HC Deb 15 February 1808 vol 10 cc487-97
Mr. Taylor

rose pursuant to notice, to move for papers necessary to give a proper understanding of the particulars connected with the Expedition to Constantinople. The frequent references that had been made to this transaction, in the discussions on the affair of Copenhagen, to which it had been assimilated in principle, rendered a more particular investigation necessary. It was contended, that whatever difference there might be in appearance, and certainly there was great difference in point of execution and event, the principle of the right of attacking a neutral power was exactly the same. But it was not merely to estimate the comparative right and propriety of these attacks on neutral powers, that the papers he was about to move for, ought to be before the house. It was usual, when it had been thought right to go to war with a power before friendly, to make some communication to parliament with respect to the fact and the motives. Now, we were involved in a war with Turkey, brought on by that attack, and no communication whatever had been made to parliament on the subject. It was no private nor party motive that had induced him to bring forward this motion. He was not connected with any party, and he had communicated only with one or two members on the subject. Having a short time been resident in Turkey, and conversant with the manners of the people and their political attachments, his attention was naturally engaged by the dispatches from his majesty's ambassador and commanders in the Dardanelles, and with every attention that he was able to give, he could neither discover why the armament went, nor why it came away. Whatever might be the policy of the Copenhagen Expedition, it at least afforded an eminent example of judicious management and able execution. When a transaction of that kind was thought by some to call for enquiry, he could not bring himself to think that a transaction in which the character of the navy, the favourite service of the country, was brought in question by ill-success, ought to be suffered to pass without an investigation, which would fix the blame of the failure where it ought justly to fall. These were the motives which had induced him to bring this subject before the house. He would abstain from pronouncing any opinion till the papers which were to guide his judgment, as well as that of the house, should be properly considered. He would enumerate shortly the circumstances of the transaction. The British fleet appeared at the entrance of the Dardanelles on the 29th of Jan. 1807, while the British ambassador was still at Constantinople. The British fleet attacked the castles, and forced its passage, burning a Turkish frigate. The British fleet remained 12 days before Constantinople, and then came back the same way without doing any thing farther. This situation was one in which no British officer would wish to remain, or ought to be suffered to remain, without inquiry. The papers which he would move for would go to show why the British squadron had gone to the Dardanelles, why it had come away, and what had been done there. He concluded with moving, "That there be laid before the house a Copy of the Treaty of Alliance, offensive and defensive, between his majesty and the Ottoman Porte, signed at Constantinople, January 5, 1799, by sir Sidney Smith, and Mr. Spencer Smith; also a Copy of any Secret Articles of the said Treaty regulating the passage of the Dardanelles by British ships of war; a copy of a Dispatch of lord Elgin, notifying the exchange of the ratifications of the said Treaty; a copy of any Treaty existing between the Porte and Russia on the 19th of Jan. 1807; copies of the Letters of the secretary of state to Mr. Arbuthnot, his majesty's ambassador at Constantinople, at the time of the British squadron proceeding to that place; and of Mr. Arbuthnot's Dispatches after the arrival of the squadron; copies of the Instructions issued to lord Collingwood, and of those issued by him to sir John Duckworth; a copy of a Letter from sir Sidney Smith to sir John Duckworth, relating to the burning a Danish ship in the Dardanelles; and copies, generally, of all the Correspondence of lord Collingwood, and the officers sent by him on this service."

