HL Deb 16 July 1839 vol 49 cc385-95
Viscount Strangford

said, having in the early part of the Session given notice of his intention to bring before the House the proceedings of the French in South America, it was then his intention to have adverted principally to what had occurred in Mexico, but having learned, from what had been stated in another place, that negotiations were still going on between Mexico and France, under the mediation of this country, he was anxious to avoid doing anything that might possibly disturb these negotiations, and he should, therefore, abstain at present from his proposed observations. Had he acted upon his original intention in regard to this subject, he should have taken the liberty of calling the attention of their Lordships to the conduct of France towards several of these South American States, and he should have left it his duty to lay before their Lordships an account of the general system she seemed to have pursued in regard to them—to call their attention to the factious eagerness with which the most trifling and frivolous circumstances were taken up and magnified and converted into questions of national importance—to the profit, territorial, financial, political, and commercial, which France uniformly contrived to extract from all such affairs—and the losses to which the subjects of the British Crown in that part of the world were subjected in consequence of them. On the present occasion, however, he would content himself with the presentation of a petition which had relation to one of the questions arising out of this subject, the protracted blockade of Buenos Ayres which had now lasted several months. The petition was signed by upwards of 300 of the first merchants, traders, and ship-owners in this great metropolis—an expression of public opinion so strong that he had yet to learn that her Majesty's Ministers possessed that favour and popularity in the City of London which would entitle them to disregard it. He would not trouble their Lordships with any details of the original dispute between France and Buenos Ayres; at the close of the last Session, he had had the honour of laying them before their Lordships, when he proved, that the course pursued by file noble Viscount opposite was, in point of justice, equality, and international law, utterly groundless and unjustifiable. For the sake of argument he would admit, that France had the right to make the demands she had made on Buenos Ayres, and to enforce them to the extremity of war; but what he did not admit—on the contrary, would always most strenuously deny—was, that courses which, in themselves, and on their own ground, might be perfectly justifiable, might be pursued by unjustifiable means. That the proceedings of France towards Buenos Ayres had been unjustifiable he would now proceed to show. Buenos Ayres, in addition to the misfortune of having so powerful a state as France for its enemy, was unfortunately subjected also to the still worse evil of a civil war among a portion of her own subjects—a war which he had no hesitation in declaring had been fomented by the agency of the servants of France. This could be proved by documentary evidence—by a collection of state papers which he now held in his hand. Unlike other papers they had recently seen, these were all widely published by the authority of Government. They contained no transcripts of documents surreptitiously obtained and discreditably made public, nor would hey give rise to any discreditable disclosures as to who purloined them in the first instance, and by whose connivance they were afterwards published to the world; they were openly communicated by the Government, not put forth in an underhand manner by those who were "willing to wound and yet afraid to strike." It appeared that the French landed their troops on, and took possession of, an important island called Martin Garcia, an act which seemed to call forth the remonstrance of her Majesty's Government, for they called on the French minister for an explanation. The explanation was given, but it was not satisfactory; for from papers laid on the Table of the House of Commons on the 9th April last, it appeared that Lord Granville was instructed to make a further application to the French Government on the subject. This was Lord Granville's letter:— Paris, March 7, 1839.—I have received from Viscount Palmerston a copy of your Excellency's dispatch to Count Sebastiani, relative to the proceedings of the French naval forces, on the coast of Mexico and in the Rio de la Plata; and I am instructed to request that your Excellency will be pleased to inform me, for the satisfaction of her Majesty's government, whether, in stating that the French government had no intention of retaining permanent possession of the island of Martin Garcia, nor of altering the state of possession as between the Argentine republic and that of Monte Video, I have correctly reported the substance of your Excellency's assurances. To this letter Count Mole returned the following answer:— Paris, March 11, 1839.—I have received the letter which you did me the honour to address to me on the 7th of this month. Your Excellency invites me to inform you whether you have correctly understood the purport of the assurances which I have given to you, in writing to your court that the Government of the King had no intention of retaining permanent possession of the island of Martin Garcia nor of altering the state of possession as between the Argentine Republic and that of Monte Video. I have no hesitation in here confirming the correctness of this interpretation of my words. Nothing could have been more satisfactory than the terms of this engagement; yet France had handed the island over to the revolted subjects of Buenos Ayres, as a reward for that rebellion which France had herself fomented by her agents. This fact he took as one part of the proof that France proceeded by unjustifiable means to accomplish a justifiable object. France had also established a system of blockade, as against Buenos Ayres, that was quite contrary to the laws of nations. They had extended their blockade over the whole sea territory of Buenos Ayres. So much for the principle of the blockade; now for the manner in which it was enforced. A blockade, it would be admitted on all hands, ought at least to be impartial, all flags and ships whatever ought to come under its operation. This, however, was not the kind of blockade maintained by France. And what were the ships ex-empted? Not the flag of England? Not the flag of France. Not the United States flag, nor that of Austria or Sardinia, or Spain, or any maritime power, but the flag of those very insurgents whom France had herself incited to revolt, and whom she invited to continue that revolt by offering this free passage to their ships so long as it lasted. He looked at this as another violation of the right of blockade—another result of the alliance between those insurgents and a country of whom it was unworthy. The conduct of the French had been a violation of the treaty of Buenos Ayres, and of those boundaries secured by Great Britain herself at the last treaty of peace between Buenos Ayres and Brazil. Great inconvenience would be produced if France were allowed, at her will and pleasure, to parcel out the boundaries of these small states. There was as much a balance of power in South America as in Europe, and it was a very unsafe principle to allow of the interference of any European state in a way that might endanger that balance of