HC Deb 19 February 1845 vol 77 cc746-51
Mr. Milnes

wished to put the question, of which he had given notice, to the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Treasury. Seeing that the late Report on the practice of opening letters at the Post Office was in the hands of Members, and, after the discussion of last night, it could not be necessary for him to detain the House by any preliminary remarks. He believed he should best perform his duty by putting the question to the right hon. Baronet as simply as possible, and he was glad to have an opportunity to do so; because, though his right hon. Friend had already spoken, he was very anxious to obtain a satisfactory answer on a point which, he could assure his right hon. Friend, had already created much interest among the Members of that House. He was anxious to ask his right hon. Friend, as the representative of the administration of Foreign Affairs in that House, whether, at the time when Lord Aberdeen communicated to the Austrian, Italian, or any other Government, from his own knowledge, the fact of a conspiracy being organised in the island of Corfu or some other English possession; and whether Lord Aberdeen, at the same time communicated, gave, or caused to be given, full information and warning to the sons of Admiral Bandiera and other persons, conspiring against the Italian Governments, that they were under the surveillance of the English Government, and that their intentions had been made known to the Austrian and Italian Governments; and also, whether Lord Aberdeen and the authorities of Corfu had taken all possible means in their power to impede and frustrate this disastrous expedition?

Sir R. Peel

said, it would not be possible for him to give a satisfactory answer to the question put by his hon. Friend in one or two sentences. If it was the wish of the House that he should give a full answer to that question, they must allow him to enter into the subject at some length. He had had communication regarding it with his noble Friend the Secretary for the Foreign Department, and he would state to the House as briefly, and at the same time as fully as he could, an answer which he thought would be satisfactory to his hon. Friend and the House; but still, as he had said before, he could not answer that question in one or two sentences. In the early period of the last year, information was conveyed to the British Government that a number of Italian refugees and others, subjects of Austria, were, in different parts of the British possessions in the Mediterranean, organising attempts hostile to the tranquillity of Italy, particularly the Papal States, and calculated to excite insurrection in that country. A remonstrance was made to the British Government against those parties making use of the British territories, which had furnished them an asylum, and then converting that asylum into the means of disturbing the tranquillity of other countries. That communication, made on the part of the Austrian Government to his noble Friend, was accompanied with this distinct notification, that in the event of there being any insurrectionary movement in the Papal States—and that was a part of Italy where it was supposed most probable that insurrection would break out—it was distinctly intimated to this Government, on the part of the Austrian, that upon the occurrence of an insurrectionary movement the Commander in Chief of the Austrian troops at Milan had positive instructions to advance into the States of the Church—that he need not wait for instructions from Vienna, but might advance into the Papal States at once. There had certainly been an intimation conveyed to the Government, which led them to apprehend a disturbance to the public tranquillity; and his noble Friend had conveyed to the Austrian Government, from time to time, the purport of the information he had received in respect to the proceedings of those who had designs against the public tranquillity; but he had not communicated any letter, nor any extracts from any letter, neither had he stated the name of any individual within the power of the Austrian Government. He had, as stated in the Report of the Select Committee, from time to time, communicated to the Representatives of the Austrian Government, the general purport of the information he had received relative to the designs of those persons who were residing in the dominions of Her Majesty, particularly those in the Mediterranean, and which designs were calculated to endanger the public peace. His noble Friend (Lord Aberdeen), had not a very perfect recollection of the purport of all the letters he had received upon the subject; for he had destroyed such of them as were not of an official character; but so far as his remembrance served him, he had never seen any communication of a public or private nature which could lead him to apprehend that that particular attack from Corfu would be made. Therefore, he had never taken any step whatever with regard to that particular matter. He had never communicated to the Austrian Government, or to the Neapolitan Government, or to the authorities at Rome; he had never made any communication whatever to any of these with respect to any particular design to be directed from Corfu against any part of Italy. Consequently the impression which some gentlemen appeared to entertain that these individuals had been entrapped by an act of the British Government, was entirely unfounded. So little reason had his noble Friend to apprehend that that particular attempt