No. 373. [1st Session.
SUPPRESSION OF PIRACIES IN THE WEST INDIES.
COMMUNICATED TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, MAY 19, 1824.
Mr. Poinsett, from the Committee on Foreign Relations, to whom was referred so much of the President's message as relates to the "piracies by which our commerce in the neighborhood of the island of Cuba has been afflicted;" and "to the depredations which have been committed on the lawful commerce of the United States, under other pretences and other color, in the neighboring island of Porto Rico," reported:
That the prompt and energetic measures adopted by Congress at the commencement of their last session, seconded by the zeal and enterprise of the officers entrusted with the command of the light squadron destined to suppress piracy in the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico, have succeeded in putting a stop to the piracies by which our commerce had been afflicted in the neighborhood of the island of Cuba, as far as a foreign force, unaided by the public authorities of the island, could succeed in accomplishing this object.
These piracies had been continued for years under the immediate observation of the Government of the island of Cuba, which, as well as the Spanish Government, has been repeatedly and ineffectually required to suppress them. Many of them have been committed by boats which remained concealed in the harbors and under the headland until they discovered their prey, which they captured, plundered and destroyed upon the shores of the island. When pursued by a superior force the pirates have escaped to the shore, and our commanders have been refused permission to land in pursuit of them, even on the desert and uninhabited parts of the island.
It appears, from the most respectable testimony, that these atrocious robberies were committed by persons well known in Havana and in Regla, where they were organized into a band, and that the traffic in their plunder was carried on openly; that they were sometimes committed by vessels equipped at Havana and at Regla; and that they cautiously avoided molesting Spanish vessels, but attacked without discrimination the defenceless vessels of all other nations.
The present Captain General of the island of Cuba has acted with great courtesy towards our commander and officers engaged on this service, and has co-operated with them by arresting the pirates who had escaped to the shore, nor has he complained when our officers have found it necessary to pursue them, and to break up their haunts on the desert and unfrequented keys that surround the island. In no case, however, within our knowledge, where pirates have been seized by the authorities of the island, have they been brought to that punishment their crimes merited; and those who are well known to have fitted out piratical cruisers and to have sold their plunder with the utmost notoriety, are suffered to remain in Havana and Regla in the unmolested enjoyment of the fruits of their crimes. Under these circumstances the British and American squadrons in those seas may repress piracy, so long as they continue cruising in the neighborhood of the island; but there is reason to apprehend that, on their removal, similar outrages on our commerce will be renewed. In the opinion of your committee, piracy can only be effectually suppressed by the Government of Spain and by the authorities of the island taking the necessary measures to prevent piratical vessels or boats from being equipped or sailing from any part of the island, and to apprehend and punish every description of outlaws, as well those who actually commit acts of piracy as those who receive and traffic in goods plundered on the high seas.
The commerce of the United States with the island of Cuba, superior to that with Spain and all its other dependencies, and fully equal to that with France, claims in a peculiar manner the protection of Government. The safety of that commerce requires that the Government of Spain should be urged to adopt prompt and vigorous measures effectually to suppress piracy in the neighborhood of the island, and to co-operate with the maritime powers most interested in effecting this object: and your committee are of opinion, that, for the protection of this important commerce, and of the persons and property of our fellow-citizens, when in the ports of the island, the residence of consuls or authorized commercial agents of the United States at these places is absolutely necessary, and ought to be insisted upon.
Privateers, distinguished from pirates only by commissions of most equivocal character from Spanish officers whose authority to issue them has never been shown, have been equipped in the island of Porto Rico, and have committed outrages and depredations upon the persons and property of the citizens of the United States; outrages which no commission could divest of their piratical character. With no other naval force than a frigate, a brig and a schooner, they presumed to declare a blockade of more than twelve hundred miles of coast. To this violation of all the rights of neutrality they added the absurd pretension of interdicting the peaceable commerce of other nations with all the ports of the Spanish main, upon the pretence that it had heretofore been forbidden by the Spanish colonial laws; and, on the strength of these two inadmissible principles, they issued commissions in the island of Porto Rico to a swarm of privateers, which have committed extensive and ruinous depredations upon the lawful commerce of the United States. Frequent remonstrances have been made, both to Spain and to the authorities of the island, by the Executive, without producing any effect. During the last summer a special agent was sent to Porto Rico to obtain the restitution of American vessels captured by the privateers of that island, and to collect documentary evidence of the trials and condemnation of others. To the first demand the political chief referred the agent to the Government of Spain, declaring that he could not, without an open infraction of fundamental laws, take cognizance of causes legally determined; that the officers of that province could not proceed but by the express orders of the Supreme Government, and to that the United States, after the example of Great Britain, must have recourse.
It appears by the testimony collected by this gentleman that it had been the practice of these privateers not to send in their prizes to the large and frequented ports where impartial judges could determine on the validity of the capture, and where the captured could have the means of fairly defending their rights; but to send them into distant and obscure seaports where the courts are notoriously corrupt, and where the captains and owners were deprived of the means of making even statements of their cases. There are many instances of vessels condemned most unjustly; and even where they have had the rare good fortune to escape condemnation, their owners have been subjected to ruinous costs and charges; and in some cases, before the vessels have reached the port, the cargoes and property have been plundered, and the officers and crew treated in a cruel and barbarous manner.
In San Juan, the principal town of the island of Porto Rico, attempts have been made to assassinate the commercial agent of the United States and the master of a merchant vessel in order, as they believe, to prevent them from taking legal measures to recover property unlawfully captured. Your committee deem it unnecessary to enumerate the vessels that have been captured and condemned without the color of justice, or to recapitulate each particular case of barbarous outrage committed upon the persons and properly of the citizens of the United States by privateers fitted out in the ports of Porto Rico; outrages which, in their opinion, would justify reprisals and a rigorous blockade of the ports of that island. Your committee forbear to recommend the immediate adoption of those measures only because the minister of the United States at Madrid has been instructed to remonstrate with his Catholic Majesty on the culpable neglect of the Spanish authorities in the island of Porto Rico, and to require indemnity for the losses sustained by the citizens of the United States from the lawless conduct of the commanders of privateers bearing his Majesty's commission. That this remonstrance and demand were not made earlier arose from circumstances beyond the control of Government. The former minister had left Madrid before his instructions on this subject reached that place, and the subsequent invasion of Spain by France, and the conduct of the French commander of the blockading squadron off Cadiz, retarded the arrival of our present minister. While the committee advise that Government wait the result of the negotiation now pending at Madrid, or, at all events, the answer to the remonstrance of our minister at that court, before a resort is had to reprisals and blockade, they earnestly recommend that two or more small cruisers should be constantly kept off the ports of San Juan, and in the Moro Passage so as to protect our commerce and intercept at the entrance of San Juan, Aguadilla, Mayaguez, Cape Roco, and Ponce, American vessels unlawfully captured by Spanish privateers; and that the commanders of the United States vessels-of-war be instructed to capture and send into a port of the United States for trial any privateer that commits an outrage on the persons or plunders the property of citizens of the United States on the high seas, whenever good and sufficient testimony of such piratical act can be obtained.