Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State (White)

Settlement of Territorial Question Between Colombia and Nicaragua

The Colombian Minister called on Monday, August 1, at my request. I told him that in the course of the last three or four years when we were discussing together the settlement of the boundary between Colombia and Panama and the boundaries between Colombia and Peru and Colombia and Brazil he had said that when these were finished Colombia would have but one outstanding territorial question, namely, that with Nicaragua which he would like to have settled here also. I told him that the Department had now received a telegram from the Legation in Nicaragua, stating that the Colombian Minister had just returned to Managua and had said that he expects to reopen this question with the Nicaraguan Government. The matter had been discussed between President Diaz and the American Minister and it seemed possible that Nicaragua might request the views of this Government regarding the matter.

I reminded the Minister that some two years ago the question had come up and that Colombia had then suggested a settlement by which Colombia would withdraw her claim and would recognize Nicaraguan sovereignty over the Mosquito Coast and Great and Little Corn Islands if Nicaragua, in return, would recognize Colombian sovereignty over the Islands of San Andrés and Providencia. Nicaragua had declined such a settlement and had stated in return that Nicaragua could not discuss the Mosquito Coast nor Great and Little Corn Islands, which must be recognized as Nicaraguan, but would be willing to arbitrate the question of San Andrés and Providencia. So far as I knew, this matter had not progressed further, but I presumed this had not been accepted by Colombia as Colombia was now opening the matter further.

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Señor Olaya replied that this had been rejected; that Colombia could not arbitrate only a portion of the claims, that either the full claims of both would have to be arbitrated or there would have to be some outside settlement and Colombia really did not want to arbitrate the question of the San Andrés Islands. Besides holding valid titles to these Islands from Spain, these Islands were inhabited and had been administered by Colombia for the last 125 years. Hence Colombia would not wish to arbitrate giving them up, but Colombia he thought would be willing to make the same arrangement as proposed two years ago. I told the Minister that it might be possible for this Government to be of some help in the matter and, as he knew, the Department was always glad to be of assistance, at the request of both parties, to the Republics of this hemisphere in settling their difficulties. There was also a question in which the United States was also involved and before going further in the matter I would like to know whether Colombia regarded Roncador Key, Quita Sueño Bank, and the Serrana Bank as part of San Andrés Archipelago. The Minister would recall that President Wilson had issued proclamations in 191958 declaring these uninhabited Islands possessions of the United States by virtue of the so-called Guano Act.59 During the last year, when I was away from the Department, the question had come up in connection with some British seamen, I thought, and I felt it would be well to have it definitely settled that these Islands were not a part of the San Andrés Archipelago.

The Minister replied that this was a matter in which there was a difference of opinion; that the Islands were practically worthless. Part of the year they are completely submerged and the rest of the year are used by fishermen and also have some slight value on account of guano deposits. The Islands are a danger to navigation, especially when submerged and that he presumed the main interest of the United States in the Islands was on account of the danger to shipping and the necessity of maintaining lighthouses there.

The Minister stated that he was without instructions from his Government, that he had studied the matter very closely and he would like to make a personal suggestion which, if acceptable, he would recommend to his Government:

Colombia and Nicaragua to conclude a treaty by which Nicaraguan sovereignty is recognized over the Mosquito Coast and Great and Little Corn Island[s] and Colombia would also in the same act confirm the rights of the United States to Great and Little Corn Islands obtained by the Treaty with Nicaragua of 1914.60 Nicaragua would recognize Colombian sovereignty over the Islands of San Andrés [Page 325] and Providencia, and Colombia and the United States would submit to arbitration the ownership of the other keys and Colombia would agree, should she win the arbitration, to sell these keys to the United States, should the United States so desire, for a consideration to be agreed upon between the two Governments.

The Minister stated that it was a question of amour propre for Colombia as she could not well give up the Islands or recognize American jurisdiction over them except through arbitration and that he felt sure that Colombia would accept anybody proposed by the United States as arbitrator. I told the Minister I would look into the matter and advise him later.

F[rancis] W[hite]