HC Deb 20 September 1841 vol 59 cc627-34
Dr. Bowring

said, before he put the question of which he had given notice, he hoped he should be allowed to make one or two observations that would make the subject intelligible. For a very long time past there had existed between this country and the Ottoman empire certain treaties known by the name of the Capitulation Treaties. By those treaties, a duty of 3 per cent, was agreed to be imposed upon all exports and imports, and the tariffs which regulated those capitulations had been settled at various times by commissioners, so that the imposts intended to be levied never exceeded this 3 per cent., and from the diminished value of merchandize were in most cases much less than this amount. But in the progress of years, and the general disorganization and anarchy of the Turkish rule, enormous abuses had introduced themselves into many of the provinces, especially those immediately under the sway of the Sultan, and in these the capitulations had become of no effect. One article after another had been monopolized —heavy imposts had been levied on consumption and transits—and commercial operations were interfered with by every sort of exaction and abuse,—and to remedy which grievances, in 1838, a treaty was entered into between Great Britain and the Porte, by which it was agreed that instead of the 3 per cent, formerly levied upon exports, 12 per cent, should be collected by the Turkish empire, and that instead of the 3 per cent, upon imports there should in future be a duty of 5 per cent. At the same time, however, all internal taxes or impediments, that had formerly interfered, were to be put an end to. Now, he was very ready to admit, that, as far as Turkey Proper was concerned, the treaty to which he had last referred was of the utmost commercial importance, supposing it was really carried into effect, which it had not been up to the present hour, for so inveterate were the ancient habits of misrule and oppression, that the feeble hand of the sultan had been controlled by that all-pervading corruption which characterizes the officers of the Porte. But beyond the limits of Turkey Proper, the treaty of 1838 was positively mischievous—for, in many of their dependencies, the ancient capitulations existed in their full vigour, and only 3 per cent was levied on articles of export and import. That treaty exhibited a lamentable ignorance of, or a reckless inattention to, the state of things—and even to the solemn engagements of the Porte in many of the provinces which came, or were supposed to come, under the operation of the treaty. The Porte had no right to interfere with the taxes of the provinces of the Danube—with Servia, Wallachia, or Moldavia—they paid a fixed tribute and regulated their own internal taxation. They had already trampled the treaty under foot and considered it as a dead letter. They would not allow the Porte to quadruple the duty on exports or double that on imports; and the Porte dared not insist on giving effect to the treaty in those districts. To Arabia also, the treaty had been found utterly inapplicable; and the same observation would apply to Egypt, where the payment of fixed tribute by the Viceroy, and the whole system of administration and government placed the ruler in a position wholly different from that of the direct nominees of the Sultan. But in Syria the operation of the treaty had been most injurious and cruelly oppressive, for the Syrians had not been subject to those internal duties, charges, and monopolies, which had made the capitulations of no effect elsewhere. They paid, and had continued to pay up to the period in which Mehemet Ali's sway was overthrown, the low duties which the capitulations had established. Since the restoration of the Turkish authority—if, indeed it be, or can be restored, the Turks had endeavoured to increase the export duties to 12 per cent, under the plea of the treaty; they had been changing the whole system of collection—and had in fact been introducing that state of things to which an experienced Austrian statesman had referred. Prince Metternich's despatch of April 20, 1841, to the internuncio, in reproving the "inept innovators" of the East, had these words: If I am not altogether deceived the Porte will have to abandon in the greater part of its dominions, the mode of receipt recently introduced into several of them. By collecting the duties through its own receivers it will only have augmented the exactions so far as its subjects are concerned, and the deficiencies as far as the Treasury is concerned. It seemed that in Syria, Mouhassils and Defterdars were employed to collect the duties, persons not of the religion of the principal part of the population, who were Druses and Maronites, and that they were imposing enormous duties in Syria, contrary to the engagements entered into by the Government. Our own Cabinet was a party to these engagements. We had stimulated the Syrians to revolt against Mehemet Ali — we had held to them splendid promises. As long ago as 1 836, Lord Ponsonby had sent a subordinate official of the Constantinopolitan Embassy, a Levantine, to sow the seeds of discontent and insurrection; and he had been rewarded by the consulship of Damascus. This gentleman (Mr. Wood) returned again, when it was decided by the Four Powers to eject Mehemet Ali from Syria, and Lord Ponsonby thus instructed Mr. Wood on August 4, 1840:— I direct you to declare in my name loudly to whoever chooses to hear you, that I am authorized to acquaint the Syrians that the British Government, in union with the Governments of Austria, Russia, and Prussia, will protect the Syrians who shall return to the direct obedience of the Sultan. At about the same time Sir Charles Napier thus addressed the Syrians:— The allied powers have engaged to recommend to the Sultan to make an arrangement to render your condition happy and prosperous. And Mr. Wood thus wrote to the Emir Bechir El Sheckaby on the 13th of August, 1840:— Four years ago I alluded to the probable separation some day of Syria from the dominion of Mehemet Ali, and he promised them if they would revolt,' peace and happiness, and liberty.' To the Emir El Kasim, Mr. Wood thus wrote:— My Prince, you must remember the conversation we had together four years ago, and the determination you then declared to arm your countrymen, provided England assisted you in your noble efforts to procure liberty for your countrymen. And thus to the Maronite Patriarch on August 15, 1840:— The sublime Porte has only at heart now the general prosperity of its Syrian subjects, to whom it will grant the free exercise of their laws and perfect liberty, and the powerful intervention of England and Austria Will secure these blessings to them Again, Mr. Wood wrote to the Emit Bechir, (confidential:) — The great powers have decided to relieve the country from the burdens imposed oh it, particularly that part which is governed by you. On the 29th of September, 1840, Lord Ponsonby thus wrote to Lord Palmerston:— The Porte will effectually engage to make a remission of taxes in Syria. And the Grand Vizier also authorised Mr. Wood "to regulate and settle the actual affairs of the Porte in Syria." To the Emirs and Sheiks of Damour, Mr. Wood thus appealed on the 27th of September, 1840:— Come to us armed, both you and your chiefs, in order that you may assist us in making you free and happy. In his despatch to Lord Ponsonby of the 8th of October, 1840, Mr. Wood said: — I had declared to the Syrians that the Porte would grant them their ancient rights and privileges. In consequence of such promises, they were encouraged again to revolt against the Egyptian authority after they had laid down their arms. I was sent by your Lordship, authorised to make a number of promises to the Syrians, and was, in a manner, pledged to see them executed by the Sultan's officers. Lord Palmerston wrote to Lord Ponsonby, November 9, 1840. The honour of the British Crown requires that the promises made to the Syrians in the name of the Sultan by the British agent, Mr. Wood, should be fulfilled.

