HC Deb 22 May 1806 vol 7 cc336-47
Lord Temple

moved the order of the day, for the house to resolve itself into a committee of the whole house, to consider of the motion of Monday last, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for authorising his majesty in council to allow the importation and exportation of certain goods and commodities, in neutral ships, in time of war, into and from his majesty's territories in the West Indies and continent of America."

Mr. Rose

hoped that the noble lord would not press to a discussion, in so very thin a house, a measure of such importance as this, so deeply affecting the interest of the merchants and ship-owners of this country, and repealing the Navigation act, under the salutary operation of which, the commerce, the prosperity, and the naval strength of this country, had attained their, present superiority. He deprecated any proceeding upon a measure of such vital importance in the absence of so many commercial gentlemen, whose interests were materially at stake, and hoped the noble lord would defer the business to an other opportunity and a fuller house.

Mr. Secretary Fox

said, that if ever there was a which ought not to give any alarm either to any particular class of men, or to the country at large, this a that bill. He considered the measure in question to be totally Misconceived by the right hon. gent. in the view he seemed to consider it. It really did not go to affect the commerce of the country, or the commercial interests of any body of men in it. Neither did it repeal any part of the Navigation laws: it was merely meant to vest that power exclusively in the hands of the king and council by law, which had been, for thirteen years past, assumed by the governors of our West-India Islands, without law; for which, undoubtedly, they had incurred high responsibility; namely, to suspend for a time, under the pressure of inevitable necessity, the operation of the Navigation laws in favour of British ships in the ports of their respective islands; .and to permit the inhabitants of those islands to be supplied with provisions, and certain other articles of indispensable necessity, with which it was impossible, under a variety of impediments, for British ships to supply them, and without which a great part of their inhabitants must be reduced to famine, arid, in other instances, to the utmost distress. The measure now proposed, therefore, was to limit the power to safe hands, of dispensing, in cases of actual necessity, with the operation of the Navigation laws, in the ports of those islands; and to guard against the possible abuses of that power to which governors might be importuned, under the false insinuations of interested persons. It repealed no law; it subverted no principle; and, in fact, would do no more than guard a privilege in his majesty's hands, which had been, for a series of years past, exercised by West-India governors, assumed from necessity, and for which they had been uniformly indemnified by parliament.

Sir W. Curtis

admitted, that this power had been assumed by Wept-India governor, in cases of urgent necessity, under a heavy responsibility, from. which had they shrunk, he should have thought them highly reprehensible. But thought he considered them justly intitled to the indemnity they had received, he was decidedly against legalizing a principle that So directly militated against our Navigation laws and must so materially affect the interests of the merchants and ship-owners of this kingdom.—The Speaker reminded the hon. bart. that the stage for discussing the subject would certainly be in the committee.— The house then resolved itself into a committee; when

Lord Temple rose ,

and said, that the bill for which he intended to move, and which had already passed the other house of parliament, was precisely what his right hon. friend had described it to be; involving no commercial interest of this country; repealing no law connected with our commerce or navigation; but simply placing in the safe hands of his majesty in council, the exercise of a privilege, which was heretofore constantly assumed by the West-India governors, without law; namely, the privilege of empowering those governors, upon the fair proof of existing necessity, to receive, in American ships, that supply of provisions, and other necessaries, which, in time of war, it would often be impossible to supply in British ships; and without which, the immense population of their negroes, on whose labour and industry the prosperity of those islands so much depended, must often run the risk of perishing. Owing to the interruption of the intercourse of the colonies and the United States of America, during the American war, it had been ascertained, that about 15,000 negroes had died for want, or from being improperly fed, in the island of Jamaica alone, in the course of six years. But the supplies from America did not rest solely on the ground of the necessity of procuring food for our colonies in the West Indies. There was a necessity of resorting to America for articles to enable the colonists to convey their produce to the mother country. It had been ascertained, by practice and experiment, that that part of the system of the Navigation laws, passed under circumstances and in times perfectly dissimilar to the present, should be suspended in time of war, especially such a war as the present, where the extent of coast in the power of the enemy rendered it necessary to employ so large a portion of the British shipping to watch them, the crews of which might otherwise add to our mercantile naval force. That the Navigation laws could not, in this instance, be adhered to, was clear, from the circumstance of the governors of the colonies having been under the necessity of suspending these laws, upon their own responsibility, ever since the year 1793. The necessity appeared from the representations of the colonies, and Jamaica in particular, from the acts of indemnity passed from year to year, and the circumstance that such indemnity had been in no case refused. At the same time it was clear, that the governors were not the persons on whom the responsibility ought to rest. It was utterly unfit, that they should either repeal or suspend so important a law. The object of this bill, therefore, was not to repeal, or definitively to suspend, any law; but to permit his, majesty in council to do that by law, which had before been done against law, where the necessity of the case should require it; and to relieve the governors from a responsibility which certainly ought not to attach upon them. The noble lord concluded by moving, "That leave be given to bring in a bill for authorising his majesty in council to allow the importation and exportation of certain goods and commodities in neutral ships, in time of war, into and from his majesty's territories in the West Indies and continent of South America."

