HC Deb 09 May 1898 vol 57 cc699-715
CAPTAIN BETHELL (York, W. R., Holderness)

I beg to ask the Secretary to the Colonies whether he has any information to communicate to the House, beyond that contained in the newspapers, with regard to the revolt on the West Coast of Africa, and whether the statements in the papers are substantially correct?


No, Sir. I think the information which is contained in the papers is undoubtedly exaggerated. There has evidently been something like a panic among the traders on the coast, and I think they have over-estimated the danger in which they, personally, are placed. But the insurrection has been a serious one. There have been a good many murders, especially of missionaries, reported in the papers, but it is believed by the Governor and the military and naval authorities that Freetown is in no danger whatever.


I beg, Sir, to ask leave to move the adjournment of the House in order to call attention to "a definite matter of urgent public importance"—namely, the alarming state of things in the Hinterland of Sierra Leone, arising out of the levying of the hut tax on the dwellings of the native population.

Leave having been given,

Motion made, and Question proposed— That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Davitt.)


I should not have moved the Adjournment of the House if an opportunity had presented itself on Friday last of discussing this very serious matter upon the Vote of the Colonial Office, but I am in the recollection of the House when I say that there was a general understanding on Friday evening that the area of discussion should be confined to subjects relating to the affairs of Rhodesia. I trust, therefore, that the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies will not think I am acting in any way discourteously or unfairly towards him in giving him an opportunity at the earliest moment of making some statement to the House and to the country with reference to the alarming condition of things in this Colony. The House must be aware that a feeling of great alarm prevails in this country with reference to the occurrences at Sierra Leone. The alarm is not confined to England, for I am sorry to learn from the public Press that, according to the reports, some American missionaries have been killed, and a number of white people are in a state of serious apprehension for their lives, while there is also a fear that some French subjects are in a similar state. In addition to this, the mercantile circles of Manchester and Liverpool are very much alarmed in consequence of the injury that has been done, and the greater injury which they fear may be done to their interests as a result of the policy pursued by the Government in levying this obnoxious tax upon the houses of these unfortunate people. The House will probably bear with me if I give some facts that have already been made public in connection with this trouble. I find that Mr. Charles Marcus, a Liverpool merchant, who has been connected with this part of Africa in business matters for over 20 years, has given his opinions with reference to the cause of this trouble. Quite recently he was interviewed in Liverpool, and this is what he says— Of course you know all the disturbance Las arisen out of the hut tax, and every trader in the Colony strongly deprecated the Government putting it in force. I was in touch, not not only with Bey Burie, who is leader of the disturbances, but with other chiefs, before the Governor came from England last time. About thirty chiefs visited Freetown, and they came to my premises. They waited about five months, till Sir F. Cardew arrived; they also wrote to the Colonial Office, stating their grievances, but they never got any answer. This, of course, is an ex parte statement, and, doubtless, the right honourable Gentleman the Colonial Secretary will have something to say in reply. I give the name of my authority, who is probably as far removed from myself in political opinions as the right honourable Gentleman himself, and I give Mr. Marcus's statements for what they are worth. He also relates in this interview that when these chiefs had obtained an audience with the Governor, they protested against the injustice of the tax, representing themselves as poor people, saying their houses were probably not worth more than four or five times the amount of the tax levied upon them, and one of the chiefs pointed out that, although this heavy tax was to be levied upon their poor dwellings, there were valuable houses inhabited by Englishmen in Sierra Leone, worth £1,000 or £2,000, upon which not a single penny of tax was being levied. In addition to all this, the manner in which the tax was collected was very offensive to the native population. I believie the collecting force employed by the Governor was made up of emancipated slaves, and these tax collectors were in the habit of often offering insults