Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)

Sir William Blackstone

Of Offenses Against the Law of Nations

ACCORDING to the method marked out in the preceding chapter, we are next to consider the offenses more immediately repugnant to that universal law of society, which regulates the mutual intercourse between one state and another; those, I mean, which are particularly animadverted on, as such, by the English law.

THE law of nations is a system of rules, deducible by natural reason, and established by universal consent among the civilized inhabitants of the world;1 in order to decide all disputes, to regulate all ceremonies and civilities, and to insure the observance frequently occur between two or more independent states, and the individuals belonging to each.2 This general law is founded upon this principle, that different nations ought in time of peace to do one another all the good they can; and, in time of war, as little harm as possible, without prejudice to their own real interests.3 And, as none of these states will allow a superiority in the other, therefore neither can dictate or prescribe the rules of this law to the rest; but such rules must necessarily result from those principles of natural justice, in which all the learned of every nation agree: or they depend upon mutual compacts or treaties between the respective communities; in the construction of which there is also no judge to resort to, but the law of nature and reason, being the only one in which all the contracting parties are equally conversant, and to which they are equally subject.

IN arbitrary states this law, wherever it contradicts or is not provided for by the municipal law of the country, is enforced by the royal power: but since in England no royal power can introduce a new law, or suspend the execution of the old, therefore the law of nations (wherever any question arises which is properly the object of its jurisdiction) is here adopted in its full extent by the common law, and is held to be a part of the law of the land. And those acts of parliament, which have from time to time been made to enforce this universal law, or to facilitate the execution of its decisions, are not to be considered as introductive of any new rule, but merely as declaratory of the old fundamental constitutions of the kingdom; without which it must cease to be a part of the civilized world. Thus in mercantile questions, such as bills of exchange and the like; in all marine causes, relating to freight, average, demurrage, insurances, bottomry, and others of a similar nature; the lawmerchant,4 which is a branch of the law of nations, is regularly and constantly adhered to. So too in all disputes relating to prizes, to shipwrecks, to hostages, and ransom bills, there is no other rule of decision but this great universal law, collected from history and usage and such writers of all nations and languages as are generally approved and allowed of.

BUT, though in civil transactions and questions of property between the subjects of different states, the law of nations has much scope and extent, as adopted by the law of England; yet the present branch of our inquiries will fall within a narrow compass, as offenses against the law of nations can rarely be the object of the criminal law of any particular state. For offenses against this law are principally incident to whole states or nations: in which case recourse can only be had to war; which is an appeal to the god of hosts, to punish such infractions of public faith, as are committed by one independent people against another: neither state having any superior jurisdiction to resort to upon earth for justice. But where the individuals of any state violate this general law, it is then the interest as well as duty of the government under which they live, to animadvert upon them with a becoming severity, that the peace of the world may be maintained. For in vain would nations in their collective capacity observe these universal rules, if private subjects were at liberty to break them at their own discretion, and involve the two states in a war. It is therefore incumbent upon the nation injured, first to satisfaction and justice to be done on the offender, by the state to which he belongs; and, if that be refused or neglected, the sovereign then avows himself an accomplice or abettor of his subject’s crime, and draws upon his community the calamities of foreign war.

THE principal offense against the law of nations, animadverted on as such by the municipal laws of England, are of three kinds; 1. Violation of safe-conducts; 2. Infringement of the rights of ambassadors; and, 3. Piracy.

1. AS to the first, violation of safe-conducts or passports, expressly granted by the king or his ambassadors5 to the subjects of a foreign power in time of mutual war; or, committing acts of hostility against such as are in amity, league, or truce with us, who are here under a general implied safe-conduct; are breaches of the public faith, without the preservation of which there can be no intercourse or commerce between one nation and another: and such offenses may, according to the writers upon the law of nations, be a just ground of a national war; since it is not in the power of the foreign prince to cause justice to be done to his subjects by the very individual delinquent, but he must require it of the whole community. And as during the continuance of any safe-conduct, either express or implied, the foreigner is under the protection of the king and the law; and, more especially, as it is one of the articles of Magna Carta,6 that foreign merchants shall be entitled to safe-conduct and security throughout the kingdom; there is no question but that any violation of either the person or property of such foreigner may be punished by indictment in the name of the king, whose honor is more particularly engaged in supporting his own safe-conduct. And, when this malicious rapacity was not confined to private individuals, but broke out into general hostilities, by the statute 2 Hen. V. st.1. c. 6. breaking of truce and safe-conduct, or abetting and receiving the truce breakers, was (in affirmance and support of the law of nations) declared to be high treason against the crown and dignity of the king; and conservators of truce and safe-conducts were appointed in every port, and empowered to hear and determine such treasons (when committed at sea) according to the ancient marine law then practiced in the admiral’s court: and, together with two men learned in the law of the land, to hear and determine according to that law the same treasons, when committed within the body of any county. Which statute, so far as it made these offenses amount to treason, was suspended by 14 Hen. VI. c. 8. and repealed by 20 Hen. VI. c.11. but revived by 29 Hen. VI. c. 2. which gave the same powers to the lord chancellor, associated with either of the chief justices, as belonged to the conservators of truce and their assessors; and enacted that, notwithstanding the party be convicted of treason, the injured stranger should have restitution out of his effects, prior to any claim of the crown. And it is farther enacted by the statute 31 Hen. VI. c.4. that if any of the king’s subjects attempt or offend, upon the sea, or in port within the king’s obeisance, against any stranger in amity, league, or under safe-conduct; and especially by attaching his person, or spoiling him, or robbing him of his goods; the lord chancellor, with any of the justices of either the king’s bench or common pleas, may cause full restitution and amends to be made to the injured.

