HC Deb 29 June 1854 vol 134 cc909-21

On the Motion that the Speaker do leave the Chair for the purpose of going into Committee of Supply,


said, he was desirous of calling the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty to some late proceedings of the Baltic Fleet, and as he could ask for explanations now with as little interruption to public business as at any future time, he would take that opportunity of doing so. Communications had been made to him by persons in whom he had the fullest confidence, and statements had also been made in the public papers, relative to the proceedings of a portion of the British squadron in the Baltic, and if the information which he had received, and the statements to which he had alluded were not correct, he should be very glad to have them contradicted; but if they were correct, he thought the circumstances which had taken place were inconsistent with the professions of the Government, as they were certainly considered by persons who were anxious that this war should be carried on with vigour against the Russians to be highly impolitic. It was on these grounds that he thought the House was entitled to ask for an explanation from the Government; and he begged to state that he did not rise with the slightest desire to cast any reproach upon Admiral Plumridge, or the officers of Her Majesty's squadron, who, no doubt, in anything which they had done had been guided solely by a desire to perform strictly their duty, and had deviated neither to the right hand nor to the left, but had been actuated solely by that which always characterised the officers of Her Majesty's Navy—a steady adherence to the path which duty pointed out to them to take. He put this question, therefore, to the First Lord of the Admiralty, with the view of obtaining an explanation of the policy, for which he presumed the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues were responsible, and not with a desire to throw odium or reproach on those who, he had no doubt, might have, in the course of this war, very painful duties to perform. Now the facts, as he was informed, were these: —There was a small town in the Gulf of Bothnia, called Uleaborg, which was a purely commercial place, and which, when visited in the course of the present month, by three of Her Majesty's vessels, was found to be in a perfectly defenceless state, not having a single fortified place, nor any munitions of war. Deputations from the inhabitants went out in a boat to communicate with the Admiral, and to ask him his intentions, and they informed him, at the same time, that they were entirely defenceless, and threw themselves upon his mercy. In order, however, to be accurate, he would read the exact statement which had been submitted to him:— In consequence of the events at Brahestad, a deputation was sent out to the enemy to ask what was his object, and to inform him that we were quite defenceless, and threw ourselves entirely on his mercy. In answer, we received five copies of a proclamation in the English and Swedish languages to the following purport:— 'The English Admiral will not molest or injure private persons or their property. He only intends to destroy the castles and defences, shipping and property of the Emperor of Russia. So long as the inhabitants continue peaceably within their houses they will be protected, but should they offer assistance to the Russian troops they will be treated as enemies. The English Admiral desires that the women and children be sent out of the town. 'HANWAY PLUMRIDGE, Rear-Admiral. 'H.B.M.S. Leopard, at Uleaborg, June 1.' Hereon the deputation remarked, "That they had in this case nothing to fear, since they had neither soldiers, fortresses, nor contraband of war.' But the Admiral answered, You have a large store of tar, deals, timber, ships building, and materials for constructing them. These shall be burnt.' The deputation answered, "That all this was private property, and in no respect intended for warlike purposes; that a great part of the deals were English property, and that several young merchants who were building ships had received advances from England to assist them in their undertakings and in their shipments of tar.' The Admiral answered, 'If Englishmen have property here, that is not my concern, and I can't help it. I am sorry for it, but I must fulfil my duty. In ten minutes I shall begin operations.' With the proclamation nobody could find fault, for it was entirely in accordance with its principles that property should be respected, and that, unless the exigencies of the war required it, it should not be interfered with; that, in fact, there should be no wanton interference with private property. But, in respect to this private property, he was informed that information was given and evidence taken — for he understood that officers had landed and had seen and judged for themselves—that it was entirely commercial in its character, and was intended to be shipped for this country. He was told that not a particle of that property belonged to the Russian Government. There