HL Deb 05 April 1852 vol 120 cc647-59

My Lords, I fear that I may now speak without any incorrectness of expression of the war with Ava. As yet there has been, I apprehend, no declaration of war on our part, and it is not customary for Princes in the East to issue any such declarations, and therefore it cannot be expected that such a monarch as the King of Ava will make any change in that point of etiquette. We are, however, at war with Ava. The Government of India appears to have clung to the last to a hope that war would not take place; and yet it certainly made requisitions on the King of Ava which it must have foreseen would ultimately terminate in war, without having undertaken any of those preparations which such a war would of necessity require. In that country, and also in this, it appears that we cling to the hope that we may have as much or as little of war as we please. That, however, is not the case. War is a game that must be played by two parties, and we cannot deal with the King of Ava in this war as if he were altogether a dummy in the play, in order to conduct the game just as we please. If he should decide on assailing our provinces of Tennasserim, or of Arracan, or of Chittagong, or of Assam, he will subject our Government in India to very great embarrassment indeed; for he will have the advantage of acting on what is called an interior line of operations. Allow me, my Lords, to state to you, as shortly as I can, the circumstances connected with our last war in Ava, for it is necessary to see the magnitude of the crisis as it now stands. There was employed, my Lords, in the last war with Ava, a force of not less than 40,000 men—a force as large as that which the French sent to Algiers, and as that which Bonaparte took with him for the conquest of Egypt. There were 30,000 native troops, and nearly 7,000 European bayonets employed to form that force. Of the European troops two regiments, the 13th and the 38th, left Calcutta in April, 1824, 1,800 strong, and in January, 1826, they had not 500 men left fit for service in the field; and I believe that the mortality in the other European regiments was not inferior. I doubt much whether at the end of that war 10,000 men out of the whole 40,000 were fit for duty in the field; the whole army in Arracan was utterly wasted away, and was totally unable to afford any co-operation to the other forces. On the 11th of May the army landed at Rangoon, and it was not able to move from that place till the 11th of the February following. It was detained there for nine months, having been surrounded by a large Burmese army, and not being able to move forward. During that time the European troops lived entirely on salt provisions. No fresh previsions, nor vegetables, were to be had in the country; and when bullocks were sent them, every bullock sent from India cost in freight 10l.; in fact, during the whole of the war almost the whole of the provisions were necessarily sent from India. Notwithstanding the great amount of the force sent to Ava, I believe that the general, in advancing on the capital of that country, had never more than 5,500 men under arms at his command; and I know that on the 24th of February, 1826, at the conclusion of the war, he had with him only 4,000 men: to that small force had our grand army dwindled away. My Lords, we have undoubtedly now some advantages which we did not then possess; but the climate of the country continues the same, as also the same impracticability of moving in it for nine months of the year. We have also undoubtedly now great advantages in the rapidity of steam navigation; but we must not over-estimate them. We can convey troops and munitions of war to that country more rapidly than we could then, and thus our army will be better circumstanced than before; but I doubt whether we can convey them at less expense. Time is most valuable in military operations; but I doubt whether in point of cheapness the moving of troops by steam, is less expensive than before by means of sailing vessels. Moreover, our large steam vessels draw too much water to move much further up the river than Rangoon. The smaller steam vessels, however, which the East India Company possess, can be used above that point, and these by towing boats will much facilitate the operations of the army. But, at the same time, it must be remembered that the moment the army leaves the banks of the river—and nobody knows this better than the noble Duke (the Duke of Wellington) at the table—it can- not move without animals, and animals under such circumstances must be a great expense to an army; for, though these small steamers may convey men, they cannot convey animals. There is also another advantage which we shall have now, but which we had not formerly. The climate of Arracan, then so fatal to the troops under General Morrison, is supposed to be now much improved, in consequence of the land having been cleared. But there is always this to be recollected—that there is a great difference in the health of troops well covered, as they now are, and in that of troops exposed as our troops would he in the open field for military operations. I feel confident, however, that the health of the troops would not be liable to such loss as it was in the late war. But there are other circumstances very disadvantageous to us at present, as compared with the former occasion. Rangoon was then attacked by surprise; there was not the smallest expectation that our forces would be directed on that quarter, and 17,000 Burmese troops were then in Arracan. Rangoon was attacked by 10,000 men, and