HC Deb 20 September 1893 vol 17 cc1732-46
SIR E. ASHMEAD-BARTLETT (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

said, he was sorry to have to ask the attention of the House for a few moments to another subject; but, as a matter of fact, those Members of the House who were not Members of the Government had had no opportunity this Session of bringing forward questions which in ordinary Sessions could be done on private Members' nights. He proposed to call attention to two or three points which, he thought, illustrated the reason why a general want of confidence prevailed in the Government at home and abroad. He thought the condition of affairs at home was very much to be deplored. There was a general feeling of unsettlement. There was a grievous depression in trade, and the existing labour disputes and the misery and ruin which prevailed in consequence were very considerably due to the want of confidence in the present Government. They had been in power 13 months, and from a legislative point of view had done nothing. It was a curious misfortune—if it was not the fault—of the present Government that at this period, as, indeed, during the Administration of the present Prime Minister, foreign Governments felt at liberty to attack British interests. Taking the 13 months that the present Government had been in Office, and referring first of all to Egypt, our interests in that country were threatened with very serious injury indeed. Egypt seemed on the point, for the moment, of sinking back into the disorder and anarchy from which British administration had rescued it. That was entirely due to the fact that the present Prime Minister, when out of Office, gave foreign countries, and especially France, reason to believe that he was prepared to evacuate Egypt. Happily the danger which had arisen in Egypt from the weakness of the right hon. Gentleman and his most unfortunate utterances in public before he came into Office had been averted by the firmness of Lord Rosebery, whose influence in the Cabinet was sufficient to cause timely action to be taken; but the restoration of order and the maintenance of our interests in Egypt had only been effected by the process of nearly doubling the British Army of Occupation. Our interests had also been seriously injured by the action of the Government in regard to the dispute between France and Siam. Her Majesty's Government had shown a great want of acquaintance with the affairs of Siam, and had allowed themselves to be steadily pushed down hill by the progress of French aggression. Ten weeks ago, if any hon. Member had told the Under Secretary that by the 20th of September Siam would have been despoiled of one-third of her territory; that she would have been compelled to pay a large and unjust indemnity; that the revenues of some of her wealthiest Provinces would have been assigned to France; and that there would be great danger of a French Protectorate, such a statement would have been laughed to scorn. But all these evils had come about. Siam had been despoiled with impunity by the French Government, and its integrity and independence had been threatened. One of the most serious elements in the matter was the influence which this weakness on the part of the Government must have on public feeling in India. It was a most deplorable coincidence that at the moment Russia was rapidly advancing towards the frontier of India through the Pamirs, and generally seeking to extend her influence and control over Northern Persia, another great European Power should be successful in making a serious attack upon the integrity, if not the independence, of Siam, whose interests were largely bound up with our Indian Empire. Now these things caused a general feeling of want of confidence in the Government. The Under Secretary for the Colonies, with a courage which did him credit, disputed the proposition that the Government had exhibited weakness.


Hear, hear!


