HC Deb 05 June 1834 vol 24 cc180-5
Mr. George Robinson

was sorry to occupy time upon a subject interesting to comparatively few; but it was necessary for him to state briefly the grounds on which he rested the proposition which he meant to submit to the House. The treaties with France respecting the Newfoundland Fisheries commenced with that of Utrecht, in 1703, and a clause upon the subject had been continued in all of them, down to that of Paris in 1814. By this clause a right was conceded to France of fishing on a part of the coast of Newfoundland, and the question to which he wished to direct the attention of the Law-officers of the Crown was, whether France, by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht (for no others were important) had an exclusive right to that fishery, or only in participation with this country. Our fishermen who had employed themselves on the coast of Labrador, finding that the fishery there could be carried on only under disadvantageous circumstances, and understanding that they would not be permitted by the French, who claimed an exclusive right of fishing on a part of the coast of Newfoundland under the treaties to which he had alluded, to fish on that part of the coast, had thought it advisable to ascertain what was the opinion of their own Government on the question. A letter was, in consequence, written by the Chamber of Commerce at Newfoundland to the right hon. Baronet, the member for Perthshire, who was then his Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonial Department, requesting to be informed whether or not the French had really a right to the exclusive fishery on the coast in question. The answer made to the Newfoundland Chamber of Commerce, by the Colonial Office, was of a very extraordinary nature, for it imported that the exact extent of the right in question was not ascertained. Upon this the Chamber of Commerce in Newfoundland, in June, 1830, fitted out a vessel to go to that part of the coast of Newfoundland on which the French claimed an exclusive right of fishery, and instructed the master of that vessel to insist upon his right to fish, but, at the same time, to avoid all hostile collision. It was but common justice to say, that the master of this vessel executed the commission intrusted to him with singular zeal and discretion. He proceeded to the French part of the coast, landed, and stuck up a notice of his intention to fish; upon which he was told, by the French authorities, that he had no right to do so, that the French had the exclusive right of fishing, and that, if he did not quit the coast peaceably, they must compel him by violence. The master, in order to fulfil his trust, served the French authorities with a protest against their proceedings. Just at this period a French sloop of sixteen guns arrived, the captain of which asked the master of the English vessel what business he had there; telling him, that he had no right to fish on that part of the coast, because the right of fishing upon it had been ceded to the French by treaty. The answer of the English master was, that he had been sent there to fish, and with orders not to leave the coast, unless compelled to do so. To this it was replied, that they must then compel him. Under these circumstances, the master thought, that he had fulfilled his mission, and left the coast; having previously asked the captain of the French sloop of war for a copy of his instructions, which was refused. He (Mr. Robinson), therefore, called on his Majesty's Government—for, on a question of national law, the opinion of the Crown should be known—he called on his Majesty's Government—and if the Government did not attend to his call, he must call on the House to address his Majesty to take the proper means for ascertaining what our rights were under the existing treaties; and, having ascertained those rights, to maintain them. The subject was one of considerable importance. All parties concurred in the value of the fisheries in question. America had, indeed, availed itself, to a great extent, and to our great prejudice, of our remissness. He Contended, that it behoved his Majesty's Government to take such steps as should prevent British subjects from being any longer in doubt on the point. If that were not done,—if his Majesty's subjects were left in ignorance of the real state of the case,—what was to prevent them, being three to one in number, from going to the French part of the coast, and compelling, by violence, the right to fish there? God forbid, that he should suggest any such proceeding; but it might by possibility occur. What reason could there be for this reserve upon the subject on the part of his Majesty's Government? He did not suppose, that we were afraid of France. For his part, he was convinced, that there was not a word in the treaties which conveyed to France the exclusive right of fishing on the coast in question. Not only had they no right of exclusive possession of the fishery, but the French were prohibited from remaining permanently on the coast; and it was provided, that they should go from France to the fishery, and, at the end of the season, return to France. All that, in his opinion, the treaty secured to the French was, a concurrent right to fish with the English. On what grounds, therefore, the assumption rested he did not know. If on usage, he contended, that that was no ground, however long the usage might have been continued. If France had no right to the exclusive fishery, why allow her claim to it? Under any circumstances the time had arrived when the question ought to be completely set at rest. Even supposing the Law Officers of the Crown decided against his opinion, there would be sonic advantage in putting an end to the discussion, and both French and British subjects would know what the law was. He would detain the House no longer, but would move, "that an humble address be presented to his Majesty, praying that he would be graciously pleased to give directions, that the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown should be taken as to the construction of the various treaties between Great Britain and France, relative to the right of exclusive fishing on our part of the coast of Newfoundland claimed by France, so that the fact ought to he ascertained, and instructions be given by his Majesty's Government to protect the British fishermen in the exercise of their just rights and privileges."

