HC Deb 09 June 1823 vol 9 cc818-28

On the Order of the day for the House to resolve itself into a Committee of Supply being read,

Mr. Creevey

rose and said, that according to a notice he had given, he should object to any further supply being granted, until the House had decided upon a grievance which he was now about to submit to them. That grievance was the duty of four and a half per cent which was levied exclusively upon all the commodities of the Leeward Islands. Upon former occasions when he had brought this subject before the House, he had done so upon the ground only of the misapplication of this fund. He had shown on those occasions, that this fund had been created by laws of the colonies which were still unrepealed, and for public specified colonial purposes, and yet that, in defiance of such laws, this fund was now pretty nearly absorbed in pensions amongst the higher orders of persons in this country; and he had sought the restitution of the fund to the original purposes for which it was created. Events, however^ had happened in the present session which induced him to take a new course upon this subject. He held in his hand five petitions which had been presented during this session, from the Colonial Assemblies of each of the Leeward Islands, Barbadoes, Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat, and which, with the permission of the House, he would read, condensing the substance as much as he could [Here the hon. member read the petitions]. He would ask the House, if stronger pictures of misery could be drawn, than those in their petitions? And he called upon them to observe, that this impost of 4½ hogsheads in the hundred out of all their sugar, with the same proportion out of all their, rum, and all other commodities of the Islands was particularly stated in each petition, as a great additional aggravation of their misery, because it was levied exclusively upon their Islands, whilst Jamaica and the other old islands and all the new settlements in America, such as Demerara and others were entirely free from it. Could any thing be more unjust than this partial tribute, in addition to all other their contributions to the parent state, and when we recollect too how this tribute on sugar and rum were disposed of in pensions to persons of rank in this country, he really could not think how such persons could sleep in their beds, after reading or hearing the petitions which he bad that night read to the House. Under all the circumstances, then, of the oppressive nature of this tax, and above all, of its partiality and present application, instead of moving that it should be applied in the manner prescribed by the act creating it, he would induce the House, if he could, to pronounce an opinion, that the tax or tribute ought to be abolished altogether. In doing this, no one knew better than he did the difficulties he had to contend with. The petitioners of Antigua, when they say they fling themselves upon the "magnanimity" of parliament, could never have imagined, poor people, that they were prefering their petitions to their own pensioners. The majority of those Islands state in their petitions, that they have made their complaints to the king's government repeatedly, but all without effect. Why, they are not aware, perhaps, that the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Canning) the manager for the king's government in that House, had himself taken a pension of 500l. per annum out of the sum for certain branches of his family about twenty years ago, and who has enjoyed it ever since. That the right hon. President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Huskisson) had selected the same sum for a jointure upon his lady, in the event of her surviving him; and that the oldest privy councillor of his majesty in that House (sir Charles Long) had enjoyed a pension of l,500l. per annum out of this fund for upwards of twenty years, and thus realising about 30,000l. sterling out of the sugars and rum of these devoted colonies. Under such circumstances, the king's minister, either in that House or out of it, were not the most obvious tribunal for these unhappy Islanders to appeal to. Not but what, in other parts of their conduct, these same ministers afforded proof enough, that the miseries of the colonies were perfectly well known to them. When the competition between the West-India colonies and our possessions in the East Indies were the subject of discussion, then the king's government were full of compassion for the West-India colonies; then they insisted that the distress of the latter was, so great, from the depreciation of its produce and expense of cultivation, that they, put a duty of 15s. a cwt. upon East-India sugar as a matter of favour and justice to the