HC Deb 08 March 1860 vol 157 cc111-21

said, perhaps the hon. Member for Shoreham would allow him once more to make an appeal to him to follow the example of hon. Members who had postponed their Motions. It would be convenient to the House if the hon. Gentleman would accede to his request.


said, he had every desire to consult the convenience of the House, and as the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater had withdrawn the Motion which he had placed on the Paper for Monday, perhaps the noble Lord would allow him to bring his Motion on upon that evening.


asked the noble Lord if he would agree to the arrangement proposed?


Will not Tuesday do as well?


No. Go on, go on.


I would most readily have postponed this Motion, in favour of that of the hon. Member for Middlesex, had I not felt that in this case also every day was of importance. The Treaty with France, to which it refers, may be ratified, I understand, at any moment, and I do wish most earnestly that this House may have an opportunity of hearing what its nature is before it is too late. The discussion cannot occupy much time, and I will waste no words. I venture, therefore, to hope that I may have a patient hearing granted me, while I endeavour, as concisely as possible, to lay the case before the House. Soon after the emancipation of the slaves in the French Colonies, consequent upon the Revolution of 1848, results took place similar to those which had been experienced in our own plantations. We learn by a report from Martinique, to be found in the correspondence relating to the Slave Trade, ordered by the House to be printed last Session, that the negroes had manifested what I must confess to have been a natural repugnance to that agricultural labour which they had performed during slavery, and had retired in a great measure from the sugar estates, and that neither high wages nor coercive measures were of any avail in inducing them to return. The consequence was, the produce of those colonies fell off much in the same way as that of our own colonies had done, and the French, in the same manner as ourselves, looked about for some substitute for the labourers who had withdrawn. The French Government considered their colonies of sufficient importance to make their restoration a Government measure, and a most extensive scheme for procuring immigrants from the coast of Africa was set on foot. How it was conducted, the pages of the blue-book to which I have referred plainly show. The reports of our naval officers commanding on the African station speak in terms of the strongest reprobation of the cruelties of the system. Commodore Wise writes of these pretended free emigrants dragged along under the lash with their hands bound, and their necks secured to forked sticks. He writes of the system being apparently placed on a permanent footing at a notorious spot named heretofore Pirates' Creek, but henceforward to be called French Creek, where Government buildings were in course of erection on a large scale. Here, as well as upon the East Coast, the operations were sanctioned by officers in the French uniform. On the West Coast the independent territory of Liberia was not respected, as the protest of the president shows; and on the East, the untoward collision with Portugal soon arose which is fresh in the memory of the House, and which threatened at one time serious consequences, though eventually settled by Her Majesty's late Government in a way that gained them the warm acknowledgments of the Portuguese Minister. It is, indeed, well known that free emigration from Africa is impossible; that our own colonies are entirely prohibited, and rightly prohibited, from looking to that quarter at all for labour. These proceedings of France were, therefore, most embarrassing, because it was quite clear that we could not consistently maintain repressive measures on that coast if one Power was allowed openly to defy them. It appears that on Her Majesty's Government remonstrating with that of the French Emperor, Count Walewski at first denied the abuses which were alleged against the system, and afterwards, when these became too clearly known to be any longer concealed, the French Government, as far as I can gather from what has been said elsewhere, replied that it was all very well for us to prohibit immigration from the coast of Africa, who had India as the officina gentium, the labour mart to which we could resort, and that they are determined that their colonies should not go out of cultivation. This was not a conclusive reply, as China was open to her in common with other nations, and she has since resorted to it—at best it was a plea of necessity, the tyrant's plea which may form the excuse for any crime. It was not, however, without its force with Her Majesty's late Government. We were then at the close of the great Indian mutiny, and were anticipating a difficulty which has not occurred to any great extent, that of getting rid of the Sepoys who might surrender. Any embarrassment on this ground entirely passed away; and a very different feeling prevails with regard to the Indian subjects of the Queen. France has also, by her commencement of emigration in China, shown that she is by no means more scrupulous in her dealings with Asiatics than with Africans. Experience has since then told us that abuses are caused even by agents of different British colonies competing with each other, and Her Majesty's present Government have, I understand, now properly recommended that this should cease. How utterly inconsistent, then, to let in the competition of a foreign agent, who must be even less under control. Again, experience has shown us that with the increasing public works of India, there is an increasing difficulty in supplying our own colonists with the labour they require, yet we this very moment sanction the withdrawal of our labourers by a foreign power, and if we are to let in France, on the grounds upon which she demands it, might not the Spaniards, the Brazilians, the Americans, the Dutch claim to participate on the same grounds, as all complain of insufficiency of labour? Will the loyalty of our Indian population be increased by a residence of many years in a foreign and occasionally, perhaps, in a hostile community? But we are told that the Coolies themselves will benefit by this measure. The House knows the stringent, the jealous regulations with which the emigration of Indian Coolies to the British West Indies is, and is most properly surrounded. Unlike emigrants from our own shores whom we consider able to protect themselves, these people are watched and guarded like children. From the