HC Deb 13 September 1831 vol 6 cc1377-88
Mr. George Robinson

said, he was about to request, that the House would give him a little of its attention, while he should introduce to its notice a motion connected with a local subject, which he was reluctantly compelled to bring forward, in consequence of his not having received a satisfactory answer from the noble Lord (the Under Colonial Secretary) on the point to which it referred. The subject which he was about to introduce to the House was the case of Newfoundland—an island which contained upwards of 100,000 of our fellow-subjects, who had no local legislature to attend to their interests, and who were, in consequence, obliged to resort to that House to seek from Parliament a redress of the grievances of which they complained. Though he was aware of the impatience of the House to proceed to the very important matter which stood for discussion this evening, he felt compelled to occupy a short portion of its time with this subject, as, considering the present state of the public business, a postponement of his Motion now would be tantamount to an abandonment of it for the Session, and the present was the third Session in which he had endeavoured to bring it forward. He should not have troubled the House had the Ministers taken the matter into their own hands. This was one of the oldest possessions of his Majesty in that hemisphere, and if it had been properly attended to, it would have been one of the most useful and important of our colonies. It was treated, however, as a mere fishing establishment, conducted in such a way as to prevent residence. In the course of time, however, numbers did become residents in spite of the law. The Governors formerly, to prevent this, went so far as to pull down houses. He had a document which showed that a resident was under the necessity of asking permission to build a pig-stye. The colony was a fief of the Admiralty, and on that account the situation of it was kept a secret. At length a friend of his, Mr. Forbes, now Chief Justice of New South Wales, drew the attention of Government to the subject, and in 1824 two Acts of Parliament were passed to improve the colony, one relating to the encouragement of the fisheries, and the other to the administration of justice. They were passed only for five years. It was too much the practice to have recourse to procrastination in all colonial matters. The rule of the Government with respect to the colonies of England, always appeared to be to say, whenever anything was suggested, "Oh, we'll think of that—we'll think of that!" and the result was, that nothing whatever was done. In the year 1829, the right hon. Secretary for the Colonies under the late Government, had, on an emergency, brought down a bill to that House for the purpose of continuing the legislative enactments with respect to Newfoundland for three years and a half longer: he had at the time suggested that he would much rather that they should be only continued for one year longer, as that would compel the Government speedily to recur to the subject; but the answer that he had received was, that most likely the Government would take the question into consideration in less than a year; and yet, now they were nearly at the end of the year 1831, not only had nothing been done, but the noble Lord (Howick) had, on the 11th of May, told him, that he did not think, that it would be necessary to do anything this year. The inhabitants of Newfoundland, though they admitted that the general legislative enactments for the island were judicious, had suggested alterations with respect to particular parts, but not one of them had been complied with. Such, indeed, was the procrastination in these matters, that the new laws did not reach the colony for six weeks after the old laws had expired, so that for the period of six weeks the island had been left without any law at all. That House had been found utterly incapable of legislating for Newfoundland, and the inhabitants had memorialized the King, praying that he would at once grant them a constitutional government. He had had a personal interview with his Majesty on the subject, and his Majesty, from early recollections, felt and had expressed his strongest sympathy for the inhabitants of that island. Formerly, he was ready to admit, the inhabitants were not unanimous as to the necessity of a colonial legislature, but the case was now different, and they were now unanimous on that subject. Looking at the increase and wealth of the colony, he thought it had a right to call for a constituent government. The number of vessels that arrived there yearly, according to the petition addressed to his Majesty, was 700; the exports amounted to 600,000l., and the imports to 640,000l., independent of the coasting trade, which employed 400 vessels owned and registered in the island. Prince Edward's Island, which had a population of only 32,000, and Bermuda, with a population of 20,000, had a colonial legislature, while Newfoundland, with a population of 100,000, had none. He trusted, therefore, that the House would see the necessity of attending to the request of the inhabitants. Such, indeed, was the importance attached to this colony by Lord Chatham, that he thought it worth going to war for. He should not go so far, but it might be made highly beneficial to this country. The noble Lord opposite (Lord Howick) had admitted to him, that in his opinion, the people of Newfoundland ought to have some share in the administration of their own affairs, and yet the noble Lord had done nothing towards that object; and unless the noble Lord would say, that it was the intention of his Majesty's Ministers to give to the colony a legislative assembly and a local government of their own, he should certainly persevere in his Motion. The noble Lord had said, that one objection to giving the colony a government was, that it would throw all the power and influence into the town of St. John's, to the injury of the other towns of the island; but he denied the soundness of such an opinion. Agriculture was now discouraged in the island, and though the soil was fertile, and capable of producing wheat, oats, and the edible roots, the inhabitants were compelled to import even potatoes from America and Ireland. The people had not even the power to make roads or to levy assessments for any purpose, and the colony was virtually in the state in which it was a century ago. England had all the advantages of a trade with Newfoundland, without any of the disadvantages of restrictive duties which attended her trade with her other colonies. There had been an excess of revenue in the colony for the last twelve years; but the late Ministers had sent over there a civil establishment totally beyond any necessity of the case. What he complained of was, that the Ministers suffered their opinion to be guided by the merchants who traded to Newfoundland, and who, as they only traded there, had no sympathies in favour of the colonists. Another point which particularly required attention, was the state of the fisheries on that coast; there was a portion of the coast where the right of fishing was conceded to the French; but it was by no means clear that they had the exclusive right, and the colonists had applied to Government for information as to whether the inhabitants of Newfoundland had not a concurrent right with the French to fist there; the only answer, however, that they had been able to obtain was, that the Government did not know. Even at the time of Charles 1st, and up to the reign of William and Mary, the French paid for the right, and he believed such was the case up to the Treaty of Utrecht. But the people of Newfoundland being left in ignorance by the Government, as to whether the concurrent right existed or not, they came to a resolution of fitting out a ship to try the question. This ship sailed to that part of the coast where the French fishery was carried on, with directions to use every means short of violence to prosecute its fishing there. The French offered to concede the privilege there to that ship for the season, as a matter of favour; but this, of course, was refused; and the result was, that a French naval commander ordered the ship's anchor to be weighed, by which her fishing was stopped. He would, in conclusion, appeal to the noble Lord the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether it was fit that such a colony, so powerful and prosperous as he had described, should be left in such a condition. The hon. Member then moved, "That an humble Address be presented to his Majesty, praying that he would be graciously pleased to grant to his ancient and faithful colony of Newfoundland a Constitutional Legislative Government, similar to those enjoyed by his Majesty's other North-American colonies, and as nearly as possible in accordance with the principles of the British Constitution; and also, that measures may be taken to ascertain the rights and privileges of his Majesty's subjects in that island under existing treaties with France, and to afford them protection in the exercise of the same."

