HC Deb 26 June 1868 vol 193 cc155-65

, in rising to draw the attention of the House to certain Memorials recently presented by the Rankers and Merchants of the City of London, and of Calcutta and Bombay, relative to the Telegraphic Communication with the East, said, that the memorials represented that this telegraphic communication was in an extremely unsatisfactory condition, which the Government were called upon to remedy. It might seem surprising that the enterprize of the present age had not supplied anything like tolerable telegraphic communication between this country and India. But such was the fact, and the reason seemed to him very plain. It seemed that the Government had interfered up to this point—that they had succeeded in paralyzing private and commercial enterprize without giving on their own part complete communication. In 1859 a company was formed to lay a cable from Suez by way of Aden to Bombay. The Government supported the scheme, and gave a guarantee of £36,000 a year for a period of forty years. The cable was laid, but no single message was ever transmitted along the whole length of the line, and the English Exchequer would be burdened for forty years with an expenditure of £36,000 for a cable that was now at the bottom of the Red Sea. The bargain with the company was very carelessly drawn, and ocean telegraphy was then in its infancy. Having burnt their fingers with this line, the Home Government were not in a hurry to inter- fere again, and the matter was next taken up by the Government of India, which selected perhaps the worst route that could have been chosen—namely, through the Persian Gulf and the Asiatic dominions of the Sultan to Constantinople. It was neither a land nor an ocean line, but was exposed to the worst risks of both. The land route was beset with physical difficulties, and the line from the Persian Gulf to Kurrachee was exposed to monsoons, and the coast was remarkably unfavourable to a telegraphic line. A Parliamentary Return of an important character had just been published, which represented the revenue and expenditure of the lines opened in February, 1865. The line in Persia made by the British Government cost £100,000, and the line from the Gulf of Persia to Kurrachee cost £494,950. To this must be added the cost of working the line for the last three years, which, at £20,000 a year, amounted to £60,000, making a total of £654,950. The Indian Government stated in the Return that they were unable to find more than an "estimate" of the expenditure, which, as the lines were opened in 1865, seemed somewhat strange. Two other lines—a land and a ocean line—had received the sanction of the Secretary of State for India, the cost of which, £197,000, being added to the others, would make a total capital account of £851,950. The estimated revenue on these lines was £92,000 a year, but against that the working expenses of £63,600 must be debited, together with £20,000 a year the cost of working the lines in Persia and £8,000 a year deterioration, making a total annual outlay of £91,000 against an estimated income of £92,000. But this only took the communication to Kurrachee, and a line to Kurrachee did not mean a line to India. So defective was the communication by the line between Kurrachee and Bombay that it was necessary to have a submarine line besides the land line, which would cost £200,000 in addition. These things being true, the capital expended was raised to about £900,000, and £200,000 more was required to reach Bombay, so that the expenditure would be upwards of £1,000,000, and the interest would be raised to about £50,000. We might safely say that the loss upon the working of this line was certainly £40,000, and might be estimated at £50,000 a year. For this we got an exceedingly bad line, passing through countries beset with po- litical and physical difficulties. He would read a passage from the recently published despatches which really seemed to be written in irony— Searcity of water and fodder for camels, paucity of inhabitants, and the usual difficulties of working with large bodies of men through an utterly desert country, are the only obstacles to be overcome. The writer added that the double line should be completed within six months of the material reaching Kurrachee, if he was provided with the means, and no political difficulties were thrown in his way. It might be said with truth that in a short time there would be another line passing through Persia, the Black Sea, and Russia, and he believed it would be worked with great success; but the effect of that would be to drive out of the field the line through Constantinople, and to leave a single line passing through the country which everybody knew was our commercial and political rival. Setting aside political considerations, if the company failed for a year to repair the Black Sea portion of the line, the whole line passed into the hands of the Russian Government, and we might find ourselves with no line to India, after spending £900,000 or £1,000,000. To show that he had abstained from exaggeration, he would quote unbiassed authorities. A Commission had reported in favour of an alternative line, and the Governor General of India used this strong Ianguage— On the other hand, the question of providing a second or alternative line between England and India is of great and growing importance. It will be seen from the memorial now