HC Deb 14 May 1823 vol 9 cc245-55
Mr. Hume

, in pursuance of his notice, rose to call the attention of the House to the State of the Colony of Newfoundland. The subject was one of very considerable importance, and lie hoped to be able to convince the House of the necessity of giving immediate attention to it. His object was to obtain a committee to inquire into the present state of the revenues, fisheries and laws of that island, which had been much neglected of late. A bill had been passed (49 Geo. 3, c. 26) for the establishment of a supreme court of justice, and, as far as the enactments had been carried into effect, had been productive of good; but its jurisdiction and benefits were limited, and the anomalous system of surrogate courts was allowed to continue in the other parts of the colony, although the inhabitants had memorialized the government, and peti- tioned both Houses of Parliament against it. The hon. under-secretary (Mr. Wilmot) had some time ago, obtained leave to bring in a bill to regulate the affairs of the colony. But, when asked upon what information this House could legislate, there being no kind of information respecting the colony before them, except what is contained in petitions presented two years ago, the hon. secretary referred them to Reeves History of Newfoundland, written 20 years ago, for the facts relating to it and he (Mr. Hume) could, after reference to that work, assure the House, that it furnished ample grounds for instituting an inquiry into the situation of that colony.

The House was not, perhaps, aware of the size and importance of the colony. In extent, it was larger than Ireland, and contained a population of from 90 to 100,000 souls. The state of its courts of justice, and the administration of the laws, was by no means suited for so large a population. It was an anomaly which ought not to exist in any British colony. The island had been compared to a ship of war, and not improperly, under the command of an admiral, who was the governor, and the offices under him entrusted to captains, lieutenants, and masters of the navy. The proclamation of the admiral on many occasions became laws, executed at the discretion of his officers. This system had originated when the colony was in a different state from the present one. Whilst the population consisted of individuals who only resorted to it in the summer season for the purposes of fishing, and returned to this country in the winter I it might have been proper, in the absence of civil judges, to give the commanding naval officer, and the officers under him, the power of settling disputes which too frequently arose amongst the fishermen. But the case was now very different. There was now a numerous population who remained on the island all the year, and their number was likely to increase if sufficient protection should be afforded', them. It was indeed matter of surprise, that the British government should so long have allowed the inhabitants of that island to be so circumstanced. He had examined the system—if system it could be called—both as regarded the laws to be administered, and the manner in which they are administered. He found it to be temporising, without any regular plan, and chiefly left to the discretion of the admiral and the officers he appoints. He did not wish to cast: any improper reflection on the officers of the navy; but every person who knew what the general education of naval officers was, must admit, that it did not fit them for the exercise of that discrimination and patience so essential in the administration of justice. Their education was of a different cast, fitting them more for absolute command, and for prompt decision in the enforcing their orders. They were habituated to an arbitrary and summary system, which, however useful in a ship, was neither necessary or agreeable any where else. The evils arising out of this system had been set forth in a memorial from the inhabitants of the colony to his majesty's government, and in petitions to both louses of Parliament. They stated, that in the neighbouring British colonies of America and everywhere else, the judgment-seat is filled by gentlemen of professional education, and previous experience at the bar; but, in Newfoundland, the administration of justice is confided chiefly to the hands of captains, lieutenants, and even masters in the navy. The officers of such ships of war as are on the station are invested with surrogate commissions immediately on their arrival, and sent in the character of judges on maritime circuits to expound the laws of England: that under those circumstances the petitioners had little chance of obtaining justice. When the petition was presented to the House, on May 28th, 1821, an hon. member (sir Isaac Coffin) stated, "that he had himself been a surrogate. The mode of proceeding was, whenever the surrogate or admiral went on shore at any of the settlements, he took a boatswain's mate with him; and when any of the persons engaged in the fishery was brought before him for any offence, he ordered him a dozen lashes, and then sent him back again on board his fishing-boat. That was the law in his time." This he (Mr. Hume) believed to be still the practice in the remote parts of the colony; and was it, he would ask, possible, that any thing like justice could be obtained, or satisfaction exist, under such an arbitrary system of proceedings?

