HL Deb 19 March 1841 vol 57 cc391-4
The Earl of Aberdeen

rose to present a petition to which he wished to call the attention of the noble Marquess lately at the head of the Colonial Department. It was on a subject he had brought before the House on more than one occasion; he alluded to the present situation of the colony of Newfoundland, which had been described in a petition presented by him as being the most distracted and unfortunate colony of any under the dominion of this country, but, bad as it was then, it had now become much worse. He was convinced that the only hope there was of any improvement in the state of that colony must be obtained by means of Parliamentary inquiry. The inquiries promised and made by official persons were wholly useless—the evils were of such magnitude that they could only be redressed by an inquiry by that or the other House of Parliament. The great evil consisted in the abuse of the constitution granted to the colony in 1831-32. The House of Assembly was constituted in such a manner that it was wholly impossible they could discharge any legislative duties with any beneficial result to the colony. Their Lordships might judge of what sort of characters it was composed, when it was a fact that one of the members of the assembly (consisting of fifteen in the whole) was a menial servant, receiving wages at 10l. a-year. Probably the noble Marquess might in the summer months have been in the habit of visiting his (the Earl of Aberdeen's) part of the country; he might have been in Scotland engaged in the pleasant sport of shooting on the hills; if so, there was another member of the assembly who stood in that position of life that he would have gladly carried the noble Marquess's bag and baggage. It was really a burlesque on legislation; and yet such were the persons who had the control of all the funds of the colony. What had been the result? Why, that the expenses and burdens of the colony had been increased to a great degree, and the governor had found it impossible to carry the law into effect. On many occasions, scenes of the utmost violence prevailed, which were to be traced chiefly to religious feelings. There had been some partial elections there, at which the greatest possible outrages were committed. He saw in the Gazette which he held in his hand, an answer of the governor of the colony to an address from the House of Assembly. He presumed, in consequence of the outrages committed at the late elections, the governor had stigmatised them in some proclamations, and that the House of Assembly had required him to lay before them the information upon which the proceedings were so described. The answer of the Governor was this:— The scandalous events which occurred at two partial elections during the recess, the ferocious conduct of the mob at Combermere, by which the election was rendered abortive, and the necessity of the interference of the military on those occasions, are matters of general notoriety. I consider the documents laid before the House are sufficiently demonstrative of these evils, and, under existing circumstances, I must decline compliance with this address, believing that no good could possibly accrue to the community by a publication of all the representations I have received on the subject.

That was the year the general election ought to have taken place, but the governor went on to say:— So convinced am I of the absolute necessity of an amendment of the election law, that I avail myself of this opportunity to state, that should unhappily no legislative enactment be made during this Session to secure the just exercise of the franchise and the public tranquillity at future elections, I will not undertake the responsibility of issuing proclamations or writs for the election of a new House of Assembly, or make myself responsible for the serious consequences, the confusion and bloodshed so likely to ensue thereupon under the present system; but referring the whole affair to the Supreme Government, I shall, as in duty bound, follow such instructions as I may receive.

This was dated Government House, Feb. 12, 1841. So that, pending the present state of the colony, the governor actually refused to summon a new Parliament according to law, which their Lordships knew he was obliged to do according to the constitution in the present year. He thought, from what he had stated to their Lordships, both now and on a former occasion, as to the wretched condition in which this colony was placed, it was high time there should be some effectual measure for remedying the evils that existed. The Earl had some other petitions of a similar description to present, which attributed all the evils that disturbed and affected the colony to the conduct of the House of Assembly and their immediate servants. The petitioners prayed for some radical change in the constitution, so as to give permanent security to the rights, and protection to the lives, of her Majesty's subjects in that colony.

The Marquess of Normanby

said, if his noble Friend had referred to an earlier period of the Session, and had read the opening speech of the Governor, he would see that there was no necessity to have a Parliamentary committee of enquiry, for the Governor informed the House of Assembly in that speech of the view of some of their proceedings taken by Government at home, and pressed upon the Legislature of the colony the necessity of taking into consideration an amendment of the law of election, so as to afford protection to the voters, and prevent the recurrence of those outrages which had been so justly complained of. He would only add on this point that the colonial session had not yet terminated—at least he had not received any communication of the conclusion of the session; and although the House of Assembly had not shown a very ready spirit to take any steps in furtherance of the objects recommended to them by the governor, yet the Session being still in progress, it was not advisable for their Lordships to interfere until it was ascertained what might be done before its close. He was inclined to give rather a different interpretation to the expression used by the governor in his address to that put upon it By the noble Earl. The noble Earl conceived that the governor was, in his view, constrained by circumstances to take an extreme course, and altogether to decline issuing writs for a new election; but all that the governor meant to say was, that as it was not necessary that the writs should issue immediately, he would wait until he had received instructions from the Government at home, should he find that his wishes were not fulfilled by the present House of Assembly. When his noble Friend presented a petition on this subject on a former occasion, he was then at the head of the Colonial-office, and he referred to Governor Prescott on the matters contained in the petition; and though he was ready to admit the existence of many of the evils ascribed to the colony in that petition, yet he could not say, that the Governor had by his report corroborated the statement of the petitioners as to the extent of the evils, or as to the nature of the remedy to be applied. The remedy recommended by the petition went to the abrogation of the constitution altogether. Another representation had also been made to the Government, stating the finances of the colony to be in the most deplorable condition, the outrages to be excessive and unrestrained, and the resources of the colony altogether in a state of progressive decay. This matter had also been referred to the Governor, and his report thereon was in a great degree satisfactory, and showed that the statements of the petitioners were exceedingly exaggerated as regarded the alleged outrages—that the finances of the colony were by no means in the unsatisfactory state represented—indeed, in the speech with which he had this year opened the Session the Governor had referred with satisfaction to the state of the revenue. I am convinced that it is necessary, if the House of Assembly should not pursue the recommendation of the Governor, some measure must be taken by the Government at home to remedy the existing evils. He had not a very sanguine expectation that the House of Assembly would take any effectual steps in this Session, seeing that they had allowed so much of it to elapse without turning their attention to the subject; yet he hoped that his noble Friend would suspend further proceedings upon the petition now presented, and leave the matter for the time in the hands of the Government.

Petition laid on the Table.

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