West Indies. Thus making the public consumer pay this additional duty for his East-India sugar, but entirely overlooking the relief to be afforded by the abolition of their own pensions upon the Leeward-Island produce. There was another notable proof that the government were well instructed in the ruin of these Leeward-Islands, for the fact was, the depreciation in the value of colonial produce had become so great, and the pensioners upon the Leeward-Island fund had become so crowded, that the duty of 4½ per cent raised out of the produce of all the Leeward Islands was no longer sufficient to pay these pensioners the full amount of their pensions, and accordingly it appeared by a return to that House of the application of the of the Admiralty, and which he then held in his hand, the Leeward-Island pensioners had had the modesty to help themselves to no less a sum than 13,000l. out of these droits, in order to make up for the deficiency in the other fund. And here he must be permitted to doubt the, legality, as well as decency and justice, of the latter proceeding. The charge of the Leeward-Island pensioners was a charge in kind; they were pensions on sugar and rum; the pensioners those that fund themselves; they were like Shylock and his bond; and they had no right when that fund became depreciated in value, to help themselves out of any other, for the purpose of making up the difference. But there was no such artist as your pensioner. He always knew how and when to turn himself. What a contrast was exhibited in the present case between the skill of these unhappy Leeward Island planters, and their own pensioners. There was another class of pensioners upon this fund, to whom it was his duty to advert; and in doing so, it was his wish and intention to show every mark of respect that was due to the rank of the parties; but it was the rank of these pensioners, which, in fact, made great part of his case, because it constituted the great difficulty of removing them. The petitioners, for instance, tell us that they have applied for redress to his Majesty, as well as to his ministers, and as we know, with the same success. Why, they were not aware, perhaps, that his majesty had granted a pension of l,000l. per annum out to this fund to his sister the princess of Hesse Homberg, and another to the same amount, to his sister the duchess of Gloucester. Now, he must say, without meaning the least personal disrespect to any of those illustrious parties, that when he recollected the great parliamentary provision which had been made by the nation for those princesses, and the enormous civil list enjoyed by his majesty, he must be permitted to think, that any act of bounty from his majesty to his royal sisters, ought to have flowed from his own privy purse: and then these devoted planters of the Leeward Islands should have been spared the honour of contributing pensions to these illustrious ladies. Again, there were five pensions of 500l. a piece to the five Miss Fitzclarences, and be must observe, a second time, that after all the nation had done for the duke of Clarence, it was his opinion, that that illustrious person ought to provide for the maintenance of his own children, instead of leaving them to be supported exclusively by the Leeward Islands. Having stated all the facts which he conceived to be necessary on this occasion, he asked the House, if they would, or would not take such a case into their consideration: and if they refused so to do, he these trusted, that at all events, we should hear no more jokes from the right hon. gentle man (Mr. Canning) upon the subject of parliamentary reform. It would be impossible for him ever, again to take the field with his "Red Lion," or King of Bohemia." The cause and ground of his attachment to that House, composed as it now was, would be too obvious, and in short, after refusing to listen to such a case as this, that House might continue indeed to preserve the name of the representatives of the people, but all their world would pronounce it to be no other than a private and interested corporation, providing for and supporting, its own members or their families, by every means within their reach, at home or abroad, belonging to these kingdoms. After observing, that he had preferred bringing forward the present question as a grievance before the business of supply, to bringing it on as a separate order, that course having been constantly pursued in the days of our ancestors, and the question of supply being truly the proper introduction to the mention of grievances of every description, the hon. member sat down by moving, by way of amendment, the following Resolutions, in which he had endeavoured, he said, to embody the petitions of the persons in whose behalf he proceeded:—

