HC Deb 28 May 1861 vol 163 cc188-95

Copy presented, of Correspondence with the United States Government respecting Blockade [by Command].


said, in moving that this Correspondence should lie upon the table it may, perhaps, be convenient to the House, and especially so to the commercial interests in this country, that I should state the substance of the correspondence which has lately taken place with the Government of the United States of America with regard to the blockade of ports in that country. On the 19th of April the President of the United States issued a notification in which he intimated that it was intended to institute a blockade of the ports of the seven States which had seceded from the Union, and on the 27th of April another notification was issued, announcing that it was intended to blockade the ports of North Carolina and Virginia. When Lord Lyons applied for an official notification of the establishment and commencement of the blockade, he was told by the Secretary of State that it was not usual to make such a notification, but that it would be made by the different naval commanders at the several ports when the blockade was instituted. It results from the correspondence that the blockade is to be notified in that manner, and that one blockade has already been so notified; namely, that of the ports of Virginia and North Carolina by flag officer Prendergast, who has declared that he is in a situation to make an efficient blockade of those ports. There has been no notification of a similar kind with regard to the ports of the other States which it was declared were also to be blockaded. The rules, so. far as Lord Lyons has been able to ascertain them, and of which he has given an account to Admiral Milne, commanding the squadron in these waters, are, first, that the notification is in each place to be made by the naval officer commanding the squadron or the ships which institute the blockade; and, in the next place, that fifteen days are to be allowed, after the establishment of the blockade, for vessels, to come out of the ports. It appears that whether they were loaded or not at the time the blockade was established, provided they come out within fifteen days, their passage is to be allowed. On the other hand it is not permitted, by the United States' Government that vessels should be sent to ports which are blockaded for the purpose of bringing away the property of British subjects, or the vessels or property of other nations. An application for such permission was made, to which the Secretary of State replied that if such a facility were granted it would be used by American citizens wishing to bring away property. Lord Lyons ends his communication to Admiral Milne very properly. He says that if the blockade is carried into effect according to the rules established by the law of nations we must of course conform to it; and that we can only see that the blockade is sufficient and regular.


Sir, I think that the noble Lord ought to inform the House what means he has taken to give protec- tion to British subjects and British property in the Slave States of America. I understand that the greatest outrages are being committed upon British subjects in those States. The noble Lord may have no information upon the subject, but I have this morning received letters from persons upon whom I can depend, and who have requested me to ask what the Government are doing or intended to do in this matter. There is not the least complaint made against the Government of the Free States. But in the Confederated States neither life nor property is safe, and it has been stated to me that British subjects who went there with wholly different objects and under very different circumstances are compelled to take up arms and fight in the pro-slavery ranks. The noble Lord took great credit to himself for having issued a proclamation and for declaring that the Foreign Enlistment Act will be put in force. But, if that be so, all persons compelled to engage in this war under such circumstances will be treated as pirates. The mercantile marine of America, particularly of the Southern States, is chiefly manned by Irishmen and Englishmen, and others from our own colonies, who will now be compelled to remain and to enter the ranks of the belligerents, and if taken, though they may be loyal subjects of the Queen who wanted to get away, but had not the means, of doing so, under the noble Lord's proclamation they will be treated as pirates. We talk of our neutrality; we boast of it. A letter which I have received from a gentleman asks:—"Is it nothing that a British officer," the captain of a merchant vessel, "has been tarred and feathered?" [Laughter.] It is all very well for hon. Gentlemen to laugh, but I foresee that these are questions which will involve us in difficulty before long. "Is it nothing," this gentleman asks, "that a British subject has been tarred and feathered; nothing that free men of colour, British subjects, are imprisoned; nothing that men of colonial birth are forced to sea in an open boat; others held as prisoners, and that Englishmen should be compelled to fight in pro-slavery ranks?" What is to be done, and what means have been taken by the noble Lord to give those persons an opportunity of avoiding being treated as pirates. I can state on reliable information that at this moment there is an advertisement in the newspapers of the Slave States offering on the part of the Con federated States 20 dollars for every person killed aboard an American vessel. What a set of savages they must be! Who would care for going to war with such a people? Do you suppose the people of Canada will submit to have their fellow-subjects dragged away and compelled to fight for slavery? They will stand no nonsense, and after a time your very neutrality will lead you into war. The question which I have been requested to ask is whether it is not intended immediately to increase the British squadron on the Southern coast, and to have every vessel examined, so that Englishmen, Irishmen, and subjects of our colonial empire, who may be serving compulsorily on board American vessels shall have an opportunity of getting away in case they wish to do so? I have received letters from men on whom I can depend, and they all state that occurrences such as I have adverted to have already taken place, and more will undoubtedly follow unless England adopts a more decided tone. We have no right to sit down and occupy ourselves exclusively in quarrelling about the paper duties while our fellow subjects are suffering by hundreds and thousands in the hands of these savages.