Mr. Secretary Canning,

after waiting a few moments to see if any one would rise on the other side—the gentlemen there being particularly interested in this subject, and therefore naturally supposed to he anxious to take the earliest opportunity of delivering their sentiments—felt himself now called upon, in consequence of their silence, to state what his sense of his duty suggested to him with respect to the motion now offered. He had said, on a former night, that the motion was brought forward without his knowledge or concurrence: the hon. mover had stated the same thing this night. Not having the honour of an acquaintance with the hon. gent., he had had no means of ascertaining the nature of the information he meant to call for, till the hon. gent. did him the honour to transmit to him, this morning, a list of the Papers he meant to move for. Since that time, he had considered and investigated all the circumstances as much as the time allowed, and he would now state, how far it was possible and proper to comply with the motions. The first motion, relating to the Treaty of Alliance with the Porte, there could be no difficulty of acceding to. The treaty was matter of public record and notoriety, and therefore there could be no reserve with respect to it. As to any Secret Articles regulating the passage of the Dardanelles by British ships of war, he could find no traces of such articles. On reference to the books of the Foreign Office, it was found that the Treaty had been for a time taken away by a person connected with the office, and not returned to the custody of the librarian to whom it properly belonged. Till the treaty was got back, it could not be ascertained whether there was or was not any secret articles of the nature alluded to. There could be no difficulty in producing a copy of the dispatch of lord Elgin, relative to the exchange of the ratifications of the Treaty. With respect to any Treaty between Russia and the Porte, in Jan. 19, 1807, he did not conceive how that could be laid before the house. His majesty's government was seldom in possession of such copies of the treaties of foreign powers as could be laid before parliament, unless when such treaties were to be made the basis of any arrangement here. He was not prepared to say, whether the treaty between Russia and the Porte contained any stipulation to which G. Britain was invited to accede. But the treaty was matter of notoriety, to be found in all the books of public papers, and of course might be referred to without difficulty in debate. The copies of the Correspondence between the Secretary of State and Mr. Arbuthnot were in the office, as well as the Official Notes during the transactions in the Dardanelles, and they might be produced if the house should think proper. Copies of the Orders to lord Collingwood, and from him to admi- rals Duckworth and Louis, might also be produced. The Letter of sir Sidney Smith he had not been able to find; but when it should be found, it might be produced as well as the rest. He had thus far gone over the list for the satisfaction of the hon. gent. who had made the motion. For himself, he saw no ground for instituting an inquiry under present circumstances. But he was persuaded, the house would feel that his majesty's ministers were called upon to give every information, when the production of all that could be given was called for by the hon. gentlemen who composed the administration under which this transaction had taken place. He had followed literally the order of the motions made by the hon. gent. It was impossible for him to be aware what view the hon. gentlemen opposite took of the motion. They would themselves state how they wished to arrange and modify the production of the documents. He was not aware of any practical benefit that could arise to the country from the investigation proposed; but, after what had been said on the other side, he did not feel himself at liberty to dissuade the house from going into it.

Mr. T. Grenville

waited for the right hon. secretary to state how far his sense of public duty would allow him to comply with the motions offered. Till he had heard the right hon. secretary's sentiments on this head, he could not know what further information it would be necessary for him to call for by a supplementary motion. The correspondence with Mr. Arbuthnot was extremely voluminous, much of it not bearing on the question the hon. gent.'s speech referred to. He could not say how much of that correspondence might be necessary to give the house just grounds to form its judgment. When the right hon. gent. should have produced all he intended to give under the motions now made, he should consider what further information it would be, necessary for him to call for. He agreed with the hon. mover, that no opinion ought to be expressed till the house should be in possession of the proper documents. But he thought the hon. gent. differed from his own rule, and expressed upon some points stronger opinions than were warranted the first stage of an enquiry. From the change which had taken place in his majesty's councils, the late ministers had not the advantage of being in possession of the papers principally relating to the transactions in the Dardanelles, and therefore they could not know what those papers contained material or immaterial to their cause. In the admiralty, from the peculiar manner in which the business was carried on formally by the Board in general, but often confidentially by the first lord alone, who was generally a member of the cabinet, and who often did not think it necessary to communicate to the Board what he did; a correspondence frequently passed between the First Lord and the commander of an Expedition, which was not communicated to the Board. Having been himself in the situation of first lord of the Admiralty at the time of the transactions which were referred to in the hon. gent.'s motions, he could not ascertain whether all that had passed through his hands was to he had in the office. But a great part of the dispatches had arrived after, and of this he could know nothing whatever. It would appear by the report of sir T. Louis, who was sent to examine the state of the Turkish fleet, the arsenals and castles of the Dardanelles, on the 5th of Dec. that the hon. admiral thought the force sent amply sufficient. This was six weeks before the expedition. He was anxious to have before the house the dispatch of lord Collingwood respecting this report. He had in this view written to the Board of Admiralty, to ascertain whether the paper was in their office. The Board returned for answer that no such paper was to be found in their office, and that they doubted whether it existed. He then sent them his own copy, which, after pressing it as strongly as he could upon them on public grounds, they twice returned as not essential to any public service, and relating to a transaction wholly gone by:—a transaction in which lord Collingwood's conduct might possibly be implicated, on the ground of sending an insufficient force to the Dardanelles, could not be properly looked upon with such indifference; for though he did not mean to throw any part of the responsibility off himself on any body, yet certainly lord Collingwood might be supposed to have most to do with the appointment of the rate of force sent. Neither was it respectful to parliament to resist a document so proper to throw light on a matter, about which an inquiry was to be instituted in the house of commons. With respect to the aggravated statement of attacking a neutral and an ally in time of peace, it would appear by the Instructions to lord Collingwood, that the attack was not to be made, nor any hostile step taken, till our ambassador should have informed the admiral that the relations of peace and amity had ceased to exist. Lord Collingwood being absent in the Mediterranean, he knew not how the house could be put in possession of the important papers he had referred to, except in the manner he had proposed, and he left it to the house to judge of the fairness with which he had been treated by the board of Admiralty. He hoped the house would give him at least the relief of considering the paper in his hands as authentic. He hoped the fullest information would be granted, and he challenged the fullest inquiry upon that information.

