811.0141 SW 2/172

The Honduran Chargé (Cáceres) to the Secretary of State

No. 85

Excellency: My Government is advised that, on August 24 of the current year, the Navy Department of the United States announced, according to reports which appeared in newspapers of this city, that a meteorological station had been established on the islands known as Swan Islands, off the coast of Honduras, in the Caribbean Sea, the said station being manned by two Navy radio operators and a meteorologist of the respective United States office, and that, according to those same press reports, official statements say that the United States of America claim sovereignty over the said Swan Islands in accordance with an opinion rendered by the Department of Justice in 1925.2

In this connection, and before continuing, I beg Your Excellency to permit me to recall that on December 12, 1935 the undersigned, in the name and representation of his Government, had the honor to submit to Your Excellency a respectful but formal protest3 because the said Swan Islands appeared in No. 130 of the Central American Pilot, Hydrographic Office, Navy Department, as belonging to the United States of America. In the said note of protest of that date I had the honor to express to Your Excellency, as I now have the same honor to do, again, in the name and representation of my Government, that Honduras as a Province under the Captaincy General of Guatemala, existing during the Spanish colonial régime, included the said Swan Islands; that, together with the same, as well as the other adjacent islands of the archipelago which they form, in the Atlantic, and included in the total area of the territory which has constituted it and [Page 651] does constitute it, Honduras came to independence as a State of the Federal Republic of Central America, first, and as a sovereign republic subsequently, the said islands therefore forming part of the territory included under the sovereignty of Honduras. On this historical, geographical and juridical basis, it can be affirmed that the titles of dominion and possession of Honduras over the Swan Islands, as part of the territory composing it, descend from the time immemorial when Spain discovered and took possession of the said islands.

As Your Excellency knows, the said Swan Islands are situated, saving any omission [salvando cualquier omisión], at 17°24′ north latitude and 83°56′ longitude west of the Greenwich meridian, off the coast of Honduras in the Atlantic and form part of the archipelago of Honduras constituted by the Bay Islands, Misteriosa Island, Bajos Island, Viciosas Islands, and others.

The undersigned refrains from mentioning at present, reserving them for another occasion if it should be necessary, an uninterrupted series of acts of jurisdiction and sovereignty exercised over the said Swan Islands, first by Spain, which discovered them, then by the State of Honduras during the life of the Federal Republic of Central America, and finally, by the Republic of Honduras, as a free, sovereign and independent nation.

Furthermore, without wishing to abuse Your Excellency’s attention, permit me to cite, among others, some data to explain and give a basis for the foregoing affirmations.

(a) It is fully known that the sovereignty of Spain over the territory of Honduras, in the Atlantic, began on August 17, 1502, when the immortal discoverer Christopher Columbus took possession of the land of Honduras in the name of the King and Queen of Spain, at Rio Tinto; that the said Swan Islands were discovered prior to the year 1520 by the Spaniards, being situated in the territorial sea of Honduras off Cape Camarón, near the Rio Tinto, therefore remaining, since 1502, under the dominion and possession of Spain like the other islands and possessions of the American continent which it discovered and colonized. (In 1574 those islands still had the name of San Millán which was given them when they were discovered.)

(b) The jurisdiction of the Province of Honduras was delimited by the King of Spain in the Royal Grant (Cédula) of August 23, 1745 and has not been changed subsequently, it being established in the said Grant that that jurisdiction embraces from where the Government of Yucatan terminates to Cape Gracias a Dios, and it is of record in official reports and descriptions of that period that the islands of San Millán or Santanilla, names which the said Swan Islands have borne, remain together with the islands of Guanaja, Roatán, Utila, and others, within the jurisdiction delimited to Honduras by the [Page 652] above-mentioned Grant of August 23, 1745, with which territorial jurisdiction, definitively, Honduras came to independence. (On one of the maps contained in the book of Bryan Edward Squire, published in London in 1793, entitled “The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies”, the Swan Islands are shown thus: Santanilla or Swan Islands.)

