HC Deb 10 April 1899 vol 69 cc726-34
* MR. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)

I rise, Sir, to call attention to the present subsidies given to certain cable companies, and to move— That it is desirable that all cable communication between the various parts of the British Empire should be under Imperial control. It may not be within the knowledge of all the honourable Members in this House that we give various subsidies to these cable companies. Altogether, these subsidies amount to £94,241, which is a, large sum of money—and in regard to these subsidies I might here point out that this sum, if made a permanent charge, would be equal to a capitalised value of about £4,000,000—of which sum the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company receive £59,141. In the observations that I shall have the honour of addressing to the House I do not wish to say one word antagonistic to any of the various cable companies, for they have been more or less the pioneers of cable communication between us and our various distant possessions, but I venture to think that we have now arrived at a stage when we should have a better system, probably at no greater cost to the country at all. As the man succeeds the boy, so this question has now arrived at maturity. Now, this question is by no means a new one. In 1887, when a number of our Colonial Governors met at a Conference, this question was discussed, and it was the opinion of those gentlemen that it should be grasped in a very thorough manner. At the time of the last Jubilee, or shortly before it, there was a Committee formed, and, prior to that, at Ottawa, there was a Conference held, over which Lord Jersey presided, and that Conference came to the conclusion that it was desirable that all cable communications should be under Imperial control. Since then, in 1896 or 1897, the Colonial Premiers passed the following resolution— That if Great Britain and Canada each contributed one-third of the cost of the Pacific cable, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania would bo in favour of contributing the other third. No doubt, in advocating this important change of system, one has to go against the interests, so to speak, of a very important cable com- pany—the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company. No doubt this company would be unwilling to have the present state of affairs changed and divide its business, because it is a very rich monopoly, and it has practically a monopoly of the whole of our cable communication with India and the Far East, and, to a very great extent, to the Cape. Supposing a man at the present time living in Australia wishes to send a telegram, as he might do, to Canada or Vancouver Island, that cable would have to go all the way through Australia, via India, Egypt, France, and Great Britain, then cross the Atlantic right across to Canada. The distance is about 12,000 miles, and it costs 8s. a word to send a telegram from Australia to Canada, which takes in many instances 24 hours in transmission. I believe that if the Pacific route was carried out we should not only reduce the distance from 12,000 miles to under 7,000 miles, but the cost would be reduced from 8s. to 2s. per word shortly, and a message would arrive within an hour. Now there are two alternative routes proposed—one by the Eastern Extension Cable Company, who are, of course, very anxious to maintain their monopoly, and who did, to some extent, persuade the Admiralty a few years ago, more or less, to give a favourable view to their proposed cable to the Cape via St. Helena, Ascension Island, Sierra Leone or Bathurst and Gibraltar. With regard to that cable and its general advantages I will not say one word against it, but it is impossible to admit that this proposal and the claim of the Eastern Extension Cable Company is preferable to a trans-Pacific cable, or would render that cable line unnecessary. The proposed Pacific cable was to take the following route from Canada to Australia: firstly starting from Vancouver, touching at Fanning Island, and so on to Fiji and Norfolk Island. From Norfolk Island it is proposed to make two cables, one to New Zealand and the other to the Eastern side of Australia. Very properly, this proposal met with the approval of the Canadian and various other Prime Ministers of the Colonies interested. From Australia it was to go by King George's Sound on to the Cocos Islands. That was to be a sort of junction, and there would be one cable from that island to Mauritius, Cape Town, and Natal, and another from Cocos to Ceylon, Singapore, and Hong-Kong. There is also a proposal which might be carried out in connection with these schemes, and that is that there might be a line established from Cape Town or Natal right to Bermuda, joining the mid-ocean stations at St. Helena, Asceneion and Barbados; thence to Jamaica and the other West Indian islands and British Guiana, tapping the whole telegraphic system of that important market of South America at Carthagena; again from Jamaica northward by the present British line via Bermuda right to Halifax. Now, there have been a great many objections made by the Post Office and by various other authorities to the cost of this cable system. If the whole of this scheme was carried out—and I do not advocate that all of it should be carried out at once—according to Sir Sandford Fleming, in letters which have appeared in "The Times" and other papers, the cost would be from £5,000,000 to £6,000,000. I may say in conjunction with this fact, that although I read some of his