was captured without loss. We then proceeded to fortify our position, and to occupy the great Pagoda, which at once protected and was the key to it. What is the case now? By our operations, untoward as they are, we have indicated the point of our attack. We have had a collision with the Burmese on that point, and, without finding any fault with the officers in command, we have twice most unfortunately retired, after a collision, from the conflict. Now the mere circumstance of our retiring under such circumstances must give encouragement to the Burmese. The town of Rangoon, which we occupied before, is now destroyed, and another town, four miles up the river, is built beyond the reach of our steamers; and the whole of that position, and especially the Pagoda to which I have before alluded, with terraces of brick, each rising 15 feet above the other, situated on a height 200 feet above the level of the river, and commanding all the ground in the neighbourhood—that position is now fortified and stockaded in every direction, and defended by 100 guns. It is impossible, therefore, not to expect that great loss will be incurred in taking it; and it is to be attacked, not by 10,000 men, as formerly, but by a force not much above 5,000. Moreover, the circumstances are particu- larly unfortunate under which we are called on to carry our army into that country. The Punjab is not yet so settled as to make it safe for us to withdraw any considerable force from it; and, without drawing troops from the Punjab, we have not three regiments on the side of Bengal available to be sent there with safety. I regret, my Lords, to find—what no doubt, under the circumstances, was unavoidable—that one European regiment has been sent from Fort William—that there is only one regiment to supply its place, and that this has been sent from Dinapore, which is left without European troops at the very moment when we may be about to engage in another war: so that in the front of the Nepaulese we are withdrawing the only regiment which we have to defend Calcutta. There is also another circumstance to be considered, which I take to be one of a very serious nature. In the last war all the operations in Ava were carried on by the Madras army; and I attribute the sending of so large a portion of that army to Ava, mainly to the great personal influence and the great personal ability of Sir Thomas Monro. Without his influence, I think that the Government would not have been able to withdraw from that Presidency 23,000 men, or 28,000 men, including Europeans. I remember, with regret, certain passages in the recent history of the Madras army which make me doubt whether we can safely calculate on being able to despatch a large force from that Presidency on service beyond the sea. Your Lordships may not, perhaps, be aware that the Bengal soldier is accustomed to leave his wife and family in his native village when called into active service; but the soldiers of the Madras army take their wives and children with them into the camp; so that, when they go beyond the sea, all their families form a village, which is left without means of support. When I arrived, some years ago, at Madras, I found two regiments there, I will not say in a state of mutiny, but so disinclined to proceed to China as they had been ordered to do, that it became a matter of deep anxiety and apprehension to the Government; and the cause of this disinclination—so far as I can recollect the immediate cause of it—was the terrible state of misery and distress in which the wives and children of the men of the regiments which had already sailed for China were left. I am not aware, my Lords, of any alteration in the regulations of the service which can relieve the families of the Madras soldier from the distress which they suffer when their husbands and fathers proceed beyond the sea. Notwithstanding all this, I will assume, for I doubt it not, that we have entire success in the war. What will be the consequence of that success? I think that the King will fight to the last, and the result will be the entire dissolution of the Burmese empire; and then it will be for our Government in India to consider what it will do under such circumstances. I know, my Lords, that the Governor General will be placed in circumstances under which a great pressure will be brought to bear on him as to the policy which he ought to adopt. First, there are certain enterprising British merchants, who, having exhausted all the forests on one bank of the river and its tributaries, are very desirous of possessing the teak forests on the other side, for the purpose of carrying on and extending their trade by Rangoon; and these persons are in concert and connexion with the press at Calcutta, the movements of which I have always viewed with anxiety and distrust. They say that in consequence of our occupying the whole Burmese empire an overland intercourse with China may be established, and that great advantage would accrue to our trade from its extension along that Burmese frontier. Thus the desire to push forward trade, and to make the whole affair a money speculation, is the feeling which actuates the press of Calcutta. I hope that the Governor General of India will treat that press with the disregard which it deserves. But, my Lords, there is also another serious pressure which my right hon. Friend ought to disregard, and which it will be more difficult I am afraid for him to resist; that is, the pressure of a large part of the civil and of the whole military service. They have before their eyes the occupation of Affghanistan, which