HC Deb 19 July 1831 vol 5 cc28-34

Mr. Dixon rose to lay before the House a case of as great hardship, in an attack by a foreign power on British vessels, as could be paralleled in the annals of nations. He alluded to the illegal captures of British ships, by the Brazilian squadron blockading the river Plate. The House were aware, that the Government of Brazil had declared the Rio de la Plata in a state of blockade, in the years 1826 and 1827, and in consequence of that declaration, a number of British vessels were captured, which were ultimately condemned. The Government of this country sent out Lord Ponsonby to demand satisfaction for the injury done to our subjects; but, to show the nature of this injury, he would mention the cases of a few of the vessels which were captured. He wished to observe, that before he proceeded with the cases of those vessels, he would beg of those hon. Members who were engaged in private conversations, to leave their places and go to the adjoining rooms, where they could enjoy their conversation without any interruption of the business. It was an additional hardship on British merchants, who had already suffered so much from those unjustifiable seizures, that the statement of their case to the House should be interrupted by the conversation of hon. Members. There were so many of those little conversational committees going on in the House at the same time, that he could scarcely hear his own remarks. The first case of capture that he would notice, was that of the ship George. She was sent out from Liverpool, to proceed to Buenos Ayres, if she should find the Rio de la Plata open. On coming up the river, she was hailed by the Brazilian squadron, and hove-to. Her captain stated to the Brazilian commander, that her object was, not to break the blockade, but only to go up the river if it should be open; but this statement was of no avail, and the vessel was condemned as a lawful prize. He need not quote any higher authority, for the illegality of this seizure, than an opinion of one of our own Judges, who declared, when an action was afterwards brought in the Court of Common Pleas, to recover the Insurance, which was resisted, on the ground that the George had endeavoured to break the blockade, that that was no ground whatever for the seizure, which was grossly illegal. The next cases were those of the Hellespont, and the Unicorn, whose cargoes were valued at 100,000l. These were also captured by the squadron, under circumstances not authorised by the law of nations, and were condemned by a petty Judge, who ordered them for immediate sale, though this was as contrary to the Brazilian law, as to the law of nations; for, by the former, no ship could be condemned without an appeal from the minor to the superior court at Rio Janeiro. Another vessel had been seized, on no other pretext, than that she would make a good privateer, and for such a seizure, such a piracy, he might call it, no satisfaction had been given, and no restitution made. The next was the case of the Nestor. She was first seized by a Buenos Ayres privateer, off Patagonia, and afterwards released by the government of Buenos Ayres, as being a vessel of a friendly power; but she was subsequently taken by the Brazilian squadron, and condemned, on the alleged ground, that having been in the possession of a Buenos Ayres privateer, the property had changed hands. Her seizure made so great a sensation at Monte Video, that orders were given to retake her wherever she could be found, and she was afterwards re-captured by a British frigate, under the guns of the Brazilian squadron. Yet, would the House believe it, as soon as the fact was known to the Government of this country, orders were sent out that she should be again given up to the Brazilian squadron, and, as he understood, a reprimand was sent out to the commander of the frigate, who did no more than his duty, in the protection of British commerce. Thus the attacks of the Brazilian squadron on our ships, were sanctioned by our Government; and it was not until after the Governments of France and America, which certainly showed a more ready disposition to protect their commerce, than we did to protect ours—it was not until after they had sent their ministers, accompanied by a sufficient force to compel satisfaction, which they obtained—that this Government thought, of making any demand, on the part of the subjects of England. In the year 1828, Lord Ponsonby was sent out to demand satisfaction, and a memorandum was then agreed to, between him and the government of Brazil, as to the ground on which satisfaction should be given. That memorandum was said to be too astringent on Brazil; but he denied that it was so. There was then a promise, on the part of Brazil, that something would be done to satisfy the demands of the British claimants; but nothing had since been done, and the only answer subsequently given to the applicants by our Government was—"We are doing all we can." Was that a fit answer to the claims of British merchants, whose property had been so illegally taken from them? Was it such an answer as they had a right to expect, when they saw, that the governments of France and America had demanded, and obtained, satisfaction for their subjects? From that time the claimants were kept off by long evasions, and the Commissioners, appointed by Lord Ponsonby, and the Brazilian government to settle the dispute, were thwarted in their endeavours to come to an amicable arrangement. The British Commissioner complained that. Mr. Lisboa was doing all in his power to prevent a fair hearing of the claims, and a demand was made on our side, that he should be removed; but that did not take place until a long time after it had been demanded. A strong suspicion had since been excited, that a second despatch had been sent out to Mr. Aston, the British Chargé d'Affaircs at Rio, directing him not to press the adjustment of British claims, under the circumstances in which the country was placed Now, it was only right that the fullest information should be afforded by his Majesty's Government upon this point. If the Articles of the memorandum were in any respect hard on Brazil, as was asserted, he would say, that they were still harder on the British merchants, for even if the whole of their claims were now settled, they would, by the rate of exchange agreed upon in one of the Articles, lose from thirty to thirty-five per cent. If any of the Articles affecting Brazil should be complained of, he was prepared to go through the whole, and show that Mr. Aston had settled the rate of exchange in a manner most injurious to our interests. If it should be said, that the present unsettled state of Brazil prevented the dispute being satisfactorily arranged, he would ask whether Mr. Aston, in one of his communications, had not stated, that we should not be able to obtain any satisfaction until we sent out a force to make reprisals? If this was not so, it would be most easy to contradict it. It was said, too, that Lord Palmerston, in answer to some applications to him, sent out a demand on the Brazilian government, with a threat of reprisals if satisfaction were not made, and Mr. Lisboa removed; but if the noble Lord had looked into the documents in the Foreign Office, he would have found, that Mr. Lisboa had been removed six months before. It was also stated, he knew not how correctly, that another order had been sent out to countermand the previous order, and direct our Minister at the Brazils not to enforce reprisals. Ministers could easily remove any suspicion on this ground, by acceding to the motion which he should now make. The hon. Member concluded by making the following Motion:—"That an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, copies of all communications that have passed between the Foreign Office and the British Legation at Rio de Janeiro, relative to the claims of British Merchants for indemnification for the illegal capture of their ships by the Brazilian squadron, in 1826 and 1827, off Buenos Ayres:—also copies of all instructions that have been sent out to Mr. Aston on the subject; also, copies of all communications from Mr. Hood, British Consul at Monte Video, on the subject."

