HL Deb 06 April 1846 vol 85 cc574-9

said, that having intimated to his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs his intention of asking a question that evening respecting recent events alleged to have taken place in one of the provinces of the Austrian Empire, and his noble Friend having stated that he would offer no objection to his so doing, (he Lord Beaumont) now rose for the purpose of carrying his intention into effect. In putting this question he would not apologize for bringing the question to which it related under the consideration of their Lordships, nor pause to reflect whether there was any condition, or treaty, or international established usage, which invested him with the privilege of pursuing the course which he was about to adopt. He based his right to do so upon a higher ground—upon the ground that all the States of Europe had entered into a compact to advance civilization as far as in them lay, and to arrest the continuance of any barbarous customs or laws which might heretofore have existed amongst them. In a locality which was situated almost in the very heart of Europe, most monstrous deeds had been lately perpetrated; and it became the duty of every Government in Europe which professed to feel an interest in the promotion of civilization and enlightenment, to publicly denounce and condemn such proceedings, in order that the States in which they had occurred might perceive the propriety of taking measures to prevent their recurrence, or to repeal the laws under whose sanction they had been enacted. In referring to the circumstances which he was about to bring under their notice, he would take occasion to mention that, as their Lordships were no doubt well aware, a rebellion had recently taken place in the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian territories: that revolt had been subdued, and the leaders of the rebels had been formally tried and formally punished. He merely alluded to this topic for the purpose of separating it from the subject more immediately before their Lordships. It was a fact of which there could be no question, that a revolt had taken place, and the leaders had been arrested and punished in a most exemplary manner. But however severe and dreadful the treatment might appear to him to be to which they had been exposed, this was a question the consideration of which he would not broach in that place. It was a matter of international regulation, to be decided upon by the Austrian Government itself; and however deeply he might deplore certain events which had occurred, the interference of the British Government was not called for; and upon this branch of the case he would consequently offer no further observation. But the subject to which he was really anxious to direct their Lordships' attention was the practice which appeared to exist in Galicia, a province of Austria, of establishing a kind of servile war—the practice of the authorities in that country either encouraging or actually designing and setting on foot a rise of the peasants against their lords and masters, the consequence of which rise had been the wholesale slaughter of those lords and masters in the province to which he had alluded. There was but too good reason for believing that the serfs of nobles and landed proprietors in Galicia had, at the instigation of persons of high authority, and in the expectation of receiving certain stated rewards for all the ruin they could accomplish, and for every head they could produce, deliberately risen and murdered by wholesale their lords and masters, whose properties they devastated, and whose castles they laid waste. His authority for these statements was, he admitted, only founded on private letters, and on the public statements of some twenty or thirty newspapers in France and Germany; but he feared there was no room for doubting that the description of the dreadful deeds which had been committed had not been in any material respect exaggerated. In order to show the character and extent of the frightful events which had occurred in this province of Austria, with the sanction, nay, as he verily believed, at the very instigation of the authorities, he would take the liberty of reading an extract from the Journal des Debats, a paper which he believed incapable of misrepresentation. [The noble Lord read a quotation from the newspaper in question. It was to the effect, that in three circles of Galicia the peasantry had risen with so deadly a purpose, that scarcely one landed proprietor had been left alive. They had all been murdered in cold blood, and their castles destroyed.] The noble Lord continued to observe that similar scenes were reported every day; and, although there might be some colouring and a little exaggeration, it was incredible to suppose that the statements were altogether untrue. In no instance that he could hear of had the perpetrators of these atrocities been punished, nor did it appear that the Government had in the least disapproved of their proceedings; on the contrary, the Emperor, in his proclamation, encouraged and applauded rather than deprecated or condemned them. But it was the duty of other Governments not to permit such things to pass unnoticed. Remonstrance might, perhaps, be productive of a happy effect. He appealed to the noble Earl himself, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, to say whether on a former occasion his expression of disapproval of barbarous laws and inhuman usages in other countries had not been productive of a most beneficial effect? Was it not mainly in consequence of such an expression of disapproval that the law in Turkey, which condemned a double renegade to death, had been repealed. He wished now to know whether the noble Earl had received any authentic information with regard to the events which had recently taken place in Galicia, a province of Austria; and whether, in the event of his having so received it, he had taken any means to let the Austrian Government understand with what feelings of pain and disapprobation such intelligence had been received by the British Government?


