HC Deb 27 February 1823 vol 8 cc289-301
Lord A. Hamilton

rose to call the attention of the House to a case of extreme injustice and oppression which had been committed on the person of an Englishman in a foreign land. When the House should learn, that the person upon whom this wrong had been done was under the protection of this government, and that he was duly furnished with passports, he was sure that gentlemen would at least listen with interest to the statement he had to make. He did not stand there to arraign the government of any country; but he would say, that under the sanction of that of France, injustice, oppression, and tyranny had been exercised upon a British subject. Although he was prepared to admit, that all which had been done by the government of England had been rightly done, still he could not agree, that they might not have done something more. He would state what Mr. Bowring had suffered, the means he had taken to obtain redress, what redress he had Obtained, and he thought the House would concur with him in the propriety of having the case fairly before the House, from the documents which had passed in the course of this business. He apprehended there would be the less objection to this, because those documents were now in the office of the secretary of state. Mr. Bowring, with whom he had no acquaintance whatever, having had occasion to visit France and Italy, on commercial affairs, was on his return to England. He had procured passports in Paris with some trifling difficulty. He then proceeded to Calais, where his baggage was inspected at the customs, and he was then perfectly free to quit the country. Before the next day, however, he had been informed, that he must submit his papers to an inspection. He was taken before the mayor, and thence committed to prison. In answer to his inquiries into the nature of his alleged crime, he was told that a telegraphic despatch had been received, directing the examination of his papers. After remaining in prison at Calais two days, he was conveyed, in obedience to another telegraphic despatch, to Boulogne. Here again he was refused the information as to the nature of his crime, he had not been long at Boulogne, before the inconvenience of his imprisonment was increased by severities which must be allowed to be quite unnecessary. He was confined au secret, and suffered to have no communication with any person. Besides being confined in a miserable loathsome prison, he had been deprived of the society of his friends; and, to add to the injustice of his treatment, denied the benefit of professional advice. This latter abominable proceeding was equally repugnant to common equity and common sense. Upon the plea that he was acquainted with the language, when he was led out to be interrogated, his request for legal advice and assistance was again refused. The hardships of Mr. Bowring's confinement had been ingeniously increased; for, although he had been sentenced to solitary confinement, the letter of the law had been departed from in this respect. He was put into a prison with culprits of the lowest description, who were confined for disgraceful crimes; and one of whom was in an access of delirium. It was incumbent upon the persons who had detained him to provide a better place for his confinement, particularly as he had not been guilty of any crime, which, by their own laws, exposed him to the punishment of imprisonment. Mr. Bowring then applied to sir Charles Stuart at Paris; and after this proceeding, the ministers of justice, as they were called, but whom he should call ministers of injustice, had devised other charges which should do that which the one communicated by the telegraph did not; namely, authorize Mr. Bowring's detention. If Mr. Bowring had suffered this inconvenience only in consequence of that tyranny which, by the French laws, was inflicted upon the subjects of France, he would have less reason to complain; but, if he had suffered it in consequence of chicanery, or a quibble which amounted to a fraud, it was the duty of the House to have the matter explained by the production of the documents in the office of the secretary of state. There could be no reasons of state against the production of those papers. He had asked, before he proposed to bring the subject under discussion, whether there was any thing in the time which would render its investigation inexpedient. At the end of eleven days the new charge against him had been manufactured, and Mr. Bowring learned that he was now accused of being engaged as an accomplice with others, in a plot against the French government. It was intended by the inventors, that this charge should have a retrospective effect. After several other examinations, at none of which he had been allowed a professional advocate, a letter was received at Boulogne, by which Mr. Bowring was summoned to go to Paris, but was at the same time informed that he could not be compelled to go. In the conclusion of the proceedings, a sentence had been transmitted, the words of which were, that Mr. Bowring was now at liberty, because the crime of which he was accused did not warrant his imprisonment at all. Would it be said alter this, that Mr. Bowring had suffered no injustice? He knew he should be told, that all which laid been done in this case, had been warranted by the French laws. If this were true at all, it was only technically true. That it was substantially false, was evident from the terms of the sentence, which disclaimed any right of imprisonment. He would not be understood to make any charge against the right hon. gentleman opposite, or to the office to which he belonged; but he sought for the production of the documents, that the house might be con- vinced, and, through it, the country, that Mr. Bowring had been unjustly treated. He had no wish to arraign the laws of any other country. He would be the last man to permit such an interference on the part of another nation with regard to this: but, what he complained of was, injustice and tyranny; which were inconsistent even with the laws of France. By having these documents published, one good at least would be effected: every Englishman would thenceforth know, when he crossed the channel and entered France, that he divested himself of his rights; that he gave up his freedom; that he might be taken up and committed to gaol on any suspicion whatsoever. That such was the case, the facts he had stated fully bore him out in asserting: for it was evident, that the greatest crime would not induce imprisonment half so effectually as mere suspicion. A man might be arrested for one crime, which did not warrant imprisonment; but being suspected of another, the French lawyers held, no matter how the fact stood with respect to his guilt or innocence, that he was equally liable to be detained. Again, he would impress on the House, that an Englishman had been arrested and confined without charge or accusation. Neither the individual, nor any one else, could extract from the French government, what the nature of the charge was; and none but verbal communications were made to him. Was, it fit that such conduct should be pursued towards a person who had visited France on commercial business? If no other good were derived from the production of these papers, they would, at all events, show what Englishmen might expect in France, and enable them to express their detestation of so unjust a system. There was one other point, which, though not strictly connected with the subject, he felt to be of considerable importance. It might be retorted on this country, if government complained of the treatment this gentleman had received, "What is the law to which a foreigner is liable when he lands in England? With what propriety can you judge severely of the conduct which has been used towards Englishmen, when you every year pass an alien act, under which Frenchmen, Germans, or Italians, may not only be imprisoned, but transported to any spot which your vengeance or your caprice may select?" He was aware that this re- tort might be made. The process under the Alien act was, however, defined; and thus far it was less liable to complaint than the municipal laws of France. He brought forward this motion without the feast hostility to the right hon. secretary; he had not the slightest wish to throw any imputation on him. His desire was, to do an act of justice to an individual, who, he conceived, had been much injured. The noble lord concluded by moving, for "A Copy of any Letter or Letters addressed to the right hon. George Canning, secretary of state for foreign affairs, by Mr. John Bowring, relative to his imprisonment in France; and also, Copy of any Letter or Letters addressed to Mr. John Bowring by Mr. Planta from the foreign office, with their Inclosures, if any, relative to the same subject."

