HC Deb 16 March 1841 vol 57 cc294-305
Mr. Hutt

having presented a petition, numerously signed by the merchants and ship-owners of the port of Hull, complaining of the duties levied by the Danish government upon ships passing Elsineur, proceeded to address the House to the following effect:—I am about to bring under the notice of this House the question of the Sound dues. I mean the nature and amount of the taxes which are now levied by the King of Denmark, on British commerce and navigation passing between the Cattegat and the Baltic Sea. The grievance which I come forward to complain of, is, as far as I am informed, wholly new to this House, at least on no former occasion have the Sound dues or their abuses occupied the attention of Parliament. Let no one, however, suppose, on that account, that the evils to which I wish to call your attention are of an ordinary character either to the manufactures, mercantile and shipping interests, or to the general welfare of the country. The real cause of that silence which has so long prevailed in Parliament respecting the Sound dues is, that it belongs to a class of subjects which, unless they can be made matters for party warfare, are never very favorite topics of discussion. Indeed, I must say, with respect to questions of trade generally—and the evidence taken in the course of the last Session on the import duties is a pretty convincing proof of the fact-—that questions of trade generally have not hitherto met with an adequate attention, either from the Legislature or the Govern- ment of this country. I cannot believe that if the administration of 1814 had been at all alive to the real importance of our commerce with the north of Europe, it would ever have gratuitously revived the antiquated and mischievous pretensions of the King of Denmark to obstruct its operations in the Baltic, by sanctioning the Sound tolls, The Sound toll is an institution at variance with every received maxim of international law—contrary to the universal practice of the civilized world—a direct contravention of those wise principles for regulating international communication authorised by the treaty of Vienna; and I need not state how pernicious to the best interests of our trade must be a power which enhances the prices of our productions in the foreign market, and of foreign productions in our own—which detains ships on their voyage, and exposes their crews to vexatious restrictions and penalties. Still, obnoxious as it may be, there the power is warranted and established by treaty, and so long as that treaty is faithfully observed by Denmark—the state interested in its maintenance—it must be respected by our own. On that point there can be no diversity of opinion. The King of Denmark has acquired a right to tax our commerce and obstruct our navigation so long as he confines himself to the limits of the treaty, on which his right to the Sound dues is founded. But, Sir, if it shall appear that the King of Denmark has violated that treaty, and has exercised authority over our trade which the treaty expressly prohibited—it may, I think, then become a fair subject of doubt and inquiry whether he has not abrogated the contract between us. At all events, if ii shall be proved to the satisfaction of this House that the King of Denmark has been in the habit of exacting tolls on our commerce much beyond what is permitted by the treaty between the two countries—if it shall be shown that he has had recourse to expedients for that purpose, not only not warranted by our contract, but expressly and emphatically forbidden by it—under such circumstances I think the House will not refuse to sanction the resolution I have given notice of, but will unanimously agree on this occasion, as it did last year in regard to the State dues, that these abuses must no longer continue. Now, Sir, I feel some confidence that I shall be able to establish to the satisfac- tion of the House the truth of the cases I have supposed. I shall not fatigue the patience of the House by going into any detailed history of the origin of the Sound dues. It is not necessary to recite it. It is quite sufficient that the Sound dues, having been arbitrarily and sometimes forcibly levied by the kings of Denmark from an early period, were formally recognised and sanctioned by Holland in the year 1645, by the treaty of Christianople. By this treaty, though the right of the king of Denmark to collect Sound tolls on ships and cargoes was admitted, the nature and extent of his tolls were carefully limited and defined, and a tariff or register of these tolls was drawn up with the sanction of the two states, and formally incorporated with the treaty. The tariff contained specific charges for most of the articles then known in commerce; but the treaty stipulated that all articles not named in the tariff should pay a toll of one per cent, on their value, as ascertained at the port of shipment. This treaty—the treaty of Christianople, has been the basis of all subsequent legislation respecting the Sound dues. In the year 1647, the King of Denmark became a party to another treaty with Holland respecting the Sound dues. In this treaty he undertook to maintain all the lights, buoys, and beacons, between the Cattegat and the Baltic, on receiving a stipulated payment from every passing vessel. In 1701 a third treaty was concluded on this subject between the same States, by which all the provisions of the Christianople treaty, together with the tariff, were confirmed, and the rights of the king of Denmark in regard to them more clearly defined and limited. It was ordered, that the treaty of Christianople should thereafter always be literally interpreted; that certain recited fees or perquisites should be paid by all foreign vessels to the Danish officers at Elsineur, that the officers should always be in attendance at certain stated hours, and that the king of Denmark should, on no account or pretext whatever, augment the charges for tolls