HC Deb 20 May 1853 vol 127 cc431-6

Sir, I have given notice of a question to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Control, and I hope I shall be excused if I preface it by a few observations, because it has reference to a subject which I am anxious to bring before the House, and it is in consequence of the difficulty experienced by private Members in bringing subjects under discussion that I now ask permission to say a few words. We have been informed by the papers which have been laid on the table, that Pegu, a territory belonging to the Burmese empire, has been annexed to our Eastern territories. But in reading over those papers there is some difficulty in ascertaining by whose authority that territory has been annexed to the British possessions in India. I observe that the Governor General of India, in his proclamation annexing the province of Pegu to India, mentions communications which he has had with the Secret Committee of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, and says that he had their concurrence and approval in the step which he has taken; but it does not appear from those papers whether the Government of the country, through the medium of the Board of Control, has been an active and consenting party to that step. Now, I have no doubt I shall be told, that as this Secret Committee of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, has given its consent to this proceeding, that it has been done with the sanction and concurrence of the Board of Control, as representing the Government of this country. But in putting this question, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the anomalous position in which this country is placed in consequence of the present extraordinary state of the Government of India. Here is a territory—I cannot say how large, and I suppose nobody can tell me its extent, for the maps have not defined its boundary—possessing several millions of inhabitants in a very barbarous state, for we are told that, owing to the extreme oppression practised upon them, they are very inferior to the rest of the population of Burmah—here is a territory annexed to our possessions, and here are several millions of semi-barbarians admitted to the rights and privileges of Englishmen. They are now our fellow-subjects. We are responsible for their good government. They share our rights and privileges. We are bound to protect them under all circumstances; and if they wander as far as Shanghae or California, the British flag must follow them for their protection. This is a most serious responsibility. But this is not all. We are also responsible for the good government of that territory which we are incorporating with our own. What I wish to impress upon the House is, that before we undertake such a responsibility, we ought first to know by whose authority this territory has been annexed to our own territories. And I also maintain that the people of this country, through their representatives, ought to have the opportunity of expressing their opinion on so important and portentous a proceeding. I hope, and believe I am not singular in my opinion, that so far from regarding this acquisition of territory by our Indian Government as a compensation for the war which has been carried on, or the injuries alleged to have been committed upon us—so far from considering the possession of this additional territory beneficial, I look upon it as a very serious evil to this country. It has been pronounced again and again, by many eminent men, a great evil to extend our territory to the East. It is a very anomalous state of things to have added to our possessions a territory of 20,000 or 30,000 square miles, and a population of 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 semi-barbarians, without a word having been uttered in this House on the subject. No one knows what steps have been taken, or who is responsible for these proceedings from the beginning to the end. What I wish to ask is—first, was the province of Pegu annexed to the British territory in India by the Governor General in Council without previous instruction from home; and, if so, by what law has he the power to extend our eastern possessions? And, secondly, I wish to know, if the Governor General has acted in compliance with orders from the Home Government; and, lastly, if there is any despatch in existence defining the boundaries of the newly-acquired territory?


