HC Deb 22 February 1866 vol 181 cc918-28

Order for Second Reading read.


Sir, I rise to state that it is not my intention to offer any opposition to the plan which the Government has proposed upon this subject. I feel that it must be a subject of very sincere regret to both sides of this House, and I have no doubt whatever that it is a matter of sincere regret to Her Majesty's Government, that we are thus compelled to take what I may call a retrograde step in colonial policy, by repealing, or, at all events, temporarily suspending the free representative Constitution which has been enjoyed by the colony of Jamaica for upwards of 200 years. But, notwithstanding the regret which I feel for the necessity of taking this retrograde step, I think it will not be necessary that we should enter at any length into a discussion either as to the state of Jamaica or the causes which have induced Her Majesty's Government to come to Parliament with this proposal to suspend the Constitution. I think it impossible that any one who is cognizant of the recent history of Jamaica, or who has made himself acquainted with the contents of the Papers which have lately been laid before us, to doubt that the Government have really very little option in adopting the course which they now have done, and asking the House to consent to the measure which they have submitted to our notice. No one can have read those Papers or have reflected on the history of Jamaica without feeling that the state of that colony has been sadly changed by the events of the last few years, by that policy which, whether right or wrong, was adopted by the Imperial Government with regard to the production of sugar in the West India Islands. Whether that policy were wise or unwise it is now too late to consider, but I think there can be no doubt that the effect of that policy has been to involve this island of Jamaica in a state of increasing misfortune and decay, the result of which is that there now remains in the island neither material for a free representative Assembly nor the basis upon which a free representative Assembly could be founded. The proposal which Her Majesty's Government has submitted to us is very similar to a proposal submitted to the House by the Government in the year 1839, but one difference is this. In 1839 the island of Jamaica was in a state of great excitement, and great party violence prevailed there in consequence of the emancipation of the slaves. Further—I think unfortunately—that measure was proposed in this House at a time when party spirit ran very high, when political parties were very nearly balanced, and when a great party struggle for the government of the country was in progress. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Colonies was then in Parliament—I think not; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer was a Member at the time, and if I remember aright he was, like myself, one of that very powerful party which, although in fact a minority, was sufficiently strong to put an end to that measure. I frankly confess my belief that it was unfortunate that we arrived at that conclusion. My opinion is, that if the state of politics had allowed that question to be considered in the calm and dispassionate manner in which we consider the present measure, and if that suspension of the Constitution had then been carried, the history of Jamaica during the years which have intervened would in all probability have been less disastrous than they have been. Another respect in which the cases are dissimilar is that in that case a difference had arisen between the Legislature of Jamaica and the Legislature of the mother country, whereas now there is no difference of opinion between the Legislature of Jamaica and the Legislature of the mother country, and Her Majesty's Government are proceeding to suspend the Constitution of Jamaica, not only because in their judgment that suspension is necessary, but because the Jamaica Government itself has abdicated its functions and declared its own incompetence and incapacity to carry on the business of the colony. Under these circumstances, I, for one, can have no doubt that it is my duty as a Member of this House to give my support to Her Majesty's Government in the proposal which they have made; and with regard to that part of the proposal which relates to the manner in which the Government of Jamaica is to be conducted during the three years in which the Constitution is to be suspended, I think that is a point which we ought to leave to the discretion of Her Majesty's Ministers. It will be at once the course the most prudent and the most acceptable to the colony. I therefore give my cordial support to the proposal which Her Majesty's Government have made. There is one other point to which I will venture for a moment to request the attention of the House. I am most anxious that this occasion should not be taken advantage of by Gentlemen on either side of the House [cheers] to initiate a discussion upon recent events in Jamaica. I am glad to hear those cheers; they strengthen me in the hope that I may appeal to the good feeling of Gentlemen on both sides of the House, whatever may be the impression produced upon their minds, to acquiesce in the strong opinion I express that at this moment, while a solemn inquiry is being conducted by a Royal Commission into the unfortunate occurrences at Jamaica, and the conduct of the civil and military authorities there, any discussion of these matters would be premature, and that we are bound in fairness, in honour, and in justice, to suspend our judgments, with regard to the merits or demerits of the conduct of those concerned, until the decision of the Commission is in our hands. I hope I may be met in the spirit in which I speak by the Secretary of State if I strongly deprecate, above all, anything like prejudging the conduct of the parties concerned on the part of Her Majesty's Ministers. I make this appeal to the right hon. Gentleman because I am disposed to believe that a very erroneous impression widely prevails with regard to the manner in which Governor Eyre has been treated by the Ministry. I believe there is a wide impression that, by suspending Governor Eyre, the Government have prejudged and condemned him, and that his suspension was a penal suspension. In justice to the Government, I am bound to say that I, for one, never shared that opinion. I believe, on the contrary, that the Government intended to treat Governor Eyre with perfect fairness. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman opposite, in suspending Governor Eyre from his official functions, had no intention to prejudge him or to express any opinion one way or the other with regard to his conduct. His suspension was nothing more than an indispensable consequence of an official investigation by a Royal Commission, during whose inquiries it was impossible he could discharge the duties of Governor. It was to facilitate this inquiry that he was sus- pended, and it was not the intention of the Government to prejudge or condemn him. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will have no hesitation in confirming that view.


said, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would inform the House whether it was true, as was stated on the authority of a Member of the late Jamaica House of Assembly, that the population of the island—about equal to that of Sheffield—was taxed to the amount of £45,000 per year for the maintenance of an ecclesiastical establishment to which not more than one-eighth of the people belong. If the statement were true, he asked from the Government an explanation of their intentions for the future. Was this canker on the prosperity of the island to continue? Was £45,000, or any sum, to be exacted from the people to support a Church to which they did not belong? If so, the island would never be happy. This state of things was worse even than that which existed in Ireland, for in Ireland the Established Church was maintained by the property of the country, whereas in Jamaica it was supported out of taxes levied for that purpose. It was impossible to expect the great majority of the people of Jamaica to submit to a tax so unfairly proportioned,


said, that every one who took an interest in the affairs of Jamaica must feel thankful to the Colonial Secretary for bringing in this Bill. There were great differences of opinion in re-gard to the unhappy event in the island, but he was glad that all parties were now disposed to hold their judgments in abeyance until the report of the Commission was received. The late Assembly of Jamaica was a body which really commanded the respect of no one, and therefore no one regretted its abolition. During the thirty years of its existence it had grossly mismanaged the affairs of the island, and it had failed to introduce any measures adapted to the state of society as changed by negro emancipation. The only good law the Assembly passed was that by which it abolished itself. The Bill now before the House simply affirmed what the Assembly had done. While he heartily approved the Bill, he must say that the period of three years was too short to make an experiment upon the island. He hoped the Bill would not be so limited. Jamaica required, among other changes, a strong Government in order to restore order among the excitable population. The country also needed independent Judges and magistrates, who would be able to administer justice with impartiality. Ample provision, too, must be made for the education of the people. At present great ignorance prevailed in the island. Some time would necessarily elapse before a good Government would be appreciated and the excited feelings of the country allayed. When there should be a good and firm Government, and when justice should be impartially administered to them, and an interest be manifested in their welfare by the authorities, the past unfortunate proceedings would soon vanish from their memory. While, however, there remained evidences of discontent and disorder in the island, capital would never flow to it and commerce would decline.


stated that he had, in common with other Members of the House, received a very extraordinary epistle from one of its Members, a Gentleman whose acquaintance he had never had the honour of making, and to whom he had never spoken. Whether it was Parliamentary to characterize the conduct of the hon. Member by the phrase an "unwarrantable liberty," he did not know, but would, if the Speaker should intimate that it was not, apply a more mitigated expression to it. He would take the liberty of reading the letter which had been addressed to him by the hon. Member for Surrey— At the Conservative dinner at Leeds you attacked those who had denounced the doings in Jamaica in very strong terms. I hope you will not shrink from making the same charges in the House of Commons face to face with us. Your speech will, I believe, be alluded to. In the first place, he would tell the hon. Member for Surrey that he was not one of those who were in the habit of saying things behind a man's back that he would not say to his face, and in the House of Commons too. He was not one to shrink from his duty. Now, as he had been challenged to repeat what he had said at Leeds, the House would allow him a few minutes while he read an extract from the speech which had so much galled the hon. Member. It ran thus— He wished to make one or two observations with regard to the Jamaica question. Was there ever anything in this world so disreputable as the conduct of certain parties? Let them take the facts as they stood. An insurrection, planned years ago, broke out before all the plans were matured. He thanked God that it did, and it showed that there was a Providence which overlooked us all, and no doubt the premature outbreak of that insurrection was a means to an end. The intention of half-a-million of negroes was to massacre the 15,000 white men in the island, and to take possession of the soil to the exclusion of its rightful proprietors. Fortunately, before these plans were matured, the plot exploded, and they had to thank Governor Eyre for the prompt and energetic manner in which he crushed that rebellion. He hanged its ringleaders, and what then followed? By the return mail thanks and congratulations were sent out from Lord Russell and the Colonial Minister, who appreciated the services of Governor Eyre, and also the services of the army generally. Immediately this was known there was a great howl in Exeter Hall among the Baptists and philanthropists. Mr. Bright denounced the Government of Jamaica and everybody connected with its policy, and said it was wrong altogether. But the fact was that had it not been for Governor Eyre's promptitude in the way in which he dealt with those atrocious murderers, who had already sacrificed the lives of numbers of our countrymen, the whole white population of that island would have ceased to exist months ago. Lord Russell, feeling the iron hand of Mr. Bright, trembled in his shoes, and wrote out at once to suspend Governor Eyre, that a Commission would issue forthwith, thus punishing him prematurely, and the troops, instead of receiving honour from the Crown, had to abide the result of the inquiry. Was there ever such a miserable piece of administration? Was there ever such gross injustice done, not merely to Governor Eyre, but to the gallant troops under his command? If the troops of the British Isles—if the troops under the command of Her Majesty—were to receive no thanks from the weak, impotent, degraded Government, where were they to look? Where would the country find troops to serve her, or Governors to protect her colonies, if they were thus treated? Having read the words he had uttered at the meeting held at Leeds, he must thank the hon. Member for the honour he had thus conferred upon him in bringing his name before the House of Commons; because he thus obtained the opportunity of making the world aware of what were the notions of one Member, at all events, respecting the atrocities committed in Jamaica, and the conduct of the Government towards the Governor of that island. His speech at Leeds was certainly an after-dinner effusion, and, therefore, it would not, perhaps, go far beyond the precincts of the town; but now, in consequence of the interference of the hon. Member for Surrey, he was able, by means of the press, to place his views before the country. If, however, the House of Commons were to be called upon to listen to what had occurred at public meetings throughout the country, its time would be wasted and the interests of the nation altogether Colonel Edwards neglected. He therefore hoped the conduct which the hon. Member for Surrey had pursued would be generally discouraged by the House. He did not retract a single syllable he had uttered in his speech at Leeds. His impression at the time he made it was that it was entirely correct from beginning to end, and that impression had since become a conviction, and neither the arguments of the hon. Member for Surrey, nor those of any other Member, would change his views untill he had seen the Report of the Royal Commission.


