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The Trent and the San Jacinto.

The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1120, p. 567-568.

December 7, 1861

The British public has been agitated by intense excitement during the past week by the apparent imminence of a rupture of friendly relations between this country and America. To the facts which have occasioned this state of things, and to the light in which they may be viewed by the law of nations, we shall presently advert. Before doing so, however, we gladly recognise the possibility, and express the hope, faint though it be, that the matter in dispute may be satisfactorily settled, even before the publication of our present Number. Our remarks are intended to bear upon the facts as they stood at the moment of our going to press; and should any authentic information from the other side of the Atlantic reach our shores before these pages are in the hands of our readers which will render the following comments unnecessary, because untimely, none will rejoice more heartily than ourselves at being "a day after the fair."

The fact of the case lie in a very narrow compass; the statement of them, although hitherto ex parte only, rests upon the concurrent testimony of several witnesses, and may fairly be assumed as trustworthy. They are so well known that it will not be necessary for us to give more than the barest outline of them. Messrs. Slidell and Mason, Commissioners of the Confederate States of America to France and England, together with their Secretaries, having succeeded in evading the blockade, and in reaching the neutral port of Havannah, engaged berths on board the mail-steamer Trent, with a view to proceed to Europe by the ocean mail-steamer La Plata from St. Thomas. Being on neutral territory, and cotemplating a voyage in neutral ships, they made no secret of their intentions, nor of the official capacity in which they were acting. While these gentlemen were waiting at Havannah for the sailing of the Trent, the San Jacinto, an armed sloop in the service of the Federal Government at Washington, called at the port, having just left her station on the coast of Africa. Captain Wilks, the commander of the San Jacinto, under general instructions, it is presumed, from his own Government, for the time was too short to admit of special insructions, determined upon intercepting the Commissioners on their way to St. Thomas, and for this purpose started from Havannah to the Bahama Channel, a narrow roadstead through which the Trent would have to pass. As soon as the British mail-steamer hove in sight the San Jacinto made all ready to stop, search, and, if resisted, to sink her. The first step taken by the Captain of the American cruiser was to fire a shot across the bows of the Trent, and to show her colours; but, as the British steamer did not heed the summons, his next proceeding was to fire a shell, which exploded within a hundred yards of her. The Trent, being unarmed, immediately brought to, and Lieutenant Fairfax was sent on board to demand a list of the passengers. This having been refused, the Lieutenant said he had good reason to know that Messrs. Slidell and Mason, and their secretaries, were among the passengers, and he required that they should be given up to him. On the refusal of Captain Moir to comply with this requisition three boats' crews were dispatched from the Federal sloop, and boarded the Trent, cutlass in hand. Further resistance on the part of Captain Moir was of course out of the question; and, under formal protest, the four gentlemen were seized and carried off as prisoners to the San Jacinto, and the Trent allowed to proceed on her voyage.

These facts have been laid before the law officers of the Crown, who have decided that the Captain of the San Jacinto has committed a breach of international law, and a dispatch from the British Government is already on its way to Lord Lyons, instructing him, it has been said, to demand the restoration of the captured gentlemen to the protection from which they have been illegally taken, and a disavowal and apology on the part of the Federal Government for the act of their own officer. If this demand be not complied with, it is rumoured that our Minister at Washington will forthwith return home;


Page 568

Mr. Adams, the American Minister at London, will be furnished with his passports; and diplomatic relations between the two countries will be broken off, in anticipation of war.

