This text is part of:
Table of Contents:
Capt. Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator in the service of Peter the Great, discovered the sea which bears his name, and in 1741 he made an imperfect exploration of a portion of the Alaskan coast. By virtue of these discoveries, the Emperor Paul of Russia, in 1799, assumed the sovereignty over the American coast as far south as lat. 55°, and formally annexed that part of the continent to the Russian domains. In 1867 Russian America was purchased by the United States government for $7,200,000. The only wealth of the country known at that time was its fur-producing animals, particularly the fur-seals of the coasts and islands, and it was for this mainly that the purchase was made. The officials who conducted the transaction were not mistaken in their estimates of the revenue to be derived from this source, for during the twenty years which followed the seal-fisheries paid into the national treasury a rental which exceeded the purchase-price of the territory by $6,350,000. That Bering Sea, with its islands, was the exclusive property of Russia for the sixty-eight years of her domination in Alaska had never been questioned, and that the United States, by purchase, succeeded to the same rights of possession no one could, it would be supposed, deny. About 1886, however, some ship-owners in British Columbia began to encroach upon these rights by sending vessels into the sea to intercept the seals as they made their annual migration to their breeding-grounds on the Pribyloff Islands. This unlawful poaching and the unregulated pelagic sealing were carried on to such an extent that in 1890 the Canadian intruders secured 20,000 skins. As very many of the seals thus taken were females, and their young were left to perish for want of sustenance, the actual number destroyed was far in excess of the number of skins, and the extinction of the entire species was threatened. At this juncture a United States revenue-cutter captured one of the poaching vessels. The seizure became at once the subject of correspondence between the British government and the State Department at Washington. Secretary Blaine urged that illicit sealing was a pursuit contra bonos mores, against international comity; and he argued against the claim of Lord Salisbury, who had asserted that Bering Sea could not be mare clausum under any circumstances. The British premier declined to recognize the claims of the United States, although he expressed regret at the “wanton destruction of a valuable industry,” and asked that the right of the United States to  seize the Canadian vessels be submitted to a court of arbitration. While this correspondence was going on the poachers continued their depredations, and the number of seals was so materially reduced that in 1891 not more than one-fourth of the usual number of pelts were taken by the legally authorized sealers. An agreement was finally entered into to submit the matter to a court of arbitration, composed of commissioners selected by the two governments. The questions at issue to be decided by this court were as follows: 1. What exclusive jurisdiction in Bering Sea did Russia exercise prior to the cession of Alaska? 2. To what extent was this jurisdiction, especially as regarded the seal fisheries, recognized by Great Britain: 3. Was the Bering Sea included in the phrase “Pacific Grean” in the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1825; and what rights did Russia exercise in the Bering Sea after the treaty? 4. Did not all the Russian rights in the fisheries east of the water boundary pass to the United States when the treaty was ratified by which she acquired possession of the territory of Alaska? 5. What right of protection of property has the United States in the seals frequenting United States islands, when found outside the ordinary 3-mile limit? Pending the decision of the case by arbitration, an agreement was entered into between the two governments, June 15, 1891, providing: 1. That Great Britain shall use her best efforts to prohibit sealing by her subjects in Bering Sea until May, 1892. 2. That the United States shall limit the number of seals to he taken by the North American Commercial Company to 7,500 per year, and shall not permit more to be taken previous to the date above given. 3. That offending vessels outside the territorial limits of the United States may be seized by either of the contracting parties; and, 4. That British agents may visit or remain on the islands during the present season to make such observations as may be necessary for the proper presentation of the case to the court of arbitration. Expert agents were appointed by each government to visit the localities under dispute, and make a thorough investigation of the material facts. A treaty was signed at Washington, Feb. 29, 1892, providing for the settlement by arbitration of the vexed seal question. The treaty was ratified in London, and the arbitrators met in Paris; they were Lord Hannen, Sir John Thompson, Justice Harlan, United States Senator Morgan, Baron de Courcelles, M. Gregero Gram, and Marquis Visconti Venosta. The decision of the tribunal was rendered Aug. 15, 1893. The findings of the arbitrators were: Russia never claimed exclusive rights; (Great Britain had not conceded any claim of Russia to exclusive jurisdiction; Bering Sea was included in the Pacific Ocean in the treaty of 1825: all Russian rights Passed to the United States; the United States have no rights when seals are outside the 3-mile limit. Restrictive regulations were also adopted: proclaiming a closed season from May 1 to July 31 in Bering Sea and the North Pacific; establishing a protected zone within 60 miles of the Pribyloff Islands; forbidding steam-vessels, use of nets, fire-arms, and explosives. The award was regarded as a compromise, in which the United States was technically defeated, but acquired substantial advantages in the regulations. The complaints came mainly from Can ada. See Bering sea arbitration. In 1894, the year following the signing of this treaty, more seals were slaughtered by poachers than ever before. The United States again asked England to interfere against the Canadian poachers, but that country refused to act unless the United States should pay Great Britain $500,000 in discharge of all claims for damages resulting from alleged illegal seizures of British vessels in Bering Sea. The United States denied the justice of this claim, hut after another year of seal slaughter, agreed to submit the claim to arbitration In July, 1896, Judge G. E. King, of Canada, and Judge W. E. Putnam, of the United States, were chosen commissioners to settle the matter. On Jan. 14, 1898. President McKinley submitted to Congress the report and awards of the commission, the last aggregating $473,151 in favor of Great Britain, and on June 14 Congress appropriated  that amount. In the mean time (June, 189）6) President Cleveland appointed a commission to make an exhaustive study of the fur-seal question, and on its report (1897) president McKinley appointed a new commission to devise protection for the seals. Then efforts were made to induce Great Britain to consent to an international conference, but Canada objected to the representation of Russia and Japan, whom the United States had invited, and on this objection Great Britain declined. Subsequently the United States invited all interested nations to a conference separately. See Anglo-American commission. Bering sea arbitration
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.