HC Deb 25 July 1850 vol 113 cc225-30

I rise. Sir, to put a question to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and I trust the House will allow me its indulgence whilst I allude to a matter which is personal to myself, and in which my character, as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose, is, in some degree, concerned. The House will remember that at the commencement of this Session the noble Lord at the head of the Government accused me of having made a statement in this House injurious to the honour and character of a British officer; that I had supported that statement by documents which were said to be forged; and the noble Lord read a letter addressed to the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies by Captain Watson, who he stated was an officer of twenty years' standing in Her Majesty's service, and the son of a general officer. The letter which the noble Lord read was as follows:— 22, Craven-street, London, Feb. 7. My Lord—Owing to absence from London, it was only this morning that I saw in tile morning papers of yesterday the very cruel and unjustifiable attacks which are stated to have been made on my character by Mr. Baillie and Mr. Hume—who have coupled my name with acts of atrocity more suitable, as they say, for the 'destruction of mad dogs,' than becoming proceedings which involve the lives of human beings. In attendance as I am, pursuant to a summons from Ceylon, and about to be examined before a Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to inquire into recent events in that island, cannot but feel deeply wounded by this ungenerous attempt to damage I my reputation, and discredit my testimony by anticipation. Nor will your Lordship fail to perceive the prejudice to justice which must ensue; from bringing forward such imputations in places where I have no means to meet and repel them, instead of reserving them for the approaching investigation, when opportunity would be afforded; me for defence; and, in any event, the charge and its refutation would go together for the decision of the public. The evidence on which I have been thus assailed, is a document said to have been produced by Mr. Baillie, described as a I savage proclamation; and purporting to bear the name of 'A. Watson, captain, commanding. It threatens with death and confiscation of property all persons who shall tail to make disclosures I as to the abstraction of the effects of Golahella Rata Mahatmeya; and Mr. Baillie is said to have; declared that all doubts as to its authenticity are effectually set at rest by his possessing 'two of the original proclamations signed by Captain Watson's own hand—proclamations winch have received the full sanction and cordial approbation: of Her Majesty's Government.' Had opportunity been afforded me by Mr. Baillie, before thus pledging his own veracity and impugning my; honour, I should have informed that gentleman,: as I now do your Lordship, that the document in question is utterly spurious; that I never issued or authorised such a, proclamation; and that he has been misled by an unprincipled forgery. The other allusions which have been made to supposed acts of mine, by both Mr. Baillie and Mr. Hume, are alike devoid of all foundation in fact, and so soon as an opportunity shall have been afforded me in the approaching Committee, I shall have no more difficulty in disposing of them than I have in denouncing the fictitious proclamation by which these gentlemen have been so grossly imposed on.—I have &c., ALBERT WATSON, Captain, Ceylon Rifle Regiment. To the Right Hon. Earl Grey,& Now, let not the noble Lord suppose that I mean to attribute the slightest blame to him for the course he adopted on that occasion. Far from it: I think the noble Lord was perfectly right in taking it, and that he could have adopted no other course titan the one he did—the more so, inasmuch as this letter was written not. without much consideration and advice. It was I written by the advice of the Colonial Secretary at Ceylon, Sir James Emerson Tennent, who, from his official situation in Ceylon, ought to he perfectly aware of the existence of the documents, if they did exist, for he was himself residing within sixteen miles from Captain Watson at the time the proclamations were issued, and were distributed in large numbers all over the country; and he remained in Ceylon a year after they were published. The noble Lord, therefore, was fully justified in reading and in believing the letter which Captain Watson addressed to the Colonial Secretary. The answer which I made to the noble Lord upon that occasion was, that I had received the documents as chairman of the Ceylon Committee, from a gentleman in whose honour, and upon whose character, I could place reliance, that the name of Captain Watson was attached to them, and believed to be genuine. Upon a subsequent occasion, when the matter was brought under the notice of the Ceylon Committee, having in the meantime obtained further information, I stated to the Committee that I was prepared to prove the signatures by witnesses. The Committee, however, decided that it would be impossible to doubt the honour or the word of a British officer; but subsequently, upon the advice of the late lamented Sir Robert Peel, it was determined to solicit this House to pray Her Majesty to issue a Royal Commission to proceed to Ceylon, for the purpose of making further inquiry into the subject, and there to ascertain the truth or the falsehood of the statements which had been made. The commission did go to Ceylon. That commission has now made its report, and the report is in the hands of Her Majesty's Government. That report states that the signatures of Captain Watson have been proved to be genuine by the most conclusive evidence—by the evidence of the parties who wrote the proclamations, and who saw Captain Watson sign them; that a large number of them were distributed by his orders through the district over which ho commanded; that a considerable amount of property was confiscated under the provisions of those proclamations, and delivered over to Captain Watson himself. Now, Sir, under these circumstances, I trust the noble Lord will relieve me from the implied censure contained in the statement which he made upon a former occasion, and that he will frankly admit that not I, but that unfortunately he himself, was made instrumental in stating what was not true in this House. I shall make no further observations, but simply ask the noble Lord whether he will lay the report of the commission upon the table of the House?