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, whatever might be the expediency of the motion of the noble lord, he was sure that he had neither the right nor the disposition to impute to him, that he brought it forward with any improper view, or that he had urged it with any improper feeling. For himself, looking to the way in which the noble lord had been pleased to allude to Trim, with reference to the part he had taken in this transaction, he had nothing to complain of; neither did he complain, that the question was now agitated; for he willingly admitted, that the noble lord might be of opinion, that there was something in it worthy of the serious consideration of parliament; but he meant to oppose the production of these papers, on the plain parliamentary principle, that the production of papers, for no necessary purpose, or with no definite view, was always inexpedient; that those who moved for documents were bound to show the reason for their production; and not that those who opposed the proposition, were called on to adduce arguments for their non-production. In following the noble lord, he would endeavour to put out of his way, any thing like individual allusion, by stating this case on the general principle, on which all such individual cases must stand. He presumed, that it was one of the first and most recognized principles of the law of nations, that an individual who entered voluntarily into a foreign country, at the same time entered into a temporary and qualified allegiance to the laws of that country; that he confined himself to their observance; that he submitted to their operation; and that, however unwise the system of law might be in itself, however harsh, however little congruous to his notions of civil liberty, or to his happier experience of the jurisprudence of the country to which he belonged, he had stilt no right to complain of the operation of those laws on himself, provided that operation was not partial, but was the same as it would be in the case of a natural-born subject of the state. When, therefore, he heard of the arrest of this gentleman (of whom, either with respect to his private habits, to his talents, or to his demeanor, in the little intercourse he had had with him, he meant to speak with the utmost respect), it appeared to him, that the part which the British government were bound to adopt towards him was, to take care that the laws, not of England, but of France, were applied to his case with perfect impartiality. Instructions were scat within three quarters of an hour after the affair was known, to his majesty's ambassador at Paris, directing him to take instant measures to inquire into till the circumstances of the case; and, if there were no cause to warrant an application to the government as to some special measure, to watch carefully over all the proceedings, and to see that the law was administered with the best legal information, with perfect impartiality, and with strict justice. He did not feel it right to ask, that Mr. Bowring's case should be separated front that of any other set of men in France, native or foreigners. He did not wish to see the writ of Habeas Corpus, or the trial by jury, introduced to the French territory, on account of Mr. Bowring; but he did think it proper, that, whatever was the practice in France towards an accused person, that practice should be strictly observed with respect to Mr. Bowring, and that any deviation from it might justify national interference; but it seemed to him to be a most indisputable position, that national interference could only begin, when individual injustice was perpetrated. He would not enter into a disquisition as to the causes of Mr. Bowring's arrest, but he would say, in passing, that the noble lord had made one mistake in his statement. He had said, truly, that when Mr. Bowring was released, it was with a declaration, that the crime of which he was accused did not incur the penalty of imprisonment. It was true that such a declaration was made; but the noble lord did not understand its bearing. This gentleman was, in the first place, arrested, as appeared from his own statement, and the counter-statement of the French government, as the hearer of sealed letters, as defrauding (he meant not to use the word in an invidious sense), as defrauding the post-office of France, by becoming the carrier of letters—a crime of no moral turpitude, a crime not malum in se, but malum prohibitum—an offence, however, which was a misdemeanor by the English law. With us, it was visited by a pecuniary fine, but in France, it was punished in a more summary manner. But, being detained as the carrier of letters, there grew out of those letters, or of others which arose in the course of that accusation, matter which occasioned a charge of a heavier crime—a crime that incurred the punishment of imprisonment. The result undoubtedly was, that on this latter crime, be it what it might, he was never brought to trial; and he was ultimately released. When he was released for the greater crime, he was not detained on account of the lesser; but was set at liberty, as the lesser crime did not incur the punishment of imprisonment. Mr. Bowring was not released because he had been unjustly imprisoned; but because the offence which incurred the punishment of imprisonment was not proceeded on, and the other offence had not that punishment attached to it by the French law. This materially altered the state of the case. Now, with