forwarded that complaint is made of imperfections in the messages by the Persian line, which passes through countries altogether out of British jurisdiction, and having several varieties of race and language. And certainly we apprehend that there is something of precariousness about the Persian line, and that circumstances might at any moment arise to cause either a temporary suspension or a more lengthened interruption of that communication. From every point of view, then, whether political or commercial, the provision of an alternative line becomes important. And any line by the Red Sea is more under our control and protection, and therefore more reliable and permanent, than any line through Persia could be. The testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Pelly was even more to the point. He said— Indeed, referring to our Asiatic land lines in general, I would submit that the more I learn of those regions the more strongly I am impressed that large political considerations point to a sea line from England to Alexandria, and from Suez to Bombay, provided such line be practicable; and even if such a sea line should have to be made in duplicate, in view to providing for interruption, still the cost of even this duplicate sea line might, perhaps, in the long run, prove economical from a political point of view. He was in India when its safety depended upon telegraphic communication with England, and he hoped he should not live to see the day when India might be lost to us for want of telegraphic communication. The Government, having taken this matter into its own hands, had given us only one line, and that a bad one; and it was impossible for private enterprize to enter into competition with the Government, which had at its disposal a revenue of £50,000,000. If the Government undertook any responsibility at all, it ought to make the communication satisfactory and complete.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, Copies of any Correspondence which may have passed between the Secretary of State for India and the local authorities relative to the proposed Deep Sea Telegraphic Line from Bombay to Kurrachee, and the sanctioned lines from Gwadur to Jask, and from Jask to Bushire,"—(Lord William Hay,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, there would be no objection to give the Papers moved for by the noble Lord. In answer to the question of the noble Lord whether the Government would be prepared to give any assistance towards the formation of a new line from India by way of the Red Sea, he thought the noble Lord had been aware that the Government of India had decided not to give any assistance or grant for that purpose. He would shortly state how the question at present stood. The noble Lord had represented that the Government of India had spent something like £900,000 on these communications, and that the receipts from the line were only £92,000 a year. He thought his noble Friend's (Lord William Hay's) calculations were not altogether fair, for he added the cost of the lines constructed to those in course of construction, but considered only the revenue derived from the former, without making any allowance for the increased revenue to be derived from improved com- munication. However, he (Sir Stafford Northcote) was not careful to argue that point minutely because, as the noble Lord had said, the question was one of Imperial importance, and if they had not received the full value for their money, yet the bringing of India into more immediate communication with this country was worth the loss of a moderate sum. Even if we were now laying out £40,000 a year—which he did not admit to be the case—for a limited time, in the shape of expenditure on those lines, he thought the money would be well spent. But the noble Lord had very much under-rated the work which was being done. The noble Lord complained that no steps were being taken to provide an alternative line. Such steps were, in point of fact, being taken. They had already two lines in operation. There was on the one hand the Indo-Ottoman line through Turkey to the head of the Persian Gulf, and so on to Kurrachee, while there was the other line to which the noble Lord had referred, the Messrs. Siemen's line, which was now being materially improved, through Prussia, Russia, and Persia. He had just heard that a message had been received by the Messrs. Siemen through their line of no less than eighty words, which reached this country, through Teheran, in the space of five hours. The company had got their concession from Russia, Prussia, and Persia, and there was but a very small portion of their line to be completed, and that was the submarine portion under the Black Sea. He hoped that as early as November, or, at all events, before next summer that line would be in full working order. We had concluded a treaty with Persia for the laying of the land line, and there was every prospect of having a good duplicate line from Bushire to Kurrachee. That being so, he did not think that either Her Majesty's Government or the Government of India had been neglectful of the great object of improving telegraphic communication with that country. Siemen's line, he might add, was one which was formed on the principle that the company were to confine their attention to the through traffic. They were to have two special wires allotted to them for that traffic, and by that