HC Deb 21 March 1811 vol 19 cc462-76
Lord Archibald Hamilton

said, that in rising to submit his motion for copies of all orders and regulations respecting the Press in India, he felt it necessary to state not only what his object was, but what his object was not. It was not his intention in that instance to find fault with any of the regulations to which his motion referred; nor was it his intention, to suggest to the House any measure so incompatible with the nature of our government in India, as a free press. He, therefore, desired it might not be imputed to him. in this night's debate, that his motion was intended to embrace any such object, He had, indeed, formed an opinion upon, that subject—and felt no difficulty in declaring, that if the paper he now moved for was produced, and if it should be found to contain such regulations upon the press, as he was led to believe it would exhibit, he might possibly think some future attention to this subject advisable. But his motion of this night, was not of any such nature. All he now asked for was information, that an opportunity might be afforded to himself, and the members of that House, of knowing what were the laws upon this subject, which prevailed for our fellow subjects in India, and upon what authority those laws rested—and what was the penalty of transgression.—The trials which had lately taken place at Madras, had certainly created a considerable ferment. That ferment had been imputed to the unwise and authoritative interference of the government with the courts of justice—And certainly the refusal of the government to allow those trials to be printed had, in fact, augmented that ferment, and seemed almost to warrant that imputation. If all the proceedings had been regular and fair and correct, what harm could a printed account of the trials do? If, indeed, the proceedings had not been regular nor correct, it was then natural enough for power to interpose, and forbid their publication. In either case, however, his motion ought to be granted, in the one case to justify the government, in the other to reform its practice. But upon the general reason of the case, he felt himself still more strongly justified in calling for this document. He was aware that it might be urged against him, that, though there might be no positive law, a long practice was sufficient to establish an usage, and that such usage must have the efficacy of law. But he would not admit that any usage, unsupported bylaw, could justify such regulations respecting the press as now existed in India, and as had never been sanctioned by that House. He wanted to know, not only what the law was, but upon what authority it had been established. The government of India seemed to think itself, on some occasions, entitled to legislate for India, as in the present instance; and on other occasions, actually to supersede and set at nought the declarations and resolutions of this House. They were all aware that it was contrary to law to make conquests to extend the territories of the India Company, and they equally well knew how that law had been obeyed. If that House should not interpose its authority, to restrain the violations of law in India, it was impossible that that important branch of the empire could be well governed or long retained. Another instance of the usurpation of the power and jurisdiction of that House, by the government of India, he must mention, because it was more immediately connected with the subject of his motion this night.—When the Province of Oude was seized (so unjustly and tyrannically as he thought) in the name of the Company, a proclamation had been issued, falsely stating that the seizure had received the approbation and sanction of the king and the parliament. Thus had the press been used to usurp the authority of that House, and to belie the legislature at home; and are we now to see it restrained from detailing the proceedings in our own courts of justice, and not be permitted to know either the rules or authority by which it is governed? He should, in he next place, beg have to inform the House as to what he understood to be the substance of the regulations respecting the press in India—if not the whole, at least a considerable part of these regulations. By these regulations, no newspaper could be published in India which did not previously receive the sanction of the secretary of the government. Whether this regulation was right or not, he did not mean then to contend: he only wanted to know by what authority the regulation had been established. The penalty for transgressing this regulation was immediate embarkation for Europe. The noble lord here quoted the authority of a learned judge (Sullivan) in India, to show that no power could exist in the government arbitrarily to restrain the liberty of the Press in India—that liberty of the press which was the right of every Englishman—which was the surest guard for his freedom, and the best check upon the courts in the administration of justice. It was to ascertain upon what grounds this breach of the law had taken place, that he wished to call for copies of the orders and regulations. He found it also laid down in the regulations, that certain rules were framed for the guidance of the secretary of the government in revising the newspapers. He was to prevent all observations respecting the public revenues and finances of the country—all observations respecting the embarkations on board ships of stores, or expeditions, and their destination, whether they belonged to the Company or to Europe—all statements of the probability of war or peace between the Company and the Native Powers—all observations tending to convey information to the enemy, and the republication of paragraphs from the European papers, which may tend to affect the influence or credit of the British power with the native states. If the press was to be prevented from publishing any thing under these several heads, he was at a loss to know upon what subject any observation could be published. Though he would repeat, that he did not now mean to say that any of these regulations were wrong, yet when the papers, if granted, should be produced, he was of opinion that others would be of the same sentiments, with himself upon the subject. As to the trials at Madras, he should only observe, that hitherto the administration of justice was considered pure; amidst the general havoc, the universal gloom, which our political measures had spread over India, he had always been accustomed to regard the proceedings of our courts of justice there, as exhibiting a splendid and honourable contrast; but in this instance, the courts seemed, by their not allowing the publication, to be ashamed of their proceedings. If they were not ashamed of them, they ought to allow the publication, if only to allay the ferment which was excited by these trials. The publication could do no harm, and might do much good. The noble lord then stated, that two grand jurors and three petty jurymen had been sent away from Madras for their conduct on these trials. He would ask, whether, under the present ambiguity of the law, any man could have a fair trial, or by what authority he could be tried at all, or for what offence? Let it be recollected, the judge he had before alluded to (Sullivan) had questioned the foundation on which this power of subjecting the press to inspection previous to publication, rested, even with regard to newspapers, and had stated, that till lately, it had never been carried further. But the case he had brought before the House, this night, was not a restriction upon a newspaper, but a silencing veto of publications on a court of law. It was not restraining opinions, not preventing discussion, not repressing theories, nothing of this kind; but it was denying to our fellow subjects in India, the simple privilege of reading in print, the simple account of their own transactions in their own courts of justice, as they had actually taken place. And if the paper he moved for should be denied, it would be a refusal by this House of the fittest evidence on which this practice of assuming despotic controul over the press in India, by the government there, could be checked and reformed, if wrong, or justified and confirmed, if right. The noble lord concluded by moving, "That there be laid before this House, a copy of all Orders. Regulations, Rules, and Directions, which have been promulgated since the year 1797, regarding any restraint of the Press, at the three presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay, or which have been acted upon by the governments there without being promulgated, or which have been sent to India by the Court of Directors, or by the Board of Controul,"

