West Rand Central Gold Mining Company, Limited v. The King, 2 K.B. 391 [1905]


Lord Alverstone C.J., Wills and Kennedy JJ.


1905 May 3, 4; June 1



In this case the Attorney-General, on behalf of the Crown, demurred to a petition of right presented in the month of June, 1904, by the West Rand Central Gold Mining Company, Limited. The petition of right alleged that two parcels of gold, amounting in all to the value of 3804l., had been seized by officials of the South African Republic--1104l. on October 2 in course of transit from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and 2700l. on October 9, taken from the bank premises of the petitioners. No further statement was made in the petition of the circumstances under which, or the right by which, the Government of the Transvaal Republic claimed to seize the gold; but it was stated in paragraph 6, "That the gold was in each case taken possession of by, and on behalf of, and for the purposes of, the then existing Government of the said Republic, and that the said Government, by the laws of the said Republic, was under a liability to return the said gold, or its value, to your suppliants. None of the said gold has been returned to your suppliants, nor did the said Government make any payment in respect thereof." The petition then alleged that a state of war commenced at 5 P.M. on October 11, 1899, that the forces of the late Queen conquered the Republic, and that by a Proclamation of September 1, 1900, the whole of the territories of the Republic were annexed to, and became part of, Her Majesty's dominions, and that the Government of the Republic ceased to exist. The petition then averred that by reason of the conquest and annexation Her Majesty succeeded to the sovereignty of the Transvaal Republic, and became entitled to its property; and that the obligation which vested in the Government was binding upon His present Majesty the King.

Before dealing with the questions of law which were argued before us, we think it right to say that we must not be taken as acceding to the view that the allegations in the petition disclosed a sufficient ground for relief. The petition appears to us demurrable for the reason that it shews no obligation of a contractual nature on the part of the Transvaal Government. For all that appears in the petition the seizure might have been an act of lawless violence. The allegations that A. seized property belonging to B., and that thereupon by law an obligation arose on the part of A. to return to B. his property, or pay its value, might be truly made in respect of any wrongful seizure of A.'s property. We do not assent to the proposition of Lord Robert Cecil that it is sufficient to allege what may be a ground of action if something else be added which is not stated. Upon all sound principles of pleading it is necessary to allege what must, and not what may, be a cause of action, and unless the obligation alleged in the present instance arose out of contract it is clear that no petition of right could be maintained. A passage in the judgment of Willes J. in the case of Gautret v. Egerton states this view so clearly that we think it well to quote it. Willes J. says: "The argument urged on behalf of the plaintiffs, when analyzed, amounts to this, that we ought to construe the general words of the declaration as describing whatever sort of negligence the plaintiffs can prove at the trial. The authorities, however, and reason and good sense, are the other way. The plaintiff must, in his declaration, give the defendant notice of what his complaint is. He must recover secundum allegata et probata. What is it that a declaration of this sort should state in order to fulfil those conditions? It ought to state the facts upon which the supposed duty is founded, and the duty to the plaintiff with the breach of which the defendant is charged." I need scarcely add that in dealing with a petition of right, which must be based upon contract, that observation would of course have its full force and effect. The discussion, however, is academical, as the Attorney-General for the Crown, as well as Lord

Robert Cecil for the suppliants, desired that we should deal with the case as if any necessary amendment had been made, and decide the question whether all the contractual obligations of a State annexed by Great Britain upon conquest are imposed as a matter of course, and in default of express reservations, upon Great Britain, and can be enforced by British municipal law against the Crown in the only way known to British municipal law, that is by a petition of right. We have no hesitation in answering this question in the negative, but, inasmuch as it is one of great importance, and we have had the advantage of hearing very able argument upon both sides, we think it right to give our reasons in some detail.

Lord Robert Cecil argued that all contractual obligations incurred by a conquered State, before war actually breaks out, pass upon annexation to the conqueror, no matter what was their nature, character, origin, or history. He could not indeed do otherwise, for it is clear that if any distinction is to be made it must be made upon grounds which, without depriving the original liability of its character of a legal obligation against the vanquished State, make it inexpedient for the conquering State to adopt that liability as against itself; in other words, upon ethical grounds, into which enter considerations of propriety, magnanimity, wisdom, public duty, in short, of policy, in the broadest and widest sense of the word. It is equally clear that these are matters with which municipal Courts have nothing to do. They exist for the purpose of determining and enforcing legal obligations, not for the purpose of dividing them into classes, and saying that some of them, although legally binding, ought not to be enforced. The broad proposition which thus formed the basis of Lord Robert Cecil's argument almost answers itself, for there must have been, in all times, contracts made by States before conquest such as no conqueror would ever think of carrying out. Some illustrations will occur in the course of our subsequent remarks. For the moment we will pursue Lord Robert's argument into further detail. His main proposition was divided into three heads. First, that, by international law, the Sovereign of a conquering State is liable for the obligations of the conquered; secondly, that international law forms part of the law of England; and, thirdly, that rights and obligations, which were binding upon the conquered State, must be protected and can be enforced by the municipal Courts of the conquering State.