Sir, I must, at this early stage, protest against the language made use of and the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe), who has altogether prejudged this question. He talks of reliable information which he has received from certain friends of his; but I am also in possession of reliable information which gives the direct lie to the statements made by the hon. Gentleman. I am not only in a position to deny that any of those outrages have been committed in the Southern States; but, if this were the proper time, I could point to outrages committed by the militia of New York in one of the Southern States occupied by them, where the General commanding, on the pretext that one of his men had been poisoned by strychnine, issued an order of the day, threatening to put a slave into every man's house to incite the slaves to murder their masters. Such was the general order issued by General Bulter. Therefore, do not let us be led away by old wives' tales into appeals to that very powerful and very dangerous element in this House—I mean the Exeter Hall feeling. I do hope the feeling of the House will be strongly expressed against anything like a debate upon this subject at the present moment; and that hon. Gentlemen will not be tempted to follow my hon. Friend, but will rather imitate the judicious silence which the noble Lord has always maintained on this point.


I think nothing could be more injudicious or more unfortunate than to have submitted to us accounts from private letters of particular outrages said to be committed in America. We know, before war is terminated, there or anywhere else, there will be outrages enough; but of this I think we may be quite assured that in the North as well as in the South, and in the South quite as much as in the North, there will be the greatest possible disposition to avoid everything which can bring about a quarrel with this country. Nothing could be more unfortunate for the South, nothing could be more unfortunate for the North, whatever quarrels there may be between the two sections of the American Republic, than that the quarrel should extend to this country. I feel confident that we are not more anxious to remain at peace with both the sections than they are to continue on good terms with us. In the policy which the noble Lord has announced—that of strict neutrality—I agree as cordially as any other Member of this House; and I think it would be well if that policy were not confined merely to the Government, but if individual Members of the House were as far as possible to adopt the same line of action. It is an unhappy thing that these dissensions should have arisen; but let us hope, and I hope still, that among a population more extensively educated, probably, than the population of any other country in the world, it may yet be found possible to surmount the vast difficulties which have arisen in that country without those extensive cruelties which almost always accompany a civil war. With that expression of opinion I wish to make a request—and the House, I am sure, will feel that I am only asking what is reasonable and prudent—that we should avoid, as much as possible, discussions on matters which, I believe, we cannot influence for good, but with regard to which we may create a state of feeling, either in the North or South, that will add to the difficulties of the Government in preserving the wire line of action which they have laid down.


Sir, I really must warn the House not to be led away by stories and by letters which one gentleman has received from another gentleman, on whom he places the most implicit reliance, but who very probably knows nothing more of the matter than the Gentleman who reads the communication with such perfect faith in the accuracy of its contents. As to the nonsensical trash of twenty dollars being offered by the Confederated States for every man put to death on board an American ship, the House knows perfectly well that neither letters, newspapers, nor accredited information of any kind can at present be received from the South, but all are stopped on the borders. Anything which does see the light is cut into slips and published in the New York papers. Very few communications of the kind have reached this country, and they are principally the State documents which have been put forward by the South. I cannot better evidence the spirit by which they are animated than by referring to the late address of President Davis; and I will ask the House whether it breathes a single one of those bloodthirsty, wicked, terrible opinions which my lion. Friend is anxious to impress on the House as being the doctrine of the Southern States? I beg to take this opportunity of saying that I shall certainly bring forward my Motion on the subject of the recognition of the Southern Confederacy on the 7th of June, when I trust the matter will be fairly discussed, and in the meantime that we shall not throw imputations on one party or the other.


