HC Deb 19 May 1899 vol 71 cc1042-9
MR. SCHWANN (Manchester, N.)

said he was exceedingly obliged to the Secretary for the Colonies for having promised them a report on the Ceylon ordinances. He now desired to say a few words impugning the action of the right honourable Gentleman and also the action of Sir West Ridgeway He thought he ought to apologise to Sir West Ridgeway for a speech he made upon a former occasion, because he had discovered that the right honourable Gentleman himself was responsible for the land ordinance in Ceylon. Lord Selborne, in a speech which he delivered in another place a short time ago said— The The amending ordinance which has been violently attacked was not prepared on the initiation of the Governor of Ceylon, but on the direct instructions of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Continuing, Lord Selborne said— If, therefore, that ordinance is ill-timed or an ill-conceived measure, the first responsibility rests not with tine Government of Ceylon, but with Her Majesty's Government. He was prepared to prove, in the words of Lord Selborne, that this ordinance was both ill-tinted and ill-conceived, and lie was not going to base that simply upon his own statement nor upon that of Mr. Le Mesurier. He would bring into the witness-box a number of gentlemen who were members of the Legislative Council of Ceylon. The Hon. Mr. Mitchell, a mercantile member, who is an Englishman, calls this ordinance, "A most unprincipled Bill, devoid of all the principles of common honesty." The Hon. Mr. Goomard Swann, another member, spoke of it as "A vile ordinance which would ruin the people." The Hon. Mr. Christie, another Englishman, expressed himself as follows:— The ordinance as a whole was too heroic, although His Excellency had foreshadowed a policy that would not be heroic. It went too far; instead of untying the knot, it simply cut it. It simply declared that with one small exception all the land in the country was Crown land, and they had got to prove it was not. The Hon. Sir John Grinlinton, the general European member, did not think the Government ever contemplated the execution of such an arbitrary law. He thought that showed that the statement made by the right honourable Gentleman in this House, and by Lord Salisbury in another place, that this ordinance had met with general approval was without foundation. With regard to the newspapers of Ceylon—some of them which had always taken a Conservative line in all matters concerning the Colony—what did they say? They described the passing of this ordinance as blackmail, and as inflicting gross and bitter hardship upon the natives. Since the various articles condemning the ordinance had appeared in the various Ceylon papers he had received from the Association of Planters of Chillaw resolutions in exactly the same terms, and he felt compelled to read their statement because it came from a body of men who were impartial, and he thought the House would agree with him that they were people entitled to be heard in this House. At a meeting of that body the following is what took place. The Chairman moved a resolution to the following effect:— That the statement of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in the House of Commons, on the 20th March last, to the effect that 'the principle of land ordinances of Ceylon is regarded with satisfaction by the vast majority of the natives,' has no foundation, and this association is of opinion that the statement was made by Mr. Chamberlain in ignorance of facts and under misinformation, the truth being that the said ordinances are, both in principle and in their practical working, oppressive and extortionate as regards the natives, amongst whom they have been the cause of the greatest dissatisfaction with the Government from the earliest times. This motion was seconded by Mr. Munasinha and carried unanimously. In another article the Ceylon, Standard, a very Imperialistic paper, in a leading article on the 7th of April, said: That at this time of day any man out-side the Government service could be found or pressed into the service to defend the policy of this most iniquitous piece of legislation passes ordinary human comprehension. We admire the audacity of the man who gravely and solemnly proclaims that the Waste Lands Ordinance is harmless and necessary. Such a man cannot but stand condemned as being ignorant of the most elementary principles of justice and fair play. The same journal goes on to say: The private individual in lawful possession of his land may be turned out, or certainly he may be prevented from reaping the fruits of his labour. The land he possesses may furnish him his sole income. It may be the entire support of his family. Yet it may be taken away from him at a moment's notice. He dare not step on to it, and thus reduced to a state of destitution and starvation he may be told to bring his action against the Crown and prove that the land is his. This is no fanciful picture. This has repeatedly happened in our Courts. It is doubly cruel to treat the villager thus, because the Government officials know that 90 percent, of our village lands are claimed by virtue of prescriptive possession. To deprive a man of his only source of income, to take possession of the fruits of his labour, and then to compel him to bring an action to establish his title is a monstrosity utterly unworthy of any Government. We may tell the apologists for Government that the Government, evidently ashamed of this piece of special legislation, his determined to resort to the regular tribunals of the land and adopt the ordinary procedure. He was glad to say that they had been forced to do that by the action of the Colonial judges. He called attention to these matters because there was a new ordinance going to be introduced which was likely to affect most seriously the interests of the villagers of Ceylon, because at the end of it there was a clause which glossed over and whitewashed any irregularities which might have been committed by the Government. There was another misstatement made in another place by Lord Selborne, which he felt bound to correct, or otherwise it might be accepted as the truth.


