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HOME > Short Stories > Presidential Problems > THE VENEZUELAN BOUNDARY CONTROVERSY I
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There is no better illustration of the truth that nations and individuals are affected in the same manner by like causes than is often furnished by the beginning, progress, and results of a national boundary dispute. We all know that among individuals, when neighbors have entered upon a quarrel concerning their division-line or the location of a line fence, they will litigate until all account of cost and all regard for the merits of the contention give place to a ruthless and all-dominating determination, by fair means or foul, to win; and if fisticuffs and forcible possession are resorted to, the big, strong neighbor rejoices in his strength as he mauls and disfigures his small and weak antagonist.

It will be found that nations behave in like fashion. One or the other of two national 174 neighbors claims that their dividing-line should be defined or rectified in a certain manner. If this is questioned, a season of diplomatic untruthfulness and finesse sometimes intervenes for the sake of appearances. Developments soon follow, however, that expose a grim determination behind fine phrases of diplomacy; and in the end the weaker nation frequently awakens to the fact that it must either accede to an ultimatum dictated by its stronger adversary, or look in the face of war and a spoliation of its territory; and if such a stage is reached, superior strength and fighting ability, instead of suggesting magnanimity, are graspingly used to enforce extreme demands if not to consummate extensive conquest or complete subjugation.

I propose to call attention to one of these unhappy national boundary disputes, between the kingdom of Great Britain and the South American republic of Venezuela, involving the boundary-line separating Venezuela from the English colony of British Guiana, which adjoins Venezuela on the east.

Venezuela, once a Spanish possession, declared her independence in 1810, and a few years afterward united with two other of Spain’s revolted colonies in forming the old 175 Colombian federal union, which was recognized by the United States in 1822. In 1836 this union was dissolved and Venezuela became again a separate and independent republic, being promptly recognized as such by our Government and by other powers. Spain, however, halted in her recognition until 1845, when she quite superfluously ceded to Venezuela by treaty the territory which as an independent republic she had actually owned and possessed since 1810. But neither in this treaty nor in any other mention of the area of the republic were its boundaries described with more definiteness than as being “the same as those which marked the ancient viceroyalty and captaincy-general of New Granada and Venezuela in the year 1810.”

England derived title to the colony of Guiana from Holland in 1814, by a treaty in which the territory was described as “the Cape of Good Hope and the establishments of Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice.” No boundaries of those settlements or “establishments” were given in the treaty, nor does it appear that any such boundaries had ever been particularly defined.

It is quite apparent that the limits of these adjoining countries thus lacking any mention of definite metes and bounds, were in need of 176 extraneous assistance before they could be exactly fixed, and that their proper location was quite likely to lead to serious disagreement. In such circumstances threatening complications can frequently be avoided if the adjoining neighbors agree upon a divisional line promptly, and before their demands are stimulated and their tenacity increased by a real or fancied advance in the value of the possessions to be divided, or other incidents have intervened to render it more difficult to make concessions.

I shall not attempt to sketch the facts and arguments that bear upon the exact merits of this boundary controversy between Great Britain and Venezuela. They have been thoroughly examined by an arbitral tribunal to which the entire difficulty was referred, and by whose determination the boundary between the two countries has been fixed—perhaps in strict accord with justice, but at all events finally and irrevocably. Inasmuch, however, as our own country became in a sense involved in the controversy, or at least deeply concerned in its settlement, I have thought there might be interest in an explanation of the manner and the processes by which the interposition of the United States Government was brought about. I must 177 not be expected to exclude from mention every circumstance that may relate to the merits of the dispute as between the parties primarily concerned; but so far as I make use of such circumstances I intend to do so only in aid and simplification of the explanation I have undertaken.

This dispute began in 1841. On October 5 of that year the Venezuelan minister to Great Britain, in a note to Lord Aberdeen, Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, after reminding the secretary that a proposal made by Venezuela on the 28th of January, 1841, for joint action in the matter of fixing a divisional boundary, still awaited the acceptance of Great Britain, wrote as follows:

    The Honorable Earl of Aberdeen may now judge of the surprise of the Government of Venezuela upon learning that in the territory of the Republic a sentry-box has been erected upon which the British flag has been raised. The Venezuelan Government is in ignorance of the origin and purport of these proceedings, and hopes that they may receive some satisfactory explanation of this action. In the meantime the undersigned, in compliance with the instructions communicated to him, urges upon the Honorable Earl of Aberdeen the necessity of entering into a treaty of boundaries as a previous step to the fixation of limits, and begs to ask for an answer to the above-mentioned communication of January 28.


