HC Deb 19 February 1885 vol 294 cc873-9

Certain Papers and Correspondence relating to the affairs of Egypt have been presented to Parliament, and I rise to make a formal Motion that these Papers do lie upon the Table for the purpose of submitting to the House a very brief statement, of a description not controversial, but occasioned by circumstances, which I will in a very few words explain. The House will readily understand that it is not the established practice to submit telegrams relating to military operations and military measures to Parliament in the same way as it is to submit telegrams and communications relating to those matters which are civil in their character. It will be readily understood that a far greater reserve is often necessary in respect to matters of that class than with respect to public intelligence of interest in general. On that account, as military decisions of importance have been required to be taken within a very recent period, Her Majesty's Government have thought that it would be but just to Parliament that they should communicate, in a shape which can be open to no objection connected with the public interest, the substance and effect of their decisions so far as is in their power. Sir, that is the purpose and the justification, I hope, of my making a Motion which is not very often made, but which is, I believe, perfectly regular and perfectly Parliamentary, in relation to the cause which has called for such a proceeding. I need only remind the House that the policy declared by Her Majesty's Government with respect to the Soudan has always been the evacuation of the Soudan by Egypt and its restoration. [Cries of "Oh!" from the Opposition Benches.] That policy has received the approval of the Khedive and of the present Egyptian Government. It has undergone no change. I am not about to argue it or to defend it, but merely to state the fact, which is the point on which I set out, that it has undergone no change. But events from time to time have occurred to prevent its immediate application. During the adjournment of the House up to the 3rd of February, circumstances appeared to justify a sanguine hope on our part that the military problem was near its solution, and that little, in comparison, would remain to be done. The news of February 4 entailed new duties and led to new decisions—I mean, of course, the news of the loss, and, as it has now been shown to be, the betrayal, of Khartoum. The nature of the military object in view underwent in connection with, or in consequence of, that news a considerable change. The Mahdi outside Khartoum, a repository of arms and stores, was a different person in point of power and influence, as well as of what is called moral effect, from the same Mahdi in Khartoum in possession of the place and in possession of the arms and stores which it contained, as well as being reinforced—to what extent we are not precisely informed—by men he found within the walls. Under these circumstances, and receiving as we did communications from Lord Wolseley, it was our duty to arrive at decisions which are strictly military decisions. It became, as Lord Wolseley explained to us, a necessity for him to know whether he was to shape the measures that he might have immediately to take upon the supposition that he was either now or eventually to proceed to overthrow the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum, or whether he was to proceed upon the opposite supposition, because the framework of those measures and their character would essentially depend upon our adoption of the affirmative or the negative of that important point. The Government, giving the best consideration in their power to the question from the state of facts before them, decided in the affirmative—that it was their duty to instruct Lord Wolseley to frame his military measures upon the expectation and upon the policy of proceeding to overthrow the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum. The military consequences immediately following from that decision were these—in the first place, that there should he immediate action from Suakin against Osman Digna as a matter of essential necessity to open the route to Berber; secondly, the decision to commence the construction of a railway; and, thirdly, the intention I have already described, which is the basis of the whole—to use Her Majesty's Forces for the purpose of overthrowing the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum. With respect to the time at which effect may be given to these intentions, that, of course, was a matter for the judgment of Lord Wolseley; but if it could not be done until after the hot season, which has not yet commenced, but which may commence in no very great number of weeks, then the decision was that it should be done after the hot season. Our impression is—but it is an impression only, and it is not absolute knowledge—that Lord Wolseley will probably, under ail the circumstances, postpone the operations. The whole of these intentions and decisions will, of course, form matter for the consideration and judgment of Parliament. Now, Sir, I have said that we adopted the affirmative upon the important proposition that it was our duty to advise the use of Her Majesty's Forces in an efficient manner for overthrowing the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum. I can conceive that hon. Gentlemen may see reasons which may operate in the opposite direction; but those are reasons upon which, if they exist, I need not dwell. What I wish to put before the House, in a very few words, is the reasons which have led us to the decision opposite to that of deciding that no effort was to be made to overthrow the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum. Now, there were certain objects in connection with the Soudan—and I speak of objects in the Soudan not exclusively but separately—there were certain objects which we always deemed, and which I think Parliament has generally deemed, very fit for consideration so far as circumstances might allow. One of those objects was with reference to the case of those persons as to whom General Gordon—the lamented General Gordon—so well vindicated his title to the character of hero, now recognized throughout the civilized world. One of them was the condition of those persons to whom General Gordon felt himself to be bound, and for whose sake he contentedly forbore—indeed, more than contentedly—he determinedly forbore—to make use of the means of personal safety which, so far as we know, were largely at all times, or, at all events, for a long time at his disposal. [Cries of "Oh!" from the Opposition Benches.] I speak under that impression with respect to General Gordon; but I do not wish to raise any question of doubt. I was not aware myself that there was any difference of opinion upon the matter. But let me withdraw those terms, because I do not wish to state anything in the nature of an historical fact which is open to controversy. I will only say that there were those persons in Khartoum to whom General Gordon held himself bound in honour, and for whose safety he was pledged. The second object was the possibility—what he regarded as a possibility—an object most desirable to attain, if it could be done—of establishing some orderly Government in Khartoum. The third was a point of very considerable importance, which I do not think any Member of this House would wish to exclude from view. The military operations and the condition of the Soudan have, I think I may say, for the time afforded an effectual check, and a very powerful cheek, to the Slave Trade carried on in that region, and the question of the Slave Trade was one which we could not wholly exclude from our view. Lastly, I will mention only one other objeot—the question of the Egyptian garrisons in the Soudan, in respect of which my noble Friend the Secretary of State for War, in a great debate in this House, and in a full statement which he made as to the objects and obligations of the Government, said that we entered under no obligation whatever; but that, at the same time, with regard to some one or more of those garrisons it might be, under the circumstances, a fit subject for consideration. I only recite those objects which, I have said, have been all along kept in view, subject to the limitations that might arise in the view of the Government and of Parliament, because I wish to point out our conviction that had we arrived at a negative decision as to the British Forces being used to overthrow the power of the Mahdi at Khartoum the effect would have been at once to involve the abandonment of the whole of those objects. But it was not merely objects in the Soudan which we had to consider. Our concern in the Soudan was a concern dependent upon our concern and obligations for the safety and defence of Egypt. We had to look at matters beyond the Soudan as well as within the Soudan; and it was our belief that such a negative decision as I have now described would have had most important and serious consequences with respect to whatever dangers there might exist, either proximate or remote, in Egypt or in the East, from the position of the Mahdi at Khartoum, momentarily triumphant, and that these dangers were of a character hardly in their nature the subject of precise estimate, but in the view of many, far-reaching, and possibly very grave. These considerations we took into view when we considered the question whether it was possible for us to arrive at what is a very important military decision. Sir, there is one other point, and only one. I have described in language as clear as I could the military decision at which the Government have arrived; but there is one other point on which I wish to say a word. No one can view circumstances so grave in the East without entertaining, at least, the question whether it is possible to escape from them, not by the way of force, but by the way of accommodation. Now, Sir, upon that subject I wish to say that the very first acts of General Gordon, when he arrived at Khartoum, signified the pacific character of his mission, and that, so far as his action and the policy he represented are concerned, that pacific character, that liberating character, has been a matter of notoriety from its very first commencement down to the present day. And Lord Wolseloy—in a document which does not happen to have reached us as yet officially, but which appears in the public journals as a document, and I cannot for a moment doubt its authenticity—Lord Wolseley has conveyed himself a similar declaration. He says— The English Government has sent me with an Army to restore peace, and not to collect taxes or injure anyone. I will pay you for all produce, and I guarantee to execute General Gordon's promises. These promises were of the character to which I have referred. The general purposes of the British power and policy, to which the Egyptian Government has fully assented, have been declared repeatedly and recently, and are well known. We do not think—and we cannot help believing that in this opinion we shall carry with us the assent of the House—we do not think that the present situation allows of our making any overtures to the Mahdi with any prospect of success. On the contrary, I believe that such overtures, however benevolently and philanthropically—[Laughter from the Opposition Benches.] Yes, however philanthropically intended would tend to defeat their own object, and to make more remote the prospect of that very settlement which it is our object to obtain. One thing, however, we have thought it right to do, and that is to convey an instruction through Sir Evelyn Baring that any communication which may proceed from the Mahdi shall be referred home for the consideration of Her Majesty's Government. Sir, that is the brief statement which we have thought it necessary to submit to Parliament, in order that Parliament may apprehend the nature and scope of the military object which Lord Wolseley has now before him, and likewise the nature of the immediate measures and efforts connected with them which the attainment of that object has rendered necessary. This would not, I think, Sir, be a convenient opportunity for entering at length into any discussion, or any vindication or exposition of so large a question as is here involved; but so much of information we have thought it the duty of the Government to place in the hands of the House of Commons. I beg to move that Papers be laid upon the Table.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Copy presented of further Correspondence respecting the affairs of Egypt (by Command) do lie upon the Table."—(Mr. Gladstone.)