Sir, I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think I treat him with any disrespect when I say I do not think it a reasonable practice to introduce discussions of great importance, simply on the notice of a question to be put upon the Motion for adjournment. I, however, do not wish to complain of the course he has taken. About two hours ago I received notice of the questions which the hon. Member has put: those questions I am ready to answer, and to those questions I shall confine myself. I do not say that we ought not to have a discussion on the subject; but I think it not a convenient course to raise it on a simple notice of asking a question, and I had not the slightest notion that any discussion would now have been raised. My hon. Friend asks—"Was the province of Pegu annexed to the British territory in India by the Governor General in Council without previous instruction from home?" My answer is, Certainly not. If the hon. Member will refer to the papers on the table, entitled "Further Papers relating to Hostilities with Burmah," he will find, at page 46, that the Governor General says— This province of Pegu, extending somewhat above Prome, may be retained and permanently occupied as British territory on the termination of the war"— as the best means of indemnifying the Government for the expense of the war, and the losses to which it has been put in vindicating the rights of British subjects in India. He will also find at page 53 a despatch from the Secret Committee to the Governor General of India in Council, and he must have been long enough a Member of the Committee on Indian Affairs to know that a despatch framed in that way does convey the authority and sanction of the Government of this country. The approbation and authority of the British Government is conveyed in these words:— We are of opinion that the permanent annexation to the British dominions of the province of Pegu, including Prome within its northern limit, should be adopted as the measure of compensation and redress for the past, and of security for the future, which we ought to insist upon. The Governor General subsequently states, that such is his view, subject to the approval of the Government; and that approval, in a despatch dated the 3rd December last, was conveyed to the Governor General. My answer to the first question, therefore, is, that undoubtedly the authority of the Government of this country was given to the Governor General for the annexation of Pegu. The second question of the hon. Member is—"If the Governor General has acted in compliance with orders from the Home Government, and is there any despatch in existence defining the boundaries of the newty-acquired territories?" There is no such despatch in existence. Pegu is a country totally distinct from Burmah. It was conquered by the Burmese, and is inhabited by a different race of people, who have uniformly received our troops in the most kind and cordial manner for delivering them from their former conquerors and oppressors. The precise boundaries are not properly known, but directions have been given by the Governor General to mark out the line of boundary, and to lay down a distinct line of demarcation between the territories of Burmah and the annexed province of Pegu.


Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to ask him whether he has sufficiently informed himself on the question as to be able to hold out any hope that the new province will pay its own expenses? It is stated to have been taken as an indemnity for expenses which have been incurred. I wish to know whether he can give us any asurance that it will even pay its own expenses.


I cannot give a positive answer, but so far as I am informed, I have every reason to believe that the province will pay its own expenses, besides placing in our hands a great check on the power of the Burmese from our being in possession of all the seaports, which give access to their country.


The right hon. Gentleman seems to have taken an opportunity of lecturing my hon. Friend (Mr. Cobden). ["No, no!"] But he should recollect that there are unfortunately few opportunities for making statements, however important. In the other House of Parliament, on the presentation of petitions, questions can be discussed at full length. That formerly was the practice here. I certainly do not recommend any return to such a practice, because it would interrupt the business of the House. But still, when the Government have withdrawn a day from those who are called independent Members, and are attempting, Session after Session, to compress their opportunities into the smallest possible limits, I think they ought not to take it so unkindly if, now and then, they are called to order a little on matters of this sort. The right hon. Gentleman says, the province of Pegu will pay its own expenses. That is precisely the statement that has been made by every President of the Board of Control for the last fifty or seventy years; and there is no instance that I am aware of in which the statement has not been falsified by the result. And if we are to take the assertions of persons well informed with respect to Indian affairs, there never was, from the time of Lord Clive to that of the Marquess of Dalhousie, a smaller chance of any territory paying its own expenses than the territory of Pegu. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he is able to give the House any probable information as to the present expenditure of that war. As we are now within a fortnight of the discussion of matters connected with India, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some information on this point. We generally find out the expense of such an affair four or five years after it has happened, and when we have no possible control over it. We sometimes catch a President of the Board of Control before a Parliamentary Committee, and then the eyes of the country are opened as to what is going on. I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman can tell us anything about the probable expense, and also whether any further despatch has gone out from the Government to authorise the seizure of any larger portion of territory than that included in the Governor's despatch; and whether the proposition of going to Ava has been sanctioned?


I must positively deny giving a lecture to the hon. Member for the West Riding (Mr. Cobden). I merely pointed out the inconvenience of discussing important matters on such occasions as the present. With respect to the question put by the hon. Member for Manchester, I cannot at this moment state precisely the expenses of the Burmese war; but if he will repeat the question on Monday, I will endeavour to give him an answer. In the course of the last year it was within the ordinary revenue of the country, and I have every reason to believe that it still remains so; but I do not like to speak of figures without reference to paper. With respect to the second question, whether any order has been sent out to annex any further territory, I have to reply—Most decidedly not. My anxiety was, that the annexation should be confined within the narrowest possible limits, and that no other portion should be taken than the country within the valley of the river Irrawaddy, which is an exceedingly fertile country.