HL Deb 16 December 1831 vol 9 cc316-22
The Earl of Aberdeen

said, he should be glad, before the adjournment of the House, to be informed of the intentions of Government with respect to a matter which he conceived to be well worthy of their Lordships consideration: he alluded to the reports which had lately gone abroad of the violation of the Act of the 59th of George 3rd commonly called the Foreign Enlistment Act. His attention had been more particularly called to this subject in consequence of a paragraph which appeared in a newspaper, printed in the early part of this week. Among a variety of statements relative to this matter, the following paragraph was inserted, under the head of "Ship News:"—"Liverpool, Dec. 10.—Sailed, His Majesty's War-office steam-packet, Lord Blaney, for Belle-isle, having on board upwards of 300 volunteers, who have gone to assist in the expedition under Don Pedro against Portugal." In an adjoining column, he found the following statement, under the head "Thames Police:"—"Yesterday, upwards of forty sailors, who had just landed from a Gravesend sailing-boat, near the office, applied for summonses against a gentleman named Phillips, residing in Leadenhall-street, an agent to the expedition now fitting out at Brest, against Don Miguel, for wages due to them under the following circumstances." An account was then given of the manner in which these persons were detained in the river, from which it appeared that a steam-vessel took 200 seamen to Brest, leaving behind the forty persons who appeared at the police-office, and applied to the Magistrate for relief. After a considerable discussion, the Magistrate, Mr. Broderip, told the applicants that "their case was one of great hardship, and that they certainly deserved to be paid for their loss of time: but he regretted, that it was out of his power to interfere, or to grant them a summons under the statute for work and labour done, as, upon their own showing, they had done no work, but had merely waited in the river expecting to be called upon to accompany Don Pedro's expedition. They might bring an action against Mr. Phillips for breach of contract, or summon him for some remuneration for their loss of time at the Court of Requests." He had not intended, on seeing this paragraph, to make any further, observations than simply to request an explanation of this statement, but he had since been informed, that very recently, and, indeed, since the delivery of his Majesty's Speech on opening of the present session of Parliament, that this recruiting had gone on much more busily than before, and the question, therefore, naturally arose, whether the Foreign Enlistment Act was in force or not; for he could not conceive how it could be said that such a law was in existence while practices of this kind were carried on. Here was a Magistrate declaring that the case of these applicants was a hard one, and lamenting that he could not, in consequence of some technicality in the construction of a statute afford them relief; but it seemed never to have occurred to him to suggest to the parties that they were engaged in an illegal transaction, for he apparently considered the contract which they had entered into perfectly legal, and still less did it occur to him to put the law into execution against those who had violated it. He could not say, that he was much surprised at the conduct of the Magistrate, who could not have failed to observe the course pursued by his Majesty's Government with respect to this matter, but he was at least entitled to know by what authority a Magistrate took on himself to stay or restrain the execution of the law. It was not his intention to discuss at the present moment the merits or demerits of the Foreign Enlistment Act. He perfectly remembered, however, that the bill was opposed on its introduction by several noble Lords opposite, while, on the other hand, it was strenuously supported by many other noble Lords on the same side of the House. Perhaps now they might be all of opinion that the Act was objectionable, and that it ought to be repealed. On that point he would make no remark, but he thought, that the Act, if it was to be repealed, ought to be repealed by Parliament; and that his Majesty's Government ought not virtually to exercise a dispensing power with respect to that law. He should like to know in what character it was, that Don Pedro and his agents took upon themselves to violate the laws of this country, in so open and barefaced a manner? He looked on that prince and his agents in no other light than as private individuals, bound to respect the laws of the country in which they sojourned. It certainly did strike him that there was something obscure, mysterious, and meant as oracular, in the mention of Don Pedro in his Majesty's Speech on opening the session. The words were, "The return to Europe of the elder branch of the illustrious House of Braganza, and the dangers of a disputed succession," though, as he had formerly stated to their Lordships, "the return to Europe'' took place before the beginning of last session. The mention, therefore, of "the return," in the King's Speech, and the mysterious allusion to its consequences, certainly gave rise in his mind to some suspicion. His Majesty's Ministers might just as well have talked of the visit to this country of the elder branch of the illustrious House of Bourbon! Under what circumstances did Don Pedro return to Europe? He had been dethroned, and expelled from his dominions; he had abdicated his crown, and come as a fugitive to Europe. He was in Europe only as a private individual. This prince, he believed, returned to Europe, with no hostile disposition towards his brother, and with no intention to make war on Portugal; but being speedily surrounded by adventurers and speculators—for there were speculators in revolution as well as in every thing else—he was furnished with the means of carrying on a war which he had never before contemplated. So much he had a right to say, for the last official act, he believed, of Don Pedro's government, was a proposition to enter into conciliatory negotiations with his brother, on the basis of a marriage being contracted between his daughter and Don Miguel. His Majesty's Government, however, having declined to be a party to that proposition, the negotiation was broken off; but unquestionably the last sentiments expressed by the government of Don Pedro were those of conciliation to his brother. Under these circumstances, therefore, he thought it was difficult to say upon what principle it was, that the Foreign Enlistment Act, if it was in force, was not put into fair and impartial execution with regard to Portugal, as well as every other Power. There seemed something so unjust in dispensing with the law, to the prejudice of that power, that he was quite at a loss to account for the conduct which his Majesty's Government appeared disposed to pursue on this subject. It could not, he thought, be maintained, that because the government of Don Miguel had not been acknowledged as a legitimate authority, but was looked on as a usurpation, this country was not bound to enforce the observance of existing laws in its favour; for unacknowledged as that government was, this country had not failed to exact from it every title of those privileges to which she was entitled with as much strictness as if she was dealing with the most legitimate government which could by possibility be established. This country had insisted on the fulfilment to the utmost extent, of all her rights and privileges on the part of this usurping government; and it would, therefore, be too monstrous for this country to acknowledge practically the validity of the Portuguese government for every purpose of profit, advantage, and utility to ourselves, and deny that government the advantage which it had a right to expect from the impartial administration of our own laws. But it was quite impossible, that the government of Don Miguel not being acknowledged could form a reason for not carrying into effect the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act, because their Lordships would recollect, that at the particular time when that Act passed the Legislature, it was principally aimed at the enlistments which were then going on in behalf of the South American colonies, which colonies were not at that time acknowledged by this country as independent States. He was therefore utterly at a loss to conceive on what ground the dispensing with the law on the present occasion could be justified; and if it was not justified, it appeared to him that his Majesty's Government had been guilty of the most culpable neglect of that duty which every State owed to another. He certainly could not help thinking, that it was through our connivance, to a certain extent, that a wanton outrage was committed by the French, in forcing an entrance up the Tagus, and taking possession of the Portuguese fleet; but that circumstance did not, in his opinion, release his Majesty's Government from those duties which the due and impartial administration of existing laws imposed on them. He purposely abstained, on the present occasion, from entering into any inquiry as to the general course of policy which the noble Earl opposite was disposed to pursue with regard to Portugal. He would not debate the question of the legality or illegality of Don Miguel's government, or discuss what steps had better be taken to put an end to the unhappy state of things existing between the two countries; but would simply confine himself to this point—that if the Foreign Enlistment Act was in existence, it was the duty of Government to apply it impartially in favour of every existing Power. If such was not the opinion of the noble Earl opposite, he should be glad to know the fact; and whether any distinction was to be made in the application of that Act in the case of Portugal?

