HC Deb 01 August 1912 vol 41 cc2346-56

I believe I shall have the sympathy of all quarters of the House in bringing into Debate for the first time the case of the terrible treatment of natives in the Putumayo district of the Amazon. So far as I know this question has never been mentioned in this House except at Question Time. The story which has lately been unfolded by Sir Roger Casement is certainly one of deep importance and significance. It has harrowed our feelings, and caused comment and called forth protests throughout the civilised world. It is a question of the deepest importance to the civilisation and progress of the world, because it raises the issue how we are to control the methods of trade, commerce, and so-called civilisation, in the outlandish parts of the world. I will not say anything here to-day against the Government in whose dominions these horrors have been perpetrated, except that we all must deeply regret that it has not been found possible to bring even yet, after eighteen months of disclosed horror and crime, the criminals to justice. We must bear in mind that it is further from Lima, the capital of Peru, to the Putumayo district in time than from London to Putumayo, and, of course, it is a matter of the very greatest difficulty for the Peruvian Government to exercise control in those distant parts of its large domain. I will emphasise as strongly as I can that this is essentially a British subject where British honour and policy are deeply concerned. Why? These horrors have largely been perpetrated by impressing British subjects to work in this district.

In one year 200 of these men were recruited in Barbadoes to work in the Amazon district, and they were subjected to methods of barbarism and horror with-out a parallel in the world's history. These men were recruited through a British Government agent. They were handed over in the course of time to serve under a British company, and I am sorry to think that the product of their operations has been brought down to the sea in British ships, and brought over to this land to be the raw material of British manufactures. I think, therefore, we may say that this is a matter in which British honour and policy are deeply concerned. Under these circumstances it is humiliating and intolerable that we cannot bring the criminals to justice. It is also most unsatisfactory, to my mind, that we cannot with a clear conscience say that the British company which has command of this trade is clear of blame, and that its directors and officials are clear of knowing what was going on, or, at any rate, that they did not blindly pass over those methods which have been going on. Moreover, it is by no means certain that this policy is not being continued at this very moment in this very district. The company has gone into liquidation and has been handed over to Mr. Arana, the man who organised the whole of this business. We have no knowledge that he is not continuing freely the methods which he inaugurated and has carried on for years, and by which no doubt from the very smallest beginnings he has added to his own possessions immense wealth. Moreover, this portion of the Amazon which has been investigated is only part of a large district where similar centres either exist or certainly may easily be established. Therefore, if we could carry out some policy which will put an end once for all to these horrors and make them impossible of recurrence we should be doing a great service to the whole civilised world.

I would ask the Foreign Secretary to do everything in his power as soon as possible to bring these things completely to an end. We know that the publication of Sir Roger Casement's report is due to the terrible delay of the Peruvian Government. The Peruvian Government promised that on the 28th July or before it a scheme for the reform of this district would be presented to their National Legislature. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will see that that is done as soon as possible, and I would ask him to give due consideration to such suggestions as are possible of adoption to carry out the promised reform. Can anything be done to clear the directors of the Peruvian Amazon Company and the chief officials of the company in their own interests as well as in the interests of this company, who have a reputation for honest commerce and honest treatment of natives? Can something be done by inquiry or otherwise to make clear that, at any rate, these horrors have not been perpetrated with the knowledge of British directors? Can the right hon. Gentleman keep an open mind for all methods of missions of civilisation in the form of trade or any possible agency which will help to bring this great district of the upper waters of the Amazon within the pale of civilisation and legitimate commerce? I believe that something may and can be done if various missions, not only one privileged mission, be allowed to enter that country. I trust that between now and the beginning of October great progress will be made, and that when we reassemble the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that with the support and co-operation of the United States and the powers of South America something at last has been done by which we may rest assured that these atrocities cannot be repeated.