Mr. Wellesley Pole

explained the grounds on which the board of admiralty had conceived it impossible to retain the papers sent by the right hon. gent. The office of lord high admiral being executed by commissioners, it was necessary that all orders should be signed by three of those commissioners. The first lord was unquestionably in the habit of private correspondence with officers on service; but no officer would be justified in acting on such private communication. Even in the right hon. gent's. letter to lord Coilingwood, he had admitted this, by stating, that his lordship would receive official instructions on the subject. Those instructions were sent; duplicates of them were now in the admiralty office, and might be produced if required. He begged to call to the recollection of the right hon. gent., the practice of the admiralty when a private communication to or from the first lord was Made official. The first lord brought it to the board. It was read by the secretary; a minute was made of the transaction; an order proceeded upon it, and that document remained in the office. Surely then, the right hon. gent. could never contend, that letters of so old a date, which he had communicated to the board while in office, and which he had never communicated at all to the board untill the last 4 or 5 days, ought to be received as official. It was impossible to find a precedent for such a proceeding on the records of the admiralty office; and he had searched narrowly for that purpose. If the principle was admitted, what would prevent any private person, who had belonged to any board at any period, from sending to that board any private papers, and insisting upon their being received as official documents? On this subject he could appeal with confidence to any gentleman who had sat at the admiralty board. There was no disposition to prevent the right hon. gent. from obtaining his object. He would tell him how he could perhaps get at it. Probably lord Collingwood had sent sir T. Louis's report to the admiralty, in which case it could certainly be produced. If the right hon. gent. in the plenitude of his power, fancied that he was lord high admiral, and that he could act as such without assistance, he was very much mistaken.

Mr. Grenville

explained, and defended himself from the imputation of having arrogated a consequence that did not belong to him.

Mr. C. Johnstone

thought, that there was a very striking difference between the Copenhagen expedition and the Turkish in this respect. If ministers had been wrong in the Copenhagen expedition, there might be some practical effect in taking the opinion of the house upon it, as in such case the house might address his majesty to remove his ministers. He did not see, however, any practical result from enquiring into the expedition to the Dardanelles, as the advisers of it were not now in office. He presumed, that nobody wished to move an impeachment against them, or to address his majesty that they should never again be taken into his service.

Mr. Windham

thought the hon. gent. was much mistaken, in supposing that the only practical effect in taking the opinion of the house, could be to remove one set of ministers from their places. There Was a consideration still more important than places, and that was character. The practical result which other gentlemen who sat near him wished, was to vindicate their characters against unauthorized and unfounded misrepresentations and calumnies. Some of their opponents seemed to wish, that this subject should lie open as a perpetual fund for insinuations; but at the same time, they shrunk from bringing it fairly to a trial. He and his former colleagues in office wished that it should be brought to a trial, and that insinuation and misrepresentation upon this subject should be at an end. He could not conceive on what priciple the board of admiralty could refuse to keep in their house, documents so important as those which had been offered by his right hon. friend. He thought the public offices ought to be full of such records, which might be useful in future wars. A board of admiralty might as well say they did not want maps or charts as to say that such papers as admiral Louis's report of the strength of the Dardanelles was unimportant. He thought that if they could not see any other way in which they might he useful, they might, at least, have seen that, in justice to the ministers who advised those measures, these papers ought to have been preserved.

Lord Castlereagh

could not perceive any necessity for entering into any enquiries on this subject, nor that it could lead to any beneficial result. He thought however that the board of admiralty were quite right in refusing to make this private letter an official document. Without meaning the slightest imputation on the right hon. gent. if he could make his private letter considered as an official document, any other gentleman who had been in office, might come at any time with garbled communications, and insist upon their being received as official. The gentlemen who pleased to make those communications to the admiralty, might give what they pleased, and withhold what they pleased. Although he had the firmest reliance on the honour of the right hon. gent. yet it ought not to be left entirely to individual integrity and honour, to say what papers should be presented for the purpose of being made official. He could not avoid noticing the laxity of public morals that was sometimes manifest in the conduct of gentlemen on the other side. They condemned most loudly the practice of reading partial extracts from dispatches, and yet it was what they proposed in the present instance. A noble lord also in another place (earl Grey), who had appeared to feel most sorely upon an extract of a dispatch of his being read, had yet shewn no scruple, at the time he was in office, to read extracts from other people's dispatches, and had read in that house extracts from his (lord C.'s) dispatches. In fact, it was well known, that when ministers laid any particular information before the house, it was from extracts; and they did not think it necessary to recite all the voluminous matter connected with the subject. As to the importance of these papers, he conceived that the report of admiral Louis was only introduced as a convoy to get in the private letter which the right hon. gent. wished to have entered as an official document. He could take upon himself to say confidently, that this report was either at the admiralty or at his office. He remembered perfectly that he had read it, without being indebted to the right hon. gent.'s store of private information. The admiralty, therefore, could have no use in duplicates of dispatches which were already in their hands.

