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Naval History and Heritage Command

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States to the Court of St. James’s John Hay to Secretary of State John Sherman

American Embassy,           

London, April 18, 1898. 

Sir: There is a good deal of discussion here, both in public and in private, in relation to the effect upon the rights and interests of neutrals at sea of hostilities between the United States and Spain. I sent you on the 16th of April, in my dispatch No. 356, a letter addressed to the Times1 by Sir George Baden-Powell, a prominent representative of the shipping interests of England in the House of Commons, in which he proposed, in the event of either belligerent employing privateers, to treat such vessels as pirates. This proposition has been met, as was natural to expect, by earnest protests on every hand. I inclose herewith two letters taken from the Times of this morning, one written by Prof. T.E. Holland2 and the other by Sir Sherston Baker, both gentlemen of much authority on international law. In the first of these letters the proposal of Sir George Baden-Powell is characterized as “an inadmissible atrocity,” and in the second as “an uncivilized act, subversive of one of the clearest and best defined rules of international law.” I also inclose a leading article from the Times referring to these letters and intimating that the action of belligerents may be influenced by a timely assertion by the neutral powers of the rights enjoyed by them since 1856.3

     I may add that I received yesterday a visit from a member of Parliament, who is greatly interested in matters of maritime law, who most earnestly expressed the hope that the United States would not, in the present juncture, adhere to the treaty of Paris and thus tie their hands permanently from the employment of privateers, a step which he thought was a great mistake on the part of Great Britain in 1856. We might of course, for sufficient reasons, waive our right to fit out privateers, and our equally undoubted rights of visitation and search without entering into any engagement which should make such waiver binding against us in the future.4 I have, etc.,

John Hay     

Source Note Print: FRUS, pp. 970-71. Document reference no.: “358.”

Footnote 1: The Times of London.

Footnote 2: Thomas Erskine Holland.

Footnote 3: The 1856 Paris Declaration respecting Maritime Law. Both the United States and Spain agreed (but did not sign) to the provisions of the treaty except for the first, i.e., barring the use of privateers. Núñez, The Spanish American War, Blockades and Coastal Defense, 19.

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