HC Deb 28 May 1908 vol 189 cc1357-64

Postponed Proceeding on Question, "That a sum, not exceeding £792,376, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1909, for sundry Colonial Services, including certain Grants-in-Aid," resumed.

Question again proposed.

SIR F. BANBURY, continuing his observations, said he merely desired that the hon. Gentleman should answer the questions which he had put to him in regard to child labour, and the power of the head of the tribe to force labour contracts on natives.


was understood to say that the question which had been put in regard to the Gold Coast was out of order. The hon. Member for Norwood had said that the taxpayers of this country were induced to part with their money on representations made in that House, and that it should be seen that money granted was spent in the way intended.


said his point was that if money granted to a Colonial Government was not properly spent what could the Comptroller and Auditor do on behalf of that House? He could do nothing.


supposed that the resources of civilisation would not be exhausted, and that they would be able to deal with such a case. In reply to the hon. Baronet the Member for the City, he had not lightly dismissed the question raised by him, but he had not dealt with the particular aspect of the labour clauses to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The hon. Baronet, however, would find the reasons in a paper published in the Treaty series, if he remembered rightly, at the end of December of last year, and a very full account was given of the reforms which had been made. With regard to repatriation he would point out that the whole of this arrangement took place under the Government which the hon. Baronet supported. ["No."] Yes, indeed. The preliminary negotiations took place then, and he was sure that they were not conducted with undue lack of consideration for the native races. The repatriation clauses were now definitely settled. That could be seen from the series of Papers.


What is the date of the Paper?


said it was a Paper published at the very end of last year or the beginning of this year. It was to be found in the Vote Office. It set out the despatches with reference to the New Hebrides by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In that Paper was the definite statement of the Secretary of State that under no circumstances could repatriation be imposed, and that the words meant that the labourer should only be repatriated if he desired. In fact there never was any intention of repatriating the natives, and nobody wanted it. In the case of the Chinese there were obvious reasons why it was desirable from the point of view of some people that they should be repatriated; they were not considered to be desirable settlers. In the case of the New Hebrides there never was any question that the natives would be undesirable, and the clause was understood at the time only to mean in the event of the labourer wishing to return. It was a pure error not putting in the words "if he so desire." With regard to the children he did not think that he could make any substantial amendment of the statement made at the end of last session. The situation was this. They had made an arrangement with France with a view to framing regulations. He believed that one of the French representatives had a great regard for the natives, and he was very desirous that regulations should be made to check certain evils which existed; and no native could possibly suffer from the regulations which had been passed. If the regulations were carried out as intended thousands of natives would be relieved from an immense amount of real suffering. The hon. Baronet knew the difficulty of dealing with these matters, but they were trying to get the age raised and also the height, and they were endeavouring to regulate the whole matter of child labour which had hitherto been without any regulation whatever. He could assure the hon. Baronet that they would lose no opportunity of screwing up the regulations in favour of the natives in the New Hebrides. They were always glad of any protest from any quarter of the House to strengthen their hand, and it was a matter of perpetually raising the standard of labour in the country where the evils of the labour system had been most deplorable in every respect.


There is the question about the head of the tribe, and his power to compel natives to enter into labour contracts.


did not think that was the fact, but he had had so many questions to deal with that afternoon that his memory did not serve him for the moment; he could assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that if he put a question he would be glad to answer it. He could assure him that he welcomed pressure on this matter.


said the statement of the hon. Gentleman was not thoroughly satisfactory to him. It would be remembered that when the clauses were read across the floor of the House no one could say which clause applied to the Chinese and which to the natives of the New Hebrides. The hon. Member would also recollect that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs stated categorically that the New Hebrides repatria- tion clause was not obligatory. Of course that was obviously not the case, because nobody knew which was which. Now he understood that the error was admitted, and the hon. Member said that the words "if he so desire" would be inserted. He was glad that the error in that respect had been admitted, but the Under-Secretary must remember that in the Blue-book issued at Christmas last there was no acquiescence on the part of the French Republic to those words. It might have come since the time of the Blue-book, which appeared nearly four months ago. Certainly in the Blue-book there was no acquiescence on the part of the French authorities to our interpretation on this point, and the French words as they stood were of a character clearly without any option; they were wholly mandatory with regard to repatriation; so that unless the French had been persuaded to accept the British view and to insert the Amendment, the repatriation would continue to be obligatory, as it was in the case of the Chinese labourers. The Under-Secretary had said that he welcomed criticism; indeed, he thought the hon. Gentleman had said that he welcomed pressure, but that he had been very much occupied, and that these matters had had to stand aside in view of more pressing business. A number of questions had been raised in the course of the debate, and the hon. Gentleman had dealt with them in a short way. The raising of the age for child labour, the position of the chief of the tribe, the possible hours of labour, were all points which had been raised a long time since and discussion had centred upon them. There were some subsidiary points about punishment by adding two months to every twelve months of indenture, and other matters about the time-table, diet, and so on; but the three main points which were discussed a year or so ago related to the almost supreme position occupied by the head of the tribe, the matter of the children, and the hours of labour. He was bound to say that the Colonial Office, though it might be owing to the changes which had taken place, had been dilatory in the matter. This question was of very great importance. They knew that the tribes were very scattered, and that our naval force in that part of the Pacific was very weak. But no effort had been made. The hon. and gallant Gentleman would do well to direct the attention of the Department to the fact that these matters now were of old standing, that they had excited considerable interest, and that it was really in the interests of the Department as well as of the inhabitants of the islands that the matter should not be left floating as it had been for twelve months past, but should be finally settled one way or the other without delay.


