HC Deb 03 July 1822 vol 7 cc1858-66
Mr. Marryat

rose to present a petition from certain ship-owners of London, complaining that British shipping was not sufficiently protected in the South Sea. It appeared that the governments of Chili and Peru were at present at variance, and each had declared the coast of its enemy in a state of blockade. The vessels of Great Britain were thus placed between two fires; and the consequence was, that many of them had been captured by each of the hostile parties. The books at Lloyd's exhibited numerous proofs of the depredations committed upon British commerce. The Lord Collingwood vessel had been captured and condemned at Porto Rico. The causes assigned for this proceeding were, that the vessel was trading in the South Seas without a license from the government of Spain, and moreover that it was carrying on trade with the enemies of that government. Another great source of injury to British commerce was, the pirates who infested the West Indies. The hon. member read a description of the treatment which a British vessel had received from a piratical cruiser. After stripping the vessel of every thing valuable, and making the captain deliver all his money, the pirate cut and destroyed all the rigging and left her. The pirate, however, afterwards returned and demanded more money from the captain, who not being able to furnish them with it, was dreadfully wounded by their cutlasses, and afterwards hung up to a part of the rigging by rope tied round his neck; but his hands being left at liberty, he contrived to slip the knot under his chin, and thus saved his life. Others of the British crew experienced similar barbarity. He was sorry to say that he understood no attempt was made by the British vessels of war to destroy these pirates in their strong holds, which were perfectly well known to our cruisers. The Americans only showed a disposition to put down the pirates. In many instances the Americans had captured British vessels which had been previously taken by pirates, and restored them to their owners. It would seem, however, that this country was actuated by a different policy. The English schooner Despatch having been captured by a pirate, and afterwards retaken by a Spanish vessel, application was made to rear-admiral Brown to have the schooner restored to its original owners: In answer to this application admiral Rowley stated, that he could not interfere to obtain restitution of vessels (although originally British) which had been captured whilst sailing under a piratical flag. This was in direct opposition to the policy pursued by America, who acted upon the principle that piracy and murder could give no title to property. The doctrine of rear-admiral Rowley appeared to be this—that vessels captured under a piratical flag became the property of those by whom they were taken. But how would this apply to the case of British vessels captured by pirates, and retaken by admiral Rowley himself? Was it meant to be contended, that vessels taken under these circumstances should belong to admiral Rowley? Which was the legal principal he would not attempt to decide; but no doubt could be entertained which was the most disinterested and liberal. In this case, all nations ought to make common cause, and give protection to each other against the common enemies of mankind.

