HC Deb 01 March 1838 vol 41 cc321-7
Captain Pechell

did not think on any other occasion he had ever risen with so much anxiety as that with which he now presented himself to the notice of the House, as in undertaking the responsibility of defending the characters of so many brave and gallant officers he must naturally feel his own incompetence as their advocate; but as their cause had truth and justice on its side, be confidently relied on the sympathy of the House in the course he proposed to pursue. He should, therefore, at once state, that the object, of moving for certain returns relating to the slave trade, was to relieve the officers and seamen employed on the coast of Africa from the charge which had been made, of their having allowed sordid feelings and pecuniary motives to interfere with the discharge of their public and professional duties. And for this purpose he would confine his observations within those limits, and he would show that the officers and seamen had not merited the censure cast upon them; but on the contrary, that they had deserved well of their country. The right hon. Baronet opposite, now Member for Pembroke, appeared, by the shake of his head, to disapprove of what had just been said. He should have imagined that a late First Lord of the Admiralty would have felt inclined to have supported the character of the Naval Officers when they had been so cruelly attacked.

Sir James Graham

intimated, that he had not meant to express any dissent.

Captain Pechell

said, the bare suspicion of an inclination of the head of a late First Lord of the Admiralty was an awful circumstance—as the conduct of many, officers serving during the right hon. Baronet's administration was now in question. The charge then complained of was, that in the suppression of the slave trade the Commanders of her Majesty's ships, with a view to their pecuniary interests, by their thirst for blood money, have permitted vessels to take in their cargoes of slaves instead of using their best endeavours to capture them before they entered the rivers on the coast of Africa,—in plain English, that her Majesty's ships had permitted the empty vessels to pass by unmolested, that they might afterwards bag them as a richer and fatter prize when returning loaded with slaves. This was a charge which the British Navy would not submit to, and which they threw back with indignation, and which he now repelled in as strong language as the usage of Parliament would permit,—the more so, as a cruel charge was wholly unnecessary to substantiate the case the noble and learned Lord desired to prove as to the necessity for suppressing that infamous and cruel traffic which all parties were so desirous to put down. The navy, therefore, consider the charge as a gratuitous insult; and though the noble Lord who presides at the head of naval affairs has most kindly and honourably vindicated the character of the profession in another place, yet it is desired that some expression of this House should be manifested in favour of those who feel they have been so cruelly treated. It will therefore be necessary to explain the circumstances under which the cruisers are placed on the coast of Africa, and to remind the House that until January 1836, when the last treaty with Spain reached that part of the world, no vessel under the Spanish flag (although in every way equipped and provisioned) could be detained lawfully unless slaves were actually on board—and that no vessel with the flag of Portugal (even at this moment), could be detained unless tinder similar circumstances; consequently the difficulty is great, and the cruisers are baffled in every way by the extreme facility afforded at the Isles of St. Thomas and Cape de Verd, of changing the flags of Spain and the United States to that of Portugal. This could be effected for the small sum of 100 dollars. Therefore it is to be understood that only vessels bearing the Spanish flag can now be seized legally, although there may be clear proof of their being engaged in the traffic. For this want of jurisdiction, for this non-fulfilment of stipulations and treaties by foreign powers, have those brave officers been denounced by the gigantic force and the steam-frigate power of eloquence of the noble and eminent philanthropist, wholly setting aside their sufferings and privations by constant exposure in that horrid and pestilential climate. The commanders of the cruisers, under all their difficulties of want of jurisdiction, had exerted themselves in the discharge of their duty to the utmost, and had shewn by their zeal in putting down the slave traffic that they had frequently been put to great risk and expenses by detaining vessels that had all the usual articles on board for the reception of slaves, but which the mixed Courts at Havannah and Sierra Leone could not condemn for want of power under the several treaties with Spain and Portugal. From documents which he held in his hand, he would prove, that in the first six months of the promulgation of the equipment treaty, twenty vessels were condemned at Sierra Leone, seven of which only had slaves on board, and thirteen were what was termed empty. This would at once shew that the cruisers had not permitted the outward-bound slave vessels to pass by unmolested that they might be afterwards taken on their homeward voyage with a full cargo of slaves. For these empty vessels the captors did not receive one farthing, the proceeds being paid into court, and the moiety was transferred to the authorities of the nation to which the condemned vessel belonged. In such cases the commanders of her Majesty's ships were liable to expenses, as the prizes sometimes remained six months for trial. In the case of slaves being on board, by Act of Parliament the captors were entitled to 5l. per head; out of this sum one-eighth went to Greenwich Hospital, one-sixteenth to the flag officer in command, and agency expenses of condemnation and fees paid at the Treasury,—aye, fees at the Treasury. And here he would call upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove such charges, and also to bring in a bill, or by order in council, to carry out the spirit of the treaties, by giving bounties to captors for the broken-up hulls and cargoes of the empty vessels taken under the equipment article. To prove further the zealous services of the cruizers, he could state, that the Charybdis, commanded by the gallant officer Lieut. Mercer, had, from January, 1836 to 1837, taken six vessels that were empty, and one with 449 slaves on board; and he trusted that the Board of Admiralty would mark their approval of that officer's conduct, by giving him the promotion he had so well earned. This officer had been eleven years on the coast of Africa, and was the only survivor of one of the surveying and exploring expeditions, and had completely lost his health. The Trinculo, captain Puget, had also been most active, and that officer had risked much by sending his boats to attack four armed vessels in the river Bonny, who were waiting for their cargoes of slaves; these vessels were cut out after a severe fight, when lieut. Tyron was taken prisoner and stripped naked by the Spaniards and blacks; and what will the House think would be the amount of prize-money to recompense the captors on such an occasion?—Why, the sum of 49l. 5s. 4d. was the actual moiety of the proceeds of these four broken-up vessels which the British Government shared with that of Spain, and which sum the Treasury have not yet provided for the captors. He could state many cases where the greatest, gallantry had been shown in action against very superior forces on the coast of Africa, and which, if it had taken place during the time of war, would have sounded well in the Gazette; and it was due to the officers and seamen of H.M.S. Fair Rosamond and others, to state their heroic conduct. The noble Lord at the head of the Admiralty has shewn, that since Jan. 1836, when the Spanish treaty came into operation, thirty vessels had been taken, nineteen of which had been empty, thus showing that the naval officers had not been actuated by those motives which had been imputed to them, and that, at any rate, their thirst for what the noble Lord had termed "blood-money" had not prevented them from doing their duty in capturing vessels only equipped for the transport of slaves. He had much desired that the charges made by the noble Lord on the 29th of January should have been either qualified or removed; but, to his great surprise, on a subsequent occasion, viz., on the 20th of February, these charges were not only repeated, but, in his opinion, and in that of all his brother officers, they were most materially aggravated, and he would read to the House the passages in question, which by implication, was sufficient to give the greatest offence to the profession to which he had the honour to belong. It was in these words:— The zeal of naval officers for the service had been much spoken of; these was a saying of Lord Thurlow, 'Far be it from me to utter anything against an officer in the public employ, either civil or military, for it will lay me open to hear his panegyric; no sooner was it said, that money was not without its charms, that the love of prize-money was kindred to the heart, than forth came a splendid panegyric on the exemplary character of the officers, that they were actuated only by noble feeling, that money had no power and no influence, and that nothing moved them but a sense of public duty; and the man who thought otherwise was designated as degraded and ignorant, and stupified, and had no knowledge of naval officers and naval duties. Now he would leave it to the House to say, if the naval profession had not cause to complain. The insinuations were intelligible, and certainly no mistake, and, on the part of the navy, he repelled them; and feeling strongly on this occasion the great provocation the service had received, he could do no other than use the very words (by way of retort) which were applied to cast a slur upon the officers of her Majesty's cruisers. How dare any man accuse British officers of being fond of blood-money? How dare any man, without offering any proof whatever, to utter so slanderous and false an imputation? The navy had a just right to complain of these accusations, and also to expect this night a disavowal of such sentiments; and those hon. Members sitting below, who composed the Board of Admiralty, would undoubtedly seize the present opportunity, and thank him for having given them this occasion to pronounce their full and unqualified approbation of the faithful and honourable conduct of the officers, and their gallant services on the coast of Africa. The gallant Member concluded by moving for a return of all vessels captured under the late Spanish treaty by her Majesty's ships since Feb. 1836, distinguishing whether having slaves on board, or under the equipment article, to the latest date for which the same can be prepared, and stating the name of the vessel by which each was captured.