Sir, I am glad-notwithstanding the little episode to which we have just listened—it appears to be the opinion of the House that we are acting wisely in avoiding discussion with reference to the late proceedings in Jamaica. In answering the appeal made by my right hon. Friend opposite (Sir John Pakington) that we should proceed with the Bill without reference to the general question, it is only necessary I should say, that as has been most handsomely admitted by my right hon. Friend, the course we have been compelled to take was, upon the whole, the only course open to us. I have great pleasure in stating that the construction he has put upon that course, in regard to the motives of the Government, is the true and right construction. Nothing was further from our intention than in the smallest degree to prejudge the case on either side; and I am bound to say that I can conceive no conduct more unworthy than ours would have been if we had sent the Governor before the Royal Commission with any prejudgment expressed by us with regard to any portion of his conduct. Perhaps I may be permitted to read the concluding paragraph of the despatch in which I conveyed to Governor Eyre the views of Her Majesty's Government. In the early portion of the despatch we stated that an inquiry must take place; and that, if it was to be conducted fully and impartially, it must be conducted by independent persons who had themselves taken no part in the proceedings. If we consider the safety of the colony, it was manifest that that safety might be endangered by an inquiry injudiciously conducted. If we consider the efficiency of the inquiry, and the confidence which it ought to inspire in the general community, whether in Jamaica or in this country, it is manifest that it must be conducted by independent persons. The Government rightly thought that it was impossible to hold the Governor responsible for the safety of the colony, and, at the same time, to subject him to a searching inquiry with regard to the measures he had adopted in repressing the outbreak which had already taken place. Whether, therefore, we considered the safety of the colony, the efficiency of the inquiry, or the position of the Governor himself, we felt that it was our duty to direct that the inquiry should be conducted by independent persons. Well, then, Sir, I will read the passage, in order that I may show the feeling entertained by the Government on this subject. It is as follows:— In conclusion, I will only repeat on the part of Her Majesty's Government that, while we feel it to be our imperative duty to institute this inquiry, we desire by every means in our power to guard against in any way prejudging its result. Our earnest hope is that the result will he to satisfy us on the points on which it is necessary for us to be satisfied, and at the same time to exhibit the conduct of those whose duty has compelled them to take part in those proceedings, and to whom the suppression of the outbreak is due, in a light consistent with their position and character, and especially, in your own case, with that high character for courage and humanity for which you have always been distinguished. I trust that these views of Her Majesty's Government will be a conclusive proof that the credit which the right hon. Gentleman so handsomely gave us for the motives which influenced us was not undeserved. With respect to the measure now before us, I have little more to add except to express my obligations to the House for the candid manner in which the proposal has been received. It is, no doubt, a matter of great regret to both sides of the House that a popular form of Government which has existed for 200 years should come to a conclusion, and that we should be compelled to substitute for it the form of Government now proposed. I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman that those who have traced the history of Jamaica from 1839 to this time may well doubt whether it would not have been for the benefit of the colony that the step which we now propose had been taken before. There is no doubt that Jamaica, from its natural advantages,—from its soil, from the splendour of its climate, and its great suitability for all tropical productions, was once by far the most flourishing and valuable of our West Indian possessions. At the time of emancipation it received the larger part of the money voted for that object, and in exports, population, and wealth it was then nearly equal to all our other West Indian pos- sessions taken together. From that period it has afforded a melancholy example of declension and decay. It is now agreed by its own Legislature that the time has arrived for a change in the form of its Government. That Legislature has made a proposal which Parliament is about to sanction, and therefore, with the concurrence of this House and of the Legislature of Jamaica, we are about to institute this experiment. The hon. Gentleman behind me (Mr. Hadfield) has asked me what we are about to do with the ecclesiastical establishments of Jamaica. My answer is that we are now about to establish a form of Government, and that our first duty will be to consider what the institutions of the island are, and to endeavour to bring them into a working form most likely to promote the prosperity of the island. I am sure my hon. Friend will see that nothing would be more premature or ill-advised than to make declarations on the subject to which he has referred. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Crum-Ewing) has said that the success of this measure will depend on its being temporary or permanent, and in that to a great extent I agree. I have not the least reason to suppose that the House will determine, at the expiration of three years, the period proposed to restore the former Legislature of Jamaica. But in our present state of imperfect information during the pendency of an inquiry, it is much more natural that we should avail ourselves of the elasticity of the power of modifying our proceedings by Orders in Council. At the time this Bill shall expire, the House may have the subject before it more fully and in a more perfect shape. I do not at all anticipate that at the expiration of that time we shall recur to the ancient Constitution of Jamaica. The House will probably continue the present Bill. We think that a form of Government which is preferred in Trinidad, Ceylon, and the Mauritius is most likely to promote the prosperity of Jamaica. I have again to thank the House for the kind manner in which they have received this measure.