Mr. Dundas

would state, as shortly as possible, the reasons which made him feel it his duty to oppose the motion of the noble lord. The noble lord had founded his proposition on two distinct grounds; the one, certain proceedings which took place in the courts of Madras two years ago; the other, the general principles respecting the press, which, in his lordship's opinion, applied equally to this country and to India. With respect to the first of these grounds, he had to complain of the noble lord for introducing the subject on the present occasion; the House being aware that the whole of the proceedings on the trials at Madras were already ordered to be laid on the table, till which period any agitation of the question was premature with respect to the general reasoning, the noble lord, while he professed not to found his motion on any condemnation of the regulations by which the press was restrained in India, asserted that any restraint on the liberty of the press in India was improper. [Lord A. Hamilton observed, that he had not said so.] Such was certainly the impression made on his mind by the remarks of the noble lord. As to the liberty of the press, surely no man could be so wild as seriously to entertain an opinion that the principles which were applicable to that liberty in England were alike applicable to it in India. The noble lord asked for the rules which existed on the subject. Now really, with the exception of the regulations regarding newspapers, which the noble lord had read, he did not believe there existed any written regulations respecting the press in India. He would, however, ask, the noble lord, whether he thought it would be wise to sanction the unrestrained publication of all matters whatever in the newspapers of India? [Lord A. Hamilton:" No, but no censorship."]—Without some censorship there would be danger. Could any thing be considered more perilous than to spread opinions of all kinds whatever throughout the whole of Hindostan? A government that permitted such a practice would be most negligent and unjustifiable. Let it be recollected, that no European could be in India but either in the service of the company or by the licence of the company. Was it not perfectly just, therefore, to say to an individual there—to a printer, for instance, at Madras, "If you do not conform to the regulations of the government, you must withdraw from India." Suppose a clerk in any office in this country were to become the editor of a newspaper, he would be perfectly justified in doing so; but would not the person by whom he was employed be justified in saying," I do not choose that you should thus occupy yourself, and you must therefore quit my service." The cases were strictly analogous; for this was all that was declared by the government of India. To give the House some idea of the extent of the evil which might result from unrestrained freedom of the press in India, he would mention a circumstance that had occurred since his accession to office:—It had come to the knowledge of government that certain persons, actuated doubtlessly by the most laudable intentions, had caused to be printed, for the purpose of dissemination among the natives of India, a treatise, containing animadversions of the most severe nature on the religion and customs of the natives. Now as it was the substratum of the British government in India to uphold the laws and usages of the natives, the House would immediately perceive that it was the bounden duty of government to suppress a work calculated to excite irritation and hostility. Such a restraint on the press was justified by the circumstances of the case, and by the powers entrusted to the government. Differing therefore wholly from the noble lord on the grounds upon which the motion was founded, he must give to it his decided negative,

