HC Deb 17 July 1833 vol 19 cc783-91
Mr. Plumptre

presented a petition from Thomas Atchison, formerly a captain in the artillery, stating that he had entered the Royal Artillery in 1804, and discharged his duty with an unblemished character; that he was discharging his military duties at Malta, in 1823, when he received, through the military authorities, a requisition of the Roman Catholic Church to toll a bell and fire from patteraroes, used by the churches and monasteries, a description of salute peculiar to the worship of the Host at mass, and the processions of the images of the tutelar saints, under the directions and signals of tile priests conducting the worship; that he was engaged to serve his Majesty under the obligations of a Protestant oath and worship, enjoined on the acceptance of his Commission, which oath denounced these ceremonies as idolatrous; that the petitioner addressed a letter to his commanding officer, respectfully stating his objections to carry these religions ceremonies into effect; and that the consequence was, that the duty was performed by the garrison gunner, without any censure being passed upon the petitioner, cither by the commanding officer or the lieutenant-governor of Malta; but that after a lapse of eight months, he was brought to trial on a charge of disobedience, in not carrying into effect an order to fire signals at Fort Angelo, and for writing a letter to his commanding officer of remonstrance, and that, on this charge, he was dismissed the service. The petition prayed the House to adopt means for investigating the transaction, in order to obtain a revision of the sentence. The hon. Member then read the testimonials of Lieutenant-General Burton, Major-General Salmon, Lieutenant-Colonel Desbrisay, Major Adams, and Colonel F. Rey, showing that the petitioner was a man of unblemished character, and a very useful and meritorious officer in the service; and proceeded to say, that he (Mr. Plumptre) was the last man in that House to use harsh terms, or encourage insubordination or disobedience to orders; but he must say, he thought it the most unjust and cruel case that had ever come before the public. For twelve weeks the case had remained before the authorities in this country, and it was eight months after the imputed offence that this conscientious man, and, he was warranted in believing, good soldier, was brought to a Court-martial and dis- missed. The hon. Member contended, that there was no breach of military orders. It was grossly unjust, and was a case of the greatest cruelty, not a whisper having ever been heard against the petitioner's character; yet for this act he had been degraded and dismissed from his Majesty's service, after having spent the best years of his life in it, and, instead of now enjoying a competency, he was compelled to seek his bread where he could. He could appeal to the hon. and learned member for Dublin (Mr. O'Connell), whether soldiers professing the Roman Catholic religion were not exempted from taking part in Protestant ceremonies; and even Dissenters were not obliged to attend the Established Church ceremonies. He begged to observe, that he had given notice to the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary at War (Mr. Ellice), that he intended to present the petition.

Mr. O'Connell

said, he heartily concurred in the prayer of the petition. It was incumbent on the House to call upon the Government to give the petitioner redress by reinstating him in his former rank. Having himself always contended for freedom of religious opinions, he was anxious that all British subjects should have the same freedom. He concurred with the hon. Member, that the ceremonies in question were purely religious ceremonies, and could not be termed military duties. They were such that no sincere Protestant could participate in them, unless he acted as a renegade to his own religion. He respected the gentleman the more for his resistance—his very respectful resistance—to the orders, even at great risk to himself. He thought it but a compliment due to the Government to mention that regulations were made by which the Roman Catholics were left to the free exercise of their religion; and he would mention an instance. A drummer of the Galway militia refused, when ordered to go to hear Divine worship at the Protestant Church of Rathkeale, and he was ordered into custody to be tried by a Court-martial; he (Mr. O'Connell) applied to the Court of King's Bench for a habeas corpus, and that Court held, that the man had committed no offence, and discharged him. He would say, that the case of Captain Atchison was much stronger than that case—for he did not refuse, but respectfully remonstrated. As to the navy, the same liberality was extended. Within the last ten days a Roman Catholic sailor complained to him (Mr. O'Connell) that he had been improperly interfered with in regard to his religion. He waited on the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the grievance was instantly removed. He hoped, therefore, that the petitioner, who had a very strong case, would receive proper consideration. He could conceive the feeling of a Protestant in being required to take part in a ceremony so repugnant to his own religious opinions, and so opposite to his own religious principles, that the Protestant designated it as idolatrous. It was a subject of the deepest importance. It could not be supposed, that because Captain Atchison refused to take part in those ceremonies, he would fear the less to face the enemy. In all the relations of the army the principle of honour was exceedingly fine; but give him the conscientious Christian, who carried into effect, with the most minute detail, the principle of "Do to others as you would that they should do unto you." He hoped the hon. Member would give notice of a Motion for the production of the minutes of evidence taken before the Court-martial, and then he hoped the House would unanimously address his Majesty to restore Captain Atchison to his rank. He respected the freedom of conscience, and he was glad they were going to give freedom to the Jews; but while they were doing that, they should not turn their backs on their fellow-Christians, and wholly disregard their feelings.