That it appears to this House, by petitions presented to it this session, from the Colonial Assemblies of each of the Leeward Islands, that the planters and proprietors in those colonies are, from various causes, reduced to a situation of distress and misery, which, if not relieved, must shortly terminate in their utter ruin.

"That in the Petition from the Island of Barbadoes, the Petitioners state, 'that were they to go into a detail of their distresses, they could furnish ample and melancholy proofs thereof in ruined families and individuals, multiplied sales of estates, and the straitened and unhappy condition of all who are solely dependent upon West-Indian resources, and that fluctuating as the prosperity of those Colonies has Undoubtedly been, yet the present calamitous depression is beyond all former precedent, arid much greater than on those occasions when parliament did not hesitate to investigate the circumstances which produced the evil:'

"That in the Petition from the Island Antigua the Petitioners state, 'that they are reduced to such an extremity of distress, that actuated by the uncontrollable impulse of self-preservation, they can no longer refrain from throwing themselves on the wisdom, liberality, and enlightened feeling of this House, and they pray for such relief as to such magnanimous councils may seem expedient and proper:

"That, in the petition from the island of Montserrat, the petitioners state, that, unable any longer to contend with their difficulties, or to ward off, unassisted, the ruin with which they are threatened, they feel themselves under the imperious necessity of appealing to this House, to take into its consideration the miserable condition of that once flourishing, but now declining, colony that they have, with the utmost concern, received intelligence of the unavailing representations made by their friends and connections in the mother country to his majesty's ministers; and, whilst they express their regret on the rejection of the proposed modes of relief, beg to refer the House to them, as the only efficient means of rescuing from inevitable destruction that valuable part of his majesty's dominions:'

"That in the petition from the island of Nevis, the petitioners state, 'that the period has at length arrived when a silent submission to the unprecedented distresses which now overwhelm that unfortunate colony would become a crime in any class of subjects enjoying the rights and privileges of the British constitution; and that as a respectful appeal to this House is still open to them, they eagerly avail themselves of this last effort for the preservation of all that is most dear to them in this world; that the petitioners have not failed to submit to his majesty's ministers a statement of the grievances under which they labour, but that disappointment has been their only reward for every such representation, and they have now only to implore the benevolent interposition of this House:"

"That in the petition from the island of St. Christopher's, the petitioners state, 'that the distress to which that colony is reduced hath reached that extreme point when silence is impossible, and when a respectful representation to this House is become the ultimate means of self-preservation, that the progressive steps by which this desolation has overwhelmed them, have from time to time been laid at the foot of the throne of our gracious monarch, and been made known to his majesty's government, and that the interference of this House can alone extricate the petitioners from the most severe pressure of the difficulties which beset them.

"That it appears to this House, that one grievance amongst others complained of in each of the foregoing petition is the tribute or duty which is exacted from these islands of four hogsheads and a half out of every hundred hogsheads of their sugar, with the same proportion from their rum, and all other productions of the islands, and that such tribute or duty being exacted exclusively from these devoted islands (as they are termed by the petitioners from St. Christopher's whilst all the other colonies, old as well as new, are free from it, is most partial and oppressive:

"That is further appears to this House, that this partial and oppressive tribute from the sugar and rum of the leeward islands is converted, for the most part, into pensions for persons of the higher orders in the mother country, including even members of the royal family, ministers of the Crown, members of both Houses of Parliament, their families or connections, and that under the present deplorable, condition of the Leeward islands, the further exaction of this tribute from them is a scandal upon the mother country; and an intolerable grievance upon these colonies, which this House, appealed to as it has been, is alike bound, in honour and justice, to see removed forthwith."

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, that the question consisted of two parts. The first affected the right of the Crown to this particular branch of revenue; the second affected the right of the Crown to appropriate it in any manner which might be deemed suitable by his majesty's government. These topics had been frequently discussed within the walls of that House, and on each occasion both of these rights had been affirmed. He admitted, that the present state of the West-India islands was such as to make the House desirous of affording to that interest all practicable relief; yet it was also clear, that, when the tenure of the fund was considered, no argument could be derived from the manner in which if was applied, as' a ground for its abolition. With respect to the right of the Crown to dispose of this fund, it had never been denied, and when Mr. Burke introduced his measure of financial reform, he still left it at the disposal of the Crown. The hon. gentleman had specified instances of the manner in which this fund had been disposed of and in which he supposed some indiscretion to have been practised. As to what had been stated with respect to his own connexion with the fund, he was ready to admit the fidelity of the hon. gentleman. It was true that, many years ago, he had held an office, on retiring from which, by constant and uniform practice, he became entitled to a pension of 1,200l. a year. It was true that he had retired from that office with the fullest claim to this pension. It was true that he had declined, the pension, choosing to wave his particular right, and commute it for a pension of half the amount to persons who had direct claims upon his protection. [Hear, hear]. He remembered, also, with great satisfaction that, at the time, that choice was considered as a considerable sacrifice on his part. Having said thus much for himself, he had little to add upon the general question. Certainly, it was open to parliament to deliberate upon particular instances in the disposal of this fund, if a case of indiscreation were made out. The hon. gentleman had exerted that right in a manner of which be would not complain. He had gone into instances, and complexions of instances, which he thought fit subjects for the observation of parliament. The hon. gentleman well knew that if he (Mr. Canning) chose, he could have taunted him with the names of persons in the same situation who were connected with parties highly respected by the hon. gentleman. But that mode was too invidious a one for him to follow. The House had a right a examine into supposed abuses as to the application of this and of any other branch of the revenue. But he must say, that the hon. gentleman did not seem to him to have made out any case which was likely to bring upon it a vote of censure from the House.

