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Venezuelan crisis of 1895

Map showing:
* The extreme border claimed by Britain
* The current boundary (roughly) and
* The extreme border claimed by Venezuela

The Venezuelan crisis of 1895[1] occurred over Venezuela's longstanding dispute with the United Kingdom about the territory of Essequibo and Guayana Esequiba, which Britain claimed as part of British Guiana and Venezuela saw as Venezuelan territory. As the dispute became a crisis, the key issue became Britain's refusal to include in the proposed international arbitration the territory east of the "Schomburgk Line", which a surveyor had drawn half a century earlier as a boundary between Venezuela and the former Dutch territory of British Guiana.[1] The crisis ultimately saw Britain accept the United States' intervention in the dispute to force arbitration of the entire disputed territory, and tacitly accept the United States' right to intervene under the Monroe Doctrine. A tribunal convened in Paris in 1898 to decide the matter, and in 1899 awarded the bulk of the disputed territory to British Guiana.[2]

The dispute had become a diplomatic crisis in 1895 when Venezuela's lobbyist William L. Scruggs sought to argue that British behavior over the issue violated the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and used his influence in Washington, D.C. to pursue the matter. Then US President Grover Cleveland adopted a broad interpretation of the Doctrine that did not just forbid new European colonies but declared an American interest in any matter within the hemisphere.[3] British prime minister Lord Salisbury and the British ambassador to Washington, Julian Pauncefote, misjudged the importance the American government placed on the dispute, prolonging the crisis before ultimately accepting the American demand for arbitration[4][5] of the entire territory.

By standing with a Latin American nation against European colonial powers, Cleveland improved relations with the United States' southern neighbors, but the cordial manner in which the negotiations were conducted also made for good relations with Britain.[6] However, by backing down in the face of a strong US declaration of a strong interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, Britain tacitly accepted the Doctrine, and the crisis thus provided a basis for the expansion of US interventionism in the Western Hemisphere.[7] Leading British historian Robert Arthur Humphreys later called the crisis "one of the most momentous episodes in the history of Anglo-American relations in general and of Anglo-American rivalries in Latin America in particular."[8]


  • Background 1
  • Crisis 2
  • Arbitration 3
  • Outcome 4
  • Aftermath 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8


By 1895 Venezuela had had a dispute with the United Kingdom about the territory of Guayana Esequiba, which Britain claimed as part of British Guiana and Venezuela saw as Venezuelan territory, for over half a century. The territorial claims were originally those of the Spanish Empire (inherited by Venezuela after its independence in 1830) and of the Dutch Empire (inherited by the United Kingdom with the acquisition of the Dutch territories of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice in 1814), having remained unsettled over previous centuries.[9] Over the course of the nineteenth century the British and Venezuelans had proved no more able to reach an agreement, until matters came to a head in 1895, after seven years of severed diplomatic relations.

Venezuela map (1810) showing the border with the Essequibo river.

The basis of the discussions between Venezuela and the United Kingdom lay in Britain's advocacy of a particular division of the territory deriving from a mid-nineteenth-century survey it commissioned. This survey originated with German naturalist Robert Schomburgk's four-year expedition for the Royal Geographical Society in 1835 to 1839, which resulted in a sketch of the territory with a line marking what he believed to be the western boundary claimed by the Dutch. As a result of this he was commissioned by the British government to carry out a survey of Guiana's boundaries.[8] The result was the "Schomburgk Line", which he established partly following natural divisions and partly to distinguish territory of Spanish or Venezuelan occupation from that which had been occupied by the Dutch.[8] The Line went well beyond the area of British occupation, and gave British Guiana control of the mouth of the Orinoco River.[10] In 1844 Venezuela declared the Essequibo River the dividing line; a British offer the same year, to make major alterations to the Line and cede the mouth of the Orinoco and much associated territory, was ignored.[11] No treaty between Britain and Venezuela was reached, and after an 1850 agreement not to encroach on disputed territory,[12] the matter largely rested until 1876, when diplomatic exchanges resumed. Schomburgk's initial sketch, which had been published in 1840, was the only version of the "Schomburgk Line" published until 1886. This led to accusations by US President Grover Cleveland that the line had been extended "in some mysterious way".[8]