articles with great interest, I wished to bring this subject before Parliament as far back as 1897, but I did not succeed in my attempt to bring on this question before the House at the time of the last Jubilee, because the Naval Review prevented me doing so on account of many Members wishing to leave the House early in the evening before the Naval Review at Portsmouth, and so I did not bring the subject forward on that occasion. Regarding this proposed cable from Vancouver to Australia, it is not to be denied that if it was carried out it would take away some of the large profits made by the Eastern Extension Cable Company. The projectors of the Pacific cables say in substance that if this change is indispensable in the interests of the public, we should recognise that the existing company is entitled to full and fair compensation. Now, I do not wish in any form or shape to injure the cable company, which I admit is entitled to full and fair compensation, and it would be easy for an actuary to prepare an estimate of the value of the Eastern Extension Cable Company's system of cables in any given year, and if that valuation was once equitably established, it might be considered probably free for the company to accept the terms of purchase, or to continue the working of the cables under the altered conditions. But the fact remains that not only would the company lose about £60,000 a year, which it receives as a subsidy, but it would probably lose a vast amount of the official cables from Australia, Hong-Kong, Singapore, South Africa, and other parts of our dominions, as well as official and commercial cables to the Colonies. Now, I do advocate this scheme, because if we were to carry it out we should have a cable touching only on British territory and encircling the globe, annihilating distance, and binding together the mother country and her children as nothing else can. Submarine cables are essentially the nerves of the Empire, just as ships and railways are the veins and arteries of our commercial wealth in various parts of the world. I would advocate this Imperial cable from the fact that the estimates that were framed by our Postal authorities have proved to be absolutely inaccurate. The Postmaster-General estimates that it would cost no less than £2,924,000, but the Canadian Government have received one tender to construct an 18-word per minute cable at a cost of £1,800,000, and that cable is not only to have an adequate set of proper instruments, but it is also to have the use of two steamships fitted with cable requisites, and is to be kept in order for three years. That is a saving of over £1,200,000 upon the estimate of the Postmaster-General. But, as I said before, there would be no necessity to lay all these cables in one year. If we could join together by a double system of cables South Africa and India and the Far East, we might afterwards, when we found them paying concerns, make another cable across from South Africa to Bermuda. I venture to believe, Sir, that this cable would not only practically extinguish all the subsidies now paid, but it would be absolutely self-supporting. At the present time the cable rate from South Africa to Australia is no less than 4s. 9d. per word, and it has been reduced in the last few years from 9s. 4d. by the threatened competition of the Pacific cable to 4s. 9d. per word. I think, however, it should be further reduced to 3s., and at no distant date to 2s. a word. As regards our Anglo-Australian traffic, the former reduction would save the mercantile classes no less a sum than £190,000 a year, a reduction in rates which would naturally lead to an expansion in our commercial business with the Colonies. With regard to the advantages of this cable, I would point out, for instance, that when Her Majesty the Queen's gracious message at the Jubilee was sent to the Colonies and the dependencies of the Crown, it had to be sent through wires touching on foreign soil, and depending on the favour of France, Spain and Portugal, to all the Colonies, and went alone without touching foreign countries to Bermuda, Canada, and Newfoundland. At the present time there are most grave and striking anomalies in the charges of cables, as anyone can see by referring to that useful book, the "Post Office Guide." From England to Demerara, a distance of 4,000 miles, the charge is 10s. a word; but, owing to the proposed Pacific cable having threatened the Eastern Extension Company, you can send a cable to Australia, a distance of 16,000 miles, for 4s. 9d. a word. From England to New York, where there is keen competition, the charge is 1s. a word; to Hong Kong, 5s. 5d.; to India, 3s. 8d.; to Algeria, 3d. per word; to Egypt (British Protectorate), 1s. 7d.; to Suakim, 2s. 6d.; and to the Argentine Republic, 4s. 6d. The anomalies in our unfortunate West Indian Colonies are very striking. It casts us to send a cable to Jamaica, 8s. 10d. a word; to Grenada, 6s. 7d.; St. Vincent, 6s. 3d.; and to Trinidad, 7s. 1d. Practically the whole of these tariffs are prohibitive. Nobody at the present time sends longdistance cables unless absolutely obliged to dot so through pressing business. No doubt these cable companies have in their time done useful work, and been the pioneers of a most important movement, but before we took over the telegraphic system in the British Isles in 1869, many of the British and Irish telegraph companies were doing useful work, but as a rule their charges were very high—the charge was, I believe, 3s. 6d. a word to send a cable message to Ireland, and 2s. 6d. a word to Edinburgh.

