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THE BEHRING SEA DISPUTE :
IR with the United States over sealskins ? How
ridiculous !” “Fight the Britisher for a few seals ? Why, that is nonsense." Such are the queries, such the replies on both sides of the Atlantic, consequent on recent announcements in the newspapers.
These sensational announcements mean definite amount of public excitement, even though those behind the scenes know full well that there is no possibility of these fleets fighting each other, whatever the probability of their having to aid one another.
It will be remembered that her Majesty the Queen, in proroguing Parliament last August, was advised to say: "I have offered to the President of the United States to submit to arbitration questions of difference that have arisen between us with respect to jurisdiction in Behring Sea.” It will also be borne in mind, now that Parliament is again in Session, that both Lord Granville and Mr. Gladstone made it a leading criticism and complaint that in the Queen's Speech, opening the present Session in November, all reference to the Behring Sea was very conspicuous by its absence.
Of a truth the matter is one of urgency, and even of danger, and for this reason among others. As all the world knows, there are certain islands, the Commander and the Pribelov groups, in the North Pacific, where the valued fur-seal breeds annually, the only places now remaining in the known world where they breed in any numbers. On these islands it is estimated that from 12,000,000 to 15,000,000 scals land, or “haul out" each year; and on these islands, nowadays, something like 200,000 are scientifically sorted and killed each
year, with the object of protecting the lungs of, and giving comfort to, the mothers, wives, and sisters of civilised countries.
For some nine months of the year, the seals which haul out on these islands cruise over many thousand square miles of ocean, seeking the great abundance of fish food necessary for their suste
Enterprising men cruise at sea to catch such of these seals as they can, and last year they brought ashore more than 40,000 skins. These "pelagic sealers ” are chiefly fitted out and manned in British Columbia, but an increasing number are owned in American ports, such as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma, while some already appear flying the German and Japanese flags. The records of this pelagic sealing industry have been as follows:
It will be seen that the industry is recent in origin, and in process of very rapid growth. Last season, as I myself learned from the hunters in British Columbia, the weather was altogether against the industry. The method of procedure is for a schooner, of from 100 to 200 tons, to cruise wherever seals are seen, and send out hunters in boats and canoes, who harpoon or shoot the seals as they lie dozing on the surface. It is obviously essential to such “ fishing” that the water be smooth and the weather clear. This season has been remarkable for a succession of gales and fogs, and yet every hunter owns to the fact that never within memory have so many seals been seen.
At the same time the market price for sealskins has risen from a rough average of, say, 7dol. in 1889, to rodol. in 1890.
One consequence is already recognised. Already a great increase of men and vessels are preparing to follow this industry next season. The authorities are therefore not unnaturally anxious if only in regard to the police of these seas. The vessels are very numerously manned with hardy armed men engaged in an adventurous pursuit, and, although up till now they have behaved with admirable moderation, there is no knowing how far increased competition, inspired by greed, and with an infusion of new nationalities, may lead to open quarrel, and so to what Mr.Gladstone would probably term “warlike operations of a private character," which might gravely impair international relations.
Thus the authorities of the British Empire, no less than those of the United States, may be called upon this next summer to assert the strong hand of authority in the North Pacific; and for this reason alone it would be well if mutual agreement could be come to among the Powers interested as to action in common to preserve to their subjects their just rights and interests in this important industry.
It is, incidentally, matter of much satisfaction to British interests to notice that, thanks to the loyal enterprise of the Canadians, backed by the patriotic "Imperial ” action of Lord Salisbury and Mr. Goschen, in the early spring of 1891 there will be placed on the Northern Pacific three 19-knot mail steamers, built and equipped to become at a moment's notice armed cruisers or transports, and running their ordinary great circle course right through these sealing areas. The influence of this notable step forward in promoting British interests in the North Pacific is seen, by this object lesson, to be of immediate and substantial value. It is also hoped that similar action this year will place three or four more such vessels on the route between Vancouver and Australia, thereby establishing additional influence and prestige for British interests over the middle Pacific.