or perquisites, either in number or amount. These treaties were extended to Great Britain at the time, and in the year 1814 they were all renewed, in all their provisions and in all their force, by the new treaty of Kiel. I now come down to the present time. The king of Denmark regained in the present century his old and antiquated power of levying the Sound tolls. But, Sir, when it is considered, that this power was gratuitously conceded to him—that you not only gave him the power to tax your commerce, but that you agreed also to pay the salaries of the Danish officers by whom this tax was to be collected, that you agreed to submit to many vexatious and humiliating restraints, in order to secure the King of Denmark in the fullest enjoyment of the benefits you had granted him, and further stipulated, that even the lightage and buoyage of the Danish seas should be provided for by dues, separate and apart from the Christianople sound tolls—I think, when you consider all these concessions which you made, at the grievous sacrifice of British commerce, it must be admitted, that you concluded a bargain with the king of Denmark with which he at least ought to have been content, and that the last object he should have attempted would be the extension of his extravagant right. Now, what is the fact? Ever since the treaty was signed has Denmark been engaged in violating the stipulation framed for the protection of commerce. The treaty of 1701 had carefully provided, that an account in great detail should be rendered to every ship passing the Sound of the dues exacted, in order that the merchant might see, that nothing more than the proper dues had been paid on every article of his merchandise. This regulation was carefully disregarded. Not only was not an account given of the dues exacted, but the whole system of charges has been a matter of secrecy and concealment. It was evident, that the legal tariff of 1645 was not in force, but what the scale of charges really was, no one knew, and Denmark took care that no one should learn. About the middle of the year 1839 the Swedish government, after some urgent applications, obtained a copy of the tariff in force, from the highest authority in Denmark. It then became manifest, that the Christianople treaty and tariff had been formally set aside, and one more fashioned to the taste and cupidity of Denmark substituted in its stead. Let me remind the House what the rate for the collection of the dues really was. I will not explain in my own words, or in any language which can be matter of dispute. I will take the expressions of the Crown of Denmark itself, as I find them in the fourth article of the treaty con- cluded between Denmark and Prussia in the year 1818. The Sound dues shall be paid according to the tariff of 1645, or as Denmark shall agree with the most favoured nations. With respect to the goods not enumerated in the tariff, Prussian subjects shall not pay more than one per cent., as is the case with the most favoured nations. The tariff of 1645, then, or when not in operation, one per cent., says Denmark, in 1818, is the legal rate. I have examined the tariff extorted by Sweden in 1839, and I find that, instead of one per cent, on the unenumerated articles, five, six, and even eight per cent, have been habitually demanded—that fixed payments have been adopted where the per centage has been ordered, and the contrary, but all with a view to enhance the duty. I find, that "heat flour is taxed at 100 percent, above the rate ordered in the tariff. Hemp seed ditto. On all articles of wood there was a great exaggeration. Deals of Prussia were to pay thirty-three per cent, above the proper duty. Deals of Sweden and Norway, when above twenty-one feet in length, 1,500 per cent. Laths sometimes as much as 5,000 per cent, above the legal rate. So, again, in regard to cotton and woollen yarn. On sugar, on coffee, and other colonial produce, all the charges are enormously advanced; and this, the House will recollect, is not my statement; it is the statement of Denmark herself—her own admission, as exhibited in the tariff communicated to the Swedish government the year before last, a copy of which is no doubt in the Foreign Office, and at the Board of Trade. I will not trouble the House by remarking on all the other violations of the treaty. It will easily be believed, that when the more important provisions were disregarded, that lesser matters were not very scrupulously observed. In truth, after the bloodshed, and the struggles of centuries, to restrict the Sound tolls within fixed and intelligible limits, we seem to have reverted in the nineteenth century to something like the club-law of the dark ages. The king of Denmark levies the Sound tolls at his will and pleasure, and then, to complete the evil as far as possible, the king of Denmark, in defiance of the laws by which he is bound as one of the Germanic confederation, blocks up the road of communication between Hamburg and Lubeck, and thus forces every article of commerce proceeding to the Baltic into his law-trap at Elsineur. It is impossible to look on this contrivance against the trade and manufactures of this country, and not feel some indignation. Between eighty and 100,000l. annually is the king of Denmark to levy in the shape of Sound tolls and dues on our commerce, the taxes being, for the most part, laid upon the export of our manufactured goods into foreign markets, and the import of the raw material into our own—the most mischievous and oppressive of all taxes. But it would be idle to attempt to estimate the mischief sustained by our commerce in the Baltic by the amount of money which is thus extorted. What the king of Denmark receives may be easily computed—what we suffer by the Sound tolls no man can tell. Well, for six-and twenty years this system has been going on. After what I have stated, will any Member doubt it is a system wholly at variance with the faith of treaties, pernicious to our