But it was a fact that owing to the weakness displayed by Her Majesty's Government several British enterprises in Siam, involving the expenditure and profitable use of a large amount of capital, had been abandoned by British merchants. That was a distinct injury to British trade and commerce, and unless our interests were looked after more closely than they had been this injury was likely to extend. It was stated that the demands of France on Siam had by no means ceased, and that her Representative was now pressing further claims in excess of the Ultimatum which Siam had accepted. He hoped the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs would be able to tell the House that the Government were vigilant in the matter, and were determined not to consent to further concessions and further surrender on the part of the Government of Siam, and that if these exaggerated claims should be pressed by France the Government of Siam would have the support of Her Majesty's Government in resisting them. He desired to know if the Under Secretary could assure the House that the Russian forces now engaged in the Pamirs were not engaged in fortifying the very important Passes that led to Kashmir, and through Kashmir to our Indian frontier. It was a mournful fact, which could not be denied, that the moment the return to Office of Mr. Gladstone last year was assured, telegrams were sent from St. Petersburg ordering a Russian detachment to advance into the Pamirs. With regard to Mashonaland, it was a singular fact that the statement he made in the House yesterday as to the danger of the replies made by the responsible Ministers of the Crown being repeated to foreign Governments and savage potentates, and thus encouraging them in attacks on British interests, was confirmed by a letter in this morning's Times from Lord Gifford, a representative of the Chartered Company. The varying statement made by the Government to Lo Bengula was— At the inevitable risk of the loss of all prestige at the hands of a man who, although a savage, is astute enough to read the situation thus brought about. The vacillating conduct of the Government with reference to the threatened Matabele raid, and their contradictory orders, were simply encouraging this savage chief in his attacks. The House had been given to understand that Mr. Rhodes, the representative of the Chartered Company, was satisfied with the action of Her Majesty's Government. But Lord Gifford practically contradicted that statement. He said as to the contradictory orders of the Government— On learning of this collision the Government informs the British South Africa Company at one moment that they (the Company) were solely responsible for providing both men and money for any war, and for the maintenance of peace in Mashonaland and Matabeleland; the next moment, despite the attack by the Matabeles, the Company are advised that war could not be 'commenced without Government authority.' Another contradiction was thus described— The High Commissioner at one moment sends a message to Lo Bengula virtually ordering him to withdraw his impis and punish the indunas who had brought about the collision, and, further, claims compensation for the injury done to the property of the white men; the next moment, notwithstanding the defiant reply sent by Lo Bengula, and with the knowledge that the King has sent for his impi to return at once from the Barotse raid, and notwithstanding, further, the great damage done to the property of the settlers in Mashonaland, the Government informs not only the company, but also Lo Bengula, that compensation should not be demanded from him—this at the inevitable risk of the loss of all prestige at the hands of a man who, although a savage, is astute enough to read the situation thus brought about. Further on Lord Gifford said— To a large extent this state of affairs has been brought about by the hesitating attitude of the Government; the absolute withdrawal of the claims for compensation to the white settlers; and the unreasonable veto fettering the action of the Chartered Company, which is virtually this:—'You must wait until the Matabele assegais are at your throat before you may lift a hand in your own defence.' This position of the settlers in Mashonaland caused by the attitude assumed by the British Government is unparalleled in the history of England. The state of affairs in Mashonaland was, as the Under Secretary for the Colonies had said, becoming graver day by day. The hon. Member had spent a large portion of his speech in making an attack on a British officer who was now in a position of responsibility. The hon. Member had used language of severity and injustice. ["Oh, oh!"] Yes; because he had spoken of cruelty and murder. He had very much regretted to hear the attack made upon Captain Lendy yesterday by the Under Secretary of State (Mr. Buxton), and he did not think it was at all justified. Captain Lendy's offence was at the most the offence of a soldier who was too reckless in the conduct of military operations, and who did not cease firing at the moment when the minimum loss of life was secured. That was very different from being responsible for murder, and no Member of the Government should bring such a charge against a man in Captain Lendy's position. The hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary (Mr. S. Buxton) subsequently withdrew the word "murder," but others did not, and he (Sir E. Ashmead-Bartlett) said that the attack made upon Captain Lendy was scandalous. Captain Lendy might have been guilty of imprudence, and might have continued to fire longer than was necessary, but these were things that happened everywhere in the employment of the armed forces of the Crown. Captain Lendy might be at that moment engaged in defending the British settlers and British interests in Mashonaland at the peril of his life, and yet that was the moment chosen by the hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Paul) and others to denounce him. The responsibility the Government had assumed in ordering the Chartered Company's forces to make no advance without the permission of the Home Government was extreme. How could they telegraph and wait for an answer when Lobengula was perhaps burning their barns, laying waste their fields and massacring their servants? If the lives of the settlers could be saved in the forts their property would be destroyed in a day or two if Lo Bengula's forces were permitted to advance. The Military Authorities ought to have permission the moment they were satisfied that Lo Bengula was making an offensive movement against them to attack him.


The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down is so much in the habit of bringing general charges of a sweeping character that I think we have ceased to attach much importance to them; and, therefore, I shall devote myself to the one or two instances in reference to foreign policy which the hon. Member has advanced in support of these general charges. As to the question of Siam, it has been discussed more than once before this Session, and there is nothing new to be said about it. On the last occasion that the hon. Member brought charges against the Government in reference to Siam, the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Fergusson), who was Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the last Administration, dissociated himself from the statement of the hon. Member that the prestige of this country has been damaged in the least degree in reference to what has occurred in Siam. The policy of always maintaining that when the opposite Party is in power whatever happens may diminish British prestige is not a patriotic policy; it is not one which enables us to say that he who adopts it has done his utmost to uphold the honour of the country. The hon. Member suggests that the troubles in the Pamirs were owing to the advent of a Liberal Government to power; but these troubles began under the late Government. The incident at Somatash occurred on the 24th of July last year, long before the present Government came into power, and orders must have been sent from St. Petersburg many weeks previously.


My distinct allegation is that the orders for the Russian advance on the Pamirs were telegraphed towards the end of July, when it was known that the Elections would result in the return to Office of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone) at a very early date. The practical result of the English Elections was known in St. Petersburg by the middle of July, and orders were immediately telegraphed.


