HC Deb 26 April 1808 vol 11 cc68-79
Mr. C. Grant

presented a Petition of the United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies, setting forth,

"That the petitioners, for many years last past, have been entitled to, and have carried on, and are now entitled to, and carry on, the sole and exclusive trade between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the East Indies and China; and the petitioners are also in the possession of certain territories in the East Indies yielding a large annual revenue, the immediate government of which territories is exercised under the orders of the Court of Directors of the petitioners; but the supreme superintendence, direction, and controul of all acts, operations, and concerns which in any way relate to the civil or military government and revenue of the said territories, has been for many years past, and is now vested in the Board of Commissioners appointed by his majesty for the Affairs of India, according to the act of parliament in that case made and provided:—That the petitioners' concerns are principally of two kinds, one of which regards the civil and military government of the said territory, its political relations, and the Indian debt incurred in respect thereof; the other of which regards the commerce carried on by the petitioners, and the debts and credits of the petitioners relating thereto:—That the petitioners, being established by law as the only channel of commercial intercourse between his majesty's dominions and the East Indies and China, the legislature has, from time to time, imposed restrictions upon the powers which the petitioners, as a corporation, might otherwise have exercised, and has provided regulations for the conduct of the concerns of the petitioners, and particularly with respect to the raising of money at home for these purposes; by reason whereof, and by reason that the petitioners' concerns are intimately connected with those of the public, and are of a nature and magnitude which cannot be managed by the means applicable to those of individuals, the petitioners have been obliged, on different emergencies, from time to time, to apply to the house for relief on various points:—That, in the course of the last and the present war, the petitioners have incurred various expellees for expeditions from the continent of India to the French, Dutch, and Spanish Islands in the Indian Seas, and to Egypt, under the instructions of his majesty's government, which expences were advanced upon the reliance of the petitioners that they were to be fully reimbursed by the public, and different sums have at different times been issued to the petitioners in respect thereof; nevertheless the petitioners claim that a large balance is still due to the petitioners on that account:—That the petitioners were, on the 1st of March last, indebted to his majesty for Customs and for Excise, to the amount of 1,410,238l. and are still sit this time indebted to his majesty on the said account in the sum of 770,000l.; and, upon a prospective estimate of the pecuniary transactions of the petitioners in England, from the 1st of March last to the 1st of March 1809, it appears that the payments, including the said debts to his majesty, to be made by the petitioners within that period, will exceed the probable amount of their receipts within the same period by the sum of 2,433,185l. or thereabout, not including in the said receipts any part of the balance which may appear to be due by the public to the petitioners; and it would be highly inconvenient and disadvantageous that the petitioners should raise the whole of that sum by the means now in their power:—That the petitioners are not conscious of having created or aggravated the financial pressure which the petitioners now feel, but that the same has been produced by a combination of the following causes; that is to say: 1. The vast amount of the Debt accumulated in India in respect of the territorial possessions, and the high rate of interest which such Debt bears, the effects of which have been to intercept the surplus of the Indian Revenue intended by parliament to be derived from thence to the commerce of the petitioners, and to occasion large drafts on the petitioners at home for payment of interest on the said Debts, as well as payments for political charges appertaining to the Indian territory out of the home funds of the petitioners: 2. The very large sums advanced by the petitioners for the expeditions from India before-mentioned, part of which was borrowed in India at a high rate of interest:—3. The deterioration occasioned in the affairs of the petitioners by a state of Eu- ropean war since 1793, under the following heads: 1st, in freight and demurage, which, in the course of 14 years, have created an increase of expence to the petitioners by the sum of 7,000,000l. sterling; 2d, in the increased cost of the manufactures of this country exported by the petitioners, to the annual amount, on an average of 13 years from 1793–4, of about 1,690,000l. sterling, which increase has not been counterbalanced by an increase in the selling prices abroad of the same goods, nor by diminution in the cost of goods