Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Russian Affairs, Department of State (Poole)

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.

D. C. Poole

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 rescue.

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 Britannica [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.

  1. Boris Bakhmeteff, Russian Ambassador since July 5, 1917.
  2. Malloy, Treaties, 1776–1909, vol. ii, p. 1521.
  3. 12th ed. (1922), vol. xxx, p. 190.