The Political Writings of Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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F. W. Chesson, ed.
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London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected essays, 1835-1862. First published as a collection in 1867. 4th edition. Includes Preface by Lord Welby; Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet and William Cullen Bryant.
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Volume II, Part IV



LONDON, 10th April, 1862.

MY DEAR SIR,—I avail myself of your kind permission to address you a letter on the present unsatisfactory state of International Maritime Law, as affecting the rights of belligerents and neutrals.


It is not necessary that I should dwell on the particular branch of the subject to which the debate on Mr. Horsfall's motion was, as I venture to think, too exclusively confined, namely, whether private property at sea should be exempted from capture by armed government ships in time of war.


A statement of the simple facts of the case, as they affect British interests, ought to be a sufficient answer to this question, without the necessity of one syllable of discussion. Here is a country, the average value of whose ships and cargoes, afloat, exceeds £100,000,000, which is more than double the amount possessed by any other state. A proposal is made by the United States, with the concurrence of France, Russia, and other countries, to exempt this property from legalised plunder in the event of war. Our merchants and shipowners are, naturally, eager to accept so advantageous an offer, which is, however, rejected by the British Government.


One of the arguments urged by a member of the Cabinet to justify this rejection need not alarm us. It is alleged that such a stipulation would not be respected in time of war. At the worst, this would only leave us where we now are. If, however, an engagement were entered into, by a formal convention of the maritime powers, for insuring the inviolability of private property at sea, it would become a recognised part of international law; and I do not believe that a judge, sitting in any prize court in the civilised world, would afterwards condemn, as legal capture, ships or cargoes seized in violation of that law. Sure I am, at least, that it is the duty of those filling high office in this country to brand with dishonour the violators of such a solemn engagement, and not to seem, in anticipation, to justify, or even palliate, their infamy.


I have had some difficulty in believing in the sincerity of those who, in order to reconcile us to this unequal game of pillage, put forth the argument that it is desirable to subject our shipowners to the penalty of ruin, in the event of war, as the best means of binding the nation over to keep the peace. If a majority of the Cabinet, and of both Houses of Parliament, were composed of shipowners, there might be some consistency in this proposition. But if power and responsibility are to be united in the same hands, there is another body of proprietors whose fortunes might with greater justice be made liable to confiscation in case of war. The argument is, however, unworthy of serious refutation.


Had not some of the opponents of Mr. Horsfall's motion professed to doubt whether the Paris declaration in favour of neutrals was irrevocable, they would obviously have been unable to oppose it. But the Paris Congress of 1856 merely recognised a state of things which, as Mr. Baring remarked, had arisen out of the progress of events; it no more created those events than the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 produced the astronomical laws which rendered that reform in our style necessary; and any attempt of our statesmen, now, to revert to the treatment of neutrals sanctioned by our prize courts in 1810, would place them on a level with those politicians whom Hogarth depicts, in his famous election scene, clamouring to their candidates, "Give us back our eleven days!"


My principal object, however, in writing is to show that the issue raised by Mr. Horsfall's motion, when taken alone, is now of little practical value. The question has assumed larger proportions, owing to the progress of events, and in consequence of the latter proceedings of the United States Government. Th facts of the case, which are not sufficiently known to the public, are as follow:—


In 1856, as you are aware, Mr. Marcy, foreign secretary to President Pierce, when replying to the communication from the Paris Congress, inviting the American Government to adhere to the declaration abolishing privateering, made the memorable counter-proposal to Europe to exempt the private property of belligerents at sea from capture, both by privateers and armed government ships. This offer, as I have stated, was favourably received by France, Russia, and other maritime powers, but met with no encouragement from the British Government.


The election for the Presidency took place in the autumn of 1856, when Mr. Buchanan was chosen the successor to Mr. Pierce. The question of international maritime law now underwent further discussion in America, and it was contended that, in addition to the exemption of private property from capture, when at sea, it should be free from molestation whilst entering or leaving a commercial port; that, in fine, blockades should be restricted to naval arsenals, and towns which were at the same time invested by an army on land. One of the New York journals,*1 the organ of the mercantile body, offered the following as a substitute for the fourth article of the declaration of the Paris Congress:—


"Blockades are henceforth abolished, in regard to all vessels and cargoes engaged in lawful commerce; but they may be enforced as heretofore against vessels having contraband goods on board, and against all Government vessels, whether armed or unarmed." At a subsequent stage of these discussions, President Buchanan addressed a letter to the Chairman of the New York Chamber of Commerce, in which he said: "We must obtain the consent of the powerful naval stations that merchant vessels shall not be blockaded in port, but be suffered to pass the blockading squadron, and go out to sea." The consequence of this state of opinion was that Mr. Dallas, the United States Minister at London, was in 1857 instructed by his Government to suspend the negotiations which he was still attempting to promote, upon the basis of Mr. Marcy's proposition.


