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Coal as Contraband

Under international laws of war, a neutral state in its corporate capacity must abstain from acts which can be of assistance to either belligerent. Relief from the obligation of repressing breaches of neutrality by contraband traffic of subjects has its counterpart in the right granted to belligerent warships of visit and search of neutral merchant vessels, and in the possible condemnation, according to circumstances, of the ship and confiscation of goods held to be contraband. Under international law, contraband was of two kinds: absolute contraband, such as arms of all kinds, machinery for manufacturing arms, ammunition, and any materials which are of direct application in naval or military armaments; and conditional contraband, consisting of articles which are fit for, but not necessarily of direct, application to hostile uses.

The classing of coal as conditional contraband gsve rise to much controversy. Great Britain consistently held it to be so. During the war of 1870 the French and German warships were only allowed to take at English ports enough to return to a French or German port respectively. In 1885, during the Franco-Chinese campaign, after protest by the Chinese government, Great Britain applied the same rule at Hong-Kong and Singapore. At the West African conference of 1884 Russia declared that she would categorically refuse her consent to any articles in any treaty, convention or instrument whatever which would imply the recognition of coal as contraband of war (Parliamentary Papers, Africa, No. 4, 1885).

Coal, however, was so essential to the prosecution of war that it is impossible to avoid classing it as conditional contraband, so long as such contraband is recognized. The alternative, of course, would be to allow both belligerents freely to supply themselves at neutral ports, and neutral vessels freely to supply belligerent coaling stations.

During the Franco-Chinese campaign of 1885 there was controversy as to the legality of treating food-stuffs as conditional contraband. During the former the subject-matter was rice, and the circumstances were exceptional. The hostilities being at the outset reprisals, and not actual war, Great Britain did not object to French war vessels coaling, victualling and repairing at British ports. On China protesting against this indulgence to France, Great Britain, put in force her practice of treating coal as contraband, and thereupon France exercised her corresponding belligerent right of searching British vessels. The closing of British coaling stations to French warships was a serious inconvenience to France.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898 neither belligerent seemed to have treated coal as contraband. In the case of the coal-ships which were prevented from landing their cargoes at Cuba, the prevention seemed to have been connected with the blockade only. On 26 May 1989 President McKinley issued a proclamtion which stated in part that "Spanish merchant vessels, if met at sea by any United States ship, shall be permitted to continue their voyage ... [except] ... Spanish vessels having on board any officer in the military or naval service of the enemy, or any coal, except such as may be necessary for their voyage, or any other article prohibited or contraband of war..."

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) coal had been declared contraband. Coaling for the Russian Baltic Fleet's 18,000 mile voyage to the Pacific was a problem. The Russians were not prepared for this type of war. Britain, allied with Japan and acting on consistent and long-standing policy, would not sell coal to Russia. On 03 October 1904 the Russian Baltic Fleet sailed from Kronstadt for Reval. Desiring prolong Russia's war effort, Kaiser Wilhelm II agreed to help, since he supported his cousin the Tsar in Eastern expansion. On 04 October 1904 Germany informed Russia that it will honor its coaling contract to Baltic Fleet, even if drawn into war with Britain and France. With few German bases on the long route to the Far East, Germany arranged for sixty colliers from the Hamburg-Amerika Line to supply coal along the way. Where there were no friendly or neutral ports, the coal was loaded at sea directly from the colliers.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:37:26 ZULU