HC Deb 07 May 1863 vol 170 cc1303-15

I wish to put a question to the noble Lord at the head of the Government respecting the conduct of Mr. Christie, Her Majesty's minister at Brazil, and the circumstances to which my question refers affect the personal credit and honour of a public functionary. I must ask the House to allow me to briefly state the facts of the case. It seems that a gentleman, holding the office of Minister of the United States at the Court of Brazil, had addressed to Earl Russell a letter impugning the honour and credit of Mr. Christie. Any correspondence of that kind, of course, would be only of a private character, and therefore would not be deserving of the notice of the House. But in the report of what took place upon a former occasion in this House I find that the words of the despatch have been quoted in the House, to the effect that Mr. Christie had shown, under all the circumstances, "a reckless disregard of truth which is not characteristic of a gentleman, and certainly not commendable in the representative of the English nation." After that passage had been quoted, it was said by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Bramley-Moore) that some colour had been given to that assertion by Mr. Christie's conduct. I have therefore taken upon myself, as the language was most painful to Mr. Christie and his friends, to put this notice on the paper. It is, I know, the universal habit of Gentlemen in this House, when they know they have given pain unnecessarily to any person alluded to in debate, at once to come forward to set themselves right. I had hoped the hon. Member for Lincoln would have done that. He has not done it, and therefore I have no resource but to ask the Government, in the person of the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether there is anything that he is aware of in Mr. Christie's conduct to give any colour whatever to the assertion quoted; whether Mr. Christie's conduct in the matter of the Prince of Wales and her Majesty's ship Forte has received the full and entire approbation of Her Majesty's Government; and whether the letter of General Webb has received any countenance, or has been taken into consideration by Earl Russell?


As to Mr. Christie, he sat for some time as a Member of this House, and there are many hon. Members who will recollect the ability with which be performed his duties here. I can only say that Mr. Christie is a gentleman and a man of honour; and, as to his veracity, no man can question that veracity with any semblance whatever of truth. With regard to General Webb, I know nothing of him, and therefore I shall say nothing. But as to his letter, this I will say—that it was no doubt treated by my noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Office with the entire disregard which it justly merited; and if any such letter had been written by a British diplomatist, I am quite sure that my noble Friend would, without hesitation, have instantly dismissed that person as having proved himself totally unfit and unsuited to hold any commission under Her Majesty. With respect to Mr. Christie's conduct in the matter to which my hon. Friend alludes—that is to say, in the negotiations and in the demands made upon the Government of Brazil—I have the satisfaction of stating that that conduct has been fully and entirely approved by Her Majesty's Government. Mr. Christie acted with great judgment, and with all the forbearance which is compatible with a proper and faithful performance of the orders which he had received, and therefore there was no ground whatever for imputing to him anything to which any foreign Government could take the slightest objection. But it is a well-known practice in countries which are in that peculiar state of progress in which Brazil happens at the present moment to find itself, that when their injustice or misconduct obliges a foreign Government to use compulsion in order to obtain the redress which has been denied to friendly representation, they endeavour to take their revenge by pouring forth every sort of calumny upon the agent who has been the instrument of the Government using those means. I can assure the House, however, that such proceedings never will, in any degree, damage a British representative in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government.


