HC Deb 27 March 1863 vol 170 cc72-83

desired to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to a matter in some degree germane to the subject they had been for some hours discussing—the recent capture of the British steam ship Peterhoff. It was seldom that he differed from his hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. T. Baring), but he must certainly confess that there was scarcely a sentence in his speech that night from which he did not differ, and which he had not heard with some regret. So far from viewing the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General, in the light in which his hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon had regarded it, he must confess that a speech in argument more unanswerable, in talent more unequalled, and in tone and temper more becoming to the Government he represented and the country to which he belonged, he had never listened to in that House. Apart from the unanswerable speech of his hon. and learned Friend, he could not but think that those who had introduced the question, and who had appeared that night as the advocates of the Government of the United States, must feel that they had taken very little by their Motion. With regard to the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright), he could not help expressing the regret—he might almost say the indignation—with which he had beard the sentiments which fell from his lips. The hon. Member, taking advantage of his posititon in that House and before the public, had uttered words which would go forth with all his authority to the people of the United States. Had the hon. Gentleman forgotten the sufferings of our struggling population in the North when he ventured to say that we had exhibited towards the Northern Sates of America "a cold and unfriendly spirit"? He thought, too, that the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W, E. Forster) would regret that he had brought forward the subject; for he thought the hon. Gentleman had succeeded in eliciting from the House a general concurrence of opinion, that Her Majesty's Government had acted strictly within the limits of the law. Anxious as we might be to show a spirit of entire neutrality between the contending parties, earnest and sincere as we had shown ourselves in all our efforts to manifest this spirit, the hon. Gentleman's remarks had only elicited the strongest expression of opinion that in this country, at least, the law should be enforced on strict legal evidence, and not upon that suspicion which appeared to be sufficient in the eyes of the United States Government. The hon. Member, too, had been singularly infelicitous in the instances he had brought forward; for he had only shown that an innocent vessel had been detained, at a loss which had fallen on innocent persons. Having made these observations upon the subject which had occupied the House some hours, he would now come to the case of capture to which he had given notice that he intended to call the attention of the House. In speaking of this matter he desired to avoid the use of strong language, although he felt strongly the conduct of the Federal cruisers in this case, for he was sensible of the gravity of the matter; and though he stood there to vindicate the rights of British merchants, and to call upon Her Majesty's Government to take the course which the circumstances rendered necessary, he did not wish, by any language of his, to increase the irritation which would be felt by every class of Her Majesty's subjects when the circumstances of the case became known. This was not the case of a vessel attempting to break the blockade. In such instances, parties knew the risk that they ran for the sake of the great profits which they made if successful; and neither they, nor the commercial classes to which they belonged, had any right to complain if their vessels were seized. The case must be considered upon its own merits. It was now some months since the firm of Pile, Spence, & Co., of the City of London, advertised a line of steamers to run regularly between this country and Matamoras in Mexico, with which port a very valuable trade had long been established. One of the gentlemen, whose property was embarked in the vessel now in question, told him it was just such a venture as he had engaged in every three or four mouths for the last twenty years. He must here observe that the Mr. Spence, of this firm of Pile, Spence, & Co., was no relation to a very distinguished Mr. Spence of Liverpool, whose tendencies towards the Confederate cause were well known. The first vessel despatched on this line was a screw steamer called the Gipsy Queen, which performed her voyage to Matamoras and returned in safely. The second vessel was the Peterhoff, the one which had now been captured. He had looked through all the documents connected with the case, and he was confident in saying that there was no single circumstance connected with the voyage which pointed to anything like a desire to engage in an improper trade. He believed that the hon. Member for the City of London (Mr. Crawford) had carefully examined the manifest of the ship, and would bear him out in saying that there was on board not one package which could by possibility be understood to be of a contraband nature, or other than would form a natural article of commerce between Matamoras and this country, [MR. CRAWFORD: Hear, hear!] The Peterhoff left London with the proper clearances, and, for greater precaution, remained in this country for fifteen days, that she might also get the clearance of the Mexican Consul. She was commanded by a gentleman, of considerable reputation—a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, and