HC Deb 07 August 1844 vol 76 cc1870-84
Viscount Palmerston

said, I do not mean to advert to the subject of the occurrences on the west coast of Africa, but I wish to take this opportunity of making a few observations with respect to the position in which the Foreign Affairs generally of the country now stand, as it is the last occasion which will present itself. I am anxious to call the attention of the House and of the Government to the inconvenient consequences which have arisen from the system of policy pursued by Her Majesty's present advisers — a system which appears to be one of resistance at home and of concession abroad. When the right hon. Gentlemen opposite came into office, they adopted a course which they probably thought would lead to a state of tranquillity abroad, and secure to them the good-will of Foreign Governments. I doubted at the time the success of that line of policy, and affairs which have arisen since must have convinced Ministers, as they have convinced the country, that it is not a system calculated to advance the interests or to uphold the honour of this country. They commenced by making a great concession to the United States, in the hope, no doubt, that by such means they would restore perfect harmony between the Governments of the two countries; but the result instead was, that after the cession of the greater portion of the disputed territory, another question arose, namely, that concerning the Oregon territory, which promised to lead to as many difficulties as that respecting the north-east boundary. Then there were the questions of the right of visit, and the annexation of Texas to the United States, which were of great importance to the interests of England, and which yet remained to be resolved. In like manner with regard to France; the policy they adopted towards that country was of the same character and tendencies. In Spain, shortly after their accession to office, there occurred questions of considerable difficulty, the embarrassments connected with which were fomented by French intrigue, and Ministers, out of deference to the French Government, counselled the Regent of Spain to submit to great indignity in the question which had arisen with M. Salvandy, the French Ambassador, and also in the affair regarding the conduct of M. Lesseps, the French Consul at Barcelona. The consequence of this was, that the Spanish nation had felt that the Regent had lost the moral support of this country, and his enemies were allowed to prevail. He fell, and British interests, in my opinion, were sacrificed in his downfall. In Otaheite a question arose as to whether France should accept the Protectorate of the island, which had been refused by England; which, indeed, had been twice refused by England; but, be it always remembered, that the former Government who had declined the offer, had assured the Government of Tahiti, that England would always give it the support of her good offices in any difference which might arise between Tahiti and any Foreign Power. When that question presented itself, Her Majesty's Government again acquiesced, and that acquiescence in French aggression led that Power to take another step which may be productive of very serious consequences. No doubt that line of policy was undertaken for the purpose of obtaining temporary quiet, and without foresight or regard as to what the eventual consequences might be, putting aside all care for the ultimate sacrifices which must be made in following such a course. Ministers, in fact, appear to shape their policy not with reference to the great interests of their own country, but from a consideration of the effect which their course may produce upon the position of Foreign Governments. It may very well be a desirable object, and one worthy of consideration, that a particular individual should continue in the administration of affairs in another country, but it is too much that from regard to that object, the interests of this country should be sacrificed, and that every demand of Foreign Powers should be acceded to. The same course, indeed, was pursued by the party opposite on former occasions. In 1830, the French were allowed to obtain possession of Algiers. The right hon. Gentlemen opposite were then in office; they remained quiescent, in order that the Ministry of Prince Polignac might be maintained in power, and we were all aware of the consequences which have arisen from their acquiescence on that occasion. No doubt it is for the interest of this country, it is for the interest of France herself, as well as for the interests of the world, that M. Guizot should remain Minister of France, but the Government of this country has no right to sacrifice either the honour or the interests of England, in order to continue M. Guizot in power. What is the consequence of pursuing such a course? When questions arise between the two countries—when the British Government wishes that something should be done, or that something should be refrained from—all that the French Government have to do, in order to avoid compliance with the demand, is to get the so-called war party and the opposition newspapers to abuse them, and to call for their expulsion from office. The French Government then come to the Government of the right hon. Baronet, and represent that if they were to be compelled to do one thing, or were required to refrain from doing another, their existence would be endangered, and then Her Majesty's Ministers frightened at the notion of a change of Government in France, sacrifice the interests of their own country for the purpose of saving the Government of France, It seems to me that the system of purchasing temporary security by lasting sacrifices, and of placing the interests of Foreign Ministries above those of this country, is one that never can be worked out with advantage either to the honour of this country, or to that of the Administration which pursues such a course. Since the accession to office of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, no one can have failed to observe, that there has been a great diminution of British influence and consideration in every foreign country. Influence abroad is to be maintained only by the operation of one or other of two principles—hope and fear. We ought to teach the weaker Powers to hope that they will receive the support of this country in their time of danger. Powerful countries should be taught to fear that they will be resisted by England in any unjust acts either towards ourselves or towards those who are bound in ties of amity with us. But after the abandonment of Spain by Her Majesty's Government, what weak power can retain any hopes of moral support or of effective aid from this country? And after we have ceded and given up the disputed territory in North America, what powerful country