HC Deb 14 July 1857 vol 146 cc1456-62

Sir, I wish to make several inquiries respecting the present state of affairs in India, and also to ask whether Her Majesty's Government will afford to the House a convenient opportunity to express some opinion upon this the most considerable event which has happened in India within the recollection probably of any of us. The House will bear in mind that nearly a fortnight ago, when the occurrence of these calamities was first notified, I addressed a question to the Government in the absence of the noble Lord. The main object I had in view in making this inquiry was, first of all, that we might know what measures the Government were about to take under these disastrous circumstances; and, secondly, that the House might obtain, if possible, some general idea of the Government of what they believed to be the cause of these calamities. The House upon that occasion was told that the Governor General had written home in great spirits, and we were allowed to infer that affairs were not of so serious a character as I fear it would be the greatest want of prudence on our part now to question. Since then we have had news of considerable importance, but it has been communicated to us only in outline by the electric telegraph. What I would wish to learn from the noble Lord is, first, whether the despatches which I suppose are in the possession of the Government will enable him to give more detailed and authentic information to the House as to the present position of affairs in India; and, secondly, whether he will assist the House by giving it the earliest possible opportunity of expressing its views upon the causes and probable consequences of the present state of affairs in India? The other night there were some observations made respecting the Indian Budget, which was expected shortly to be brought in, and I understood privately that there would be no objection, to introducing it to our notice without loss of time. If Her Majesty's Government took that course it would afford a legitimate opportunity for the House dispassionately to discuss the present position of affairs in India. It would of course be open to me, or to any hon. Member, on going into Committee of Supply—on Thursday, for instance—to call the attention of the House to Indian affairs, but there are very important matters connected indirectly with those affairs which are already appointed for discussion on that day. The Persian and Chinese wars will be brought under our consideration on Thursday by the Votes to be proposed by the Minister, and it appears to me that it would be highly inconvenient to discuss indirectly the condition of matters in our Indian empire. I would ask then, first, whether the noble Lord will favour the House with what he believes to be the most authentic information that can be obtained on the exact position of affairs in India at the present time? I should be glad, in the second place, to hear from the noble Lord what are the steps which the Government, under the circumstances, are prepared to adopt; and, lastly, I would ask whether the noble Lord will permit the Indian Budget to be introduced to the notice of the House on Friday next, so that there may be afforded, upon the present serious condition of affairs, at least an opportunity for the expression of the opinion of the House of Commons?


Her Majesty's Government have received despatches the substance of which has been already communicated by electric telegraph from Marseilles, and I believe there are other despatches coming which will arrive by way of Southampton, and which may or may not convey further information. I should say, generally, that the despatches which have been received from Marseilles contain, only in more amplification and detail, the same information as to events in India, of which the substance was previously communicated by electric telegraph. Further, I should say, in general terms, that the intelligence which has reached the Government is not fuller than, and does not vary from, that which has been published through private sources in the ordinary channels of daily information. Her Majesty's Government, however, will, in redemption of the assurance which I gave yesterday, lay without delay upon the table of the House such portions of the correspondence now received, together with that received before, as may be sufficient to give the House the fullest information that we can afford with regard to the course of events. With, respect to the question put by the right hon. Gentleman as to an opportunity for discussing these very important matters, it is, of course, exceedingly natural that there should be a desire on the part of leading Members of the House, like the right hon. Gentleman, to express their opinions upon the question; but I think that it would be desirable before doing so that they should first see the papers which I shall lay upon the table. When they are there, they may be considered to be either full or not full; but I think, at all events, that it would not be in accordance with the usual practice of Parliament to originate a discussion pending the production of papers which, perhaps to-morrow or the next day, may be laid upon the table of the House. With regard to bringing the subject on, therefore, upon Friday, I should think that the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members would find that they had not had the papers long enough in their hands to enable them to discuss the question satisfactorily on so early a day; but the Government have no wish to put off the discussion longer than is necessary to enable them to give full information on the subject, and when the papers are laid upon the table, which shall be without any loss of time, it will be for the right hon. Gentleman to fix a day for bringing the subject under the consideration of the House.


It is, I think, very important that we should have some general understanding from the noble Lord as to how far back the papers which he intends to lay upon the table will extend; because if they are to be confined to a mere narrative of events, which the noble Lord tells us we have already obtained accurately from other sources, their production will be of no great utility, and to defer the discussion on their account would only lead to an inconvenient delay at the present period of the Session. If, however, I understand from the noble Lord that we shall have despatches placed on the table which will give the House information as to the accounts which the Government received as to the state of India during the time that they were draining India of troops to send them to China or to Persia, I admit, at once, that they would be most important papers, without which we should be unable, probably, to form a fair opinion of the conduct of the Ministers; and I certainly should not wish to precipitate a discussion without those documents. But if I consent not to avail myself of the opportunity afforded by the forms of the House of bringing on the subject on the first supply night, it will be only on the understanding that we shall be put in possession of papers of a date so far back as to enable us to know what degree of information was in possession of the Ministry when they gave the counsels which led to the war with Persia, as well as to the recent revolt in India.


