Mr. Seward to Mr. Clay
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your dispatch of the 14th of August, No. 199, which is accompanied by a note which was addressed to you on the 31st of July last, by Mr. de Westmann, acting minister of foreign affairs, and which contains the long-looked-for explanation of the collision which occurred in the Sea of Okhotsk between the commandant of a Russian ship of war and two United States whaling vessels, and which was made a subject of inquiry by this government. In substance the explanation is, that Lieutenant Etoline, commanding the Russian war schooner Aleout, on the 14th of July, 1867, was entering the Gulf of Tougoursh, and was about 20 miles to the north of the Straits of Chautusk, near the eastern coast, when he discovered the United States whaling ship Java occupied there in rendering the oil of a captured whale. The lieutenant had no special orders or instructions or charge from his government concerning these United States whalers, or indeed any whalers, in Russian waters far from or near the coast of Russia. Moved, however, by the consideration that Russia enjoys the undeniable right of admiralty in all waters lying within three miles of her territory, Lieutenant Etoline warned the. captain of the Java to bear off from the Gulf of Tougoursh. The captain of the Java immediately moved away, in prompt compliance with this warning. On the next day the Aleout was in the Bay of Mawgan. The captain of the United States whaling schooner Caroline Foote accompanied the captain of the Java, who called upon Lieutenant Etoline. Then Lieutenant Etoline represents that the captain of the Java on that occasion remarked that Lieutenant Etoline had no right to prevent their fishing for whales wherever they liked. In reply to this general assertion Lieutenant Etoline said that there are regulations, and that if the captains of the whalers should insist on breaking those regulations he would be obliged to prevent them. Here the conversation ended. Thus far nothing was done by either of the captains of the whaling vessels which could be considered as an invasion or violation of Russian jurisdiction. The conversation was a desultory one, having no practical bearing upon any proceeding ever before or after attempted, or even contemplated, by either party.
The parties, indeed, have mutually expressed themselves with some indiscretion. Lieutenant Etoline does not allege that the whaling ship Java was within three miles of the shore when he warned her to bear off. On the other hand, the captain of the Java spoke unwarrantably when by implication he denied that the Russian authorities have a right to prevent foreign vessels from fishing for whales within three marine miles of their own shore. Lieutenant Etoline then offered assistance and furnished provision to the schooner Caroline Foote, which vessel was then in distress; this proceeding was commendable, and it is appreciated by this government. Here this merely accidental intercourse between the commanders of the Aleout and of the United States whalers Java and Caroline Foote practically ended, and certainly without having offered any serious ground of complaint to the government of either party against the other. The transaction, nevertheless, had a sequel, and this sequel resulted in a misunderstanding on the part of the captains of the whalers. Four days after the vessels had parted in the Bay of Mawgan, the Aleout met a whale afloat. The commander ordered a cannon to be [Page 473] fired at the whale by way of a trial shot. At the same moment there appeared, at about 16 miles’ distance, a sail, name unknown, and nearer, three chaloupes, the nearest of which was more than three miles distant from the Aleout, but all in the direction of the cannon shot. In the evening all of these vessels had disappeared. It is to be presumed that the Java was one of those vessels. The captain of the Java, hearing the report of this trial fire of the Aleout, seemed to have referred it to the conversation he had had four days before with Lieutenant Etoline, and so he has, not unnaturally, represented the transaction to this government as one in which the Russian officer had fired upon his whaling vessel with an intention to drive him from the Sea of Okhotsk.
Lieutenant Etoline disavows and denies the construction thus put upon his proceeding in the transaction, and the denial is rendered entirely credible by the fact that he set down only the fact of his firing at the whale in his log-book, and of the vessels seen in the distance; nor did he think his proceeding of such importance or interest as to report it to his government, and he was surprised when informed of the construction which the captain of the Java had put upon it.
In any case, the disavowal by the Russian government of any hostile or unfriendly direction, instruction, or sanction of any proceeding or intention unfriendly to the United States, is quite abundant for the satisfaction of this government.
You will give a copy of this communication to Mr. de Westmann.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Cassius M. Clay, Esq., &c., &c., &c.