HL Deb 13 June 1844 vol 75 cc672-9
The Earl of Clarendon

I wish to put a question to my noble Friend, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, regarding certain transactions which have lately taken place with reference to Morocco, and which though they were at first of apparently little consequence, are now beginning to assume a threatening aspect; and I do so for two reasons, first because our amicable relations with Morocco are of importance to us as we draw the greater part of our supplies for Gilbraltar from Tangiers and Tetuan; and secondly, because the Emperor of Morocco having hitherto shewn a friendly disposition to us, and a remarkable readiness to defer to the advice of the British Government, it is desirable we should know whether he has been compelled in self defence to adopt the course he is now pursuing; and if not, if he has no ground of complaint or cause for quarrel with France, then it is most desirable that the people of France should know that it is not at the instigation, but contrary to the advice of Her Majesty's Government (as I cannot doubt it is), that the Emperor of Morocco has recently proclaimed a holy war, if he has really done so, and is said to be making extensive preparations in order to attack the French possessions in Africa. For two or three months past we heard of an intended expedition that was to be sent from Spain against the Emperor of Morocco in order to avenge the death of a Spanish Consul at Tangiers. I believe at least that was the reason assigned by the official organs of the Spanish Government—and although no claim for re dress or satisfaction was made, and although it turned out upon inquiry that the person killed was a Sardinian subject and not a Spanish Consul, and that he had not met his death in a manner for which the Moorish Authorities were responsible, but in an affray occasioned by his own obstinacy and imprudence—still the threat of this expedition was not withdrawn, and the Emperor assembled a force for his defence. But, as at the time it was first contemplated, the Government of Spain had neither money nor credit, and that one half of the country was in a state of civil war, and the other under martial law, the intention of sending forth a fleet and an army under such circumstances appeared so absurd and so unlikely to have originated with the Spanish Government, that it was and is still supposed to have arisen at the suggestion and under the promised support of France, and this belief derived some confirmation from the fact that the relations between the French Authorities and those of the Emperor of Morocco began soon after to assume a hostile character. I do not the least mean to affirm or to insinuate that such was the case, for I have no proof of it, beyond the fact that if the French meditated an aggression upon Morocco, or thought it expedient to put a stop by force to the assistance given by the Emperor to Abdelkader, the moment for doing so would have been particularly favourable when he was engaged in defending himself against the Spaniards, and when he was likely also to be involved in a maritime war with Sweden and Denmark, the Governments of which countries have determined no longer to submit to the tribute they have hitherto paid for immunity from the Barbary Corsairs, and the negociations to put an end to which have lately come to an unsuccessful termination. These circumstances or coincidencies may have been the result of accident, but they have certainly given a shew of probability to the rumours that France desired to see Spain engaged in hostilities with Morocco. As however, the maintenance of the garrison and inhabitants of Gibralter mainly depends upon the supplies we draw from Tangiers, and as it is important to us that all that portion of the opposite coast should not only be held by a friendly power, by which I mean that it should remain in possession of the Moors, but should likewise be at peace, and employed as heretofore in agricultural pur- suits. I hope my noble Friend will be able to inform your Lordships, that as far at least as Spain is concerned, there is no reason to apprehend war. With respect to France, I fear that the speech of Marshal Soult last week, the accidental discovery that a place hitherto thought to belong to Morocco, is now within the French territory, and the great addition made to the French Army which now is said to consist of above 100,000 men, can only lead us to expect an immediate commencement of hostilities, for what purpose or by whom or under what pretext brought about, I know not, but as a war with Morocco must I think be opposed to the interests of France by compelling her to engage in a vast expense from which she will reap neither profit nor glory, or to extend her territory beyond the limits, within which she is now after fifteen years' occupation, obliged to protect her colonists with a permanent standing army of 80,000 men. As it must to all appearance be an ill-advised act for France to engage in such a war, it is desirable, indeed, it is due to the people of France, and in accordance with that friendly spirit which nothing on our part, I trust, will ever be omitted to maintain, to make it known that this country is in no way responsible for what may occur, but on the contrary, that Her Majesty's Government would be ready, if required, to mediate or endeavour to remove the causes of misunderstanding. I see too that the periodical press of France, which by its influence in the Chambers, and on public opinion, is now no unimportant element of the Government of France, and which always endeavours to keep up feelings of senseless animosity against this country, has already accused the British Consuls of being the sole authors of the impending hostilities, and I trust that my noble Friend will be able to vindicate their conduct, and more particularly that of Mr. D. Hay, the Consul General, who is the agent on the Barbary Coast, who has the most power, and whom, I believe to be a zealous and discreet public servant, always using for right purposes the influence be deservedly possesses with the Moorish authorities. The whole subject is important, and may lead to very important consequences affecting our interests in various ways, but as I should think it imprudent to say more upon it at present, I will merely state the questions which I desire to put to my noble Friend. They are, whether he can inform your Lordships if the Spanish expedition against Morocco, is finally abandoned; whether there is ground for believing that hostilities are about to commence between France and Morocco, and lastly, whether Her Majesty's Consular Agents, acting under the instructions of my noble Friend, have taken such means as were in their power to prevent a stale of things which may be highly injurious to British interests in that part of the world.

