HC Deb 28 June 1831 vol 4 cc429-36
Sir Robert Peel

said, he rose to present to the House a Petition upon a subject of very great importance; it was a petition from the British Merchants and Traders who were resident at Canton. At the present period, when the commercial intercourse of British subjects with the possessions of the British Crown in India, and with the countries adjacent to them, was to be brought before the House, and to be regulated, the petitioners expressed an earnest hope, that the great interests which they represented would not be neglected or abandoned. The petitioners complained that it was in vain to seek redress from the local authorities at Canton, unless they spoke in such a tone as only those armed with the sanction of the Government at home could assume; and they added, that it would be needless to seek to influence the Chinese by an appeal to their judgments and notions of right and justice; or, indeed, to influence them through any motives not derived from their fears or their avarice. They stated, in corroboration of this assertion, that whenever the English had assumed a haughty and peremptory tone of menace, the Chinese had ceased to impose their exactions, and had afforded some redress; but that whenever we addressed them in a tone of mere remonstrance, the grievances of our merchants were sure to remain unrequited. In the several attempts which they had in vain made to obtain redress from Chinese oppression, the petitioners begged to state, that they had received the cordial support of the resident officers of the East-India Company, who, moreover, had facilitated as much as in them lay the forwarding of the present petition. The petitioners looked forward to the most beneficial results from the appointment of a resident British civil officer, in an ambassadorial capacity, or rather, perhaps, as a diplomatic agent at Canton, to whom the British residents might seek for redress at the court of China, for injuries to their persons or property, should Parliament in its wisdom recommend such an appointment. In presenting this important petition, he would not himself venture to offer any opinion on the several topics to which it referred; the subject was of too complex and important a character to be lightly touched upon, and would be brought under the consideration of a Committee to be expressly appointed (that evening, as he understood) to continue the examination commenced last session into the question of our East-Indian relations in all their hearings. Till the evidence of that Committee was before the House, he thought all discussion on our East-Indian trade or policy would be premature, if not mischievous; and therefore he would studiously avoid provoking such a discussion on the present occasion. There were two points specified in the petition, which, however, he could not pass over in silence, as the petitioners laid great stress on them, as urging the expediency—indeed, necessity—of the diplomatic agent they wished to have appointed. By the law of China no difference existed, so far as punishment was concerned, between the crimes of murder and manslaughter; so that the murder of an Englishman was a matter of little moment in the eyes of a Chinese, apart from their general ill-treatment of all foreigners. Then the Chinese regarded every subject of the celestial empire who had departed from the bounds of the empire as an alien and an outcast, who was ipso facto not entitled to any protection of the law—as one who had, in fact, forfeited every legal and political right. They regarded all foreigners as in the same way outcasts and aliens from their respective countries, and, as such, no longer within the protection of their laws. Under the influence of this erroneous impression, they oppressed these foreigners without remorse shame, or fear; and, according to the petitioners, would continue to do so till we had disabused them by sending out a diplomatic agent as representative of the home government. The right hon. Baronet concluded by saying, that he should refer the petition to the Committee to be re-appointed that evening, trusting that from its great importance it would meet with its best attention.

Mr. Cutlar Ferguson

thought the petition well worthy the consideration of the House, and concurred in much of what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet opposite. But he entertained no great hopes that any benefits would accrue from the proposed appointment of a diplomatic agent at Canton. He believed, that the petitioners were incorrect in saying that the Chinese regarded all foreigners as outlaws, though he knew that they did not pay the same respect to them as was paid in Europe. He cordially approved of the suggestion to refer this petition to the Committee.

Mr. C. Grant

ventured to express a hope that no discussion would take place on presenting the petition. He fully concurred with his right hon. friend, that the petition was entitled to the most attentive consideration of that House, for the petitioners were not only respectable, but were British subjects, promoting British prosperity in a remote quarter of the world, and exposed to very serious and distressing inconveniences. The petition, he felt satisfied, would be received as it deserved; and as a member of the Government he would say, that the prayers of the petitioners would be acceded to, so far as was consistent with prudence and justice. He had no sort of doubt that the petitioners were exposed to great inconvenience, and he had also no doubt that some of the exactions to which they were subjected might be checked. This had occupied the attention of Government for a series of years, and two embassies, as was well known, had been sent to China to facilitate our commercial intercourse. Considerable efforts had been made, and were, in fact, continuing to be made, for the purpose of giving increased protection to his Majesty's subjects who were in China. On the question of again sending to China a representative of his Majesty, he should refrain from pronouncing an opinion; but he would undertake to say, that the matter should meet with the attentive consideration of the Government, and he trusted, that the House, as well as the Government, would show how truly they appreciated the inconveniences to which that class of his Majesty's subjects was exposed.

Sir G. Staunton

admitted, that the petitioners were persons of respectability, and be thought, that the improvement of our commercial relations with China, to which they wished to draw the attention of the House, a very proper one. He had twice traversed that extensive and populous empire, and always found himself surrounded by an industrious and wealthy people: to cultivate extended commercial relations with that country would be like opening a new world to British enterprise. At the same time he thought, that a system of conciliation would be our best policy in our intercourse with China, and not intimidation, as the petitioners recommended. The course already pursued by the servants of the East-India Company ought to be Followed, and the interest of the Chinese, lot their fears, should be operated on. He believed it would be practicable and advantageous to appoint a commission for the trial of homicides in that country. In conclusion he must say, that this petition, proceeding from a class of men not connected with the East-India Company, and who, having had an opportunity to see the conduct of its servants, did not object to its system, was a strong testimony in its favour, and should be a warning to the House not hastily to alter that monopoly as it was called, which had been attended with such decided advantages to the trade of the country.

