HC Deb 09 June 1857 vol 145 cc1423-5

said, he rose to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether Her Majesty's Government have received any information respecting the circumstances attending the death of James Williams, a seaman on board the John and Edward schooner, of Aberystwith, who was killed in the harbour of Belleisle on the 24th day of May last, by a shot fired from the French war schooner Maratch. He would, if the House would permit him, briefly state the circumstances of this case, as they had come to his knowledge from the reports in the newspapers, and from a letter written by the captain of the schooner. The facts appeared to be these:—On the 24th May the John and Edward schooner, put into the roads of Sarzeau, a small town on the north-east of Belleisle. Having been driven in by stress of weather, she was not prepared with the necessary signals; she brought up and came to an anchor within a cable's length of the stern of a French man-of-war—the Maratch schooner. A shot was fired at the John and Edward to hoist her colours, and her captain sent a man up to reeve the pennant halyards for the purpose of doing so; but before the man came down another shot was fired from the vessel of war, and while the men in the John and Edward were hauling up their ensign, and when it was about a couple of fathoms above the boom, a third shot was fired, which killed one of the men who were engaged in hauling it up. He thought the House would agree with him that if these facts were correct—which, however, it was but right to say were wholly ex parte—["Order!"] he had to apologize to the House for going beyond the strict rule of asking questions by making this statement, but he thought the peculiar nature of the case in some degree warranted his observations.


Sir, Her Majesty's Government have received full information of the lamentable occurrence to which the hon. Gentleman's question relates. The statement he has made conveys to the House pretty nearly the exact course of the transaction. The schooner John and Edward entered the roads of Belleisle without having any colours flying. I think the commander was wrong, for of course no ship ought to enter the harbour of a foreign country without colours to distinguish her nationality. Still, the conduct of the officer in command, for the moment, of the French vessel of war, was quite unjustifiable, because, although his having ordered two blank musket shots to be fired could not be complained of, yet he was not justified in the precipitation with which he ordered a shotted musket to be discharged in the direction of the vessel. His allegation is, that the man was ordered to fire high and that the ball glanced, but unfortunately the shot took effect, and resulted in the death of one of the seamen. It is but justice to the French Government to say, that no opportunity was given to Her Majesty's Government to make any remonstrance to the French Government on the subject, because Count Walewski, of his own accord, volunteered to Her Majesty's Ambassador at Paris a communication of the most satisfactory and handsome kind. He expressed the deep regret of the French Government at what had taken place, stating that orders had been given to dismiss from the French service the officer who had given orders to fire the fatal musket shot; and added, that the French Government were about to institute inquiries to ascertain in what way and to what degree they might mitigate the affliction of the family of the unfortunate seaman. Therefore, however lamentable the accident was, and however blameable the officer by whom the order was given, yet, as far as the French Government are concerned, nothing can be more honourable and proper than the manner of their proceeding towards the English Government on the subject.