As for the actual danger of war with the United States, there are older men who, with a warning shake of the head, remind us of the slight pretexts on which wars have broken out before, and at first sight they certainly appear to have history on their side. But these sage prophets forget two points, the one old and the other new.
The old abiding fact is that there never is war without a big reason, however small the pretext. The grain of sand only makes a mountain because of the action of the overwhelming forces of nature. Some great cause or some great principle is at stake in every case. It may be one of sentimental, it may be one of very material connotation. It may be, indeed often is, to adopt Bastiat's economic allegory, in the category of “ things not seen by the public. But in either case it must have, in actuality, widespread and deep roots in the two peoples whom it takes to make
Where, then, is the great cause, where the great principle, behind this Behring Sea dispute? The industry defended by the American Government represents the profits, mostly accruing to British citizens, which a company obtains by renting from the State certain seal-breeding islands and paying a certain royalty on all sealskins taken. For the past few years the annual receipts by the State have averaged a little over £50,000, while the market value of the 100,000 skins obtained has certainly not exceeded £200,000. The industry incidentally defended by the British Government represents the profits obtained on taking sealskins, which, on the unprecedentedly large catch of last season, only amounted to a gross value of £100,000. Nor is it probable that these catches could be more than doubled without serious risk to the industry by partial extirpation of the “seal nation.”
It is true, however, that incidentally a great principle seems to be involved, viz., that of the right of a nation to control or own the fructus of the high seas outside what are ordinarily regarded as territorial waters. But in this particular case this principle happens to resolve itself into mere interpretations of events and writings in diplomatic history. It is not a claim to a right but an assertion that this right is, in this particular instance, modified by previous diplomatic action. Happily this is the substance of that portion of the question which both Mr. Blaine and Lord Salisbury have agreed could be determined by arbitration.
It may be well to note that there are those who aver that the American people are still pervaded by a big sentimental cause for war in jealousy or hatred of the Britisher. I venture roundly to assert, on a not inconsiderable experience of American opinions in situ, that whatever truth there may have been in such an assertion in years gone by, nowadays the great mass of the American people, and especially the true Americans, born and bred, entertain the
very reverse of such ideas. These bona fide Americans are proud, justly proud, of their great country, their great achievements, their great industries; and they feel that for them to entertain or show jealousy of the British Empire would be a confession that this proper national pride of theirs rests on foundations inferior to those on which the British superstructure is raised. It is true that electioneering exigencies, especially in some of the big cities and where alien immigrants have not yet imbibed true American ideas, give a superficial popularity to anti-British talk. It is also true that with all Americans it is popular to talk big as well as to act big. But beyond this there is no body of sentiment in the United States burning to avenge itself on the Britisher-still less to do so by means of a fratricidal war.
But these older points, still subsisting in the United States, are, there especially, controlled by a newer development. In recent years there has, without shadow of doubt, taken place a steady growth of opinion, deep-rooted and widespread, in both British and American peoples, that between two nations so indispensable to each other, so closely knit in origin, kinship, interests, and aspirations, war is and remains impossible. The great majority in each nation regard the Alabama settlement as a charter of rights for both peoples which no Government of either can afford to disregard. It is a charter for the settlement of all disputes between the two nations which no Government of either would be permitted to ignore. Mr. Gladstone's brilliant action has set up this happy bond between the two nations, and to this bond, even in this present case, both Administrations look for a settlement of the points in dispute.
It is surprising that, with such ideas undoubtedly dominating both nations, so trifling a crusa rixie should have so long been permitted to survive. A brief historical view of the case will, however, explain much. In the end of the last century and beginning of the present the pursuit of the fur-seal proved to be highly profitable. The scals were to be found in great abundance on the islands in cold seas which they frequented for breeding purposes. The sealers of those days hailed from