commercial interest, and discreditable to our national dignity? Well, how long is it to last? After the neglect of a quarter of a century, is it not time for Government to step in and insist at least on the faithful execution of treaties? Our trade has, for a long time, been declining with the north of Europe—shall we wait till our flag is altogether excluded from the Baltic? Are you prepared to see that trade, once so large and valuable, extinguished? Can yon afford to give it up? Well, but you must give it up, unless you will promptly and vigorously interfere in its behalf. The Sound dues should not only be reduced to their proper limits, they should be abolished altogether—abolished by friendly composition. For such a consummation every circumstance seems now prepared, not excepting the false position in which Denmark is placed by her violation of treaties, and the excessive amount of money she has wrested from our merchants. He knew that the subject was disagreeable to the House; but, though it was thought of little importance there, it was of great importance to his constituents. It merely required that the noble Lord should interpose his authority. And let me tell him that it will be no inconsiderable addition to any acts of his political life, for which he is honoured in our own day, and by which he will be remembered hereafter, if he should be the man to rescue British com- merce from ignominious and ruinous thraldom in the Danish seas. I will therefore move, That, in the opinion of this House, the tariff of Sound dues now levied at Elsineur is not a tariff which the king of Denmark is entitled to maintain; and that the Sound dues require such a revision as will facilitate the commercial relations of this country with the Baltic ports.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that his hon. Friend need make no excuse to the House for drawing the attention of the House or of the country to this question, because it was a subject of great interest, and nothing could be more fitting or dispassionate than the mode in which the hon. Gentleman had introduced it. He was not going to dispute any of the propositions put forth by his hon. Friend. He could do no better than say, that his hon. Friend's statement, as to the Sound dues, was almost the case of the British Government against the government of Denmark. It was far from his intention to weaken any of the positions which the hon. Gentleman had sought to establish. He could assure the House, that this subject was not now for the first time brought under the consideration of the Government. Indeed, the ground on which he should request his hon. Friend, as a matter of discretion, either to withdraw his motion, or not to resist the motion of the previous question, was, that the subject which had for some time past occupied the serious attention of Government, and that they were at this moment in negotiation with the government of Denmark upon the matter, and that consequently any expression of opinion on the part of the House, such as was then proposed, would be an unfitting and an inexpedient interposition of Parliament in a negotiation pending between the British crown and the crown of Denmark; and more especially when he considered the disparity of strength of the two countries, he conceived that the interference of Parliament would be not only inexpedient, but that it would have the appearance of being somewhat ungracious. Government did some time ago make a communication to the government of Denmark on this point, through the Minister at Copenhagen. The result of this communication had been, that the Danish minister in this country, who was then away on leave of absence, had returned specially for the purpose of carrying on a negotiation upon the subject and he felt it due to the go- vernment of Denmark to say, that in the communication which they had made upon the subject, they had evinced a fair and candid disposition to enter into the question with a view to the arrival at a satisfactory termination of the question. He agreed with his hon. Friend, that they could not justly dispute the payment of any duty which could be shown to be legally exacted under a tariff, but they contended that the great proportion of the dues levied in the Sound were not properly levyable under the treaty. In one point he could not agree with what had fallen from his hon. Friend; he meant in thinking that whatever might be the oppressive nature of the duties, they had in fact diminished the commerce of Great Britain with the Baltic. It was certain, that they had tended much to divert the channel of that commerce; but a statement which had appeared in a pamphlet, the authority of which his hon. Friend, he thought, would be the last to question, showed that not only had not the amount of tonnage leaving Great Britain for the Baltic during the last few years diminished, but that it had actually increased. But it was certain that the channel of commerce was changed; that a great deal of that which should have gone through the Sound, had passed through other sources; and this was a point which should weigh materially with the Danish government, because it should show them that the maintenance of this duty did not add to their revenue, and that by reducing the amount of the tolls which they demanded, so as to bring back the commerce of the country to its natural channel, in truth the revenue of Denmark would sustain no important diminution, if, indeed, it sustained any diminution at all. Having stated thus much, and having expressed his hope that the negotiation which was already on foot would be brought to a conclusion, not only long before the period anticipated by his hon. Friend, not only before a quarter of a century had elapsed, but before a quarter of a year had passed away, he begged to state his desire, that his hon. Friend would either withdraw his motion, or would abstain from taking the sense of the House on an amendment for the previous question.