moment they agree to indenture themselves to a British colony, to the moment, when that compact fulfilled, they again set foot on their native India, emancipation agents in every port, stipendiary magistrates in every district, make them the objects of their special care. So stringent is the practice that the noble Lord the Member for King's Lynn (Lord Stanley), favourable as he is to Jamaica, thought it necessary to disallow an ordinance which deviated, though slightly, from the prescribed model, and our West Indian colonies had suffered from want of labour far longer than those of France, before we were allowed, even under these restrictions, access to the shores of India. We may be told that France will adopt our Passenger Act, and that our consuls will act as immigration agents in her ports. But is it likely that so jealous a people will long tolerate this foreign interference? We may be told again that the French authorities will guarantee their proper treatment, but quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We learn by a despatch from the Governor of St. Lucia in the blue-book to which I have more than once adverted, that he was one day surprised by the appearance of the French war steamer Acheron, in pursuit of some free emigrants escaping from Guada-loupe, and with an account of others who had been drowned in the attempt. But if it be true that they will be well treated, why have a treaty to enforce it? and if they are not well treated, your treaty only gives you the guarantee of the French themselves, you gain no security you had not before; but you run the risk of stultifying yourselves by enacting terms you never mean to enforce. It has been said that some40,000 of our people have been already smuggled into French colonies by Pondicherry, and that we cannot help this; we make the best of it by securing their good treatment; but is it not most humiliating to confess this? we cannot prevent a foreign Government carrying off our own subjects against our will. If it be so, let them go, but do not incur the additional humiliation of an ex post facto treaty to sanction it. And supposing that we should hear that these Coolies were badly treated, or that their liberty was refused, on some pretext. French Government agents, we find from this same blue-book, are very willing to believe in the desire of Africans to go to French colonies; they may be equally ready to believe and bear witness to the desire of the Indians to remain in them. Already more than five years have elapsed since the first went to the French colonies, and we hear of none returning. Should we make the restoration of these poor people a casus belli? The example of Spain shows that we should not. Spain, according to our own Consul's return, imports into Cuba slaves at the rate of 40,000 a year, contrary to treaty. Hundreds of thousands of Bozal negroes are living in slavery in that island, every one easily recognized as a man whose liberty is guaranteed by treaty between Great Britain and Spain, and we confine ourselves to ineffectual remonstrance. Should we be more peremptory with France? Then, again, we think to bind France by a fresh treaty, to do what she is already bound to do by an equally binding treaty she has chosen to break, and as in other treaties with the same Power we give in at once; she vaguely promises, she does not bind herself to abandon the slave trade, but holds out a pretext that she will give it up next year, in 1861. Now, if this African immigration is not slave trade, why stop it? If it is, it is piracy and murder, as this country has often declared; and are we asked to respect existing contracts to commit a certain amount of piracy and murder, after which they may possibly be abandoned or suspended? In the dark days of Spanish tyranny in the West Indies, Las Casas is said to have introduced negro slaves with a view to save the remnant of Indians who were perishing under excessive labour; he had at least reason on his side, for he substituted the stronger for the weaker, and strangers for the subjects of the King of Spain. We are doing the converse of this without the same excuse; we shall substitute the weaker for the stronger, and redeem the savages of Africa by the sacrifice of our fellow subjects. Besides, this Commercial Treaty with France, which we are asked to sanction to-day, is a strong reason against such a measure. When two nations are commercially linked together, should disputes arise, that nation whose trading interests and instincts are strongest, always gives way. This is the case with ourselves and the United States. In all our differences, whether the Oregon boundary, the bombardment of Grey Town, or the gun-boats on the Cuba coast, the Americans push their demands beyond all reason, because they say, "We have an ally in the midst of you. Manchester will not let you go to war with us." It will be well to carry this consideration to the case of France, and not embarrass ourselves with these stipulations about labourers which are sure to be fruitful in misunderstanding. Sir, I know how difficult, how impossible, it is for an obscure individual like myself, to revive any feeling in the House upon a subject to which in past days it would have lent the keenest attention, but my connection with some of our colonies has called my attention to it. I have not been reassured by what has transpired in "another place," nor by the reply of the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for India, to the question I put to him on this subject. I have therefore resolved not to participate without a protest in what I fear will not redound to our national credit. It is, therefore, Sir, with all humility and diffidence, but with the fullest confidence in the justice of ray view that I protest against the ratification of this Treaty. I protest against it on a ground which both sides of the House must admit—the ground of common humanity to our Indian fellow-subjects, and common justice to our West Indian colonists. I protest against it, for a reason which Her Majesty's present Government will most readily appreciate, that it is fraught with the greatest danger to our friendly relations with France. I claim the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House who take an interest in the future destinies of India. I appeal to the remnant of the once powerful West Indian body, and to the representative, if there be one left, of the old Anti-Slavery Society. I call upon every man of every shade of politics, who has any regard for consistency in legislation, to unite in resisting to the utmost this ill-advised and most unfortunate measure.


