HC Deb 01 March 1853 vol 124 cc834-41

said, he begged to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the petition of M. Bonacich, relating to the improper seizure of the ship Novello, and also whether he was entitled to compensation. M. Bonacich, an Austrian subject, was the master of a vessel trading in the Levant, so far back as the year 1804. Hearing of the war which had broken out, he armed his ship; he then sailed from Malta with a cargo, and having beaten off a French privateer, he took his ship safe into Gibraltar. He afterwards sailed for England, where he delivered his cargo, and laid up his ship for repairs. When they were nearly completed, the Government seized the vessel, under the impression that she was not an Austrian ship but a French privateer. The dock owner then brought an action against M. Bonacich for his charges, and the consequence was that he was thrown into prison, where he remained from 1806 till 1810, in which year he was released by the Act of Grace at the Jubilee. The Government had for a long time refused him redress on the ground that the ship had not been seized by them; but within the last three years the Austrian ambassador at his (Mr. Muntz's) intervention had obtained from the Admiralty documents proving that she had been seized as a French privateer. The Government then said that, as M. Bonacich was not the owner of the vessel or cargo, he was not the party entitled to compensation. Now he (Mr. Muntz) did not think that that was a very worthy position for the Government to take. To this day, M. Bonacich, though ruined by the transaction, has received no compensation whatever from the British Government. They had heard of late great complaints of the severity of the Austrian Government towards British subjects, but the Austrians had never done anything so severe as this; and how could we expect the Austrian Government to indemnify British subjects if we refused compensation in a case like this to an Austrian? The noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) had nearly involved this country in a war on account of the wrongs suffered by Don Pacifico; but those wrongs were a mere fleabite compared with those endured by this poor man. He begged therefore to move for a Committee of Inquiry.


seconded the Motion. In 1806 M. Bonacich was young, strong, and independent; but if they could see him now, they would behold an old, decrepit, and almost heartbroken man. He trusted that the House would grant the Committee, and so prove to the world that there was no act of justice too minute for Englishmen to inquire into and to perform.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Petition of M. Bonacich, relative to the improper seizure of the Novello, and to report how far he is entitled to compensation from the British Government.


said, there was no man more ready than he to do justice to the fair claims of any foreigner who had received detriment from England or from English subjects. He had himself, in his former official capacity, been so fre- quently called upon to demand justice for English subjects from Foreign Powers, that he could never refuse to concede justice to the aggrieved subjects of Foreign Powers. He did not think, however, that it was expedient that the House should, unless upon very strong grounds being shown, take up the consideration of claims which had been frequently and maturely considered by the Government, because, if such a course were adopted, the time of the House would be completely occupied by the consideration of such matters. With respect to the claim of M. Bonacich, however, it did not at all come within the category; it had been carefully investigated over and over again, both by the Foreign Office and by the Treasury, and its ground assertained to be altogether untenable. M. Bonacich was, indeed, at the period in question, master of a brig, despatched with a cargo from the Mediterranean to this country; but he was in no degree or way the owner, as was suggested by the hon. Gentleman's statement, either of the ship or of its cargo, which belonged to a merchant at Venice, the cargo being consigned to a merchant at London named Levy. After the vessel had reached London, it required, in the opinion of M. Bonacich, certain repairs, and he accordingly placed it in the hands of a shipwright named Hailes to have those repairs made. While the ship was in this person's hands, an opinion having been started that it was in reality a French privateer, it was seized by the Admiralty Court; but, on its being shown to be bonâ fide an Austrian ship, it was forthwith released. M. Bonacich was then called upon to pay for the repairs which had been made by his orders. He refused to pay; and certainly he was thereupon sent to prison, but at the suit of the shipwright, not at the instance of the Government. The ship was afterwards sold, doubtless for a sum below its value, to pay the charges which had been incurred by M. Bonacich's own order. These were the facts of the case, and it appeared to him (Viscount Palmerston), as it had appeared to the Foreign Office and to the Treasury on several occasions already, when the case had been brought before them and carefully investigated, that M. Bonacich had no sort of claim whatever upon the British Government. Even were there any claim tenable as regarded the seizure of the vessel, M. Bonacich had nothing to do with that, for he had nothing to do with the property of the vessel; and as to his imprisonment, it was simply an imprisonment for debts which he had thought proper to contract, and the Government had no conceivable connexion with the matter. He would repeat that he had always been ready to concede any just claims upon us by foreigners; but were the Government to grant a Committee upon every claim that might be started by foreigners, the House would have nothing else to do from the commencement of each Session to its end. M. Bonacich, he believed, had received an advance of money from a benevolent society in this country that had been formed for the purpose of assisting foreigners in the prosecution of claims of this kind; the society, no doubt, conceiving the claim to be a valid one, and that they would get back their money out of the compensation anticipated; but he could assure that society, as he had assured the House, that, after repeated and impartial investigations, both by the Foreign Office and by the Treasury, it had been clearly ascertained that M. Bonacich had no sort or degree of claim whatever.