When we took over the cables, in 1869, only 7,000,000 messages were sent per year to various parts of the United Kingdom. In 1879, the price being reduced to a uniform charge of 1s. for 20 words telegraphed, the number had increased to 29,000,000, and the profit had gone up to £354,000 a year. Now, Sir, as we have reduced the tariff down to sixpence, the profit is not so large, but it is gradually increasing, and I doubt not that before long it will more than pay its expenses, and the telegraphic facilities have been increased tenfold in the last 30 years. Now, let us look at the cables to Australia prior to the alteration. In 1890, before the alteration, when the tariff was 9s. 1d. a word, the receipts were only £331,468. In 1897, when the charge was reduced to 4s. 9d. per word, there were £567,852 worth of cables sent to Australia, so we have an increased amount of £236,384 a year. Well now, Sir, the great advantage of these cables would be that you would have a double route of cables stretching right through the British Empire. But there is another question. If we do not do this—and do it pretty quickly—there are others who will do it, taking into account the keen competition now existing for the trade of the Far East and of the territories bordering on the Pacific. The Americans have already made an important survey of the Pacific, and the French have laid the first link of a chain destined to connect Australia with North America. I have already gone into the question of the cost of construction. One of the main advantages of the cable, if carried out by the State, would be that it would be carried out in such a way as to give encouragement to business, because the State would endeavour, as indeed it has endeavoured, to further reduce the cable rates. Gradually we should have a 2s. rate per word to our more distant Colonies, and a 1s. or 6d. one to those near at hand, and, as time goes on, probably a small uniform charge for telegrams to all British Colonies. Besides, the State could obtain capital at a cheaper rate than a company could. There would be no watering stock. It is not for me to point out that in the amalgamation of all these cables which now comprise the Eastern Extension Cable Company, and to which we pay a subsidy of £60,000 a year, they have watered their stock to the tune of half a million sterling, and they pay a sum of no less than 7 per cent. on the watered stock, and would pay 9 per cent. on the watered stock. No doubt they have done a very useful work, and have spent upwards of a million of money in recent extensions of their system. Now, Sir, I believe that a remunerative tariff would greatly increase the facilities and reduce the charges. Even if the Eastern Extension Company lost half their present profits, they would still retain ample receipts to yield a good return. I should like, Sir, to touch upon another important aspect of this question, the commercial side. To be of stragetic value to Britain, cables should only pass through regions where the British have paramount control. The Pacific route offers this inestimable advantage. The co-operation of Great Britain and her principal Colonies in establishing this telegraphic connection would present itself to the world as an ideal co-partnership for mutual defence and for mutual interchange of commodities unparalleled in history. What do the Russians say with regard to how they would act if at any time they were engaged in hostilities with ourselves? I find that in one of their official journals, the "Novoe Vremya," a newspaper apparently not devoted entirely to pacific ideas, it is stated in a recent issue— In case of an armed conflict between this country and England our task would be to block England's communication with India and Australia. In times of peace the frequent failure of the service compels the Colonies to depend on the Russian-Siberian land lines for communication. What does Lord Wolseley say?— To depend on lines so placed is unwise and suicidal. During the Jameson Raid the Eastern Extension Company admitted that the East Coast route to Africa had failed. Sir James Anderson, who was knighted for laying the first successful cable between England and America, said, in the speech he made at a meeting of the Spanish Telegraph Company— They estimated the life of the Barcelona Cable at 25 years. The great importance of cables to our Fleets must be obvious to all. With an all-British cable system the naval and military headquarters in London would be able to light with the Navy in the Channel or the Mediterranean, or both, while at the same time placing India, Canada, Australia, or South Africa in a condition of defence. I would point out to the House that at the present time the cables that go through the Cape have to go through Portuguese territory, and even if the neutrality of the Portuguese were certain they pass through French territory, touching St. Louis especially. A cable can be cut at 2,700 fathoms. In the Mediterranean, through which our cables chiefly go, there is only an average depth of 768 fathoms, and in some parts the depth is only 200 fathoms. In case of war dual alliance "telegraph ships" might be busily at work in severing the cables, isolating Great Britain from her Colonies. With a length of 2,200 miles of sea in the Mediterranean it stands to reason that no British Fleet, however powerful, could prevent these cables being severed, and I venture to say that the French could, with the greatest ease, do such work from Biserta, Tunis, or Algiers at a minimum of risk. It is impossible to estimate the disasters that might occur from sudden cable isolation from India and Australia, whilst all news from the Far East would be in the hands of the Russians, whose cables run from Port Arthur, through China, across Siberia to St. Petersburg. To put an end to the present anomalous position of our most important coaling stations and naval bases we must have a double route to the imperial naval and military authorities in London, so as to give two lines of communication to the following ports, whose importance in the Imperial chain of defence it is impossible to exaggerate: — Hong Kong, Singapore, Trincomalee, Colombo, Aden, Cape Town, Simon's bay, St. Helena, Ascension, St. Julia, Jamaica, Bermuda, Halifax, Durban, Karachi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane, Auckland, and Wellington. These are many of our great coaling stations, which are, more or less, the larders of the Navy. A closely-contested engagement will be decided by the advantage gained by effectual communication and the con- centration of a sufficient Fleet. The submarine cables are the nerves of the Empire, as ships and railways are the veins and arteries of our commercial system. Cables annihilate distance, and bind the Mother Country and her children together in face of foes as nothing else can. With effective cable communication our naval and military authorities will be able to deal with any development of her enemies or covert foes, link all the Colonies and the Mother Country together, and make them secure from surprise, and ten times stronger from a defensive point of view. If an all-British cable system is made, and the complete circle is kept intact from and to all parts of the Queen's Dominions, it will tend to encourage trade, and add at least the equivalent of another flying squadron to the defence of the Empire.

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