After the statement of the noble Lord, and after being alluded to in so personal a manner by the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. M. Milnes), I may be permitted to make some observations. I certainly feel some surprise at the statement of the noble Lord that Mr. Christie has conducted matters in Rio Janeiro with so much moderation. Why, Sir, people there are perfectly capable of judging. ["Order!"] I beg, Sir, to put myself in order, to move the adjournment of the House. It is perfectly notorious in Rio Janeiro, where there is a community capable of judging much better of the action of the Government than we who are at a distance, that Mr. Christie's conduct in Rio Janeiro and in respect to the Brazilian Government was anything but moderate or conciliatory. If any hon. Member has carefully read the volume of despatches relating to the question, he will have seen that there is a tone of arrogance and insolence to the Government of Brazil altogether unprecedented on the part of a Minister of England towards a foreign Government. Why, it is notorious that Mr. Christie's irritability of temper has caused him to quarrel with every diplomatic body in Rio Janeiro. He quarrelled with the Austrian, the Russian, and the Prussian ministers, and even with the Pope's Nuncio. [Laughter.] I mention the Pope's Nuncio particularly, because he is well known to be so mild and gentle that it would be sup- posed it was impossible to quarrel with him. But he is included in the batch. Now, allusion has been made to an extract that I read to this House from a letter written by General Webb to Earl Russell. I thought I was justified in rending that extract, because General Webb holds the same position in Rio Janeiro that is held by Mr. Christie, and therefore was his equal in all respects. He also had a quarrel with Mr. Christie, and he took the means of making this known in a despatch to Earl Russell. That despatch had become public property. It has been lithographed and extensively circulated, first privately, and then in New York through the medium of the press. It was also published in England, and therefore I could not see that I was not justified in reading to the House an extract from the despatch of General Webb. I also quoted from Mr. Christie's own despatches to show that he never would admit anything that was stated by the Brazilian authorities. It was no matter what was said or done, he would receive nothing, heed nothing, but relied entirely upon his own statements, many of which I am led to believe were erroneous; and, as I stated on a former occasion, his conduct was such as to give some colour to the charges made against him by General Webb. Now, Sir, in support of this, I beg to call the attention of the House to a despatch of Mr. Christie's dated Rio Janeiro, 15th of February 1863. In this despatch there are distinct statements made to Earl Russell conveying to his mind that he (Mr. Christie) had the support of the merchants as a body in Rio Janeiro. This despatch was accompanied by a document signed by a number of the merchants, which also conveyed to the mind of Earl Russell that the wealth, the intelligence, and the respectability of the body of merchants in Rio were embodied in that address to Mr. Christie, and so much importance was attached to this address of the merchants as showing that Mr. Christie's conduct had met with general approbation, that when it reached England, the Foreign Office, in all possible haste, published it in the Gazette along with Earl Russell's own despatch. The statements in the despatch of Mr. Christie, I venture to state, and I do so of my own knowledge, were most inaccurate and erroneous, and were calculated to convey a totally wrong impression to Earl Russell and the public mind, and unfortunately it did convey a wrong impression. Many parties out of doors spoke to me in reference to it, and said, "There is Mr. Christie altogether exonerated from blame as well as the Government in the transactions with Brazil." Permit me to state, that in the address which Mr. Christie received, and in his despatch to Earl Russell, it is stated that the number of houses in Rio Janeiro are forty, and that the eighteen whose signatures were attached represented the wealth and intelligence of the place, and that this address, therefore, would be a most satisfactory document for Earl Russell to receive. Why, Sir, this statement conveyed to the noble Lord's mind and the minds of the British public that Mr. Christie had received the approbation and sanction of the British merchants of Rio Janeiro. I deny this altogether. So far from this being the case, forty of the old houses of Rio Janeiro, combining the respectability, the wealth, and the intelligence of the place, refused to sign it at all; and consequently to say that the eighteen signatures to the address represent the British community there, and to convey to Earl Russell's mind that Mr. Christie had the approbation of the British community in Rio is altogether erroneous. Mr. Christie may have said this in ignorance and good faith, but from his position he ought to have been better informed. In another part of that despatch Mr. Christie said there were a few dissentients, and they would take every means in their power to lead parties in England to believe that he had not the community with him. In this despatch he makes use of these words: — "Unanimity can never be expected. Almost all respectable Englishmen here, I believe, understand the question and their duty." I entirely concur in this remark. The Englishmen in Rio are a highly intelligent class, and they not only understand and have a thorough knowledge of the questions at issue, but, as Mr. Christie says, they know their duty. They did know their duty when forty of the most respectable houses in that city refused to sign the address to him, and altogether withheld their sanction from his conduct. Looking at the inaccurate impression conveyed by Mr. Christie on this subject, I say it is not a far-fetched conclusion to suppose that it gives colour to the statement that he has committed himself to other inaccuracies. I do not charge Mr. Christie with having made wilful misrepresentations, but he has made misrepresentations; and if he has made them in good faith, then I say that in his position he ought to have been much better informed. There can be no doubt whatever that a great deal of personality occurred between Mr. Christie and the authorities in Rio Janeiro; and, I believe, from all the accounts I have received, that he has made this, to a certain extent, a personal question; and from his making it a personal matter have resulted most serious consequences, not only to the British trade with Brazil, but to the whole community. The conduct of Mr. Christie has given great power to the Republican party there, which may even endanger the existence of the monarchy, the only monarchy existing in that part of the world; and I say, that instead of sending out Ministers of such a temperament as Mr. Christie, we ought to foster and encourage a Government like the Brazilian Government, which has shown such perfect good faith in all its engagements. I do not at all know on what grounds the noble Lord can say that the conduct of Mr. Christie merits the most perfect and unqualified approbation of the Government. Mr. Christie sent one of his attachés home in disgrace, but he was sent back, though on his arrival there Mr. Christie refused to see him—an event calculated to have a bad effect on British interests. We know also that he left Rio without taking leave of the Emperor. I think I have given sufficient reasons to justify me in saying that Mr. Christie has made a great number of exaggerated statements and even misstatements. If he has done this in good faith and ignorance, I believe that he ought to have known better; but British interests have suffered severely at his hands, and it will be a very long time before the same amicable delations can be restored between the two countries. It is the opinion of the large majority of the British community at Rio that this state of things is owing to Mr. Christie's want of tact and management, and the unfortunate irritability of his temper. It was a case in which special tact was necessary in conducting negotiations with Brazil, because this charge about the murder of the seamen has never been substantiated—there never has been a tittle of evidence to prove it, and the grounds on which Mr. Christie made the charge rested on the statement of a gentleman whom he himself states to have been labouring under mental delusion. I do therefore say, that what has arisen out of this we may attribute entirely to Mr. Christie's mismanagement, and therefore I do not see that I have any apology or explanation whatever to make for having read an extract from General Webb. General Webb was Mr. Christie's equal in position. He wrote a despatch to Earl Russell that was made public through the press in both countries, and became, therefore, public property; and I maintain that I was justified in making a quotation from it in this House. The hon. Member concluded by moving the adjournment of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."


