HC Deb 13 February 1838 vol 40 cc1045-59
Sir Samuel Whalley

rose to move for an address to be presented to her Majesty for a copy of the correspondence between England and France relative to the occupation of Algiers by the latter power. He hoped the House would support him in his endeavour to obtain the information which appeared to him to be required. He would ask the noble Lord, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, whether he was prepared to lay that information before the House? When the Duke of Wellington was, in 1830, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, he stated that the Government was in communication with the French Government upon the subject, and that the most satisfactory explanations, and such as this country had a right to expect, were given; and he trusted that the House would call upon her Majesty's Government to communicate to hon. Members the nature of these explanations. He, for one, viewed with no jealousy the possession of Algiers by the Government of France; he saw with pleasure the seeds of civilisation sown on the barren sands of Africa; he was delighted to see Algiers freed from the corsair band which for upwards of three centuries had filled that country; but still France ought to give some security to the commercial interests of this country that in the suppression of the piratical state of Algiers, the kingdom of France had no view of national aggrandisement, and that it had conquered that country, acting only on the large and comprehensive idea of relieving the distressed, and supporting the great cause of humanity. Undoubtedly, the first conquest of that country was undertaken on those large and liberal grounds, but he regretted to say, that, in his opinion, the cause of humanity had been rather retarded than advanced by the result. He had conceived from what had been stated, that France had promised to consult with the other great powers of Europe on the mode of occupation of the colony, but no such consultation had taken place, and the French had proceeded to deal with their conquest as they thought fit. For his own part, during a period of peace, he would much rather that France should possess Algiers than that it should be allowed to remain as a piratical state; and some hon. Members would, he knew, go one step further, and be quite willing that the whole coast of Africa should be given up to the possession of the French. To that length he, however, was not prepared to go. They could not expect that France would relinquish the colony after the lavish expenditure of blood and money which had taken place there, but still they had a right to ascertain that there was to be no war of aggrandisement, and he trusted that Ministers would lay on the table the communications which had in 1830 been made on this point. Not only ought her Majesty's Government to let the House know what were the expressions with which the noble Duke had stated himself to be fully satisfied, but he hoped that the Secretary for Foreign Affairs would go further, and state what communications had taken place between this country and France since that period. The conquest of Algiers had opened a new and enlarged channel for commerce, and this might be valuable in the time of peace; but in case of a war he doubted whether it would be for the general good that France should retain its possessions on the coast of Africa. He knew when Lord Exmouth's expedition was sent out much doubt existed in the minds of military men as to the strength of Algiers, some thought that it would require an expedition of great magnitude to conquer that town, whilst others undervalued the natural advantages of its position. He believed that the Government of that day and Lord Exmouth steered a middle course, and were successful; but it must also be recollected that his Lordship was, in his expedition, greatly favoured by the elements, and it was the opinion of many able men that if the elements did not favour an attacking party, it was a place of great strength. They all knew that unsuccessful expeditions had been seven times sent out by Spain against it. He thought, therefore, that it was not a matter of indifference to this country as to the persons who held possession of it; for, though the harbour and the town might be of no great value, yet there were many perfectly secure harbours on the coast, from which might issue, during a time of war, vessels with letters of marque even more dangerous to commerce than the piracies which had been previously committed under the Algerine flag. He was more anxious upon this subject because, since he had had the honour of a seat in that House, although he had been able to give only a qualified support to her Majesty's Ministers, he had the good fortune entirely to concur in their foreign policy. It behoved him also, at that period, to bring forward the question, because the subject had been discussed in the French Chamber of Deputies, and expressions had been there used which ought not to pass unnoticed. In the speech of the King of the French, in opening the Chambers, he found described in glowing terms the glorious success of the French forces before Constantina. He was not surprised at the use of such terms of praise by a monarch to a gallant nation on such an event; but then his Majesty added, that "the success would show to the natives the inutility of further resistance." He ought not, however, to infer from this presumed in utility of resistance, that the King of the French did not intend to continue active military measures. The President of the Council, in moving the address, had said more distinctly, "we are, as it were, but beginning in Africa;" and though this expression had been afterwards somewhat softened down, and it had been said, that he meant only a beginning of civilisation, yet the two speeches taken together showed a design to continue the present system of warfare. He was far from thinking that France should be called upon to relinquish her possession, but he would rather hope that it would induce this country to cultivate friendly relations, not only between the governments, but also between the people of the two countries, and it was peculiarly necessary for those who sat on that side of the House, and who advocated liberal opinions, to assist in the spread of liberty over the world, and for this purpose they should call in aid of the good cause a nation so far advanced as was France. Still, however, the French did not as yet set so high a value on commerce as did the English; they were more strongly imbued with military ardour, and the colony would, perhaps, act as a safety valve for the military genius of that country. But it was not the interest of the French to engage in a war of aggression against the natives of Africa, and he hoped that they would discover the value of cultivating the arts of peace, and of rendering their administration rather happy than glorious; that they would promote the cultivation of commerce and the arts; and if, after full consideration, France should still wish to retain her possessions in Africa, that she would endeavour to found an empire in which her sway would be preserved more through the kind feelings of the natives in favour of the arts, of commerce, and of general acts of beneficence, than by the force of arms. He moved "an address to the Crown, praying for a copy of the correspondence between the Governments of England and France relative to the occupation of Algiers."

