HC Deb 07 August 1854 vol 135 cc1376-85

Order for Committee read.


said, he would take that occasion to call the attention of the House to that portion of the West Indian incumbrances which had arisen from the loan which had been granted in the year 1832, in consequence of the destruction of property in those islands, which had been caused by the hurricanes which had prevailed there in 1831. Previous to the Act authorising the hurricane loan, a loan had been also granted to some of the proprietors in Jamaica in consequence of the injury they sustained from the violence which took place during the rebellion. The loan, which was extended to the West Indies in consequence of the hurricane, had been standing from that time to this; and lately the Government had been pressing for the repayment of the whole. In a return moved for by the right hon. Member for Coventry (Mr. Ellice) in respect of that loan, he had to complain that a sum of between 200,000l. and 300,000l. had been included which was not lent to the proprietors or any other persons, but in the shape of public loans to the islands. From that return, however, it would appear that the aggregate sum originally lent to individuals in the islands was 713,000l., and that 465,000l. now remained outstanding, the Government having received up to this time as interest very nearly 300,000l., exclusive of interest on loans to the islands. Now, in a letter which had been written last February by the Secretary of the Treasury a refusal was given to enter into a compromise, which the inhabitants of the West Indies had requested, and the hon. Gentleman had then proceeded to state that the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury were prepared to proceed, in virtue of the Act 8 & 9 Vict. c. 50, to accept a composition in lieu of the loan equivalent to the present value of the property in St. Vincent, in all those cases in which it could be satisfactorily proved to the Loan Commissioners that the value of each estate, if offered for sale, should seem to be less than the amount now due for principal and interest upon the loan. [Mr. WILSON: Hear, hear.] The hon. Gentleman cheered that statement, but he (Sir John Pakington) should like to ask whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer, acting upon principles of common charity, was prepared to be guided by the passage which he had just quoted to the House—a passage which, in fact, amounted to a declaration, that in all those cases in which the value of an estate had sunk below the amount which had been lent, the Government, by way of doing a favour to the West Indians, were prepared to accept a sum of money equivalent to the present value of the estate? Why, that was in effect to say that they were resolved to confiscate the remaining property of those West Indian proprietors. Indeed, with the exception of the case of Shylock and the pound of flesh, he could remember nothing so cruel as that climax to our legislation, in reference to our West Indian Colonies, which the passage of the letter of the Secretary to the Treasury which he had alluded to announced it to be the intention of the Government to carry into execution. In the island of St. Vincent there were twenty-three estates which were really worth a sum of 36,000l. less than the sum in which they were indebted, in consequence of the loan. Now, if the Government were determined to confiscate those estates, the result would be that out of those twenty-three estates no less than eighteen would be altogether confiscated. He believed matters would be in quite as unfavourable a position in the island of St. Lucia. With respect to seven estates which had been sold in the island of St. Vincent, he should state that the actual selling price of the estates was 90 per cent less than it was at the period at which the Hurricane Loan was first made. And while such as he had been describing was the state of things in the West Indies, the whole course of the legislation of this country in respect to those Colonies had, instead of tending to promote their prosperity, tended directly to reduce them to a state, he might almost say, of absolute ruin. Upon the other hand, the paltry amount of the loan which remained uncancelled was more than compensated for by the advantages which had resulted from the reduction of the price of sugar—a reduction which had been effected by doing considerable injury to the West Indian proprietors. Upwards of 300,000l. had been gained by this country by the reduction to which he referred, and the proprietors of the estates in question had suggested to the Government that the debt should be lowered in the same ratio as their estates had, in consequence of recent legislation, been diminished in value. Now, he thought that a fair proposition, though he would admit that there might be some difficulty in the way of carrying that suggestion into effect in some of the islands; but still it seemed to him to be one which was perfectly equitable. A remission of 1,000,000l. had been made last year in the case of Ireland, and in his opinion the claims of Ireland to be the object of that act of generosity upon the part of the Government were scarcely so strong as that which the West Indian proprietors could urge. He trusted, therefore, that the Government would meet the question in a fair and generous spirit, and that they would not act upon the letter of the hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Treasury, which advocated the resort to measures which would be found to amount to an actual confiscation of property in the West Indies.