Sir, I do not wish to delay the House by prolonging this discussion, but I must object to the grounds on which the hon. Member who has just sat down is desirous of placing the judgment, to be formed on Mr. Christie's conduct. The hon. Member asserts what I have no doubt he believes to be quite true with respect to all the merchants in Rio— namely, that they have expressed their disapprobation of Mr. Christie's conduct. [Mr. BRAMLEY-MOORE: I said a large majority of them.] Well, a majority, large or small, but I contend that is nothing to the purpose. It is not for a body of merchants in a foreign country to judge of the expediency of orders transmitted from Her Majesty's Government at home to be executed by an agent abroad. It is for the Government to judge of a matter of that kind, and not for those on the spot engaged in commerce. But my information differs entirely from that of the hon. Gentleman. He says the majority of the most respectable merchants disapprove, I will not say Mr. Christie's proceedings, because they were the proceedings of Her Majesty's Government, Mr. Christie having done what he was ordered, and having no other alternative than to perform that duty. I am informed, not by Mr. Christie himself, but by other persons on whose judgment and truthfulness I have the greatest dependence, that a large majority of the British merchants at Rio entirely approve the proceedings of Her Majesty's Government; but whereas it happens that the custom of trade in Brazil is such that those persons who trade there have always large sums due to them by the Brazilian merchants, it is possible, that entirely distrusting the Brazilian Government, some of those British merchants may have thought that those disputes might place their debts in danger; and that while on the one hand they were glad the British Government had adopted measures such as would secure thorn against future dangers, on the other they may have thought it convenient to find fault with the British Government on account of measures which, in truth, they were very glad to see adopted. That I believe to be the real state of the case; but, undoubtedly, a great majority of those merchants openly expressed their approval of what Mr. Christie had orders to do. The hon. Gentleman has stated what I was sorry to hear repeated —that the charge with reference to the murder of the crew of the Prince of Wales was founded on the evidence of a gentleman whose mind was not in such a state as to justify Mr. Christie in acting on his statement. Now, Sir, that is a very unjust, a very ungenerous, and a very unfounded observation. I believe Mr. Vereker was for a short time suffering under an illness to which anybody—even the hon. Member for Lincoln—may be liable, but which in no way altered his permanent state of health or rendered his testimony less deserving of credit. Though we have no positive evidence on the subject, we have reason to believe that the crews landed on the beach, and, though carrying arms for the protection of themselves and their property, were overpowered by the people of the district, who, with lassos, dragged them from their shelter, and then murdered them in. a barbarous and inhuman manner. The Government have no evidence to enable them to assert that as a positive fact, but I believe it is exactly what happened.


