HC Deb 23 July 1867 vol 188 cc2074-82

rose to move that the maintenance of the Naval Squadron on the West Coast of Africa, as it has hitherto been placed, is no longer expedient. He used the words "as it has hitherto been placed," because he hoped some alteration would be made in the arrangements respecting the squadron, so as to lessen the sacrifice at present going on. The continuance of the squadron might be supported on two sentimental grounds—one, the knightly chivalry of England, the other the claims of humanity. But when English prisoners were confined in Abyssinian dungeons, notwithstanding our remonstrances, and when Denmark had been robbed in defiance of England's guarantee, without our interference, all must admit that the days of our acting on grounds of knightly chivalry had passed. If, then, in these cases we had not been prompted to draw the sword, why should we be induced to do so by the sentimental idea that we should be thereby conferring benefit on the African races? But he contended beyond this that the good results pleaded for were completely visionary, and that the squadron could not be maintained even on grounds of humanity, for the Returns showed that numbers on numbers of slaves were drowned in consequence of the efforts made to rescue them. The Spanish Chambers agreed that our method of suppression was not the right one, and he could quote opinions of competent Englishmen to the same effect. In 1865 the present Under Secretary of State for the Colonies quoted the opinion of Commodore Wilmot, to the effect that the results obtained by the squadron were not worth the cost. In the same year the present Secretary for Foreign Affairs said— I do not wish to conceal my opinion that if the people of this country knew what has been and what is the waste, I do not say of money merely, but of what is much more importance—valuable lives—on that coast, that African squadron would very shortly be numbered with the things of the past."—[3 Hansard, clxxvii. 550.] He could quote many other opinions upon the subject, none of which expressed satisfaction with the squadron as it at present existed. The Committee which had inquired into the subject reported that it was not proper immediately to withdraw the fleet; it did not speak with respect to its value. Many points of interest were touched on by the witnesses who gave evidence before it. Sir Frederick Grey showed that no ships besides ours were to be found there, so that international obligations did not require us to keep the squadron up. The same witness affirmed that if the Spanish Government was in earnest about suppressing the importation of slaves in Cuba there would be an end of the slave trade, and that the squadron was no protection to our own legitimate trade on the coast. Captain Wiseman stated that wherever British ships were found to fall back upon, there British subjects would get into trouble. Captain Wiseman said that it was difficult to keep up the discipline of the crews, and that their health was extremely bad. He also expressed an opinion that the same ship should not be more than two years on that station. Yet, in the face of that opinion, the same vessels were continued on the station for three, four, five, five, and even six years. Captain Wiseman expressed an opinion that as long as the demand for slaves existed in Cuba the trade would be kept up. Com- modore Hornby stated that he heard at the Congo that the slave trade was temporarily suspended in consequence of the difficulty of landing the slaves in Cuba. With regard to the expense, he (Sir Hervey Bruce) believed he should understate the expense of keeping up the slave squadron at £1,000,000 a year. If, however, it were only £500,000 it would be too much, because, in addition to the expenditure, it involved a drain upon the best blood of the country. Out of 15,000 persons engaged in putting down the traffic from 1855 to 1865 not less than 1,157 were dead or had been invalided during those fifteen years. There was an item for prize money, but he believed this did not arise from the sale of the prizes, but was money coming from the English Exchequer. He held in his hand a short list of the ships engaged in the blockade. The Espoir went out in November, 1864, and was still there. The Torch went out in March, 1865. The Investigator went out in February, 1862, and every one knew the number of deaths in that ill-fated ship on that pestilential coast. The Snipe went out in September, 1863, and only returned two days ago, having been out four years. The Ranger went out in 1864, and had been upwards of three years on the coast. He wished to know whether, if the Admiralty could not find new ships to send out, it would not be possible to change the men and officers. It would be a great relief also if the vessels were allowed to run down the coast now and then. It would be beneficial to the health of the crews, and the Native chiefs were much more afraid of a cruiser so employed than of stationary vessels, which might be evaded during darkness or fog. An interesting debate took place in the Spanish Chambers last year on the subject of the slave trade. A feeling appeared to prevail that it was degrading to have this blot on the character of the country; but the debate could not be read by Englishmen without seeing what dupes they had been in wasting their blood and treasure in adopting such useless means of putting down the traffic. It also appeared from this debate that the abolition of slavery in the United States had changed the whole face of the question in Cuba. He thought he had quoted enough to show that the opinion of the Spanish Assembly was that the slave trade could only be put down by taking care that slaves should not be admitted into Cuba, for where a demand existed for slaves there the demand would be supplied, and no increase of the squadron on the coast of Africa, and no expenditure of money, would prevent the admission of slaves into Cuba.