produced a complete revolution in the army of Bengal. That will always be the case where a great territory is to be occupied even for a time, and still more where a now territory is to be annexed to and brought under our dominion. Young officers are then placed in command of districts—others are placed in political employments, where they actually direct the operations of troops under the command of their superiors. Great rewards and distinctions are obtained—and, no doubt, great talents exhibited; and the consequence is that every man, with a natural ambition, looks forward to the distinction and promotion he may attain; and it is most natural, with these feelings, that the idea of a new war, likely to terminate in new conquests, is dear to that army—an army full of enterprise, and of those feelings which naturally excite military men to great actions. There is, however, nothing I should view with greater apprehension than the annexation to our empire of a large portion—ay, or even of any portion—of the Burmese territory. It is essentially a false position. My Lords, you must have seen before now that, with the greatest ability on the part of our generals, with the greatest courage on the part of our soldiers, and with the most perfect equipment on the part of our army, it is very difficult to retain, even for a short period, an eminently false position. A false position is as dangerous to an empire as it is to an army, and always ultimately vindicates its power over those who sin against the first principles of true policy. I feel, my Lords, perfectly satisfied that the annexation of Ava, drawing in that direction a large portion of the vital resources of the British empire in India, will weaken us in points where the exertion of all our force is required, and will materially impair both its civil and military strength. It is because I entertain these apprehensions of the consequences of the military occupation of Ava, and of the possibly fatal effects of even the most complete success, that I request you, my Lords, to call on Her Majesty's Ministers to produce such papers on this subject as can be produced without detriment to the public service, for the purpose of making us acquainted with the causes of this war. I have not heard that any trustworthy officer on the part of the Government has been sent to Rangoon to ascertain the facts out of which it has arisen. They rest entirely, I believe, on the authority of persons who went with their complaints to Colonel Bogle, at Moulmein. What value is to be attributed to their statements we know not; but this we do know—for it is stated, with a degree of confidence almost inclining us to treat it as correct—that the total amount of the indemnity which we require from the Government of Ava is only 900l.; and yet to obtain that sum all these public dangers which I have recounted are to be incurred. Now, my Lords, when I look at the character of the trade carried on at Rangoon, I cannot help looking with suspicion at the statements made by any of the persons concerned in it. One of the most considerable traders at Rangoon is a person of the name of Crisp. That man, as soon as he knew of the probability of war, freighted a schooner with arms, and sold it to the Governor at Rangoon. When the Governor refused payment for them, he had the effrontery to go to Commodore Lambert and complain of the injury inflicted upon him. I suppose we shall hereafter see the amount of the compensation claimed by that person (Crisp) in the bill to be paid by the Burmese Government. The Governor of Rangoon offered in consequence 100l. for this man's head; and I confess that I should not have been deeply grieved if he had got it. This is a description of one of the persons for whom this great war is to be undertaken; I confess I look upon the matter with great anxiety. If our reputation and honour be at stake, no matter however small the injury, war must be submitted to, and we must endure it; but if there is not an overwhelming necessity for our interference at present, for the reasons I have stated, I think we ought not to interfere. There is also another peculiar objection to it at the present time. The services of the Madras army, we heard several months ago, were likely to be engaged in a different affair with the Nizam. We heard that the Indian Government, as a creditor of the Nizam, had required him to pay a certain sum of money, and that if be did not pay it by a certain day, his territory was to be occupied and his troops put down. The Governor General must consequently have looked forward to a collision with the Nizam as a probable occurrence; and I think, therefore, that he would not have made such a demand without having a certainty that he had the Madras army in hand; for the town of Hyderabad is in the hands of the Arabs, and so are half the forts in the Nizam's dominions. They will defend them with bravery, and no prudent man would engage in operations in that country without having the whole of the Madras army in hand for that purpose; and, unless we postpone the demand for that payment, the Madras army will be called upon to carry into effect two distinct and distant operations at the same time. I hope, my Lords, that my noble Friend opposite will not think it inconsistent with his duty to lay the papers to which I have referred on the table, in order that we may know on what grounds the Government of India is proceeding in this matter.

Motion— That there be laid before this House, Copies or Extracts of Communications which may have passed with reference to Hostilities in Ava.