In October 1886 Britain declared the Line to be the provisional frontier of British Guiana, and in February 1887 Venezuela severed diplomatic relations.[8] Proposals for a renewal of relations and settlement of the dispute failed repeatedly, and by summer 1894, diplomatic relations had been severed for seven years and the dispute dragged on for half a century.[8] In addition, both sides had established police or military stations at key points in the area, partly to defend claims to the Caratal goldfield of the region's Yuruari basin, which was within Venezuelan territory but claimed by the British. The mine at El Callao, started in 1871, was for a time one of the richest in the world, and the goldfields as a whole saw over a million ounces exported between 1860 and 1883.[12] The gold mining was dominated by immigrants from the British Isles and the British West Indies, giving an appearance of almost creating an English colony on Venezuelan territory.[12]

Venezuela had in the course of the dispute repeatedly appealed to the US and to the Monroe Doctrine, but the US had declined to involve itself.[8] This changed after Venezuela obtained the services of William L. Scruggs.[8] Scruggs, a former US Ambassador to Colombia and Venezuela, was recruited in 1893 by the Venezuelan Government to operate on its behalf in Washington D.C. as a lobbyist and legal attache. Scruggs had apparently resigned his ambassadorship to Venezuela in December 1892, but in fact had been dismissed by the US for bribing the President of Venezuela.[8] As a lobbyist, Scruggs published an October 1894 pamphlet entitled British Aggressions in Venezuela:, or the Monroe Doctrine on Trial.[8] In the pamphlet, he attacked "British aggression", claiming that Venezuela was anxious to arbitrate over the Venezuela/British Guiana border dispute. Scruggs also claimed that British policies in the disputed territory violated the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.[13] Whilst for much of the nineteenth century the Doctrine had only rarely been invoked by the United States, a "paradigm shift in U.S. foreign relations in the late nineteenth century"[14] saw the U.S. more actively support its increasingly significant economic interests in Central and South America. This "'new diplomacy' thrust the United States more emphatically into the imperial struggle".[14] It was in this context that Scruggs sought to draw on the Doctrine in Venezuela's interests.

President Cleveland twist the tail of the British Lion; cartoon in Puck by J.S. Pughe, 1895


House Resolution 252

Scruggs collaborated with Congressman Leonidas Livingston to propose United States House of Representatives Resolution 252 to the third session of the 53rd United States Congress.[8] The bill recommended Venezuela and the United Kingdom settle the dispute by arbitration. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on February 22, 1895, after passing both houses of the United States Congress. The vote had been unanimous.[15]

In May 1895 the Royal Navy occupied the Nicaraguan port of Corinto, after a number of British subjects, including the Vice-consul, had been seized during disturbances, shortly after the former protectorate of the Mosquito Coast had been incorporated into Nicaragua.[8] The British demanded an indemnity of £15,000.[8] US Secretary of State Walter Q. Gresham thought the demands harsh, but also that they should be met.[8] US public opinion, however, was outraged at this British military activity in the United States' sphere of influence.[8]

In July 1895 new Secretary of State Richard Olney (succeeding Gresham, who died in office at the end of May) sent a document to London which became known as "Olney's twenty-inch gun" (the draft was 12,000 words long).[16] The note reviewed the history of the Anglo-Venezuelan dispute and of the Monroe Doctrine, and it firmly insisted on the application of the Doctrine to the case, declaring that "today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."[17] At this point the President and the Secretary of State as well as the US public "had been brought to believe that Britain was in the wrong, that the vital interests of the United States were involved, and the United States must intervene."[8] The note had little impact on the British Government, partly because Joseph Chamberlain, at the Colonial Office, thought it possible that the colony had a major gold-bearing region around the Schomburgk line, and partly because the Government rejected the idea that the Monroe Doctrine had any relevance for the boundary dispute.[8] A reply to Olney's note directly challenged his interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that