respect to the statement of the French government on the one hand, and that of Mr. Bowring on the other, he (Mr. C.) had not thought it necessary to investigate those extreme statements for the purpose of forming an opinion. The single point to which he had to apply his mind, was not as to the guilt or innocence of the party, but whether the accused person was dealt with impartially, according to the laws of the country. He was sure it was unnecessary, after the opinion which the noble lord had so candidly given, for him to take credit for what he was about to state; namely, that during the whole of these transactions, if Mr. Bowring had been nearest to the British government in affection, and nearest to his own feelings individually, it would have been impossible to watch over the proceedings with more anxious vigilance. But, when those proceedings were brought to an end, and believing their close was precipitated by the interference of the British govern- ment—an interference which called on the French government not to let go, but to proceed or let go—the only course for the British government to pursue was to inquire whether any compensation was due to Mr. Bowring—to ascertain by the opinion, not of English lawyers, but of French lawyers, whether the entire proceedings were consonant with the usual course of French jurisprudence. Accordingly, he himself instructed sir Charles Stuart to lay before two of the first advocates of Paris, who were officially employed by government, and two other eminent advocates selected from the bar, and who were known to be politically hostile to the government, the whole proceedings in Mr. Bowring's case, and to ask whether, with respect to that individual, the ordinary course of the French law had been steadily observed? The answer of these gentlemen (concurring in their knowledge of the law, but differing in their political opinions) was, that in the proceedings towards Mr. Bowring, the usual practice of the French law had been scrupulously observed—that those proceedings were exactly the same as would have been adopted towards a French subject. It therefore appeared, that Mr. Bowring, being in the French territory, had nothing more to corn plain of than any Frenchman who was detained without trial might complain of. That gentleman, undoubtedly, was detained. To that inconvenience the accusation necessarily subjected him. If the accusation were wanton and malicious, the course would be to establish that fact by an individual proceeding; and in the progress of such proceeding (if the French law allowed it) Mr. Bowring was assured, that he should have the countenance and protection of the British government. If, however, the French law did not allow such a proceeding, then he came back to the position with which he had set out; namely, that if Mr. Bowring went to a country not so happy in its constitution, and not so just in its laws, as the state which he had left, he subjected himself to the jurisprudence of that country, and must abide by the consequences. He implored gentlemen, before they admitted the doubts which the noble lord had suggested to consider what would be the feeling of the British government, if in the case of a Frenchman taken up, not under the Alien act, but under the ordinary operation of the law, the French government chose to make it a matter of national interference. Suppose a Frenchman, just landed in this country, ignorant of the language and manners of the inhabitants, unfortunately got into some scuffle, was in consequence committed in September, was obliged to remain in prison until the assizes in March, and was then dismissed for want of evidence, would the English government bear that this should be made the cause of national interference; and would not the secretary of state, when applied to on the subject, appeal to the municipal law for his defence? Would he not say, that the Frenchman had fallen under the operation of the law, which was ordinarily administered? They must be content to take the good and evil of their institutions together. This country sent her inhabitants to every part of the known world; and, if Mr. Bowring called on this government to take up his case nationally, why should not the same principle he extended to all those who were wandering in Syria, in Turkey, in Egypt, or in any other part of the earth? Why might not those individuals claim the same sort of protection? Why should they not say that their invaluable institutions should be transplanted into every remote region, and that Englishmen should be tried by them, and not by the laws of the country under the government of which they were living? He was sure that such a favour should not be allowed to the subjects of any government. Having steered clear of any imputation on the individual who was the subject of this motion, he felt that he could not grant it, without countenancing a notion, that any British subject, wherever he chose to travel, and to whatever government be was pleased to subject himself, had a right to call on the strong and outstretched arm of his country, to rescue him from the law of a foreign state; or that there was something in Mr. Bowring's case which separated it from all others. As he was convinced that the first proposition was untenable, and as he felt that the second was not correct, he must, to avoid countenancing either of those principles, or giving his consent to a precedent so novel, object to the production of these papers.