means the repetition of messages and other matters of embarrassment would be avoided. He did not, however, by any means intend to say that there was not still room for improvement. He was informed that considerable improvement in the rapidity with which messages were transmitted was being made. From a communication he had received from a gentleman in charge of a Department, it appeared that, in the first four months of the present year, 15 per cent more messages passed between England and India than in the corresponding months of 1867. For a time the cable was broken. Before the cable broke, and after it was repaired, the transmission of a message occupied, on an average, three and a half days, and while the interruption continued the average rate was five and a half to eleven days. If no future breaks should occur it might be assumed that when the new Siemen line was completed the average rate would be reduced ordinarily to a day. If no political complications should arise, therefore, the wants of the community with respect to telegraphic communication with India would be very fairly supplied. No doubt the noble Lord would reply to him and say that those political combinations were just the point to which he wished to direct the attention of the Government. He knew that the commercial interests were very much afraid of political combinations. But he thought it would not be well to be over-wise or over-prudent in the matter, and that it would be desirable to improve the lines in hand instead of seeking to meet imaginary evils. The Government had a proposal from a company for laying a line down the Red Sea, for which they asked that the interest might be guaranteed; but he, for one, objected to the extension of such guarantees and the consequent interference of the Government with private enterprize. With regard to submarine cables, the policy of the Imperial Government was settled, and the conclusion came to was that these cables were not a proper subject for a Government guarantee; for the Government considered that those who had taken an active part in laying the cables down had succeeded and found their profit in them. That being the policy of the Imperial Government, the decided principle of the Indian Government was not to undertake any such guarantee, and charge it on the Indian revenues alone. There was this further mischief connected with Government guarantees to Indian companies, that companies not possessing them were viewed with suspicion. He had represented this view to the deputation of promoters that had come before him to solicit a guarantee for a Red Sea line. They said that would be correct if it was only physical difficulties that were to be overcome; but that the great difficulties were the political ones. The Red Sea line was advocated by such men as Sir Robert Napier, and he admitted it was difficult to stand up against the authority of such men. But he found that the deputation only used the Abyssinian expedition as a shoeing-horn to draw on a guarantee for the Red Sea line. For the purpose of having a line under purely British control something more must be done than merely laying down a Red Sea cable, because the communication with Alexandria must go through France or Italy; and unless a line were laid down by way of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean there would be no approach to the possession of a line under purely British control. Even then there would be the difficulty of crossing Egypt, so that the idea of a line entirely under British control was very much like a chimera. While the Government were working a line by the Persian Gulf they were asked to guarantee a telegraphic communication in competition with it, and the promoters made the ingenious proposal to lease a portion of the Persian Gulf line and take upon themselves the charge of the cable lost in the Red Sea if the Government would grant them the guarantee they wanted in respect to a Red Sea cable. However, when they had got the lines in their possession they might then have cut the Persian Guff line altogether, finding it useless to have the two lines in operation. The probable effect of accepting their offer would have been that the Government would have thrown away what they had expended on the lines which they held, and have substituted for them another line, not laid down independently of foreign nations, but passing to a certain extent through Egypt. The Indian authorities intimated that, though they would be glad to see as many lines as possible established, it would be unwise, in their opinion, to break off from the undertaking in which they were engaged in order to begin something new. Therefore, without saying that great advantages might not be anticipated from the Red Sea line, they thought that they would be unwise to undertake the grant of a guarantee on the part of the Indian Government, the revenues of India being at present charged with large sums for various purposes of improvement. The commercial community had a claim to have the best telegraphic communication with India. and the Indian Government were endeavouring to establish such communication by means of the routes in their hands; but when proposals were brought forward, based partly on political and partly on commercial considerations, he must decline to undertake the expense which they would necessitate. He had no objection to give the Papers moved for.