purchased abroad for importation into England; 3d, in diminution of profits on the Indian investments homeward:—4. The large supplies in goods and bullion sent out to India and China by the petitioners between the years 1803 and 1806, exceeding very considerably the returns which have been made them in the corresponding number of years; those supplies were originally furnished for the purpose of increasing the investments of the petitioners, in order that by increased commercial profits, joined to increased revenue savings, the Indian debt might be in part liquidated; but in the years 1803 and 1804, when those supplies arrived in India, great part thereof, particularly of the bullion, was absorbed by the expences of the war then carried on against the Mahrattas; and in 1805 to aid the Indian finances of the petitioners in the said war, they still sent large supplies of bullion, besides the usual exports of goods, which latter were also, to assist the manufactures of this country, continued to be exported upon an extended scale to India and China in 1806, all which exports in the said several years are among the more immediate causes of the pressure now felt upon the home finances of the petitioners, the returns hitherto received for the said exports falling, as already observed, far short of their amount:—5. The comparatively small investments which were sent home to the petitioners from India during the years 1803–4–5, whereas, if investments in proportion even to the amount usual in preceding years had been sent home they could then have been sold, and would have produced a considerable influx of money into the petitioners' treasury in England, which would have been ready to have counteracted the effect of the very small sales which in the present state of Europe can only be made, and which tends to the further embarrassment of the affairs of the petitioners:—6. That anterior to, the pe- riod of 1802 mentioned under the 4th head, and during a period of ten years, from 1797 to 1807, the advances made oat of the petitioners' funds at home, for supplies in goods and bullion sent to India and China for payment of bills of exchange drawn upon the petitioners from thence, and for sums paid in England on account of political and military charges appertaining to the Indian territory, have very largely exceeded all the returns received in the corresponding period from the said countries, which by an account carefully made out appear to be indebted to the home concern in the said period to an amount exceeding five millions sterling.—That the petitioners do not presume to request the interposition of the house, to aid them in their present emergency, without at the same time shewing their unquestionable ability to discharge all their present debts in England, and to repay whatever the house may in its wisdom think fit to assist them with; for, independent of the Indian Debt which the petitioners submit is justly chargeable on the Indian territory, the petitioners beg leave to state that, on the 1st of March last, the sum total of debts, carrying interest and not carrying interest, owing by the petitioners in England, then amounted to the sum of 9,122,621l. (not including the amount of their capital stock, but including the debts hereinbefore mentioned to be due to his majesty for Customs and Excise), and the sum owing by the public to the petitioners, taking the same as it stands in the annual accounts at 2,460,000l. and other good debts due to them in England, together with the value of the petitioners' goods now unsold in their warehouses, and of the petitioner's houses, warehouses, and other property in England, amount to the sum of 14,149,623l.; and moreover, the petitioners certainly expect further goods from India and China in the course of the present year to the amount of 5,271,000l. which, added to the last-mentioned sum, will make their actual property in England amount to 19,420,023l. from which the debts aforesaid being deducted, there will remain a balance of 10,298,002l.; but taking only the amount of the goods now unsold in their warehouses, being 7,815,305l. and the amount of goods to be expected in the course of the year, being 5,271,000l. both will make an aggregate of property amounting to 13,086,305l. and if from this be deducted the estimated amount of sales in the course of the year, there will still remain at the end of the year goods to the amount of 8,307,092l. as a security for any loan that may be made:—That the various Accounts and Estimates necessary to support an application by the petitioners to the house for relief in the premises could not be made out in time for the petitioners to prepare and present a petition thereon before the time limited for receiving private petitions was elapsed; and therefore praying, that in consideration of the circumstances of their case, leave may be granted to them now to present to the house their petition, praying that the house will be pleased to take the matters aforesaid into their consideration, and to grant to the Petitioners such relief in the premises as their case may require, and to the house shall seem meet."—The Petition being read by the clerk,