Mr. Hume

said, that the present mode of supplying the deficiency of the fund was an innovation on all preceding practice, and ought to be put a stop to. A part of the droits of the Admiralty had of late been made applicable to the demands on that fund, and he thought the whole of the pensions now defrayed by the West-India Island duties ought to be taken from those droits. He saw no reason why the colonies should not be freed from the tax in that way.

Mr. Brougham

said, his hon. friend had, in the reference which he had made to the names of individuals, only performed a painful duty, which he felt himself bound to discharge, and which, without any invidiousness, he had carried into execution. He had stated a case with which he (Mr. B.) perfectly agreed. The Four and a Half per cent. duties had been formerly left to bear the burthens upon them as well as they could, but now another fund was drawn in, which was to make up the deficiencies. That was a strong argument for their abolition. A no- ther good ground seemed to be the peculiar circumstances of the times. When the West-India Islands were in a flourishing condition, the case was different. But they were now overwhelmed with unexampled distress, and his hon. friend had called upon the House to take the subject up in virtue of their petitions. The question therefore was hot taken up uncalled for. The petitions from the Islands, complained of the burthens imposed by those duties which were at all times inconvenient and heavy, but which were now utterly, unbearable, when the colonies were afflicted with the greatest calamity. From time to time, this subject had been pressed on their notice without success. Mr. Burke, in his History of the European Settlements in the West Indies, had denounced this tax as most burthensome. It was indeed a tax not upon income, but upon, gross produce. It was not regulated by circumstances, or modified according to the pressure of the times. It was as high when the crop was bad, and when the nett gains were nothing, or even when there was ah actual logs, as when the planter was in the most flourishing circumstances, Mr. Burke, by an extraordinary accident, had lived to receive himself a pension out of this very fund. He did not mention this as a bad instance of its application, for he thought that, if any political pension could be justified, it was that of a man who had lived all his life out of office, and whose exertions had been the means of a great saving to the country. He, however, after denouncing the tax, had certainly enjoyed a large pension out of it. The hon. and learned member then proceeded to state, that this tax had been attempted to be extended to the newly-ceded colonies. He cited the case of Hall and Campbell, in the King's Bench, by which it appeared that an effort was made to inflict the tax on Grenada, which was one of the newly-ceded colonies, and it was insisted on the part of the Island, that government had no right to tax them after having given them a constitution, without the consent of the constituted authorities under such a constitution. If any county of England, for instance Cornwall, the fertility of which was not remarkable, were surrounded by counties that paid no tithes, while that one was liable to the full payment of tithe, would it not be a monstrous and crying iniquity, that the one county should be singled out to bear the pressure of so heavy and oppressive a burthen?. Yet this was the situation of the Island whose case had been stated by his hon. friend, and with whose statement he perfectly agreed. He also concurred in what had fallen from the hon. member for Aberdeen, with respect to the application of the droits of the Admiralty, and entered into a narrative of his motions on the question of those droits in the years 1810,1812, 1820, on the first of which motions, the important concession was made by the then minister, Mr. Perceval, that although the droits of the Admiralty were not, in consequence of the compact entered into with the late king at his accession, liable to parliamentary control, yet they were, liable to parliamentary inspection, and accordingly annual accounts had been laid, on the table as a matter of course ever, since.

The House then divided: For. Mr. Creevey's Motion, 57. Against it, 103.