Mr. Wood's

zeal, indeed, seemed to be boundless. This Christian envoy of a Christian Government called upon the Mussulmans in the name of the Koran, which he entitled "the Holy Book"— "the Sacred Law," to revolt, and so strong was Lord Ponsonby's confidence in him that he writes, November 18, 1840, I have instructed Mr. Wood to consider himself absolutely free from the authority and control of every body in Syria, in his execution of the duties and trusts reposed in him by the Porte. It would seem, however, that accounts of the misdoings of the Turks had reached the Foreign-office at this time, for, in answer to a despatch representing "the unusual vexations—-the infamous and unpunished proceedings of the Constantinopolitan troops towards the Christian Rayahs and their clergy," Lord Palmerston instructed Lord Ponsonby to obtain from the Sultan arrangements giving full satisfaction and security to the Syrians; and Lord Ponsonby replied, that the Porte was ready to take any measures for insuring to the Syrians the reward of their loyalty to the Sultan; and in a despatch so late as March 14, 1841, Lord Ponsonby said— It is particularly necessary that the Porte should faithfully perform the promises Redschid Pasha authorised Mr. Wood to make to the Syrians. There can be no doubt therefore that we are bound to give effect to the pledges under whose influence the Syrians had thrown oft' one Government and assisted us to establish another. We have made them promises and they have a right to call upon us for their fulfilment. Every communication from Syria shows that the utmost disregard is shown by the Turks to the pledges that have been given. The Syrians had suffered much; their towns had been destroyed, their fields had been devastated, and multitudes of them had perished. His object was to ascertain from the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, whether her Majesty's Ministers were cognizant of the fact, that the duties on exports and imports had been greatly increased by the Turkish authorities in Syria, notwithstanding their engagement to the contrary, entered into in the most solemn manner; and whether, such being the case, any measures had been taken for the purpose of obtaining a redress of the grievance.

