BC Historical Books

BC Historical Books

BC Historical Books

San Juan, Alaska, and the north-west boundary Dallas, A. G. (Alexander Grant), 1816-1882 1873

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Array Price One Shilling.
While fully accepting the settlement of the San Juan
question as irrevocable, I am induced to endeavour to
clear up, in as few words as possible, the misconceptions by which the case is still surrounded.
If apology were needed for reviving the subject at all,
it must be borne in mind that we are not yet out of the
wood, either in regard to the Haro Strait or the land
and water boundary between our territories and Alaska,
where precisely similar difficulties present themselves,
subject to the same differences of interpretation.
Some vindication of our national character in the eyes
of the world is also imperatively demanded; standing
convicted, as we do, of having so long and persistently
asserted a claim which has been authoritatively decided
against us, while it is but little known that the basis
of our contention had been expressly excluded from
the arbitration.
Our experience in this, as in other questions, revives
the consideration of how far, and under what circumstances, it may be practicable, on the part of the Executive, to consult Parliament before committing the
country to Treaties or Conventions. In this instance,
our  representatives   consented   to   nullify   a   Treaty, A-
which a reference to Parliament would certainly never
have sanctioned.
The importance of the possession of San Juan island,
whether exaggerated or not, must depend upon the
measure of value placed upon it. It is certainly not
worth going to war about, and no reasonable man ever
contemplated such a contingency; but rather than lose
it in the way we have, I submit that it would have been
more consistent with our dignity, and less humiliating
to our pride, to have made the United States Govern--
ment a present of the whole question at issue, than to
have consented to set aside the Treaty, and refer to arbitration two alternative and subordinate propositions, not
even alluded to in it, on conditions almost entailing defeat.
The Treaty of 1846 defined the north-west water
boundary to be "a line drawn from the middle of the
" channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island southerly through the middle of the
" said channel and of Fuca Strait to the ocean."
The Government of that day has been blamed for not
having appended a map or chart to the Treaty. It is a
sufficient reply to this, that there was at that time no
complete chart of the Straits in existence, and that the
words of the Treaty supplied in themselves a perfect
definition. They demanded not necessarily a navigable
ship channel (any more than the land boundary
demanded a road or pathway), but a line of demarcation through the middle of the whole channel separating the continent from Vancouver's Island. Such a
line, including the free navigation of the whole channel
to both parties, would fulfil every condition of this explicit Treaty, which either of the substituted passages,
De Haro and Rosario, fails to do.1
1 Vide opinion of Sir Richard Pakenham, our representative in negotiating
the Treaty of 1846:—" I deny that either can exactly fulfil the conditions Though the existence of the De Haro and Rosario
channels was known to the negotiators of the Treaty
of 1846, yet these* passages were not even alluded to
in that Treaty.
The G-ulf of Georgia and the Strait of De Fuca were
evidently and reasonably treated as one channel, to be
connected by a centre line of demarcation, irrespective of
the more or less navigable and tortuous passages, more or
less known to have existed through the interposing
archipelago. I would here beg to call particular attention
to this argument:—If the line of the water boundary
had been intended to apply to a navigable passage, why
were the words " whole channel" used in securing the
right of free navigation to both parties ? These words are
evidently superfluous if applied to one navigable channel
separating two independent States—such a channel necessarily carrying with it a free right of navigation.
I will not here enter into the reasons why the plain
words and obvious meaning of the Treaty, pointing to the
middle of the space between the continent and Vancouver's Island, throughout the whole length of the line
of water boundary, were departed from, and the De Haro
passage to the extreme left contended for by the
Americans, While we claimed that of Rosario on the
extreme right. Apart from the various arguments
advanced, and not without strong presumptive evidence,
on both sides, it exactly suited the American view of the
case to insist on this departure, as they might win everything on the De Haro standpoint, while they were certain
" of the Treaty, which, according to their literal tenor, should require the
" line to be traced along the middle of the channel (meaning, I presume,
" the whole intervening space) which separates the continent from Vancou-
" ver's Island. And I think I can safely assert that the Treaty of the 15th
"of June, 1846, was signed and ratified without any intimation to us
" whatever, on the part of the United States Government, as to the par-
"ticular direction to be given to the line of boundary contemplated by
"Art. I. of that Treatv." 6
to lose something on the middle ground of the Treaty.
We, on the other hand, reasonably concluded that if
beaten upon the Rosario, we could fall back upon a
middle channel and the express terms of the Treaty.
How we came to grief may be told in a few words.
On the failure of the Commissioners specially appointed by both parties, in 1856, to settle the boundary