Thus the matter remained till the spring of 1859, when, on the breaking out of the war in Italy, a circular dispatch was transmitted from Mr. Cass, President Buchanan's foreign secretary, to the representatives of the United States at the European capitals, suggesting still further reforms in international maritime law. An unsuccessful effort was made by Mr. Lindsay to induce our Government to lay on the table of the House a copy of this document; but the substance of its most important proposal was explained by Lord John Russell, when communicating to the House (February 18, 1861) the particulars of the interview at which Mr. Dallas had read to him as foreign minister, this despatch:—Mr. Cass was represented by his Lordship to have declared that he "considered that the right of blockade, as authorised by the law of nations, was liable to very great abuse; that the only case in which a blockade ought to be permitted was when a land army was besieging a fortified place, and a fleet was employed to blockade it on the other side; but that any attempt to intercept trade by blockade, or to blockade places which were commercial ports, was an abuse of the right that ought not to be permitted." Lord Russell took this opportunity of explaining to the House his reasons for opposing these views of the American Government, and which were in substance the same as those with which Mr. Marcy's proposal had been met—namely, that the system of commercial blockades is essential to the maintenance of our naval supremacy.


These incidents have a most important significance, if viewed in connection with present events. We live in an age of revolutionary transitions, which warn us against too obstinate an adherence to ancient precedent or blind routine. If the proposal of the United States to abolish commercial blockades had been favourably received by the British Government, there can be no doubt, from the known tendency of other maritime powers, that it might have become a part of the law of nations, in which case the commerce between England and the Southern States of the American Union would have been uninterrupted by the present war—for the blockade is acknowledged by Europe only as a belligerent right, and not as an exercise of municipal authority. In justice to the American Government and to prevent any misapprehension of the following statement, I am bound to express the opinion that the closing of the cotton ports is virtually our own act. We have imposed upon ourselves, as neutrals, the privations and sufferings incidental to a commercial blockade, because we assume that we are interested in reserving to ourselves the belligerent right which we now concede to others.


Let us consider, for a moment, whether this policy will bear the test of reason, fact, and experience.


One-third of the inhabitants of these islands, a number equal to the whole population of Great Britain at the commencement of this century, subsist on imported food. No other country contains half as many people as the United Kingdom dependent for subsistence on the produce of foreign lands. The grain of all kinds imported into England in 1861 exceeded in value the whole amount of our imports sixty years ago: and the greater portion of this supply is brought from the two great maritime states, Russia and America, to whom, if to any countries, the belligerent right of blockade must have for us a valuable application. If left to the free operation of nature's laws, this world-wide dependence offers not only the best safeguard against scarcity, but the surest guarantee for regularity of supply; but a people so circumstanced is, beyond all others, interested in removing every human regulation which interferes with the free circulation of the necessaries of life, whether in time of peace or war—for a state of war increases the necessity for insuring the means of feeding and employing the people.


This is, however, a very inadequate view of the subject. For the raw materials of our industry, which are in other words the daily bread of a large portion of our population, we are still more dependent on foreign countries. Of the 3,127,000 bales of cotton exported in the year 1860-61 from the United States, Great Britain received 2,175,000, or 69 per cent. Of the total exports from Russia, of flax, hemp, and codilla, amounting, in 1859, to 282,880,000 lbs., we received 205,344,000 lbs., or 80 per cent. Of the 101,412,000 lbs. of tallow exported from that country, 91,728,000 lbs., or 90 per cent., reached our shores. And of her total exports of 1,026,000 quarters of linseed, we received 679,000, or 67 per cent. If we refer to other maritime States, we find similar results. Of the 134,500,000 lbs. of tea exported last year from China, 90,500,000, or 70 per cent., came to British ports. And of the 2,752,000 lbs. of silk exported from that country we received upwards of 90 per cent. Of the total exports from Brazil, in 1860, of 185,000 bales of cotton, Great Britain received 102,000, or 55 per cent. Of the total exports from Egypt, in 1860-1, of 142,000 bales of cotton, we received 97,000, or 70 per cent.