Sir James Mackintosh

, as well as those who preceded him, would abstain from offering any opinion upon the question of sending out an Ambassador to China. He thought that there ought to be a determined assertion of the rights of our fellow-subjects at Canton, who were now exposed to numerous petty vexations; but anything beyond that he should be decidedly averse from. There should on no account be even a threat of an appeal to arms, for the matter could easily be arranged by much better means.

Mr. Wolryche Whitmore

thought, that great benefit would arise from the appointment of an Ambassador to the Court of Pekin, and though there might be difficulties at first, they were difficulties which would give way in time. He was sure that there did not exist in any quarter a disposition to regard as trifling the commercial relations subsisting between this country and China. With respect to himself, he thought it necessary to state, that during the present short Session he had no intention of bringing forward any motion on the subject of our trade with China. He had been informed that the subject was under the serious attention of his Majesty's Government, and that was with him a strong reason for not troubling the House relative to it during the present year. Whenever the time came, however, for discussing the subject, he should be prepared to show, that this question was inferior in importance to none, and that our trade to the East might be placed on a much more advantageous footing than at present.

Mr. Astell

was sure the evidence of the Committee to be re-appointed that evening would show, that the hon. member for Bridgenorth's statements were ill supported by the facts of the case, and that his free-trade doctrines would ill apply to the peculiar circumstances under which we held dominion in India, and carried on a commercial intercourse with China.

Mr. Ewart

was of opinion, that a determined assertion of our rights by an authorized agent, was the course most worthy of a great country like our own. He was also of opinion, that evidence taken before the Committee on East-Indian affairs would not support, as the hon. Member who spoke last seemed to think, the East-India Company's monopoly. He must maintain, that there were three propositions most distinctly made out by that evidence. The first was, —that the Chinese were a trading and an intelligent people, and that therefore they would prefer an open trade with this country. The second was—that the efforts of the Chinese Government were futile in endeavouring to prevent its subjects from pursuing their trade in the best mode which their intelligence suggested to them. Indeed, one of the witnesses had stated, that the Chinese only observed the edicts of their governors when it suited their own interests. The third proposition was, —that British goods were finding their way into the Celestial Empire; for the fact was, that most of their principal men were now clothed in stuffs of British manufacture. He thought that, in consequence of these propositions being now fully established, the British Government was bound to give every encouragement in its power to the capital and the trade of the country, which were now turned in that direction. By opening the trade to China, they would increase both to an unparalleled degree.

Mr. A. Baring

said, that if there were an indiscriminate approach of our countrymen to China, he was afraid that private adventurers would be trampled on and oppressed. If, then, the diplomacy which the East-India Company exercised at present with the Chinese Government, through the Factory, were got rid of by any alteration in the terms of the Company's charter, it must be supplied in some other way. If it were supplied by the appointment of a Consul or an Ambassador, he was afraid that we should often be called upon to interfere, as the French had recently been called upon to interfere for their consul at Algiers, and be obliged to vindicate our rights and dignity. He saw no reason why the House should not do something practical on the subject, instead of heaping, for three consecutive sessions, reports upon reports, which he would undertake to say, no ten Gentlemen in the House would read when they were completed In fact, while they were discussing what they should do, individuals were trading, and one gentleman who had given evidence before the Committee that an advantageous trade might be opened through Sincapore, had been out there since he gave his evidence and made a successful voyage. Now that part of the trade might, at least, be thrown open with advantage to all parties.

Mr. Warburton

said, that he would not say a word as to the propriety of our having a Consul at Canton; but this he knew, that the Americans were carrying on a direct trade with China, with every advantage to themselves, and yet they had no Consul or representative there. The Chinese were quite willing to carry on smuggling; to an enormous extent, and as it was not the business of this country to protect the revenue of the Celestial Empire, he did not see why that smuggling should not be encouraged. If that were done, he was sure the Chinese authorities would soon consent to our having an open trade with China, and would refrain from insulting our merchants.

Mr. Stuart Wortley

complained of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baring) not having confined himself to the purport of the petition before the House. That had led the last hon. Member further than he ought to have gone. For his part, however, though he did not wish to avoid discussion, he must deprecate it at that time.

Sir C. Forbes

said, that our trade with China met with great liberality on the part of that Government; and he should like to ask those from whom this petition came, whether they would rather be treated there according to the laws of that empire, or according to the laws of Great Britain? There were edicts in force there, by which the natives of the Celestial Empire were prohibited from cheating the poor strangers, as they were called, who went thither to procure the necessaries of life; and with respect to smuggling, though there were numberless Custom-house boats passing round and round the ships that lay at anchor at Canton, they never attempted to make any search, as the law was content with the confiscation of the vessel, in the event of the actual landing of opium, or any other prohibited article. If a Chinese Junk should come into the port of London, and the people, he meant the captain and crew, did not choose to comply with the regulations which were in force, they would be told to go about their business, and he did not see why British vessels should complain of being used in the same way in the port of Canton.

Petition to be printed.