Order, Order! The honourable Member is quite in order in calling attention to these matters, but he is obviously replying in detail to a speech made in the House of Lords, not in order in doing that.


said he desired to draw the attention of the House very strongly to this fact, because he thought they would be disposed to take lip the protection of the village population of Ceylon. It was not a very entrancing subject, but this House was responsible for the rightful enjoyment of property by these races, and it would be wrong to allow this opportunity to puss without drawing the attention of the right honour able Gentleman to the past working of the ordinance, and the opinion which had been formed in Ceylon of the extreme gravity of the situation. The right honourable Gentleman seemed to underrate entirely the gravity of the action which he had caused to be carried out on his own initiative in that island. The presiding magistrate heard the defence, and then the case was carried to another court, where the native had to come up and prove his right to the land he occupied. It was an exceedingly difficult thing for a poor peasant in that country, without it knowledge of the law, to be forced to prove in a court of law his right to lands which had been from time immemorial in the hands of his predecessors. He wished to impress, most strongly upon the right honourable Gentleman the view which was held now by all classes of the population, and of the labouring classes who had been despoiled of their land, and which had been expressed by the papers which represented the public opinion of the moment, and which been expressed by the judges in unmistakable terms, that, there was a great want of satisfaction with the log of this ordinance. As there was another Act which was likely to be still more strongly used against the people of Ceylon, he hoped the right honourable Gentleman would take into full consideration the seriousness of the case, old take all means in his power to diminish the oppression with which these Acts were being carried out in that island.


The, honourable Gentleman opposite says he hopes upon another occasion that he will be able to go more into detail on this question. I cannot understand why, under those circumstances, he should have taken advantage of this occasion to repeat the statement which he made on a previous occasion and which evidently he is going to repeat again. I am always perfectly ready to meet any attack, but I think it is a disadvantage when a subject of this kind, which involves a reference to a great number of documents, is brought up without any longer notice than is given in a letter delivered to me some time after I came into the House, and in which my honourable friend says he is prepared to attack a statement made in another place, and which, of course, the honourable Member knows as well as I do, cannot be properly discussed here under the Orders of the House. The honourable Member states that his object was To call attention to the past working of certain ordinances in Ceylon to the extreme gravity of situation, and to the opinion of all classes of the people of Ceylon. But, as a matter of fact, the honourable Member said nothing to inform the House as to the nature and character of these ordinances or of their working, and the only information he gave as to the opinions of the population was to quote the views of certain individuals who are members of the legislative body, and the opinion of certain newspapers. In Ceylon, as elsewhere, there is an Opposition as well as a Government, and that opposition generally finds fault with the legislation of the country. Now if you take as the general opinion of the people the opinions expressed in the organs of the Opposition in reference to the legislation of the Government, you will he sure to come to a very inaccurate conclusion indeed. I repeat here what I have said upon a previous occasion, that, according to the very best information which I able to obtain —a good deal of which will no doubt appear in the Papers which I have promised, for which the honourable Gentleman is too impatient to wait— it will appear from those papers that, at all events, these ordinances are not generally unpopular, but on the contrary I believe that they are generally approved of. If the House will consider for a moment what this legislation is, honourable Members will see good reason for believing that I am correct in that view. This legislation is intended to protect the community against the individual, and it is a most extraordinary thing that the honourable Member opposite, who calls himself an advanced Radical, should on this occasion get up and take up the case of the individual as against the community. In all the land legislation we undertake in this House, we find that honourable Members opposite always claim that the rights of individuals should not lie allowed to prejudice the claims and rights of the community. But in this particular case, where the natives are concerned in a distant dependency, the honourable Gentleman takes up the case of Mr. Le Mesurier, a land speculator, and other persons of the same kidney, as against the interests of the whole of the people. When the charge takes a more definite form I shall be prepared to answer it, but at present I can add nothing to the statement which I made upon a previous occasion.


