Mr. Seward to Sir F. Bruce
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 7th instant, relative to the question stated in its accompanying copy of a letter of the 4th of January last, addressed by her Majesty’s consul for the State of Maryland to the United States district attorney at Baltimore, as to the remedy or protection existing in the event of a mutiny occurring on board a British merchant vessel in American waters.
With regard to the circumstance which gave rise to Mr. Bernal’s application, as described in your communication, I have the honor in reply to state that there is no doubt of the jurisdiction of our officers and tribunals to interfere in the way of prevention or of punishment in breaches of the peace occurring in American waters upon foreign vessels. There is no reason why our police, civil or naval, should hesitate to board a British vessel for the purpose of quelling a mutiny, attended with assaults upon the officers or violent resistance to the exercise of their legitimate authority—or subjecting refractory seamen to temporary confinement. The difficulty, however, is supposed to arise in cases where seamen simply refuse to work, and where confinement of them would reduce the vessel to a floating jail, without the power of motion. The remedy that is supposed to be wanted is a compulsion upon the men to do their duty; in other words, to enforce a specific obligation of their contract. No officer or tribunal of the United States has the capacity to apply such a remedy, except in execution of a treaty or convention, which seems necessary as the basis of laws of Congress regulating the mode of proceeding. A treaty is also necessary to justify the detention here of a foreign seaman upon the order of his consul, or otherwise than as a criminal offender.
For any intervention beyond the limit thus indicated an agreement between the two governments would seem to be requisite. I have to remark, however, that the question which I have discussed is purely a legal one, upon which I ought to reserve myself for consultation with the Attorney General. Giving you the opinions now entertained by me, I will at any time request the opinion of the law officer, if a practical case shall arise.
I have the honor to be, with the highest consideration, sir, your obedient servant,
The Hon. Sir Frederick W. A. Bruce, &c., &c., &c.