My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Morrell), who introduced this Debate, said he had no desire to raise the very wide questions of general policy with regard to Persia, and I feel that as the question of general policy was raised and discussed only a short time ago it would neither be necessary nor perhaps desirable that I should restate the views which are expressed therein, because they remain on record, and constantly to travel over the same ground cannot do any good, and possibly may give rise to difficulties that have not yet arisen. But with regard to the particular points which my hon. Friend has raised, taking first the point of the Russian troops, he asked whether it was not the case that they were being strengthened, as he had heard that fresh troops were coming in. So far as I am aware, the fresh troops that have been coming into Northern Persia have been generally, at any rate, reliefs for troops which have returned to Russia. The withdrawal of troops from Kazvin, Enzelin and Resht, where the expeditionary forces were, has in part taken place, because, I think, according to the latest information before us, there were about 2,000 fewer troops at these two places taken together than there had been originally, though I do not think that the total of the Russian troops in Northern Persia has been reduced, because it has been increased in some other places. Earlier in the year it was the opinion not only of the Russian Minister, but of the British Minister at Teheran that it would not be safe for the Russian troops to be completely withdrawn from Kazvin, owing to the disordered state of the country, as the disorder would become worse instead of better if the withdrawal took place. It is very difficult to press the question of withdrawal of Russian troops from Northern Persia at a moment when our trade is suffering so much in Southern Persia from the disorder which is there, and when it has been pointed out sometimes that British trade has suffered more than Russian trade, precisely because Russia has had troops in Northern Persia and has been able to protect her trade, while we have not followed suit and sent troops into Southern Persia to protect our trade. That, at any rate, shows that disorder in Persia is not created solely in the district where there are Russian troops.

I have not deferred to the argument that we ought to send a force of our own to Southern Persia to protect our trade, because I am most anxious not to increase our own responsibility, and, though it may seem a very simple step to send troops to patrol a given piece of road, once you have taken that step you are apt to be told that it is absolutely useless unless you proceed to some further step, and then something happens which you are told makes a third step necessary, and that is why I have been very reluctant to do anything of the kind, and I do not contemplate at the present moment taking any steps of that kind. But the moment when we are obliged to admit that our own trade is suffering heavily in Southern Persia because we have not taken that step is not the moment we can press with very great force for a large reduction of Russian troops in Northern Persia when you are open to the retort that if that reduction takes place the same consequences may immediately befall Russian trade as have befallen British trade in Southern Persia. I do not wish in the least to detract from the point of view that the presence of Russian troops in Northern Persia is a temporary measure, and that when things improve we should expect to see those troops withdrawn. For instance, the formation of a body, I think, of 700 Persian Cossacks at Tabriz under Russian officers I regard as a desirable step. I hope that if the force of Persian Cossacks under Russian officers is organised at Tabriz, as there has been for many years at Teheran, that ought to lead to such security at Tabriz as would enable some of the Russian troops now there to be withdrawn. As soon as that force becomes an operative force I hope that there will be a diminution of the Russian troops.

The real problem of the moment is the problem of the internal disorder in Persia itself. It is a very serious problem, and I am not at all surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley should have pointed to what he called the vicious circle that we should get in these circumstances of being told that money is essential for the preservation of order, and yet money cannot be lent because there is no proper security. I am afraid that that is not a problem which is entirely peculiar to Persia at the present moment. No doubt it is with Persia that we are especially concerned in this Debate, and the problem is acute there. At the present moment I do not suppose you could find any group of financiers to lend money to Persia unless there was a British or a Russian or joint British and Russian guarantee behind the loan. To guarantee a large loan to Persia is of course to undertake one of those first steps towards incurring responsibility which I have been trying to avoid not only in Persia, but in some other parts of the world as well during the last few years. What we contemplate at the present moment is a further advance to Persia ourselves of £100,000 and an advance from the Russian Government of £100,000, just as was done a little time ago. Two hundred thousand pounds is a small amount, of course, but a small amount goes a very long way, and, as perhaps people will realise from the time which has elapsed since the last joint advance of £200,000 was made, it not only goes a long way, but it lasts a considerable time in Persia, provided you are quite sure that it is going to be properly spent.

