HC Deb 02 May 1839 vol 47 cc721-34
Sir S. Lushington

said, that at the conclusion of last Session he bad moved for the production of the correspondence relating to the outrages of which certain merchants of this country complained they had suffered from the French authorities on the western coast of Africa. At that time the noble Secretary for Foreign Affairs refused to produce the documents, on the ground that a negotiation was pending with the French government. A considerable time had now elapsed, and it was five years from the date of the first aggression; four since that of the second. He regretted to say, that even since the date of his motion last year, intelligence of fresh injuries and aggressions had been received. No redress for the former outrages had been obtained, and he could not but think, that if the injuries of which he complained on behalf of the British merchants had really been inflicted as he was instructed, they were really and truly injuries which called for some redress. The time had, in his opinion, then arrived when ample opportunity for inquiry must needs have occurred. It was a great and important question which was to be decided, namely, whether the British nation shall be excluded in future from the trade she had hitherto enjoyed on the western coast of Africa. This was the question to be decided, if indeed it was not already decided; because if he was not misinformed, an insult had been offered by a French naval officer to the British nation, in the person of the British merchants trading on that coast, which remained unredressed to that hour, and not merely unredressed, but so far from it, that not even the shadow of an apology to that hour had been made by the French Government. With reference to the question of the alliance between France and England, and the necessity which was sometimes urged of abstaining from any expressions which could tend to interrupt the harmony of that alliance, he would remark that he had long come to the conclusion that the best and most desirable method of putting a stop to any aggressions of this nature which might take place on the part of either of two allied nations upon the other, was for the latter nation to urge not merely reparation, but reparation within a reasonable time. In such cases the delay of justice amounted to a denial of justice. It was not his intention to enter into a long statement on the subject; he should confine himself to an outline of the facts as he understood them to have occurred. These facts consisted in certain aggressions on British trade which had taken place at Portendic, on the west coast of Africa, in pursuance of the orders of a French naval officer. Through the whole period between 1814 and 1834, as he understood, the British nation had been interfered with in this trade. The liberty of trade with Portendic, and with various ports on the coast of Senegal, was secured to the British nation by the treaty between France and England concluded in 1783, and it was expressly stipulated in the 9th article of that treaty, that the English should have the liberty of carrying on the gum trade from the mouth of the river St. John to the bay and fort of Portendic inclusively; and he contended that the Government of France in the course they had taken, had acted in violation both of national law and of justice towards the inhabitants of this country. In July 1834, without any previous notice that the French Government intended to break in upon the established custom of twenty years, and exclude British traffic from those parts, the following transaction took place, which he should best convey to the House by reading the letter sent by the French officer, M. Leveque, when the House would observe the imperative manner in which this gentleman thought fit to command a master of a British merchant's vessel to cease from trading. The letter was short, but every word of it was deserving of consideration, as being addressed to a British subject, carrying on what he would assert was a lawful trade. The letter ran thus:— Sir,—Considering that in violation of the laws subsisting between civilized nations, the Governor of St. Mary's, in the Gambia, has sent you to Portendic, where you constantly afford provisions to the Trazars, with whom we are at war; that he has thus failed in the gratitude which he owes to the French Government; considering, moreover, the nature of your cargo, which cannot but be of material assistance to that tribe; and finally, acting according to the instructions which I have received from the Governor of Senegal, I have the honour to request, that you will forthwith get under weigh, and not trade with the Moors at Portendic, except under sail, as it had been stipulated in the treaties concluded between the two Governments. Should you decline acceding to my request, be so good as to signify your refusal in writing, as I am fully resolved, in that case, to compel you to take the course I have suggested. "I have, &c., "C. LEVLQUE. "To the Captain of the Industry. Now, with respect to this most extraordinary letter he was almost at a loss to know what was meant by some of the expressions contained in it. When "all laws subsisting between civilized nations" were spoken of, he found it impossible to say what laws were meant. He would undertake to say, that there was not a syllable in that letter which was either founded in fact, or founded in law; and he would say, that the first act of the French Government ought to have been to disavow a document of this nature. The Governor of St. Mary's never sent Mr. G. Gunson, the captain of the Industry, to trade at Portendic, and the "violation of all laws of civilized nations" was effected, he supposed, by