Lord Howick

felt himself embarrassed both by the time and manner in which the hon. Member had brought forward his motion. It was well known, that this day had been reserved, by the common consent of the House, to be set apart for the object of receiving the report upon the Reform Bill. He was, therefore, under great difficulty in being called upon so inopportunely to decide such a question, or to vindicate the policy which Ministers, in the short time they had been in office, had thought it their duty to pursue. The answer he had given to the hon. Member on a former occasion, had given great satisfaction to the principal port of the kingdom which had the greatest commercial connection with Newfoundland. He knew that the hon. Member himself had not been able, for a long time, to make up his mind upon the propriety of what, he now advised, and the House might, therefore, very justly infer, that the question had been fraught with difficulties, and that the colonists had not, hitherto, been in a state to receive a legislative assembly. It was not unreasonable that he should ask the hon. Member to postpone his Motion for the present Session. The recent Acts under which Newfoundland had been governed, although they had not answered every exigency, had nevertheless greatly benefitted the colony. It was true that they required modifications, and he was perfectly ready to acknowledge, that the time had arrived in which the people of Newfoundland must be intrusted with a considerable share in the administration of their own affairs, and in the next Session of Parliament the subject would of necessity be brought before the House by the expiration of the existing laws. There was a difficulty in forming any system that would not tend to throw the whole power into the hands of the people of St. John's, to the prejudice of other parts of the colony. The inhabitants of Newfoundland were so scattered, that it was impossible for them to have any share in the Representation. In 1827, the total number of permanent resident inhabitants were 36,000, and of these 11,900 were resident at St. John's, while the remainder were distributed in a great number of villages and places, of which the population was individually very small. Between sixty and seventy of those small places, containing more than two-thirds of the inhabitants, were cut off from all communication with St. John's for six months of the year. He was aware that the population had since increased very considerably, and was rapidly increasing. That showed that the island was not yet going to decay, and that was of itself, he thought, a sufficient consideration to justify delay. The Governor of Newfoundland was shortly to come over to this country, and his local information would assist his Majesty's Ministers in the inquiries which they felt it their duty to pursue, before they came to a final adjustment of the question. For these reasons he thought the hon. Member ought not to prejudice the subject by pressing the Motion, and he should feel it his duty to move the previous question.

