HC Deb 14 February 1882 vol 266 cc680-92

, in rising to call attention to the murder of Captain Charles James Brownrigg, R.N., and to the unsatisfactory state of our relations with France in our operations for the suppression of the Slave Trade on the East Coast of Africa, and to move for Papers, said, he was anxious to address the House for a short period on a subject which he was sure would interest all those who heard him. He referred to the loss of Captain Brownrigg, who was engaged on service on the South-East Coast of Africa in the suppression of the Slave Trade when he met his death; and he thought it would be unfortunate that so gallant and distinguished an officer should pass away without notice being taken of it, and of the causes which had led to the unfortunate disaster. Perhaps, as the senior naval officer in the House, hon. Members would forgive him if he called attention to the circumstances attending the death, and also to the career of that distinguished naval officer. Charles James Brownrigg was born on the 19th of November, 1836, and entered the Service as a naval cadet in 1849. He passed as a mate in 1855, served in Algiers, in the Baltic, and in the Black Sea, from May, 1854, to February, 1856, during the Russian War, and subsequently in the Pioneer upon the North American and West Indian Stations, and in the Chesapeake, China Station. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on the 17th December, 1857, and in that rank served in the Calcutta, the flagship of Sir Michael Seymour, and in the Inflexible, on the China Station, from 1858 to 1861. He qualified as a gunnery lieutenant during 1861, obtaining a first-class certificate. He then joined the Galatea, North American Station, commanded by Captain Maguire, serving in her from May, 1862, to March, 1864, and was highly commended by that officer for his intelligence and attainments as a gunnery officer. He then served as flag-lieutenant to Sir Charles Talbot, Commander-in-Chief at the Nore, and was promoted to the rank of commander on the 9th of April, 1866. On the 11th of April, 1866, he was appointed as commander to the Challenger, Commodore Maguire and Commodore Lambert, captains, Australia Station, and remained in that ship until paid off in March, 1871, receiving the Thanks of that House for his services upon the Australian Station. In August, 1868, he conducted a boat expedition against Natives of the Fiji Islands, and in July, 1871, was appointed to the charge of the naval barracks, and remained there until promoted to the rank of captain in September, 1873. He subsequently served as captain in the Jumna and the Euphrates from October, 1877, to the 8th of June, 1880, during which period he was employed in the Zulu War, and was subsequently transferred to the London, as senior officer at Zanzibar. At so recent a date as October, 1881, the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, highly commended him for his zeal and attention in the performance of his duties, so that, at least, his reputation was one which was a great credit to the Service. The information he (Sir John Hay) had about this sad occurrence was information that was open to everyone, and from it it appeared that on the 10th of December Captain Brownrigg left his ship to inspect some boats which were cruising off Pemba. He left the London, in a steam pinnace, with a small crew, and, after cruising about, observed a dhow, of which he had received information, flying French colours. He ran alongside of her, as was his duty to do, to obtain information about her flying those colours, when the Arab crew suddenly fired, killing and wounding some of his crew and driving the rest overboard. Several of the Arabs then closed with Captain Brownrigg, and after a gallant resistance he fell, having received 21 wounds, shot through the heart, and dying as a naval officer would desire to die. Captain Brownrigg did not board the dhow, and her nationality was not proved; but she was full of slaves. Some short time afterwards General Matthews, who commanded the Native Force of the Sultan at Zanzibar, reported having captured a dhow; and from the information given by the master, who was lying mortally wounded, there was reason to believe that it was the vessel in question. With regard to Captain Brownrigg's death, he was quite sure the House would sympathize with his friends and the Navy in the great loss the country had sustained; but a more heroic death could not have been suffered by any gallant officer, and he trusted that those who were dependent upon him—a widow and seven children—and who were not in affluent circumstances, would not be forgotten when the Estimates were introduced to the House. It was not for him to do more, however, than to say that consideration had always been shown to those who were dependent upon officers of the Army or Navy who had fallen; and although this might appear as an obscure skirmish, there was not a single officer whose tomb might be seen in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's who was more fully entitled to honour for zealous and active performance of his duties than Captain Brownrigg, whoso case he was endeavouring, however imperfectly, to bring before the House. Having said so much, and trusting that his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Trevelyan) would be able to state, not what the Government intended to do, but that the matter should have most careful consideration, he would proceed to point out what the service was in which Captain Brownrigg was engaged, and why he had thought it right to call attention to the unsatisfactory state of our relations with France for the suppression of the Slave Trade on the East Coast of Africa. He had also intended to move for Papers on the subject; but he understood from the hon. Baronet the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Sir Charles W. Dilke) that Papers would be laid on the Table in accordance with the terms of his Notice; therefore, he was satisfied with that statement.


