Page images
[ocr errors]

Powers are contending for is evidently laid in the common good of nations, in the ease, safety, convenience, happiness, and prosperity of mankind in general. But we shall see whether obstinacy and fierce passions will at length give way in one instance. At present there is no appearance of it.' In the early days, before France had actually declared war, the views of the Commissioners were more practical. British commerce was suffering greatly from the American privateers; and insurance was so high that British goods could not compete in foreign markets on equal terms with the French and Dutch. Very ingeniously they hit on the expedient of shipping goods abroad in French bottoms; for France then professed neutrality and, still maintaining a show of friendship with England, could not protest. The Americans, in their turn, proposed to counter the practice by acting on the old maritime law, and seizing the enemy's goods on these neutral ships :

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

As we have yet no treaty with France, or any other Power, that gives to free ships the privilege of making free goods, we may weaken that project by taking the goods of the enemy wherever we find them, paying the freight. And it is imagined that the captains of the vessels so freighted may, by a little encouragement, be prevailed on to facilitate the necessary discovery."

The Committee of Foreign Affairs was also much exercised, and instructed the Commissioners to request "that either this commerce should be prohibited, or that the United States be at liberty to search into, and make distinctions between, the bottom and the enemy's property conveyed in that bottom."2

The French, however, disliked search of their ships by Americans, although their own law would have sanctioned it, and the counter-project came to nothing.

1 Commissioners to Committee of Foreign Affairs, September 8, 1777.

* Committee of Foreign Affairs to Commissioners, October 18, 1777.



THE position of England after France and Spain had openly espoused the cause of the American Colonists in 1778 was one of extreme danger. She stood alone in the world facing open enemies and discontented neutrals, with a common bond of grievance, real or imaginary. The question between her and the neutrals entered a phase known as "Armed Neutrality," the principal characteristic of which was the reinforcement of the old claims to free trading by a code of new principles, the manifest tendency of which was to assist the enemy.

When the war broke out in Europe, the trading activities of the neutrals immediately revived; and England was compelled to take the most rigorous measures at sea to prevent cargoes of what she called contraband of war, but the neutrals "innocent " consignments of ships' masts, timber, and naval stores, reaching the French dockyards from the Baltic ports. In 1778 it was well known that great quantities of timber were to be despatched from the Texel. In spite of diplomatic representations the Dutch persisted in despatching it under convoy; it was met in the Channel by seventeen ships-of-the-line, and, after an exchange of broadsides, the Dutch flag was hauled down.

The danger of the position was aggravated by some grievous and unexpected successes obtained by the colonies," which had "given a degree of strength and consistency to their rebellion." The project of an alliance with Russia, often proposed, took a more insistent shape; and Sir James Harris, afterwards first Earl Malmesbury, who had been sent to Petersburg in 1777, received special instructions to propose to the Empress Catherine the conclusion of an offen

sive and defensive alliance. Mr. Wroughton, Minister at Stockholm, and Mr. Morton Eden, Minister at Copenhagen, were instructed to make similar proposals to their respective Courts.

The story of the negotiations with the Empress is an interminable one, and it must be condensed into a short paragraph. The real motive of the proposed alliance was to obtain the assistance of a Russian fleet. The reason put forward was that the interests of Russia and Great Britain in resisting the aggression of the House of Bourbon, and in preserving the peace of Europe, were identical. The proposal, however, excluded Catherine's quarrel with Turkey from the casus fæderis; for commercial reasons Great Britain would not break with the Porte. It was foredoomed to failure, for the Empress would obtain no assistance in the only war in which she was likely to engage on her own account, but would be required to side with Great Britain in the impending struggle with France and Spain, with whom, although she was not on the best terms, she had no definite quarrel. In a friendly memorandum she declined the alliance on these conditions on every occasion when the Ambassador pressed it on her, though in the end the suggestion that Minorca might be ceded to Russia almost altered her resolution.

