HC Deb 16 April 1832 vol 12 cc545-51
Lord Althorp

moved that the Order of the Day for the House resolving itself into a Committee of Supply be read,

Mr. Duncombe

rose, for the purpose of directing the attention of the House to the case of the rev. James Curtin, which he conceived to be one of considerable hardship. In the year 1799, this gentleman, a clergyman of the Church of England, was sent out to the island of Antigua by the Society for the Instruction of Negro Slaves in the Christian Religion, and with the approbation of Dr. Porteous, then Bishop of London. The rev. gentleman proceeded to that island, and succeeded to a benefice there, that of St. Mary's, in 1817, to which he was promoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was then Bishop of London. He continued to do his duty as a minister, and as a member of the Society for the Conversion of the Slave Population, down to the autumn of the year 1830, when, in consequence of ill-health, and by virtue of a leave of absence procured from the Bishop of Barbadoes, he came to this country. During the thirty-three years of his residence in Antigua, and down to the hour of his quitting it, he had received many flattering testimonials from the Archbishop of Canterbury and other persons of distinction, of the high estimation in which the zeal and energy with which he discharged the sacred duties of his office was held. During his stay in this country circumstances arose to prevent his return within the period to which his leave of absence was limited. In January, 1832, a correspondence took place between him and the Colonial Office on his petitioning for some temporary employment in Great Britain, the answer to which was, an order to return immediately to the colonies, notwithstanding he had the implied consent of his diocesan for a longer period of leave Shortly after this, however, Mr. Curtin received another letter from the Colonial Office, telling him, he must proceed forthwith to the colony, to which he replied, on the 7th of February, that he was prevented by bad health from doing so. In the interval of his remaining in this country it happened that an action at law was commenced by a publication called the Anti-Slavery Reporter, against Blackwood's Magazine, for an alleged libel, in which Mr. Curtin was subpœnaed as a witness. That being the case it seemed that steps had been taken to retain him in England, and on the solicitor to the defendant applying to Lord Goderich for Mr. Curtin's leave to be prolonged until after the trial, a letter was written by direction of that nobleman to the solicitors, informing them they might retain Mr. Curtin in England on condition of making good the loss which he would necessarily incur by being absent from his benefice in Antigua. Notwithstanding that letter, extraordinary as it must appear to the House, Mr. Curtin himself received a notice, bearing date the very same day as the letter received by the solicitors, that he must either return at once to Antigua or resign his situation there. He thought that this was a very hard case. Mr. Curtin was now sixty-eight years of age, thirty-three of which he had spent in unwearied exertions to fulfil the duties of his office in a climate little congenial to the health of Englishmen. He was also in a state of uncertainty, in consequence of the extended period of his absence, as to whether his benefice now remained open to him, for such a doubt was implied in one of the communications he had received from the Colonial Office. Therefore, to insist upon his immediate return, while it would deprive Mr. Blackwood of an essential witness, would also, in his (Mr. Duncombe's) opinion, create a bad impression on the public mind, as it would imply a desire to smother all inquiry into the state of the colonies, for Mr. Curtin, from his long residence in the colonies, would be a most important witness, not only in the action now pending, but in an inquiry going forward before that House. All that he asked for, then, was six months additional leave of absence for this gentleman, after which time, if his health permitted, although at so advanced an age, he would not shrink from returning to the discharge of his clerical duties in Antigua. To obtain his object he (Mr. Duncombe) should submit a resolution which, if the noble Lord did not concede, he should certainly take the sense of the House upon. His Resolution was in these terms—"that this House having taken into consideration the case of the rev. James Curtin, Missionary of the Negro Conversion Society, is of opinion that, in consideration of his long and meritorious services in the island of Antigua, and of his services being required in a Court of Justice, his leave of absence be extended six months from this day, without prejudice to his salary."

Lord Howick

said, that he had heard with extreme astonishment the statement of the hon. Member. The Resolution moved by the hon. Member implied that the House had considered this case; but the House had just as much considered it as the hon. Member appeared to have done, who had not given the shadow of a reason to support such an extraordinary resolution. The defence for the conduct of Lord Goderich which he had to offer was, that he could not act by the existing law otherwise than he had done in this instance. This reverend gentleman came to this country on a leave of absence for six months in the autumn a 1830. According to the existing law, the Bishop of Barbadoes, who had granted this leave, could not give a leave of absence for a longer period than six months, and any extension of that leave could be obtained only by an application to the Colonial Office. Yet, though this gentleman came home in September, 1830, he gave no notice to the Colonial Office of his being in this country until January, 1832, which was more than twelve months after his leave of absence had expired, when he first applied for permission to change his living for one in this country. It was impossible for the Colonial Secretary to comply with such an application, for the Colonial Secretary had no benefices in his disposal except in the colonies. Taking twelve months additional beyond the period of his leave of absence amounted in fact to a resignation of his office, and if any other person but a clergyman was concerned, it would most assuredly be looked upon in that light. This gentleman first applied for an exchange for a living in this country, which was repeatedly refused. His next application was on account of ill-health, but it was not particular or temporary ill-health, and that application was also necessarily refused. He then applied for an additional leave of absence, and at the very same moment that that application reached him (Lord Howick), came a letter from the Solicitor for the periodical publication, against which an action for libel had been brought, applying for permission for the reverend gentleman to remain some additional time in this country. It was not unreasonable under such circumstances, to conclude that there was some collusion between the parties. He had, therefore, written an answer stating, that provided the parties who required Mr. Curtin's evidence, paid his salary during his continuance in this country he might continue, but they declined doing this. He had also written to Mr. Curtin informing him that the grounds which he had stated for a further extension of leave were not sufficient, and that, therefore, he must prepare to return. He again had received on the 13th of February, a letter from Mr. Foss, urging additional leave of absence, on the same ground that he had previously stated. In reply to this, a letter was written, stating, that, by the provisions of an Act of Parliament, the evidence of Mr. Curtin might be taken by interrogatories before the trial; and if this was produced in a Court of Justice, it would be equivalent to his vivâ voce evidence. A number of other communications passed between Mr. Curtin and the Colonial Office, in which he continued to urge leave of absence on some ground or another, until at last Lord Goderich wrote to him to say, that, if he intended to retain his living, he must return without delay, as it was impossible to allow a longer leave of absence. The hon. Gentleman said, that Mr. Curtin was treated in a cruel manner; but he forgot that it was in the power of the Bishop to have filled up Mr. Curtin's living on his not returning to his duties. Again, on the 4th of April, Mr. Curtin wrote to ask for a passage out in a King's ship. The answer returned was, that it was the invariable custom for public officers to go out at their own expense. The Colonial Office might, perhaps, be mistaken, but from the way in which these applications were made, and from the manner in which the excuses were given, there certainly was some reason to suspect that they were only excuses given for this gentleman's neglect of the usual mode of obtaining extended leave of absence.

