The attached memorandum was handed to me today by the Russian
Ambassador.9 He said that he thought that
Wrangell Island had no political or economic importance and that it
should not become in any way the subject of controversy. He only wished
to put on record his point of view with respect to the matter inasmuch
as it has received so much publicity.
Memorandum by the Russian Embassy
Reports have recently appeared in the press to the effect that on
September 15, 1921, the British flag was raised on Wrangell Island
by members of the Vilhjalmur Stefansson polar expedition force, and
that the island was proclaimed to be a part of the British Empire.
Considerations followed justifying the establishment of British
sovereignty by the fact that in 1914 the survivors of the wrecked
Karluk, a Canadian Arctic Expedition
vessel, remained on the island for about eight months.
Wrangell Island is a typical arctic land, lying in regions most
dangerous and inaccessible. It is not fit for permanent habitation.
Obviously, terms of international law, referring to acquisition of
unoccupied territory through “use or settlement” (Moore’s Digest of International Law. Vol. I, Par.
80–81) cannot be applied in this case.
Nor can any claim be advanced by Great Britain on the ground of
discovery. Wrangell Island has been known to Russians since the
beginning of the 19th century and bears the name of a Russian
explorer. Moreover, the first men to land on the island in the 80’s
[Page 280] were members of an
American rescue party, searching for survivors of the ill-fated Jeanette. Such landings, as did occur, were
not purposed for exploring the island or the adjacent regions of the
Polar seas, but were caused by shipwrecks or intended for
It is doubtful, in general, whether principles and precedents,
accepted in international law with regard to the establishment of
sovereignty over new discovered lands, be appropriately applied to
arctic regions. Travel and exploration in these latitudes were not
actuated by economic or political aims. There has not been that
spirit of competition which leads the pioneer and navigator in
milder zones to proclaim priority over new discovered lands in favor
of his country. Arctic explorations were organised for purposes
scientific. There prevailed towards these explorations a certain
international solidarity, revealing itself in mutual helpfulness and
assistance. Russia always participated in such assistance and on
several occasions the parties landing on Wrangell Island returned
through the confines of Russia. International cooperation of this
character would scarcely be practiced if the purpose of travel in
arctic regions were known to be competitive searching for
territories for aggrandizement.
In the past there has been no formal delimitation of sovereignty in
arctic regions. There seems to have been a tacit understanding,
however, that arctic lands are naturally held as being within the
sovereignty of the country to which belongs the continental confines
of the Polar Ocean.
Such understanding has been upheld in cartography, arctic lands
usually bearing the color of the adjacent mainland. This practice is
followed in particular by J. G. Bartholomew, the leading British
geographer and “Cartographer to the King.”
This understanding seems to have governed also in the Convention of
1867, between the United States and Russia, ceding Alaska.10 Article I. of the Convention reads in part: “The
western limit, within which the territories and dominion conveyed,
are contained, passes through a point in Behring’s Straits on the
parallel of sixty-five degrees thirty minutes north latitude, at its
intersection by the meridian which passes midway between the islands
of Krusenstern, or Ignalook, and the island of Ratmanoff, or
Noonarbook, and proceeds due north, without limitation, into the
same Frozen Ocean.” It appears that, in the conception of the
treaty, this meridian was to divide the regions north of the Behring
Straits into zones belonging respectively to Alaska and Russia.
Within recent years endeavor was evidenced to formally establish
sovereignty over arctic lands. The Encyclopædia
[Page 281] (first supplementary
volume, 1922, pp. 119)10a holds
that “soon after the outbreak of the world war Russia notified a
formal claim to the Arctic islands lying north of Asia. In August,
1914, Captain Isliamov hoisted the Russian flag on Franz Josef Land
in anticipation of any claim that Austria might sustain by right of
discovery. The Supreme Council in 1919 conferred the sovereignty of
Spitsbergen and Bear Island on Norway. All of the islands of the
American Arctic Archipelago are claimed by Canada.”
The case of Wrangell Island, on account of its geographical location
and character, is of little actual importance. The very fact,
however, of the raising of the British flag and proclamation of
British sovereignty is bound to have an unfortunate moral effect in
connection with the present disabled state of Russia and the extreme
sensitiveness of Russian national feeling.