HC Deb 09 June 1841 vol 58 cc1360-75
Mr. Cresswell

moved, that the House do resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House, to address her Majesty on the subject of the Danish Claims.

The Solicitor-General

said, it was undoubtedly true that a resolution had been adopted by the House for an address to the Crown on the subject of these claims, the amount of which was somewhere about 270,000l. He was sure it would be gratifying to the House to afford relief to any persons who had sustained loss, but he did not think they ought to vote away so large a sum of the public money without taking into consideration the circumstances under which these claims were made. On the present occasion, he felt, that the amount was of very little importance, compared to the principle involved in it. The House was no doubt aware of the general nature of these claims. On two occasions lately it had been discussed in that House. It appeared to him, that the arguments did not embrace the entire principle. The compensation asked on the present occasion, was compensation for the loss of certain ships and goods, which were seized by the Danish Government in 1807, in consequence of the attack that had been made on Copenhagen by this country. About thirty years subse- quent to the seizures, was the first time an application was made to the House of Commons on the subject. The first application was made for compensation for the loss sustained by certain individuals for the confiscation of debts which had been owing by Danish subjects to the subjects of that country, and which had been confiscated in consequence of the events to which he had alluded. Subsequently there was a compensation demanded for goods on shore, which had been seized by the Danish Government. A discussion took place, and it appeared to the House, that they ought, with propriety, to sanction those claims of compensation. The ground on which these claims were urged by Sir James Mackintosh, were very general, but they were to the effect, that the goods seized, and the debts confiscated, were seized and confiscated contrary to the law of nations, and that where the Government did not enforce redress, they were bound to make good the claims of their own subjects. That point was discussed more than once, and undoubtedly it did seem, that the principle which had been laid down and acted upon was, that if the government of the people suffering the injustice did not think it right to enforce compensation from the offending Government, the burthen was transferred to the Government to which the party belonged. The concession of those claims gave rise to an application, in the year 1834 or 1836, on behalf of the owners of ships and goods which had been seized afloat, and encouraged by the success of the previous application, petitions were presented on behalf of this claim. Various statements had been made to the House in relation to the facts, on a former occasion, when the subject of the claim was brought before the House, when it was negatived. It had since been advocated by several hon. Members. Although the principle he had referred to was adopted by the House in relation to debts and goods on shore, no such authority was applicable to the present question, because it stood on a different footing, and involved a principle which was totally different. He would call the attention of the House to a distinct statement of the facts, as many speeches had been made in that House on the subject, which varied somewhat as to the true statement respecting the origin of these claims. It would be material for the House to attend to the state of relations existing between this country and Denmark at the time of the seizure of the ships and goods. On the 27th of July 1807, the English fleet sailed from this country with sealed orders, and arrived early in August in the Great Belt, and cut off all communication between Zealand and the continent. From the 3d of August negociations were prosecuted by Mr. Jackson, seeking for the surrender of the Danish fleet, for the security of this country. Upon the 16th of August—a most important date—the Danish Government issued a proclamation, stating that the English Envoy had on the 13th declared that hostilities would commence, and therefore, that the two countries were at war; and then gave orders for the seizure and detention of British property. Now, as Very much had been said on every occasion, on the subject of want of notice of caution on the part of those in possession of the ships and goods which were ultimately seized by the Danish government, and for which compensation was claimed, he wished to impress upon the House the circumstances which occurred at this date, the 16th, long before the seizure of the property. A proclamation was issued by the Danish government, stating, that the two countries were at war of the same date. Admiral Gambier published a document explaining the objects of the expedition, seeking the possession of the Danish fleet, and threatening capture in case of refusal. On the 24th, the Danish government issued a further manifesto, and on the 25th of August, the Admiral, who was the officer of this country, issued an order for the detention of the Danish vessels. On the 2nd of September, the bombardment of Copenhagen took place, and on the same day there was an order in council issued for the seizure of Danish ships. On the 23d of September, a manifesto was issued by Great Britain, and on the 4th of November, there was a declaration of war. Now, in the course of the discussion which had taken place on this subject, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had protested against being