HC Deb 30 March 1885 vol 296 cc1010-8

who had the following Notice on the Paper:— To call attention to the increased expenditure on Heligoland, and to the fact that that island is of no mercantile or strategical value to Great Britain; and to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying Her Majesty to endeavour to induce the German Government to take charge of the island, said, he was not sorry that he was prevented by the Rules of the House from making that Motion, since it would, perhaps, enable them to discuss it with greater freedom in the form of a general conversation rather than if they could be called upon to give a vote. The Island was formerly part of the Duchy of Schleswig, and it came only into the possession of Great Britain at the beginning of the century, when it was taken by a Naval Force under Admiral Russell, but it was not formally transferred till the peace in 1814. If at that time the present German Empire had existed, Germany never would have consented to the transfer. The Island was not of great importance in itself, for it was only a mile long and half-a-mile broad, it was rapidly being absorbed by the sea, and was likely very soon to be reduced to a mere shoal of land in the German Ocean. It contained a population of only about 2,000 persons, who lived in less than 4 00 houses, and the male portion of which was engaged either as fishermen or pilots, the women conducting the small agriculture of the Island. The total expenditure on the Island was about £8,000 a-year, and towards that there was a proposed subsidy in these Estimates of £2,775. The situation of the Island was of no importance in the present advanced stage of artillery science; but situated as it was at the mouth of the Elbe and the Weser, and within 18 miles of the Elbe lightship, it was naturally productive of a strong feeling in Germany. It might be only a sentimental feeling; but it none the less applied, and he asked the Members of the House to consider what the sentimental feeling would have been in this country if Heligoland had been an island in the estuary of the Thames, and it had been occupied by the French or the Germans. Why, then, should we continue to hold an Island the possession of which by us was offensive to Germany when it was no possible use, and when its maintenance involved quite an appreciable charge on the Public Exchequer? He did not put the matter forward as though the Island was something they should barter away for a great advantage to be obtained from the German nation; but, looking at the value of the Island to this country, he thought it would be extremely mean to attempt to make merchandize out of the sentimental desire of the German people to possess it. His wish was that, by pursuing the course he suggested, they should gain what was of inestimable value to this country—the goodwill of the German people. He flattered himself that he had now made out his ease that the Island was of no commercial or strategical value to this country. The Government must make up their mind as quickly as possible, because the island was rapidly disappearing. Ton miles out of 11 had disappeared since the last century, and it might not be long before the last remnant disappeared under the waves of the ocean. If, therefore, they wished to do a handsome thing, then let them do it at once.


said, he had listened to the speech of the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Gorst) with some surprise, for there was a most extraordinary omission in that speech. The hon. and learned Member had spoken of the ardent desire of the Gorman people to have possession of Heligoland; but he had quite forgotten to refer to the feelings of the Heligolanders upon this point. It was certainly a strange proposal to hand over this Island to the Germans without ascertaining the views and wishes of the Islanders. If the hon. and learned Member had inquired into this point, he (Sir Henry Holland) was afraid the omission to state the result of his inquiry must have been intentional, for he was satisfied that there was no desire on the part of the people of Heligoland for the proposed annexation. They had prospered and thrived under English rule, and he was certain that they did not desire to come under German rule and German law, including conscription for military service. He was not prepared to sacrifice these people for the purpose of pleasing and conciliating the German people, however desirable it might be to do so. The hon. and learned Member had stated that from a strategical point of view Heligoland was no use to this country. He (Sir Henry Holland) was disposed to contradict this opinion, oven upon the hon. Member's own statement, as to the position of Heligoland; but he (Sir Henry Holland) had the honour of having served on a Royal Commission on Colonial Defences and the Protection of Trade; and although their proceedings and Report were strictly confidential, yet it would be no breach of that confidence to say that, at all events, some persons of experience entertained contrary views to that of the hon. and learned Member. In truth, the very statement of the hon. and learned Member that Germany ardently desired the possession of this Island, though he said this desire was only sentimental, might not unnaturally lead many to question whether there was not some other and deeper reason for that desire. Might it not be based on strategical reasons'? Might it not be that they looked upon the possession of this Island as more important than the hon. and learned Member would lead this House to believe? He (Sir Henry Holland) thought that Her Majesty would have no difficulty in "inducing the German Government to take charge of the Island;" but he protested against this endeavour being made against the wishes of the inhabitants, and from the knowledge he had obtained when in the Colonial Office, and from Reports of Governors, he was satisfied that the Heligolanders would be averse to any such change. What were we to gain by such a change? The goodwill of the German people, and relief from a very small subsidy. The hon. and learned Member had admitted that the subsidy was very small, and this of itself was a proof of the prosperity of the Island under our rule. Were we to throw over the Heligolanders for such a gain? As to the gradual deterioration of the Island from the sea, he believed that whatever it had been in the last century it was less now than it had been. Upon the whole, then, he hoped the House would not assent to the proposed scheme, which appeared to him most unwise and uncalled for.