Mr. Tierney

defended the conduct of his right hon. friend, and denied that there was the smallest ground for the analogy the noble lord attempted to deduce between the case of this letter, and the garbled extracts to which the noble lord had alluded. But, to prove any sort of similitude between this transaction and the other, the noble lord must shew that his right hon. friend had attempted to produce partial and mutilated extracts from the letters in question, instead of the complete documents. He did not wish to enlarge further one this topic of garbled extracts, in charity to the feelings of a right hon. gent. opposite him, after the severe reproach he had received upon that head from the highest authority in this country. Another hon. gent. was averse to the production of the papers moved for, because he said, it was of no use to defend men out of office. But the hon. gent. seemed to be quite of the contrary opinion as to the necessity of adducing documents for defending men in office, from the loudness of his cheering, on a former night, when partial extracts from dispatches were read to vindicate their conduct; but the public, who felt that in the persons of his hon. friends on that side of the house the country had its best friends, felt anxiety for their vindication; and it was a duty the house owed to their characters to allow them the investigation they so earnestly desired. There appeared, however, an extraordinary degree of reluctance and uncertainty on the part of the right hon. secretary, in acceding to the motion before the house; his language was—'You may have this, and perhaps you might have that; but investigation is not necessary, because no charges are brought against you.' He denied the assertion: charges were brought, and those of the most serious nature; no less than those of having brought disgrace upon his majesty's character, and tarnished the splendour of his arms, by seizing upon Alexandria from a power with whom we were on terms of amity, without any declaration of hostility, and sending an expedition against Constantinople without a military force to support it. It was against those charges that his right. hon. friend wished to vindicate their characters, by a full investigation of their conduct; and it might as well be said, that courts-martial, such as that now going on at Chelsea, were vain and useless, as an investigation of the conduct of public ministers, whose honour and characters were implicated, arid who had a right to demand a fair trial, and be either acquitted or condemned in the face of their country. He hoped, not only that the papers moved for would be granted, but even others which his hon. friends might deem necessary, to the fullest information of parliament and their own Vindication.

Mr. G. Johnstone

in explanation, denied that he felt any pleasure, or expressed any applause when his right hon. friend (Mr. Canning) was reading the extracts from official dispatches, alluded to by the right hon. gent. who spoke last. On the contrary, much as he admired the speech of his right hon. friend, he had no hesitation in saying, that he highly disapproved of the introduction of the extracts referred to, because such a practice appeared to him quite inconsistent with fairness in debate.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought the papers should be produced. An hon. gent. had made a motion, accompanied with observations, pointedly criminating the gentlemen opposite, who wished for the papers to enable them to meet the accusation. Unless, therefore, the production of the papers would be attended with public inconvenience, which did not appear to he the case, he could see no ground for withholding them. He defended the Admiralty from the imputation of having acted in an unmanly and uncandid manner to the right hon. gent. If they had suppressed, or if they had burned, his communications, they might have justly been so accused; but by returning them, they gave him the opportunity of bringing them before the public in any other shape which he chose.

Mr. Croker

would have been better pleased, if papers had been called for which would have thrown a light on the planning of the expedition, rather than on the execution of it; he thought that the admiralty were bound to refuse the right gent.'s letters as they had done.

Mr. Taylor

made a short reply.—The question was then put on the first motion, which was carried, with the omission of that part which related to the Secret Articles in the treaty with the Ottoman Porte, and the regulations for British ships passing the Dardanelles.

Mr. Johnstone,

consistently with his declared opinion that investigation was not necessary, moved an amendment in the motion respecting the correspondence between his majesty's secretary of state and Mr. Arbuthnot, resident at Constantinople, relative to and connected with the causes of hostilities with Turkey, by omitting every thing after the word 'relative,' and inserting, 'the causes of hostilities now existing with the Ottoman Porte.'—The motion, as amended, was then put and carried. The following are copies of the papers moved for.

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