HC Deb 14 February 1854 vol 130 cc687-92

said that, in pursuance of a Motion he had given, he begged to call the attention of the House to a subject which, whatever might be the feeling in England, was most seriously regarded in Scotland; he alluded to the present state of the guano market of this country. He believed hon. Gentlemen were most probably aware that the late Government received deputations from Scotland, and he had no doubt from England also, on this subject, as there was then a very general feeling that the guano islands did not rightly belong to the Peruvian Government; it had, however, been since admitted that they undoubtedly did, and this feeling had consequently ceased. This country, therefore, having no power to seize on these islands, it was left for its supply of guano entirely dependent on a system which be could but call one of the most grievous monopolies that had ever existed. Within the last few weeks, he might state, a despatch had been received from the Admiral commanding on the Pacific station, in which it was stated that the supply of guano on the Chincha Islands, belonging to the Peruvian Government, could not last longer than eight or ten years. If this were the case, he could only say that the farmers in his part of the country, and he believed those of England also, would find it very difficult to procure a substitute for it. He was glad, however, to find that, from a statement made a few days since in the Times, a better account was given of the supply, which was said to be 8,000,000 tons, and, from a report made by a French engineer on behalf of the Peruvian Government, the supply was estimated to exist, sufficient to supply this country, at the present rate of importation, for a century to come. Now, if the latter opinion was at all well founded, or if it were so far true that an increased supply of this invaluable article of manure could be procured, it would be of the greatest possible benefit to agriculture and to that of the population generally, from the great increase that the application of guano gave to the producing power of the land. He thought that House would consider this question one well deserving the attention of the Government. He had called the present system a grievous monopoly, and he would state why: some eight or ten years ago the Peruvian Government made arrangements with, and appointed Messrs. Gibbs and Bright their sole agents in this country, so that no ships received a supply of guano unless chartered by this firm; the consequence was, that at present the guano market was closed. He had received a letter from a friend in East Lothian, stating that, in answer to his request to be supplied with 400 tons of guano, Messrs. Gibbs and Bright had said that the demand having been greater than supposed they could not supply him. He also had good authority for stating that, to meet the extraordinary demand at Liverpool, there were but 1,500 tons on hand, although the orders in that place alone amounted to upwards of 8,000 tons. He could not avoid alluding to the impetus that the present state of things gave to companies in endeavouring to procure an article that would answer the same purposes as guano, and the serious situation the Peruvian Government and Peruvian bondholders, who were entirely dependent on the guano supply for their payments, would find themselves in, should an article be produced that would be sold for 5l. per ton instead of 11l., the present price for guano. That which gave the greatest importance to this question was its connection with the food of the people. He could only speak, from his own experience of Scotland, of the benefit derived from guano, though, he believed, it had been attended with similar results in England. He would beg to read the following extracts from the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, on farming in East Lothian:— The acreable produce of this county has been greatly increased from two causes, thorough drainage and application of guano; without its aid, manure for the breadth of land growing root crops could not have been obtained. The average produce of wheat, from the two causes combined, would have been raised not less than eight bushels an acre. If ten were named it would not exceed the real increase. Barley and oats have been increased at least twelve or fourteen bushels; beans by eight bushels an acre. The following was a statement by Mr. Brodie, a gentleman well known to all connected with East Lothian:— The amount spent on guano in this country is very considerable; there are several farmers who purchase guano annually to the extent of 1,000l., and 400l. to 600l. is a common expenditure. The produce of the county has been greatly increased since the introduction of guano. Mr. J. Brodie is of opinion that guano has increased the average quantity of the wheat crop seven bushels an acre. He would now read a calculation made by a gentleman whom the House would regard with all respect and consideration as an authority on this subject. The calculation he had alluded to was made by Mr. Caird, and was to the following effect:— Taking the annual imports at 150,000 tons, the value of guano to this country may be reckoned equal to an annual increase, beyond the natural produce, of 10,000,000 bushels of wheat, more than the whole wheat produce of Scotland. The President of the United States in his Address declared that measures had been taken to secure a more abundant supply of guano for that country. This showed the importance that Government attached to this subject, and he trusted that Her Majesty's Government would also take such steps as would enable the agriculturists of this country to procure a more easy and abundant supply of guano than they at present are enabled to do. He would now beg to read an extract from a letter written on this subject by one who bad devoted to it much of his time and attention. He said:— Perhaps nothing could show more strongly the disadvantage to all parties in this country of the system in which the trade is at present conducted than the fact that, so great are the annoyances to which shipowners are subjected by the English monopolist agents, that nearly one-half of the 70,000, tons imported into the United States in 1853 was carried in British ships. To accept a charter from that house, while other freights are good, is a kind of last resort, there being many fine British vessels now lying at the Chincha Islands, worth 20,000l., which have been kept lying there for 80 days and upwards and can't get loaded—the arrangements are so absurdly restrictive. A scarcity of shipping is therefore no sufficient plea for the present short supply. Had the 30,000 tons of British shipping which carried their cargoes to the United States been encouraged to come home, as they naturally would have preferred, and if the ships chartered for England received proper despatch in loading, we should have had at present an abundant supply. There seems a general conviction that the effective mode of dealing with this question would be to send out from the British Government some confidential officer in their service on a special mission to Peru. The opportunity should be embraced while that Government is in a transition state; and such an officer, on the spot, and communicating direct with the Peruvian Government, would be able to get beyond the circle of dishonest interposition, and so might succeed in convincing that nation of the enormous loss they sustain by a system which limits the sale of their guano and multiplies restrictions on the trade for the mere object of private gain. If by negotiations on this question they could reduce the price of the article, they would confer a boon not only on agriculture, but, by increasing production, they would cheapen the price of provisions in this country. He also wished to ask the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty, whether he had received or knew of ally information respecting the discovery of new guano islands, and if any step had been taken to secure them for this country? He would now beg to move for— Copies or extracts of any correspondence which the Government have had with the Peruvian Government, on the subject of the importation of guano.


