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The history of the Alabama claims


The Alabama Claims: Grounds of Complaint alleged by the United States against Great Britain: - 1. The Recognition of the Belligerent Rights of the South by this Country: This no just cause of Complaint. - 2. Proceedings in Violation of Neutrality - The Case of the Alabama - That of the Florida: History of this Cruiser: She is Built and Armed within British Jurisdiction: Captain Hickley's Report: Judicial Inquiry at Nassau: The Florida is Released: Is allowed to take in an excessive Supply of Coal: British Regulations of January, 1862: She is allowed to Coal again at Barbadoes: Termination of her Career - Case of the Shenandoah: Built in British and Armed in Portuguese Waters: Arrives at Melbourne: Account of her Proceedings there: Honest Endeavours of the Colonial Government to observe Neutrality: Her Commander succeeds in Enlisting a number of British Subjects at Melbourne: The Melbourne Government not in fault: Letter of Sir Charles Darling to the other Australian Governments: Supply of Coals to the Shenandoah: Her Cruise in the Arctic Seas: Returns to Liverpool and Surrenders to the British Government - Cases of the Sumter, Georgia, Nashville, Chickamanga, Tallahassee, and Retribution - Friendly Acts - Seizure of the Alexandra, and Detention of the Ironclads. - 3. Charge of General Unfriendliness: Refuted. - II. Negotiations previous to 1871: Lord Russell: Lord Stanley and Reverdy Johnson: Convention Rejected: Mr. Sumner: Negotiations between Mr. Fish and Lord Clarendon.
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The year 1871 witnessed the re-discussion and reference to international arbitration of those claims, generically known as the " Alabama claims," which, since the close of the American civil war, had troubled and embarrassed the relations between Great Britain and the United States. This result was obtained by the Treaty of Washington, concluded on May 8, 1871. Brief allusion has been made more than once in these pages to the state of feeling which prevailed in the United States, after the suppression of the South, with reference to the mode in which Great Britain had maintained her neutrality during the struggle, as also to previous endeavours to settle the matters in debate by negotiation. We have, however, thought it desirable to reserve for the present occasion a full and connected account (1) of those proceedings on the part of the British Government, British officials, and British subjects, which originally gave umbrage to the Government and people of the United States; (2) of the representations and negotiations with reference to these proceedings which bear date earlier than 1871; (3) of the negotiation of 1871, and the treaty resulting from it; (4) of the final decision given by the tribunal of arbitration, constituted at Geneva in pursuance of that treaty.

I. The proceedings on the part of Great Britain which were complained of by the United States were of a threefold character. The original offence, and, perhaps, the greatest of all in American estimation, was the concession of belligerent rights by this country to the Confederate States, by the Queen's proclamation of the 14th May, 1861. The second class of grievances consisted of alleged breaches of neutrality, whereby Great Britain was said to have allowed her agents and private citizens to neglect the duties, and transgress the limits, which are prescribed by international law as binding upon neutrals, and distinctly set forth in most cases by British statute law or governmental regulation. The third class of grievances comprised an alleged general spirit of unfriendliness, frequently exhibiting itself in particular acts of harshness or discourtesy, a hostile animus - a disposition to deal strictly with Federal, and leniently with Confederate officers - by which the exhausting and almost super-human efforts of the United States to preserve their national integrity were said to have been met by the agents and citizens of Great Britain. These complaints we shall consider seriatim, in the order in which we have named them.