Lord Folkestone

declared, that had any previous doubt existed in his mind as to the propriety of producing the paper moved for by his noble friend, the observations of the right hon. gent. would have completely removed it. The right hon. gent. asserted, that the East India company had a right to bind their servants by their own regulations. This might be true; but if those regulations were of so paramount a nature that every individual became bound by them, independent of every other consideration or principle, then was it, in his judgment, most necessary that the House should know what those regulations were; and when it was recollected that they related to India, he thought that circumstance was in itself sufficient to give great reason for jealousy and distrust on the part of the House. He denied that those stated by his noble friend were the sole regulations, as the right hon. gent. seemed erroneously to think they were. Neither did he think it fair of that right hon. gent. to call upon his noble friend to propose better regulations than those now existing. This was not fair; it was not parliamentary. His noble friend had done his duty in complaining of what he thought was wrong. He should vote for the production of the papers—first, because he thought that they ought to know under what rules and regulations the British subjects in India lived; and next, because it was necessary, in his opinion, to inquire whether such rules furnished adequate grounds for prohibiting the right of publication of the trials at Madras claimed by the parties concerned.

Sir John Anstruther

observed, that certainly the noble mover had abstained from directly condemning the government of India, and only wished for the regulations which that government had promulgated. He might ask what right parliament had to demand the rules which the government of India chose to establish for the guidance of their own servants? The noble lord who had just spoken, however, went further than the noble mover; and urged, as a ground for consenting to the motion, the injustice and oppression of the Indian government. To accede to the motion, therefore, would be to accede to the proposition, that the government of India had been unjust and oppressive; and this without any case whatever of public hardship or individual suffering having been made out. There was not an European in India who was not aware of the engagements into which he entered before he entered into them; and that if he did not choosy to comply with those engagements, the term of his residence in India was at an end. As to the regulations which respected the publication of newspapers, he would ask any one who was at all acquainted with India, whether ah unrestrained publication could there with safety be permitted? Was this unrestrained publication to be allowed for the purpose of permitting one set of the servants of the Company to illuminate another set of those servants? Suppose a secretary of the admiralty in this country were to set up a newspaper, for the purpose of discussing the public conduct of a lord of the treasury, could any thing be more absurd? But perhaps this unrestrained publication of newspapers in India, was for the purpose of illuminating the natives. Was this exactly desirable? Would it be very expedient to inform them of the peculiar tenure by which the British government held their power? He recollected when he was in India, that soon after a certain massacre, a series of ingenious and well written essays, appeared in one of those publications, which were to enlighten the great capital of Calcutta (in which, let it be remembered, there were at least 100,000 natives, capable of reading English), the tendency of which was to prove, with how much ease and safety, by a judicious combination of the natives, the whole European population of Bengal might be exterminated. Was it not wise to prevent the publication of such articles as this? It would, perhaps, be said, that the publisher might be punished; but of what avail was that when the mischief was effected? With respect to the trials at Madras, the noble lord had asserted, that the government of India appeared to be ashamed of the proceedings on that subject. There were two parties involved in this consideration—the courts, and the government. He admitted, that when application was made to the courts for permission to publish the proceedings, the judge alluded to by the noble lord, did make the answer which the noble lord ascribed to him, the propriety or impropriety of which he would not then discuss. The court, however, declared, that they had nothing to do with it; that they could grant no permission. Then for the government. But first, he must observe, that although regulations existed in India, respecting the publication of newspapers, he did not believe that any regulation existed respecting the publication of books. The person who was about to publish the trials applied for permission to do so to the secretary of the government, probably with a view to give greater sanction to his publication. Permission was refused. What would have been done by the government had the publication taken place notwithstanding, he knew not. He did not think, however, that the government would in such a case have done wrong to punish the publishers; for it was admitted on all hands, that at that moment the greatest ferment prevailed in Madras; the judges (whether properly or improperly it was not the time to enquire) having thought fit to refer the result of the trials to England for the consideration of his Majesty. Whether or not, however, punishment would have followed the publication, nothing to him could be more evident, than that the government of India would have acted most unwisely, had they under such circum- stances granted a formal permission for a publication of that nature.

