HC Deb 25 March 1812 vol 22 cc187-92

The House having resolved itself into a Committee of Supply,

Lord Castlereagh

rose for the purpose of proposing the annual vote for the fulfilment of the treaty of his Majesty with the King of the Two Sicilies. He did not feel that it would be necessary for him to go at present into any details upon a subject, the line of conduct upon which seemsed so clear; but if any hon. member should require further information, he should be happy to afford it. It was now four years since this grant had first been proposed and adopted, and at this period, it would be quite superfluous for him to detain the House by a justification of the policy on which the treaty was founded. He flattered himself that those individuals who on former occasions had opposed the vote, would now concede their objections, for he had the satisfaction to state, that his Sicilian Majesty had effected an important change in his government and councils, equally favourable to his own and to the interests of Great Britain. The whole military establishment of the kingdom had been placed under the controul of lord William Bentinck, who would be enabled from the confidence that was reposed in him, and from the power with which he was invested, not only to apply the various means he possessed to the protection of the island, but even to aggression upon the common enemy. It would be almost condescending too far to attempt by any detail, to refute the foul calumny originated in France, that Great Britain had imitated the conduct of the ruler of that country in their treatment of the government of Sicily; that she had assumed all the authority of an independent state, for the purpose of appropriating to herself the resources and produce of the island of Sicily. The only design the British ministry had in view was, to discharge with strict fidelity the duties of an ally, whose anxiety was to stop the progress of an overwhelming tyranny, which would sweep away in its progress every vestige of liberty. With this design they fell themselves called upon, from circumstances of urgent necessity, for the protection not only of the independence of Sicily, but for the security of our own army, to produce a change of the system of government; and in consequence of the representation of the British envoy for that purpose, every thing that could be expected had been conceded by the king of that island. In future, therefore, we might consider Sicily secure in itself, and as a spot from whence could be drawn most important means of annoyance to the common enemy. His lordship concluded by moving a resolution for the grant of 400,000l. to enable his Majesty to make good the treaty entered into with his Sicilian majesty.

Sir John Newport

thought that a much more satisfactory explanation was due from the noble lord, on a matter of so much magnitude. He could scarcely believe that ministers, who on former occasions had thrust themselves forward as the friends and supporters of existing establishments, should now attempt to justify the subversion of that of Sicily. Did the noble lord mean to assert, that it was not true, that by means of the British authorities the king had been induced to abdicate his throne in favour of his son? Uninformed as he was upon the subject, judging only from appearances, he confessed that this proceeding did appear to him very similar to the conduct of Buonaparté, who forced the king of Spain to abdicate his throne in favour of his son Ferdinand, and then took advantage of it to claim Spain as his own property. To whom was this money now proposed to be voted, paid? and to what was it applied? These were enquiries, in the present condition of our finances, of much importance; but above all, the British government should take care to make it evident to all the world, that its conduct was not similar to that of our perfidious enemy, which had justly met with the re-probation of all who dared to be impartial.

Lord Castlereagh

replied, that if parliamentary enquiry were requisite, the right hon. baronet was too well acquainted with the forms of the House to need information? how complaints were to be brought for-ward. If such a step should be taken, his lordship was prepared to meet the most minute investigation. He was happy to assure the Committee that there was not the slightest ground for stating, that it was even at the suggestion, much less upon the demand of the British minister, that the King of Sicily was induced to abdicate his throne in favour of his son: how it could be called an abdication he was at a loss to imagine, since it was merely a temporary delegation of power, which might at any time be resumed by his majesty—on the motives to this act his lord-ship would not give an opinion, but certain it was that it was wholly voluntary. The only claim made by lord William Bentinck was, that the king of Sicily should put his government upon such a footing as to make it compatible with the safety of the British army, that it should remain in the island. As on her part Great Britain was anxious to discharge her portion of the treaty, so on the part of Sicily it was expected that she should perform hers. With regard to the question, to whom the money was paid, and by whom it was applied, it would be sufficient to answer, that it was delivered to the king of Sicily and administered by his government. If, as it seemed to be required, a general explanation of the con-duct and policy towards our ally were necessary, the transactions not only of the last, but of many preceding years, must be referred to; and although his lordship did not shrink from the investigation, he did not conceive that the present was the fit opportunity for entering upon it. By such a trial, he was confident, that the sterling metal of the national honour and character would only be rendered more bright and pure. That any comparison was to be drawn between the conduct of Great Britain and that of France it was ridiculous to contend, since while the latter had governed by lawless ambition, the former had been guided by unshaken fidelity. The steps taken by the government of this country were justified by the paramount necessity of the case.

