HC Deb 08 July 1844 vol 76 cc452-65
Mr. Sheil

I rise to put a question to the right hon. Baronet, the First Lord of the Treasury, of which I gave notice on a former evening, with reference to the occupation of the French possessions in Algiers. On the 7th of December, 1841, I find His Majesty, the King of the French, in his speech to the Chamber of Deputies, said that he had taken means to secure the possessions of France in Africa from what he called any external complication, and the solution of that phrase was given in a speech made by M. Guizot, the French Prime Minister, on the 20th of July, 1842, and reported in the Moniteur of the 21st of July. In that speech M. Guizot said, that he had received a communication from the Comte St. Aulaire, the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, stating that he had recently had a communication with Lord Aberdeen, the English Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in the course of which Lord Aberdeen had stated to him that he regarded the position—that was the word—the position of France in Algiers as un fait accompli, to which he could not now raise any objection. Finding that speech was reported in the Moniteur, I felt it my duty to draw the attention of the House of Commons to it, and gave notice that, I should move that any despatch which might have been sent by Lord Aberdeen to Lord Cowley, the British Ambassador at Paris, on the subject, should be laid on the Table. The right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel), as the House will recollect, anticipated my Motion, and placed upon the Table a copy of a despatch from Lord Aberdeen to Lord Cowley, dated the 28th day of January, 1842, eight days after the speech to which I have referred was made. In that despatch, Lord Aberdeen states to Lord Cowley that the conversation to which M. Guizot had alluded in the French Chamber was inaccurately reported, so far as to his having stated to M. St. Aulaire, that he had no objection to raise to the possession and occupation by France of Algiers, and that he had merely stated that he had then no observation to make on the subject, and he requested Lord Cowley would lay that despatch before M. Guizot. That despatch having been laid upon the Table of the House, I did not think it necessary at that time to stir the subject further. But events have recently taken place which have not unnaturally excited the attention of the country, and, I presume, the solicitude of Her Majesty's Government, in regard to the proceedings of France on the coast of Africa, and the questions I intend to put to the right hon. Baronet, and of which I have given notice, are, first, has Lord Aberdeen received any answer to his despatch to Lord Cowley of the 28th of January, 1842; and if so, has the right hon. Baronet any objection to produce a copy of that answer? Next, whether any application has been made by the British Government to the Government of France, for an exequatur for our Consul at Algiers? And, thirdly, whether any act has been done by the British Government amounting to an acknowledgment that in their opinion France is entitled to the possession of Algiers?