I wish to point out to the right hon. and gallant Member that, to put himself in Order, he must conclude with a Motion; otherwise he will not be in Order.


replied, that, under those circumstances, he would move for the Papers. The House, perhaps, would remember that in addition to being a naval officer, and consequently taking great interest in all naval matters, he had taken a great interest in the suppression of the African Slave Trade, and had had the honour to be upon a Committee which was appointed in 1871, which fully inquired into the peculiar relations of naval officers employed in suppressing the Slave Trade in consequence of the action of France; and he hoped the hon. Baronet would be able to inform them that communications with France had been made which would place those relations on a more satisfactory footing than they were at present. He was sorry to say that during the last 10 years the same unsatisfactory relations had continued. In June, 1869, Sir Leopold Heath, the Commander-in-Chief of those seas, in a communication addressed to the Secretary to the Admiralty, said— The boarding of vessels under French colours is forbidden, except for the purpose (where fraud is suspected) of verifying the right to fly these colours. Sultan Masjid states that in order to avoid being searched by English cruisers his vessels are all rapidly leaving their proper national colours and placing themselves under the flag of France. I venture to suggest, as the simplest remedy for the evil, that the French Government should be moved to take steps for stopping the indiscriminate issue of Lettres de Franciscation at Nossi Beh, confining their issue to vessels bonâ fide the property of French subjects. In consequence of that a Committee of the Foreign Office was appointed, who reported to Lord Clarendon, and their Report was to be found in Parliamentary Paper No. 69, of 1870. It was— One point remains to be noticed in connection with this part of the subject—namely, the practice recently adopted by Arab slave-traders of sheltering themselves under the French flag. We observe that your Lordship has already called the attention of the French Government to the subject: but it might be well to inform the French Government of the nature of the instructions recently issued by the Admiralty regarding the seizure of vessels on suspicion of being slavers, which will, it is hoped, entirely protect the legitimate trader from detention or annoyance, and to urge this point upon the French Government as a reason for instructing the authorities at Mayotta and Nossi Beh to use the strictest precautions against any abuse of the protection of their flag in issuing French papers to Arab vessels, whose claims to be owned by French subjects are probably in most cases fictitious. In all the Correspondence upon the question he could find nothing but complaints of the unfortunate protection which was afforded by the French Government to slavers on the South-East Coast of Africa, and that was all the more unfortunate, because by the Treaties which had been entered into between this country and Germany, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, and the United States, a limited right of search of vessels flying flags of those countries was conceded to us—in consequence of which no slaver attempted to avail himself of the protection afforded by the flags of those countries—to enable us to act as the efficient police of those seas, which was rendered useless by the licences which the French Government allowed the Arabs to purchase at the rate of about $40 each. If France would concede that right the French flag would be no longer prostituted to the base use to which it was now frequently applied. General Matthews, writing in December, 1881, reported his capture of the captain of the dhow, who was mortally wounded, and who stated that he was in possession of a French flag and papers, which he had obtained for $49, for a dhow which he sold, and that he had then transferred the papers and the flag to a new dhow, the one in overhauling which Captain Brownrigg was killed. It appeared to him that a gallant and friendly nation like France should not object to grant us the same powers for the purposes of police that were conceded to us by all the other civilized Powers, and, above all, by America, which was exceedingly jealous of her naval rights and privileges. At all events, we might hope that, if European vessels were excluded, the French Government would give us the right to search vessels which were notoriously not French, not being commanded by men who spoke French, and having no right whatever to French papers, but which merely used the French flag for doubtful purposes, in order that our officers might be able to ascertain whether they were really engaged in a bonâ fide traffic or not. Until that was done, all our efforts there to suppress the Slave Trade would be frustrated by the prostitution and abuse of the French flag and papers. It was very unfortunate that French officers should, for a paltry sum of £10, give to all and sundry the right to carry the French flag, and call themselves French vessels. He was quite sure, if it was properly put to the distinguished officer now at the head of the French Navy by any English naval officer about to go out to take command of the Squadron on the South-East Coast of Africa, he would agree that the existing state of matters was no credit, either to the French Government or nation, that they should permit their flag to be prostituted for the purpose of enabling slavery to be carried on; and he was certain that neither the French Government nor the French people would desire that the Slave Trade should be protected by their flag. If the death of Captain Brownrigg conduced to measures being taken which would put a final stop to the Slave Trade, that gallant officer would not have died in vain. He believed that the Sultan of Zanzibar was sincerely anxious to put down slavery; but as long as the French flag was disgraced by sheltering those who carried on this detestable traffic it was impossible for him to put a stop to it. He trusted the House would hear from the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Admiralty that he had the case of Captain Brownrigg's family under consideration, because a braver, a more determined, and a more gallant officer never met a death more creditable to himself and to his country. He also trusted that the hon. Baronet who represented the Foreign Office would be able to state that steps had been taken to convince the French Government that it was from no desire to lower the dignity of the French flag, or to affect the influence of that country in those seas, that we asked them to concede to us for a limited time, and under limited conditions, a right of search which would for ever put an end to the Slave Trade on the South-East Coast of Africa. He begged, in conclusion, to move for Papers relating to the case.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That there he laid before the House, Copies of Papers relating to the murder of Captain C. Brownrigg, R.N., and to the relation between England and France in our operations for the suppression of the Slave Trade."—(Admiral Sir John Hay.)


