Chapter 3

The Original Acquisition of Things, and the Right of Property in Seas and Rivers

by Hugo Grotius

Part 1. Production

Paulus the Lawyer says that the acquistion of property by the hard work and ingenuity in any production is the most natural way.

Before anything is produced, its raw materials must exist beforehand.

If those materials were our own, the possession of them under any new shape, or commodity is only a CONTINUATION of our former property.

If they belonged to no one, our possession comes under the class of title by occupancy: but if they were another’s, no improvement of ours can by the law of nature give us a right of property therein.

Part 2

Among those things, which belong to no one, there are two that may become the subjects of occupancy; and those are jurisdiction, or sovereignty and property.

Jurisdiction and property are distinct from each other in their effects. The objects over which sovereignty may be exercised are of a twofold description, embracing both persons and things.

But this is not the case with property, the right of which can extend only to the irrational and inanimate part of the creation. Though it might originally, for the most part, be the same act by which sovereignty and property were acquired, yet they are in their nature distinct.

Sovereignty, says Seneca, belongs to Princes and PROPERTY to INDIVIDUALS. The sovereignty therefore, not only over subjects at home, but104 over those in the prince’s foreign dominions passes with the hereditary descent of the crown.

Part 3.

In places, where sovereignty is already established, the right to moveables by occupancy, and indeed every original right must give way to the superior sanction of law.

And what any man before held by any such right, he would afterwards be considered as holding by the laws of the country. For those original rights were PERMISSIONS of the law of nature, and not commands that were to be PERPETUALLY enforced. For the continued establishment of such a right as that by prior occupancy, so far from promoting the welfare, would operate to the very destruction of human society.

Although it may be said by way of objection, that the law of nations seems to admit of such a right, yet we may answer that if such a rule either is or has been commonly received in any part of the world, it has not the force of a general compact binding upon different independent nations; but may be considered as one branch of the civil law of many nations, which any state has a right to continue, or repeal according to its own pleasure or discretion.

There are many other things indeed which legal writers, in treating of the division and acquisition of property, consider as forming a part of the law of nations.

Part 4.

Rivers may be occupied by a country, not including the stream above, nor that below its own territories. But the waters which wash its lands form an inseparable part of the current, making its way to the main sea.

For to constitute the right to a property in its channel, it is sufficient that its sides, inclosed by the banks of that territory form its greatest part, and that the river itself compared with the land, makes but a small portion.

Part 5.

In the same way, the sea appears can being made a property by the power possessed of the shore on both sides of it.

Although beyond those limits it may spread to a wide extent, which is the case with a bay, and with a straight beyond each of its outlets into main sea or ocean. But this right of property can never take place where the sea is of such a magnitude, as to surpass all comparison with that portion of the land which it washes. And the right, which one people or prince possesses, may also be shared by a great number of states, among whose respective territories the sea flows. Thus rivers separating two powers may be105 occupied by both, to each of whom their use and advantages may be equal.

VI. Instances may be found of treaties by which one nation binds itself to another, not to navigate particular seas beyond certain bounds. Thus between the Egyptians and the Princes inhabiting the borders of the Red Sea, it was agreed, in ancient times, that the former should not enter that sea with any ship of war, nor with more than one merchant ship. In the same manner, in the time of Cimon, the Persians were bound by a treaty, made with the Athenians, not to sail with any ship of war between the Cyanean rocks and the Chelidonian islands; a prohibition, which, after the battle of Salamis, restricted any Persian armed vessel from sailing between Phaselis and the above named rocks. In the one year’s truce of the Peloponnesian war, the Lacedaemonians were prohibited from sailing with any ships of war whatever, or indeed with any other ships of more than twenty tons burden. And in the first treaty, which the Romans, immediately after the expulsion of their kings, made with the Carthaginians, it was stipulated that neither the Romans, nor their allies should sail beyond the promontory of Pulchrum, except they were driven thither by stress of weather, or to avoid being captured by an enemy. But in either case they were to take nothing more than necessaries, and to depart before the expiration of five days. And in the second treaty, the Romans were prohibited from committing any acts of piracy, or even from trading beyond the promontory of Pulchrum, Massia and Tarseius.

In a treaty of peace between the Illyrians and Romans, the latter required that they should not pass beyond the Lissus with more than two frigates, and those unarmed. In the peace with Antiochus, he was bound not to sail within the capes of Calycadnius and Sarpedon, except with ships carrying tribute, ambassadors, or hostages. Now the instances alluded to do not prove the actual occupancy of the sea, or the right of navigation. For it may happen that both individuals and nations may grant as a matter of favour or compact, not only what they have a competent right to dispose of, but that which is the common right of all men as well as of themselves. When this happens, we may say as Ulpian did on a like occasion, where an estate had been sold with a reservation, that the purchaser should not fish for Tunny to the106 prejudice of the seller. He observed that the sea could not be rendered subject to a service, but still the purchaser and those who succeeded to his possession, were bound in honour to observe that part of the contract.