The Amendment was then put.

Sir John Newport

said, he did not think a Motion of such importance ought to be discussed at that moment, when the House expected to go on with the Reform Bill. He was as anxious for the colony as the hon. Member, and for that reason he would advise him to withdraw his Motion, particularly after what had fallen from the noble Lord. He trusted, that Government, on considering the subject, would be cautious in taking the advice or opinion of those who might be more anxious to consult their own interests than the interests of the colony.

Mr. Hume

thought, that the time was come when delay, if longer continued, would be productive of evil: 90,000 English subjects asked to be removed from under the arbitrary sway of one man, and to be allowed to conduct their own affairs. Was that unreasonable? They offered to do this without putting the country to the expense of 10,000l., or 20,000l., a-year, to which it was now liable. He thought that the hon. member for Worcester had done right in bringing the subject forward. It was of no use to say, that the Ministers were not prepared, for they had voted for the Motion of the hon. member for Worcester last year, when he moved for a Committee. For three consecutive years, too, the hon. Member had brought the subject forward, so that it was not a novelty. He was surprised, therefore, that the noble Lord should not be prepared to go into this subject. It was monstrous to continue to govern this great colony from Downing-street. That gave rise to malversation and misgovernment. He approved of putting the Motion to the House, in order to see what our present liberal Government would do. The local difficulties spoken of by the noble Lord, ought not to preclude the House from agreeing to this Motion. He was in no haste to adapt a government to Newfoundland, or to any other country, without studying the local circumstances; but the only question in the case was, should these people have a representative government of their own? He hoped that the same species of government would be given to Newfoundland as existed in Nova Scotia. He was surprised that the noble Lord should not be aware that the inhabitants of Poole had a local and separate interest opposed to the residents of Newfoundland. They had maintained an injurious influence for, and control over that colony for many years, and it was time that it was put an end to. Was it possible, that the inhabitants of St. John's, consisting of 12,000 people, should have the power of returning Representatives for 80,000? The argument used by the noble Lord would apply also to Canada, where the people were as much scattered as in Newfoundland, and there the best Representatives were taken from among the thinly-peopled districts. He hoped the hon. Member would press the Motion to a division, in order to see if the British House of Commons, which was about to give Representatives to the people and property of this country, would refuse it to the inhabitants of Newfoundland. Wherever the people had a representative government, as at Nevis, they managed their own affairs cheaply, while in all the colonies that were governed from Downing-street, the expenses were enormous. He should support the Motion.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

recommended the hon. member for Worcester to withdraw his motion for the present. He was favourable to the principle of the motion, but he wanted further information before he could consent to agree to a vote. He hoped that the hon. Member would give notice of a day when the whole question might be discussed, or that he would move for a Select Committee, so that the House might then be able to pronounce an opinion upon it after due and proper inquiries. He confessed that he was not prepared to come to a decision, and, therefore, he wished the motion to be withdrawn.

Lord Althorp

admitted, that he had voted for a Committee of Inquiry last year, but that was very different from the present motion of the hon. Member; and he was surprised that his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, did not see the difference. Speaking for himself, and not as a member of the Government, then, he should say he did not feel that there was any necessity to have a Committee of Inquiry, because the question was under the consideration of the Government. It was the intention of the Government to make the measure which must be brought forward next Session for the regulation of the colony, as liberal as possible, and give to the people of Newfoundland as much power over their own affairs as was consistent with their situation. That was the object of the Government, though there were difficulties in the way of carrying it into execution. The hon. member for Kirkcudbright had suggested the propriety of appointing a Committee, and he for one saw no objection, to the appoint- ment, if such a motion were made. In that Committee, the difficulties felt by the Government might be stated and examined, and the House might be able to form an opinion on the subject. If the hon. Gentleman proposed to move for a Committee, he would suggest, that the hon. Member should not do it then, but give notice of the motion for to-morrow, or some other day; and he should not feel the slightest objection to having such a Committee appointed. The effect of the Committee could not be to pass any law this Session, but it might put the House in possession of much information, and the Government would assist its inquiries.

