Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, With the Annual Message of the President Transmitted to Congress December 6, 1897
Mr. Calvo to Mr. Sherman.
Washington, October 29, 1897.
Sir: Referring to previous correspondence between the department under your excellency’s able direction, and this legation, in regard to the appointment by His Excellency the President of the United States, of an engineer who, completing the boundary commissions of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, is to decide the points of disagreement that may arise between such commissions; and in consideration of the attention kindly given by the Government of the United States to the request to appoint such an engineer, I have the honor to inform your excellency that the work of tracing and marking the boundary line between the two countries was commenced, and after some discussion about the exact point where the said line enters from the Caribbean Sea, the engineer arbiter decided this first point of contention.
It gives me pleasure to send to your excellency, herewith inclosed, copies of the arguments and replies of both parties, printed by order of the Government of Costa Rica, and copy and translation into Spanish of the award of Gen. E. P. Alexander, dated the 30th of September, 1897, as published in La Gaceta, the official daily paper of San José, Costa Rica.
At the same time I have the honor to inform your excellency that the Government of Costa Rica has accepted said award, as I am officially notified.
Be pleased, sir, etc.,
Mr. Alexander to the Commissions of Limits of Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
September 30, 1897.
Gentlemen: In pursuance of the duties assigned me by my commission as engineer arbitor to your two bodies, with the power to decide finally any points of difference that may arise in tracing and marking out the boundary line between the two Republics, I have given careful study and consideration to all arguments, counterarguments, maps, and documents submitted to me in the matter of the proper location of the initial point of the said boundary line upon the Caribbean coast.
The conclusion at which I have arrived and the award I am about to make do not accord with the views of either commission.
So, in deference to the very excellent and earnest arguments, so faithfully and loyally urged by each commission for its respective side, I will indicate briefly my line of thought and the considerations which have seemed to me to be paramount in determining the question.[Page 114]
And of these considerations the principal, and the controlling one, is that we are to interpret and give effect to the treaty of April 15, 1858, in the way in which it was mutually understood at the time by its makers.
Each commission has presented an elaborate and well-argued contention that the language of that treaty is consistent with its claim for a location of the initial point of the boundary line at a place which would give to its country great advantages. These points are over 6 miles apart, and are indicated on the map accompanying this award.
The Costa Rican claim is located on the left-hand shore or west headland of the harbor; the Nicaraguan on the east headland of the mouth of the Taura branch.
Without attempting to reply in detail to every argument advanced by either side in support of its respective claim, all will be met, and sufficiently answered by showing that those who made the treaty mutually understood and had in view another point, to wit, the eastern headland at the mouth of the harbor.
It is the meaning of the men who framed the treaty which we are to seek, rather than some possible meaning which can be forced upon isolated words or sentences. And this meaning of the men seems to me abundantly plain and obvious.
The treaty was not made hastily or carelessly. Each State had been wrought up, by years of fruitless negotiations, to a state of readiness for war in defense of what it considered its rights, as is set forth in Article I.
In fact, war had actually been declared by Nicaragua, on November 25, 1857, when through the mediation of the Republic of Salvador a final effort to avert it was made, another convention was held, and this treaty resulted.
Now, we may arrive at the mutual understanding finally reached by its framers, by first seeking in the treaty as a whole for the general idea, or scheme of compromise, upon which they were able to agree.
Next, we must see that this general idea of the treaty as a whole harmonizes fully with any description of the line given in detail, and the proper names of all the localities used, or not used, in connection therewith; for the nonuse of some names may be as significant as the use of others.
Now, from the general consideration of the treaty as a whole, the scheme of compromise stands out clear and simple.
Costa Rica was to have as a boundary line the right or southwest bank of the river, considered as an outlet for commerce, from a point 3 miles below Castillo to the sea.
Nicaragua was to have her prized “sumo imperio” of all the waters of this same outlet for commerce, also unbroken to the sea.
