HC Deb 05 July 1836 vol 34 cc1269-80
Mr. Plumptre

(on the Order of the Day having been moved for the Committee on the Irish Church Bill) said, he was anxious to bring the subject of which he had given notice under the consideration of the House. In doing so it could not be necessary for him to trouble the House with many remarks of his own, but he feared he must trespass on the attention of the hon. Members for a short time, while he read some letters and other documents relating to those religious ceremonies to which his motion referred, and from taking part in which he sought to have our fellow subjects released. He would first draw the attention of the House to the nature of those requisitions by which our troops were called upon to take part in the religious ceremonies of the people at Malta; and he would ask whether certain expressions made use of, such as the following:—"during mass," "during the procession," "on the eve and anniversary of St. Lorenzo, the tutelar Saint of Vittoriosa," and so forth, did not most decidedly stamp the services in which our soldiers were required to assist as ser vices of a religious, and not of a military nature? Mr. Plumptre read the following documents:— Chief Secretary's Office, Valetta, 14th July, 1823. Sir,—Application having been made to Government for salutes on Wednesday next, the 16th inst., being the festival of the Madonna del Curmina, at three quarters past eleven o'clock, a.m., during mass, and in the evening, during the procession, I am directed by his honour, the Lieutenant-Governor to request that the necessary orders may be given for carrying the same into effect as usual. Capt. Bayley, M.S. (Signed) H. Greig, A.C.S. The Application remonstrated against. Chief Secretary's Office, Valetta, Aug. 4th, 1823. Sir,—I have the honour to acquaint you that application has been made to Government for salutes, from Castle St. Angelo and St. Michael's Tower, on the 9th and 10th inst., being the eve and anniversary of St. Lorenzo, the tutelar saint of Vittoriosa. His honour the Lieutenant Governor has been pleased to grant salutes on the 9th inst, at noon, and on the day following, at half past ten a.m., and in the evening, during the procession, from the Castle St. Angelo, ac companied by the tolling of the castle bell, which his honour requests you will order to be carried into effect: but the situation of St. Michael's Tower being in the vicinity of the naval arsenal his honour cannot allow of any salute being fired from that place. I have the honour to be, &c. Approved, if customary, H. Greig, A.C.S. by order—C. Bayley, M.S. To the Officer commanding the Royal artillery. Extract from the Malta Government Gazette, Nov. 4th, 1823, on the exaltation of the High Pontiff, Pope Leo. XII. to the chair of St. Peter: — During the celebration of mass, a guard of honour attended at the church, consisting of a detachment from the 80th regiment of Foot, with their band and colours, two field pieces, and a competent proportion of artillery men. The soldiers were stationed in two lines in the centre of the church, and the guns were placed at the portal. During the chanting of the Te Deum, a royal salute of twenty one guns was fired from the saluting battery of Fort St. Angelo, and also from the batteries of Cita Notabile. General Orders. Adjutant-General's-office, Ionian Islands, Head-quarters, Corfu, Nov. 13, 1824. No. II. Major-General Sir P. Ross, K.C. St. Michael and St. George, with all the officers of the garrison and departments off duty, will be pleased to meet his Excellency the Lord High Commissioner at the palace to morrow morning at ten minutes before eleven, to attend the ceremony and procession of St. Spiridione. (Signed) "G. Raitt, D.A.G. Extract of a letter from an officer on the staff, June 29, 1833, describing what he had witnessed, and the part he had also been culled to take in the religious ceremonies at Corfu: — On two occasions, during my stay at Corfu, the British troops took part in the ceremonies. On the 1st December, 1831, the body of St, Spiridione was shown in state, for what purpose I forget, hut I went to see it; there was a guard of the 28th Regiment, which had to present arms at certain times, when told by the person who kept near the subaltern for that purpose, The second occasion was on Palm Sunday, 15th of April, 1832, on which I made the following memorandum:—' At eleven o'clock, Sir A. Woodford and other officers of the garrison, having assembled at the palace, proceeded to the church of St. Spiridione — whence, after some chanting, during which Sir A. Woodford stood with a wax-taper in his hand (the Lord High Commissioner not attending the procession, being ill, as I was told—wax candles were also distributed to as many as liked to hold them), the body of the so called saint was carried out, and a canopy being held over it, it proceeded first to the palace, round the Line-wall, up the principal streets, and so round to the ramparts, behind the Raimond Barracks, where we halted a few minutes, to let the saint bless the country, thence across the esplanade, and round by the palace, when the second salute from the battery was fired, and so back to the church. Sir A. Woodford allowed us to keep our hats on, which Sir F. Adam, had he been well, would not have permitted Two bands attended, and a captain's guard, plenty of wax candles of immense size, banners, sick people, and children, were placed "in the middle of the road for the saint to pass over. The canopy was supported by officers, or any who chose. Some of the people at the windows were weeping and crying bitterly. On the first occasion the crowd in the street was pressing forward to kiss the feet, which seemed to be of wood, and bringing children for the same purpose.' Extract of a letter from the Rev. G. F. Dawson, published in the Record, April 14th, 1834:— At Zante four processions occur,— 1. Corpus Christi; 2. Dyonisius, the patron, who, along