HC Deb 18 July 1854 vol 135 cc390-6

in moving for a Select Committee, stated, that on December 5, 1830, H.M.S. Thetis, then on her passage from Rio Janeiro to England, was wrecked at Cape Frio, on the Brazilian coast, having on board treasure to the value of 810,000 dollars. The commander in chief of the station, Admiral Baker, having proceeded to the scene of the wreck, returned with the firm conviction that the freight could not be saved, nor any of the stores but such as might be drifted upon the coast. Captain Dickenson, then in command of H.M.S. lightning, one of the squadron, earnestly importuned the Admiral to allow him to attempt the recovery of the treasure. The Thetis had been wrecked under a line of almost perpendicular cliffs, of considerable height, and exposed to the heavy swell of the South Atlantic Ocean. She had gone entirely to pieces, and, with the force of the sea, the stores and treasure were driven beneath large masses of rock, at a depth of water varying from six and a half to twelve fathoms. Admiral Baker permitted this enterprising officer to proceed to Cape Frio in the lightning; no better proof can be given of his constructive talent than the fact that the diving-bell and air-pump, with other mechanical appliances, were due to his ingenuity, and that he formed an enormous derrick, twelve feet longer than the shears in Portsmouth Dockyard, from which to suspend his diving-bell, out of twenty-two fragments of the spars collected along ten miles of coast. He then commenced his work, and had raised 100,000 dollars, when he was acquainted by Admiral Baker that he had received instructions from the Admiralty, of date August 11, 1831, by which it was clearly to be understood that the public service was not to be put to any expense by the endeavour to save the treasure from the wreck of the Thetis, beyond the attendance of the ship employed on that service, and the use of the crew when the service of the station admitted of it. In consequence of this letter Captain Dickenson was refused the assistance of further public stores; two alternatives were thus presented—the one forthwith to abandon the enterprise, the other to prosecute it at his own risk; to his credit he chose the latter, and thus was driven to the necessity of expending a sum of nearly 700l. at his own cost. In the face of disease, the hazard of storms, and liability to number less accidents, he continued his operations, by which 583,801 dollars were recovered of the merchant's treasure, and of the public stores to the value of 2,000l. after a trying service of fourteen months. The King's stores actually issued to the Lightning, and expended by her from January 1, 1831, to March 10, 1832, when the service was transferred to the Algerine, were, in actual value, 1,064l., while the stores lost or otherwise expended amounted only to 375l. Many of the former, such as anchors, cables, &c., having suffered little or no wear, were reissued to the squadron. It appears that the actual amount of treasure which had been raised from the bottom of the ocean was 588,801 dollars by the lightning, and about 161,000 dollars by the Algerine—making a total of 750,000 (of the 810,000) restored to the owners and the country under circumstances of the most forbidding difficulty, and these dollars netted the sum of 157,000l., of which 54,000l. were awarded as salvage; but the salvors received only about 29,000l. —12,000l. having been incurred in expenses, and the Admiralty having demanded, for wages, victuals, naval stores, and wear and tear, the sum of 13,872l. 8s. 7d. From the foregoing statement it will be seen that the sum actually paid to the salvors, for eighteen months of perilous services, amounted to 28,200l., less agents' charges. It has been shown that public stores, to the value of 2,000l., had been recovered, and that the cost of the stores used amounted to 1,054l.; the gain, therefore, was in favour of the public. The Lightning had been withdrawn from the above service on occasions when required by the senior naval officer on the station, and at all times was kept prepared for any service which might have demanded her employment. The charge, therefore, for victuals and wages, amounting to 10,626l. 5s. 9d., was most unfair, and the charge for naval stores and wear and tear, amounting to 3,207l. 2s. 10d. equally unjust, as the ship was lying at the anchorage of Cape Frio, and suffering no wear and tear at all except that which would have been incurred had she been on any other part of the station; in fact, the ships were engaged in a way conducive to the honour and credit of the country. This employment was not, in any degree, detrimental to the public interests, and they were acting in pursuance of Admiralty or- ders. This sum, then, of 13,833l. 8s. 7d. Captain Dickenson claims for himself, the officers and crews employed on this arduous service, being the salvors, as evidently no charge was contemplated by the Admiralty letter of August 11, 1831, and it was an unjust deduction when first demanded by the Admiralty in December, 1832, and actually paid on September 13, 1834, to the Treasurer of Her Majesty's Navy. In the Marine Bill, brought in last Session, the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty, with great justice, introduced a clause inhibitory of the advance of any Government claims for wear and tear of stores in case of salvage, or any other expenses attendant on the same. I therefore appeal to the First Lord of the Admiralty to reverse the claim of 1832, and in justice restore the 13,672l. 8s. 7d., which, without precedent, as far as I am advised, were unjustly deducted from the reward and hard earnings of a very meritorious and unparalleled service. The Board of Admiralty will, by this act, redress an injustice committed in 1832, by following out the enlarged view taken in 1853, when the officers and men employed in that arduous enterprise will no longer be disheartened—no longer be smarting under a sense of wrong by what they consider to have been an arbitrary deduction. With what consistency could the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty answer me some evenings since, that he considered it to be inexpedient to reopen this question, because an adverse decision had been awarded by successive Boards of Admiralty, and that a limit must be set to the advancement of claims, when common right requires the redress of a wrong, only deepened by the lapse of years, to which the right hon. Baronet alluded, while he himself, by his clause in 1853, has openly acknowledged that he considered such a charge, in cases of salvage, contrary to justice? I would earnestly impress upon the House that I ask for no grant of public money for past services, but am merely making a renewed application for the repayment of money unjustly deducted from energetic officers and men, and paid over to the account of the Treasurer of the Navy on a claim which I—and I think the House will agree with me—have shown to have been utterly destitute of foundation. I am sensible of the indulgence with which the House has listened to the statement I have made in submitting this Motion for a Select Committee, and I can assure hon. Members that no circumstance less than an enthusiastic love for my profession, and the firm conviction that I advance a claim of stern justice, would have induced me to have undertaken a duty I so imperfectly have performed.


