to Mr. Frelinghuysen
Bogota , September 15, 1882. (Received October 21.)
Sir: The idea of an interoceanic canal through the Isthmus of Panama seems to have been uppermost in the minds of Colombian statesmen even before their country became a member of the great family of nations. In 1819–’20, when they had a diplomatic agent in London seeking recognition, the canal scheme appears to have been among the auxiliaries relied upon for the accomplishment of that end. Denied official recognition at the court of St. James, the minister addressed himself to the leading merchants and capitalists of London, hoping, as would seem, to reach the British cabinet through the maritime and commercial interests of her great metropolis. In one of his dispatches to General Bolivar he reports a willingness on the part of certain commercial houses to subscribe a loan of $60,000,000 for the purpose of opening the canal, provided its neutrality should be guaranteed by some maritime power able to maintain it.
Two years later, when, over the protest of the Spanish Cortes, the United States recognized the independence of Colombia, England and France still withheld their recognition of the new Republic. But the action of the United States had already opened some of the European ports to the Colombian flag, and stimulated the maritime powers to a more favorable consideration of her claims to independence. It was whilst this final action by the cabinets of Europe was pending that President Bolivar pressed the consideration of the Isthmian canal project upon the Colombian Congress. He urged that body to enact a special law authorizing a contract with some foreign Government or corporation for opening a ship-canal across the Isthmus. The Congress responded to his wishes; but the scheme came to nothing, and little more was heard of it until some time in 1832, when the old Colombian Union was in the throes of dissolution, and New Granada was aspiring to recognition as an independent state.
The first contract, however, for opening an interoceanic highway through the Isthmus of Panama was in 1834. Since then there have been thirteen in all, or, say, one upon, an average of every four years. Of these, one only (that for the construction of the Panama Railway) was ever seriously undertaken. Hence it is a noteworthy fact that the only contract ever carried out was the only one that was ever made under a guarantee of the neutrality of the Isthmus by a foreign Government.
This guarantee, made in Article XXXV of the treaty of 1846 between the United States and New Granada, has a somewhat curious history. It was given at a time when we had a respectable merchant marine, and in consideration of special commercial privileges. Nevertheless, it was not popular with the minority in the United States Senate, and its ratification was deferred in consequence until the session following.
The Panama Railway Company was the first to become dissatisfied with this guarantee; and in 1849, Mr. Ludlow, the president of the company, wrote to the Hon. John M. Clayton, Secretary of State, urging him to instruct our diplomatic agents in London, Paris and Bogota to use [Page 221] their influence to secure a joint guarantee by England and France. In December of that year our ministers were instructed accordingly. But both England and France then considered the single guarantee by the United States ample for all possible contingencies; and Earl Russell, the British premier, speaking for his own Government, so officially informed the New Granadan minister in London.
Even as late as December, 1871, there was an official intimation to the Colombian Government that, upon certain contingencies (which then seemed likely to happen), the Government of the United States would take into consideration the expediency of terminating the guarantee of the neutrality and sovereignty of the Isthmus. And again in February, 1872, our diplomatic agent at Bogota was instructed to intimate a like purpose; but he was also instructed to inquire whether any other Government had guaranteed the neutrality of the Isthmus.
It is probable that in view of the then recent outrages by Colombian citizens upon an American vessel in Isthmian waters, and for which the Government at Bogota seemed unable or indisposed to make suitable reparation, it was in the mind of the Secretary of State to terminate the guarantee of sovereignty, provided the neutrality of the Isthmian transit could be provided for.
The inability of Colombia to maintain this neutrality was as evident then as it is now. Indeed there has never been a time since the independence of the country when Colombia had the means of enforcing the neutrality of an Isthmian transit. She has no navy, nor has she the means of maintaining one. She has no army, and if she had it could hardly be relied upon under a constitution of government which recognizes the unqualified sovereignty of each of the constituent states of the confederation. * * *
Under these circumstances, and considering the great importance of the free transit to the commerce of the world, and particularly to the United States, this guarantee of neutrality by some power able to maintain it becomes a necessity. And when it is borne in mind that the United States have a greater interest in this free transit than any other maritime power, and that whilst Panama is fully twenty days from the Colombian capital, it is only about three, and a half from New Orleans, and less than nine from Washington and New York, the guarantee seems wisely confided to the United States Government. We thus become the trustee, as it were, of this great international highway; and since this trust can be neither abused nor neglected except under accountability to the moral sense of the whole commercial world, it has been very justly regarded as satisfactory by all the maritime powers, and ought for the same reason to be the safest possible arrangement for the Government of Colombia.
But the possible opening of an interoceanic ship channel through the Isthmus renders still more grave and onerous this obligation to preserve the neutrality of the transit and the sovereignty of Colombia over the territory through which it passes. Colombia herself has not failed to realize this, for she has admitted it to be her duty to concur with the United States Government in the defense of her territory and of the neutrality of the Panama Canal. But she does not seem to realize that this defense of the Isthmian transit and of the sovereignty of the Isthmian territory implies the use of all the means necessary to that end. Otherwise, she would recognize that any grant or concession made by her for the purpose of opening the canal ought to have been made subject to the rights accruing to the United States in virtue of the guarantee referred to. And it is equally manifest, as I [Page 222] read the treaty of 1846, that whilst the sovereignty of Colombia over the Isthmus should not be divested, the use of the canal ought to be as free to the Government and citizens of the United States as to the Government and citizens of Colombia. Nor should the Government and citizens of the United States be subjected to tolls or conditions upon its use other than may be imposed upon the Government and citizens of Colombia. Moreover, and as a legitimate sequence to these propositions, whenever the canal shall become the property of Colombia, she should hold it merely as a trust for the commercial world, collecting only such tolls as may be necessary for its proper administration, and as a reasonable revenue to the Government, proportioned to the general taxation of real and personal property.
But there are other rights, incidental to this obligation to maintain the neutrality of the canal and Colombia’s sovereignty over the Isthmus, of a still more important and practical nature. Among these is the right to occupy and fortify such places in the ports and harbors at the termini of the canal as may be necessary for the establishment of coaling stations, naval depots, and ship yards and docks, and the right to establish and occupy such fortifications at its entrances as may be necessary for the maintenance of its neutrality and of the sovereignty of Colombia over the territory through which it passes, and, incidental to these rights, the canal should, as a matter of right, be closed to the naval vessels and military transports of all nations, except Colombia and the United States, whether in time of peace or war; but this, of course, need not preclude the two powers named from agreeing to declare the canal open to the innocent use of vessels of war of all nations in time of peace.
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I am, &c.,