Stefansson, the Arctic explorer, has laid claim to Wrangel Island, for the British Government, on the grounds that the vanguard of his expedition composed of himself, four Eskimos and four Americans, raised the British Flag there last September. The claim would be merely interesting if it were only a case of discovery but like most actions at present it has grave international complications.
Wrangel Land is an icebound bit of Arctic prairie about the size of the island of Jamaica, and has had no qualifications for the hall of fame save some granite cliffs and a considerable population of polar bears. But hitherto the Island had been regarded as American property by right of discovery, inasmuch as two expeditions from America landed there, in 1881, took possession in the name of the United States, surveyed and mapped the country, and then sailed away leaving notice of their discovery on shore in a bottle. This action was regarded as particularly important, as the Island lies some odd hundred miles North of Siberia and is said to dominate strategically all the northeastern part of that country.
According to international law, more-over, territory may be acquired either by cession and conquest or by discovery and occupation, and discovery surely gives the United States a prior and just claim on Wrangel Land. Stefansson, on the other hand, states that the United States has allowed her claim to lapse by not occupying her possession and exercising dominion over it,--and the polar bears. And we are forced to admit that the statement is true, since the United States has not, to the best of our knowledge, established there a Governor General and stuff, nor yet, strangely enough, attempted to colonize it or turn it into a naval base.
This omission is particularly unfortunate in view of the great value of the island in connection with our Siberian policy. But apparently there is nothing for the State Department to do but peacefully and gracefully to withdraw our claims, and watchfully await the success or failure of the British to occupy. Perhaps in a few years we may be able to recover our possession--if we want it.