were no gunboats building; there were no gunboats built. A great part of it was unquestionably English, and had probably been bought and paid for before the declaration of war, for it could not have been removed earlier in consequence of the ice. That being the case, and it being the property of an enemy, of an Emperor of Russia, according to the practice of war the Emperor of Russia was much more likely to have seized it than themselves. He was told that, in point of fact, there was a considerable quantity of tar there which was the property of parties in London who had contracted with the Admiralty to supply tar for the use of Her Majesty's dockyards; and was intended to have been delivered from part of that supply. He was informed that the parties who had undertaken this contract apprised the Government of this country that they had bought and paid for the tar, but that it was at Uleaborg, in Finland, and unless some licence or permission were granted, to allow it to be brought through the blockade squadron, the contract could not be fulfilled. He understood the answer was, that though no licence could be given, yet if neutral vessels were sent to Ulea- borg to fetch the tar they would be allowed to pass unharmed through the squadron, and to bring the tar home for the use of Her Majesty's vessels. So that instead of burning the property of the Emperor of Russia, they burnt what was wanted by, and what would have come into the use of Her Majesty's Government. If he was wrong in this, he should be happy to hear it contradicted by the right hon. Gentleman. But if this tar was under contract to be delivered to our Government, its destruction by Admiral Plumridge's squadron would give rise, without doubt, to a case of compensation; and the British public would have claims made upon it similar to the Danish claims for the loss of the property destroyed. Now, he questioned the policy of making these attacks upon private property in small defenceless villages on the coast of Finland. England could have no object to gain in exasperating the population of Finland, the trade of these ports being almost exclusively carried on with this country. No doubt the laws of war would justify such a proceeding, if it could be shown that the exigencies of war required it; but such a case of necessity had yet to be made out. He had received a letter from a gentleman in the City, engaged in the Baltic trade, an extract from Which he would read to the House— According to the accounts I have received from Finland, the English landed at Uleaborg, a defenceless place, without meeting any resistance. They immediately set fire to six new merchant vessels on the stocks and one just launched, then to all the ship-building materials, and afterwards to the entire stock of goods lying at the wharves for exportation, consisting of a large quantity of timber and deals, and from 17,000 to 20,000 barrels of tar, as well as to eight ships afloat in the harbour. At Brahestad the English, equally unresisted, burnt five merchantmen on the stocks and six afloat, also 1,000 dozen of deals, 8,000 barrels of tar and pitch, and various other things, including a quantity of corn and salt, the whole estimated at 400,000 silver roubles. To the best of my belief, nearly all, if not the whole, of the property destroyed was private property—some of it British. This destruction of property can only affect the Russian Government and its power of carrying on the war in a very indirect and remote way. It will act much more directly on ourselves, for, of the 30,000 barrels of tar destroyed, the greater part would have found its way to our own dockyards and shipowners, who will not easily get supplied with this article elsewhere; whereas, under present circumstances, Russia wants none, or only such small quantities as she can readily and speedily obtain at home. To talk of this store of tar and deals as being contraband of war is therefore the acme of absurdity, and it is clear that, contrary to the professions of our Government and of Admiral Plum- ridge himself, that private property should be spared when the exigencies of war did not demand its destruction, it has in these cases been wantonly and unnecessarily destroyed. Our men and officers exposed their lives in the performance of acts of war, from which, if successful, there was no gain, and which would not hasten in the smallest degree the ultimate conclusion of hostilities. Finland could hardly be said to be a part of Russia, for it had been annexed to Russia after a strong resistance from the Fins. Such proceedings, therefore, could only give offence to the Finlanders, and also to the Swedes, who were our best friends. He (Mr. Milner Gibson) wished to guard himself against being supposed to reflect, in any way, upon the naval officers concerned in these transactions, because he believed that they had only acted upon their instructions. All he asked from the Government was, that they should vindicate the policy they had pursued in the circumstances which he had brought under the notice of the House.