power. There was another matter to which he would allude, which did not bear immediately on the subject, but which nevertheless bore a curious reference to it. This revolt had not only destroyed the resources of the government of Buenos Ayres, but had also affected its constitution, and had reduced it, in fact, to a positive nullity. The constitution of Buenos Ayres was based on the principle of delegation, but France had abscinded many of the states from the parent country. The effect of this must be obvious—that the power of obtaining consent to any measure was gone; and yet there was France clamorous for a treaty, saying it must have a treaty of commerce, having by its own means destroyed the only power by which it could be granted. France had maintained a most expensive naval force at Buenos Ayres for upwards of sixteen months; and it could not be denied, that the professed object in doing so was to recover the payment of a debt of between 6,000l. and 7,000l. sterling. The evils produced by this blockade, however, had not been confined to the mere effect produced by its continuance, for the French squadron had seized a number of small British vessels, or at least vessels under the British flag, and with British authorities on board. They had sent them to Monte Video to be sold; and the lawful governor refusing to allow the sale to proceed, what did they do? They put down this conscientious governor, and set up another in his place, who allowed the vessels and their cargoes to be disposed of utterly regardless of justice. He was sure, however, that the Government of this country would not permit such proceedings to pass unnoticed, but that they would procure some reparation to be given at some time or another. No inquiry, it was to be observed, had been made as to the vessels being lawful prizes; but the fact of their being brought in as prizes was deemed sufficient, and adjudication and sale followed. It would be easy for him, if he were disposed to enter into details, to exhibit the effect of these proceedings on the trade of this country in Buenos Ayres; but he would not detain their Lordships by proceeding in that manner, but would content himself with stating the result of the observations made by Sir Woodbine Parish. He had been able to complete his remarks up to the year 1837, and they showed, that a most important means of trade had been opened to the British manufacturer by the emancipation of Spanish America, and that the value of British trade there exceeded that of the trade of any other foreign country; and that Spain had not taken so large a quantity of British manufactured goods as was sent there. Such was Sir Woodbine Parish's opinion sixteen months ago, but the same state of things no longer existed. There was no doubt that the country was still able to carry on trade as extensively as before with England; but he most sincerely regretted, that its position prevented the continuance of the former system. Sir W. Parish bad not thought this state of things altogether so prejudicial to our interests, or so unjustifiable, when he thought, that it was likely to be determined through the medium of the Government; but he lamented sincerely, that he had found from a letter which he received from Mr. Backhouse in the month of May last, that there was no hope to be entertained of a speedy termination of the blockade being obtained through their instrumentality. Mr. Backhouse having acknowledged the receipt of a letter from him, dated on the 22nd of May, went on to say, that he was directed by Viscount Palmerston to communicate to him, that her Majesty's Government had not been informed, that it was the intention of the French Government to raise the blockade at Buenos Ayres, or to adjust the differences existing between that country and France by accepting the mediation of Great Britain. Sir W. Parish conceived, however, that her Majesty's Government might at once terminate the blockade by the employment of a sufficient naval force. Their Lordships would recollect how matters were settled at Mexico. There the belligerent parties might have gone on waging war to the present time but for the appearance—the tardy appearance, he admitted, but the successful ap- pearance—of Commodor Douglas with an efficient naval force. The petitioners upon this point expressed themselves most appriately. They said they could not but declare their conviction, that the commerce of Great Britain stood in need of a greater protection, by means of naval force, than it now received; and that when it was considered how large a portion of the revenues of Great Britain were derived from its commercial transactions, they took the liberty of impressing upon their Lordships the necessity of giving an adequate and complete protection wherever it might be required. The petition bore the signatures of the houses of Messrs. Baring and Co., and of Messrs. Rothschild and others, who were not persons of small importance, but who were merchants who were acquainted with the state of trade, and who knew well, that the exports of manufactured goods to Buenos Ayres was greater than those to any other port in South America, and that the loss occasioned by the proceedings of the last sixteen months was almost incalculable. He knew nothing of the state of the naval force of this country on this part of the South American station, except from the letters which he had received from merchants and others interested in this question. The accounts conveyed to him might be correct or not, but they all concurred in representing, that the utmost extent of our naval force there from the commencement of this transaction was three sloops of war, which had never yet been seen together at any one time. Sometimes two had been seen, and sometimes one, but sometimes none at all; and at the very time at which a bombardment was threatened at Buenos Ayres, the only ship of war which was there had suddenly departed on a voyage from which she could not return for six weeks, leaving the whole of the English population unprotected in case of the French carrying out their intention. He did not mean to blame the noble Earl, the First Lord of the Admiralty. He was sure, that that noble Earl felt the most anxious desire, that the naval system of this country should be placed on a proper and respectable footing commensurate with its interests; but what he did blame was the miserable and stingy system which existed, which crippled and rendered inefficient for its proper service that great arm of the national power, and he could never be persuaded, and he was sure the petitioners who addrest their Lordships would never be persuaded, so long as the existing state of things continued, that the naval force of the country was adequate to meet the emergencies and the contingencies which might spring up. He desired economy as much as any man, and he was one of those who thought that it would have been better that the enormous expense which had been lavished on the idle expedition to North America, had been given to the maintenance of our power in South America. We should then have something to show for our money, instead of having only one of the least readable reports which had been ever laid upon the Table of that House, and which had been produced, after having been first submitted to the consideration of private Friends as a return. It was a fact, that this country had called those States into political existence, and having done so, something more was due than the scanty support which had been given.