said, he was afraid that there was only too much truth in what had fallen from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir John Hay) as to the state of things that existed on the East Coast of Africa. He said too much truth, because they must all regret that the flag of a great Power like France should be used for the purposes the right hon. and gallant Gentleman had described. Successive French Governments had certainly shown a great reluctance to submit to any restriction dealing with the subject under consideration. As long ago as the last century, and again at the Congress of Vienna, a marked reluctance was shown by France to submit to this regulation, to which most other countries had shown themselves willing to submit. The flag of France, in later times, had been very much used to cover the Slave Trade, as on the Brazilian Coast, as well as both on the West and East Coasts of Africa. It had, however, ceased to be so employed in 1849–50, and in the latter year a communication was made to M. Drouyn de Lhuys that there was no record of any vessel improperly hoisting the French colours since the Convention of 1845. In 1857, however, in consequence of the renewal of the practice formerly existing, remonstrances which Her Majesty's Government addressed to that of France were founded on the proceed- ings of French subjects both on the East and West Coasts of Africa. On the East Coast vessels were fitted out at Reunion for the purpose, ostensibly, of securing free labourers for that Colony, but, in reality, to obtain slaves from the African Coast; on the West Coast the proceedings of the agents of a Company of Marseilles, who held a contract to supply the French West Indies with negro labour, resulted in very questionable proceedings as regarded Kroomen, Dahomeans, and others engaged; the action of French agents was held to be not only against the Treaty of Vienna, but also against the Slave Trade Convention with England of 1845, by which the contracting Powers engaged to continue the prohibition for ever of all Slave Trade in the Colonies they possessed, and to prevent their subjects from being engaged, directly or indirectly, in the traffic. In 1863 a new feature arose—namely, the employment by Soori Arabs, of the East Coast, of the French flag, to cover Slave Trade enterprizes, and to escape the search of our cruisers. Representations were made to the French Government in respect of the facilities with which these Arabs obtained French registry. In 1870 the flag of France became so much used in the Slave Trade on the East Coast that in 1871 the French Government, in reply to further representations from Her Majesty's Government, instructed their naval authorities to exercise the most active surveillance over dhows arriving at and leaving Nossi Beh and Mayotta, and to proceed against those transgressing, and fresh steps were taken with regard to the issue of registry. In 1872 a request was made to France for the periodical communication of lists of all such dhows as had been furnished with the above-mentioned registry. In 1872, also, a further Correspondence took place with the French Government as to the extinction of the Slave Trade on the East Coast, and the French Government promised co-operation and assistance to effect the object aimed at. As a matter of fact, we seemed to have no regular Slave Trade Convention with France. The Joint Treaty of 1841 between Great Britain, Austria, France, Prussia, and Russia was signed by the French Plenipotentiary, but never ratified by his Government, and the Convention of 1845 came to an end in 1875, and hitherto had not been renewed. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman had stated the facts of the case with substantial accuracy; and he (Sir Charles W. Dilke) could only hope that the representations that had been addressed to the Government of France would have the effect desired. No hon. Member could read the Papers which would be presented to the House without seeing that the officer, whose assassination they all deplored, was in every way worthy of the praise that had been bestowed upon him. Captain Brownrigg had done all in his power to put down the Slave Trade. The Papers asked for by the right hon. and gallant Admiral would immediately be furnished; they would be included in the other Papers relating to the Slave Trade.


