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The Right of Search of American Vessels

On the boat which carried me from Cuba to Key West were three young girls, who had been exiled for giving aid to the insurgents. The brother of one of them is in command of the Cuban forces in the field near Havana. More than once his sister had joined him there, and had seen fighting and carried back despatches to the Junta in Havana. For this she and two other young women, who were also suspected, were ordered to leave the island.

I happened to sit next to this young lady at table on the steamer, and I found that she was not an Amazon nor a Joan of Arc nor a woman of the people, with a machete in one hand and a Cuban flag in the other. She was a well-bred, well-educated young person, speaking three languages.

This is what the Spaniards did to these girls:

After ordering them to leave the island on a certain day they sent detectives to the houses of each on the morning of that day and had them undressed and searched by a female detective to discover if they were carrying letters to the Junta at Key West or Tampa. They were searched thoroughly, even to the length of taking off their shoes and stockings. Later, when the young ladies stood at last on the deck of an American vessel, with the American flag hanging from the stern, the Spanish officers followed them there, and demanded that a cabin should be furnished them to which the girls might be taken, and they were then again undressed and searched by this woman for the second time.

For the benefit of people with unruly imaginations, of whom there seem to be a larger proportion in this country than I had supposed, I will state again that the search of these women was conducted by women and not by men, as I was reported to have said, and as I did not say in my original report of the incident.

Spanish officers, with red crosses for bravery on their chests and gold lace on their cuffs, strutted up and down while the search was going on, and chancing to find a Cuban suspect among the passengers, ordered him to be searched also, only they did not give him the privacy of a cabin, but searched his clothes and shoes and hat on the main deck of this American vessel before the other passengers and myself and the ship's captain and his crew.

In order to leave Havana, it is first necessary to give notice of your wish to do so by sending your passport to the Captain General, who looks up your record, and, after twenty-four hours, if he is willing to let you go, visÚs your passport and so signifies that your request is granted. After you have complied with that requirement of martial law, and the Captain General has agreed to let you depart, and you are on board of an American vessel, the Spanish soldiers' control over you and your movements should cease, for they relinquish all their rights when they give you back your passport.

At least the case of Barrundia justifies such a supposition. It was then shown that, while a passenger or a member of a crew is amenable to the "common laws" of the country in the port in which the vessel lies, he is not to be disturbed for political offenses against her government.

When the officers of Guatemala went on board a vessel of the Pacific Mail line and arrested Barrundia, who was a revolutionist, and then shot him between decks, the American Minister, who had permitted this outrage, was immediately recalled, and the letter recalling him, which was written by James G. Blaine, clearly and emphatically sets forth the principle that a political offender is not to be molested on board of an American vessel, whether she is in the passenger trade or a ship of war.

Prof. Joseph H. Beale, Jr., the professor of international law at Harvard, said in reference to the case of these women when I first wrote of it:

"So long as a state of war has not been recognized by this country, the Spanish government has not the right to stop or search our vessels on the high seas for contraband of war or for any other purpose, nor would it have the right to subject American citizens or an American vessel in Cuban waters to treatment which would not be legal in the case of Spanish citizens or vessels.

"But the Spanish government has the right in Cuba to execute upon American citizens or vessels any laws prevailing there, in the same way as they would execute them upon the Spaniards, unless they are prevented by the provisions of some treaty with the United States. The fact that the vessel in the harbor of Havana was flying a neutral flag could not protect it from the execution of Spanish law.

"However unwise or inhuman the action of the Spanish authorities may have been in searching the women on board the Olivette, they appear to have been within their legal rights."

The Spanish Minister at Washington has also declared that his government has the right of search in the harbor of Havana. Hence in the face of two such authorities the question raised is probably answered from a legal point of view. But if that is the law, it would seem well to alter it, for it gives the Spanish authorities absolute control over the persons and property of Americans on American vessels, and that privilege in the hands of persons as unscrupulous and as insolent as are the Spanish detectives, is a dangerous one. So dangerous a privilege, indeed, that there is no reason nor excuse for not keeping an American ship of war in the harbor of Havana.

For suppose that letters and despatches had been found on the persons of these young ladies, and they had been put on shore and lodged in prison; or suppose the whole ship and every one on board had been searched, as the captain of the Olivette said the Spanish officers told him they might decide to do, and letters had been found on the Americans, and they had been ordered over the side and put into prison--would that have been an act derogatory to the dignity of the United States? Or are we to understand that an American citizen or a citizen of any country, after he has asked and obtained permission to leave Cuba and is on board of an American vessel, is no more safe there than he would be in the insurgent camp?