It may be alleged of nearly all articles of food or raw materials, transported over sea, that more than one-half is destined for these islands. It follows that were we, in the exercise of the belligerent right of blockade, to prevent the exportation of those commodities, we should inflict greater injury on ourselves than on all the rest of the world, not excepting the country with which we were at war: for if we could effectually close the ports of one or more of these countries against both exports and imports, we should be merely intercepting the supply of comparative luxuries to them, while we arrested the flow of the necessaries of life to ourselves; and for every cultivator of the soil, engaged in the production of cotton or other raw materials, thereby doomed to idleness, three or four persons would be deprived of employment in the distribution and manufacture of those commodities.


These facts are an answer to those who maintain that it is necessary to reserve in our hands the right of blockade, as an instrument of coercion in case of war. Against such countries as France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, &c., blockades have lost their force, owing to the extension of the railway system throughout the continent of Europe. In cases where a blow may still be struck at the commerce of a nation—of what use, I would ask, is a weapon of offence which recoils with double force on ourselves? It would be but a poor consolation to our population, who were subjected to the evils of enforced idleness and starvation, to be told that the food and raw materials destined for their subsistence and employment were rotting in the granaries of ruined cultivators in Russia or America.


These considerations have always led us, practically, to violate our own theory of a commercial blockade, whenever the power to do so has remained in our hands, even when the exigencies of our situation as a manufacturing people were far less pressing than they are at present. If we consult the experience of our past wars, we shall find that, as a belligerent, we have invariably abstained from taking effectual measures for preventing the productions of our enemies from reaching our shores. It is true we have maintained, for our navy, the traditional right and duty of a blockade, whilst (I beg your attention to the distinction) we have invariably connived at its evasion. I will cite a few examples. We all know how systematically our blockade of France, and other parts of the coast of the Continent, was relaxed by licences during the great war with the first Napoleon; and it is notorious that, at the commencement of the present century, during the height of that war, the deficiency of our own harvests was repeatedly supplied from the cornfields of our most deadly enemy. Nor must we forget that the celebrated Orders in Council, the most gigantic of all blockades, were ultimately revoked in the interest of our own manufacturers and merchants. Again, in the war with the United States, in 1813, during the blockade of that coast, a powerful and interested party in Parliament called for measures to prevent the importation of American cotton into England, but they were opposed by petitions from Manchester, Stockport, Glasgow, and other places connected with the cotton manufacture, and the result was that the Government refused to take any steps to intercept the cotton of the United States at our Custom-house; and this occurred at a time when our dependence on the produce of that region was, perhaps, not equal to a twentieth part of that of the present day.


The Crimean War, however, affords us a more recent example. That war was declared in March, 1854; but the ports of Russia were not proclaimed in a state of blockade until March, 1855. The Allies temporised for a year with their right and power to close the commercial ports of the Black Sea, whilst carrying on a most sanguinary struggle before the naval arsenal of Sebastopol, in order to allow the exportation of food from Russia, to make good the deficient harvests of France and England. Upwards of half a million of quarters of grain reached our shores from that region in 1854. Here at least is a precedent for the policy of restricting blockades to fortified places, and leaving commercial ports unmolested. If we turn to the operations in the Baltic, during the same war, we find that our blockade of Cronstadt had merely the effect of diverting the produce of Russia, destined for England, into more costly overland channels. An attempt was made similar to that of interested parties in 1813, referred to above, to induce our Government to prevent the importation of Russian produce into this country through Prussia, which drew from the Dundee Chamber of Commerce a memorial, declaring that the raw material from Russia was indispensable to the very existence of the industry of that district. After due deliberation, our Government refused to require a certificate of origin at the Custom-house, or to offer any other impediment to the importation of Russian hemp, flax, tallow, &c., into this country, through the territory of neutrals. The consequence was that Prussia, which sent us tallow to the amount of £150 only in 1853, was enabled in 1855 to supply us with that article to the amount of £1,838,300; and other Russian commodities reached this country in a similar manner.