1. With regard to the recognition of Southern belligerency, we must refer the reader to what we said on the subject in a previous chapter. It is natural that the Northern Americans - looking at the strife between them and the Southern States solely from their own point of view; persuaded that all right was with them, and all wrong with their opponents; that truth, virtue, freedom, and the progress of the species were bound up with their success, and would collapse or be eclipsed on their failure - should be both grieved and indignant that Great Britain, declining to look at the Southern States through their coloured glasses, should see in them only a large and civilised population, organised both for war and peace, which appeared determined, according to all the evidence that was obtainable, to suffer any extremity rather than submit to re-union to the Federal system of the Union, from which it had de facto seceded. Judging the quarrel from American principles only, we could not see how, if the South in the " pursuit of happiness " considered secession to be necessary to its welfare, the North could consistently hold them guilty of a heinous crime. To come to the actual date and circumstances of the recognition complained of, Mr. Lincoln, then President of the United States, had issued a proclamation on the 19th April, 1861 (nearly a month before the publication of the British proclamation of neutrality), declaring that he had thought it desirable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the states which had seceded " in pursuance of the laws of the United States and of the Law of Nations in such case provided" The words printed in italics are enough of themselves to prove that the Government of the United States did in fact recognise the Confederate States as a belligerent Power before a similar recognition was made by Great Britain. For the " Law of Nations " regulating blockades is solely applicable to cases of belligerency; when Mr. Lincoln appealed, therefore, to that law, he did what was equivalent to conceding belligerent rights. A decision pronounced on the 17th June, 1861, by the Judge of the District Court for the United States for the district of Columbia, bears out this view. After reciting the various acts and menaces alleged by the President, in justification of his calling out 75,000 militia, and laying the Southern ports under a blockade, the decision proceeds: " These facts, so set forth by the President, with the assertion of the right of blockade, amount to a declaration that civil war exists. Blockade itself is a belligerent right, and can only legally have place in a state of war; and the notorious fact that immense armies in our immediate view are in hostile array against each other in the Federal and Confederate States, the latter having organised a Government, and elected officers to administer it, attests the executive declaration that civil war exists; a sad war, which, if it must go on, can only be governed by the laws of war, and its evils mitigated by the principles of clemency engrafted upon the war code by the civilisation of modern times." f In a debate in the House of Lords, in the course of the session of 1868, Lord Cairns justly said that the United States had recognised the Southern States as belligerents long before England did; and that if they denied this, and would not admit the existence of a state of war, then England had heavy claims against them for seizing and condemning English ships for attempting to break the blockade, such seizure being only justified by the fact of war. The question is indeed not worth arguing in fuller detail. We may feel certain that the judgment of posterity will decide that the conduct of England in regard to the recognition of Southern belligerency was both equitable and considerate; and that our Northern friends, when time has calmed the susceptibilities which the war aroused, will themselves acquit us of blame.

In the award published by the Geneva tribunal there is not one word tending to show that the arbitrators were of opinion, much as the unfriendly character of the proclamation referred to was insisted on in the " case " submitted by the United States, that in this respect Great Britain had departed in the slightest degree from the obligations of a strict and impartial neutrality.

2. We must now examine those proceedings, on the part of British subjects, or agents of the British Government, occurring during the continuance of the civil war, which were complained of by the United States as constituting breaches or abuses of British neutrality. But a useful distinction may here be drawn. Out of a long list of vessels, said to have been built or adapted for warlike purposes in some British port, and issuing from thence to have made havoc of American commerce, there were but three - the Florida, the Alabama, and the Shenandoah - in regard to which Great Britain was adjudged by the Geneva tribunal of arbitration to have failed to discharge the duties of a neutral Power. For the depredations of four other vessels # the tribunal does indeed hold Great Britain responsible; but it is not because any one in this country had any concern whatever in their building or equipment, but because they were employed as tenders to the Alabama and Florida; and on the principle that " Qui facit per alium, facit per se," the acts of the tenders must be ascribed to and estimated in connection with the acts of their principals. As to the Georgia, Sumter, Nashville, Chickamauga, Tallahassee, and Retribution, the proceedings and history of which had furnished the managers of the American case with abundant materials for impugning the fairness of the British Government, the Geneva tribunal found (in most cases by a large, and in the rest by a narrow majority) that England was free from all blame respecting them. Keeping this distinction in view, we propose to narrate in some detail the cases of the vessels in respect to which the adverse award of the tribunal was pronounced, but to dismiss the rest with the briefest possible notice.

Of the circumstances attending the building of the Alabama at Birkenhead, and her escape from the port of Liverpool, we have already given an account, to which we refer the reader. That the bungling and dilatoriness of the Government officials on that occasion, in permitting the Alabama to escape, or not seizing her while she lay off the Welsh coast, furnished the United States with a good and valid claim to an indemnity for the devastation which she afterwards committed upon their mercantile marine, no fair and reasonable inquirer will dispute. The British arbitrator at Geneva, Lord Chief Justice Cockburn, himself admitted the liability of Great Britain for having permitted the escape of the Alabama, though it was upon somewhat different grounds, and to a more limited extent, than appeared right to his brother arbitrators.

The next case to which our attention is directed is that of the Florida. The framer of the American " Case," for submission to the arbitrators, has related the history of this vessel with considerable heat and asperity, not, we must own, without much reason. For although, in the counter-statements put forth on behalf of Great Britain, certain errors and exaggerations on minor points were brought home to the American case, yet, in its broad outlines, their statement remained unshaken; and the infractions of our neutrality thus established were, it cannot be denied, gross and indefensible.