Mr. A. Mackinnon

I consider this question, Sir, to be one of very great importance. The sentiments of the country are not yet pronounced on the subject, and there can be no doubt, that the opinions given in this House will go abroad, and may have considerable influence on the community, enabling the public mind to come to a decision on a question which has, in fact, been dormant, with the exception of occasional remarks in the public papers—remarks, however, which have not drawn from the public much attention. In the year 1833, a discussion took place on the Algerine occupation by the French troops, in the House of Lords, and some papers were moved for and granted by that House. The debate, however, did not enter into the merits of the case. In the Chambers of Peers and Deputies in France, the question has been often agitated, and the discussions which have arisen have elicited various opinions. It seems to be a subject on which the public mind in Great Britain requires to be informed, and it appears that no decided sentiment has yet been formed by the public. In proportion, therefore, to the weight and attention given by the country to the deliberations of this House, in the same proportion will be the importance of the observations made here this evening to the country. I am, therefore, desirous to avoid all declamation, and in as brief a manner as the subject will admit me, to lay my sentiments on this very important point before the House and the country. It is absolutely necessary before entering into the question, to advert briefly to the state of the town and government of Algiers previously to the year 1830, when it fell under the dominion of France.

Little seems to have been known of the condition of the country about Algiers, further than that the community there consisted of various tribes of Moors and Arabs with Jews and slaves. The population of Algiers in 1830, before the arrival of the French troops, has been estimated at about 30,000 souls. Of this population about 12,000, speaking in round numbers, were Moors, 6,000 Jews, 2,000 negroes, and 4,000 foreigners, and the remaining consisted of about 5,000 or 6,000 Turks who kept the entire and supreme power in their hands, tyrannised over all the others, and held the population in subjection. These Turks were bred up in like manner to the Mamalukes in Egypt, and had, in fact, no connexion with the people they bad under control. They did not colonise or mix with the natives who were considered as a conquered people.

The Aborigines, therefore, did not enjoy any rights or liberty, nor were they possessed of the slightest political power, but, as already observed, they were entirely under the control of these 5,000 or 6,000 Levantine Turks, who, although professing themselves Mussulmen did not owe the slightest deference to the Sultan at Constantinople, or pay any obedience to his order. So independent were these pirates of the Sultan, that they scrupled not to seize and make slaves of Greeks sailing under the Turkish flag. The wealth and resources of the Dey's government arose chiefly, if not entirely, from acts of piracy and robbery, committed at various times on almost every nation that sailed in the Mediterranean, but principally on the weaker powers occupying the northern coasts of that sea. These freebooters being independent of the Turkish power, formed their own government. They elected their Dey. The late Dey had been a waiter at a coffee-house, and exchanged the napkin for the sceptre. The vizier, or prime minister had been a wrestler, and before this time, would probably have tripped up the heels and taken off the head of the Dey, if their government had continued. The lord high admiral was originally a burner of charcoal. These points are of little consequence, except that they prove that no sovereignty whatever was exercised or possessed by the Porte at Algiers, and that the Dey's despotism there and sway of these men, was the usurpation of a set of pirates and banditti who were neither appointed by any acknowledged power, but their own will, and were independent of any other power whatever.

