HC Deb 25 March 1834 vol 22 cc651-63
Colonel Evans

said, he had to present a petition from certain noblemen and gentlemen in favour of the Polish Refugees, to which he was anxious to call the serious attention of the House; but before he did so he must express his regret at the great impediments which were thrown (he did not say intentionally) in the way of those who had petitions to present in that House. He had had several, and had come to the House fourteen or fifteen days without being able to get an opportunity of presenting them. This was a serious inconvenience to many Members, and was attended by this additional mischief—that it was often difficult to explain to parties from whom the petitions came, that the delay did not originate with those to whom they had been confided. He mentioned this in the hope that some measure might be adopted in relation to the busi- ness of the House in the morning sittings, by which, if possible, such delays might be avoided. The petition which he held in his hand was agreed to at a public meeting held some time ago to consider the state of the unfortunate Polish exiles now resident in this country. A society had been formed a considerable time back for the relief of those unhappy victims of despotism, and by its means relief had been afforded to an extent which went to alleviate the sufferings of many of them; but the funds of that society were now completely exhausted, and there was no resource left to the friends of those exiles but to come forward, as the petitioners now did, to entreat the sympathy and consideration of that House to their case. The petitioners stated, that it was a duty incumbent on nations as well as on individuals to afford relief to those whose sufferings gave them a claim on their sympathy. When one individual suffered from the oppression of another, there was generally some tribunal from which the sufferer could obtain redress; but when one nation was suffering from the oppression of another, the sufferers had no remedy but in the general sympathy and compassion of those amongst their fellow men of all nations, who abhorred such oppression. The number of Polish exiles now in England was but small—probably not more than 100; but their numbers had of late been increased by the fact that many had recently been driven from other countries in Europe, in which they had sought an asylum, by the powerful influence of the Russian court. They, therefore, sought our shores, where they believed they would be more free, and less exposed to any danger from Russian influence. As they had come amongst us, he did think, that the peculiarity of their circumstances gave them a strong claim on the compassion and benevolence of the nation. The French government had fully recognized the principle of giving relief from the public purse to those Polish exiles who had sought a refuge in that country, though it could not be said, that France was better able, financially or politically, to grant such relief. The Government or this country had on many occasions established the principle of giving aid to foreigners who were driven by political causes to seek an asylum amongst us. Without going back to the instances in which protection and relief had been given to the Hugonots and the Flemings who had sought refuge here, he might mention that, in the early part of the French war, we received and pensioned a large number of refugees who were driven from France, and in 1823 we received and relieved by public money a large body of the Spaniards who sought refuge here. It was true those Spaniards had a very strong claim upon us, as they had been engaged along with us in the contest which we had been carrying on against the ruler of France; but in his opinion the Polish exiles at present amongst us had almost as strong a claim. As contracting parties to the Treaty of Vienna, we were guarantees of the government which was at that time established in Poland. No doubt, a war had followed, which for a time put an end to that government; but he believed that though the Polish nation could not send envoys to the Courts of Europe, or that, as she was circumstanced, any such envoys distinct from the Russian government in Poland could be received in any of the European Courts, yet that the Polish nation had found means to make to several of the European Courts strong complaints of the tyranny under which they groaned, before they had attempted by open force to shake off that tyranny. Under these circumstances, he thought that those members of the Polish nation who had sought an asylum amongst us had very strong claims upon us as a nation. It was too well known, that the dominating influence of Russia in the Courts of Europe was every day becoming more serious; and though he would not say, that we had yielded to that influence, yet he must assert that the present Government, and still more their predecessors in office, had deferred more to it than was becoming in the Government of these kingdoms. The Poles had a strong claim upon this country, and we were bound to assist them, if it were only to show to the rest of Europe that we were not under the influence of the Cabinet of St. Petersburgh.

The Petition was read.

On the Question, that it lie on the Table.