Sir, I was not exactly aware that the right hon. Gentleman intended this evening to go into so much detail on the subject which he has brought under the notice of the House; and I therefore did not bring down all the despatches with reference to this subject. They only arrived this morning, and tomorrow they will be published in the Gazette, and then the House and the public will be better enabled to form their opinion upon the circumstances to which the right hon. Gentleman has alluded. But he has relieved me from any difficulty upon one head, which indeed would have been a difficulty of a most oppressive character, namely, if he had impugned the conduct of the British officers and gallant men who were employed on the service now in question. The right hon. Gentleman says, and says very truly, that those officers and men have executed their duty honourably, and have faithfully obeyed their instructions, and are not open to any censure whatever, so far as the authority presiding over naval affairs is concerned, in the conduct which they have pursued. Any blame attached to them attaches to the Government and to those who employed them, and not to the officers and men themselves. Now, Sir, I know not that it is expedient, as the matter now stands, that I should offer any elaborate defence with reference to the instructions given for the destruction of Russian property. We all knew that it is among the other objects of war to burn and destroy the property of the enemy; and although the right hon. Gentleman says that Finland can hardly be called a part of Russia, yet for the last twenty years at least that has been a sad reality, and Finland has been treated by Russia the same as Riga, or any other part of her territories on the opposite shore of the Baltic. And then, with respect to the articles to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, namely, cordage, timber, tar, and the other articles destroyed on this occasion, the House must be aware that with regard to Sweden and Denmark we have treaties of neutrality in which certain articles are specified, which even with reference to neutrality are held to be contraband of war; and the very articles which were in this instance destroyed are so enumerated in these treaties, and in our treaties both with Sweden and Denmark. While these countries preserve their neutrality, they are prohibited from conveying to the enemy timber, cordage, pitch, and tar, which were the very articles We have destroyed in the enemy's ports; and had they been found by British cruisers proceeding from Denmark or Sweden to any Russian port, even by the law of nations, apart from these treaties, they could have been dealt with as contraband of war. Now, I think I cannot do better than quote from the despatches of Sir Charles Napier, which we received only this morning, giving a summary of what had been done in the Gulf of Bothnia. I beg leave to inclose Admiral Plumridge's report of his proceedings in the Gull of Bothnia from the 5th of May to the 10th of June, by which Lordships will observe that he has destroyed forty-six vessels afloat, and on the stocks, amounting to 11,000 tons; from 40,000 to 50,000 barrels of pitch and tar, 6,000 square yards of rough pitch, a great number of stacks of timber, spars, plank and deal, sails, rope, and various kinds of naval stores to the amount of from 300,000l. to 400,000l., without the loss of a man. Now, that is the first operation of our squadron. It has been said that we have been unsuccessful in destroying the Russian fleets. Well, but Russia has not afforded us any opportunity of doing it. We have to deal with an enemy who has boasted that the Baltic and the Black Seas are to be regarded as his own lakes. We have entered those seas with our allies, the French, and given the fleets of the enemy opportunities of meeting us on many occasions with a superior force; but they have skulked and remained in their harbours. We have offered battle upon fair terms, but that they have declined. Whilst we have occupied the enemy's seas his fleets have not ventured to appear either with his ships of war or merchantmen; and we have been driven to the alternative of visiting their ports and destroying their merchantmen upon their own shores. This we have done to the extent described by Sir Charles Napier. The despatch proceeds to state that— Admiral Plumridge has had to contend with innumerable rocks and shoals incorrectly laid down in the charts, and met the ice up to the 30th of May; nevertheless, though several of his squadron have touched the ground, I am happy to say they have received no damage that he is not able to repair with his own means. The Rear Admiral, their Lordships will observe, speaks in the highest terms of the captains, officers, seamen, and marines, and particularly of Lieutenant B. P. Priest, the first lieutenant of the Leopard, an old and deserving officer; and Lieutenant Hammet, his flag-lieutenant. As relates then to the success of the operation, we have it that 11,000 tons of the enemy's ships have been destroyed, and from 300,000l. to 400,000l. worth of his property. Now it is said that a portion of this is British property. No doubt. It is impossible to make war with a foreign Power with which for a very long period we have entertained the most amicable relations and carried on a most extensive commerce, without inflicting very considerable injury on our own merchants. But this is among the great evils attendant on war itself, and if you are really to inflict injury upon your enemy, it is impossible, at the commencement of a war, with a sudden rupture of commercial relations occurring, to avoid entailing some incidental evil of the same kind upon your own countrymen. But the right hon. Gentleman said there was a blockade; he has been misinformed—there was no blockade at Uleaborg. [Mr. M. GIBSON: I did not say that there was.] The right hon. Gentleman said he understood that an application had been made to the Board of Admiralty with respect to the export from Uleaborg of certain pitch and tar which was intended to be delivered under contract to the English Admiralty, and that a request was made that a licence should be granted by which the blockade might be avoided.