The several complaints of the British consuls, the insults they experienced from the Deys at different times, and the endeavours of this country to bring them to reason by the squadrons under Lord Ex-mouth, and at a subsequent period under Sir Henry Neale, are well known. There never was any, it was not likely, and it seldom occurred, that any respect was paid to treaties or to the laws of nations by such a government, and for ages the nations of the Christian world had to complain, either that slavery on Christians was continued, that ships were seized in times of peace, or that consuls and public agents were insulted in despite of treaties and engagements. France at length was roused by some outrage of these barbarians on their consul, and, at an enormous expense and great sacrifice of men succeeded in achieving the destruction of that nest of piracy which many powers of Europe had attempted at various ages, and with different success, but none before had been able to accomplish. For this act France was entitled to the gratitude and thanks of Europe; and this act, I say, France had a right to perform in accordance with the rights of men and the laws of nations.

The intended capture of Algiers was known long before it took place, from the extensive preparations made in the ports of France on the Mediterranean, and it does not appear that either Turkey or any other state opposed an attempt which could not but prove beneficial to the different states of Europe, and to the entire civilized world. France, it must, therefore, be admitted, having occupied Algiers, having remained in possession of that place for several years, had as much right to proceed against Bona and Constantine as we had, in India, to wage war, and to occupy the territory of the Burmese. I do not mean, in making this assertion, to justify the aggression of one state over the other, or to bring in Grotius or Puffendorf or Vattel, to sanction, to justify, or even to excuse those attacks of a powerful nation on a weaker one, which for centuries are recorded in the page of history to the disgrace of former governments, and the degradation of human nature: I mean to assert, that we, the people of England, have acted in such a manner that we are precluded from opposing our neighbours who imitate our example.

By some individuals in England, it is true, apprehensions were entertained that a settlement on the coast of Africa by France, might, in time of war, prove injurious to the trade of the Mediterranean by the advantage gained to the French of possessing a sea-port on the African side. By others it has been said, that such a position might become injurious to our Indian possessions, by opening to France the way to Egypt, to the Red Sea; in short a variety of dangers either to the maritime or colonial influence of England has been conjured up, and advanced on the subject; let us for a moment consider whether any of these are really of any importance. The apprehension excited from Algiers being in possession of France, are stated, I believe, to be the possibility of penetrating by Egypt to India; and the possession of an harbour in Africa, in the event of war, by our neighbours on the Continent. With regard to the former, the distance between Algiers and Egypt is far too great to admit of the possibility of French troops marching overland; if France was inclined to make an attempt on Egypt, it would be done by landing at once near the Nile, not by the circuitous route of going to Algiers, and then proceeding by land to Egypt and India; the apprehension, in fact, of such an attempt is quite absurd, and needs no further comment. In regard to the annoyance that might arise from privateers or steam-vessels, sheltered in Algiers to our commerce in the Mediterranean in case of war, it cannot but occur to every one, that if our naval superiority enabled us to blockade Algiers by the squadrons under Lord Exmouth and Sir Henry Neale, the same naval superiority might enable us to blockade again with equal facility, whether Algiers was in possession of France or the Dey. From the various sources of information that I have been able to obtain from distinguished naval officers, I cannot say, that much apprehension is entertained by them on the subject. Let any hon. Member also who doubts this assertion, refer to the debates in this or rather the old House of Commons, on the treaty with France and Spain, for giving up of Minorca in 1782; he will there find, that the harbour of Port Mahon, as was said in the Debates of that day on the cession of Minorca, was one of the finest harbours in the world, capable of holding with safety the entire navy of England, where ships could anchor in perfect safety sheltered from every wind. If such a port, situated in the centre of the Mediterranean sea, could be given up to our enemies for the sake of peace in 1783, shall we run the risk of a war on the subject of Algiers being kept by our allies in 1838, and perfect security afforded to our commerce and that of the rest of the world by the destruction of piracy? Port Mahon, in every point of view, was superior, as a naval station, to Algiers; it was given up, and in the subsequent war that took place in 1792, did we find our commerce annoyed by its occupation? Much the same may be said of Algiers. It cannot be denied that some vessels might be sheltered under its mole, and have an opportunity of slipping out and giving annoyance to our single merchantmen. In time of war ships sail in convoys; and now that steam may be used in warfare, should hostilities ever take place, which I trust is far from probable, it is evident that steam-vessels could be fitted out from the various ports of Spain and France, which would be much more annoying to our commerce than any that could cross the Mediterranean from the African coast, where no coal could be obtained or the requisite for the repairs of steam.