said, he could not say he thought the right hon. Gentleman had taken a wise or a prudent course in bringing this matter before the House at the present time, for all the effect it could have would be to create hopes which must necessarily be disappointed among the parties who had obtained these loans. Already the uncertainty in which the West India proprietors bad been kept as to the intentions of the Government had been very prejudicial to the improvement of their estates. These loans had been borrowed under the Act of the 2 & 3 Will. IV., in the year 1832 or 1833. By the terms of that Act these loans were to be repaid in ten years, but before that period expired Parliament extended the term for ten years further. Not satisfied with that lenient treatment, in 1848 that House passed an Act whereby the annual payments during these last ten years were extended for a further period of five years, This term expired in August last. It then became the imperative duty of the Government to determine in one way or another what should be done with regard to these loans. It was quite obvious that, if the question had been still left open, not only would the existing proprietors have been unable to obtain any credit upon their estates, but that the interest of individuals would be rather to allow these estates to deteriorate than to be improved. The Government, indeed, had been distinctly informed that this was the direct result which ensued from the want of a settlement in this matter. The duty of the Government, then, in order that these islands might be restored to some measure of prosperity, was by some means or other to bring all these claims to as early a conclusion as possible. They had found that it was impossible to apply a common rule to all cases. The principle adopted by the Government had, however, been this—that if a person could show that he was prepared to pay as much as the Government would be able, through an expensive and what might be called a harsh mode of treatment, ultimately to obtain, then they would feel justified in accepting this sum of money, considerably less than the actual value of the estate, but not smaller than the amount which the estate would bring to the Government if they foreclosed their mortgage. He thought this was a very just and fair principle to act upon, and one which would be thought satisfactory by the public. The general principle they had laid down, and which the Exchequer Loan Commissioners had communicated to the parties, was, that they were empowered to extend to 1859, and no longer, the payment of these loans, and meanwhile they were prepared to receive applications for compounding and settling them in any way most convenient to the proprietors. The fair and liberal spirit in which any such propositions would be received might be judged of from the fact that, since last year, in Jamaica, out of fifty-six estates the Exchequer Loan Commissioners had succeeded in bringing into a fair way of settlement, by sale or by payment, no less than forty-one. One fact which ought to be known by the House. was, that persons had been speculating upon the ruin of others in the West Indies, in order to get the Government to give up their claims. Would the Government be justified in throwing away the public money in any such way? All he could say was, that where an original bonâ fide debtor and owner of the estate made a proposition to the Exchequer Loan Commissioners, such a proposition would be received with every desire to settle the claim in the most liberal spirit. He hoped, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman would be satisfied to leave the matter in the hands of the Government, with an assurance that, while they would endeavour to do their duty to the public, yet that where there was a bonâ fide disposition to settle the matter on the part of the proprietors, and no disposition to speculate, the Exchequer Loan Commissioners would receive any such applications with every possible desire to meet them fairly and liberally.


said, the hon. Gentleman had alluded to a case in which the sale of an estate had been made matter of speculation with reference to the claims of the Government. The statement of the hon. Member referred, he supposed, to the sale of an estate in the island of St. Lucia. If so, he (Sir J. Pakington) could give a satisfactory explanation of the matter.