on the spot, the Clarendon-Johnson Treaty was negotiated
in 1869. This Treaty, so far as related to the north***
west boundary, was unexceptionable, as it simply
provided for a reference of the Treaty of 1846, in
all its integrity, to arbitration. This, however, did
not suit the views of our astute antagonists, and the
Clarendon-Johnson Treaty was never ratified by the
American Senate.
At the Washington Convention, on March, 15, 1871,
the American Commissioners proposed to abrogate the
Treaty so far as related to the water boundary. This,
after a reference to England, was declined. They how--
ever carried their point by a flank movement in this
wise, viz., by declining to adopt, or even allow the
arbitrators to consider, a channel intermediate between
De Haro and Rosario. To this our Commissioners unaccountably and fatally consented, thus abrogating the
Treaty of 1846. They also allowed that the only
channel open to free navigation, to both parties, should
be the one to be selected by the Arbitrator, though the
Treaty provided that the navigation of the whole channel
and strait south of the 49 th parallel of north latitude
should remain free and open to both parties.1 By this
concession the Rosario Strait would seem to become an
inland water of the United States.
In this Conference the United States Commissioners, as
1 The whole story is told in Blue Book, " North America," No. 3 (1871).
London : Harrison and Son, Pall. Mall (0—346).   Price 2W. fc\
above shown, declined to admit the words of the Treaty
pointing to the middle ground, on the frivolous pretext
that they desired a decision, not a compromise—as if one
did not involve the other ; while, with the same breath,
in rejecting the Treaty, they actually substituted a compromise. It is unaccountable that we did not avail
.ourselves of the opportunity, and secure a decision on the
whole Treaty, instead of the fatal compromise.
The question then submitted to arbitration being, not
the Treaty of 1846, but its application to another issue,
and expressly excluding a centre line of demarcation
pointed to in the Treaty, it is no wonder that, in the
absence of satisfactory explanation, a belief has gained
extensive ground, both in this country and the colonies,
that the Island of San Juan was purposely given up with
the view of conciliating America. The only other conclusion we can come to is that we were overreached.
Although the decision of the Emperor of Germany,
even on the point submitted, has been called in
question by high authority,1 it must be borne in
mind that we had the preponderating influence of Mr.
Bancroft, the only survivor of the negotiators of the
Treaty, against us at Berlin. Without questioning the
honesty of his understanding of the meaning of the
Treaty of 1846, it does not follow that the opposing
parties had understood the question in the same light,2
1 See opinion of Professor Cristofo Negri, in Times of November last:—" I
" am able to say that the English are not in the wrong. I have arrived at the
" conviction that at Berlin too complete a victory has been given to the
" Government of the United States. The decision of the umpire has been
" given, and that decision is law, even if it were erroneous. I deplore that it
" should have been rendered improbable that, in international controversies,
" at least in those that do not spring from a mere desire of predominancy,
" recourse will in future be had to the system of arbitration."
s I need only refer to the well-known misunderstandings of "understandings " on the late indirect "Alabama " claims.
Our negotiator, Sir .Richard Pakenham, as already shown, had a totally
different impression from that of Mr. Bancroft as to the Treaty of 1846. ■MMBttBeaeaUa
fortified as they were by the speeches and writings of
contemporary American statesmen and other authorities,1
and by the published American maps of Fremont, Preuss,
and Preston.
The exact words of the award, " am meisten im Emk-
lange" &c„ translated in our Blue Books as "most
approaching the meaning of the Treaty," are perplexing
and apt to mislead, in that they apply an absolute term
to a comparative issue. The award is clearly a decision
upon a comparative and subordinate issue, not an absolute decision upon the whole Treaty, which has never yet
been adjudicated upon.
The people of the Dominion of Canada have been,
almost taunted with putting up so quietly with the loss ;
but it would have been both undignified and unpatriotic
to have done otherwise. It is of course folly to cry over
spilt milk, but it may not be amiss to inquire how the
milk came to be spilt.
We have no ground to flatter ourselves that we have
gained a step in conciliating the Americans, educated as
they have been in the belief that they were contending
for an undoubted right, yielded by us only when it could
be no longer withheld.
It is strange, however, that no account ever appears to
1 Mr. Senator Benton, in his speech of June 18th, 1846, said : " I knew
" the Straits of Fuca, and that these straits formed a natural boundary for
" us, and also divided the continent from the islands, and the fertile from the
" desolate regions. I knew that the continental coast and the inhabitable
" country terminated on the south shore of those straits, and that the north-
" west archipelago—the thousand desolate and volcanic islands, derelict of all
"nations—commenced on their shore ; and I wanted to go no farther than
" the good-land and continental coast went. I was always in favour of a deflec-
" tion of a line through the Straits of Fuca, but I said nothing about it. It
" was a detail, and I confined myself to the proposition of the line as a basis.
" I had expected the deflection to have commenced further back (south) on the