Mr. Rose

said, he felt it rather uncomfortable to enter upon this most important subject in so thin a house. No one respected the talents of the right hon. secretary of state (Mr. Fox) more than he did; but he thought he was not sufficiently informed upon this subject. The noble lord had said, that this bill would repeal no law. Why, it would certainly repeal the Navigation laws to a certain degree. But he was still more alarmed at what had fallen from the noble lord, when he said, that there was an indispensable necessity for this during the war. He would therefore state how the matter really stood. By the regulation of the trade with America in 1783, it was permitted to import certain American articles into the colonies, in British ships, manned, for the most part, with British seamen. There were representations Made by Jamaica, and some other colonies, that the supplies could not be sufficiently provided by British ships, The matter was investigated before the privy council, in 1784. Both sides were heard; and the result was, that the representations were unfounded, and his majesty was advised to continue the regulations as before, and they were continued thus till 1793; during which time the colonies were supplied with provisions, lumber, &c, as well, and as cheap, by British ships, as they could be by American vessels, The report stated, that the colonies were to be supplied from America, in British ships, with such articles as they could not procure from Britain, or her continental colonies. The consequence of this was, that, from 1784 to 1793, about 935 British ships were employed in this trade, a tonnage of 110,000, and about 6,500 seamen. But, in consequence of the suspension of the laws, the number of ships in the trade at last dwindled down to a very trifling number indeed. In the American trade, too, the consequence was unfortunate, for the number of ships employed were reduced to a very few. There might be other causes for this; but the suspension of the Navigation laws was partly the cause. Now, it having been stated by the governors, that a regular supply of British ships could not be procured in time of war, from want of convoys, and other circumstances, they did, on their responsibility, permit some articles to be imported in neutral ships. In the committee of trade, however, it was proposed to put an end to this, if possible, and they had succeeded to a certain extent; for the governor of Barbadoes, and of Jamaica too, said, that if they were supported by the government here, they had no doubt they should be able to prevail in re-establishing the Navigation laws in all their force. The disadvantage of being driven out of this trade was, that we lost a tonnage equal to 100,000, and 6,000 seamen. He hoped that some delay would, at least, be allowed, till this subject should be completely investigated, and that the parties should be heard by their counsel, He wished, therefore, to have the matter investigated before a committee above stairs; and if their report were favourable to the bill, it might be brought in on that report, which would not occasion a delay of more than a very few days. It had been stated to him, and that from the authority of most respectable persons, on whose veracity and judgment he could rely, that if the government of this country would grant two convoys a year, every spring and fall, (which convoys would only require a frigate or two, and three or four sloops of war,) the trade might still be carried on in British ships, as well as in American bottoms; and that it would not make a difference of two per cent, in the expences; for there were hundreds of British ships, more indeed than he dared venture to name, that were now lying in the river rotting for want of employment, and, which the owners would be very glad to hire out for this purpose on very reasonable terms. He assured the committee, that he felt as much anxiety for the West-India islands, and was perhaps as deeply interested in their welfare, as any man it that house, and should he extremely sorry that any severity should be used towards them, which might operate so as to prevent them from obtaining due supplies of either food or lumber; but he had considered the subject very attentively; he had exerted himself in a very particular manner, to obtain information relative to it from every quarter that was likely to afford any; and the result was, that he was satisfied in his own mind, the islands might be as well and as copiously supplied by the British ships, as they could by those of America, and therefore great care should be taken how we made any alteration, much more how we repealed the Navigation act, which this bill, if passed into a law, would effect. The next objection he had to it was, the effect it would have on the British continental colonies, which, he contended, would be very seriously and extensively injured by it. The next interest that would sutler in consequence of it was, the British manufactures, particularly linens and cottons, which would be superseded and supplanted by German linens and East-India goods. A letter which had, some time since, been received from Admiral Cochrane, had informed, that the islands were inundated with East-India goods and German linens, which were sold cheaper than the British articles of those kinds, and were a serious injury to the country. it might, perhaps, be said, that British ships would also contribute their part to inundate the islands with East-India goods; but that was not in their power; for, if they attempted it, such goods would be taken by Ships of war and cruisers, stationed among the different islands; or, if they escaped those, they would be seizable at the different custom-houses as contraband. He was well assured, that all the East-India goods, carried into the islands, were by American Ships; and that the islands were become a grand mart for those goods. The next interest that would be affected, and that very materially too, was the Irish provision trade; for it was very well known, that the Americans furnished beef and pork much cheaper than the Irish can do; and therefore that article ought to be restrained, instead of being, as it would be by this bill, very considerably enlarged, If the restric tions be left to our governors, on their responsibility, they will never suffer the Americans to come in facther than necessity, absolute and imperious necessity, may require; but, if you take off that responsibility, there will be nothing to prevent them doing it to any extent. This, he said, was certainly the worst-chosen moment, for adopting any relaxation of our Navigation laws, that could be selected. He had heard it urged, that systems adopted 150 years ago ought to be departed from, and that they should be altered as the circumstances of the times, and the situations of different countries varied. He did not say, that systems thrilled 150 years ago, ought to be always obstinately and pertinaciously adhered to; but they should not be materially broken in upon, or altered, but after most mature and Serious consideration. These were the considerations which induced him to wish the matter to be referred to a committee above-stairs; and he asked the noble lord, whether, after the case he had made out, he would pass such a bill as this, without giving the parties leave to be heard He hoped, therefore, he would agree to a committee, which would only occasion a delay of four or five days, and he would pledge himself to attend and expedite the business as much as possible.

