HC Deb 20 June 1843 vol 70 cc149-57
Mr. Hawes

moved pursuant to notice, That this House will on Wednesday next, resolve itself into a committee, to consider an Address to her Majesty, praying that her Majesty would be graciously pleased to advance to the claimants for losses sustained by the seizure of British ships and cargoes by the Danish government in 1807, the amount of their respective losses, as ascertained by the commissioners appointed for the investigation of Danish claims, and reported upon the 12th day of May, 1840, and assuring her Majesty, that this House will make good the same.

Mr. H. Hinde

seconded the motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that in order to make the case of these claims intelligible, he would briefly state the circumstances out of which they arose. War was declared by this country against Denmark in 1807. It was declared under peculiar, though not unprecedented circumstances. It was necessary to remind the House, that the weakness of the Danish government made it impossible for that power to offer any resistance to any demand to give up its fleet. In consequence of the information which it received, the Government of this country demanded of Denmark, that she should give up her fleet to Great Britain, and on her refusal to do so, this country commenced an attack on the capital and arsenal of Denmark. Thereupon the Danish Government very naturally declared that they were at war with England, and they proceeded to adopt the ordinary measures of war. In addition, the Danish government resorted to extraordinary measures, for the purpose of obtaining the possession of the property of British subjects, and of thus annoying this country. In the first instance, the annoying government compelled all its subjects, who were indebted to British subjects, to pay the amount of their debts into the Danish treasury, and then confiscated the property for the service of the Danish Government. In the next place, the Danish government seized all the property belonging to British subjects within the limits of their territory, which was equally confiscated for the service of that country. These measures, not of an ordinary character, the Danish government also resorted to the uniform practice in maritime warfare, and issued letters of marque, and captured British ships and merchandise. On the cessation of the war, no provision was made for compensating the parties whose ships and merchandise were thus seized; and for nineteen years after the conclusion of peace, being twenty-seven years after the commencement of the war in which these captures were made, no application was made either to the Government or to Parliament by the parties whose property was so seized and confiscated; it being during all that time considered that such captures made upon British subjects during war, were not matters for which the Government ought to give compensation, but that it was a loss which must be sustained by the individuals themselves. In 1834, however, a distinction was drawn between the several grounds of claim which had been urged upon the Government. It was stated; that these claimants might fairly be divided into two classes—one, those who were the sufferers from the ordinary operation of war, on whose behalf it would not be attempted to make any claim; and the other class, those who suffered from the unusual application of the rigours of war, and whose property, under the ordinary system of warfare, and by the law of nations, would not have been subject to seizure, and, upon that distinction, the Government of that day (1834) acted. Lord Althorp entertained the claims in that limited sense; but so anxious was he to guard himself against being liable for the payment of the sums now claimed, that in the minute prepared by the council it was stated that:— My Lords were aware that claims had been and still might be preferred for the losses sustained by the acts of the Danish government, which were in conformity with the ordinary usages of war, and recognized by the law of nations; but, my Lords were not under any circumstances to be considered to admit that any such claims should be entertained.