Sir R. Wilson

said, he believed the meanest native of any other country would not have been treated as Mr. Bowring, an English merchant, a gentleman of most amiable manners and excellent attainments, had been treated by the French government. He was not aware that it was a case which called for national interference. It was one, however, that ought to be generally known. This discussion would be most useful; because it would show that this country was determined to protect her subjects from the violation of law. It was not enough for a foreign government to say, "We violate the law in. the persons of our own subjects, and have a right, therefore, to do the same with respect to yours." In such a case, it was necessary to appeal to the law of nations: it was proper that they should see that justice was not denied, or delayed so long as to become, in effect, a denial. The right hon. gentleman had said, "Are we to protect all the wandering travellers who leave this country? Are they to be always under the protection of the British government?" Undoubtedly, wherever this country had an ambassador, British subjects ought to be protected against despotic power. Because the vizier at Constantinople struck off the head of any person he pleased, or because he commanded women to be inclosed in sacks with wild cats, in order to make them confess where their husband's treasures were—because such was the custom there, were the subjects of this country not to be protected from such cruelty? Under the former government of France, it should be recollected, there were lettres de cuchet; and, would it be endured that Englishmen, under such an instrument, should be imprisoned au secret? Looking to the existing law of France, there was evidently no security under it. The trials for the conspiracies of Saumur and Rochelle clearly proved the cruelty of the system which was adopted in the French, courts. Such was the conduct of the attorney-general on those occasions, that it was said to be "only fit for the officer of a barbarian government." The hon. member then alluded to his own expulsion from the French territory, because he had written a letter, in which he stated, that sir Charles Stuart had said, that the British government would afford every assistance to Mr. Bowring; and also to the treatment which his hon. friend the member for Cork (Mr. Hutchinson) had received, because he comforted and protected an English gentleman; and concluded by calling on the House to bear in mind the declaration of one of the most strenuous defenders of the national honour that this country ever produced— he meant Oliver Cromwell, who had thus expressed himself to a German prince—"If fair means and reasoning will not prevail, of necessity, but according to the customary law of nations, the severity of retaliation must take its course; which we trust in your prudence to avoid."

