HC Deb 08 February 1830 vol 22 cc215-24
Sir Robert Wilson

wished to put some questions to the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Peel) which he considered of a very serious character as regarded the due exercise of our power as a nation, and a just respect on our part for national good faith: he alluded to the subject of our conduct between Spain and the states of Colombia and Mexico [hear]. This was a matter of the most important nature, and one calling for the maturest consideration, in the present distressed state of the country; inas- much as it affected our commercial, manufacturing, and financial interests, in a very serious degree. The right hon. member for Liverpool (Mr. Huskisson), whom he trusted he might be permitted to call his right hon. friend, mentioned the subject the other evening, and a noble lord, on the occasion of voting the Address, had adverted to some of the circumstances connected with it; but both alluded to the facts of the case hypothetically, not being in possession of any authentic information on the subject. He was about to speak from authority, upon the evidence of facts and circumstances which had come within his own knowledge. In the year 1824, the South American governments, finding themselves much oppressed and harassed by the continuance of the Spanish war from the islands of Cuba and Porto Rico, determined to undertake an expedition against those islands. At that period Colombia had an army and maritime squadron commanded by admiral Brion: there was another force belonging to Mexico at Vera Cruz, under admiral Porter; and the united armaments were superior to any force that Spain could collect in that quarter of the globe. He trusted [there being much noise in the House at the time] that the subject would have a fair hearing, as it was a question upon the answer to which millions of property must depend, [hear] These preparations were proceeding, when Mr. Canning obtained information upon the subject, and being apprised of what was likely to occur, sent for Messrs. Hurtado and Michelano, the Colombian and Mexican envoys in this country; and told them, that having heard of the intention of their respective governments, and knowing that the preparations against Cuba were in an advanced state, it was his duty to inform them that it would be impossible for England to permit the expeditions to proceed, —that, independently of other matters, an armed force descending upon Cuba from the Spanish Main might occasion a negro insurrection, cause the establishment of another at St. Domingo, [hear] and be attended with circumstances of the mightiest and most deplorable calamity to all our West-Indian possessions. It was added that there also existed other collateral circumstances which rendered it extremely unadvisable that an expedition should proceed against Porto Rico or Cuba, at that period. Mr. Canning, in fact, gave Mr. Hurtado and Mr. Michalano notice that this country could not sanction the meditated attack, which must not be permitted to proceed. This was the nature of the communication made by Mr. Canning to the South American envoys, who apprised their respective governments of the circumstances. General Bolivar and the Mexican government acquiesced; in the wishes of this country and dispersed their forces; but at the same time forwarded a communication to the English government, through their envoys, stating that they trusted this deference to the wishes and compliance with the policy of Great Britain would not subject them to the inconvenience of attacks by armaments proceeding from Cuba and Porto Rico, with a view to a descent upon the Spanish Main. Afterwards, Spain, recovering herself from the effects of her internal difficulties, collected a considerable force at Cuba, and a squadron, under the command of admiral Laborde, swept the sea of all vessels belonging to the South American colonies. The government of those states being incapable of supporting the heavy expenses entailed upon them by the maintenance of naval armaments, had dispersed them, disbanded their men, and laid their vessels up in ordinary. It was under such circumstances that Mexico and Colombia applied to the British government to be protected from the menaced attacks about to be made upon them from Cuba and Porto Rico; and as they had given up their preparations against those places at the instance of this country, they asked to be made strictly neutral territories as respected them; they did not ask protection against direct attacks from Spain, but merely against armaments proceeding from Cuba and Porto Rico, which they had been prohibited by England from attacking. This took place in 1827; reclamations were made to the British government by the ministers of Mexico and Colombia, who represented all the evils that must arise from the threatened attacks, and called upon us for the protection to which they were entitled by the faith of treaties which guaranteed their respective countries as favourable treatment as any other states. When general Barrados's expedition was about to sail from Cuba, an application was made to the British admiral upon the station to prevent his sailing, but this was not granted, and the armament put to sea. That hope being disappointed, admiral Laborde put to sea, and general Barrados made his attack. But although the illusion ceased when the expedition failed—he meant the illusion which induced the Spanish government to suppose that if a small force planted the standard of Spain in South America, it would be speedily flocked to by numerous adherents.—Notwithstanding this illusion was dissipated by the defeat of the expedition, the evil did not cease here, for the South American governments were obliged to keep up the same expensive establishments as before, in order to be ready to repel invasion. Moreover, at the present moment, it was the more necessary that this state of things should not be permitted to continue, because it was well known in this country that the Spanish government, so far from abandoning its intention to recover possession of Mexico, was organizing another expedition for its conquest, the rendezvous of which was to be against Cuba. It was therefore now necessary to have a further understanding on the subject, that Mexico might no longer have reason to complain of our equivocal, or (if he might use the expression) partial neutrality; that our credit for national good faith, independence, and fair dealing might not be exposed to the suspicion of favouring despotism; and that the property embarked in that country might not suffer from predatory attacks, or by actual confiscation. He would mention two or three facts to show the great value of Mexico and Colombia to England, and the mischief which must ensue, not only to our national character, but to our internal condition, from a continuance of an unsettled state of things in those countries. When Admiral Laborde took the sea in 1827, and