Allow me to explain. What I said was, that I understood that the parties, fearing there might be a blockade, and being under contract to deliver tar for the use of the British dockyards, asked that, in the event of there being a blockade, they might have a licence to pass the blockading squadron; and that intimation was given them that licences could not be granted, but that if neutral vessels were sent to Uleaborg for the goods, care would be taken that they should be allowed to pass without let or hindrance.


At all events that confirms my statement that there was no blockade, and by agreement between France and England, even if there had been one, no licences could have been granted. But according to the law of nations, for a certain time before a blockade is instituted, ships that have taken in cargo and been laden before its institution, would be entitled to pass without molestation and without damage. Now this is a case in which the squadron visits the enemy's ports for the purpose of destroying his property and inflicting on him what is, under the circumstances I have stated, a very material and serious injury to him. The right hon. Gentleman, I think, said that there were no preparations of a warlike character at the ports he had named, and no property belonging to the Government of Russia there. Now the House must remember that the fleets of Russia declining the conflict in the manner I have described, we have been threatened with a swarm of gunboats, which were in course of preparation, in order to inflict injury upon our larger ships in shallow water, and in those narrow seas. As a measure of precaution Sir Charles Napier most wisely determined upon visiting all the ports where he thought these gunboats might be taking shelter, or in the course of fitting out. I hope the House will allow me to read extracts front despatches received to-day from Captain Giffard, detailing the operations of his crew at various places. The first is from a letter from Captain Giffard, of Her Majesty's ship Leopard, dated of Uleaborg, the 4th of June, 1854— From the enemy having sunk all their shipping, it was found that no vessels could be rendered serviceable to embark any of the valuable property without great loss of time, and it was burnt without a murmur or thought of prize-money. The next is a letter from Lieutenant B. P. Priest, of Her Majesty's ship Leopard, to Captain Giffard, of that ship, dated May 30, 1854, off Brahestad— Burnt on shore and totally destroyed—namely, four large vessels building and nearly complete on the stocks, the largest being about 500 tons burden, and pierced for six guns; three detached stores of timber, fit for building ships of large scantling; two detached storehouses, containing some thousand barrels of pitch, tar, and oil, a large number of them marked with the Imperial crown. I was very careful not to damage the private houses; at the same time I satisfied myself, by personal inspection, that there was no contraband of war within those storehouses, which were situated within the immediate vicinity of and inside the town, which I did not destroy. Two large stores on the outskirts of the town were found to contain flour; these were not destroyed, as I had reason for supposing it to be private property. All the officers placed under my orders vied with me in preventing unnecessary alarm to the inhabitants; and feel it to be my duty to report the alacrity, great steadiness, and good conduct, shown by all the officers and seamen employed on this service. A letter from Lieutenant N. Graham to Captain Giffard, of Her Majesty's ship Leopard, dated off Uleaborg, June 2, 1854, states— I then searched the village on the adjacent island; but finding no stores contraband of war, I re-embarked, and proceeded in search of three schooners, of which information was obtained from the pilot. A letter from Lieutenant B. P. Priest, addressed to Captain Giffard, of Her Majesty's ship Leopard, dated off Kemi, June 9, 1854, states— Having taken possession of the town, I found the storehouses had been cleared out, and their contents conveyed across the barrier to the Swedish territory, and that the inhabitants had destroyed the barracks and public buildings. The purpose for which I had been despatched having been thus completed, I therefore returned on board, after being twenty hours in the boats. Every officer and man behaved to my