HC Deb 11 March 1881 vol 259 cc807-9

asked the First Lord of the Treasury, If the first communications, as to an armistice or terms of peace, which took place between the Boers and the Commander of the British Forces, after the death of Sir G. Colley, whether they were with reference to previous negotiations or to new proposals, and whether they were due to the initiative of the British Commander or of Her Majesty's Government, proceeded from the Boer leaders or any one on their behalf, or from the British Commander or any one on his behalf; and, whether bases of peace have been agreed on; and, if so, if he can state what those bases are?


As regards the first portion of this Question—namely, that which refers to the armistice—I think the hon. Gentleman already understands that I have no further communication to make with respect to the action of Her Majesty's Government. But the hon. Member inquires what has been clone by the British Commander on the spot. There I can again only give the hon. Member all the information we possess, though it is but slight. Sir Evelyn Wood has not sent to us any detailed account of the manner in which the armistice came about; but he communicated to us directly its conclusion. However, we have a telegram from him that I was not in possession of when I first answered a Question on the subject. It is dated March 5, and I believe the telegram in which he announced the conclusion of the armistice was sent on the following day. In a telegram of March 5 are the following words:— Joubert asks how far I will co-operate in Brand's proposition. I have offered to meet him to-morrow near Laing's Nek. The hon. Gentleman will see that this does not state totidem verbis or categorically the origin of the armistice. It is a matter of construction, and each of us is free to arrive at his own conclusion upon it. The construction I put upon it is this—that the origin of the proposal came neither from the British nor from the Boer Commander, but that President Brand, the President of the Orange Free State, was the suggestor of the armistice, that upon that suggestion Mr. Joubert took the first opportunity of making overtures to Sir Evelyn Wood by asking "how far he would co-operate" with President Brand's proposal, and that upon receiving that overture General Wood took the step that I have mentioned to the House, and which Her Majesty's Government approve. That is the best construction I can put upon the telegram, and I must leave others to form their own opinion upon it. With regard to the latter part of the Question, I may say that the names of the Commissioners are under the consideration of the Government; but no Commissioners have as yet been actually appointed. I need hardly add, therefore, that all the rumours in circulation, whether they come from the Cape or are of home manufacture, are altogether premature and groundless.


As this matter is one in which a good deal of interest is taken, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it would not be possible to telegraph to Sir Evelyn Wood for an authentic and exact account of what has occurred?


Will my right hon. Friend kindly tell us whether the Government will lay any Papers on the Table before the Supplementary Estimate comes on for discussion?


Sir, I may say, with regard to that Question, that we should be placed in a position of difficulty, for it would be very difficult for us to define in the telegrams that passed what could be published throwing light upon the policy of the Government without prejudice to the public interest at a time so critical as this. With regard to Sir Evelyn Wood, the truth is that we have been extremely unwilling, knowing his very heavy responsibilities, to ask him any merely retrospective questions; and I am bound to say that up to the present time, although the House was justly and naturally jealous of what might have been the conduct of the Executive Government, I have never seen that there was any urgent necessity for calling upon Sir Evelyn Wood, in the circumstances in which he stands, to give a minute account of all that took place. I will consider the matter, and either we shall do what has been suggested by the right hon. Baronet, or, if not, I will state to the House on Monday next why we cannot do so.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether any communications passed between President Brand and the Government; and, if so, whether he will lay the telegrams upon the Table?


My impression is that the communications between President Brand and the Government have not been very recent; but, of course, it is difficult to speak from memory. I doubt whether they can advantageously be separated from the rest of the Papers.