"The Government of the United States is not entitled to affirm as a universal proposition, with reference to a number of independent States for whose conduct it assumes no responsibility, that its interests are necessarily concerned in whatever may befall those States, simply because they are situated in the Western Hemisphere."[8]

By 17 December 1895, President Cleveland delivered an address to the United States Congress reaffirming the Monroe Doctrine and its relevance to the dispute.[8] The address asked Congress to fund a commission to study the boundaries between Venezuela and British Guiana, and declared it the duty of the United States "to resist by every means in its power as a willful aggression upon its rights and interests" any British attempt to exercise jurisdiction over territory the United States judged Venezuelan.[8] The address was perceived as direct threat of war with the United Kingdom if the British did not comply, although in fact Cleveland had not committed himself to accepting the commission's report, nor specified any details on how the commission would act.[8] Despite the public belligerence, neither the British nor the American governments had any interest in war.[8]

On December 18, 1895, Congress approved $100,000 for the United States Commission on the Boundary Between Venezuela and British Guiana. It was formally established on 1 January 1896.[18] Historian [19]


Venezuela supported its claim by printing an 1896 postage stamp with a map showing the Guianas up to the east bank of the Essequibo River as "Guayana Venezolana".[20]
An 1896 cartoon from an American newspaper, following Britain's agreement to go to arbitration.

In January 1896 the British Government decided in effect to recognise the US right to intervene in the boundary dispute, accepting arbitration in principle without insisting on the Schomburgk line as a basis for negotiation.[8] Negotiations between the United States and Britain over the details of the arbitration followed, and Britain was able to persuade the US of much of its views,[8] even as it became clear that the eventual report of the Boundary Commission would likely be negative towards the British claims.[21] An agreement between the US and UK was signed on 12 November 1896. Cleveland's Boundary Commission's work was suspended in November 1896, though it still went on to produce a large report.[8]

The agreement provided for a Tribunal with two members representing Venezuela (but chosen by the US Supreme Court), two members chosen by the British government, and fifth member chosen by these four, who would preside.[8] Venezuelan President Joaquín Crespo referred to a sense of "national humiliation", and the treaty was modified so that the Venezuelan President would nominate a Tribunal member. However it was understood that his choice would not be a Venezuelan, and in fact he nominated the Chief Justice of the United States.[8] Ultimately, on 2 February 1897, the Treaty of Washington between Venezuela and the United Kingdom was signed, and ratified several months later.[8]

After the US and Britain had nominated their arbitrators, Britain proposed that the disputing parties agree on the presiding fifth arbitrator.[22] There were delays in discussing this, and in the interim De Martens was among the names of international jurists suggested by the US. De Martens was then chosen by Venezuela from a shortlist of names submitted by Britain.[22] The Panel of Arbitration thus consisted of:

  1. Melville Weston Fuller (Chief Justice of the United States)
  2. David Josiah Brewer (Member of the US Supreme Court)
  3. Sir Richard Henn Collins (Lord Justice of Appeal)
  4. Lord Herschell (former Lord Chancellor), replaced upon his death by Charles Russell (Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales)
  5. Frédéric de Martens (Russian diplomat and jurist)

Venezuela's senior counsel was former US President Sidney Rowlatt,[23] with Sir Frederick Pollock preparing the original outline of Britain's argument.[24] The parties had eight months to prepare their case, another four months to reply to the other party's case, and other three months for the final printed case. The final arguments were submitted in December 1898, with the total evidence and testimony amounting to 23 volumes.[25]