My hon. Friend deprecates any conditions being made. I cannot say as far as the £100,000 which Russia may advance exactly what conditions she will stipulate for, but according to such information as I have they will not be conditions onerous to the Persian Government. As far as we are concerned, if we advance another £100,000 to Persia the condition I should stipulate for would be that that money should be spent in promoting the formation of a force of Persian gendarmerie under Swedish officers, or any other means which will restore order in Southern Persia. If we do not ourselves send troops to Southern Persia to control the roads and protect our trade there I think we should concentrate in securing that any money we lend to the Persian Government is spent by them—we are not pressing for British officers; we are content with officers of any minor Power—in forming an effective gendarmerie under, I presume it would be, Swedish officers, which will, by restoring order on the roads, benefit British trade and give us in that way some compensation for any pecuniary responsibility which we may incur. With regard to the large loan by financiers, I am afraid that I can say nothing at the present moment, because I am not prepared to advocate a British guarantee or to ask the House to agree to a British guarantee. I can only hope that if a small advance were made the prospects in Persia may improve in such a way as to bring a large loan—I should not advocate at the moment a loan larger than Persia needs, but a loan which some Powers would not call a large loan—more in sight than it is at the present moment.

With regard to what my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk (Mr. Noel Buxton) said about the Ægean Islands and Turkey, the occupation of these islands during the war is, of course, one of those things which occur in every war which must give rise to considerable discussion when the war is over and the settlement takes place. The occupation of the Ægean Islands or their condition and their destiny is a matter in which more than one great European Power would take a considerable interest. More than that I cannot say at the present moment, and while the war is proceeding, and, of course, a settlement cannot be discussed until peace is in sight. My hon. Friend said he was making some contingent suggestions, and the suggestions which he made were made on contingencies which were very unpleasant with regard to the future of Turkey. He spoke of the possibility of chaos. I hope that contingency will not arise. The internal situation in Turkey, as everybody knows, is exceedingly delicate at the present moment, but I sincerely trust there will be a favourable issue, and I do not propose to discuss any suggestions based on any other contingency at present. With regard to Putumayo, of course the Blue Book laid before the House provides. I think, the most horrible reading that has ever come before mo. In the Foreign Office one is constantly receiving reports of a painful character from various parts of the world, and which are not the loss unpleasant and painful because they are very often matters in which we can do little or perhaps nothing, and in which we have no responsibility. Of all the things I have ever read that have occurred in modern times, in office or out of office, the accounts of the brutalities in Putumayo are the most horrible. Therefore I do not in the least deprecate what my hon. Friend said in regard to the nature of the report. I do rather deprecate his pressing too much the point of British honour and responsibility. He spoke as if these atrocities had been perpetrated by labour recruited by a British officer.


I said "through a British officer."


I would like it to be quite clear that "through" does not mean "by," and I hope the hon. Member did not mean "through" in the sense of "by," or that a British officer was conniving at these things. He was merely the person who attested the signatures of parties to engagements, just, I imagine, as a magistrate in this country witnesses some transaction with regard to which he takes no responsibility himself except to see that the contract entered into was bonâ fide as between the parties on each side. I imagine that it is something of that kind. All the British officer does is to witness the contract, or countersign it, so that it may be evidence in the hands of the British subject engaged, and prove chat the contract was properly entered into between him and the employer. In regard to the nature of the employment and so forth, of course the British officer could know nothing. However, I regard these questions of responsibility, responsibility of the past, as smaller issues than the question as to how these things can be prevented in the future. As far as responsibility for the past is concerned, the British Government, at any rate, have an honourable responsibility in the fact that they have brought this state of things to light, and which, but for its action, would not have been brought to light. We have not, of course, a right to send roving commissions of inquiry to different parts of the world where we have no jurisdiction and no treaty rights; and in this case it was not until it was represented to us that there were probably, if not certainly, some British subjects who might be sufferers in Putumayo that I felt we were on ground which entitled us to say to the Government of the country that we were sending a British Consul to look after the condition of certain British subjects there. Having done that, when we got the full report of the true state of things, we felt it was something which ought not to be withheld from the knowledge of the world at large. The world, at any rate, ought to know in these days when things of that kind are going on; and, having come into that knowledge, we thought it right to publish it.