seconded the Motion. He said that no man in the world had a greater detestation of the horrible traffic in slaves than himself, which he had imbibed in the earliest years of his life when a young midshipman—the ship in in which he then was being stationed in the West Indies; and he expressed his regret for the many able officers and seamen who had been sacrificed in the service of the squadron on the West Coast of Africa. At the early time of which he spoke the slaves were brought from Africa for the supply of the several British West India Islands in ships belonging to owners both from Bristol and Liverpool, and were properly taken care of in regard to cleanliness and health, the ships being constructed of a heighth between decks to avoid mutilation of their limbs, and, when landed, were in a condition to secure a ready purchase at a high price; and, though he was very far from giving any credit to the men who accumulated fortunes from so deplorable a traffic, still he was bound to say that much. He was afterwards again employed on the West India Station, then in command of the Tyne frigate; this was in the years 1821–2–3, the traffic in slaves being then abolished in the islands, and it carried comfort to his heart to see their condition to what it had been when formerly on that station. No longer were parents sold from their offspring, when of higher value, from estate to estate; greater humanity and morality and religion were observed and instilled. Subsequently, Mr. Wilberforce, to his honour be it spoken, by persevering efforts in this House, succeeded in obtaining the emancipation of slaves in all the British Colonies at an expense to this country of £20,000,000 for compensation to their owners. He had known, from time to time, many officers in the service of the squadron on the coast of Africa, and, however reluctant they might be to be employed on that service, yet officers in the navy felt that the discharge of their duty was paramount to every other consideration, and in the performance of this duty they were always ready to sacrifice their lives. After being three or four years on the Coast of Africa employed for the suppression of slavery carried on by Brazilian and Spanish vessels, fast in speed, of contracted tonnage, and low heighth between decks, the slaves, both men, women, and children, were huddled together without regard either to sex or decency of any kind common to nature's exigencies, and on arrival at the isle of Cuba were frequently so mutilated from absence of standing room, absence of air and cleanliness befitting their condition as scarcely to be saleable; but he often had heard the observation that if one slave out of three realized a remunerative price, the risk incurred and the loss sustained by the sale of the remainder was covered. These naval officers, employed for its suppression, returned to England, if happily they survived, in very many instances so broken in health, that small is the hope that they again shall be in a condition to reach any higher rank in their profession. He often had pressed in this House upon the Admiralty the necessity of shortening the usual period of service on the coast of Africa. He corroborated much that had been said by the hon. Member who preceded him, and he, if possibly it could be avoided, considered two years too long; he considered eighteen months quite long enough; and he hoped this debate would not terminate, as he firmly believed it would not, without an intimation from the First Lord of the Admiralty, or some other Member of the Board, that their determination was to limit the term of service on the Coast of Africa to eighteen months.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the maintenance of the Naval Squadron on the West Coast of Africa, as it has hitherto been placed, is no longer expedient."—(Sir Hervey Bruce.)


said, there were two questions before the House — first, whether ships should remain so long on the Coast of Africa, and, secondly, whether the squadron itself should be done away with? With respect to the first, the majority of the House was agreed that three years were too long to be on that station, and, therefore, he hoped the Government would agree to that portion of the Resolution. As regarded doing away with the squadron altogether, it was to be hoped that would not take place till the Spaniards and Cubans carried out the good intentions of which so much had been heard. He had been several times in Cuba, and knew something of the present slave system there. If the Cuban slaveholders gave up slavery they would lose a great deal of money. They had very great difficulty in obtaining free labour, and they could hardly be expected to do away with slave labour on which depended the whole system of cultivating their plantations. If the squadron were withdrawn anybody who did not care about how he made his money would immediately run a cargo of slaves for Cuba, and nothing would be easier than to dispose of them. There was a great difference between slavery in Cuba and in the Southern States of America. In Cuba there were hardly any women slaves, so that there was no increase. In ten or twelve years it was calculated the state of things roust cease. It was therefore of great importance that in the meantime the squadron should be maintained.


said, he had listened with great interest to the speech of his hon. Friend who introduced the subject. He deeply lamented the sufferings of the officers and men belonging to the squadron, whose loss amounted to 10 per cent on the navy, the mortality in India being much less, or 8½ per cent. He hoped the result of the debate would be to induce the Admiralty to lessen the term of service on the coast, and that the mortality would be diminished. It would be the height of folly and weakness, now that success in putting down the slave trade had almost been achieved, to withdraw the squadron. Spain had violated every treaty on the subject, and if we relaxed our exertions, the effect would be to re-open the slave trade with ten times greater vigour than ever. The Government, he hoped, would also persevere in that policy, to the success of which the late Lord Palmerston had devoted a long life, and the fruits of which they might soon enjoy.