Britain's key argument was that (prior to Venezuela's independence) Spain had not taken effective possession of the disputed territory, and said that in fact the local Indians had had alliances with the Dutch, giving the Dutch a sphere of influence which the British acquired in 1814.[26] After fifty-five days of hearings,[27] the arbitrators retired for six days.[28] The American arbitrators found the British argument preposterous, since American Indians had never been considered to have any sovereignty.[29] However the British had the advantage that de Martens wanted a unanimous decision, and the British threatened to ignore the award if it didn't suit them.[29] They were also able to argue a loss of equity, since under the terms of the treaty lands occupied for fifty years would receive title – and a number of British gold mines would be narrowly lost to this cutoff if their lands were awarded to Venezuela.[29]


Punch cartoon after the conclusion of the Tribunal of Arbitration. PEACE AND PLENTY. Lord Salisbury (chuckling). "I like arbitration — In the PROPER PLACE!"

Sitting in Paris, the Tribunal of Arbitration finalized its decision on 3 October 1899.[8] The award was unanimous, but gave no reasons for the decision, merely describing the resulting boundary, which gave Britain almost 90% of the disputed territory.[30] The Schomburgk Line was, with small deviations, re-established as the border between British Guiana and Venezuela, and the British case thus largely vindicated,[8] although Venezuela did gain the mouth of the Orinoco and around 5,000 square miles (13,000 km2) of territory to the east of it.[30] The first deviation from the Schomburgk line was that Venezuela's territory included Barima Point at the mouth of the Orinoco, giving it undisputed control of the river, and thus the ability to levy duties on Venezuelan commerce. The second was drawing the border at the Wenamu River rather than the Cuyuni River, giving Venezuela a substantial territory east of the line – territory which Britain had originally refused to include in the arbitration. However, Britain received most of the disputed territory, and all of the gold mines.[31]

The reaction to the award was surprise, with the award's lack of reasoning a particular concern.[32] The Venezuelans were keenly disappointed with the outcome, though they honored their counsel for their efforts (their delegation's Secretary, Severo Mallet-Prevost, received the Order of the Liberator in 1944), and abided by the award.[32]

The Anglo-Venezuelan boundary dispute asserted for the first time a more outward-looking American foreign policy, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, marking the United States as a world power. This was the earliest example of modern interventionism under the Monroe Doctrine in which the USA exercised its claimed prerogatives in the Western Hemisphere.[33]


Despite its disappointment with the award, Venezuela abided by it. However, half a century later the publication of an alleged political deal between Russia and Britain led Venezuela to re-assert its claims. In 1949, the US jurist Otto Schoenrich gave the Venezuelan government the Memorandum of Severo Mallet-Prevost (Official Secretary of the U.S./Venezuela delegation in the Tribunal of Arbitration), written in 1944 to be published only after Mallet-Prevost's death. This re-opened the issues, with Mallet-Prevost surmising a political deal between Russia and Britain from the subsequent private behaviour of the judges.[32] Mallet-Prevost said that de Martens had visited England with the two British arbitrators in the summer of 1899, and subsequently had offered the two American judges a choice between accepting a unanimous award along the lines ultimately agreed, or a 3:2 majority opinion even more favourable to the British. The alternative would have followed the Schomburgk Line entirely, and given the mouth of the Orinoco to the British. Mallet-Prevost said that the American judges and Venezuelan counsel were disgusted at the situation and considered the 3:2 option with a strongly worded minority opinion, but ultimately went along with de Martens in order to avoid depriving Venezuela of valuable territory to which it was entitled.[32]

As a result of Mallet-Prevost's claims, Venezuela revived its claim to the disputed territory in 1962.[34][35]


  1. ^ Sometimes called the "first Venezuelan crisis", the crisis of 1902–03 being the second.


