HC Deb 02 April 1869 vol 195 cc41-6

said, he rose to move the Address, of which he had given notice, for Returns of the Forces employed during each of the past twelve years upon the West Coast of Africa, together with the annual cost, the rate of mortality and sanitary condition of such Forces; of the number of vessels engaged in the Slave Trade (with their cargoes) which have been captured during the same period; and, to ask whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to continue the employment of a British Force upon that coast? It was not his intention to refer at length to the circumstances which, in the first instance, led to the formation of these squadrons and their being kept up; he would rather address himself to the question whether the circumstances which suggested their establishment now no longer existed—whether they would not be jus- tified in relaxing the exertions formerly made for the repression of the slave trade, which had so far ceased to exist. The first effect of the passing of the Aberdeen Act was to revive the slave trade, which had been on the decline for many years. In 1845 the slaves landed in Brazil numbered 19,000; in 1846, 50,000; in 1847, 56,000; in 1848, 60,000; in 1849, 54,000; in 1850, 23,000; and in 1851, 32,000. The repeal of the Act had been decided upon, and he would quote the testimony of Lord Clarendon in making the Motion for its repeal, who said that no attempt to land slaves had occurred in Brazil since 1855; while none had been landed in Cuba since 1866. They all knew that no more slaves would be brought into the United States. What end was served, then, by the maintenance of these squadrons on the African coast? During the last Administration the squadron was reduced, and the present First Lord of the Admiralty proposed still further to reduce the number of vessels on the West Coast of Africa to eleven, and the number of men to 1,000. It might be interesting to the House to know the risk to which these 1,000 men were exposed. He would not trouble the House with any "sailor's yarns," or information derived from private sources, but would quote from official Returns which had been laid upon the table. A Return of last year gave the average ratio of cases placed on the sick list for twelve years from 1856 to 1868—comparing the West Coast of Africa station with the Home station—as 1,999.7 per 1,000 on the former, and 1,041.8 per 1,000 on the latter, or in round numbers nearly two in one. The average ratio of invaliding was—on the African station 56.3 per 1,000, and on the home station 25.2 per 1,000, or more than double. The mortality was still worse. The average ratio of mortality on the African station was 28.2, and on the home station 8.5, or 3½ to 1. Facts like these ought to induce the House to pause before they continued to sanction a disposition of our squadron which was productive of so much injury, sickness, and death to our gallant forces. It was worth considering whether, if the whole cost of this squadron could not be entirely saved, they might not be employed more efficiently and usefully elsewhere. The longer the men were employed on this station the more liable they became to disease. The official Return of 1864–5 remarked upon the increase of invaliding from the average of 45.5, which had prevailed for seven years, to 70.9 per 1,000, as follows:—"This is accounted for mainly by the fact that almost all the vessels had been long employed on the station, and their crews were, in consequence, more or less completely broken down in health." It was also stated that "more than half of them were rendered unserviceable by fevers and their consequences." That being the case it could hardly be contended that the House would not incur great responsibility by continuing the employment of our sailors and marines, in such a service unless strong reasons could be urged in its justification. He was aware that considerable pressure had been brought to bear on successive Governments by those who were specially anxious to put down the slave trade. No one hated this inhuman and monstrous traffic in human flesh more than himself, and if any exertions by this country could effect any material good in stopping this traffic, without exposing our sailors to unreasonable sacrifices, he, for one, would not stand in the way of such exertions being made, but he doubted whether any justification could be urged for the sacrifices and loss of life now incurred. It had been a common thing for certain gentlemen to perambulate the country, in order to stir up a feeling and bring it to bear upon the Government to induce them to continue their exertions for the suppression of the slave trade. The country, however, must now be convinced that the slave trade existed, if at all, in so infinitesimal a degree on this coast, that it ought not to be asked to incur any further sacrifices in this cause. But the argument now fell upon deaf ears, and was not echoed beyond the tea-table or the Sunday-school. These gentlemen might now be left to pursue the business of agitation in other directions—such as perambulating the country, and heaping anathemas upon all those who quenched their thirst from any other source than the pump. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Childers) would entitle himself to the thanks of the country at large, as well as of the naval service, if he would interfere in this matter. The money question was subordinate to that of the lives and health of the force; but believing that the First Lord was a sincere economist, he would ask him whether an outlay which at one time amounted to millions of money, although it had happily been much reduced of late years, could be justified any longer? The right hon. Gentleman would earn a reputation by no means ephemeral, if he would abolish this outlay, and, what was of far more value, if he would save the lives now lost on this coast?


