HC Deb 05 March 1846 vol 84 cc676-84

rose to move for copies of despatches received by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, containing information about the persecution inflicted upon the Basilian nuns of Minsk. Those unfortunate persons were obliged to perform work of the severest description, and to which they were totally unaccustomed, in order to increase their sufferings; and such was the extent of the cruelty which they suffered, that it would be a stigma on the age if the statements to which he referred were proved to be true. Such was the extent of the cruelty which it was said had been practised towards those unfortunate nuns, that some persons were disinclined to believe them in consequence; but he regretted to say that the cruelty did not form any such evidence of the want of truth in the statement, to his mind, when he recollected that it was a religious persecution. The Inquisition had long since been put down by the indignant voice of the civilized world—the persecutions on account of differences in religious belief which had taken place in this country formerly, were now universally stigmatized—and the Sovereign whose name was most associated with religious persecution was styled the "bloody Queen Mary;" and he thought it would be consistent with those feelings for the Members of that House to express their horror at the occurrence of those cruelties in Russia, if they had really taken place. Religious opinion ought not to be made the ground of punishment, nor ought those who differed from the established religion of a country to be placed in the same category with offenders against the State, or with the perpetrators of serious crimes. He believed that they should not be discharging their duty as advocates of humanity and of liberality of opinion, if they allowed such statements to be circulated abroad, without any attempt on their part to ascertain if they were true, and to express their sorrow and regret if it were so. If the accounts which had been given by the nuns were false, there were many opportunities of contradicting them on the part of the Russian Government: for they had been widely circulated for a considerable period in Rome and Naples, in the former of which cities the Emperor had recently been, and therefore must have had an opportunity of denying them personally. He did not accuse the Emperor of Russia of being personally cognizant of the tortures which had been said to have been inflicted upon those unfortunate nuns; but he was anxious to ascertain if it were true that such cruelties had been exercised in the Emperor's dominions. He knew that one of the evils of a despotic Government, such as that of Russia, was, that the subordinate officers who executed the laws and ordinances of the State, were not subject to the same responsibility as in this country, There was no public press to observe upon their conduct, and no such freedom of observation upon them as in this country; so that those occurrences might possibly have taken place without the knowledge of the Imperial Government. These convents were establishments from which public observation was excluded; and it might happen that the cruelties which had been described had taken place without the authority or sanction of the Government, and therefore that the Government had never heard of their occurrence and should have never heard of them but for the fortunate occurrence of the escape of the three nuns who had survived the cruelties. He trusted that, under all those circumstances, the Government would have no objection to lay on the Table of the House any information which they possessed with respect to those proceedings, for he thought that the public had a right to have as correct a knowledge as possible of these facts. If the information were not correct, they would have the advantage of knowing the reports of these cruelties were unfounded; but, if they were correct, he felt it his duty to raise his voice in deprecation of those offences against humanity and of religion, in the name of which they had been perpetrated.


seconded the Motion, and said that the statement which was the subject of the hon. Member's Motion, had excited considerable attention, not only in Germany and other countries, but in Russia. A statement appeared in the Frankfort Journal of February 17th, a paper which was influenced by Russia, to the effect that the ukase of the Emperor, upon which it was said the cruelties had been in a great degree founded, was not authentic: that the bishop, Siemasko, was not bishop of Wilna, but of Polosk; and that no such convent existed in Minsk as that described; and that, in fact, the whole statement was an exaggeration or falsehood, put forward for political purposes. That article was replied to by certain Polish and Lithuanian exiles in Paris; and he (Mr. Wyse) held in his hand a statement, published in Brussels, by the Marquis de Beauffort, which left a strong impression that these cruelties, unheard of in the history of modern Europe, had taken place. The statement gave a history of the persecution, which had lasted seven years, and was subscribed with the name of the Abbess Makrena Mieczyslawsk, and certified by Maximillien Ryllo, the rector of the Propaganda, by the Abbe Jelowicki, and the Abbe Leitner. It would appear from that statement that the account which the hon. Member gave was not only correct, but that even greater cruelties than he had mentioned had been committed. It appeared that from 1838 to 1845 those persecutions continued, and that out of sixty nuns who had suffered those horrid barbarities, only a few survived. It appeared that those females were employed in chains at public works, and in a description of employment only fitted for men; that they were obliged to break stones to build a palace for the apostate bishop; and that they were daily beaten in the presence of the soldiery, and ultimately subjected to atrocities, a recital of which it would not become the House to hear detailed. He should be sorry to see that House interfering in the affairs of other countries; but a country like this, possessed of such free institutions, and to which Europe looked, ought to express its feeling of sympathy with a gallant and unfortunate nation who had always adhered to their national religion; and as every one in that House respected adherence to conscientious dictates, they would, he trusted, express their approval of the virtuous resistance of those females to tenets which they did not agree to.


