HC Deb 11 February 1841 vol 56 cc514-28
Mr. H. Baillie

said, it was with no ordinary feelings of embarrassment that he rose upon the present occasion to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice, for a select committee to inquire into the condition of the population of the western highlands of Scotland, with a view to affording the people relief by means of emigration. He felt deeply the responsibility which must devolve upon any one who came forward as the advocate of a large body of his fellow-countrymen, whose future prospects of happiness or misery might in some measure depend upon the manner in. which their case was represented to that House, nor should he have ventured to undertake the task did he not at the same time feel that this was a question of humanity and of justice, and therefore that it needed no artificial advantages or embellishments of any kind to recommend it to the serious attention and consideration of the House. He must, in the first place, state, that he was not one of those enthusiasts in the cause of emigration who thought that the Government ought to bring forward a measure, or establish a system of emigration upon a large and extensive scale for the population of the United Kingdom; on the contrary, he was of opinion, that unless a very urgent, special, and peculiar case could be made out—unless he should be able to make out such a case upon the present occasion, the Government would not be justified in their interference, or that House in giving its support to the motion with which he should conclude. It was hardly necessary to enter into a very lengthened or detailed history of the kelp manufacture upon the western coast of Scotland; it was quite sufficient for the House to know that it once existed—that it was in existence so far back as the end of the seventeenth century, that it was one of those manufactures which had long been fostered and encouraged, perhaps unwisely, by protecting duties—that it was the means of affording occupation and existence to a very large population, which had been encouraged from time to time to settle in those wild and barren districts of the highlands where they had, comparatively speaking, no agricultural resources. The consequence was, that when those protecting duties Mere withdrawn, the manufacture rapidly declined, the people were thrown out of employment, and reduced to the utmost state of misery and destitution. The protecting duties to which he alluded, were the duties upon salt, sulphur, and upon barilla. In consequence of the sudden reduction of the duties upon salt and sulphur, anew manufacture came into operation, composed of those two substances, which was called British alkali, and which proved to be a complete substitute for kelp; this was the first great blow which the manufacture received. It still, however, continued to be employed for some purposes, until the reduction of the duty upon barilla, when it might be said to have been extinguished altogether as a profitable manufacture. True it was, that kelp was still manufactured, but only in. small quantities gene- rally for the purpose of employing the most destitute portion of the population, and for the most part at a positive loss to the manufacturer. The consequences which followed the reduction of those duties to the landed proprietors were ruinous in the extreme. True it was, that some of them with vast possessions had been enabled to contend against it, but the smaller proprietors, and those whose estates were burdened with family settlements, were absolutely and completely ruined. He knew the case of one gentleman whose whole estate was not sufficient to pay the settlements which were made upon his younger brothers during the flourishing state of the kelp manufacture; he was in consequence obliged to give up his whole estate to his younger brothers, and he himself was only last year sent out at their joint expense as a sheep farmer to Australia. He might mention other cases of similar hardship. True it was, they had been ruined, but they did not complain; they knew that there were occasions when private interests must yield to the public good. They admitted this, and did not call upon the House for compensation, but they did call upon Government, and he thought with fairness and with justice, to assist in removing the superabundant population from their estates, who, from no fault of their own, but in consequence of the legislation of that House, had been deprived of all means of existence. He knew he might he told by some that the measure which he proposed was too partial and restricted, that distress existed in other parts of the country as well as in Scotland, and more particularly in Ireland. He admitted the fact, but at the same time he submitted that the cases were widely different. In Ireland, for instance, there was a rich and fertile soil, capable of sustaining, even with its present imperfect cultivation, not only the population which now existed, but a much larger population. If then distress existed in Ireland, it proceeded from other causes, and not from any want of capability in the soil of affording food for the inhabitants; it might proceed from political causes, or from want of capital to develop the resources of the country. These were, doubtless, evils, but they were evils which it might be hoped one day to see removed. But these poor Highlanders had no hope or expectation that their condition could ever be improved,—no influx of capital, no ingenuity of man could devise means by which those barren rocks and mountains which they inhabited could be made capable of affording food for the population which at present existed, For them