HL Deb 18 February 1847 vol 90 cc180-8

said, that he now rose to put the question of which he had given notice, respecting the conduct of the Portuguese Government with regard to certain prisoners who had surrendered to the Queen of Portugal's troops after the battle of Torres Vedras. In putting this question, he wished to guard against the inference that he desired to see this country interfering in the domestic concerns of any other country, unless such interference was sanctioned by the obligations of a treaty, or in a case where British interests were very much at stake. But the circumstances which he was going to mention to their Lordships, would, he thought, show that continuing a passive conduct on our part would endanger that strict neutrality which we were desirous of observing, and, instead of simplifying, would greatly increase the difficulties surrounding the question of the affairs of Portugal. It would be in the recollection of their Lordships, that a division of the army opposed to the Queen's army, under the command of Count Bomfim, advanced to Torres Vedras, with the intention, he believed, of marching on Lisbon. The Duke of Saldanha pursued it with his army, and, after a severe battle, which terminated in the success of the forces of the Queen, the remnant of the division of Bomfim retired into the Castle of Torres Vedras. It was summoned to surrender at discretion: this it positively refused to do; but offered to surrender, provided it was allowed the honours of war. To this the Duke of Saldanha agreed, and consequently a stipulation to that effect was drawn up in writing, and signed by the commander of the Queen's troops. On the faith of this stipulation, the remnant of the division in the castle at Torres Vedras surrendered. The officers of the division were then marched to Lisbon, and were subsequently sent on board a frigate in the Tagus, and confined, being allowed scarcely the necessaries of life, and but a scanty portion of clothing. Subsequently, in consequence of an idea that some of these officers intended to escape from the frigate, forty or fifty of them were put on board a small brig of war, and the Portuguese Government came to the resoelution of sending them to Angola, one of the worst settlements on the coast of Africa as regarded health. The way in which these unfortunate wretches were to be conveyed to their destination, would render their condition worse than that of negroes on board a slave ship. They were crammed into the smallest possible space, many of them being severely wounded and in bad health. Thus these officers, who expected to receive all the honours of war, were, without any trial or condemnation, sent out, in the presence of our fleet, to a most unhealthy settlement. He wished to show the ground on which he thought our remaining passive, would amount to an act which might lead to the most dangerous consequences. Though our fleet was at Lisbon for the protection of British interests, yet he believed that the officers commanding it would be considered as only doing their duty, if, had Count Bomfim's division not been defeated, but had been enabled to advance upon Lisbon, they had, in case the Queen of Portugal had been obliged to embark in her own frigate, covered that embarkation, and protected the person of the Queen from any injury under such circumstances. If, then, after having proclaimed that we intended perfect neutrality, the British officers would be justified in so acting, he felt that we were also bound to protest, and to expect our protest to be listened to, when measures were taken by the Queen of Portugal's Government which tended to excite against her the best feelings of the country, and which might consequently result in bringing the Queen to that position in which the British officers would be called on to act. Therefore, with the view of preserving our attitude of perfect neutrality, he thought it was only the duty of the British Government to exert every means, before it was too late, to induce the Portuguese Government to revoke their decree with respect to these prisoners, and to restore them to the situation in which they had expected to be placed as prisoners of war. He accordingly wished to know whether any communication had been made on the part of Her Majesty's Government with respect to these prisoners, and whether any steps had been taken to procure the reversal of that decree, and to restore those persons back to their country.