said, he would second the Motion, as he believed that a case could be made out which required justice to be done. The zeal, ability, and ingenuity of Captain Dickenson had tended to save the sum of 157,000l., and it could be shown before the Select Committee, if the House should accede to the proposal of his hon. and gallant Friend, how great that zeal and ability had been. The Admiralty had made a large deduction from the amount awarded to the salvors, on account of the wear and tear of the ships employed in the service, and the wages of the men; but the whole of the operations had been conducted with the consent of the commanding officer on the station, and the ships were ships employed on the station, and therefore their crews would have had to be paid whether these services had been performed or not. He, therefore, trusted that the House would grant the Committee asked for by his hon. and gallant Friend. Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed, to inquire into the Claims of Captain Dickenson, R.N., on behalf of himself, the Officers, and Crews of Her Majesty's Vessels employed on the subject of Salvage, &c., connected with the recovery of Treasure in the Wreck of Her Majesty's Ship Thetis, off Cape Frio, on the Coast of Brazil.


said, he felt convinced that he needed not to assure the gallant Admirals, the mover and seconder of the proposal before the House, that he gave them full credit for the motives which had led them to bring this subject before the House, and also that, if he could agree with them as to the justice of the claim, he would be the last person to oppose the Motion; but he was bound to say, that he had come to a conclusion different to that which had been arrived at by the hon. and gallant Admirals. The subject was by no means a new one, for he had first become acquainted with it some twenty-three years ago, and as to the facts of the case there was no dispute. The Thetis, having on board a large amount of treasure belong- ing to merchants, was lost, under circumstances in which accident was more or less mingled; but, at the same time, in the opinion of the Board of Admiralty of that day, there had been considerable, if not culpable, neglect. The Admiralty, feeling that there had been a great amount of loss incurred by private persons on account, to a certain extent, of the conduct of their officer, thought it right to consent to the unusual course of allowing the few ships on the station to be employed in attempting to recover the treasure; but, contrary to the expectation of the Board of Admiralty, fourteen months had been occupied in the task. He did not mean to speak in a tone disparaging to the exertions of Captain Dickenson on that occasion, and, as he had stated, he had acted under the consent of the Board of Admiralty; but it had been decided, after these ships had been employed upon so unusual a service for the space of fourteen months, to place a check upon their being further employed, by making a deduction for the wear and tear of the ships and boats, which had been very considerable. Various suits had been instituted by the salvors against the deduction made by the Board of Admiralty, and they had all been defeated, and he wished to remind the hon. and gallant Admiral, that the deduction to be made was not fixed by the Board of Admiralty, but by the Admiralty Court, after a full and careful consideration of the facts of the case. He was of opinion, that if the money ought to be paid, Captain Dickenson ought not to receive one farthing of the money, and that if any one was entitled to the money, it was the merchants whose treasure had been lost. What he had stated on a former occasion, that, after the case had been frequently decided, some limit ought to be put to these claims, he could only now repeat, and on this particular question there had been repeated decisions. Under the law, Captain Dickenson had not a shadow of claim to this 13,800l. If it were a question at all—though he denied that it was—the question lay between the Government and the parties whose treasure was lost; and, therefore, entertaining these opinions deliberately and decidedly, he could see no necessity whatever in instituting any further inquiry. The facts were clear, and investigation had already taken place. and consequently, though feeling the highest respect for Captain Dickenson, who, in an honourable position at Greenwich Hospital, enjoyed the reward of his past services, he felt bound to resist the Motion.