Lord Temple

could not accede to the proposition of the right hon. gent. He saw no reason for appointing a committee up-stairs, to enquire into the facts stated in the preamble, which could not be disputed.

Mr. Secretary

For observed, that there was but a small part of the right hon. gentleman's speech of which it was necessary to take any notice. The right hon. gent. had said, that this was not a matter of right that could be claimed by the Americans on the principle of the law of nations. He most completely concurred with him in that point; and, in all the discussions that had taken place with the Americans on the subject of trade, he never heard such a monstrous and extravagant claim stated, or even hinted at. Now, as to the bill itself, the right hon gent. had said, that he (Mr. Fox) was not informed upon this subject. As to any thing respecting the repeal of the general principle of the Navigation act, he certainly way uninformed; but this was not a repeal of the general principle. He used the term "repeal." The right hon. gent. must have surely meant "suspended;" for the in tention certainly was only to suspend, on the ground of the present necessity, and not to establish a general principle. After all that had been said by the right hon. gent., he still continued to think, that no interest whatever, whether of Irish provisions or our own ship-owners, of the continental colonies or any other, was injured by this measure. Now, what was this bill? The necessity was stated, and admitted, as it had already been acted upon. Now, this being granted, all we said was, that the responsibility ought not to rest with the governors. The bill, as it now stood, or, rather, as it stood when it came from the lords, empowered the king in council to suspend the Navigation law in part, in cases where there should be a necessity for it. Now, if there was a necessity for this suspension since the year 1793, how came it, that the right hon. gent. was of opinion that this necessity had now ceased, and that a different course might be adopted. It would certainly require a good deal of argument to prove this, which was upon the face of it so extremely improbable. But, however, if that was the case, it was the duty of the ship-owners, and the other parties concerned, to contradict the statements of the West-India colonists, and to shew sufficient grounds to the council, why they should advise his majesty not to allow this suspension. Now, the governors of the colonies had no opportunity of hearing; the ship-owners at all; for they were surrounded by the West-India colonists, who would tell them that they were starving, and require them to allow the suspension of the Navigation laws, upon the plea that it had been done by their predecessors, to whom an indemnity had never been refused. The governors would, of course, grant the request, except they should hear good reasons against it. From whom were they to hear those reasons? from persons who were not there? Now, the council here might undoubtedly hear both sides. But could any governor refuse a request of this nature, after it had been granted for a period of thirteen years, and indemnity never refused? It had been said, that the governor of Barbadoes had agreed to enforce the Navigation laws, if supported by the government here. No doubt; but where could there be so complete a support as it the king's council here? Therefore, in every point of view, it was better that the power should be in the council. But, if the suspension was only in the time of war, how could the interests mentioned by the right gent. he affected? Was it proposed suspend in time of peace? No; the thing divided itself into two separate questions. In time of peace, the question might be, whether any relaxation ought ever to be allowed at all? If he should then he in the house, he would give his opinion on that point; but the question now was, whether a suspension should be allowed in tune of war, in cases of necessity? Would any man pretend to say, that a ship less would go to the