said, he would be at all times most happy to give all the information in his power to the noble Lord on any question in respect to which he might desire it; but, really, the information in reference to the question before their Lordships at present was so dissimilar, the multitude of assertions and contradictions of the press, and of statements and counter-statements, was so great, that it was very difficult to unravel the truth from the falsehood with any degree of certainty, or to discover how the real state of the facts stood. The matter was one in which this country was not directly concerned. Neither British interests nor British subjects were affected by these events, be they true or false. He understood the statement of the noble Lord to be substantially this, that the Austrian authorities had incited the peasantry of Galicia against the proprietors or lords of the soil, offering rewards for their capture, and still higher prizes for the heads of such of them as might be slain. He (the Earl of Aberdoen) had the happiness, for many years, to live on terms of close intimacy and friendship with the eminent person by whom the administration of the Austrian Government was carried on; and he could only say, that any policy of this kind—any policy involving an instigation to crime and deeds of atrocity—it was quite as impossible for that distinguished personage to adopt as for any of their Lordships. It was undeniably true that the Austrian Government had been great benefactors to the Galician peasantry, and that the peasantry had always looked to it with confidence for protection against their lords. It was now seventy or eighty years since that province had come under the sway of Austria, and during that period the condition of the peasantry had been vastly improved. Their present condition under Austria was immeasurably superior to what it was in the reigns of Maria Teresa and Joseph II.; and this being the fact, it was not at all unnatural that they should entertain feelings of loyalty and affection towards a Government from whom they had invariably experienced liberal, humane, and considerate treatment. He confessed, that with respect to the exact matter referred to by the noble Lord, he possessed little information, if any at all, beyond what their Lordships might be fairly supposed to be in the enjoyment of. The subject was one in respect to which he had not felt it incumbent on him to institute any inquiries, as he did not consider it to be the duty of this country to interfere in the administration of a province belonging to such a State as Austria; but Her Majesty's Charge d'Affaires at Vienna had from time to time written to him (the Earl of Aberdeen) accounts giving the details of what had taken place; and it must be admitted that his statements and descriptions were very different indeed from those which had been made by the noble Lord opposite. He would read for their Lordships two or three extracts from the statements of Mr. Magenis, in describing those occurrences, and this was all the information he was able to afford on the subject. The noble Earl read several extracts from communications received from the Charge d'Affaires at Vienna, and bearing date the 28th February and 3rd of March. They were in substance statements to the effect, that the peasantry of Galicia had displayed a spirit of the most determined hostility to the revolutionary movement, and peremptorily resisted the proposals of the lords and proprietors of the soil that they should join in it. They had in numerous instances made prisoners of many of those who wished to urge them on, and had denounced their projects to the neighbouring authorities. They attacked, resisted, and took into captivity many of the leaders. The writer stated, that great inconvenience had resulted from the enormous number of those who were taken prisoners; and the embarrassment would have been much greater were it not that those who were arrested thought it much better to remain quietly in prison than to fall into the hands of the peasantry, by whom they would most assuredly have been slain. The writer also observed that the accounts from Lemberg, the capital of Galicia, were most satisfactory. The people there continued to show the best disposition in support of the Imperial Government, and displayed unbounded zeal in arresting the instigators to revolt. In many places where the nobles and proprietors had been arrested, the peasantry formed themselves into volunteer guards, and thus assisted the Executive. These were the accounts which he (the Earl of Aberdeen) had received, and he confessed he saw nothing in all this to merit the stigma which was sought to be attached to it. The peasantry had proved faithful to the Government in resisting the revolt. In so doing, they had no doubt taken a part which had led to the destruction of life; but, putting out of the question those stories (concerning which he had not one particle of information) respecting advertising rewards for living captives or the heads of the slain, he did not see anything so bad in the efforts of the peasantry to support a Government under which they had received signal advantages and benefits. As he had stated before, he was not prepared to say to what extent prevailing reports were true or false. He had no further information than what he had submitted.


was glad that public attention had been directed to this matter. He believed it could not be denied that a proclamation had been issued for capturing the nobles, and bringing them in, dead or alive. The Governor had, no doubt, been authorized to issue this proclamation by the statute-law of Austria, which declared that deserters were to be taken, dead or alive, and that all rebels should be treated as deserters. It must have been upon this that the proclamation was founded; but he was sure it must have been done without the special cognizance or express sanction of the Austrian Government, who, he was sure, would never countenance anything so barbarous as a proclamation of the kind described by the noble Lord (Lord Beaumont). There could be no doubt but the peasantry of Galicia had been very well treated by the Austrian Government.


observed that the passages read by the noble Earl the Secretary for Foreign Affairs appeared rather to confirm than invalidate his (Lord Beaumont's) statements. Besides, if the proclamation had been issued in conformity with the statute law of Austria, so much the worse for Austria. He hoped the noble Earl would use his influence to procure the repeal of so nefarious a statute.

Subject at an end.