HC Deb 15 May 1857 vol 145 cc311-4

rose, pursuant to notice, to ask a question of the First Lord of the Treasury with reference to the alleged detention at Hong Kong of forty-two prisoners, in a room fifteen feet square, for twenty days. He believed a similar question had been answered in another place by the Lord Privy Seal, and it would, under ordinary circumstances, have been superfluous for him to have put it in that House; but, unfortunately, that noble Lord had at the time been afflicted with some incapacity for speaking loud which had prevented the ordinary channels of information from conveying the purport of his statement; and as the matter was one which seriously concerned the honour of this country in the eyes of distant nations, he thought it desirable that he should repeat the question in that House. It was alleged in a colonial newspaper, and the statement had been copied into some of the English journals, that forty-two untried prisoners, and prisoners who had ultimately turned out to be perfectly innocent of the crime with which they had been charged—namely, an attempt to poison Sir John Bowring and other Englishmen, at Hong Kong, had been put into a room fifteen feet square, without a window, and with only one opening in the roof, and kept there for a period of three weeks. It was further stated that in that room all the requirements of nature had to be performed. The Lord Privy Seal had taken considerable credit to the Government for the course they had pursued in the matter, and had rather boasted of the fact that none of those Chinese had died under the treatment to which they had been subjected. He (Lord Robert Cecil) was very much surprised they did not die; but the House might form some idea of the case, when a Minister of the Crown made it a matter of boasting that prisoners untried and innocent had not died of the effects of the detention they had undergone. He had a distinct recollection of the pamphlet of his right hon. Friend the Member for the University of Oxford with reference to certain abuses in Naples, and he remembered that one of the most serious charges directed by his right hon. Friend against the Government of that country was a proceeding very similar to the one of which he (Lord R. Cecil) was now complaining. That charge was to the effect that prisoners were kept in crowded and unwholesome dungeons for a lengthened period. The Government of this country had protested, not only by diplomatic notes, but by armed fleets, against the cruelties which it was said had taken place at Naples; and it seemed to him very desirable that the noble Lord at the head of the Government should repudiate the accusations made in the present case against his subordinates in a foreign country; for it would be most disgraceful if, while we were protesting against the alleged atrocities at Naples, our own officers were pursuing the same, or a worse course, in a distant quarter of the globe. He, therefore, asked the noble Lord—first, whether those reports were true? And secondly, whether he would lay upon the table all the despatches that had been received with respect to that subject?


said, he thought it better that he should endeavour to answer the questions of the noble Lord, as the matter to which those questions referred concerned more particularly his department. It appeared to him to be a rather inconvenient practice, although it was then becoming a common one, that they should refer in that House to debates which had taken place in the other House of Parliament. It was quite true that a question had been put upon that subject to the Lord Privy Seal in the House of Lords, and he was sorry that he could not answer the questions, of the noble Lord as fully as he could wish, in consequence of his having furnished his noble Friend with all the papers which bore upon the point, and which his noble Friend had not yet returned. He thought, however, he could state enough from memory to satisfy the House that there was no foundation for the rumours to which the noble Lord had referred. There certainly had appeared in the local press at Hong Kong an account of the confinement of Chinese prisoners in what was called the "black hole," thus comparing what took place with the frightful tragedy which had occurred many years ago in Calcutta. He had received no official information upon that subject from Sir John Bowring, and the only information he possessed with respect to it was afforded by the Hong Kong Gazette, in which there appeared copies of the report of the superintendent of police in reference to that transaction. In that report the superintendent of police set forth exactly the facts of the case, and he (Mr. Labouchere) was sorry that he had not the paper with him at the moment, and that he could not, therefore, read it to the House. He had no hesitation in saying, however, that it established a state of things entirely different from that set forth in the paper from which the noble Lord had de- rived his view of the case. That report would be laid before the House, with all the papers bearing upon the subject; and the House would afterwards be able to judge how far the rumours which had reached this country were or were not well founded. The noble Lord in putting the question had commented with some severity on the language employed by the Lord Privy Seal in another place. He (Mr. Labouchere) was sure, however, that no one who was acquainted with the character of his noble Friend could suspect him of discussing such a report as that with unbecoming levity. But when the treatment experienced by those Chinese prisoners had been compared to the sufferings of the inmates of the "black hole" in Calcutta, his noble Friend had a perfect right to point out the important distinction between the two cases, arising out of the fact, that in the present instance, not a single soul had died, and he might add, that so far as he was aware, it was not even alleged that the health of any prisoner had suffered in consequence. He had thought it advisable to write to Sir J. Bowring for further information upon the point; and it was his intention to lay before the House any papers he might receive which could throw any additional light upon the matter. In the meantime the papers he would be able to produce would, he believed, show that there was no reason for supposing that the cruelties which were alleged to have occurred had actually taken place.


wished to know whether the papers which the right hon. Gentleman meant to produce would include an account of the trial of the Chinese prisoners?


said, that they should comprise all the proceedings both anterior and subsequent to the trial as well as at the trial itself.