the introduction of a cargo of cotton for the ship contained no provisions for the Trazars. The writer went on to say—"I have to request that you will forthwith get under weigh, and not trade with the Moors at Portendic, except under sail, as has been stipulated in the treaties concluded between the two governments." Now he would read to the House the 9th article of the treaty of 1783, to which allusion was here made, and then the House would be able to judge how lawless was the construction put upon it by the French commander. The article said, As to the gum trade, the English shall have the liberty of carrying it on from the mouth of the river St. John to the bay and fort of Portendic inclusively, provided that they shall not form any permanent settlement, of what nature soever, in the said river St. John, upon the coast, or in the bay of Portendic. The condition of the article is not to form a permanent settlement, and the French commander construes a vessel throwing down an anchor, in the harbour to be within the condition! On such grounds it was, that a French commander had the temerity (for he could call it nothing else) to order the master of a British vesssel to carry on his trade under sail—a thing which on that coast, is altogether impossible. What was the reply of the British captain? It was a temperate, prudent, but firm reply. He refused to obey this daring edict, and he said he had a right so to refuse. There was no pretence of a blockade of the port on the part of the French; there was a futile pretence of an interdict, or something of that nature; but, in reality, the true ground of the proceeding was the insolence of the French commander. There was 5,000l. worth of gum on board the British vessel; the master covered it with the British flag for protection. The French commander fired against the British flag, destroyed the gum, the property of British merchants, and then seized the ship, arrested the supercargoes and officers, and made them prisoners. This was in July, 1834. Re was not desirous of impressing the importance of this subject on the House by the use of strong terms; but in this case, strong and undeniable and founded in justice as it was, he would not consent to be the advocate of the cause, and then betray it by the weakness of his expressions, or the vacillation of his conduct. In 1835 the French government proceeded to blockade the coast, and he said, first, that this was in direct defiance of their written undertaking, that they would not blockade that coast; secondly, that they had no pretence that was justifiable for the step; third, he said, that it was a blockade for the purpose of destroying the British trade, and acquiring for themselves a monopoly of the trade on that coast. What was the worth of the pretence, that the French were at war with the Trazars? Why, that people had not a shadow of a claim to the country about Portendic! Whatever was the right to the port or to the coast on the part of that people, they had ceded it to the French by the treaty of 1723. In fact the Trazars lived 100 miles distant from Portendic. Still the blockade was made tinder the pretence, that the English captain was in the habit of affording provisions to the Trazars. He begged the House to consider the value of this trade to Great Britain. Gum was an essential necessary to be used in a great variety of our manufactures. 29,000 cwt. were imported last year; the increase in the quantity imported was very great within the last few years; but how had this increase been made? Not in British vessels. For since 1835 not a single ounce of guru had been imported from Portendic in British bottoms. Since 1835, that trade had been extinguished as regarded the British nation. The French had succeeded to and supplanted us in a trade which the English had a right to carry on. The French government ought now to give the British nation the requisite satisfaction for what had passed—they ought to give redress for the outrage already committed, and security against the recurrence of the like in future. He wished to call the attention of the House to the existing state of things. He had no reason to doubt, that the noble Secretary for Foreign Affairs had made strong and urgent claim for reparation; he had no reason to doubt that the noble Lord viewed this transaction to a considerable extent in the same light as he himself viewed it; but he put it to the House, whether any further delay should be allowed, while the French government on pretexts not founded on facts, nor on circumstauces, inconsistent with the true law of nations, from day to day, and from month to month, and from year to year, procrastinated the settlement of the question. He hoped, that the French nation, too, through their administration, if ever they should have the good fortune to get an administration again, of which there seemed some little doubt, or otherwise that the royal individual who seemed to have in his hands the destinies of the nation, might at length find, that neither her Majesty's Government nor the British House of Commons, who were bound to redress wrongs like these, would allow no more time to be consumed in long dissertations upon this subject, coming back the moment one point was settled, to some other point that had already been settled, and delaying, from hour to hour, and from day to day, the concession of what roust ultimately, in his opinion, be conceded. The right hon. and learned Member in conclusion moved an address for copies of all correspondence between her Majesty's Government and France relative to the claims of her Majesty's subjects on account of injuries inflicted on British trade on the western coast of Africa since 1834.

