HC Deb 04 August 1870 vol 203 cc1550-6

Bill, as amended, considered.


said, he was surprised that, in framing this Bill, an opportunity was not taken for dealing with some other branches of the same subject. Why should ships alone be selected as being contraband of war within the terms of the Bill? Other articles of war were manufactured in this country, and practical people would be apt to inquire why it was so heinous a crime to construct for the service of one belligerent a ship in the Mersey, while arms and ammunition for use by another belligerent might be manufactured with impunity at Birmingham or elsewhere. This was not a question of International but of Municipal Law, and as they were assembled there to remedy glaring defects in our Municipal Law, he wished to know whether the Government were prepared to accept words which he proposed to add to Clause 8, placing arms and munitions of war in the same category as ships. Already a very serious feeling existed abroad as to our partiality in time of war; and he would remind the House that whereas during the American War a great disturbance was made about certain vessels which escaped from this country, whole cargoes of munitions of war were constantly leaving this country for the Northern States. Would not certain parties during the present war be dissatisfied if they were prohibited from obtaining ships, which they wanted, while their opponents were allowed to buy guns and munitions of war to their heart's content? It might be said that to stop a suspected vessel of war was easy, while it was by no means easy to identify and stop a rifle and canister of powder. This was true, but, at all events, it would not be difficult to stop any wholesale infraction of the law. What must be the feelings of a belligerent who found that his opponent had free access to our markets for that which he required, while he himself was debarred by special statute, passed subsequently to the commencement of hostilities, from supplying his own special wants? Such legislation was contrary to the spirit of neutrality; and to put himself in Order in making those observations, though with no desire to delay the Bill, he would move that the further consideration of the measure be postponed for a month.


said, he wished to know from the Attorney General whether he thought the 4th sub-section of the 8th clause would meet the case of any individual or corporation who might sell, or contract to sell, a vessel to a belligerent to be used as a transport for the purposes of war. He read in The Times of that morning that one of the large screw steamers belonging to the West Hartlepool Steam Navigation Company had been sold to French buyers, and that she was to be used as a transport. Would such a sale come under the purview of the clause? If not, he would move a 5th sub-section to meet what he considered the omission.


said, the point was made clear by the Interpretation Clause, which defined "military and naval service" to mean "any user of a ship as a transport or storeship." He admitted that the point was an important one, and he proposed, in order that there should be no doubt as to the intention of the clause, to add the words "for or in aid of any naval or military operation." The Amendment suggested by the hon. Member for York (Mr. J. Lowther) would be more properly considered when they came to the clause to which it referred.


said, he would propose, in page 4, line 5, to insert after the word "ship" the words "arm or munition of war." We were anxious that this country should be really neutral, and it had on all former occasions been subject of regret that our Municipal Law did not extend to the prohibition of supplying warlike stores to a belligerent. He was aware that it was not so easy to find out where Chassepots or needle-guns might be manufactured as where a ship was built, but the principle involved was the same, and the object of his Amendment was to make the clause applicable to both. He would not occupy the time of the House, and he trusted no one else would, by irrelevant observations about International Law, with which this question had nothing whatever to do. The House would not be influenced by the quotation of judgments of Lord Stowell or other high authorities upon International Law from remedying a glaring and almost universally regretted defect in our Municipal Law.

Amendment proposed, in page 4, line 5, after the word "ship," to insert the words "arm or munition of war."—(Mr. James Lowther.)


said, he must remind the hon. Gentleman that the point had already been discussed in Committee, and decided against the hon. Gentleman. The Bill, as it stood, went far beyond our own law or, he believed, that of any other country for the enforcement of neutrality. If the Amendment were carried it would involve us in great difficulties indeed. It would, in fact, be enacting that which might be construed into imposing on ourselves an obligation which no neutral had over yet admitted. The question raised had been determined between ourselves and America in 1793, when she supplied France not only with ships, but with arms and munitions of war. We remonstrated at the time, and the Government of Washington admitted that, so far as ships were concerned, we were right; but they said that, with regard to arms and munitions of war, they could not comply with our request—that to do so would require the establishment of a belligerent excise throughout the country, and that every gun-shop and manufactory would have to be watched. If, indeed, we were to undertake such an obligation as the Amendment would impose, we should have to double or treble our police force, in order to keep watch over every manufactory of arms at Birmingham, and every coal-store in every port of the kingdom, and to interfere with trade in a manner which would be almost intolerable; and such were the grounds on which the American Government refused to establish a surveillance of that kind. We concurred with them in the view which they took of the matter; and, so far as he was aware, that was the view which was acted upon from 1793 up to the present time. Such was the law during the Crimean War, when Belgium and Holland supplied Russia with arms, while during the American War we supplied both Federals and Confederates with arms to a considerable extent. The trade in contraband of war was one which he must not be understood as at all approving. He wished our merchants and manufacturers could be persuaded to give it up, but the question was whether the Government should take upon itself the responsibility which the Amendment would impose; and ho, for one, thought it would be very unwise for them to do so. The Americans had made no complaint that we had not prohibited the exportation of arms during the civil war. The question had been well considered by the Royal Commission which sat upon this subject, and he trusted the House would not involve the country in additional responsibilities which it would be impossible to discharge, and which, if we were belligerents, we should probably find no neutral willing to undertake.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted."