The latter supposition would seem to be correct, and the matter to depend on the captain of the vessel and her owners, from whom he receives his instructions, and not to be one in which the United States government is in any way concerned. I do not believe the captain of a British passenger steamer would have allowed one of his passengers to be searched on the main deck of his vessel, as I saw this Cuban searched; nor even the captain of a British tramp steamer nor of a coal barge.

The chief engineer of the Olivette declared to me that in his opinion, "it served them just right," and the captain put a cabin at the disposal of the Spanish spies with eager humility. And when one of the detectives showed some disinclination to give back my passport, and I said I would keep him on board until he did it, the captain said: "Yes, you will, will you? I would like to see you try it," suggesting that he was master of his own ship and of my actions. But he was not. There is not an unwashed, garlicky, bediamonded Spanish spy in Cuba who has not more authority on board the Olivette than her American captain and his subservient crew.

Only a year ago half of this country was clamoring for a war with the greatest power it could have selected for that purpose. Yet Great Britain would have been the first to protect her citizens and their property and their self-respect if they had been abused as the self-respect and property and freedom of Americans have been abused by this fourth-rate power, and are being abused to-day.

Before I went to Cuba I was as much opposed to our interfering there as any other person equally ignorant concerning the situation could be, but since I have seen for myself I feel ashamed that we should have stood so long idle. We have been too considerate, too fearful that as a younger nation, we should appear to disregard the laws laid down by older nations. We have tolerated what no European power would have tolerated; we have been patient with men who have put back the hand of time for centuries, who lie to our representatives daily, who butcher innocent people, who gamble with the lives of their own soldiers in order to gain a few more stars and an extra stripe, who send American property to the air in flames and murder American prisoners.

The British lately sent an expedition of eight hundred men to the west coast of Africa to punish savage king who butchers people because it does not rain. Why should we tolerate Spanish savages merely because they call themselves "the most Catholic," but who in reality are no better than this naked negro? What difference is there between the King of Benin who crucifies a woman because he wants rain and General Weyler who outrages a woman for his own pleasure and throws her to his bodyguard of blacks, even if the woman has the misfortune to live after it--and to still live in Sagua la Grande to-day?

If the English were right--and they were right--in punishing the King of Benin for murdering his subjects to propitiate his idols, we are right to punish these revivers of the Inquisition for starving women and children to propitiate an Austrian archduchess.

It is difficult to know what the American people do want. They do not want peace, apparently, for their senators, some through an ignorant hatred of England and others through a personal dislike of the President, emasculated the arbitration treaty; and they do not want war, for, as some one has written, if we did not go to war with Spain when she murdered the crew of the Virginius, we never will.

But if the executive and the legislators wish to assure themselves, like "Fighting Bob Acres," that they have some right on their side, they need not turn back to the Virginius incident. There are reasons enough to-day to justify their action, if it is to be their intellects and not their feelings that must move them to act. American property has been destroyed by Spanish troops to the amount of many millions, and no answer made to demands of the State Department for an explanation. American citizens have been imprisoned and shot--some without a trial, some in front of their own domiciles, and American vessels are turned over to the uses of the Spanish secret police. These would seem to be sufficient reasons for interfering.

But why should we not go a step farther and a step higher, and interfere in the name of humanity? Not because we are Americans, but because we are human beings, and because, within eighty miles of our coast, Spanish officials are killing men and women as wantonly as though they were field mice, not in battle, but in cold blood--cutting them down in the open roads, at the wells to which they have gone for water, or on their farms, where they have stolen away to dig up a few potatoes, having first run the gauntlets of the forts and risked their lives to obtain them.

This is not an imaginary state of affairs, nor are these supposititious cases. I am writing only of the things I have heard from eye witnesses and of some of the things that I have seen.

President Cleveland declared in his message to Congress: "When the inability of Spain to deal successfully with the insurgents has become manifest, and it is demonstrated that her sovereignty is extinct in Cuba for all purposes of its rightful existence, and when a hopeless struggle for its re-establishment has degenerated into a strife which is nothing more than the useless sacrifice of human life and the utter destruction of the very subject-matter of the conflict, a situation will be presented in which our obligations to the sovereignty of Spain will be superseded by higher obligations, which we can hardly hesitate to recognize and discharge!"

These conditions are now manifest. A hopeless struggle for sovereignty has degenerated into a strife which means not the useless, but the wanton sacrifice of human life, and the utter destruction of the subject-matter of the conflict.

