HC Deb 17 June 1853 vol 128 cc377-82

said, he rose to move that the House at its rising should adjourn to Monday next, that he might have an opportunity of making some remarks in reference to the documents which had been presented to the House relating to the Burmese war. It could not but have been observed by those who bad read with attention the despatches and correspondence in question, that nearly all the more important documents were not given in full, but that only extracts of them were furnished. When they had papers referring to communications with civilised countries with which they were engaged in war laid on the table, it might be impolitic to give information to the enemy, and there might also be risk of giving additional offence by the publication of the whole of the documents which might contain irritating matter; but he could not understand how these reasons could apply to Burmah, any more than they could apply to the papers in reference to the war with the Kafir tribes. It was not likely the Burmese Government could get access to our blue books, and he did not know of any great evil that could arise even if they did. He therefore asked, how could the House judge of the character and conduct of those by whom we had been involved in this war, unless they had all the information that could be afforded, and how could the public men engaged in it be justified unless the whole case was seen by the world? He observed that Lord Dalhousie had sent Commodore Lambert to Rangoon with specific instructions, and, among the rest, with some very emphatic directions to avoid hostilities until he had communicated with India; but he found those instructions had been set aside and departed from, and, yet, in reading the correspondence of the Governor General after these events had occurred, he had not found one word of censure or of disapprobation in reference to the evident disobedience to his orders. The Earl of Derby, the Premier of the day, had indeed expressed in the House of Lords his disapprobation of the precipitate conduct of Commodore Lambert; but the Governor General had not. The despatches from the Governor General were nearly all garbled and mutilated, and that circumstance had led him to the supposition that portions of those despatches had been suppressed which might be necessary for the vindication of the Governor General himself, for, as they stood, he did not seem to him to! have vindicated his own authority, or that he had a will and purpose which would be obeyed by those under his command. He thought the House should have the fullest information before it respecting such grave questions, unless in the cases to which he had already alluded, of war with civilised countries. He was the more particular in calling the attention of the House to the present case, because he remembered well what had been done with the despatches relating to the Affghan war, the circumstances connected with which were not known for two years after. In that case some of the secretaries employed in the preparation of the documents hardly knew their own productions. He would read an extract from the admirable historical work of Mr. Kaye in reference to this subject, as follows:— I cannot, indeed, suppress the utterance of my abhorrence of this system of garbling the official correspondence of public men; sending the letters of a stateman or diplomatist into the world mutilated, emasculated, the very pith and substance of them cut out by the unsparing hand of the State anatomist. The dishonesty by which lie by lie is palmed upon the world, has not one redeeming feature. If public men are, without reprehension, to be permitted to lie in the face of nations—wilfully, elaborately, and maliciously to bear false witness against their neighbours—what hope is there for private veracity? I care not whose knife, whose hand did the work of mutilation; and, indeed, I do not know. I deal with principles, not with persons, and have no party ends to serve. The cause of truth must he upheld. Official documents are the sheet-anchors of historians, the last courts of appeal to which the public resort. If these documents are tampered with—if they are made to misrepresent the words and actions of public men, the grave of truth is dug, and there is seldom a resurrection.…In most cases the lie goes down unassailed, and often unsuspected, to posterity; and in place of sober history we have a florid romance. He did not wish to apply these severe remarks to the East India Company; but the very process of mutilating the Affghan documents had, as they knew, taken place under the direction, with the approbation, and under the very hands of men still living among them, and holding a distinguished position in political affairs. Without charging anything of the kind against any one in this case, he held that the House were bound to be watchful and suspicious on such a subject, and to see they were fully informed as to what was done; for, let them mystify it as they might, it was ultimately to that House that the responsibility of providing for the consequence of those wars would come. He, therefore, begged to ask the right hon. President of the Board of Control where and by whom the papers respecting the Burmese war were prepared to be laid before Parliament, and who was responsible for the selections of the extracts?


