HL Deb 30 May 1839 vol 47 cc1076-8
Viscount Strangford

said, that as the noble Earl, at the head of the Admiralty, was in his place, he wished to know whether that noble Earl had received official information regarding an outrage which had lately been committed on one of her Majesty's vessels by a French ship of war?

The Earl of Minto

felt extremely indebted to the noble Viscount fir having afforded him an opportunity of explaining a circumstance which had undoubtedly attracted a very great deal of attention, and upon which there was a very great deal of misrepresentation before the public. It was perfectly true, that a very unfortunate collision had occurred between her Majesty's ship Medea and a French brig of war, and the accident had been attended with very unfortunate circumstances. As soon as possible, however, the French officer made that reparation and apology, which he felt to be due, for the consequences that had ensued. He happened to be more fortunate in this instance than on the former occasion, for he was in possession of full details of the affair from the commanding officer. He had received both public and private letters giving an account of the transaction, and as he thought it not improbable, that the subject would be mentioned, he had brought those documents with him, and would read them to their Lordships. The first letter, which was of a public nature, was as follows:— Medea, Bermuda, 20th of April, 1839. Sir,—I beg you to acquaint the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that on the evening of the 11th instant, at 7 P. M., a vessel was discovered, supposed to be a slaver, standing along the land, to the southward of Cuba. Our course was immediately altered, with the intention of boarding her; a gun was fired without shot, and after that a volley of blank cartridges was fired; and, as she did not shorten sail, the Medea stood after her, and, on approaching her and bailing, found her to be a French brig of war, The vessels sepa- rated a little, and wishing to inform him, that all was settled at Vera Cruz, I ordered Commander Notts to approach him a second time, the vessels came in contact with each other, from the Medea not answering her helm so quickly as was expected, when several shots were fired from the stranger, intended to cross our bows, which unfortunately wounded a seaman, Matthew Harper, whose leg was afterwards amputated. The stranger proved to be the Griffin, French brig-of-war, of twenty guns, from Brest, bound to Vera Cruz, and on the French commander, Captain Olliver, coming on board, he offered the most ample apology, and stated the reason of this firing was, that he considered it possible, that we might have have been a Mexican vessel of war, as he had heard, that several vessels had been fitted out in America to cruize against the French; and he regretted very sincerely, the unfortunate occurrence which had brought the two vessels in contact with each other, and declared, that he never intended to fire more than one gun across our bows, but that his men disobeyed his orders, and that he would inquire into their disobedience.

"I am, &c.

(Signed) "P. J. Douglas,

"Commodore and Commander-in-chief.

"Charles Wood, Esq., Secretary of the "Admiralty, &c."

The same facts were stated more fully in a private letter which was to the following effect:—

(Private) "H.M.S. Medea, at Sea.

"April 13, 1839.

"My dear Sir Charles—You will perceive by my public letter that we have had the misfortune to be fired into by one of the French brigs-of-war, who unfortunately took us for a Mexican cruizer, as he had heard, that several vessels had been fitted out in America and were cruizing among the islands; we had hailed him, and could only make out that he was a French vessel of war from France, and wishing to learn what news we could, as well as to tell him that all was settled in Mexico, I wished to speak to him again, and in doing so (the Medea not answering her helm so quickly as Captain Notts expected), we unfortunately hooked his quarter boat, which he considered might be an attempt on our part to board, he had directed one of his guns to be fired across our hawse, but as his men were at their quarters, by one of those unforeseen as well as unfortunate occurrences, six of his guns went off, and I regret to say, the shot struck us and wounded one of our men. As I was aware, that she was a French vessel of war, I did not like to fire into her, and occasion, God knows what mischief to both vessels, but hailed him to heave to, which he did, and when he came on board, made the most ample apology and excuses, and no one could deplore the accident more than he did, which he assured me most energetically on the quarter deck, arose entirely from his men having mistaken his orders. I cannot tell you how much this unpleasant affair has distressed me, though it is one of those occurrences over which I had no control, and I trust that my forbearance in not firing into her, knowing her to be a French vessel of war, will meet your approval, as I could not consider this an attack on our flag, as it was perfectly dark, and no colours could be seen."

It was quite clear, from what he had stated, that this was an unforeseen accident and that no evil intention could be imputed to either side. He thought that this explanation would be satisfactory to their Lordships and to the public, for he had seen, that attempts were made to take advantage of this incident, in order to produce somewhat of ill feeling and to excite the sensitiveness of a high minded and sensitive profession.

Viscount Strong ford

said, that the explanation of the noble Earl was certainly satisfactory; but some how or other those accidents occurred much snore frequently of late days than heretofore.

The Earl of Minto

said, that there had been two such accidents certainly; but they had not arisen from any intentional error on either side.

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