Mr. Goring

, in seconding the motion, expressed his concurrence in what had fallen from the hon. and gallant officer in reference to what he considered a most uncalled-for and unjustifiable charge on the part of a certain noble Lord. He was, however, of the same opinion which he had last year expressed on this subject—namely, that they could not effectually put a stop to the slave trade until they constituted it an act of piracy, and resolved upon hanging at the yard-arm the commander of every slave trade vessel they could capture.

Sir E. Codrington

regretted that any person in such a high station as the noble Lord who had attacked the naval officers elsewhere should indulge in such unjust and unfounded accusations. Some persons, however, were so much given to vituperation that they hardly knew or cared whom they attacked.

Mr. C. Wood

had no objection to the return moved for by his gallant Friend. He was satisfied that there was not the slightest foundation for the attack that had been made elsewhere on the naval officers employed on the western coast of Africa. He was convinced that no officers of the navy could have been guilty of such disgraceful conduct as had been imputed to them. The statement that had been made elsewhere was altogether unwaranted by the facts of the case. Before the treaty with Spain, no officer could seize a vessel engaged in the slave trade unless it had slaves on board, and if they did so, they exposed themselves to the risk of heavy penalties. Under the treaty, however, vessels equipped in a particular manner were liable to seizure. He should feel the greatest pleasure in giving the return moved for, as it would show that the naval officers had manifested the greatest exertions to suppress the Spanish slave trade, and that those exertions had almost entirely put a stop to the infamous traffic under that flag. He had thought it only a matter of duty to bear testimony to the gallant conduct of the officers employed in seizing slave vessels on the pestilential coast of Africa.

Sir Charles Adam

said, that he also felt himself bound to bear testimony to the statement of his hon. Friend, the Secretary for the Admiralty, as to the gallantry and zeal of the naval officers employed in the suppression of the slave trade on the coast of Africa.

Sir Thomas Troubridge

observed, that a more unwarrantable attack had never been made at any place or time, on any body of men, than that which had been made elsewhere a few nights ago on the naval officers employed on the coast of Africa; and he deeply regretted that such an unguarded attack had come from such a high quarter. Nothing could exceed the gallantry, zeal, and disinterestedness, of the officers employed on the coast of Africa, in the suppression of the slave trade, and he trusted they would be rewarded as they deserved.

Captain Pechell

, in reply, stated his sincere satisfaction at the manner in which the members of the Board of Admiralty had expressed their sentiments, and which would not fail of being most gratifying to the whole of the naval service. It would be very cheering to many of those whose relatives and connexions were now suffering on the pestilential coast of Africa. He held in his hand several letters of complaint from the widow, the wife, and the orphan of those who had fought and bled in the service. The honour of these officers was dear to them; many of them had no aristocratic influence to back them up; they had only their character, and the record of the number of captures, be they empty or be they loaded, to recommend them to the Admiralty for promotion; and it was hard upon them to have any censure cast upon them, and to have their claims disputed and set aside.

Motion agreed to.

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