The ground upon which the law officers of the Crown rest their decision appears to be the only ground which could have been safely taken. The right of the San Jacinto to stop and search the Trent for contraband of war is not disputed. It is a right which Great Britain, as a foremost maritime power, has done her utmost to establish. The inclusion of persons as well as things within the category of contraband is also undoubted, although it remains a moot point (which, however, we shall not discuss) whether the diplomatic agents of one belligerent can be lawfully seized by another while proceeding in a neutral vessel between two neutral ports. It is a nice legal question, requiring for its decision the deliberate and solemn adjudication of a prize court. That which seems to be clear is that commanders of ships are not authorised by the law of nations, and cannot safely be permitted, to act on board neutral vessels on their own private views of law. The Captain of the San Jacinto, even on the hypothesis that Messrs. Slidell and Mason came within the description of contraband, was bound to carry the Trent into the nearest port, there to await the decision of a regularly constituted prize court. Had such decision been in his favour, we should have had no illegality of which to complain; had it been against him he would have been responsible for whatever damage he had inflicted upon the proprietors or the passengers of the Trent, in consequence of her interruption and detention. It may he quite true that by pursuing a legal course, instead of the high-handed one upon which he acted, he would have subjected the owners, crew, and passengers of the Trent to much more serious annoyance than they have now to complain of. But it is also true that by allowing the precedent we should open a wide door for every variety of insult to our mercantile marine from the ignorance, caprice, or passion of American commanding officers. Neutral vessels are not to be adjudged guilty of violating the laws of neutrality by every petty officer who has the authority and the power to arrest them. It might be very convenient, no doubt, in certain imaginable instances, for a police-constable to seize goods suspected to be stolen and simply to hand them over to the reputed owner. It would save an immensity of annoyance in some cases; but it is judged to be safer, on the whole, to refer the decision to a court of law, where evidence can be given on both sides and impartially sifted, and where verdict and sentence have a chance of being delivered with due and dispassionate deliberation. Now, international law is founded mainly upon the same principles of justice as those which are embodied in municipal law; and the very existence of prize courts rests upon the implication that between belligerents and neutrals all questions that arise shall be decided, not by an individual and private but by a public interpretation of the rights respectively of both parties.

But, believing, as we do, that a gross and, if sanctioned by submission, a dangerous infraction of international law and the rights of neutrals has been committed by the commander of the San Jacinto, we see many incidents connected with the case that should induce Great Britain to present her claim to reparation with as much calmness, considerateness, and forbearance as a due regard for the honour of her flag and the safety of her commercial marine will admit of, one or two of the most important of which we proceed, in the interest of peace, to submit to the judgment of our readers.

In the first place, then, it deserves to be borne in mind that we are as yet without any trustworthy evidence that the act of Captain Wilks was done in obedience to instructions received from the Federal Government at Washington. The probabilities all lie the other way. The San Jacinto had but just left the coast of Africa, and had put into Havannah before it was possible for her to have had recent communications from Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet. It was there and then only that he could have ascertained the intention of Messrs. Slidell and Mason to go out by the Trent, and no sufficient interval was left him to submit his project to the judgment of the Cabinet. Mr. Adams, the American Minister in London, volunteered, immediately on the arrival of the news by the La Plata, a statement of his conviction that the Federal Government knew nothing whatever of the transaction until after it was consummated. The rumours which have reached us from America since the arrival of the prisoners at Fort Monroe lend additional probability to this opinion. Captain Wilks was stated to have hinted in the course of a conversation with General Wool at the possible alternative of being cashiered for his act—a proof, if true, that he had acted without authority. Lord Lyons, our Minister at Washington, is reported to have expressed his opinion that Messrs. Sidell and Mason would be given up to England. The next arrival may bring us an assurance that the Federal Government have honourably declined to take advantage of the wrong committed by their own officer, and the amicable relations of the two Governments may be re-established upon a sounder basis than before.

In the next place, it behoves us to remember that the rights of belligerents, as against neutrals, a strained and unofficial interpretation of which has led to the present disagreeable dilemma, are mainly, if not solely, rights which England herself has persisted in establishing, not merely in the face of many protests, but even to the extremity of war. We are not, therefore, in a position to fire up in anger, or to proceed in haste or in harshness to the last fearful arbitrement in vindication of the wrong we believe ourselves to have received. And, in the last place, we may well make some allowance for the difficulties which surround the Lincoln Administration, and, if we cannot safely pass by such an offence as that perpetrated by Captain Wilks, we might, at any rate, act as courteously and considerately as possible in the prosecution of our demands. In this spirit and with these views we hope her Majesty's Government are dealing, and will deal, with the matter. Hitherto the great majority of the people of England have kept their natural excitement under creditable restraint, and we firmly believe will be prepared to make any sacrifice of feeling, not inconsistent with national honour, in order to avert a war with their American kin. We earnestly trust that their forbearance will meet with its due reward, and that by disavowing the act of Captain Wilks, and surrendering the Southern Commissioners to the hands from which they were summarily and rudely taken, the Federal Government will save themselves, the world, and us from hostilities which, while they would disgrace humanity, would bring nothing but evil to either party.

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