who therefore, from his position, was not likely to engage in any contraband enterprise. In due course she arrived in the neighbourhood of St. Thomas's, and was there stopped by the Federal cruiser Alabama—that appeared to be a favourite name, for both the Federals and Confederates had an Alabama—her papers were examined, and endorsed by the Federals with a statement that they were in proper order, and she was then allowed to proceed on her voyage. She went, according to the original intention of her commander, to St. Thomas's and obtained a supply of coal, and was then about to leave the port. Unfortunately for the owners of the Peterhoff, unfortunately he was afraid for the good understanding which ought to subsist between this country and the United States, the principal officer in command at St. Thomas's was a certain Commodore Wilkes, whose name was well known in this country some months ago as being borne by a man who had committed a greater outrage upon the English flag, and done more to embroil the two countries, than any other man living. Just as the Peterhoff left the harbour of St. Thomas, a cruiser called the Vanderbilt was coming in. The commander of the Vanderbilt was immediately instructed by Commodore Wilkes to pursue the Peterhoff. He did so; he captured her, and brought her into St. Thomas's, whence she was afterwards taken to Key West to be adjudicated upon by a prize court. Upon this statement of facts he did not think that it was possible to conceive that a greater outrage could be committed on the British flag than this. Here was a vessel engaged in a lawful trade between two neutral ports; the Federal officers themselves had declared that no suspicion attached to her; there was no doubt that she was bonâ fide pursuing a lawful trade between tins country and Mexico—and yet, by the orders of Commodore Wilkes, she was captured and taken to Key West, to be subject to the judgment of a prize court. This was not the first case of the kind of which we had heard, and he was of opinion, that if the Government had adopted a different line of conduct in previous instances from that they had taken, we should not have heard of this outrage. On several occasions, British vessels had been captured upon mere suspicion, and it had been declared by the Federal officers that they had received instructions from Washington to capture these vessels where and whenever they might be found, and that irrespective of all consequences they must obey the orders which they had received. He did not doubt that such an order was given with respect to the Peterhoff, and that Commodore Wilkes, in seizing her wherever she was found, was only acting under the direction of his Government. The hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) a short time ago referred with considerable asperity to certain captures that had been made in neutral waters. There was this additional fact in this case against the United States Government, that the capture took place in neutral waters. When she was seized in the first instance and let go, she was in neutral waters; and when she was seized by the orders of Commodore Wilkes and sent to Key West, she was in neutral waters. It was often stated, by Members of the Government, that the remedy in such a case was that it must be left to the prize courts of the United States to deal with the matter. Now, he must say that even when prize courts were above suspicion, and there was every certainty that the law would be impartially and fearlessly administered, it could not be any satisfaction to an owner to be told that he must go before a prize court, and that if his vessel were found not to be good prize, she would be released, and some compensation would be made to him. He held in his hand an instructive Return, giving some insight as to the result of going before an American prize court at the present moment. The Bermuda was seized in April, 1862. She was captured, it was believed, in British waters, and was taken to Philadelphia. The pleadings ended on the 16th of August, and the vessel was only condemned on the 10th of the present month; an appeal had been entered against the decision, but it could not be heard until December, 1863; so that when a ship owner was told that his remedy was to go before a prize court, it was equivalent to telling him that he must wait for two years before he got any decision, and then, probably, he would get a decision absolutely contrary to all law and justice. In a country where the Judges of the land had been arrested upon the judgment seat for granting a writ of Habeas Corpus to American citizens, he should feel no great confidence that the law would be justly, impartially, and fearlessly administered. He had here the judgment given in the case of the Adela, which was a British vessel going from a British port to a British port. She had nothing contraband on board, but she was seized, the mails she was carrying for her Majesty's Government were broken open, she was carried into Philadelphia, and there, after a length of time, a decision was given by the Judge of the prize court. This decision was to the effect, that as he was credibly informed that both parties intended to appeal, whatever his judgment was, although he admitted the absence of any proof of intention on the part of the vesssel or her owners to run the blockade, yet he decreed her to be lawful prize, and left the owners to appeal. Now, in the case of vessels to which suspicion attached, was it any answer to say, in the words of Earl Russell, that he had every confidence in the equity and impartiality of the prize courts of the United States, and therefore he must leave the owners to go