HC Deb 09 February 1854 vol 130 cc361-71

said, he begged to move for a Select Committee to investigate the claims of Messrs. Yuille, Short-ridge, and Co., against the Portuguese Government for compensation for losses incurred by them through a breach of treaty on the part of that Government. He would briefly state the circumstances under which he asked that inquiry should be made into the grievances of which he complained. Messrs. Yuille, Shortridge, and Co. were wine merchants carrying on business in Mark-lane, London, who for nearly 100 years had had an establishment in the island of Madeira, having set up that establishment and invested their capital, as all other British merchants did, on the faith of a treaty which had existed for many years with the Government of Portugal. In 1826 a member of this firm acting on its behalf gave a bond for upwards of 21,000l. to a Portuguese subject of the name of Oliveira, and shortly afterwards an action was instituted upon that bond, in which the firm of Yuille, Shortridge, and Co. were made the defendants. That action was commenced in the Conservatorial Court, to which the defendants were amenable, and which had jurisdiction in the case under the treaty of 1654, then in force between this country and Portugal. In November, 1830, judgment was given in this Court of the Conservador at Madeira in favour of the defendants. From that judgment an appeal was entered to the Court of Senators at Lisbon, the only Court of appeal which had jurisdiction over British, subjects under the treaty to which he had alluded, which confirmed the decision of the Court at Madeira. But these were not decisions on the actual merits of the case, but on a point of form. Subsequently, in 1836, a fresh action was instituted in the same Court at Madeira, and a like judgment was given in favour of the defendants on the merits of the case. From that judgment the plaintiff appealed, not to the Court of Senators at Lisbon, which is a Court of second resort, but to a Court of first resort, a Court to which British subjects were not amenable, it being a civil and not a commercial Court. In that Court also the judgment was in favour of the defendants, whereupon the plaintiff took an appeal to the Court to which he should first have appealed—the Court of Senators, or Relaçao Civil, at Lisbon. After some time that Court decided again in favour of the defendants on the merits of the action, confirming the decision of the Conservatorial Court at Madeira, with costs. In February, 1838, after these actions had gone on for seven years and a half, Messrs. Yuille, Shortridge, and Co., having had time decision of all the Courts to which they were amenable in their favour, of course thought the whole transaction at an end, and that under the treaty of 1654 it was impossible that they should be dragged into any other Court. Yet, on the 6th December, 1838, immediately after this final judgment against him, Oliveira, appealed to the Supreme Court for the review of the sentences passed by the Commercial Courts—thus, in fact, taking the very step against which the treaty of 1654 was intended to protect British merchants. Ten years after the first action was brought, and when four consecutive judgments in favour of these British subjects had been given, this Court, which had declared in 1835 that it could have no cognisance of the matter, at length, in December, 1838, decided that the bond was null and void, giving judgment, nevertheless, against the defendants for 10,000l., and interest thereon, for which in fact they had never been sued. The plaintiff hurried over to Madeira to take possession, under an execution on this judgment, of the property of these British merchants, but our Ambassador at Lisbon, Lord Howard de Walden, stated the real nature of the case to the Portuguese Government, and Her Majesty's ship Trinculo was at once despatched from the Tagus with orders to atop the enforcement of the execution, which had consequently not been carried out. The defendants then entered an appeal from the Relaçao Civil to the Supreme Court, not admitting its jurisdiction, but at the direct instigation of Her Majesty's Government and under protest; and after a negotiation carried on between the British Ambassador and the Portguese Foreign Minister. Meanwhile, a demurrer was put in to stay the execution in Madeira, and being allowed by the Judge Conservador, the plaintiff appealed against it, and at length a judgment was pronounced at Lisbon, annulling all proceedings, and remitting both parties to their original rights, after twelve years harassing litigation. On the 26th July, 1844, the Supreme Court confirmed this judgment of the Relaçao Civil; meantime there was an appeal about the proceedings at Madeira, and in November, 1843, the Relaçao Civil overruled the decision of the Judge Conservador, and decided that he should allow execution to issue. On the 19th February, 1848, after several other appeals had been brought with different issues, the case came again before the Relaçao Civil at Lisbon, and a decree passed to enforce execution on the property in Madeira. In 1848 these proceedings were terminated by the death of the plaintiff, whose heirs disputed about the inheritance, and that was the only reason why this execution had not been put in force on the property of Messrs. Yuille, Shortridge, and Co. The complainants said, that at a moderate