HC Deb 03 August 1888 vol 329 cc1371-7

, in rising to ask the Government, Whether any steps can now be taken to mediate between Italy and Abyssinia, in the hope of relieving those counties from their present relations towards each other, which are seriously injurious to both parties; and also to restore the free transit through Massowa which we guaranteed by Admiral Hewett's Treaty, said, that it was with reluctance that he addressed their Lordships on the question of Abyssinia, but he felt compelled to do so because, as he had stated on a former occasion, he felt grateful to King John for his loyal assistance to the expedition in Abyssinia, and because he wrote to King John advising him to be guided by our Ambassador, Admiral Hewett, in the Treaty which was then entered into. He had reason to believe that his advice had much weight with King John, and therefore he felt a considerable amount of responsibility regarding him. King John might well have doubted our friendship, because we stood aloof when Egypt attacked Abyssinia. It was reasonable to suppose that our intervention could have prevented that wrong. But King John accepted our proposals and Admiral Hewett's Treaty. A reference to Admiral Hewett's Treaty would show that in the 1st Article was the condition that there should be free transit through Massowa for all goods, including arms and ammunition, under British protection. The 2nd Article provided that the country called Bogos should be restored to King John, and when the Egyptian garrisons should have left the garrisons of Kassala, Amedib, and Sanhit, the buildings in the Bogos country, with all the stores and munitions of war belonging to the Khe- dive, which should then remain in the same buildings, should be delivered to, and become the property of, King John. In the 3rd Article, King John agreed to facilitate the withdrawal of the troops of His Highness the Khedive from Kassala, Amedib, and Sanhit through Massowa. King John fulfilled his engagement, he assisted two garrisons, and, in the third instance, he did not succeed; he fought a most sanguinary battle to effect it, and lost many valuable soldiers. This country had restored the territory taken by Egypt, but we failed to secure the free transit through Egypt, which was never for one moment carried into effect, and the condition of the stores and material in Bogos was not fulfilled. If we had had a British Consul present, and made efficient provision for defining the limits of the Massowa occupation, the collision might have been prevented. By not having a sufficient guarantee for the fulfilment of our Treaty, we had incurred a grave national responsibility, and England could not look without concern at the present state of affairs, which threatened to destroy the degree of comparative order created by King John, and to throw Abyssinia into an anarchy, while it cost Italy much money and many valuable lives. It was to be hoped now that Italy, having secured the outposts necessary for the protection of Massowa, having vindicated her military position, having killed ten Abyssinians for every Italian soldier that fell at Dogali, and having greatly straitened Abyssinia by her blockade, might be willing to grant such terms as King John could accept without incurring the resentment of his people by the surrender of his territory. If we referred to the series of Blue Books published by Italy, and the frequent solemn declaration of her Ministers, we should infer that she had no designs of conquest, but that her sole object was commercial and civilizing. It was not possible to suppose that Italy, who for so many years groaned under a foreign yoke, whose wrongs and sorrows drew the sympathy of all the free countries of Europe, would now become an oppressor, or that she would run the risk of ruining the only Christian nation in Africa. Abyssinia, peaceful and in alliance with Italy, would afford a valuable opening for trade in Central Africa, Abyssinia, wholly or partly conquered by Italy, with a brave though unruly population, could never be other than a thorn in the side of Italy, and would be valueless for commerce. Italy had become a great and enlightened nation. It was impossible to consider the ancient history and the present position of Abyssinia without some sympathy. Although they have followed, in many instances, the fierce teaching of the Israelite, rather than the mild teaching of the Messiah, there was really much Christianity in the middle classes of the people, the farmers, and others. We should remember that Abyssinia had alone of the Africans preserved her Christian Church, and that in her day of power she protected the churches of Africa. We might learn from the eloquent pages of Gibbon how she listened to the appeal of the African churches and redressed their wrongs, It was to be hoped that Italy, by a generous forbearance, might become the enlightened friend and protector of Abyssinia, and might relieve England, of whose friendship and sympathy she was assured, of a very embarrassing position and an unfulfilled responsibility.