there was but the choice of one or two alternatives—either to remain where they were and perish by diseases engendered by unwholesome, improper, and insufficient food, or to remove to some distant country, where by industry they might hope to obtain the means of existence; and, painful as must be the alternative of quitting for ever their native land, they were ready and prepared to adopt this course —nay, even to receive it as a boon, and all they asked was, that Parliament would afford them the means of removing. The famine which it must be well remembered by the House took place in the year 1837 was the natural consequence of the state of things which he had described. Upon that occasion some thousands of these poor people were saved from the most horrible of all deaths (starvation) by the prompt assistance which they received from Government, as well as by the philanthropy and the generosity of the British public. But if the evil had thus been arrested in its course, the disease was not cured, it still existed, and so certainly and so surely as that failures of their crops must, in the nature of things, again take place, so certainly would that famine again return, so surely would Government be called upon to interfere, and the British public be again appealed to. He asked the House whether this was a state of things which ought to exist in a civilized country, and whether the Legislature was not bound to take some steps to remove an evil which it had itself in a great measure been the means of creating? It was not his intention to occupy the time of the House by reading the various communications which he had received upon this subject in corroboration of the statements he had made, because such evidence would come much more appropriately before a committee. One of these communications, however, he would read to the House, because it proceeded from a Gentleman who for thirty years had the management of some of the largest kelp estates in the north of Scotland, one of which alone had at one time yielded a revenue in kelp to the amount of from 18,000l. to 20,000l. a year. This Gentleman, Mr. Duncan Shaw, after recapitulating all the measures which were taken by Government to encourage the population to settle in those districts, proceeded to say, So soon as the war was ended, without inquiring into the misery likely to be caused to one part of the empire by so sudden and entire a change of measures, the Government reduced the duties on barilla and sulphur, and entirely removed the duties on salt. By these measures barilla and British alkali came at once into competition with kelp, and soon reduced the prices from 14l., 15l., 16l., and even 20l. per ton, to less than 3l. The income of one, Long Island, estate was reduced from 12,000l. to about 3,500l. Instead of yielding a large, revenue, kelp came now to be manufactured at great loss to the proprietors; the consequence had been, in some instances, their complete ruin; their debts and family settlements remained burdens on their estates, while the incomes of those estates were reduced two-thirds. Nor was the reduction of income the only misfortune; the extra population created by the kelp manufacturers under the protection of Government remained a burden on their hands; not only were they obliged to import provisions for their extra population, but their presence prevented the letting their lands in large grazing farms, and so turning their estates to some account; the small tenants, far from paying rents, cannot maintain themselves, their allotments being necessarily so small. In proof of the state to which the kelp trade is reduced, I may observe that in 1838, 584 tons of kelp were manufactured on an estate under my management at a loss to the proprietor of 620l. 11s. 5d., while the same proprietor has for the last five years imported at an average 500 bolls of meal for the use of his tenantry, independent altogether of the very large quantity sent by the committee for managing the funds subscribed for the destitute Highlanders. The next summer. I cannot estimate the probable import on the same estate at less than 800 bolls, and I have no reason to believe that the other estates in Long Island are differently situated to the one I have referred to; no person the least acquainted with the state of the population of those islands can entertain a doubt that provisions to a large extent must be annually imported till a very great portion of the population is removed; the people are unable to support themselves where they are, and equally unable to pay the expense of emigrating. The proprietors, already distressed by the loss of two-thirds of their incomes, are unable to support the people al home, or to assist them in going abroad. He had already said that the only remedy which could be applied to these evils was the removal of the people from the country, and he should now proceed to state why he considered Canada the best, most appropriate, and fittest place to which they could emigrate. The expense of emigrating to Canada was not above one-third that of emigrating to the more distant colonies of Australia, He was in- formed that emigrants might be conveyed from this country to Quebec at the cost of about 3l. a-head, taking them by families; probably Government could do it at a still cheaper rate. According to the best calculations there were at least 40,000 people in a destitute condition who ought to be removed, in order to afford those who remained a fair chance of gaining a subsistence; the removal of this number, at the rate mentioned, would amount to a sum of about 120,000l, which might, however, be divided over a period of three years, and