supposed to sanction the claim. The matter was referred to a committee, in order to ascertain the facts connected with the claims; and a report was ultimately obtained in July last upon these facts. That report gave the dates on which the seizures had been made, He had called the attention of that House to the date of the 16th of August. One vessel was seized on the 23d of August, and four on the 25th. In the month of September, there were five. The whole of the remainder were seized at a later period, extending through September, October, and November, and the claim to which he had referred embraced the whole of those captures down to the month of December. Now what was the ground upon which the House was justified in imposing a burthen exceeding a quarter of a million on the public in respect of these captures? However much it might be lamented that public events should inflict loss upon individuals, it was not a received principle that taxes should be imposed, and that compensation should be paid by the public to individuals who unfortunately suffered from the operations of war. It required something more than that an enemy should have seized the property of individuals to warrant the House in voting public money to relieve the sufferers. If these vessels had been seized according to the laws war as observed amongst civilized nations, on what ground could the House distinguish the Danish claims from the claim of the immense class of ruined persons who had suffered from the seizures of France, Russia, and other nations? It was most material to see whether there was any real ground of distinction. He had cautiously attended to the grounds urged at various times in order to induce the House to vote the public money. First of all, it had been stated, that these individuals had a claim to compensation, because they had no notice of the intention of this country to commence hostilities with Denmark; that they embarked upon their voyage, and remained in the Baltic in full confidence that the amicable relations between this country and Denmark were not likely to be disturbed. He presumed that something more must be shown than that the Government did not give notice to the merchants of this country when they were about to commence hostile operations or to commit a hostile act, or to commence a war against another power. Whoever attended to the circumstances attending the seizure of the Danish fleet would perceive that the slightest previous intimation of the intention of the Government, if it had not totally defeated the immensely important subject which was gained by the seizure of the Danish fleet, would at least bare added very greatly to the difficulty of the enterprise. It was impossible, consist-tent with public duty, and with public policy, that the Government could have been justified in giving such information. No notice, therefore was given prior to the sailing of the fleet, except what was afforded by those public acts to which he had referred. He presumed that when the British fleet appeared off Copenhagen, and occupied the station which it did, no man in his senses would draw any other inference than that it was extremely probable that hostilities would take place. The vessels did not arrive there certainly with any view to preserve peace in any sense which could induce persons to suppose that peace was secure. But this fleet arriving there at the date he had mentioned—on the 3d of August—these vessels continued there. He would not say that by such conduct they had acted imprudently. While the fleet was there, he would not deny but that they were safe enough; but where they traced the course of events, and found these vessels remaining after the English fleet had left the Baltic, taking with them the Danish fleet and stores, no one could contend but that they had had abundant information given to them, sufficient to put any prudent person upon their guard? He begged the House to notice what the principle was on which this compensation was claimed—and to what that principle would lead. If that country found it necessary, on a sudden emergency to make an attack on a Foreign Power, and the Foreign Power should seize on British property—thus circumstanced, would that make a claim for compensation. He beseeched the House to look to the public consequences to which such a principle must lead. He, therefore, thought the argument that they had not had sufficient intimation was one which was not applicable in the present instance. But it was said the House ought to consider the peculiar circumstances under which that fleet had gone to Denmark. As far as he could gather them the circumstances were these. The Government of the day having no doubt, obtained secret information of the fact, understood that the Danish Government had agreed to give Buonaparte the use of their fleet to serve against this country. In fact there was a secret article to that effect in the Treaty of Tilsit. The British Government having obtained information of that fact, acted in anticipation of the secret article. They found the Danish Government was a weak Govern- ment compared with the French, and knew that they had agreed to aid the French against this country by the loan of the Danish fleet, and undoubtedly, and he thought rightly, before that secret article could be acted on, the Government thought it right to save this country from the dangerous position in which it would be placed by the execution of that secret article of the treaty by sending to Denmark and seizing the fleet. If a weak man possessed an instrument capable of destroying you, and a strong man, your enemy, had induced the weak man to lend him that