I am not enabled to communicate to the House any des-patches which could throw light upon the painful subject to which the Motion of the hon. Gentleman refers. Her Majesty's Government has not received any report or despatch from the Representative of this country at the Court of St. Petersburgh, and I am, therefore, without any authentic information upon the subject. The only communication having reference to this statement of which we are in possession, is a communication from the British Consul at Warsaw, who is a most respectable and able, gentleman; and he states that, having seen reports in the French newspapers of barbarities (for I can apply no other term) said to have been committed in Poland upon a community of nuns, he thought it his duty to write to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, to say that he had not been able to ascertain that any such occurrence had taken place in Poland; and he added that it was his confident belief that the reports were either altogether without foundation, or greatly exaggerated. That is the whole of the information which has reached us, and it is, therefore, impossible that Her Majesty's Government can lay on the Table any further information on the subject; and on that ground it is evidently impossible that I can agree to the Motion of the hon. Member. It would cause me the deepest regret if I heard that there was any foundation for the statement to which the hon. Gentleman refers; and I must say I certainly have a strong persuasion that nothing of the kind has taken place with the sanction or authority or knowledge of the Government of Russia. I understand, from a private communication from the Representative of the Emperor of Russia in this country, that when the Emperor was recently in Rome, the subject was mentioned to him by the Pope; that the mention of such reports greatly surprised the Emperor; that he said if anything of the kind had taken place, it was without his knowledge or sanction; and that he should cause a strict inquiry to be made, as to whether such occurrences had taken place or not. If anything of the kind took place, I believe that it was without the sanction of the Government of Russia; and I am confident that a strict inquiry into the truth of those reports will be instituted by the Russian Government. I would strongly advise, therefore, every individual Member of this House to suspend his judgment altogether with respect to these reports. It is possible that they may be—and I hope the results of inquiries on the part of the Russian Government will prove that they are—without foundation, or grossly exaggerated. In our capacity as a branch of the Legislature, I would strongly advise that we should not set the example of interference with other Governments, or take any course which would be calculated to present that appearance. I know how impossible it is for any Minister of the Government to express the feelings which would naturally arise from hearing such statements as that to which the Motion relates. I cannot divest myself of my individual feelings with respect to it; and I must declare that if the statement were true, it would cause me the greatest regret—not to use a stronger expression—that such a violation of the rights of conscience and of humanity should have taken place. That is my feeling, as an individual, with respect to this subject; but as regards the House of Commons, I would strongly advise, whatever may be our individual feelings, to refrain from interfering in the domestic concerns of other nations. How have we been occupied for four or five hours preceding the introduction of the hon. Member's Motion? We have been discussing an allegation that a certain number of the inhabitants of this country, subjects of the Queen, were employed—no charge having been made against them, they being in a state of pauperism—in grinding bones, some of which bones were supposed to have been human bones, and that the means of subsistence afforded them were so scanty, that, finding some of the bones in a decomposed state, so that the marrow could be extracted, a general engagement took place amongst them in order to get possession of those decomposed bones; and the party who obtained possession of a portion, bid that portion, in order that he might at a favourable opportunity use it for food. Now, I ask, can anything be worse than that statement? and yet, should we not resent it if the French Chambers thought it necessary to take notice of this circumstance? Should we not require of them to have confidence in the House of Commons and the justice of our Executive Government? And I ask would not that confidence be justified? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has given directions to put an end to that operation; but that, is beside the question. No other Government has a right to interfere in our domestic concerns. AS our example would be looked to by other countries, we ought not to establish the interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations. I repeat the hope that every Gentleman will suspend his judgment on this subject, as it is highly probable that the reports are untrue or grossly exaggerated. We ought to rest satisfied with the assurance of the Russian Government that an inquiry will be instituted. I. am in possession of no despatches which would throw any light on the subject that I could lay on the Table of the House; and that will perhaps induce the hon. Member to withdraw his Motion. On other grounds I strongly deprecate the establishment of a precedent which would be fraught with danger, and which might be followed by other countries with different feelings from that which actuates hon. Members to bring forward this Motion; and I hope that we shall not, therefore, set the example of intermeddling with the domestic concerns of neighbouring States.


