No. 103.
Mr. Scruggs to Mr. Frelinghuysen.

No. 80.]

Sir: I send you, under separate cover by this mail, a copy of the report by the Colombian minister for foreign affairs to the President of the Republic, and submitted to the Congress of 1883. You will observe, however, that this report, although published only a few days ago, was prepared by the late minister, Dr. Quijano Wallis, who resigned his position in the cabinet on the 21st December last, upon the occasion of the death of the late President, Dr. Zaldúa.

The most important part of this report relates to the subject of the Panama Canal, and which I have translated, as follows:

interoceanic canal.

The work of this important enterprise, of transcendent importance to the future of Colombia, continues without interruption under the direction of the illustrious M. De Lesseps.

The canal company has bought nearly all the shares in the Panama Railway enterprise, and, as, according to De Lesseps’ report, made in June last to the assembly of shareholders, the American law gives the most extensive powers to the majority of shareowners in a corporate society, the canal company, in virtue of these powers, now becoming the substitute for the railway company with respect to its obligations. Acting mainly upon this consideration, this department directed the extensive note to the [Page 235] Senate already known to you,* touching the rights of Colombia in virtue of the indemnification provided for by existing contracts in case the canal should cross the privileged territory of the railway.

That note was favorably received by the Liberal press of all shades of opinion, and was finally supported by the Panama Star, one of the most respectable periodicals in South America. It was afterwards reproduced with approval by the Spanish American, a notable periodical publication of Paris. I call your attention to this subject to the end that you may be pleased to bring it before Congress at its next session for a definite decision.

The importance of Colombia as an international entity has greatly increased with the near realization of the Panama Canal. All the American nations, and those of Western Europe that are the most civilized and powerful, have a direct interest in this enterprise. Our privileged Isthmus will become the highway of universal commerce, and the desired passage for armaments and fleets in case of international conflicts.

The most important diplomatic question that will result from the excavation of the canal will be that relating to the effective guarantee of its neutrality.

As is well known, the United States of the North celebrated with England, in 1850, a compact known as the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, by which they compromised themselves with Great Britain not to occupy, fortify, colonize, nor assume dominion over any portion of Central America, and by which they consented to admit Great Britain as a co-guarantor, in any future time, of the protection of a canal through Central America.

The Cabinet at Washington has endeavored to obtain the abrogation of this compact, or at least a substantial modification of it (as was evinced by Mr. Frelinghuysen’s note to Lord Granville, transmitted through Minister Lowell in May, 1882), alleging that the stipulations in that treaty were agreed to when the United States believed the Nicaragua Canal would be constructed in virtue of the concession of 1849, and that the commercial and political circumstances have greatly changed since 1850.

It is possible that England, which, by reason of her connections with her vast oriental possessions, is one of the European nations most interested in the freedom and security of the Isthmian transit, will not abandon the rights she has acquired in the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, but that she will endeavor to have this compact kept in force.

Other European nations, and especially Spain, which have important possessions in the Antilles, have likewise an eye upon the Panama Canal. They see perils to their interests in the exclusive preponderance of the United States in the guarantee of neutrality of the Colombian Canal. In its turn, the American Union repudiates the idea of European intervention in the matters of America, and when the canal is opened, a collision of interests and of diplomatic pretensions may arise between Europe and the great Republic of America.

The Latin nations of America, especially those of the Pacific, have direct interests in the neutrality of the canal, since, in their commerce and communication with Europe, they will be obliged to pass through it.

The question, then, is one of great gravity, and although its decision may be deferred so long as the canal remains unopened, the Cabinet and Congress of Colombia should begin to give it their attention, seeing that it relates to our future national welfare and to our rich patrimony in the narrow and favored Isthmus.

Recent events in Egypt, and the present condition of that nation, resulting from complications created by the Suez Canal, should ever be borne in mind by us in the consideration of diplomatic questions connected with the Panama Canal.

If Colombia were a strong nation, a military and maritime power of the first order, with great armies, copious resources, fortifications, and naval squadrons, all questions relating to the neutrality of the canal would lose their gravity, and we could, in the exercise of our full and legitimate sovereignty over the territory of the Isthmus traversed by the canal, insure the absolute freedom of transit to the commerce of the world in time of peace, and its complete and universal neutrality in case of war, we being the only guarantors of this freedom and neutrality.

But since, unfortunately, this is not the case, my opinion is that, in so far as the interoceanic canal relates to political questions, the Legislature and Cabinet of Colombia should ever bear in mind the following considerations, namely:

That our sovereignty over the Isthmus is full, legitimate and complete, and that therefore Colombia alone has the right to look for and determine the necessary guarantees of the freedom and neutrality of the canal.
That in our very weakness lies our strength by reason of the right which assists us; and that their own interests and welfare will naturally constrain the great nations to respect our own.
That the best guarantee to other nations for the fulfillment of our obligations is the fact that we are not a first-class power; and
That in the selection of means for the security of the canal, our guide, above all [Page 236] other considerations, should he the duty of the Colombian Government to guard th sovereignty of the nation on the Isthmus, which is the jewel of greatest price in ou territory, and the elementary source of our brilliant future. Therefore, in the adoption of means for the protection of the canal, we should endeavor to separate ourselves as far as possible from the most proximate perils to our sovereignty, if we cannot avoid all such perils.

That portion of the minister’s report which relates to the United States exclusively, will be found from page 6 to 12, inclusive. But as all the matters of importance therein treated of have been already fully reported by me to the Department, it is not deemed necessary to incorporate them in this dispatch.

I have, &c.,

  1. Reported in dispatch No. 22, September 7, 1882.—W. L. S. (See ante.)
  2. Printed in Foreign Relations for 1882.