HC Deb 23 March 1910 vol 15 cc1094-106

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do meet to-morrow, at Ten of the clock, and that, after the Report of the Royal Assent to Acts agreed to by both Houses, Mr. Speaker do adjourn the House, without Question put, until Tuesday, 29th March."—[The Prime Minister.]


I rise to call the attention of the House to the Question of Somaliland. This subject was raised on the Supplementary Estimates, and the Home Secretary made a speech in which he talked a good deal and said nothing in particular, and he certainly led us to suppose that a future opportunity would be afforded for discussing the affairs of Somaliland before any definite action was taken by the Government. Most of us who discussed the Question on this side of the House relied upon the promise that nothing would be done of any material importance until the House had had a further opportunity of considering the Question. Here are the words of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary:— I hope the Committee will have confidence in the Government, and will believe we are endeavouring to relieve the cost and strengthen the situation and contract the area of our responsibilities in Somaliland, and at the same time to do justice to our obligations to those who, through mistaken policy on our part, have been led to rely, to some extent, at any rate, upon the protection of our military forces. That was practically a pledge on behalf of the Government to carry out our obligations to those in Somaliland who have been relying upon us to stand by them. What do we find? In the Blue Book issued yesterday, in the instructions sent to Sir William Manning, the Commander-in-Chief of Somaliland, there occurs the following passage:— They propose to evacuate the interior and limit British occupation to the holding of the two or three important towns on the coast by small garrisons, it being, however, understood that the evacuation is not to be carried out unless and until the friendly tribes can reasonably be said to be in a. position to hold their own against the Mullah. That despatch is dated 7th January, and in view of that statement it is rather trifling with the House for the Home Secretary, with this knowledge in his possession, to leads us to suppose that no definite policy had been decided upon, and that matters would be left as they were until a further opportunity had been given to us to discuss the Question. Instead of that we find that the actual evacuation of Somaliland has been decided upon—in fact it commenced yesterday when the natives were to be warned of what was going to happen. Not only are we to leave the natives in the lurch, but we are going to steal away like a thief in the night, and leave them to stew in their own juice. The Secretary of State telegraphed to the Commissioner on 18th September last to the following effect:— Previous experience has shown that self-protective measures on the part of the friendly tribes have proved the most effective means of bringing the Mullah to reason, while action of this kind is in accordance with the policy of the Government, which aims at encouraging the tribes to rely upon themselves for their own defence against the Mullah. That is a stereotyped sentence which emerges from Downing Street whenever they have a difficult question to settle which they wish to shirk. They talk of previous experience showing that this course is necessary, but it has shown nothing of the kind. It has shown that the tribes are quite unable to protect themselves, and they have been taught to rely upon us; and unless we protect them they will be raided and killed and their goods will be destroyed. The Commissioner is told:— If. therefore, you think the step advisable, you may tell the tribes that, as the Mullah continues to attack them and has broken off negotiations with us, they must take measures they think proper to protect themselves. And yet we are told by those who have, not the slightest knowledge of Somaliland that such a step is in accordance with our dignity as the protectors of that country. The Commissioner never said this was advisable. On the contrary, in reply to the question put to him as to its advisability, he said:— It would be to throw them (the tribes) straight into the Mullah's hands to tell them now that they must rely entirely on their own efforts, whereas if they can first gain some initial success with our moral support, they will be encouraged to rely more on their own unaided efforts in future. The only effect of this policy will be to throw the tribes straight into the Mullah's hands. The Government issued their directions to the Commissioner without consulting this House, authorising the evacuation. Only a few months ago the following telegram was sent to the Commissioner:— The question of our future policy in Somaliland has been under my consideration, and while it is not practicable at present, or perhaps desirable, to outline that policy in full, I am of opinion that if it is to have any stability, the principle on which it must be based is that of inducing the friendly tribes to take a more active part in their own defence. There is no doubt that during the last few months, the Mullah has been considerably discredited, and the friendly tribes have shown on more than one occasion that they can hold their own against his raiding parties. It seems probable that if they were given to understand that they must rely more upon their own exertions, they would be able, with a certain amount of military support from the Government, to make still greater headway against the Mullah, and perhaps in time they would be able to dispense with Government support altogether. The wish is father to the thought. The Somalis look upon us as their supporters and protectors, and it is hoped in time that they will learn to take care of themselves. That is not the policy which will enable us to build up that great civilising influence which has worked so successfully in other parts of the British Empire. If we are going to play fast and loose with the good work of British officials there, we must expect a very serious attack on our prestige in that country. Putting aside all this talk about previous experience, what is the real reason? On 12th March of last year the Secretary of State telegraphed to the Commissioner:— The cost of transport required to maintain troops in present position is so great that His Majesty's Government must, reconsider the whole question of their policy in Somaliland. There is the real reason. Why should not the Government be frank about it? They have not got to pay the money out of their own pockets. The ratepayers have got to pay, and they are entitled to say whether they are prepared to find the necessary money to meet the cost of transport when the sole reason for the desertion of Somaliland is apparently that the Government find the cost of transport for a particular movement, which was of passing importance, excessive. What is in store for these unfortunate men from whom they are running away and whom they are leaving in the lurch? On 3rd April last the Commissioner, whose opinion had been asked with regard to the general situation in Somaliland, telegraphed as follows:— With respect to the general situation, I hope that it is realised that if failure of local transport compels us to withdraw from Ain before the Mullah declares his intentions, we may rind ourselves forced to retire first from the coast, and eventually from the county altogether. If the Mullah were to advance as we retire we could not protect our troops for long from Burao or Sheikh, and much less from Berbera. This is the opinion of a man who has been nine or ten years in the country, who is one of the finest administrators, as I have no doubt the Secretary of State will say, we have in the Colonial Service, and who has had