HC Deb 09 August 1899 vol 76 cc265-74

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."

MR. URE (Linlithgow)

said he rose to call attention to the circumstances attending the loss of the British steamship "Kowshing" off the coast of Korea in July, 1894, and to the failure of the Government to secure compensation for the owners, and for the families of British subjects who lost their lives through the sinking of the vessel. It might be suggested that he should have put a question on this subject, but he was not a very strong believer in the efficacy of Ministerial interrogation, as it was an easy task for an intelligent Minister to give an evasive answer to an awkward question. Again, he might be recommended to open a correspondence on the subject with the Prime Minister. But he did adopt that course in his earlier and less experienced days of Parliamentary service, and the experiment was attended with a signal lack of success. He was therefore driven to take his present action, the more so because, when the Foreign Office Vote was discussed in Committee of Supply, other and more important matters engaged their attention. The subject he had to deal with was not a mere local one; it had entered the regions of national and Imperial concerns, and it was the duty of the British Government to see that redress was obtained for wrongs suffered by British subjects at the hands of a foreign State. What were the facts of this case? Over five years ago—on the 23rd July, 1894—a British steamship, the "Kowshing," was chartered by the Chinese Government to convey Chinese officers and soldiers to Korea. At that time war had not been formally declared, but shortly after she sailed war was declared between China and Japan. The authorities at Tientsin might easily have stopped her then, but they took no steps to do so, and on July 24th, when she came close to Korea, she fell in with a Japanese cruiser, which fired some shots across her bow, and the captain had no alternative but to submit to the Japanese command to surrender. The Chinese officers and men, however, prevented him taking that course, and threatened that they would massacre the captain and crew if they surrendered. The Japanese cruiser then ranged up alongside, and fired a broadside into the "Kowshing," with the result that several of the officers of the ship, all British subjects, were killed. The Foreign Office having, after very long delay, held that in international law the Chinese, and not the Japanese Government was responsible, a claim was made against China for compensation, but, although more than five years had elapsed, no satisfaction whatever had yet been obtained. All sorts of weak excuses—in which no one believed—had been put forward for the delay, and he had to strongly complain of the dilatory action of the Foreign Office in the matter. Patience, moderation, and moral suasion were all excellent in their way, but by their conduct the Government had laid themselves open to the gravest charge that could be brought against any British Administration, that, with a righteous cause, and an undivided and robust public opinion behind them, they deliberately turned their backs on the wrongs of British subjects at the hands of a Foreign State. He therefore moved that the Bill be read a third time that day three months.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and a the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day three months.' "—(Mr. Ure.

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


The hon. Gentleman charges the Government with very belated action in this matter, but I think it is only fair that I should remind the hon. Gentleman that his action in bringing this matter forward at the last moment of the session is a little belated also. He says we have been in a somnolent condition. I will endeavour to answer his complaint. It is quite true that this claim was made five years ago, on July 25, 1894. The hon. Gentleman has given a not altogether inaccurate history of what occurred; but the truth is that the hon. Gentleman himself gave the answer to his own speech when he said that it took a considerable time to decide whether by international law the claim should be made on the Japanese or on the Chinese Government; and, although Her Majesty's Government came to the conclusion that the Chinese Government, in the circumstances, were responsible, that view is not by any means shared by the Chinese Government. With regard to the delay, I do not think that the action of Her Majesty's Government in relation to the Chinese Government ought to be judged by the treatment of this one claim. In the past few years the Government have had to address the Chinese Government on a very considerable number of subjects, and they have, I think, obtained fair satisfaction in most cases. On this subject long delay has taken place, and I very much regret it. Her Majesty's Government have, however, recently proposed to the Chinese Government that if they are not prepared to recognise the justice of the claim, they should submit it to arbitration. Though we expected to receive a favourable answer to that suggestion, we have not yet received one; but we have informed the Chinese Government that we cannot wait indefinitely for the settlement of the claim, or for a reply as to arbitration, and that if they cannot see their way to submit the matter to arbitration the claim will be treated as one which must be compensated in some other way. It is very easy to speak strongly about the inaction of the Government, but if it is desired to push the claim at once forcible measures may have to be taken, and I do not understand the hon. Gentleman to suggest that forcible, and by that I mean warlike, measures should be taken with China on this matter. The Government fully hope to obtain a settlement if on arbitration it should prove that the Chinese Government is responsible. I entirely repudiate the idea that there has been inaction on the part of the Government. On the contrary, I think the Government has taken the proper course, and one which will end in the recognition of the claim by the Chinese Government.


