Mr. Loomis to Mr. Hay.
Caracas , November 7, 1899 .
Sir: I have the honor to report that upon the arrival of the Philadelphia, an American steamer under mail contract with the Government of the United States, at La Guayra on the 1st instant, with mails, cargo, and passengers for that port, and for Puerto Cabello, the steamer’s register was received by the commander of the U. S. S. Detroit and by him placed in the possession of the United States consul at La Guayra. This was done for the protection of the steamer and for the purpose of avoiding needless delay, annoyance, and interference with the landing of mails and cargo on schedule time at Puerto Cabello.
The collector of customs at La Guayra had informed the agent of the Red D Line in a very offensive and insulting way that no steamers would be cleared for Puerto Cabello, and that the Philadelphia and other vessels coming to La Guayra with cargo for Puerto Cabello would be compelled to land the Puerto Cabello cargo at La Guayra, which, in the case of the Philadelphia would have subjected her owners (an American corporation) to much loss and inconvenience, and caused them to violate their contracts with the shippers. The purpose of the Castro Government to require the landing of goods destined for Puerto Cabello was also formally expressed a little later in an official decree, a copy of which I inclose, with translation. The inclosed decree respecting the blockade of Puerto Cabello was not promulgated till 5 o’clock of the afternoon of the 1st instant, nearly twelve hours after the register had been taken by the commander of the Detroit.
It was the intention of the collector, both to prevent the Philadelphia from proceeding to Puerto Cabello in accordance with her regular itinerary, and to force her to discharge her cargo for the latter port at La Guayra by refusing to surrender her register until she complied with his arbitrary command.
Considering the state of the country it seemed likely that difficulties and much vain discussion would be avoided and a reasonable measure of assistance and protection given the Philadelphia if the power to detain her in an arbitrary way was, for the first time, taken out of the hands of the somewhat irresponsible person who was the incumbent of the post of collector of customs and who represented a [Page 785] government that had not been recognized by an established government in the world.
I had some informal conversation on the subject with Commander Hemphill of the Detroit, and I addressed him a letter concerning it, a copy of which I inclose.
After writing and sending this letter I found that the British minister to Venezuela had arranged with the captain of H. M. S. Pearl, then in port at La Guaira, to receive and turn over to the British consular representative the register of a British merchant vessel due at the same time in La Guaira as the Philadelphia, and I furthermore ascertained that this action had been determined upon for precisely the reasons I have set forth. The captain of the Pearl and the commander of the Detroit proceeded in the same manner. Each sent an officer to receive the register of the merchantman flying his flag and in each case it was given into the custody of the consular officer of his own country. Later in the day, when the British merchant vessel was ready to sail, she was given clearance by the captain of the Pearl.
The custody of the registers of American vessels has frequently been a subject of correspondence between the Department and this legation within the last thirty years, and particular attention was given the matter in the years 1883, 1884, and 1885 by Minister Baker, as indicated in the foreign relations and the archives covering that period.
I, in common with many of my predecessors, have brought the matter to the attention of the Venezuelan Government upon several occasions and, like them, have been able to obtain no modification of the hacienda regulation covering this point, though, as a matter of fact, Presidents suspend the enforcement of laws pretty much as they choose.
The plain truth is that there has been no real desire or purpose on the part of the Venezuelan Government to repeal or modify this anomalous law. Further argument of the question will be vain.
It is perfectly well understood here that the practice of making masters of foreign merchant vessels deposit their papers with the local port authorities is perpetuating a usage no longer sanctioned by the most of the civilized nations of the world, and it is equally well known that the Venezuelan shipping laws require masters of Venezuelan merchant ships to deposit their ship’s papers with the consular representative of Venezuela in foreign ports. It is also well understood that our law requiring masters to deposit the ship’s papers with the consular representative of the United States in foreign ports is in accord with well-established usage and the practice of civilized nations. The matter has been ably and exhaustively presented by my predecessors and by the Department in its instructions to them. It seems that the Government of Venezuela has desired to retain what seems an unwarranted control over foreign vessels in her ports and for that reason has been deaf to our arguments and appeals for the repeal or suspension of the objectionable treasury regulation.
The control over foreign vessels thus persistently maintained despite the repeated and friendly requests and remonstrances of this and other foreign governments appears to be an authority very often improperly exercised. The American mail steamers are at the caprice of irresponsible port officials. They have been detained without reason at their pleasure. I have seen one of these vessels held for two hours [Page 786] after her advertised time for departure by the collector at La Guaira, who was intoxicated and would not attend to his duties. It is no uncommon thing for steamers to be held to await the arrival of some friend of the collector who happens not to find the advertised hour of departure a convenient one. I have also seen a steamer held six hours to enable friends of the collector to finish their correspondence and mail their letters.
The conviction is deeply grounded in the minds of most of the port officials I have seen that when a foreign vessel is in Venezuelan waters it is theirs to do with pretty much as they please. This week the Venezuelan consul in Curaçao was instructed (so I am informed by the agents of the Red D Line) to refuse to clear the Merida, their branch line steamer, which meets the steamers from New York to take mails and passengers to Maracaibo, until the arrival at Curaçao of a committee which the Government here wished to send to Maracaibo. So, not only in their own ports but in foreign ones, an authority is assumed and sought to be exercised in a manner which must, at least, be termed unusual if not unbearable. It was the purpose, if necessary, in the incident just cited, to hold the Merida several days with her mails and passengers, in case the commission could not promptly reach Curaçao, as the chances were it would not.
At La Guaira the detention of the Red D Line ships may become a very grave and perilous matter. These ships sail on their northward voyage at 12 o’clock noon. This is done in order to pass Los Roques, a place of great danger, before nightfall. It takes about six hours to reach the vicinity of Los Roques, and if a vessel is detained two hours at La Guaira either she runs a great risk, and sails, or, as most frequently is the case, she waits till midnight and passes the rocks at daybreak, thus losing twelve hours in time, delaying the arrival of mails in New York, and subjecting the owners to a considerable expense.
There seems to be no adequate sense of responsibility among many of the officials concerning their rights over foreign ships and property, and the exercise of those rights, while the possession of the foreign vessel’s register puts the ship, for the time being, quite in the power of the port official, no matter what his intention and character may be. To be sure, if damage were inflicted or indignity resulted from the exercise of this power, some redress might be obtained in the future; but if money compensation for an injury of any sort were asked, it could not be obtained.
In view of these considerations and of the further fact that revolutions occur frequently, with the result of sometimes putting reckless and ignorant people into important official positions at some of the ports of the country—officials whose tenure might be but a few days or weeks—it seems to me that it might be as well to take under advisement the expediency of insisting that hereafter United States merchant vessels may not be required to surrender their registers to local authorities upon entering a Venezuelan port. I think if this be insisted upon, and the register received a few times by a war vessel, the point will be tacitly yielded by the Castro Government.
I am informed by tire British minister that he has written an earnest dispatch on this subject to Lord Salisbury, in which he suggests that the question of the custody of the ships’ papers in Venezuelan ports be made the subject of communication to the Secretary of State at Washington.
Since writing the foregoing the incident of the taking of the register, [Page 787] so far as the Venezuelan Government is concerned, was closed by the collector of customs going aboard the Philadelphia as she was leaving for Curaçao and presenting her with clearance papers with General Castro’s compliments. In 1892, under somewhat similar circumstances, she was fined $10,000, which was afterwards remitted.
I have, etc.,