can entertain any apprehension of our resistance to encroachment? Although Her Majesty's late advisers had sometimes the misfortune to be in a minority in the House of Commons, still in their Foreign Policy they had the good fortune always to be in the majority on the Belgian negotiation. When the Dutch were intractable, we had the assistance of France and Belgum, and we controlled the Dutch; when afterwards the Belgians grew unreasonable, we had the support of Austria, Russia, and Prussia, and we restrained the Belgians. In Portugal, when we wished to establish the Constitution and Donna Maria, we had France and Spain on our side, and we carried our point. In Spain, when we were desirous of upholding Isabella and Liberty, we had France and Portugal with us, and we carried our point. When we decided to affect an arrangement in the Levant, which we thought essential for the peace of Europe, as well as to the interest of England, we had Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Turkey with us, and that arrangement was carried into execution. In all these great questions Her Majesty's late Government had the concurrence and co-operation of all those Powers which were nearest to the scene of operations, and were, from their local position, the best informed upon the subject, the most able to co-operate, and the most interested in the policy pursued. What may be the influence of the present Government I know not, but while it is exercised upon the system I have pointed out, and when important and permanent interests are sacrificed for the temporary convenience of Foreign Governments—it can never be exercised in a manner which will be satisfactory to this country. I am most anxious that the House, the country, and the Government itself, should direct their attention to the results which have already arisen from the mistaken system on which Ministers set out, and which they appear still to pursue. It is a system of all others the most likely to lead the country into serious difficulties, and which has already produced occurrences which may involve us in war. It is said, that there are parties in other countries, whose constant cry is for war, but I am totally incredulous about these so-called war parties. No doubt there may be individuals or small knots of men, in other countries, who may fancy that they can promote their own political views by holding warlike language; but I do not believe that in any country there is any party sufficiently powerful by their weight and numbers to influence the policy of their country, who really wish for unprovoked and unnecessary war with England—I believe nothing of the kind. Even under the present Government, this country is still powerful enough to make any other nation pause before they enter into a war with England, unless it be in their own defence. I would not have Ministers stand out with any other country upon other than just grounds, but having once laid down their ultimatum, it will never be satisfactory to the country if they recede except upon open and fair reasons. I will only add a single observation with respect to the recent occurrences at Otaheite. It has been alleged, certainly not in this House, but it has been asserted elsewhere, that Mr. Pritchard was not a British Consul at the time of his imprisonment and expulsion, and that the French were at that time entitled to exercise the right of sovereignty over the island. Now, most undoubtedly an officer of any Government can only assume for his Government the sovereignty over another nation provisionally, and subject to the approbation and recognition of the act by his own Government: until that approval is given, no act of sovereignty on his part can be valid. If the French Government had adopted the act of its officers in Otaheite, there is no doubt that its adoption would have operated restrospectively, and any act of sovereignty which might have been previously done, would have become valid; but the French Government repudiated the whole of the acts of its officer, and recalled him. Therefore, all pretensions to any right of sovereignty fall to the ground. But even if the French Government had thought fit to adopt the act of its officer, and if the sovereignty of France over Tahiti, had been thus retrospectively established, even that would not have justified the manner in which our Consul has been treated. To say that Mr. Pritchard was not a British Consul at the time of his imprisonment and expulsion, is an assertion totally unfounded, and which might lead to consequences which may hereafter prove very prejudicial to important interests of this country. What is it that makes a man a Consul? Why a commission from his own Government. But Mr. Pritchard had such a commission, and it had not been revoked. He held his commission as Her Majesty's Consul to the Government of Otaheite, and when that Government was deposed, he very properly said, his functions were suspended till the decision of the two Governments upon the usurpation at Tahiti should be known; he said to the French, that he was commissioned to the Queen of Tahiti and not to them, and that he could not communicate officially with them, till he received orders from his own Government to do so. But that circumstance did not make him cease to be a British Consul; and British Consul he still was. His position then was similar to that of an Ambassador who has broken off communication with the Government he is accredited to, upon some disagreement arising. That is a step short of demanding his passports, but even if an Ambassador should actually go the length of demanding his passports, he still retains his character of Ambassador. So also was it with Mi. Pritchard, although he had ceased to exercise his functions, he was still invested with that character which the commission of his Sovereign conferred upon him. He had still the full character of a British Consul, and was entitled to such respect as was due to that character even had the full sovereignty of the island been adopted by the French Government. I have not said so much with any intention of adding to the difficulties of the Government; I am perfectly aware of the serious nature of those difficulties; but they will not be lessened by placing the ground-work of the case upon other than a fair and just footing. If you are preparing to deal with the matter more lightly than you were disposed to look upon it at first, let it be upon grounds that will not lead hereafter to dangerous consequences, let it be for reasons, if any there be, consistent with honour and justice, otherwise it will be vain for you to expect to give satisfaction to the nation. There may be a departure from the tone and temper in which the news was first received, but there ought to be no concession which will tend to the dishonour of this country.