Sir R. Peel

said, that if there were any real intention to bring the subject to a satisfactory conclusion, the hon. Member for Hull could have no difficulty in withdrawing his motion. But the noble Lord had said, that this was a pending negotiation. If for years a foreign power refused to do that which it was just it should do, he thought that could hardly be taken to involve a pending negotiation. For several years a claim had been made by Great Britain that Denmark should restrain herself to the stipulations of her treaty. The noble Lord admitted, that the duties were not in conformity with the treaty. Who was to interfere then? No one wished to resort to violence; but if the Crown could not procure redress, and years passed away, and it was admitted, on the part of the Crown, that the solemn representations which had been made had had no effect, he thought that the time had arrived when the House of Commons should come forward, and in temperate language fortify the Crown in the proceedings which it had taken. The noble Lord had stated that which appeared to him to be perfectly fallacious. He said, that there had been no diminution of the commerce of Great Britain with the Baltic, but that was no test. Duties were exacted which ought not to be paid, and if there was fair ground to suppose that an increase was prevented by that means, that was the mischief which was complained of. The question of whether there had been a diminution in the trade or not was not a fair question. First of all, if the stipulation of the treaty gave us a right to a moderate duty only being imposed, we had a right to pay no more than that duty, notwithstanding any supposed effect which might be produced of increase or diminution. But further, if the effect of the imposition of the duty had been to divert the commerce of the country from its proper channel, that was also a great ground of complaint. Every one wished that the prerogative of the Crown as to foreign negotiations should be kept as free as possible, and the less the House interfered the more they increased the probability of a settlement being arrived at under ordinary circumstances. But if there was a long-continued pertinacious refusal to come to an understanding, that was a ground upon which the House of Commons might interfere. He hoped that the manifestation of opinion on both sides of the House as to the claim of this country, urged not in an angry tone, would have its proper effect, and that so may existing reasons for the mainte- nance of a proper understanding would be shown as to induce a fit termination to the present negotiations. If the hon. Member for Hull withdrew his motion, he could not help thinking that the general opinion which had been manifested on the part of the House would have the effect which was desired, and would dispose the Government of Denmark to do that which was right. But if the hon. Member found that this course failed in producing its proper effect, he would still have the power of again bringing forward the present motion, and he (Sir R. Peel) for one should be prepared to support it.