The subject of my noble Friend's question is one of considerable importance, and one to which I am most desirous of giving a satisfactory answer. Before giving that answer, I can only express that regret which I feel, in common with my noble Friend and with the House generally, that the country to which he has alluded should be in a state to give rise to the transactions to which he has so pointedly, and, in my opinion, not improperly, adverted. That a country connected with us by so many ties and historical recollections should be in the state in which Portugal now is, must be a matter of the deepest regret: greatly should we rejoice if any effort on the part of this country, impartially applied, should be made the means of putting an end to that state of things. Your Lordships well know, that in the course of last year an insurrection broke out in that country, which has gradually and most decidedly assumed the character of a civil war. In the course of any such a war your Lordships need not be told that transactions will perpetually occur, from the excitement which prevails, from the heated state of parties, and from the opposition, not only of particular factions, but of particular families, which are deeply to be lamented, and which induce men to infringe those rules which civilized nations have provided shall be observed in contests between one another. It is unquestionably true, that in the course of this civil warfare in Portugal, a body of persons, having been taken with arms in their hands, were made prisoners; and after being made prisoners upon the condition that they would be treated with all the honours of war, a great number of them, I believe, comprising all the principal officers, to the number of forty, were placed on board a small brig, in the Bay of Lisbon, and ordered to be transported to the coast of Africa. I believe that many of them who were so ordered to be transported were severely wounded and sick, and not in a condition to undergo that transportation. A representation to that effect was made both by the captain and surgeon of the brig; but the only consequence was, that the representation had given great offence to the Government. This happened in the interval between the departure of Lord Howard de Walden and the arrival of Sir George Seymour; but I am enabled to state to my noble Friend, that from the moment these circumstances became known, great interest was excited in the mind of Her Majesty's Chargéd' Affaires at Lisbon, and he addressed a representation to the Queen's Government on the subject. The Belgian Minister and the French Minister, acting separately for themselves, made representations to the same effect. I hope that, even now, these representations may not be too late. I hope, from that inclination to mercy and forbearance which I am most anxious to believe exists in the Portuguese Government, that they will have been attended to, and that this transportation will have been prevented, and that these prisoners will not, at any rate, be sent to a part fatal to their health: such a punishment is totally inapplicable to such a class of persons, taken in open warfare. I know that, at all events, a great hope is entertained that their destination has already been changed. My Lords, I must state, in justice to the Sovereign of that country, that I am informed that in no one instance, since these troubles began, has one capital punishment been inflicted. From that favourable disposition I argue that this sentence has been reversed; and I can assure your Lordships that it will be the greatest satisfaction to Her Majesty's Government if we find it to be so. It is true, as the noble Lord has observed, that Her Majesty's Government sent a considerable force to the coast of Portugal; but it was not to interfere in the contest. The object of Her Majesty's fleet at Lisbon and Oporto is, in the first instance, to give effectual protection to British interests; and when that object has been answered, it will be a source of great satisfaction to the Government and people of this country, if that fleet shall be enabled to give refuge and protection to persons in danger of their lives; and, as the noble Lord has intimated, it would, above all, be the duty of the officers of the fleet to afford that protection and assistance, in the event of the person of the Queen of Portugal being actually in danger. It is at these points that their duty begins and ends. Beyond this, all that the officers of the British Government can do, is to offer friendly counsel and advice. That counsel and advice has been offered in the spirit of friendship on the present occasion, and I shall be glad if it proves acceptable. As long as the contest lasts, with its character as a civil war, it cannot be the inclination of the British Government actively to interfere, nor would there be under any existing treaty a justification for so doing; but, should circumstances assume a different character by the presence of Don Miguel in that country, or of a party acting for the avowed purpose of placing him on the throne, a new state of things may arise, in which it will be a question to be considered how far such a case would revive existing treaties, and compel the British Government to a recurrence to the former policy on which those treaties are founded, and in consequence of which the most successful and beneficial co-operation has formerly taken place. That case has not now arisen; the present contest has all the character of a civil war, and in that the British Government are not prepared to interfere further than for the protection of the interests and lives of British subjects, and, in case of necessity, for the protection of the person of the Queen of Portugal; and, I will add, for the protection of the lives of any persons who, in the extremity of war, may be compelled to take refuge under our flag.


said, that it must be the desire of every person to mitigate as much as possible the calamities of war, wherever the sufferings of individuals were concerned, especially the horrors of civil war. It was, therefore, necessary and praiseworthy that all means of persuasion should be used, to induce a humane and merciful course of conduct on the part of those engaged in such conflicts; but, if the noble Marquess meant to say, that with regard to the Portuguese Government, not merely private and personal solicitation, persuasion, and influence, would be used, but that, in respect to a contest like that at present going on in Portugal, the Government should also make official representations, interfering with the course which the Portuguese Government might think necessary for its own safety to pursue, he thought that to be a precedent exceedingly dangerous, and a principle liable to great objection. It might be stated, to the credit of the Portuguese people, that in the various convulsions which had taken place of late years among them there had been very little cruelty exercised—that there was very little appearance of a sanguinary disposition in any party; thus furnishing an estimable contrast to a neighbouring people of the Peninsula, where acts of vengeance and bloodshed were committed by all parties. There was another reason why the British Government should be particularly cautious at present with respect to any interference with Portugal. He knew not for what reason it was, but the belief was strong in Portugal, that the cause of the insurrection possessed the good wishes of the British Government. He could not believe this to be the case, and he knew not on what the belief was founded, but that the belief was general was indisputable; it was, therefore, incumbent on the British Government to be cautious in respect to any step which might tend to confirm such an opinion. What was the precise object of the course that had been adopted, he was at a loss to understand. Undoubtedly the protection of the interests of British subjects in the state of confusion that prevailed, was a legitimate reason for having a naval force in the Tagus, and that force might also be necessary to secure the personal safety of the Queen of Portugal; but the squadron we now had in the Tagus was not only able to perform such a service as this, but to overawe the whole kingdom of Portugal. He did not know what the particular motive for the continuance of this overwhelming force in the Tagus might be; but he thought it must be evident that the presence of that force might very possibly confirm and strengthen the opinion he had referred to, as being entertained by many persons in Portugal. Some years ago the Government of this country took a very active part—perhaps more active than they were justified in doing—in establishing the present Queen upon the throne of Portugal; and, as relations of the closest friendship and intimacy subsisted between the Government of that country and of our own, he thought we should be justified, without any breach of neutrality, in affording all the moral support in our power to a Sovereign whose throne we had so far contributed to establish. He considered that, at all events, a course should be taken that would prevent its being supposed that the British Government were inclined to foster or approve of the insurrection, and would show that they disapproved of that movement, one object of which was the overthrow of the monarchy in Portugal, and the establishment of a republic; and of the other, the restoration of the despotic Government of Don Miguel. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) conceived that neither of those objects could be altogether indifferent to us; and that, therefore, without deviating from our neutrality, care should be taken that the opinion of Her Majesty's Government might be known without any mistake in Portugal, and that the British fleet, whose presence in the Tagus was now so equivocal, was there for the purpose of giving countenance and support to the Government which it had contributed so much to establish.


