HC Deb 16 February 1841 vol 56 cc692-703
Lord Ingestre

rose to call the attention of the House to the sailing of the proposed expedition from this country to the river Niger. He did not mean to enter into details respecting the policy or expediency, nor would he question the principle upon which the undertaking was founded. His chief desire, at present, was, to direct the attention of the House to the late, and, in his opinion, ill-selected and dangerous period at which the expedition was announced to sail from this country, on its perilous enterprise. Were he even much more competent to go into the details of this measure than he felt himself to be, he should still consider it unnecessary to trouble hon. Members on those points, as they all came under discussion last Session, when the expedition was sanctioned by a vote of the House. He was also unwilling to disturb the impression that seemed to have been made in the public mind on this subject, since the occurrence of that most numerous, respectable, and influential meeting in London, which gave rise to the present proceeding, and at which an illustrious prince presided. While he could not help considering that very great difficulties were likely to interfere with the execution of the design of the expedition, he was ready to give the greatest credit to the motives of the promoters of it, knowing that their object was the abolition of the slave-trade in Africa, by the planting of colonies and the gradual extension of commercial, agricultural, and other peaceful and humanizing pursuits throughout that great continent. It would appear that from some of those causes that seemed incidental to undertakings of this sort, the expedition was now delayed. Perhaps the cause of the delay was inevitable; but he was given to understand that the starting of the expedition had now been postponed until the remote period of the 1st of April next. Looking at the length of the passage before the vessels could arrive at Sierra Leone, which was the first place they could touch at; seeing also that one of the three vessels composing the little squadron must be towed out by some other ship, it was probable that the expedition would not arrive at that settlement before the middle, or perhaps the end of May next. The vessels would then have to employ some of the natives called Kroomen, and some farther time would no doubt be spent in procuring them, probably not less than ten days or a fortnight. A much later period would have arrived before the expedition could enter upon the recognised objects of its mission. They would reach the coasts of Africa some time in the month of June, at the height of the rainy season, which began in the middle of April and continued until the middle of October, and that period of the rainy season at which he calculated the expedition would arrive, was the most unhealthy of the whole six months. He was told the other night, in answer to a question by the noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies, that it was necessary the expedition should go out during the rainy season, when the Niger would be found in a state of flood, and then the vessels would be admitted, or would, at least, proceed up the stream with greater facilities. That might be very true, as stated by the noble Lord, but it appeared to him that they were yet placed in much difficulty, through the want of some certain data as to the state of the river. If it could be shown that vessels commencing operations could, by following a certain indicated channel, beginning at the sea coast, make their way up and get into the interior of the country, then he should offer no objection to the departure of the expedition at the time already mentioned. But when he knew that the Delta of the Niger was at least 200 miles in extent, and that the course of the channel was continually shifting, he feared that the vessels might have to remain some time at the mouth of the river, and the consequent delay might be fatal, particularly from arriving in the most unhealthy season of a pestilential climate. He was sure those apprehensions must have some weight with the House, in considering this important question, which had nothing to do with party objects. Their only object should be, that the money for the expedition should be expended according to the principle on which it had been voted by that House, and that while they endeavoured to eradicate the slave-trade, a humane anxiety should be kept up for the lives of those who were selected to execute the task. Under the circumstances which he had already stated, he would, therefore, ask the Government and the public, whether it would not be better to delay the expedition for some time longer? Would it not be better to employ the vessels already prepared in surveying and exploring services, so as to pave the way for other vessels which should follow at some future season, and endeavour to execute the great objects and views which were now recognized respecting Africa? He confessed, that while he approved the intentions, he had great doubts indeed as to the expediency and practicability of the expedition, seeing what a failure the colony of Sierra Leone turned out, maintained as it had been at great sacrifices of life, while its exports had been very trifling, and not at all commensurate with the money that had been expended by this country. He feared there would be great difficulty in establishing agricultural colonies, and it was to be feared that much trouble would be given by the different tribes the moment a portion of the country was declared to be our territory. But to confirm his apprehensions as to the great danger of sending out an expedition at this season of the year, he would refer to an account of the voyage of the Ethiopia, in those regions. The Ethiopia was commanded by an experienced captain, who attempted to work up the Niger. His vessel was about the same draught as those employed, that was, about six feet; but his endeavour proved a total failure. This gentleman's crew consisted of twelve men; but the sickness produced by this fatal coast, soon reduced them to five. He tried to enter by the Formosa mouth, but failed, and at last he got in by the Warree. The captain's statement was, that the navigation of the river was difficult throughout; that he had tried to trade with the towns on the banks, but without success; that the whole course of the river was impracticable and unhealthy, and of little importance to the world as a medium of commerce with Africa; that during six months of the year the river was shut up, and during the other six months it was blocked up by rocks and shoals. It seemed to him, therefore, that a trade in heavy articles, such as coffee and rice, the proposed staples could not be carried on in that river. It would only do for the transit of palm-oil, gum, gold-dust, ivory, and other light articles. He trusted, therefore, that the Government would not, for the sake of pleasing a few benevolent men, turn its attention so exclusively to the improvement of Africa, as to forget the welfare of the men who were employed to work out the objects of the expedition. He would conclude by moving for the production of correspondence relating to the Niger expedition.