Sir G. Cockburn

said, that in the instances in which America had restored vessels, they had just before been taken by the pirates. The schooner Despatch had been acting as a pirate before it was captured by the Spanish ship. Our admiral had no right to interfere. Most of the vessels which came under the description of pirates were prepared with regular commissions from recognized belligerent powers. It was said that the American vessels pursued that pirates into their strong holds. The reason of this was, that the keys lay on the American coast. If our vessels had the same opportunities as the Americans, they would be found equally active in putting down the pirates. Government had made every exertion to protect our shipping. Instructions had been sent out to our commanders, authorizing them to go even beyond the limits which the civil courts would warrant. With respect to convoys, government felt a difficulty in ordering our vessels to give convoy, because it might involve us in wars. This country was only restrained from taking what the hon. member seemed to consider effectual means of protecting our shipping, by a desire not to infringe the rights of other nations, as well as to preserve our own inviolate. With respect to the blockades which had been declared in consequence of the quarrels which had arisen among the rising states of South America, this country had no right to interfere. Every thing, however had been done by our navy on the coasts of Peru and Chili for the protection of British vessels. By negotiation alone, government had obtained the release of all British vessels which had been seized, and he would say justly seized, upon those coasts. But the hon. gentleman wished us to imitate the conduct of America. Now, what had been the result of the course pursued by America? It appeared by the last despatches that American vessels had been forbidden to enter Lima. What would have been said if this country had adopted a line of policy which would have involved us in a quarrel with those rising states, the result of which would have been to render them an easy conquest to their old masters? If government had acted in this manner, their conduct would have been scouted. The petitioners appeared to consult their own interests, rather than those of the country in general.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, that unless the petitioners suspected the government of supineness, and believed, the admiralty to be their enemies, he thought the best course they could adopt, would be to endeavour to open the eyes of the Admiralty upon the subject. He deprecated the discussions which arose upon such petitions, as tending to expose British shipping to greater risks than they at present ran. The hon. member who presented the petition desired that British cruisers should be converted into a kind of roving court of Admiralty, to adjudicate in all cases where vessels were retaken from pirates. It was said, that this was done by America. This might be so; but he was sure it would not be long before America would see the necessity of regulating the conduct of her naval officers by her own laws. With respect to the capture of the Hebe, the Admiralty had no knowledge of it. As to the Livonia, they certainly were in possession to circumstances connected with the seizure of that vessel, and it was a case open to extreme suspicion. He was in possession of 18 cases of detention of British vessels in the Pacific ocean. In those 18 cases, there was only one instance of complete condemnation. It was said that this country might protect foreign property, by allowing the use of British papers. But if that were once permitted, where were they to stop? As to the vessels of whose depredations the merchants complained, if they were met and recognized as pirates, they would be treated as such: but it was impossible that their naval officers should carry about with them the powers of a court of admiralty, to decide what cases were and what were not piratical. The only complete case of condemnation amongst those 18 was that of the Lydia. Another vessel had also been condemned, but as some doubts arose as to the justice of the condemnation, the cargo had been sold, and the proceeds lodged in the treasury of Chili for a year, to await the event of any appeal that might be made. This showed that the Chili government did not deal with cases of this kind in that off-handed way which had been imputed to them. The Rebecca, the Catalina, the Edward Ellice, the Lord Suffield, the Washington, and the Robert, had been released. The case of the Columbia remained undecided. There were four cases of a peculiar character. These were the cases of vessels detained by the Chilian squadron under lord Cochrane. He seemed to think, because he was carrying on war against Peru, which he supposed to be subject to the colonial laws of Spain, that therefore he was entitled to deal with the property which he found proceeding thither by sea, in the same manner that the Chilian government would dispose of it if they met it on land. He would not, he said, allow the enemies of Chili to reap any benefit from the duties which the cargoes would produce, and therefore he seized them. This was a sort of law which lord Cochrane might understand, but certainly his majesty's government did not recognize it and they had directed strong remonstrances to be made to the Chilian government on the subject. He saw nothing in the tone or temper of that government; of which he had any right to complain, and he hoped they would be able to bring lord Cochrane to reason. If this government could not alter the laws of Spain, they could not allow lord Cochrane to set up a new code of laws of his own. Therefore it would be necessary to discuss with the Chilian government the question which lord Cochrane had raised. He would, under these circumstances, recommend the gentlemen who were interested in South American trade (unless they could persuade themselves and the public that there was some supineness in the government of the country, some deficiency, in adopting proper measures by the present naval administration), to exert their activity in pointing out to ministers the best mode by which those piratical practices could be removed, instead of bringing their complaints before the House; because be believed that very little practicable advantage could be derived from explanations given in parliament. Complaints of this nature led only to statements pointing out the difficulties which presented themselves in acting against the obnoxious parties. On these grounds, he hoped gentlemen would not administration of the country, any supineness; as he could not help thinking that, under all the circumstances, government had conducted this great and important question in a most satisfactory manner. [Hear, hear.]

Mr. Bright

said, he could not acquit the Admiralty of supineness. It, was stated, that this was a question with independent powers. He denied the fact. There were two questions; the first with Chili and Peru, which he admitted to be independent states: the second, with the pirates on the island of Cuba. The noble lord and his colleague said, "If we find out pirates, we know how to deal with them." He would ask, what did a pirate mean? Did it mean a small vessel coming suddenly out of a place of concealment, her crew armed with swords, pistols, and knives, robbing defenceless vessels, plundering their cargoes, and hanging up their crews?

Sir G. Cockburn.

—If such a vessel had proceeded from Spain, under Spanish colours, she would not be a pirate. Spain would have to answer for any outrage committed by that vessel. If a vessel were met, sailing under a black flag, bearing an inscription—"We are friends to plunder, and enemies to every power we come up with,"—or if a ship were discovered bearing no colours whatever, there could not be any doubt as to the course to be adopted towards her; but the case was very different when ships were sailing under a particular flag.

Mr. Bright

said, he was then to understand, that if a vessel were provided with simulated papers, and hoisted any flag the crew thought fit to assume, she was not to be treated as a pirate, although she had committed dreadful outrages. If that were the case, there was an end of all security on the sea; for nothing could be more easy than to fit out a vessel under these false pretences, and to rob and plunder every ship that was inferior to her in force. When the crew of a vessel perpetrated acts which were unknown to civilized war, she must be considered primâ facie as a pirate. This was the line taken by the Americans. Was a case of this kind to be met by fictions of law and metaphysical fallacies? Were those marauders to be allowed to destroy all the property on the sea, in consequence of some technical subtilty? They, as practical men, must look at the essence of the thing; they must examine the risk which they would run by putting down those piratical practices. Where was the difference between America and England? Why should the former do that which the latter had neglected to do? Had we vessels waiting in those particular places which were infested by the pirates? This want of energy proved the weakness, not of the country, but of the government, who ought to protect the commerce of the nation. This incipient system of piracy was of more importance than might, at first view, be imagined. The history of the Bucaniers ought to excite a strong desire to destroy the present gang of pirates, before they became formidable. The depredations committed by the vessels which hovered about Cape Antonio were directly similar to the outrages formerly perpetrated by the bucaniers. Unless the Spanish government would put down this piratical system, England must take the matter into her own hands, and deal with those plunderers as their crimes merited.