VII. Whenever a river has changed its course, disputes have arisen between neighboring states to decide whether such an alteration creates any change in the adjoining territories, and to whom any addition of land occasioned by that change accrues.

Disputes which must be settled according to the nature and manner of such acquisition. Writers, who have treated of the division of land, have described it as of a threefold nature: one kind they name DIVIDED and ASSIGNED land, which Frontinus the Lawyer calls LIMITED, because it is marked out by artificial boundaries. By land ASSIGNED, is meant that which has been appropriated to a whole community, comprehending a certain number of families; a hundred for instance: from whence it has derived that name. And those portions are called hundreds.

There is another division called ARCIFINIUM, which is applied when the land is defended against an enemy by the natural boundaries of rivers or mountains. These lands Aggenus Urbicus calls OCCUPATORY, being such as have been occupied either by reason of their being vacant, or by the power of conquest. In the two first kinds of lands, because their extent and bounds are fixed and determined, though a river should change its course, it occasions no change of territory, and what is added by alluvion will belong to the former occupant.

In arcifinious lands, where the bounds are formed by nature, any gradual change in the course of the river makes a change also in the boundaries of territory, and whatever accession is given by the river to one side, it will belong to the possessor of the land on that side. Because the respective nations are supposed originally to have taken possession of those lands, with an intention of making the MIDDLE of that river, as a natural boundary, the line of separation between them. Thus Tacitus in speaking of the Usipians and Tencterians, who border on the Cattians, says, “their territory lies on the banks of the Rhine, where that river, still flowing in one regular channel, forms a sufficient boundary.”

VIII. Decisions like those above can only take place in instances, where the river has not altered its channel.107

For a river, dividing territories, is not to be considered barely as so much water, but as water flowing in a PARTICULAR CHANNEL, and inclosed WITHIN CERTAIN BANKS. For which reason an addition, a decrease, or such a change of small portions, as leaves the ancient appearance, upon the whole, nearly the same, allows us to consider the river as still the same. But if the whole face of the river is changed, the case will be entirely altered. For as a river may be entirely destroyed by the erection of dams upon the higher parts of its stream, or by digging canals, which carry off its waters in another direction: so by the desertion of its old channel, and breaking out for itself another course, it will not continue to be same river it was before, but will be completely a new one. In the same manner if a river has been dried up, the middle of its channel will remain as the boundary between neighbouring states, who in taking possession of the neighbouring territory originally intended the middle of such a river to be the line of separation, and under all changes to preserve the same as a permanent limit. But in doubtful cases, the territories bordering upon a river ought to be considered as arcifinious, because nothing can be a more apt mark of distinction than those impassable bounds assigned by nature. It very seldom indeed happens, that the artificial or civil admeasurements of territory can be regulated by such natural bounds, as they are, in general, the effect of original acquisition, or have been ceded by treaty.


Although in doubtful cases, it has been said that the territories on each side of a river are determined by the middle of the channel; yet it may happen, and has happened, that the sole right to a river may belong to the territories on one side of it. Because that on the opposite side was of later occupancy, and subsequent to the possession of that river by the other power: or because this sole right may have been so settled by treaty.

Part 10.

Things which have had an owner, but have ceased to have one, become subject to the right by original acquisition.

They are supposed to have been abandoned from the want of an owner, and therefore have returned to the original state of common stock. But at the same time it is proper to observe, that some times the original acquisition may have been made by a people or their sovereign, in such a manner as to give them or him not only those pre-eminent108 rights which constitute prerogative, but also the full title of property.

This property again may be divided into smaller grants. Those again subdivided into other portions, to be held as dependent upon the original grantor, the Sovereign, or the Lord.

Though the land may not be held by base service, or vassalage, yet it is possessed by some conditional tenure. For things are occupied by many kinds of right; among which may be reckoned the right of a person who expects property to be left to him under the condition of a trust. Seneca says, that an owner’s being debarred from selling his lands, committing waste upon them, or even making improvements, is not to be taken as a proof that the property is not his. For that is a man’s own, which he holds under any certain conditions.

Since then property distributed in the manner above named is held of the sovereign, or of some intermediate Lord, who himself is tenant of the sovereign, it follows that any thing which wants an owner does not become the property of him, who can first seize it, but reverts to the state or to the sovereign.


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