The House divided:—Ayes 29; Noes 90: Majority 61.


said, he would beg to move, in page 4, line 9, after the word "state" to insert— Or (5.) sells, or contracts to sell, any ship with intent or knowledge, or having reasonable cause to believe that the same shall or will be employed in the military or naval service of any foreign state at war with any friendly state. He was satisfied that under the clause, as it stood, an individual or a company might with impunity sell a ship, with a full knowledge that it was to be used in war against a friendly nation, and we might have another Alabama case. The clause only restrained persons from despatching vessels or causing them to be despatched; and he felt convinced that his Amendment would strengthen the hands of a Government which desired to remain on terms of amity with its neighbours.

Amendment proposed, In page 4, line 9, after the word "state," to insert the words "or (5.) Sells, or contracts to sell, any ship with intent or knowledge, or having reasonable cause to believe that the same shall or will be employed in the military or naval service of any foreign state at war with any friendly state."—(Mr. Monk.)


said, he hoped the Attorney General would not accept the Amendment. It was a highly inconvenient practice to propose, without Notice, on the bringing up of the Report Amendments to Bills of such importance as this.


explained that as the Bill passed through Committee only yesterday, he had had no opportunity of placing his Amendment on the Paper.


said, he thought it would not be right for the House to insert at this stage of the Bill an Amendment which would seriously affect the trade of the country.


said, the only question for the House to consider was whether the Amendment was a right and proper one. Ought the Bill to pass without some such Amendment in it? He would put it to the House whether we ought to risk getting into another Alabama difficulty, which would be obviated by the common sense Amendment improvised by his hon. Friend. It struck him that the Amendment was a most excellent one, and he should certainly not be deterred from supporting it merely because it was proposed at a late period.


said, no one could be more anxious than he to prevent the escape of Alabamas; but he could not help thinking that the Bill already went far enough in that direction. It prohibited the building, equipping, or despatching of any ship by any person having a knowledge, or intent, or reasonable cause to suppose that she was to be employed in the service of a belligerent; but, in his judgment, it would be going somewhat too far to prohibit a mere contract of sale without delivery. He might remark that the moment a person attempted to deliver a vessel, he would come within the provi- sions of the Bill. The Commissioners had come to the conclusion that a mere contract of sale ought not to be prohibited, and he confessed that, on the whole, he was of the same opinion.


said, he thought that sub-section 4 would meet the case sufficiently.


said, he was of opinion that the Bill did all that it was incumbent upon the Government to do. The Amendment would interfere greatly with the trade of the country, while a ship would be no use to a belligerent unless equipped or despatched.


said, that if the Amendment were an error, it would, at the most, be an error on the right side.

Question put, "That those words be there inserted."

The House divided:—Ayes 36; Noes 67: Majority 31.


said, he would propose to omit Clause 11.


said, he hoped this would not be done, otherwise vessels corresponding with the Alabama could be succoured in our colonial ports.


said, he had to explain that, although the Royal Commissioners made a recommendation to the effect of this clause, they did not intend that it should be embodied in an Act of Parliament, but that it should be carried out under the Queen's Regulations. The Governor of a Colony would, under this clause have to determine whether a ship entering his ports was illegally fitted out or not; and this was enough to show the object the Comissioners had in view could not be carried out by an Act of Parliament. It was intended, instead, to advise colonial Governors of the escape of any illegally-fitted vessel.

Clause struck out.


said, he wished to call attention to Clause 21. It provided that any Custom House officer might detain a suspected ship, so that the power would be vested in a tide-waiter who received, perhaps, 18s. a week. This was an extraordinary power to vest in such hands, and he would propose that the power should only be exercised by the chief officer of Customs in any port of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Amendment.

Amendment proposed, in page 8, line 7, "to leave out the word 'any,' and insert the words 'the chief,'"—(Mr. Candlish,)—instead thereof.


said, he questioned the propriety of giving so much power to Custom House officers of the lower class as was proposed by this Bill to confer on them.


said, that those officers of Customs were, in fact, the police of ports and harbours. No more power was conferred on them by the Bill than was already exercised by every parish constable throughout the kingdom. If the power of acting under the Bill were confined to the chief officer of Customs, as was proposed, it might happen that in a case of emergency that officer would be absent, and serious inconvenience would be the result. The principle of the clause was in operation in the Merchant Shipping Act and in all the Prize Acts. He quite admitted that the issue was more important than any that could be raised on the Merchant Shipping Act, but it was because it was more important that greater restrictions should be used. The great thing was to prevent the departure from our ports of any ships of the Alabama character.

Question, "That the word 'any,' stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Amendment negatived.


said, he would propose, in line 32, after "officer of customs" to insert "harbourmaster and dockmaster" with the view of enabling the dockmaster or harbourmaster to co-operate with the Government officers in the detention of a suspicious vessel.


said, he would offer no objection to the insertion of the words, but could give no indemnity to those officers.

Words inserted.

Bill re-committed, to consider a now Clause and an Amendment to the Title; considered in Committee, and reported, with an amended Title; as amended, considered; to be read the third time To-morrow, at Two of the clock.