Mr. Grant

said, that as the affairs of the East India Company were already under the consideration of a committee of that house, which was then employed in investigating them, he would move, That the Petition be referred to the said committee.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, although he should be inclined to bow to any recommendation of that committee, yet he could not help thinking the most fair way would be to refer this Petition to a special committee, as it appeared to be a question of very great importance, in order to ascertain whether the East India Company were preferring a claim or a demand. He thought that as such a full investigation was necessary, the hon. gent. who presented this petition ought to have given the house a regular notice of his intention to refer it to the consideration and investigation of a committee. He did not wish to enter into any discussion of East India affairs at present, but he thought that when the house were to be induced to agree that such a sum should be given away, the case ought not to be submitted to them in such a thin house. In the most common cases such notices had uniformly been given, and was it not absurd to endeavour, under other circumstances, to make the house sanction and encourage a demand to that extent upon the public? He hoped, therefore, that a regular notice would yet be given, for he could not so permit one shilling of his constituents to go towards the East India company. He had been formerly one of the East India committee, and then thought, as he still did think, that that company was a monopoly that ought not long to exist. This was a question which would yet come to be discussed; but he could not permit any question of this kind to go on without reminding the house of the fallacious hopes that had been held out, that the East India Company would be able to assist the funds of this country upon a future occasion. In what way, he would ask the house, were they to do it r Had they any means of doing so when such claims were submitted? The Committee now silting would, no doubt, make out their Report in the most judicious manner; but unless he should sec vouchers and accounts laid before the public, in the same manner as private merchants would do were they submitting similar claims, and not the mere statement that they had resources here and resources in India, he for one could not be convinced of their actual capability. Having had access to their papers, he could not help thinking this monopoly was a drawback to the general trade of the country, by affording the Americans to draw off one half of our trade, and tended to prevent it in future; from becoming more extensive. He thought it was, therefore, the indispensable duty of ministers to inquire, whether, under such circumstances, they should propose to parliament to renew the company's charter, which would expire in 1811? He was one of those who would never consent to the renewal of that charter for another three years after, that year, provided he had then a scat in that house.

Mr. Creevey

thought the house under obligations to his hon. friend, for the manner in which he had brought this subject forward. Being a member of the committee for inquiring into the affairs of the India company, he had an opportunity of seeing documents which enabled him to form an opinion, that the Company never would be able to repay the loan they were now calling on parliament to grant. There was a deficit in the present year's account of no less than three millions; and what reason was there to suppose that the Company would not come next year and call for another loan? If the money they called for now was granted, it must be considered as a gift, and not as a loan. It, therefore, was necessary immediately to consider whether the monopoly ought to be renewed. The Company was now carrying on a trade without any surplus revenue, by borrowing money at a high interest. Their trade was daily decreasing, and the Americans had become their rivals in it. Some means should be devised to stop this Ame- rican trade, in order that it might be transferred to British subjects. With an annual loss in trade, the company was obliged to borrow money annually to pay the dividends to the holders of stock. Therefore, until the monopoly was entirely put an end to, there ought to be a limitation of stock, and a stop put to the payment of dividends, unless the same could be paid out of the profits.

Sir John Newport

considered the sum now demanded as nothing less than a gift; and as Ireland must be obliged to contribute a part of it, he would now lay his claim on behalf of Ireland, to a revision of the act by which Ireland gave up her right to any part of the trade to India, in order that she might receive remuneration for her losses in consequence of this monopoly. This was the opinion of all the commercial bodies in Ireland, who felt that if they contributed anything towards relieving the East India company, they ought to have a share in the trade.

