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"Alabama Room" in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Alabama arbitration took place in 1872. Photo by Jenny Gesley.

The Alabama Arbitration, Geneva 1872 – Pic of the Week

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On a recent work trip to a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, I learned of an interesting connection between the United States and Geneva that I was not aware of before. Geneva is often called an “international city,” hosting 41 international organizations, 180 permanent missions, and about 750 non-governmental organizations. Switzerland itself is known for its permanent neutrality. But what is the connection to the United States?

To solve this question, we have to go back to the American Civil War, which took place from 1861–1865. England was blamed for prolonging the war, in particular, because the British supplied the Confederacy with warships, among them the ship Alabama. Even though England had to abide by the Foreign Enlistment Act 1819, which defined the requirements of its neutrality, ways were found to supply ships to the Confederacy nonetheless, such as false declarations of ownership for customs authorities. The Alabama, which was at the outset designated as “ship no. 290,” would later lend its name to the whole process of ships that were secretly built for the Confederacy by the British. The Alabama was the most successful of the ships, managing to capture 58 Northern merchant ships. In June 1864, it was sunk by a U.S. warship off the coast of France. (The Alabama Arbitration Geneva 1872 (2004 ed.), at 10-15.)

The U.S. State Department had made repeated complaints to the British Foreign Office to assert rights for future compensation for damages and to prevent further ships from being supplied to the Confederacy. In 1863, arbitration to resolve the question of damages was mentioned for the first time; however, the idea was shut down. It gained more traction in the following years. In 1870, with war raging in Europe, Britain decided to open new negotiations with the United States, which culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Washington in 1871. It stated, among other things, that “Her Majesty’s Government [felt regret] for the escape, under whatever circumstances, of the Alabama and other vessels from British ports, and for the depredations committed by those vessels.” The “Alabama claims” were referred to an arbitration tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland. (Art. I, para. 3, art. II, para. 1.) Switzerland and Geneva were chosen, because Europe was engulfed in armed conflict at the time and Switzerland remained neutral. Geneva was the biggest city at the time with good international communications. (The Alabama Arbitration Geneva 1872 (2004 ed.), at 15; 17-19.)

According to the Treaty of Washington, the United States and Britain were to present their cases simultaneously in two stages, meaning they both submitted a case explaining their arguments on the same day, with another submission four months later. Copies were distributed widely after the official submission to the tribunal to garner public support. In December 1871, the agents for the U.S. and Britain paid a courtesy call to the government of the canton of Geneva. The government offered them one of the conference rooms of the city hall as a meeting place for the arbitration tribunal. In 1864, the first Geneva Convention had been concluded in that room. The room has since been known as the “Alabama room.” The tribunal rendered its award on September 14, 1872. It rejected claims for indirect damages asserted by the United States but ordered Britain to pay the United States $15.5 million as compensation, which included interest. A 250-page-long dissenting opinion was delivered by the British arbitrator Cockburn. (The Alabama Arbitration Geneva 1872 (2004 ed.), at 21, 29.) 

The Alabama arbitration gave rise to a large number of similar arrangements and arbitration clauses became more and more common. Some other notable arbitrations that took place in the Alabama room include:

References and Further Reading

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