We shall present such papers as we think best calculated to put the House in possession of the fullest information, and it will be for the right hon. Gentleman, when they are presented, if he does not think them full enough, to point out in what respects he considers them to be deficient.


There is one point that I am more anxious about than any discussion that can take place. When my noble Friend was asked a ques- tion the other evening, he said that he would state what the Government were about to do in consequence of the intelligence which they had received. The statement which he made, however, was very general, and I am not surprised that it was so, as at that time only a telegraphic message had been received; but now that the Government are in receipt of the despatches, I confess that I am very anxious to hear a fuller and more specific statement upon that point. I hope that the reinforcements which will be sent to India will be sufficient, and I trust that the Government, when they have fully decided what they intend to do, will make a complete statement to the House of their intentions. Provided that the force to be sent out is adequate, I think that the House would not gather much more from a discussion than it would gain from such a statement as I have referred to.


The best answer, I think, that I can give to my noble Friend is this—that previous to the receipt of the despatches which arrived yesterday, Her Majesty's Government had made arrangements for sending, with the utmost promptitude, large reinforcements to India—in fact, that the reinforcements which they had determined to send were rather greater than Lord Canning stated to be essential and asked for. Of course, the House will not expect that I should enter into a detail of the regiments or their stations; but I may state generally, that, although the Government feel no apprehension or alarm as to the ultimate result of these unfortunate events, yet they feel it to be their duty to act as if there were real reason for alarm, and to leave nothing undone which is within the reach of administrative functions, in order to provide for any emergency that may happen, or might have happened, in India since the receipt of the last despatches.


There is one more question on this subject which I should wish to ask. Rumours are prevalent that for a considerable time past the late General Anson had made strong representations to the Government that danger was imminent in India, in consequence of disaffection in the Bengal army. I wish to ask whether the papers to be laid upon the table of the House will contain full extracts from the correspondence of General Anson upon that subject?


If the House will permit me, perhaps I may be allowed, as the Chairman of the Board of Directors, to answer that question. When the same rumour was referred to on a former occasion I stated that I had never seen one single line on the subject in the shape of a warning in any official document from General Anson. The rumour, however, being so strong, and apparently so generally believed I made a more strict and special search at the India-house to-day, and I can now state positively, that we have not one single word of warning, or of notice, given by General Anson on the subject of the disaffection of the Bengal army.


Perhaps the noble Lord at the head of the Government would inform us whether it is in his power to fix an early day for the renewal of the debate with respect to the productions of India, upon the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport.


I am quite aware of the interest taken by the manufacturing districts in the question to which my hon. Friend alludes, and if I thought that in the present state of Indian affairs the debate could be confined to the production of cotton, I should be very willing to devote the morning of Tuesday next to the subject; but probably it would be better, under the circumstances, to postpone that matter for a little, until the debate to be raised by the right hon. Gentleman opposite on the general question shall have terminated.


Although the reinforcements which the Government propose to send to India may exceed the number which the Governor General thought he should require, it is obvious, that the House of Commons, as well as the Government, has a duty to perform in this matter, and I should be glad if the noble Lord at the head of the Government could give us some definite idea of the time when the debate upon the general question may be expected.


I think that it would have been more satisfactory to the House if an answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Radnorshire (Sir J. Walsh) had been given by the Member of the Government who is responsible for the Indian Department in this House, instead of by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Mangles). The question is a very important one.


My hon. Friend answered the question of the hon. Baronet the Member for Radnorshire, not as the Member for Guildford, but as Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company. General Anson has had no communication with the Government, but with the Court of Directors, and if he had wished to point out any deficiency in the army of Bengal or elsewhere his course would have been, as a military member of the Council of India, to put a Minute upon record of his opinion. That Minute would have been taken notice of by the whole Council, including the Governor General, by whom it would have been transmitted home to the Court of Directors. No such Minute, so far as I am aware, ever was made by the late General Anson, nor do I know that he ever expressed any opinion with respect to the existence of disaffection in any portion of the Bengal army.


said, that as some hon. Gentlemen near him were not satisfied that they had thoroughly understood the reply given to his question, he begged to ask whether any official communication whatever had been received by any department of Government from General Anson, calling attention to the existence of disaffection in the Bengal army?


replied, that no such communication had been received.


asked whether any communication had been received from Sir W. Gomm on the subject?


said, he believed not; but he was not at the Board of Control while that officer was Commander in Chief.


said, that while he was President of the Board of Control nothing of the kind was received.