instrument, and you knew it before hand, who would hesitate to arrest that weapon from his hand? It was not possible to discuss such a question on narrow grounds. But he did not apprehend that the propriety or impropriety of that war had anything to do with the legal part of the question. They were not to decide on claims for compensation by looking back to the history of the justice or the injustice of the war. That question was to be decided on other principles. He knew that some persons considered the seizure of the Danish fleet an act of great aggression, but it would be a most unfortunate result for the country if they should lay it down as a principle that because in the opinion of a certain portion of the community hostilities were unjustifiable, that therefore parties thus situated should be entitled to compensation. Allusion had been made to a conversation stated to have taken place between Admiral Gambier ] and certain persons interested in these claims at the time the fleet were in the Baltic. It had been stated, that two persons asked the Admiral if they might not safely go up the Baltic, and that the Admiral had told them they might. Now that conversation had been mentioned thirty years after it was stated to have taken place, when Admiral Gambier was dead, and when the only witnesses to it were the persons interested in making the claims. He thought no one could doubt that such evidence was not sufficient to warrant them in coming to a decision on the subject, more especially when they had no knowledge of the dates when, or the circumstances under which such conversations took place. He knew that the Government had caused search to be made among the public documents, in order to discover if any could be discovered to justify the opinion that the Government of the day had misled the merchants, but no such document could be found. He would, therefore, say, that neither the recent or previous motion, nor the justice or injustice of the war, formed any ground for granting compensation in the present instance. The next ground alleged was, that the English fleet was in the Baltic for a certain time, and had left it without protection. Now he (the Solicitor-general) presumed that those who were there were not in a situation in which facts so notorious and open to the public as the British fleet being in the Baltic and having the whole Danish fleet in its possession were not known to them. The very fact of its leaving the Baltic was too notorious for such a state of things, and the state of affairs was such that no individual could be without some knowledge of them, and ought not to have suffered, property and goods to remain in those ships under an idea that circumstances would alter the position in which they were then placed, and that protection would be afforded them. Was it a ground for composition if any department of the Government of the day had left that or any part of the world without protection, whereby the property of individuals was hostilely seized? Was that a ground upon which the House could vote public money by way of compensation. Blame might be passed on such a Government for this neglect, but he did not recollect ever to have heard or read that, because protection had not been afforded in some parts of the world that those who had suffered by the neglect were to receive a compensation by a vote of that House. The complaint that protection had not been afforded had been repeatedly made and brought before the House; but he believed it had never been followed up by a vote of public money for compensation. Another ground urged was, that if the House thought fit to grant compensation for the loss sustained by the confiscation of the debts and goods ashore that it ought, therefore, to do equal justice and to extend compensation to ships and goods afloat. He believed that the House was induced to vote such compensation upon very distinct principles, On a public principle, not taken up for the occasion, but one that was supported by the books and authorities. After compensation had been afforded to those who had sustained losses in respect to what he had adverted, it was urged, on the part of the present claimants, that those individuals had no just claim. If it was true that the confiscation of goods on shore was contrary to the law of nations—if that was true, said they, you granted compensation when the principle was not called for, for when you made your treaty with Denmark you made it to the effect that debts should not be recoverable, notwithstanding compensation; but that statement was never made to the House till long after the compensation was granted by the House. The House granted the compensation on the grounds he had stated, and it was urged by Sir James Mackintosh in the first instance, and that argument was afterwards granted by other hon. Members that the country had stipulated for the redress. Now, if that argument was well founded, the subsequent stipulation overrode the original claim. In that instance the House, in allowing compensation acted upon a distinct ground, but then it was stated, that though the House had granted compensation, and though the country had stipulated for the redress, that it could not be maintained, and it was subsequently stated that the subjects of this country did not desire it. He knew not how that might be, but he knew that many had applied for it. He repeated that the House had never sanctioned the principle on which the present claim was founded, and that the former claim had been granted on entirely different grounds. There was another fact which had been stated, and he apprehended it was one which had made a considerable