Sir R. Peel

said, I feel it my duty to confine my reply to the questions of the right hon. Gentleman to a mere statement of facts, because, as is well known, any conversation that takes place here becomes the subject of immediate discussion in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris; and although I am aware that I cannot prevent or control discussions or observations elsewhere as to the questions asked in this House, or the making of observations upon our proceedings, still I do not think it consistent with my duty to encourage discussions or observations which might give rise to great inconvenience, but that it is better in matters of this kind to leave them to the consideration of the two Executive Governments that are responsible, than to provoke discussions upon them. The first, question which the right hon. Gentleman has put to me is with regard to the despatch written in January, 1842, by lord Aberdeen, to the Ambassador of this country in Paris, on the subject of the statement, made by M. Guizot, in the Chamber of Deputies. I will refer to that despatch itself, in order to put the House in possession of the facts of the case. The Count St. Aulaire had reported in a despatch, addressed to M. Guizot, a conversation that had taken place between himself and Lord Aberdeen as to the possessions of France in Algiers, which M. Guizot quoted in the French Chamber of Deputies; and it appeared in the published report of M. Guizot's speech that the despatch of M. St. Aulaire contained this report of the conversation with Lord Aberdeen; M. St. Aulaire reports Lord Aberdeen to have said:— I was Minister in 1830. If I were to go back to that time, I should have much to say; but I take affairs as they were in 1841, and in the state in which they have been left by preceding Cabinets. I therefore look upon your position as un fait accompli, against which I have no further objection to make. Lord Aberdeen, on seeing ibis report, wrote immediately to Lord Cowley, calling on him to explain to M. Guizot that the report he had read to the Chamber of Deputies of the conversation between M. St. Aulaire and Lord Aberdeen was not a correct explanation of what had actually taken place:— Now, I readily subscribe to the accuracy of this statement, with the exception of the last sentence, I never said that I had now no objection to make to the establishment of the French in Algiers, but that I had now no ob- servation to make on the subject, and that it was my intention to be silent. The context shows that such was my meaning, and in fact, this decision was the result of mature reflection. I felt that after ten years of acquiescence, any objection at the present moment would have been misplaced, and that the course which it would have been impossible for me formerly to have adopted, had now become entirely consistent with propriety and duty. It does not follow, however, that objections, although not expressed, may not be entertained. I have explained to the French Ambassador the misapprehension into which he had fallen, and the erroneous statement which, in consequence, he had made to his Government. This explanation of Lord Aberdeen's Lord Cowley communicated to M. Guizot, but no communication from the French Government in consequence has been received. A despatch was received from Lord Cowley stating that the explanation had been communicated to M. Guizot as desired, but that no reply had been received from the French Government. Then as to the Gentleman who fills the office of British Agent, or Consul General, at Algiers, I have to state to the right hon. Gentleman that he is not acting under an exequatur from the French Government, but under precisely the same authority as he acted under when the right hon. Gentleman and his Friends were in office. The present Consul General and Agent, Mr. St. John, at Algiers, was appointed in the year 1827, when he acted under the authority of the Turkish or Algerine government. In 1830 the expedition of France against Algiers was undertaken, which ended in the occupation by France of that country. That was during the Government of the Duke of Wellington, which was shortly after succeeded by the Government of Lord Grey, and during the whole period of that Government, no question, I believe, was ever practically started as to the authority under which Mr. St. John acted, but relying on that which was the state of the case on the accession of the Government to office, no question was ever raised, so far as I am informed, as to the particular authority under which that Gentleman exercised his functions. He is now acting under precisely the same authority as he has acted under since the year 1830. There have been no new appointments since that time, and he is in precisely the same position in which he was in 1831, and during the whole period that the right hon. Gentleman and his Friends were in office. Having so far answered the questions of the right hon. Gentleman, I must again remind the House of the great inconvenience of entering into discussions or giving rise to discussions elsewhere, upon questions with respect to which negotiations with other Governments may be pending, and I hope the Government will not be called upon to give any further explanations here which may give rise to discussion in other similar assemblies, but that the House will agree with me that it is far better to leave such questions to be dealt with by the Executive Governments of the two countries who are responsible, than that they should be made the subject of irregular or incidental discussion.

Motion made that that the Order of the Day for the Second Reading of the Railways Bill be now read,

Sir C. Napier

said, notwithstanding what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet as to the inconvenience of raising discussions upon such subjects by asking questions in that House, he considered it his duty to put the question to the right hon. Baronet as to the proceedings now going on in Morocco, and of which he had given notice. If he felt the matter as to Morocco was a question simply between that country and Spain, he should not have thought it necessary to ask any question; but when he saw the question arising with Spain in combination with France as to the disputes now prevailing between France and Morocco, the case was different. The right hon. Baronet and the House would be aware that Spain possessed a large fort on the coast of Barbary opposite Gibraltar, which had all along been used by France as a depôt in her operations against Algiers. He, too, was also aware that a certain pamphlet had not long since been published by the Prince de Joinville, in which, with how much of truth he would not say the Prince showed the great danger to which his country would be exposed in the event of a war, and exaggerated to a considerable extent the naval force of England, while he greatly underrated that of France. Whether the publication of that pamphlet had anything to do with the proceedings against Morocco, or was merely intended to make the people of England believe that the naval force of France was not so strong as it actually was, he did not know. It had been stated in the French papers, and the statement was supposed by many to be genuine, that the French Government and the French King were much dissatisfied with the Prince on account of the pamphlet, and that he, in consequence, resigned his commission in the French navy, which resignation it appeared he had subsequently been induced to withdraw. But neither the French King nor the Government could have been very angry about the matter, for they shortly afterwards appointed the Prince to the command of the squadron destined to act against Morocco, consisting of three ships of the line, one frigate, and four war steamers, and as it appeared from the speech of M. Guizot, reported in the papers of that day, the Government of France recommended that appointment, his Majesty the King depending on the valour and prudence of the Prince his son. He was aware that the Prince de Joinville had shown his valour at the taking of San Juan de Ulloa, in Mexico, and his prudence in taking a pilot out of a British man of war, which was, he thought, about the grossest insult that had been offered to the British flag for many years. He was anxious, however to show how far the Prince de Joinville was right in the account he gave of the naval force of France. He believed she had five sail of the line in the Mediterranean, with a corresponding number of steamers, also forming part of the squadron under the command of the Prince. There were also three or four sail of the line in the Levant, under another commander, and this force was backed by eight sail perfectly equipped, but only half manned; they were, however, in that state that France could, within a month, have a fleet of nineteen or twenty sail of the line ready for actual service. The force we had available at the present moment to meet any sudden emergency that might arise, was seven sail of the line, although when the last Government went out of office they left twenty-two sail of the line in the Mediterranean, besides four other ships of the same class at different colonial stations; and when he remembered how the present Government, when in opposition, had taunted the late Government for leaving our coasts unprotected, and that they had constantly charged them with the inefficiency of our naval force, both at home and in the Mediterranean, should any sud- den distubance take place between England and Russia, he had scarcely expected that so great a reduction would have been made in that force by themselves. They had, however, reduced the force every year since they had been in office, and we had now no more than one sail of the line in the Mediterranean, three guard ships at home—making four, one appointed as the flag ship for the South American station, the Albion ordered to be paid off, and the Queen, making seven available line of battle ships. There were, it was true, twenty or thirty as fine ships as had ever swam, lying in ordinary, but not disposable for any sudden emergency and which could not be fully equipped for actual service for a considerable time, should they be required. He had heard it stated, by a naval officer of some authority, that a fleet might be got ready, and perfectly equipped, in six weeks; but he would call the attention of the House to the length of time that had been found necessary to equip a force for sea in 1842, They had then twelve sail of the line in the Mediterranean, and three guard ships at home, and three sail of the line, one commissioned in March, and two in the April previous to the signing of the Treaty of July. When that was signed, and a dispute between France and England appeared likely to arise, having fifteen sail of the line in commission, so much time elapsed in preparing three other ships for the Mediterranean, that they did not arrive before the middle of November. As to the three flag ships which were supposed always to be ready, they were obliged to bring in a seventy-four gun ship to complete the number, and that squadron did not arrive in the Mediterranean until the middle of January. Two ships were commissioned at a still later period, but they did not arrive until all was over. He had shown the position in which they stood at the present moment, should any disturbance occur in the Mediterranean, by a reference to what had occurred in 1840. Having made that explanation, he would beg leave to ask the right hon. Baronet three questions. First whether it were true, as reported, that Spain had allowed France to send troops to Morocco through Ceuta? Secondly, whether it were true that the Government of Morocco had refused our mediation? and, thirdly, whether it were the intention of Government to increase the Naval Force of the country, so as to meet any accident which impending events might give rise to?