Sir Robert Peel

The House will not expect from me any reference to the latter observations of the noble Lord, considering the circumstances in which the question is at present placed. I confess I was not prepared for the speech of the noble Lord, entering, as it did, so widely into the whole foreign policy of the country, upon the Motion for reading the Order of the Day for the Report on the Roman Catholic Penal Acts Repeal Bill. Upon such a question I could not have anticipated that the noble Lord would have questioned, as he has done, the foreign policy of Her Majesty's Ministers, as especially during the last fortnight he had two different opportunities of expressing his sentiments upon the present state of foreign affairs. The noble Lord was in the House yesterday; but he had not the courtesy to give me notice of his intention. It seems to me that the speech which the noble Lord has just made, is intended to supply omissions in former speeches—it seems to have been delivered, in fact, to pass a panegyric upon the noble Lord himself. If that were the object of the noble Lord, in my opinion it is a work which the noble Lord has not neglected before. The noble Lord began by imputing to the Government a system of resistance at home, and concession abroad. Now, that is a very antithetical and fine-sounding sentence, but it is no more. It was only yesterday that the Government was accused of adopting the policy of their predecessors. That was the charge yesterday, but now the charge is that our system is one of resistance to all wise and liberal measures. That is the charge made by the noble Lord; but it is mere assertion, without one particle of proof; therefore I shall decline following him into that part of his impeachment. The noble Lord asserted that Her Majesty's Government had made large concessions to Foreign Powers; it is assertion, and nothing more. I deny that Her Majesty's Ministers have made any concession to any Government which can in any wav injure the honour of either the country or the Government. I perfectly agree with the noble Lord that the leading principle of any British Administration ought to be a firm support of British interests, and an unflinching regard to British honour. The noble Lord began his strong assertions by a reference to the United States; and he said, "True, you have settled the question regarding the north-eastern boundary, but the Oregon question remains." Now, I beg to ask, what did the noble Lord do with that question during the ten years he was in office? In what state did he leave even the question of the north-eastern boundary? Did he bring it near to a settlement? Was not he, on the contrary, sending troops for the purpose of taking possession of the disputed territory, and for the removal of the squatters? Were not both countries in the utmost alarm at the probability of hostilities on account of that question? This Government, on their accession to office, undertook the settlement of that question, and they did settle it. The noble Lord seems to think it is a personal grievance that they have succeeded. It forms, no doubt, a most injurious contrast to his own conduct while in office. True, the Oregon question is not yet settled; but what did the noble Lord do during his term of office, that he had a right to blame the Government on account of the present state of that question? We have succeeded in settling a question which formed the source of much danger to the maintenance of a good understanding between the two nations. I know not whether that settlement had anything to do with the loss of power which has befallen Mr. Webster. A great outcry was raised against him in the United States for the concessions he agreed to. A map was produced in this country to prove that we were entitled to the whole of the territory in dispute between us and the United States, which was made the ground of great complaint against the Treaty subsequently concluded; but there was just as much dissatisfaction, just as great outcries were raised in America against the maps that were discovered, proving the claim of the United States to the whole of that territory. Maps were referred to by each party which were thought to substantiate their own claims. Whether or no the settlement of the question by Mr. Webster led to his quitting office, I know not, but I know that in the performance of the duty which he owed to his country in removing one imminent cause of war, and settling this question, that honest statesman incurred great obloquy from his own countrymen. The noble Lord disapproves of the settlement of the boundary question; undoubtedly that was not the opinion of the British House of Commons. This House cordially approved of the policy of the Government; it did not think that the terms of