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Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850)

Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850)

Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850), an agreement between Britain and the United States codifying Anglo-American relations with regard to Central America. The treaty was signed 19 April 1850 by U.S. Secretary of State John M. Clayton and Sir Henry L. Bulwer, British minister to the United States. Seeking to end a dangerous rivalry, the treaty prohibited colonization, fortification, or the exercise of exclusive influence in Central America by either side and provided joint Anglo-American protection for any interoceanic canal built on the isthmus. It remained in effect until superseded by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaties of 1901, which granted the United States exclusive rights to build and operate an isthmian canal.

The treaty was the diplomatic meeting ground of British informal colonialism in mid-nineteenth-century Central America and the Caribbean phase of U.S. Manifest Destiny. Historians have variously claimed the treaty as a victory for both sides, but it appears to have been a compromise in which the interests of both benefited, although no canal was realized. As Mary W. Williams pointed out early in this century, however, the treaty was arrived at by avoiding certain basic questions, namely, what to do with existing British holdings in the region: Belize, the Bay Islands, and the Mosquito Protectorate. Belize was excluded from the treaty's provisions by a subsequent exchange of diplomatic notes. The Bay Islands question, however, was muddled by the British Colonial Office's proclamation of the Bay Islands Colony in 1852 without consulting the British Foreign Office. British efforts to relinquish the Mosquito Protectorate were frustrated first by Nicaragua's defiance and then by its collapse amidst civil war and filibuster invasion. British absorption in the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the bellicose posturing of the Pierce administration (1853–1857) postponed an Anglo-American rapprochement over Central America and threatened to undermine the treaty itself.

The treaty (and the mutually self-denying compromise it represented) was finally preserved by a series of British treaties signed in 1859 and 1860 with Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, relinquishing or otherwise clarifying British holdings in the region to the satisfaction of the United States, and by the Buchanan administration's (1857–1861) formal repudiation of filibustering. Ultimately, the U.S. Civil War slowed the momentum of Caribbean Manifest Destiny, thereby removing the most serious challenge to the 1850 treaty until the end of the nineteenth century.

See alsoBritish-Latin American Relations; Hay-Pauncefote Treaties (1901).


Lester D. Langley, Struggle for the American Mediterranean: United States-European Rivalry in the Gulf-Caribbean, 1776–1904 (1976), pp. 81-106, provides an excellent introduction to the Anglo-American rivalry in Central America. Wilbur D. Jones, The American Problem in British Diplomacy, 1841–1861 (1974) gives an excellent account of the British side, while Mary W. Williams, Anglo-American Isthmian Rivalry, 1815–1915 (1916) remains extremely useful. A later view of the "Clayton-Bulwer process" is provided in Richmond F. Brown, "Charles Lennox Wyke and the Clayton-Bulwer Formula in Central America, 1852–1860," in The Americas 47 (April 1991): 411-445.

                                      Richmond F. Brown

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