From such proceedings he excepted St. John's, where a regular court had been established under the 49th of the late king, and he believed that much benefit had been; derived by the colony from the valuable services of Mr. Francis Forbes, who had been chief judge in that court. Indeed, the advantages which had been enjoyed by those within the jurisdiction of Mr. Forbes had induced the inhabitants of the other districts of the island to wish for the abolition of the surrogate courts, and the extension of the powers of the supreme court. One of his reasons for proposing the appointment of a committee at the present time was, that it might have the advantage of Mr. Forbes's evidence on the state of the colony, which his residence and observation there had enabled him so well to give. Mr. Forbes was now in England, and preparing to proceed, as judge, to another colony, and it was very important to the efficient administration of justice in Newfoundland, that its present condition should be explained by such men as Mr. Forbes. He should be able to show, by evidence before the committee, that the proceedings of the supreme court under Mr. Forbes had given satisfaction to the colony, whilst the proceedings of the surrogates were the reverse. It was a reflection on his majesty's government, that such a system had been so long permitted there, as the abuses were numerous and most mischievous. In one of these courts, for example, he was informed, that he should be able to prove, that near 30 suits had been carried on by one brother as plaintiff before his brother, a surrogate, and that the verdicts were all in favour of the plaintiff, though, as he was informed, contrary to law and justice. The name of the judge was Carter, and he wished to establish these facts by so respectable a witness as Mr. Forbes. He would also establish, by the evidence of the governor, admiral sir Charles Hamilton, who was now in England, and by Mr. Forbes, many extraordinary proceedings which had officially come to their knowledge; and which were of importance to be known by this House before they could, with propriety, legislate to remedy the existing abuses.

The trials in the supreme court in November 1820, of Philip Butler and James Landergan, versus David Bushan, esq. and rev. John Leigh, surrogates, shewed the severity exercised by them on the inhabitants, by flogging for trifling offences. The verdict of one jury was, "The jury, in finding a verdict for the defendants, cannot allow this opportunity to pass, without expressing their abhorence of such an unmerciful and cruel, pu- nishment, for so trifling an offence, as that which has been inflicted upon the unfortunate plaintiff in this action."

An equal disregard to property and to public opinion, was often shown by the surrogates, and one example would suffice. A planter of the name of John Houlahan, was charged before the surrogate court of Fenyland for debt, and judgment given against him to the full amount of the claim. Mr. Robert Carter, the judge, instead of notifying to him, in the usual way, the order of the court, and that execution against his property would be levied, proceeded himself on the same morning that he gave judgment, to the estate of Mr. Houlahan, a distance of 20 miles from his own court, attended by Mr. Morrison a magistrate. The deputy sheriff attended, and, at 11 o'clock gave notice that the sale of Mr. Houlahan's, estate and cattle would take place at 12 o'clock, to satisfy the award of the Court; and one of the conditions of sale was ready money at 4 o'clock—a most unusual condition of sale, and supposed to have been made with the intention of preventing bidders at the sale. If a committee was appointed, he should be able to prove, from the official statement in his hand, that owing to the want of due notice, and the conditions of sale, the cattle and property sold for one-fourth of their value; and that Mr. Robert Carter the surrogate, who directed these extraordinary proceedings, actually bought 10 of the 16 lots exposed to sale—that Mr. Morrison the magistrate, who accompanied him, purchased the largest lot, the plantation, for 56l. 10s. when its estimated value was about 200l. That in this manner, the property of Mr. Houlahan, which was estimated worth 300 or 400l. sold for 83l. nett. This was a specimen of the manner in which justice was administered in the surrogate courts; and constituted as they were, it was in their power to ruin any man, under the forms of laws, and in the name of justice.

A bill was now before parliament, to amend the constitution of these courts, but the House ought not to proceed without entering into a full investigation of the subject before a committee, and thoroughly considering whether the alterations proposed would remedy the grievances which existed. These grounds, however, were not the only grounds on which he wished for inquiry, He was ready to prove, that the government of Newfoundland was carried on at an enormous expense, and that its revenues were not brought to the public credit, and administered in the best and most economical manner. At present, there were five or six vessels of war of different rates stationed at a great expense at Newfoundland, for no other purpose, in time of peace, that he (Mr. H.) could discover, except to give the admiral the allowances of governor, and to allow him to appoint the commanders, officers, and surrogates, with extra allowances. The admiralty thereby had also a plea for extending their patronage by promotion, which would be found to have been considerable on that station. The colonists wished to have instead of these naval judges, a resident civil government in the island; and he was certain that, in the committee, he should be enabled to prove that such a government would not only be less expensive to the country, but also more beneficial to it, and to the colony, than the present system. Indeed an alteration in that system was absolutely necessary by the change that had taken place in the colony. Its population had risen from a few thousands to near 100,000 souls, and its commerce had also increased in proportion. Its exports has exceeded two millions, and its imports half that amount of British manufactures, in one year. Upwards of 460 ships actually entered the port of St. John's in the year 1820. The colony would have been of much greater importance, if the laws and restrictions which have been in force had not interfered with their fishery and trade, and checked their prosperity. The acts of the 10th and 11th of William the 3rd, and the 15th and 26th of George 3rd, professedly to protect, had done much injury to the colony; and such a consideration ought to induce this House, without further delay, to ascertain whether what he had stated was true or not. He was prepared to prove, that the recent treaty with America, aided by the 4th of Geo. 4th, which imposed a duty on flour and bread imported into Newfoundland had nearly ruined the colony. The disadvantages under which the inhabitants of the colony now laboured were such, that the Americans and others would destroy the fishery—they would outfish us on our own shores. No wheat was grown in the island, and as the Americans had their provisions cheap, it was obviously our duty to make provisions as cheap as pos- sible in the colony, to enable the Inhabitants to compete with them. So impolitic, however, were the acts which imposed a duly on all flour and provisions imported; and so vexatious were the regulations, that the price of provisions had been increased as the trade decayed; and the Americans were even allowed to fish in parts where our people were prohibited.