to their previous masters—a proceeding calculated to make those masters not too contented with the rule established over them. In addition to this, I find that a lady, well-known in this country for her intimate knowledge of West African affairs, and who is, I believe, a strong political supporter of the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies, has expressed her opinion with reference to this hut tax. I mean Miss Kingsley. That lady has recently expressed the following scathing condemnation of this tax— West Africa is a sort of place where they don't care a row of pins for intentions, but judge by facts. The facts of that hut tax are ugly ones, even if contemplated with calmness. You have (1) a colony whose prosperity is dependent on its Hinterland territory, destroying it by an attempt to raise revenue—further revenue, over and above what it already yields from excessive Custom dues—by means that are, to the minds of the people you want to get the money from, both oppressive and unjust; (2) by driving them to war, and killing them also—a thing it is perfectly justifiable to do with blacks or whites, provided it is necessary for some noble purpose—you are destroying all future prosperity in the colony. For in all West African Colonies, rich as they are in timber, oil, rubber, minerals, etc., your most valuable asset is the native, for without him you cannot work those other things. In addition to these reasons against this tax, there is the additional one that some 600 or 700 white people have their lives imperilled by this criminal stupidity on the part of the Governor. Miss Kingsley took a purely natural view of this hut tax, but I want the House to consider it also from its ludicrous side. This tax brings in about £20,000 or £25,000—a sum surely too small and insignificant for which to plunge a country into rebellion. But that is not all, because the collection of it will now mean the cost of the war to be waged against these unfortunate people for their resistance. I believe that cost will amount to a very much larger sum—before this trouble is ended—than the sum expected to be raised by means of the tax. To sum up the situation: first, the tax was to be imposed upon the miserable inhabitants—people who were to receive the blessings of English rule and civilisation; secondly, there was the enormous cost of collection; and thirdly, war was to be waged against the people, and their huts destroyed. A more criminal policy could not be carried out, if, instead of Sir Frederick Cardew, a Governor had been selected from Colney Hatch. A similar tax was imposed in the early his tory of the Colony, and aroused very strong feeling amongst the natives; but, for the credit of this country, an Irishman was sent out as Governor—the late Sir John Pope Hennessey. The first step he took was the right and proper one of withdrawing the tax. The result was the instant cessation of the hostility of the people, who, in recognition of this action, observe the anniversary of the abolition of the tax as a day of rejoicing, and it is called, in the annals of the Colony, "Sir John Pope Hennessy's Day." Sir, the very officials who are now provoking this war by renewing the hut tax have heretofore taken part in these celebrations. I venture to hope that the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies will take some steps to try and have this trouble settled without having these unfortunate people mowed down by Maxim guns. We learned last Friday night that the Colonial Secretary had deputed Sir Marshall Clarke to a most responsible post in Rhodesia. The right honourable Gentleman deserves great credit for such an appointment. It was made so as to ensure the fullest protection to the Matabele people against wanton oppression, and no better man could have been selected than the man who had the pacifying of Zululand, and earned the gratitude of the natives for his justice and humanity. If Sir Marshall Clarke were sent out on a temporary special mission to Sierre Leone to pacify these people, he would succeed in doing it in the shortest time possible, and would save a great deal of unnecessary bloodshed. I hope, therefore, the right honourable Gentleman will take some steps to avert the scenes with which we are now only too familiar in these petty wars and expeditions on the West Coast of Africa. A few weeks ago the right honourable Gentleman admitted to me that all this trouble, if not immediately caused by, was, at least, precipitated by the imposition of this tax, and surely if the trouble arose out of the policy of this Governor this great Empire ought to be equal to the test of showing enough moral courage to admit that the policy is wrong, and that the right thing is to withdraw the tax, and in that way to pacify these people, and stop the bloodshed which otherwise is sure to follow.


formally seconded the motion.


put the Question.