Viscount Melbourne

said, that the noble Viscount had not in any way exaggerated the importance of this subject, or the amount or extent of the trade affected by the blockade at Buenos Ayres, in the speech which he had just addressed to the House. He believed the trade to be one of the most beneficial trades of this country. It was a trade consisting principally of exports of manufactured goods, and was, therefore, most beneficial to the country. He did not mean to say, that great sufferings had not been experienced; but it appeared to him that the trade, which in the accounts formerly received had been described as in a very flourishing state, was by no means so entirely depressed and broken down as the noble Viscount had stated. It was exceedingly probable that the effects of a long-continued blockade would be to produce such an effect. Their Lordships must be aware of the disadvantages attending blockades to all neutral powers, which must of necessity suffer, and whose interests must be affected by the carrying on of hostilities; but they knew that the right to blockade was not only exercised in war, but was often exercised previously to a war; and further, that it was a right in the exercise of which this country had not been sparing. They knew that England had instituted blockades of greater extent and magnitude than any other country which possessed power or dominion over the seas, and that the British government had enforced them with the strictest severity. If so, they might at least be prepared to accede to others the right which they had themselves exerted, and submit to those inconveniences which, when it suited their interest or their honour, they had exercised so determinedly and so decidedly. He thought, that in considering this subject, that general principle of fairness and equity must of necessity be adopted. He had no hesitation, however, in saying that these blockades were great misfortunes. They caused the greatest sufferings—they ought not to be instituted on light grounds, and when instituted, they should be put an end to as speedily as possible; but at the same time, it was impossible that England should constitute herself an arbiter, and say that this blockade was not just, and had no ground or foundation, and therefore should be abstained from. To do so would be to commit an act of hostility towards one party or the other, and by that means make herself a principal in an affair in which she ought not in such a character to appear. The noble Lord had abstained from going into the case of Mexico, and also from going into the grounds of the dispute which had taken place between France and Buenos Ayres. It was very well known that the conduct of the States had been on several occasions such as could not be justified. This country certainly had great reason to complain of their conduct, which, however, he did not mean to press upon the attention of the House upon this occasion; but it was to the highest degree to be desired that there never had been sufficient reason for instituting this blockade; and it was also to be equally sincerely hoped that it would terminate as soon as possible. He had never pretended to justify the conduct of France, to which the noble Viscount had adverted, in the course which it had taken in respect of the internal disputes of these States; but at the same time, the House was perfectly aware, that it would not be prudent to press this topic either. With respect to that particular matter adverted to in this petition, namely, the extension of the blockade to the greater part of the coast of South America, of course, if it were not enforced with a sufficient armament, by the law of nations, it must be acknowledged that it must cease. With respect to the island of Martin Garcia, a promise had been held out by the French government, that it was not their intention to retain that island, and he had no doubt that it would be strictly and bona fide fulfilled; but be was not prepared to give any explanation of the course which they intended to pursue beyond what was conveyed in the distinct promise which had been given, that they were not going to continue to occupy it. It was unquestionably the sincere desire of the Government that the existing differences between France and Buenos Ayres should cease and be settled, and that this blockade and all disputes should also terminate. There was unquestionably at ordinary times a sufficient force in these seas for the protection of the commerce of this country. He did not think that it was a very prudent observation which had been made by the noble Viscount, when he stated what he conceived to be the moving cause of the settlement of the affairs of Mexico. Considering the effect and the impression which that remark might produce, he did not think it prudent that he should have made it, or that he should have put the case in the way he did. In reference to the naval force of the country, however, he need only say, that if there were any necessity for an alteration in its amount, of course there would be no slowness in making it; but whatever might have been the conduct of former governments in France, there was every reason to expect from the present Government that there was a very great anxiety to terminate and settle all unfortunate disputes with all nations in those seas, without much further delay, and he had the strongest hopes that the desired result would soon be accomplished.