the settlement were injurious to this country. We did not want to establish the policy of returning thanks to a Minister for the successful termination of his mission; but so strong was the feeling of the House of Commons upon the subject, so totally did they differ from the noble Lord opposite, so small an impression did the speech of the noble Lord of three hours' duration make upon the House, that an hon. Gentleman sitting behind the noble Lord (Mr. Hume) stated that he would have been perfectly silent, he would have done nothing, if it had not been for the speech of the noble Lord, but that he did feel it to be necessary we should depart from our usual course, and that the House of Commons should leave upon record its sense of the high acknowledgments that were due to Lord Ashburton for his conduct in the negotiation, A Motion was accordingly made by him to the effect that this House, looking to the long, protracted, and unsuccessful negotiations for the settlement of the north-eastern boundary between the United States of North America and the British North American Provinces, and taking into consideration the great importance of removing all grounds of irritation between the inhabitants of the country, is of opinion that the Treaty of Washington, by which that boundary has been defined and settled, is both honourable and advantageous, and that Lord Ashburton, who conducted the negotiation which led to that Treaty, deserves for that service the Thanks of the House. The noble Lord has never been able to get over that. The House of Commons, not content merely with not expressing its disapprobation with the course pursued by the Government, expressed its approbation of it. Observe, a mere abstinence from censure upon Lord Ashburton might have been supposed to imply that there were some sympathies with the noble Lord; but after the noble Lord had come forward with an able speech, showing a perfect recollection of the facts, and describing most clearly the geographical distinctions and boundaries of the country, when the House agreed to such a Motion, in the result not only expressing approbation of the policy of the Government, but disapprobation of the noble Lord's policy, it was, no doubt, mortifying enough for a Secretary of Foreign Affairs. The noble Lord cannot deny that many of the warmest friends of the late Government very warmly disapproved of his policy. He has now made a speech in the absence of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, who took occasion to blame the present Government for the present amount of the Naval Force of the country. But he did, notwithstanding, administer a very appreciable rebuke to the noble Lord opposite, who, unfortunately, was not here, and I believe he was prepared to have expressed in more decided terms his dissent from the noble Lord. The noble Lord the Member for the City of London did distinctly state that he did not blame in the slightest degree the course which the present Government have pursued with respect to France. He said, "I see the position in which the Government of the two countries stand; I see that the Government of France, too, is with taunted submission to the Government of Great Britain; every provocation is administered to them not to make any concession, however reasonable, and I see the same course pursued by a party here." Speaking of the efforts of the press here, the noble Lord said, "I see the difficulties which the two Governments have to contend with; I can make allowances—I think the course which the present Administration is pursuing on the whole a wise one; and so far as their policy with respect to France is concerned, I do not blame it." I think I do not misrepresent the observations which fell from so high an authority as the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, on the occasion to which I refer. I am sorry that the noble Lord opposite was not content that we should part in good humour at the close of this Session; but I must again remind him that his own Parliament—the noble Lord's own House of Commons—did come to this resolution; that looking at the long protracted and unsuccessful negotiations for the settlement of the north-eastern boundary, and taking into consideration the great importance of removing grounds of irritation between the inhabitants of the frontier, this House was of opinion that Lord Ashburton, who conducted the negotiation, deserves the thanks of this House. I say that for a Parliament elected under the auspices of the noble Lord to come to such a resolution, as the consequence of his speech, was unfortunate. I am sorry he retains the recollection of it; but I am not surprised that he is still smarting under his sense of the indignity then offered. Well, then, as to Texas. How is the British