unrivalled experience in Somaliland. He says it is impossible to protect our tribes from Burao or Sheikh, and much less from Berbera, and yet you intend to run away and leave them in the lurch. I can hardly think that this is in accordance with the sentiments of the nation. Gentlemen who usually occupy seats below the Gangway opposite are in the habit of making a very great fuss about the lot of the natives in the Congo. I entirely share their views on the subject, but I think their speeches must certainly enormously increase the difficulties of the Foreign Secretary, who is fully aware of the circumstances there, and is doing his very best to improve them. We are responsible for the welfare of the natives of Somaliland, and yet you are deliberately handing them over to a system of Government which is far worse than anything which obtains in the Congo. You are handing them over bag and baggage to the Mullah. I think I have been about as near as anybody to the Mullah, and I am bound to say he is a most disagreeable person with whom to have anything to do. Anything more unpleasant than turning women and children out to starve in the desert it is difficult to imagine. Yet we are handing over 200,000 loyal British subjects to treatment of that sort with our eyes open simply because the Government will not ask the House of Commons whether they will find the money necessary to meet a temporary military requirement. The Government asked the Commissioner to inform them of the number who will be affected. He replied:— The total population of the tribes with whom we have treaties of protection may be roughly estimated at 200,000, though only about half that number will be immediately affected by withdrawal. They have for the most part been in loyal co-operation, and though some who are not in immediate danger may be described as lukewarm, and their apathy is due more to their reliance on us to protect them in case of danger than to any disloyalty to us or leaning towards the Mullah, whom they have now learned by experience to hate and fear. You are handing over these men to the tender mercies of the Mullah, when, by the showing of our Commissioner, they hate and fear him, and we are the nation who are for ever making such a fuss because of the misgovernmentof the Belgians in the Congo. Surely the two things are incongruous. Surely we must see the beam in our own eye before we want to remove the mote in the eye of our neighbour. Who is this Mullah? The hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon), I believe, had the privilege of an invitation to spend Saturday to Monday with the Mullah, but he could not see his way to do so. He may have one opinion about him, but here is what a certain Mohamet Salah, who is the reputed head of the sect to which the Mullah professes to belong, wrote to him as recently as 27th February:— The letter is said to be a reprobation of the Mullah's brutality and excesses and general maltreatment of the Mahomedans, and, after accusing him of being a religious imposter, whose sole object is to become Sultan of the Somali coast, he warns him that if he does not mend his ways letters will be sent to all the neighbouring tribes denouncing him and urging them to rise against him. This is the man to whom you propose to hand over Somaliland. Somaliland may be a barren country, but what about the Somalis? They are British subjects, just like ourselves, but they have the misfortune to have no votes. I think that is a reason for paying more attention to their welfare than you probably would to people whose votes might result in your being returned or not being returned to power. I regret very much that I am perhaps the only representative here to-day to speak on behalf of the Somalis. They have been loyal to us on many occasions. They are gallant men, to whom many Englishmen owe their lives. I am one, and I think it is a most contemptible thing that, without giving Parliament the chance of discussing at all what is to be the policy adopted with regard to these people, and when you have lulled Parliament to sleep and given them to understand that nothing further is going to be done until there is a further opportunity for discussion, we and the Somalis should be allowed to wake up one morning and find that the Somalis are going to be abandoned to the Mullah. I suppose the idea is that they might hold their own against the Mullah. Our Commissioner (Captain Cordeaux) wrote, as far back as January, 1909, and circumstances have not changed since then:— There is no disguising the fact that the Mullah has never abandoned the idea of becoming the master of the whole of Somaliland. It is only question of time and of opportunity. We are giving him the opportunity deliberately and of set purpose. He has waited his time as he knew he had only to wait; he has got his opportunity, and he is going to become master of Somaliland. The Commissioner says he does not consider it possible to hold Burao or Sheikh or that we could protect our tribes from Berbera. Berbera lies on the coast; it is of no importance except as a trade centre, and when the Mullah is in occupation of the interior trade will naturally cease. If you are going to abandon the country, why not abandon the whole? This holding of the coast is simply keeping a point of danger open which will occasion expeditions into the interior. Consequently you are running the danger of having to spend money in defending what is absolutely worthless instead of spending a little more in order to defend those tribesmen who have been loyal to us in the past, and who look to us for protection. There is a great deal more than that in the whole question. The Somalis are not confined to Somaliland. They are the greatest wanderers in that part of Africa. What influence is our action going to have on the Somalis in the interior? Does anybody believe that the news will not spread like wildfire that we have been beaten by the Mullah? I remember in the year 1899, at the time things were going badly with us in South Africa—the time when we had no friends in Europe, the representatives of the European Powers in Abyssinia were doing their best to persuade the Emperor Menelik that his opportunity had come. Till that time we had only to remind Menelik of the fate of the Dervishes, but now they will be able to point to the successful revolt of the Mullah. That alters the whole position of affairs. This is not a question affecting a small body of men. We, have no right to look after merely the best part of our possessions, and I maintain we are bound to enter a protest against the action of the Government in this matter. We live on prestige in North-East Africa, and on prestige entirely. I think we have acted very foolishly in giving up a very strong position in Abyssinia, and we are acting still more foolishly in convincing the natives that we are not strong enough to protect them as we have done in the past, and that in future we are going to leave them to look after themselves. The very fact that the Somalis are great traders and great wanderers will only add to the disastrous effects of the policy of the Government. I do not know whether the Government have made any arrangement with Italy in this matter. I can see nothing in the recently - issued Blue Book. But the records of the party opposite in regard to Africa are, unfortunate. Those records are darkened by the names of Majuba and Gordon, and the words "too late" are applicable to both those cases. Do they intend to add a third like achievement? I earnestly beg of them to remember that these brown men—or black men—whom they are treating so atrociously have the right to say, in the face of all men, cicis Brittanicus sum, and to deprive them, without being consulted, of that right is a thing which no Government of this country ought to do unless it has the clear wish of the nation behind it.

