The British Ambassador ( Geddes ) to the Secretary of State

No. 410

Sir: In your note of the 4th instant3 you were good enough to communicate to me a copy of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, dated the 30th ultimo, respecting the application to vessels entering American territorial waters of certain provisions of the National Prohibition Act.

The situation created by this decision has been engaging the earnest attention of His Majesty’s Government. They do not contend that a ship entering the territorial waters of a country does not subject itself to the jurisdiction of that country, but the extent to which each country should compel observance of its laws on the ships of another and the nationals on board of those ships is of primary importance in the regular intercourse between nations. In the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, jurisdiction should not be exercised except to restrain acts calculated to disturb public order and safety. Upon this point the comity and practice of nations appears to be aptly defined in the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Wildenhus case, with which you are, no doubt, familiar. (See United States Reports, Volume No. 120, October term 1886, Pages 1–19). In this case the jurisdiction of the United States was extended to cover an act committed on a foreign ship. Yet, even so, the Supreme Court recognised the existing international doctrine on the subject to be as follows:—

“And so by comity it came to be generally understood among civilized nations that all matters of discipline and all things done on board which affected only the vessel or those belonging to her, [Page 136] and did not involve the peace or dignity of the country, or the tranquillity of the port, should be left by the local government to be dealt with by the authorities of the nation to which the vessel belonged as the laws of that nation or the interests of its commerce should require”.

The regulations proposed to be issued in accordance with the Supreme Court judgment afford an example of the kind of issue that may be raised all over the world if the existing comity and practice is abandoned. Ships of all nations frequently pass through the jurisdiction of other nations even when not entering their ports. For example, to reach Antwerp a vessel must pass through Dutch territorial waters, to reach the Baltic through Danish or Swedish waters, to reach the Black Sea through Turkish waters.

It is true that national laws, in so far as they regulate the rights and obligations of those on board national ships, are becoming more and more uniform. They do, however, still conflict on many points. It follows, therefore, that if the precedent now proposed were generalised, conflicting national laws could be imposed by each nation on foreign shipping within its territorial jurisdiction. This would create an impossible situation in international voyages, for interference might then be exercised on foreign ships entering ports:—

to load or discharge that part of their cargoes, the export or import of which is permitted;
to take on board bunkers or stores;
to receive orders.

In extreme cases indeed such interference might even extend to ships which had not entered any port.

His Majesty’s Government feel that such instances as those suggested above would be the occasion of an exercise of national authority, marking so great a departure from accepted custom as to amount to the adoption of a new principle. I have the honour, therefore, urgently to request that the United States Government, before departing so materially from the former common practice of all nations, will enter into a discussion of this matter with the other maritime powers.

I have [etc.]

A. C. Geddes
  1. Not printed.