said, the noble Lord had done what he was sure to do—he had made a very ingenious defence; but he had failed to convince him, and probably the House, that a great act of injustice had not been committed through a mistake of the British Government. The noble Lord had argued, that M. Bonacich's arrest took place, not at the instance of Government, but on a private debt. That might be true: but, if so, under what circumstances was the debt contracted? It was contracted in consequence of the utter ruin brought on M. Bonacich by the expenses of a suit instituted by Government, on grounds which ultimately proved to be unfounded. It was proved that he was unjustly proceeded against; and yet, by the expenses of that confessedly unfounded prosecution, he was ruined. That being the case, he (Lord Stanley) thought that Government, though it might not be primarily the cause of his arrest, was indirectly so, and was responsible for it. Then the noble Lord had rested on the ground of prescription: he had said that the case had been repeatedly looked into, that it was one of very old standing, and that it was now too late for redress. Certainly his (Lord Stanley's) feeling was, that where injustice had been done, the greater the delay that took place in obtaining reparation, the more effectual ought that reparation to be. Prescription was undoubtedly a strong argument against reopening a suit between two private individuals: the law held it so, first, because it might be difficult for an individual proceeded against to produce rebutting evidence after a considerable lapse of time, and thus some security was required against fraudulent and vexatious suits: and, secondly, because it was presumed, in cases where property was concerned, that such property might have changed hands in the lapse of years, and thus that the person originally responsible could no longer be proceeded against. But neither of these objections applied to the case whore a Government was defendant; for a Government had in its archives all the evidence required for its defence, no matter how remote the period; and it was a recognised principle, that every Government must be responsible for the acts of its predecessors. He thought, therefore, that the length of time which had elapsed was no bar to the case being now investigated. Of course it would be for M. Bonacich to explain why he had never been able, until the present time, to obtain the evidence required to make good his claim. He (Lord Stanley) would not enter into the merits of the case, which the House was not a fit tribunal to examine. All that they had to do was, to consider whether a primâ facie case for inquiry before a Select Committee had been made out. It was his decided opinion that such a primâ facie case existed: and he had come to that conclusion when called upon officially to investigate the case last year. Therefore he should support the Motion.


said, he had been concerned in pressing the claims of a good many persons both against the English and Foreign Governments; and he had always felt that an individual merchant, and more especially a foreigner, always laboured under very great difficulty in endeavouring to enforce claims of this kind against so strong a power as the Government of a country. He (Mr. M. Gibson) thought they ought to take a favourable view with regard to this case; and not require to be satisfied as to the amount of compensation due, as if they were a judicial court, but simply to look upon themselves as a jury, seeing whether there was a primâfacie case for inquiry. In this transaction he thought there was such a case; because the Admiralty Court, having seized the ship by mistake, M. Bonacich had a right at least to be reimbursed for the fees he had paid into the Admiralty Courts. He thought they should be dealing very hardly with M. Bonacich, if they attempted to set up a statute of limitations in this case, and refuse him justice because the transaction complained of had happened so long ago.


, in reply, said, that the vessel, in consequence of having been detained so long, only fetched 1,000l., and of that all was absorbed by the proctors, except 130l, which went towards satisfying a claim against it of 600l. The case of the Baron de Bode had been brought before the House of Lords by one of the ablest men God had blest this country with; and though it was on a greater scale, it was not nearly so cruel.


said, the Government had themselves been the occasion of the lengthened time which had elapsed setween the seizure of the vessel and the claim for reimbursement.


said, that last night the House had come to the following Resolution:— That the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury of the said United Kingdom be authorised to pay out of the said Consolidated Fund any costs, damages, and expenses attending seizures of ships, detained; but not condemned. If this ship, the Novello, had been seized by Government officers, detained for five years, and had not been condemned, surely it was a case to which that Resolution was exactly applicable.


said, he was glad of the opportunity to explain that Resolution, and an Amendment which he proposed to introduce on bringing up the Report. The power of the Treasury was intended to be confined to granting such expenses merely as should be awarded by the Court before whom the case might be tried; and he intended to introduce an Amendment to make that clear.


hoped that the noble Lord opposite (Viscount Palmerston) would relent, since there seemed to be a very strong impression in favour of the Committee.


said, he had only performed his duty in stating to the House the reasons why the Government thought the claim was not well founded, and therefore why he thought it would be an unnecessary occupation of the time of Members to appoint this Committee; but, as it seemed to be the general opinion of the House that an inquiry should be gone into, and as the noble Lord opposite (Lord Stanley), who had officially viewed the subject, was of the same opinion, although he had not explained why he himself had not admitted the claim, he should not object to the Committee.

Motion agreed to.