The Earl of Darlington

said, that undoubtedly the whole case would rest on the minutes of the Court-martial with regard to this individual; but he thought that the hon. member for Dublin rather misconceived the case in speaking of a military duty, because this he would say, although no man, of course, would wish to interfere with a man's religious scruples, that every man who was a military man was bound to obey the orders given to him, let those orders be what they might—["No no."] He begged pardon; he spoke as a military man, and he would still say it was his duty to obey the orders of the superior officer. It was perfectly true a man might receive an order which his superior officer was not justified in giving, but it was the man's duty to obey that order in the first instance, and afterwards to obtain redress. Much stress had been laid on this being a religious ceremony, but he thought, from the facts which had been stated, that it was a military duty he had been ordered to perform. Any military man who was ordered to fire a salute, or to perform any duty in his military capacity, whatever the nature of that duty might be, was bound to perform it; and if he refused, he would be liable, and ought, of course, to be brought before a proper tribunal to judge whether he had acted correctly or incorrectly in so refusing. If he had acted correctly he might find redress. Every body knew that by the articles of war, an individual, inferior in rank, might bring his superior officer before a Court-martial, and that if he failed in establishing the charge he was punished. He hoped the Judge Advocate would give some reason for his absence, as unquestionably it was his duty to have attended, especially after notice had been given to him. The noble Lord, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, was the Secretary at War at that time, and perhaps he could more satisfactorily answer this case.

Sir Charles Burrell

thought, that every thing had been stated which was consistent with humanity and truth. He was satisfied this individual never did refuse—that, on the contrary, he only remonstrated, and that too in a respectful and proper manner. Under all the circumstances of the case, he felt it was consistent with justice and the duty of Parliament, to give this petition the greatest possible attention.

