HC Deb 29 March 1808 vol 10 cc1285-90
Lord Folkestone

rose, pursuant to notice, to submit to the house a motion on the subject of the Danish Fleet. He professed himself to be one of those who had approved of the expedition. against Copenhagen; but, the frivolous manner in which that expedition had been since defended by his majesty's ministers, had contributed considerably to shake his original opinion upon the question. When the expedition was undertaken, he thought it warranted as a measure of self-defence on our part, considering the situation of the continental powers at that time, and the probability there was of the Danish Flees being added to the other acquisition of France. He confessed, that so strong an act as this was, could only be justified by a most pressing emergency; and, therefore, it seemed to him that we were called upon by every principle of equity as well as of policy, not to appropriate the Fleet to ourselves in perpetuity; but to restore it, as soon as that could be lone consistently with the maintenance of our own security. He was aware, that a preposition had been made to Denmark to restore it, provided the Danish government would consent voluntarily to surrender it into our custody; but this proposition was so degrading in its nature, that it could not be expected that the Danish government would accept of it, and he was of opinion, that that people ought not to be placed in a worse situation, than if such a proposition had never been either made by us or rejected by them. If we were to retain the pos- session of the Fleet in perpetuity, he was afraid that it might be alleged, that the proposition was made merely to obtain a pretext for following up a hard but necessary measure, by an act of injustice. His lordship concluded with moving, "That an humble Address be presented to his majesty, to assure his majesty, that his faithful commons, anxious that justice should at all times be done to the upright views which direct his majesty's conduct towards other powers, are desirous of warding off a suspicion, however groundless, that the late attack of Copenhagen was made less with a view of averting an immediate and pressing danger, than for the purpose of permanently appropriating to the use of this country a great increase of naval means: that his faithful commons observe that his majesty, not imputing hostile designs to the king of Denmark, but apprehensive lest he should not be able to resist the attack about to be made on him by France for the purpose of getting possession of his fleet and arsenal, was willing in the first instance to enter into negotiations with him, and to agree to take his fleet in deposit until the restoration of peace, and that it was only after all proposals to that effect had been rejected that operations were commenced for the purpose of securing it by force of arms: that his faithful commons humbly submit to his majesty, that it was hardly to be expected that an independent sovereign should consent to acknowledge by a public instrument his inability to defend his territory and capital; and that therefore it is by no means a matter of wonder that he should reject the proposal so offered to him: that he should endeavour to repel the attack made on him to enforce it, and by a declaration of war resent and attempt to revenge it, when the attack proved successful: that his majesty's faithful commons therefore trust that his majesty, making due allowance for the feelings which may fairly be supposed to have actuated the court of Denmark on this occasion, will not be induced, by any acts of hostility thus provoked, to forget the terms which his majesty first offered, and which seem to be all that the necessity of the case, and the safety of his dominions, required; and that he will still be ready to fulfil them on his part, whenever the restoration of peace, and the state of the continental powers of Europe, hold out a fair and legitimate hope that by so king he will not be in fact adding to the means and naval resources of France: that his majesty's faithful commons believe and hope that such a conduct, as it will be perfectly in unison with the moderate and disinterested views which his majesty entertains, so it will make manifest to Europe, that while the enemy is actuated by views of ambition, aggrandizement, and conquest, his majesty will never he irritated by his example, nor induced by the possession of power, wantonly to attack the independence of other nations; that his sole wish is to obtain for himself and his people security and repose; and that if in the pursuit of these objects he is ever unfortunately compelled to adopt measures contrary to the interest of those states with which he is desirous of maintaining the relations of peace, he will yet seize the earliest opportunity, consistent with the honour of his crown and the safety of his dominions, to heal the wounds which he may have involuntarily given, and to make reparation for the injury which, in defending his rights against the unjust attacks of the enemy, he may have been necessitated to inflict."

Mr. Brand

expressed much regret, at seeing so thin an attendance upon a discussion of so much importance. Upon the question of the Copenhagen expedition, he had all along differed with those with whom he was in the habit of agreeing upon most political questions. He thought that expedition justifiable upon every principle of national and public law; but the grounds of defence which had been adopted by his majesty's ministers, he had no hesitation in pronouncing to be wholly untenable. A nation was certainly entitled to seize upon any instrument of hostile attack which was in the hands of a weak neutral, and which was likely to fall into the hands of a powerful enemy, and to be used by him for the purposes of further aggression. And, this being incontrovertibly a general principle, perfectly consonant to the law of nations, he contended, that there never were circumstances which more loudly called for its application, than those in which this country stood in relation to France and Denmark, when we took possession of the Danish fleet. But, having gone thus far in justifying the measure, he argued that the same reasons which rendered it necessary and proper that we should take possession of the fleet for a time, did not make it either necessary or proper that we should retain possession of it in perpetuity. Were the temper and views of Buonaparte to change, were his ambition to subside into a policy more consonant with the peace and happiness of mankind, and were a treaty of peace to be concluded similar to that of Westphalia, he thought, that it would be incumbent on this country to shew to Europe and the world, that its councils were not influenced by a selfish policy; but that having provided for its own security when that security was in danger, it was equally ready to respect the rights of other nations, and to make every reparation for a strong measure which was forced upon it by an imperious and overruling necessity. On these grounds, he should vote for the Address which had been moved by his noble friend.