there, and would not give them the protection which in this case the Government were bound to give? But there were other circumstances which would require particular notice from his hon. Friend the Under Secretary, or from the noble Lord. There were circumstances attaching to this capture which very gravely concerned the conduct of the Government. The papers presented showed that communications must have passed between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Washington, the nature and character of which must have a very serious bearing upon the case now immediately before the House. On the 4th of last September Mr. Adams wrote a letter to Mr. Seward, in which he said that Earl Russell made some observations to him— in connection with the case of the steamer Adela, the capture of which had given rise to some questions at Washington. These related to three points, the appeal to any list of suspected vessels that might he in the hands of the officers as ground of capture, the propriety of making a prior examination, and the securing the contents of mail-bags. On all of them he admitted that you had already agreed to a plan to remedy the difficulties for the future, which was perfectly satisfactory. Here was information of an arrangement made with Mr. Seward as to the future conduct of the Federal cruisers in the capture of British property, and yet, from the beginning to the end of the published papers, there was no trace of any correspondence or communication on the subject, and Parliament was left entirely in the dark respecting a "plan" which Earl Russell said was perfectly satisfactory to him. That was not the position in which the House of Commons ought to be left. Upon a question so important as the security of British commerce upon the seas, the Government ought not to enter into arrangements, leaving this House and the commercial public in entire ignorance of the nature of those arrangements. Indeed, the position of the Government towards this House, as regarded the information communicated to it about American affairs, was in the highest degree unsatisfactory—he had almost said discreditable. The Session was half over, and except the papers about the Alabama, and the correspondence and despatches between Mr. Mason and Earl Russell, the only information before the House regarding our relations with America was a reprint of despatches supplied by the President of the United States to Congress late last year. And yet there were some most important points on which information should have been furnished. At the end of last year, the subject of the restrictions placed upon the trade carried on in British vessels between New York and Nassau was brought before the Government. These restrictions were described by Earl Russell as a breach of agreement on the part of the United States; but Parliament was in entire ignorance of all that had passed between the two Governments upon that subject. He, himself, had asked a question as to the Convention between this country and the United States, with a view to the adjustment aad examination of claims for the violation of neutral rights. But not a, single letter was communicated to Parliament, or a tittle of information supplied on the subject, although the noble Lord said the Government had been engaged in correspondence, and difficulties of detail had prevented the plan from being carried into execution. Again, there appeared to have been a correspondence respecting the raising of recruits in this country. But no information was given—no correspondence was produced. Now, he maintained that upon questions which interested every man in this country, Parliament ought to have had the fullest information which it was in the power of the Government to give. Upon the face of the published papers, correspondence had been kept back which bore materially upon the very case of the Peterhoff. From Mr. Adams' despatch of September 4, it appeared that one part of the "plan" agreed upon between Earl Russell and the American Government had reference to a "list of suspected vessels which might be in the hands of the officers as ground of capture." Now, in reference to this there was a curious thing. In the papers about the Alabama, Mr. Adams communicated to Earl Russell a list of suspected vessels; and, curiously enough, the last two on the list were the Peterhoff and the Springbok, which had been lately captured under exactly similar circumstances. So it was apparent, upon the face of these papers, that the Foreign Secretary had entered into some arrangement as to the capture of British vessels, of which arrangement the House knew nothing, except that there was to be a list of suspected vessels; the principal representative of the American Government himself communicated the list to Earl Russell, and upon the very face of the list appeared the name of the Peterhoff, with the note attached "now loading for Matamoras;" the n suit being that in consequence of this arrangement, to which Earl Russell was a party, a vessel engaged in an innocent and legal voyage was captured; although, upon the face of the papers, the American Government were aware that she had no intention either of breaking the blockade or of conveying any portion of her cargo for the use of the Confederate States. He thought that the Government were, to a great degree, responsible for this. In the course of last year a representation was made to Earl Russell, he did not know whether by the Chamber of Commerce of Liverpool, or by a meeting of merchants of Liverpool, called for the specific purpose, that the Federal Government had established a blockade of their legal and legitimate trade between this country and Nassau. It was