British Seize 33 American Vessels - The United States Denounces British Blockade as Illegal and Ineffective
The seizure by Great Britain of many American merchant vessels, laden with meat and other cargoes, while on the way to neutral ports, was the subject of brisk diplomatic exchanges during 1915 and 1916.
Great Britain defended the seizure of American vessels on the ground that much of the food shipped from this country direct to neutral ports in Europe had been transhipped subsequently from those neutral countries into Germany. In order to determine what parts of these cargoes were contraband of war the British officials deemed it necessary to seize the American vessels and conduct prize proceedings under British law.
The United States Government declined to accept the view that the seizure and detention of American ships and cargoes was justifiable under the principles of international law. Our Government also questioned the legality of the decisions of those British tribunals which determined whether such seizures were prizes or not. Moreover, the United States Government held that evidence of contraband goods should be obtained by search at sea and that neither the vessel nor the cargo should be taken to a British port unless incriminating circumstances should warrant such action.
Great Britain attempted to justify her action in bringing the vessels to British ports in order to determine their contraband character by reciting the difficulty of searching vessels on the high seas. The United States Government retorted that such difficulties were no more complex than those prevailing in previous wars, when the practice of obtaining evidence in port to determine whether a vessel should be held for prize court proceedings was not followed.
The United States further contended that British exports to neutral countries had materially increased since the War began, and that Great Britain therefore shared with America in creating a condition upon which she founded her right to seize American ships and cargoes. Finally, the United States contended that the law of nations forbade the blockade of neutral ports; hence the seizure of cargoes destined to neutral parts must be illegal and the British prize courts could have no jurisdiction over neutral vessels so seized or detained. Great Britain would not promise any abatement of the conditions of the blockade and, in fact, the blockade was rendered more stringent by its extension to include all neutral ports.
Chicago Meat Packers' Case
Before the American protest had been made, the British had seized 33 vessels laden with meat products, having an estimated value of $17,500,000, of which number 29 had been held without disposal by the British prize courts. Four cargoes, of a value of $2,500,000, after being held for ten months, had been confiscated on September 13, 1915, and declared forfeited to the Crown. The Chicago beef packers demanded reparation. In reply, the British Government declared that the cargoes were condemned because the food products shipped by America to Denmark and other neutral nations were in excess of the normal consumption of these nations, the presumption being that they were really destined for Germany and eventually would find their way into the enemy's hands.
England also contended that evidence existed to prove that the shipments from America to Denmark were made through German agents and that their consignment to a neutral port was a mere mask to cover their final shipment to Germany.
So the matter rested until its settlement in 1918.