" continent, so as to have kept our line a little farther off from Fort Langley, at
" the mouth of Fraser's River, almost in sight of which it now passes. If
" this had been asked, I, for one, would have been willing to grant it." be taken of the desirability of conciliating the people of
England. We seem to treat the Americans as children
whom it is incumbent on us always to keep in good
humour, while flattering ourselves that we stand on higher
ground. It is not until we come into actual conflict
that we are painfully reminded that the reverse is more
like the truth.
It may not be out of place here to refer to one example.
Under the Nootka Sound Convention of 1790, as well as
in agreement with our treaties with the United States in
1818 and 1828, we were at full liberty to settle upon
any part of the disputed region. In July, 1859, the
island of San Juan—then in the quiet, and almost sole,
occupation of the Hudson Bay Company as a sheep farm,
under a convention with Mr. Marcy, on the part of the
United States, declaring the disputed islands under the
Treaty of 1846 to be neutral ground—was suddenly, and
in defiance of this convention, forcibly taken possession
of, on a frivolous and untenable pretence, by the United
States troops under General Harney. To the wholesome
dread of responsibility, and owing to great forbearance on
the part of our authorities on the spot, it is alone due that
the United States troops were not summarily ejected by
the preponderating British naval force which immediately assembled. From the position thus usurped the
Americans never receded. After the usual war of words
and despatches, we were allowed to land a similar number
of troops on the other side of the island. There they
have remained till within the last month or two, to the
great advantage, no doubt, of the colonists, but at the
cost of the British tax-payer. No reparation was ever
made by the United States Government for this unprovoked outrage.
It is to be hoped that the experience of the past will
enable us to deal more satisfactorily with the still open /*=
question of the boundary between our territories and
Alaska. By the Treaty of 1825 with Russia, this territory, subsequently sold to the United States in 1867, by
Treaty of June 20 in that year, was in neither case more
accurately described in its western boundary, than by a
line to be drawn not more than ten marine leagues from
the coast. The difficulty of determining this line will be
apparent when it is borne in mind that the coast for
600 miles is mountainous and rugged in the extreme,
densely wooded, and intersected by arms of the sea, very
much like the west Highlands of Scotland. Add to this,
that through these thirty miles and along this coast there
are several streams, rising in British territory, through
which, under our Treaty of 1825 with Russia, we possess
the right of navigation.
The Naas River, flowing exclusively through British
territory, is one of the two largest and most important
streams north of Fraser River, and runs into an arm of
the sea separating our territory from Alaska. This arm
is obstructed by islands, offering precisely similar diffi-
culties as in the case of San Juan. They are of little
or no value in themselves, but may command our
access to the Naas River from seaward, and their possession be of great importance to us.
There is no reason, I believe, why these difficulties
should not be amicably settled at Washington or in
London, without the necessity of sending Commissioners
to the spot.
In estimating the value of what we have lost, or may
yet lose or gain, the following opinion, in regard to on
of the finest portions of the American Union, by a
leading London journal, while reviewing a speech of
Lord Aberdeen in support of the Treaty of 1846, may
serve as a caution to writers and speakers ignorant of the
country, and ill-informed on the question in dispute :—
e 11*
"The Oregon Territory (which then included Washington
Territory) is really valueless to England and to America.
The only use of it to America would be to make it an,
addition to territories already far too large for good
government, or even for civilization. The emigrants to
Oregon must pass through thousands of miles of unoccupied land, with a soil and climate far better than they
will find on the shores of the Pacific. And when they
get there, what will be the social state of a few thousand
families, scattered'through a territory more than six times
as large as England, and three thousand miles from the
seat of government X They will mix with the Indians,
and sink into a degraded race of half-caste barbarians.
If she could obtain sovereignty over the whole of the
lands west of the Rocky Mountains to-morrow, every
wise American statesman must wish that the next day
they should sink into the sea."    Verbum sat.
Since writing the above I have been surprised to find, in a pamphlet
just published by Lord Bury, the following remarks, under the head
of " San Juan":—" Whether the decision be or be not satisfactory to
" us, it cannot be laid to the account of the Treaty now under dis-
" cussion." Again : "Serious as may be the results to the Dominion
" of the award given by the Emperor of Germany, it must, I think,
" be conceded that the fortune of the question was neither made
" nor marred by the Treaty of Washington. The High Commis-
" sioners did nothing more than refer the meaning of a former
"Treaty to arbitration."
A reference to Blue Book No. 3, 1871, must, I think, satisfy his
lordship that the fortune of the question was marred by the Treaty
of Washington, and that the High Commissioners did not refer the
meaning of a former Treaty to arbitration.   


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