HC Deb 07 December 1867 vol 190 cc678-81

rose, pursuant to notice, to call attention to the absence, in the papers laid before Parliament, of all official information respecting Mr. Rassam's Mission between the 28th of January and the 18th of April, 1866. He thought these letters necessary to throw further light on the Abyssinian question. He did not know who was responsible for the preparation of the Abyssinian blue book, but he complained of it as meagre and ill-arranged, and observed that, upon the face of the papers it contained, it would not be difficult to construct a more substantial defence of King Theodore than he liked to contemplate. Where, he asked, was the copy of the Queen's letter to King Theodore, which Mr. Rassam was sent to Abyssinia to deliver?


said, that on coming down to the House he had no intention of re-opening the Abyssinian discussion; but as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Schreiber) had deemed it necessary to do so, he claimed the noble Lord's (Lord Stanley's) permission to call attention to a matter connected with it, which he had heard mentioned in some circles in London, as to the accuracy of which he was bound to say he was not prepared to vouch, his information depending on hearsay, but in reference to which the noble Lord might be enabled to give information. As he was informed, a French nobleman, the Comte de Buisson, who, before the period of the Neapolitan revolution, had been an officer in the service of the King of Naples, after the capitulation of Gaeta proceeded to Abyssinia, accompanied by some of his countrymen. It was stated that he became popular with some of the tribes in that country, and after a time had attained a position of consequence among them, having formed a kind of colony or small State of which, he was recognised the chief. The story went that, owing to the interference of the Egyptians on the frontier, his settlement had been broken up, and he had to remove into the interior, where he presented himself to the Emperor Theodore and established with him the most friendly relastions—to such an extent, he (Sir Patrick O'Brien) was informed, as to leave the country when he pleased, and to visit and return from Paris as occasion required; in short, that Theodore's conduct towards Comte de Buisson was civilized and indulgent rather than otherwise. A person standing in such a relation to that potentate might naturally be supposed to have considerable influence with him, and would be likely to effect more in the way of mediation than those gentlemen who, on the ground of military and adventurous qualifications, had tendered their services as described in the blue book, and had had them declined by the Government. He wished to ask, was it true that Comte de Buisson had so offered his assistance in obtaining the release of the prisoners?—for if he had, he could not imagine that any jealousy of French interference could for a moment affect the action of the Foreign Office in accepting it. The war was a serious matter: of the evils which might arise from it, one at least was certain, it would deeply affect the taxpayers of the kingdom. He (Sir Patrick O'Brien) had heard from a distinguished officer who had served in the war in Affghanistan, and who had the best means of forming a judgment upon the probable cost of the present expedition, that should our stay in Abyssinia be protracted till after April, not £2,000,000, but £10,000,000 or £12,000,000 would be most probably the sum we should have to pay; and he felt that in so serious a question every effort should be made to avert the necessity of an inglorious and costly war.


said, it might reasonably be hoped that the expedition would not cost us £10,000,000 or £12,000,000, as the last letter received from Mr. Flad stated that King Theodore had not above 8,000 men with him, and that they were chiefly peasants, who might be easily ridden over by a couple of squadrons of our cavalry. Theodore was also hardly pressed by the King of Shoa, who was at the head of considerable forces. This Prince was asking for aid from us, had sent presents to the Queen, and received in return a number of gifts, some of which were formerly intended for King Theodore.


called attention to the proposed Conference on Italian affairs, pointing out that it was so far satisfactory that the Emperor of the French, though having Italy prostrate at his feet, felt bound to consult in a Conference the enlightened opinion of Europe.


I have stated more than once the position which Her Majesty's Government hold with respect to this proposal for a Conference, and I do not know that there is any necessity that I should repeat what I have said. Of course, if the question with which the Conference would have to deal could be settled in a satisfactory manner it would be a great gain to Europe; but so far from that being probable, there is no certainty that the Conference will meet at all. For my own part, I do not see how the opposite and conflicting claims of the Pope on the one hand, and the Italian Government on the other, can be adjusted. If any plan for the purpose can be proposed we shall be bound to consider it; but I have seen no such plan up to the present time. That is the situation of affairs just now, and I have nothing more to say on the subject. With regard to the appeal made to me by my hon. Friend (Mr. Schreiber) as to letters or despatches from Mr. Rassam, there is one dated the 12th of February, 1866 (enclosed in a letter from Colonel Merewether), not included in the blue book which has been moved for, and which will be laid on the table. There has been no other despatch from Mr. Rassam during the time that I have been in office of which I am aware. I believe the explanation of that is partly that the information sent home was to a great extent conveyed in private letters, and partly also that Mr. Rassam found considerable difficulty in communicating with the Foreign Office. I may, perhaps, take this opportunity of stating that it is my intention during the Recess to have all the papers relating to Abyssinia carefully examined; inasmuch as there may probably be in the archives of the Foreign Office some papers of importance of an earlier date than those published in the blue books. The House has already every information with respect to those which have been received since I came into office; but in the earlier stages of the proceedings there may have been papers which it was thought at the time it would be imprudent to publish, lest they might compromise the safety of the prisoners. At all events, I will have all the papers of the earlier years looked through, and I dare say there are some which may be considered worth, laying before the House. With regard to the French gentleman referred to by the hon. Member for the King's County, as being resident in Abyssinia, and the French colony established by him, I do not know anything. I am not aware that that gentleman's relations with King Theodore are or were very intimate, and I must say I doubt whether his mediation would be of any avail. I do not say that from any feeling of jealousy as to French influence or French intervention. We are on the best possible terms with the French Government, and I have no doubt that if it were in their power they would help us out of the difficulty.