HC Deb 05 March 1824 vol 10 cc766-76

On the order of the day for the second reading of this bill,

Mr. Hume

said, he wished to take that opportunity of stating some of the objections which he felt to the present military system, as it was upheld in this country. The instance of his hon. and gallant friend (sir R. Wilson) was sufficient to point the attention of the House to the impolicy and injustice of the system. His hon. and gallant friend had given an explanation of his conduct, which was quite unanswerable, upon which the noble lord (Palmerston) had exercised more wit than judgment. But he mentioned that case at present, to show with what jealousy the House should view the subject. He was willing to concede, that there was a time in the history of this country—he meant in the reign of Charles the 2nd—when the king, possessed of absolute power, could do with the army as he pleased. With the Revolution however, a new æra arrived. In the preamble of a bill passed at that period, it was stated, that, as it was necessary to maintain a standing army, it was of importance that the regulations of that army should be considered. But, the question to which he was principally anxious to direct the attention of the House was, the system of flogging in the army; and he was sorry he did not now see in the House many of those who had formerly distinguished themselves in their opposition to this practice. He never could consent to grant the power of inflicting corporal punishment on 73,000 of our fellow-subjects. Now that we were at peace, this would be the time to remove it. If in other countries they found, that a discipline just as strict as that which was maintained in England, was observed, without the infliction of a single stroke, he should like to know what there was in Englishmen that called for more severity towards them. It was a national disgrace to have our fellow-citizens subjected to the lash, as they were, from time to time. The circumstance which had principally called his attention to this subject, was a circular issued by lord Bathurst, doing away with flogging in the colonies. Now, he could not suppose that the government, if they were sincere, could feel disposed to deal out less justice to their subjects at home, than to their slaves in the colonies. He understood that, by that circular, it was meant that domestic flogging should be done away with; at least that it should never be exercised, until a day after the offence to be punished had been committed; and he thought it would be a most beneficial regulation, if it were introduced into the navy.—Was it to be borne then in this country? No. He must call it cant, or any thing else more opprobrious, to extend to distant colonies those principles of humanity, which were denied to our fellow subjects at home. The principle of this bill went to subject the British army to corporal punishment, that army upon which our security depended. The effect of this system was, to degrade the army, and destroy that free spirit which it should be our pride and our boast to support. When this bill should be in a committee, he would propose the addition of a clause, that no private or corporal should be subjected to corporal punishment. He was ready to allow, that the discipline of the army had been well kept up; but let the noble lord inquire, and he would find that on the continent, where there was no flogging, the discipline was not inferior.—He was sorry his hon. friend, the member for Westminster, was not present, as he was now going to allude to a subject to which his hon. friend had recently adverted; namely, the impropriety of maintaining barracks in the centre of the metropolis. In consequence of the statement of his hon. friend with respect to the barracks, he bad gone to the neighbourhood to make some inquiries, and one individual had informed him, that frequently, at day-light in the morning, the neighbourhood was awakened by the beating of the drum; and that whenever in the morning he heard the sound, such was the dreadful association of ideas, that he always felt as if some unfortunate wretch was just at that moment led forth to the ignominious punishment of flogging. Surely, one operation of this detestable nature was sufficient to prove that there was not a due compassion for the feelings of those who were obliged to remain on the spot, and could not remove from scenes which thus harrowed up their feelings. He was most happy to find, that an endeavour was made to render slavery in our colonies as little oppressive as slavery under any circumstances could be; but, if we extended our humanity to those whose duty was involuntary, surely we should not in prudence, withhold it from those whose services were under their own control; and the more so when there were other adequate means of enforcing good discipline. He might be told, that there were circumstances where flogging was necessary; as, for instance, in the face of an enemy. He had been for five years connected with an army, not always certainly in the face of an enemy; but, out of 10,000 men, he did not recollect that one had ever been flogged. But amongst the native Indian regiments, it was carried to a most disgusting extent. Before they passed this bill, the House ought to have an account of the number of sufferers, and the aggregate quantity of lashes annually inflicted. But, independently of corporal punishments, there were regulations connected with our military system, which made it surprising that the bill before the House should so long have passed without objection. One which he would instance—was the arrangement as to the sale and purchase of commissions. Surely if there was one being more than another whose word ought to be undoubted, an officer of the army ought to stand in that situation; and yet there was a regulation existing at the present moment, which enforced the necessity of telling a falsehood upon almost every officer who came into the service. Every officer who purchased a commission, and every officer who parted with one, was compelled to declare, on his honour, that he neither took nor gave more than the regulation price; while it was notorious to the whole army, and must be notorious to the duke of York himself, that, in nine cases out of ten, more was paid than the parties declared to. Suppose an officer to be challenged in a jury-box with this declaration—what would become of his evidence—would credit be attached to it? He did hope that, for the future, no officer would be called on to give any such assurance. If any man in that House was friendly to flogging, let him speak out. If, on the other hand, they objected to have the backs of Englishmen lacerated with stripes, and could not bear that English men should be made involuntary spectators of such disgusting scenes, they would vote with him. They should not bestow all their humanity on the slaves in the colonies: they should at least try what could be done in the British army, without inflicting corporal punishment. If the discipline of one regiment in our service could be carried on without the degradation of corporal punishment, why might it not be maintained throughout the whole army? Such a desirable alteration would, independent of its humanity, raise the national character in the estimation of foreigners; for nothing struck the inhabitants of other nations with so much surprise as the practice of flogging in the British army. He had had frequent conversations with officers of foreign armies on the subject, and their astonishment and horror at the prevalence of such a de basing practice was universal. One of these officers, who had commanded a regiment in the French service, had assured him, that if he had been obliged to have recourse to such a punishment, and had permitted its infliction, he would have lost all moral influence over the men.— There existed another practice, which ought also to be regulated: he meant, the condemning soldiers to solitary imprisonment, by the sentence of regimental courts martial, and depriving them, during such time, of their pay. In one regiment, he understood there were fifty-three soldiers so confined. The House would hear with surprise (the noble secretary at war, would correct him if he had been misinformed), that the pay of the men thus forfeited by the decision of a regimental court martial, went into the pockets of the officers who passed the sentence upon them [a general cry of no, no!"]. Well! he might have been misinformed; but such he under stood was the practice in the Guards [cries of no, no!]. Such, at least, was the information he had received, and he felt gratified that the imputation was unfounded. He felt so strongly the necessity of abolishing corporal punishment, that he should object to the Speaker leaving the chair, unless an instruction to that effect was directed by the House to be given to the committee.