During these negotiations the Scandinavian Powers were loud in their protests against the British seizure of their ships laden with ships' timber and naval stores consigned to France, and, instigated by de Vergennes, had made overtures to Catherine in 1778 to create a joint fleet for the mutual protection of their commerce. The policy of Versailles was to persuade the neutrals to maintain a "strict neutrality," by which was meant a vigorous defence of their flag. To promote this end the regulation of July 1778 was issued, promising a recognition of "free ships free goods," on condition that the neutrals should compel Great Britain to observe the same principle. In no other way could the timber and stores necessary to maintain the French fleet be obtained.



Meanwhile, the American privateers had been doing much damage on the trade route to Archangel; and Catherine determined to protect Russian commerce, whether it was carried in Russian or neutral ships in the northern sea. The Scandinavian proposal of a joint fleet for mutual protection was rejected, and there was substituted for it a plan of co-operation for individual purposes, each country to protect its own commerce. Catherine's own action had the effect of keeping the northern seas clear of American privateers. This was looked on by de Vergennes as a favour granted to Great Britain; his large plan had miscarried. The first phase of the Armed Neutrality went no further than this. But in due course Russian vessels carrying consignments to France of stores from the French merchants in Russia were seized by the British cruisers; and Catherine requested that special orders should be given that Russian ships should be allowed to pass free. It seems clear that some degree of favour was shown them, but the order for absolute immunity was refused.' Spain also seized enemy goods on neutral ships, declaring that she was compelled to act in the same way as Great Britain.

The seizure by Spain of two Russian ships, bound for Malaga with corn, for an alleged breach of the blockade of Gibraltar, brought matters to a head; and the suggestion of the Scandinavian Powers of an armed neutrality of the Northern Powers suddenly materialised. In March 1780, Catherine issued a Declaration to the three European belligerents, setting out four principles for regulating maritime warfare on which it was her intention to insist.

The Empress dwelt on "the rights of neutrality, and the liberty of universal commerce." Her confidence that her subjects during the war "would peaceably enjoy the fruits of their industry, and the advantages

The instructions to the Fleet did, however, recognise the definition of contraband contained in articles X and XI of our Treaty with Russia of June 20, 1766. (Council Register: 18 Geo. III.).

belonging to a neutral nation" had been misplaced. There had been hindrances to the liberty of trade in general, and to that of Russia in particular. It was Catherine's intention to free that trade by all means compatible with her dignity, and to prevent any future infringements. She therefore "thought it but just to publish to all Europe the principles she means to follow which are the properest to prevent any misunderstandings, or any occurrences that may occasion it." She "finds these principles coincident with the primitive right of nations which every people may reclaim, and which the belligerent Powers cannot invalidate without violating the laws of neutrality, and without disavowing the maxims they have adopted in. the different treaties and public engagements. principles "are reducible to the following points, which are to serve as rules for proceedings and judgments upon the legality of prizes


"First, that all neutral ships may freely navigate from port to port, and on the coasts of nations at war.

Secondly, that the effects belonging to the subjects of the said belligerent Powers shall be free in all neutral vessels, except contraband merchandise.

"Thirdly, that the Empress, as to the specification of the above-mentioned merchandise, holds to what is mentioned in the tenth and eleventh articles of her treaty of commerce with Great Britain, extending these obligations to all the Powers at


"Fourthly, that, to determine what characterises a port blockaded, this is only to be understood of one which is so well kept by the ships of the Power which attacks it, and which keep their places, that it would be dangerous to


In making these points public, the Empress did not hesitate to declare that to maintain them, and to protect the honour of her flag, and the security of the trade and navigation of her subjects, she had put into commission "the greatest part of her maritime forces"; but this would not influence "the strict neutrality she has sacredly observed, and will observe so long as she is not provoked and forced to break the bounds of moderation and perfect impartiality. It is [3477]

E 2

« PreviousContinue »