I do not complain of any act of discourtesy on the part of the honourable Member for East Mayo, who was kind enough to give me notice of his intention to raise this Debate, although it only reached me after I came into the House, so that I have not been able to obtain all the papers I should liked to have had with me. At the same time I may have something to say that will be of interest to the House. At the outset, let me make a protest against anything in the nature of a hasty judgment on these transactions, and, above all, on any individual who may have been connected with them. I do not complain of anything that fell from the honourable Member for East Mayo, except one or two allusions to the Governor, which, I think, in his absence, and in our incomplete knowledge, are certainly unfair. Sir Frederick Cardew is a distinguished servant of the Crown, and he has a high reputation. He was appointed by my predecessor, and hitherto he has been successful in his administration of the Colony. Now that these unfortunate events have occurred, it would be most unfair to assume that they are necessarily due to any fault of his, and, above all, to any want of appreciation of his responsibilities to the native population. I think the best thing I can do is to make a very brief statement as to how this question has arrived at its present position. In 1894 Sir Frederick Cardew, who has been a most active and zealous Governor, made a tour through the greater part of the Colony, and went into many districts which had never before been visited by a white man, and he found the country in a very distressing condition. It had been devastated by the Chief Samory, and by slave-raiding expeditions, and also by slave-raiding quarrels among the chiefs themselves. There was nothing in the nature of trade going on, and nothing in the nature of peaceful industry. The Hinterland was really little better than a desert, and the chiefs earned their subsistence practically by selling and receiving slaves. After Sir Frederick Cardew had made this trip and formed his conclusions, he wrote a very full and interesting dispatch to Lord Ripon, in which he stated the results of his experience and made suggestions for the future administration of the Hinterland. He expressed himself in the first instance as strongly of opinion that everything should be done, if possible, with the assent and goodwill of the chiefs, and the law administered, as far as possible, in accordance with native customs and through the chiefs. He further proposed a very elaborate system—perhaps I should say a carefully devised system, because it is really very simple—by which everything except the most serious, and the practice of certain barbarous native customs, should be administered through the chiefs. He also proposed an increase of the frontier police to keep down any raids from outside, and also to prevent any slave dealing in the Hinterland. That, he estimated, would involve an additional cost of something like £7,000 per annum, and in order to raise that money, which could not be afforded by the Colony, he proposed a licence tax upon the spirit dealers and a hut tax. Lord Ripon replied in his dispatch, agreeing generally with the proposals Sir Frederick Cardew had made, which seemed to him to be sound and judicious; but he said, of course, that, as at that time we had a boundary being settled with France, nothing could be done, and it would have to be postponed to a later period. After I came into office, the boundary question having been settled, the matter was again taken up and carefully discussed for a considerable period between the Colonial Government and the Colonial Office. We saw, as everyone did, the possibility of trouble, and we urged upon the Government that, if this experiment were to be tried, he should ascertain that he would have the support and goodwill of the chiefs in carrying out the change. As a matter of fact, there was a great gathering of chiefs at Sierra Leone. Matters were explained to them, and Sir Frederick Cardew was under the impression that no serious opposition would be raised either to the system of administration or to the taxation upon which it was to be based. Of course, all taxation is objectionable to all men, and I do not—


May I ask if it is not the fact that at this interview the chiefs intimated that they would not pay the tax?


