File No. 763.72111/85

The British Chargé d’Affaires (Barclay) to the Secretary of State

No. 252]

Sir: In view of the state of war now existing between Great Britain and Germany, I have the honour, under instructions from His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to make the following communication to you in respect to the arming of any merchant vessels in neutral waters:

As you are aware, it is recognized that a neutral Government is bound to use due diligence to prohibit its subjects or citizens from the building and fitting out to order of belligerents, vessels intended for warlike purposes and also to prevent the departure of any such vessel from its jurisdiction. The starting point for the universal recognition of this principle was the three rules formulated in Article 6 of the treaty between Great Britain and the United States of America for the amicable settlement of all causes of difference between the two countries, signed at Washington on May 8, 1871. These rules, which His Majesty’s Government and the United States Government agreed to observe as between themselves in future, are as follows:

A neutral government is bound—

First. To use due diligence to prevent the fitting out, arming, or equipping, within its jurisdiction, of any vessel which it has reasonable ground to believe [Page 594]is intended to cruise or to carry on war against a power with which it is at peace; and also to use like diligence to prevent the departure from its jurisdiction of any vessel intended to cruise or carry on war as above, such vessel having been specially adapted, in whole or in part, within such jurisdiction to warlike use.

Secondly. Not to permit or suffer either belligerent to make use of its ports or waters as the base of naval operations against the other, or for the purpose of the renewal or augmentation of military supplies or arms, or the recruitment of men.

Thirdly. To exercise due diligence in its own ports and waters, and as to all persons within its jurisdiction, to prevent any violation of the foregoing obligations and duties.

The above rules may be said to have acquired the force of generally recognized rules of international law, and the first of them is reproduced almost textually in Article 8 of the Hague convention No. XIII of 1907 concerning the rights and duties of neutral powers in case of maritime warfare, the principles of which have been agreed to by practically every maritime state.

It is known, however, that Germany, with whom Great Britain is at war, favours the policy of converting her merchant vessels into armed ships on the high seas, and it is probable, therefore, that attempts will be made to equip and despatch merchantmen for such conversion from the ports of the United States.

It is probable that, even if the final completion of the measures to fit out merchantmen to act as cruisers may have to be effected on the high seas, most of the preliminary arrangements will have been made before the vessels leave port, so that the warlike purpose to which they are to be put after leaving neutral waters must be more or less manifest before their departure.

In calling your attention to the above-mentioned rules of the treaty of Washington and the Hague convention, I have the honour to state that His Majesty’s Government will accordingly hold the United States Government responsible for any damages to British trade or shipping, or injury to British interests generally, which may be caused by such vessels having been equipped at, or departing from, United States ports.

I have [etc.]

Colville Barclay
  1. No date of receipt is indicated on this or the following note (No. 254), also of August 4. The reply to No. 254 states that it was presented “on the following day” (August 5). As both notes bear the same date of preparation, including the notation in ink, “11 p.m.”, it is to be presumed that they were presented at the same time.