Sir H. Hardinge

said, he rose as a British officer, to give the most unqualified contradiction to the statement of the hon. member, that the soldiers of the regiments of Guards, were flogged so frequently, that the drums were beaten, during the time of the infliction to drown their cries, and prevent their being heard in the neighbourhood. What were the real facts? He had the honour to command the third battalion of the grenadier guards, and he could assure the House that during the first six months of the year, while that regiment were in the King's Mews, not a single soldier had been flogged, and, in the latter portion of the year only one man had been flogged, who never uttered a cry [hear, hear!]. He would not go into the general question; but, as an officer, he would state, that he considered the power of inflicting corporal punishment, under a judicious system, requisite to the maintenance of discipline in the British Army.

Mr. Hume,

in explanation, observed, that the gallant officer had attributed to him language which he had not used. He had merely repeated what had been stated on a former night, that when the drums were beaten in the morning, the association of ideas in the minds of the people residing in the neighbourhood, led to the painful reflection that the soldiers might be summoned to witness the punishment of the lash.

Sir Robert Wilson

observed, that whenever the subject of corporal punishment was brought before the House, he had always in the most unqualified manner, declared the practice to be degrading to the character of our soldiery, and unnecessary to the maintenance of its discipline. After the various discussions that had taken place on the subject, it was with surprise, he found, that the noble lord had done nothing to abolish such a practice, or at least to allow the law to become a dead letter. He knew well that he should be met with the old argument, that our army had displayed the highest character, and that its prowess was the admiration of the world. Why then continue so debasing a punishment? Was the constitution of the British army so base—was it formed of such worthless materials—that its courage could only be excited, and its conduct regulated, by the cat-o'nine-tails? In Germany flogging had been abolished. In Prussia—even in Prussia—the animal designated a soldier, for he could not call him a man, was no longer subjected to the lash. In France no such punishment was allowed. And yet we had heard very recently, high panegyrics on the conduct of the French army—panegyrics which he had heard with regret, because he felt that they were applied to an army employed in that most infamous aggression on an unoffending people, the invasion of Spain Without the lash, however, the French officers were able to maintain discipline. Was it not, therefore, a stigma on the character of the English nation to assume, that while the nations that surrounded us abolished a degrading corporal punishment it was still considered essential to the British service [hear!]. He was ready to admit, that regulations to check extreme abuse in the infliction of such punishments had been introduced by his royal highness the Commander-in-chief—that so far the evil had been palliated; but while the law stood as it was at present, it was impossible for the duke of York to effect the good he might intend, as the officers commanding regiments would throw the responsibility on him. He (sir R.) did not thrust himself forward for the purpose of seeking out complaints: he disdained such officiousness; but the House would feel that cases of a flagrant description forced themselves on the public attention. Some years ago it had become his duty to bring before that House an instance of a most flagrant abuse of corporal punishment. The cruelty of the punishment, even those who maintained its necessity must admit. It was true that our civil code permitted whipping in certain cases. But the Old Bailey man was relieved from the infliction the moment blood was drawn; while the British soldier was subjected to the lash, until he had received the full number, even if it were a thousand, unless the surgeon declared that life was risked. The country was now at peace. The character of our army stood high. It was in our power to make it a profession of honour. Give to the British soldier that ennobling impulse, which never could be given while the punishment of the lash was suspended over him, and instead of having our army composed of men wholly reckless of character, we should attract to its ranks a high-spirited and well-conducted description of male population. He should support the proposition of his hon. friend.