Sir R. Peel

would adhere to the course which he had pursued as to the questions put a little while ago by his right hon. Friend. He should answer those questions which consistently with his duty he could reply to, but he would not be provoked into a discussion upon the important subject to which they referred. In the first place, he must say that the hon. and gallant Member had done him no great service in giving him a previous written notice, because he had made a speech quite at variance with that notice. They were not then discussing the Naval Estimates, and he did not think it regular to bring on a discussion on the state and disposition of the Navy upon the Order of the Day for the Second Reading of a Railway Bill. He did not think that the naval strength of this country depended upon the number of ships in commission. They might have a great many half-manned ships in commission, but this he knew, that there never was a period when it was more in the power of Great Britain to make a great naval demonstration in a short period — not all at once, but in a short period—than at the present moment. Now, as to the three questions; the first was, whether there was any truth in the report that the Spanish Government had permitted the French to occupy Ceuta, or had allowed French troops to pass through it? He had never heard of such a report before. He believed that it was as much the wish of the French as it was of the British Government that there should be no breach of the amicable relations between Spain and Morocco. He repeated, he had not heard, until the gallant Commodore had put his question, any report of Spain having given the French Government any such permission as the gallant Officer had referred to. No account of any such step had been received at the War or the Foreign Office. He believed the report to be unfounded, and he trusted that no such permission had been given. The next question was, whether our mediation had been refused by Morocco? The only answer to that inquiry which he could give was, that he had reason to believe that Mr. Drummond Hay, the British Consul at Tangiers, was now with the Emperor of Morocco, acting under instructions which he had received from Her Majesty's Government, and that there had been no refusal of mediation on the part of Morocco. The third question was, whether Government intended to reinforce the fleet in the Mediterranean? In reply, he was sure that the hon. and gallant Gentleman could expect no more definite answer than this—that Government had already taken measures for placing in the Mediterranean such an amount of Naval Force, as in their judgment they considered amply sufficient for the protection of British interests, should British interests be endangered; but that there had been no reinforcement such as that alluded to.

