The Belgian Ambassador ( Vander Straten-Ponthoz ) to the Secretary of State

No. 216

Sir: Under date of November 27th 1940, I had the honor to address to the Department of State a memorandum1 with respect to the requisitioning by the Belgian Government of four tankers registered under the Belgian flag and belonging to the Belgian Gulf Oil Company, S. A., a Belgian company, a subsidiary of Gulf Oil Corporation of Pennsylvania, and the subsequent attempt by Gulf Oil Corporation to effect the same [sale] and transfer of these vessels to Gulf Oil Corporation and the transfer thereof to Panamanian flag and registry.

My Government attaches a deep importance to this matter. It involves the attempt by an American corporation within American jurisdiction to effect the sale and change the registry of a vessel flying the Belgian flag and under requisition of the Belgian Government without the required consent of the Belgian Government, which is a flagrant violation of Belgian law. This was done at a time when Belgium was at war and facing a great national emergency. Accordingly, I wish to lay before Your Excellency in somewhat greater detail than I was able to do at the time of addressing the memorandum mentioned above, what my Government considers to be the pertinent facts of this matter.

Shortly after the invasion of Belgium, the Belgian Government, then still at Brussels, acting under legislation specifically providing for the requisition in time of war of vessels flying the Belgian flag, namely the Law of May 12, 1927 and Royal Decree of May 3rd, 1939, took action for the requisition of its entire merchant marine in aid of the more effective prosecution of the war against Germany. Instructions to this effect were telephoned from Brussels on May 17, 1940 by the Director General of the Marine,2 acting also on behalf of the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Communications, to the Belgian [Page 2] Embassy in London, this being at the moment the only means of communicating from Brussels with the outside world. The Ambassador3 was instructed to communicate the requisition instructions, as transmitted to him, to the various diplomatic and consular officials of Belgium abroad. Such action was promptly taken by the Belgian Ambassador and the Belgian Government requisitioned, as provided for by Belgian law, through its Consuls, among other vessels, four tankers belonging to Belgian Gulf Oil Company, S. A., as follows: The motor tanker Belgian Gulf at Philadelphia on May 20, 1940; the motor tanker Good Gulf at New York on June 3, 1940; the motor tanker Spidoleine at London on June 5, 1940; and the motor tanker Lubrafol at New York on June 7, 1940.

Under date of June 27, 1940, Gulf Oil Corporation was notified of the action taken and that all future voyages of the vessels would have to be submitted for prior approval to the Belgian authorities in London. This communication was acknowledged by Mr. B. P. Newton of Gulf Oil Corporation who was both a Vice-President of that Corporation and Managing Director of Belgian Gulf Oil Company, S. A. Thereafter, on July 17, 1940, pending arrangements for the effective employment of these vessels in war service and in order to prevent hardship to the owners, the Belgian Government granted a temporary four months’ license to certain owners of Belgian tankers which remained under requisition (such license including the four tankers referred to above), to operate the said tankers for their own account between any country of North, South or Central America, with the exception of Mexico, subject to due notification to the Belgian authorities at London with respect to each trip undertaken. During this period, the officials of Gulf Oil Corporation and Belgian Gulf Oil Company, S. A., complied with the various requirements of the Belgian Government, sought and received permission to make the permitted voyages, acquiesced in the requisition of their vessels, and acted under the license given to them for such purpose. In fact, in a telegram which the Belgian authorities in London received under date of August 2nd, 1940, from Mr. B. P. Newton, whom we have mentioned above, Mr. Newton stated:

“Have decided not to insure against war risks tankers belonging our company and trading western hemisphere. We hold Belgian State who has requisitioned these tankers released from all responsibility as far as war risks insurance is concerned. Marine risks covered by us.”

Under date of January 20, 1940, the Belgian Government entered into an arrangement with the British Ministry of Shipping to charter to the latter all Belgian tonnage in order that such tonnage might be [Page 3] effectively used in the prosecution of the war in which the two countries were engaged against Germany. Accordingly, notification was given to the officials of Gulf Oil Corporation at the end of October 1940 that upon the termination of the four months’ license referred to above, the operation of the four tankers belonging to Belgian Gulf Oil Company, S. A. would be taken over by the Belgian Government and the ships would be chartered to the British Ministry of Shipping. The answer received by the Belgian Government to this communication was a notification to Captain Boel, Chief of the Belgian Economic Mission in London, who was then in New York, dated November 15, 1940, signed by Mr. B. P. Newton, abruptly stating that the latter Company had “sold the four steel motor tank ships, namely, the Spidoleine, Good Gulf, Belgian Gulf and Lubrafol, to Gulf Oil Corporation some time ago and I understand that Gulf Oil Corporation has registered them under the Panama flag.”

This letter followed, as I have indicated above, months of correspondence between the officials of Gulf Oil Corporation and the Belgian authorities in this country and in London in which the former had indicated complete acquiescence in the requisition and evidenced every willingness to cooperate with the Belgian Government.

Belgian Gulf Oil Company, S. A. and the officials of the Gulf Oil Corporation were, of course, well aware of the fact that under Belgian law, to which Belgian Gulf Oil Company S. A. was subject, the sale and transfer of a Belgian vessel, even apart from the question of the requisition by the Belgian Government, was then prohibited without the approval of the Belgian Government. In fact, in a previous case relating to another tanker in which the Gulf Oil Corporation was interested, they had sought such approval and they had also made inquiry of the Belgian Consulate in New York on the very subject and had been informed that the approval of the Belgian Government was a requisite to such transfer. Such a restriction on the transfer of vessels is furthermore a usual provision of the laws of maritime countries, including the United States with which the Gulf Oil Company must of course be familiar.

With minor exceptions, the entire Belgian merchant marine has been requisitioned for war purposes by the Government of the Kingdom of Belgium in the exercise of its sovereign rights and devoted to the task of the preservation of the country’s life as a nation.

Under Belgian law, the sale and transfer of vessels without the consent of the Belgian Government is null and void. My Government has not consented to the sale and transfer of these four vessels nor has its consent been requested. They, consequently, remain Belgian vessels under requisition of the Belgian Government and should be recognized as such under Belgian law, international law and practice [Page 4] under the terms of Article 9 of the Treaty of March 8th, 1875 between the United States and Belgium,4 which reads as follows:

“The high contracting parties agree to consider and to treat as Belgian vessels and as vessels of the United States, all those which being provided by the competent authority, with a passport, sea letter or any other sufficient document, shall be recognized, conformably with existing laws, as national vessels in the country to which they respectively belong.”

I avail myself [etc.]

Van der Straten Ponthoz
  1. Not printed.
  2. H. De Vos.
  3. Baron de Cartier de Marchienne.
  4. William M. Malloy (ed.), Treaties, Conventions, etc., Between the United States of America and Other Powers, 1776–1909 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1910), vol. i, p. 90.