with St. Spiridione, takes his turn to assist the Greek cause; 3. That of Santi Panti, answering, I suppose, to our All Saints' day, when a picture with many hundred heads is paraded (and these saints take their turn too); 4. That of Caro-Lambo; who he is I know not, but he was burned all but his THUMB, which is paraded in a silver tumbler annually. These are the processions our officers attend at Zante. I speak on the information of a Christian, who carried candles there. On the latter occasion, the procession is made through the town to the sea, the thumb is dipped into the sea, a signal is made to the castle at the moment, a salute is fired from thence by our soldiers, and the plague prevented from crossing the sea to the island till the return of the same festival. Do pray draw out this to your mind; a thumb of a dead man, paraded under a canopy held by British officers, followed by the garrison and priesthood together, with lighted tapers, bareheaded, and dipped in the ocean to effect a work I have noticed, saluted by the garrison in the castle. Is this to be tolerated as attention to feelings, prejudices, habits? Can the enforcement of such a usage in Parliament be mentioned, and not be put down? At Santa Maura and Cephalonia, processions are carried on likewise. Extract of a letter from India, published in the Recordof January 18th, 1836, authenticated to the editor:— In order to expose the system which now obtains in this presidency (Madras), I propose at present to confine my remarks to some occurrences which have recently taken place at one of its principal stations—the site of a court of circuit, and the head-quarters of a division of the army. By his Majesty's regulations, and by the articles of war, the European troops are required to attend divine service at their respective places of worship on the Lord's Day. Yet, in direct opposition to this praiseworthy regulation, and in daring violation of the Divine command, the whole European artillery were kept from church one of the Sabbath days of Lent in firing a series of salutes in honour of a Mahometan festival. I will only add, that I am credibly informed that this subject was made the ground of presentment to the ordinary, and a representation to the government, of which no notice has up to this time been taken, or any means adopted to prevent a repetition of so extraordinary a desecration of that day; I inform you, secondly that the band of one of his Majesty's regiments, consisting with one exception, of Protestants of the Church of England, were at a latter; period compelled on two occasions to attend a Roman Catholic chapel and take part in the service, especially in that part where the host is elevated. Your readers will wonder how this should be, when his Majesty's regulations so distinctly forbid a Roman Catholic soldier being ordered to attend a Protestant place of worship. They naturally argue that by a parity of reason the Protestant's conscientious scruples should be respected. The religious scruples of the Mahomedan, of the heathen or Christian idolaters, are counted sacred, or even applauded, but not so those of the Protestants. The Hon. Member continued: Of those who took part in the ceremonies so de scribed, some might, perhaps, deride them and treat them with utter unconcern. But if there were any of our fellow subjects to whom attendance on such-occasions was really offensive, whose feelings were hurt, whose conscience was wounded; who was there that would venture to say, that the objections of such parties ought to be disregarded? Was it not greatly to be deplored, that men should be required to assist in the celebration of rites and observances, some of which they might justly regard as absurd and ridiculous, and others as most profane and blasphemous? He (Mr. Plumptre) knew that some excellent officers and soldiers had been deeply pained and disgusted by services of this description. He knew, also, that some had left the army rather than submit to them. Two excellent men, the cause of whom he had more than once pleaded, but, as yet alas, in vain, had been ejected from their profession for requesting to be exempted from such services. He had clung to the hope that the case of Mr. Aitcheson would ere this have met with consideration—that an act of grace, at all events, or, in his (Mr. Plumptre's) view, an act of justice, would ere this have been done towards him; that he would not have been suffered by this free and professedly Christian country (and in this, which is so eminently considered a liberal age, after exposing his life for his country's safety, and giving to her his time, his talents, and his faithful and loyal exertions for twenty of the best years of his life,) now to be reduced (as far, at least, as his country itself is concerned) to want and to the appearance of disgrace. He said the appearance of disgrace, be cause disgraced he was not in the eyes of those who knew his character, and could appreciate his motives. Honoured rather he was by all who participated in his Protestant feelings, nay, he (Mr. Plumptre,) would say by all of every party, and every persuasion, who would rather ten thousand times sacrifice their worldly interests and their very life, than violate their highest and most sacred obligations. It was with that view, that others entering into Mr. Aitcheson's feelings, and at present exposed to trials similar to his, might be exempted from such trials for the future, and enjoy the unfettered exercise of their religious principles, that he (Mr. Plumptre) com mended to the attention of the House the motion which he would read as an amendment on the Order of the Day, "That an humble address be presented to his Majesty, praying that his Majesty would be graciously pleased to give directions that his subjects employed in the civil and military services abroad may be relieved from assisting in religious ceremonies to which their own tenets are opposed."