said, he thought the speech of the hon. Member pointed to the relaxation or the abandonment of the squadron. The misery of being kept upon that blockade was most severe; but he thought that it might be greatly lessened by proper care on the part of the Admiralty. If the Motion of the hon. Member only went to the extent of suggesting that a few small swift steamers would do the work better than the nineteen large vessels with their great force of men which were now kept upon that station, he should agree that it was most advisable that such an arrangement, which would prevent the loss of many lives and of much money, should be adopted; but if the intention of the hon. Member was to urge upon the House the advisability of giving up our endeavours to suppress the slave trade, he should certainly offer his strenuous opposition to it. There was this peculiarity about the slave trade — that if the trade was kept under for two or three years it would entirely die out, in consequence of the Native chiefs and the half-castes, by whom it was chiefly conducted, being forced to adopt more legitimate trades. It appeared from a Return which had been presented to that House, that during the past year only two ships, having on board three negroes were captured, which was an evidence of the success we had met with in putting down this trade. If the Motion of the hon. Member merely went to the extent of impressing upon the Admiralty the necessity of making some alteration in the condition of the squadron on this station, he should give it his most hearty support.


, in the absence of the First Lord of the Admiralty, concurred with an hon. Member who had spoken, (Mr. Kinnaird) that it was undesirable that we should take a lesson in suppressing the slave trade from the Spaniards or the Governors of Cuba. He was glad to be able to inform the House that the sufferings of the squadron on the West Coast of Africa were not so severe as had been represented. It was true that certain ships had been a long time on the coast, because they were suitable for the service; but their crews had been relieved at the usual time. Even the Ranger was now on the point of being relieved. He admitted that her period of service was too long, and the Admiralty had taken steps to ensure the relief of cruizers for the future after two years' service. The reason why the service had been more arduous during 1866 than in previous years, was because the class of ships for the service did not at present exist, and therefore it had been necessary to reduce the number of cruizers and slightly increase the length of service till ships were got ready for reliefs. At present there were seventeen vessels on the West Coast. The Bristol flag ship, two stationary store ships, one steam store ship, two vessels at Lagos—the Investigator and Hardy—of which the crew of the first had been relieved, and the Hardy had been sold to the Government of Lagos—four cruizers on the Bights division of the coast, and five on the Southern division. The slave trade in the Bights of Biafra and Benin had been so far suppressed that the commodore thought it unnecessary to maintain any cruisers on that division, and had turned his whole attention to the Southern division, where there was some likelihood the trade would be carried on. Ten vessels were now cruizing, as against twenty-four previous to the Russian War, when the French contingent made the number up to fifty sailing ships. It was true that those ten vessels were steamers; that in some degree diminished the disproportion of the present force; but the Admiralty had sent out a much larger vessel than was necessary, on account of the dearth of gunboats, and the Speedwell and the Lee were now commissioned, and were on the point of going out to the coast to relieve three ships which had now been over two years on the station. It was the intention of the Admiralty, as soon as ships could be launched and got ready, to reinforce the West Coast squadron up to the proper amount of fourteen, and reduce the period of service under two years. The sudden amount of sickness in the squadron in 1865 was due to disease breaking out on board the larger ships of the squadron, and not on the gunboats, which had remained as healthy as usual. Orders had, however, been given to break up the Isis, a vessel which had been used for some years as receiving ship at Sierra Leone, and which had become regularly impregnated with the yellow fever, and it was to be hoped that such precautions would render the recurrence of these periodical attacks of sickness less and less severe. The commodore, too, attributed the sickness to some extent to the want of excitement on the coast. In spite of this, however, the activity which had been displayed by the commodore and officers on the station had led almost to the entire suppression of the slave trade; but still it was a mistake to suppose that the suppression of the slave trade was the only duty that the squadron had to perform. It was necessary that we should have some ships—four at least—in order to protect the legitimate commerce on the coast, which year by year was increasing in magnitude and importance. He trusted that the necessity for the employment of those ships in any other way would before long disappear, because there could be no doubt that the service was one demoralizing alike to officers and men, and when it at length became suppressed, he trusted that it would be recorded that its suppression was due, not only to the persistence of this country, but also in a great measure to the exertions of Her Majesty's Navy.


said, while he concurred in much that had fallen from his hon. and gallant Friend, he could not reconcile all his statements. If the officers and men on the coast were dying of ennui already, and four vessels were all that were required for the protection of our commerce, he could not understand why it was desirable to employ fourteen vessels on the service, although no one could reasonably object to an increase in the squadron, if that increase was due to the necessity of affording additional protection to our commerce or giving more relief to those of our countrymen engaged in service on the station.


said, he approved the expenditure made on this service, and believed that in Cuba the authorities would ultimately be forced to follow the example of the United States, as it was impossible Spain could long endure the shame and disgrace of being the only country in the world to tolerate this abominable traffic.


thought the remarks made with respect to yellow fever deserved the most earnest consideration of the Government.


thought that they ought to begin to think of reducing the forces they kept up in unhealthy places. He hoped that the Government would begin to take into consideration the question of the propriety of maintaining so large a staff on the African coast.


thought the answer which had been given to him on the part of the Government sufficiently justified him in having brought the matter forward.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


was about to call attention to the services of the Troops in New Zealand, when—

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at Eight o'clock.