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Essequibo River - 19th Century Arbitration

The Colonies of Demerary, Essequibo, Berbice, and Surinam capitulated to his Britannic Majesty's arms by the Treaty of 1815, in consideration of the sum applied to the erection of fortresses, Holland consented to cede to England, in perpetuity, the colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo. Britain entered into one of the most improvident, extravagant, and profligate bargains that was ever made by any State, and agreed to pay for those colonies—the Cape of Good Hope, Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice—so many millions of money, whereas they were not worth so many hundreds of thousands, perhaps not so many shillings.

To the treaty then made there was no map or plan attached. The country had not then been carefully explored by geographers; but in that treaty there was no description of the boundaries of the territory between British Guiana and Venezuela. Certain "Governorships" were ceded to Great Britain under the description of Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo. Every one of those districts was remote from the Orinoco and from the Moroco rivers. There was nothing in the treaty of cession on the part of Holland to Great Britain to indicate that the British had any rights outside a few miles west of the Essequibo.

Nothing occurred in respect of a territorial right dispute between the two countries until 1840. Now, in 1840, instructions were given to the great traveller Schomburgk, to make a survey of British Guiana. First he made a preliminary survey, which, be it observed, was short of his ultimate survey by a distance of 11,000 square miles, and in his ultimate survey he put up posts and signals to indicate what the boundary of British Guiana was. All this territory was, if they liked, a "no man's land," but no claim was ever raised till 1841 by Great Britain lo any portion of territory beyond that which the Venezuelan Government was prepared to submit indisputably belonged to them.

As soon as these posts were put up the Venezuelan Government remonstrated with Lord Aberdeen, and insisted on their removal. Lord Aberdeen's response was that these posts wore not put up to indicate a line of demarcation between the two territories, they were merely put up to indicate a line which should be the subject of future discussion and negotiation between the two nations.’ The Venezuelan Government, persisting in their objections, Lord Aberdeen directed British officials to travel to the district and remove the posts, and they were removed and the status quo ante was resumed.

Would it be believed that the last public communication that passed from Her Majesty's Foreign Office to the American Government and to the Venezuelan Government was a declaration of their determination to rely not upon the abandoned Schomburgk line, but upon a line infringing still further upon territory which Venezuela claims to be here. In 1844 Lord Aberdeen proposed to the Venezuelan Government that the line of the Moroco should be accepted as the boundary line. Had that line been taken instead of the Orinoco, it meant that some most valuable mineral land would have been at this moment under the sovereignty of Venezuela, together with the mouth of one of the greatest water-ways of the South American Continent. Unfortunately, that proposal was not accepted, but let that not be imputed by way of blame to the Venezuelan Government or as entitling the British Government to take up their former position as to the Orinoco, because at that time, and for 25 years afterwards, Venezuela was convulsed by civil commotions.

The British Government consistently contended that the British territory extended up to and included the mouth of the Orinoco. The Venezuelan Government, on the other hand, contended that the British territory ended at the mouth of the Essequibo. The territory involved had been debateable since the year 1840. It was not until 1840 that it was ever seriously contended that the British territory extended as far as the mouth of the river Orinoco. The Venezuelan Government contended — and this was later the bone of contention — that the arbitration should cover the whole of the territory in dispute, up to the banks, or nearly to the banks, of the Essequibo. On the other hand, the British Government had contended that the Sovereignty of Great Britain up to and including the mouth of the Orinoco should be admitted without question, and that the arbitration should be confined to the comparatively small stretch of territory which extended beyond the Schomburgk line of delimitation. Thus a vast tract of territory was involved, some of it being very valuable.

So far from the contention of the British Government as to its frontier being consistent, it had, since 1841, changed no fewer than seven times, the line of demarcation which it contended was the limitation between the two countries. In one case at least, in 1844, it took up a position many miles remote from the Orinoco boundary. How, in face of these facts, showing that the sovereignty of the British Government in respect of this territory had, since the year 1841, been of this variable and shifting character, could it be contended that the Schomburgk line of limitation was outside the pale of arbitration?

The year 1881 might be called the next historical period in this controversy, when Venezuela expressed to the British Government her willingness to accept the line which in 1844 had been offered to her by Lord Aberdeen—the line of the Moroco. He regretted to say that Lord Granville declined to entertain that course. He absolutely declined to entertain that which, 30 or 40 years before, had been offered by the British Government as the true line of delimitation. From 1881 onwards, there was nothing but a miserable and painful record of representations made by Venezuela, often in the form of treaty, never in the form of menace.

In 1885 the Venezuelan Government granted a concession of territory for a Company called the Manoa Company. The concession purported to extend to the boundary of British Guiana; but the Company claim as included in the concession territory which Her Majesty's Government consider to belong to the Colony of British Guiana. The agents of the Company issued notices asserting their claim, but they did not appear to have actually taken possession of any portion of the Colony.

In 1887, when the British Government made still further aggressions on the territory of Venezuela; when it had, by various agencies to which it gave an official or quasi-official sanction, planted posts and 506 settlements throughout the territory of Venezuela, the Venezuelan Government in despair and indignation, suspended diplomatic relations; and except through the medium of the United States.

In 1888 the President of Venezuela published an official map for 1887, claiming the whole of British Guiana, west of the Essequibo River, as forming part of the United States of Venezuela. Setting aside altogether that part of the British claim which was situated to the westward of the Schomburgk line, in regard to which the British had expressed their full willingness to submit to arbitration, the claim of Venezuela was to more than two-thirds of the whole 13 colony of British Guiana. Of the 100,000 square miles included in the colony of British Guiana, Venezuela claimed 80,000.

A Tribunal of Arbitration was constituted under Article I of the Treaty concluded at Washington on the 2nd day of February, 1897, between Her Britannic Majesty and the United States of Venezuela. The result of the arbitration was that the Essequibo territory was handed over to British Guiana. The United Nations, Commonwealth, Caricom and the Organisation of American States have long supported Guyana's position that the 1899 Arbitral Tribunal Award has fully and finally settled the boundary with Venezuela.

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:36:07 ZULU