Sir, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is not a moment for entering into a discussion of a controversial character, and I the more feel that because of the Notice which I gave earlier in the evening of a Motion which will give an opportunity for full discus- sion of the subject. My object in rising is simply this—that I wish to take the earliest possible opportunity of giving expression to what I am sure are the sentiments not only of the whole House, but of the whole country, with regard to the great loss we have sustained in the death of that gallant officer, General Gordon. Whatever may have been our controversies with regard to other matters, the personal feeling which General Gordon has evoked throughout his career, and more especially during the last 12 months, has been of the most marked and highly-deserved character. I am glad to take this early opportunity of saying that; and I must, at the same time, take the same opportunity of expressing the sense of all of us in regard to the valour, the conduct, and the discipline of our troops, and the very sincere sympathy which we feel for those who have fallen in our service—especially let me mention that lamented and gallant officer, General Earle. I fear that we cannot but express, also, great uneasiness with regard to Sir Herbert Stewart. [Cries of "Burnaby."] There are other names I do not mention in particular; but these two, who have taken such a prominent position, are entitled to receive the special notice of this House. There is another matter about which I will say a word of congratulation—I mean the gallant and spirited overtures which have been made to us on the part of many of the British Dependencies to rally round the flag of the Empire and bear their part in our burdens. I do not think I could omit to make these observations; but, at the same time, I do not wish to pursue this subject further on the present occasion.


wished to apologize to the House, but desired to say that ho thought they ought there and then to pass a Resolution something like the following:— That this House deplores the betrayal of General Gordon and the purposeless destruction of life in the Soudan, and disapproves of the continuance of military operations as proposed by the Prime Minister. He had no desire to make a speech; all he wished to state was what he thought the judgment of the House ought to be.

Question put, and agreed to.

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