said, that after the statement of the right hon. Baronet he would withdraw his Motion; and he trusted, from the right hon. Baronet's statement, that there would be an investigation into the truth of the reports.


repeated that it was the opinion of our Consul at Warsaw that the report was unfounded, or grossly exaggerated; and that he understood it was the intention of the Emperor to cause an investigation to be made into the truth of the report.


said, that when the Emperor of Russia was in this country, the Parliament agreed to an Address to Her Majesty, expressing their gratification that the Emperor of Russia had come to this country, at great personal inconvenience, to visit Her Majesty, and expressing a hope that the opportunity would be taken to improve the amicable relations between Russia and this country. The people of England hoped that they should, be able to ascertain whether these atrocities had taken place or not. He was sorry to find that the case of the Andover Union had been mixed up with the atrocities committed upon the nuns at Minsk. The English Parliament had instituted inquiries into the state of the Andover Union; and he hoped that they would hear of the Emperor of Russia instituting inquiries into the atrocities perpetrated upon the nuns of Minsk. He trusted that the House would hear that there was not the slightest foundation for the statements which had appeared in the public organs of intelligence, instead of there being "exaggeration," as the right hon. Baronet called it, in these statements: and he hoped that on a future day the right hon. Baronet would be in a position to give them more authentic information on the subject than it was now in his power to afford.


said, that however desirable it might be to abstain from all interference in the internal affairs of foreign countries, such had undoubtedly not been the policy of Great Britain in reference to the slave trade.


reminded the House of an occasion on which his hon. Friend below him (Mr. T. Duncombe) had successfully appealed to their sympathies; he alluded to the case of his noble Friend Prince Polignac; and yet the French nation and Government, whose sensitiveness was proverbial, far from resenting our interference, in deference to our representations and the dictates of humanity, liberated that noble man and his fellow Ministers. Considering that on the will of the Russian Autocrat the destinies of so many of our fellow creatures depended, he thought that nothing would be worthy of that House than to adopt a course of dignified supplication. It was impossible to believe that no foundation existed for the reports and statements circulated abroad; he trusted however that, for the future at least, a more temperate policy would be pursued by the Russian authorities, and that the magnanimity of the Emperor would mitigate that persecuting spirit which it was always so difficult to restrain. The persecution of the Basilian nuns was not directed, as had been supposed by the noble Lord, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in another place, against the professors of a now form of faith: they belonged to the United Greek Church, who accepted and had always used the Greek ritual, though in communion with the Church of Rome, in the same manner as the Syrian, Coptic and Armenian Churches followed their respective rituals, although acknowledging the supremacy of the See of St. Peter. The hon. Member concluded by expressing a hope that the union of the two Churches contemplated and almost realized by the Council of Florence, might one day be accomplished. It had been frequently remarked, that the less men differed the more they disagreed; that had unfortunately been the case as regarded the Schismatic and the Catholic or United Greek, who differed in but few points of doctrine; meanwhile he (Mr. P. Howard) trusted that the Czar would interpose his authority, and stay the hand of religious persecution raised against so many of the subjects of his vast empire.

Subject at an end.

House adjourned.