The Schomburgk Line is the name given to a survey line that figured in a 19th century territorial dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana (now Guyana). It was named after German-born, English explorer and naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804-1865).
In 1835, under the aegis of the Royal Geographical Society Schomburgk was sent on a trip of botanical and geographical exploration to British Guiana. In 1840 the British Government chose Schomburgk to survey the colony and outline its boundaries. This was necessary because when the United Kingdom acquired British Guiana from the Netherlands in 1814, the western border with Venezuela was not defined. This survey resulted in what came to be known as the Schomburgk Line, a boundary that effectively claimed an additional for British Guiana.
In general terms, the border dispute can be traced back to the sixteenth century when the Spanish and English were rivals in this part of South America. However, fixing a precise border was not initially a priority for the colonial powers, given the undeveloped nature of the territory in question.
The dispute began in 1841 when the Venezuelan Government protested alleged British encroachment into Venezuelan territory. Venezuela disputed Schomburgk's survey, claiming that the United Kingdom had illegally acquired an extra of territory. Venezuela claimed its borders extended as far east as the Essequibo River. When gold was discovered in the disputed territory, the UK sought to further extend its reach, claiming an additional west of the 1835 Schomburgk Line. In 1876 Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with the UK and appealed to the United States to arbitrate the dispute, citing the Monroe Doctrine as justification. For the next 19 years the United States expressed concern but did little in the way of resolving the situation.
In 1895 U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney sent a letter to British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury demanding that the British submit the boundary dispute to arbitration using the Monroe Doctrine as justification. Salisbury claimed that the Monroe Doctrine was not valid under international law. The United States disagreed and in December 1895, President Grover Cleveland asked Congress for authorization to appoint a boundary commission and that the commission's subsequent findings be enforced "by every means." The UK had many other empire concerns and had no desire for a conflict in the Americas, which caused Lord Salisbury to submit the dispute to the American boundary commission. When the commission finally rendered a decision on 3 October 1899, it directed that the border follow the demarcation that Schomburgk surveyed in 1835. The decision has subsequently been disputed by Venezuela on the ground that a Russian member of the commission supposedly acted improperly.
On a related issue the southern boundary between British Guiana and Brazil was settled after arbitration by the King of Italy in 1904, where Schomburgk's survey also played a role.
Walter LaFeber. "The Background of Cleveland's Venezuelan Policy: A Reinterpretation." The American Historical Review 66 (July 1961), pp. 947-967.
Lars Schoult. A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America .
U.S. Department of State, "Venezuela Boundary Dispute, 1895-1899"
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