estimate, the loss they had been part to through these vexatious and illegal proceedings amounted to at least 100,000l.; in point of fact they were utterly ruined as to their Madeira house. He had in his hand copies of all the proceedings in this case, of the correspondence which had taken place with Lord Howard de Walden, and of all that was essential to a knowledge of the circumstances; and he had no hesitation in saying that these parties had been ruined by a clear breach of treaty between this country and Portugal; and, further, that it was not their fault that they had been so ruined, as they had acted on the advice of the Government of this country and with a view to relieve them from embarrassment. He had before him the distinct admission of Lord Howard de Walden that a breach of treaty had been committed, and a request from him that the petitioners, instead of treating the matter as a breach of treaty, would allow the appeal to be entered in the Supreme Court, and that care would be taken that that Court decided properly. There was not a doubt, indeed, that the Government had concluded that this was a grievous wrong carried on against these parties from 1838 down to the present time. The Government had sent a ship to stay execution against them, on the ground that it had been illegally granted, and they interfered in various other ways in behalf of the defendants; but the latter complained that, though they had interfered, their interests were not protected. He asked for a Select Committee to inquire, and say whether these things were true. What had the parties done to forfeit their rights to efficient protection? They acknowledged, in terms of extreme praise and gratitude, the attention which had been paid to their remonstrances, but they complained that the interference which had taken place was of no effect whatever. The noble Lord now at the Home Office, when at the head of Foreign Affairs, stated that he would hold the Portuguese Government liable for the loss sustained by these parties; but here they were, nevertheless, without any redress. Portugal was notorious for her breaches of treaty; but he hoped that in this instance at least justice would be done. He might state that subjects of Spain had been admitted to similar privileges with as in Portugal, and that, in the midst of all this wrong being inflicted on these petitioners, a Spanish subject was taken into a Court to which he was not amenable, and this very same Court that refused to give the protection of the treaty to British subjects gave that protection—he knew not under what influence—to a subject of the Crown of Spain. He had no doubt, from the facts he had mentioned, and from the documents to which he had referred, and which the House also had the means of perusing, that it would be evident a great act of injustice and wrong had been committed, and that, under all the circumstances of the case, the House would be of opinion that a Select Committee ought to be appointed to examine into the matter, in order, if necessary, to afford such redress and relief as might, upon inquiry, appear to be equitable and just.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that he did so, not merely out of consideration to the firm of Yuille, Shortridge, and Co., but as involving a question of general commercial interest. The facts of the case, as disclosed by the hon. and learned Member, appeared to him to make out a charge which embodied a great breach of treaties on the part of Portugal with Great Britain, and which would establish, if allowed to pass over unnoticed, precedents of a most ruinous nature to the great prejudice of this country. He would not follow the hon. and learned Member through all the facts which he had stated, but would merely say, that it appeared to him that no country in the world had received more benefits from England than Portugal had, and yet no country had been guilty of more ingratitude in every way toward us. Portugal had received from this country, in principal and interest, since the treaties of 1815, no less a sum than 2,850,000l., in order to induce her to suppress the slave trade, and the means she had adopted to carry out such suppression were patent to the world. The commander of the Castor frigate, recently employed in the Mozambique channel, stated that the Portuguese authorities on that coast were themselves concerned in it. With respect to a country like Portugal, Government had not only the right of seeing but was bound to see that the promises which she deliberately made she also faithfully fulfilled. He was no advocate for Her Majesty's Government interfering unnecessarily to collect private debts incurred in the ordinary course of business transac- tions; but in the case before the House there was evidently a flagrant breach of treaty, and in such a case he thought that forbearance might be carried too far. He hoped that the Government would countenance such measures being taken as would remedy at once the injustice complained of, and remove for ever any chance of similar proceedings on the part of Portugal or any other country. If Government acted energetically and as they ought in these matters, they would at one and the same time insure the extension of our commerce, and afford that protection to British subjects abroad, which in transactions of this nature were not only requisite and desirable, but absolutely indispensable.