No good reasons, therefore, appear to be formed which can induce the people or the Government of Britain to view with jealousy the occupation of Algiers by France. If this is admitted, and from the little sensation which the capture and occupation of that place occasioned in this or any other country, the impression of danger arising to our commerce from such a cause may, I think, be entirely abandoned, and no fear need be entertained by the British people of the extension of territory and of power by the French colonization of the country round Algiers. Some persons have expressed a doubt whether the French power could not extend itself along the south western coast of Africa, and in time be able to command the valuable gum trade of Senegal. If any one, however, will take the trouble to cast his eyes on the map of Africa, and see the immense distance from Bona or Constantine to the confines of Senegal, such an impression cannot long continue on his mind.

Looking, however, at the situation which the two great nations of Europe, England and France are placed, I confess I can see little probability of a war breaking out between them. We cannot look in this case to former times for a precedent; the situation of the two countries with regard to each other have entirely changed, the political occurrences of late years have altered the state of things in both countries. The people are made their own governors, and the beneficial result of interchange of commodities of every description that lakes place daily, and which hourly increases, must prevent the Executive Government of either, even if inclined to enter into hostilities against the wishes and interests of the people. The consequence is, that the probability of future wars is lessened, and if the general communication from the use of steam continues to increase, the increase of communication will be such as to render the chance of war every year less probable. Unless, therefore, the ambition of some power should lead to overt acts of aggression, there is little probability of any war breaking out, and Russia is more of a defensive than attacking power. Russia in a war with England or France could do them no real injury, and would herself lose her trade altogether, her landed aristocracy would suffer so severely as to prevent the Emperor from entering into one. How far the superabundant populations of the old states may lead to a different result in process of time is not for me to determine; and such is not to be apprehended as long as a vent is found for colonization in the wilds of Africa or the plains of America.

There is always to be found an active, restless, and discontented set of individuals, with little to lose and much to gain, in all social communities—these are not so common in newly-formed countries, but their number is found to increase in every civilized and fully-peopled country, always prepared for sedition, and ready to promote confusion, in hopes of participating in the general scramble, which ought not to be overlooked. However, under the present government, France seems to have little to apprehend. Some have said, that the Mediterranean would become a French lake; this will not happen sooner than the Baltic becoming a Russian lake; the chance of the latter is quite as great as the former, and, of the two, the former would by me be preferred, but both are at present unlikely.

To Britain, the colonization and partial civilization of Northern Africa, could not prove otherwise than beneficial. Wherever a new channel of trade is opened, the possible demand of our manufactures, or commodities may be created: whatever tends to increase a demand for any branch of our trade, it cannot be doubted that such a result would be advantageous. Every colony made by France is a pledge of peace given to Britain, and surely it cannot be a matter of indifference to England which has so often been obliged to have recourse to arms from apprehension of the power and ambition of the rulers of France, to find the same active and warlike population of that country directing their energies and capital to the arts of peace, to colonization, to augment their commerce with other nations, to increase their wealth and progressive improvement in lieu of the former attempt at universal conquest and dominion over part of Europe. The more France addicts herself to internal improvement and external colonization, the more adverse will her population be from war. Let any one who has before visited Paris, reflect on the extraordinary improvement in the condition, wealth, and enjoyment, of the people that is daily taking place. Under the wisest and most enlightened monarch that ever swayed the sceptre of France, she enjoys, at present, a prosperity never before known in the brightest days of her history; it cannot be denied that she has the power and means, and will endeavour, to turn to some advantage the uncultivated plains of Numidia. The result would be beneficial to all nations engaged in commerce, and to the welfare of Europe, and quicken the progress of human happiness and civilization throughout the world.