Lord Althorp

said, he was quite sure that, from the terms of the motion, the House would see the impossibility of his acceding to it, as part of the documents sought for referred to negotiations still pending, and to grant documents of that kind was contrary to the practice of the House. He, therefore, felt regret, that the hon. Member had pressed his motion, because he was obliged to meet it by a direct negative.

Mr. Hume

thought, the House would agree that the application of these claimants had not been fairly met by the noble Lord. They had been applying five years for redress, and no redress was yet given, and they now, therefore, sought to know in what state the negotiations respecting their claims were, and if there was any prospect of their being satisfied. Surely this was no unreasonable demand. All they knew was, that some arrangement had been agreed to, with respect to these claims, some considerable time back, but that nothing had since been done to afford them a prospect of redress, while they knew well, that by the agreement made with France and North America, the claims of the subjects of those countries had been settled long ago. Was it reasonable to say, that with our overwhelming naval power, we should fail of obtaining that satisfaction and redress for our subjects, which the governments of France and America had so readily obtained for theirs? Surely it would not be said, that we should be less careful of our subjects than the governments of other countries. The sum at issue was much larger with us than it was, he believed, with either France or America. At all events, it amounted to half a million, and would involve a serious loss to many, if not recovered, or if payment were much longer delayed. But be the sum great or small, our merchants were entitled to protection; and having read the papers, he owned he was surprised that it should not have been given. He did hope, therefore, that the noble Lord would not give a negative to this Motion, without, at least, informing the House as to what was the state of the negotiations. He was sorry, that he did not see the noble Lord, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in his place on this occasian. The noble Lord took his seat yesterday, and must have been aware that this motion had been deferred from a former day in consequence of his not having then taken his seat. It was a mark of disrespect to the House, that the noble Lord was not present to give an answer to the complaint. He must repeat, that it was shameful that England should have failed to obtain that satisfaction for her subjects which France and America had got for theirs. Independently, therefore, of the loss our merchants had suffered, he looked upon the honour of the country as involved in the issue. If the motion of the hon. Member could not be carried in its present shape, he would advise him to alter it so as to make it extend only to such documents as could be given. At all events, he hoped that Government would not give a direct negative to the Motion, without some explanation to the House, as to the present state of the negotiation, and as to what prospect there was of a final settlement of the claims. He should support the motion of the hon. member for Glasgow, am divide the House upon it, unless he heard some statement, more satisfactory on the subject that that which had been made by the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He did not, however, so much blame the present as the late Government.

