HC Deb 25 July 1834 vol 25 cc476-82
Mr. Baring

rose to present two Petitions, one from fishermen of Essex, and the other from fishermen of Jersey, &c., engaged in the channel fisheries, complaining of annoyances which they experienced from the French authorities while fishing off the French coast. The subject was of immediate importance to the petitioners, inasmuch as it concerned the means of obtaining their subsistence by the exercise of what they considered the right of British subjects; but it was not of importance to them only, it was of the greatest consequence to the country. He was glad that the noble Lord (Lord Palmerston) had attended to hear the petitions stated; he, therefore, doubted not that the noble Lord would give the subject that serious consideration which it deserved. The first petition was from some fishermen of Berkhampstead, in Essex, the other was from a large body of persons in the Isle of Jersey, interested in the same industrious trade. Their statement was, that from time immemorial they were in the habit, up to the year 1821, of dredging for oysters in the seas between Jersey and France, and it was well known that those coasts furnished the oysters which supplied the beds at the mouth of the Thames; and besides, these fisheries furnished this country with a great number of excellent seamen. The question, therefore, was of the greatest importance to this country. The statement was, that from the year 1821, the French began to molest the fishermen of this country, and disputes arose as to how near they might approach the French coast? He would refer upon this subject to the opinion of the hon. and learned member for the Tower Hamlets (Dr. Lushington), than whom no better authority could well be adduced. The statement of the hon. and learned Doctor was, that the question must be determined in the first instance on the principle of the law of nations. The law of nations prescribed that every country had the right to prevent the inhabitants of any other state fishing within gunshot of their coast, which was estimated to be a maritime league from low-water mark. The learned Gentleman went on to say, that although the question must be settled primarily by the law of nations, the particular right of a country might be affected by long custom and usage, and that the rights granted by the law of nations might be interfered with by long-established custom. He was inclined to think the question had now lain dormant so long that, exclusive of the molestation which had taken place, we should, if the question were not further mooted, suffer a custom and usage to be established that might be fatal to the right. The statement of the petitioners was, that they continued to exercise their right of fishing, when they were interfered with by the French, who stationed three cruisers to put an end to their proceedings, laid claim to an extent much exceeding their former limits of the French fisheries, and declared that custom and usage were in favour of their claim. It was the opinion of the learned individual to whom he had alluded, that by usage an exclusive right to fish beyond three miles of the French coast might possibly be established by the inhabitants of that country, but it was not possible such a right could be established except upon the principle of usage. When the complaint was made the depositions of the fishermen who had been molested by the French were taken before the Magistrates at Colchester, and those depositions were all confirmatory of the facts of the case which were stated by the petitioners, and the Magistrates expressed the high opinion they entertained of the credibility of the witnesses who had given evidence on the subject. The hon. Member then read the observations made on the occasion, which concluded by observing, that the grievances complained of by the English fishermen were of recent date, and that as many as sixteen English fishing vessels had been forcibly taken into the harbour of Granville, for fishing within three miles of the French coast. The subject had, be understood, been under the consideration of the French government for many years; and in the year 1824 an order was issued by the Government of this country to our English cruisers to take care not to give protection to any English fishermen who should be found fishing beyond the limits of the maritime league. The King's Government being desirous to avoid any hostile collision between the two countries issued a second order, declaring, that until the question was decided, the English fishing vessels should keep without two leagues of the French coast; and this was the situation in which the matter now stood. This arrangement, however, was understood to continue in existence pending the agitation of the question. The complaint of the petitioners, therefore, was, that from the year 1821, until the present time, the French being perfectly satisfied with the temporary arrangement that had been thus made, and acceded to by the Government of this country, no final adjustment had been effected. By this arrangement there was a line of shoals, extending upwards of twenty-five miles along the French coast, which were not used by the fishermen of that country, and from which the English fishermen were prohibited. Under these circumstances, he trusted the noble Lord opposite would see the vast importance of the subject to the people of England generally, as well as the individuals whose craft were so seriously affected by the existing arrangement, and that he would set himself seriously about effecting a solid settlement of the question. The noble Lord had said on a former occasion, that the statements had been rattier of an exaggerated nature, and that the English fishermen were much to blame; but he could assure the noble Lord that they had never been afforded a fair hearing. He trusted the House would not suppose, that either the petitioners or himself were indifferent to the importance of maintaining a good understanding between this country and France. He believed it to be the wish of every man of common sense, and had been ever since the destruction of Napoleon, that nothing should be done to interfere with the friendly understanding that subsisted between this country and France; and if the noble Lord declared that we could not maintain and defend the rights of our fishermen in the Channel, the noble Lord must have put the diplomatic relations subsisting between the two countries on a footing that was neither consistent with common sense nor common justice. He would present the petitions to which he had alluded, sincerely hoping the subject would be speedily inquired into. He was satisfied the interference of the noble Lord would be much better than the interference of the House; but if some adjustment did not take place during the recess, he should feel it to be his duty to call the attention of the House to the subject in the next Session of Parliament.