3.0 P.M.

The UNDER-SECRETARY for the COLONIES (Colonel Seely)

I am sure the House listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member who, some time ago, had some knowledge of the matters to which he has referred, but that that knowledge is not very recent will be realised by those who have listened to Debates on this question. It is only fair to say that hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House must have been somewhat surprised at the peroration of the hon. Gentleman. He told us he approached this matter in no party spirit, but at the same time he referred to incidents of the past in regard to which he made an attack on the Liberal party, and he asked the House to believe that we were now doing the same kind of thing. I hope I shall be able to show that the arguments of the hon. Gentleman were based upon ignorance of the state of affairs existing on the spot, and a complete ignorance of what has been stated in the House. The first complaint of the hon. Gentleman was that no notice was given to this House of the intentions of the Government to contract their area of responsibility, and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman used somewhat harsh language in that respect. I will assume he was not in the House on 3rd March last, as indeed, I was not, through no fault of my own, when—


I was present.

Colonel SEELY

The hon. Member was present, but, of course, was not paying much attention to the proceedings. The gravamen of his charge is that no notice was given to this House of any intention to restrict our area of responsibility in Somaliland. That is absolutely wide of the truth. I have in my hand the OFFICIAL REPORT of what was said by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who, in my absence, replied on behalf of the Colonial Department. My right hon. Friend said:— I hope the Committee will have confidence in the Government and will believe we are endeavouring to relieve the cost and strengthen the situation and contract the area of our responsibilities in Somaliland.


Will the right hon. Gentleman read to the end?

