HL Deb 12 February 1852 vol 119 cc429-36

said, that as he saw in his place his noble relative, who had recently succeeded to the office of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Earl Granville), he was desirous of putting a question to him on a subject which had awakened the attention of every man in England who had cast his eyes on the proceedings of foreign nations, and who felt an interest in the security and welfare of his own fellow-countrymen residing abroad. The question on which he was desirous of obtaining information divided itself into two points: the first relating to the nature and extent of an outrage to one of Her Majesty's subjects, said to have recently taken place at Florence; and the second relating to the conduct of Her Majesty's representative at Florence, on hearing of the occurrence to which he referred. Acccording to the statement made in the public prints, it appeared that a British subject, named Mather, was walking along the streets of Florence, without giving offence to any one, when he was first struck by an officer, whom he (Earl Fitzwilliam) must consider as an officer of the Tuscan Government, for he could not suppose that an independent Government like that of Tuscany would suffer its streets to be occupied by foreign soldiers: assuming, then, that it was a Tuscan officer, he would say that the Tuscan officer first struck a British subject with the flat of his sword, who immediately remonstrated. On his then inquiring of the officer the cause for which he had struck him, he was again struck by him; and, on making another remonstrance, he was struck by another officer, not with the flat, but with the cutting part of the sword, and was cut severely on the head, the effusion of blood being so great that it was some time before he recovered his senses. He (Earl Fitzwilliam) did not exaggerate when he said that our countryman was regularly cut down. What followed? The injury was so severe that the victim of it was taken to a neighbouring hospital, and the consequences of his wound were there held to be so dangerous that three days elapsed before it was deemed safe to remove him to his private lodgings. Now he (Earl Fitzwilliam) presumed, as he had said before, that this outrage was the act of a Tuscan officer; and he wished to know, in the first place, whether the accounts of the transaction which had appeared in the public prints were corroborated by the more official and authentic information which had been received by Her Majesty's Government; and, secondly, what course Her Majesty's Government had thought fit to pursue on the receipt of such information. He knew not what position in life Mr. Mather moved in, and he could not say whether he was likely to think it more expedient to sue for compensation than to demand an apology for his injury; but he must say that if British subjects, when following peace- ful avocations in foreign countries, were not to be protected, a heavy responsibility would lie on Her Majesty's Government. Their Lordships knew, from recent debates in that and in the other House of Parliament, how sensitive Her Majesty's Ministers were with regard to injuries inflicted on persons who, although perhaps not of the English race, were nevertheless, under circumstances, to be entitled to the protection of the British Government. He trusted the British Government would never shrink from demanding ample reparation and apology in all cases of that nature, whether they occurred in what might be called the infant State in the family of European nations—he meant Greece—or whether they took place under such a Government as that of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, connected although that Sovereign was with a much stronger Power. He trusted that the conduct of Her Majesty's Government on this occasion, would be such as to entitle it to confidence. He was sure his noble Friend (Earl Granville) would be actuated, equally with his predecessor, by the highest sentiments, in demanding and in enforcing from whatever quarter, be that quarter weak or be it powerful, an ample and a just reparation for injuries and insults inflicted on Her Majesty's subjects. He had no doubt, therefore, that the answer of his noble Friend to the question he had ventured to put to him, would be perfectly satisfactory.