In her declaration to European courts, France intimated as follows:—That she would turn her preparations to the advantage of the Christian world by securing 1. The complete destruction of piracy. 2. The total abolition of Christian slavery. 3. The suppression of the tribute which Christian powers pay to the regency.

By the conference held in London it was agreed between France, England, and Russian, that in the countries of the East, no increase of territory at the expense of Turkey should be made by either of the above powers. Now, Sir, I beg distinctly to state, that the conduct of France has been in strict adherence to the above treaty. The territory of Bona, the town of Constantine, have no more relation to Turkey than they have to the county of Middlesex. If any infraction of the terms of the treaty has been made, the infraction has been not by France but by Russia, who has taken advantage of the weak state of the Ottoman Government, and whose influence is at present paramount at Constantinople. The treaty has been adhered to by England and France.

Now, Sir, the only argument that I have heard against the extension of territory in Africa by the French, is an assurance made by the present Government of France, that it would fulfil and ratify all the treaties and conventions made by the former Government, but, in looking over the treaties and conventions made with France, I see no stipulation whatever regarding Africa, and if some conversation was held with my noble Friend, the former Ambassador at Paris, by Charles the 10th, on the subject, I do not see how such can in any manner influence the present Government of France. Vattel, in his War of Nations, says, "Those assertions made by Kings of themselves, are personal in their nature, and expire of course on the death of the King, or the extinction of his family. [Vattel, book ii. chap, xii.]

If you admit the right of France to take and hold Algiers, which has been admitted, it is childish to say, she cannot extend her territory in Africa, or depress the attacks of the Arabs or Moors. What should we think of the French, if they interfered in our war with the Burmese, or if the French Chamber had remonstrated against our repelling the attacks of the Caffres, whose discomfiture was as repugnant to humanity as the repulse of the Moors at Bona, or the capture of Constantine at a subsequent period?

I fear I have dwelt too long on this subject, from a conviction of the importance of the question to the best interests of Britain and of the civilised world. I may have entered into details which might be deemed unnecessary; but I hope I may be excused for so doing. The chains of slavery in Europe have been broken by France, nearly at the lime that the chains of slavery were broken in America by England. The occupation of Algiers and its surrounding country by a powerful and highly-civilised European power is likely to benefit that power, to civilise benighted Africa, and to promote the welfare of Europe in general, and of England in particular: not only by opening and extending a vast field of demand for European industry, but by gradually ameliorating the situation of our fellow-creatures, and by annihilating a system of piracy most injurious to the trading nations of the world.

The question, therefore, is, are these benefits to be sacrificed to a paltry jealousy entertained by us of our neighbours, on the groundless apprehension of any molest- ation in time of war. I believe there are few thinking persons in this House, in this empire, or in Europe, who can entertain any doubts on the subject, or do not feel much gratification at the security now experienced by Christian nations that navigate the Mediterranean, who do not rejoice at the prospect of the abolition of piracy, and of the chance that the wandering tribes may gradually civilise, who can look forward without feeling a strong interest at the prospect of improving and colonising Numidia—that fine and productive portion of the globe. The advantage arising to mankind, and the benefits bestowed on society, by the chance of colonisation taking place in the northern coast of Africa, need not be here repeated. They must be apparent to every one, in a moral, religious, and political point of view; the prospect is cheerful; the idea is agreeable and favourable to humanity. In the course of years, the plains of Numidia, instead of being trodden underfoot by a barbarous, ignorant, and wandering banditti, may be turned up by the plough, and afford to an agricultural population the comforts, the luxuries, and the love, of civilised society.