in seconding the Motion, said he believed that the first object which the Government had in view in entering into this Treaty was to put a stop to the French system of emigration instituted on the coast of Africa under the Mires Contract; and he readily admitted that he was glad that that system was likely to be brought to an end. But what he wanted to understand was how the stipulations were to be carried out. It was perfectly true that England was to be allowed consuls in French colonies where she had now no consuls, whilst French agents would be permitted to reside in the Indian ports from which the emigration would be conducted; but he would ask the House to consider whether, after having entered into this Treaty, whatever its stipulations or articles, it was not likely that disputes and misunderstandings might still arise. What he feared was that a competition similar to that which now existed in China might grow up in the ports of India, and he prayed them not to take any step which would be attended with such an unfortunate result. The evidence before the House showed clearly that the emigration to the Mauritius and the West Indies had been productive of benefit not only to the colonies but to the emigrants themselves. That emigration was guarded by the severest restrictions, which provided for the mode of embarcation, the treatment of the Coolies whilst in the colonies, and their return home at the expiration of their term of service; and he trusted that in the pro- posed treaty such regulations would be adopted, as that the native subjects of the Queen should be protected from all ill-treatment or oppression. It was desirable that the House should consider what might be our position with such a touchy and sensitive nation as France in the event of the arrangements under the Treaty being differently interpreted; and he warned them that if this treaty were carried into effect we might be drawn into similar arrangements with the Hutch and the Spaniards, all of which might be the cause of most regretable complications. He trusted, however, that such distinct and unmistakable stipulations would be agreed to as that, before the Treaty was signed, the emigration from the African coast would cease. He knew that it was to cease immediately on the east coast; but it was to last for another year on the west coast; and he must repeat the hope that some clear and well understood agreement would be come to upon the subject, which would leave room for no mistake.