In support of his first proposition Lord Robert Cecil cited passages from various writers on international law. In regard to this class of authority it is important to remember certain necessary limitations to its value. There is an essential difference, as to certainty and definiteness, between municipal law and a system or body of rules in regard to international conduct, which, so far as it exists at all (and its existence is assumed by the phrase "international law"), rests upon a consensus of civilized States, not expressed in any code or pact, nor possessing, in case of dispute, any authorized or authoritative interpreter; and capable, indeed, of proof, in the absence of some express international agreement, only by evidence of usage to be obtained from the action of nations in similar cases in the course of their history. It is obvious that, in respect of many questions that may arise, there will be room for difference of opinion as to whether such a consensus could be shewn to exist. Perhaps it is in regard to the extra-territorial privileges of ambassadors, and in regard to the system of limits as to territorial waters, that it is least open to doubt or question. The views expressed by learned writers on international law have done in the past, and will do in the future, valuable service in helping to create the opinion by which the range of the consensus of civilized nations is enlarged. But in many instances their pronouncements must be regarded rather as the embodiments of their views as to what ought to be, from an ethical standpoint, the conduct of nations inter se, than the enunciation of a rule or practice so universally approved or assented to as to be fairly termed, even in the qualified sense in which that word can be understood in reference to the relations between independent political communities, "law." The reference which these writers not infrequently make to stipulations in particular treaties as acceptable evidence of international law is as little convincing as the attempt, not unknown to our Courts, to establish a trade custom which is binding without being stated, by adducing evidence of express stipulations to be found in a number of particular contracts.

Before, however, dealing with the specific passages in the writings of jurists upon which the suppliants rely, we desire to consider the proposition, that by international law the conquering country is bound to fulfil the obligations of the conquered, upon principle; and upon principle we think it cannot be sustained. When making peace the conquering Sovereign can make any conditions he thinks fit respecting the financial obligations of the conquered country, and it is entirely at his option to what extent he will adopt them. It is a case in which the only law is that of military force. This, indeed, was not disputed by counsel for the suppliants; but it was suggested that although the Sovereign when making peace may limit the obligations to be taken over, if he does not do so they are all taken over, and no subsequent limitation can be put upon them. What possible reason can be assigned for such a distinction? Much inquiry may be necessary before it can be ascertained under what circumstances the liabilities were incurred, and what debts should in foro conscientiae be assumed. There must also be many contractual liabilities of the conquered State of the very existence of which the superior Power can know nothing, and as to which persons having claims upon the nation about to be vanquished would, if the doctrine contended for were correct, have every temptation to concealment--others, again, which no man in his senses would think of taking over. A case was put in argument which very well might occur. A country has issued obligations to such an amount as wholly to destroy the national credit, and the war, which ends in annexation of the country by another Power, may have been brought about by the very state of insolvency to which the conquered country has been reduced by its own misconduct. Can any valid reason be suggested why the country which has made war and succeeded should take upon itself the liability to pay out of its own resources the debts of the insolvent State, and what difference can it make that in the instrument of annexation or cessation of hostilities matters of this kind are not provided for? We can well understand that, if by public proclamation or by convention the conquering country has promised something that is inconsistent with the repudiation of particular liabilities, good faith should prevent such repudiation. We can see no reason at all why silence should be supposed to be equivalent to a promise of universal novation of existing contracts with the Government of the conquered State. It was suggested that a distinction might be drawn between obligations incurred for the purpose of waging war with the conquering country and those incurred for general State expenditure. What municipal tribunal could determine, according to the laws of evidence to be observed by that tribunal, how particular sums had been expended, whether borrowed before or during the war? It was this and cognate difficulties which compelled Lord Robert Cecil ultimately to concede that he must contend that the obligation was absolute to take over all debts and contractual obligations incurred before war had been actually declared.