  1. ^ King (2007:249)
  2. ^ Graff, Henry F., Grover Cleveland (2002). ISBN 0-8050-6923-2. pp123-25
  3. ^ Zakaria, Fareed, From Wealth to Power (1999). Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01035-8. pp145–146
  4. ^ Paul Gibb, "Unmasterly Inactivity? Sir Julian Pauncefote, Lord Salisbury, and the Venezuela Boundary Dispute," Diplomacy and Statecraft, Mar 2005, Vol. 16 Issue 1, pp 23–55
  5. ^ Nelson M. Blake, "Background of Cleveland's Venezuelan Policy," American Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jan., 1942), pp. 259–277 in JSTOR
  6. ^ Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932). ASIN B000PUX6KQ., 550, 633–648
  7. ^ Historian George Herring wrote that by failing to pursue the issue further the British “tacitly conceded the U. S. definition of the Monroe Doctrine and its hegemony in the hemisphere.” – Herring, George C., From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, (2008) pp. 307–308
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad R. A. Humphreys (1967), "Anglo-American Rivalries and the Venezuela Crisis of 1895", Presidential Address to the Royal Historical Society 10 December 1966, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 17: pp131-164
  9. ^ Joseph, Cedric L. (1970), "The Venezuela-Guyana Boundary Arbitration of 1899: An Appraisal: Part I", Caribbean Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jul., 1970), pp. 56–89
  10. ^ King (2007:249)
  11. ^ Humphreys (1967:138)
  12. ^ a b c Humphreys (1967:139)
  13. ^ Ishmael, Odeen (1998). "The Trail Of Diplomacy A Documentary History of the Guyana-Venezuela Border Issue". 
  14. ^ a b Gilderhus, Mark T. (2006), "The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications", Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 5–16
  15. ^ Richard F. Hamilton (2010), America's New Empire: The 1890s and Beyond, Transaction Publishers, p131
  16. ^ Thomas Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, Shane J. Maddock (2009), American foreign relations: A history, to 1920. Cengage Learning. p 205
  17. ^ Humphreys (1967:150)
  18. ^ The Boundary Commission consisted of:
  19. David J. Brewer, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States;
  20. Richard H. Alvey, Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, skilled Spanish scholar;
  21. F.R. Coudert, Founder of Coudert Brothers, polyglot, president of New York bar (1890–91), United States liaison during the Bering Sea Dispute in 1892;
  22. Dr. D.C. Gilman, Noted Geographer, President of the Johns Hopkins University
  23. Andrew D. White, Historian, diplomat, founder of Cornell University
  24. The Commission selected Judge Brewer as Chairman, and appointed as secretary Severo Mallet-Prevost, trained lawyer and scholar.
  25. ^ The American Historical Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Apr., 1899), pp. 470–477. p476
  26. ^ Russell W. Stern, The Politics of Printing in Stamp Design and Production, "NSW Philatelist", 15 October 2008
  27. ^ King (2007:251)
  28. ^ a b King (2007:252-4)
  29. ^ a b Willard L. King (2007), Melville Weston Fuller – Chief Justice of the United States 1888–1910, Macmillan. p257
  30. ^ King (2007:258)
  31. ^ King (2007:254)
  32. ^ King (2007:256)
  33. ^ King (2007:257)
  34. ^ King (2007:258)
  35. ^ a b c King (2007:259)
  36. ^ a b Schoenrich (1949:526)
  37. ^ King (2007:260)
  38. ^ a b c d Otto Schoenrich, "The Venezuela-British Guiana Boundary Dispute", July 1949, American Journal of International Law. Vol. 43, No. 3. p. 523. Washington, DC. (USA).
  39. ^ Ferrell, Robert H. "Monroe Doctrine". Retrieved 2008-10-31. 
  40. ^ Isidro Morales Paúl, Análisis Crítico del Problema Fronterizo "Venezuela-Gran Bretaña", in La Reclamación Venezolana sobre la Guayana Esequiba, Biblioteca de la Academia de Ciencias Económicas y Sociales. Caracas, 2000, p. 200.
  41. ^ Ricardo M. de Rituerto, Venezuela reanuda su reclamación sobre el Esequibo, in El País: Madrid, 1982.

Further reading

  • T. Boyle, "The Venezuela Crisis and the Liberal Opposition, 1895–96", The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 50, No. 3, On Demand Supplement (Sep., 1978), pp. D1185-D1212
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