Mr. Grant

declared that he had no wish to take the house by surprise, or to pass any measure of importance in a thin house; but he conceived that many of the observations just made, had a tendency to prejudice the company in the eyes of the public, and therefore he would make a short reply to them. With respect to the trade of the Americans to India, the public laboured under a great mistake. The situation of Europe was such as necessarily to check the extent of our Indian trade; and the neutral state of the Americans enabled them to derive advantages from that trade, which it was not in the power of the company to prevent. Whenever this case should come to be fully discussed before the house, sufficient evidence would be shewn to remove every prejudice that might exist on the subject. None other could supply the continent of Europe with Indian produce, but the Americans; and it was not the fault of the company that they engrossed so great a share of the trade. With respect to the observations which fell from an hon. gent. (Mr. Creevey,) he did not know how far it was regular for a member of the committee to give an opinion from documents which, in that character, he had access to, and thus prejudice the judgment of the house, before any report was made. The company had the guarantee of parliament to expect that their present request would be granted. He denied that it was to be considered in the light of a gift; and he hoped the house would be of opinion, that the petition ought to be referred to the committee up stairs, as the best qualified to consider the nature of it.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, that it was clear, that whatever the company might be able to do at a future period, they were now unable to pay their dividend, and called upon that house to enable them by a sum of money, to be raised upon the country, to supply their deficiency, and enable them to pay the dividend of their particular stock. He thought that before the house agreed to dispose of 2,400,000l. of the public money, the public should know the real state of the company, and be no longer imposed upon by the delusions that had prevailed so long and to such extent. It might be right, or it might be wrong, to comply with the prayer of the petition, but in either case the country had a right to expect that there would be no underhand dealings, and that everything would be carried on, fairly and openly, Whether the total suppression of the company would be a national injury was a very different question, and one he should think it rash for him to go into any opinion upon; but it was a question of no little moment to ascertain, whether even the lending or giving this sum would maintain the East India Company as a solvent company for the national benefit.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that there was at present no call for a determination whether it was fit to comply with the prayer of the petition or not. That question must depend upon the Report of the Committee With regard to the complaint of an hon. gent. that no notice had been given, he conceived that it was not customary to require a notice of an intention to present a petition. If indeed there had been any doubt or difficulty with respect to the motion, founded upon it, that might be a good reason for a delay in the proceeding. But the whole that was now proposed was, to put the petition in a state of enquiry, and for that purpose nothing could be so proper as to refer it to the committee actually employed in the investigation of the subject to which it related; and there was no occasion therefore for any notice. The right hon. gent. who spoke last had begged that he might not be considered as pledging himself to any assent to the prayer of the petition by not objecting to this reference. This caution was unnecessary, because nobody could be pledged till the result of the inquiry was known. He did not take notice of this merely to observe that it was unnecessary, but he thought it right to advert to it because the right hon. gent. had given it as his opinion, that it ought to be assumed that this was not a loan but a gift, and that this gift was asked in order to enable the company to make a dividend of 10 per cent. to the holders of their stock from the public money. This, however, was exciting a prejudice against the Company, without any real foundation for it. It was expressly denied that the sum was requested as a gift; but, at all events, facts were stated that required examination. The Company offered to make out that they were to a certain extent creditors of the public; and nobody seemed to deny that some hundreds of thousands were due to them from the country. If we chose to refuse any assistance to the Company in their distress, we ought at least to take care not to contribute to that distress, by withholding from them what of right belonged to them. Whether something more ought not to be done for the Company in their present situation, was a point upon which it would be much better to reserve any opinion till the report of the committee was laid before the house. It was, certainly, a very grave question, even in a national point of view, whether, for want of some aid from the country, under a temporary pressure, the affairs of the Company should be suffered to fall into utter confusion. If they made out a case that called for this aid, and it should be judged adviseable to grant it, could we in justice attach conditions to the grant, which would render it no benefit, but the contrary?

Mr. M. A. Taylor,

in explanation, said, that he had not asserted that any notice was requisite before presenting the petition. What he did say was, that in a question of this magnitude it would have been proper to have given notice of the motion for reference.