said the debate had been interesting because of the view it had presented of the treatment by England of native subject races. The discussion had shown that this was one of the saddest phases of our Empire development that could possibly be imagined. We seemed to look upon the subject races that by one means or other came under our sway as if they had no rights at all, as if they were merely food for our development, and were not entitled to any personal liberty of any kind, but ought to be treated as though they were so much cattle, without any human feelings whatever. That seemed to be the accepted principle of our conduct with regard to these races. He did not know whether this state of affairs had always been the same, but he assumed after what had been said that, although the condition of some of these subject races was extremely unsatisfactory to-day, years gone by could tell an even sadder story. While he recognised that the Under-Secretary for the Colonies was just the sort of man that would urge the Colonial Office to do everything possible to promote the interests of the natives, still he was afraid that those who were responsible for our Colonies, and especially our Crown Colonies where these coloured and primitive races came under our jurisdiction, did not set up a very high standard for their conduct. There seemed to have been fashioned in that debate an entirely different code of moral conduct towards black as compared with white men. He had always understood that to a very large extent the moment a black, yellow, or any other coloured man came under the protection of the British Empire, he had equal laws and equal rights with all others. That debate, however, had shown that we treated native races on an entirely different footing from white people. It appeared to amuse some Members who had been responsible for the administration of Crown Colonies that anybody should hold the opinion that black men should be equally treated with white. It seemed a conundrum to those Members, and they appeared to wonder where he and others who held that view could have come from. A black man, of course, knew whether he was dealt with fairly as well as a white man. He (Mr. Ward) held that view and he considered that it was the duty of those who represented labour in that House—knowing that in the past the same feeling prevailed with regard to the class they represented, viz., that they were merely hewers of wood and drawers of water, and had no rights of representation and no business to interfere in administration or in the making of the laws—to try to prevail upon the House to regard the rights of subject races as somewhat on the same level as our own. A Liberal Member had told the House during that debate that leases of land on the East Coast of Africa were only regarded as proper, and only recognised and enforced on condition that the particular portion of land that was the subject of the lease could be cultivated, and that there was a supply of labour for it. That hon. Member had asked the Under-Secretary to find means to compel somebody to work on these particular farms. He was sorry to hear a suggestion of that kind from an hon. Member who called himself Liberal in politics—a suggestion that the Imperial Government should go and take some black people from their homes and country which were just as precious to them as our country was to us. He had in the Soudan found the natives quite as patriotic as any Britisher he had seen, and they had fought and struggled for their own barren wastes in a way he hoped Englishmen would do should our country ever be attacked. It might be taken for granted that natives had the same feelings and instincts as to country as Europeans, and it was an unworthy suggestion that the Colonial Office should secure by force a supply of labour for the cultivation of farms for the mere sake of profit or of particular holdings and for the purpose of giving validity to some peculiar leases which he supposed really amounted to stealing the lands of these tribes. He should leave a suggestion of that kind to come from the other side of the House. It would seem more fitting, when one remembered that they were told in the case of the first quarrel with the Transvaal that possibly there would be a splendid opportunity for British labour, and the great Conservative Party afterwards introduced Chinese labour almost by force, certainly by fraud. He wanted to raise his voice against the idea that the native was a mere chattel, a mere slave who could be laid hold of and. emigrated away from his country whether he wanted to go or not, and seized for the purpose of developing portions of the Empire that could not at present be developed profitably to the speculators who were taking leases in different parts, especially on the East Coast of Africa. He would be delighted to assist in at least eradicating the idea of the justice or right of forced labour of any description within the British Empire. It was demoralising to those engaged in the business and to the country as a whole. Whatever they might say as to the necessity of maintaining our supremacy in those countries, whatever views they might hold as to maintaining every inch of territory which the Empire possessed, the object of those who represented labour ought to be in the direction of giving subject races brought under our sway equal rights and privileges with ourselves.

MR. HART-DAVIES (Hackney, N.)

altogether agreed with the hon. Member on the question of subject races, but in this particular case of the New Hebrides there were very serious difficulties in the way of establishing a satisfactory system of control. He was perhaps the only Member of the House who had ever been in the New Hebrides. It was a good many years ago, but he remembered the lurid stories he used to hear of the kind of thing that went on in those days. It was simply a hotbed of crime. At all events, after the Convention things were rather better than they had been, but without the expenditure of considerable sums of money on police and frequent visits from warships it would be impossible to have any real control over the management of those islands, and. over the export of human beings from them. He thought that, considering all the difficulties, the Colonial Office had done very good work, and at any rate it was a very great improvement upon the state of things which he remembered existed twenty years ago, when the amount of tyranny and bloodshed in that part of the world was something to make one shudder to think of. He hoped the Under-Secretary for the Colonies would be able to state that he would do as much as he possibly could upon this question in conjunction with the French Government and spend an adequate amount of money in order properly to police those islands and keep them under proper control. He knew that that was a matter of expense, but he thought they might trust the Colonial. Office to do what they could in the matter.

Question put, and agreed to.

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