Colonel Wood

said, he would not sur- render his feelings of regard for the British soldier, whether high or low, to any of the hon. gentlemen opposite. And he must say, that the hon. member for Aberdeen was bound, in duty to the army and to the country, to have ascertained the facts before he lightly hazarded such statements as he had made that night. He had talked of the efforts made by government to abolish the arbitrary infliction of the lash on unhappy negroes by slave-drivers, and had expressed his surprise that such a punishment should be permitted in the British army. But, did there exist a single ground for such a comparison? Were our soldiers punished on the spur of the moment, or at the discretion or caprice of any individual? Did not the hon. member know, that no soldier could be punished without a court martial, upon evidence taken upon oath? If the abuses were such as he represented, would not the hon. baronet, the member for Westminster (sir F. Burdett), who first brought the subject of corporal punishment before the House, have been in his place to expose such abuses, and call for their redress? He was ready to admit that the discussions brought forward on this subject by that hon. baronet, followed up, as they had been, by the judicious checks of the Commander-in-chief, had been productive of great good. [Hear, hear!] He had had the honour to command a regiment of militia during the war, and with every desire to repress the practice of corporal punishment, he had found it necessary in order to maintain discipline. If it were abolished, he feared that the more severe punishment of death, must be the consequence. With respect to solitary confinement, he could assure the House, that the practice was under regulation by the Commander-in-chief. No soldier could now be sentenced for a longer period than six weeks. It was with regret that he found, by a clause in the mutiny bill of last year, that soldiers could be sent to the tread-mill. At least he would say, let them not be sent to the common gaols; for no soldier, after such connexion, could be improved in character. If solitary confinement was to be a punishment, let cells be provided in the barracks. He could not understand the motives that induced hon. members on the opposite side to indulge in such statements as had been made that night, unless it was, to enjoy the satisfaction of making a speech.

Mr. John Smith

said, that, indifferent to the imputation which the gallant officer had made respecting the desire of his hon. friends near him to make speeches, he would confess to the House, that the present was a question on which he was anxious, as a member of parliament, to offer an opinion. Without alluding to the military part of the subject, he should say, that to contend for the necessity of corporal punishment was to degrade the national character. In originating discussion on this important topic, and attracting the feelings and consideration of the country to it, no man had performed a greater service, not alone to the country, but to humanity in general, than his hon. friend now absent, who had so long and so ably represented the city of Westminster (sir F. Burdett), [hear!]. Coinciding in his views, as long as he was a member of parliament, so long would he urge the gross impropriety, the positive inefficacy, of punishing mankind on the body for the commission of offences. The whole history of human conduct teemed with proofs that such punishments were not only cruel, and inefficacious, but that they aggravated the very evils they were intended to remedy. When executed openly, their only effect was to harden the human heart, and to enlist the sympathies of the spectator in favour of the victim. From such exhibitions the sufferer and the witnesses too often went away with feelings of detestation of the laws, and of hatred towards those who executed them. Punish the soldier for the offence of drunkenness, with the lash, and was it possible to expect that the torture and the recollection of it would make a better man of him? Let hon. members consult their own hearts, and they would there find the best answer to the question. He had seen proofs of the effect of a more congenial system. He had witnessed what the mild, the humane conduct of that beneficent lady, Mrs. Fry, had effected, in the prison of Newgate amongst the female criminal?. He had seen two hundred of these unhappy creatures in that prison, subjected to an allowance of one pound of bread per day for their subsistence. He did not know whether any members of the corporation of London were in their places, but he repeated the fact and defied the refutation. Before Mrs. Fry commenced her exertions, these women resembled so many tigers confined in a cage. She, however, by kindness, by admonition, by persuasion, had soon effected a reform. They became contrite, satisfied, and, as compared with their former deportment, happy. It was idle to say that severity would succeed, and kindness fail, in correcting the offences of human nature. All history established the contrary principle, every religious feeling and precept contradicted it; and while he had a seat in that House, he would raise his voice in reprobation of such an assumption.

