HC Deb 07 March 1899 vol 68 cc39-41

I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs a Question of which I have given him private notice, and which, I believe, he is ready to answer—namely, whether the Government desire to make any modification in the recent statement to the House with regard to the affairs of Muscat, and whether it is the case that Her Majesty's Government have expressed to Franco their profound regret at recent occurrences.


Perhaps the House will allow me to answer this Question at some little length. The circumstances of the Muscat case are as follows: —In the middle of March of last year the French agent obtained from the Sultan of Muscat the lease or concesson of a piece of land to be used as a coal depot. On the land so ceded, which was in a small harbour, some way from Muscat, the French Government would have been at liberty to hoist its flag and to build fortifications. No hint of these proceedings reached the British Agent until this year. As soon as they were known, they were at once declared by the British Government to be contrary to the Treaty of 18G2 and to the Sultan's special obligations to the British Government in respect of the assignment or alienation of any part of his territories, and the Sultan was required to cancel the lease. This he did, and the lease has been annulled. We expressed no disapproval of the action of our Agent, which, indeed, was taken under our instructions, and Lord Salisbury informed the French Ambassador more than once that, in his judgment, the British Government was absolutely right in the contention it maintained, and that it was impossible for us to recede from it. With respect to the form of the matter, the statement of Monsieur Delcassé is somewhat imperfect. He omits to mention that in November he was asked by Sir Edmund Monson whether there was any truth in the rumours of an acquisition of land on the littoral of Muscat, and he said that he had heard nothing whatever about it. He repeated the same statement a few days ago. It was therefore a case of action of the French Local Agent in excess of the instructions he had received, and in such a case it is usual to bring the question to the knowledge of the Government concerned, and secure its decision by diplomatic means, in order to avoid the publicity involved in a threat of bombardment. While on this account Lord Salisbury, as he stated to the French Ambassador, would have preferred a less public mode of action, it is clear that no blame attaches to our Agent on the spot, who was not in a position to distinguish between the responsibility of the French Agent and the Sultan of Muscat on the one side, and that of the French Government on the other, and we held his action in substance to have been absolutely right. By the Convention between France and England of 1862 there is nothing to prohibit France from having a coal store at Muscat itself, as Great Britain has done within the terms of the Convention, provided there is no concession of territory, and it is understood that the French Government will avail itself of this power subject to the above-named limitations.