represented to the noble Earl that their trade was stopped because the Federal Government had assumed to itself the right of capturing vessels on their voyage from one neutral port to another neutral port. What was the reply of Earl Russell? He said, Nassau had been made a depot for cargoes intended to be conveyed to the Confederate States; and he recommended the merchants who applied to him, as the host means of avoiding the capture of their vessels, to abstain from engagin in that trade. The noble Earl's letter seemed written rather in a spirit of insult than as an answer to a proper and well-grounded complaint. It had nothing to do with the matter of which the Liverpool merchants complained, and had reference only to the illegal contraband trade between Nassau and the Confederate States. It entirely omitted to answer the complaint of the merchants that their legitimate trade had been interfered with. He would ask, was the noble Earl aware of the law when he wrote that letter? Was he aware that in setting up that pretension the American Government was putting up a most illegal pretension, and that it had no more right to stop a vessel between Liverpool and Nassau than it had to stop a vessel between Liverpool and Bordeaux? He must have been aware of it, because in a document written by him on the 22nd of September he adopted a very different tone from that which characterized his letter to the Liverpool merchants. I refer now to a case which was brought under the notice of the noble Earl with respect to a power assumed by the authorities at New York of refusing clearances to British vessels engaged in transporting goods from New York to Nassau. What does the noble Earl say with reference to that assumption of a right?— The inference that the articles, though having really and bonâ fide a British destination, are likely to be after words used for the purposes of the trade between Nassau and the so-styled Confederate States, is drawn, as explained by Collector Barney, from the magnitude of the consignments, from a comparison between the amount of the trade in similar articles carried on between New York and Nassau in former times and the amount during the present war, from the notorious exist- ence of an extensive trade during the war between the so-styled Confederate States and Nassau, and from the known or reputed connection of certain merchants or mercantile houses in England and at Nassau with that trade. The possibility or probability being thus arrived at that such a use may be made of some of these articles after their arrival at Nassau, it is concluded that the United States' Government are entitled to stop them at New York, From this conclusion her Majesty's Government dissent. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General now expressed his approval of that statement; but he would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman what was the difference between the case of refusing a clearance to vessels engaged in a trade between New York and Nassau and stopping by force vessels engaged in a legitimate trade between Liverpool and Nassau? It is evident the noble Earl had before him the letter of the Liverpool merchants, and disregarded the complaint which it contained, though be knew it to be well founded; knowing, at the same time, that the pretension set up by the United States was absolutely contrary to international law. Had the Foreign Secretary, knowing that his countrymen were complaining that their legitimate trade was being interfered with by unjust detentions on the part of the United States Government instead of lecturing the Liverpool merchants, replied that the pretensions of the American Government was an illegal one, and would be resisted by the Government of this country, did any one suppose that those repeated cases in which British vessels had been captured in the lawful pursuit of their trade would have occurred, and that we should now have to call upon Her Majesty's Government to afford efficient protection to our countrymen, and not allow outrages of this kind to be perpetrated on British vessels passing between one neutral port and another neutral port, and the trade to which no suspicion was attached to be interfered with by the violent and illegal conduct of such men as Commander Wilkes? The House would no doubt be told by Her Majesty's Government that in this serious case of the Peterhoff they had called for redress—that they had acted with the greatest energy. He did not doubt this, because he believed no Government could hold their seats if in so grave a case they refused to give protection to British commerce. But it would have been far better to prevent such occurrences by the adoption of a different course than that taken by the noble Lord in his reply to the Liverpool merchants. He had no doubt, that when this particular case was brought under their notice, the Ministry replied in the stereotyped form of all Governments, "The matter should have the immediate attention of Her Majesty's Government;" but it would have been better to give such an assurance before cases of such gravity had arisen. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government would give an assurance to the House that they would make the views of the British Government so well known that cases of this kind should not occur again. In conclusion be would say, in reference to those papers to which he had before alluded—with reference to the despatch which the noble Lord at the head of the Government had alluded to the other night, and to papers which were referred to in the published correspondence, but which had been kept back—he trusted Her Majesty's Government would lose no time in producing them.