Mr. C. Wood

said, that the right hon. Baronet had mistaken the drift of the question of his hon. and gallant Friend. The question was, not whether it were the intention of Government to increase the naval force in the Mediterranean, but whether it were their intention to increase the naval force of this country. To that question, the right hon. Baronet had given no reply. He would not refer to what had passed upon this subject three or four years ago, to the pamphlets written, to the speeches made, attacking the Whig Government upon the score of their naval arrangements. It was a constant taunt against that Government that they neglected the naval force, and left our shores unprotected by an efficient fleet. He would not refer to the attacks then made, further than to cite the opinion of Lord Melville at the time, to the effect that the complaint did not refer so much to the amount as to the disposition of our naval force. That referred to the state of things in 1838. At that time, an emergency arose with respect to the transport of troops to Canada. At present, an emergency had arisen as to sending ships from the coasts of this country to Africa. What was the state of our naval forces at that time and now? In 1838, we had three guard ships, so there were at present—and one at Lisbon. At the former period we had two line-of-battle ships at Lisbon; only one line-of-battle ship was there now. We had altogether, in 1838, eight line-of-battle ships, while the utmost disposable force at present did not exceed three line-of-battle ships, of which one was under orders to be paid off, another was fitting out for a flagship in the Pacific, leaving only, as available, one line-of-battle ship, which had been sent out in company with one of the flagships. This was the condition to which they had been reduced. Never, since 1825, was the naval force disposable on the coasts of this country in such a reduced and inefficient condition. It was true that there was a number of steamers of war scattered about, and some small steamers on the coast of Ireland. But it would be at once admitted that these were vessels on which they could not rely on occasions of emergency. Now, he wished to know whether Government entertained at present opinions with respect to the disposition of our naval forces similar to those given utterance to on the occasion to which he had alluded. He took the position of Lord Melville No one knew better than did that noble Lord the naval exigencies of the country, and the requisite force to meet them. That noble Lord declared that three guard ships, eight line of-battle ships at home, and two at Lisbon, was not a sufficient force for the protection of the shores of this country. He asked, then, whether Government intended to increase our available naval force. He did not wish to be viewed as an alarmist. He believed that the power of this country was equal to all emergencies, but he did think that it ought to be the duty of Government to keep that power in a constantly available condition.

Sir R. Peel

I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman retains so vivid a recollection of the attack once made upon the Government of which he formed a Member; but all such matters are quite beside the question now under discussion. The House now is not engaged in discussing the Navy Estimates. To the question of the right hon. Gentleman, then, I shall give no answer. Her Majesty's Government are responsible for the state of the Navy; and when circumstances shall make it necessary to apply to Parliament for an increase in the Navy, Her Majesty's Government will make that application, and give due notice of the day when they intend so to make it. But, Sir, I did not expect to have had to-night a protracted discussion on the State of the Navy. The right hon. Gentleman says that I mistook the question put by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman's question was, whether Government intended to reinforce the fleet in the Mediterranean? That was my construction of the question. I take the private note which the hon. and gallant Member wrote to me. That note inquired whether Government did or did not intend to reinforce the fleet of the Mediterranean. That was the question of which the hon. and gallant Member gave me notice, and if he did put the question whether it were the intention of the Government generally to increase our naval forces, he must, as to the reply, stand by the question of which he gave notice, a notice which I have in the hon. and gallant Gentleman's own handwriting.

Sir C. Napier

had certainly written the note in question, but he had as certainly inquired of the right hon. Baronet his intentions as to the Navy in general. He saw no discrepancy in that. He might have been allowed to put the question which he had put—because, if they increased the fleet in the Mediterranean, they must increase the naval force.

Viscount Palmerston

I rise to say a few words; but I cannot help expressing my opinion that the Prime Minister is not entitled, under the present circumstances of the country, to express his surprise that the questions which have been asked of him, as to the amount of the available naval force, have been asked without any previous notice, or that it is necessary that a previous notice should be given of the intention of hon. Members to make inquiries, in order that Government may be prepared to answer questions on a subject of such absorbing interest, and vital importance. It is notorious to all the world, that questions are pending between this country and the French Government with respect to matters of the utmost importance to our interests, of the utmost importance, by the admission of Government itself. This subject is not now to-day, for the first time, brought under the notice of the Government. In fact, within a few days, not in this House, but in another place, Her Majesty's Government were interrogated upon the subject, and therefore I do not admit that Government are entitled to elude such explanations as may they deem it inconsistent with their duty to give, on the grounds of want of previous notice, and having been taken by surprise. As little does it appear to me that Government are entitled to say that the opinions which they may have expressed on the necessity of having an adequate naval force for the protection of the shores of this country, and what they may have said upon the subject when out of office some years ago, and when attacking the Administration then in power upon the subject of the Navy, that these opinions and these attacks were irrelevant and foreign to the present discussion. It appears to me that nothing can be more relevant, nothing more appro- priate, than to ask the present Government whether, now that they are in power, and responsible for the safety, not only of the country, but for the inviolability of commercial treaties—now that it rests with them to determine the amount of naval force to be kept up—to ask them whether they now entertain the opinion which they expressed on a former occasion, that their predecessors had not then performed their duty. Sir, when my hon. Friends have shown that at the present moment, when questions are pending, which I hope will not lead to further difficulties, when they have proved that at such a moment our naval force is lower than it has been for many years, I think that when they have proved that, they are quite entitled to remind the Government of the opinion formerly expressed by its Members upon the subject. As to this discussion being one which should only be raised when the Naval Estimates were laid before the House, I think that that assertion is scarcely respectful to the understanding of the House. Events, great events, have occurred since the period for the discussion of the Naval Estimates, and it is mere idle trifling to tell the House that we are at present precluded from expressing our opinions upon those events. I shall not enter into details—I shall only express the qualified satisfaction with which I have heard the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister that—although, let me remark, he has confessed that we are now unprepared, that the Navy is now in an inefficient condition—he will feel it to be his duty, should circumstances render it necessary, to propose such an augmentation of our naval force as may be required.

