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The Rock was now attacked at sea by two great navies, besides the battering ships mounting 212 guns, and on land by batteries mounting 200 heavy guns and an army of 40,000 men. Against them were 7,000 veterans.
In September the bombardment by the battering ships began, at first apparently with success; but by nightfall one after another had caught fire and burnt or blew up, the enemy's losses being not less than 2,000, while the garrison had 13 men killed and 63 wounded. That, although the siege continued until the peace, was practically the end. Howe came (having only 34 sail to oppose 44), relieved the garrison, and on his way
back defeated the Spanish fleet. Then, in February, 1783, there was peace.
x. The First Armed Neutrality.—“Come the three corners of the world in arms but we shall shock them.”
The disturbance of international commerce by naval operations to a degree far surpassing that by military operations on land creates a dangerous friction between neutrals and nations at war. It plays a great part, not, as a rule, recognized in history, in the extension and events of war. It was this, more than any other cause, which lost England her French possessions in the Middle Ages; it told against Philip II. in his war with the revolted Dutch provinces; it was this which brought about the great combination which faced the islands in 1780–1.
The general international law of Europe was very old and well established, very clear and acknowledged by all nations. It rested on the right of every power at war to search all ships at sea for goods of the enemy, the rule being laid down in the Consulato del Mare that enemy's property shall not be carried by neutral ships, the ownership of the goods settling the right of seizure. It was a rule acknowledged by Grotius, the great supporter of freedom of navigation against Britain.
Like every great principle laid down by mankind for general use the rule had been written over with exceptions, the “particular agreement chaining up the natural law,” the belligerent powers at all times excepting, by separate treaty, friendly nations from the severity of the rule.
All such rules of war must be matters of compromise, modifying a general rule. The neutral of to-day may be at war to-morrow and may condemn, as a belligerent, the freedom of action enjoyed as a neutral. The neutral cannot, without using force, dispute the naval dispositions and orders of the Prize Courts of the fighters. If she uses force she becomes a belligerent. Great Britain, as mistress of the seas, was not likely to use her power over neutral trade either with humility or with any other view than to her own interest. The rule rested, as do all laws, on the force behind it, and the belligerents of all time, having the force, had made the law.
Quite recently this rule, on which the British relied, had been laid down very clearly by the British law officers of the Crown. They had seized, in 1752, Prussian vessels which were carrying for the enemy, and Frederick II. claimed the right to repudiate his debts to the British unless it was admitted that he was justified in carrying enemies' goods in his neutral ships. The reply of the British jurists was a réponse sans réplique ; the enemy's goods might be taken on the ship of a friend ; contraband goods going to the enemy, though the property of a friend, may be taken as prize, as helping him to carry on the war. But before the goods can be disposed of by the captor they must be condemned by fair trial in a proper court of the captor, the evidence coming from the ship's papers, with which every ship must be provided. If the seizure is made without probable cause, the captor is adjudged to pay costs and damages. So the British jurists laid down the law, so far as it was not modified by treaty.
The contention of the neutral was shortly stated by Bernstorff, the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs, in August, 1778. The war between England and France, he says, puts every neutral flag into very great danger. Such flag should not be exposed thereto except as it might protect transport of munitions of war to the belligerent countries; any other merchandise going to ports not under blockade should be free. But if this contention were established as the rule, and not as the exception, if the neutral might carry on the trade of the weaker power at war, it was contended “the wars of others, instead of calling for all their sincere good offices for the redress of the injured party, or at least for the re-establishment of peace, are, in truth, the harvest of neutral Powers by making them the carriers of the weaker party."
As a matter of fact, when treaties were made between maritime nations, these provisions of the general law were almost always modified. Great Britain had many such treaties, especially with the Baltic nations. For example, in the instructions to the commanders of merchant ships and vessels having letters of marque and reprisals (Henning F.F.A., Vol. 2, p. 65) reference is made to such treaties with Russia, Denmark and Portugal. The treaty with Russia, June 20, 1766, provided for freedom of trade with powers with whom either of the treaters were at war, except for warlike stores and goods to places blockaded.
How very essential such provisions might be to a naval power such as Britain in those days is shown by a passage in Grafton's Autobiography in 1782. “The king's yards so destitute of naval stores that our dependence for the means of continuing another campaign rested on the safe arrival of the Baltic fleet which were laden with all that was wanted for the Navy.” It showed one result of the defection of the American colonies.