If the arguments which he (Mr. H.) had urged were not sufficient to induce the House to institute the inquiry proposed, he trusted that it would pay attention to the request of the inhabitants, set forth in a petition laid on the table, by his hon. friend (sir J. Mackintosh) the member for Knaresborough. The inhabitants complained in that petition, and in a memorial to the king, of the want of a colonial legislature, to which they had a better title, than Prince Edward's Island, where the population was not half that of Newfoundland. It was well known, that the British merchants who traded with the colony, were averse to their having a legislative assembly, which the inhabitants considered necessary to protect their interests; and he (Mr. H.) was convinced, that these conflicting interests could be best inquired into before a committee. The inhabitants complained of the surrogate courts, whose acts had been already explained—that men were reduced, in one day, from affluence and comfort, to poverty and wretchedness, by the arbitrary laws of 'these courts—that they were taxed without being represented, which was the right of all British subjects. They declared, that they laboured under restrictions most prejudicial to the cultivation of the soil:—that sir Charles Hamilton had compelled many of the inhabitants to pay fines for the renewal of their leases, long before the leases expired:—that the revenues of the island amounted to 16 or 18,000l., and, if properly applied, would defray all the expenses of a civil government, and render it unnecessary to call on England annually, to pay the expenses of the government, as it now did. He did not believe that the accounts of the revenue were transmitted to the Audit Office from Newfoundland, as from other colonies, which required the immediate attention of this House.

Under all these circumstances, and at the present time when it was so desirable to lessen the public expenditure, he (Mr. H.) trusted, that no opposition would be made to the motion with which Ike intended to conclude, and in which he was willing to make any modification, if objections were only made to the form.—The hon. member then moved, "That a select committee be appointed to take into consideration the state of the fisheries, the revenue, the laws, and the administration of justice in the island of Newfoundland, and to report the evidence taken, and their opinion, to the House."