On the Motion that they do lie on the Table,

Viscount Palmerston

said, nothing could be more fair than the temperate manner in which the subject had been introduced by the hon. Member. As the whole subject of the English fisheries was under the consideration of Government, he should not be expected, for obvious reasons, to say anything that might prejudice the claim of the petitioners. With respect to the limits of the Jersey oyster-fisheries, the hon. Member had very correctly stated, they were fixed by common consent; but it must not be supposed that that arrangement was final, being merely a provisional arrangement made between the commanders of the French and English cruisers, for the satisfaction of both parties, until a final adjustment could be made by the Government of each country. While, on the one hand, our fishermen were bound to keep without the limits until the ultimate adjustment was effected, yet, on the other hand, the Government of this country was not precluded from appealing to the government of France upon the question, and coming to a satisfactory arrangement. He regretted, however, it was not in his power to meet the wishes of the petitioners by giving to our Ambassador at Paris instructions to take up the question with a view to effecting a final arrangement with France. In legislating on the question he found it to be much more comprehensive than he at first imagined. He had considered it quite confined to the fishing between Jersey and the coast of France; but he found it involved a much more general question, a question of great legal nicety, extending back to a long period, and he felt that he should not be doing his duty to the subject, if he neglected to give it the very fullest inquiry, in order to gratify the impatience of any class of individuals. The hon. Member had said, the petitioners were dissatisfied with some expressions that had fallen from him on a former occasion, when the subject was before the House. What he had said was, that in almost every case that had come within his knowledge in which English fishing-boats had been captured by French cruisers, it had been found that the English fishermen had trespassed beyond the line which had been mutually agreed upon as the boundary which should limit the fisheries of the two countries. He had a Report from the Commander of the Station, dated the 5th of May, stating, that six vessels, detained by the French authorities, had been all in the wrong, and gone some miles within the limit, notwithstanding the signals of warning given to withdraw. He had derived similar information from the authorities off Jersey. He would not, however, say, that the practice was general, but whenever the French authorities interfered, our people were for the most part in the wrong. He was perfectly aware of the great importance of this subject, and felt it his duty to give it his most serious attention, with a view to see whether some measures of a satisfactory nature could not be adopted, which he would have done before, had he not been prevented by other pressing business, and by the extent of this question, which, on looking into it, he found to be much larger and more important than he had at first imagined. The arrangement come to by the respective Commanders of the two countries, until the matter could be adjusted between the two Governments, was, that the fishermen should not come within two maritime leagues of the French coast, and that being the arrangement, till the question could be adjusted, our fishermen were bound to obey it. To protect the fishermen this Government maintained a cutter off the stations—that was its special duty; and when our fishermen had been molested, they had disregarded the arrangement. The six vessels belonging to Colchester, Jersey, and Southampton, which had been interrupted and detained, and to which he had just alluded, all went within the limits. He had special Reports on the subject, and read the heads of them. Some went two miles within the limits, some more; but all six were in the wrong. Those who sent him the Report had no interest in misrepresenting the facts. [Mr. Baring: Had the wind not driven them in?] He had understood not. Some went four miles within the limits, and, after the firing of twelve signal guns by our cruizer to warn them of their error. He did not say, that the neglect of the arrangement was general. There were between 200 and 300 vessels engaged in these fisheries; he believed many of them attended strictly to the limits that had been agreed upon; but in this, as in all other pursuits of this kind, there were many persons of a roving disposition, some few of them regular poachers, and it was this class of individuals who had principally suffered, though it was probable some innocent persons had unfortunately suffered among them. He did not think the French authorities had been guilty of those systematic severities that had been imputed to them, every attention having been paid to the complaints that had been brought before them. He knew the interests of a great number of his Majesty's subjects were affected by the existing arrangements, and he could assure the hon. Member he had put the subject in a regular train of inquiry, but feared, from the extensive character of the bearings of the question, so speedy an adjustment could not necessarily take place, as he, with many Members of the House, most earnestly desired.