Mr. Grote

would not have interfered, if he had not satisfied himself, that there had been great wrong and great aggravation in the way of insult and oppression offered to the British merchant. If the same wrong had been inflicted on any French merchant, he (Mr. Grote) should have said, that, the Englishman by whom it was inflicted, deserved the most serious reprimand and censure. The person on whom this great positive wrong had been inflicted—this same merchant had sustained a still further loss by being interdicted from carrying on trade there ever since. There was also the very serious and permanent damage of having that trade for ever interdicted to English capital and enterprise. He hoped, that the correspondence which the noble Lord had entered into with the French government would show, that he had been urgent in this matter on the French government. Still he was aware, that it was a matter very fit to be pressed on the attention of the House of Commons, more especially as five years had now elapsed since the damage had been done. The French government was more reluctant than ever he was sorry to say, to entertain the proposition of compensation, and had shown nothing like an inclination to accord satisfaction any more now, than when at first the matter was inquired into. Such conduct, uninquired into, and unredressed, tended to inflict on British commerce a feeling of insecurity of a most injurious description. He would not long detain the House, but would conclude with impressing on the House, the necessity of taking some steps on the question.

Viscount Palmerston

said, when this question was brought forward last year, he had stated that he was fully sensible of the importance of the matter. He was at the time in negotiation with the French Government on the subject of the claims made for compensation by the parties who were sufferers, and he had been in hopes that before any further inquiry would have been entered into substantial redress would have been made. He had to state, that the discussion between the two Governments on the subject had not yet been brought to a conclusion. He undoubtedly agreed with his right hon. Friend, not only in the statement of facts, but also in the opinion that he had expressed, that wrong had been done to British subjects, for which they were entitled to compensation at the hands of the Government of France. That being the opinion of Government, that opinion had been conveyed to the Government of France, and they had endeavoured to satisfy and convince the Government of France of the justice of the claims they had made. The Government of France had not yet admitted that those wrongs of which they complained had been inflicted on English subjects. The French Government had stated also that which was not satisfactory to her Majesty's Government; they had contended that their officers were borne out in what they had done, and that consequently there was no ground of claim on the French Government. Now the reasons alleged by the Government of France did not appear to her Majesty's Government to be sufficient or satisfactory; and (her Majesty's Government) were continuing to press on the French Government reasons, which in their opinion, conclusively established the claims which some English subjects had made on the Government of France. Now, that being the state of the case, the discussion being still pending between the Government, he was persuaded that on the one hand, his right hon. Friend who had made the motion, and the hon. Gentleman who had supported it, would feel that it would not be consistent with Parliamentary practice, and not advantageous, but on the contrary, that it would be disadvantageous to the public interests, if he were to yield to the motion his right hon. Friend had made, and consent to the production of those papers; because it was never the custom of the House to insist for the production of papers while discussions were pending between the English Government and a foreign power, and especially when the discussion related to such a question. And for the same reason, he was convinced that the House would be of opinion that it would not be fitting for him to enter into any examination of the facts and arguments of the case, or that it would be proper for him to state the grounds on which they thought the claims were just, or to enter into an examination of the grounds brought forward for refusing the claim. He would assure the House that her Majesty's Government were fully impressed with the importance of this case, both as regarded the interests of the parties concerned and as regarded also the general interests of the commerce of this country; and he could assure the House that no endeavours should be wanting on the part of the Government to convince the French Government of what they considered a just and proper claim. And although it might be understood that Government were slow to admit the justice of claims which, being admitted, not only proved them to have committed a wrong, but also proved that reparation was due from them, still he was satisfied that the Government of France had much too great respect for itself and for the great country whose affairs were intrusted to its hands, not to be ready to give full reparation whenever it should be satisfied that that reparation was just.

Alderman Thompson

said, he must beg leave to offer a few observations in reply to what had fallen from the noble Lord. He was against calling for correspondence generally in such a case, but this was a case per se. For what were the facts? This negotiation had been going on for the period of four years. Nine months ago they had been told that the question had assumed a character which would lead to a satisfactory termination. Now, the noble Lord stated, that all his efforts had been unsuccessful to satisfy the French Government of the justice of those claims. The French denied that they had done any wrong. Now, under such a state of things, and viewing the great importance of this question—for it was not a question of an individual having been permanently affected by these outrages, great as the inconvenience had been which the parties must of necessity have sustained, as every commercial man must be aware, to have so large a sum as £.100,000 abstracted from their capital for a period of four years; but it was not on that ground only that redress was required, but there was the permanent injury to commerce. He saw no reason why that House should not take effectual means to recover proper compensation. It did appear to him, therefore, that the correspondence and despatches ought to be produced. He thought, from the statement of the noble Lord himself, that he ought to produce this correspondence, in order to satisfy the House and the country that no efforts had been left untried to settle the question. It was well known that the object of France was to get possession of the entire coast of Africa, and this outrage had been really committed for the purpose of annoying British commerce, and not with the view of redressing any wrong done to France by the Trazars. He, therefore, did think that this was a case which required the interference of Parliament, and he despaired of redress unless by the intervention of that House.