Viscount Howick

gave the hon. Member credit for the best motives, but he did not think that the hon. Member had adduced any case or argument which could prevail upon the House to interfere with this subject. The object of the hon. Member's motion appeared to be to prevent our troops while engaged in foreign service from paying any outward marks of respect to the established practices or prejudices, if they might be so termed, of the natives. He believed that, with the exception of the very few cases adverted to by the hon. Member, there were no gentlemen engaged in our naval and civil service abroad who could feel any difficulty in performing those outward tokens of respect to the feelings of foreign nations; and he was sure that if a different course were adopted in reference to those nations which were united to us, it would tend much to shake the grounds upon which that union rested. He should, therefore, oppose the motion; and he did not think the House would consider the practice, which had existed from the earliest time, and to which it had not been the custom or policy of this country to object, except in reference to such particular instances as had been brought forward last year, ought to be interfered with in the manner proposed.

Mr. Hardy

was quite sure that the noble Lord, if he would take the trouble to inquire, would find numerous instances of officers having suffered a violation of their consciences and religious principles on the point which had been stated by the hon. Member for Kent, but they had not made any representations on the subject, for very obvious reasons. It was not strange that persons should feel a strong objection to be called upon to join in ceremonies which were inconsistent with their own sense of duty and religious belief; and that argument was constantly urged upon Ministers from an opposite quarter in reference to other questions. Many officers in the British army were duly impressed with this subject, but they dared not to speak out, for fear of consequences fatal to their future career. It was high time that the practice was done away with.

Mr. Hume

entertained no doubt it was extremely desirable that in the army and navy, as well as in civil life, all restrictions upon religious principles and belief should be removed, and that no man should be compelled to do violence to his own conscience. It was on that ground that he had always objected to the exaction of church-rates, and every other coercive impost affecting the conscientious feelings of those who were called on to pay them. He himself had witnessed instances abroad wherein British officers were made to join in religious processions, to carry flambeaux, and fire salutes in honour of those practices to which they were conscientiously hostile, but it was never considered they were performing a religious duty—they were only acting a part in the show out of compliment to the people of the country. He had never wished to see a man's religious scruples disregarded, however extravagant they might be, and thought, therefore, that it was the duty of commanding officers in the army to be as careful as possible to meet the views of those under them who differed in religion. He certainly did not approve of the course pursued towards the gentle man referred to by the hon. Member for Kent, and he thought the Government would do an act of justice if they rein stated him.

Captain Boldero

stated, that he had witnessed some scenes of the most extravagantly superstitious nature, such as pro cessions of saints, in Roman Catholic countries in which the Protestant officers and men of the British army were compelled to take part, very much to their annoyance. The sooner the practice was done away with the better.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, that Captain Aitcheson had been punished, not for re fusing to join in a religious ceremony contrary to his feelings, but for not performing a military duty. He regretted the dismissal of that gentleman, because he believed his character in all other respects unimpeachable. It was, however, necessary to show the army, that discipline must be maintained.

Mr. Wyse

had always supported civil and religious freedom, and, therefore, was anxious to see it carried out as well in respect to the principles of Protestants as Roman Catholics. He did not wish to see people compelled to pay tithes or church-rates against their consciences, and he was equally anxious that Protestants of every grade, whether Episcopalians or Presbyterians, should not be compelled to do violence to their consciences by paying outward respect to superstitions or practices to which they were totally hostile. He could not see how custom or prejudice afforded any good argument in favour of the practice against which the motion was directed. He hoped that England would govern her colonies in a good spirit, so as to produce an union between them and herself, and all such questions as the pre sent might then be very easily settled.