(c) On the map and report which the pilot Joaquin del Castillo sent to the President and Captain General of the Kingdom (Reino) in 1776, of the expedition which he made to the coast of Honduras in 1760, it is said that the Santanilla, as he calls the Swan Islands, are distant 38 leagues from Guanaja looking to the east northeast.

The map “The West Indies with the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea”, published in June 1892 by the Hydrographic Office, Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, Washington, D. C., places, like others, the Swan Islands in the territorial sea of Honduras. Also in the book Central America and Mexico Pilot (East Coast), edition of 1920, published by the above-mentioned Hydrographic Office, it is declared that the Swan Islands are situated in the territorial sea of Honduras.

(d) By making reference to the public law of Honduras it would have to be reported that the first political constitution of the Federal Republic of Central America, dictated November 22, 1824, says in Article V: “The territory of the Republic is the same which was formerly included in the old kingdom (Reino) of Guatemala, with the exception of the Province of Chiapas;” and that the constitution of the State of Honduras, within the Federal Republic of Central America, decreed on December 11, 1825, provides that the territory of the State “includes all that belongs and has always belonged to the bishopric of Honduras” which is referred to in the Royal Grant of August 23, 1745, which delimits the jurisdiction of Honduras. The territory, therefore, which belonged, according to this Grant, to the province of Honduras in colonial times became the territory of the State of Honduras, when the independence of the Kingdom (Reino) of Guatemala was proclaimed, and that it afterwards was the territory of Honduras, as a Republic, when it separated from the Federation of Central America, on November 5, 1838. This is what we would call the uti posidetis of 1821, which includes and legitimates the territory with which Honduras began independent existence, and of which, naturally, the Swan Islands, in the Atlantic, form part.

(e) In connection with the foregoing points, Article IV of the first political constitution of the Republic of Honduras, decreed January 11, 1839, reads as follows: “The State of Honduras includes all the territory which in the time of the Spanish Government, was known by the name of Province, circumscribed by the following boundaries: on the west the state of Guatemala; on the south, southeast, and west [Page 653] that of Salvador; on the south by Conchagua inlet in the Pacific Ocean; on the east, southeast and south the state of Nicaragua; on the east, northeast and north, the Atlantic Ocean; and the islands adjacent to its coast in both oceans.” The subsequent political constitutions of Honduras, such as those decreed on February 4, 1848, September 28, 1865, December 23, 1873, contain the same concept or expression of sovereignty over the Swan Islands, the said constitutional provision not having been annulled by any of the fundamental codes which the Republic of Honduras has since decreed.

(f) It would be proper to note, among other acts of jurisdiction, that in March 1861, military authorities from Trujillo sent a commission to reconnoiter the Santanilla Islands, then so called, now Swan Islands, they having been included also subsequently in the decree of the Government of Honduras reorganizing the Department of La Mosquitia, and in the concessions which from 1881 to 1888 were granted by the Government of Honduras to exploit phosphates or any other fertilizing substance existing on the islands, islets and keys of the Atlantic, among which were included, as has been said, the Swan Islands.

(g) It would not be alien to the subject of this exposition to point out that the treaties called the Clayton-Bulwer of 1850,4 concluded between England and the United States, and Wyke-Cruz treaties of 1859,5 between Honduras and England, recognize and confirm the sovereignty of Honduras over La Mosquitia, the Bay Islands, such as Roatán, Bonaca, Utila and the others which form the said archipelago, in which the said Swan Islands are included.

(h) I should not fail to mention that the acts of sovereignty and jurisdiction of Honduras over the said Swan Islands are reaffirmed by administrative provisions passed on the recording of land titles by the Government of Honduras in 1907, in execution of the award of His Majesty the King of Spain of December 23, 1906,6 which set as the boundary between Honduras and Nicaragua the line which is delimited by the site of Teotecacinte according to the demarcation of 1720, the Rio Guineo or Namasli, to its juncture with the Poteca or Bodega, then the latter river to its entry into the Segovia or Coco and afterward the Rio Coco or Segovia to Cape Gracias a Dios, the Swan Islands thus remaining in Honduras, as is understood.