Mr. Hawes

said, on the admission of the noble Lord of the state of the case, the country had a right to know what chance there was of obtaining any speedy redress, particularly when it was added, and he spoke correctly, that the last communication from the French Government was an absolute denial of our claim, so late as July last. In what state was our trade there at present? Was there any protection given to it now? Were we able to carry on the trade? Had our traders the protection of an armed force? and if so, how was it that up to this moment the aggression, of which complaint was made, had succeeded in extinguishing our trade? He thought there was ample proof that the Foreign Government had not been attentive to the interests of our trade. British merchants could not go on trading from year to year, as the French Government had absolutely denied the claim, and consequently made it unsafe to trade. He must say, he thought the Government was bound to take more effective measures to enforce attention to its demands than the noble Lord had indicated that the Government bad thought proper to take. There was one question which must force itself on their attention—it was, to what extent were our merchants to put up with French interference with our commerce, and to what extent were they to put up with interference in despite of treaties and express statements to the contrary? He said, that they ought not to acquiesce in apathy to aggressions on the part of the French, whether in Africa, or on the coast of Mexico, until the French had obtained establishments which would effectually compete with our trade. These were surely aggressions which the House ought not to allow the Government to pass over He spoke the sense of the whole mercantile community when he said, that peace could not long exist between the two countries if these successive aggressions went on. The whole responsibility rested with the noble Lord: from him they had a clear right to demand the state of the present negotiation.

Mr. Hume

said, after the great patience which had been exhibited, it behoved Government to lay the papers on the Table. He admitted the degree of patience which every public officer ought to exercise; but he thought the noble Lord was not dealing fairly with the merchant. He did not think any other country, America, for instance, would put up with such delay. He believed, if the President came to the resolution, honestly and fairly, that this was a just and honest claim, that he would send it down to the House and ask their opinion on the subject. And what did the noble Lord? He said it was not a good example. He (Mr. Hume) thought it was; and that the noble Lord, after his speech, had good ground for such a precedent.

Viscount Palmerston

begged to say one word in explanation. He thought he must have been misunderstood when it was said that he had stated, that the French Government absolutely denied the justice of the claim. If the case were in that state, he should admit that there was ground for the production of the papers; but what he had stated was, that the French Government had not admitted the justice of our claim, but considered it was a question still under discussion. With regard to the point alluded to by his hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, who seemed to think that there was no protection afforded to the trade to Portendic, every season they had sent armed vessels to that point, and he had no reason to believe it true that the ceasing of the British importation of gum was owing to any want of naval protection to commerce there.

Mr. Hume

Would the noble Lord state what naval force there was there to give protection?

Viscount Palmerston

said, the gum trade was carried on at certain seasons of the year; and at that particular season of the year one or two ships of war, as the case might he, had been sent there; and he was not aware that that protection had been inadequate.

Sir R. Peel

wished to ask a question, which was not altogether unconnected with the matter before the House. It related to the seizure of the pilot on board the Express packet. It would be in the recollection of the House, that when this subject was before the House, on a former occasion, he had ventured to predict, that the French Government would give that prompt, frank, and satisfactory explanation of the affair, which became the Government of a great nation. That prediction, he was glad to perceive, had been fully verified. The honorable manner in which that explanation had been voluntarily given was, of course, satisfactory to this country, and by it France had set an excellent example to us to follow, under similar circumstances. But in that explanation, as it appeared to him, it was stated that the Express packet had been mistaken for a merchant vessel. Now what he wanted to know from the noble Lord was, whether it was admitted to imply that a blockading force could take a pilot from a merchant vessel, having the flag of its nation flying, and whether the English Government would not consider that the same protection should be extended to its flag on board a merchant ship, as to any of its vessels of war?

Viscount Palmerston

admitted, that there was no difference between the protection which should be extended to our flag flying in a merchant vessel, and to one of our ships of war, and an insult to that flag, would be as great a violation of our rights in a merchant-ship as in a ship of war, but the letter from Count Sebastiani stated, that the French was not aware at the time that the Express belonged to our royal navy, but he did not even know that she belonged to the British marine—a term which, in its French acceptation would include merchant vessels, as well as ships of war; and Count Sebastiani stated to him, that that term was advisedly used as meaning that vessels of both classes were equally entitled to protection.