Sir Harry Verney

was glad to find, that the situation of the unfortunate Poles could never be mentioned in that House without calling forth the strongest sympathy for those victims of Russian oppression. He hoped, that his Majesty's Ministers would take care that no greater accession of strength should be permitted to a power which was already too strong for Europe. It had been said, that the late discussions in that House had excited great anger in the Court of St. Petersburgh. He was not surprised that it should. Russia would, no doubt, if she could, endeavour to stifle the voice of freedom in every country; but he trusted, as had been once said by an hon. and learned Member of that House who now presided over the other House of Parliament, that that House would ever continue a free and open tribunal, to which the distressed and oppressed of every nation might apply, and not apply in vain, no matter how high and powerful were their oppressors. That was said on a discussion relating to Poland, and as that noble and learned Lord was now in a station which justly gave him great influence in the councils of his Sovereign, he trusted that he would now exert his influence in doing something to alleviate the distress which had been brought upon so many distinguished natives of ill-fated Poland. Anything which we could do in the way of pecuniary aid would be some, though but a slight, alleviation of the misery of men who once moved in the highest ranks, and enjoyed the highest dignities in their own country, but were now driven by Russian despotism to come to us as beggars for the means of subsistence. This country was looked upon as the natural, he might say the constitutional, head of freedom in Europe. We had given shelter and protection and pecuniary relief to the Spaniards and to the French, and he did not see on what principle we should now withhold it from the brave and patriotic Poles who were in misery amongst us.

Mr. Sinclair

gave the prayer of the petition his most cordial support. The feeling in favour of the Poles was very strong, and had been very generally expressed in Scotland. In that country considerable sums had been raised to assist the distressed Poles in Great Britain.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that every person of a feeling and humane disposition must spontaneously respond to the sentiments of sympathy which had that evening been expressed in favour of the Poles; but the feelings which himself and colleagues might entertain on the subject, as individuals, were a matter very different from voting away the public money in their capacity of responsible Ministers of the Crown. He (Lord Palmerston) was not at liberty to hold out any hope to the gallant Colonel, that Government would sanction any grant of money to the Polish exiles now in this country. The gallant Colonel had referred to the case of the Spanish refugees and French emigrants; and contended, that because a former Government had afforded them pecuniary relief, the present Government ought to extend pecuniary assistance to the petitioners. The cases were quite different. The Spanish refugees who received assistance from this country, were men who acted in concert with the armies of Great Britain during the Peninsular War; and it was because of their active co-operation with our troops, that they were expelled their own country. With respect, again, to the French emigrants, they were entitled to assistance from this country, because it was in obedience to the advice of England that they had rebelled. Our shores were open to the distressed of all countries, and our laws afforded protection to the afflicted of all kinds; but it would be unfair to expect, that the unfortunate of all countries should receive pecuniary support from the Government. The sum which the gallant Colonel wished to be bestowed on the refugee Poles might not be great; but it was not the mere amount of money, but the precedent which the grant would establish, that the House ought to take into consideration. If the principle were once established, that foreign refugees were entitled to pecuniary relief, it would be found afterwards to be a very difficult matter to draw the line of distinction between those individuals and other foreigners, who, at a future time, might present their alleged claims for similar aid. He did not see on what principle they could give the assistance which the petitioners desired, and refuse relief to those Poles who might afterwards come over to this country in great numbers, and whose claims to pecuniary relief might be greater. The gallant Colonel had grounded the claims of the petitioners to relief on the circumstance of an infraction by Russia of the Treaty of Vienna, to which treaty this country was a party; and had stated, that England, in consequence of such infraction, would have had a right to rescue the Poles from the grasp of Russia by force of arms. He (Lord Palmerston) admitted, that England would have had a right to go to war with Russia if she thought proper; but Government did not think that, under all the circumstances of the case, it would have been expedient for England to go to war with the emperor of Russia. The mere fact of this country being a party to the Treaty of Vienna, was not as synonymous with our guaranteeing that there would be no infraction of that treaty by Russia. He must repeat, that while there must be a feeling of sympathy in every heart in favour of the unfortunate Poles, Government could not hold out any hope of extending pecuniary relief to them.