I will not detain the House long, but it is right that I should give the hon. Gentleman such information upon this subject as I can afford. It is no doubt, a great question whether such a treaty as this should have been concluded, but upon the whole, I think that it was advisable to enter into these negotiations. The case was this:— A contract called the Mires Contract had been made, under which, although the Africans taken were nominally free, yet they were really kidnapped in precisely the same manner as slaves. All the evils of private war and hunting men down with the view of carrying them as slaves on board ships prevailed under this contract. When these facts were brought to the knowledge of the Emperor he declared that he did not wish this system to continue, but his Government declared that if it were abandoned they should expect some assistance from us in procuring labour for the French colonies. Negotiations were commenced upon that, when my noble Friend near me (Viscount Palmerston) was last in office, which resulted in an agreement by the terms of which France was to have the same facilities for procuring labourers for India as are now enjoyed by our own colonies. I must say a few words with respect to that plan. Many years ago, when I held the seals of the Colonial Department, there was a great question in this House whether Indian labourers should be allowed to be taken to the Mauritius. I persevered in introducing that system, and for many years I inquired after its operation. I always found that these Indian labourers, many of whom had been at the point of starvation in India, were well employed and humanely treated, and that not a few of them returned home with sums of money which were considerable for persons in their condition. Therefore the possibility of such a system being well conducted and producing advantage to the Indians themselves is well established. It is to be observed that, with regard to the introduction of these labourers into either the English or the French colonies, the first process is quite different from that of the slave trade. The first process in the slave trade is that the chiefs make war upon one another, there is a great deal of bloodshed and extermination of tribes, men are brought down to the sea coast manacled and placed in a sort of prison, and are afterwards embarked in vessels in which they are be much crowded that great mortality takes place amongst them. Now, in the case of this Indian emigration to the Mauritius or the West Indies the case is different. Provided the business is properly conducted, the emigrants are persons who voluntarily accept the service; there is no force or compulsion, still less any bloodshed, in the country from which they emigrate. That being the case, it was proposed to the French Government that our system, which had been successfully introduced into the Mauritius, and afterwards into the West Indies, should be extended for the benefit of the French colonies. I must admit that, while upon the whole I think it was right to enter into that negotiation, it is attended with some great inconveniences, and even dangers, which cannot be altogether provided against. In your own colonies you have officers who protect the interests of the emigrants, and you have governors who receive orders from the Secretary of State, and who are bound to see that no abuses take place. Of course there is a great difference when you have these labourers taken into a foreign colony, because although you may give strict orders to your Consul, and although he may make it his duty to represent any abuse, yet the governor is the officer of a foreign State, he gets his instructions from a foreign Minister of Marine and the Colonies, and he is not in any way under your control. At the same time I think it must be said that although it would be difficult for your Consul to follow out each individual case of abuse of power on the part of an employer, yet he could easily ascertain the existence of any great crying abuse, and it would be his duty to represent it to the colonial authorities. I confess, however, that our only remedy in the case of an abuse would consist in giving notice for the termination of the treaty. But that would have a considerable effect both upon the French Government and upon their governors in the colonies, because, as they must wish to have the benefit of this labour, they would take some care not to expose themselves to reproach, and not to have the treaty set aside. Our sole object in entering into this treaty was to put an end to the Mires contract, which, in the opinion of the Government and the people of this country, is almost equivalent to the revival of the slave trade. We asked that that contract should be put an end to at the close of this year; but the French Government has since proposed that it should remain for fifteen months after the signing of the treaty, and that it should then be terminated for ever. I can assure the House that great pains have been taken by Sir Frederick Rogers, who was employed for this purpose in Paris, under the superintendence of Bail Cowley, in arranging the articles of the treaty, which has been submitted for revision to the Colonial Secretary and the Minister for India. Every step has been much considered, but I should be giving the House an assurance which I do not feel myself if I were to say that every abuse has been completely guarded against. The treaty has not yet been signed, but, upon the whole, I believe the advantage of putting an end to a revival of the African slave trade is so great that it is expedient to go on with the treaty, which will be signed as soon as the French Government has consented to some proposals of ours. I may conclude by stating that I have no objection to the Motion of the hon. Member, provided he will consent to amend it by inserting the word "Extracts," as the correspondence itself is of a very voluminous character, to produce the Papers moved for by the hon. Member opposite.


said, he wished to thank the hon. Member for Shoreham for having brought this subject before the House. It was his belief that if the people of this country had been consulted with respect to the treaty they would have ex- pressed a strong feeling against it. He wished to know whether the sanction of the authorities in India had been obtained to the treaty, which he feared would do no good to the people under their rule. He also felt some disappointment that the noble Lord had not communicated more of its details to the House.

Motion agreed to.

Address for Copies or Extracts of Correspondence between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of France in respect to legalising the exportation of Natives of British India as Indentured Labourers to French Colonies.