he might venture to assert that 40,000l. a year for three years would effect all that could be required. Secondly, although these people were anxious and willing to emigrate to Canada, he doubted whether they could be induced to go to Australia. In Canada they knew that they would find many of their own relations and friends; they knew that they would find whole districts of the country peopled by Highlanders, speaking their own language, maintaining their own manners and customs, and, above all things, they knew that there they would find their own church established by law; thirdly, it appeared to him, that the Government ought not to neglect this favourable opportunity of infusing into Canada a sound, industrious, a British, and, above all, a loyal population. Parliament should not forget that it was to some regiments of Highlanders, raised from the districts of Glengarry, in Upper Canada, that they were lately indebted for the preservation of that noble province as a portion of the British colonial empire, nor should they neglect so favourable an opportunity of still further increasing that loyal portion of the population, who had at all times so nobly come forward to devote their lives and fortunes to support the honour of the British Crown, and to maintain the supremacy of the mother country. The Government had started a serious objection to Canadian emigration, and he wished to state that objection fairly to the House, in order that it might decide whether or not it was applicable to the present case. It had been stated by the Government that emigrants who were sent out to Canada were accustomed to go over in large numbers to the United States, where they generally found a better market for their labour, and this objection would doubtless apply to emigrants collected from various parts of the country, who had no peculiar local ties to bind them to any particular district; but it should be remembered that those Highlanders would go out in large bodies from particular districts of the country, that they would carry with them all their local ties and affections, that they would be accompanied by their wives and children, their fathers and mothers; in short, by all those ties of relationship and of clanship, which were known to be so peculiarly binding amongst Highlanders; and he would appeal to any one who was in the least acquainted with the character of that people, whether under these circumstances they would be likely to wander off to the United States, or whether, on the contrary, they would not be prepared to make any sacrifices, in order to be allowed to settle together with those who accompanied them from their native country in those locations which might be appointed by the Government, provided only they could obtain the means of existing. He felt persuaded that any one acquainted with the character of the people would support him in this assertion. He must remind the House that these people had peculiar claims upon their consideration. He must remind them, that in spite of all their misery and all their distress, they had heard of no outrages, they had heard of no violence, they had heard of no Chartism in that country; all that they had heard of was patient endurance, of the worst, the most intolerable of evils to which humanity could be subject; this they had heard of, and this conduct, he maintained, entitled those people to the favourable consideration of the House; but, could he doubt that they would obtain a favourable consideration of their case, could he believe that the people of England, who a few years ago so nobly and so generously sanctioned a vote of 20,000,000l. of the public money for the purpose of bettering the condition of the negroes in the West Indies—not their physical condition, he admitted, he should rather say their social position could he believe that the Government which only last year obtained a vote for 60,000l., for the purpose of endeavouring to civilize the inhabitants of the interior of Africa (as he thought a very hopeless undertaking indeed, and, in his opinion, evincing a mistaken philanthropy, a useless, unnecessary, and foolish extravagance on the part of the present Government) could he believe, he repeated, that the people of England, or the Government, would now turn with cold indifference from the sufferings of their own fellow-coun- trymen, sufferings far more intolerable, misery far greater, than any that ever was endured by the negroes in the West Indies? Anything so monstrous he could not believe possible. All he asked was for a committee. He wished to prove all that he had stated—he wished to prove (not to the Government, for they know it, but to the people of England), that a portion of their fellow-countrymen had been reduced by the legislation of that House (however necessary, however advantageous, that legislation might have proved to the rest of the community)—that they had been reduced by it to a greater state of misery and degradation than those who had not witnessed it could form the least conception of; and, having proved this, he would then leave it to the wisdom of Parliament to devise such means as might be considered just and proper, in order to remove this stain from the character of the legislation of the country, and, at the same time, to give that protection, and that assistance, and he would add, to do that justice, which the people had a right to expect, and look for, from a paternal Government. The hon. Gentleman then moved, "That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the condition of the population of the islands and highlands of Scotland, with a view to afford the people relief by means of emigration."