I repeat that it would have been impossible to have sent such orders in time for the incident at Somatash on the 24th of July, after the result of the British Elections was known at St. Petersburg. Some time ago the Russians in the region of the Pamirs actually went so far as to arrest a British officer. That was when the late Government was in power.


And they apologised.


Yes, they apologised for it afterwards; but the hon. Member's contention is that they only dared do these things when a Liberal Government was in power. Then, take the question of Egypt. The hon. Member alleges that there would have been no disturbance or friction in Egypt but for the advent to power of the present Government, and he bases that assertion on statements made by the Prime Minister when in Opposition. It is perfectly true that a desire has been expressed for the evacuation of Egypt, but that desire has found its fullest and most legitimate expression in the Drummond Wolff Convention, which was signed by the hon. Member's own Government. The Drummond Wolff Convention, it is true, did not come into force; but that was not owing to any want of will on the part of Lord Salisbury. When the hon. Member says that troubles in different parts of the world have occurred in consequence of a feeling of apprehension owing to the present Government being in power, he is bound, if he wishes to obtain, if not the assent, at all events the respect of his opponents, to have regard to such events as the signing of that Convention, and such things as took place in the Pamirs.

SIR R. TEMPLE (Surrey, Kingston)

said, he wished to submit a few remarks on our Imperial position in the world, as it had been affected by the proceedings of the present Sitting of Parliament. He did not wish to make an attack on the Government; on the contrary, he quite recognised that in some respects they had done well, and there were certain matters on which he could join with their friends in offering them congratulations. In the first place, the happy termination of the dispute between the United Kingdom and the United States with regard to the seal fisheries in the Behring Sea and the North Pacific Ocean was undoubtedly a matter for congratulation. Whilst the reference of the dispute to arbitration was settled by the late Government, it might fairly be admitted that when the arbitrators met at Paris, Her Majesty's present Government did all they possibly could to present the British case in the best possible manner. It was, no doubt, largely owing to the most able presentation of that case by the two leading barristers in the House as well as to the inherent justice of the case itself that this happy result had been attained. He thought Her Majesty's Government might also be congratulated upon having despatched a Mission to Uganda in deference to the wishes of the philanthropic and religious world. The religious world desired the Mission in the interests of missionary labour, while the philanthropic world desired it for the suppression of the. Slave Trade. Now that the Mission had been carried out, everybody was looking forward with the deepest anxiety to see what course would be taken by Her Majesty's Government. As regarded Egypt, he also thought the attitude of the Government had been highly satisfactory. The speech of the Prime Minister on the subject was one of the most useful and able speeches he had ever heard delivered on any Imperial question, and this was the more wonderful because the right hon. Gentleman had rendered his position peculiarly hard for himself. The right hon. Gentleman had undoubtedly said much more on previous occasions than he ought to have said, and had made declarations which were understood by the French to foreshadow the evacuation of Egypt. Notwithstanding that, Egypt had not been evacuated, and the prospect of evacuation was as far off and as much relegated to the dim and distant future under the present as under the preceding Government. At the same time, he felt bound to warn the Government that Members on the Opposition side of the House felt very great anxiety upon a great variety of foreign and Colonial affairs, and hoped that during the short Recess Ministers would do something to allay and mitigate their alarms. If they did not he respectfully warned them that when the House met again in the Autumn there would be constant interpellations and a free use of all the Rules of the House for the purpose of impressing upon the Government and their supporters the views entertained by the Opposition. He trusted that the Government would not lose sight of India, which might be said at the present moment to be between two fires. The grave contingencies and possible eventualities should not be lost of. With regard to the Eastern danger which threatened India he should not say anything specific at this moment, because when the House was in Committee of Supply he had twice an opportunity of going into that matter with the utmost detail. But he might say this, in justice to the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—that he believed he was quite correct in saying there was no disturbance in the region of the Pamirs. Nevertheless, he did not think his answer was as satisfactory as it might have been. It is, no doubt, a very suspicious circumstance, that when a certain proceeding politically took place in this country in July of last year a forward movement in the Pamirs was ordered from St. Petersburg during the latter part of July. They know that the time of England's difficulty was always that of Russia's opportunity. If he were not unwilling to detain the House, he could show that the step Russia took in Central Asia had been connected with a movement in this country. He therefore, repeated that they on that side of the House were not to be thought unduly suspicious if they did connect those events in the Pamirs with the political electoral circumstances in this country. No one could say it was so for certain; but everything points very much in bearing this out. As regarded the movements which took place previously under the late Government, they were not withdrawn. As the House knew, a British officer was arrested, but he was immediately released and an apology made. But the movements were not withdrawn. He did not think, however, that there was any remissness on the part of the late Government in respect of the Pamirs. At the same time, he did not wish to fix any blame whatever upon the present Government either. All he contended was that if the