Mr. Sherman to Mr. Dupuy de Lôme.
Washington , June 21, 1897 .
Sir: Referring to your two notes of the 31st ultimo and 1st instant, in relation to the firing upon the American steamer Valencia, near Guantanamo, by the Spanish cruiser Reina Mercedes on the 27th of May last, I have now the honor to acquaint you with the result of the investigation as to the facts, made by this Department.[Page 505]
It is ascertained that the incident occurred not in the narrow entrance to Guantanamo Bay, as would seem to be stated in your notes, but in the ocean waters at the mouth of that inlet, and within 3 miles of the Cuban coast. The Valencia having duly cleared from Guantanamo and saluted the fort, which lies inland some 5 miles north of the ocean mouth of the inlet, took down her ensign and proceeded on her voyage. As she left the channel and was rounding Punta de Sotavento, heading southwestwardly, she sighted the Reina Mercedes approaching from the eastward, then being some 2½ miles distant, and southeast by east of Punta de Barlovento, which had until then concealed the cruiser from view. The Reina Mercedes was, from the course she steered, necessarily bow on, as seen from the Valencia, and so remained, or very nearly so, during the whole occurrence. Her ensign, if displayed at the gaff, was not visible from the Valencia’s position then or at any time during the incident. No signal being seen, and inasmuch as the vessels were not passing each other, the cruiser being abaft the beam of the Valencia on the port quarter, the captain of the latter did not believe himself required to salute the cruiser with his flag, as he would have done had he met her on regular course. The two ships being in this relative situation, the first shot was fired and was heard on the Valencia, but was not, for the reasons stated, supposed to be a call for colors. Almost immediately after—within two minutes—another shot was heard, followed by the fall of the projectile nearly in line with the Valencia and about 80 yards astern of her. Thereupon, realizing that the shots were intended, for him, the captain of the Valencia at once hoisted his national flag; but even then no flag or signal was visible upon the cruiser, which was then south by west of Punta de Barlovento, heading west, and about 2 miles astern of the Valencia, which had now swung into her westerly course in the open sea. The captain of the Valencia, however, recognized the cruiser as being the Reina Mercedes, the two vessels having been together at Santiago de Cuba on the 7th and 8th of May last—a circumstance which also explains the statement in your note of May 31 that the cruiser recognized the Valencia when firing upon her.
It further appears that the Valencia does not belong to the Ward line, but to the “Red D “line between New York and La Guaira, having been temporarily chartered from Messrs. Boulton, Bliss & Dallett by Messrs. James E. Ward & Co., to take the place of the regular south-side liner Niagara, which was laid up for repairs. Her officers and crew remained under the “Bed D “management during these Cuban trips, and her master seems to have been unadvised of the correspondence of February and March of last year concerning the failure of the Santiago to salute a passing Spanish cruiser. Even had the master of the Valencia been aware of the former incident, I am by no means certain that the circumstances under which the Reina Mercedes was sighted by him would exact the usual maritime courtesy of the flag. At any rate, I am satisfied that no discourtesy was intended by the captain of the Valencia, and that if he indeed erred, it was an excusable error of judgment on his part. However this may be, I am prepared to admit, in all frankness, that during the continuance of a civil war such as is now flagrant in the Island of Cuba, it would be extremely convenient, and perhaps a prudent precaution, for American ships legitimately resorting to Cuban waters to show their flag when sighting a Spanish cruiser within the 3–mile limit, even if a formal salute be not called for by the ordinary code of maritime ceremonial, and I shall so advise Messrs. James E. Ward & Co.
With this statement the incident may be dismissed, but I can not [Page 506] refrain from commenting upon the recklessness of the Spanish commander’s action. Upon your own showing, knowing the vessel to be the Valencia and in the temporary service of the Ward Line, and apparently moved by feeling toward that line because of supposed discourtesies suffered from other of its ships in the past, he fired upon the Valencia for no other purpose than to make her show her flag. How far this confessedly careless act comports with the interests and dignity of two great and friendly nations it is not necessary to consider, but the fact remains that the falling of a solid shot near the stern of an American ship under such circumstances imports wanton and unjustifiable peril to the citizens and property of a friendly state. This Government has never admitted that life and property may be unnecessarily jeopardized by superior force, even when an offense against the revenue or other formal laws may have been committed by an American ship within a foreign jurisdiction, and it can not be expected to admit that one of its ships or those on board may be endangered because of a friendly foreign commander’s ideas as to maritime punctilio. I must therefore repeat the hope expressed in my note of the 29th ultimo that such disagreeable incidents as this be not suffered to recur.