said he should like to point out that other countries, such as Germany, France and Russia, got their claims settled promptly by China, while this country obtained no satisfaction at all in almost every case. He hoped that when the House met in February the right hon. Gentleman would be able to state that arbitration in this case had been accepted by the Chinese Government, and that if a decision was given against China Her Majesty's Government intended to enforce it, and would no longer tolerate being treated in a manner which no third-rate European Power would submit to.


entirely agreed with what had fallen from the hon. Gentleman opposite. No doubt in this particular case the right hon. Gentleman had given an effective defence, as probably there had been great difficulty in getting a settlement of the great number of claims which had had to be made against China. The position of the Chinese Government was a very difficult one, and we too were in a delicate situation and not able to press claims so forcibly, seeing that we were doing our best to secure the integrity and strengthen the powers of self-defence of the Chinese Empire. But on the general question of the policy of our Government in relation to these matters, he submitted that the result of the past methods of the Foreign Office had been to make it almost a disadvantage to be a British subject in a dispute of this kind. Foreign governments, no doubt, were more unscrupulous in pressing the claims of their subjects, but he thought there was room for great improvement in the general support the Foreign Office ought to give to the commercial interests of British subjects abroad. The traditions of the Foreign Office dated back from the days when we were almost supreme in all parts of the world, and in those times the Foreign Office held and acted on the view that its business was diplomacy and not the mere protection of British private and commercial interests. This policy was antiquated and totally unsuited to the present times. Let the right hon. Gentleman ask any South American merchant how French and German claims were treated, and he would be told that they were settled directly they were made.


I was going through the papers of a German claim yesterday. It took twenty months to settle that.


But it is settled. The claim we are discussing was made five years ago, and is still unsettled.


said he did not think the right hon. Gentleman had gained much by his interruption. It was undoubtedly the case that German and French subjects got their claims more promptly settled in every quarter of the world than did British subjects. The Waima incident was another case which had been delayed year after year on the most frivolous pretences, and he might quote other cases to show how British subjects were placed at a disadvantage by the policy of the Foreign Office.


said he wished to call attention to the present relations between this country and the Transvaal. He realised that we had reached a very serious and critical position, and that any Member of the House who alluded to the matter ought to do so with a very strong sense of responsibility. Had he consulted his own feelings he would not have said a word on the subject, but he felt it to be his duty to raise the question before the House formally separated for the recess. He would not, however, introduce into the discussion any language of a recriminatory or partisan nature, but he wished to say that his own feeling was that if hostilities should arise it would be a needless war, and every needless war was a criminal war. There was a feeling in this country that our fellow-subjects in the Transvaal were not treated as they had a right to be, and that their exclusion from the franchise did not give them the means of safeguarding their interests as they would wish to safeguard them. On the other hand, there was a disposition amongst fair-minded men to look at the question from the Boer as well as from the British point of view. The Boers regarded the Transvaal as their own country, and they wished to live by themselves, and to be governed according to their own ideas and idiosyncracies. From their standpoint the English and others were foreigners or settlers in their country, and it should be remembered that the Uitlanders were engaged in an industry—the mining industry—which might come to an end at any time, and they were not substantial settlers, like persons engaged in agriculture. As was well known, there were many cases in America where mining cities had sprung up only to be abandoned a generation later. Furthermore, the Boers were entitled under the Convention to full liberty of action with regard to the internal affairs of the Transvaal. It would be a flagrant breach of the spirit and letter of the Convention if we drove matters to extremities because of the claim of the Transvaal Government to deal according to their own lights with their own internal affairs. In this country there were some people who felt that we had humiliations, defeats, and shames to blot out in connection with our relations with the Transvaal. There was a section of people—he hoped it was a small one—who regarded Majuba as the episode in these relations which should weigh most upon the mind.


The surrender after Majuba.


