HL Deb 15 February 1850 vol 108 cc810-3

, in pursuance of the notice which he had given, rose to inquire whether the Government had received any communications relative to the ill-treatment of the emigrants on board the bark Indian, destined for Port Adelaide, South Australia? He had seen—as he had no doubt many of their Lordships had seen—in the Morning Post a statement regarding this emigrant vessel, which, in the course of last year, had sailed, with 182 emigrants on board, to Australia. Amongst those emigrants were married, and many unmarried, women. It appeared that the treatment to which these women were exposed during the voyage was of so gross and scandalous a character, that, on their arrival at Adelaide, their friends called, by advertisement, a public meeting, at which a great number of emigrants themselves were present. The chairman stated generally to the meeting the gross and shameful usage which the emigrants, particularly the females, had experienced, owing to the remissness of the captain, and the disgraceful conduct of the second mate, the surgeon, and the steward, by whom the vessel had been converted into a sink of iniquity worse than any brothel in London. The second mate, in his drunken fits, had forced himself into the cabins of the female passengers, and had committed the most revolting debaucheries with those who admitted, and had been guilty of great cruelty and violence towards those who stood firm against, his advances. One innocent young woman, who resisted his proposals, and complained of his conduct to the captain, was taken upon deck, and buckets of water were thrown upon her. One of the male passengers, who stood up in her defence, was grossly insulted. Violence was exhibited towards all who stood up for her protection; and the captain informed her that, if she made a second complaint of the conduct of his officers, she should be placed in confinement. The only officer on board the ship who acted in a proper and becoming manner was Mr. Davis, the first mate; all the rest acted most shamefully. He called the attention of Her Majesty's Ministers to these outrageous transactions, because it was very important that some measures should be adopted to prevent the recurrence of them. He had been informed that a society had been recently established in London, by which a large sum had been subscribed by benevolent individuals, for the purpose of aiding distressed women to emigrate to our colonies. Now, after the publication of such a statement as that of which he had given their Lordships the substance, was it likely that any virtuous and well-conducted woman would trust herself on board of a vessel if she was not sure of protection? He was sorry to say that this was not an isolated case, for he had heard of other vessels where similar profligacy had prevailed, although the outrageous conduct of the officers and crew had not been made public. Besides the reasons which he had already mentioned, there was another which induced him to bring this abominable state of things under the notice of Parliament. During the course of last summer, the Poor Law Commissioners in England and Ireland had sent to the different boards of guardians in both countries circulars inquiring whether they had, in their respective districts, any poor, but well-conducted, girls who were willing to emigrate. Many such young women were selected in both countries, and several from the union with which he was connected. Now, if there were to be no protection offered to these friendless young women, either by the captain, or the mates, or the other officers of the emigrant vessels in which they had embarked, and if the matron were to be reduced to a mere cypher, and left without any power, it must be productive of the greatest evil. It also appeared, from statements made at the meeting at Adelaide, that, in contravention of the express provisions of the Passengers' Acts, spirits had been publicly sold on board of this vessel, though there was a heavy penalty affixed to every distinct offence of that sort; and that it was in and after the drunken revelries of the officers that these atrocious assaults on unprotected women were generally attempted. In contravention of another provision of the same Act, it appeared that the proper quantity of water and of food allotted to each passenger, had been systematically kept from them; and that, in consequence, they had been obliged to live on short commons during the greater part of their long voyage. Memorials on this subject, he understood, had been sent both to the noble Secretary for the Colonies, and to his right hon. relative the Secretary for the Home Department. He wished to know whether those memorials had been received, and, if so, what were the steps which Government intended to take upon them?


, in reply to the question of the noble Earl, said, that no official communication on this subject had yet been received by Her Majesty's Government. In a newspaper, however, from the colony, which had been recently received in this country overland from India, and of a later date than the last official despatches, he had seen an account of the outrages to which the noble Earl had referred. From that newspaper it appeared that allegations of the existence of very serious abuses on board of this emigrant vessel had been preferred at a public meeting in the colony. Those allegations were now under the investigation of the colonial government, and he could assure the noble Earl that it would be strictly carried on not only by the colonial government but by the Government at home; and that, if abuses had taken place, those who had been guilty of them had incurred, and should be made subject to, the severest penalties of the law. Not only were the officers of the vessel liable to severe penalties under the Passengers' Acts for any abuses committed during the voyage, but the shipowners also would not escape from them. The Emigration Commissioners, by virtue of the contracts which they had made with the shipowners, were entitled to hold back a large portion of the passage-money paid for these emigrants in case any abuses took place on board their vessels. He informed their Lordships that whenever abuses had taken place, the Emigration Commissioners had not hesitated to exercise the power vested in them. When the noble Earl stated that the present was not a solitary case of abuse, but that there were many others which had not come before the public, he appeared to him (Earl Grey) to be, if not wholly uninformed, at least very nearly so. He (Earl Grey) appealed to those noble Lords who had read the papers recently laid on the table on the subject of emigration, whether they did not contain satisfactory proofs both of the pains and of the success with which the Emigration Commissioners had exerted themselves to check abuses of this kind. He need not say that cases of abuse must sometimes occur; but he could assure the noble Earl that, whenever they did occur, they should not, as far as he (Earl Grey) was concerned, pass unpunished. For the conduct of the officers of the ship the Emigration Commissioners were not responsible, for the officers were selected by the shipowners; but the Commissioners had this check upon the shipowners, that they could deprive them of a large portion of the passage-money, in case they appointed officers who either committed themselves or sanctioned abuses in others. In one case, he had himself directed the Emigration Commissioners to enforce the whole amount of the forfeiture on the shipowners, and the Emigration Commissioners had in consequence withheld from them 500l., to which they would have been otherwise entitled. The surgeon of the vessel was under the control of the Commissioners; but, as no great remuneration was offered to the surgeons of emigrant vessels, there was some difficulty in getting competent persons to act in that capacity. In a great majority of cases, however, the surgeons had performed their duty very admirably. In the present case, the surgeon had been very hastily appointed, in consequence of a very serious illness which had suddenly attacked the surgeon previously appointed. [The Earl of MOUNTCASHELL: Mr. Sand-ford?] Yes, and looking at the testimonials upon which he had received his appointment, he must say that they were sufficiently strong to justify the Emigration Commissioners in sanctioning it. The noble Earl had referred to other instances of abuse which, he alleged, had occurred in the case of female emigrants from Ireland. Generally speaking, the female emigrants from Ireland had turned out well; but in one case great abuses had occurred, not indeed on the part of the officers of the vessel which carried them out, but in consequence of the gross deceit which had been practised on the Emigration Commissioners by parties in Ireland as to the character of the women embarked. The poor-law guardians, for some reason or other, allowed other women, especially women from the town of Belfast, to be sent on board instead of those of whose good character they had given testimonials. This was almost the only case of abuse with which he was acquainted. As soon as the information reached him, he took care that more caution should be exercised by the authorities in Ireland. He readily admitted to the noble Earl that in conducting emigration to so distant a quarter of the globe, the difficulty of guarding against abuses was very great; but, on the other hand, he assured him that no effort had been, and that no effort would be, spared to guard against them. So far as the Emigration Commissioners were concerned, emigration was conducted with as little abuse as possible.


said, that he was very glad to hear the statement of the noble Earl, which he thought would produce the most beneficial results.

Subject at an end.