trade after the passing of this bill? It only transferred a discretionary power, which already existed, from one less fit to exercise that power, to one inure fit. He could not conceive, therefore, how the interests alluded to by the right hon. gent. could be affected by the bill. Now, if it should happen that this power of relaxation should he abused, it was competent to parliament to take care that the council should do its duty more properly in such a case, and to force it to act as it ought to do. But, at least, an enquiry ought to be allowed. Enquiry into what? The facts which the right hon. gent. had mentioned, respecting the state of the shipping between 1784 and 1793, might be very good ones, if the question had been respecting the general principle. But what had these to do with the subject, when the question was about placing a temporary power in the hands of those with whom such powers had been considered as most safely lodged? Here was no mention made, at present, of a permanent system. If there had, certainly an enquiry would have been proper. But what was the use of it, when this was only a question relative to temporary power already recognised. Giving the right hon. gent. full credit, therefore, for all that he had said, still he had said nothing against the bill. Allowing him even his supposition, that the necessity no longer existed, still he had said nothing against it. Besides all this, he strongly disapproved of breaches of the law, and bills of indemnity. They were much to be deprecated in all regular governments; and it was far better that this suspension should he rendered lawful at once, in cases of necessity; and this was all that was required by the bill.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that the right hon. secretary had made out no case of necessity, nor even of expediency. He was, however, considerably relieved from his alarm, after what had been said respecting the American government. He was glad to find, that they had not urged such a monstrous proposition, as that we ought to repeal our Navigation laws. Yet something of this sort had been agitated by many persons connected with the American government, and by the country. On this account, he thought it very bad policy in us to do any thing, at present, that might look like concession, as the Americans might think the government was of a conceding disposition, and might presume on that temper. The right hon. secretary might in this manner feel the inconvenience of this measure. He could not see any ground, founded either in the expediency or the necessity of the case, for this measure, which went almost to the overturning the system of our Navigation laws. The noble lord opposite (lord Temple), in his opinion, proceeded with too great a tone of authority, in a measure for the accomplishment of which it might be expected that some reasonable and strong argument, of political necessity, prudence, or economy, would have been advanced. He would advise the noble lord to be something more moderate, more condescending in the manner in which he pressed such measures forward: he could not think that it was very wise in that noble lord to push important measures of Commercial regulations through that house entirely by the force of government. There was another favourite object of the noble lord's, which then occurred to his mind, that was the Tortola free port bill. Than that bill, he could venture to affirm, there was not one ever introduced into the British or any other legislative assembly, which involved in it a greater breach of commercial regulation, or, he might say, of common sense; yet that bill was to be sent up to the house of lords without a single observation from his majesty's ministers. Instead of preserving so much of dignified silence, he thought it would be more advisable in his majesty's ministers to make some provision for the security of the British, without infringing on the American interests; and he was confident, that some such system might be very readily devised.