Sir, in the question of notification of blockade to which reference has been made a matter which is very important for the commercial interests of the country is' involved. The rule, I believe, is this—Public notification must be given to the State of which a neutral who seeks to violate a blockade is a member, before he can be held to have subjected himself to forfeiture of his vessel and goods; or actual notice must have been given to the neutral himself. The House will see that this is a most important question, because the intent to sail to a blockaded port, as to which a neutral merchant has received a notice of blockade, is considered as a violation of neutrality, and the ship will be accordingly condemned in the prize court of the capturing Power. I wish the noble Lord to state distinctly whether or not the mercantile interests of this country are to understand that a public notification of blockade of the ports to which he has referred will be given; or that merely an intimation of the blockade to neutral ships arriving off those ports will be given to them when they get there?


, who was indistinctly heard, was understood to say that he could not give any further information to his right hon. Friend with regard to the blockade; but the papers on the subject would shortly be laid on the table, and when they were submitted the House would be in possession of the exact state of the case. But his right hon. Friend would understand that when Mr. Seward was asked whether he would give a notification of the blockade he refused to do so, saying that he found no precedent for such a proceeding. He (Lord John Russell) referred him to a precedent, but Mr. Seward said that he would not give a general notification of a blockade, but would leave it to the naval commanding officer on each station to declare that the blockade had been instituted, and when that was generally communicated it was to be considered that the blockade was of course, established. He would not regularly enter into questions which might afterwards have to be argued and decided in a prize court with regard to the regularity of the blockade. He had no doubt that the United States Government, always very cautious on the subject of blockades, had consulted precedents and taken the best legal advice before they had adopted the course which had been pursued. With regard to the question of his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury, he must say that it was founded on rather on a vague statement, and he had not brought forward any particular facts upon which the Foreign Office could take any steps. His hon. Friend had alluded to the case of the master of a merchant vessel who had been tarred and feathered, but the case occurred several weeks before anything like the outbreak of civil war—at a time, in fact, when the whole country was at peace. There might have been some intention of secession, but no secession had actually taken place. There were rumours of a very disparaging character with regard to that master of a merchant vessel, and he was attacked and ill-treated by the mob; but the authorities endeavoured to arrest the rioters, and the English Consul stated that they had done everything that it was possible to do to afford him protection. That affair, therefore, had really nothing to do with the question of secession or civil war. With regard to such cases generally, he might refer to the steps which had been taken by the Government, and they were chiefly these:—They had desired that Admiral Milne should be present with a sufficient squadron, and orders have also been given by the Admiralty that other vessels should be sent out to strengthen the squadron in those seas. Lord Lyons had taken care to inform himself in regard to the law of the United States and of the seceded States in regard to persons serving in the militia. Those laws varied in different States in Europe, and they varied even in the different States of America. Lord Lyons had taken the opinion of counsel, and, no doubt, if any question arose Lord Lyons would entertain the matter with due discretion, having reference both to international law and the law of the particular State in respect to which the question arose. In the next place, without entering on the question of neutrals, which he should be ready to discuss at the proper time, he might state that Her Majesty's Government had been in communication with the French Government, and had made a proposition on that subject to the Government of the United States. He agreed with the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) that in respect to that unhappy quarrel, which had given the greatest pain throughout the whole of the country, no words should be used which would either tend to bring the country into the conflict or that might create exasperation or bitterness on the one side or the other. That a great and free nation like America should be exposed to all the evils of civil war was an event which every lover of liberty must deplore, and he hoped that the conflict, if it could not be averted, might, at all events, be a short one, and not interfere with the ultimate prosperity of the country.

Petition to lie upon the Table.