Motion made, and Question put— That a Select Committee be appointed to investigate the claims of Yuille, Shortridge, and Co., against the Portuguese Government, for compensation for losses incurred by them through breach of Treaty.


said, he should support the Motion, which, under the circumstances, he considered to be a very proper one. If British merchants chose to embark their capital in speculative trading in foreign countries, which, as far as these speculations were concerned, were under no treaties with this country, why, such merchants must take the consequences attendant on their so doing; but, if on the contrary, British merchants embarked their capital in fair trading transactions in foreign countries, on the faith of treaties known to be existing between such countries and ourselves, they had a right to consider, as far as their dealings with these particular countries were concerned, the territory of their own country to be extended, and its authority and influence to be existing, so as to protect them from oppression, and preserve their property from such acts of violence as were complained of in the present instance.


said, he was in favour of granting the Select Committee applied for, which he thought necessary in the present case, in order to enforce those feelings of honourable understanding which were so necessary to be observed, for the purpose of protecting British subjects abroad from any unjustifiable acts of interference or oppression. In the present case there was no doubt but that a most flagrant irregularity had been committed against a British subject, and that, as far as legal proceedings were concerned, they were no less absurd than unjust. The House would no doubt recollect the case of Don Pacifico, and the inquiries which took place on that occasion; but, however important those inquiries might have been, he looked upon the present case as one of far more consequence, inasmuch as the injuries of which Don Pacifico complained related only to questions of international law, whereas the present case was one Which involved the interpretation of some of the most important features of our commercial treaties.


Sir, I wish to call the attention of the House, not to the merits of this particular case so much, as to the course which it is thought advisable to pursue in cases of this nature. The hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. T. Chambers) alleges that, in a case which arose in the year 1838, and upon which a diplomatic correspondence was carried on during a period of twelve years, from 1840 to 1852, much wrong was done to certain persons, who were British subjects, and that that wrong has not been redressed. Now, sir, I beg to say, without at all defending the conduct of the Portuguese Government, and still less of the Portuguese tribunals, that I wish the House to consider how these cases are generally brought under review of the British Government. It frequently happens, among the most friendly nations, that individuals have cases of complaint, of what they think is injustice committed towards them, either by the Government or tribunals of a friendly nation. If there is a treaty in force between our Government and that friendly nation, their case is so much the stronger; and they proceed generally to apply to our Government to support their demands for redress. Very often the correspondence continues a very considerable time. Often many of these cases accumulate. Some of them—perhaps the greater part of them—are redressed by the foreign Government; and with respect to others of them, the cases not being so clear, it seems impossible for our Government to pursue the correspondence further, or to insist on the redress which they originally demanded. Sometimes those claims are agreed to be settled by some species of arbitration. During the last year, I myself, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, signed a Convention between this country and the United States of America, by which the complaints of both our own subjects and the citizens of the United States shall be brought before a Commission formed of persons of both nations, who should go through the cases, and decide according to the merits of each particular case. In this manner these cases are generally brought to a conclusion, and the greater part of them are settled both according to the justice of the case and without any disturbance of the friendly relations between the two countries. Sometimes, however, the Government thinks it necessary, as in the case of the Government of Greece, just alluded to by the hon. Gentleman behind me (Mr. D. Seymour)—finding redress cannot be obtained (and there are many cases of such complaint)—to demand as the ultimate resource a recourse to arms for such redress as they think the subjects of Her Majesty are entitled to; but though those various courses may be pursued, I think, if the hon. and learned Gentleman's Motion in its present shape were to be assented to, it would be a precedent for a totally different, and, I think, a very inconvenient course. It appears to me that it is only in clear cases that this House ought to interfere in respect to the complaints of individuals against a foreign country. With respect to this particular case, although the papers are very voluminous—so voluminous, indeed, that I confess I have not been able to go through them more than to make myself acquainted with the general remonstrance of the parties—I am ready on the part of the Government to lay on the table of the House all the papers with regard to this case, containing the complaints that were made, and the despatches of Her Majesty's different Ministers at the Court of Lisbon. The House will then be enabled to decide whether they will go further in this case, or whether they think any special interference of this House in it is necessary. But I beg to submit that, on the case as it now stands—on the bearing of all those ex parte statements by individual Members, and without reading the correspondence—if this House should agree to a Committee, they would be setting a precedent which would be dangerous, and opening a course which they could hardly pursue without inconvenience. There are, with respect to the Portuguese, many cases of grievance complained of by British subjects. Suppose there are eight or ten such at present, and so many individual Members were to ask for a Committee in each case. There is one case especially, the ease of Mr. Croft (as was understood), which it appears to me is one of much greater hardship than anything that has been stated by the hon. and learned Gentleman; but if we are to have separate Committees in all such eases of commercial disputes, in the first place, the whole of these negotiations will be taken out of the hands of the Government, and in the next place, the House will be undertaking a task which they will find it perfectly impossible adequately to perform. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir J. Pakington) moved very lately for a Committee to consider in what manner the public business could be more expeditiously and advantageously carried on; but I am sure it will be quite unnecessary for that Committee to meet if the House were to declare that, in any case brought forward by individual Members, without seeing the papers, they would at once appoint a Committee to decide whether in such cases foreign tribunals have acted in conformity with their laws, or with the treaties which we have with them. I am quite ready, however, to produce all the papers on the subject, and after that the House can then determine whether it is a question of such special grievance as to justify its being taken out of the ordinary course, and to require the appointment of a Committee to investigate it. But after the very voluminous correspondence in this case—lasting over a period of twelve years—I confess I think it not expedient to appoint such a Committee. I beg again to say I am not defending the course taken by the Portuguese Government in this or any other similar case. I think we have very great reason to complain of that Government. I think in many cases, when my noble Friend (Viscount Palmerston) has made strong remonstrances to them for redress, they either did not behave with justice towards a friendly nation or towards the individuals concerned in the course they took on those occasions. But Her Majesty's Government have always held that cases of injustice may become so manifest and so aggravated that it would be their duty to take some decided measure for the purpose of obtaining redress. They have, I believe, in several instances obtained full compensation for injured parties. I recollect that in several cases in which my noble Friend has remonstrated with the Portuguese Government, payments of considerable amount have since been made by that Government in liquidation of the claims of British subjects. But without at all defending the conduct of the Portuguese Government, I must say that it must be very inconvenient for the House to go into a consideration of the whole of these complicated negotiations, upon the mere statement of the hon. and learned Gentleman, and without having any of the papers relating to the case before them.