IT is to be observed, that the suspending and repealing acts of 14 & 20 Hen. VI, and also the reviving act of 29 Hen. VI, were only temporary; so that it should seem that, after the expiration of them all, the statute 2 Hen. V continued in full force: but yet it is considered as extinct by the statute 14 Edw. IV. c. 4. which revives and confirms all statutes and ordinances made before the accession of the house of York against breakers of amities, truces, leagues, and safe-conducts, with an express exception to the statutes of 2 Hen. V. But (however that may be) I apprehend it was finally repealed by the general statutes of Edward VI and queen Mary, for abolishing new-created treasons; though Sir Matthew Hale seems to question it as to treasons committed on the sea.7 But certainly the statute of 31 Hen. VI remains in full force to this day.

II. AS to the rights of ambassadors, which are also established by the law of nations, and are therefore matter of universal concern, they have formerly been treated of at large.8 It may here be sufficient to remark, that the common law of England recognizes them in their full extent, by immediately stopping all legal process, sued out through the ignorance or rashness of individuals, which may entrench upon the immunities of a foreign minister or any of his train. And, the more effectually to enforce the law of nations in this respect, when violated through wantonness or insolence, it is declared by the statute 7 Ann. c. 12. that all process whereby the person of any ambassador, or of his domestic or domestic servant, may be arrested, or his goods distrained or seized, shall be utterly null and void; and that all persons prosecuting, soliciting, or executing such process, being convicted by confession or the oath of one witness, before the lord chancellor and the chief justices, or any two of them, shall be deemed violators of the laws of nations, and disturbers of the public repose; and shall suffer such penalties and corporal punishment as the said judges, of any two of them, shall think fit.9 Thus, in cases of extraordinary outrage, for which the law has provided no special penalty, the legislature has entrusted to the three principal judges of the kingdom an unlimited power of proportioning the punishment to the crime.

III. LASTLY, the crime of piracy, or robbery and depredation upon the high seas, is an offense against the universal law of society; a pirate being, according to Sir Edward Coke,10 hostis humani generis [enemy to mankind]. As therefore he has renounced all the benefits of society and government, and has reduced himself afresh to the savage state of nature, by declaring war against all mankind, all mankind must declare war against him: so that every community has a right, by the rule of self-defense, to inflict that punishment upon him, which every individual would in a state of nature have been otherwise entitled to do, any invasion of his person or personal property.

BY the ancient common law, piracy, if committed by a subject, was held to be a species of treason, being contrary to his natural allegiance; and by an alien to be felony only: but now, since the statute of treasons, 25 Edw. III. c. 2. it is held to be only felony in a subject.11 Formerly it was only cognizable by the admiralty courts, which proceed by the rule of the civil law.12 But, it being inconsistent with the liberties of the nation, that any man’s life should be taken away, unless by the judgment of his peers, or the common law of the land, the statute 28 Hen. VIII. c. 15. established a new jurisdiction for this purpose; which proceeds according to the course of the common law, and of which we shall say more hereafter.

THE offense of piracy, by common law, consists in committing those act of robbery and depredation upon the high seas, which, if committed upon land, would have amounted to felony there.13 As, by statute 11 & 12 W. III. c. 7. if any natural born subject commits any act of hostility upon the high seas, against others of his majesty’s subjects, under color of a commission from any foreign power; this, though it would only be an act of war in an alien, shall be construed piracy in a subject. And farther, any commander, or other seafaring person, betraying his trust, and running away with any ship, boat, ordnance, ammunition, or goods; or yielding them up voluntarily to a pirate; or conspiring to do these acts; or any person confusing the commander of a vessel, to hinder him from fighting in defense of his ship, or to cause a revolt on board; shall, for each of these offenses, be adjudged a pirate, felon, and robber, and shall suffer death, whether he be principal or accessory. By the statute 8 Geo. I. c. 24. the trading with known pirates, or furnishing them with stores or ammunition, or fitting out any vessel for that purpose, or in any wise consulting, combining, confederating, or corresponding with them; or the forcibly boarding any merchant vessel, though without seizing or carrying her off, and destroying or throwing any of the goods overboard; shall be deemed piracy: and all accessories to piracy, are declared to be principal pirates, and felons without benefit of clergy. By the same statutes also, (to encourage the defense of merchant vessels against pirates) the commanders or seamen wounded, and the widows of such seamen as are slain, in any piratical engagement, shall be entitled to a bounty, to be divided among them, not exceeding one fiftieth part of the value of the cargo on board: and such wounded seamen shall entitled to the pension of Greenwich hospital; which no other seamen are, except only such as have served in a ship of war. And if the commander shall behave cowardly, by not defending the ship, if she carries guns or arms, or shall discharge the mariners from fighting, so that the ship falls into the hands of pirates, such commander shall forfeit all his wages, and suffer six months imprisonment.

THESE are the principal cases, in which the statute law of England interposes, to aid and enforce the law of nations, as a part of the common law; inflicting an adequate punishment upon offenses against that universal law, committed by private persons. We shall proceed in the next chapter to consider offenses, which more immediately affect the sovereign executive power of our own particular state, or the king and government; which species of crimes branches itself into a much larger extent, than either of those of which we have already treated.


     1.    Ff. 1. 1. 9.
     2.    See Vol. I. pag.43.
     3.    Sp. L .b. 1. c. 3.
     4.    See Vol. I. pag. 273.
     5.    See Vol. I. pag. 260.
     6.    9 Hen. III. c. 30. See Vol. I. pag. 259, etc.
     7.    1 Hal. P.C. 262.
     8.    See Vol. I. pag. 253.
     9.    See the occasion of making this statute; Vol. I. pag. 255.
   10.    3 Inst. 113.
   11.    Ibid.
   12.    1 Hawk. P.C. 98.
   13.    1 Hawk. P.C. 100.