HL Deb 27 May 1853 vol 127 cc651-9

My Lords, I must beg pardon of your Lordships for proposing to transpose the order of the notices which I gave your Lordships for this evening; but I believe that it will be more convenient to my noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Clarendon) that I should commence the business of the night by putting the question to him which stands upon the Votes, with reference to the negotiations now pending between Russia and the Porte. Your Lordships, in common with the public, must have been for the last fortnight well aware of the importance of the affairs now said to be going on at Constantinople. We have heard that negotiations of a most important character have been proceeding there for some short time; but we have received no account as yet which can reassure the public mind with respect to the issue of those proceedings. My Lords, upon the 25th of April the noble Earl opposite, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in answer to a question which was put to him, reassured the public and the House by telling us that he had received the most solemn promise from the Emperor of Russia with respect to his intentions and propositions—his in- tentions towards the Porte, and his propositions to that Power. I was, unfortunately, not present myself, when the noble Earl (the Earl of Clarendon) spoke upon that occasion, because no notice had been given by the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Clanricarde) of the question he was about to put. I was consequently absent—a circumstance which I much regret, seeing that the whole question was peculiarly interesting to me. But, upon that occasion what the noble Earl stated to the House certainly reassured us with respect to any suspicions that might have been entertained of the policy and intentions of Russia towards the Ottoman Porte. I regret to say—a regret which is shared in common with me by thousands in this country—that whatever may be the issue of the events, appearances have not as yet justified the promise held out to the public by the noble Earl. We understood, if we understood anything, that the object of the embassy of Prince Menschikoff to Constantinople was principally to settle disputes concerning the Holy Shrines with the French Government. If his object were confined to that point, it was clear to everybody that England could have no interest, personally, in the matter; and therefore, if no other question were to be considered at Constantinople, we, when we heard that statement, were reassured upon the subject. But since the speech of the noble Earl, namely, upon the 5th of this month, I believe, Prince Menschikoff, having settled his differences with the French Government and the Ottoman Porte on the question of the Holy Shrines, came forward with a perfectly different and new proposition, involving other points of much greater importance to Europe generally and to this country, of course, as one of the great Powers of Europe. Of course, I speak, my Lords, under correction, becaese what I say upon the subject with respect to the facts of the propositions of Prince Menschikoff, I have only learnt from the same sources which are open to all your Lordships; but I have not seen the statements contradicted, as they probably would have been if they had been incorrect. It appears, then, that upon the 5th of May Prince Menschik off proposed to, or rather, I should say, demanded of the Ottoman Porte that a convention should be signed between the Sultan and the Emperor of Prussia securing to the Greek subjects of the Porte all the privileges and immunities which they had enjoyed at any time previous to the present Sultan's reign, or which by himself had been granted to those subjects, and accepting Russia as the guarantee, through a treaty, for seeing those privileges and immunities perpetually secured, I will not detain your Lordships by describing what I consider the result of such a treaty would be if it were signed by those two Powers, further than to say that I consider it exactly analogous to a proposition or demand being made by some great Catholic country to the Sovereign of England insisting that our Sovereign should sign with them a treaty which should secure to our Roman Catholic subjects in Ireland the immunities and privileges which Parliament has hitherto granted them—privileges like those given by the Bill of 1829, and others of a similar nature. My Lords, it must be evident to all your Lordships, that if such a treaty as that Prince Menschikoff has proposed were signed between Turkey and Russia, Russia would become the arbiter between the Sultan and his subjects—would become, indeed, de facto the ruler of a great part of that Sovereign's subjects; and I need not tell your Lordships what effect that must have upon the general balance of power in Europe, and upon all those opinions which, I believe, are entertained upon both sides of the House with respect to the great importance of keeping, the Turkish empire in a state of integrity and independence. Another remarkable circumstance with reference to that proposition is, that it was made at once an ultimatum. I do not pretend to any great experience in diplomatic customs, but it certainly struck me as most unusual that the first proposition should be at the same time an ultimatum. If a treaty had been violated, or if there had been any dispute as to the interpretation of a treaty, I could understand that a proposition might be made in an arbitrary manner demanding an ultimatum, But this was entirely a new proposition. It had never been heard of, or suspected, or apprehended before; and the way, as I understand it, if I am rightly informed, in which it was proposed to the Porte, was in the offensive character of an ultimatum. The questions which I wish to put the noble Earl are, in the first place, whether I have given a correct description of the demands made by Prince Menschikoff upon the Porte; and, in the next place, whether, considering as I do, that the interests of France and this country are identical upon this subject—I do not mean with reference to the Holy Shrines, but with reference to the proposition of Prince Menschikoff—considering, I say, that our interests are identical, I wish to ask the noble Earl whether the instructions given to Lord Stratford are identical with those given to the French Ambassador at Constantinople—whether these two diplomatists are acting in union upon this matter—and whether, when thus acting under their instructions, they are supporting the credit and independence of the Porte?