Mr. Poulett Thomson

did not rise to oppose the Motion, but to express his hope, that the hon. Member would be induced to withdraw it; for although it might be expedient to take the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown on the subject, it was not necessary, and it might be inconvenient, to take it in the formal manner proposed by the hon. Member. He wished he could agree with the view of the subject taken by the hon. Gentleman, but, having attended to it at various times, and especially when the question was brought forward by his amiable and lamented friend Mr. Villiers, he was bound to say that, although he hoped we might be able to establish our claim, he had not the confidence in the subject which the hon. Member expressed. The hon. Member had referred to treaties, but he ought, also, to refer to the declarations by which those treaties were accompanied; for it was only by such a context that the matter could be determined. The House was probably aware, that this subject had been under the consideration of successive Governments in this country since the year 1783, and that various opinions had been entertained respecting it. Nay, on one occasion, two Members of an Administration, one in the other House, and one in the House of Commons, expressed opinions directly opposite to one another upon it. He mentioned this, to show that the subject was one involved in considerable difficulty. The opinion on which he confessed he should be disposed principally to rely, was that of Mr. Huskisson, to whom, during the short time that he was in the Colonial Office, an application having been made to assert the rights of the British fishermen by force, his answer was, that he thought it unadvisable to enter upon an assertion of the right, and that it would be better to leave the matter open to negotiation. He repeated these things, merely to show the difficulty of the case; and he recommended the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his Motion, assuring him, that attention should be paid to it; and that, whatever might be the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown, every effort should be made to conclude an amicable arrangement of the matter. The hon. Member said, that the Americans exercised the right of fishing on the coast in question. If so, we ought certainly to enjoy the same privilege; for the Americans must claim on our right, as established by the treaty of 1783. As he was informed, however, the Americans sent a frigate to assert their right; but he must say, that he should be exceedingly sorry to employ force. After what he had stated, he trusted the hon. Gentleman would withdraw his Motion.

Mr. Robinson

trusted, that his Majesty's Government would not allow the question to go on in a doubtful state for an indefinite period; for, although he deprecated a quarrel with France upon it, he was anxious that the matter should be ultimately settled. He trusted, therefore, that, before the next Session of Parliament, something might be done finally to settle the question.

Mr. Baring

admitted, that it might be inexpedient to move formally for the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown on the subject. He must say, however, that the British fisheries, whether on the coast of Newfoundland or in the Channel, had not the attention paid to them which they formerly received; and they were in a very declining condition. Now, this was a very important consideration; the fisheries being highly valuable, not only as a branch of our trade, but as a nursery for our seamen. He could not help calling the particular attention of his Majesty's Government to the condition of the British fisheries on the coast of Guernsey and Jersey. In former times the interests of those fisheries had experienced the peculiar care of Government, and were considered among those interests which it was their especial duty to protect. He was sorry to say, that was not the case at present, and that, while the French Government were cherishing their fisheries everywhere with the greatest possible care, the British Government evinced an apathy with respect to our fisheries, which was highly reprehensible.

Motion withdrawn.