said, that no one could feel more then he did the wisdom of the advice that no allusion should be made at this period to the events which had taken place in Jamaica; and therefore, in the few remarks which he was about to make, he would be careful not to say a single word upon the subject. Of the composition of the Commission there could be no question. Sir Henry Storks was one of the best men that could be chosen, and each of the other members was, he believed, equally well qualified for a duty which was likely to tax all their ability and resolution. Nothing could be more true than the remark which had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and other hon. Members, that the Constitution of Jamaica had been the great barrier to her prosperity. The frequent elections which took place turned away the people from habits of industry to political excitement. Valuable time was wasted in the House of Assembly in undignified squabbles with the Legislative Council, in abortive measures, and in jobs of every kind The right hon. Baronet had referred to the crisis of 1839. Again in 1849, on a question of the reduction of salaries, the House of Assembly refused to perform its duties, and the effect was that the rum duties were lost to the amount of £50,000. In 1853 the taxes were not collected, and the duties not levied for nearly six months, and by that £177,000 was lost, and a permanent debt of £130,000 was incurred, the matter resulting, as was said, in a handsome profit to some of the members through whom the crisis had come about. The Constitution of 1854 was an attempt to have responsible and representative Government without party. It was entirely unworkable, but no doubt the object aimed at was the right one, because in a case like Jamaica party strife became a conflict of races. Jamaica was rapidly returning into its original wilderness, and, under the circumstances, it was clear that a change was necessary. It was to be hoped that when some time had passed away they would find, instead of the ruin that was impending, returning prosperity, because he felt certain that the form of Government which now prevailed in Trinidad, and which was about to be applied to Jamaica, was the only one fitted to the circumstances of that community.


said, he was intimately acquainted with the West India Islands, and he felt convinced that the Government which existed in Trinidad—consisting of a Governor and a Council of nominated men—was infinitely preferable to that absurd burlesque of the British Constitution which existed in times past, but was now perishing in Jamaica.


said he should not remark on the singular and strange part which the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Edwards) opposite took in replying to the letter addressed to him; nor should he reply to his remarks or go into any discussion on the question. He entirely agreed that it would be far better to suspend judgment for a few weeks until the report of the Royal Commission had been received. He only wished to say, in regard to the remarks of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, as applied to himself and those with whom he acted, that they would not cause him or any one else an instant's pain. He confessed, however, that the tremendous and sweeping charges which the hon. and gallant Gentleman had made against the whole negro race of the island, while he (Mr. Buxton) and his friends had been accused day by day of prejudging the case against Governor Eyre, had stung him and all who took a deep interest in the welfare of that race. He firmly believed that the negroes would be proved innocent of any such deep diabolical design as a conspiracy to murder the white population of the island. If the discussion had gone on, he should have been rejoiced to lay before the House what he considered overwhelming proof that no such idea had ever been entertained by the negroes.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.