Of course, we do not want to be content simply with publishing it, and, as anybody can see who reads the Blue Book, we have not been content simply with bringing the facts to the notice of the Peruvian Government, but we have done all we can by diplomatic means to urge that it was in the interests, and essential to the good name of Peru, that the Peruvian Government, who alone have the theoretical right, to act and take steps to punish the criminals and prevent these things from occurring in future. Then we felt that there is another force, perhaps a more potent one. Besides our own public opinion, there is, on the other side of the Atlantic, American public opinion itself, whether North American or South American. Anybody who reads the Blue Book will see that from a very early stage we have brought things to the knowledge of the Government of the United States, and have kept closely in touch with them ever since. Anything we can do to help or to encourage any steps which are being taken on the other side, by any Power, to secure that the condition of affairs in Putumayo will never again be what it has been, we shall be delighted to do. It is very difficult to be sure what is going on there at the present moment. I have no doubt in my own mind that the mere presence of Sir Roger Casement there, and while he was there, suspended those atrocities for the time being. The anxiety is as to what will happen when there is nobody like Sir Roger Casement representing us or the United States Government, and, perhaps, very little direct authority being exercised by the Government of Peru. That is why the other day, when I was questioned by the other side of the House as to what was the actual state of affairs in Putumayo, I was very guarded in my answer. The Peruvian Government said—I believe in all good faith—that they believe that these things are matters of the past, but the district is very remote and the Peruvian administration has been very slight and intermittent.

I cannot but feel that unless and until the criminals whose names are known, and who were guilty of these horrors in the past, have been adequately punished, we cannot quite be sure that there will not be other people in that remote district who may think that they can perpetrate some of these atrocities with impunity. As long as the criminals, whose names are known, remain unpunished, I do not think it would be right—I would not undertake the responsibility except on direct information which I had myself—to give any assurances or to express any opinion with regard to what the actual state of things in Putumayo may be at the present moment. We want Sir Roger Casement's visit not to be an isolated visit. We have kept in touch with the United States Government because we believe that the public opinion of America, of the United States, must be just as shocked by these things, and must be just as sensitive about them as we are ourselves—perhaps more sensitive, because they are nearer. I am very glad to say that the United States have appointed a Consul of their own at the nearest post to Putumayo, and we have also a Consul there. I have heard that the two Consuls, the United States Consul and our Consul, I presume acting on the advice of the United States Government, have arranged to take advantage of a means of communication which is not always available, but which is apparently available now, to start on the 5th of this month, four days hence, to go into Putumayo. How long they will stay there of course they will have to judge when they arrive, but at any rate they will be in a position, the United States Consul and our Consul, to send direct information both to the United States Government and to us, of what is actually the state of things there. Besides that, I intend to do all I can to keep closely in touch with the United States Government. I have asked them to let us have any information which they get from their own sources, as to what the state of things is, to keep us informed of any steps which they think can be taken, and to give us their own view of the situation, and what can be done. We, in turn, will not neglect to bring under the consideration and attention of the United States Government any steps which seem possible for us to take, or seem possible for them or for anybody to take.

8.0 P.M.

That is all I can say at the present moment. I wish it was more definite than it is, but, after all, the mere fact of our Consul going there shows that those things will not go on at Putumayo again without becoming known. I cannot but believe that public opinion which finds expression, whether in the United States or on this side of the Atlantic, will not tolerate anything of this kind being repeated. The great difficulty in the present case is, no doubt, as to quick measures, owing to the great inaccessibility of the region itself. But the mere fact of there being now two Consuls who will from time to time visit that district, and who are visiting it at the present moment, is something which is a guarantee that a beginning is being made with a systematic visitation of this district that will, if not immediately, at any rate eventually, and in no very long time, secure that the state of things at Putumayo shall never return to what it has been. I admit that there is another measure to which my attention has been drawn, and that is the possibility of stopping the exports of rubber. That can only be done by Brazil itself. It might be a point for the attention of the United States Government as something worth considering. If Brazil is to take any steps of that kind, of course it might be effective, only it cannot be done except by Brazil itself, and I think it is very desirable if any step of that kind is to be taken it should be done when the United States Government itself is convinced that some coercive measure of that kind is necessary, and is prepared to give its full support to any action which is taken in Brazil in that direction. I am always afraid in matters of this kind to speak with greater optimism than the situation may justify. I feel as strongly as anybody in the House can feel, and that feeling is one of horror at the state of things which has been disclosed, and anxiety as to what the present state of things is. I can only say, as soon as I get further information I shall, of course, be very glad to put that information at the disposal of the House; and we shall neglect nothing, no opportunity of anything we can do, either by supporting suggestions from any other Power, or making suggestions to any other Power, or Powers, which are likely to be effective in doing all we can to ensure what I am certain public opinion both on this side of the Atlantic and on the other side desires, namely, the certainty that this state of things shall come to an end.

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