Sir Robert Inglis

said, he considered the subject before the House as of great importance; his noble friend had, however, advanced one proposition which he (Sir Robert Inglis) must be permitted to qualify. His noble friend (Lord Darlington) had said that it was the duty of a military man to obey every command of his military superior. The necessary qualification was, that it should be a lawful and a military command: not one unlawful in itself, or unmilitary in respect to the parties. It was true that discipline must be preserved; and it was highly inexpedient to make a practice of bringing military grievances before that House, principally because it would tend to take the command of the army from the Crown, where the Constitution placed it, but in some degree also because, if the business of every department gravitated to that House, Members would have no time for the discharge of their peculiar and exclusive duties. This was, however, a new and remarkable case. The question here was whether the act condemned was disobedience to a lawful military command? He was prepared to deny it. He had but one doubt as to the propriety of discussing the matter, and that originated in the absence of his Majesty's Ministers, and particularly of the Judge Advocate; but as to him due notice had been given of the intention of the hon. member for East Kent to present the petition that night he abandoned that doubt. On taking the subject into consideration, it ought to be kept in mind, that when Malta was ceded to us, a special reservation was made, that all the religious rites of the inhabitants should be maintained and the Roman Catholic religion preserved entire. It was, therefore, evidently the intention of Government to give all possible protection to the national religion. Whether it were right to take the island on such terms was not now the question; but having assented to that stipulation, it became as necessary to maintain the Roman Catholic Church at Malta as to support the Church of England in the United Kingdom. Perhaps Government were right in wishing to give splendour to the ceremonials of the Roman Church there, but why was a British officer required to take part in them? Nothing could justify that. The British officer, as a Protestant, had as good a right to have his scruples considered as the Maltese, and toleration required as much, that he should not be compelled to take a part in a Roman Catholic pageant, as that the Maltese should have liberty to adhere to their religious Creed. The duty that had been expected from Mr. Atchison in Malta was non-military, as was proved by the fact, that from the moment when the Marquess of Hastings became Governor of the island, at the very time that Mr. Atchison was undergoing his trial, the military had been released from a participation in such ceremonies. He complimented the hon. Gentleman on the manner in which he had brought the matter forward, and was pleased, that no ulterior proceedings had been announced, as he was confident, that the feeling of the House would make any further steps unnecessary, and that an act of duty, though lardy in its operation, would eventually be done to the petitioner, from whom justice had long been withheld.

Mr. Shell

said, that he for one could not agree to the position that all the rights of a British subject were merged in the soldier, and that an officer in his Majesty's service was not entitled to consider whether a military order was an outrage to his conscience. It was deplorable, that none of his Majesty's Ministers, although notice had been given of this petition, were present; and it was the more to be lamented, inasmuch as the King had twice intimated to Captain Atchison, through Sir Herbert Taylor, a strong solicitude for his case. Twice had his Majesty expressed his anxiety, and yet at the Horse Guards nothing had been done. It was time for the House to interpose. There was not a man in the House, who had the slightest regard for the rights of conscience, who did not feel for this unfortunate gentleman equal respect and commiseration. He had been twenty years in the service, and was then, by an arbitrary mandate, committed to destruction, and turned from his profession in helplessness upon the world. For what? Had he been ordered to mount the breach he would have offered up his life with a chivalrous devotion, but of his conscience he had too much moral valour to make the degrading immolation. The case stood thus: orders were given by the authorities that a salute should be fired in honour of the Host. These orders originated with the Catholic Church, and were conveyed through the military authorities. There could be no doubt that this was a religious ceremony. Was Captain Atchison bound to obey it? The Catholic soldier is exempted from the necessity of attending Protestant worship; and where is the Roman Catholic who would not extend to others that privilege on which he sets so high an appreciation? It is notorious to every man who has ever read the history of the early persecutions that the Christians underwent martyrdom, not on account of the profession of particular tenets, but because they would not assist ill the rites employed in the Roman temples, and connected with the religion of the State. The martyrology of the early Church was pregnant with these illustrious examples. Let it be observed too that the honour paid to the Host touches the very point on which Catholics and Protestants differ, and Captain Atchison was justified in feeling that an implied recognition of the eucharist was exacted from him. But, after all, he did not disobey orders. He sent an expostulation to his commanding officer, and that gentleman, instead of repeating the command, directed the gunner of the regiment to go through the ceremony. Surely our Government might have allowed the matter to rest. It might have been permitted to pass in oblivion; but, instead of taking this wise course—instead of making allowance for conscientious scruples, this unfortunate gentleman was, eight months after, dismissed the service. This ought not to have been, and the House was bound to procure him redress. There was but one feeling in his cause, and those who themselves had once suffered privation for a conscientious adherence to their opinions felt the most earnest and the most strenuous anxiety in his behalf. What! after twenty years of service, after having conducted himself in the most exemplary manner, and won the approbation of all those with whom he was ever connected in his profession, was this gentleman to be given up to ruin, and should not this House, and the people whom it represented, interpose? Reparation must be made him, and although that reparation be tardy, it should be complete.

