No. 102.
Mr. Frelinghuysen to Mr. Scruggs.

No. 51.]

Sir: Mr. Consul Rice has sent to the Department, from Colon, a copy of his dispatch to you, No. 13, of the 15th ultimo, touching the rules for the deposit of foreign ships’ papers at that port. Mr. Rice’s object in doing this was to save the time which would necessarily pass before his reports could reach you and be in turn communicated to the Department. His thoughtfulness merits approval.

Mr. Rice’s dispatch shows that the law on this subject is impartially applied to steamers and sailing vessels of all nations, and that consequently there is no discrimination to complain of.

At the same time he points out the peculiar disadvantages of the rule in the case of steamers making a brief call at the port, and liable to depart at short notice on completing their lading. The inconvenience and often the difficulty of obtaining five distinct permits from the several local authorities amounts to a vexatious restraint upon the liberty of trade, so desirable at free ports of transit like Aspinwall and Panama.

Your No. 33, addressed to this Department on the 2d of October last, shows that you have fully acquainted yourself with the past history of the discussion with the Government of Colombia touching the deposit of ships’ papers. I need therefore do no more than refer you to the Department’s instructions to Mr. Dichman, No. 51, of 13th June, 1879, and No. 65 of 15th August of the same year, from which you will perceive that, at the time the modification of 1879 was proposed, this Government was concerned in no small degree lest the application of the law in the free ports of Panama and Colon would result in any disadvantages to the steamers of the United States, either absolutely, or as compared with the steamers of other nations. Mr. Dichman’s No. 158, of the 9th November, 1879,* reported the promise of the secretary for foreign affairs, Señor Rico, to recommend such a change in the law as might be required by the exceptional position of the free ports. It is apparent that no special provision has been made therefor.

The Colombian statute of 1879 (law 40, June 23), provided in Article III that—

Said consular officers shall not return the register and other documents to the captain who may have deposited them in their hands until the clearance he presented to them executed by the proper authority.

It was presumed that this would be a simple formality, requiring only the concurrence of the foreign consul and the administrador of the port, and therefore not inconvenient of application to the steamers frequently touching at the free ports.

In practice, however, it is found to be a serious inconvenience, and the more so as not one official transaction, but five, are required, thus being tantamount to compelling a foreign steamer to take out five distinct clearance papers before being able to leave port.

This Government is of the opinion that the position of the free ports of Panama and Colon, as mere stations on one of the world’s most important highways, should demand a simpler and less rigid enforcement of customs rules against the vehicles of mere transient passage than [Page 234] may be requisite to protect the fiscal interests at ports of entry. It is deemed that the mutual concessions and guarantees under which the transit was established entitle all those who honestly and pacifically use it to exceptional facilities which may not be needed or be even proper at other ports. It would be very much to be regretted if a contrary course should prevail, in conflict with the true interests of Colombia herself, no less than of those who avail themselves of the privileges incidental to the transit.

You will, therefore, bear in mind, in your discussion of this matter with the secretary for foreign affairs, the wish of this Government that the transit traffic across the Isthmus should be unhampered by vexatious or petty restrictions of any kind, and that the indispensable formalities for the entrance and clearance of steamers at Colon and Panama should be reduced to the simplest and most expeditious form. Against the application of law 40 of 1879 to the other customs ports of Colombia we have no grounds to remonstrate. That law was viewed as a graceful concession to the view which this Government expressed on its own behalf and on behalf of the peaceable commerce of all countries.

It is conceived, however, that the condition of the free ports puts the question there on a different footing, and this Government therefore renews the friendly suggestion made in 1879 that the requirements of the rule at Colon and Panama be modified and simplified so as to involve but one transaction between the foreign consul and the chief authority of the port as a condition to the clearance of a steamer.

I am, &c.,