Mr. M. O'Ferrall

said, that when the expedition was first arranged, it was intended that it should sail from this country in October. But since then the Government had learned from Captain Elliott, and other experienced persons, that during the dry season the navigation of the Niger was closed for six months. Consequently the time of departure was changed, in order that the ships should not arrive at the mouth of the river at a time when they could not enter it. The sailing of the expedition was, therefore, postponed until March, in order, first, that the smaller steamers, after crossing the Bay of Biscay, might arrive at the Niger before the dangerous weather broke out, that was at the end of June, and then they would ascend the river in July, with the first flood of the rainy season. The Gentleman already named had assured the Government, that the rainy season was not the most sickly one.

Mr. Hume

was sorry that, not seeing the noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies, he could not put to the noble Lord a question, to which he (Mr. Hume) received a very unsatisfactory answer a few nights ago. He wanted to know what were the objects of the expedition? Were they to plant a colony and alarm the inhabitants by taking possession of the country? Or was the expedition for the purposes of discovery? If colonization was the object, there should be more ships sent out. He thought they had better postpone the motion until the noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies was present.

Mr. V. Smith

was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Kilkenny now ask the objects of an expedition, towards which, though so sensitive in money matters, he joined in a vote of 60,000l. last year. [Mr. Hume: No such thing.] It was a fact. The hon. Member was now asking about the objects and principles of an expedition for which he joined in a vote of the House of Commons of 60,000l. last year. His hon. Friend was one of the first to assent last year, and he would have a similar opportunity of raising the question and of voting more money when the estimates for the present Session came on. But really the principle of the expedition was well known to almost every man in this country. It was fully discussed at that very large meeting alluded to by the noble Lord, and more pamphlets and newspaper articles had appeared on this subject than on any other connected with Africa. Now the principle of this undertaking, he would inform his hon. Friend, was to begin at the right end, a step which had not yet been attempted in all the endeavours that had been made to put down the African slave-trade. The present plan was to prevent, by the introduction of commercial relations with the interior of Africa, a continuance in the traffic of human flesh, which would then yield in importance to the new interests that would be created. In other words, having failed in making an impression on the blacks by urging the principles of humanity and generosity, the abolitionists would now proceed upon the most effective of all principles—that was, to persuade the blacks that it was their own interest to discontinue the slave-trade. The present expedition would not be sent out to found a colony; but it would penetrate into the interior of Africa to establish commercial relations with the chiefs; and if concessions of territory should be offered by them, commissioners would be empowered to treat with them, and an establishment would hereafter be fixed there. But the leading object of the expedition at present would be to examine and inquire. The noble Lord had asked when the expedition would sail; he thought, that the Secretary of the Admiralty had satisfied him on that point—[No, no.] Then he hoped he should succeed in satisfying the noble Lord. Every attention that was possible was paid to this expedition, with reference to the comforts and convenience of all engaged in it. But the great difficulty which they would have to encounter was this—namely, that the season that was considered the least healthy, was also the season that rendered the possibility of navigating the river the most practicable; for when the water was deepest, was the period when the season was most unhealthy. Every contrivance that could be adopted to prevent the bad effects which were likely to arise from the unhealthiness of the climate would be put in operation; so that he did not consider that the same difficulties would be encountered by this expedition as by the previous ones. Many of the travellers who had gone before upon similar expeditions had not taken the due precautions which were necessary, for they had not the commonest medicines, which they of course required. But this expedition started with every precaution, and with all the chances of success in its favour. If this statement were unsatisfactory to the noble Lord, he was sorry for it, but he thought the noble Lord, notwithstanding his statement of only seeking to be satisfied on one point, had entirely wandered from that one point of asking the time of the departure of the expedition to a series of objections against the whole scheme. He was clearly of opinion, that the question relating to the policy of the scheme itself would have been better discussed at another time. He could not allow the observations of his hon. Friend the Member for Kilkenny to pass unnoticed, as this was not the first time they had been called upon to discuss the principle of the expedition, and as he recollected that the House had already received his sanction for the vote of money for the purposes of this same expedition.