Turning now to the text-writers, we may observe that the proposition we have put forward that the conqueror may impose what terms he thinks fit in respect of the obligations of the conquered territory, and that he alone must be the judge in such a matter, is clearly recognised by Grotius: see "War and Peace," book iii. chap. 8, s. 4, and the Notes to Barbeyrac's edition of 1724, vol. ii. p. 632. For the assertion that a line is to be drawn at the moment of annexation, and that the conquering Sovereign has no right at any later stage to say what obligations he will or will not assume, we venture to think that there is no authority whatever. A doctrine was at one time urged by some of the older writers that to the extent of the assets taken over by the conqueror he ought to satisfy the debts of the conquered State. It is, in our opinion, a mere expression of the ethical views of the writers; but the proposition now contended for is a vast extension even of that doctrine. It has been urged that in numerous cases, both of peace and of cession of territories, special provision has been made for the discharge of obligations by the country accepting the cession or getting the upper hand in war; but, as we have already pointed out, conditions the result of express mutual consent between two nations afford no support to the argument that obligations not expressly provided for are to follow the course, by no means uniform, taken by such treaties. See as to this, s. 27 of the 4th edition of Hall's International Law, and the opinion of Lord Clarendon there cited. Lord Robert Cecil cited a passage from Mr. Hall's book, 4th ed. p. 105, in which he states that the annexing Power is liable for the whole of the debts of the State annexed. It cannot, however, be intended as an exhaustive or unqualified statement of the practice of nations, whatever may have been the opinion of the writer as to what should be done in such cases. It is not, in our opinion, directed to the particular subject now under discussion. The earlier parts of the same chapter contain passages inconsistent with any such view. We would call attention particularly to s. 27 on pp. 98 and 99 of the 4th edition, where the question as to the extent to which obligations do not pass is discussed, and the passage on pp. 101 and 102, referring to the discussion between England and the United States in 1854, in which Lord Clarendon's contention that Mexico did not inherit the obligations or rights of Spain is approved of by Mr. Hall. In the same way the passage from Halleck, s. 25 of chap. 34 (Sir Sherston Baker's edition of 1878), cited by Lord Robert Cecil, cannot be construed as meaning to lay down any such general proposition. It is cited from a chapter in which other sections contain passages inconsistent with the view that the legal obligation to fulfill all contracts passed to the conquering State. The particular section is in fact directed to the obligations of the conquering or annexing State upon the rights of private property of the individual--the point which formed the subject of discussion in the American cases upon which the suppliants relied and with which we shall deal later on. The passage from Wheaton (Atlay's ed. p. 46, s. 30) shews that the writer was only expressing an opinion respecting the duty of a succeeding State with regard to public debts, and, as the note to the passage shews, it is really based upon the fact that many treaties have dealt with such obligations in different ways. We have already pointed out how little value particular stipulations in treaties possess as evidence of that which may be called international common law. We have not had the opportunity of referring to the edition of Calvo, cited by Lord Robert Cecil, but the sections of the 8th book of the edition published in 1872 contain a discussion as to the circumstances under which certain obligations should be undertaken by the conquering State. The distinction between the obligations of the successor with regard to the private property of individuals on the one hand, and the debts of the conquered State on the other, is clearly pointed out, and paragraphs 1005 and 1010 are quite inconsistent with any recognition by the author of the proposition contended for by the suppliants. The same observations apply to Heffter, another work upon which reliance was placed. As regards Max Huber's work on State Succession, published in 1898, there is no doubt, as appears from Mr. Westlake's recent book on international law, published last year, and from other criticisms, that Huber does attempt to press the duty of a succeeding or conquering State to recognise the obligations of its predecessor to a greater extent than previous writers on international law, but the extracts cited by the Attorney-General in his reply and other passages in Huber's book shew that even his opinion falls far short of the proposition for which the suppliants contend. But whatever may be the view taken of the opinions of these writers, they are, in our judgment, inconsistent with the law as recognised for many years in the English Courts; and it is sufficient for us to cite the language of Lord Mansfield in Campbell v. Hall in a passage the authority of which has, so far as we know, never been called in question: "It is left by the Constitution to the King's authority to grant or refuse a capitulation. ... If he receives the inhabitants under his protection and grants them their property he has a power to fix such terms and conditions as he thinks proper. He is entrusted with making the treaty of peace; he may yield up the conquest or retain it upon what terms he pleases. These powers no man ever disputed, neither has it hitherto been controverted that the King might change part or the whole of the law or political form of government of a conquered dominion." And so, much earlier, in the year 1722 (2nd Peere Williams, p. 75), it is said by the Master of the Rolls to have been determined by the Lords of the Privy Council that "where the King of England conquers a country it is a different consideration, for there the conqueror by saving the lives of the people conquered gains a right and property in such people, in consequence of which he may impose upon them what laws he pleases." References were made to many cases of cession of territory not produced by conquest, and the frequent assumption in such cases of the liabilities of the territory ceded by the State accepting the cession was referred to. They may be dismissed in a sentence. The considerations which applied to peaceable cession raise such different questions from those which apply to conquest that it would answer no useful purpose to discuss them in detail.