No; certainly not, according to my information; quite the reverse. I should add also, in connection with this matter, that the honourable Member speaks of a communication sent to the Colonial Office which was not answered. That is not correct. Every communication coming to the Colonial Office has been answered, and the particular communication to which, I imagine, the honourable Member refers was a document which I shall have pleasure in showing him, and which, I think, may amuse him. It is very able in a sense, but it is also rather ludicrous in form. It was evidently drawn up for the chiefs, not by the chiefs themselves, but by a half educated, or partly educated, native. This document made the most extraordinary statements as to the supposed intentions of the Government, and the character of the new administration which it was proposed to put in force. The chief objection was to what was said to be the intention of the Government—namely, to put the chiefs themselves under magistrates, who would have the power to order them to be flogged, in the presence of their wives and families and slaves, for the most trumpery offences. I give that as an instance of the extraordinary misapprehension which existed as to what would take place. I need not tell honourable Members that nothing of the kind appears in the Administrative Order Book, and that no power of that sort was given to anybody. These misapprehendsions were most carefully explained to the chiefs, and Sir Frederick Cardew was given to understand that no serious objection would be taken to the enforcement of the new administration. A good deal has been said about this tax, as if it were an unreasonable tax, and the honourable Member for East Mayo has referred to the value of the huts. I do not think the value of the huts has anything to do with it. This is the only tax that could have been imposed upon the Hinterland; it is imposed in substitution for all other taxes, and it was the only form of direct taxation which has been found suited to native races. Supposing it had been levied, as originally proposed, at 5s. per hut, and assuming that a family consists of five persons, it means one shilling per head of the population. Surely that is not an excessive tax upon a negro population living in an extremely rich Hinterland, in which, as I am informed, a single bushel of the native products would have been sufficient to pay the tax? That does not appear, on the face of it, to be an excessive or exaggerated amount of taxation. The Governor, however, as the result, I believe, of communications with the chiefs, agreed to make a considerable reduction. He agreed, for instance, not to impose it upon pure natives, and he also agreed to reduce the amount from 10s., as originally intended, to 5s,; and made other changes in the method of collection which he thought would remove any objection that might be taken. I heard the honourable Member for East Mayo read a letter from a Mr. Marcus. I do not know whether he attributed to that gentleman the statement that the tax had been collected with excessive brutality by the tax collectors. Well, I really do not know what authority Mr. Marcus—who could hardly have been present—has for such a statement, but it is not confirmed by information in my possession. The tax was collected under a district commissioner, who was specially appointed for the purpose, and with, I believe, the assistance of the frontier police, a well-organised and disciplined force, and, without absolute proof, I am not inclined to believe the statement of extraordinary misbehaviour on the part of the force so employed. I said that the tax did not appear to be an excessive one, and I should add that neither does it appear, à priori, to be a tax to which natives have a serious objection, because a similar tax has been imposed and collected in Zululand, Cape Colony, on the Gambia, which is inhabited by a similar race, and, stronger than all, in the adjoining French Colony of French Guinea, where the tax is much higher than that proposed for Sierra Leone, and amounts to about ten francs per hut. Although I am not at all desirous of prejudging the ultimate decision—my own mind is absolutely open in regard to the wisdom of the tax—yet I say that à priori, there was nothing to make either Sir Frederick Cardew or the Colonial Office aware that a tax of this kind would necessarily raise a rebellion. The rebellion arose through the resistance of a chief named Bey Burai, a gentleman with whom the Colonists have had trouble on a previous occasion. On two occasions, at least, Bey Burai has been ordered to be arrested, but the arrest has never been effected, and perhaps he began to think that he was independent of any Colonial control. At all events, he bears a very bad character, not only with the Colonial Government, but with the missionaries, of which we have evidence that I can produce if desired. In fact, I think he has been a slaver, and a rather turbulent person. The insurrection which took place in this district lasted for some time, but practically it appears to have been subdued. The latest telegram is to the effect that there is no more fighting, and that active operations were at an end, although armed natives are still ranging in the districts and Bey Burai is still at large. Then, just as we were congratulating ourselves upon the close of the whole of this unfortunate business, a new disturbance broke out in another district to the east of that I have mentioned, and that is the place where most of these murders have taken place. As to the cause of the outbreak I know nothing more than I have already told the House. Whether it was directly due to the collection of the hut tax I do not know, but I am inclined to think that it was not, for I believe the tax was collected before the trouble broke out. I am inclined to think that it was an outbreak partly in sympathy with that which had occurred in other parts of the Hinterland, and that it was the spread of the discontent and general rising in the Hinterland of the black population against the white. I have said that the opposition to the hut tax was not unanimous, but I am afraid—I am sorry to say it, but I am so informed, and there appears to be some evidence in support of the information—that the chiefs, after their return, were actually incited to resist the collection of the tax. That is to say, after they had gone back from the interview with Sir Frederick Cardew incitements were offered to them in the local Press, and also by certain traders on the coast, to resist the collection of the tax. I do not mean to say that those who incited the chiefs contemplated anything in the nature of the resistance which has actually taken place, but undoubtedly, if my information is correct, they gave extremely unwise advice, which has led to the trouble that has since occurred. I will read a private letter which I have received, and which refers to information from two well-known authorities on the subject. The Rev. W. J. Humphrey is a missionary, who, I am sorry to say, has since been murdered by natives. The following is an extract from the letter to which I have referred— The Rev. W. J. Humphrey, now in the hands of rebels, sent the enclosed letter just before he started on the journey on which he was taken prisoner. Mr. Humphrey has been on the coast since 1890, and knows the natives well; his letter shows that the revolt against the tax commenced with the traders themselves. The Bishop of Sierra Leone has been on the coast since 1891, and he always describes Bey Burai, the rebel leader, as a 'drunken slaver'. In a letter I had from the Bishop a fortnight ago he stated that Bey Burai was fighting because he knew that the English taking charge of his country would put an end to his slave dealing. Until recently, the Temmi country and the Hinterland of Sierra Leone have not been controlled by European officials, and slave dealing and cannibalism have prevailed in many parts. Except during the time of the present Governor, many parts of the territory were quite unexplored, and the natives had hardly seen a white man. This is testimony which induces me to remind the House that there may be two sides to the matter, and which ought to preclude a hasty judgment on the matter. That is the less necessary, as it is certain that, owing to climatic conditions, the rainy season coming on almost immediately, all operations, whether of an offensive or defensive character, will have to stop for four months. During that time we shall have ample opportunity of making full inquiry, and of resolving upon what is to be our ultimate policy in regard to this matter. Having made that explanation, I shall only add that it is my intention to take advantage of the opportunity to send out a special Commissioner to inquire on the spot into the whole circumstances; and, having made this statement, I hope the House will agree to leave the matter in my hands.