After what has fallen from the noble Earl, I trust the House will permit me to say a very few words, so that there may be no possible misapprehension on this subject. I thought that I had said most distinctly that it was the anxious wish of this Government that Her Majesty should be maintained on the throne; but, nevertheless, to maintain the strictest neutrality with reference to the political movement in Portugal. I know of no act done by the British Government calculated to produce a contrary impression. I defy any person to produce any evidence of such an act having been committed. The noble Earl must be aware that during a civil war, great dissatisfaction would be entertained by either party engaged in it, if they thought, from any accidental circumstances, that a greater leaning was shown by a neutral Government to one side than the other. Undoubtedly false conjectures and false rumours of this kind have prevailed in Portugal. It has not, however, been alone stated that the Government of this country are disinclined to favour the Queen of Portugal and Her Ministry; but it has been complained, in Oporto, that the British Government were interfering on behalf of the Queen in a way that would be injurious to those exertions which, as it was stated, were being made, not to establish a republic, or to place Don Miguel on the throne, but in the cause of the constitution. Whether that is so or not, it is not for me to say. I do not wish to pronounce any opinion upon the dissensions that prevail in that country; but this I am bound to state, that there has been no instruction given to the Admiral, to the Minister, or to the Special Envoy sent to that country, that has not had for its object the preservation of a perfect impartiality; and that in any advice which may have been respectfully tendered to the Government of Portugal, under virtue of any instruction on the part of Her Majesty's Government, the object has been fully conformable to those instructions, namely, to tender friendly counsel with a view to the interest of the Queen's cause, and with no design whatever to give the slightest countenance, directly or indirectly, to the insurrection. It has unquestionably been thought expedient that in circumstances such as these, during the crisis that at present impends over Portugal, the interests of England should be protected, not by a small squadron only, but by a squadron superior to that which any other Power was likely to send; but the commander who has been sent there the noble Earl well knows to be not only one of the ablest and most gallant of officers in Her Majesty's Navy, but a person remarkable for the care, the discretion, and the judgment with which, in all parts of the globe, he has uniformly administered the most important affairs; and I cannot bring myself to the belief that that gallant Admiral, instructed as he has been to exercise the greatest impartiality in these matters, has in any degree deviated from that instruction, or that anything has been done by him or others which is in the slightest degree calculated to militate against that which I have stated before, and which I state again, to be the anxious wish of Her Majesty's Government—that of non-interference in the civil difficulties in that country. I trust that those difficulties will be brought to a speedy termination; and it is the hope of the Government that that termination will be such as to make Her Majesty more secure on her constitutional throne.


confessed that he could not perceive any very constitutional spirit exhibited in the conduct of Her Majesty's Government in Portugal, which had led to this civil war; and perhaps, as he had been recently dismissed from office, he might feel very strong upon the subject. The Queen had imprisoned her outgoing Ministers until she had formed a new Administration. He must say, he was sorry to observe that by all these new constitutional Governments greater violations of constitutional principles and of personal liberty were committed, than under the harshest despotisms that ever existed. He had only one word to say on this subject. All representations were a mere farce, if it was not thoroughly understood that there was a measure behind them which was to be adopted if those representations were not attended to. If it were to be understood that the English Government merely desired, as a matter of favour to themselves, or as a matter of credit to the Government of Portugal, that the unfortunate gentlemen who had been referred to should not suffer death under torture on the coast of Africa, their Lordships could well understand that such representations would not be attended to. But if it had been distinctly understood that in the event of the representations of our Minister, whether private or official, not being acted upon, Sir W. Parker was ordered to leave the Tagus, he had not the slightest doubt that every representation made by the British Minister would at once have received attention. So far from thinking that the presence of the English squadron in the Tagus could be regarded as indicating any leaning on the part of our Government towards the insurgents, he believed that but for the presence of that squadron, the Queen of Portugal would have met Don Miguel in London. It was by that squadron that the Queen was now kept upon the throne; and if it was withdrawn, the conquering army would march at once from Oporto to Lisbon.


did not agree entirely with any of the noble Lords who had taken part in this conversation, which was most irregular. He concurred, however, with his noble Friend who had just sat down, that if ever there was a non sequitur, it was this—that any one would conclude, from the presence of the British squadron in the Tagus to protect the Queen, that we were favouring the insurrection. He was very glad that the conversation which had taken place on this subject had elicited the statement of his noble Friend (the Marquess of Lansdowne).

Subject at an end.