HC Deb 23 July 1822 vol 7 cc1725-9
Mr. Canning

presented a petition from certain merchants, shipowners, and underwriters of Liverpool, complaining of the numerous piracies in the West Indian seas. The. right hon. member, having detailed the contents of the petition, begged to add some facts with which he had been furnished regarding outrages committed upon British shipping. On the 13th Dec. 1821, when within five miles of Cape San Antonio, a British ship bound for Liverpool, had been stopped by a crew of armed men, who boarded her and demanded of the steward if there were any specie on board. The answer being in the negative, the man was instantly stabbed by the pirates. They then endeavoured to extort a confession from the captain, and compelled his own crew to hoist him up by the neck to the yard-arm, where he entreated his own mate to fasten weights to his feet that his misery might be more speedily terminated. Of course, this was not allowed, and when taken down and while lying on the deck in a state of almost total insensibility the wretch who had stabbed the steward blew out the brains of the captain. The pirates were all either Spaniards or Portuguese. The right hon. gentleman mentioned some similar particulars, and observed that the petitioners had first applied to the Admiralty, which had represented the matter to the Court of Spain. No doubt, every step had been taken on the part of the British executive to remedy an evil so outrageous; but the petitioners felt that a time would arrive, if it had not arrived, when the mother country would be unable to redress the grievance committed under the flag of her colonies, and when it would therefore be necessary for this government to adopt some course for the protection of the trade of the empire.

Sir G. Cockburn

said, that when these transactions came to the knowledge of government, it sent out instructions to the admiral on the station to seize all vessels which could not prove their nationality, and which had committed depredations on our trade: a statement was sent in answer to government, that no actual proof could be made of depredations committed by any particular vessel: government sent out fresh orders to the admiral requiring him to seize all vessels against which reasonable cause of suspicion existed. With respect to the depredation committed off Cape St. Antonio, the moment the government heard of that transaction it excited their attention. It appeared that the pirates lay at the point of St. Antonio in watch for vessels; that they anxiously looked out in order to distinguish merchant men from ships of war; and that sometimes they made their attack in schooners and sometimes in small boats. So long as our men of war were near the coast, these pirates did not come out, but as soon as they were driven off by winds or currents, the pirates came out in their schooners and boarded vessels that hap- pened to pass. The land on the west coast of Cuba was jungle, only intersected by small paths, so that if our ships landed their crews the pirates would disperse through the country, and all that could be done would be, to burn their huts, which were of no value. If, however, Spain would send down a force from the Havanna, to attack their piratical settlements on the land side, while we sent a force against them on the sea side, we might bring them to the condign punishment which he would do the Spanish government the justice of supposing that it wished to inflict. As to the giving convoy to foreign ships, this was what the Admiralty always set their faces against; because it was impossible for the Admiralty to be acquainted with the arrangements between foreign nations as to the right of search, &c., and to give directions in following which the commanders of our ships could be secure against violations of the law. Before government could take any farther step, it was necessary to wait a reasonable time, to see in what way the Spaniards meant to act.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, that if the cases of aggression complained of were mere cases of undisguised piracy, there would be no difficulty in dealing with them; but the peculiarity was, that the piracy was perpetrated by vessels having commissions. At the commencement of the contest between Spain and her colonies, these commissions had been issued, not only by the provinces which carried on war against Spain on the sea coast, but by powers which had no ports, particularly by Artigas, whose commissions were sold to cover piracies. In consequence of this, the government had issued orders to seize all vessels sailing under commissions from governments in whose ports they were not fitted out. As to the local governments in South America, they had shown every disposition to keep their cruisers within bounds; and, considering the difficulties of the case, had made great efforts to do justice. But when the vessels sailing under the commissions he had described were seized, it was necessary to prove that they had committed acts of hostility. These orders were at last enlarged, and our ships were authorized to seize vessels of the description mentioned on suspicion. He now came to the particular acts of piracy complained of, which had taken place near Cape St. Antonio, and which were first brought under the notice of his majesty's government in March last. The facts were first communicated to him in a letter from the Admiralty, of the 23rd of March, 1822. The first was the case of the Martha; the second was that of Harborough; the third was the case of the Alexander, of Greenock, seized by a piratical vessel, and the master and his crew murdered. He lost no time in transmitting a statement of the accounts that had been received from the Admiralty to Mr. Hervey, our ambassador at the court of Spain. The letter which was dated the 1st of April, directed Mr. Hervey to take an immediate opportunity of calling the serious attention of the Spanish ministry to the circumstances narrated, and to impress on them the necessity of putting an end to this disgraceful system. On the 14th of May, the Spanish minister for foreign affairs intimated, that directions had been given for the immediate discovery and punishment of the guilty parties. If, in the end, it should be found, that the Spanish government were not able to put down this system, it would then devolve on the British government to take steps for that purpose. But it would have led to very great difficulty, and would have involved considerable loss of property, if hitherto they had taken stronger steps than they had done.

Mr. Bright

said, the acts of the pirates at Cape St. Antonio were such direct acts of piracy that he saw no such difficulty in dealing with them as had been described. He could not but admire the superior success of the American navy in dealing with these pirates. This was owing to no superior skill or activity in American officers, but to a better system. The active exertions of our officers in so important a matter should be encouraged; and when, in attempting to execute their duty, they fell into mistakes, they should be indemnified from the legal consequences.

Mr. Marryat

said, the present was a question between the human race and its enemies. There was not now that difficulty respecting commissions that once existed, as those of Artigas had been called in by the authority that issued them, The diplomatic communications with Spain would produce little effect, as this country had just as much influence with the local government of Cuba as Spain had. Cuba, though not nominally independant of the Spanish government, had really paid no attention to the laws of Spain since 1809; having opened her ports to all nations in defiance of the laws of Spain, and having legalized the admission and sale of slaves, equally in defiance of the dictates of the mother country. He thought it of great importance that this country should afford to the vessels of other neutral states the same protection against the pirates the neutral ships afforded to us. The piracies were increasing. Yesterday there were no less than three cases of ships plundered by pirates on Lloyd's books.

Sir J. Mackintosh

said, he could not listen without strong feelings of indignation at the narrative of rapine and cruelty which had been practised on British subjects, and the insult that had been offered to the British flag. If they overlooked such an insult, even to the smallest vessel that carried the British flag, they would be unworthy of the name they bore. But as they were deeply interested, they were bound to speak with consideration and temper on matters of such importance, to show that they contemplated them seriously, and were seriously determined to maintain the rights and interest of the empire.

After some farther conversation, the petition was ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.