Mr. Patrick M. Stewart

thought the hon. member for Hertford had made out a very strong case. From what he knew of the circumstances he must contend that there had been no collusion whatever between the party charged with a libel in the magazine and Mr. Curtin, for Mr. Curtin's evidence was of the utmost importance in the case—indeed it would be sufficient to rebut the charge. It happened that the reverend Gentleman was the person who had baptized the woman referred to in the article in question, and could, therefore, give the best evidence on the subject. For the sake of justice, he hoped that the leave of absence of the reverend gentleman would be extended in the manner required. He had been hardly dealt with already, and Government, he thought, ought to grant this request.

Mr. Burge

said, the regulation adverted to by the noble Lord with respect to the extension of leave of absence must be one of a late date. There were many quite ignorant of it till very recently, and Mr. Curtin might be one of these. If any one was entitled to special indulgence, this gentleman was, for his long and meritorious services. His character in the West Indies stood very high, and under the peculiar circumstances of these colonies, as well as from the importance of the evidence which Mr. Curtin would give to the Committee, it was a matter of importance to the Government itself that he should remain in this country for some time longer, for no man had more deeply studied or was better acquainted with the capabilities of the negro intellect. He, therefore, hoped, that his leave of absence would be extended six months longer.

Sir Matthew White Ridley

said, that, though, as a private individual, he should wish that a lengthened leave of absence might be given to the reverend gentleman, he could not as a Member of the Legislature, consent that that House should interfere with the Government, in order to grant a leave of absence in direct contradiction to the terms of an Act of Parliament.

Mr. Duncombe

, in answer to what had fallen from the noble Lord opposite, begged to observe, that if the Bishop had not the power to grant and to renew leave of absence, that right reverend person was in a mistake as to the extent of his power, for it was clear that he imagined he possessed the right winch was now denied him. In the first letter he wrote to Mr. Curtin he promised to prolong the leave of absence from time to time; again in a letter of a subsequent date which the reverend gentleman received from the Archdeacon, he expressly stated, that the Bishop hoped that the reverend Gentleman might be able speedily to return to his duties, and of his willingness, in case of actual necessity, to extend the leave of absence to a further period. Besides, an extension of leave in this case could do no injury, for there was a curate doing the duty of the parish, to whom Mr. Curtin paid 50l. a year, and who was residing in the parson-age-house. As to what had been stated about the reverend gentleman not having reported himself to the Colonial Office, he believed, that if the noble Lord would take the trouble of looking over the books of the office, he would find that the report had been made, and that Sir George Murray the then Secretary of the Colonies, had done him the honour to enter it in his (Sir G. Murray's) own hand-writing.

Lord Althorp

was opposed to the Motion. It was quite contrary to the practice of that House to interfere with the Government in granting leave of absence, the proceedings relating to which were governed by the express words of an Act of Parliament. He thought that the residence of clergymen in the colonies was a matter of great importance, and that the rules relating to it ought not to be lightly violated. He was sure that the public opinion was not what the hon. Gentleman opposite imagined; and on the statement of facts which they had heard, there was no one who could say that the conduct of the noble Lord at the head of the Colonial Department had not been strictly warranted by law, or that it was not justified by the necessity of adhering to those rules which had been established with regard to such matters. It was true that Mr. Curtin obtained leave of absence from the Bishop of Barbadoes; that leave was subsequently renewed for six months; but it would be too much to ask for additional leave of absence without any solid reasons. He could easily understand that Mr. Curtin preferred a living in this country to one in the West Indies; but he was equally satisfied that nothing was more requisite upon the part of clergymen than a residence amongst their parishioners. Mr. Curtin was a worthy and a zealous clergyman, and it was that alone which induced his noble friend to overlook his absence from his duty for such a length of time.

Mr. Robert Gordon

was of opinion, that, under existing circumstances the great age of the reverend gentleman, his length of service, and the importance of his evidence in the case referred to, the Government would not be justified in refusing him a further leave of absence, merely on the ground that, when he first came over to this country, he had not complied with the forms which the Colonial Office required.

Lord Howick

assured his hon. friend that it was not merely from a want of compliance with the forms of office that caused the suspension of the reverend gentleman, but for staying a whole year in this country without giving notice.

Mr. Fane

thought the noble Lord had not acted quite candidly when, in the same day he wrote to the reverend gentleman to say he must depart, and to the solicitor for Mr. Blackwood, to say he might stay provided the solicitor was prepared to pay the reverend Gentleman's salary.

The Motion negatived.