The Florida, originally known as the Oreto, was an iron screw gun-boat of about 700 tons burden, three- masted, and barque-rigged. She was built by the firm of Miller and Sons, Liverpool, to the order of Messrs. Fawcett, Preston, and Co., also of Liverpool. It is stated in the American case that the contract for her construction was made with the Messrs. Fawcett by Captain Bullock, a Confederate agent, late an officer in the United States navy, who was introduced to them by a Mr. Prioleau, well known in Liverpool as a member of the firm of Fraser, Trenholm, and Co., the financial connection of which with the Confederate Government was notorious.' All this is very likely to be true, and, if true, it seriously implicates the Messrs. Fawcett in the offence of levying private war against a friendly nation, with which the state to which they belonged was at peace. But these facts were evidently unknown to the British Government at the time, nor were there any obvious means by which they should have attained to the knowledge of them. The vessel was being built by one firm, and to the order of another, neither of which bore names that would naturally awaken suspicion, since neither was connected with Confederate trade and adventure. But the vigilance of the American Consul at Liverpool, Mr. Dudley, was not easily to be cheated, and hints as to the character of the Oreto, and her supposed warlike destination, reached his ears. It was given out that she was being built for the Italian Government; but when Mr. Dudley questioned the Italian Consul as to this, the latter replied that he knew nothing about her; and this was confirmed when the matter was referred to the Italian Government. Mr. Dudley then, in February, 1862, wrote to Mr. Adams, the American Minister, a full statement of what he knew and what he suspected. Mr. Adams immediately wrote to Earl Russell, then our Foreign Minister, urgently requesting him to inquire into the character of the vessel, and prevent her from leaving Liverpool, should Mr. Dudley's suspicion that she was intended for a Confederate cruiser be confirmed. Lord Russell referred the matter promptly to the Treasury, by which it was placed in the hands of the Commissioners of Customs. The commissioners reported (February 22) that they had caused an inquiry to be made, and found that the Oreto was pierced for four guns, though at present she had nothing in her but coals and ballast. They added, " She is not at present fitted for the reception of guns." It seems to have been a mistake to make such an inquiry through the Board of Customs, and not through the Admiralty, one main point to be decided being whether the vessel was built for the purposes of war or not; for the experienced eye of a naval captain would - as is proved by the statement of Captain Hickley, presently to be noticed - at once have perceived that she was in every point of her construction like a British gun-boat. It was further stated by the Commissioners of Customs that the Oreto was owned, they found, by Messrs. Thomas, Brothers, of Palermo, and that their collector at Liverpool informed them that "he had every reason to believe that the vessel was for the Italian Government." This array of testimony, as the result proved, was completely delusive; and since, after all, the Oreto was intended for the Confederate service, it is difficult to understand why the Board of Customs could not, by the exercise of a little more zeal and intelligence, have made out as much or more about her than had been ascertained by Mr. Dudley. However, Lord Russell could not but be guided in the matter by the result of the official inquiries which he had ordered; and the Oreto was, consequently, allowed (March 22) to leave Liverpool, clearing for Palermo and Jamaica in ballast.

So far, although the English officials may perhaps be chargeable with slight errors of judgment, no want of that " due diligence " which, according to the Treaty of Washington, a neutral Power is bound to exercise can fairly be imputed to the British Government.

About the same time that the Oreto took her departure from Liverpool, a steamer named the Bahama, laden with the guns, shells, and other military stores that were to form the warlike equipment of the new cruiser, cleared at Hartlepool for Nassau. The Oreto, which now that she has got fairly to sea we may call by her true name of the Florida, arrived at Nassau, the chief town of the colony of New Providence, one of the Bahama islands, on the 28th April. The Bahama had come into port a few days before her. Both vessels then went down to a place called Cochrane's Anchorage, about fifteen miles from Nassau, and remained there several weeks, during which time their proceedings seem to have been so closely watched by the commanding naval officer on the station, that little or no progress could be made in arming the Florida. The proceedings of the Governor of the colony were indicative of vacillation. On the one hand, the whole civil population of Nassau, including even the Attorney-General of the colony, were warmly attached to the cause of the Confederates; on the other hand, the British naval officers kept urging the Governor to execute his instructions strictly, and not allow British neutrality or hospitality to be abused. Under these opposing pressures, the Governor first, on the 7th June, caused the Florida and Bahama to be arrested and brought up to Nassau; a day or two afterwards he released them. Again, on the 16th and 17th June, first on the representation of some of the sailors of the Florida, who complained that they were being embarked on a different destination from that which they had shipped for, and afterwards by the renewed orders of the Governor, Captain Hickley, of H.M.S. Greyhound, arrested the Florida. A few days before this, Captain Hickley had thought it his duty to examine the vessel, and his report on her condition, dated 13th June, 1862, is so remarkable that we must extract a portion of it.

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Pictures for The history of the Alabama claims

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The Alabama sinking
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