HC Deb 27 February 1854 vol 130 cc1352-4

said, he begged to inquire of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) whether Russian ships chartered by British merchants to bring corn from the Black Sea, and by a firman of the Sultan (issued after his declaration of war against Russia) permitted to pass the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, would be also permitted to pass unmolested by British men-of-war, in the event of war occurring between Great Britain and Russia? and whether the Government would use its good offices with the Government of France to insure for the vessels so circumstanced a safe conduct from French cruisers likewise?


Sir, the question of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets is one of considerable interest, and, at the same time, one of great delicacy; and I must say, before answering the question, that I think it would be inure convenient if the merchants interested in this question would address an application on the subject to the Foreign-office. My noble Friend (the Earl of Clarendon) would then direct an answer to be sent in writing, stating the exact directions which Her Majesty's Government could give on the subject. The facts with respect to this particular case to which the hon. Baronet refers are these:—In the month of February an application was made by certain merchants of Hull to know whether Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, the British Ambassador at Constantinople, would be instructed to obtain from the Sultan protection for certain Russian vessels then loading in the Black Sea, and expected to come back with cargoes on British account. Lord Stratford was directed to apply to the Porte on the subject. The Sultan acceded to the request made, and those vessels were protected in their passage through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. In December there were some other vessels, with respect to which an application was made, and Lord Stratford was again desired to protect British interests as far as he could. But with respect to the original application, there was a subsequent request in February, asking whether British cruisers would be bound to respect Russian vessels similarly circumstanced in the Mediterranean, in the event of war between Russia and this country. Lord Clarendon, in answer to this request, desired to know the names of the vessels referred to, and a list of four vessels was sent to the Foreign Office. With respect to those vessels, Lord Clarendon will take care, and Her Majesty's Government will take care, that in case of war directions shall be given to British cruisers to respect those vessels, which have been allowed by the Sultan to pass through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. With respect to any protection from French men-of-war, that is, of course, a thing which we cannot possibly demand of the French Government. But Her Majesty's Government will use their good offices with the French Government, with the view of getting them that protection to which, by the law of nations, they would not, in the case of war, be entitled. But lest this question and the answer which I have given might receive a more general interpretation than it is intended to have, I will repeat what I stated at the commencement—that it is most desirous that applications on the subject should be made in writing, and that persons should not be misled by thinking that the protection of the British Government can be afforded further than those cases to which Her Majesty's Government think they are entitled to carry it in the present instance.


Sir, in reference to a question put by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Sir W. Clay), as to whether certain Russian ships will be allowed to pass our vessels under certain circumstances, I wish to ask the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) whether we may expect the decision of the Government in reference to the right of neutral flags, in case of war breaking out? That is, whether the Government has come to a decision, and whether they will announce that decision—whether free ships are to make free goods, and neutral flags be respected? Of course, I refer to neutral ships carrying ordinary mercantile produce, not to ships carrying muniments of war.


The question is of the greatest importance, and is altogether under the consideration of Her Majesty's Government at the present moment. At present I am not able to announce a decision on any of the various points of the matter. But before any declaration of war is made we will be prepared to answer the question.