Lord Teignmouth

seconded the motion, and thought that the present was a case where a deviation might be made from the course which the present financial state of the country might seem to require. The effect of the proposed measure would be to benefit both the landowners and the poorer classes, for it would render the land more valuable, better the condition of the remaining inhabitants, and add to the wealth of the country. Canada, too, was a more suitable location for these poor people than for the handloom weavers, who were not physically qualified to contend with the climate and the soil. The Highlanders were also better adapted for emigration than the Irish, being more sober and industrious, and they would form a population calculated to prove a strong defence for the frontier in case of necessity.

Lord J. Russell

I should be very sorry to have it supposed that in not making any objection to the appointment of this committee, I was implying assent to the statements and arguments of the hon. Member. I am quite ready to admit the great extent of the distress which prevailed some time in the districts alluded to, and I think the House may well give its assent to a committee to inquire into these statements. But I wish to say at once, that my opinion, according to the view I took last year of this subject, is, that the reasons stated by the hon. Member do not make out a special case for the grant of a large sum of money for the purpose of sending out those people as emigrants to Canada; nor do I think, that the hon. Gentleman will be able to make out his case, that their destitution is to be entirely attributed to the reduction of the duties on barilla, since I believe there have been some new inventions, such as a mode of making soda, which have tended to the destruction of the kelp manufacture. But, even if he could, I should doubt whether, in every case where duties have been changed by Act of Parliament, that Parliament be bound to provide for all those parties whose livelihood may be affected by changes in modes of industry, or to take care of all those whom the landlords declare to be a burden upon their lands. I should be sorry to admit that, and I think if any lesson is to be derived from the document of the hon. Member on this head, it is, that we ought to avoid all artificial protection. But supposing all those questions answered in the affirmative, another question then suggests itself, whether the Highlanders alone are to benefit by such a grant; and whether, if we grant 120,000l. for their relief, we should not have other claimants equally distressed, and whose distress has been produced by the depression of peculiar species of industry, making the same request, and on precisely the same grounds; and I doubt much whether the statement of the hon. Member, that these Highlanders were more especially fitted to promote the civilization of Canada would be altogether a satisfactory and sufficient reason for denying them a relief which we had already granted to the Highlanders. With respect to this country, then, there are strong reasons for pausing in this case, but with respect to Canada itself, there are abundant reasons also. Emigration to Canada, considering it as I do a national object, should be so conducted, in concert with measures to be taken in Canada, that the emigrants on arriving there should at once find the means of support and liveli- hood. Now, with respect to many of these persons who are old and infirm, and unable to exert themselves, they would not, on arriving in the Canadas, find themselves in such a condition, and would, therefore, become a burden to the revenues of that colony. There may be emigration so conducted as to avoid this; not the emigration proposed by the hon. Member, but an emigration in concert with the officers of the Crown in Canada, and also in concert with the authority of that Assembly which we are just calling into existence, and whose opinion on matters so deeply concerning them and their finances, ought to be looked at with great respect and consideration by the Government of this country. I wish, without going further into the discussion, to state, that, whilst assenting to the hon. Gentleman's motion, there are many reasons for differing from the conclusions to which he has come, although I would not take the harsh step of objecting to a committee of inquiry.

Sir JR. H. Inglis

said, as the present motion was for a committee to inquire into a certain matter, he would not then enter upon the question involved in it, nor would he have stood up at all were it not for something which had fallen from the hon. Gentleman who had introduced the motion relative to the Niger expedition. He would only beg the House not to be led away by the hon. Gentleman's statements on that subject.

