The Freedom of the Seas


In preparation for the peace conference that was expected to follow World War I, in the spring of 1917 the British Foreign Office established a special section responsible for preparing background information for use by British delegates to the conference. The Freedom of Seas is Number 148 in a series of more than 160 studies produced by the section, most of which were published after the conclusion of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Freedom of the seas was a highly contentious issue during World War I, as the Allied and Central powers instituted blockades and counterblockades against each other’s ports that affected neutral shipping. The United States and other nonbelligerent powers protested British interference with their ships bound for the ports of neutral nations, but most were even more outraged when Germany instituted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against all merchant ships headed to ports in Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, Germany’s enemies in the war. This book is a historical overview of the concept of freedom of the seas as it evolved from the early 18th century onward. Written from the British perspective and in defense of British policy, it argues that Germany in World War I adopted the same policy France had followed during the Napoleonic wars—one in which the strongest power on land invoked neutral rights to negate the power of the strongest sea power in order to advance its aims of world domination: “German ambition in the late war reflected the ambition of Bonaparte. The claim of the spurious ‘Freedom of the Seas,’ and of all the old formulas included in it, was revived to serve the old purpose—the destruction of the great impediment to world-dominion, England’s supremacy at sea.” The author, Sir Francis Taylor Piggott (1852–1925), was a prominent British jurist who wrote more than a dozen legal books, and who held a variety of national and international positions, including as constitutional adviser to Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito of Japan (1887‒90), secretary to the attorney general for the Bering Sea arbitration (1893), and chief justice of Hong Kong (1905–12).

Last updated: February 4, 2016