Sir R. Peel

I think this whole proceeding is most unfair—as unfair, Sir, as the noble Lord imputing to me that I said the country was unprepared, and our Naval Force insufficient for any emergency which may arise. So far from having said this—what I did say was, that there never has been a period when, within a certain time, not in an instant, but within a certain time—we could have at sea a Naval Force in a state of greater efficiency than we can have at present. These were my words, and the noble Lord had no right to impute to me an expression the reverse of which I used. If I had had notice of the question, whether we intended to increase the Navy Estimates, I would not have answered that question. But the right hon. Gentleman has charged me with not having answered the question of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I stated that I did not understand that that question was as the right hon. Gentleman has interpreted it, for the hon. and gallant Officer himself told me to-day that it was with respect to the fleet in the Mediterranean that he intended to ask a question. So far from denying the right of hon. Members to ask questions, I answered all the questions I could reply to consistently with my duty; I certainly declined to follow the hon. and gallant Gentleman into discussions as to the pamphlet of the Prince de Joinville. Nothing can be more unsuitable to this place, and to the dignity of this House, than to discuss what a particular naval officer of France may have written. I have, I repeat, answered all the questions which have been put to me, excepting that as to the intentions of Government about increasing the Naval Estimates. I say now, what I said before, that Her Majesty's Government holds itself responsible for increasing these Estimates; and should circumstances arise to render such an increase necessary, Her Majesty's Government will not hesitate to come down and propose that increase, but I repeat that the matter is one which must be left to the Executive Government.

Viscount Howick

I do not understand on what grounds the right hon. Baronet complains of unfair proceedings. He says that he has answered all the questions put to him except one, which, under any circumstances, he would have refused to answer. Then, what has the right hon. Baronet lost by want of notice? He is not taken by surprise, I presume, at any statement which my noble and hon. Friends have made, as to the unprotected state of our shores. In former times, when we used to sit upon the benches opposite, there was no such great punctilio as to the manner in which an important question might be raised. It is quite Parliamentary when the question before the House is, whether an Order of the Day is to be read, for an hon. Member, who thinks that the state of the country is critical, to make what remarks he pleases. In the exercise of that power, remarks, most justifiable remarks, have been made, and I cannot conceive on what grounds they are complained of.

Lord Stanley

The noble Lord has omitted the point with respect to which my right hon. Friend really complained. He did not complain that questions had been put to him, but what he did complain of was, that whereas the hon. and gallant Officer opposite gave notice of his intention to put a question, and that question, having been put and answered, on the question for the Order of the Day being read, hon. Gentlemen on the other side took the opportunity, not of putting questions, but of raising a discussion involving a question as to their own administration, and leading to a lengthened debate upon the state of the Navy, and all upon this question of proceeding to the consideration of a Railway Bill. Such a course of proceeding, if Parliamentary, seems to me to come very close indeed to a violation of the rules of the House, because one of these rules is, that on the question of reading an Order of the Day, no question can be raised but that of the postponement of that order, or that the other orders be proceeded with. It is an evasion of the rule of the House if no question be put, and yet a discussion raised upon any subject which hon. Gentlemen choose. If we had had notice that it was the intention of hon. Gentlemen opposite to raise, on the reading of the Order of the Day, a discussion on the state of the Navy, although we might not have considered it regular, yet we should have come down prepared, and no complaint would have been made; but when a notice is given of an intention to ask a question—and a question only—Government has no right to raise a general discussion on the state of the Navy now, as compared with its condition in 1841.

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