It is to be noted that this division implied also, of course, the ownership of all islands in the river and of the left or northwest bank and headland by Nicaragua.
This division brings the boundary line (supposing it to be traced downward along the right bank, from the point near Castillo) across both the Colorado and the Taura branches.
It can not follow either of them, for neither is an outlet for commerce, as neither has a harbor at its mouth.
It must follow the remaining branch, the one called the Lower San Juan, through its harbor and into the sea.
The natural terminus of that line is the right-hand headland of the Harbor Mouth.
Next, let us note the language of description used in the treaty, telling whence the line is to start and how it is to run, leaving out for the moment the proper name applied to the initial point. It is to start “at the mouth of the river San Juan de Nicaragua, and shall continue following the right bank of the said river to a point 3 English miles from Castillo Viejo.”
This language is carefully considered and precise, and there is but one starting point possible for such a line and that is at the right headland of the bay.
Lastly, we come to the proper name applied to the starting point, “the extremity of Punta de Castilla.”
This name, Punta Castilla, does not appear upon a single one of all the original maps of the Bay of San Juan which have been presented by either side, and which seem to include all that were ever published before the treaty or since.
This is a significant fact, and its meaning is obvious. Punta de Castilla must have been, and must have remained, a point of no importance, political or commercial.
Otherwise it could not possibly have so utterly escaped note or mention upon the maps. This agrees entirely with the characteristics of the mainland and the headland on the right of the bay.
It remains until to-day obscure and unoccupied, except by the hut of a fisherman.
But the identification of the locality is still further put beyond all question by incidental mention, in another article of the treaty itself, of the name Punta de Castilla.
In Article V Costa Rica agrees temporarily to permit Nicaragua to use Costa Rica’s side of the harbor without payment of port dues, and the name Punta de Castilla is plainly applied to it.[Page 115]
Thus we have, concurring, the general idea of compromise in the treaty as a whole, the literal description of the line in detail, and the verification of the name applied to the initial point by its incidental mention in another portion of the treaty, and by the concurrent testimony of every map maker of every nation, both before the treaty and since, in excluding this name from all other portions of the harbor.
This might seem to be sufficient argument upon the subject, but it will present the whole situation in a still clearer light to give a brief explanation of the local geography and of one special peculiarity of this Bay of San Juan.
The great feature in the local geography of this bay, since our earliest accounts of it, has been the existence of an island in its outlet, called on some early maps the Island of San Juan. It was an island of such importance as to have been mentioned in 1820 by two distinguished authors, quoted in the Costa Rican reply to Nicaragua’s argument (p. 12), and it is an island to-day, and so appears in the map accompanying this award.
The peculiarity of this bay to be noted is that the river brings down very little water during the annual dry season.
When that happens, particularly of late years, sand bars, dry at all ordinary tides, but submerged, more or less, and broken over by the waves at all high ones, are formed, frequently reaching the adjacent headlands, so that a man might cross dry-shod.
Now, the whole claim of Costa Rica is based upon the assumption that on April 15, 1858, the date of the treaty, a connection existed between the island and the eastern headland, and that this converted the island into mainland and carried the initial point of the boundary over to the western extremity of the island.
To this claim there are at least two replies, either one seeming to me conclusive.
First, the exact state of the bar on that day can not be definitely proven, which would seem to be necessary before drawing important conclusions.
However, as the date was near the end of the dry season, it is most probable that there was such a connection between the island and the eastern or Costa Rican shore as has been described.
But even if that be true, it would be unreasonable to suppose that such temporary connection could operate to change permanently the geographical character and political ownership of the island.
The same principle, if allowed, would give to Costa Rica every island in the river to which sand bars from her shore had made out during that dry season.
But throughout the treaty, the river is treated and regarded as an outlet of commerce. This implies that it is to be considered as in average condition of water, in which condition alone is it navigable.
But the overwhelming consideration in the matter is that by the use of the name Punta de Castilla for the starting point, instead of the name Punta Arenas, the makers of the treaty intended to designate the mainland on the east of the harbor.