As examples of the interference with neutrals in June, 1781, the Gibraltar garrison fired on a Neapolitan man-of-war to bring her to, and then, as she took no notice, continued firing to sink her; in November, 1782, a Danish ship was brought to anchor in the bay by a gun from Europa point; in December of the same year a Venetian ship was driven by the current under the guns of the fortress ; we fired to bring her to, and the master instantly came on shore and informed us that he was bound for London; but before he could return his vessel was boarded by three Spanish gunboats which towed her to Algeciras (Drinkwater).
On the other hand, when Holland went to war with Great Britain, the Dutch ships sailed to the East under the Danish flag to protect Dutch commerce, on which the British seized the Danish settlements in India. Also Frederick of Prussia, following the mode by which Prussia had grown into a great nation, mediatizing, which I should translate as doing the dirty work of other powers, became for a time a Dutch carrier. In 1780, an average of two thousand Dutch ships passed the Sound, and 670 Prussian ships; in 1781, eleven Dutch ships and 1507 Prussian ships. (Quoted in The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, by James Brown Scott, 1918.)
Britain's position in 1780 was so precarious that the opportunity to humiliate the great naval power seeming to have arisen, a formidable confederation of nations headed by Russia arose which proposed after the revolutionary habits of thought of those days to sweep away the law which had gradually developed in the past and to replace it by rules resting on theories, which at the moment were better suited to the interests of the neutrals. If the powers that formed this League of Nations had been able to subordinate their several self-interests to any common objective they might have succeeded in bringing the great naval power to her knees. But too many of them by treaty had already the freedom they required.
It is very difficult to ascertain from contemporary statements the origin of this confederation, as it is attributed by various writers to Panin, Bernstorff and Florida Blanca. But action began by a Proclamation of the Empress Catherine II. of Russia in February, 1780, which is stated to have been brought about by the seizure by Spain of two Russian ships with wheat for Gibraltar in the Mediterranean. Great Britain was negotiating with her for an alliance against France, Spain and the American colonies. But this seizure is said to have induced the Empress to turn from the alliance with any one belligerent to a general declaration for the freedom of trade by neutrals in time of war, a declaration accepted as to their advantage by all powers of Europe and the revolted colonies. The terms of this new law were (1) that neutral ships may freely navigate from port to port on the coasts of nations at war, that is, may carry on the coasting trade for a weaker power ; (2) that enemy's goods shall be free in all neutrals' vessels, except for contraband of war; (3) that a blockaded port must be so well guarded by the attacking power that it is dangerous to enter it; (4) that contraband is confined to articles of exclusive and immediate service in war. The League provided also rules for process on search and seizure. The signatories to the Armed Neutrality bound themselves to maintain these new rules, even should they be forced to use arms. To these proposals, which at that time would absolutely have destroyed her maritime supremacy, Britain gave a firm and dignified answer.
Solitary and abandoned by the whole world; struggling with a fatal schism among her own children ; opposed with
diminished resources to all the greatest maritime powers of Europe, to the Continent of America, and almost to the Continent of Asia ; without a single ally, and before her ancient vigour had shone out under the direction of her favourite admiral to the dismay of her opponents; nothing could be more firm or in consequence of such a situation more honourable than the conduct of Great Britain. She did not disclaim the rule of action upon which she had ever proceeded; she did not approve of the natural justice of the new theory asserted ; she did not applaud the principles and views of the Empress as partaking of the same sentiments, but she firmly though prudently answered that she should act according to the clear principles of the acknowledged Law of Nations where no treaty had modified that law; and that she would abide by her treaties where they actually subsisted.” (Ward, Treatise on Maritime Law.)
Her position of steadfastness to the rule as it stood was justified. No common bond of union joined the supporters of the new theories; Spain declared that she had been obliged to seize enemies' goods in neutral ships because Britain had done so; the Baltic powers with whom Britain had special treaties, while not disowning the treaties, went outside them so far as carrying for the weaker belligerents was to their advantage ; the French reply was that“ the war in which the king is engaged having no other object than the attachment of his Majesty to the freedom of the seas,” he was supporting the Armed Neutrality “at the price of his people's blood.”
The result of the contest was that the purpose of the Armed Neutrality was defeated; that Britain kept her predominance on the sea, and was enabled to destroy the most part of her enemies' commerce; and that any part of the programme of the allies which survived was already incorporated in treaties made with each other by maritime powers.
When the French revolutionary war breaks out, all these advocates of neutral rights go to the other extreme, and trample under foot any freedom of maritime commerce.
xi. The Gordon Riots, 1780.-While Elliott and his stubborn veterans were holding the Rock of Gibraltar against Spain, and Murray, with his handful of starving men, was facing in