said, he had listened with pleasure to the eloquent tribute the hon. Baronet (Sir Charles W. Dilke) had paid to the memory of Captain Brownrigg. That gallant officer had met with his death while exhibiting exceptional personal bravery, and in circumstances which had been described as an act of assassination—an expression which was, in his opinion, by no means too strong, and which he was glad to hear used by the hon. Baronet, because it stated the true character of the transaction. But he could not help thinking that the Motion of his right hon. and gallant Friend (Sir John Hay) raised a much wider question than would at first sight appear from the terms of it. The House had heard it stated that the gallant officer in question, a post-captain of the British Navy, had been assassinated by the crew of a vessel sailing under the French flag. He could not help thinking that in former days such an event would not have been passed over so lightly as it had been at present.


The murder of Captain Brownrigg has been followed by the arrest of all the persons concerned.


, continuing, said, that might be so; but he could not help thinking that in former days such an event as they now deplored would not have been passed over by the Government of this country in the manner in which the hon. Baronet had dealt with it. The question involved more than the murder of Captain Brownrigg; it involved a gross insult to the British flag. The whole country would hear with deep disgust the fact that a post-captain of the British Navy had been murdered in the execution of his duty by a crew sailing under the French flag, and yet that no remonstrance had been addressed to the French Government upon the subject. It was impossible to imagine a more outrageous insult. The old feeling was that the flag of England was respected wherever it flew. What was the fact now? As gross an insult as had ever been recorded in the annals of history had been offered to the British flag—an insult upon which in old times a strong expression of feeling would have been elicited from the English people—and yet no assurance had been given to the House by the hon. Baronet that an endeavour would be made to obtain some expression of regret from the French Government. He could not expect at that hour of the night, and in the present condition of the House, to elicit a very strong expression of opinion; but he would state his own strong conviction that, unless steps were taken to obtain some expression of regret from the French Government, this insult would remain a serious blot upon the honour of the British flag.