Mr. Monck

observed, that the very admission of the gallant officer, that the practice of flogging had been checked, and the discipline of the army improved, shewed that it was not necessary to the maintenance of discipline. In the first constituted army of Europe it was not allowed. In one of the first regiments in our service, the Blues, it never took place. Were not these unanswerable proofs, that the sure support of discipline was to possess a moral hold over a soldiery? Dismission from the French army was, a punishment: dismission from the Blues in our service was also dreaded by the men of that regiment, because it blasted their prospects, and deprived them of any participation in the regimental promotion, or superannuated fund, to which they were taught to look forward. Whereas, in all other regiments, dismission from the service was regarded as a gratification. He most cordially joined in. the opinion of the cruelty and the inefficacy of continuing such a degrading system.

The House having resolved itself into a Committee,

Lord Palmerston

said, he should shortly reply to certain observations and statements which had fallen from hon. gentlemen opposite. The right of the Crown to dismiss officers without the intervention of a court martial, had been so often argued, that he should only say, that the necessity for continuing that old and salutary prerogative was sanctioned by the avowed decision of parliament. He denied that there existed the remotest similarity between the capricious punishments inflicted by a slave owner, and the regular and judicial infliction of corporal punishment by the sentence of a court martial. Nothing could be more unfounded than the statement, that the pay of confined soldiers went into the pockets of the officers of the regiments [Mr. Hume said, in the Guards}. Not in the Guards either. The forfeited pay went to the stock purse of the regiments. For the hospi- tals, and other contingent expenses. The inference drawn with respect to the military system of other countries, was neither conclusive in argument, nor correct in point of fact. If corporal punishment was not practised in the army of France, they were less tenacious of human life. If the French Government did not flog, they shot; and, would any man recommend a greater frequency of the punishment of death? Besides the constitution of the British army differed from all others. We were essentially a manufacturing country; and it was from that class of persons that our recruits were taken. The Russian army was principally composed of peasants, whose habits of life were, from the nature of their agricultural occupation, simple. In the Prussian army there were two classes, an offender in the first class was not flogged, but degraded to the second class. The offender in that class was, unless some change had recently taken place, subjected to corporal punishment; not a punishment awarded after a solemn trial, and upon evidence on oath, but at the discretion of an officer in any grade. The ensign could inflict 10, the lieutenant 20, the captain 30, the major 40, and the lieutenant-colonel 50 stripes. Was that the model which honourable members would substitute for the regulated system of trial, as existing in our army? What should, we say to their system of secret imprisonment, where men were pent up, as it were, in a cage too low for them to stand upright, and that cage floored with sharp bars of wood having the edges turned upwards? Could imagination devise a more severe system of punishment? The greatest circumspection was employed in our service to guard against abuse, and under the sanction of the commander-in-chief, returns of regimental courts martial were now made to the Horse-guards as well as General Courts. Parliament had declared by statute that the command of the army was in the Crown. Any attempt to weaken the power so entrusted was not to be defended. He allowed that if an abuse were proved to exist, the House of Commons ought to interfere; but otherwise he was persuaded they would not take any step to alter the constitution of the country.

Mr. W. Smith

protested against the principle advanced by the noble lord. A more monstrous proposition had never been made to the House; whose right of interference was so emphatically preserved, by the mode of providing for the maintenance of the navy and army. He was of opinion that military flogging was a blot upon the service, a stain upon the national character. He attributed the preservation of the custom to the love of power, and the reluctance to let it go, so inherent in human nature. The country was under the greatest obligations to the hon. baronet, the member for Westminster, by whom that subject had been originally brought under the consideration of parliament. He rejoiced to hear that a practice, which was so great a blot on the national character, had of late years so much decreased.

Mr. Hume moved a clause, that it should not be lawful to inflict corporal punishment by flogging, on any private soldier or non-commissioned officer.

On that clause the committee divided: Ayes, 24; Noes, 50; Majority 26.

List of the Minority.
Allan, J. H. Powlett, hon. J. F.
Bennet, hon. H. G. Ramsden, J. C.
Brougham, H. Ramsbottom, J.
Browne, Dom. Rice, T. S.
Buxton, T. F. Ridley, sir M. W.
Evans, W. Smith, John.
Grattan, J. Smith, William.
Hutchinson, C. H. Sykes, D.
Maberly, J. Wells, J.
Maberly, W. L. Wilson, sir R.
Martin, J.
Monck, J. B. TELLER.
Palmer, C. Hume, Joseph.