Mr. Labouchere

thought, that the right hon. Baronet had entirely misunderstood the statement of the noble lord, if he was under an impression that he had not expressed an opinion that these duties, as they now existed, were a heavy burden upon the country, and that it was the duty of the Government to urge on the government of Denmark with as little delay as possible the justice and propriety of putting them upon a proper footing. When the noble Lord had alluded to the circumstance of there having been no actual decrease of trade, he had done so for the purpose of correcting an inaccuracy in the statement of the hon. Member for Hull, and not at all meaning to say, that on that account it was less the duty of the Government to press this case on the attention of the Government of Denmark. The right hon. Baronet had said, that when there was no redress afforded on a matter so long standing, they should go out of that course which was allowed to be the most desirable. There would be much weight in the argument of the right hon. Baronet if it were the fact that the application made to the Government of Denmark had been neglected and refused; but, in justice to that Government, it was fair that he should remind the House, that only lately, indeed for the first time last year, had any such application been made. He did not think, that the present Government, or that which preceded it, was to be blamed for the present state of things. The noble Lord had stated, that negotiations were now going on between the English and the Danish governments, and that Denmark had met those negotiations by avowing at once that it was necessary that these dues should be thoroughly revised with as little delay as possible; and there was every reason to believe, that a satisfactory conclusion would be arrived at. He thought the more dignified and proper course would be, to allow time for the purpose of ascertaining whether the anticipations of the Government were or were not fulfilled, before Parliament interposed by expressing any opinion on the subject. The importance of a final settlement of the question had been impressed upon the attention of the government of Denmark, before the navigation of the Baltic was re-opened, and they had expressed their willingness to accede to this proposition so far as it was possible, but as the question was one of long standing, it was found impossible to come at once to any conclusive arrangement; but, in order to prove their good will, they expressed themselves willing to make concessions on some of the points which were the subject-matter of the negotiation. These concessions were no doubt inadequate to the just expectations of the country, but they were not made with a view to delay, and they had been accepted. He hoped, after the statements which had been made, the hon. Member would withdraw his motion, more especially as he found the Government disposed to do all that was fit to be done in the case.

Mr. A. White

thought, that the hon. Member for Hull was entitled to the thanks of the shipping interest for bringing forward this motion to the attention of the House, but as the noble Lord had staled that negotiations were in progress for the purpose of having the duties put upon a proper footing, he thought, that it would be better for his hon. Friend to withdraw his motion, and accede to the proposition which had been thrown out.

Mr. Pease

was happy to hear that the subject had already fallen under the consideration of the Government; it was a matter of material importance to those individuals whom he had the honour to represent, and he sincerely trusted, that measures would be taken by which the entire abrogation of the duties would be secured. He had been surprised to hear it stated, that the subject had been recently for the first time brought under the notice of the Government, because undoubtedly in 1836 it was a matter of discussion in the public newspapers, and some correspondence had beeen published, amongst which were some letters written by the noble Lord, who was now the Governor of Canada. He joined with those hon. Gentlemen who had preceded him in recommending the withdrawal of the present motion.

Mr. Villiers

presumed his hon. Friend would allow the previous question to be carried, leaving his resolution on record; but he hoped he would not now lose sight of his original object. It seemed doubtful, from what had been said, whether concessions that would be considered satisfactory would be made by Denmark, though his hon. Friend had only insisted upon the obligations of a treaty being fulfilled; but be joined with the hon. Member for Durham in urging upon his hon. Friend to persevere until he should obtain the total abolition of these obnoxious dues. They were, in these days, a scandalous interruption to the commerce of the world; and not only England, but every state trafficking with the Baltic complained alike of them, and were, in fact, watching the move against them being made in this country. They were, in truth, imposed with no more justice than if this country at any time chose to levy tolls on the trade in the British Channel. The same plea might be urged, and the same injury to foreigners inflicted. The country was obliged to his hon. Friend for bringing the subject forward, and he thought the House encouraged him to persevere.

Mr. Hutt

replied. He had reason to be gratified with the explanation which had been given by the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and that the satisfaction which he felt was in no degree diminished by the guarantee given by the right hon. Baronet opposite, that he believed the question was one which was worthy the consideration of the House. He adopted the opinion of his hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, that these duties should be altogether abolished. The prospect which now presented itself to him was most agreeable to him, and he had no hesitation, after the manifestation of opinion on the part of the House, to allow his motion to be negatived, and the previous question carried.

The amendment was then put and carried.