The British Ambassador (Howard) to the Under Secretary of State (Olds)
My Dear Colonel Olds: I am writing to you in connection with your letter of November 14th, replying to an enquiry which I addressed to you on November 3rd as to whether the United States Government would be prepared to permit His Majesty’s Government to summon a Naval Court in accordance with the relevant provisions of the British Merchant Shipping Act and to recognise and give effect to the findings of such a Court.
I am most grateful to you for the clear exposition contained in your letter under reference of the present situation as governed by Sections 16 and 17 of the Seamen’s Act of March 1915, which debars the authorities of the United States from according recognition to the decision of a Naval Court convoked in the United States by a British Consul.
I am desirous of communicating your ruling on this aspect of the question to all our Consuls in this country, and of informing them of the attitude which United States judicial and police officers must maintain towards the proceedings and judgments of British Naval Courts. But before I write to the Consuls on the matter, I should be glad to receive from you a confirmation of my impression that the State Department have no objection to the actual holding of Naval Courts provided that the Consuls who summon them to deal as best they can with emergencies do so on their own initiative and responsibility and without in any way invoking the aid of American authorities either Federal or State. You will appreciate in this connection that Naval Courts constitute a highly essential part of our Consular machinery for administering the provisions of the British Merchant Shipping laws. The Consul frequently requires the assistance and decisions of Naval Courts before he can legally impose the penalties prescribed for offences by British shipmasters and seamen [Page 991]against the sections of the Acts relating to registry, to the seaworthiness of the vessel, to negligence in navigation, to the proper treatment of seamen, to the maintenance of discipline and to a variety of other matters that affect the safety of life and property and the internal economy of British merchant vessels. In cases of serious insubordination such as that which occurred on the “Firpark” and which was described in my letter of the 3rd of November, 1927, the Consul is left practically powerless unless he can organize a Naval Court to deal with the situation. Had the Consul-General at New Orleans summoned a Naval Court in the case of the “Firpark” the acts of indiscipline that had occurred on board that ship could have been punished, not perhaps by imprisonment but by fine, forfeiture of wages, endorsement of discharge certificates or some other penalty in harmony with British law and not involving intervention of any kind on the part of the United States authorities. In the rare contingency of Naval Courts exceeding their powers, the aggrieved parties can find their remedy by appealing to higher British tribunals or perhaps occasionally by bringing action in American courts competent and willing to exercise jurisdiction in the premises. What we desire to guard against is the withdrawal of all means of proceeding to the punishment of grave breaches of discipline, serious assault on board ship on the high seas or in foreign ports, culpable negligence in navigation, and the like. It is for this object that the machinery of Naval Courts was devised and I observe that the United States Revised Statutes recognise the necessity of such tribunals in certain contingencies and authorize American Consuls abroad to set them up (Revised Statutes Sec. 4559).
I have ventured to go into this matter at some length because of its importance and because I feel that we have been acting under a misapprehension as to the attitude of the United States Government. In order to relieve the position of all elements of doubt or uncertainty I should be grateful for an assurance from you that in holding Naval Courts but without calling upon American authorities for assistance in relation to them, our Consuls in this country will not be exercising functions to which your Government would take exception.
Believe me [etc.]