proceeded to Porto Rico, he learned that an insurrection had been planned in Colombia, and in consequence of this information hovered over the coast of Colombia for forty days, with troops and arms aboard; but hearing that no insurrection had broken out as he expected, he returned without accomplishing any thing decisive. But the direct consequence of his hovering about the coast was to oblige the commandant of Venezuela to collect a force to resist a descent, and call out the militia, so that a sum of 300,000 dollars, collected to meet dividends due to the British creditor, was devoted to defray the expenses necessarily incurred by these preparations, instead of finding its way to England. The same happened with regard to General Barrados's expedition. He had the best authority for what he was now about to state; namely, that an arrangement had been made by which the Mexican bondholders in this country were to have received their dividends in November, when, General Barrados having put to sea, and great expenses being incurred by the government of Mexico in consequence of his expedition, the funds intended for the payment of the bondholders were diverted to other purposes, and such an outlay of money was caused in Mexico, as to remove the hope of payment till (he apprehended) a distant day. What was the state of Mexico with regard to the advantages which it held out to England by an increased production of the precious metals, had been alluded to by the right hon. member for Liverpool (Mr. Huskisson) upon a former occasion: and it was proved that a necessity existed, as regarded our own circumstances, that we should do what we could for the internal security and improvement of a country from which so many advantages might be expected to accrue to England. These statements were perfectly capable of being verified by facts. In 1827, the mines of Mexico consumed only 379,379 lb. of quicksilver exported from this country: in 1828, the consumption of quicksilver was 361,351 lb.: but, during 1829, and up to the present month, 1,310,400 1b. weight of quicksilver had been exported. Could there be a greater proof of the increased working of the mines, and of the advantages which must accrue to us if the South American colonies were allowed full scope of improvement by the enjoyment of tranquillity, than was to be found in these simple statements? But this was not all—it was not merely the quantity, but the price of the quicksilver exported, that was to be taken into account. We find that in 1827 and 1828, the price of quicksilver was only 45 dollars a quintal, but during the last year it reached 80 and 100 dollars. It was clear that we must derive great commercial and financial advantages from an intercourse with the Spanish American states, under favourable circumstances: but it was not on this account alone, that he asked the government to consider the situation of these states, but upon still higher grounds. We ought to do nothing which would give a colour or foundation to accusations against this country of a partiality which must degrade us by affording currency to the idea that we were ready to abuse the power which we possessed, in contradiction to the faith of treaties; not to say that such abuse must collaterally affect our own interests. The questions which he had to propose to the right hon. gentleman were—1st, whether the prohibition, which went to restrain Mexico and Colombia from making any attempt upon Cuba or Porto Rico, was to be maintained?—2dly, if the prohibition were to be maintained, in that case, was the same restriction to be imposed upon Spain as far as Cuba and Porto Rico were concerned; and were these and the South American republics to be considered as strictly neutral territories in relation to one another? These were the inquiries which he wished to make; and which of course referred to the intermediate state of Guatemala. If such a prohibition had formerly existed against any hostile operations on the part of Mexico, he wished to know whether it would not now be considered in the nature of a dropped order in that House, and that Mexico would be at liberty, in the case of any further hostile interference from Spain, to invade Cuba, as long as she observed the obligations and acted according to the laws of war?

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he could assure the hon. gentleman that on this, as upon every other occasion, it was his desire to answer any question put to his Majesty's Government in that House respecting the foreign policy of the country, as frankly and as clearly as was consistent with the general interests of the State. But he felt the questions now put to involve a point of such deep importance, that the House would excuse him if he did not content himself with giving a simple answer to the questions of the hon. Gentleman, but enter into a short explanation of the facts, and of the intentions and policy of the Government. When a noble friend of his on a former night put a question to him upon the same subject, he answered it upon the strength of his recollection; and if he then fell into any mistake as to the occurrences which had been referred to, he was sure the House would readily pardon him when they considered that seven or eight years had intervened since they took place, and since any circumstances had very particularly required him to refer to the several documents. But in the interval since that discussion he had referred to the documents, and found that his recollection upon all the substantial points was correct. He had stated his impression of the facts to be, that in the year 1823, Mr. Canning, then being Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, made a public declaration that England would not resist any attempt made by Spain to reestablish her power and authority over her revolted colonies. He declared that England could not interfere in any contest that might arise between the mother country and the colonies; but, at the same time Mr. Canning avowed that England would not recognize the right of any other foreign power to ally herself to Spain for the purpose of aiding her in such an attempt; that if it were made by the mother country, and by her own resources, then that this Government would not interfere, but observe a strict neutrality between the contending parties. His noble friend had said that something more was added, about the difficulty of maintaining a strict neutrality; and it had been further asserted that Mr. Canning prohibited any counter attempt upon Cuba on the part of the South American States. His answer to that was, that if any prohibition were issued by Mr. Canning, prohibiting Mexico from attacking Cuba, he was confident that it had been made upon some peculiar ground, involving perhaps the common interests of humanity, or some particular and paramount interest of this country. Though there was no record of a particular conference that had been referred