result of the General Election of July, 1892, had been other than it was, they should have heard very little about Russia moving in the Pamirs. That, of course, was purely a matter of opinion, which he had a right to submit to the House. Russia, however, had made this movement, which was of immense importance with regard to India. It was probably the political action last year which gave an impulse to Diplomatic Missions. At any rate, various military movements had been made from Cashmere towards the boundaries of the Pamirs by this Government. He greatly regretted that such a policy should have been questioned by hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway. They probably did not perceive that this movement, of which they are inclined to complain, was taken by reason of Russian advance in the Pamirs. That Russia intended to take a portion of the Pamirs was most certain. He would not detain the House to detail the geographical position or the political importance of the Pamirs. But he might add that the whole question of the delimitation of the Pamirs was pending, and they should do nothing to embarrass the proceedings. According to British ideas, Russia was only entitled to a very small part of the Pamirs if they came to a partition. There must be a partition of the Pamirs, as there had been of other territory in different parts of the world. They could only wish God speed to the British negotiations. Another word:—They should prevent Russia taking the law into her own hands. While negotiations were pending they should prevent Russia taking a forward movement; possibly there was regret expressed for the action of her officers; but, nevertheless, they had not been withdrawn. Therefore he did hope nothing of that kind would be permitted in this case. Again, in Africa they had abundant cause for anxiety. The inhabitants and cultivators in the neighbourhood of Suakin were in great danger from Mahomedan and Arab invasions, and Her Majesty's Government ought to see that the Egyptian Government performed its duty of protecting the inhabitants of that region. The Niger Company seemed to have got into some embarrassment and danger. He was glad to hear the defence of the company which had been made by the Under Secretary. No one could doubt that it was doing England's work in the upper and middle regions of the great river. It was difficult for private Members to get at the real truth as to Lieutenant Mizon's actions; but if we were not careful these would lead to serious complications between Great Britain and France. He earnestly commended that important letter to the consideration of the Government, assuring them that great interest was felt, not only on his side of the House, but in many important quarters outside, on this subject. With regard to Uganda, there could be no alternative to bringing the territory under a British protectorate. The Government might endeavour to avoid that great contingency, but the sooner they made up their minds to face the inevitable the better, for he was perfectly certain that the minds of the great majority of the British people were made up on that subject. There was very great anxiety as to the future of the British South Africa Chartered Company. That company had been very active in the most honourable as well as patriotic manner. Though it might be true that some Corporations of the same character had been mixed up in questionable finance, and engaged in transactions of a doubtful character, nothing of the kind could be urged against this company. At least two distinguished men—the late Sir William Mackinnon and the late Sir William Bennett—took part in originating it, and with it was associated the hon. Member for Westminster, a gentleman whose position placed him beyond all possible motives of interest in the matter. He urged that as a reason why the Government should help the company to maintain its position, and, above all, they should give them some assistance in constructing the railway from Mombasa to the Great Lake, a project of the most important character. The railway had practically been taken in hand by the late Government. He did not know what the present Government was doing in the matter. No doubt they were handicapped by the unfortunate speeches which they had made in Opposition; but he hoped that they would take a patriotic view of the matter, and remember that England required the total suppression of slavery. He was unwilling to mix himself up in the controversies about South Africa. It was said a design existed for the formation of a great Customs Union, which was to bind Cape Colony to the Transvaal Republic, to the exclusion of Natal. That would be a very serious matter for Natal, and it deserved the very careful consideration of the House and the country. On the subject of Mashonaland, he wished to say that that country was within the British sphere of influence or it was not; it was under British protection of some sort or kind or it was not. If it were, we were bound to protect it. That was a proposition so plain as to be almost a truism, if it had not been controverted in the Debates which had taken place on the subject. Mashonaland was threatened with invasion by a certain tribe, and he wanted to know why we should not take care of Mashonaland as we took care of the outlying districts of the Indian territory? We did not allow tribes to raid our outlying territories in India. Why should we allow Mashonaland to be made a sort of unhappy hunting ground for the Matabeles? We were bound by every principle of duty to effectually protect Mashonaland, and the only question that remained was as to the best mode of protecting the country. The authorities on the spot were, he contended, the best judges on that subject, and we ought to have confidence in those authorities, and not find fault with every movement that was made or proposed by them to repel the enemy. It had been urged that we should not be rushed into war by the colonists in Mashonaland. But we had permitted ourselves to take up a position in Mashonaland, and it was now too late to withdraw. We must perform the duties appertaining to that position, and we should not say that the performance of these duties meant being rushed into war. He strongly condemned the observations which had been made by certain hon. Members in reference to Captain Lendy. Whether Captain Lendy served under the Crown, or under the Colonial Government, or as a Mashonaland Administrator, he was to all intents and purposes a British officer.