Sir W. Young

thought the bill could not trench upon the Navigation act, because it was only to be resorted to in the case of absolute necessity. It was well said by a learned lord, whom he recollected in that house, that, "what necessity creates, necessity limits." There was now a statute, by which the exportation of corn to the West Indies was limited to 3,200 tons. It was impossible that 32,000 barrels could supply the whole population of the islands: 132,000 had been the Computation; but, in fact, not less than 150,000 barrels were required for the subsistence of the inhabitants. Sir Joshua Child, in the 4th chapter of his Essays oil Trade, had said, very justly, that the principle of the Navigation act was power, not profit: he said, in a commercial point of view, it was prejudicial to the manufactures and commerce of the country. Since power was so indispensable for the support of the commerce, he would not, as a member of that house, admit the partial and temporary interests of the latter to interfere with the former. The Navigation act, important as it was, had not always been considered indispensably necessary to the well-being of the state. It was repealed as lately as 26 Geo. III. c. 11, when merchants were permitted to have 3–4ths foreign sailors, instead of 3—ths British. All the difference now proposed was, that the measures for the supply of the islands should originate with the privy council, and not with the governors. It was of great importance, that salutary regulations should be made on this subject, because a delay in the supply of the essential articles of subsistence might occasion a tumult, which would sever these colonial establishments from the parent state. But why these objections on the ground of general policy? The government permitted the English manufactures to be exported in foreign shipping; the profits of these afforded the means of war, and furnished additional resources for the protection of the kingdom. An inducement for this expedient was to be stated on another principle. A capricious governor, in a contest with his council, might tell them, he would shut the ports, if they would not accede to what he proposed; and thus, ally plan he chose to adopt, however pernicious, might be forced upon the island. On these grounds he should support the bill.

Sir C. Price

wished to go into a committee of enquiry, in which the effect of the proposed measure, on the Shipping Interest, might be fully considered. The decrease of ship-building in Britain, from the year 1790, was most alarming, as would appear from some accounts on the subject moved for by him. The colonies could now be effectually supplied by British shipping.

Mr. Rose

recommended that the bill Mould go to a committee. Many ship- owners were ready to embark in the trade, if parliament would not prevent them by this measure, and they contended they could supply the islands nearly on the same terms the same articles could be procured from the Americans. Why the bill was brought in, he did not know; it was asked for by nobody. He thought it was due to the opulent merchants of the capital, and the great towns of the kingdom, to make this enquiry; but not only these were concerned, there was not a ship-chandler in Wapping who did not feel himself interested in the present proceedings.

Lord Temple

said, ministers had communicated with intelligent persons in the Irish. provision trade, and others in different branches, and they had the mortification to learn, that the means would be inadequate Without a bill of this kind.

Mr. Rose

very much doubted if they had Consulted the old-established merchants, men of probity and fortune, who were best acquainted with this subject.

Sir W. Young


Mr. Barham

said, the question was, if the decision was to be removed from an improper to a competent tribunal? and, sensible of the fitness of this transference of authority, be should support the bill.

Sir W. Curtis

wished for a committee of enquiry to ascertain how the shipping interest would be affected by the measure. Our ships and our sailors were the wooden walls of old England. He thought that the employment of the mariners and capital of the country was promoted by this trade, and that it ought not to be resigned without deliberate enquiry.

Mr. Jeffery

asserted, that Newfoundland alone was sufficient to supply five times the quantity of fish required for our West-India colonies.—After a few words from lord Temple, and Mr. Perceval, the question was put and agreed to, and the house being resumed, the report was brought up, and leave was given to bring in a bill.—Adjourned.