The Earl of Aberdeen

said, that his noble Friend's question appeared to be three-fold — connected certainly in some degree by the subject-matter, but in fact forming three entirely separate and distinct subjects. In giving an answer to the first question of his noble Friend, he could assure him and the House that he could not conceive any exercise of the power and the influence of the country to be more desirable and useful than the using it to prevent the occurrence of hostilities in any part of the world. It was not enough that we should by every means in our power consistent with the maintaining the national honour and the essential interests of the country, preserve peace ourselves, but that we should be most willing to exert every legitimate interest to restore it wherever it is broken and to prevent the calamities of war in every part of the world. He might mention that it was only in the course of the last month that, in nearly the same part of the world to which his noble Friend had alluded, this country had by its interference succeeded in preserving peace between the two States, between which a war was seriously threatened. And although these States in themselves might not have been Powers of very great importance, yet a war would have been inevitable between them but for the interposition of the British Government, and such a war, when once arisen, might have been productive of the most disastrous consequences. He alluded to the recent quarrel between Sardinia and Tunis. He knew that it had been said that the influence of this country in the Mediterranean would be lost in consequence of the reduction that had been made in our fleet in that sea, but the circumstance which he had just mentioned, showed that this was not the case, and he did not believe that it would induce any of the Mediterranean Powers to forget its existence. Now, as to the question before the House. The first question was as to the differences which had some time existed between Spain and Morocco. His noble Friend was not correct in supposing that the single ground of difference between the two countries related to the killing of a Spanish consular agent; there had been complaints on both sides for a considerable time past; but there was no doubt that the circumstance alluded to by his noble Friend produced on the part of the Spanish Government a declaration and proceedings of a more decided nature. He would not go into the question as to the justice of their mutual complaints, for they were not of a very simple or intelligible nature, but they had arrived at a height which had threatened to produce immediate hostilities. His noble Friend had said that the state of Spain was such as to make it incredible that the Spanish Government could, without the promise of foreign support, have undertaken any expedition of the kind. Now, he should have thought that his noble Friend knew enough of Spain to be aware that that Government did not act altogether in the way that would be followed by other Governments. There was no doubt that the quarrel with Morocco was regarded in Spain as purely a Spanish question; but all circumstances connected with it had been studiously concealed from, and have been denied, over and over again, to the French and British. Ministers at Madrid, both of whom were kept in ignorance as to the resolutions and intentions of the Spanish Government, until the last moment, when what was called the ultimatum was issued. When matters had arrived at this state, the Emperor of Morocco, who placed great confidence in the integrity of this country, made known to the Government that he was desirous of the intervention of this country, so as to bring about an amicable settlement of the difference existing between his Government and that of Spain. About the same time that this occurred, Her Majesty's Minister at Madrid offered to the Spanish Government the good offices of this country to put an end to the threatened hostilities; and to show how little the French Government were actuated by different views, the French Ambassador cordially united with him in pressing the adoption of this upon the Spanish Government, and the latter was induced to assent to the proposal. Therefore, as both Governments had agreed to accept our mediation, he had every reason to believe that a just and reasonable settlement would be effected without delay, of the disputes between the two countries. His noble Friend had also asked, whether hostilities had commenced between France and Morocco? If his noble Friend had yesterday put the question to him, he should have said that not only had they not commenced, but that he did not think that it was probable any would occur; and although since then an account of a skirmish between the troops of the two countries had been received, he was sanguine that war would not follow. He was of this opinion for this reason, that the forces assembled on the frontier by the Emperor of Morocco had been diminished more than one-half, within a few days preceding the circumstance which had been alluded to by his noble