Mr. O'Connell

had heard the speech of the noble Lord with surprise and regret. The noble Lord had said, that to grant relief to the Poles would be against precedent. It would not be against precedent, but the contrary. The vials of his wrath were, in so far as words were conceived, poured out on the head of Russia; but, in God's name, why did not our actions correspond with our words? Every man ought to feel it a degradation of his country, that Poland had been suffered to become the victim of the contemptible and brutal despot of Russia. He (Mr. O'Connell) trusted that justice to the national feeling on the subject of the wrongs of Poland would yet be done, and such a strong expression of the public will, pronounced, as would drive the barbarians and ruffians of Russia out of the pale of society. The noble Lord had said, that the Spanish refugees received pecuniary assistance from this country, because they had been our active allies in the Peninsular War; that was not the ground on which that relief was extended to them. They were relieved in the year 1823, not because of any sufferings they endured as our allies, but merely as an act of benevolence. The noble Lord, in speaking of the relief which had been extended by a former Government to the French emigrants, had stated the reason why such relief was granted, to be, the circumstance of this country having encouraged them to revolt. That was the case with a small fraction of those emigrants, but not with the majority. The grant, as in the case of the Spanish refugees, was principally to be regarded as an act of benevolence. He was an advocate for national economy, and he wished it were more attended to in that House than it generally was; but he was not for carrying his notions of national economy so far as to refuse assist- ance to poor distressed creatures, whose claims to our sympathy and aid were so strong. He would like to see a sum of money given by the Government to the Poles, and would have it called Russian blood-money. The ambition of Russia was dangerous to the peace and well-being of Europe. He (Mr. O'Connell) would like to see a cordial alliance between England and France, to oppose the ambition of the Court of St. Petersburgh; but, if he did not greatly mistake the signs of the times, the traitorous Louis Phillippe did not, in reality, wish to keep up a good understanding with us, but was disposed to enter into an alliance with Russia, and that the two Powers were meditating a joint-crusade against European liberty. He thought it was high time for England to speak out in favour of Poland, and against Russian ambition. Russia, in defiance of treaties of the most solemn and binding nature, had blotted out Poland from the map of Europe—had extinguished its language—and had banished its youth. The gallant people of that country were now trampled under the hoof of the brutal and sanguinary despot of St. Petersburgh.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

thought there could be no sense of shame left in the British Government after what had already passed. England had disgracefully deserted Poland. The people of England had already, in a great measure, taken the domestic Government of the country out of the hands of Ministers; and they would soon see the necessity of taking the foreign Government out of their hands also. The noble Lord had said, that the mere circumstance of this country signing the Treaty of Vienna, was not to be understood as guaranteeing the observance of that treaty. No honest man, in the private transactions of life would say so. Lord Castlereagh had expressly said, both verbally in that House, and in subsequent treaties, that this country, in signing the Treaty of Vienna, guaranteed the integrity of Poland; and Lord Castlereagh was, in his opinion, a far better man than the noble Viscount. Lord Castlereagh, before he died, demanded, in the name of England, the restoration of ancient Poland. Little did Lord Castlereagh think that, in the short space of ten years after his death, England would seek to hide herself in mean and paltry subterfuges, in attempting to justify her desertion of Poland. The noble Viscount admitted, that England had a right to go to war with Russia, because of her infraction of the Treaty of Vienna, but said it was not prudent or expedient. Never did a coward think it prudent to go to war; never was it prudent for a base mind to avenge such wrongs as those which the despot of St. Petersburgh had inflicted on Poland. The noble Lord had apologised, as it was foretold a-year ago he would, to the brute that kicked his country. Public opinion was growing strong on the subject of Poland, and the power of that opinion would, ere long, sweep away both the noble Lord and his paltry subterfuges. The noble Lord had said, as one reason why the petitioners should not have pecuniary relief afforded to them, that he could not afford the money. The sum of 10,000l. would not hurt the noble Lord and his party. Would it, then, hurt the country? Members had last year found they could afford to give away 20,000,000l. to the owners of the negroes in the West Indies, and yet they could not afford 10,000l. to the distressed Poles. He thought the noble Lord was under an evil star—that he was labouring under a species of fatuity to-night. He hoped he would be under a better star to-morrow; and he would then do an act of justice to the suffering Poles. Russia was rapidly extending her power on all hands. If the Ministers had taken his advice last year, and sent six or seven line-of-battle-ships to assist the Sultan, when he applied to this country for aid, we should not only have arrested the progress of Russian dominion in Turkey, but had the command of the Dardanelles, and the surveillance of Turkey, and, by that means, had a hook in the nose of Russia. In addition to the other gross insults and injurious impositions which the miserable inertness and vacillation of our Government of late had encouraged foreign Powers to put upon us, we were shortly about to have the Baltic closed against our vessels; he knew, as a matter of fact, that it was to be shut by a treaty on the point of being signed between Russia and Sweden. It was well known, that with a view to this end, Sweden, for the last six weeks, had been busily engaged in fortifying the Swedish side of the Sound. It was true, that Sweden had long been a close ally of England; but it was equally true, that disgusted with the criminal inertness, vacillation, and want of courage, so eminently displayed in our foreign policy of late, Sweden was now about to sign a treaty most injurious to us, with a Power which at least dared to countenance her friends. He wished to know whether, in this critical position, Ministers would throw off their inertness, and by the demonstrations which England was so well able to make, if its Government would give the word, deter Sweden from uniting with the Russian tyrant against us. He wished to know, too, whether Ministers were going to allow Russia and the Germanic Confederation to continue their unhallowed and fiendish persecution of the exiled Poles? Whether they would sanction the tyrants in drawing their threatened cordon round Switzerland, the laud which had so nobly opened its arms to the sufferers? The power of England was competent to vindicate the rights, not only of the Poles, but of all the oppressed nations of Europe; why then not exercise that power in so just a cause? The monster Nicholas—the monster Nicholas—for he was a monster, and no Gentleman in the House, he was sure, could call him by a milder epithet; that tyrant of Europe was a mere image of brass and clay, which the power of this Empire could shiver to atoms, and ought to do so, if she wished well for the liberty and happiness of Europe. The force of Russia, which its bribed newspapers here had paragraphed into 900,000 men, was in reality but 300,000; and its other resources had been overstated to an equal extent. England could at one blow crush the bully to dust.