Sir, the hon. Member for Lincoln has stated that he felt himself entitled to quote in this House a certain statement, made by a person called General Webb, because it had been circulated elsewhere. Now, that statement was a calumny—a calumny on the character of an honourable and an absent man. Therefore, I hold the hon. Gentleman had no right to make that quotation and give it the circulation which every statement made in this House acquires, being himself privileged as a Member of Parliament from being called to account for having endorsed such an assertion. I think nothing can be more natural than that a gentleman like Mr. Christie, known to many of us as having been a Member of this House, and also known as a gentleman of high character and honour, should feel much offended at finding that such a statement as this of General Webb—to which I believe no man in his senses attaches any weight—should be endorsed by an hon. Member in this House, and circulated, as all statements made in this House are, through the press all over the country. I must express my disappointment that the hon. Member for Lincoln has not thought fit to make reparation to Mr. Christie's wounded feelings by expressing his regret for having circulated such a statement; but I do think that Mr. Christie ought to be perfectly satisfied with what has been stated by my noble Friend at the head of the Government. I think the statement of the noble Lord will more than weigh against General Webb's calumnies, and the circulation given to them by the hon. Member for Lincoln.


Sir, I have had the honour of many years' acquaintance with Mr. Christie, and I can bear my testimony to what has been stated by the right hon. Gentleman who has just addressed the House. I endeavoured by every means in my power to induce the hon. Member for Lincoln to retract the statement he had made. I spoke to hon. Members who had heard the statement, because, had I been present, I should have felt bound to appeal to you, Sir, in consequence of the use of language not customary in this House. I regret that statement the more because it referred to a private transaction of which the hon. Member for Lincoln knew nothing; and so far from that statement being supported by the Ministers of the other Powers at Brazil, the Russian Minister and the Prussian Minister had reported that they did not remember the slightest ground for it. I cannot but regret that there should have appeared in the newspapers so gross an imputation on an honourable man as has been repeated in this House. I regret it the more because these statements are retailed in foreign countries, where there is no means of reply. I think it the more ungenerous on the part of the hon. Member for Lincoln not to retract such an assertion, when it had nothing to do with the policy of Her Majesty's Government in Brazil.


Sir, I have heard with some regret the attempt which has been made to limit the freedom with which Members of this House have been accustomed to discuss the conduct of public functionaries throughout the world. It could be to serve no purposes of private malice that the hon. Member for Lincoln read the statement referred to. The point is simply this:—The Government are charged with having employed in the delicate relations which existed between this country and Brazil an agent who was manifestly unfit for his post, and I apprehend that is a charge which it is competent for any hon. Member of this House to make. You may make what charge you please against the other Ministers at Rio, you may apply to them all the depreciatory remarks which the noble Lord applied to the American Minister; but the fact is that Mr. Christie had managed to quarrel with them all. It is not for the honour of this House, nor does it show a due regard for the privileges of this House, to attempt to limit the freedom with which every Member of this House ought to be able to discuss the conduct of those to whom the Government intrust the representation of this country in foreign parts.


Sir, I have no wish to go into another Brazilian debate, but I simply rise to defend a gentleman whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for a great many years, and whose conduct is not liable to the charge which has been brought against it. I was in the House at the time of the Brazilian debate, and, as far as my memory goes, the words actually used by the hon. Member for Lincoln were, "I would not say that Mr. Christie has wilfully exaggerated or misrepresented what had occurred, but his behaviour certainly gave some colour to General Webb's charges against him." That was the hon. Gentleman's language, and the passage in General Webb's letter, which obtained circulation in the newspapers was this: — "All the circumstances go to prove a reckless disregard of truth on the part of Mr. Christie, which is not characteristic of a gentleman, and certainly not commendable in a representative of the British nation." As a friend of Mr. Christie, I wish to give a most emphatic denial to that character of him which is given by General Webb, and I am very sorry that the hon. Member for Lincoln, so far from having taken the opportunity offered him of a disavowal, has adopted words which he did not himself actually use at the time. If he had used those words, there were friends of Mr. Christie in the House who would have been glad at once to give their impression of his character. After what the noble Lord has said, it is unnecessary to say anything more in Mr. Christie's defence. It must be obvious that the representative of the English Government may often have occasion to thwart the views of the merchants. Mr. Christie may have done that, but his conduct, I believe, has not only been able, but it has been such as to deserve the high approbation which the noble Lord has passed on it.