Mr. Lefroy

supported the motion before the House, not because it went to revise the judgment of a Court Martial, but be cause Courts Martial were compelled, under the present system, to dismiss officers from the army because they would not violate their conscientious feelings. He trusted that the hon. Member would divide the House, and persevere until he should at last obtain justice from the House.

Mr. Henry L. Bulwer

stated it to be his object to support his Majesty's Government upon the present occasion. Seeing the particular nature of our empire, and the manner in which the British army was scattered over the globe amidst different religions and races, the utmost care was necessary, in order to rule in a manner accordant with the feelings and prejudices, it might be, of those whom we undertook to govern. A gentleman entering into the military service, then, should first reflect whether, considering the peculiar nature of our army and our empire, his scruples of conscience might not be offended. If he thought they would be so, he was not, as in many countries, obliged to enter it at all. Some gentlemen said scruples of con science were altogether to be attended to. Supposing a soldier was to say, the morning a battle was going to be fought, that his scruples of conscience forbade him to fight—that he had turned Quaker—what would you say to his scruples of conscience, except that he had entered into the army knowing that he would be obliged to fight, and that he must abide by his own decision? For this reason the Quakers did not enter the army. He then should be loth to place the positive control of a vote upon the discretion of the Government, but he meant to express a strong feeling as to the caution with which that discretion should be exercised, in the care which should be equally taken to offend as little as possible the feelings of the colonial subject on the one hand, and of the British soldier on the other.

Mr. Andrew Johnstone

approved highly of the sentiments expressed upon this occasion by the hon. Member for the city of Waterford. It showed a determination on the part of that and other hon. Members to uphold the perfect freedom of con science. In the army he thought that the rights of conscience ought to be as much respected as anywhere else. In the particular case before the House the officer was called upon to discharge not a military but a religious service. The officer was called to do that which he called an act of worship, in firing off a particular sort of artillery—petteraroes, not used except upon occasions of religious ceremonies.

Viscount Howick

begged to say, in explanation, that nothing could be further from his wish than that British soldiers should be employed in any religious ceremony abroad, at the same time he must persist in his objection to the ad dress, for he could not bring himself to consent that commanding officers should be deprived of that discretionary power which they had hitherto exercised, especially in the colonies, for it sometimes happened that the omission of a mark of respect was regarded as an insult.

Sir Charles Burrell

considered that the case of this individual was a very hard one. It ought to be recollected that the circumstance occurred before the passing of the Catholic Relief Bill; and it was not extraordinary that at that period per sons entertaining strong opinions on religion should have resisted the doing that which was contrary to their own conscientious opinions. He knew the gentleman in question to bear a very good character, and he thought it would be an act for which the army would be grateful, if his Majesty's Government would take that opportunity of restoring him to that army.

Mr. Cutlar Fergusson

said, Captain Aitcheson was called upon by his commanding-officer to perform this duty—he resisted—and it was as much an act of disobedience of orders as if he had refused to do any other military act which he might have been called upon to perform.

Sir John Beckett

wished to set the House right as to the facts of the case. Mr. Dawson, in the first instance, was called upon to perform the duty, and resisted, and Captain Aitcheson undertook to fire the guns. In consequence, however, of some representation made to the commanding officer, he was led to believe he did not intend to do it. The commanding officer went to the fort, and Captain Aitcheson placed a written remonstrance in his hands, stating his reasons for refusing to perform the ceremony, and the consequence was, that the commanding officer was obliged to give orders to a gunner, who was standing by, to fire the guns. A general Court Martial was ordered, and the seventeen officers composing it were unanimous in their sentence, which sentence was approved of by the Duke of York and by the Duke of Wellington, on its arrival in this country, as it was, he believed, generally by the military authorities. He contended that by performing this duty, the individuals did not participate in a Roman Catholic ceremony; it was a military ceremony; and under the engagements entered into between Great Britaiu and the Maltese, as well as the inhabitants of the Ionian Islands, it was agreed that all these ceremonies should be observed.