Sir Samuel Whalley

hoped, that England would soon be in a condition to give that succour and relief to the emigrant Poles which she had already been known to afford to other loss imperative, if not less worthy claims. He thought, that the Poles had a better claim upon our bounty than the Spanish or French, who were now receiving liberal allowances from this country.

Lord Dudley Stuart

regretted the tone and manner which had been displayed in the address of the hon. member for Birmingham on the present occasion. This was not a question to be treated with levity. Never was a more just cause than that of the patriotic Polish exiles; and never was there a cause more seriously deserving the attention of all good men. When that cause was brought before the House last Session, men of all parties and feelings were found united in one common opinion of detestation and abhorrence of the oppressive cruelties of the Court of Russia, and of admiration at the patriotic resistance of the brave Poles. Yet Ministers had thought proper to oppose the Motion on that occasion; and those who supported it were told that it could have no effect. They were tauntingly asked, if they wished the Government to launch a mere brutum fulmen against Russia? He entreated Ministers to accede to the present petition, in order to prove to Nicholas and to the world, the sentiments entertained by the British Government and nation upon this subject. Not many years ago, the Government, much as they seemed now to be guided by notions of economy, granted a sum of 100,000l. to foreigners from Germany; and afterwards another similar sum to the Spanish refugees. The Government then was not guided by one fixed principle. Would the British Government tell the Polish sufferers, that there was no sympathy for them? He hoped they would not be guilty of so ungenerous and ungracious, ay, unjust, an act. But, no matter what might have been the expediency motives of the Government, he was sure there would be found one unanimous feeling of sympathy for them within that House. For himself, he would avow, that he was willing to labour zealously for them; he laboured to stir up the sympathy of the British public in favour of that suffering, harassed, and gallant people. He did not imagine, that the Government would have received the proposition with cold indifference. They said, that they had no funds available for the relief of the Poles, and that Parliament would not grant the required aid. But why would they not come down and ask Parliament for a grant? If they promoted a free discussion on the merits of the Polish question, and allowed a petition to be entertained, and the grounds and nature of its complaints to be canvassed—he did not believe that Parliament would reject the acknowledged justice of the claims of the Poles. It was not necessary for Ministers to have a phalanx of supporters to influence Parliament. Let them only appeal to Parliament, and Parliament would support them. The thing was not without precedent. The British Government had itself furnished examples of the sufferers of other countries being furnished with that aid that was due to the friends of freedom in a free country. The present petition emanated from a voluntary Society formed to assist the champions of Polish freedom. That Society spared neither time nor money to promote the cause they embarked in. Their funds were now exhausted. They could do no more, and they now appealed to the generosity and justice of the Parliament. It might be said, that the Poles might have supported themselves like other refugees. But it should be recollected, that when the emigrants came from France here, many years ago, they had resources which the present Polish emigrants had not. Many of them had connexions in the country; they could teach the French and other languages; they could besides, many of them, engage in works of handicraft. Now the Poles, who were almost all of them men who had drawn their swords in defence of their country, had not, in general, similar resources. They came to free and generous England, looking for that protection which she had so often before extended to men who had suffered in a less honourable cause, and to which they had good grounds for looking up, from their heroism, their unstained honour, and their sufferings. He would, if necessary, and should any exception be taken to the justice of their demands and to the expediency of granting them, on the ground that there was no evidence of their pure propriety of conduct, rest their whole claim to support on their manifestation of honourable principle, and on their meritorious conduct. There never was a class of emigrants who maintained, under all their difficulties, a higher bearing, and who were more exempt from reproach—nay, even from discreditable suspicion—than the Poles. They maintained here, as at home, the