The Under Secretary of State (Welles) to the Attorney General (Cummings)

My Dear Mr. Attorney General: In pursuance of our conversation over the telephone yesterday, I take pleasure in enclosing a brief memorandum outlining the background and the salient features of the Beagle Channel islands controversy between Argentina and Chile.

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I am gratified that you have accepted this exacting task. It is needless for me to assure you that the full assistance of this Department is at your complete disposal and I shall be most pleased to assist you in collecting publications, data and maps that you may require.

Believe me, with kindest regards as always,

Sincerely yours,

Sumner Welles

Memorandum on the Beagle Channel Islands Controversy Between Argentina and Chile

In 1881, Chile and Argentina undertook to fix their boundary through a treaty signed in Buenos Aires on July 23. Article 3 of the Chilean-Argentine Commercial Treaty of July 23, 1881, which delimits the boundary in the region of Tierra del Fuego, reads as follows:

“In Tierra del Fuego a line shall be traced, starting from the point named Holy Spirit Cape (Cabo del Espíritu Santo) in latitude 52°40′ shall be prolonged toward the south coinciding with the western meridian of Greenwich 68°34’ until it touches the Beagle Channel. Tierra del Fuego divided in this manner shall be Chilean in the western part and Argentine in the eastern part. With respect to the islands there shall belong to the Argentine Republic the Islands of States (Islas de Los Estados), the islets in its immediate neighborhood, and the other islands which may be in the Atlantic to the East of Tierra del Fuego and the eastern coasts of Patagonia; and there shall belong to Chile all the islands south of the Beagle Channel to Cape Horn and those which may be to the west of Tierra del Fuego.” [Foreign Relations, 1881, p. 12.]5

In delimiting the boundary in the region of Tierra del Fuego, the Governments of Chile and Argentina were largely guided by the charts of the British Admiralty, the most authoritative being the 1887 edition of Map No. 1373 and the seventh edition of the Pilot of South America of 1875. The genesis of the current controversy over the ownership of the islands south of the Beagle Channel is in what constitutes the Beagle Channel.

This long-standing boundary controversy with regard to the Beagle Channel islands is far out of proportion to any possible economic and military value which these islands may possess. The Geographical Review (Vol. 5, 1918, pages 146–147) in commenting on this controversy mentions that, “Two diminutive islands, almost unknown to [Page 213] geographers, navigators, or traders, have brought up a new boundary discussion…6 The islands in question are inhabited only by a few Indians. White settlements have been attempted at various times but without success. The resources are meagre, consisting of a small amount of timber and some fair grazing land. It was upon the Tierra del Fuego coast near here that Allen Gardiner and his party of English missionaries starved to death in 1850…6 It is possible but not probable that the islands may come to have strategic importance”.

Argentine Position

It seems that for some years following the treaty, Argentina raised no special question with regard to the islands at the mouth of the Beagle Channel. As a result of certain hydrographic surveys of the channels which flow around the island of Picton, the Argentine Government later raised the questions of whether the opening lay to the astronomical or the magnetic north of Lennox Island, and that the proper ownership of the islands south of this channel should be based upon a determination of the principal axis (eje) of the channel.

The first attempt to question Chile’s claim occurred in 1891 when an Argentine geographer published a map in which the Beagle Channel was indicated as bending to the south where it intersects the meridian 65° 10’. A little later another Argentine assigned the name of Moat Channel to the waters flowing to the northwest of Picton Island between the island and the mainland of Tierra del Fuego and placed the main course of the Beagle Channel southeast and around the south of Picton Island. The most extreme position taken by Argentina assigned the point where the meridian 67° 15’ intersects the Beagle Channel as its true mouth.

The Argentine position has been presented in the Derrotero del Canal de Beagle, published by the Sección Hidrográfica del Ministerio de Marina [Buenos Aires, 1901] in Memoria de los Trabajos Effectuados en el Canal Beagle, 1899–1900, by the same Department [Buenos Aires, 1912], and in a series of editorials in La Prensa of Buenos Aires in January and February, 1915, by Dr. Estanislao S. Zeballos.