My Lords, with regard to the military grounds on which my noble Friend has based his observations, I have only to say that he speaks with a knowledge which gives him great advantage on any point which he thinks necessary to discuss. But whatever may be the difficulties which attend the operations now going on in Ava—and I am afraid I must agree with my noble Friend in his description of them as a war—whatever the difficulties and obstacles with which we may have to contend, I am quite sure that my noble Friend would be the last man to desire to shrink from a war, if war were necessary, for the due protection of our fellow-subjects. On the other hand, whatever may be the feeling of the public press in Calcutta, or of those "enterprising British merchants" whom my noble Friend has described, endeavouring to promote trade, or of the Army anxious to win fresh laurels in the field—however they may press upon my noble Friend the Governor General of India any extension or accession of territory—I am quite sure, whatever motives they may have to acquire territory, that there is no man more averse to such acquisition of territory than the Governor General; and I agree with my noble Friend that great inconvenience and disaster would be likely to result from a large accession of territory in the district alluded to. I hope when the papers are produced for which my noble Friend moves, and which, to a certain extent, there will be no difficulty in producing, that he will be satisfied that there has been no desire to incur all the responsibility and hazard of war, but that, on the contrary, the Indian Government has been anxious to avoid recourse to hostilities; and that, upon the other hand, the measures of my noble Friend the Governor General have been so prompt and ready as to lead to the reasonable conclusion that there will be no protracted hostilities with the Burmese empire; and that these hostilities will end in the entire success of our troops; though not, as my noble Friend seems to think, with the dissolution of the empire of our adversary. My noble Friend has thrown great doubts on how far we should be jus- tified in acting on the representations of the merchants of Rangoon without previous inquiry. I am not at present in a condition to enter into the merits of those claims; but their justice has been admitted by the King of Ava himself; for, on representations being made to him with regard to those claims by a a former Governor of Rangoon, he not only acquiesced in them, but marked his displeasure at the conduct of the late Governor by removing him from his government, and substituting another in his place. Whatever may be the policy of the King of Ava now, that, surely, is a primâ facie justification that the claims for indemnity to the amount of 9,000 rupees were not put forth without just cause. On the 6th of January last, Commodore Lambert, in execution of instructions he had received, proceeded up the river to confer with the new Governor of Rangoon. The first communications with him were not of an unfriendly character. He received on board his vessel a deputation of persons—persons certainly not of very high rank, but he acted wisely in waiving the etiquette on which he might have stood—and received from those persons a communication not by any means unfriendly. He then sent Commander Fishbourne to have an audience of the new Governor—it was necessary for him as Commodore to remain on board the frigate—and that officer was instructed firmly to demand compliance with the terms we had before demanded. In performing this duty, Commander Fishbourne, and the officer who accompanied him, from whatever cause, were subjected to a series of indignities and insults which it was impossible for him as a British officer, acting under the orders of his Sovereign and in the public service, to permit. Whether these indignities arose from a mistaken idea of dignity on the part of the Governor of Rangoon, I will not undertake to say; for Commander Fishbourne (he being the second officer in command) having refused to communicate with any one but the Governor himself, they were kept waiting outside the village, and told that the Governor was asleep, and could not be disturbed. They were then subjected to a series of insults and indignities that could not be taken in any other sense than as premeditated, and which the meanest person could not have viewed otherwise than as insults. Every communication was addressed to Commander Fishbourne, as from a superior to an inferior, couched in language implying superiority on the part of the Burmese; and no nation is more touchy and sensitive about dignity and forms than the Burmese. On receiving information of the insults offered to Commander Fishbourne, Commodore Lambert said it was impossible that he could continue communications with such a Government, and actually withdrew; but unfortunately, as I think, by way of retaliation for the insults offered to his officer, taking on himself, without previous instructions, to seize a vessel of the King of Ava, which he carried with him. In passing down the river with this vessel, his ship was fired on from a stockade; and I think the noble Earl will admit that, hostilities having been thus commenced by the Burmese, it was the duty of Commodore Lambert not to submit to such an insult, but to return the fire, which he did so effectually as to silence the stockade in a few minutes. In passing, I must say that my noble Friend adverted to the fact of two expeditions having been sent to the factory, in both of which hostilities occurred, as if he thought that this expedition was sent for hostile purposes, and that then upon the commencement of hostilities our ships had retired; but so far from this expedition having been entered on with hostile objects, in a subsequent letter the Governor of Rangoon himself pressed this point on our Government, that Commodore Lambert had no instructions to act hostilely, that he had come as a messenger of peace, and not of war, and that he had withdrawn without attempting to execute his mission. The withdrawal of that officer could not, then, have given that encouragement to the Burmese which had been represented. Commodore Lambert reported his proceedings to the Governor General of India; and, of