(i) For the purposes of this exposition it would be deemed proper to cite that, on May 27, 1921 the Honorable Chargé d’Affaires of the United States Government in Honduras, Mr. William Spencer, asked the Government of Honduras whether the report was true which his Government had received to the effect that the Governor [Page 654] of the Bay Islands, stationed at Bonaca, was on his way, on May 18, 1921, to the Swan Islands to take possession in the name of the Republic of Honduras and asked, if the said report was true, to be advised what idea of right the Government of Honduras maintained for such action.

The Minister of Foreign Relations replied that in fact the Government of Honduras had decided, as an administrative measure, to send a commission to the said islands, which, he was told: “form part of the territory included under the sovereignty of this Republic” (Honduras).

The foregoing data which prove, among many others which are omitted, the traditional sovereignty, dominion and jurisdiction of Honduras over her islands in the Atlantic Ocean, including the Swan Islands, are found duly amplified in the study which a special commission made on the Swan Islands in virtue of legislative decree of February 23, 1922.

(j) Finally, referring to the view made public that the United States bases its sovereignty over the said Swan Islands on an opinion of the Department of Justice issued in 1925, I would take the liberty to indicate, without desiring to abuse Your Excellency’s recognized kindness, that the Secretary of the Navy expressed the opinion on February 8, 1918 (Op. 216)7 that the United States had not acquired sovereignty of any nature over the said Swan Islands and that the law of August 19 [18], 1856, known as the Guano Island Act,8 which is invoked by the Opinion of 1925, only refers to discoveries of deposits of guano on islands, rocks, promontories, or keys which “are not within lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and are not occupied by the citizens of any other Government”, wherefore, and in view of the facts noted above, the sovereignty of the United States could not be extended over the said Swan Islands.

In virtue of the above, and if the said Swan Islands form part, as they do form part, of the territory included under the sovereignty of Honduras, as is attested by history, geography, and public law of Honduras, in relation with the principles of international law, my Government has given me instructions to submit, as I do herewith, safeguarding the rights of dominion and possession of the Republic of Honduras over the said Swan Islands, a respectful but formal protest on the account of the official statements or declarations which have been made public, that the United States exercises sovereignty over the Swan Islands, and also, and chiefly, on account of there having been established thereon, since August 24 of this year, by acts of [Page 655] the Navy Department, a meteorological station manned by employees of the said Department and of the Meteorological Office of this country.

In conclusion, permit me to cherish the hope that Your Excellency will be good enough to give to this protest, which is necessary and obligatory upon my Government by express mandates in the political constitution of the Republic, the proper and opportune consideration which it requires, not without invoking the conviction in advance that it will not in any way prejudice the cordial relations of friendship which always have existed between Your Excellency’s illustrious Government and that of my country, especially in this hour when solidarity and reciprocal cooperation on the part of the peoples of America are becoming stronger and stronger, and when the principles of justice and right regulate, as can not be otherwise, the acts of their respective Governments.

I take [etc.]

Julián R. Cáceres
  1. Letter from the Attorney General to the Secretary of State, June 24, 1925, ibid., 1927, vol. ii, p. 532.
  2. Ibid., 1935, vol. iv, p. 750.
  3. Signed April 19, 1850, Hunter Miller (ed.), Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, vol. 5, p. 671.
  4. Signed November 28, 1859, British and Foreign State Papers, vol. xlix, p. 13.
  5. Ibid., vol. c, p. 1096.
  6. Reference is apparently to an opinion of the Attorney General to the Secretary of the Navy, 31 Op. Atty. Gen. 216.
  7. 11 Stat. 119.