would be made from Corfu, that no communication had been made to Lord Seaton, the Governor of the Ionian Islands, until after the occurrence. The truth was, that the affair took every one by surprise—it took Lord Seaton by surprise; took the Consul for Austria by surprise; and it took the Consul for the Papal States residing in the Ionian Islands completely by surprise. He would state the facts shortly to the House, without referring at length to the despatches; but he repeated the fact that the Government had not put Lord Seaton on his guard, nor had they put the Austrian Government on their guard. It appeared that there were residing in Malta and the Ionian Islands several persons, refugees from their own country on account of political reasons. The two sons of Admiral Bandeira resided in Corfu. These persons were permitted to reside there without any molestation. They conducted themselves very quietly, and without exciting the suspicion of the Government of the Ionian Islands. It appeared that on the night of the 12th of June twenty-two individuals—and twenty two individuals only—left Corfu in two small boats. They were without arms, without ammunition, and without any preparation whatever for directing a foreign attack. It was not until after that expedition—if it could be called an expedition which consisted of twenty-two unarmed individuals—had sailed from Corfu, that the Austrian Consul, the Consul for the Papal States, and the Russian Consul, made strong representations to Lord Seaton on the subject. They remonstrated strongly against it. The answer of Lord Seaton was that he had been taken by surprise, and that they must have been taken by surprise too, or they would have made a previous communication. The Austrian Consul requested that the British war-steamer there should be sent after the boats containing the twenty-two individuals. Lord Seaton said he must decline sending an armed steamer in order to arrest them, for that he did not think he was authorised to do so; he said also that he thought the reports were exaggerated. Lord Seaton said he felt confident no descent could be meditated on the coast of Calabria; but he would send a small boat as quietly as possible to Tarento, in order to ascertain the nature of the project, and to communicate with the Government of Naples for the purpose of defeating this attempt. The boat did not sail to Tarento on the 12th, the night of which the twenty-two individuals had set sail, but it sailed in the course of the 13th. No information upon this subject had been received by the British Government until July, when they received a letter from Sir Robert Gordon, our Ambassador at Vienna, stating the facts of the case. That was the first intimation of the affair received by this Government; and Sir Robert Gordon's letter contained a strong remonstrance from the Austrian Government concerning the expedition, and complaining that it should have set out from a British possession. That was a strong proof that the British Government were not acting in concert with the Austrian Government in order to entrap those individuals. Those twenty-two individuals did land; the only account the British Government had received was conveyed to them in a letter from Mr. Temple, the British Minister at Naples. The British Government had, as he had said before, made no communication whatever to Mr. Temple, because his noble Friend never suspected that twenty-two individuals, unarmed, and seemingly defenceless, would direct a project against the coast of Calabria. By a letter dated the 26th of June, Mr. Temple informed the Government of what had occurred on the landing of these individuals. He said that a party had landed, twenty-two in number, thus confirming the previous report; that on the 16th they had arrived at Cortona; and on the night of the 19th of June, they fell in with a small force, consisting of a few of the city guard and three gens-d'armes. An engagement took place, in which one life was lost. On the 19th of June they marched to a town called Giovenazzo. There the authorities collected a force, consisting of the inhabitants of the place, supported by a few gens-d'armes; an engagement took place, in which the gens-d'armes were entirely successful. Some individuals lost their lives, and others were captured. Thus the defeat of the attempt was owing entirely to the inhabitants, without any military force. His (Sir R. Peel's) answer, therefore, to his hon. Friend (Mr. Milnes) was this, that the Government, never suspecting that twenty-two individuals, who had up to that period resided quietly in Corfu, would attempt to invade the Italian shore with two boats, had never made any communication to those individuals, warning them of the consequences of such an attempt; therefore it was the British Government had made no communication to the Austrian, Neapolitan, or Roman Governments, or to the Governor of our own Colonies; and the reason that no such communication had ever been made was, that the Government had not suspected that such an attempt would be made. The House would see that it was necessary for him (Sir R. Peel) to enter into these details in order to give a satisfactory answer to the question of his hon. Friend. He now assured the House, that any impression that the Government had allured those individuals on, or had abstained from giving them notice of their danger when there was the opportunity of so doing, was entirely erroneous, and without foundation.

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