Sir R. Peel

—it was then clearly understood, that we contended for the perfect right of protection to our flag in merchant-vessels, as well as to our ships of war?

Lord Palmerston

—The only difference would be, that an attempt of the same kind on a ship of war, might lead to a more immediate collision, and tend to bring the question to a more speedy issue; but, in point of national right, there was no difference whatever between the protection to our flag on board vessels of either kind.

Mr. Philip Howard

did not oppose the motion of the right hon. Gentleman, from any wish to under-rate the grievances and injuries sustained by British merchants, but because it could not be gainsayed that a severe shock would be given to representative governments, if it were found impossible safely to negociate with them. If the English House of Commons, and the French Chambre des Députes forced their Governments to give up state papers pending negotiations, the peace of the world, which depended frequently on diplomatic honour and confidence, would, on many occasions, be placed in needless peril; and, as in this instance, a transient advantage would be dearly bought by a precedent productive of lasting inconvenience. The injuries which had been inflicted on English merchants was, in this case, of no trifling moment; the supercargoes of two vessels, the "Industry," and the "Governor Temple," had been imprisoned, the British flag fired upon, and it would behove the honour and justice of the French monarch, and the French people, to make good the injury sustained by unoffending merchants, and that the French Government would make reparation with the frankness which had marked its proceedings in the case of Mexico, when a wrong inflicted had been clearly proven, could not be doubted. He (Mr. Howard) might add, that the present state of the French ministry was a reason for not then pressing the motion to a division. Once fairly planted in office, the noble Secretary for Foreign Affairs might fairly, and he was sure he would earnestly, challenge attention to this subject. The hon. Member for Lambeth had, in some degree, overstated the case of the French occupation of Algiers: on reference to the correspondence which had passed on the subject between the Earl of Aberdeen and the Prince de Polignac, on the subject; he would find, that the latter had stated, "that in the event of the dissolution of the Government of the Dey of Algiers consequent upon the struggle between the troops of his most Christian Majesty, and the rulers of that state, the French monarch would concert with his allies, as to the occupation of that territory—and the result had been, that the French Government on giving a pledge, not to pass a stated line on each side—had been allowed to retain that portion of the soil of Africa, as a colony of France; but the coast line so to be occupied, had been strictly defined and limited by subsequent declarations. It would be inferring much weakness and vacillation on the part of the sovereigns of the allied powers, to lay it down unconditionally, that formal possession had been taken of that part of Africa, by the French, without some understanding as to the limits of their jurisdiction.

Sir S. Luskington,

in reply, said, that he was glad that his statement of the facts in this case had been received with approbation by the. House. At the same time he felt himself placed in a situation of considerable embarrassment. He had, in fact, nothing to reply to, and the question he had brought before the House was in the same state as if he had not opened his lips on it. He had got from his noble Friend the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, the same assurances on this occasion which had been given to him in August, 1838. He regretted that when this matter occurred in 1835 it had not been taken up by Parliament. If it had been noticed in the same spirit which had been manifested by Parliament in the case of the Express Packet, there was no doubt that long before the present time it would have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The question, though one of importance in a pecuniary point of view to the parties concerned, did not derive its chief importance from that circumstance. The great question for the Government and for the House to consider was, whether the commander of a French vessel, by his own power and authority, could seize British vessels and imprison British subjects, with impunity. That was the question which should form the main subject for consideration. The pecuniary question was not unimportant; though owing to the high rank and great respectability of the merchants concerned, the loss sustained could be borne, yet to others in less affluent circumstances it might have brought utter ruin. Under the circumstances stated by his noble Friend, he felt that he ought not to press his motion at present, but if he should now refrain from urging the production of the papers it would be on two grounds. The first, that it was not usual with that House to call for the production of correspondence on a subject on which negotiations were still pending; and, secondly, his firm hope that now a more forcible appeal would be made by the Queen's Government to that of France, backed as it would be, not only by the strong approbation of the House of Commons, but also by the general feeling of the British people. With such support, he did earnestly hope that the opportunity of making this forcible appeal would not be lost by the Government. On these considerations he would withdraw his motion.

Sir E. Codrington

said, that if the old custom of having ships of war stationed in those places where British trade to any extent was carried on had been adhered to in the present case, we should never have heard of such complaints as these.

Motion withdrawn.

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