My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that there is no unwillingness on my part to answer the inquiries which have been addressed to me by my noble Friend opposite, still less to withhold from your Lordships any information upon a subject with respect to which, as my noble Friend said, you must naturally be most anxious, and which has claims of an important nature upon your attention. I am sure, therefore, I shall not be accused of a want of courtesy to my noble Friend who so recently filled the office which I have now the honour to hold, or to your Lordships, if I ask him not at this time to press for information which I believe it would be contrary to the interests of the public service for me to give with respect to negotiations that may still be pending. Your Lordships will, I am sure, still less urge me to express the opinion that my noble Friend has called for, when I tell your Lordships that the dates of the last official despatches which we have received from Lord Stratford are of the 9th of May. A short time prior to that, as my noble Friend has stated, the question of the Holy Places, which involved a grave offence offered to the Emperor of Russia by the violation of an engagement towards him by the Turkish Government, had been satisfactorily settled. I am happy to state that the friendly and judicious offices of Lord Stratford had promoted that settlement, and that those good offices had been duly acknowledged. It is also true, as my noble Friend has stated, that on the 5th of May a project of convention was presented to the Porte by Prince Menschikoff; but it has not been proved that it was presented as an ultimatum. It is true an answer was required in five days; but the best proof that it was not an ultimatum is, that I believe other notes have since been exchanged. Lord Stratford, writing upon the 9th inst., states, that he is not able to inform us what answer would be given by the Porte; and that is really the whole of the official information that we have received. Other information has of course reached Her Majesty's Government, in common with the public, by means of the electric telegraph, because, now-a-days, no small portion of diplomatic business is transacted by means of that discovery. This is a very useful and convenient appliance in some respects, but it is perplexing in others, because, though it announces facts and events, it seldom announces the causes which have led to those events, and it is difficult to act, therefore, with confidence upon the information which it conveys. Upon the 10th, for instance, we received by the telegraph an announcement that Prince Menschikoff's note had been absolutely rejected by the Porte; but we do not at all know upon what ground the step had been taken. We know, also, that Redschid Pacha is now Minister for Foreign Affairs; we know that a fresh note has been presented, and that a fresh delay has occurred; and we know that on the 20th Prince Menschikoff was still at Constantinople; but we do not know whether all negotiations are at an end. I think I can, therefore, in these circumstances, appeal to your Lordships whether it would not be in the highest degree improper and impolitic on my part if I were to pretend to give a correct account of the events which had occurred at Constantinople, and still more to express an opinion upon them. But, in answer to my noble Friend's question whether the policy to which I alluded in answer to the speech of the noble Marquess near me some weeks ago was still the policy of this country, I conceive it is hardly necessary for me to say that the policy of this Government has undergone no change; that we look upon it as the true policy, and to the manifest advantage of this country, as due not only to our own interests but to the best interests of Europe, and as necessary to its tranquillity, to uphold the independence of the Turkish empire. In answer to the question as to the understanding of the Ambassadors of France and England at the Porte, I have no hesitation in stating that they take the same view of the question, that they act in concert in the matter, and, so far, have carried out the wishes and intentions of their respective Governments, between whom there exists a complete identity of feeling on this subject, and a cordial concert in action.


My Lords, while I accept the answer of the noble Earl as the only answer he is in a position to give, and will not, of course, press for fuller information, I must at the same time say that I think it will prove very unsatisfactory to the people at large on a question of this nature. It is impossible to look at the whole state of the question with reference to Turkey without remarking with astonishment the manner in which these approaches have been made on the part, of Russia to the Sultan. Not only has there been sent as ambassador to Constantinople one of the most eminent officers of the Russian Empire, but he is accompanied with an enormous retinue—the general who commands the forces being one of its members—and officers have been despatched to various parts of the Turkish dominions for the purpose of ascertaining the feelings of the people with regard to their rulers and with regard to Russia; and from the information we possess we are led to believe that a large fleet of ships is ready to act at a moment's notice. Whatever may have been the diplomatic movements, no exertions of any description have been made to meet the emergencies which may follow. What has this country-done to extend security to our ancient ally? Where is that active determination which we have heretofore manifested to uphold the independence and integrity of the Ottoman Empire? The impression now made on the mind of the Emperor of Russia must be very different to that made on his mind on a former occasion. It has invariably been the policy of this country not only to hold by the integrity of the Turkish Empire, but from time to time, whenever it has been threatened, we have thought it right to despatch our naval forces in order to show that we were prepared not only to talk but to act. At the latter end of the year 1849, simply because the Sultan refused to eject from his dominions three individuals, we thought it necessary not only to hold the strongest language to both Austria and Russia, but to couple that language with a most powerful and efficient force, which not only appeared in the Archipelago, but actually entered the Dardanelles. The question was at once settled; and I believe if the same course of policy had been pursued in the present instance, we should never have heard threats held out, or seen demonstration made, of invading the independence of the Porte by the description of embassy which has now visited. Constantinople. It is not surprising that the public and your Lordships should feel a deep interest in Turkish affairs. Any one who knows the condition of the Russian force, and the facility with which Constantinople can be reached, must know that if once taken possession of by that Power, it would be utterly in vain to proceed to the rescue. In such an event, Russia would become possessed of the largest maritime places that exist in those countries, and the Emperor could immediately man his ships and increase his forces to an incalculable extent, for he would become the owner and possessor of the great maritime places in the Mediterranean, now held by the Turks, and of the islands of the Greek Archipelago and their race of seamen, the best in that part of the world. I should like to know what would be the inevitable consequences of such a course to this country and France, Our entire system of policy would be overthrown, and in these days we should hare a hard fight to maintain our own position.