Mr. S. Thornton

expressed an opinion that the seizure of the Danish fleet could only be justified by an urgent necessity, and that, had no other measures of hostility taken place between this country and Denmark, that act on our part ought to have been limited by the necessity that gave rise to it. It ought to be remembered, however, that it was in the power of Denmark, at one time, to have secured the restitution of the fleet, but that she did not chuse to accept the proposition. that had been made to her with this view. As matters now stood, the fleet had come into our possession by conquest, and it appeared to him, that publishing a declaration avowing our intention of giving it up, without any knowledge whatever of the future state of Europe, would be a step dictated neither by policy nor justice. The address was also, to say the least of it, the more unnecessary, as it was not known what intentions his majesty's ministers might have without the interference of the house of commons.

Sir T. Turton

said, that if the weakness of Denmark had been the only reason why we should have had recourse to the seizure of the Danish fleet, in order to prevent its falling into the hands of France, a declaration of this kind would be very proper. But that was by no means the case, for there was proof of a hostile disposition on the part of Denmark ever since the French revolution, He denied that any new principles of morality had been maintained on that side. It had only been said, that circumstances might alter the mode of acting upon the old and real principles. Government might, per- haps, be disposed, in the event of a change taking place, which would fully restore the neutrality of Denmark, to give up these ships; but they ought not to be bound by a resolution of the house; such a resolution would only be giving an advantage to Buonaparte in any negotiation that might take place.

Mr. Davies Giddy

supported the Address, not that he looked upon the restoration of the ships to Denmark as a matter of right; but that he thought it an act of generosity becoming the character of the British nation.

Mr. Wilberforce

professed himself one of those who thought that ministers had conscientiously and ably discharged their duty towards the country, in taking possession of the Danish fleet. He was satisfied they were aware of all the objections in point of morality; but that a paramount duty had compelled them to over-rule those objections. He would not allow that any consideration of time or circumstances warranted a deviation from the great principles of morality. In the expedition to Copenhagen, there was no such deviation. A superior duty had outweighed a lesser; and that was itself one of the first principles of moral duty and moral reasoning. The transactions with respect to Portugal involved the same principles, and the result made no difference. It might have been said that Portugal should be controuled by force, and that Denmark might have accepted the proffered alternative of amity and protection. Denmark was unwilling to take any measure whatever of defence against France; and if she had been willing, all she could have done would have been inadequate. It was, therefore, perfectly allowable in us, to secure the arms, which, if directed against us, might be dangerous. But, he was unwilling to carry violence beyond what the necessity of the case required. He would not have the high character of the nation sunk, by shewing a disposition to retain a valuable possession, when the exigency that caused us to seize that possession should have passed away. He wished, therefore, to take no step, with respect to the application of the ships, which might make it matter of difficulty for his majesty to restore them, when circumstances should render that proceeding perfectly consistent with the public safety. The naval and military officers might be compensated as they usually were, by a compensation from the public purse. He wished to prove to Denmark, and to the world, that we were actuated by no feeling of interest in taking the Danish fleet; and that the fleet would be given back, if the independence of Denmark should be again established.

Mr. Hawkins Browne

entered fully into the generous feelings of his hon. friend, and agreed that all he had said would have been applicable, if the Danes had no hostile feelings to this country, and if their weakness alone had been the ground of danger to this country. But Denmark had acted like an enemy, and was treated as such, and her fleet was as lawful prize as any of the enemy's ships captured at sea. The motion was, besides, imprudent, even if there had been a ground for it; for who was to judge when Denmark might be completely neutral or not?

Mr. Hanbury Tracey

concurred in the motion. But, as to the ministers restoring the ships at the end of the war, he hoped that would not be exactly applicable; for he expected that before that time they would be out of power.

Mr. Babington ,

though he thought the expedition justfied, concurred in the address, on the same grounds as his hon. friend (Mr. Wiberforce).

Mr. Simeon

argued that there. was no ground for such an address, either in point of justice, policy, or generosity. We were justified in seizing the fleet, on the ground of necessity, whether Denmark should be considered as weak or as hostile; and therefore could not be bound in justice to restore the ships after the course which Denmark had taken at the time, and subsequent to the event. The policy also would be, absurd, flagrante hello; for it would prove an obstacle to future negotiation, and to our obtaining peace on such good terms as we might otherwise do. It would be regarded, in fact, as a censure on the expedition, and, therefore, he could see no ground for the motion, but a romantic generosity, which was of no use.

Mr. Bathurst

could not agree with an hon. gent. on the other side, that the ships in question, whether our lawful prize or not (for into that question he should not now go), were to be considered as the same sort of capture as if they had been taken on the high seas, durante hello. He denied, that any conviction was entertained of any previous hostility on the part of Denmark toward this country. Gentlemen, in saying so, said more than was even insinuated by ministers themselves, for they had never contended that there had been any previous hostility; for, if there had been such, why Were there any amicable proffers made to them On the part of this country? He thought, upon the whole, that complying with the present motion would be worthy of the characteristic magnanimity of England.

Mr. Stephens

thought the present motion went to bind the future discretion of the country, by promises and stipulations which might ultimately prove more injurious and restrictive than it could now be possible to foresee. If the ships were to be restored, merely on the plea generosity, he did think that the object of the present motion would be to rob that generosity of its grace.

Sir James Hall

had never spoken with any gentleman upon the subject of the Baltic expedition, who did not, however strongly its advocate, seem to think that some degree of shame attached to it. That was a feeling rather foreign to the success that crowned the British arms in general; and, as he thought that the conditional restoration of the ships in question might serve, in some measure, to do away that imputation, he should feel it his duty to vote for the motion of the noble lord.—The house then divided: Ayes 44, Noes 105; Majority against the motion 61.