MR. SYDNEY C. BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

I think the honourable Member for East Mayo was fully justified in raising this question, and the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies must have been glad to have had the opportunity of explaining his position in regard to this matter. I understood the right honourable Gentleman to say that the cessation of military operations will allow some months for full inquiries into the cause of the rebellion, and, if it were found that the rising was due to the hut tax, he would consider whether the tax should be continued. It was very probable that the original cause of the revolt was the action taken by Sir Frederick Cardew in the direction of interference with domestic slavery, rather than to the proposals with regard to the hut tax. If it is shown that this revolt was caused by an attempt to impose new regulations, with the object of putting down slavery, we shall do all we can to strengthen the Colonial Office in dealing with that question; but so far as; it is shown that it was due to the hut tax, we shall have to press for its abolition. It has been shown that these tribes are in a state of poverty, and these changes are evidently proposed because it is considered necessary to do something for them. But it seems to me a rather queer way of assisting a starving tribe to impose a hut tax. The right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies has shown in his speech that it is his desire and intention to bring the military operations to an end, and that he is going to send out a special Commissioner to inquire into the matter, and if he finds that this revolt was due to the imposition of the hut tax he is prepared at once to abolish it.


No; I did not say that.


I understood the right honourable Gentleman to say that he keeps an open mind as to the future policy regarding the tax, pending the result of an inquiry by a special and impartial Commissioner. In these circumstances the honourable Member for East Mayo will probably not think it necessary to press the matter further. I think, however, that the honourable Member has done a public service, both to the cause of these natives and to the position of the right honourable Gentleman the Colonial Secretary, by raising the question.


This is a subject of great importance, and one to which honourable Gentlemen opposite were quite justified in calling attention. I am not sure, however, that the view taken by the right honourable Gentleman the Colonial Secretary of the opinion of the native races towards the hut tax was quite correct. I believe, from what I have heard, that the feeling among native races in South Africa, at all events, is very strong against such a tax; in fact, it was the strongest feeling that animated a race in whose fate I have taken some interest, the people of Swaziland, against the unjust conditions of the Convention of 1894. It is quite evident that in this matter there has been some serious mistake or miscalculation on the part of the Colonial authorities. I quite admit that the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies was justified in defending the Governor, as all Governors should be defended until it has been proved that they have done something very wrong. And I feel sure that the right honourable Gentleman the Member for Tower Hamlets was justified in attributing a good deal of the disturbance to the feeling of resentment that always takes place amongst slave-driving chiefs when they find their occupation interfered with. At the same time, some of the facts stated by the honourable Member for East Mayo are of a very serious character, especially the fact—if it is a fact—that 30 chiefs waited for five months in Sierra Leone to see the Governor, in order to protest against the imposition of the tax. I am glad to hear the right honourable Gentleman the Colonial Secretary decline to commit himself to the proposition, which the late representative of the Colonial Office tried to bind him to, that the hut tax should be at once abolished. While I believe that the imposition of the hut tax was a mistake, I am not sure that a very rapid and premature abolition of it would not be a greater mistake. The assumption of the honourable Member for Tower Hamlets, that all military operations are to cease, also seems to me to be a very dangerous one. There is a very grave revolt at Sierra Leone, and very serious events have happened. Missionaries and other British subjects have been murdered, and the murderers and ringleaders in the rebellion must be punished before peace can be effectively restored.