Lord Althorp

said, that he objected to the motion for the production of the papers, because the matter was still in a course of negotiation, and it was the earnest endeavour of Government to bring that negotiation to a close as speedily as possible.

Mr. Wrangham

said, as the hon. member for Middlesex had stated, that he considered the late Government to blame in the transaction which had been brought under the notice of the House, he rose to inform the hon. Member, that the noble Lord, formerly at the head of the Foreign Department, had used his utmost endeavours to bring the negotiation to a satisfactory conclusion. Very strong instructions were sent out to the British agent at Rio de Janeiro, to employ all the means in his power to procure a rightful adjustment of the claim of the British merchants. The charge made by the hon. member for Middlesex was, therefore, quite unfounded.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

thought, that if the House came to a decision upon the slight statement which had been made by the noble Lord opposite, and refused all investigation into the matter, the result would be far from satisfactory to the parties who had lost so much property. There were several cases of capture which, he was sure, would rouse the indignation of the House, but he was not prepared to state the particulars at the present moment, because he had not been aware, that the question would have been brought before the House that night; and had, therefore, not brought with him the necessary documents to support his assertions. He well knew, however, that in several instances, the vessels captured were not bound to Buenos Ayres at all. Was such conduct to be tolerated? Were such outrages to be committed on British property and shipping with impunity? The injured parties had a right to expect the Government would interfere, and procure for them some indemnification for their losses. Five years had elapsed since these captures had taken place, and as yet nothing was done. At the same time, as he had confidence in the Ministers, if they would only declare, that they were alive to the importance of this subject, and would leave no measure untried to procure redress, he would advise the hon. member for Glasgow not to press his motion to a division. If, however, the noble Lord gave them no further satisfaction, it would be the duty of the House to require, that the information which had been moved for should be produced. As allusions had. been made to the former Government, he felt bound to remind the House of the persevering and successful efforts of the noble Lord who then held the Seals of the Foreign Department, in securing the claims of British subjects on the Spanish government. At present all those claims were liquidated.

Lord J. Russell

assured the hon. member for the city of London, that Ministers were perfectly alive to the importance of the subject; and the only ground upon which they resisted the motion was, because a negotiation was still pending.

Sir C. Wetherell

said, that the piracies committed by the Brazilian fleet were of the worst character; and he thought that this country should have been more imperative on the subject towards the Brazilian Government; but after what had been stated by the noble Lord opposite, relative to pending negotiations, he could not support the motion, if it was pressed to a division. He would, however, be ready to concur in any resolution, declaring it to be the duty of Government to enforce the claims of the British merchants with the utmost diligence.

Mr. Dixon

said, that he should withdraw his motion, in consequence of the noble Lord opposite having stated, that the papers could not be produced without inconvenience. He should be glad to know, however, whether it was true, that the orders issued by the late Government, directing reprisals to be made, had been withdrawn?

Lord Althorp

assured the hon. Member, that the Government would leave no means untried in order to have justice done to the aggrieved.

Motion withdrawn.