said, that he had not come down to the House provided with any documents, for he thought that there would have been no more than a general discussion upon the subject, and he was content to leave the question to be dealt with by his hon. Friend (Sir Charles W. Dilke); but anyone who had the honour of representing the Admiralty required no preparation in order to speak on the merits of Captain Brownrigg. The operations on the Zanzibar Coast consisted in the capture of dhows which were employed for carrying slaves, and in the re-capture and liberation of the slaves, who were afterwards conveyed to our missions and schools to be made fit to occupy the position of freemen. The capture of these dhows, with their crews and cargoes, required a great deal of skill and smartness; but it frequently happened that when they were taken they were found empty. When hotly pursued they were run ashore, the captains thus securing their slaves, and, at the same time, destroying the evidence of their trade. To follow these captives into a country swarming with slaveholders required more than smartness and skill; it required great courage, perseverance, and resolution. On looking at the Returns on the subject of the Slave Trade, he found that in 1876 about 60 slaves had been captured; in 1877 about 100; and in 1878 from 120 to 160; and that about 30 dhows a-year had been taken. But when Captain Brownrigg came into the service he threw new life into it, and made his men feel that their duty was not to capture prizes, but to rescue their fellow-creatures; and the result was that instead of capturing 80 or 90 slaves a-year he captured in the years 1880 and 1881 no less than 50 or 60 dhows, and from 500 to 600 slaves. This was the more to Captain Brownrigg's credit, because the Treasury paid much more sparingly for the re-capture of slaves than the taking of dhows. Therefore, instead of seeking his own advantage, Captain Brownrigg preferred that which brought him little gain, but which was a greater service to humanity, and gave the nation a greater return for what it spent on the most honourable of all its military enterprizes. Captain Brownrigg also showed considerable diplomatic power, and very great power in dealing with men. He won the confidence and affection of the French Consul, and the confidence, also, of General Matthews, the Commander of the Forces of the Sultan, who had done so much to bring the murderers to justice, and who was an ex-member of the glorious Service to which Captain Brownrigg belonged. The feeling thus inspired in these officers was communicated to the French Government. Whatever might be said as to the attitude of the French Government as regarded the search of vessels, it could not be asserted that they had shown any backwardness with respect to the assassination. Then, as regarded what had been termed by the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck) an insult to the British flag, that was a very serious charge to make without waiting for the Papers which had been promised to the House. So far from insulting the British flag, the first thing the French Government did was to declare that the vessel had no right to carry that flag. They made, not an apology, but that which preceded an apology—namely, a statement of facts that the vessel in question was in no sense a French vessel. But although the vessel had no right to carry the French flag, the French Government did everything in their power to evince their sense of the enormous crime which had been committed. They at once sent to the coast a cruiser, which was now assisting our vessels in putting down this nefarious traffic. Here, as he had said, was a dhow sailing under false French colours which had assassinated a British officer, and the French Consul at once communicated to the surviving officers that the dhow was not a French vessel, and threw himself most actively into the pursuit of the murderers. From that time forward we had nothing to do with France; what we had to do with was the murderers. He could not imagine what the hon. Gentleman wanted to have done, as every one of the people who were guilty of the crime had, as far as was known, been arrested, with the exception of the principal, who was dying at the time of arrest, and those killed by Captain Brownrigg himself, tried, and sentenced to the very highest punishment the Sultan of Zanzibar, as a Mohammedan, could give—namely, imprisonment for life. He could not imagine either what sort of reparation could be exacted more than had been done, for there was no one living from whom to exact it. Everyone who was concerned in. the outrage was either in prison or in his grave. He put aside the question of the "old feeling" to which the hon. Gentleman had referred. The feeling of the Navy was their hearty feeling for comrades in other Services, and that old feeling had been shown to the fullest extent by every French naval official, and also shown by every French civil official who had anything to do with this lamentable matter. Captain Brownrigg appeared from all accounts to have been a British naval officer of the highest character, and, what he valued no less, in his death that gallant officer showed how English seamen ought to die. He had been true to the traditions of that-glorious Service of which, if he had lived, he must have been one of the brightest ornaments, and in the annals of which his memory must be a proud possession. He (Mr. Trevelyan) assured the hon. Gentleman opposite that those to whose hands the direction of that Service was for the time intrusted would not be ungrateful to the memory of Captain Brownrigg.

[The subject then dropped.]

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at half after Nine o'clock.