My Lords, the noble Earl in putting the question to me has alluded to my recent succession to an office of great importance; and in answering that question, which, to a certain degree, Involves one of the most important duties of a British Minister for Foreign Affairs (that of protecting British interests and British subjects when living in other countries), I cannot help feeling that during the last few years, when I have frequently been obliged to trespass on your Lordships' attention upon the business of the office which I previously held, I, perhaps more than any other person, have, in addressing your Lordships, met with indulgent encouragement from my own side of the House, and with forbearance from the opposite benches, and I trust that in the new position which I have the honour to occupy I shall not be met in a different spirit. My Lords, with regard to the facts of the case which my noble Friend has just described, they are very nearly accurate as he has represented them. From the official information that I have received on the subject it appears that Mr. Mather was walking with his brother and another person, following the band of an Austrian regiment, and between that band and the regiment itself, and that, by the passing of a carriage, some confusion occurred, in which Mr. Mather, in turning round accidentally came in contact with an Austrian officer, who struck him with the flat of his sword. On turning round to know the cause of such an attack, he was struck by another officer, and on his lifting up his arm to protect himself he was cut at in the manner described by the first officer. There is some discrepancy as to the facts in the account given by the Austrian officer, and in that given by Mr. Mather. But Mr. Mather's version is supported not only by his brother, but by other persons (Italians and Frenchmen) who were present; and I think the variation is so small that it may easily be accounted for. The Austrian officer says that he told Mr. Mather to get out of the way; and as the Austrian officer probably could not speak good Italian, and Mr. Mather probably did not understand Italian at all, some misapprehension may have arisen in that manner. Mr. Mather says he did not put himself in an aggressive attitude; while the Austrian officer says he put himself in the attitude of a boxer. Now; I put it to your Lordships whether a man turning round, and lifting up his arm to defend himself from two drawn swords, might not have been mistaken, although it was not actually the case, to have assumed the attitude of a boxer? The first intimation I had of this occurrence was through the medium of a private correspondence, and afterwards through the newspapers. I immediately sent instructions, in the name of Her Majesty's Government, to Mr. Scarlett, Her Majesty's representative at the Court of Florence, to ascertain if the report was true; and, if true, to demand an ample reparation for what I considered a wanton and cruel injury to an unoffending British subject. In the meantime a despatch reached me from Mr. Scarlett, giving me the account which I have just stated. In that despatch he stated that he understood the Austrian general, on hearing of the transaction, had reprimanded the second officer very severely; and, with regard to the first officer, he offered that if Mr. Mather would make explanations to him, then he would make him an apology for the blow he had inflicted. Mr. Mather, however—and I do not think your Lordships will be suprised at it—refused, on what might possibly be his death-bed, to enter into any such explanations in order to obtain an apology, and preferred that the case should be brought before the civil tribunals of Tuscany. Mr. Scarlett supported that view; and as it was taken at the request of the injured party, I approved of Mr. Scarlett's conduct, and desired him to communicate to the Tuscan Government that Her Majesty's Government expect that the trial will be conducted openly, and with all fairness. I also gave Mr. Scarlett instructions, not knowing the pecuniary circumstances of Mr. Mather, to obtain for him the best legal advice to conduct the prosecution. The only communication I have received since, I received yesterday from Mr. Mather's father, who complains of the difficulty in overcoming certain legal technicalities in Florence thrown in the way of his obtaining redress. I do not think I should be justified in going into further details on this point until I hear from Mr. Scarlett on the subject; but I cannot refrain from saying, that the tone of the private letters from the two young Mr. Mathers, the one being nineteen, and the other only sixteen years of age, went far to convince me that they were well-conducted young men, and little likely they were to give offence to the authorities in foreign countries; and I was glad also to find that Mr. Mather (the father) spoke with the greatest moderation on a point which naturally touched his feelings acutely. In deciding what must be done, I was anxious to consider the whole case calmly, not overlooking the difference there may be between the usages of the Austrian army and those of our own. No doubt, in the Austrian army, an officer, if he was insulted in the presence of his men, would be degraded if he did not use his weapon to repel that insult. A case illustrating this point, if your Lordships will allow me to trespass on your time by relating the story, I remember to have occurred some time ago at Vienna, where a general order was issued to the effect that no person should be suffered to pass an Austrian sentinel with a cigar in his mouth. A French gentleman happened to pass one day, smoking his cigar, and the centinel on guard called to him to take it out of his mouth. The gentleman did not understand, or did not choose to under- stand, and walked on without heeding the challenge. A