said there was a sort of obscure feeling that this country had some shame to blot out, some defeat to avenge. He took an entirely opposite view. He thought the action of this country after the battle of Majuba Hill was one of the brightest and noblest pages in history. No one engaged in that transaction doubted that the mighty forces of this Empire would have been able to blot out in a few weeks the shame of a chance defeat in a small rencontre; but it would have been an act of moral guilt to deprive the Boers of their liberty by further shedding innocent blood. He did not believe that President Kruger altogether represented Boer opinion. Could anyone doubt that the younger race of Boers, now growing up alongside British subjects, would become imbued with their advancing and enterprising spirit? Why not wait, if need be, a quarter of a century in order to secure by this natural growth of opinion a peaceful and tranquil settlement rather than embark at once on a needless war? No doubt Sir Alfred Milner made it an important part of his policy that the Transvaal question required immediate settlement because of the immediate effect it would have upon the relations with nationalities in other places. That was a two-edged argument. Everybody knew that an attack on the Boers of the Transvaal would bring us into moral collision, at any rate, with the Dutch population in other parts of the world, thereby sowing the seeds of future discord, ill-will, and bad feeling between the Dutch and the English. According to that morning' spapers the Transvaal Government did not seem disposed to accept the invitation to the Conference, and that undoubtedly created a serious situation. But he trusted that we should not lose our heads. The Boer Government had made two declarations. The first was as to a matter offact—namely, that the laws which it was proposed to refer to a joint body differed only in detail from the proposals of Sir A. Milner at the Bloemfontein Conference. He submitted that before we took violent action against a country which was entitled to manage its own internal affairs the matter in dispute should be one of great importance and not a mere detail. Secondly, when President Kruger was about to make new proposals to the legislative bodies in the Transvaal with regard to the franchise he invited an expression of opinion from Sir A. Milner. But Sir A. Milner declined the invitation and threw entire responsibility in the matter on the President. The Transvaal Government, according to that morning's news, "desired nothing more earnestly than that by a friendly and fair settlement an end might be made of the state of tension which at present exists with such a demoralising effect on South Africa." It was in this spirit that the President went to the Conference at Bloemfontein, and the Transvaal Government intimated that they "would ever be ready to consider in a friendly spirit any suggestion of Her Majesty's Government." This meant that the Transvaal Government did not regard the franchise question as closed. It simply proposed a method of dealing with it different from that proposed on behalf of this country. It was his honest and solemn conviction that the people of this country would look to the Government not merely for firmness, but also for forbearance. He believed that the manly and brave people of this country felt the serious inequality of the conflict between this country and the people of the Transvaal, and would regard it as far more courageous for us to pursue a policy of firmness and forbearance.


I cannot help regretting that the Leader of the Opposition is not in his place to-day, because I think he would have joined with me in discountenancing and discouraging, as far as I can, any attempt to pursue a debate with regard to affairs in the Transvaal. There are many objections to such a course. The situation is, as the hon. Member says, serious and at the same time doubtful. His whole speech was based on the hypothesis that President Kruger and the Government of the South African Republic have refused the proposal which, in itself, was intended in the interests of peace, and which the hon. Member recognises to have been moderate and reasonable. But the report is that that proposal has been refused. At present, at any rate, it is only a report. I have stated that I have no official information confirming the report, and I hope it may not be true. In the circumstances I confess I rather regret the necessity for any discussion of a hypothetical situation. The hon. Member, however, has thought it necessary, even at this late period of the session, to present himself—I will not say as the advocate, but as the representative—of what ho considers the Boer point of view. I am not certain that the Boer Government would accept that representation as accurately expressing their views. But, whether they would or not, I cannot accept it as a proper account of the situation. All that I should pass over, and sit down, if it were not that I fear speeches of the kind just made are liable to misinterpretation. If the speech were confined to the House, no harm would be done. We know what to think of the hon. Member when he professes to speak in the name of the people of this country. But, unfortunately, these speeches are reported and extracts sent to other countries, and especially to the Transvaal, and there it is always possible they may do mischief in a critical situation. Although I do not intend to enter upon the general argument of the hon. Member beyond saying that I entirely disagree with him, I do think it necessary to take notice of his statement that in the opinion of many persons in this country, any extreme measure—I always dislike to use the word war unless it becomes necessary, but the hon. Member used it and said that any extreme measure or war would be needless; and he submits an alternative proposal which consists, as far as I can make out, of an abject surrender on the part of the British Government, and in the expression of their willingness to wait, it may be, five-and-twenty years before the grievances of the Uitlanders are redressed. It would be a fatal mistake for this country, or for any country, if that view were supposed to represent the opinions even of a small minority of this House, or of anything but the most insignificant minority in the country. The view of the Government and the policy of the Government have been clearly expressed both in this House and in another place. We have stated that we recognise the grievances under which our subjects in South Africa are labouring. We have stated that we find those grievances, not merely in themselves a serious cause for interposition, but a source of danger to the whole of South Africa. We say that our predominance, which both sides of the House have constantly asserted, is menaced by the action of the Transvaal in refusing to redress grievances and in refusing any consideration to the requests made in moderate language by the suzerain Power. That is a state of things which cannot long be tolerated. We have stated that we have put our hands to the plough and we will not draw back, and on that statement I propose to rest content.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.