Lord Aberdeen, in his reply, dated October 21, 1841, makes the following statement:

    Her Majesty’s Government has received from the Governor of British Guiana, Mr. Schomburgk’s report of his proceedings in execution of the commission with which he has been charged. That report states that Mr. Schomburgk set out from Demerara in April last and was on his return to the Essequibo River at the end of June. It appears that Mr. Schomburgk planted boundary posts at certain points of the country which he has surveyed, and that he was fully aware that the demarcation so made was merely a preliminary measure, open to further discussion between the Governments of Great Britain and Venezuela. But it does not appear that Mr. Schomburgk left behind him any guard-house, sentry-box, or other building having the British flag.

    With respect to the proposal of the Venezuelan Government that the Governments of Great Britain and Venezuela should conclude a treaty as a preliminary step to the demarcation of the boundaries between British Guiana and Venezuela, the undersigned begs leave to observe that it appears to him that if it should be necessary to make a treaty upon the subject of the boundaries in question, such a measure should follow rather than precede the operation of the survey.

In a communication dated the 18th of November, 1841, the Venezuelan minister, after again complaining of the acts of Schomburgk and alleging that he “has planted at a point on 179 the mouth of the Orinoco several posts bearing Her Majesty’s initials, and raised at the same place, with a show of armed forces, the British flag, and also performed several other acts of dominion and government,” refers to the great dissatisfaction aroused in Venezuela by what he calls “this undeserved offense,” and adds: “The undersigned therefore has no doubts but that he will obtain from Her Majesty’s Government a reparation for the wrong done to the dignity of the Republic, and that those signs which have so unpleasantly shaken public confidence will be ordered removed.”

No early response having been made to this communication, another was addressed to Lord Aberdeen, dated December 8, 1841, in which the representative of Venezuela refers to his previous unanswered note and to a recent order received from his government, which he says directs him “to insist not only upon the conclusion of a treaty fixing the boundaries between Venezuela and British Guiana, but also, and this very particularly, to insist upon the removal of the signs set up, contrary to all rights, by the surveyor R. H. Schomburgk in Barima and in other points of the Venezuelan territory”; and he continues: “In his afore-mentioned communication of the 18th of last 180 month, the undersigned has already informed the Honorable Earl of Aberdeen of the dissatisfaction prevailing among the Venezuelans on this account, and now adds that this dissatisfaction, far from diminishing, grows stronger—as is but natural—as time goes on and no reparation of the wrongs is made.”

These two notes of the Venezuelan minister were answered on the eleventh day of December, 1841. In his reply Lord Aberdeen says:

    The undersigned begs leave to refer to his note of the 21st of October last, in which he explained that the proceeding of Mr. Schomburgk in planting boundary posts at certain points of the country which he has surveyed was merely a preliminary measure open to future discussion between the two Governments, and that it would be premature to make a boundary treaty before the survey will be completed. The undersigned has only further to state that much unnecessary inconvenience would result from the removal of the posts fixed by Mr. Schomburgk, as they will afford the only tangible means by which Her Majesty’s Government can be prepared to discuss the question of the boundaries with the Government of Venezuela. These posts were erected for that express purpose, and not, as the Venezuelan Government appears to apprehend, as indications of dominion and empire on the part of Great Britain.

In a reply to this note, after referring to the explanation of the purpose of these posts or 181 signs which Lord Aberdeen had given, it was said, in further urging their removal: “The undersigned regrets to be obliged to again insist upon this point; but the damages sustained by Venezuela on account of the permanence of said signs are so serious that he hopes in view of those facts that the trouble resulting from their removal may not appear useless.” The minister followed this insistence with such earnest argument that on the thirty-first day of January, 1842, nearly four months after the matter was first agitated, Lord Aberdeen informed the Venezuelan minister that instructions would be sent to the governor of British Guiana dir............
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