It is only necessary to point to the examples of China, Mexico, &c., to show that in our hostilities with the weaker maritime powers we carefully eschew the policy of resorting, as a means of coercion, to the blockade of their commercial ports.


A fair deduction from these facts and premises leads us to a very grave national dilemma. We persist in upholding a belligerent right, which we have always shrunk from enforcing, and shall never rigorously apply, by which we place in the hands of other belligerents the power, at any moment, of depriving a large part of our population of the supply of the raw materials of their industry, and of the necessaries of life. In this respect the question of blockade is essentially different from that of the capture of private property at sea. In the latter case we are only liable to injury when we choose to become belligerents, whereas, in the former, we are exposed to serious calamities as neutrals; and England, by proclaiming the policy of non-intervention, has recently constituted herself the great neutral power. In this capacity we are now enduring the effects of a blockade, by which it is estimated that the earnings of labour in this country are curtailed to the extent of a quarter of a million sterling a week. Should it continue, it will, I fear, bring many of the evils of war home to our doors, and plunge the ingenious and industrious population connected with our cotton manufacture, whose recent improvement and elevation we have witnessed with pride, into the depths of pauperism and misery. Nor have we any assurance that this will prove a solitary case. I can imagine a combination of events, not more improbable than the blockade of the cotton region of the United States by sea and land would have appeared to be three years ago, by which we may be cut off from all commercial intercourse with other countries on which we are largely dependent for raw materials and food.


Speaking abstractedly, and not in reference to the present blockade—for we are precluded from pleading our sufferings as a ground of grievance against a people whose proposals for the mitigation of the barbarous maritime code we have rejected—I do not hesitate to denounce, as opposed to the principles of natural justice, a system of warfare which inflicts greater injuries on an unoffending neutral community than on a belligerent. And, however sincere the Governments of the great maritime powers may be, during a period of general peace, in their professions of adhesion to this system, should any of them as neutrals be subjected to severe sufferings from the maintenance of a blockade, the irritation and sense of injustice which it will occasion to great masses of population, coupled with the consciousness that it is an evil remediable by an appeal to force, will always present a most dangerous incentive to war. Certain I am that such a system is incompatible with the new commercial policy to which we have unreservedly committed ourselves. Free trade, in the widest definition of the term, means only the division of labour, by which the productive powers of the whole earth are brought into mutual co-operation. If this scheme of universal dependence is to be liable to sudden dislocation whenever two governments choose to go to war, it converts a manufacturing industry, such as ours, into a lottery, in which the lives and fortunes of multitudes of men are at stake. I do not comprehend how any British statesman who consults the interests of his country, and understands the revolution which free trade is effecting in the relations of the world, can advocate the maintenance of commercial blockades. If I shared their view, I should shrink from promoting the indefinite growth of a population whose means of subsistence would be liable to be cut off at any moment by a belligerent power, against whom we should have no right of resistance, or even of complaint.


It must be in mere irony that the advocates of such a policy as this ask—of what use would our navy be in case of war, if commercial blockades were abolished? Surely, for a nation that has no access to the rest of the world but by sea, and a large part of whose population is dependent for food on foreign countries, the chief use of a navy should be to keep open its communications, not to close them!


There is another branch of this subject to which a recent occurrence has imparted peculiar importance. We require a clear definition of the circumstances which confer on a belligerent the right of visitation or search. The old and universally admitted rule that any maritime power, when at war, was entitled everywhere to stop and visit the merchant vessels of neutrals, is allowed to be unsuited to this age of extended commerce, of steamers, and postal packets. The principal object which belligerents had in view in the exercise of this power was the capture of enemy's property. But, since the Paris Declaration exempts the goods of an enemy from seizure in neutral bottoms, there is little motive left for preserving this belligerent right; and the question would receive a very simple solution by assimilating the practice in time of war to that which now prevails in time of peace.