It has been distinctly stated that these officers are lent to the company, and while acting as such are not acting for the British Government, and that we are not responsible.


said, he thought that Captain Lendy had been acting for the British Government; but, for the sake of argument, he would concede the point to the hon. Member for Peterborough. Beyond all question, Captain Lendy was a British officer, employed on difficult duty in Mashonaland; and. he was, therefore, entitled to more generous treatment than he received yesterday at the hands of hon. Members opposite, some of whose speeches were calculated to have a very bad effect on those who were serving their country abroad under circumstances of the greatest danger and discouragement. It was all very well for hon. Members to sit there and criticise men who were acting in great emergencies and in scenes of doubt and difficulty; but he was not sure that those hon. Members would have done any better, if so well, under similar conditions. It might be conceded that Captain Lendy had acted injudiciously; but his action was, after all, only an error of judgment, and they all knew how the judgments of military officers were open to question. Hon. Members who dissented from that proposition had criticised, as an error of judgment, certain actions of a military officer which had recently been taken in Yorkshire. How much more, then, was it possible to commit an error of judgment in the heart of Africa? Captain Lendy's conduct was certainly not open to the extreme observations which had been passed upon it yesterday by hon. Members opposite; and, in justice to his fellow-countrymen who were serving their country abroad under circumstances of difficulty and danger, whom some hon. Members were too much given to denouncing and condemning, he felt it his duty to make these observations. Passing from South Africa, he desired to say that there was great anxiety about the future of Newfoundland. In Newfoundland there was, no doubt, grave dissatisfaction on the part of the people with the modus vivendi, and with the arrangements which had been made. The opinion prevailed in the colony that France had been allowed to take undue advantage of her Treaty rights, and to acquire on the coast of Newfoundland a position that was intolerable. India was about to come up for discussion, and perhaps he might be allowed to refer to the great half-way house between England and India—Gibraltar. The greater part of our Indian trade passed in front of that historic rock. There was grave doubt whether the fortifications there were sufficiently strong; but one of the most pressing needs at the present time was the construction of a dock, such as would enable our men-of-war to be repaired there. If this dock were not constructed, there would be the greatest danger to our Fleet in case of war, for, in the event of a naval action being fought in the Western part of the Mediterranean, any British men-of-war that might be injured would either have to be repaired at Gibraltar, or, if that were impossible, to remain hors de combat for the rest of the war. He knew that there were other dockyards under construction elsewere; but the need for the construction of no dockyard in the Empire was so pressing and important as that suggested at Gibraltar; and he could assure the Government that they on that side of the House would not let the matter drop, but that they would spur, spur, spur the Government until they did their duty. He trusted that next Session the House would be gratified by seeing a substantial amount placed upon the Estimates for that purpose. A few words now about our naval position. We had a first-rate programme under the late Government, but that programme had been given up by the present Government. He desired to know whether the Government had undertaken the construction of the proper number of ships to maintain our position in competition with other nations, and also to replace the wastage that occurred annually in such a vast Service? They had been told that certain new vessels were under construction. They hoped they were; but while they did not doubt the sincerity of the Government and the accuracy of their information, they regretted to say that they had been unable to find out on the spot whether that was the ease or not. They would defer the subject until the House met again, when they hoped that they would have better information.

MR. PAUL (Edinburgh, S.)

wished to say, in reply to those hon. Gentlemen who had attacked him for bringing forward the case of Captain Lendy, that he did not withdraw anything he had said with reference to the conduct of that officer. The statements he made on the previous evening were based upon the Blue Book which had recently been issued. It was said by the hon. Baronet that there were people who took a delight in running down their fellow-countrymen who were serving their country in difficulty and danger abroad. If that were so, he could only say that he was not one of them. It was because British officers did their duty, as a rule, so admirably that the case of Captain Lendy attracted notice. Very likely, if Captain Lendy had been a French officer, nothing whatever would have been said; but we were not French. This country had always observed a higher standard than others in dealing with natives, and he hoped that standard would always be maintained.