Friend. He had every reason to believe that the French Government and Colonists in Algiers were as much taken by surprise at what had taken place as any person in this country could be. It was clear, with such a reduction of their forces as he had described, that the Government of Morocco did not contemplate an attack; and although there was no doubt that the Moors were the aggressors in this affair, he believed that the whole circumstance had arisen from the fanaticism of a small body of Moorish cavalry, for by the account of the French General himself, these troops apparently approached the encampment more from curiosity than from any other cause, and it was clear that the affair which took place was of no great magnitude, as only twenty-five persons were wounded, therefore he was justified in saying that it was a mere skirmish. Therefore, with the known desire of the Emperor of Morocco, and of the French Government, not to provoke a war, and it was only giving a due share of common sense to the French Government to say that it could have no wish to provoke a war in that territory— there was every probability that they might look to the continuance of the relations— if not friendly, at least peaceable—which had hitherto existed between the French Government in Algiers and the Emperor of Morocco. But it should be remembered that the Emperor of Morocco was the Sovereign of the most fanatical race of Mussulmen in the world; it was therefore a matter of consideration how far he might be able to control the excitement of his people and deal with the formidable personage who carried on the contest with the French forces in Algiers, and who did him the favour to take refuge in his territory whenever he was hard pressed by the French. He had received no information as to the proclamation of a Holy War in Morocco; and although a declaration to that effect had been reported, as he had not received any information on the subject, he did not believe that anything of the kind had taken place. That would indeed look as if the Emperor was prepared to undertake a contest of a very serious description, but he had no reason to believe that anything of the kind was likely to take place; if unfortunately it should arise, he need hardly say that so far from there being any participation in, or encouragement of it by this country, Her Majesty's Government would make use of all legitimate means to prevent it. He knew what were the intentions and wishes of both Governments, and he did not believe that a mere accidental skirmish on the frontier would be productive of any serious results. His noble Friend had concluded with adverting to the conduct of the Consuls of this country on the coast of Barbary. He thought it scarcely worth while for his noble Friend to have adverted to the language of a certain portion of the French press on this subject—that portion which was employed constantly in endeavouring to excite a hostile feeling between this country and France. He was sure that his noble Friend could not suppose for one moment that the persons who wrote these accusations believed a single sentence of what they wrote, however they might expect their readers to believe them, and doubtless there was a portion, more noisy than numerous, of the French public to whom their opinions and assertions were not unwelcome; but as far as the French government was concerned, he could assure his noble Friend that it was only yesterday that he had received a most unequivocal and satisfactory expression of opinion as to the conduct of the gentlemen to whom his noble Friend had so particularly referred. The French Government was fully sensible of the anxiety and of the exertions which had been made by those gentlemen to allay any unreasonable excitement on the part of the Government of Morocco, and to preserve peace in that part of the world. He should only add that those gentlemen acted under instructions; but if they had not received any, he did not suppose that they would have acted in any other way than that in which they did; and his noble Friend had only done justice to those gentlemen in making the observations which he did. When, however, his noble Friend mentioned the charges which were made by the French press against the British Consuls on the coast of Barbary, he should have recollected that a certain portion of our own press had been exerting itself to exaggerate the nature of the differences which had arisen between Spain and Morocco, and which he had that night shown to be unfounded. He would not say that the French Government had not reason to complain of the language of some part of the press of this country, but he believed that much of the language of the press in France, as well as in this country, was rather directed against their own respective Governments, than against the several countries. The assertion, however, was perfectly false, as far as the British Consuls on the coast of Barbary were concerned, and there was not the shadow of a foundation for it. Nothing could be more ridiculous or more untrue than such accusations.