said, he could not agree entirely with either of the speakers. The feeling of a large majority in Heligoland was in favour of being joined to Germany or Denmark. It was not easy, however, to ascertain Heligoland feeling, beeause the language they spoke was Frisian. Scarcely 20 people on the Island understood English. He had not had the advantage of the hon. and learned Member in reading up books on the subject. They had been told that there were 60 cows on the Island. He believed there was not one. Then they were told something about horses. There were no horses.


said, he did not say that.


said, there might have been cows on the Island at some period or other.


admitted that; but he disputed the hon. Member's figures as to the production of barley, and also the size of the Island. At present it was about one mile long and half-a-mile broad, and it was gradually getting less; therefore, there was something in the suggestion that if the Government acted at all they must act speedily. The Island was not, as stated, at the mouth of the Elbe. Again, if they were to give it to anyone they should give it to Denmark and not to Germany, as it originally belonged to Schleswig. Still, if in presenting' it to Germany the Germans would give up any claim which they asserted to the Northern part of New Guinea, then the good relations between the two countries might be preserved and strengthened without any loss or disadvantage to this country.


said, that before the Select Committee on Harbours, which sat and reported recently, evidence was given of the great importance of the Island of Heligoland to the British fishermen who went to the Dogger Bank and the German Ocean. If a proper graving dock were provided on the Island for the repair of the fishing fleet it would be a great advantage. Considering the importance of the Island to our fishermen, he thought it would be most unwise to surrender the Island for no other reason than to curry favour with the German nation.


said, the principle enunciated by the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) was capable of very large, if not indefinite, extension, and should not be adopted without very mature consideration. That principle seemed to be simply that if other people very much desired a piece of territory which we possessed, we should give it up to them. In the present instance, the Island which was supposed to be the object of desire to the German people might not be of any great importance to us. But in another case, or at some other time, a foreign nation might desire something which it would be very inconvenient to part with He did not, therefore, think that we could accept the supposed wish of the German people for the acquisition of Heligoland as a reason for surrendering the Island to them. It must not be forgotten that our possession of this Island enabled us to import cargoes into Germany, during the wars of the Great Napoleon, much to the benefit of the German people; nor was it altogether impossible that it might enable us again to render the same assistance to Germany which it enabled us to render to her in past times. He did not think that any case had been made out for giving up the Island, and he thought we might as well consult our own feelings by keeping it as consult the feelings of the Germans by giving it up to them.


wished to boar testimony to the importance of Heligoland to the fishing interest of the East Coast. The fishermen of Grimsby would be very much astonished to learn of the proposal to put Heligoland in other than British hands. He would advocate the construction of a small harbour on the Island, which would be of the greatest use to the fishermen who went to the Dogger Bank to pursue their calling, and he hoped that, in the interests of fishermen in general, the House would reject the Motion.


said, he thought that it would be much better to leave this Island alone than to surrender it to any Foreign Power, more particularly as there did not appear to be any desire on the part of the inhabitants to be transferred to another nation.