impression on the House, and probably went far in inducing it to be acceded to the late motion upon the subject; it was this, that this country at the time had seized Danish property to a very great amount; and it was said that as we had, possessed ourselves of property amounting to upwards of one million sterling, the petitioners who had suffered by the acts of hostilities ought to be compensated out of that fund. That argument appeared plausible enough, but it rested upon precisely the same grounds as the claim which the subjects of a country might make for their losses they had sustained from an enemy, while they sought to be indemnified out of the property which the country had got as the fruits of the war. It did not appear to him that the proximity in point of date of the seizure of the Danish to the seizure of the British property in any respect affected the principle. It was no just ground of compensation that that country, in the course of its hostilities with another, acquired property of great value, that certainly was no ground for putting forward a claim for compensation. Such a principle would lead to very extensive consequences, and very great embarrassment. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Lord Althorp) said, that these claims not having been made for thirty years afterwards, the fund had been long since exhausted, or if not, that a very small and insignificant sum remained available. Let not the House act upon the presumption that that country had had the benefit of a large surplus amount of property taken from the Danish nation beyond the payments appropriated to the subject. From his inquiries on the matter in order to ascertain what was his duty with respect to these claims, he had learned that no such fund now existed, and it would be a gross injustice to vote away the public money under the erroneous impression that such a fund was available. He believed he had stated the various arguments that had been urged in the discussions that had taken place on the subject. His hon. and learned Friend had referred to some authorities which he said sanctioned these payments. If his hon. and learned Friend thought there were any such authorities, let him point them out, for he had not been able to ascertain that such claims as the present were anywhere mentioned by the law of nations. If the Danish Government, in seizing the goods and ships, were in the course of legitimate warfare—if they committed that infraction according to the laws and rules by which the civilized nations conducted their warfare, then what was there in that case whereby, according to general principles, the sufferers were entitled to compensation at the public expense for losses sustained in the course of legitimate warfare. Nobody had ever attempted to deny that the warfare was legitimate on the part of the Danes. He heard the echo of the word legitimate. Probably an impression existed in the quarter from which that sound emanated that the warfare could not be legitimate on the part of the Danes, if that warfare was induced by a wrongful act on the part of our Government. The question was, had the Danes, in seizing the property, committed any act by which the claim of those who suffered was justified. Many persons differed as to the propriety of the act of this Government in commencing hostilities, but nobody had denied that the Danes were justified, if they thought fit, in seizing the property of the subjects of this country. It was of great importance when that House voted large sums of money as compensation to persons standing in a situation analogous to that of the present petitioners, that the act should be intelligible on general principles. The House should not, in its votes, give rise to the probability of an opinion arising, that it was influenced by favour to this or that class of persons. The vote should be given on broad intelligible public principles. He was satisfied that if that came to be distinctly stated, his hon. Friend, who advocated the cause of those petitioners, would perceive that there was no just foundation for those claims. He therefore, had called the attention of the House to the facts, out of which those claims arose, and he certainly failed to discover any ground upon which this House would vote compensation in the present instance, which could not be advanced by any set of persons who might suffer by war. He did not think that those claimants suffered as much as the persons from whom Russia had made its immense seizure. He did not think it would be difficult to prove that the claims of those who suffered by the Russian seizure stood higher than the present claims. For it was more than doubtful that the Russians acted according to the laws of war when they seized the property he alluded to. He trusted the House would address its attention to those general public powers on which the claims of compensation was made, and say whether it was one which they could impartially and honestly grant. He would be the last man to stand in the way of compensation, if those individuals could sustain a well-founded claim. He thought no such grounds existed, and he hoped that the House would perceive that the first resolution adopted with respect to the claim, whereby it was rejected, was a fitting one; and that the last arose from some such cause, or the eloquence of the gentleman who advocated the claim. As there were no fresh grounds for sustaining the claim, he hoped the House would oppose going into committee on the question. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving as an amendment, that the House would resolve itself into a committee on that day three months.

