HC Deb 14 July 1857 vol 146 cc1486-92

said, he rose to move an Address for copies of Mr. Marcy's letter to the French Government, in answer to the communication of the Resolution of the Paris Conference upon the subject of privateering; and of any other papers or correspondence that may have passed between the British Government and other Powers upon the same subject. Those papers related to a subject of some importance to England as a maritime nation. Certain Resolutions had been agreed to at the Conferences of Paris relating to the question of neutral rights and privateers. When these Resolutions were brought before the American Government they had readily consented to the majority, but had refused to give in their adhesion to that proposition which dealt with the rights of privateers, as it would be a surrender on their part of a strong arm of defence and aggression. He asked for papers with the view of putting hon. Members in possession of information on this subject; for the House would sooner or later be called on to decide whether we should stand by our present declaration or adopt the American view—that private property should be as much respected at sea as it was on shore. That was the question at issue; and he hoped to be able to bring it before the House in the course of another Session. In a state of war this country could not stand by the declaration which it had made. We must go forward having done so much, for at present a neutral flag covered neutral goods, except contraband of war. We had five million tons floating in ships, our exports were 100 millions, and our imports nearly the same; and therefore the question was of far more importance to us than to any other country. What would be the consequence if we were engaged in a war with America or France? The premium to marine assurances on ships not under convoy would be increased 10 per cent. For ships under convoy there would be 5 per cent war risk on British ships; and then the British merchant, whatever might be his patriotism, would not ship in British bottoms. What would then become of our five million tons of shipping? Why, they would remain locked up in port during time of war. The House should consider the position in which they stood, and it was for that reason he asked for the papers, in order that hon. Members might become thoroughly acquainted with the subject. All that he asked was, that Government should lay the papers on the table, and if he should be successful, he would then make a substantive Motion calculated to elicit the opinion of the House.

The Motion was seconded by Mr. C. GILPIN. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, copies of Mr. Marcy's Letter to the French Government, in answer to the communication of the Resolution of the Paris Conference upon the subject of Privateering: And, of any other Papers or Correspondence that may have passed between the British Government and other Powers upon the same subject.


I am sure that my hon. Friend and the House will feel that it is not usual to ask, and that it is not competent under ordinary circumstances for the British Government to grant the production of papers which have formed the subject of correspondence between two other foreign States. We have no right to lay before Parliament communications between the Government of America and that of France, or any correspondence which may have en- sued thereupon. But, in point of fact, we are not officially in possession of that letter of Mr. Marcy's to the French Government. The document is one which does not exist in the Foreign Office in such a shape that it could be laid before Parliament, even with the consent of the French Government. But that is a mere technical objection. I apprehend what my hon. Friend means is, that we should lay before Parliament any correspondence between the British Government and the American and French Governments on this subject. Sir, what happened was, that the Resolutions of the Paris Congress were communicated by the parties to them to all the other maritime States, and amongst others to the United States. The Government of the United States gave to the French Government an answer exactly in the terms stated by my hon. Friend; that is to say, they were willing to agree to those propositions, including the cessation of privateering, provided that private property at sea should no longer be subject to capture. That communication was made by the last Government of the United States, and the matter was one which everybody will see was a subject which required the gravest and most deliberate consideration on the part of the British Government; as, whatever might be the opinions at the first blush, one way or other, no one could fail to see on reflection that the question is one deeply affecting all the great interests of the country, commercial, political, and naval; and it was clear that no answer could be given to such a communication without long and mature consideration. But in the meantime a change took place in the Government of the United States, and before any answer was sent by the British Government to America the new President came into office, and an intimation was made that the American Government did not wish that any answer should be sent to the proposition of their predecessors, and that, in point of fact, they wished to consider that communication as suspended, and the negotiation not going on. Under these circumstances, I trust that my hon. Friend and the House will feel that it is not desirable to lay before Parliament this communication. In this state of things I certainly shall not enter into any examination of the reasons for or against the proposition made by the Government of the United States; but there is one branch of the subject upon which I wish to make one qualified remark. My hon. Friend considers the question to be simply whether the practice which prevails with respect to hostilities by land should or should not be applied to hostilities at sea. If hon. Gentlemen will consider a little the historical facts as to what has been the practice pursued in war upon land, they will see that there is no very decided and absolute rule as to that matter, but that the practice has varied very much from time to time in different countries in respect to the manner in which armies have treated the property of individuals in a hostile country. It is difficult at once to apply to private property on the sea the same rule which has applied to property on land. I am sure, however, the House will feel that this is not a question which can be discussed incidentally on a Motion of this sort, when the negotiations are suspended between the two Governments at the express wish of the Government of the United States; and I trust that my hon. Friend, after the explanation I have given, will not press his Motion, part of which could not be agreed to, as there are not the materials, and the other part of which it would be inexpedient to assent to, as it relates to negotiations not only pending, but suspended, at the wish of the Government who took the initiative steps.


said, that the subject was one of paramount importance, and he regretted that the noble Lord had not adverted to the important points raised by the hon. Member for Tynemouth, and more especially as to the intentions of the Government with regard to the maintenance of the declaration if this country were involved in a war with one of the great Powers of Europe. It was impossible to advance with regard to this declaration. It was a solemn farce, and moreover dishonest on the part of this country to make a declaration which it would be impossible to carry out. We must recede at any cost, even at that of the reputation of this country for integrity, as the carrying out of the present declaration in time of war would be tantamount to the destruction, not only of our mercantile marine, but of the maritime supremacy of this country. Foreign countries would be the gainers by this declaration, as had been proved by the course taken by Russia in the last war. Under such a declaration he defied any man to point out how any war could be brought to a termination. Hitherto Eng- land's strength in war had consisted in crippling the commerce of her enemies; and he hoped the Government would afford some explanation as to their intentions with regard to their persistence in the present declaration.