Government responsible for any claim or proposal made with respect to Texas? It would be quite superfluous for me to enter into any consideration of that topic, but nothing can be more manifestly unjust than the attempt to make Her Majesty's Government responsible for any proceeding adopted by the Government of the United States towards Texas. With respect to Algiers, the noble Lord has thought proper to revive that subject. Why, I proved the other night that for ten years the late Government had acquiesced cheerfully and voluntarily in the occupation of Algiers by the French. The noble Lord signified to the French Government that France might continue in the occupation of Algiers, provided she did not attempt to extend her dominions on the side of either Tunis or Morocco. Why did the noble Lord acquiesce in that policy? I apprehend it was pretty much from a derire not to embarrass any Government in France the maintenance of which the noble Lord and his Colleagues thought of importance to the interests of Europe. The noble Lord did not say there had been obligations contracted, which were binding on the Government that succeeded, but the noble Lord did act on that principle, which he now condemns altogether in too unqualified a manner. He knew what would have been the consequence of insisting on the evacuation of Algiers by France, and considerations of policy, more than those of justice, induced the noble Lord and his Colleagues not to demand from Louis Philippe the evacuation of Algiers. With respect to the influence of Her Majesty's Government in Spain, I do not apprehend that Espartero entertains the same opinions as the noble Lord with respect to the counsels given him by us during his administration. The noble Lord is in error in supposing that the Regent was influenced in the course he pursued, in the affair of M. Salvandy, by the representations of the British Government. That was not the fact; but if he had had that hold in Spain which the noble Lord seemed to think he had, how does the noble Lord account for it, that in the case of a person of his high military distinction, who had shown great valour and sincere desire to promote the interests of the country in which he exercised power—how does the noble Lord account for it that no effort whatever was made in any part of Spain to rescue Espartero from the fate with which he was threatened, and which ultimately befell him? And would the noble Lord have counselled active interference on the part of this country, for the purpose of maintaining in authority any personage in whose behalf so little of public sympathy appeared to exist, as there had been in Spain with respect to Espartero? It is very easy for the noble Lord to say that his downfall was precipitated by the advice given by the British Government. But the assertion is totally and entirely gratuitous. Espartero fell in Spain from the want—a want to be regretted, I think—of a due appreciation of his merits; it was not in consequence of any advice given by the British Government. If there were anything that injured Espartero, I must say that it was the suspicion that he was the cordial friend of this country, and that he received support from it. With respect to the expression of the noble Lord that the authority of this country—the just and legitimate influence of this country—had been impaired under the Administration of Her Majesty's present advisers, I meet that assertion of the noble Lord's by a positive denial. I am prepared to prove that there never was a period when the just influence and authority of this country stood higher than it does at the present moment for all legitimate purposes. I perfectly admit that we have not pursued that course which the noble Lord was inclined to pursue, namely—that while he disclaimed all intervention or right of interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, he should so intervene more actively than any of his predecessors. Our intervention in the domestic affairs of foreign states may have been less than that of the noble Lord, but not less, I contend, than was required to effect any object rendered necessary by the interests of England or of the world. I contend, in opposition to the unsupported assertion of the noble Lord, that there never was a period when the name and authority of the British Government stood higher than at the present moment. With respect to the topic of more immediately pressing interest with which the noble Lord concluded his speech, I must again observe, that I think he will not expect on the present occasion any remarks whatever from me on that point. I expressed on a former occasion my opinion on the subject, and in the present state of affairs I shall beg to be excused from entering at all into any discussion upon it.