Sir Stratford Canning

wished to say a few words on this question. He considered the frequent discussions of this question and the votes to which the House had previously come respecting it, was a sufficient justification for the present motion—for the House had already passed three subsequent votes on this subject, not in previous Parliaments, but during the existence of the present House of Commons. Without recurring to any previous knowledge of the proceedings he considered he was at least bound to support the votes he had given. After the House had gone this length it was for the Government to consider whether there were any circumstances such as would not warrant them to take those steps which could carry the votes of the House into effect. As on those former occasions he had voted with the majority he should vote with his learned Friend on the present occasion. He was well aware of the distinction the hon. and learned Solicitor-general had drawn between these claims, as related to one part of the property concerned and those which related to the other part. If he rightly understood the hon. and learned Gentleman he admitted that the former claims rested on this ground, that the Danes in confiscating this property had exceeded the law of nations. He was perfectly well aware of the peculiar relations between England and Denmark, at the breaking out of the war in the year 1807. That principle if fairly applied to other cases left this case an exception. With regard to the time he did not think the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument was valid, for the other claims that were satisfied were not brought forward until thirty years after they had accrued. It depended entirely upon the circumstances under which that war commenced, and he must be allowed to observe that this being established all that had been said about the danger of introducing bad precedents was set aside. It would appear that on that occasion the Danish government had thought it right to exercise what in the opinion of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite was a legitimate right, and they appeared to have exercised it with every wish to maintain pacific relations with us. We had showed our specific intentions by the armament we had sent out so as to take away from the Danes all excuse for resistance. It appeared that no embargo was made in this country till long after the squadron was withdrawn, and the merchants might have presumed that negotiations in the presence of so large a squadron would have had a peaceable effect, or at least have sufficed for their protection. These circumstances justified his hon. Friend in bringing forward the sub- ject. There were great peculiarities in this case—peculiarities so great as to render persons concerned entitled to indemnity, to which, under other circumstances, they would not be entitled. If it were not for these extreme peculiarities, he should be one of the first to recognise the danger of acceding to these claims; but he felt that he was justified in giving his vote for this motion. Whatever might be their ulterior proceedings, he thought the House was bound to follow up the votes they had already given.

Mr. Hume said—

Sir, this subject has been so often before the House) and so well argued by both parties, that I really do not consider that much time ought now to be occupied with it. I cannot but express toy regret, that the learned Solicitor-general did not favour us on a former occasion with his views on this subject, that we mighty in the first instance, hare had the benefit of his learning and research, and an opportunity of looking into those facts to which he has alluded, although I must say I have not been able to discover any novelty nor much discrimination in what the hon. and learned Gentleman has addressed to the House. It is now nearly twenty years since I first took part in these discussions. On the first class the justice of the claim was still more manifest, but the game arguments which have been used by the learned Solicitor-general were urged against the first class. The House of Commons, however, decided in favour of the claim. The same arguments were adduced against the second class; and yet the House of Commons agreed to the vote. The same arguments have been brought against the third class; the matter has Undergone considerable discussion, and three votes' have been taken upon it. Sir, I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman should have attempted to induce the House not to accede to this motion, by stating that the funds received from Denmark are now exhausted. We know full Well that 1,200,000l., dame into the British Exchequer, and of this sum not more than 600,000l. has been paid. The interest alone would have doubled that amount. From the circumstance that the hon. and learned Gentleman has resorted to that threadbare argument, I infer that he is conscious that he has no other to urge. Let Bs not forget the circumstance which attended the commencement of the war. The right bon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his predecessors in office, have contended that by admitting this claim you would be establishing a dangerous precedent. The war against Denmark was commenced in the most atrocious manner. Nothing but overpowering fear on the part of the British Government could have dictated it? Political feelings we have nothing to do with. I quite agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, that when the Government had undertaken an expedition which they supposed to be necessary for the interest of Great Britain, it would have been improper to answer inquiries—" Are we going to war or not? May we trade or may we not?" If the Government had given such information they would undoubtedly have risked the success of the expedition. I do think that the circumstances which have been mentioned by the Solicitor-general, place the claimants, in this case, in a peculiar position, and make it almost impossible any similar case should occur. Considering what Parliament has already done, the long and elaborate discussion which has taken place, remarking that with reference to dates and facts the Opposition had been found defective; for although I do not recollect the whole of the dates alluded to by the hon. and learned Gentleman, I think the hon. Baronet who has spoken, stated very correctly that many, if not all of the seizures were made at a time when British subjects had a right to expect security. Under all these circumstances', I must say that it would only be an act of justice to these individuals who have suffered for so many years, that we should at last compensate them as far as we can for the losses to which they have been subjected. I hold them to be entitled to receive both the principal and the interest, but as the principal only is concerned, let us grant one part of the justice to which they are entitled. At any rate, I shall certainly vote, as I have done before, for going into committee, in order that justice may be obtained by these individuals.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he was rather disposed to consent to the appointment of the committee than to divide the House on the question. He was determined that the matter should come fairly before the House. The parties had before stated, that they did not go for the money, but for the principle. It was now made a question of actual money. He did not think he need discuss the question at length as it bad been exhausted by the arguments of his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-general, who had, he should say, completely demolished the case of the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool. He must complain that he had not on a former occasion been treated with courtesy by the hon. and learned Gentleman. He had applied to him when the question came last under the consideration of the House to defer the discussion in the absence of his hon. and learned Friends the Attorney and Solicitor general, considering that the debate could not well be conducted without them, the one of them being absent from business, and the other from illness; but the hon. and learned Gentleman refused to accede to the request, and he thought he had a right to complain of that. He would not, however, oppose the motion for going into committee, but he would take the opportunity of stating his views on the bringing up of the Report.