My Lords, the matter to which my noble and gallant Friend has addressed himself is one that naturally attracts his recollection and invokes his sympathy, and I think it quite natural he should have brought it before the House. I cannot enter so freely into it as he has done; I have not the right to do so, in the first place, and, in the second, there are many considerations which must make me sparing of my observations upon some points on which he has touched. But I should like just to state the precise position in which this country stands towards Abyssinia, because it is a little complicated. Admiral Hewett, in June, 1864, concluded a Convention with the King of Abyssinia, of which this was the 1st Article— From the date of the signing of this Treaty there shall be free transit through Massowa to and from Abyssinia for all goods, including arms and ammunition, under British protection. My noble and gallant Friend, I think, spoke of that as a guarantee. The word is hardly accurate, but I would not quarrel with it and only notice it for the purpose of saying that it is not at all applicable to the rest of the Convention. The Convention goes on to state that— The country called Bogos shall be restored to the Negus with certain stores and buildings; but there is no word about British protection. It is a tripartite Treaty between the Queen, the Government of Egypt, and the Negus, and I think that Her Majesty's engagements in respect to that territory were entirely fulfilled when it was handed over to him, and any further possession of it is a matter which does not directly, as a matter of Treaty, concern us. But, with respect to the engagement that goods and ammunition shall have a free transit through the Port of Massowa there is more difficulty. Shortly after this engagement was undertaken by Admiral Hewett a change took place in the possession of Massowa. When we entered into that engagement that port was in possession of Egypt, over whom our influence was at that time unbounded; but shortly after that time possession was taken of it by the Italians, not precisely with our consent, but with our knowledge. The terms in which the noble Lord opposite (Earl Granville) expressed himself—I am quoting the Parliamentary Papers—were— If the Italian Government should desire to occupy some of the ports in question it was a matter between Italy and Turkey, but he (Sir John Lumley) was able to inform the Italian Ambassador that Her Majesty's Government, for their part, had no objection to raise against the Italian occupation of Zulla, Beilul, or Massowa, subject always to certain conditions as to the last-named port which resulted from the provisions of our recent Treaty with Abyssinia. And, in reply to that, Sir John Lumley records the fact that— Count Ferrari carries with him sealed orders, to be opened on the arrival of a courier from Massowa"— and that— in the event of the permanent Italian occupation of that place he will assure the King that Italy assumes all the obligations of the Treaty between England and Abyssinia"— that is, the King of Abyssina— and will do all in her power to facilitate Abyssinia trade. To that extent we have, on the part of Italy, the acceptance of the inheritance of the engagement which we made with the King of Abyssinia. The precise international position remains a little complicated, but yet I suppose we may regard ourselves as divested of these engagements and Italy as having succeeded to them. At least, that is the practical position. I gather from my noble and gallant Friend that he thinks Italy has not fulfilled those engagements with respect to the free passage of arms and ammunition. It is fair to say that there is considerable controversy as to what the meaning of the word "free" in the Treaty is. Some persons interpret it to mean "free of all duty," and others to mean "free of all restriction." It is important to know, therefore, that when the Treaty was in the act of signature by Admiral Hewett, Mason Bey, who represented Egypt at that signature, was by his side, and the Admiral was going to write it "free of all duty," when, by the advice of Mason Bey, he did not do so, but simply wrote it "free." It is, therefore, to be presumed that, in the view of Admiral Hewett and of Mason Bey, it was free from all restrictions, and not free from all duty. That is the only consideration of a technical character which I will venture to press on the noble and gallant Lord. He must be aware that since that time a state of war has arisen between the King of Abyssinia and the Government of Italy. I will not attempt to decide between two Powers, both of whom are our allies, but it is fair to say that Ras Alula, representing the King of Abyssinia, was certainly not very strictly under the restraint of the orders of the Central Government of his State, and the intelligence which has reached me does not accord with that of the noble and gallant Lord that the Italians took the first hostile step. However, be that as it may, it skills little to consider how the war began. There the war was, and I doubt whether, after a war has begun, you can claim to enforce engagements which were made before that war began. We have done, as the noble and gallant Lord is aware our utmost to prevent that war. A Mission was undertaken and carried out most gallantly, in the face of great danger, by Mr. Portal. That Mission was, I believe, performed most skilfully, and all that could be done on our side was done to try and bring the contending parties to an agreement. We were so far unsuccessful, yet I cannot help thinking that our intervention had for its effect the prevention of actual conflict to any serious extent, and I am not without hope that in the long run actual conflict may be avoided. We certainly cannot press again upon Italy our mediation, which has already failed; but the noble and gallant Lord may be quite certain that we are as anxious to prevent the collision of those two Powers as ever we were, and that any opportunity which occurs to us likely to facilitate the restoration of peace and of friendship between those two Powers and the maintenance of them in their respective rights, will be gladly seized by Her Majesty's Government.


said, the noble Marquess had accurately stated the effect of the Treaty arrangements between this country and Abyssinia at the time Massowa was occupied by the Italians. When he (Earl Granville) held the Seals of the Foreign Office the Italian Ambassador was extremely desirous of knowing our policy with regard to the Red Sea littoral. He replied that our wish was to act in the most friendly manner towards Italy, but that it was not our intention to give away that which did not belong to us, and that any possession of territory must be a matter been Italy and Turkey. Under these circumstances he said that, so far as we were concerned, we had no objections to the Italians taking provisional occupation of certain ports in that territory as a matter between them and Turkey, subject to certain conditions referred to by the noble Marquess. He agreed with the noble Marquess when he said that one could not claim to enforce a Treaty after a war as it might be enforced before a war, and he was right in not attempting to enforce the engagement on either party. At the same time, it was manifest that it would be very much to the interest of the Italians to promote as much as possible a peaceful state of things, and he had no doubt the noble Marquess would do his utmost, as the opportunity presented itself, to bring about a settlement between the two countries.

In answer to Lord NAPIER of MAGDALA,


said, he imagined that the general rule of National Law would prevail as regarded Treaties and relations between Italy and Abyssinia. The relations between Italy and Abyssinia, whenever friendly relations were renewed, would depend upon the instrument by which those friendly relations were renewed.

Forward to