Mr. Warburton

expressed his regret that the noble Lord had consented to a Committee, as in the first place it was calculated to excite false hopes; and in the next place, if there were to be an inquiry, it would be better conducted by a commission upon the spot.

Sir R. Peel

felt, on the whole, considerable satisfaction at the noble Lord having acquiesced in the motion. Considering the sufferings which had been so ably described by the hon. Gentleman, than whom no person more fit could be selected to represent them, considering the extent of the misery, and the amount of the suffering which had been endured with such exemplary patience and submission, he thought it would be a harsh proceeding to refuse the committee. He did not anticipate the results which the hon. Member for Bridport predicted, nor was he apprehensive that inquiry would render the refusal of the grant more difficult. On the contrary, he thought it would have the effect of convincing the parties that emigration on an extensive scale could not be accomplished, and would open their eyes to the real amount of relief which they could possibly receive. Take, for instance, the case of the handloom weavers. He looked to the condition of these poor people with exactly the same feelings with which he viewed the position of the distressed Highlanders, both being impoverished by similar means, for new discoveries and applications of machinery were to the one what the reduction of the duties had been to the other. The first impression of the handloom weavers was this. "Here in England the market is overstocked, and there is an extensive want of employment, whilst we have large and distant colonies which are in equal want of labour, and it will not be just of the Government if it do not take advantage of these circumstances, and expend large sums in enabling us to emigrate." When these people, however, were reasoned with—when they were shown the improvidence and cruelty of sending persons who knew nothing of agriculture out to distant provinces, where the means of subsistence could only be procured from the land, they viewed the matter in another light, and were more ready to acquiesce in the views of the committee than before the inquiry had been made. It might be possible that these people could be sent out for 3l. per head, but if it were shown to the emigrant that the moment he was set on shore he would find himself in a strange land, with no means of providing for his subsistence, beset with wants and difficulties, and in a climate which, during the winter season at least, would be found exceedingly severe—if they could prove to him that the mere transport would be no advantage—if they could prove to him that the competition he must meet with would be such as, if advanced in life, he could not hope to contend against successfully—if they could show him this, they would be much more likely to bring conviction home to his mind of the sufferings which he must expect than would be practicable by any other course. He was very much of opinion that emigration, to be useful to the objects of it, ought to be carried on with very great care. If the state were to vote a sum of money for this purpose, he very much feared that the state would be inflicting a great injury on individuals. He was, therefore, not at all sure that there was much advantage in indiscriminate emigration; but he was an advocate for an inquiry, as being more likely to give satisfaction to these poor people than if the House said that which might raise hopes of pecuniary assistance. At any rate, if the state did interfere, they must require the raising of some local subscriptions, in addition to whatever might be publicly voted. With respect to the mode of the inquiry, he thought that the tribunal of a committee of the House of Commons was preferable to a commission; they would be much better able, sitting in London, to ascertain the actual state of emigrants now in Canada than any commissioners in the highlands. But, whatever might be the result of the appointment of this committee, it was impossible for him to sit down without expressing what he felt respecting the unfortunate circumstances of these poor people. He had had some experience of their sufferings and patience, and he must say, he was filled with the highest admiration of the virtues their conduct exhibited.