Mr. Hutchinson

said, he should ever uphold the principle, that our government was bound to afford aid and protection to British subjects in foreign countries. In him it would be particularly ungrateful to say any thing against France or her government: from the one he had received the utmost hospitality, by the other he had been treated with the greatest kindness; and it was in that nation that he had formed some of the most agreeable and binding connexions which he had the happiness to boast of. Thus situated, he should be extremely sorry indeed if he could either be guilty himself, or support others who were guilty of plotting and intriguing against the government of a country, for which he had so sincere a respect and love: but the case before the House was that of an innocent and most persecuted individual, and he differed from the right hon. secretary in the inference which he would seem to draw, from the fact, that that individual had been tried by the French government for the minor offence only. Mr. Bowring had been persecuted by them. And why? Apparently, because he lived with some of the most enlightened, intelligent, and patriotic men in France. Really he was tempted to think that Mr. Bowring had been arrested by the government in question, in the hope that something would be discovered among his papers that might tend to implicate, not so much Mr. Bowring himself, as some of those distinguished characters with whom he had been acquainted. With respect to his own papers, all that was found in them was a mere private opinion, intended to be privately communicated, upon the character of the king of France. Why, then, the right hon. gentleman seemed to infer, that Mr. Bowring had been carried and confined au secret, because he had been guilty of some great crime against the French government, for which they, in their mercy, forsooth, forbore to prosecute him. Now, it would appear, that there was no such crime to try him for. The fact was, that there was no charge made; and yet he received no mercy from the French government. The supposition of the right hon. gentleman, that the government had forborne to prosecute, assuming that such a crime had been committed, reminded him of what occurred in the rebellion in Ireland, in 1798. A vast number of suspected persons were taken up, and, after being confined for long periods in prisons and dungeons, they were discharged without having ever had a charge preferred against them. Pending their imprisonment, himself and several other gentlemen made frequent applications on behalf of these unfortunate persons; but the answer of the agents of the government to such remonstrances and applications for the release of these individuals; whom it was not intended to try, was always "No; we have no evidence against them, but we have the strongest reasons for believing them guilty of the crimes imputed to them." Thus it was that notions of expediency in their case, superseded the law of the land. In Mr. Bowring's case, it was clear, from the terms of the order that was received by the police after his liberation, that the same kind of motive had caused his second confinement. This gentleman, moreover, was seized under cicumstances which, at the moment, appeared so discreditable to him, that there was hardly an Englishman then in France who could believe the rigorous measure adopted against him to be wholly undeserved. He was seized publicly, and conveyed under the order in question, au secret, in the most disgraceful manner, through streets crowded with people, and under a guard of soldiers. He could assure the House, that the system of confining suspected persons au secret, was infinitely worse than that of granting lettres de cachel under the old regime. He considered that the present would be a good opportunity for an endeavour, on the part of this government, to induce the government of France to change the criminal code, or rather the operation of their abominable police system, in these respects. The right hon. gentleman had called on his noble friend to show a case on the present question. In his opinion, a sufficient case existed in the papers on the table. With respect to Mr. Bowring, as he had told that gentleman, he (Mr. H.) should have been glad to have been in his place, and to have made the same impression on strangers by his talents and conduct. It was but common justice to that individual to say, that his conduct had been most exemplary, and that he had nobly maintained the character of his countrymen.

Mr. Canning

said, he should be exceedingly sorry to be misunderstood. He had never stated that Mr. Bowring had been relieved from the larger offence by the mercy of the French government. He could never have stated that; because it would have been to imply what he most cautiously guarded against, namely, that Mr. Bowring was guilty of that offence. Now, he was bound, to that gentleman in common with all other accused persons, to believe him innocent until he was proved to be guilty, and certainly he was by no means disposed to adhere to that principle less in the case of Mr. Bowring than in any other one.

Lord A. Hamilton

observed, that when he found it admitted, that an Englishman had been wrongfully arrested, imprisoned, and persecuted, and had been denied justice or redress, he could feel no regret at having brought his case under the notice of that House.

The question was put, and negatived.