Viscount Palmerston

had no objection to a return being ordered of the papers which formed the subject of this motion, premising that the correspondence sought was that which had passed between the Governments of France and England in 1830 with respect to the occupation of Algiers—a correspondence which had been laid before the other House of Parliament in 1831 or 1832. As it had not, however, as yet been laid before this House, it was perfectly proper that this should now be done. It could not be expected that he would at that moment enter very fully into many of those topics which had been suggested both by the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down and by his hon. Friend, who had introduced the motion. It was not his business to inquire into the effect which the occupation of Algiers would produce upon the interests of this country, in many of those respects which had been suggested by both those hon. Gentlemen, nor into the degree in which it was likely to affect the interests of France herself, in the cases which they had supposed. He must, however, say, that there existed a difference of opinion between him and the hon. Gentleman who had last spoken, upon one point, which was with regard to the rights which the Porte had over Algiers. That hon. Gentleman was in error when he asserted that Turkey had no right over Algiers, however qualified. The fact was, undoubtedly, that Turkey did possess those rights, qualified by certain restrictions, according to the interpretation of England and France, but less limited according to the construction of Austria and other European powers. He would not enter into the question whether England had the right to interpose when France demanded an explanation of alleged injustice and aggression sustained from the Algerine Government. With regard to the pledges or assurances which before the undertaking of this expedition were given by France to England and the other powers of Europe, they would be found in those papers upon their being printed, and the House would then be enabled to see how far France had complied with those engagements. With reference to the other point to which the hon. Gentleman had alluded, as to the possible designs of France upon other portions of the coast of Africa, he could positively inform the hon. Gentleman that the strongest assurances had been given to the English Government by the Government of France, that whatever might be the result of their attempt to occupy Algiers, no aggression would be made by them upon Tunis on the one hand, or upon Morocco on the other. Upon a matter of this kind—standing as the question did, both with reference to communications that had taken place and deliberations that were now passing in France itself between the Government and the Chambers—he thought he should best consult his duty by abstaining from expressing opinions which it would be neither useful nor convenient for him to express. In one sentiment, however, of his hon. Friend he would take the liberty of saying he most cordially concurred. His hon. Friend had expressed a hope that the people of this country did not feel as much desire as he believed the people of France still felt for military glory, which was only obtained by rushing into unnecessary and unprovoked wars. He entirely agreed with his hon. Friend on that point, and he also hoped that the time might come, and that it was not far distant, when civilized and Christian Europe might partake of the sentiments of his hon. Friend—when nations might feel that there was no real glory to be obtained by entering into wars of aggression and tyranny—and Christian nations be convinced that there was no honour to be derived by them from the slaughter of thousands for the purposes of invasion and oppression—and when those trophies, which were erected by the hands of conquerors who invaded the rights and liberties of others when they' should be endeavouring to preserve those of their own country, would, instead of being monuments of glory, continue to the latest period to redound to their disgrace.

Mr. MacKinnon

begged to know if, as was stated by the noble Lord, Turkey had been in occupation of Algiers, how it was that the two expeditions which had been sent out from England to demand reparation for the injuries that had been done to British commerce, did not go to Turkey, but direct to Algiers?

Viscount Palmerston

repeated, that there was no doubt that the Porte held rights over Algiers. France and England, whenever they had to complain against a particular power, used to go, without disputing the right of Turkey, to that particular power itself. Other powers used to hold the Sultan responsible for the acts of the Barbary States in Africa, and apply to him for redress when an injury had been done.

Lord Mahon

felt the delicacy of the subject, and did not intend to enter upon the discussion of it; but, as the noble Lord had stated that satisfactory assurances had been received from France disclaiming all intention of aggrandisement, on the one side, as regarded Morocco, and, on the other, Tunis, he thought it would be desirable that the noble Lord should give the dates of these assurances, and state whether they were in such a form that they might be added to the other papers moved for.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that those assurances had taken place within the last few months; that they had been chiefly verbal communications, but that such papers as had been received he should prefer not laying before the House.

Motion agreed to.