This has already been discussed, but no direct reply was made to the argument of Costa Rica quoting three authors as applying the name Punta de Castilla to the western extremity of the before-mentioned island, the point invariably called Point Arenas by all naval and other officers, surveyors, and engineers whoever mapped it.
These authors are L. Montufar, a Guatemalan, in 1887; J. D. Gamez, a Nicaraguan, in 1889; and E. G. Squier, an American, date not given exactly, but subsequent to the treaty. Even of these, the last two merely used, once each, the name Punta de Castilla as an alternate for Punta Arenas.
Against this array of authenticity we have, first, an innumerable number of other writers clearly far more entitled to confidence; second, the original makers of all the maps, as before pointed out; and third, the framers of the treaty itself, by their use of Punta de Castilla in Article V.
It must be borne in mind that, for some years before the making of this treaty, Punta Arenas had been by far the most important and conspicuous point in the bay. On it were located the wharves, workshops, offices, etc., of Vanderbilt’s great transit company, conducting the through line from New York to San Francisco during the gold excitement of the early fifties. Here ocean and river steamers met and exchanged passengers and cargo.
This was the point sought to be controlled by Walker and the filibusters.
The village of San Juan cut no figure at all in comparison, and it would doubtless be easy to produce by hundreds references to this point as Punta Arenas by naval and diplomatic officers of all prominent nations, by prominent residents and officials, and by engineers and surveyors constantly investigating the canal problem, and all having personal knowledge of the locality.
In view of all these circumstances—the jealousy with which each party to the treaty defined what it gave up and what it kept, the prominence and importance of the locality, the concurrence of all the original maps in the name, and its universal notoriety—I find it impossible to conceive that Nicaragua had conceded this extensive [Page 116]and important territory to Costa Rica, and that the latter’s representative had failed to have the name Punta Arenas appear anywhere in the treaty.
And for reasons so similar that it is unnecessary to repeat them, it is also impossible to conceive that Costa Rica should have accepted the Taura as her boundary, and that Nicaragua’s representative should have entirely failed to have the name appear anywhere in the treaty.
Having, then, designated generally the mainland east of Harbor Head as the location of the initial point of the boundary line, it now becomes necessary to specify more minutely, in order that the said line may be exactly located and permanently marked.
The exact location of the initial point is given in President Cleveland’s award as the “extremity of Punta de Castilla, at the mouth of the San Juan de Nicaragua River, as they both existed on the 15th of April, 1858.”
A careful study of all available maps, and comparisons between those made before the treaty and those of recent date made by boards of engineers and officers of the canal company, and one of to-day made by yourselves to accompany this award, makes very clear the fact.
The exact spot which was the extremity of the headland of Punta de Castilla, April 15, 1858, has long been swept over by the Caribbean Sea, and there is too little concurrence in the shore outline of the old maps to permit any certainty of statement of distance or exact direction to it from the present headland. It was somewhere to the northeastward, and probably between 600 and 1,600 feet distant, but it can not now be certainly located.
Under these circumstances, it best fulfills the demands of the treaty and of President Cleveland’s award to adopt what is, practically, the headland of to-day; or the northwestern extremity of what seems to be the solid land, on the east side of the Harbor Head Lagoon.
I have accordingly made a personal inspection of this ground, and declare the initial line of the boundary to run as follows, to wit:
Its direction shall be due northeast and southwest, across the bank of sand, from the Caribbean Sea into the waters of Harbor Head Lagoon.
It shall pass, at its nearest point, 300 feet on the northwest side from the small hut now standing in that vicinity.
On reaching the waters of Harbor Head Lagoon the boundary line shall turn to the left, or southwestward, and shall follow the water’s edge around the harbor until it reaches the river proper by the first channel met.
Up this channel and up the river proper the line shall continue to ascend as directed in the treaty.
I am, gentlemen, very respectfully, your obedient servant,