HL Deb 24 March 1809 vol 13 cc796-9
Lord Auckland

requested leave, before their lordships proceeded to the order of the day, to address a few observations to the house, and to submit a proposition which he deemed of great importance. He alluded to a part of the conduct of his majesty's ministers, respecting the recent warfare in Spain, which was at best highly questionable, but which, in his mind, called for the most serious and early explanation, viz. the great omission of not adopting measures to secure the numerous and powerful Spanish Squadron, comprising three three-deckers, and several large ships of the line, which was stationed at Ferrol, from falling into the hands of the enemy. This he thought was a circumstance easy to have been effected, when he considered the state of circumstances for a long interval in that part of the peninsula, and the long presence of a powerful British force. He did not mean, however, that this most important object was to be effected by force, but it might have been done by means of arrangement, and in a way in which the interests of the allied nations might both have been consulted. He did not mean at present to say any thing harsh respecting the affair of Copenhagen, whatever he thought of it; but according to the best information be could get, he had reason to think, notwithstanding the effects of that measure, that it might have been so arranged with the Spanish government, that the squadron alluded to might have been removed, by means of the British fleet, to a place of safety. Yet in all the documents he had read there was scarcely any reference to this object, which was of the most obvious importance, and. would have struck the commonest minds as an object necessary to be attended to. -In two letters from the Secretary of State lately, indeed, it was referred to; but these did not reach sir J. Moore till so late a period (somewhat advanced in December) that it was impossible he could think of any thing else than the preservation of his own army from destruction. This conduct demanded the most serious explanation from ministers, and in order to afford them the opportunity of vindicating themselves, and to bring the subject regularly on a future day before the house, he would move, "That there be laid before the house Copies, or Extracts of Instructions sent out to the officers commanding the British Naval and Military Forces, relative to the securing the Spanish squadron at Ferrol from falling into the hands of the Enemy."

Lord Mulgrave

said, that the topic to which the motion referred was one of equal delicacy and importance. He would not say that farther information officially might not be laid before the house on this subject, but he begged leave now to state, that his majesty's government were by no means unmindful of that important object; that the British admiral in command in that quarter had offered to take those ships under his protection; but it was represented to him by the Spanish commanders, that Ferrol was sufficiently strong to be able to resist the attacks of the enemy, and that the ships in question would be of essential service in enabling them to repel such attacks. Let noble lords for a moment consider our relative situation with the Spanish nation at the time, cooperating with them as friends and allies, and say, whether the alternative of force would have been justifiable on the part of the British?—and the more so, on an occasion in which the Spaniards thought their own best interests and immediate safety to be essentially concerned. He must add, that under the present relative circumstances of the two countries, such a discussion as the noble lord's motion would be injurious to the public service.

The Duke of Norfolk

had heard, with considerable alarm, the statement of the noble lord. The ships had been considered as essential to the defence of the place; and yet Ferrol had surrendered without resistance. By the same mode of argument, the fleet at Cadiz might also fall into the possession of the enemy. Surely, some means might have been found of removing the ships at Ferrol from the power of the enemy; they might have been sent half manned to Minorca, or any other place where they would have been out of his reach.—Whilst upon his legs, he wished to ask the noble Secretary of State, when it was likely the Treaty with the Spanish government would be laid before the house?

Lord Grenville

said, after the wish expressed by the noble lord, his noble friend would probably withdraw his motion, but he trusted his noble friend, on again making it, would enlarge it, so as to include all the communications which had taken place on this subject. He had heard with pain, the statement of the noble lord, and could not but think that there had been a great want of prudence and foresight in the conduct of ministers, in not having taken measures to secure the fleet at Ferrol from the grasp of the enemy. He did not mean to say, that they ought to have resorted to force and violence against an ally, but he thought they had been deficient in measures of friendship and conciliation, which would have produced a far different effect.

The Earl of Liverpool

had always deprecated any attempt to obtain a partial object for our own advantage, in the assistance given to Spain. It had constantly been the policy of his majesty's ministers to give a disinterested support to the Spanish cause, from which, ultimately, the greater advantage would arise, and from which, already many advantages had flowed. He was glad to hear the noble lord (Grenville) say, that force and violence ought not to have been resorted to, and he trusted the noble baron was prepared to go further and to say, that neither threat nor menace ought to have been adopted towards our ally.—With respect to the question of the noble duke, he expected to have his majesty's commands to lay the Treaty with the Spanish government before the house on Monday.

The Earl of Buckinghamshire

was disposed to agree with the noble earl, that neither force nor violence, nor threat, nor menace, ought to have been used; but deeply lamented, that after the statement made With respect to the ships being essential to the defence of Ferrol, that that place should have surrendered without resistance.

Lord Auckland

agreed to withdraw his motion for the present, in consequence of what had been said by the noble lord; but he would not believe that such could have been the conduct of the Spaniards, until the documents were before the house, It was acknowledged that the means existed of removing the fleet, and the 32nd French bulletin confessed that the inhabitants of Ferrol were all English at heart. There was therefore a concurrence of circumstances to prove, that the fleet might have been rescued from the grasp of the enemy.

Earl Grey

observed, that a heavy responsibility rested upon ministers with respect to the Spanish navy. They had suffered the fleet at Ferrol to fall into the hands of the enemy, and if the plea they had set up was to be allowed, with what hope could they look to the other ports of Spain? It was not only at Cadiz, as stated by a noble duke, that there was a Spanish fleet, but there was also at Carthagena a considerable squadron, which had lately arrived there from Minorca, and the responsibility rested with Ministers, that these fleets should not be converted by the enemy into instruments of hostility against this country.

Some further conversation ensued with respect to bringing forward the motion on a future day, but lord Auckland declined fixing a day, and rather wished that ministers would look into the documents relating to the subject, and lay on the table such of them as could be made public without detriment to the public service.