said, that after the statement of the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury, he must say that the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir J. Pakington) had characterised the whole of the proceedings on the part of the Government appeared to him exceedingly just. The hon. Member (Mr. Wilson) said that, if the West India proprietors would pay as much of their debts as the Treasury could by any process exact from these estates, Government would listen to any applications which might be made to them. Now, he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman (Sir J. Pakington), that this was a petty, oppressive, and vexatious proceeding. He concurred with the hon. Gentleman in thinking that it was worse than useless to have the sword suspended any longer over the heads of these unfortunate debtors, and that the matter should be settled now, once and for all; but the case of these poor West India proprietors was a very hard one, and had met with very little sympathy either from that House, from the Government, or, he feared, from the public at large. A highly vicious system of artificial prosperity had been founded in the West Indies, and founded upon the worst principles—slavery and protection. We had taken suddenly away the basis upon which the whole fabric rested; the fabric had fallen, and irretrievably fallen; and while this was going on, instead of taking to ourselves the blame of the system from which all these miserable consequences had issued, we scolded the victims, treating them in the manner now proposed by the hon. Secretary to the Treasury; and their case altogether had met with about as little consideration as it was possible to conceive. When free-trade principles were for the first time brought into practice, losses were sustained by particular interests, but they had by the present time been, he believed, almost forgotten; but, in the West India Islands, when it was determined to introduce better principles of law, the complication and difficulties which existed under the old system not only continued, but appeared likely to become perpetual. The Bill now before the House appeared to hint to be likely to put an end to one difficulty. The House would consider that West India property had been hampered by all the restrictions by which landed property in this country had been hampered. There existed the heir at law, the creation of trusts, and, in fact, every complication which had existed with regard to landed property in this country; and now, at last, a Bill was introduced into Parliament to enable various parties to obtain new titles to their estates, and so, he hoped, to come to some settlement of the difficulties which existed in those islands. With regard to the money which had been lent to proprietors of estates in those islands, it had been lent at a time when there was a prospect of it being repaid by the estates, but now it was not at all probable that any great portion of the money which was due to the public would ever be received from them. The whole subject was one which, in his opinion, it would have been desirable to refer to a Committee of that House, in order that it might meet with the fullest inquiry as to the circumstances under which these loans were advanced, the circumstances which have affected West India property, and the prospect there was of those loans being eventually repaid. The Report of such a Committee should not be confined to any particular cases, but generally as to the most fitting method of dealing in a fair and liberal manlier with the whole subject. By the course which had been pursued, it appeared to him that the Loan Commissioners might think fit to draw a distinction between different districts, and he could conceive nothing more likely to lead to dissatisfaction, and nothing less likely to secure the object which the hon. Gentleman had in view—of obtaining as much as could be obtained fairly for the public. The subject was not one which, in his opinion, ought to be dealt with by the Treasury, as it came within the legitimate functions of the Secretary of State for the Colonies; and he appealed to his right hon. Friend (Sir G. Grey) to consider the subject, and to see if sonic general measure could not be applied to remedy the difficulties which existed.


said, he did not wish to shrink from any responsibility that fairly attached to the office which he had the honour to hold. But his right hon. Friend (Mr. Ellice) must be aware that the duty of collecting the debts in that case had already been imposed by law on the Exchequer Loan Commissioners, subject to the general control and superintendence of the Treasury. Under the present law, all that he could do was that which had actually been done by himself and his predecessors in office—namely, to collect from the West Indies, through the medium of Government influence, all the information with respect to the financial and social condition of those colonies which might be necessary for the guidance of the Exchequer Loan Commissioners and of the Treasury, in the course of their labours. In common with his right hon. Friend he felt deep sympathy for the proprietors of West India estates. But his right hon. Friend should remember that the distress of which those proprietors complained had not been created of late years, and was not to be attributed to recent legislation, but that it dated back to a period preceding the Emancipation Act, and that in many instances it had had its origin at an epoch anterior to the lifetime of many of those whom he had the honour of then addressing. His right hon. Friend seemed to think that some general rule ought to be adopted applicable to the whole of those cases. But it appeared to him (Sir G. Grey) that it would be extremely undesirable to attempt to apply any general rule to cases which differed so much in their particular features. The rule which, as he understood, had been adopted by the Treasury, and which he considered was a just and reasonable one, was, that each individual case should be considered on its own merits; and that when a proprietor made a fair proposal for the settlement of his debt, the Treasury should have power to accept that proposal, and to leave such a proprietor the means of continuing to cultivate his estate. At the same time, however, the interest of the taxpayers in this country should not be overlooked, and the Treasury would have no right to throw away the public money in cases in which it could be recovered without any undue severity to individuals. It should also be borne in mind that that was a debt to which the nominal proprietors of the estates were not the parties who were in reality liable; and that if the Government were to forego the whole of those claims, they would be conferring a favour, not on the West India proprietors, but on mortgagees and consignees in this country. He thought that what the Government ought to do was, not to insist on its strict rights in that case, but to exercise a sound discretion in endeavouring to obtain the repayment of as large a portion of that money as could be obtained without unduly pressing on individuals or on the Colonies generally. He believed that the Bill now under consideration would do more than any other which had ever been submitted to Parliament to raise the value of that property, and to facilitate its sale at a higher price than it could otherwise command; and, on the whole, he felt that the measure was one most conducive to the real interests of the owners of West India property. He regretted that Parliament had not then before them all the papers, which would enable them to arrive at a full and decided conclusion upon the merits of that question and upon the course which had been pursued by the Government; but he trusted that they would be put in possession of those papers at an early period of the next Session. In conclusion, he should enter his protest against the supposition that the conduct of the Exchequer Loan Commissioners had been characterised by any persecution of individuals. He had reason to believe, on the contrary, that that conduct bad been marked by forbearance and moderation.