Earl Grey

said, that it was only within an hour of his arrival in the House, that he received a notice from the noble Earl opposite, signifying his intention of calling the attention of the House to a subject connected with Portugal. Not knowing, therefore, to what particular object the noble Earl's observations would be directed, it was impossible for him to come prepared with the necessary information to answer them. The noble Earl had stated, that it was not his intention to go into a discussion of the general course of policy which it was the intention of Government to pursue with respect to Portugal; but, notwithstanding that declaration, a considerable part of the statement which the noble Earl had thought it necessary to make, had undoubtedly been directed to a passage in the King's Speech, to the situation of Don Pedro, to the condition in which that prince now stood, (and certainly by implication) in a great measure, to the general course of policy pursued by Government with regard to Portugal. Whether it was the noble Earl's intention or not to raise such a discussion, all he could say was, that he would be no party to it. With respect to the subject to which the noble Earl had particularly called the attention of the House, he thought that a short explanation on his part would suffice to show the noble Earl that he was labouring under some misapprehension of the circumstances. He certainly agreed with the noble Earl, that whether he approved or disapproved of the Foreign Enlistment Act, while it was the law of the country, it ought to be fairly and impartially observed and administered. The noble Earl had stated, that violations of that Act had been committed; but he must take the liberty of saying, that that statement was a mere assumption of the fact, to which he was not at all disposed to agree. He did not know, until he had heard it from the noble Earl, of the proceeding which took place before Mr. Broderip, the Magistrate; and whether the account was true or false he could not say, as; he had not had an opportunity of informing; himself on the subject. With respect to the recruits which had been carried away in the War-office packet, called the Lord Blaney, all he could say was, that as far as he was informed, no such vessel existed as a War-office packet. Their Lordships had undoubtedly heard, that some vessels had been detained in the river under the Foreign Enlistment Act. They were detained for some time by the Custom-house authorities, in the execution of their duty, on a representation being made, that the purposes for which they were supposed to be fitted out brought them within the provisions of that Act; but a claim having been made on behalf of the owners of the vessels to have them released, the Custom-house authorities, doubting whether they were authorized to detain them, made a reference to the Treasury on the subject. The Treasury submitted the matter to the Law Officers of the Crown, who reported, that Government had no right or authority to detain these vessels. Under these circumstances, they were accordingly released. A representation had also at this time been made to Government with respect to Englishmen being enlisted for a foreign service, and that subject was likewise referred to the King's Advocate, and all the Law Officers of the Crown; and their answer was, that under the circumstances stated, there was no ground for Government to interfere. This was the state of the case as far as he and his colleagues were concerned. They had not suspended the operation of the law, nor acted with partiality one way or another. This was all he would say on the present occasion; but if the noble Earl was of opinion that it would be necessary, at some future period, to make the matter a subject of more ample discussion, he should think it his duty to prepare himself with all the information he could obtain respecting it.

The Earl of Aberdeen

said, that his purpose was answered by the reply which the noble Earl had given to his statement. He assured the noble Earl that he had conceived a doubt, whether the noble Earl did not intend to make some distinction in the application of the law with regard to the present case. Having, however, learned that so long as the law existed, it was the intention of Government to execute it impartially and fairly, his object was attained.

Lord Ellenborough

wished to take that opportunity of observing, that he had reason to believe, that an order had been issued from the Court of Lisbon to the Governor of Macao, and growing out of the unfortunate state of the relations between the two countries, to prohibit private British merchants from residing on that Island, without the previous sanction of the Portuguese government. The execution of this order had been suspended he understood, by the Governor on the representations of the Chief of the Factory. He believed that such an order was contrary to treaties, and most certainly if it was enforced, particularly at the present moment, when we were not on good terms with the Chinese; it would produce much embarrassment, he therefore trusted the noble Earl would consider the subject.

Adjourned till Tuesday, the 17th of January.

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