What further manifestations are needed? Is it that the American people doubt the sources from which their information comes? They are the consuls all over the island of Cuba. For what voice crying in the wilderness are they still waiting? What will convince them that the time has come?

If the United States is to interfere in this matter she should do so at once, but she should only do so after she has informed herself thoroughly concerning it. She should not act on the reports of the hotel piazza correspondents, but send men to Cuba on whose judgment and common sense she can rely. General Fitzhugh Lee is one of these men, and there is no better informed American on Cuban matters than he, nor one who sees more clearly the course which our government should pursue. Through the consuls all over the island, he is in touch with every part of it, and in daily touch; but incidents which are frightfully true there seem exaggerated and overdrawn when a typewritten description of them reaches the calm corridors of the State Department.

More men like Lee should go to Cuba to inform themselves, not men who will stop in Havana and pick up the gossip of the Hotel Ingleterra, but who will go out into the cities and sugar plantations and talk to the consuls and merchants and planters, both Spanish and American; who can see for themselves the houses burning and the smoke arising from every point of the landscape; who can see the bodies of "pacificos" brought into the cities, and who can sit on a porch of an American planter's house and hear him tell in a whisper how his sugar cane was set on fire by the same Spanish soldiers who surround the house, and who are supposed to guard his property, but who, in reality, are there to keep a watch on him.

He should hear little children, born of American parents, come into the consulate and ask for a piece of bread. He should see the children and the women herded in the towns or walking the streets in long processions, with the Mayor at their head, begging his fellow Spaniards to give them food, the children covered with the red blotches of small-pox and the women gaunt with yellow fever. He should see hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of machinery standing idle, covered with rust and dirt, or lying twisted and broken under fallen walls. He will learn that while one hundred and fifty-six vessels came into the port of Matanzas in 1894, only eighty-eight came in 1895, and that but sixteen touched there in 1896, and that while the export of sugar from that port to the United States in 1894 amounted to eleven millions of dollars, in 1895 it sank to eight millions of dollars, and in 1896 it did not reach one million. I copied these figures one morning from the consular books, and that loss of ten millions of dollars in two years in one little port is but a sample of the facts that show what chaos this war is working.

In three weeks any member of the Senate or of Congress who wishes to inform himself on this reign of terror in Cuba can travel from one end of this island to the other and return competent to speak with absolute authority. No man, no matter what his prejudices may be, can make this journey and not go home convinced that it is his duty to try to stop this cruel waste of life and this wanton destruction of a beautiful country.

A reign of terror sounds hysterical, but it is an exact and truthful descriptive phrase of the condition in Cuba. Insurgents and Spaniards alike are laying waste the land, and neither side shows any sign of giving up the struggle. But while the men are in the field fighting after their fashion, for the independence of the island, the old men and the infirm and the women and children, who cannot help the cause or themselves, and who are destitute and starving and dying, have their eyes turned toward the great republic that lies only eighty miles away, and they are holding out their hands and asking "How long, O, Lord, how long?"

Or if the members of the Senate and of Congress can not visit Cuba, why will they not listen to those who have been there? Of three men who traveled over the island, seeking the facts concerning it, two correspondents and an interpreter, two of the three were for a time in Spanish hospitals, covered with small-pox. Of the three, although we were together until they were taken ill, I was the only one who escaped contagion.

If these other men should die, they die because they tried to find out the truth. Is it likely, having risked such a price for it that they would lie about what they have seen?

They could have invented stories of famine and disease in Havana. They need not have looked for the facts where they were to be found, in the seaports and villages and fever camps. Why not listen to these men or to Stephen Bonsai, of the New York Herald, in whom the late President showed his confidence by appointing him to two diplomatic missions?

Why not listen to C.E. Akers, of the London Times, and Harper's Weekly, who has held two commissions from the Queen? Why disregard a dozen other correspondents who are seeking the truth, and who urge in every letter which they write that their country should stop this destruction of a beautiful land and this butchery of harmless non-combatants?

The matter lies at the door of Congress. Each day's delay means the death of hundreds of people, every hour sees fresh blood spilled, and more houses and more acres of crops sinking into ashes. A month's delay means the loss to this world of thousands of lives, the unchecked growth of terrible diseases, and the spreading devastation of a great plague.

It would be an insult to urge political reasons, or the sure approval of the American people which the act of interference would bring, or any other unworthy motive. No European power dare interfere, and it lies with the United States and with her people to give the signal. If it is given now it will save thousands of innocent lives; if it is delayed just that many people will perish.


THE END.

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Richard Harding Davis

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