said, he had not heard the statement of the right hon. Baronet with great satisfaction. It was only a repetition of what the right hon. Baronet had stated to the deputation that waited on him a short time ago. But those gentlemen were promoters of the Red Sea line. [Sir STAFFORD NORTHCOTE: I did not refer to that deputation.] He thought the right hon. Baronet might have referred to that deputation. They consisted of delegates from the commercial bodies of London, Manchester, Liverpool, and other places, yet they had made so little impression on the right hon. Baronet that he forgot to refer to them. It was dangerous to trust to a system any portion of which was under the control of foreign Governments. The exigencies of war would immediately affect telegraphic communication in Europe. Our experience taught us to be suspicious of all telegrams passing along Continental lines, for all those telegrams were examined, and cases were known in which English commercial telegrams were handed to those who were the competitors in trade of England. It was therefore desirable that we should be independent of foreign Powers in our private telegraphic communications. The right hon. Baronet said that the Government were charged with supine-ness with regard to telegraphic communication, but that was not so; all that they were charged with was persisting in the attempt to establish a line of communication which was certain to be a failure. The mercantile community wished to be permitted to communicate with India by way of Egypt, as they would then be independent of political combinations, and also of the difficulties arising from the extremes of climate which were to be found on the Persian route. The northern part of Persia was covered with snow for many months in the year, and during some portion of that period the proposed line would be entirely useless. With regard to management, the business at present was carried on with the greatest carelessness, and he knew of more than one instance in which messages had been wholly perverted or rendered unintelligible. Whether the mischief was done in Ceylon or in England he did not know, but the mercantile body had lost all confidence in the present system of transmitting telegrams through the Continent. Messages had been altered to suit the exigencies of foreign Governments, and therefore it would be absurd in the Government to trust their most private communications respecting the government of India through a Continental line. The line through Egypt would be entirely independent of the Government of that country, and would be so superior to other lines that it could not fail to attract to itself the chief share of the business, while the Government of this country would naturally obtain a preference for their messages. Under these circumstances it was hoped that the Government of this country would be inclined to step in and take some portion of the risk. There was no similarity between the line from this country to America and that between this country and India. In the first case there was the whole of the Old World at one end of the line, and the whole of the New World at the other. The line to India would be beneficial principally to the Government of England by maintaining their communications with that country. Moreover, following recent precedent, if it became a successful line, the Government might step in and assume the whole control of it. It was felt, therefore, that it was not a project in which private individuals could be expected to bear the whole onus of a project of which the chief benefit would in the long run fall to the share of the Government.


said, that the first great object to be considered in reference to telegraphic communication with India was to preserve the control of the line in our own hands. The question was whether either of the two alternative lines which the Government of India proposed, both of which passed through Central Asia, and were equally exposed to risk in passing through barbarous countries, should be adopted. He was astonished that the Indian officials, in their communications on this subject, should evince so much ignorance. Each of the telegraph lines proposed was liable to be cut off in the event of war, or to be taken up by foreign Governments. Along the coast line beyond Persia black mail was levied by the chiefs, and those who interfered were liable to be hung on the telegraph lines. In consequence of the telegraph clerks in many cases not understanding English the messages were often unintelligible. In one of the places through which one of the proposed lines was to pass cholera was so prevalent that on the slightest alarm all the telegraph clerks ran away and left the line to take care of itself. He was surprised to hear that these two lines offered the only alternatives. The proposition of Mr. Stiff to establish a coast line viâ Aden, through an inhospitable region and so on by the Persian Gulf to Bombay, when they could have a far better line by submarine cable from Alexandria to Bombay, was altogether preposterous. Between Alexandria and Bombay a cable might be laid in what was now deemed to be the best depth of water for the purpose—namely, from 1,000 to 2,000 fathoms. He trusted the Government would seriously consider whether it was worth while to perpetuate a system of telegraphic communication through inhospitable regions inhabited by barbarous tribes, instead of laying a cable themselves, or at least encouraging a private company to do so?


said, there were at present, or shortly would be, two lines of telegraphic communication connecting India with Europe, but he could not regard either of those lines as at all satisfactory. The Turkish line would, he believed, never be in a state of efficiency, and with regard to the other line, it was under the control of Russia, and in the event of war would be useless to us. In the case of any disturbance they would be absolutely at the mercy of the Russian Government, and looking at the gradual approach of Russia towards India, he did not see how we could continue to rely upon such a broken reed as a telegraph line in the power of the Russians. He therefore felt it was very desirable that we should consider some other means of securing telegraphic communication with. India. Looking at the matter in all points of view, however, difficulties seemed to meet them everywhere, both financial and political. It would be a hazardous matter to lay down a submarine telegraph by way of Gibraltar to Alexandria, and again from Suez to India. All that he could venture to do would be to recommend some means to be taken to induce some private company, though not by way of guarantee, to undertake the work on its own responsibility.


said, that the commercial community had no confidence in the present telegraphic lines to India. The intelligence transmitted by them was often betrayed or falsified from corrupt motives. He thought the case might be met by the Government consenting to take a share in a direct line by way of the Red Sea. Even if no dividend at all could be derived from a new line the increase of commerce and general benefit to the two countries would more than re-pay the cost. He was quite certain, however, that a handsome revenue would, under ordinary circumstances, be secured from such a line; but how could any private company be expected to construct it when there was a rival line backed up by the revenue of India and the patronage of the Government?


said, he was ready to give the Papers.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.