HC Deb 16 May 1862 vol 166 cc1821-5

said, that before putting the question which stood in his name upon the paper, he wished to take that opportunity of making a remark on the practice of the House, suggested by the division which had just taken place. As the matter which had been last discussed was one of a personal nature, it was quite possible that an hon. Member might from obvious motives wish not to vote upon it. Yet, if the Motion next upon the paper happened to be in the name of any such hon. Member, it was absolutely necessary that he should be present and vote in the previous division, in order to be in time to make the Motion. There was also some risk that after a crowded division the Member who, like himself, had next to put a question, or to make a Motion, might not be able to find his way to his seat through the crowd. He wished to point out these matters to the consideration of; the House, as it occurred to him that some regulation might be adopted to enable a Member to absent himself from a division, and subsequently reach his place to exercise his right by putting the question of which he had given notice. He rose, however, to ask the hon. Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs some questions upon the subject of the Suez Canal, in which he thought the interests of humanity were concerned. He regretted to differ from the noble Viscount in the view which he took on the subject of the Suez Canal: but he might add that at the very time when, some time since, he (Mr. Griffith) was submitting his views to the House, a distinguished statesman, M. de Tocqueville, was making very similar representations to an eminent fellow-countryman of theirs. Mr. Senior. M. de Tocqueville was of opinion that the almost passionate opposition set up in England to the Suez Canal was productive of much mischief between the two countries. The opposition of England led the French to think that the; scheme must be praticable, and some even had gone so far as to denominate it a vulnerable point in the cuirasse Anglaise. He (Mr. Griffith) should personally rejoice to see the communication opened, though he did not think that the canal would ever pay the shareholders in the undertaking. This country had always evinced great interest in the prevention of slavery in all parts of the world; and if the noble Lord, instead of objecting to the scheme upon grounds which were in direct opposition to a free-trade policy, had simply objected to forced labour being employed, he would have attained the end he had in view, because the work would never have been done without compulsory labour. It was said by M. Lesseps, at the meeting the other day, that he had 26,000 men employed; and it was believed that about 24,000 of them were forced labourers, while probably the remainder of voluntary labourers were employed as overseers. It was also said that it was expected that as many as 40,000 persons would soon be employed; so that it was clear that a great evil was being perpetrated by that company in an unblushing manner. That was quite contrary to the spirit of certain humane edicts of the Porte which extended to Egypt, and one of which declared that the lives, property, and honour of every subject in the Ottoman dominions should be held secure. When the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs literally took his "bull" by the horns, and dragged it away by means of 300 or 400 forced labourers, it was thought a great reproach; but in making the canal many thousands of such persons were constantly employed. Of course, the great question was how far the Government could interfere, but it would be a great reproach to the policy of the noble Lord at the head of the Government—who in 1840 thought it worth while in reference to Egyptian matters to run us within forty-eight hours of war with a great European Power—if the Pacha was allowed to set at defiance those institutions which the noble Lord had advocated. The scheme, if practicable, should be left to be carried out in the ordinary commercial way; but he had always been of the opinion entertained by the late Mr. Stephenson, that the canal was totally impracticable, and it. gained the greater part of its attractiveness to the French people from the opposition with which it met in this country Upon the question of humanity he thought the English Government were deeply interested, for unless they used all the influence they possessed, they must be held responsible for the consequences of the policy they had thought fit to pursue. It so happened that the Pacha was to visit Europe, and would shortly be in a neigh- bouring country, and it was to be hoped that the opportunities he would have of considering the opinions entertained in the civilized countries through which he passed would have the effect of inducing him the more readily to abandon the system of forced labour, or, in other words, of slavery. Holding the views he had expressed, he would beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs— Whether the Pacha of Egypt has lately compelled 10,000 or 20,000 labourers, or more, to work for the Suez Canal Company by forced labour, the Company paying 40 francs per month for them to the Pacha, but giving only rations to the labourers; Whether the requirement of forced labour from the population of his Pachalic be not a direct violation of the obligations with which the Pacha has undertaken towards the Porte, according to the terms of the Firman of 1841, by which he is bound to carry out the provisions of the Hatti Sheriff of Gulhané, the Tanzimât, and all the other laws at any time existing in the Ottoman Empire; Whether a persistence in such course might not be held to involve the forfeiture of his Pachalic by the Pacha, and the rendering invalid the permission lately obtained from the Porte to contract a loan with European capitalists; And, if so, whether her Majesty's Government will not call upon the four Powers who were parties to the Convention of the 15th July, 1840, and of the Collective Notes to the Porte of the 30th January and 13th March, 1841, to enforce the observance of those stipulations and engagements upon the Pacha of Egypt; or will take such course as they may consider to be effective for the purpose?


said, that having recently visited Egypt, he thought he could mention some facts that would be interesting to the House. Her Majesty's Government appeared to think that the construction, of the Suez Canal would be a dangerous project for this country, both commercially and politically. He could not but think, with all deference to those who entertained opposite opinions, that if any one was to benefit by such a canal, the British traders would derive as much advantage as those of any other nation; for no country had a greater interest in a more easy and rapid communication with India. Upon the question of the practicability of the canal opinions varied, the French engineers holding one opinion, and the English engineers an opposite one; and therefore the issue must be decided by the result. But, whichever opinion was right, it was certain that many years must elapse before any portion of the canal could be open. The hon. Member for Devizes had complained, and justly, of the manner in which the work was being executed by means of forced labour, but he had been under some misapprehension of the real facts. It was true that no great work could be carried out in Oriental countries without the interference of the Government; but when it was recollected that the labourers upon the canal were regularly paid and fed, it could not be said that their labour was entirely forced. Their wages varied from 6d. to 1s. a day, and they lived much better while engaged upon that work than they had been accustomed to do. But there was one point which was deserving of the attention of the Government. The fellahs were paid in what might be called promissory notes—bits of paper payable in cash at the Treasury Offices in Cairo. The Egyptian Government being a debtor to the Canal Company, the latter, of course, availed themselves of that mode of reducing the amount of their debt. Many of these poor men had to travel 100 or 150 miles to get those notes cashed; and when they did reach Cairo, it was only those who had the benefit of some friendly influence who could get cash, while most only got renewal notes at three months, which they generally disposed of for a trifling sum to the moneychangers. If Her Majesty's Government could do anything to get those poor men properly paid, they would be performing a great act of humanity. With respect to the company itself, there was no doubt that the Suez Canal Company was independent of the influences sometimes supposed to govern it, but it was hardly sufficiently known how far the Egyptian Government was complicated with it. The capital of the company was £8,000,000, and the Egyptian Government were implicated to the amount of half this sum. It seemed to him, therefore, that the real danger to be apprehended from the attempt to form the canal was not so much of a political as of a financial character. The company were to enjoy exclusive privileges, which were hardly known in this country. He had heard that by a special firman granted by the Viceroy—a firman which, as the vassal of the Porte, the Viceroy had no right to grant—the Suez Canal Company were to have in fee simple the whole of the land which they could irrigate from the alimentary canal, and over that land they were to enjoy exclusive rights of police and of internal management. When the day arrived, as it might, for winding up the affairs of the company, he feared that the Egyptian Government would be found so hampered by its connection with the company that to extricate it would prove a work of some difficulty. The question would arise, what amount of compensation the Government would be called upon to pay to the company, backed up, as the latter probably would be, by the Government of France. He hoped that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Layard) would be able to state that there was no danger of the sacrifice in that way of Egyptian independence, the maintenance of which was of such importance to this country.