Lord Ashburton

should like to know if this kind of blockade had previously been resorted to where no state of war existed? He had no recollection of its having been resorted to unless the blockading party was in an actual state of war with the country. That was not the case in this instance. So little had France respected the right of blockade in other nations, that the merchants who were complaining in the petition stated, that in the case of actual war between the two states of Chili and Peru, in which there were considerable armies of those countries acting against each other, France had denied the right of Chili to blockade the ports of Peru, with which she was actually at war. What he feared was, that for want of a friendly communication between two Governments, that stood in the friendly relation in which the Government of this country now fortunately stood with France, this principle of blockade had been used for mere commercial purpose, without any distinct declaration of war. This had been the case at Senegal, on the coast of Africa, and was the case with Mexico and Buenos Ayres. Such conduct required watching and checking on the part of this country. No man could be more persuaded how desirable it was, that these two great countries should be on terms of good understanding and peace with each other than he was, but he was quite sure, that that peace and good understanding would be best preserved by not allowing any encroachments. These were encroachments. These were encroachments which, if suffered to continue with impunity, would at last force England into some breach of the peace with France. The differences between France and these new States of America had generally appeared to him to arise from a strong assertion of power on the part of some consul or commander of a post on the part of France, who had assumed to himself a power which the Government at home was not aware of. The Government of Buenos Ayres would not permit Frenchmen to be concerned in the trade of the country, at which France had taken umbrage, this was an act which every independent country had a right to maintain. We did not permit foreigners to establish retail shops in the city of London independent of the Government. The question was, whether these states of America, because they were feeble and weak, were to be what was commonly called, "bullied and threatened" because they attempted to support their own rights. This blockade of Buenos Ayres was not punishing that country alone, but was punishing this country, and all the countries that traded with it. He would press on the noble viscount to ascertain if it was customary to resort to a blockade with a country where a war was not declared?

Lord Lyndhurst

We have done it.

Viscount Melbourne

France is at war with Mexico, but not with Buenos Ayres.

The Earl of Aberdeen

wished to mention a fact with regard to this country having exercised such a state of blockade without being in a state of war. Such a blockade was exercised by this country two or three years ago against the state of Colombia, and was instigated for the purpose, as the French allege, of negotiation. It was a very cogent means, for in three or four weeks we obtained what we wanted to negotiate for.

Viscount Melbourne

said, we had seized vessels on the high seas without a declaration of war, which was a much stronger act than a blockade.

Lord Ashburton

said, this was a blockade without any declaration of war.

Petition laid on the table.