said, that having been alluded to by the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. S. FitzGerald) he wished to offer a few remarks. They would not, however, be an attack on Her Majesty's Government: for, seeing that the case of the Petehoff was only two days old, he should he well contented to leave it in the hands of the Government, and especially so after hearing to-night the opinion of the hon. and learned Gentleman (the Solicitor General), by whom the Government would be influenced in their proceedings in the case, and in whom every Member of the House had the utmost confidence in questions of international law. The principal facts of the ease had been placed before the House; but there were still a few others which he wished to state in illustration of the bonaâ fide character of the trade of the Peterhoff. The vessel was advertised in the newspapers in the usual way for n general cargo to Matamoras. She carried a mail; that, is to say, she carried a usual ship letter-hag, made up at the General Post Office; and she had made her arrangements for coaling in the West Indies; the nature of her preparations throughout being of such a character as to satisfy any one that her intention was to perform as speedy a passage as possible to the port of her destination. The hon. Member for Horsham had stated that he (Mr. Crawford) had taken the pains of making himself acquainted with the character of the goods on board. He had done so. The owners of the ship, and the gentleman engaged in loading the ship, placed in his bunds the ship's manifest, and other documents showing the nature of her cargo. It was a cargo of a most miscellaneous description. The Mexican law required, in the case of cargoes sent to her ports, that full particulars of every package, with its contents, measurement, and weight should be distinctly slated; and he therefore had the opportunity of satisfying himself by perusing the manifest as to the goods she was carrying; and he put this question pointedly to the gentleman who waited on him:—" Is there anything in the description of the goods of a colourable character? Is there anything in the nature of 'hardware' intended as a cover to rifles or muskets?" The answer was that there was nothing contraband in the ship—that there was nothing but what was fairly set down on the manifest. It therefore was clear that the vessel was engaged in carrying legal goods, under legal circumstances, to a legal port. The circumstances of the seizure would, no doubt, engage the attention of the Law Officers of the Crown. There were in the City gentlemen with Northern proclivities as well as Southern, and there were gentlemen who said that the ultimate destination of the goods was probably for the Southern States, and that that was a sort of reason for the stoppage of the vessel by Northern cruisers on its way to Matamoras. That was a legal question. But there was one point connected with this matter worthy of observation at the Present time. A very large trade was carried en in American vessels between New York and Matamoras, of precisely the same kind as that of the Peterhoff. Therefore, evidently there must be some other reason for the seizure of the vessel than the particular trade she was engaged in. Apparently the North had no objection to the trade being carried on for their own benefit; but they had an objection when anything was to be got out of it by the merchants of this country. The material point for the consideration of mercantile men was this. Here was a vessel captured on a legal voyage. There were other vessels bound to the same destination from England, loading with similar cargoes, and the owners were in a state of complete doubt as to what they should do. He had no doubt that the question would receive the earliest attention of Her Majesty's Government, in order that the minds of the owners of these vessels might be set at rest; and he, as representing the owners and shippers, was perfectly content to abide by their decision.