satisfaction. The last is from Lieutenant George Lloyd to Captain Giffard, of Her Majesty's ship Leopard, dated off Kemi, June 9— I proceeded yesterday, with the boats under my charge, up the Kemi River, on the banks of which, and on the adjacent islands, I burnt eighty stacks of timber (covering about two miles of ground), and the hull of a vessel of about eighty tons burden. A quantity of timber, not fit for ship-building, was spared at the request of the inhabitants. Well, I should detain the House unnecessarily if I went more at large into these despatches, which, as I have already said, will be printed in the Gazette of to-morrow night. They will bear out my assertion, that the officers, to the best of their judgment, only sought articles that were contraband of war—that they only destroyed that which they found afloat and ashore, which they had positive orders to destroy —that according to the rules of war that destruction was not only justified, but it was their duty to effect it, and I must say that the position of British officers and seamen will be hard indeed if they are ordered to use their utmost efforts, both by sea and land, to inflict the greatest injury upon the enemy, and then, when they have done their duty, they are to be met in this manner. Admiral Plumridge and his squadron have in the most gallant and exemplary manner encountered peculiar difficulties. They entered a sea almost unknown and never traversed before by our ships of war. All the lights were extingished—all the buoys taken up—they had no pilots and no charts. Up to the 1st of June the ice was not all broken up; and yet in the short space of three weeks, with all these difficulties to contend with, and frequently running the ships aground, and yet extricating them again, with the best seaman-like qualities, from their danger, with comparatively a very small loss of life indeed, and without having killed a single civilian, or committed any acts of plunder, not having the slightest regard for prize-money, and having still inflicted so much and such heavy injury upon the enemy, I say it will be hard indeed, if, at the commencement of a war involving immense difficulties and sacrifices, it shall be related to our gallant officers and seamen that the first notice taken of their conduct in the British house of Commons partook of the character of censure. I ask, Sir, why is this particular indulgence to be shown to this enemy? What has been the policy of the British Government with respect to him? What are we to understand to be the wishes and the feelings of the people of this country upon this point? We did commence this war by exercising peculiar forbearance, and Admiral Dundas, having it in his power to destroy the city of Odessa, yet spared that city — he attacked only the batteries. There has been something like censure even cast upon him for his forbearance, and I must say, that I myself may now begin to partake of that feeling. A flag of truce was fired upon, and a British ship of war having by accident run ashore in a fog, immediately art immense multitude of Russian soldiers with batteries and red-hot shot bore down and fired upon that stranded vessel; so that I cannot say that any particular forbearance is now due to such an enemy. Whether they be Fins or whether they be Russians, we have offered them battle on the open sea and upon fair and equal terms, and they have declined it. They sink rocks in the channels, and approaches to their harbours, for fear of our reaching them, and every way obstruct our access to them. Well, I say, if they will not meet us on the open sea, we must visit them in their own homes, and teach them that a war with England is not to be engaged in with impunity. I myself and my Colleagues also should certainly be much embarrassed if it is to be thought that this House discourages proceedings like those which are not of a marauding character, nor for the purpose of obtaining prize-money, nor without reference to the feelings and losses of unoffending persons, but where there has been an honest desire to make the enemy of this country feel the power of the force with which that enemy is now contending by fair and legitimate means. I, for one, am not prepared to check the pursuit of such a course; and I hope and believe that in so acting I and my Colleagues will not violate either the feeling or the sentiments of the people of England.