HC Deb 10 February 1881 vol 258 cc501-4

asked the Secretary of State for India, Whether he has seen the translation of the Despatches found at Cabul, which is published in the "Standard" of to-day; whether the Despatches so published will be included in the papers presented to Parliament; and, whether the letter stated to have been written from Livadia by General Stolieteff on the 8th of October 1878, three months after the Treaty of Berlin, to the Afghan Minister at Cabul, stating— Make peace openly, and in secret prepare for war;"—"send an able emissary, possessing the tongue of a serpent and full of deceit, so that he may, with sweet words, perplex the enemy's mind, and induce him to give up the idea of fighting you, is authentic; and, if so, whether Her Majesty's Government, notwithstanding this evidence of persistent Russian intrigue, intend to persevere in their policy of withdrawing all British influence from Afghanistan?


asked the Secretary of State for India, If it is true, as stated in the daily papers, that His Royal Highness the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief has reported strongly in favour of the retention of Kandahar? and if he will lay upon the Table any Report on this subject emanating from this distinguished officer?


asked the Secretary of State for India, Whether he can give any information to the House in explanation of the circumstances which have enabled the "Standard" and other newspapers to publish the Cabul correspondence prior to its presentation to Parliament?


Sir, in reply to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Baron Henry do Worms), I have to state that I have seen the despatches published in The Standard of yesterday. Those despatches will be included in the Papers to be presented to Parliament. The letter stated to have been written from Livadia by General Stolieteff on the 8th October is, I believe, accurately given in The Standard, and contains the phrases which are quoted by the hon. Member. In reply to his final Question, I need hardly remind the House that these Papers have long been in the possession of the Government, and their presentation will not make any difference in the intentions of the Government in respect to Afghanistan. I am glad to take this opportunity of correcting a misapprehension which has arisen with regard to a phrase in the letter the hon. Gentleman has quoted. Although it is not one to which the hon. Member has himself called attention, it has been the subject of comment in several newspapers, and I think the misapprehension ought at once to be removed. I refer to the phrase in General Stolietetf's letter in which he says— Therefore you should look to your brothers who live on the other side of the river. If God stirs them up to put swords in their hands, then, in God's name, go on. That expression has been commented on as referring to the Indians and the Mahometans living on the Indian side of the river Indus. I am, however, assured by a very high authority indeed, and there is no reason why I should not state his name—Sir Henry Rawlinson—that the expression "the other side of the river," is a technical, geographical one, well known as referring to the Oxus, and that the passage in General Stolietoff's letter refers not to the Indus, but to the Oxus, and not at all to the Indians, but to the Russians; the meaning of that passage in the letter being that if there is a war between Russia and England, then the Afghans would join with the former—that is, the Russians— or, as he expressed it, "Go on, in the name of God." In reply to the hon and gallant Gentleman opposite (Captain Aylmer), it is true His Royal Highness the Field Marshall Commanding - in - Chief has written a Minute on the subject of the retention of Candahar. As I stated be-fore, I am examining several Papers on this question, with the view of laying them on the Table of the House. Of course, being of a confidential character, that Minute could not be produced; but if His Royal Highness has no objection, it will be laid on the Table with the rest. In reply to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Brand), I am quite ready to give to the House all the information in my possession with reference to the premature publication of these despatches in some newspapers yesterday morning. It appeared that several newspapers had received a description of the Cabul Correspondence from some person evidently well acquainted with it, although I am not aware in what shape it was communicated to these papers. The Standard newspaper printed a copy of a considerable portion of a confidential official memorandum. The circumstances of the preparation of that memorandum were as follows:—In April last, the Tapers found at Cabul were collected together in an official memorandum for the convenience of the Government, accompanied by comments for the purpose of explanation and of connecting them together. I need not say that these Papers when presented to Parliament will be given by themselves, and unaccompanied by these official comments and explanations. The Paper was one of an extremely confidential character, and was printed confidentially in the Indian Office. A correct account was kept of every copy of this Paper issued, to the number of 28 in all, of which 13 were sent to India. I have seen the list of persons to whom this Paper was communicated in England, and I may say that I feel as certain as I do of anything that the improper communication to the papers was not made by any person who received this Paper in this country. Of course, I am not aware what was the actual distribution in India of the 13 copies; but I cannot help thinking that one of those copies must have been, inadvertently and in ignorance of its extremely confidential character, communicated by someone to the Press. That is all the information on the subject which I have in my possession. I cannot avoid saying that the person, whoever he was, who has made this extremely indiscreet, and, I think, improper, use of an official document, ought in fairness —if, as I conceive probable, it was done inadvertently—to come forward and state the part he has taken in the transaction, in order to relieve a considerable number of persons from what is a very unmerited and a very disagreeable stigma upon their official conduct.