Sir, I have only to say, with respect to the Motion of the hon. and gallant Member, that the papers he has moved for shall be laid upon the table. Far be it from me to differ from the arguments in favour of free trade which the hon. Gentleman has addressed to the Government of Peru, and I hope, when that Government comes to see that these arguments fall from Gentlemen on both sides of the House, they will attach more importance to them. Our desire is that those arguments favourable to free importation may have their due weight with the Peruvian Government, and that those advantages may be more fully secured which the hon. and gallant Gentleman shows have already accrued to British agriculture from the importations that have up to this time taken place. I can only say that every argument which could be addressed to the Peruvian Government on this subject has been addressed to them by the successive Governments of this country. I am prepared to lay the correspondence that has recently taken place upon the table of the House, which will show that Her Majesty's Government is perfectly alive to what they conceive to be the interest of the country on the subject.


I rise, Sir, to answer the question which has been put by the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Blair), and I can assure him and the House that I entirely agree with him in the opinion that there is no matter upon which the agricultural interest of the United Kingdom is more dependent than an enlargement in the supply of guano, the great source of which is at the present moment a monopoly in the hands of the Peruvian Government. I am afraid that no argument which the British Government can address to that of Peru will prevail, so long as they possess that exclusive monopoly. At all events, they will continue to exact the largest possible price for the article. The real remedy lies in enlarging the sources of supply, and I can assure the hon. and gallant Officer that directions have been given to the Admiral on the Peru station that every exertion should be used by the captains of the ships upon that station, if possible, to discover in that quarter some fresh sources of supply. There is another quarter, also, from which we have some hopes of obtaining a further supply of guano; and Her Majesty's Government have accordingly given particular directions to the officers on the station to institute a most minute search; and there are reasonable hopes for believing that some discovery will be made which will enlarge the source of supply.


said, he hoped that endeavours would be made to get the Peruvian Government to do away with the monopoly which they had granted to one commercial House; and if they desired to raise a revenue, to raise it upon an export duty, and let the proceeds of that duty be paid to the bondholders. He knew that the President of the Board of Trade in every successive Government had endeavoured by every possible argument to induce the Peruvian Government to give up their monopoly, but in vain. He hoped, however, that this Government, along with the Government of the United States, would induce the Peruvian Government to substitute an export duty for the present vicious and vexatious arrangement.

Motion agreed to.