said, that representing, to a certain extent, the West India interest in that House, be felt that they were much indebted to the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir J. Pakington) for having directed their attention to that important subject, because, if for no other reason, the right hon. Gentleman had elicited from the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Colonies a statement of a character much more encouraging to the West India proprietors than the language which had previously emanated from the hon. Secretary to the Treasury. Those proprietors had certainly been given to understand by the Treasury, that the claims were to be pressed with far greater severity than appeared to be contemplated by the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Colonies. He believed that the pressing of the sale of West India estates at the present moment would be equivalent to their complete confiscation. The value of the property of the West India proprietors had of late years been almost annihilated; but some of those proprietors were still resolutely struggling against their difficulties, and it would surely not be desirable that the Government should at present adopt measures of severity which would complete the ruin of those men. In his opinion, Her Majesty's Ministers ought not to enforce the public claim in that instance more rigorously than a similar claim had been enforced in Ireland.


said, it now appeared that these beautiful islands had been ruined by the policy of that House, first in encouraging slavery, and afterwards in abolishing it, and at the same time refusing to the proprietors all protection. He did not believe the fabric of the West Indies was irretrievably fallen, and he wished to see an inquiry which would tend to its recovery. The Governors of the island could, no doubt, afford most useful information both as to the present position of the West Indies and the best means of placing them in a better position. He entirely approved of the passing of a measure to enable the proprietors of incumbered estates to sell their land and transfer it to persons who would have a better chance of cultivating it at a profit. Such a measure might, however, he presented in a better form. Had proper care been exercised in a, similar case which concerned Ireland, the result would have been much less ruinous to the proprietors; and what he desired in this case was, that this Bill should be so framed that the proprietors would obtain the full value of their land. He agreed with the hon. Secretary to the Treasury that the debts to this country ought to be repaid, as far as possible, in full. He knew of no instance in which a debt in Ireland had been remitted; and there was no substantial distinction between the two cases. He would suggest what he considered one great improvement in the Bill, namely, that power should be given to leave a portion of the purchase-money, or debt, in negotiable securities, or what were termed land debentures. His object in making this suggestion was simply to prevent a speculator from purchasing for 5,000l. what he might afterwards resell for 20,000l. A similar Amendment was proposed at the time when the Irish Incumbered Estates Bill was brought before the Legislature, and it met with almost unanimous approval among the proprietors in Ireland. Its rejection was attended with the most serious consequences. The adoption of this suggestion, and of other improvements with regard to the West Indies, would, he felt assured, be the commencement of an era of prosperity. He hoped the right hon. Baronet (Sir G. Grey) would give him some assurance on the subject.


said, that the present measure was of a temporary nature, and that the subject would necessarily come again under the consideration of Parliament.

House in Committee.


said, that there was a manifest difference upon the subject between the letter of the Secretary to the Treasury, issued in February last, and the speech delivered that day by the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Colonies. According to the letter of the Secretary to the Treasury, the Government would insist on the whole of their claim, and would force the sales (if the estates. But the right hon. Baronet had told them, as he (Sir J. Pakington) understood him, that no forced sales were to take place before the next Session of Parliament.


said, he had merely stated that he thought they would be better enabled to consider that subject in the next Session of Parliament, as they would then be in possession of information which was not at present before them. But he did not mean to imply that there would, in the meantime, be any suspension of proceedings.

The Bill, with some verbal amendments; passed through Committee.

House resumed.

Bill reported.

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