Sir, it is not my intention to enter into the personal question which has been raised, still less to make any observations reflecting on the character of an hon. Gentleman once a Member of this House, and with whom I have the pleasure of a personal acquaintance. I wish simply to make one remark on what has fallen from the noble Lord at the head of the Government. When this Brazilian question was discussed before, I spoke in the debate, and I mentioned that I had heard on good authority that the merchants in Brazil were opposed to the proceedings of Her Majesty's Government. Since then a document has been published purporting to be signed by a number of British merchants, now admitted to be a minority, and an attempt has been made to show that this document was an approval of the conduct of Her Majesty's Government. I read that paper over with the most minute attention, and I am sorry I have not got it with me, but I had not the least idea that this discussion would have arisen. In it those merchants carefully abstain—they state that they abstain from offering any opinion upon the origin of the dispute between Her Majesty's Government and the Brazilian empire, and they go on to say, that as they are anxious that the national feeling in Brazil should not be needlessly offended, they are gratified that Mr. Christie so far departed from the instructions which he had received from his Government as to make a proposal more conciliatory to the Brazilian Government than the terms which he had been instructed to offer, and by this means avoided what would otherwise have been a great affront to the national sentiment, and secured a mode of settlement. How this can be construed into an endorsement and approval of the conduct of the Government I cannot see. It certainly offers a tribute of approbation to Mr. Christie, but it is at the expense of the Foreign Office; for it compliments him on having departed from the instructions which he had received. I have the meaning of the document so clearly in my mind that I cannot be mistaken, and I very much regret that I did not bring it down with me. It is totally impossible to build on it anything like a justification for the course the Government pursued in what I must call this most unhappy affair.


said, that as a Friend of Mr. Christie, he felt desirous of adding his testimony in defence of his character from the unjust imputation thrown on it, and which could only have originated in some strange mistake.


Sir, when this question was before the House on a former occasion, Mr. Christie felt somewhat hurt that I took no notice of the words which fell from the hon. Member opposite. The fact is, as those who were in the House at the time are aware, the hon. Member for Lincoln spoke so low that it was with great difficulty be was heard in any part of the House. I did catch the name of General Webb, and presumed that he was alluding to the letter. But that was a document of so improper a description that I did not think it worthy of the character of Mr. Christie or of this House to refer to it. I only wish further to add that the statement made by the noble Lord opposite, that Mr. Christie has quarrelled with every foreign Minister at Rio, is totally unfounded. [Lord ROBERT CECIL: With most of them.] At the time of his last visit here Mr. Christie had had a difference with two of the Ministers, but it was arranged; and at the time of his return there he was on the best terms with all his colleagues, who have borne their testimony to his high character and to the manner in which he conducted himself in a most trying crisis.


Sir, I wish to point out to the House the great inconvenience to public business which arises from irregular and personal discussions of this character. If we are to have Motions of adjournment on every occasion like the present, I do not see how the public business of the country is to be carried forward. At the same time, I perfectly feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln must be exonerated in the present instance, from the nature of the subject. I imagine that the great inconvenience we have experienced on the present occasion arises from the hon. Member for Pontefract having put into the shape of an ordinary question a matter of importance from its personal character, and which ought to have been brought forward in a much more formal manner. The question, too, is one of which some notice ought to have been given. We have got now into another Brazilian debate; nor, unless the sense of the House is very strongly expressed as to these desultory discussions, do I see how this present question is to end. The speech which the noble Lord has made is really rife with elements for future discussion, future vindication, and future explanation. In the course of his observations the noble Lord attacked, first, the Brazilian Government, then the Brazilian nation and their state of civilization; then he attacked the American Minister at Rio; and finally, he attacked the British merchants in Brazil. I have no doubt all these various interests have friends and acquaintances in the House of Commons who will take the very first day in their power—perhaps when we are going into an important debate—to insist on vindicating their character, and calling for some explanation from the noble Lord. I have no doubt that even General Webb has some friends here who may take up his cause, and then we shall have the noble Lord indulging again in these instructive and inspiriting attacks on foreign countries and foreign Ministers, which, though they may be very amusing, certainly do not tend to a conciliatory course of diplomacy. Though no positive rule can be laid down, I trust there will be an expression of feeling on both sides of the House, that when a question of this nature has to be brought forward, it shall be done in a formal and regular manner, and not in the shape of a question and a declaration arranged beforehand to be made by the Minister, which must lead to great discussion and frequent appeals for explanation.

Question put, and negatived.