Chilean Position

The Chilean Government is reported to have exercised limited jurisdiction and sovereignty over the islands in dispute periodically since the Treaty of 1881. Chile’s claim is defended by J. Guillermo Guerra, Professor of International Law in the University of Chile, in his La soberanía Chilena en las islas al sur del Canal Beagle, Santiago, 1917.

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“Pacto Adicional” of 1893

In carrying out the Treaty of 1881, it soon became apparent to the boundary commissioners that delimiting the line following the highest crest created the possibility that where deep indentations cut into the mountains Argentina might be found in possession of points on the Pacific encircled by Chilean territory. To avoid such awkward salients, Article 2 of the “Pacto Adicional”, ratified December 21, 1893, states that, “…7 the sovereignty of each state over the respective littoral is absolute, to such an extent that Chile cannot claim any point on [hacia] the Atlantic nor can the Argentine claim any on the Pacific.” The boundary commission considered it so important to stick rigidly to this principle that in setting the boundary in Tierra del Fuego the meridian south from Cape Espíritu Santo was deliberately dropped over about a mile and a half west of the true meridian designated in the treaty. This was done to prevent the possibility of the boundary line cutting through the Bay of San Sebastian and thus giving Chile a port on the Atlantic. [La soberanía Chilena en las islas al sur del Canal Beagle, by Guerra, p. 263.] [In discussing the question of the boundaries of oceans, the Geographer of the Department referred to an unofficial exposition of this matter in a special publication of the International Hydrographic Bureau at Monaco, entitled Limits of the Oceans and Seas, August 1928.]

Protocol of 1915.

The differing views of the two governments with respect to the islands at the eastern end of Beagle Channel were brought out in the open in 1915 as the result of the publication of a decree of the Chilean Government, dated December 15, 1914, on the subject of the jurisdiction and neutrality of the Straits of Magellan and the southern channels. This led to the signing of a protocol dated June 28, 1915,8 providing for the arbitration of the matter by the King of England. It appears that the British Government was willing for the King to act as soon as the World War was over and the agreement to refer the question to him was filed to await the end of the war. Since 1915 the matter has been apparently dormant, as there is practically nothing in the Department’s files.

The Geographer of the Department reports that an examination of the maps on file in the Department shows the following result:

1. Chilean maps examined show islands as being under Chilean sovereignty.

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2. Argentine maps examined mostly show islands as Argentinian, but some show Isla Picton and Isla Nueva as Argentinian, and Isla Lennox as Chilean, e. g., Argentine railroad map, 1933, sheet 5, filed as:

  • 784 gme
  • 1933A
  • Sheet 5

One Argentine map of Tierra del Fuego shows all 3 as Chilean. Filed as:

  • 784.68a
  • 1928K

Also an Argentine map of Argentina showing economic information:

  • 784g
  • 1929A

3. A map of Argentina & Chile boundaries, 1902, printed in Paris, shows “line acc. to Act of Oct. 1, 1898” putting I. Lennox on Chilean side, and I. Picton & I. Nueva on Argentinian side. Filed as:

  • 784fabc
  • 1902

The map of Tierra del Fuego, provisional edition S. N. 19, of the American Geographical Society of New York, is the best available in the Department for the area in dispute. This map shows the portion of the boundary definitely delimited and the portions in dispute as well as the various alleged courses of the Beagle Channel. A photostat of this map may be readily made in the Geographer’s Office.

  1. Brackets throughout this document appear in the original.
  2. Omission indicated in the original memorandum.
  3. Omission indicated in the original memorandum.
  4. Omission indicated in the original memorandum.
  5. Convention to submit to the arbitration of the King of England the sovereignty of islands in the Beagle Channel, signed at Buenos Aires, June 28, 1915, Argentina, Memoria del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (1915–1916), pp. 75–76.