Mr. Groker

said, that the hon. gentle- man in much of his description of what ought to be done, had accurately described what the Admiralty had done. The orders given on the 23rd of March last, to the Commanding officer on the West India station, recapitulated the representations made to the court of Spain, and directed, as no answer was yet received from the Spanish government, that a ship should be sent to cruize off Cape St. Antonio, and to cut off the pirates, if it was possible, without violating the Spanish territory. The principle, that they should not suffer Spanish papers or Spanish character to cover acts of violence, and that if the Spanish government did not put down these pirates, we should ourselves do it, had been laid down from the time the government first heard of these outrages. It might be asked, why these principles had not been acted on? Was the hon. gentleman prepared to say, that without giving Spain an opportunity to inquire into the matter, we should invade her colony? The hon. Member said that this was a serious matter, that it admitted of no delay, that it was a system of blood and death. And to avoid this, the hon. gentleman would at once plunge two nations, and the whole of Europe, in war. If this was his mode of preventing blood, it was fortunate that the hon. gentleman did not direct the councils of the state. The hon. gentleman wished no attention to be paid to national flags. There would never be peace in the world if every individual officer was to judge when a national flag should afford protection. The laws of nations were rules of expediency founded on international rights, and on the general utility in the majority of cases, and were not to be broken down for the convenience of a moment. In the cases in question, the difficulty was, that there was no simulation; the papers were real papers; these vessels were what they professed to be, but they abused their rights by attacking neutrals instead of enemies. The hon. member's assertion, that the states in question were at peace with all the world, was as extraordinary in point of fact, as the advice that flags should not be respected was in point of law. Spain was at war with no less than six colonies, and two of these were at war with one another. Unless a case of criminality was made out, it was better that the complaints should be made to the government than in that House. A strong proof of the weight of this government was the fact, that in the Pacific only two condemnations of British ships had taken place; the one was a case of manifest fraud; in the other, such was the force of the representations of this government, that the proceeds were vested in the treasury to await an appeal; and instructions had in due time been given to sir T. Hardy to lodge an appeal accordingly.

Dr. Lushington

said, it was not possible for the government, whatever might be its exertions, to protect our commerce from all inconvenience during the continuance of the present hostilities. There was now a war between Spain and her colonies, and while that war continued, our ships would be subject to the right of visitation and search, unless we denied that right to others which we vindicated for ourselves. While visitation and search might be carried on, our vessels must be subject to occasional vexation and inconvenience in the manner of executing it, and to liability to condemnation, if the laws of war were violated; for if a neutral vessel entered the port of a belligerent that was de facto blockaded, she was undoubtedly liable to be condemned. These mischiefs, he hoped, would always continue. The right of visitation and search was the most valuable which England possessed. He desired to see it freely allowed to other states; and if, as in the present instance, it was attended with some inconvenience to the mercantile interest, it would be infinitely outweighed by the advantage to that very interest in time of war. Another point was attended with greater difficulty, and arose out of the state of our relations with the South American States. We did not yet acknowledge them as independent states. What, then became of territorial claims with reference to those colonies, which were in this dilemma—de facto, the territory was in the independent states, de jure, in Old Spain? yet it must be the union of both characters to constitute a basis of a territorial claim. The noble lord had said that Spain was not at liberty to enforce her colonial laws, as she was not in possession of her colonies. Now, he could not but remember the case of St. Domingo. That colony was wrested from France in 1794; yet in 1803, the High Court of Appeal held that it was still to be considered a French colony.—He was most anxious to see Great Britain come forward, as early as her honour would permit, to acknowledge the independence of the South American States. He was aware there was some little difficulty, on account of the treaty which the noble lord had unfortunately signed, in which it was stipulated that we should not give assistance of a particular description to the revolted colonies, end it was moreover declared that his Britannic majesty was most anxious that they should return to their allegiance. That treaty hardly should have been signed, seeing that general Picton, as representative of this government in 1798, urged, by all the means in his power, these colonies to assert their independence; and though those persuasions did not then take effect, great part of the noble and generous courage of the inhabitants of South America had been called forth by those incitements of our government. As to Cuba, it had been said, that before any steps were taken against the pirates who harboured there, it was necessary to apply to the government of Old Spain. If Cuba was a colony de facto and de jure of Spain, then it might be necessary to make previous communications to the mother country; but if, as was the case, Cuba was governed by a government in reality not at all dependent upon Spain, though it might be right as a matter of compliment to make an application to the mother country, it would be absurd to wait long for her to do that which she had not the power of doing. We should go to the government of Cuba and say, "we presume you must have received such orders as a civilized government would give;" and if measures were not taken, the task of seizing and punishing the pirates would devolve upon us.

Ordered to lie on the table.