HC Deb 04 June 1858 vol 150 cc1526-32

, in reply to the questions of Lord John Russell, then proceeded to say, that he was not at all surprised that the noble Lord, or any hon. Gentleman in that House, should, upon the important subject of our relations with China, feel the deep interest the noble Lord had expressed to have full information. He regretted to say, however, that the answer he had to give the noble Lord must, from the nature of the circumstances, be necessarily very brief—not from any desire to withhold information, or to veil in diplomatic obscurity the transactions which had occurred, or were occurring in China, but from the distance at which those transactions were occurring, and the brief period, comparatively speaking, during which the present Government had been in office, it could be easily seen that it was really out of his power to give any fresh information of importance to the House. When Her Majesty's Ministers acceded to office, our fleets and army were already in China. Instructions had been given by their predecessors to a most able and distinguished plenipotentiary, and these instructions very wisely included a large discretion. At this moment there was no evidence in the possession of Ministers that Lord Elgin was yet aware even of the change of the Government. Of course they had communicated with Lord Elgin without loss of time, but considering that before their communication could have reached him, events of importance must have occurred, and remembering the interval of time which must elapse in communicating with him, Her Majesty's Government had thought it their duty to extend to Lord Elgin the same wide discretion which had previously been extended to him by their predecessors, having full confidence in the abilities and experience of that distinguished man. The House knew, as he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) had told them the other night, that Lord Elgin had repaired to Shanghai, where he expected to meet and negotiate with a Minister of State from the Chinese Government, instead of which he received a letter from the Government, begging him to return to Canton and commence negotiations with the Imperial representative there. Lord Elgin, he understood, did not think proper to return to Canton, but went northward, and no doubt he acted wisely in so doing; but hon. Gentlemen would see that it was impossible for him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) to state what might have been the motives which influenced Lord Elgin in the exercise of his discretion in taking that course. He had no doubt, however, that it was a wise and proper course, and that in due season the Government would receive from Lord Elgin detailed reasons for the conduct he had pursued. It would seem at the first blush that having gone to Shanghai from Canton, it would have been a weak act on his part at the request of the Chinese authorities to return to Canton. He thought, therefore, that the course Lord Elgin had adopted was a wise and proper one. He could not inform the noble Lord what answer bad been received from the Chinese Government beyond the intimation to which he had just referred; but he did not believe it amounted to more than a recommendation to return to Canton to meet and negotiate with the Chinese plenipotentiary there. Moreover, it was not in his power specifically to state what were the conditions which Lord Elgin had demanded. Lord Elgin was invested necessarily with very large discretion, and we must trust to his discrimination in making such conditions as he might think best calculated to attain the object he had in view. That object was to effect a direct communication between the Government of this country and the highest authorities in China. The House were also aware, that with this object in view we had been acting from the first in complete concert with our French allies; that subsequently the Government of the United States had also completely joined us in our efforts, and that, to a certain extent, though not completely, the Government of Russia, too, had united in the scheme which had been laid down for opening direct communications between the civilized Governments of Europe and the Government of China. The House would see that these circumstances would have rendered it very difficult, even if there had been any papers to produce, to lay them on the table. We must act in concert with our allies, for the House should remember that although Her Majesty's Government had given a wide discretion to Lord Elgin, the French Government had also given great discretion to Baron Gros. All he could say then was, that having given, and given wisely, this large discretion to Lord Elgin, who, he doubted not, would use it for the advantage of the country, Her Majesty's Government had expressed to his Lordship their belief that it was of great importance that peace between China and England, or if we were not at war, a termination of the present misconceptions, should be effected as speedily as possible; and they trusted that he would succeed in putting an end to this unfortunate and unsatisfactory state of affairs as soon as he could do so with a due regard to the commercial and political interests of this country, and to the maintenance of a good understanding generally upon the subject with those of our allies who had acted with us with such sincerity and cordiality.