Sir J. Newport

again adverted to the resistance given by ministers to his suggestion on a former occasion, that Sicily should be governed by British authorities. Immediately afterwards, however, the British government was detected intermeddling with the organization and proceedings of the Spanish Cortes, and was now the declared promoter of a revolution in Sicily. It was perfectly obvious, without any assertion from the noble lord, that ministers were anxious to shun enquiry, for if enquiry were courted, when could a time be found more fit than the present for such a purpose? A full and complete exposition of their motives and conduct was due to the country, the purity of whose national character was sullied by an imputation of the blackest kind, which it was the duty of the government immediately to remove.

Mr. Wilberforce

pointed out the distinction between the conduct of Buonaparté with regard to Spain, and of England with regard to Sicily. The pretended abdication of the throne of Spain procured by the former, was a mere hypocritical veil, under which he concealed his base and treacherous designs.

Mr. Stephen

conceived, that the right hon. baronet had forgot the nature of former discussions on the subject. The objections then urged to the grant were, that it was impolitic to grant money while the peasants of Sicily were so oppressed by the noblesse, and that this country ought to insist upon a civil reformation in that kingdom, by the restitution of what was generally termed the rights of man. These objections had been most ably and eloquently answered by the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Canning), then Secretary of State, who had said—"He trusted the House would not desire that 10,000 men, with bayonets on their shoulders, should set about reformation; that he did not think they were the most proper philosophers to revolutionize a country, and teach the people the value of liberty." The hon. and learned gentleman deprecated the practice of adopting gross and ridiculous calumnies set on foot by the enemy, as being unworthy of consideration in that House. For the moment the House began to reason upon them, those calumnies were delivered from the ridicule which otherwise would attach to them. Was it not ridiculous to assimilate the conduct of Great Britain in respect to Sicily with that of Buonaparté towards Spain? The right hon. baronet wished for further information, but was it really necessary to satisfy Europe, that in rendering assistance to Sicily, the object of Great Britain was to annex the kingdom to the dominions of her ally? The change which had taken place was desirable, for it had averted the danger.

Sir J. Newport

answered, that it was of the utmost importance not only that our national honour should be perfectly pure, but that it should be unsuspected even by our enemies. It was not fit that Great Britain should justify her injustice by asserting that the actions of France were of a blacker dye. The noble lord had maintained, that paramount necessity dictated our proceedings in Sicily: necessity was the tyrant's plea, and how many countries had Buonaparté taken possession of and overrun, on the ground that the safety of his empire and the tranquillity of Europe required it? Many facts yet remained in the dark, doubtless, because they would not bear the light; among which was the banishment and restoration of the barons suspected of intercourse with the enemy.

Lord Castlereagh

re-asserted, that necessity alone had induced the British minister, not, as was supposed, to overthrow the system, but merely to make a representation to the king of Sicily against the existing form of government. The whole change that succeeded was voluntary, nor were the British authorities concerned in or responsible for it. During these transactions the conduct of lord William Bentinck had been not less remarkable for mildness and forbearance, than for a rigid execution of his instructions.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

remarked upon the triumphant tone in which the right hon. baronet had reminded the House, that his recommendation at a former period had at length been attended to by the alteration which had been produced in Sicily. If however the British government had not waited until the pre-sent time before it interfered, the object would have been defeated, inasmuch as matters were not until now ripe for the change accomplished, nor would it even at this time have been proper to have proceeded to the extent advised by the right hon. baronet in his former speeches. If it were questionable at this lime whether interference were right, surely at any former period (before the danger which lately threatened the British army was apparent) it would have been most unjustifiable. He admitted the fitness of removing from the British character the greatest of all stigmas cast upon us by our enemies, namely, that we were actuated by the same principles that governed them, if that might be called government which acknowledged no law. He was surprised, however, to find, that the right hon. baronet was the instrument by which these unfounded calumnies were circulated.

Sir J. Newport

maintained, that it was a totally different thing to make terms with our ally when he was independent, and when he had an army of 15,000 British soldiers in his territory. Perhaps upon enquiry, he should agree that it was important that the revolution should be accomplished; but he required, and the country required, that it should be made evident to all the world that such conduct was justifiable. It was a very easy, though not perhaps a satisfactory way of answering arguments, to accuse the individual employing them of improper motives; under certain circumstances he might be proud of the disapprobation of the gentlemen on the other side of the House, more particularly when they endeavoured to deter him from the discharge of a public duty, which as a member of parliament he felt himself called upon to perform.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

answered, that the objection just made, that we ought to have treated with our ally while he was free, could not apply, inasmuch as, at the formation of the treaty, to fulfil which this grant was proposed, there was a British army in Sicily.

Mr. Bastard

gave his vote for the grant, upon the explanation of the noble lord, considering that we were justified in interfering with the government of Sicily, in conformity with the provisions of the treaty, and that if necessity urged, we should take possession of that country by force of arms.

Mr. Hume

stated some circumstances respecting the application of the grants of former years, from local knowledge, and justified the propriety in government abstaining from interference before.

The Resolution was then agreed to.