said, it was not his intention to enter into any discussion with the hon. Member in respect to the policy which all Governments adopted, rightly or wrongly, of withholding such portions of papers asked for as they might deem it expedient to produce. He thought the practice of cutting out extracts of despatches was very often abused. He remembered that when he brought before the House the subject of the Affghan war, he pointed out that the despatches of Sir Alexander Burnes had been mutilated to such an extent that in many cases the letters he wrote were made to express an opinion precisely the contrary of that which he really entertained. He must complain, however, of the course taken on the present occasion by the hon. Member, who had put on the notice paper a simple question—who was responsible for the selection of the extracts laid before Parliament? Of course, the simple answer was, that the then President of the Board of Control was responsible; but he complained that the hon. Member should have taken an opportunity of making statements with respect to those de- spatches without giving notice to the late President of the Board of Control, who was the responsible Minister at the time, but who was not now present to vindicate the course he had taken. He had no hesitation in saying, whatever the consequences might be, that the late President of the Board of Control (Mr. Herries) was responsible for the despatches in question.


said, he must also express his disapproval of the practice of mutilating official documents, which were, in fact, the "raw materials" of history. He had been authoritatively informed that two despatches of Sir Alexander Burnes, which entirely exculpated Dost Mahomed from the charge of having provoked the Affghan war, bad been mutilated in a most disgraceful manner. He had no language to express his disgust and indignation at conduct so unworthy and dishonourable. In the Navy estimates he found that provision was made for a pension of 150l. a year for Capt. R. Lambert, in consideration of his services in the Burmese war; but he was credibly informed that if all the documents relating to that deplorable event were before the House, there would appear strong reason to suspect that the officer in question deserved no such remuneration, having been the person who, by his disobedience of orders, had himself been the cause of hostilities in the first instance.


It is my duty as President of the Board of Control, I believe, to answer the question put to me by the hon. Member for the West Riding; and in reply I have to state that the despatches on the subject of the Burmese war were prepared at the Board of Control, and that the President of the Board of Control at the time the extracts were prepared is responsible for them. I have no reason to complain of the speech of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cobden), as my conduct is not impugned; but I rather agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Baillie) that it is inconvenient that the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman the late President of the Board of Control (Mr. Herries) should have been impugned as it has been to-night, more or less, without his having the slightest notice that it would be questioned.


said, that he had no intention of impugning the conduct either of the late or the present President of the Board of Control; for he never yet met with any one who could tell him who was responsible for the garbling of despatches. He had asked several persons who were likely to know, and had been invariably told that the papers were prepared at the India House.


said, that he had seen a private letter from an officer in the India Company's service, which gave a most appalling account of the mortality amongst the troops engaged in Burmah. It stated that one regiment had lost—not in action, but from the effect of the climate and the inconveniences to which the troops were exposed—no fewer than 400 men; and there were three, or at any rate two other regiments, which had been reduced to mere skeletons by the operation of the same causes. Now, although he was not particularly fond of soldiering, he thought that the lives of soldiers were just as valuable as the lives of Members of that House, or of any other persons who remained at home; and when he read these statements he could not help asking what this war was all about, and what we, or the Burmese, or any one else, had to gain from it? He thought the House had a right to complain of the manner in which information on this subject had been laid before them. The despatches were so mutilated that, generally, they were without the head and the tail, and in some cases they did not contain the middle completely. It seemed to him evident that a deception had been intended to be practised on the House; and that, whoever might be responsible for it, the course which had been taken with respect to these despatches was such as, if it had been practised in common life, or with respect to commercial transactions, would have excluded those who had been guilty of it from respectable life over afterwards. He hoped that if the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Control had to prepare any papers he would do so on a better plan than that which had been pursued by his predecessors. If a person were to judge from these papers, he would certainly believe the Marquess of Dalhousie to be a much less able man than he was generally supposed to be; and if he (Mr. Bright) were a personal friend of that nobleman, he should demand that the papers should be given in extenso, for the vindication of his reputation. He could not express his opinion too strongly with respect to a practice which approached the secrecy and irresponsibility of despotic Governments, and could have no relation whatever to the constitutional principles under which the Government of this coun- try was said to be carried on. He would beg to ask the right hon. Gentleman if the statement to which he had referred, with reference to the health of the troops engaged in the Burmese war, was correct?


said, that he could not answer the particular question which had been put to him by the hon. Gentleman; but he was sorry to say that it was certainly true that there had been considerable mortality amongst the troops in Burmah; those stationed at Rangoon had continued in good health, but amongst those at Prome there had been very great mortality.

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