Mr. Warburton

said, that it was no doubt true there was a vote passed in a committee of the House last year for a grant of money for this expedition; but, at the same time, it was also true, that on the same occasion, when this vote had been moved and carried, no discussion whatsoever had taken place upon the subject. His hon. Friend had taken the same credit for the scheme as if the matter had been undertaken after a full and deliberate discussion. It appeared that only a silent vote had been given on the occasion of proposing this grant of money. Now, he would say, that no vote was ever passed on a matter of such consequence with so little consideration, and in which such attention so wholly disproportioned to the magnitude and importance of the expedition was given to the subject. Here was an expedition entered upon to a place from which communication was cut off by water during six months in the year. He believed that, such was the result of the latest observations, and for such an expedition 60,000l. was rather a large sum to begin with. The hon. Member said, that they were beginning at the right end. Now if this sum was necessary for beginning the business at the right end, what was to be the sum that would be required after three or four years, when they got settlements in Africa? Looking at the danger that the lives were exposed to which were embarked in this expedition, he must say, that the information received upon the subject was but very slight indeed. He hoped, therefore, that some advantage would be taken of the delay which must occur before the departure of this expedition, to obtain from the Government some more complete information and explanation as to what their real objects were. He was aware he might incur the displeasure of those with whom he generally acted, and who were friendly to this scheme, but he must say, that, from the extent of the sum which was obtained, and from the nature of the difficulties that must necessarily interpose, the House was acting a most unjustifiable part in not endeavouring to acquire much larger information upon the subject.

Mr. O'Connell

did not think the noble Lord had made out any case to support his objections to the measure, and in endeavouring to prove the probability of its failure, the noble Lord had utterly failed. The noble Lord had commenced by stating, that there was a certain ship commanded by a Captain Bearcroft, which had undertaken the navigation of the river Niger, but which had failed, and from this fact he endeavoured to show the total impossibility of passing through any of the branches of the river so as to get satisfactorily into the interior. But when the noble Lord had read that letter, it appeared by that same document, that Captain Bearcroft had got much further up than the noble Lord appeared to be aware of. The extract from that letter, which was read, was to this effect, that Captain Bearcroft had got much further up that river than any one else who had ever preceded him. He (Mr. O'Connell) could not make any mistake as to that, and to his recollection, that was the accurate meaning of the extract. It appeared that his hon. Friend, the Member for Bridport, was somewhat displeased at not receiving more information upon the subject, but he would ask that hon. Member, if there was ever any refusal made to give such explanation? No! he (Mr. O'Connell) was not aware that information on the subject had ever been asked. The noble Lord had brought the subject before the House solely with a view of showing that the time which had been chosen for the expedition to arrive near the point of its destination was the most unhealthy. That, however, was a point which he (Mr. O'Connell) thought he had completely failed in establishing. There never, then, was a refusal to give the required information. What, then, was the complaint from the hon. Member for Kilkenny? Why, that it happened by accident that, on one occasion out of twenty years, that hon. Member did not happen to be in his place in this House. Now, he (Mr. O'Connell) thought that every indulgence should be extended to that hon. Gentleman for this single offence; but on this unfortunate occasion, when this grant of money was obtained, the hon. Member for Kilkenny was not then in his place. Now, no one could be ignorant of the main objects of this expedition. It was formed for the purpose of attempting to ascertain whether a favourable system of commerce could be obtained with the interior of Africa. That House had already expended large sums of money for the purpose of putting a stop to the slave-trade; but, as it was stated at that great meeting which was held upon the subject, if they could succeed in this object, to which they wished the public to direct their attention—that is, if they could succeed in estab- lishing a commercial trade in Africa, the traffic in human beings must necessarily cease, because commerce was the natural introduction of civilisation. At one of the most magnificent assemblies that ever was held in this country—one of the first and most important meetings which ever took place within the present century, and at which for the first and only time in his life he was a silent auditor, the objects of this expedition were there stated plainly and explicitly. And a detail had been made there of facts which rendered it highly probable that a commerce with the interior of Africa would be ultimately established unless physical obstacles should start up which could not be overcome. Now, he thought that it was very well worth their while to lay out 60,000l. upon this experiment, and he was contented to rely upon British ingenuity for the most triumphant success. He was rejoiced to see the Government coming forward as pioneers, or to pave the way (as the noble Lord expressed it) for this happy result. He thought that they were called upon to exhibit gratitude to the Government for so nobly coming forward on this occasion with this sum of money; and he hoped that there would be no want of further funds, should they be required, to carry out their views with reference to this expedition; but he was afraid, that if the sum which had already been granted turned out useless, there would be little chance of coming before the House again for more money. He trusted that the information which the noble Lord had given would be thankfully received, and added to what they had already obtained upon the same subject, and that nothing would ever be done to check this grand experiment.