The second proposition urged by Lord Robert Cecil, that international law forms part of the law of England, requires a word of explanation and comment. It is quite true that whatever has received the common consent of civilized nations must have received the assent of our country, and that to which we have assented along with other nations in general may properly be called international law, and as such will be acknowledged and applied by our municipal tribunals when legitimate occasion arises for those tribunals to decide questions to which doctrines of international law may be relevant. But any doctrine so invoked must be one really accepted as binding between nations, and the international law sought to be applied must, like anything else, be proved by satisfactory evidence, which must shew either that the particular proposition put forward has been recognised and acted upon by our own country, or that it is of such a nature, and has been so widely and generally accepted, that it can hardly be supposed that any civilized State would repudiate it. The mere opinions of jurists, however eminent or learned, that it ought to be so recognised, are not in themselves sufficient. They must have received the express sanction of international agreement, or gradually have grown to be part of international law by their frequent practical recognition in dealings between various nations. We adopt the language used by Lord Russell of Killowen in his address at Saratoga in 1896 on the subject of international law and arbitration: "What, then, is international law? I know no better definition of it than that it is the sum of the rules or usages which civilized States have agreed shall be binding upon them in their dealings with one another." In our judgment, the second proposition for which Lord Robert Cecil contended in his argument before us ought to be treated as correct only if the term "international law" is understood in the sense, and subject to the limitations of application, which we have explained. The authorities which he cited in support of the proposition are entirely in accord with and, indeed, well illustrate our judgment upon this branch of the arguments advanced on behalf of the suppliants; for instance, Barbuit's Case, Triquet v. Bath, and Heathfield v. Chilton are cases in which the Courts of law have recognised and have given effect to the privilege of ambassadors as established by international law. But the expressions used by Lord Mansfield when dealing with the particular and recognised rule of international law on this subject, that the law of nations forms part of the law of England, ought not to be construed so as to include as part of the law of England opinions of text-writers upon a question as to which there is no evidence that Great Britain has ever assented, and a fortiori if they are contrary to the principles of her laws as declared by her Courts. The cases of Wolff v. Oxholm and Rex v. Keyn are only illustrations of the same rule--namely, that questions of international law may arise, and may have to be considered in connection with the administration of municipal law.


... It must not be forgotten that the obligations of conquering States with regard to private property of private individuals, particularly land as to which the title had already been perfected before the conquest or annexation, are altogether different from the obligations which arise in respect of personal rights by contract. As is said in more cases than one, cession of territory does not mean the confiscation of the property of individuals in that territory. If a particular piece of property has been conveyed to a private owner or has been pledged, or a lien has been created upon it, considerations arise which are different from those which have to be considered when the question is whether the contractual obligation of the conquered State towards individuals is to be undertaken by the conquering State. The English cases on which reliance was placed were United States v. Prioleau, in which a claim was made by the United States Government to cotton which had been the property of the Confederated States; United States v. Macrae, which recognised the right of the Government suppressing rebellion to all moneys, goods, and treasures which were public property at the time of the outbreak: Republic of Peru v. Peruvian Guano Co. and Republic of Peru v. Dreyfus. The only principle, however, which can be deduced from these cases is that a Government claiming rights of property and rights under a contract cannot enforce those rights in our Courts without fulfilling the terms of the contract as a whole. They have, in our judgment, no bearing upon the propositions which we have been discussing. We are aware that we have not commented upon all the cases which were cited before us--we have not failed to consider them; and any arguments which could be founded upon them seem to us to be covered by the observations already made. We are of opinion, for the reasons given, that no right on the part of the suppliants is disclosed by the petition which can be enforced as against His Majesty in this or in any municipal Court; and we therefore allow the demurrer, with costs.