Sir R. Peel

could not help suggesting, that the noble Lord, the late Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, would, perhaps, have been the best authority to appeal to for satisfactory information upon this matter. He apprehended the state of the question was this:—In 1838, he thought it was, a treaty was ratified between the Porte and this country, which, for various internal monopolies, and exactions of different kinds, substituted an export duty of 9 per cent. There had been previously an export duty of 3 per cent., which still continued, and at present the whole duty to which British subjects were liable was 12 per cent, on exports. In some cases he had no doubt the levy of that duty might bear hardly on the native inhabitants, comparing the present amount of duty with what they were before subject to in particular districts of the country; but, on the whole, he apprehended that the substitution of a duty of 9 per cent., in lieu of various monopolies and exactions which formerly prevailed there must be advantageous. That abuses existed in the enforcement of that duty he was not disposed to deny. It was impossible, however, to form an opinion of the results of that treaty by restricting their view to any one point of Syria; they must look to its general effect, and. so far as British interests at least were concerned, he had every reason to believe that its operation had been beneficial. The inhabitants of Lebanon complained of the exactions to which they were subject under the rule of Mehemet Ali. He believed, however, that commissioners had been appointed by the Porte, who were in communication with the local authorities appointed by the inhabitants of Lebanon, and some arrangement was made to remit certain duties, in the first instance exacted by the Turkish authorities, and of which the inhabitants of that district complained. He believed, also, that the inhabitants of Lebanon demanded exemption from the operation of these duties for three years, in consequence of assurances which had been given them by the Turkish government. That question remained still unsettled. He had only to state, that there was every disposition on the part of the Government of this country to use its influence with Turkey for the purpose of securing to the inhabitants of Syria any advantages which they had a right to expect in consequence of engagements which had been entered into by British instruments acting under the authority of the Porte. But the great object of the Syrian operations being to restore the independence of Turkey, it was not very easy for foreign powers to interfere beyond certain limits in respect to the acts of the Turkish government. It was possible for us to interfere in respect of any contravention of a treaty when British subjects were concerned; it was possible for us to use our interest, in order to induce Turkey to fulfil the engagements she had entered into with her own subjects; but the great object of the recent movements being to restore the independence of the Ottoman empire, the hon. Member must himself see it was, as he had already said, no very easy matter for foreign powers to interfere. He rather thought, from the inquiries he had been able to make in the course of the morning, that some convention had been made between the authorities of Turkey and Lebanon, under which a certain sum was to be paid by the latter, which, in point of amount, was not unreasonable. This was the only satisfactory answer he could give the hon. Gentleman beyond a repetition of the assurance, that so far as this country could consistently with the maintenance of the independence of the Ottoman Power use its influence for the purpose of preventing the great change which had taken place in Syria from operating to the disadvantage of the inhabitants, that influence would not fail to be exerted.

Viscount Palmerston

wished, although it was not altogether regular, to add a few words to what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet. With regard to the treaty of 1838, although the hon. Gentleman considered it a bad one, he certainly thought it a good one: and when he stated that several other powers had, in imitation, concluded exactly similar treaties with Turkey, he thought it might be inferred that the treaty had been advantageous to the Christian inhabitants. He knew that his hon. Friend had a strong feeling in favour of Mehemet Ali, and it was honourable to him that he had not abandoned the Pasha when he had encountered misfortune and failure. It was, therefore, not unnatural that the hon. Gentleman should look with some degree of dissatisfaction on the state of things established in Syria. He was also particularly anxious that this treaty should not be applied to Egypt, because that would of course, diminish those fiscal means which Mehemet Ali had applied in a manner not very consistently with his allegiance as a subject. But first of all, with regard to what had been done in Syria, the statement of the right hon. Baronet was quite correct. When first Syria was restored to the lawful dominion of the Sultan some officers, Mouhassils and Defterdars, were sent to collect the revenues, and it was perfectly true they had committed great excesses. On that being made known to the Turkish Government every desire was manifested to correct those abuses, and persons duly authorized were put in communication with the people of Lebanon and other parts of Syria, for the purpose of making some satisfactory arrangements with regard to the tribute they should pay; and before leaving office he had reason to believe that some arrangement would be made, which for a certain number of years would relieve the people of Lebanon from anything which could be considered oppressive. With regard, how- ever, to the other transactions to which the hon. Gentleman had alluded—the employment of Mr. Wood to hold communications, on the part of the Turkish and English Governments, with the people of Syria, he must protest against the statement that he had been sent there to excite the inhabitants to rebel or revolt. What he had been sent to do was, to assure them that they would be protected, not in returning to their allegiance, for they had never swerved from it, but in asserting within their country the authority of their legitimate sovereign. It was Mehemet Ali who had encouraged rebellion, and not those who promised them assistance in maintaining the authority of the Sultan. The conduct of Mr. Wood, therefore, was perfectly correct. He was authorized by the Ministers of the Sultan, to hold out certain promises and expectations to the Syrians if they supported the Sultan against his rebellious subjects. They did so—they were entitled to have those promises made good, and he believed every step had been taken, as the right hon. Baronet had stated, consistently with the rights of an independent Power, to obtain the performance of those engagements. The strongest representations, consistent with a regard to those rights, had been made, calling upon the Porte to fulfil the promises which had been given to the Syrians, and his firm belief was that they would be performed.

Lord C. Hamilton

was understood to express a doubt whether Mr. Wood should not properly be regarded as altogether a British agent in the negotiations with the people of Syria.

Viscount Palmerston

admitted that Mr. Wood was a British dragoman acting under Lord Ponsonby, but he had authority from the Turkish government, and in virtue of it he held those communications with the subjects of the Ottoman Porte.

Conversation dropped.

The Order of the Day being again put,