said, he agreed with his hon. Friend (Mr. Lowther), as to the unnecessary waste of life on that coast, but he would observe that the greater part of the information which his hon. Friend asked for had already been laid before the House, in obedience to an Order made upon his Motion. That Return showed the number of vessels employed on the station during the twelve years, the number of the crews, the mortality amongst the officers and men, and the number of slavers captured. He gave the First Lord of the Admiralty credit for the reduction which he had already made in the squadron. Whereas there were at one time twenty-eight ships on the coast, and subsequently twenty-two, there were only now to be eleven. That was, at all events, a step in the right direction; and as there was really no slave trade now carried on upon the West Coast of Africa, there was no reason why that number should not be yet further reduced.


Sir, in reference to the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's Question, I must corroborate what has been started by my hon. and gallant Friend (Colonel Sykes) that there is already on the table of the House a great portion of the information extending over the past twelve years that he desires to have. The number of vessels engaged and captured and a considerable amount of other information descriptive of the diminution of the slave trade have been published; but if, having referred to those Returns, the hon. and learned Gentleman requires a further Return, I will let him have it as an unopposed Return or move for it myself. In regard to the important question which he has brought before the House in so temperate a manner, the House will be gratified to know—and I speak officially on this subject, although with due reserve—that the slave trade on the West Coast of Africa may be deemed to have ceased. I will not venture to predict that this state of things will always continue, and no action of the Government on this subject could be decided upon without an arrière-pensée that the slave trade on this coast might again revive. I am happy to say, however, that virtually there is now no slave trade carried on upon the West Coast of Africa. The cessation of this traffic is due to a great many causes. It is out of the question that I should go into those causes on the present occasion, but one of them is the efficiency of the naval force on the coast, and this I ought to name. Others are political causes well known to hon. Members, but which it would be out of place to dwell upon. The fact, however, is that there has been a gradual diminution of the slave squadron on the West Coast of Africa during the last few years. Two years ago this question was raised in the House, and I took part in the debate on it. My right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Corry) reduced the strength of the squadron in 1868, I think, to fourteen ships and 1,407 men This year we propose to reduce it to eleven ships and 1,000 men; and we have in contemplation a yet further reduction, but what its exact extent may be we cannot tell until after proper communications have passed between the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, and the Treasury, and until further information is received as to the exact condition of our possessions upon that coast and the state of trade. It would be, of course, out of the question altogether to withdraw our squadron from the West Coast. The same protection must be given to our commerce there which we give to our commerce in all parts of the globe. We have ourselves upon that coast settlements of some importance, and their requirements and circumstances must, of course, be taken into account. But the great question of the slave trade will, for some time to come, at any rate, no longer form an element in the consideration of what force we are to keep. Bearing in mind that I am in communication with other Departments, the House will not expect me to enter further into details. I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend (Colonel Sykes) for having alluded to my wish in past years to make these reductions—a wish which I know was shared by my right hon. Friend opposite, and which no one, in fact, who has ever been at the Admiralty can refrain from entertaining; for we know that the real cost of the West Coast squadron is one not of money, but of the lives and efficiency of our seamen. In fact, from a strictly naval point of view, that squadron is one which can never be popular with First Lords of the Admiralty. I thank my hon. Friend opposite for having introduced the Motion, and I believe that next year I shall be able to make a statement on the subject which will be entirely satisfactory.


said, that the necessity for maintaining a squadron on the West Coast of Africa had always been a subject of serious consideration to him, on account of the great mortality and sickness prevailing on the station. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. J. Lowther), in adverting to the subject had very properly said that a great deal of that mortality arose from the length of time that ships were kept upon the station. When he went to the Admiralty two years ago, he found that several ships were in a dreadful state from being kept there long, and one of the first things he did was to shorten the service of the ships upon that station from three, or even four years to eighteen months—a step from which great benefits had resulted. At the same time, he trusted that his right hon. Friend would reduce the squadron to the smallest possible limits, consistent with the maintenance of British interests in that part of the world.


was very glad to have the testimony of successive First Lords of the Admiralty to the efficiency of the squadron in putting down what the people of this country, to their credit, regarded as an abominable traffic. His hon. Friend (Mr. J. Lowther), said that the number of slavers captured bore no proportion whatever to the number of ships employed. But a policeman's value was not estimated by the number of thieves that he captured; the mere existence of the force tended to diminish the number of those against whom their operations were directed. He was glad the time had come when the squadron might with safety be reduced; but no one could doubt that its existence had been highly beneficial.