Mr. Howarth

admitted the necessity of regulations, and acknowledged that a press in India, wholly unrestrained, might be productive of great mischief. But the matter for complaint was, not that regulations were imposed on men before they went out, to which they previously and voluntarily acceded, but that after they had gone out, they found they had to struggle with innovations superinduced upon those regulations, to which they had not only not voluntarily assented, but of which they had not had any idea.

Sir Thomas Turton

was not surprised at hearing the language which had been used by those who opposed this motion: such language was altogether worthy of the country in which the governors were every thing, and the governed nothing. The absurdity was to speak at all of freedom of discussion, or the liberty of the press, when India was the subject. The liberty of the press in India! "Risum teneatis, amici?" As if a plant of such celestial growth could flourish in the sterile soil of despotism! Under any such a system of government discussion was indeed to be avoided. Nothing could be more dangerous than freedom of discussion under a government founded upon blood and supported by injustice. As wisely might the liberty of the press be established at Tunis or Algiers, where the government was not inferior to that of ours in India. He had no hesitation in avowing it as his opinion, that there was as much liberty enjoyed under the government of the dey of Algiers, or the emperor of Morocco, as by the natives under the British government in India. Therefore must any discussion be dangerous that could open their eyes to their present state, or make them reflect that the British were but one million, while they were sixty millions. But if the regulations were, as they had been, approved of by gentlemen opposite, he wished to know why they were so reluctant to produce them? He thought, that as rules and regulations affecting such a portion of the British empire, they ought to be promulgated; if, however, they were so wise and salutary, and beneficial as they were said to be, what possible objection could there be to the motion of the noble lord, who only called for their production? The usual parliamentary objection, that voting for their production implied a cen- sure upon them, could not hold here; if they were what they should be, promulgation could do them nor the country no harm, and if they were not, they ought to be known. The right hon. and learned gent. had, in speaking of the Madras trials, stated, that permission was asked to publish them, this was a mistake, no such permission had been asked He concluded by stating, that the motion of the noble lord should have his cordial support.

Mr. Wallace

did not think that the noble lord had made out his argument in support of the present motion, even upon his own grounds. The noble lord had laid it down as the grounds of his motion, that the regulations were illegal and unjust. This had by no means been made out: still less had it been established that the refusal of permission to publish the trials at Madras had been an undue and inexpedient exercise of power. The hon. baronet had denied that permission had been asked: he begged leave to correct him in that statement, and to assure him, on the best authority, that permission had been asked. There were other reasons justifying the suppression of that publication: one trial took place on the 11th of January, another upon the 2d of March—the publication of the former trial, in the intermediate time, might have operated in an unfair way to the prejudice of either party, and therefore to the prejudice of substantial justice. But the right hon. and learned gent. had reminded them of the state of Madras at that period: it had been justly described as being then in a violent ferment—and under such circumstances would it have been wise to have permitted such a publication?

Mr. Hutchinson

observed, that the last speaker had avowed, that the object was, to keep the people of India in darkness as to the nature of their government. The more important, therefore, it was, that this House should take care, that our government there, such as it was, should be well administered. He would certainly vote for the motion.

Mr. Grant

contended that despotism had not been established there by England, but that it had been found there, where it had existed for many ages. The introduction of the liberty of the press might lead to the most fatal consequences, and in the present slate of things, would unhinge the whole frame of Indian society. He did not think any case had been made out for the production of the paper.