I understood the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Colonies to say that climatic conditions would of necessity stay operations, and would give three or four months for inquiry; but, of course, I assumed that the inquiry would include the murders and their cause.


The right honourable Gentleman has made an important addition to his remarks. It would have been inferred from what he had said that he expected the Government immediately to repeal the tax, and allow the rebels, especially the leaders, to go free. I am glad to know that the honourable Member's meaning was misunderstood. It is evident that the Colonial Office are fully aware of the serious character of the position, and steps have been taken, I believe, to send a sufficient force for the purposes of protection. Of course, proper measures must be taken to punish the ringleaders.

MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)

I think, Sir, my honourable Friend has a right to be satisfied with the answer of the Colonial Secretary, who has said all that could reasonably be asked for in dealing with this question. On behalf of my honourable Friend I will ask leave to withdraw the Motion, and also to express the hope that in sending out a special Commis- sioner the right honourable Gentleman will make as good a choice as he did when he selected Sir Marshall Clarke.


There is one thing I should have said in view of the statements in the papers. We have sent for the protection of Freetown the first-class cruiser Blake, which will be able to land 350 men if necessary. We have also ordered to Sierra Leone two companies of the West Indian Regiment now at Lagos. We have not sent, and have no intention of sending, out any white troops.

MR. T. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

Mr. Speaker, before the Motion is withdrawn I think the right honourable Gentleman should give us fuller information. This is a very important matter. While a great many of us are anxious to give the right honourable Gentleman every support in dealing with one section of the Colonies—the self-governing Colonies—and have great admiration for what he has done for them, with regard to the Crown Colonies, one or two experiments which the right honourable Gentleman has sanctioned—particularly the hut tax—have created a great deal of alarm. The right honourable Gentleman stated that the Colonial Office did not desire to pass a veto on the proposal of the Governor. It seems, then, that the proposal is of quite a recent character. Taxes of this kind—the window tax and the house tax—have been instituted in Great Britain and Ireland. They all belonged to the past, and most of us thought they had disappeared for ever. The Colonial Office should have refused to sanction this tax from the beginning, and if they had, the after effects—the unhappy circumstances which the right honourable Gentleman admits are taking place—would have been avoided. I think the House should not allow the opportunity of drawing attention to this matter to pass away so quickly. If attention is paid to the right honourable Gentleman's statement, it will be seen it is not as satisfactory as it might be. My honourable Friend who speaks on Colonial affairs from the Front Opposition Bench said he understood that the tax was to be withdrawn, but he was immediately corrected by the right honourable Gentleman, who said he made no promise of that kind. I think we are entitled to more information than we have yet received from the Treasury Bench with regard to this most unhappy matter. My honourable Friend made another mistake, if I may say so, with great respect. He said he understood that the military operations were to be suspended for three or four months, during which the Colonial Office would make up its mind as to what was to be done. The right honourable Gentleman corrected that. He has stated that troops are to be ordered up to the district for safety and that a cruiser has been ordered to Freetown to protect the inhabitants. That means that if there is the slightest explosion of temper the natives will be mercilessly shot down for resisting an imposition on which the mind of the Colonial Office is not clear, but on which the mind of this country is made up. We have not had that full assurance from the right honourable Gentleman which my honourable Friend evidently expected, and which, I think, the House also expected. This is a matter of the greatest gravity. We are touching a fiscal question, and it is on these questions that this House has made the worst mistakes. It has lost some of our most valuable Colonies by endeavouring to impose taxes not suitable to them. On this particular question there is abundant evidence to show that the attempt to impose the tax was most injudicious, and that it should be withdrawn as quickly as possible. I think the right honourable Gentleman might reply to the statement of the honourable Member who moved the adjournment. He said that the hut tax had been tried before, and proved so unsatisfactory that it was removed by a former Governor. It was not sanctioned by Lord Ripon in 1894, and it seems a very serious matter which should secure mere attention from the House than it has yet received. I will only say that I hope that the interval promised for consideration will really be given up to consideration, and that warlike operations of any kind will not be undertaken against the natives until a definite opinion is arrived at.


With the permission of the House I ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion by leave withdrawn.