Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State (White)

Three Possible Formulas for Settlement of Territorial Question Between Colombia and Nicaragua

The Colombian Minister called on Tuesday, August 2, and said that he had been thinking over the question of the Colombian-Nicaraguan territorial dispute as well as the question of Roncador, Quita Sueño, and Serranilla keys, and that he had jotted down three possible formulas for settling the matter. He read these over to me and left a copy thereof which is attached hereto.61 The Minister stated that he thought that perhaps the third was the most acceptable.

When the Minister first came in he stated that he had thought up four solutions, although his memorandum contained but three. I therefore told him that while I had not yet been able to study the matter fully as some of the papers were in rather inaccessible archives and I had not yet been able to get hold of them, I had nevertheless read certain of the papers and it appeared to me that we were making a great deal out of a very small matter. These keys had been claimed by the United States since about 1869 and the President had issued a proclamation in 1919 formally declaring them to be under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any other Government. Furthermore, these keys appeared to have very little intrinsic value; that they do constitute a very real menace to shipping, lying as they do on the trade route between the Panama Canal and the Straits of Yucatan. [Page 326] That being the case, the United States had erected lighthouses on them and maintains them and far from the Islands bringing in any revenue to the United States they constitute an expense to the extent of the erection and maintenance of the lighthouses, and that these lighthouses are maintained for the benefit of everyone, Colombian shipping as well as that of the United States and all other maritime nations. In view of this fact, I thought that the easiest solution would lie in a general recognition all around of the statu quo, that is, for Nicaragua to recognize Colombian dominion over San Andrés and Providencia, Colombia to recognize Nicaraguan dominion over the Mosquito Coast and the Corn Islands and the United States dominion over these keys.

The Minister stated that Colombia could justify recognizing certain territorial rights to Nicaragua because Nicaragua recognized Colombian rights in return over San Andrés and Providencia, but in the case of these keys the United States was not recognizing anything as Colombia’s in return. He then alluded to the fact that the inhabitants of San Andrés now fish in the waters off these keys and will probably wish to continue to do so. I then suggested to him that that would give the United States the chance to recognize the statu quo in favor of Colombia by according the inhabitants of San Andrés the right to fish in the waters of these keys. …

The Colombian Minister stated that he had not ventured to put in writing a further solution that suggested itself to him as he was without instructions from his Government. I told him that I quite appreciated his position and fully understood that any suggested formula that he might make to me was purely personal and informal on his part without instructions from his Government and was not binding in any way. He then said that somewhat over a year ago Colombia had arrested certain British fishermen in these waters and that the British Government told the Colombian Government that it did not recognize the right of the latter to make the arrest in these waters as the ownership of these Islands was in dispute between Colombia and the United States, and had added that, should Colombia not have jurisdiction in those waters, Great Britain reserved the right to make claims for indemnity for the improper arrest. The Minister stated that they of course would not like to be met with demands from the British Government for indemnity of a million pesos or so for every West Indian Negro fisherman arrested at that time, but he agreed with me that it was advisable to settle the matter without too cumbersome a process and was inclined to agree with the views I stated earlier in our conversation to the effect that the Islands were hardly of sufficient importance to justify the expense of an arbitration. Also he stated [Page 327] that he would like to have some quid pro quo to justify Colombia recognizing these keys as appertaining to the United States and giving up the position they had taken in the past that they belonged to Colombia. The Minister therefore thought that the matter could best be arranged by the signing of a Procès-Verbal by the Secretary of State, the Colombian Minister and the Nicaraguan Minister, in which it would be agreed that Colombia and Nicaragua would sign a treaty by which Colombia would recognize Nicaraguan dominion over the Corn Islands and Mosquito Coast and Nicaragua would recognize Colombian dominion over San Andrès and Providencia, and the United States and Colombia would sign a treaty by which Colombia would renounce her rights to the keys in favor of the United States and recognize the dominion of the United States over those keys, the United States agreeing in turn to grant the inhabitants of San Andrès fishing rights of these waters in perpetuity and also to construct lighthouses on San Andrès and Providencia, the lighthouses thereafter to be maintained by Colombia.

I told the Minister that I thought this was a very good suggestion which I, personally, was inclined to favor, and he stated that he would recommend it to his Government and let me know as soon as he had a reply.

It will be recalled that when the United States established lighthouses on the three keys in question, the Navy Department and the Department of Commerce were both very anxious to establish lighthouses on San Andrés and Providencia and asked the Department to take the matter up with the Colombian Government. The Department replied that these Islands were in dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua and that the Department believed that, pending the adjustment of the dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua regarding the Islands mentioned, it would be inadvisable to take any action with a view to obtaining permission for the erection of aids to navigation upon those Islands. The Department later on did request the permission of the Colombian Government but never received an answer. At that time the ratification by Colombia of the Treaty of 1914 for the settlement of differences regarding the independence of Panama62 was pending and also the matter was complicated by a press campaign in Bogota against the United States on account of its action in erecting lighthouses, without consulting Colombia, on the Roncador, Quita Sueño and Serranilla keys, which were claimed by Colombia. The solution proposed appears eminently satisfactory to the United States as it settles another Latin American territorial conflict and clears up any question as to the right of Nicaragua in 1914 to lease Great and Little Corn Islands [Page 328] to the United States. It also settles in favor of the United States our claims over these keys and furthermore we get permission to construct the two other lighthouses which the Navy and Commerce Departments consider necessary for the safety of navigation in those waters.

F[rancis] W[hite]