Serjeant them came out of the guard-house, and with violence forced the cigar from his mouth. The gentleman repeatedly struck the Serjeant, and then took refuge in the French Ambassador's house, who indignantly demanded reparation. The Serjeant was brought before a court-martial, and the verdict given (which was afterwards read at the head of every Austrian regiment in the service) was to this effect:—"That, considering the long and faithful services of the serjeant, he shall not be drummed out of the regiment for not having run the French gentleman through the body." I relate this anecdote, my Lords, not to excite a laugh, but only to show how necessary it is, in the case of occurrences of this nature, to take into account the extreme limits to which the point of honour is carried in the Austrian service. But, making full allowance for this consideration, and taking the Austrian officer's account, for the sake of argument, against that given by the English gentleman concerned, and confirmed by English and Italian witnesses, I confess it still appears to me, as it did in the first instance, that a most unjustifiable outrage, and one for which reparation is justly due, has been committed; and I will say farther, that I feel confident that the justice of the Tuscan Government will induce them to give this reparation. And after the words which fell from the noble Earl (Earl Fitzwilliam), I may here add to that, that I have full confidence in the keen sense of honour of the Austrian military authorities now in Tuscany, that they will not refuse to give an ample redress. I have mentioned that the Austrian officer who wounded Mr. Mather offered to make an apology, if that gentleman would give him an explanation. Now, considering the state in which the English gentleman lay, confined to his bed from the effects of his wound, I cannot believe, if the Austrian officer had spontaneously come forward and volunteered an apology, that he would have been considered to have diminished his reputation for either physical or moral courage, or that his conduct would have been regarded as affecting his character cither as a gentleman or as a Christian officer, or as having been inconsistent with the code of honour which obtains throughout all Europe. The code of honour rightly understood must be considered the ame for nations as for individuals; and for these reasons I trust the Tuscan Government will not refuse redress. When I am laying down this rule, and stating my belief that nations should behave to others as they would wish others to do to them—without making the slightest concessions where their honour or their good faith is at stake, yet feeling it to be incumbent on them when they are in the wrong to make the fullest acknowledgment—I may be permitted to add, that I am not stating of foreign nations what I do not think applies to our own. And I venture to remark to your Lordships, that one thing in which I certainly take pride to myself, during the short time I have held the seals of the Foreign Office, is, that I have been able to make, in the name of Her Majesty's Government, an apology where I think an apology was justly due. An unfortunate circumstance recently happened through the neglect of his instructions on the part of an English naval officer and a civil servant—an insult was offered to the United States. The noble Lord whom I succeeded began friendly communications with the Government of the United States on the subject through the Minister residing here; but I had the satisfaction, on the day after receiving the official account of the occurrence, of writing in the name of Her Majesty's Government, disavowing the act of violence, and regretting that such an act had been committed. And I do not hesitate to say that I should have pursued precisely the same course, if, instead of the United States, it had been a weak and feeble nation that had been injured; because it is the only one consistent with the dignity and with the just pride of this nation. Some allusion has been made to the Austrian Government being behind the Tuscan Government in the present case. Now, I cannot but say that there has lately been, on the part of the Austrian Government, some negligence in checking the insults and petty persecutions committed towards British subjects by its subordinate agents. I certainly trust this will not be continued, and I have some ground for saying it; for one of the first steps I was compelled to take on entering upon my present office was, on learning that an Englishman charged with despatches for Sir Stratford Canning had been seized and exposed to insult, to demand satisfaction for that outrage on international law and usage; and I am happy to say that I have received an answer from the Austrian Government, not containing, I think, a good explanation of the occurrence, but at the same time in- forming me that the policeman concerned in the affair has been punished—and further that the Austrian Government repeatedly expresses its regrets that it has occurred, and acknowledges the justice of the demand for a reparation. For these reasons I am inclined to believe, which I do with great pleasure, that these sad small matters will not again occur, or that, if they do occur—which is perhaps unavoidably the case—they will be met on both sides in such a manner as to render it unnecessary to make demands which it is painful for the Minister of one Government to write, irritating to the Minister of another to receive, and which lead to recriminations, as I believe, entirely beneath the dignity of the Governments of the two countries concerned, who, though they may differ widely in the spirit and form of their internal administration, have still the same common objects in view, in regard to great and important interests committed to their charge.

House adjourned till To-morrow.