HC Deb 01 February 1897 vol 45 cc900-1
MR. T. P. WHITTAKER (York, W.R., Spen Valley)

I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is aware that serious allegations, involving charges of systematic fraud, have been publicly made against the four shipping masters attached to Her Majesty's Consulate; General at Antwerp, for discharging and engaging British seamen at that port; that it is understood that an intimation was conveyed to these shipping masters that they must immediately take steps to clear themselves of these charges by taking legal proceedings against their accusers; that they have taken action in a closed court, where witnesses and necessary documents cannot be produced; and whether, under the circumstances, and in view of the fact that the accusers insist upon the truth of their charges, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will instruct Her Majesty's Consul General at Antwerp, or some other competent official, to demand or compel a full investigation into the truth, or otherwise, of the allegations?


It is the case that serious allegations were preferred against the shipping masters referred to in the Question by members of another firm of shipping masters, Messrs. Tate, Burton and Company, in a series of letters addressed by the latter to the Consul General at Antwerp, and by printed circular distributed amongst the shipping community both there and in the United Kingdom. Her Majesty's Consul General thereupon informed the shipping masters impugned that they must take measures to clear themselves of these allegations, and that, failing to do so, they would be excluded from the Consular Office. Upon the recommendation of their legal advisers, they accordingly brought an action against Messrs. Tate, Burton and Company in the Tribunal de Commerce, which is presided over by judges specially selected as being the highest experts in commercial and maritime matters. No witnesses can be heard in that court; but it is open to the public, and affidavits are admitted, every facility being given for bringing them forward, and the advocates on each side mutually supplying one another with copies of all documents which are to be produced in evidence. In the case under consideration the hearing was three times adjourned to give Messrs. Tate, Burton and Company the opportunity of bring their case before the Public Prosecutor, and of affording their advocate further time for preparation, and for procuring documentary evidence. In the meantime, while the case was still proceeding, Messrs. Tate, Burton and Company preferred two charges of extortion against the shipping masters before the Public Prosecutor. This functionary caused those charges to be investigated by the Chief of the Police, who pronounced them to be frivolous and untenable, and they were summarily rejected. I have this morning heard that the judgment of the Tribunal de Commerce has been given. Messrs. Tate, Burton and Company have been condemned to pay to the four British shipping masters, as damages for defamation of character, the sum of 1,600 francs, and they are further ordered to defray the costs of the trial, and to publish the judgment in the Antwerp newspapers. The complete falseness of the accusations having been conclusively established by this trial, and the character of the British shipping masters having been effectively cleared, there is no cause for further investigation.