Sir, With respect to the former part of the statement of the hon. Gentleman, I have only to say that I made the statement that I did upon the letter which the hon. Gentleman has read; and that I still think it would have been better if the hon. Gentleman had reserved the charge he had to make against Captain Watson until the matter could be examined into, either in the Committee or by some person competent to make the inquiry. I must certainly admit, however, that the hon. Gentleman had grounds which were sufficient, as it would appear from circumstances that have been since brought to light, for bringing that charge against Captain Watson. The present state of the case is this:—The commissioners appointed in Ceylon to examine into this matter have made a report, which they say is only drawn up at the moment; but that they are going into a further consideration of the circumstances, and that they shall send a full report of their opinions, together with the documents and evidence which they have taken, by the next mail which leaves Ceylon for England. It is likewise the case, that Captain Watson having been informed of the report of the commission, and having seen that report, still declares that the assertion that he signed any such proclamation is totally false, and that any such signature of his name must be a forgery. Now, that being the state of the case, the commissioners appointed in Ceylon having stated that they are sufficiently satisfied by the evidence of persons who were employed to write them for him, and by the comparison of the signature with other proclamations which certainly were signed by him, that Captain Watson signed those proclamations; and Captain Watson, on the other hand, entirely denying the truth of that report, and still maintaining that his signature was a forgery, I think it incumbent on the Government not at once to arrive at any conclusion which shall be injurious to the honour of a British officer who has hitherto maintained a high reputation. I shall not, therefore, think it my duty to lay on the table that preliminary report of the commissioners, because I think it is our duty to wait till that full and complete report can be received, which the commissioners say shall be sent by the next mail, and then to take into consideration all the circumstances; and, at all events, in this certainly very strange and inexplicable case, to give to Captain Watson—an officer who, as I said before, has hitherto borne an unblemished reputation—every means of defending himself against a charge which, as it now stands, is not only a charge of inhumanity, but one which affects his veracity and honour. Any man labouring under such charges deserves to have the opportunity of refuting them.


said, that the noble Lord seemed to think that his hon. Friend the Member for Inverness-shire would have done better not to ask for the paper; but it was absolutely necessary that they should have this document to lay before the Committee. Ho believed that hundreds of those proclamations had been circulated, and that, it would be proved that property to a large amount had been plundered, and that innocent persons who had never been tried, but who fled from fear and alarm of martial law, bad been robbed under them. The noble Lord blamed his hon. Friend for having brought those proclamations under the notice of the House; but if he had not done so, the commission would never have been granted. He (Mr. Hume) did not want to say one word more on the subject, until the report should be before them in extenso, further than that from information he had received from persons who had attended the inquiry, he was bound to state that the inquiry had been a public one, conducted by two of the ablest public men; in the East—one of them the senior Judge of Madras, and the other Mr. Rowe. They conducted the inquiry with open doors, and with the greatest courtesy towards all parties. He (Mr. Hume) had it from the witnesses who attended, that the whole matter was gone into with the most minute care, and that the proof was so ample that if Captain Watson himself had been present he would have been satisfied that he had made an erroneous statement. He (Mr. Hume) was sorry that the noble Lord did not think that which had already been; laid before the Committee might be laid on the table, as it might greatly assist in any discussions on the subject. He hoped that the noble Lord would reconsider his determination, and lay the document upon the table according to the usual custom of the House, which ruled that whenever apportion of a document was read by any Member of the House, such document was to be laid in its complete form on the table. This report having been laid before the Committee was a public paper, and should, as he conceived, be placed without delay in the hands of Members.


I do not wish to question the propriety of the course adopted by the noble Lord. At the same time, I feel it a duty to express my opinion that my hon. Friend the Member for Invernessshire is perfectly justified in the course he has taken. The second report of the commissioners will not have been received before Parliament is prorogued. My hon. Friend, therefore, would not have had another opportunity of vindicating himself; and in doing so now, he has only been discharging a duty to himself and to the House.


My hon. Friend the Member for Montrose misunderstands me, in supposing that I imputed any blame to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Inverness-shire for now bringing the subject before the House. What I stated was directed to the course he took at the beginning of the. Session, in having made charges against Captain Watson before the Committee was appointed.

Subject dropped.