HC Deb 28 May 1821 vol 5 cc1015-7
Sir J. Mackintosh

said, he rose to present a petition from the inhabitants of St. John's, Newfoundland, of an important nature. He was satisfied that the British legislature would be disposed to listen to the complaints from any colony, however unimportant. The colony of Newfoundland was not one of those—it was a colony of great extent and importance, with a population of upwards of 100,000 persons. The petition complained of the manner in which justice was administered in certain courts, and of the severe and extraordinary mode of punishment resorted to by those courts in cases of contempt. The petitioners prayed for the redress of this abuse, and also for the establishment of a local legislature in the island. The courts in question were called Surrogate courts; the judges were principally composed of officers of the navy. Punishment for contempt was, he admitted, resorted to by courts of justice in England; but he believed the use of the lash in such cases was altogether unknown in this country; it was, however, the ordinary mode of punishment adopted in Newfoundland. In order to put before the House the manner in which that distant, defenceless, and unrepresented island was treated by those Surrogate courts, he would state one instance—a man of the name of Lander- gan, who was both ignorant and poor, was, through his want of acquaintance with the forms of judicial proceedings, adjudged guilty of contempt in not attending to a summons; for that contempt he was sentenced to receive 36 lashes—fourteen were inflicted, when the unhappy man fainted: a surgeon, who was in attendance, gave it as his opinion that it would be dangerous to proceed further with the punishment. The man brought his action against the judges in the supreme civil court of Newfoundland, and the chief justice of that court declared, that however reprehensible the conduct of the judges was, the court in point of law could not interfere. There were, he understood, eight or ten of these courts, where naval officers were the judges they were held on board of ships, and were called floating courts. The mode of proceeding in these floating courts was not regulated by the common law of England, so much as by the discipline and practice of the navy. The system was a bad one, but was, he believed, the remains of a system which was still worse. The petitioners prayed that the ancient policy of this kingdom, with respect to her colonies, with respect to the establishment of local legislatures, might be revived in Newfoundland. In that prayer he entirely concurred. Considering the extent and importance of the settlement, its peculiar situation, the number of its inhabitants, its local circumstances, and its great distance from the seat of the British government, he knew of no colony which more required the constant vigilance of a local assembly than Newfoundland.

Sir J. Newport

said, he knew many merchants at Newfoundland well qualified to form a local assembly.

Sir I. Coffin

said, he was many years ago in Newfoundland, and never saw any law there but the cat-o'-nine tails. He was a surrogate himself, but he never ordered more than a dozen lashes.

Mr. Goulburn

admitted that the mode of administering justice in the colony was one that should not exist. The causes of complaint were almost always between the merchants and the fishermen, the only two classes in fact in the colony. The government finding it impossible to select justices of the peace likely to act impartially, were obliged to appoint naval officers, who were men of honour and understanding. He did not defend severe punishment in cases of cop tempt, but he contended that justice was generally administered in the colonies with impartiality and with satisfaction to the parties.

Dr. Lushington

reprobated the system of inflicting corporal punishment for contempt of court. The practice was as unjustifiable as it was cruel and severe. The chief justice in his charge to the jury, said, that the punishment of this man was unjust and uncalled for; and the inhabitants of the colony were of the same opinion.

Mr. W. Smith

said, it was almost impossible for a poor man in Newfoundland to obtain redress for the most enormous cruelty. No free man ought to suffer the arbitrary punishments inflicted by those surrogates.

Mr. Marryat

said, that the existing system with respect to the whole of our colonies required revision. At St. Lucie, several slaves had been punished for running away, by the loss of their ears. In another case, a planter who had taken a run-away slave, after beating him, tied him to a stake, with the intention of returning to complete his punishment. Death, however, relieved the poor wretch from further suffering. A prosecution was instituted against the planter, but failed, because, by the law of Spain, a master was allowed to inflict 200 lashes on a run-away slave, and it could not be proved that the planter had inflicted more than that number.

Mr. Wilberforce

deprecated the system of punishment prevailing in many of our colonies; but at the same time contended that the Spanish laws in many instances were admirably humane.

Sir R. Wilson

asked, whether the infliction of torture was sanctioned in those British colonies where the Dutch laws were still in force?

Mr. Goulburn

replied, that orders had been sent to all the colonies, directing that no punishment not used in England should be inflicted.

Ordered to lie on the table.