Merchant vessels on the high seas are, during peace, considered and treated as a part of the territory to which they belong. There is no point on which the maritime powers are more clearly understood than that, excepting cases of special convention to the contrary, such as that for suppressing the African slave-trade, the flags of merchantmen afford an absolute protection against visitation or obstruction by an alien ship of war. This rule applies, of course, only to the high seas; for when foreign merchant vessels approach so near the coast of a maritime State as to place themselves within its municipal jurisdiction, they are subject to all its police and revenue regulations. Now, why should not this be the invariable law of the sea, in time of war as well as of peace? Because two maritime powers in some quarter of the globe choose to enter upon hostilities is no good reason why neutral merchant ships, sailing in every sea, should be subjected to their authority.


This change would simplify the question of contraband of war, and thus tend to obviate the risk of international disputes. An article is rendered contraband of war only by its hostile destination. Were the right of search on the high seas in time of war abolished, the only admissible proof of this destination would be the fact of the vessel being found within the waters of a belligerent State. If those waters were in the possession of a hostile power, the jurisdiction would appertain to the blockading fleet of that power; and a neutral merchant vessel, containing articles contraband of war, entering voluntarily within that jurisdiction, would be ipso facto liable to capture. As to the question what should, under such circumstances, constitute an unlawful cargo, I see no reason why we should seek to multiply impediments to commerce by extending the category of articles contraband of war beyond that proposed by the United States, viz., arms and ammunition.


Without dwelling on minor details, the three great reforms in international maritime law embraced in the preceding argument are—

1. The exemption of private property from capture at sea, during war, by armed vessels of every kind.
2. Blockades to be restricted to naval arsenals, and to towns besieged at the same time on land, with the exception of articles contraband of war.
3. The merchant ships of neutrals on the high seas to be inviolable to the visitation of alien government vessels in time of war as in time of peace.


It is at the option of the English Government at any time to enter upon negotiations with the other great Powers for the revision of the maritime code, and I speak advisedly in expressing my belief that it depends on us alone whether the above reforms are to be carried into effect. I will only add that I regard these changes as the necessary corollary of the repeal of the navigation laws, the abolition of the corn laws, and the abandonment of our colonial monopoly. We have thrown away the sceptre of force, to confide in the principle of freedom—uncovenanted, unconditional freedom. Under this new régime our national fortunes have prospered beyond all precedent. During the last fourteen years the increase in our commerce has exceeded its entire growth during the previous thousand years of reliance on force, cunning, and monopoly. This should encourage us to go forward, in the full faith that every fresh impediment removed from the path of commerce, whether by sea or land, and whether in peace or war, will augment our prosperity, at the same time that it will promote the general interests of humanity.

Believe me, my dear Sir,
Yours very sincerely,

Henry Ashworth, Esq.,
President of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.


POSTSCRIPT.—On the first appearance of this letter in the columns of the newspaper press, the not unusual mode of raising irrelevant issues, with the view of evading the real question, was resorted to. It has been alleged that I had no authority for saying that the English Government had refused to accede to Mr. Marcy's proposal for exempting private property from capture at sea.


The very fact that Mr. Horsfall's motion, which was regarded as a repetition of Mr. Marcy's proposal, was opposed in the House of Commons by Lord Palmerston, who had been Prime Minister in 1856, when that proposal was first made, might be considered sufficient proof that it was not favourably received by the British Government. But other evidence is not wanting. Lord John Russell, speaking in the House of Commons, February 18th, 1861, said, "I found that when the matter was under discussion with the American Government at the time of the Conference at Paris, the opinion of the Earl of Clarendon (then Foreign Minister) seems to have been unfavourable to the proposal that private property at sea should be respected during war."


It has been, moreover, asserted that the American Government were not sincere in making their proposal. Such an accusation coarsely (because anonymously) made, and without an atom of evidence to support it, might properly be passed over without notice. I refer to it only because it gives me the opportunity of saying that I have had the opportunity of conversing with leading statesmen in the United States, not merely of the political school to which Mr. Marcy belonged, but also of the Republican party, and they all agree that had the proposition for making private property inviolable at sea been accepted by the European Powers in 1856, it would have been willingly carried into effect by their Government. The Senate was known to be favourable, and no other body shares the treaty-making power with the President. It was, indeed, impossible that President Pierce and Mr. Marcy could have made such a proposal to Europe without having previously ascertained that it had the sanction of two-thirds of the members of the Senate, whose concurrence is, by the constitution, requisite to carry any treaty into effect.

R. C.
May 15th, 1862.

Notes for this chapter

The Journal of Commerce.


End of Notes

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