Mr. Forster

would only trouble the House for a short time, nor would he have troubled it at all, but for the very unsatisfactory reply given by the right hon. Baronet to his noble Friend's question, relative to the proceedings of the French at Gaboon River. The right hon. Baronet appeared quite to misunderstand the nature of the complaint. He held in his hand a copy of the complaint and protest of the natives against these proceedings of the French, which he had every reason to believe was perfectly authentic and correct, and he did not find in that paper a single word about the territory being English, or any allegation that the English flag had ever been hoisted there, or that the produce of the place was entitled, of strict right, to enter here as British produce. There is no complaint of this kind; the complaint is this—that from time immemorial British subjects have had a right of free-trade at the Gaboon in common with other countries, but that in consequence of these proceedings it is likely to be lost in favour of France. That France is seeking by fraud and violence to gain possession of it, contrary to the wish of the native chiefs and people. If this were the only instance of such conduct on the part of France, there might be less ground for complaint either on our part or by the natives; but it is not so: France has been for some time pursuing a systematic course of encroachment and interference with British trade and British interests in that quarter, which, if allowed to go on unchecked, will not leave our trade a foot of ground except the ground on which our forts are built. In addition to their proceedings elsewhere on the coast, they lately took violent possession of the Casamanza River, in opposition to the wishes of the natives and in violation of the rights of Portugal, to whom it has always been considered to belong. On that occasion they seized two British trading vessels; that is three years ago, and to this hour the owners have not been paid a farthing for either ships or cargoes, although the seizure has never been defended, and cannot be defended. But still these things are allowed to go on. He assured the right hon. Baronet that the English traders on the coast of Africa loudly complained of these proceedings, and also that they were not duly protected by their Government and the Navy.

Sir R. Peel

had alluded to the statements contained in the letter of the British merchants who forwarded the memorial of the natives. They stated that the Gaboon territory was a British settlement, and that its produce was admitted on more favoured terms than that of any other part of the coast of Africa, because it was a British settlement, and that the British flag was flying at the ports on the Gaboon. That was the statement made by the British merchants at Bristol, who forwarded the memorial which had been alluded to. The fact was, that the Gaboon territory was not a British settlement; its produce was not admitted on more favourable terms than that of other parts of the coast, and if our flag was flying, it was without the sanction of the British Government. The occupation of the Gaboon by the French was in consequence of the treaty made two years ago between the two countries.

Viscount Ebrington

wanted to ascertain from the Government whether the British flag and British trade were not placed on a more disadvantageous footing in consequence of this treaty than they were before. He had said nothing at all about the Gaboon being a British territory. What he asked was, that Her Majesty's Government should take care that British commerce and honour did not suffer. To that he had received no answer. The remarks about the letter of Messrs. King, which he had not seen, were no reply to his question.

Captain Pechell

had hoped the righthon. Baronet would have adverted to a subject which he had omitted to mention—he meant the Fishery Convention. The right hon. Baronet had said the noble Lord was fond of making his own panegyric. All he could say was, that if the noble Lord had remained in power, that question would have been settled long since. The right hon. Baronet had stated in the commencement of this Session, as he had done at the close of the last, that the French Chambers were about to pass into a law the provisions contained in the treaty between the two countries. The right hon. Baronet had, last Session, passed an Act carrying into effect only a portion of those provisions; the House was obliged to receive or to reject them. He (Captain Pechell) was very anxious that some parts should pass; to others he objected. He was afraid that now formed an item in the difficulties of this country. He hoped the right hon. Baronet would have no objection to state to the House what was the present state of the legislation in France with respect to the Articles of the Convention agreed upon. Whatever might be the right hon. Baronet's opinion as to the exertions of the noble Lord, and as to what was thought of him at that side of the House, he could only say, that the noble Lord deserved the same encomium which the right hon. Baronet had passed on Mr. Webster—that of being a most honest statesman, and carrying into effect whatever tended to advance the interests of his country. Connected as he had been with the question of the Slave Trade, he did think that all concerned were deeply indebted to the noble Lord for the great exertions he had made, and which certainly had not received great encouragement from Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House. Personally he felt that the noble Lord had made great sacrifices in concluding those treaties with France and Spain for the settlement of a matter which had remained unsettled for 150 years.

Subject at an end.