Mr. Wilmot

declared his intention of opposing the motion for a committee, because the reasons on which the hon. I member for Aberdeen had proposed it were incorrect in point of fact. With regard to the surrogate courts, he had himself brought in a bill to amend their constitution, and had stated in bringing it in, that it was his intention at a future stage of it, to propose a clause to extend the jurisdiction of the supreme court, and only to use the surrogate courts at those places which were at a distance from the town in which it held its sittings. The hon. member for Aberdeen had said, that Newfoundland had as good a claim to a separate civil government as Prince Edward's Island. In that argument he did not think the hon. member had been very fortunate; for he believed that at present the inhabitants of Prince Edward's Island, were desirous of being released from the shackles of a local legislature. Besides, there were circumstances in Newfoundland to prevent such a legislature from being established. There were no roads in the island; and, in winter, there was no communication with the capital except by sea, which was not at all times free from danger. In summer, all persons of property on the island—and those were the individuals out of which the local legislature, if it ever existed, must be selected—were busily engaged in carrying on the fishery.—The hon. gentleman proceeded generally to contend, that in no view had a case been made out for a committee. With respect to the hon. member's specific charges of abuse, if they had been put into a tangible shape, he (Mr. W.) might have been prepared to answer them. As for the fees complained of in the sheriff's court, there was a regular table of them. Why had not the hon. member made a motion for papers? The fishery treaties might, or might not, be objectionable; but if they were faulty, a committee was not the course to set them right. The hon. member complained, and with some show of justice, that the proclamation of the governor should be the law of the country; but this, if it had been the case, was the case no longer. Another ground of complaint was the restrictions upon cultivating the soil. These restrictions existed in a very slight, if in any, degree. The hon. gentleman, after protesting against the throwing out of charges loosely, and upon light evidence, against a man of sir Charles Hamilton's character, declare, that for all the evils which were capable of being removed, the bill which he was about to introduce would prove a remedy. That bill had been got up under the advice of the late chief justice of Newfoundland, and upon suggestions made by a committee of the inhabitants of that colony. Better authority, he thought, the hon. member for Aberdeen could not himself desire.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that although he entertained the highest respect for the character of sir Charles Hamilton, he would nevertheless give his vote in favour of the present motion. He must confess, that, in the whole course of his parliamentary experience, he had never known a case that called more strongly for a committee. Every fact stated by the hon. member for Aberdeen had been admitted. And how had he been answered? Why, the hon. secretary, in substance, had said, "Oh, I know that the grievances you mention exist, but trust to me for the remedy." Trust to the hon. secretary, who had not long filled his present office, and who, in the course of the next session intended to produce a bill for removing the evils that now oppressed the island He was not totally ignorant of the state of Newfoundland. He had been the representative for Poole in three parliaments, and in that character had become acquainted with many circumstances illustrative of the state of the island, its government, and resources. Its inhabitants had once been nearly reduced to starvation; and the present lord Bexley, then chancellor of the exchequer, had been obliged to send them food for their support. As to the "administration of justice, be knew that, in many instances, midshipmen of seventeen years of age had been appointed surrogates. The hon. secretary had asked, why the hon. member for Aberdeen did not make a motion for papers on every one of the grounds of complaint? Now, really, the hon. member had made a sufficient number of motions; but if he were to follow the advice of the I hon. secretary, he would leave all his former exertions at an infinite distance. The hon. secretary had insinuated, that the House should examine the proposed bill first, and if they disliked it, go into a committee of inquiry afterwards. Now, common sense pointed out inquiry, before the House went into the consideration of the bill. Mr. Forbes, the late chief justice, had been alluded to, and as that gentleman was now in this country, his opinion might be obtained by means of a committee. The island had been notoriously ill-managed. Latterly, perhaps, it might have improved; but the House should know why its trade had been trifled with. The Americans were stated to I possess advantages by treaty. Now, a I committee would enable the House to know whence those advantages arose, and how they might be prevented from affecting the inhabitants of the island. The hon. secretary had made out, if possible, a stronger case for inquiry than the hon. member for Aberdeen; and therefore, on every principle of justice and policy, the motion should be acceded to.

Captain Gordon

reprobated the bringing of charges forward against officers, who were not present to defend themselves.

Mr. Bright

thought it possible that all the charges might not be proved; but he knew enough of the colony to induce him to support inquiry. He would not ask, whether this or that officer had acted improperly, but whether the system: wag liable to abuse? Of the state of the colony very little was known in this country. I Further information ought, therefore, to be afforded. He would banish, the names of all the parties from this motion, and would ask, not who had committed wrong, but what wrong had been committed? He hoped the hon. member for Aberdeen I would not allow the bill to pass, without I again bringing forward the question of inquiry.

Mr. Butterworth

supported the motion.

Sir J. Newport

said, that the House would have to decide whether the intended bill was likely to be beneficial or otherwise to the island. To enable them to do this, every possible information ought to be laid before them.

Mr. Hume

, in reply, maintained that nothing be had advanced had been answered: and asked, whether an, inquiry was to be refused where the interests of, more than 800,000 subjects were concerned? He had not made one charge until he had examined broth mea and documents as to its truth. He did mot pledge himself to support local legislation; but he wished for a committee of inquiry, in order to do ample justice to the claims of a very large body of individuals, and to benefit this country by assisting the commerce and supporting the interests of her colonies.

The Mouse divided: Ayes27, Noes 42.

List of the Minority.
Bennet, hon. H. G. Rice, T. S.
Blake, sir F. Ricardo, D.
Bullerworth, J. Robarts, col.
Creevey, T. Rickford, W.
Denman, T. Russell, lord J.
Ebrington, visc. Scarlett, J.
Folkestone, lord Stanley, lord
Gurney, H. Taylor, M. A.
Glenorchy, lord Whitbread, S. C.
Leader, W. Whitmore, W. W.
Marjoribanks, S. Wood, M.
Monck, J. B. Wilson, W. W. C.
Maberly, W. L. TELLERS.
Newport, sir J. Hume, J.
Palmer, C. F. Bright, H.