Mr. Hume

said, that however both sides of the House concurred on many occasions in acknowledging and regretting the distress of particular classes, the House had never thought fit to take the steps that were now required of them. It appeared to him that the report of the commissioners in Upper Canada afforded much better information regarding the state of the few emigrants who remained there, than any that could be obtained by a Committee. If an inquiry were to take place at all, he thought a commission on the spot would be the only means of obtaining a fair and correct statement of the condition of the sufferers. But the hon. Gentleman need not have gone so far to look for distress. At Bolton, during the late distress, it was stated that 7,000 persons were obliged to leave their homes, and 1,480 houses were deserted. These poor people were now wandering and scattered abroad. At Nottingham, and fat Birmingham also, there was great distress, but in none of these cases was the House called upon to interfere in the manner now required. He objected to an inquiry in this particular instance, in preference to others, for this reason, two years ago this distress existed, and an officer was sent down from Deptford Dockyard with bread, beef, and other public stores to distribute. A large subscription was also raised, amounting to 70,000l. and when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was questioned respecting the grant of the public stores, he said it had been done to relieve the urgent distress which prevailed, and to give time to the landlords to assist the indigent peasantry to emigrate. Since then a statement had been made, and never contradicted, that almost the whole of the money which did not go for provisions, was paid to the landlords in the shape of rent. Now, if that was the case, why had those landlords not done anything since, to enable the population to emigrate. It appeared to him that the wording of the resolution pledged the House to give the public money for emigration, and he should take the sense of the House against any such pledge, because such a grant would be in opposition to all the principles upon which they had acted since Sir William Horton's emigration scheme. It was said that Canada was a fit place to receive emigrants; why, gentlemen would find, from the accounts, that five out of every seven who went there were unable to get employment, and were obliged to cross the border. He saw no reason why the House should pledge itself to give money in this case, as it had refused any grant in the case of the hand-loom weavers, and other distressed bodies.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

objected, above all, to raising expectations which it would be impossible to realise, and as the wording of the motion might lead to misconstruction, he advised that "with a view to afford relief," should be erased, and "on the practicability of affording relief," be substituted. The interference of Government in cases of the kind was in general much to be deprecated, but, when it could not be avoided, instead of voting a sum of money, it had been found that the most expedient course was to send down an officer, in whom full confidence could be reposed, and to enable him at his discretion to administer relief. It was true, that frauds by misrepresentation had sometimes been committed, but they were not frequent, and the course to which he had referred had appeared to be the best practical mode of meeting the evil. It was his firm opinion that by far the wisest and safest course was to interfere as little as possible with the exercise of private benevolence. He admitted this was not a mere temporary distress, but had long continued in consequence of an over large population pressing against the means of subsistence. He abandoned none of the opinions which he entertained on the subject of emigration at the expense of the State in assenting to the motion for the committee, and he begged to be understood that in doing so, he did not give any pledge on the part of the Government that they would give assistance in the shape of funds, although such might be the recommendation of the committee.

Mr. W. S. O'Brien

altogether denied and repudiated the statements respecting the removal of Canadian emigrants to the United States. Of 25,000 who emigrated last year, if a few went over at least an equal number returned to Canada. Should a committee be granted, and that committee recommend to Parliament a grant of public money for this purpose, he should cheerfully contribute hs vote in support of that proposition. All he regretted was that the principle was not carried farther. It was his intention to bring forward a motion every Session for the promotion of emigration, not to one colony, or from one district alone, but to all our colonies, and from the United Kingdom in general.

Mr. Mark Phillips

cordially agreed in this motion, provided the judicious alteration in the wording proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer were made. The result of the investigation would be looked to with great interest by another class, to whom, feeling allusion had been made by the right hon. Member for Tamworth—he meant the handloom weavers. He had been frequently solicited by the handloom weavers, to bring forward some motion of this sort in their behalf, and in answer to such solicitation, he desired them to wait until the Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry should be published, to see if they would not recommend some such plan of relief. With regard to the expense, he trusted that the House would never let a matter of pounds, shillings and pence stand between them and an attempt to procure some alleviation of such extensive distress. He agreed with the hon. Member for Bridport in thinking that a committee was not the best mode of investigating the subject. But if the committee should find any difficulty on account of the number of the witnesses, or the distance at which they resided, in properly investigating the subject, then he hoped the Government would issue a commission of in any. The committee on the subject of the handloom weavers had experienced that difficulty, and the Government had very properly issued a commission. He cordially supported the motion.

Motion, as amended by the suggestion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed to.