said the right honourable Gentleman had not followed the advice which he had given to the honourable Member for North Manchester, for he had himself care fully avoided all reference to the nature and character of the land ordinances. He was sure that, on whichever side of the House they sat, honourable Members would admit that they best, looked after The interests of the community looking after the interests of the individual. If he remembered aright, the doctrine of "ransom" which was once advocated by the right, honourable Gentleman was to take away from the rich and give to the poor. These ordinances, however, took away from the poor to give to the Government; so that a very great change had taken place within the last, few years with regard to the doctrine of "ransom" But however that might be, it was unnecessary now to enter into personalities. They had a perfect right to refer to Members of that House as politicians, but what was the good of referring to Mr. Le Mesurier as a land speculator and "persons of that kidney, for even Mr. Le Mesurier was entitled to justice. Upon another occasion the right honourable Gentleman alluded to Mr. Le Mesurier not only as a land-grabber but also as a wife-grabber.


No, no! The honourable Gentleman misrepresents me. What I said on a previous occasion I have repeated to-day, that this Mr. Le Mesurier is a land speculator who bought large quantities of land or doubtful claims from the natives at a very low rate, and he is prosecuting them against the Government, which in this case represents the community. I also said that Mr. Le Mesurier, having failed to obtain a divorce from his wife, had declared himself a Mahomedan and married a second wife.


pointed out that Mr. Le Mesurier had offered to give to the Government all the land at the price he gave for it if the Government would restore it to the people to whom it originally belonged. As to this divorce, Mr. Le Mesurier obtained it in the Lower Courts of Ceylon on absolutely irresistible evidence, but when he went to the Higher Court a technical objection was taken that a marriage contracted in England could not be dissolved in Ceylon. That technical objection was fatal, and after that Mr. Le Mesurier became a Mahomedan. The right honourable Gentleman himself should be the last person in this House to complain of a person changing his religion or anything else. He could quite understand that a man could conscientiously become a Mahomedan. Many citizens of the Queen were Mahomedans, and why should they make so much of a man becoming a Mahomedan? They sent out, missionaries to India to make Christians of Mahomedans, and he failed to see anything wrong in a Christian becoming a Mahomedan. With respect to this ordinance, what he complained of was that it referred to all uncultivated land, and to all land that had not been in constant cultivation for five years continuously. Anyone who knew anything about Ceylon knew that the cultivation of land there was intermittent. Was it not a scandalous thing that, according to the doctrine of "ransom," the Government were going to confiscate all this land which had not been cultivated for five years in succession? There was only one remedy for this state of things in Ceylon, and that was to have some sort of an independent inquiry. They had heard a great deal about Sir West Ridgeway, but his career as an administrator had not been very fortunate. The right honourable Gentleman had alluded to the newspapers in Ceylon, but it was not a fair analogy to compare them with the newspapers in this country. There was only one paper in Ceylon which supported this ordinance, and that was a paper owned by the Government solicitor. The right honourable Gentleman got all his information from the officials, and what they asked was that instead of doing this he should get his information from some impartial or independent persons. If the right honourable Gentleman would take the trouble to inquire carefully into this matter he would find that these ordinances were unfair, unjust, and an oppression upon the native population of Ceylon.


said he had spent three years on the staff in India, and he could refute any charge against Mr. Le Mesurier as far as oppression upon the natives was concerned, for he did not think there was any man against whom that charge could be urged with less reason.