to, he found upon examining the records of these transactions, that the view of Mr. Canning's motives had been the true one. In the notes of a conference between Mr. Canning and the Prince de Polignac, which took place on the 9th of October, 1823, he found that Mr. Canning made this important declaration: "That the British government would not only abstain from interfering to prevent Spain from resorting to any negotiations for the recovery of her colonies, but would aid her in such negotiations; and in any case be strictly neutral, even if war should be resorted to by Spain herself. But that, if Spain should form a junction with any other foreign power that should aid her in the war, then that the British government would consider another case to have arisen, and its conduct would be in- fluenced by other views." This was the ground taken by Mr. Canning, and he referred with pleasure to another part of the document, in which the Prince de Polignac, on the part of France, disclaimed in any case the intention of joining in hostile measures against the South American colonies. Thus far the declarations of Mr. Canning on the question were in their possession. He had no recollection of any others, and there was no record of any such prohibition as that which had been alluded to, the strictest search had been made but no record could be found. If any such had been made, the probability was, that it had been verbal; and of this he was certain—that it was made as an exception to the general rule, and justified by some peculiar considerations growing out of the circumstances of the case, either relating to the common interest of humanity, as he had said before, or to some paramount considerations of state. He had said that there was no record of the act, or of the motives which dictated it; but if Mr. Canning did make such a prohibition, he should think it rather referred to the manner in which the war was likely to be carried on. This he was bound to state in justice to the memory of Mr. Canning: so strongly did Mr. Canning feel the desire of promoting the tranquillity of the South American colonies—so anxious was he to prevent the revival or the opening of fresh hostilities between them and the mother country, that in the year 1824, just previous to our recognition of their independence, he offered Spain to guarantee to her the possession of Cuba, upon condition of her entering into negotiations, the basis of which should be, that their independence should be formally recognized, [hear] If, therefore, any such prohibition was ever declared by Mr. Canning, he was satisfied that it must have been made upon some special grounds. He was the more confirmed in this conclusion, because there was on the part of the United States of America a declaration of such an intended amicable interference, in which special grounds were pointed out. In a note of Mr. Clay, the minister of the United States, dated December, 1825, that government, then having recognized the independence of Mexico and the other republics, he declared its intention to preserve a strict neutrality in the case of a war between them and her former colo- nies. The terms of that declaration were, however, that if Spain should persist in carrying on war without the prospect of success, the republics of Colombia and Mexico would probably retaliate, by making an attack upon Cuba, that being the point d'appui from which Spain could carry on her operations; and that if a war carried into that island by the republics should prove to be one of a desolating nature, such as the putting of arms into the hands of one class of the inhabitants against another class, then it would be necessary for America to interfere and to prevent such a war of extermination from proceeding. This was the ground which America had taken. What she said was, that she would not interfere so long as the war was conducted on both sides according to the laws of civilized nations; but she would not see such a course taken as must lead to the depopulation of the island of Cuba, and leave it to be transferred to the possession of some European power. If Mr. Canning ever made any declaration, he was satisfied it must have been one of this nature. With regard to the recent expedition sent out by Spain against Mexico, it was, he believed, almost entirely sent from the Havannah. Almost the only person in it who proceeded from the mother country, he believed, was the commander of the troops. How then could this country interfere? He could assure the hon. gentleman, whatever he might think, that it would have been extremely difficult for England to have prevented the sailing of that expedition by remonstrance alone. So much for what had been done; and now for the intentions of the government as to the future. They felt a deep interest in the welfare and the prosperity of these infant States. They had recognized their independence, and were anxious to see that independence consolidated by their tranquillity, and by their security from foreign attack, so long as they gave no just cause of interference to other powers. He therefore hoped that the South American States would now turn to their own resources and be able to compose their internal quarrels; in that, he repeated, they would find their chief safe-guards against attacks from without. Ministers had hoped that Spain herself would ere now have been convinced of the propriety and policy, if not of recognizing their independence, at least of abstaining from ac- tual hostilities against the South American republics. They had hoped that she would at least have observed the principle upon which she proceeded in the contest with her Flemish colonies, where, long before there independence was recognized, she tacitly assented to a suspension of hostilities. The forbearance of Spain in that instance justified us in the hope that she would display like wisdom and moderation in this. And it might be here observed, that for several years she had abstained from issuing letters of marque against the States of South America, and so consulted the interests of humanity, and avoided many of the atrocities which, under the sanction of such an authority, had disgraced the flags of other nations. If there were a chance of the permanent revival of hostilities between Spain and South America, the policy of England would be—1st, to endeavour to effect an amicable termination of the contest, and to bring about a peace, a common object not less interesting to Spanish America than to ourselves; but if all our endeavours should fail,—if Spain determined to persevere in the attempt to recover possession of her colonies,—he had no difficulty in thus publicly declaring, on the part of his majesty's government, that so far as the laws and operations of civilized warfare were concerned, this country would for herself act between the contending parties on the principle of strict impartiality. [hear]

The conversation here dropped.