Sir H. Montgomery

approved of the present system, and thought any innovation that might be made would be very dangerous to the interests of this country. He, however, could have wished the trial in question had been allowed to be published, as it might have prevented the introduction of a report of it into this country, which he had been given to understand was spurious.

Mr. Lockhart

observed that the government of India had been acquired, like most other governments, partly by conquest, partly by compact, and partly by forfeiture. Under these circumstances, to allow of the unrestrained liberty of the press would be dangerous. Their situation, however, was not such as it had been said to be; for though they did not enjoy a tree government, they were governed by persons who were responsible to this country, and answerable for their conduct to that House. He thought the motion had been brought forward merely as a compliment to the abstract liberty of the press. He was a friend to that liberty, and though it should run into some excesses (and some licentious strides even in this country he thought it had taken), he was far from wishing to impose any new-restriction. The liberty of the press had done much good; it had also been in some instances, a source of the most tremendous evils. It had been spoken of as that which ought not to be discussed. From its magnitude and importance, he thought it ought often to be brought under their consideration. He remembered what had taken place in the National Assembly of the island of St. Domingo, where, in consequence of the attempt to extend the liberty of the press, the most dreadful scenes occurred. Those who were to be benefited by it, rose and massacred their friends indiscriminately with their foes, and at length succeeded in making themselves sovereigns of the island. Such might be the consequences of the introduction of the liberty of the press in India.

Mr. Whitbread

said, the hon. gent. who had just spoken, had mentioned the licentiousness of the press, and observed that it had even in this country taken some strides. He (Mr. Whitbread) was also of opinion that it had taken some strides, but those strides appeared to him to be taken backwards. If the hon. gent. looked back to what had been published many years ago, and compared those publications with what issued from the press at the present day, he thought he also would be of opinion, that the motion of the liberty of the press was retrograde and not progressive. His noble friend was aware, that to place the press in India on the same footing as in England, might be dangerous. The government of India had been acquired, as the hon. gent. had said, by conquest, by compact, and by forfeiture, but he had omitted one short monosyllable, namely, that which had tended more to give us that acquisition than any thing else. He had not mentioned the word "fraud." If those ills might arise from extending the liberty of the press to India, which the hon. gent. had ascribed to that measure in St. Domingo, still he thought no evil could be expected to result from an attempt to soften the misery of the people; but, on the contrary, that it would tend to prop that power which must otherwise crumble into dust. The paper moved for ought to be produced. If the regulations made by the marquis Wellesley were good, they ought to be brought forward to justify him; and if they were unwise and impolitic, they ought to be produced, that they might be canvassed and corrected. The hon. gent. had said, the people of India were not in the situation in which it had been said they were, as they were governed by persons who were responsible for their conduct to that House. After this, however, when they were called to account in that House, that hon. gent. opposed the production of the paper requisite for their information. Not only was it considered right to withhold from the natives of India moral and political information, but it was even thought proper to deny them a knowledge of Christianity. To support a political despotism, they would not let them have the light of that Gospel through which they hoped for salvation themselves.—(No, from the Treasury Bench!)—One hon. gent. had expressed himself nearly to that effect, and the right hon. Secretary himself had seemed about to say so, when the enormity of the proposition appeared to startle him. He was sorry this discussion had taken place, to shew the world the wretched situation of those who were called our fellow-subjects, but who were not so in fact, "but those (said Mr. W.) whom we and our fellow-subjects are despots over." He thought this discussion would have been well avoided by the production of the paper. It would have been perfectly harmless, and it must have done good, as it would have justified the marquis Wellesley, or benefitted the country, by shewing what was wrong.

Mr. R. Dundas

explained. He was not for withholding front the natives of India the light of Christianity; he only wished to keep that from them which would lead to tumultuous proceedings.