course, the Governor General could not but be sensible that this unfortunate transaction must lead to critical events, if not to war. Not a moment was lost in taking those precautions which I am sure my noble Friend will think ought to have been taken, namely, to protect Moulmein and Arracan, and making other preparations to support our forces if hostilities should become necessary. But, although these preparations went on, yet, the fact is, that, immediately subsequent to the withdrawal of Commodore Lambert, there came a letter from the Governor of Rangoon, complaining of the course that had been pursued by that officer, and expressing his willingness to comply with the original requisition. On receiving this answer, the Governor General, not suspending the preparations he was making for military proceedings, but having collected two Queen's regiments, five Native regiments, and a considerable force of European artillery, sent round to Bombay for the steam force—and this will show the efficiency of the Indian navy—that force was despatched in five days after the requisition. The Governor General, not suspending his preparations, and anxious to prevent the renewal of hostilities, but not to supersede Commodore Lambert, charged Commodore Lambert to proceed with a letter to the Governor of Rangoon, in which he stated that, on a compliance with the original demand, and an expression of regret on the part of the Burmese Government for what had taken place, the ship would be immediately restored, the blockade that had been instituted would be raised, and terms of friendship again entered into between the Governor General and the Governor of Rangoon. I think my noble Friend will admit that the Governor General of India could hardly have taken a more conciliatory course, or one more likely to avoid war. Commodore Lambert found, on arriving, that the ships were too far down the river to enable the message to be sent by the boats, and consequently the Fox was towed up by steamers, for the purpose of taking the letter; and, to prove the pacific character of the mission, the guns of the Fox were not loaded, and the tompions were actually upon the guns. They were fired on by the Burmese stockade. In three minutes the fire was returned, the stockade was silenced, and Commodore Lambert proceeded up the river and delivered the message. The answer evaded all compliance with our terms; it evaded giving satisfaction for the original claims, or for the further demands afterwards advanced by the Indian Government; and it proposed that the negotiations should be transferred from Rangoon to Martaban. On the receipt of the despatches containing this intelligence, the Governor General in Council, with the unanimous consent of the Council, thought that no time should be lost in trifling, but that it was necessary at once to strike a blow which it was hoped would supersede the necessity of any hostilities with the Burmese empire. At the same time, the Governor General was determined to proceed with his preparations, and to despatch his forces, so that they might be ready to be sent by the latter end of last month. The Governor General did not even then relax his endeavours to come to terms; for simultaneously with sending that expedition he sent a further communication to the King of Ava—not to the Governor of Rangoon—stating that if the King of Ava would express his regret for what had occurred, and if the original conditions were complied with, and the expenses incurred in our preparations defrayed, hostilities should be stayed, and peace be restored. The Governor General is as well aware as my noble Friend can be of the great inconvenience of any protracted hostilities at that period of the year when the rainy season is commencing; and I believe that my noble Friend the Governor General has no further intention that to despatch such an expedition to strike a blow against Rangoon and Martaban as will be sufficient to produce terror in the minds of the Burmese. By a single blow struck without delay, and showing the efficiency of our preparations, peace may be yet restored on terms honourable to the British Government, and not involving any continued occupation, possession, or annexation of any portion of the Burmese empire. If those steps which are now being taken are not successful before the rainy season commences, in inducing the Burmese authorities to tender their submission and enter into terms of peace, it will be for the Governor General to consider what duties and responsibilities will devolve upon him in the more serious and arduous struggle which will be forced upon him. I have to hope that no such consideration will be forced upon him, but that terms will be agreed upon under terror of the force that has been so promptly despatched. I am sure the Governor General will not neglect any steps which his duty calls on him to take, and which are necessary for the security of the empire, and for the maintenance of the dignity and honour of the British name. My noble Friend will believe that there is no man more anxious than he is to avoid war, and to avoid what I should consider as a great misfortune—the compulsory annexation of the Burmese empire. I make no objection to produce such papers as can be produced without injury to the public service. If my noble Friend will move for extracts from papers with regard to the hostilities in Ava, I shall have no hesitation in producing such as will be sufficient to satisfy both him and your Lordships, that, without any undue shrinking from the responsibilities which have devolved upon my noble Friend, the Governor General has taken every step in his power for the purpose of avoiding hostilities, consistent with our dignity and honour, in the maintenance of which are involved the safety and security of our Indian empire.


said, he would make the required alteration in his Motion. He concurred in the observations that had been made by the noble Lord. He had not said that war should not take place if it were necessary to support the honour and dignity of the country. If it were so, might God prosper our success! He would therefore move for extracts from any papers explanatory of the grounds of the war with Ava.

Motion agreed to.

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