Lord Althorp,

therefore, acquiescing in the two first classes of claims, distinctly declared that he was not prepared to assent to the third class. The present application was for compensation for the ships and cargoes which were captured at sea after the declaration of war by Denmark against this country, and at a time when there was no doubt the two nations were engaged in war; and it was to the payment of these claims which he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), like others who had preceded him in the office which he had the honour to fill, was prepared to offer the most determined resistance. He might subject himself to the imputation of being harsh against the individuals who were represented as objects of compassion, yet holding the office which he now held, he considered it to be one of his first duties to protect the public purse against claims which ought not to be preferred. Following the ex, ample of his predecessors, he opposed the present claims, and he trusted the House would make that opposition effectual. Hon. Members must not consider this as an insulated case. This was only one of many cases which would be brought forward if the present should be successful. The question at issue was not merely the amount of the sum claimed, 225,000l., though that itself was a point sufficiently serious under the present state of the country; but, whether they should abandon the principle on which, in all wars heretofore, the Government had acted, and make a new rule that all captures which should hereafter be made should be the subject of compensation, and that the parties should be indemnified by the public. Nay, more —the question was, whether in all antecedent wars, those who had suffered losses from captures should be reimbursed the losses they had sustained. For if the present motion and claims were acceded to, all parties who had ever sustained losses in warfare would be equally entitled to compensation with those who were now the claimants on account of the war with Denmark. Every argument which the hon. Gentleman had used in support of the present case would equally well apply to all other similar cases of loss. The hon. Gentleman said the war with Denmark was unjust in itself. But was that to be admitted as an argument peculiar to this case? Might it not be urged in reference to all other wars in which this country might be engaged. The hon. Gentleman had also adverted to the ignorance on the part of the merchants whose property was seized of there being any war with Denmark. But would the hon. Gentleman restrict the discretionary power of the Crown as to the mode of conducting hostilities by requiring every step that it was considered proper to take to be previously announced to the merchants of this country? If the principle of the hon. Gentleman should be adopted, it would vastly increase the expense of all warlike operations. If this rule as to the uncertainty of the occurrence or existence of a war were to be recognized as a ground or compensation, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) knew no war to which it might not be made applicable. The hon. Gentleman urged another topic, and one on which he mainly relied — namely, that the amount of the property which was taken from the Danes, by the seizure of their ships in the British ports, was such as to afford ample funds out of which compensation might be made. But this argument he did not think one whit more tenable than the other arguments of the hon. Gentleman. In every war all amounts of property that were captured became the property of the Crown. In ordinary cases, the Crown assigned such property for the benefit of the captors, but the argument was not altered by a different assignment of the property. It was on these grounds, that he hoped the present House of Commons would support him in the fulfilment of his duty in resisting the claim on the public purse, which he considered was not founded in justice or right, but, if admitted, would lead to a violation of the principle on which the whole maritime wars of Europe had been for ages carried on— which would involve this country in unlimited expense in all future wars.

The question having been put,

Mr. Howes

said, the right hon. Gentle- man had not fairly grappled with the argument which he addressed to the House the other day. He did not bring this forward as a private question. He considered it to involve a great question arising out of the public policy of this country, and calculated seriously to effect great injury to the merchants of this country. Under all the circumstances, those merchants were, in his opinion, entitled to come to the House, and ask for that compensation which the Government had refused to them. Upon what ground did he resist these claims? The right lion. Gentleman said that these seizures were made in time of war. He would ask the Attorney-general to meet him on this ground, and he would refer him to the case of the ship Orion, where Sir W. Scott declared the ship was not a droit of the Crown, in as much as, on the 10th of October, no declaration of war had been made. How could these two things be consistent with each other? Mr. Canning, in 1807, when this subject was discussed, said that the British Government had purposely delayed a declaration of war, in the hope of continuing amicable negotiations with Den- mark, and that the whole character of our transactions with Denmark was one not of war, but to avoid war. This country sent an armament to the shores of Denmark—. for what? To prevent war. Lord Cathcart and Admiral Gambier, who went on that expedition, made a declaration to this effect—" we come here, not for the purpose of making war, but as negotiators." These seizures took place prior to a declaration of war, and after a vast fund—not less than 1,300,000l.—had been realised by the Government of this country, by the seizure of Danish property in the British ports. He would remind the House that Dr. Lushington and the present Attorney-general had both declared that these claims were just and reasonable. The Solicitor-general, too, had given an opinion to the merchants of London, that these were just and equitable claims, and yet, in his place in Parliament, the hon. and learned Gentleman had sat quietly by, and heard those claims declared to be unjust, and not to be admitted. The right hon. Gentleman had referred to the American war; but America made a declaration of war. That was not the case with Denmark. The ground he stood upon was, that this was a most peculiar and special case, and which could not, by possibility, be made to bear a resemblance to any other case. There was no precedent like it; he, therefore, felt that these merchants were equitably entitled to have their claims considered by Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman had said, that if these claims were granted, it would materially increase the expense of war. Well, to that he had no objection. Let the Ministers be more careful before they went to war; and if the expense of the war was increased by just claims, it ought to be no reason for rejecting those claims. It was a very good check upon war that it should be expensive. He thought that it was a matter of the greatest injustice to the British merchants to refuse assent to such a proposition.

