HC Deb 18 February 1861 vol 161 cc496-8

said, he wished to ask the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Whether any steps have been taken by Her Majesty's Government with the view of carrying out the recommendations of the Shipping Committee of last year on the subject of Belligerent Rights at Sea?


No steps have been taken by Her Majesty's Government with a view of carrying out the recommendations of the Shipping Committee of last year on the subject of belligerent rights at sea; and perhaps the House will allow me to state the reasons for which I have not taken any such steps. I found that, when the matter was under discussion with the American Government, at the time of the Conference at Paris, the opinion of the Earl of Clarendon seems to have been unfavourable to the proposal that private property at sea should be respected during war. No final decision was come to, and no official communication was made, and the American Government subsequently expressed a wish that all communication upon the subject should be suspended. Some time afterwards Mr. Dallas read to me a despatch of considerable length and much ability, which was addressed to Mr. Mason, the American Ambassador at Paris. In that despatch it was stated by the American Government that it was impossible, as there proposed, that private property on board belligerent vessels should be respected at sea; but General Cass added that he considered that the right of blockade, as authorized by the law of nations, was liable to very great abuse; that the only case in which a blockade ought to be permitted was when a land army was besieging a fortified place, and a fleet was employed to blockade it on the other side; but that any attempt to interrupt trade by a blockade, or to blockade places which were commercial ports, was an abuse of the right which ought not to be permitted. That, of course, opened a still wider question. My answer to that despatch was simply that, as the war had ceased, and the treaty of Paris had been concluded, it was not advisable to continue that discussion. The proposition itself seems to me to be one of the utmost magnitude. It is, in fact, a proposal that, there being two Powers, one of which has a very strong army and a weak navy, the other having an army inferior in numbers, but a superior navy, that the Power which has the superior navy should forego all the advantage to be derived from that source, and allow the contest to be decided by military force alone. Its adoption would, in the next place, tend rather to prolong than to shorten wars; because one way in which a great maritime Power can act as a belligerent is to cripple the trade of its opponent. The greater its strength as a maritime Power the greater is its power to do this, and the better its chance of bringing the war to a favourable termination. If this proposition were accepted, the whole of the power would be gone which has hitherto rendered Great Britain so formidable at sea. In the next place, I perceive difficulties in detail which would be insurmountable. The mercantile navy of a belligerent would be free from capture; but no one could say, when a number of vessels, apparently merchant ships, appeared off the coast, that they might not be used for purposes of war, and that they did not contain—


said, he rose to order. He wished to know whether the noble Lord was acting regularly in going into a lengthened argument on a difficult subject in reply to a question put to him, when no other Member holding different views would have an opportunity of answering him.


—It has always been usual to accord greater latitude to a Minister than to a private individual in answering questions which may be put to him. The noble Lord was explaining the reason why he had not acted in the manner which the hon. Member who put the question assumed that he ought to have done. Under these circumstances, the House will probably not consider that the noble Lord was transgressing the limits allowed on such occasions.


—A Select Committee of this House having made certain recommendations in, I think, very positive terms, it might be assumed that it was my duty to have acted in conformity with them, and to have taken some steps for carrying them out. I, therefore, ventured to explain to the House why I did not consider it prudent to adopt such measures. I do not wish to enter further into the argument, beyond saying that I regard the question as one affecting the whole maritime power of this country, and that I think any Minister of the Crown ought to be most cautious in taking any final step in respect of it.