said, he thought the speech of the noble Lord was no answer whatever to the case made out by the hon. and learned Member for Hertford (Mr. Chambers) nor did it give any reason why the Motion should not be acceded to. It appeared that by a treaty of 1654, confirmed by other treaties from time to time down, he believed, to the year 1810, a compact was entered into between Portugal and this country, that the British merchants settling at Madeira, and bringing there their capital and their business, should be entitled, if any disputes arose, to have those disputes decided by certain Courts, and by certain Courts only, and that no further appeal should be made after these Courts had adjudicated upon them. This was the stipulation of a solemn treaty, and yet, in this case, the two Courts named having been resorted to in respect of the claims in question, both Courts having adjudicated upon them, decided in favour of the claimants. Instead of those gentlemen being relieved and set at rest with respect to their claims, they were harassed about through successive Courts, which, according to the treaty, never had any jurisdiction over natives of this country. The noble Lord said that the House of Commons ought not to interfere except in extreme cases; but surely this was an extreme case. What the noble Lord proposed to do was to lay before the House the voluminous correspondence relative to the affair, in order that the House might ascertain all the circumstances of the case. Now, so far as his slight experience went, there was no less likely manner of enabling the House to ascertain the facts of a case of this sort than by laying before them a mass of papers—in this instance so voluminous that the noble Lord confessed himself unable entirely to arrive at a clear understanding of the affair. If the facts were undisputed, then let the noble Lord and the Government call upon the Portuguese Government to compensate these parties; if, on the contrary, they were disputed, what better or more convenient mode of ascertaining the truth than that of referring the subject to a Select Committee? He certainly thought that the case made out by the hon. and learned Member for Hertford—unanswered as it was by the speech of the noble Lord opposite—called for inquiry, and he should therefore support the Motion.


said, he fully agreed with the hon. and learned Member who had just sat down that the speech of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, by no means met the case made out. Here was confessedly a case of great hardship. A British merchant had been ruined by the trickery of the Portuguese Government, and the only remedy suggested by the noble Lord was to lay before the House a mass of papers so voluminous that he himself confessed he could not comprehend them, but which he expected hon. Members to go through in the very few hours which they could spare from their attendance on the House and from their other duties. Surely in a case of this sort a Select Committee was the best mode of obtaining information, and he therefore hoped that the noble Lord would reconsider his verdict.


said, he had a tolerable intimacy with the commercial treaties with Portugal, and he could bear witness that they had been fairly stated by the hon. and learned Member for Hertford. He thought the case presented considerable difficulties and required investigation, and he should therefore support the Motion for the appointment of a Committee.


, in reply, said, that when he entered the House that day he was sure he had a good case, and he should leave the House assured that his case was a still better one, even upon the showing of the noble Lard (Lord J. Russell).

The House divided:—Ayes 126; Noes 74: Majority 52