Mr. Thomas Duncombe

must say, if the conduct of Captain Aitcheson was, in fact, a gross breach of duty, as it had been described, then what became of the argument of the noble Lord below him, who founded his opposition to the address on the ground that a discretionary power ought to be given to commanding officers as to the refusal or non-refusal to discharge such duties? There was a great principle involved in the motion, which, if carried, and it should go forth to the army, he was sure military discipline would not suffer from it.

Mr. O'Connell

should, if the motion were pressed to a division, vote for it. As regarded private soldiers, those of the Roman Catholic persuasion had enjoyed religious liberty for many years. He remembered one case where a private soldier was sentenced by a Court Martial to be flogged for refusing to attend a Protestant place of worship. An application, however, was made to the Court of King's Bench. That court immediately granted a habeas corpus; and from that time the Catholic soldier had enjoyed the same liberty of conscience as the Protestant. The same liberty of conscience ought to prevail in the army as out of it, and the men would not be the worse soldiers for it.

The Earl of Darlington

considered that cases might occur in the Colonies in which it might be necessary, in order to preserve peace and harmony, to observe these ceremonies, and he thought it would be very injurious if the address were carried.

Dr. Bowring

said, the question of military discipline ought by no means to weigh down the higher claims of conscience. [Hear, hear!] Had the address involved an approval of the conduct of Captain Aitcheson, he certainly could not, after the statement of the right hon. Member for Leeds, have concurred in it. But the motion proclaimed a true, a generous, a philanthropic, and a Christian principle. It respected, and forced others to respect, the religious scruples of their neighbours. He thanked the hon. Member for bringing forward the motion, were it only that it had led to the expression of so much of charitable and really catholic sentiment, in which none had more strikingly participated than the Roman Catholic Members who had taken a part in the debate. Something was gained for the cause of general religious freedom when the rights of conscience were so ably advocated by men of different persuasions; and the asperity of sectarian controversy would soon be softened, if the disposition to respect the opinions of others, which the motion recognised, were more generally diffused.

Colonel Thompson

felt great pleasure in being able to support a motion proposed by an hon. Member to whom he was so frequently opposed. The Sepoy would not wear a pig-skin to make part of a show. Why then, he would ask, was not the con science of the English soldier to be respected as much as the conscience of the Hindoo or the Mahometan soldier? He hoped the hon. Mover would press his motion to a division.

The House divided on the original question: Ayes 44; Noes 38; Majority 6.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Marsland, T.
Barclay, D. Morgan, C. M. R.
Baring, F. T. Morpeth, Lord
Beckett, rt. hon. Sir J. North, F.
Bellew, R. M. Oswald, J.
Bewes, T. Parrot, J.
Blamire, W. Parry, Sir L. P. J.
Bulwer, H. L. Price, Sir R.
Campbell, Sir J. Rice, right hon. T. S.
Chapman, L. Ross, C.
Clements, Lord Russell, Lord J.
Darlington, Earl of Scott, J. W.
Dillwyn, L. W. Smith, R. V.
Ebrington, Lord Smith, B.
Fector, J. M. Steuart, R;
Fergus, J. Tancred, H. W.
Fergusson, rt. hn. R. C. Thomson, rt. hn. C. P.
Graham, rt. hn. Sir J. Troubridge, Sir E. T.
Heathcote, G. J. Warburton, H.
Hobhouse, rt. hn. Sir J. Ward, H. G.
Horsman, E.
Howard, P. H. TELLERS.
Howick, Lord Stanley, E. J.
Lennox, Lord G. Dalmeny, Lord
List of the NOES.
Baines, E. Lennox, Lord A.
Barnard, E. G. Lister, E. C.
Bodkin, J. J. Lushington, C.
Boldero, H. G. Mackinnon, W. A.
Bowring, Dr. Maunsell, T. P.
Brotherton, J. O'Brien, W. S.
Burrell, Sir C. O'Connell, D.
Chisholm, A. W. OConnell, M. J.
Duncombe, T. O'Connell, M.
Hardy, J. Plunkett, hon. R. E.
Hume, J. Price, S. G.
Humphery, J. Pryme, G.
Hutt, W. Pusey, P.
Johnston, A. Shaw, right hon. F.
Jones, T. Thompson, Colonel
Lefroy, A. Trevor, hon. A.
Wakley, T. Young, G. F.
Wason, R.
Williams, W. TELLERS.
Wilmot, Sir J.E. Plumptre, J. P.
Wyse, T. Lefroy, rt. hon. T.