Colonel SEELY

Certainly. I can assure the hon. Member I do not intend to let him off. He has made a most unjustifiable attack on the Government under circumstances which may gravely embarrass us with foreign countries. My right hon. Friend continued:— And sit the same time to do justice to our obligations to those who, through mistaken policy on our part, have been led to rely, to some extent, at any rate, upon the protection of our military forces.'' There was clear notice given by a responsible Minister that we proposed to contract our area of responsibility in Somaliland. If the hon. Member had read the Blue Book he would have read on page 89 words to the effect that it was intended that representatives of the Colonial Office should make a full statement of policy on behalf of the Government, but in deference, however, to the military advisers, who represented that such an announcement at this juncture "might compromise your position and limit your possibilities of action," no definite announcement was made, but merely a general indication of the manner in which the Government regarded the situation. I put it to all impartially minded men in this House and in the country, Did we not go as far as we possibly could, in indicating our position that on every ground of policy it was advisable for us to strengthen the situation and contract the area of our responsibilities, in making the statement which my right hon. Friend did on that occasion; and I also put it to all impartially minded men, is it right or wise for an hon. Gentleman at one and a-half hour's notice to get up in this House and bring charges of bad faith against His Majesty's Government when it is clear that the indication was as full as it could possibly be in view of the military situation of three or four weeks ago? I wish to enter a protest against that part of the speech of the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that his remarks were fair, and I am quite confident that had he read what I have quoted he would never have said what he did say.

So much for the notice given to this House. I now come to the general explanation of our policy in Somaliland, and I cannot help thinking that if the hon. Member knew the position he would not have made the speech he did. When I have had to address this House on the subject of Somaliland I have always indicated quite clearly that we did not hold the interior of that country, as we hold other dominions, because it would be impossible to do so except with a force infinitely greater than any which this House would stand from any party in the House, however much it desired to support it. Had the hon. Member been here on 15th March last he would have listened to a Debate which would have shown conclusively that even if we had wished to make a permanent and effective occupation of Somaliland, similar to that which we have in India, we should not only not have received support from the Irish Members or from the Labour Members, or from the Liberal Members, but we should not have received support from hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition, side of the House. Those hon. Gentlemen who were present on that occasion will remember that we had speeches from two hon. Gentlemen who had even greater knowledge than the hon. Member—one the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Captain Baring), whom I am sorry not to see in his place to-day, and the other was a speech from the hon. Member for Blackpool (Mr. Ashley), both of them knowing Somaliland well, both of them pointing out that this was a country of no value which we could not occupy except in great force and at great expense, and both of them begging the Government, who were then thought to be contemplating a wild and extravagant scheme, not to adopt such a course. I was at that time in the position, as the House well remembers, of defending the Government against the charge, made on that side by hon. Members who knew most about the subject, of indulging in a rash expedition in Somaliland. It is desirable to quote one phrase from the speech of the hon. Member for Blackpool, and his words were not so strong as those of the hon. Member for Winchester. He said:— As the Committee knows, the country is the most thinly populated in our Empire. It is dried up for want of water for nine months of the year; the largest tree is a glorified thorn bush; it is a country inhabited by a few wild tribes and a great many wild animals. During nine months of the year you could often go eighty or a hundred miles without finding any water. Naturally no agriculture is possible. The country is inhabited by nomad tribes. There is no chance of any agricultural wealth coming to us. though there is the chance that some mineral wealth may come to us in the dim and distant future. On these grounds we were urged not to indulge in wild schemes of expansion. The reason of the Debate was that we had found it necessary largely to increase our garrisons in Somaliland. Under the late Government various policies were pursued. There were expeditions which were not successful, and then there were withdrawals which were attended with more or less success or disaster, as the case might be. But finally we found a situation which I ask the House to bear in mind, and which I must endeavour to describe. We held Berbera, which is on the coast, and we have a few men at a place which is forty miles inland, and some more at a place which is thirty-eight miles inland. We knew the Mullah was going to pursue the aggressive, and we had information that he had a large force in the vicinity, and we had either to clear out at once—a thing which every Government contemplated—or to strengthen the garrisons. At some considerable cost we brought troops from India and some parts of Africa to make sure that we were not driven out in a hurry.