Mr. Ponsonby,

in explanation, stated, that he had given no opinion as to the propriety or impropriety of complying with the prayer of the petition. He had merely said, that this must be considered as a gift, and not a loan, and his reason was, that if the credit of the Company was sound, they might borrow money upon it without coming to parliament: another reason was, that after all the promises as to the assistance they would be enabled to give the public, they had never advanced more than 500,000l. for that purpose. He should be glad to find by the Report of the Committee that the affairs of the Company were in a flourishing condition; but he confessed he saw no good ground for anticipating so fortunate a result.

Mr. Tierney

stated that the Company had a right, by act of parliament, to increase their capital to a sum equivalent to four millions, and last year parliament authorised them to issue bonds to one half that amount, he considered this application as similar to that of last year. The Company now had a right to demand a debt of 1,200,000l. from the public, and after that was satisfied, they were well entitled to claim a loan of an equal amount. He thought it was dealing hardly with the Company to make statements merely on presenting a petition, before any documents were laid before the house, and he therefore considered the observations of his hon. friends as premature. No one knew what calamities might fall on the country from this great body being involved in distress. A strong disposition existed out of doors to get rid of the charter of the Company; and though many might think this a proper-occasion to introduce that favourite subject, he thought it would be time enough to do so hereafter, and when that day came he knew the opinion he should give. No one, however, could say, that this act was a forfeiture of the company's charter; and after they had abstained so long, from pressing their just claims on the public, it seemed rather a hard return to raise a clamour against them as persons suing parliament for gifts. With respect to the speculations and promises of two noble lords (Melville and Castlereagh), that the Company would realize such magnificent schemes, he had only to observe, that it was the noble lords, and not the Company, that had made these promises; and therefore the company could not fairly be charged with a breach of faith. He could not consider this money as a gift, and if it could be shewn, that the state of the Company required such assistance, he would join with those who thought it better to abolish the Company altogether. This was a great commercial body, labouring under distress not brought upon them by vice or mismanagement, but by the state of the world; and they merely required that relief which government would give to any commercial men under similar difficulties, and which had been done some years ago with advantage to the public as well as the merchant. He concluded, by expressing his wish, that the affairs of the Company might undergo a complete investigation.

Sir John Anstruther

observed, that the East India company had not come, as some gentlemen imagined, to ask the house for any indulgence but such as had been granted to other mercantile companies, and on former occasions to themselves. They had, some years ago, applied for and obtained similar relief, which they had invariably returned to the public; and he could not see why they should now be refused assistance, when they shewed the same grounds for it, and had kept their faith so well on former occasions. He denied in strong terms that there had been any attempt on the part of the Company to delude the public, or to keep from them a fair state of their affairs, and deprecated the ingrafting on this subject the question of the policy of throwing open the East India trade. He trusted that when this question came to be discussed hereafter, it would not be canvassed in a mere commercial point of view, but that the whole political bearings of the case would be taken into consideration, both as relating to the welfare of that country, and, in his opinion, to the very existence of this. He would not, however ready he was to enter upon this investigation, trouble the house further on this occasion, than to express his doubts as to the practicability of the export trade to India being carried on by individual exertion, whatever facility opening the intercourse of private traders might afford to the importation of East India goods.

Mr. Howorth

insisted, that there had of late been a total suppression of the East India Company's affairs, and the last budget had only brought them up to 1803–4, since which time not a document on the subject had been produced. Neither were there any documents in support of the petition, and he considered it only fair and reasonable, that before parliament granted any aid, a complete state of the Company's returns, sales, profits, and assets, should be laid before it.

Mr. R. Dundas

replied, that it was not usual to produce documents in support of the allegations contained in a petition, but that the only reason none were offered in this case was, that they could not be prepared in time for the petition to be presented within the limits prescribed by the house. As to the deficiency of the East India accounts, it was owing to no wish for concealment at home, but arose from their not having been received from India. In reply to the allusion that had been made to a noble lord in the other house, he said, however sanguine his views might have been on some occasions, he had always stated the grounds on which they were founded, and solicited investigation.

Mr. Tierney,

in explanation, said, that he meant no more than that the noble lords had been much too sanguine in their calculations.—The motion was then agreed to.