with the European powers are fortunately of a nature to give rise to no feelings of suspicion or alarm. The general tendency of their foreign policy gives good promise that they will so continue. But if provision is to be made on one side for a different state of affairs, it must be expected that the course thus [Page 304] indicated will find its natural and logical counterpart on the other. Her Majesty’s Government can conceive no more melancholy spectacle than a competition among the nations holding West Indian possessions, and others on the Central and South American Continent, in the construction of fortifications to obtain the command over the canal and its approaches, in the event of occasion arising for such a measure. They cannot believe that it would be agreeable or convenient to any South American state through which the canal may pass to find itself called upon to admit a foreign power to construct and garrison on its territory a succession of fortresses of increasing magnitude, designed to oppose such attempts, even though that foreign power be a neighboring one, and situated upon the same continent. And when the claim to do this is accompanied by a declaration that the United States will always insist on treating the water-way which shall unite the two oceans “as part of her coast line,” it is difficult to imagine that the states to which the territory lying between that water-way and the United States belongs can practically retain as independent a position as that which they now enjoy.

These are the consequences which, in the conviction of Her Majesty’s Government, would almost certainly follow from a claim on the part of the United States to assume the supreme authority over the canal and all responsibility for its control. Her Majesty’s Government hold, on the contrary, that the principles which guided the negotiators of the convention of 1850 were intrinsically sound, and continue to be applicable to the present state of affairs. Their wish would be that those principles should receive the practical development which was contemplated at the time; and that effect should be given to that portion of the treaty which provides that the contracting parties shall invite all other states with whom they have friendly intercourse to enter into similar stipulations with them.

A certain amount of progress was made in this direction by the conclusion of conventions with Honduras and Nicaragua by Great Britain in 1856 and 1860, and by the United States in 1864 and 1867, and by Nicaragua with France in 1859, with the object of upholding the general principles inserted in the treaty. During the period when there were still matters to regulate with respect to Grey Town, the Bay Islands, the frontier of British Honduras, and the protection of the Mosquito Indians, and when the construction of a canal still seemed a contingency more or less doubtful and remote, it was not strange that the engagement to address other powers should have been allowed to remain dormant; but the project of the canal has now assumed sufficient shape to render such an application reasonable and pertinent.

Her Majesty’s Government believe that the extension of an invitation to all maritime states to participate in an agreement based on the stipulations of the convention of 1850 would obviate any objection that may possibly be raised against it as not being adequate in its present condition for the purpose for which it was designed. This course formed the basis of Mr. Fish’s proposal to Dr. Cardenas, the Nicaraguan minister, in 1877; and Her Majesty’s Government would gladly see the United States again take the initiative in an invitation to the powers, and will be prepared either to join it or to support and indorse it in the way that may be found most fitting and convenient, provided it does not in any way conflict with the Clayton-Bulwer treaty.

You are authorized to read this dispatch to the Secretary of State, and to give him a copy of it if he should desire it.

I am, &c.,


The honorable Lionel S. S. West.