File No. 300.115/1876

The Consul General at Cape Town (Murphy) to the Secretary of State

Sir: I have the honor to confirm the following telegram, which I purpose sending to the Department tomorrow (Monday):

As cargo Birkenfels all from New York all for Australia, prolonged detention here injures American trade, suggest Department urge London send vessel with cargo Australia for adjudication there.1

In explanation of this telegram, I have the honor to report as follows:

Four German freight vessels were brought into this port as prizes at the beginning of the war, namely, the steamships Hamm, Apolda, Rufidji, and Birkenfels. The first three came from Europe, and only the. Birkenfels from the United States.

In regard to the cargo of the three vessels from Europe, I have received only one inquiry from American owners, and that was for wares not of American but of Swedish origin, namely for steel for use in Transvaal mines brought on the Hamm for the Ingersoll Rand Company of New York and Johannesburg.

The Birkenfels, on the other hand, left New York more than a Week before war was declared loaded with American cargo consigned to various Australian ports. It carried no cargo for South Africa, and it came into this harbor only for the purpose of coaling.

Possibly, under the hard rules of war, the vessel is itself a fair prize. I, of course, raise no question on this point as the Birkenfels is German; but apparently the question could be settled as well in British Australia, whither the vessel was innocently bound with its American cargo, as in British South Africa, whose chief harbor it voluntarily entered because its supply of coal was exhausted.

It is however, the American cargo of this vessel in which I am especially interested, and I cannot but feel that America deserves from Great Britain fairer play than it is receiving in this matter.

The South African prize court has already released such parts of the South African cargo on the Steamers from Europe, the Hamm, Apolda, and Rufidji, as has been claimed, these vessels being sent back into the bay with most of the cargo destined for Australia, for further detention. The Birkenfels, on the contrary, still lies in Table Bay with its cargo and, in spite of the fact that the Australian Government has petitioned the Imperial Government to order the [Page 386] vessel and cargo to be sent on to Australia for adjudication, it is believed here that this will not be done. Consequently each individual American shipper or his Australian customer will, greatly to the detriment of American trade, in addition to the inconvenience and loss resulting from delayed delivery of American wares shipped before the beginning of war and themselves perfectly innocent in character and destination, have to pay South African lawyers’ fees (see my despatch No 59 of October 8),1 prize-court fees and Admiralty charges (see m despatch No 71 of October 22),1 docking costs, storage at Cape Town, and additional freights and insurance.

In my opinion, this is not only unnecessary but distinctly unjust.

I therefore venture to suggest for the consideration of the Department, the possible advisability of taking the matter up with the British Government with a view to securing what the Australian Government, acting in behalf of our Australian customers, has thus far failed to secure, namely fair treatment of the simple question of justice and right which is now withheld for technical reasons.

Several of the American shippers have informed me that their shipments consist of samples upon which the coming season’s trade depends. Other shipments consist of railway materials for government-owned railways in Australia. Naturally our British competitors may prefer that future orders for such materials be placed in Great Britain, but it does not seem to be in accordance with the principle of British fair play that our trade should be obstructed by needlessly holding up samples and materials indefinitely at a port to which they were not consigned and from which they could be forwarded without serious risk to a British destination which was honestly fixed prior to the outbreak of war.

In support of some of the above views, I enclose a paraphrase of articles appearing in the October number of the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce Monthly Journal.1

I have [etc.]

George H. Murphy
  1. This telegram was duly received, November 9, 7 p.m. (File No. 300.115/1168) and its substance transmitted to the Ambassador in Great Britain, November 18, with no result. The case was brought before the prize court at cape Town and the ship adjudged good prize on November 23, the court refusing to credit the master’s allegation that he had entered the port in ignorance of the state of war. Arrangements for the ship to complete its voyage under the British flag were not completed until March 1915.
  2. Not printed.
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