Colonel Evans

felt extremely glad that the petition had been presented by the hon. Member opposite. It was quite clear, that this was not a party question, and that no party feelings existed in the case. In his opinion, if ever there was a time when the absence of Ministers was more commendable than another, it was the present, because it looked as if they felt convinced they had no answer to give to this case. With respect to the noble Lord, he had certainly showed that he professed in a high degree courage which was essential to the military character; for in his (Colonel Evans's) opinion it would require no small degree of courage to be the only man in that House who would declare himself opposed to the petition which had been presented. He must, however, protest against the military doctrine which that noble Lord laid down. In the first place he had understood him to state that a soldier was bound to obey any order. With that observation he could not agree; nor did he believe it was required by the articles of war, strict and despotic as they were. He considered the case now under consideration as a melancholy proof of the want of confidence in past Parliaments, otherwise it would surely have been brought forward before, several having elapsed since the petitioner had been tried and placed in his present unfortunate situation. In his opinion the case was one of arbitrary, capricious, and unjustifiable exercise of authority. He admitted that during war it was advantageous that the most arbitrary power should be given to the Commander in Chief for the purpose of maintaining discipline, and regretted that greater powers were not given, such as conferring rank and station on persons who had distinguished themselves, but the ease was very different in times of peace, and a very different rule should be applied. He doubted very much the legality of the proceeding, as he did not find that the petitioner had disobeyed any orders that had been given, but had merely stated his religious scruples, which his superior officer bowed to.

The Earl of Darlington

explained: he had not stated that he did not concur with the prayer of the petition. All that he had said was, that he knew nothing of the transaction, and therefore could not enter into the merits or demerits of the case. He was still of opinion, notwithstanding all that had been said, that subordinate officers were bound to perform the orders of their superiors, even though it might interfere with their religious sentiments.

Mr. Finn

said, that no power on earth should dictate what his religious sentiments should be, and he could not but admire the man who firmly expressed his determination not to act against his religious scruples.

Colonel Leith Hay

thought this purely a military question, and having nothing whatever to do with religious feelings. The question with him was not what the orders were, but whether they had been disobeyed or not. Upon that principle it was, that Captain Atchison had been tried, and judged not to be a fit person to remain any longer in his Majesty's service. He believed that Captain Atchison had acted from a mistaken conscientious view, but he could not think that exonerated him from performing duties which he was ordered to perform. As to the statement, that no officers of a different persuasion were required to act in Catholic religious ceremonies, he must state, that he recollected the Duke of Wellington assisting in those ceremonies in Salamanca.

Mr. Methuen

explained, that the ab- sence of the learned Judge Advocate was on account of the melancholy duty of attending the funeral of a friend. He regretted the absence of Ministers, and recommended his hon. friend to follow the advice of the hon. and learned member for Dublin, and move for the minutes of the Court-martial.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

did not admit the justice of the excuse which had been made for the absence of the Judge Advocate, as his hon. friend would have brought forward the petition on some other day. He entirely and fully accquiesced in what had been said on the subject of Captain Atchison, supposing that the Court-martial could have come to no other decision. There was a higher tribunal, which ought to have reviewed the sentence with great consideration. Sir Robert Wilson, who was, perhaps, necessarily punished, was not for ever excluded from the honours of his profession. He thought the House was bound to follow up the case till justice was obtained, and he trusted that the unanimous feelings of the House would be sufficient, without further proceedings, to procure justice to Captain Atchison.

Mr. Maxwell

supported the prayer of the petition. He thought, if the question were put on the basis of its being a paramount duty in men to attend to their religious duties in preference to their military duties, it would go with great weight before the Government, and would be of great advantage to the clear understanding of religious and military duties.

Mr. Plumptre

was happy to see the unanimity of feeling on this subject, and trusting in that, he would not, in the absence of Ministers, give notice of any further Motion. But if the expression of the opinion of the House had no effect in the proper quarter, he should feel it his duty again to bring the subject before the House.

Petition laid on the Table.

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