same lofty character for independence under all their privations. He would just state one fact in corroboration of his assertion. A friend of his, who knew of his exertions in favour of the Poles, said to him, that he was sure he (Lord Dudley Stuart) must have been exposed to great inconvenience from the multiplicity of applications for personal relief made to him. His answer was, and he would repeat it to the House, and in the face of the country, that he never had an application from any one Pole for assistance. In asking the House to aid the champions of Polish heroism and Polish liberty, and, he would add, the victims of Russian barbarity and despotism, he hoped he did not ask a boon that was abhorrent to the feelings of that House or of the country. Would the House or the country grudge the poor relief now solicited by those noble defenders of the freedom of their country? The sum required was so small, that it could not be opposed on the ground of national economy; and the ground on which it was asked could not be resisted on any principle of national or Parliamentary justice or generosity. If a large sum were demanded, then it would be excusable, if not fair, to refuse it, on the simple ground, that the Treasury had not funds applicable to that object, no matter what the object might be, though the object, sanctioned by a previous discussion of the question in Parliament, and approved of by the general voice of the country, was undoubtedly one that enlisted on its side the whole sympathies of the nation. He was not the advocate of reckless expenditure, as was, he hoped, well known. He would not advocate the expenditure of money when it was not required for some useful purpose. Yet, at the same time, he would not refuse a grant when it could be well applied. He would briefly call the attention of the House to a fact which, if it were not, should, at all events, be well known, namely, that England sanctioned, indeed granted, the submission of Poland to Russia. But he would ask, had England a right thus to barter the rights of a free nation? Poland was de facto, not merely de jure, free; she had achieved her own independence; and could that independence be swindled from her? It might be said, that Russia only took on herself the protection of Poland under certain conditions. Well, what of that? She did subscribe to stipulations, and it was the duty of England to see that those stipulations were fulfilled. If they were not, then England was bound to see they were; and if the Poles, who were the victims of that violation on the part of Russia, threw themselves on the protection of England, which had guaranteed to them full independence, consistently with the exercise of the fair monarchical rule of Russia, England was bound, by virtue of her own treaties, and on every principle of justice, to grant the remnants of that nation protection and support. England was bound to see the conditions accepted of by Russia fulfilled. But he had no distrust in the sympathetic feeling of England for the Poles. No matter what the Government might feel, he felt, that if the people of England had the power—he should rather say courage, for England did not want power—to demand the restoration of the Poles, they would not have been thus oppressed. It was truly incredible, that the small sum asked for should have been met in the way the prayer of the petition seemed to have been met, especially when England was bound to Poland by so many ties, and when she had made herself on so many occasions before, an asylum for the victims of despotism through Europe.

Mr. Spring Rice

observed, that the Government had not been deficient in sympathy for the Poles. While he gave full credit to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, and to the noble Lord, for the zeal they exhibited in the cause of the Poles, he would take the liberty to caution the hon. member for Birmingham against being too ready to make a plunge into war without reference to the consequences. When it was fairly proved, that Government could interfere with propriety, assistance was afforded. He was not called upon to state the peculiar circumstances which would justify a vote of money; but he would suggest, that amongst the inconveniences that would arise from giving too freely the bounty of the Crown, it would tempt foreigners to be careless in their proceedings, because they would suppose they might find a shelter and settlement here. He wished it to be clearly understood, that when a case was made out for the bestowal of the bounty of the Crown—when it appeared that such a grant would not be liable to objection in point of principle, as in the instance of a grant being permanent—then his Majesty's Government would not shrink from administering the relief that they were now stigmatised for refusing.

The Petition was ordered to lie on the Table.