said, he entirely disagreed with the right hon. Baronet, who thought that this was a question between the Government and the merchants. He regarded the case as one requiring investigation. It was all very well to say that Captain Dickenson was housed at Greenwich Hospital; but in that position he was placed for his general services, and not for exertions made in the Lightning, in reference to this particular transaction.


said, that the performances of the Lightning, her captain, and crew, in bringing up this treasure from a great depth, were the admiration of the whole Navy at the time. He thought the House ought to decide in favour of the Motion, in order that a Committee might see whether there was not justice in this claim. As to the gallant officer being in Greenwich Hospital, he trusted that that circumstance would constitute a title to consideration rather than otherwise. The gallant officer was there because he was old and worn out in Her Majesty's service, and not because he was commander of the Lightning.


said, that having considered this case more than once, he had come to the conclusion that Captain Dickenson had no claim. He did not mean to detract from Captain Dickenson's merits, for he concurred in everything that had been said with respect to them, but he was bound by the law as laid down, and the Judge himself informed Captain Dickenson that the money was not his, but the salvor's, if anybody's.


said, he considered that no sufficient ground had been shown for conceding the Motion, besides which, he deprecated the growing habit of making that House a court of appeal against the decisions of the ordinary tribunals of the country.


I am happily persuaded that nothing which has fallen from the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty, or from the gallant Admiral the Member for Gloucester, has tended in the slightest degree to weaken the impression of the statement made by me. The right hon. Baronet has repeated that successive Boards of Admiralty and Treasury have decided against the claim I advance, and the gallant Admiral has adduced an opinion to the same import as held by the late Sir Thomas Hardy when at the Admiralty. I therefore, with the permission of the House, will read a letter addressed to Captain Dickenson by Admiral Sir Charles Napier, then a Member of this House, in contradistinction to the foregoing statements. July 28, 1842. My dear Sir—I have much pleasure in informing you that your claim is favourably looked upon both by the Admiralty and Treasury. I have spoken about it to Sir George Clerk, and I last night mentioned it publicly in the House. Yours truly, "CHARLES NAPIER. The Court of Admiralty may, for aught I know to the contrary, have admitted the demand made by the Admiralty, but this I right well know, that on the appeal to the Privy Council a very different view was taken. In this there can be no dispute, that the efforts made to recover the treasure were marvellous in their origin and successful in their results—that of 810,000 dollars hopelessly sunk in the ocean, 750,000 were recovered, and the human being lives not who, in justice, could deny the fair claim to one-third part of that amount to the salvors. As to the underwriters they were most essentially benefited, for at one time the depreciation was to the extent of 75 per cent, and certain I am, did not party prevail, I should be followed into the lobby by almost every hon. Member now in the House.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 40; Noes 41: Majority 1.