Mr. Hume

rose for the purpose of explaining what his intentions simply were. He had merely asked, whether the noble Lord would have any objection to adjourn the consideration of this question to another evening, for the purpose of hearing all the information that could possibly be given upon the matter. He would remark, that it was the first time since he had had the honour of holding a seat in Parliament that he ever heard a Member of the Government, when asked for information upon a subject then under discussion, refer to the speeches which had been made at a public meeting as his answer—that such speeches would inform him of every particular relating to the subject he wished to be enlightened on. As regarded that same public meeting, he recollected so much of it—that the hon. Member for Dublin had been present at it, but had not been allowed to speak. He had informed the noble Lord, the Secretary of the Colonies, that it was his decided intention to oppose the motion for this grant of 60,000l.; but, not having been present at the time it was brought forward, he had not an opportunity of carrying his intention into effect. He begged leave to state, that he considered the expedition had been commenced in utter ignorance of the most necessary facts, for it was now admitted that the parties engaged in it were to have sailed in October last, but they had since found that they could not sail until the month of March. So much for their information on the subject. Then, with regard to the objects which they had in view. They were fully agreed upon the point, that commerce was the best means of putting an end to slavery, but he denied that they were adopting the best means of establishing commercial relations with the interior of Africa. How could sailors or seamen effect this object? They should rather have made merchants the parties for bringing about such a desirable conclusion. He thought that Government were beginning at the wrong end—they might do much mischief, but it was impossible they could do good. He wished to know whether any instruction had been as yet received as to the particular objects of discovery, and as to the purposes upon which they were going? They ought to have had every instruction possible to be obtained upon the subject; but so far from that being the case, it was quite evident the Government were in a state of profound ignorance upon the matter.

Mr. Hawes

said, accustomed as he was to pay every respect to what generally fell from the hon. Member for Bridport, yet he could not allow him to put forward the statement he had made, without inquiring from him his authority. [Mr. Warburton: Jameson's pamphlet.] He thought as much, but it might happen that that gentleman's own interest might have interfered to influence him in the opinions which he had given with reference to the African trade. The whole scope and objects of this expedition had been laid before the House last February. The hon. Member for Bridport had said, that there never were objects of such magnitude entered upon with such slender means; but he would say, that there never was any great colony yet founded with means so ample. But that hon. Member continued to say that this was a very great colonial undertaking entered upon with little means and less information. Now, with regard to the information, he held in his hand a paper, dated the 8th February, 1840, and which was signed by the noble Lord, the present Secretary for the Colonies. It was a letter from Lord John Russell to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. It sets out by detailing the principal object they had in view, which was to prevent the continuance of the slave-trade, which it stated had been extensively carried on in Africa, and which no marine force was found capable of putting down. Another object which it stated was the cultivation of commercial relations with some of the African chiefs. Another object stated, was the admission on favourable terms of their goods and manufactures. These, then, were the declared objects which they had in view, and as to the sum of money which had been voted to carry out those objects, the money at present spent to put down slavery by steam-boats and other vessels was ten-fold greater than the sum granted for this expedition. Was it not, then, worth their while to make this experiment? He principally rose to say, that they had here ample information and plenty of money to carry out their views, and many as great objects had been effected with means much less.

Viscount Ingestre,

in reply, said he was glad the hon. and learned Member for Dublin had called his attention to another matter. It was stated by Mr. Fowell Buxton, that this expedition should advance to the distance of 2,500 miles up the Niger. Now Captain Bearcroft had only been able to go the distance of 500 miles up the river, and then found the obstacles that met him so insurmountable, he could get no further. He thought, that the Government should postpone this expedition; if they did not, the money which had been voted for it would be completely thrown away. They should use some part of it in exploring and pioneering the way for the expedition to go out on the following year. There was no immediate haste for it. It was better not to undertake it at all than to perform it ineffectually. Much useful information might be gained by deferring it to some other time. At all events, they should possess the advantages of knowing where they were going to. He was not by any means satisfied with the information which he received, or the explanation which had been attempted to be given him. It appeared, that all the information they had as yet received was from Captain Allen, who might be a very competent person to give instructions upon the subject, but he thought, that there were many other men equally competent to speak upon the subject. He thought, that, when the Government had received a little more information upon the subject, they would see the inexpediency of sailing at the time proposed. If this vote should be asked to be renewed, he thought it most probable, that he would give it his determined opposition.

Admiral Adam

said, his noble Friend had sought all information upon the subject, upon the best authority. The former expedition had, by attempting to enter the river in April, and afterwards in May, when the water was low, been compelled to remain in the Delta, to the great injury of the health of the crews of the vessels composing the expedition, which it was hoped would this year be avoided by entering the river later, when there was a greater depth of water for steam navigation.

Motion withdrawn.