—I do not wonder that the Government decline to accede to the Motion, as it appears that the paper which is moved for is not in the possession of the Government, but certainly the question raised is one of the utmost importance. The hon. Gentleman says that, in the event of a war, all the goods sent in English vessels under convoy will require 5 per cent, and in ships not under convoy 10 per cent additional premium. The hon. Gentleman has naturally argued that, with such additional payments, the manufacturers of this country will send their goods in neutral ships, and thus the maritime trade of this country will, in fact, be destroyed. That is a very serious thing, and I really should like to hear some statement upon the part of the Government, of the grounds of their entering into this declaration. It appeared to me that, when we were engaged, in conjunction with France, in a war against Russia, we could hardly do otherwise than carry on the war upon the same principle as France. The principle adopted during the war was, that free ships cover free goods. But, at the end of the war, we were not under the necessity of making any concession of the opposite principle, which was certainly in conformity with the law of nations, and to which this country had hitherto adhered. There was no notice given to the people of this country, or to either House of Parliament, that any such question would be discussed. We all supposed that the Earl of Clarendon went to Paris with a view to make peace with Russia: but, with respect to a question of maritime right, there was no preparation in the public mind, and the people of this country must have been surprised that it was introduced. I hardly think the Government could consent to abrogate, as the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bentinck) proposes, a declaration which was solemnly agreed to by their plenipotentiary. I am afraid we must be bound by the declaration. I am afraid that the consequences are so serious as to show that such a declaration was very imprudent, and I cannot but agree with the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Lindsay), that England ought to preserve her maritime superiority. The comparison between private property in ships and private property on land is not tenable. I do not think there is any real comparison between them. It is quite obvious that a farmer, cultivating a farm, and having its produce in the middle of France or the State of Virginia, has placed his property in quite a different situation from a manufacturer who has put his goods on board a large fleet in the British Channel, navigated by 7,000 or 8,000 mariners competent to man a fleet against this country. There is no comparison between the two propositions, and therefore I cannot but think that, in point of principle, the declaration of Paris ought to be altered. The whole matter is most unsatisfactory, and most grave in its bearing upon our maritime supremacy. I quite agree that the way in which we have been able to finish wars with great Powers, especially with France, has chiefly been by destroying the enemy's trade. We have brought the Powers with which we have been at war to such a state that their finances have become disordered. They have then been ready to listen to terms of peace, and thereby the wars have been terminated. But now, if we were at war with America or France, they could maintain their trade in full vigour, because manufactured produce throughout the world could be sent in neutral vessels in perfect safety. They would have no reason for making peace. They would not be distressed. We might gain naval victories, but our successes would not produce peace. We might drive all their vessels of war from the seas, but we should not thereby gain the end of all war, which is an honourable peace. The state of this question is to me very alarming, but I do not see that a breach of faith would at all mend our position.


said, the noble Lord who had last spoken had misunderstood him. He did not say they should not abide by the declaration, but that, if they did abide by it, the whole carrying trade of this country would pass under a neutral flag. The consequence of that would be that, instead of maintaining our present position, as the first maritime Power in the world, we should become a sixth-rate Power; for there would be no employment for our ships, as the whole trade of the country would pass into neutral ships. He did not wish to throw aside a solemn declaration, but he said the people of this country would not abide by it, and would appeal to the House for its abrogation, and the House would be compelled to listen to, and give effect to that appeal. Having made this explanation, it was not his intention to press the Motion.


observed, that he was very glad that the hon. Gentleman did not mean what he had supposed.


said, he had expected that some Member of the Government—the First Lord of the Admiralty—would have addressed the House after the speech of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London. He agreed with the hon. Gentleman who brought forward the Motion, that it was impossible we could remain in the position in which we were at present. The noble Lord said we could not break the engagement. He did not think we could. Diplomacy had drawn us into a very impolitic engagement, and it was for the noble Lord, or some clever diplomatist, to get us out of it. If they were determined to abide by the declaration of the Earl of Clarendon, and a war ensued, we must blockade every port which the enemy possessed. It must be not a mere paper, but an efficient blockade, and in the event of a war with France, such a blockade, with the navy we possessed, could not at the first start be established. Double or treble our navy would not be sufficient to blockade all the ports of France; and it must not be forgotten that seamen discharged from French merchant vessels would go into French ships of war, and increase their force, while our force in men would be diminished in consequence of our loss of trade.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.