File No. 341.115Am319/24
The Secretary of State to the President of the American Transatlantic Company (R. G. Wagner)
Sir: The Department is in receipt of your letters of November 3 and 8, 1915, respectively, regarding the seizure by the British authorities of the steamer Hocking which has been taken into port at Halifax.1
The position of the Department respecting certain vessels, including the steamer Hocking, which were recently registered under the American flag on the application of your company, has been fully explained to you in previous communications.1 However, the Department may briefly further point out certain matters which should make clear to you the position which this Government is under the necessity of taking at the present time regarding the steamer Hocking.
The Department of Commerce, which was evidently satisfied that under the law of this country it was permissible to issue such registers, has furnished this Department with a copy of a letter addressed to your company by the Acting Secretary of Commerce, under date of August 23 last, in which you were informed that steps had been taken to have issued a provisional American registry to the steamer Laura. In this connection the Acting Secretary of Commerce advised you as follows:
I take this occasion to advise you, as you have been several times advised orally by the Commissioner of Navigation, that the Government of the United States cannot, of course, give any assurance that the American claim of ownership of the Laura or of the other ships you have recently acquired, and for which, under the direction of the Secretary of Commerce, provisional registers have been issued, will not be challenged by belligerents, or that the ship will not be arrested on the high seas and sent to a prize court for adjudication of that question. With the facts before it, this Department is of the same opinion as the State Department, that the case will be one appropriate for the decision of the question of ownership by a prize court.
I think, further, that American exporters or importers of goods by these ships, or charterers, ought to be advised of this situation.
Your attention in this relation is called to the right of belligerents to visit and eventually search merchantmen for the purpose of ascertaining whether these vessels really belong to the merchant marine of neutrals, and if so, whether they are attempting to break a blockade, or carry contraband, or render unneutral service to the enemy. In view of this established belligerent right, and in view of the principle that a person who seeks redress for an injury which he considers that he has sustained at the hands of a foreign government, must, as a general rule, in the first instance resort to the appropriate tribunals of such government before he is entitled to diplomatic intervention, it would seem that you might deem it advisable to take prompt steps to establish your rights before the British prize court.[Page 613]
The Department, with a view to any possible future action in your behalf, will give careful consideration to any information you may desire to present to it bearing on the question of the actual ownership of the steamer Hocking.
I am [etc.]