811.0141 SW/2–1149

Memorandum by Mr. Gordon S. Reid of the Division of Central America and Panama Affairs 1

The Embassy of Honduras on December 16 presented a note reaffirming its sovereignty over the Swan Islands. The note is 54 pages long, and I will make no attempt to cover all of the points but rather shall present a bare outline.

First of all, the Hondurans set forth, as they have in the past, that Honduras as the heir of certain property of Spain and the Federation of Central America inherited the Swan Islands. To substantiate that statement they quote various geographers and in fact give a summary of Columbus’ fourth voyage. They next take issue with the various statements made by this Department that an American discovered the Islands and point out that Columbus or one of his men must have been the discoverers though there is no actual proof advanced.

Secondly, the Embassy points out that in the Department’s note of August 12, 1940 it was stated that there was no evidence that Spain had ever taken possession of the Islands; and they state that while it is true that no Islands known as the Swans were possessed, two Islands under other names but in the exact geographic position were possessed by Spain. (The note also gives the interesting information that the English name for the Islands came from an English sea captain named Swans, a pirate who had at one time dominated the Caribbean.)

Thirdly, the Embassy attempts to refute the Department’s note of 1940 on the question of whether old maps and charts have a bearing on sovereignty. In this connection, they cite a statement made by former Secretary of State, Mr. Upshur,2 which may prove to be embarrassing to the Department.

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Fourthly, it asserts that the Islands belonged to the Province of Honduras during the colonial period, and, therefore, their rights are inherent and that in no time in their history have they offered to give up dominion or sovereignty over the Islands and there are pages and pages of quotes from various Spanish historians and geographers upholding the theory of hydrographic contiguity which I found to be one of the most fascinating theories yet advanced. It is based on the idea that Islands adjacent to the northern coast of Honduras, whether discovered or not, are necessarily contiguous to the mainland and, therefore, Honduran territory. A review is made of the Mosquito Islands and the fact that the British were finally forced to give up those Islands, but they point out that the British had never claimed the Swans and that neither had the United States implied that the Swans were anything but Honduran territory in negotiating the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty.3

Fifthly, the Honduran note spends approximately 12 pages attempting to refute the precedents cited by the United States Government in its note of 1940. This is so detailed that I am making no attempt to report it or to brief it.

Finally, the Honduran note sets forth the fact that on July 24, 1946 the United States Government issued and published an authorization for the United States Secretary of Agriculture to establish and maintain an international quarantine station for livestock on the Swan Islands. The Government of Honduras thereupon formally protested this action on the ground that it is “wholly contrary to the rights of dominion and possession of Honduras over the Swan Islands”. The note ends with the request and the hope that this Government will find itself in a position to dispel all doubts as regards the Honduran titles of sovereignty, dominion and legal possession in the repeatedly mentioned Swan Islands.4

  1. Addressed to the Director (Daniels) and the Deputy Director (Woodward), Office of American Republic Affairs, and to the Chief, Division of Central America and Panama Affairs (Barber); a copy, also, to the Ambassador in Honduras (Bursley).
  2. Abel Parker Upshur, Secretary of State, 1843–1844.
  3. For convention between the United States and Great Britain as to the shipcanal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, concluded at Washington, April 19, 1850, see Malloy, Treaties, Conventions, etc., vol. i, p. 659.
  4. Marginal note by the Chief, Division of Central America and Panama Affairs (Barber): “LE is working on the answer. W. F. B.”