Although the right hon. Gentleman has, for reasons which he has stated, been unable to communicate any information of importance to the House, I feel indebted to the noble Lord the Member for London for having raised this discussion. I was not in Parliament when the China question was debated last year, and I have never had any opportunity in public of expressing my views with regard to it. I may be excused, therefore, now for saying, that had I been here I should have agreed entirely with my hon. Friend, the then Member for the West Riding (Mr. Cobden), in the course which he took upon that occasion. But there is one point in this matter which it behoves the House to consider. It is that the present condition of affairs in China has been arrived at without the consent of Parliament. I mean the complication into which the present Government is plunged by the course taken by their predecessors in inviting the aid of, or in co-operating with, other Governments in the settlement of a dispute, which, if it were a dispute at all, was entirely the affair of this country. The original question was whether a certain vessel was sailing under the Chinese or the British flag. The insult, if there were an insult, was to England and to England alone, and it appears to me that if the British Government felt bound to adopt the policy of Sir John Bowring the power of England was amply sufficient to vindicate the honour of England and to bring the question to such a settlement as it was capable of, without involving us in the complicated arrangements in which we are now engaged;—with France entirely co-operating in military operation, and Russia and the United States looking on with some kind of acquiescence,—for I believe the right hon. Gentleman is not quite correct in saying that the United States have taken any part in active operation. Now, the point which I wish to press upon the House is this—that the moment the Government of this country take into partnership a foreign Government in matters of this sort, two unfortunate things result. One is that the conduct of the negotiations is, to a great extent, taken out of the hands of the English Government. That is of itself, I think, a great misfortune. The other is, according to the theory of the right hon. Gentleman, that the House of Commons cannot know anything of the matter, because when we have allies, and are acting in concert with them, and are carrying on military operations in conjunction with them, papers and information which may be in the possession of the Government cannot be communicated for fear that some unpleasantness might arise between us and our allies. There ought, I contend, to be some grave reason—a clear, distinct and unanswerable case—before the Government of this country involves itself in such complications. Who knows, at this moment, that the objects of France in China are the same as those of England? I don't even know what the object of England is. That particular piece of information was never precisely communicated to Parliament by the late Government. But if it be to get an apology from the Emperor of China, or compensation for the expenses that have been incurred, or admission into the city of Canton, all those are simple matters which we can understand, and which, together or separately, we can probably enforce. But if we have another country joined with us, having a treaty of a different character, and grievances of another nature, and objects totally at variance from those which the English Government has, and which the English Parliament would sanction, it may be utterly out of the power of our Administration to bring those affairs to a conclusion for months or even years to come; for if we are to join with France until China shall have conceded all the demands of France—we not knowing what those demands are—we may be led into interminable difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman and the Government have, I believe, a genuine desire and an honest disposition to bring these proceedings to an end. Indeed I do not imagine that any man upon that bench, unless he were imported from Bedlam, could possibly take any other view of the question. I have said before, and I repeat it now, that we are unfortunately at war with rather more than half the human race. We know well the state of things in India and the demands which are made upon this country in consequence; and we have troubles in the West which cannot be regarded without some feeling of uneasiness. The noble Lord the Member for London (Lord J. Russell), stated that we had between 13,000 and 15,000 men in China, and I have been informed that there are not less than seventy English ships of war in those waters. What can be the object of such a demonstration? Is it to settle that miserable and fraudulent dispute about the lorcha? Was it a proper thing of the late Government to involve the country in all these troubles for such an object, and is the present Government pursuing a patriotic course in allowing these operations to go on a day longer than is necessary? The last war did nothing to facilitate commercial relations with China, and the war in which we are now engaged will do no more. I have not risen to make an attack on the present Government. They are not responsible for the origin of these transactions. To their honour, when they were sitting on this side of the House they expressed their opposition to them, and they voted, I believe, almost as a united party against them. I hope now that they are in office, and have succeeded to this legacy from their predecessors, that they will not think it necessary to trifle with this question, allowing it to go on from day to day, each day adding fresh entanglements and complications, which may at length lead to differences and estrangements between this country and those allies with whom we are now acting. I beg the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to face this matter fairly and boldly. I trust that they will not, because this legacy is bequeathed them at the Foreign Office, think that they are to array themselves in all the wretched and verminous rags they find there. Let them regard the subject patriotically, as they did from this side of the House; and if they bring these hostilities to a close, public opinion will sanction the step they take, and they will rise in the estimation of all men by pursuing a straightforward, resolute, and direct course in this most unfortunate transaction.


said, he merely rose to prevent an error being spread throughout the country without contradiction. He would be sorry to leave any misconception on the public mind with regard to our actual force in China. The noble Lord (Lord John Russell) stated that 11,000 men were employed there, whilst the hon. Member for Birmingham made the number from 13,000 to 15,000, and seventy ships of war. The real fact was, that there were between sixty and seventy vessels in the East; but these included eighteen or twenty gun-boats, which were very small vessels. And he wished further to explain that, both with regard to the number of men and vessels, they included the whole of our naval force in the East Indies, and on the eastern stations, as well as the expedition which had been fitted out from this country for China. He might add, that it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to reduce the force employed there at the earliest moment that it would be practicable to do so.