Let us again remember the situation. There was this place, Berbera, on the coast, and these two little places up in the interior, and only a few men many miles away. No one could conceive a more hopeless strategic position, but it would be the worst thing to do to clear out and let the Mullah, who is a very aggressive person, think that we could not hold our own when we wished to do so, and therefore we increased the force. Some of these reinforcements are still there, some have been sent back to different parts of Africa, where their presence is urgently required, and now we have done what is already announced in this Blue Book. We have come to the conclusion that there are only two policies open to us. One is to take the step protested against by hon. Members opposite, who know the facts of the case, and have a great expedition to break down the power of the Mullah, to build a railway, make great roads, and effectually occupy the whole of Somaliland. We could not, however, get a majority of this House to do such a thing, even if we thought it wise, in view of what I haves quoted from the hon. Member for Blackpool, whose knowledge of the Question is very great. We could not get this House to agree to such a course. We must, however, do that or else hold the coast in strength and avoid the great risk of holding little isolated positions forty and thirty-eight miles respectively in advance of that point on the coast which we hold. May I put in a phrase the gravamen of the situation in Somaliland? We could not afford protection. So long as our presence there could afford protection there was something to be said for holding on to these places, but when it was found —as it was found—that unless we kept there a body of men which was far greater than was thought reasonable we could not protect the tribes around simply by occupying these isolated positions, then it seemed plain to us that the only other course open was to hold the coast in strength and to abandon these positions which were so dangerous to ourselves and of no advantage to the friendly tribes. That is the course which we have adopted, and General Manning, who is in command there, has full authority to deal with the situation as he thinks fit.

I now come to the question of the friendly tribes. I have dealt with it in its broad aspect by saying that the fact that we occupy isolated posts in the interior is no help to the friendly tribes except those who are quite close to those isolated posts. In point of fact, it has been no help. There have been raids and counter-raids which we have been totally unable to stop with the small force at our disposal. But we were very careful indeed in this matter that no steps should be taken to leave anyone who relied upon British protection helpless. In our instructions to General Manning—and here again I must call the language of the hon. Gentleman in question, he would not have used it had he read this Blue Book— we stated clearly that a condition of withdrawal was that he was to be satisfied that the friendly tribes were able to protect themselves. The friendly tribes have been armed, and we have already received information that these friendly tribes have attacked the Mullah's followers and have defeated them and captured camels, and I am sorry to say, from the point of view of the Mullah's followers, inflicted loss upon them. That is subsequent to the Blue Book. I will lay the papers. It is very likely in our view, and in this we are supported by our military advisers, that the fact that we are abandoning these posts will, in the long run, make the lot of the people in Somaliland far happier and far better.


A very long run.

Colonel SEELY

No, not a very long run. The hon. Gentleman is probably not aware of the extent to which the tribes have suffered while we have occupied these isolated posts. What is the good of occupying isolated posts when you cannot protect the people? I think I have disposed of the question of the friendly tribes by reference to the Blue Book, where it is plainly stated that the withdrawal was to be conditional on their being able to protect themselves. I now come to the question whether this is a well conceived policy agreed upon by men who may be relied upon in the country not to sell the country's honour. Anyone might have gathered from the hon. Gentleman's speech that we were a party of men who desire to throw away everything that we have got, and to abandon these poor men to their fate. I was very interested to hear him refer with approval to the Foreign Secretary. He seemed to imply that had the right hon. Baronet had control, this course would not have been taken. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is aware that these decisions are taken on the responsibility of the Government as a whole, and I may tell him at once that in every step in this matter we have acted always with the full approval and concurrence of the Foreign Secretary, that he has sat upon Committees with me on this matter and investigated it in every particular. I have the names of those with whom I have been in consultation daily on the subject—Lord Morley and the Secretary for War—and all these have fully considered the strategical, political, and the moral aspects of this Question, and have agreed upon the policy. It may be, of course, that the hon. Gentleman, whose unrivalled knowledge of the matter is shown by the fact that he owes his life to a Somali, possibly because he never went within 150 miles of the Mullah, though I do not pretend to say that the Mullah is one to spare the hon. Gentleman if he crossed his path—it may be that the hon. Gentleman is right in the view that he has put before the House, that in the course we have pursued, which is not to hold Sheikh, Burao, and Hargeisha, but to hold, instead, Berbera, as before, with two other garrisons, thus turning the line from north to south to east and west, we may be open to the charge which he has levelled, and that by so doing we are abandoning our friends to their fate and injuring the prestige of England. But I will put it to the House that it is perhaps conceivable that Lord Morley, Lord Crewe, the Foreign Secretary, and the War Secretary, who have been in conference with me on the matter, may perhaps have some lingering desire to fulfil their pledges to subject races, and may perhaps have some glimmering of the thought that we should maintain British prestige. I put it to him as a possibility, I do not ask him to believe me, but the facts I have stated are true, and every step has been taken after the most care ful, anxious, and prolonged deliberation, and with the sole desire and object to maintain our prestige in East Africa and elsewhere, and to fulfil our obligations to these tribes who have relied upon our protection, and who see to-day that in this and all matters, while we are not going to do rash and foolish things in trying to pursue people whom we cannot catch, and whom the hon. Gentleman could not catch, we shall still endeavour to maintain the high honour and integrity of the British Empire.