Mr. Cresswell

was surprised that the right hon. Gentleman had complained of his want of personal courtesy towards him in a former debate.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

Yes, personal.

Mr. Cresswell

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me the date:

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that on the occasion of the last debate, on his asking the hon. and learned Gentleman to postpone it, in the absence of the law officers of the Crown, the hon. and learned Gentleman told him that he would not, and that he thought he was justified in not granting the request. He had, accordingly brought forward the question, which left him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) under the inconvenience of answering, in the absence of his hon. and learned Friends.

Mr. Cresswell

said, that he had not the slightest recollection of the occurrence; but if it had taken place, he thought he was perfectly justified in taking such a course, because the subject had been argued on two occasions before. It had been argued under the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor by the Attorney and Solicitor general; and he had himself at that moment a note of the arguments they had used. He could not therefore, understand why he should have been called on to put off a motion of the kind from day to day, and from night to night, while a number of persons, who had entrusted him with their case, were looking for justice. If, therefore, he had acted as was said, he was justified in doing so. But after the House had twice affirmed the principle of the motion, and when increasing majorities had declared in favour of its principle, he should say the right hon. Gentleman had no reason to expect that he (Mr. Creswell) should postpone its consideration in the absence of the law officers of the Crown. As, however, the right hon. Gentleman would not oppose the motion for going into committee, he would not allude further to the matter.

Sir Charles Grey

distinctly recollected that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated in the former debate, that he was placed in a very inconvenient situation by the absence of his two hon. and learned Friends, and that another occasion for the discussion would be more convenient to himself; but he had not put it as a matter of personal favour to the hon, and learned Gentleman, who said, that as the matter had not been argued before, he would not consent to the request.

Mr. Phillip Howard

said, that it appeared to him that his right hon. Friend bore too hard upon the hon. and learned Gentleman, because his right hon. Friend must be aware that it was his duty, as guardian of the public purse, to make the best defence which he could, while the hon. and learned Gentleman was equally justified in injuring his case. He had, on more than one occasion, voted against the right hon. Gentleman, but he did not see anything in his conduct which he could not applaud.

Amendment withdrawn.

Mr. Estcourt

said, that as the committee was conceded, he would not occupy the time of the House with any discussion of the question.

Mr. Warburton

thought the course suggested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer by far the most convenient one, since, before coming to a final decision, it would be well to have a discussion, in which the force of the arguments addressed to the House by the hon. and learned Gentleman, the Solicitor-general might be considered.

House in Committee: It was resolved, "That an humble address be presented to her Majesty, praying that her Majesty will be graciously pleased to take into consideration the Report, bearing date 12th May 1840, made by the Commissioners to whom it was referred, to examine and adjudicate upon the claims of certain British subjects, for losses sustained by the seizure and confiscation of their ships and cargoes by the Government of Denmark, in the year 1807; and that her Majesty will be pleased to advance to such claimants the amount of their respective losses as ascertained by the said Commissioners; and assuring her Majesty that this House will make good the same."

Address was agreed to.

House resumed, resolution to be reported.