said, that when the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had mentioned that this Island was formerly part of the Duchy of Schleswig, he was afraid that he was about to re-open the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The considerations raised in the Motion before the House were very numerous, and involved principles very dangerous in their application to the scattered Dependencies of the British Crown. He was inclined to think that some of the doctrines applicable to this case were capable of very dangerous extension and ought not to be lightly adopted. If they were to talk about giving up places because they were not ancient Possessions of the British Crown, they would embark upon a discussion of what were the ancient Possessions of the British Crown. Again, he could not conceive the case for giving up the modern Possessions of the Crown any stronger than that for giving up its ancient Possessions. On the other hand, the probability was that the arguments in favour of surrendering the ancient Possessions of the Crown were stronger than those in favour of surrendering modern acquisitions, and for this reason—that in all probability in the case of modern Possessions some part of the reason for the annexation still existed, while in the case of ancient Possessions the change of circumstances might have rendered the reason for their acquisition non-existent, and they might have become of no value. If the argument of contiguity to another country were applied, it would be necessary to consider it with reference to other Possessions of the British Crown—for instance, in the case of the Channel Islands. The Channel Islands were much nearer to France than Heligoland was to Germany. It was true that, from time to time, some learned German Professor wrote an article with the view of showing that Heligoland ought to belong to Germany; but he was not inclined to think that the same feeling existed for the acquisition of Heligoland by Germany as existed with regard to other parts of the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. With regard to the inhabitants, there was no evidence before the House of any wish on their part to be surrendered to Germany. Some years ago, he presented a Petition to the House from the inhabitants of Heligoland regarding certain grievances under which they laboured; but, speaking from memory, he was almost certain there was no reference in that Petition to any desire to be transferred to Germany. The Petition expressed the desire of the inhabitants for certain extensions of the form of government in a popular direction; it sought a restoration of certain privileges, and contained a strong expression of opinion on the part of the inhabitants against rabbits being allowed to undermine the Island. The surrender of this Island might raise very important questions as to whether Denmark was not more entitled to Heligoland than Germany. These people were not Germans. They were of Teutonic race only in the sense that all the inhabitants of Germany were Teutonic. They were of Frisian origin, and spoke a dialect of a Frisian character. Then there was another point, which was the importance of the Island in connection with the great industry of the North Sea Fisheries. He hardly thought that the importance of the question was properly appreciated in the House, but those at the Foreign Office were very sensible of it. It would be a serious thing, without very careful consideration, to interfere with the very extensive fishing industry of the East Coast of England. Besides, it would be impossible to hand over the Island to another Power except with the consent of Parliament. Unless at the termination of a war, when new arrangements might have to be made, the Possessions of the Crown could not be alienated by the act of the Executive. He would ask the House to consider what would happen if he or his hon. Friend the Under Secretary for the Colonies were to bring in a Bill for handing over Heligoland to Denmark or Germany. The Government would be denounced, they would be told that they were cowards, and that it would be a crowning of the edifice of their disgrace. He did not think that such a Bill would receive the support of the Party to which the hon. and learned Member for Chatham belonged. For these reasons, he thought the House would agree with him that we should do better to act on the old maxim, quieta non movere, and not adopt the proposal.


said, he was much astonished when he saw the Notice of Motion of his hon. and learned Friend, which appeared rather as a trap for Her Majesty's Government, and he congratulated them that they had escaped the snare. He was also very glad that the proposal had practically received no support in the House. Even if his hon. and learned Friend had proved his case, he should be sorry that the House should support any Motion for the surrender of one of Her Majesty's Possessions; and if the case had not been proved, as he thought it had not, it would be a bad thing if there were to be any doubtful voices in the matter. His hon. and learned Friend appeared to found his case on two points. In the first place, he said there was a very strong desire on the part of the German people to possess the Island. He had himself never been able to discover any trace of that desire. He admitted that there had been certain writings and speeches from Germans showing that Heligoland ought to belong to the German people; but he did not think that the German people attached any such importance to the matter as his hon. and learned Friend seemed to think. Then as to the other point, that the Island was of no use to us, it had been shown by the noble Lord and others who had taken part in the debate, that Heligoland was of great importance to our fisheries in the North Sea. His hon. Friend the Member for Midhurst (Sir Henry Holland) had been a Member of a very important Commission appointed to inquire into the defences of the country, and though his hon. Friend could not from the nature of the subject speak freely about it, yet he had said enough to show how valuable in certain circumstances the possession of Heligoland might be. As to the feelings of the people of Heligoland, when he was at the Colonial Office, so far from there being any desire on their part to sever themselves from the British Empire, they were exceedingly well pleased to be connected with England rather than with Germany. He did not know, considering the peculiar nature of the Island, and how rapidly it was diminishing, that it would be possible to do anything for it of the kind suggested by the hon. Member for Hythe (Sir Edward Watkin), without incurring more expense than would be repaid by any results that could be obtained; but he thought the Colonial Office might turn their attention to the subject, and perhaps, with the assistance of the Home Secretary, they might succeed in devising some Ground Game Act for Heligoland, which would at least have the effect of remedying the principal grievances felt by the inhabitants.