I agree with the noble Earl opposite both in the gravity of the circumstances and the necessity for our being firm and resolute. I go further, and even agree with him in the opinion that if, at an early period, we, in concert with France, had made a demonstration, we might have prevented the difficulties which have arisen, and which now exist. But, though I regret the indecision which marked our actions in the commencement of this serious affair, I have little doubt of the final result, and have no difficulty in placing my firm confidence both in the noble Earl who conducts the Foreign Affairs of the country, and in the noble Lord who is now our representative at Constantinople. When I hear the noble Earl repeat his clear conviction and his resolution to act in conformity with that conviction, as to the necessity of maintaining the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, I can have no doubt that he, and the Government to which he belongs, will exert every means to carry out that resolution, and spare no effort to maintain that integrity; and I have as little doubt that those means will be sufficient, and those efforts successful. I am sure, also, that due instructions have been given to our. Ambassador at Constantinople how to act under the carious circumstances which may possibly arise. What those instructions are, I know not but of this I am convinced, that they are such as suit the dignity of this country, and do not derogate from the independence of the Porte. Although I regret to see that the affair has been prolonged, I still feel confident that the result will be that which your Lordships most warmly desire, namely, the maintenance of the independence and integrity of our important ally. I must say, however, that though I regret that this painful affair has been protracted, yet I believe that good has come out of evil, and that something has been gained even by the wrong that has been done. I believe that the insolent act of sending an embassy composed of the commanders of the naval and military forces, and of sending agents throughout the country to ascertain the feelings of the people towards their sovereign, has had a very advantageous result. If I am rightly informed—and I have every reason to believe that my information is correct—the result of the investigation made by the naval and military men both in the capital and in the provinces, has conveyed to the mind of the Russian Minister—and through him will be conveyed to the Emperor of Russia—the conviction that Turkey is not the weak Power he had anticipated, but that she possesses the means of a great and protracted resistance, should the autocrat violate his plighted word, and proceed to hostilities. But something more has been done. Europe as well as the Emperor have been undeceived as to the state of the Turkish population. Throughout the length and breadth of the Turkish Empire the most perfect tranquillity exists; the Sultan's subjects are content with his rule, and prepared to manifest their adherence to his rule. Although the Russian emissaries have been trying to raise up the feeling of the Christian population against the Sovereign, the result has been that the very Christian population itself has declared openly and unreservedly that they prefer to be under the government of the Sultan, rather than under the protection of Russia. More than that—the Synod and Patriarch of the Greek Church have not only emphatically expressed their cordial attachment to the rule of the Porte, whose moderation towards the dissenters from the Ottoman faith who live within its rule is so well known to all travellers within the Ottoman dominions, but have disclaimed the wish to be put under the protection of Russia, declaring that they enjoy the most complete toleration that any religious denomination can enjoy; they assert that the most sincere as well as universal veneration for their liberal and enlightened Sovereign exists amongst the people of all denominations in that country; and with regard to religious feeling, that their rites are never interfered with, but the Greek Churches are assured and confirmed in all their privileges. But still more, the Greek Church—and let the Emperor of Russia know this—does not consider him as the head of the Greek Church, but hold the Patriarch at Constantinople to be the head of that Church. I believe that the result of a full examination into the resources of the Porte would be a conviction that the conquest of Constantinople is not such an easy matter as some politicians seem to think. For my own part, I believe most firmly that at this present moment Turkey is much stronger than she has been for many years back, and that if there is to be a struggle between her and Russia, that struggle will be a very long one. I could easily bring before your Lordships many facts in confirmation of this opinion; but I shall abstain from asking any further explanations from my noble Friend, because I believe he, in common with all of us, has this question truly at heart; and that if he withholds from us any information, be does so cm the best grounds, and not that he entertains any doubts with regard to what ought to be the real policy of the country. Although, as I have just said, I readily accept the refusal of my noble Friend to go into the matter further on the present occasion, I am glad the question has been put, because the speech in which the question was conveyed, manifests that if the necessity should arise, Her Majesty's Government, in any more active policy they may deem it expedient to adopt, will receive the support of noble Lords opposite.


suggested the propriety, or at any rate the great convenience, of here closing this discussion, which was premature, at all events, inasmuch as they were in absolute ignorance of nine parts out of ten of the whole facts of the case; and which might be mischievous, inasmuch as there Were now pending negotiations on the subject which were as important as they were difficult, and as delicate as they were important. Considering the evident inutility and the possible mischief of such a discussion, he thought they should let it drop.