Mr. Labouchere

regretted the course recommended by the noble Lord, as he considered that it was not right to delegate inquiries into such important questions to Committees of the House, instead of the Government itself investigating the subject. He hoped no Constitution would be given to Newfoundland but a Constitution which was to be most liberal. He was afraid that the noble Lord (Lord Howick) had lent a too willing ear to the Governor, and others, who were anxious to limit and curtail the power of the colonists, though it might be at the expense of the prosperity of the colony. He thought his noble friend attached too much weight to the fact of the inhabitants being somewhat scattered. He saw no reason why the people of Newfoundland might not collect as well at St. John's, as the people of Canada met at Quebec. He intreated the noble Lord not to rely too much on the local authorities of Newfoundland. The people there were the best judges of their own interest, and of what they wished to have done.

Lord Howick

had expressed no opinion on the policy of giving a representative government to Newfoundland. He had only stated, that there were difficulties which the Government was not prepared to surmount. He agreed with the hon. Member, that statements of Judges and Governors were not to be implicitly relied on; but he could not agree in the opinion that their opinions were to be treated like waste paper.

Mr. O'Connell

hoped he should be excused trespassing upon the time of the House a few minutes, as there were circumstances peculiarly connected with the subject which induced him to rise on the present occasion. He trusted that the great principles of liberty would be regarded in the government which was to be given to Newfoundland. Ireland had sent forth many of her children to that colony, both Catholics and Protestants; and he was happy to bear his testimony to the spirit of union which prevailed among them. He had recently learnt a fact which he begged to communicate to the House as highly creditable to both parties. It gratified him much to bear it. Some time back, a church belonging to a body of Protestants had fallen into decay, and their neighbours, the Catholics, erected another for them. This kind act was met by a similar one on the part of a body of Catholics who wanted a chapel, and one was built for them by a party of Protestants. He hoped that the hon. member for Worcester would withdraw his motion, and afterwards move for the appointment of a Select Committee.

Mr. Cresset Pelham

said, the question was too important to be got rid of by a side-wind. He was at a loss to understand what extraordinary preparation was required to do an act of justice. The noble Lord's objection to confer a legislative government on the island, on account of the scattered state of the population, he thought had been very satisfactorily replied to. Around the island there was a rich mine of wealth, which they did not work for want of such an Assembly as was now asked for, and that mine was transferred to the French and the Americans. He did not wish to exclude other nations, but he wished the advantages of the fishery to be properly secured to Newfoundland.

Mr. Burge

was surprised to hear the Government assert, that nine months were too short a time to decide whether a Representative Government should be given to Newfoundland, and yet that Government found four months too long to allow for consideration when a new Constitution was to be framed for England. But the Government was ready to listen to speculation, and act upon a complete dearth of information. In Jamaica the population was scattered as much as in Newfoundland, and yet it had never entered into the head of any man to say, that a Representative Government was not adapted to Jamaica. The noble Lord seemed to think he could resort to no better source of information concerning Newfoundland than to the inhabitants of Poole. He complained that all the Governments had been perfectly ignorant of the circumstances of the colonies, and had taken no pains to inquire into them. One Government had ordered the Attorney-General of one island to prosecute an offence committed in another; and one Member had supposed that vessels might go as quickly from Jamaica to Barbadoes as they went from Barbadoes to Jamaica, forgetting that the trade winds always blew there in one direction. He hoped that the question would not be abandoned, and that a Committee would be appointed this Session.

Mr. George Robinson

was willing to comply with the wish of the House, as far as he could, consistently with the duty he owed to the persons in whose behalf he had brought the motion forward. If the Government would give him a pledge to establish a Representative Government in Newfoundland; or, if not able to do that, would give him a pledge to grant a Committee next year, he would withdraw his motion. He would not move for a Committee this Session, because he believed it was drawing towards an end. The promise of a Minister, indeed, he was aware, was no security for a legislative measure, because he might not be in office. The noble Lord had not answered the part of his speech which referred to that most important part of the subject—the fishery, as it was now enjoyed by the French. The hon. Member concluded by proposing to withdraw his motion.

Lord Althorp

could not pledge himself to any particular plan or measure with respect to Newfoundland; but would repeat, that Ministers would next Session feel it their duty to propose a measure extending to that colony as much freedom as was compatible with local circumstances. If that measure should fail in its object, then there would be no hesitation to the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the circumstances or causes of that failure.

Mr. Robinson

had every confidence in the noble Lord's declaration, and therefore would withdraw his motion. He must observe, however, that the noble Under Colonial Secretary had passed over his remarks with respect to the claims o the French to concurrent right of fishery.

Lord Howick

said, his silence proceeded from inadvertence. All the answer he could then give was, that the subject was hen under discussion between the English and French Governments.

Motion withdrawn.