Mr. Whitbread

had understood him to say that to attempt to do away the laws and the superstitions of Hindostan would be improper.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought the arguments of the hon. gent. were by no means sufficient to justify the production of the paper. Gentlemen should remember that the liberty of the press was not withheld merely from the principles of the government, but from the dispositions of the natives themselves. They were in that state that it might do them much harm, though if they were less ignorant it might be expected to be productive of the greatest good. He was glad his right hon. friend had so well explained away what had been said of withholding from the natives the light of Christianity, No such disposition existed, but it was wisely thought that government should abstain from openly exerting itself to further the cause of Christianity, lest they should be represented to the people as attempting to impose upon them a new religion. On all occasions when papers were moved for in that House, he thought a better reason should be given, than that they were desired out of curiosity; and the paper required by the noble lord ought not, in his opinion, to be given, as if they were to grant it without any substantial reason for its production having been given, they would seem to admit that there appeared grounds for censuring the government of India.

Sir J. Newport

supported the motion, and thought no one reason had been given why the paper should not be granted.

Lord A. Hamilton

said, that after the very able manner in which his motion had been supported, it would be unnecessary for him to trespass further on the time of the House, than merely to make one or two observations on some arguments from the other side of the House. He had to make one general complaint of almost all the gentlemen who had opposed him, that they had thought proper not only to impute to him what he had not said, but what he had actually disclaimed. He had disclaimed distinctly, and repeatedly, all intention of claiming for India a perfectly free press. He did not even introduce that question at all; it was unnecessary for his object, and he had cautiously avoided it. Yet all the hon. gentlemen who opposed his motion, except the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had spoken as if such had been his principal motive. He had stated, at first, not only what his object was, but what it was not. He had said, it was not, to demand for India a press perfectly free, but merely to enquire by what authority it had one perfectly fettered. One hon. gent. (Mr. Lockhart) had called his motion "an abstract compliment to the Liberty of the Press." Without stopping to notice the obvious insinuation of that phrase, he would merely say, that if the hon. gent. should ever become liable to the penalty imposed upon the transgression of this formidable law, which was the object of his motion, the hon. gent. would then probably change his tone, and not think the matter altogether of an abstract nature. Immediate embarkation for Europe, without trial, or a hearing, or delay, or preparation, would surely be no very abstract injury or hardship. If, as an hon. gentleman had said, "India must, at all events, be governed as it now is," there was an end of his motion, and of every other of a similar nature. He remembered, however, to have heard in that House, very different arguments held by those who sat on the Treasury bench; some of whom spoke in favour of the present, some of the past, and others of the future. He recollected a certain dispatch which had a few years back been drawn up, but not sent to India, which reprobated that doctrine to which he had just alluded, and said positively, that India should not be governed as it then was. For his own part, he was of opinion, that if India must be governed as it now is, though the India Company might not think so, he believed the public had much better not have it at all. He had only one word more—this month was the time when the government must give notice, according to the act of parliament, that the Company must quit their exclusive privilege. He would beg to know of the right hon. gentleman, whether it was intended to give such notice?

Mr. Dundas

said, he had on a former night been asked that question, and he had then answered that it was.

Mr. Johnstone

would vote against the motion. He was not aware that the. power entrusted to the government of India had been misused, and was fully convinced that the most mischievous effect would result from allowing a free press to exist in India.

The House divided, when the numbers were—Ayes, 18.—Noes, 53.—Majority, 35.

Mr. Dundas

then moved for the appointment of a Select Committee on India Affairs, which he proposed should consist of the same members as before, with only two exceptions, the one, that of an hon. gentleman who could not attend, and the other that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was likewise prevented from attendance.—The two new members he mentioned were Mr. Porcher and Mr. De Ponthieu.

Mr. Creevey

complained that the Committee was so formed as to prevent any report except such as would be agreeable to the government and the East India company. The Committee was only an adjournment of the Directors and Board of Controul up stairs. They never gave information except when they wanted money. Their maxim was, give us all the money we want, or we shall force it from you, and call you all the names we can invent into the bargain. After some further observations on this political farce, he moved, as an amendment, That the Committee should inquire into the conduct of the Directors and of the Board of Controul in the management of Indian Affairs.

Mr. Dundas

read over several of the names—Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. Tierney, Mr. Sturges Bourne, Mr. Fitzhugh, Lord Morpeth, Mr. Long, Mr. Creevey, &c. &c. and asked what particular bias they could have against the truth? Lord Folkestone, and Mr. Whitbread supported the amendment. Mr. Wallace and Mr. Grant Opposed it. The House divided,

For the original motion 56
Against it 19
Majority —37