The Solicitor-General

said, the hon. Gentleman had been pleased to refer to an opinion which he (the Solicitor-General) was alleged to have given respecting these claims, and in which he declared the justice of them. Now, that opinion, such as it was, depended entirely on the case put before him. Since, however, the real facts of the case were put before him, he had never had the slightest doubt as to the want of foundation for these claims. A few years ago, the matter was brought before the House by his learned Friend, Mr. Justice Cresswell, who had asked him to support them; but on hearing the case in that House, he was not satisfied that they had been made out, and he therefore considered that the Government of that day was right in resisting them. The reason urged by Lord Althorp for opposing these claims, he conceived to be very sound. That noble Lord said, that with respect to the two first classes of claims the seizures had not been made in conformity with the law of nations, and as the Government at the period of the peace had not made a demand for reparation from Denmark, that, therefore, in justice, the amount must be paid by this nation. As for the third class of claims which had reference to the seizure of ships, it was considered that that took place in conformity with the law of nations, and that, therefore, there was no ground for looking to the English Government for compensation. The hon. Gentleman was under a misapprehension as to the period when the declaration of war was issued by the Danish Government. That Government made the declaration of war against this country so early as the 16th of August, and all the captures of ships, for which compensation was now demanded, took place subsequently to that declaration. The English Government suspended its declaration of war until December, as it was in hopes of negotiating successfully. There was an analogous case to the present with regard to the late war between this country and the United States. The American government declared war with England some months before the English Government issued its declaration, which was withheld in the hopes of settling the matters of difference by negociation. All these ships, then, he had no hesitation in saying, were justly seized according to the law and the rights of nations. The hon. Gentleman was also misinformed as to the manner in which the money received from the Danish Government was appropriated. The money received from Denmark was appropriated immediately to public purposes, and the amount received was not more than sufficient to pay the two first classes of claims. If the House agreed to the proposition of the hon. Gentleman, it must take 250,000l. from the public revenue of the country.

Mr. Hutt

observed, that the whole question turned upon the period of the declaration of war. He considered, that the hon. and learned Gentleman was altogether mistaken in saying, that the Danish declaration of war was made on the 16th of August. The paper which the hon. and learned Gentleman represented to be a declaration of war, was nothing more than a proclamation of the Danish government informing the people that a British force was on the Coast.

Mr. Aglionby

said, that the whole ques- tion rested on the interpretation of the paper referred to; and his opinion was founded on the judgment of Sir W. Scott. in the case of the ship Orion, which was taken two months subsequently to the date of the proclamation, or alleged declaration of war, and was ordered by him to be discharged, as it was not regularly served.

The House divided—Ayes 42; Noes 57: —Majority 15.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Masterman, J.
Aldam, W. Mitcalfe, H.
Attwood, M. Mitchell, T. A.
Baldwin, B. Morison, Gen.
Barnard, E. G. Muntz G. F.
Borthwick, P. Neeld, J.
Bowes, J. Ogle, S. C. H.
Bowring, Dr. Ord, W.
Broadley, H Polhill, F.
Chapman, A. Ramsbottom, J.
Crawford, W. S. Sheppard, T.
Duncan, G. Sibthorp, Col.
Duncombe, T. Smith, B.
Dungannon, Visct. Strickland, Sir G.
Fielden, J, Vivian, J. E.
Forster, M. Wawn, J. T.
Gill, T. Wood, G. W.
Hanmer, Sir J. Worsley, Lord
Heathcote, J. Yorke, H. R.
Hodgson, R.
Mackenzie, T. Hawes, B.
Martin, J. Hinde, H.
List of the NOES.
Ackers, J. Hepburn, Sir T. B.
Adderley, C. B. Herbert, hon. S.
Baring, bon. W. B. Hope, hon. C.
Baring, rt. hon. F. T. Hope, G. W.
Beckett, W. Ingestrie, Visct.
Bentinck, Lord G. Jermyn, Earl
Berkeley, hon. Capt. Knatchbull, rt. hn. Sir E
Boldero, H. G. Lincoln, Earl of
Brotherton, J. Lockhart, W.
Clerk, Sir G. M' Taggart, Sir J.
Corry, right hon. H. Mainwaring, T.
Damer, hon. Col. Meynell, Capt.
Dickinson, F. H. Milnes, R. M.
Escott, B. Mordaunt, Sir J.
Fellowes, E. Nicholl, rt. hon. J.
Flower, Sir J. Patten, J. W.
Follett, Sir W. W. Peel, rt. hon. Sir R.
Forman, T. S. Peel, J.
Gordon, hon. Capt. Pollock, Sir F.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H Repton, G. W. J.
Graham, rt. hn. Sir J. Russell, Lord J.
Greene, T. Smith, rt. hn. T. B. C.
Hamilton, Lord C. Smollett, A.
Hardinge, rt. hn. Sir H. Somerset, Lord G.
Henley, J. W. Stanley, Lord
Henniker, Lord Stanton, W. H,
Sutton, hon. H. M. Young, J.
Trench, Sir F. W. TELLERS.
Wellesley, Lord C. Fremantle, T.
Wortley, hon. J. S. Pringle, A.