Sir Robert Peel

observed, if he were asked, what was most likely to produce ill-will between the two countries, he should reply, that nothing was so calculated to create such a fatal result as these constant squabbles about the rights of fishing; and as that was the case, and as nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the present state of the question, he thought it was of paramount importance that the Government should attend to it. The present was a mere provisional arrangement, and yet it had continued since 1821; it was unsatisfactory because such an arrangement could not be viewed as law. He thought a negotiation should take place with a view to a proper treaty between the two nations, to be confirmed by an Act of Parliament. Nothing, in his opinion, could be more serious than the question that might hereafter arise on an attempt to enforce the limits which had been mutually agreed upon by the commanding officers of the French and English cruisers, being admitted by both countries to be merely provisional arrangements, and not having the force of law. So far as our own fishermen were concerned, he had no doubt they had frequently transgressed the boundary, and as the law at present stood, he very much questioned whether, if a French officer were to kill an English fisherman, difficulties of a most serious nature would not arise. The noble Lord said, he was informed, that in each case our fishermen were in the wrong, and he had no doubt they were; but if an English fisherman went within the line, declaring the law to be in his favour, and refusing to recognize the arrangement that had been entered into between the two countries, he apprehended all that could be done by the Eng- lish Government was to withdraw that protection from him, to which every other English subject was entitled, and leave him entirely to the mercy of the French law. The fishermen knew, however, that they were allowed to go within a league of the French coast, but, if there was no special arrangement, how was that to be measured? If it were said from low-water mark, in some places the tide seceded miles over the flat ground, and in others it only sank a few feet on the surface of the steep rocks. Under such circumstances, it was difficult for the fishermen to judge of their distance from the boundary. Altogether the question was as difficult as it was important, and it could not be settled by a reference to the law of nations. He trusted, that France would lend herself to the amicable settlement of this question which could not be decided by individual cases. It was for the interest of both nations that this question should be settled without delay, for one day's war would be more costly than all the oysters caught in a century would be worth. If the question were left unsettled the national honour would get involved, and peace would be disturbed. The fishermen of both countries were a bold and gallant race of men, full of national prejudice and jealousy, and their quarrels might breed a war between the two countries. He could not consider that the country was safe while this question was left open.

Sir E. Codrington

said, that as both parties believed themselves to be in the right, and ready to fight for what they deemed their right, it was most important that the question should be settled.

Sir J. Tyrell

supported the petitions, and concurred in the sentiments that had fallen from the hon. Member who had presented them. He agreed in the importance of the question, and trusted, that the noble Lord would lose no time in attending to the subject, and that, by the next Session, the noble Lord might be able to give some satisfactory statement. respecting it.

Mr. Baring

begged to remind the noble Lord, that the fishing commenced in September.

Petitions to lie on the Table.

Back to