HL Deb 08 June 1858 vol 150 cc1701-5

wished to put a question to his noble Friend opposite, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, with reference to the subject to which the noble and learned Lord (Lord Brougham) had just alluded. He wished to know whether his noble Friend could afford the House any information that might tend to allay the great uneasiness which had prevailed in the public mind during the last few days with reference to certain alleged proceedings on the part of British cruisers, and the preparations it was said the United States Government were making to prevent acts which they regarded as equivalent to that right of search which had never been conceded by the United States, and' which were looked upon in that country as national insults. He (the Earl of Clarendon) believed that no information on the subject had yet been received in this country beyond certain ex parte statements which had been published in the United States, and the abstract of some correspondence which had been laid before the Congress by the President. There was, therefore, no means of judging how far the cruisers of Her Majesty had exceeded their instructions by stopping some American vessels which were engaged in the coasting trade, and by firing into others. He not only hoped, but expected, that it would be found there had been a great deal of exaggeration in the statements which had appeared on this subject, and he had no doubt that if his noble Friend had received any information, he would not hesitate to, lay it before their Lordships. At all events, his noble Friend would probably inform their Lordships whether he had had any communication from the United States Government on the subject, and in what state matters were. If, as he (the Earl of Clarendon) had no doubt was the case, no other or mere stringent instructions had been sent out than those under which cruisers had been in the habit of acting, he felt assured that not only were there no grounds of quarrel between the two Governments, but that the irritation—which would be justified if the statements that had been put forth were true—would be but momentary. There were no instructions, of which he had any knowledge, under which the commanders of British cruisers would be authorized to do what it was said had been done; and if they had exceeded their instructions, Her Majesty's Government could have no hesitation in stating that that was the case. This was a question upon which, in his opinion, it was requisite that great forbearance should be exercised by both Governments, to prevent a state of things which neither of them would desire—an extension of the slave trade, or a rupture of political relations. The United States Government were the first to declare the slave trade piracy, and he was therefore convinced that the President of the United States and his Government were no more desirous than were the Government of this country that that trade should be extended. But it could not be concealed that vessels belonging to the United States had carried on the slave trade on the coast of Africa, and that the flag of the United States had been used as a cover for that trade; and he did not see how, unless some right of search was given, the real nationality of the flag of suspected vessels could be ascertained. Such a right had been admitted by all maritime nations for their common protection, for without it the most atrocious deeds might be perpetrated and yet remain unpunished. But the possession of such a right was a very different thing from the manner of exercising it. He was certain that no officer commanding a British cruiser, whatever his suspicions might be, would exercise the right of searching an American vessel if he was really convinced that it was bonâ fide American. We were as proud as the Americans were of the honour and independence of our flag, and just as determined to protect it whenever protection was lawfully claimed and could be legitimately given; but we should consider our flag tarnished if it were made a cover for nefarious transactions such as he had referred to; and, so far from finding fault with any foreign Powers which should interpose to prevent the perpetration of such offences, we should rather be obliged to them for their interference. He did not think the American Government would differ from us on that point, and he there- fore hoped that both Governments would calmly consider the matter, and, continuing to entertain towards each other friendly feelings and sentiments of mutual respect, come to some good understanding on the subject. He wished to ask his noble Friend whether any late communications on this subject had passed between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the United States, and whether anything had occurred to justify the apprehensions which had been entertained?


My Lords, I am extremely glad that my noble Friend has prefaced his question by the very judicious language which he has used. Great advantage must necessarily follow such a course, when in a moment of difficulty like this between two Governments, a leading member of the Opposition is seen rising in his place, and expressing such sentiments and such views as we have just heard expressed by my noble Friend. My Lords, I am not in a position at this time to give your Lordships any ascertained information upon this subject. The events which have been stated to me as having occurred up to this time are but ex parte statements on the side of the American Government. If, however, these events are correctly reported—if the events which have taken place are exactly such as have been described by the American Government, I have only to say that Her Majesty's Government will certainly not be prepared to defend or to justify them. But I trust that a great deal of exaggeration has been committed in the description I have received of them; though at the same time I must confess that some acts have been committed which cannot be justified by any provision of international law, nor by any treaty in existence between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the United States. My Lords, I have been informed that on one occasion a body of men landed upon the coast of Cuba from one of Her Majesty's ships. That is, of course, peculiarly a Spanish question, and can only be incidentally mentioned in connection with the American complaints. There has been also a statement made that considerable annoyance has been experienced by American traders lying in the port of Havannah, from a system of watch boats, as they are called, being ordered to row round those ships and watching the cargoes that were taken in or out of those vessels; that this sort of surveillance or espionage was continuously kept up, and that when the ships were quitting the port they were followed and chased at sea. It is also stated, my Lords, that every American ship, upon leaving was pursued by our cruisers in the Gulf, and was brought to and searched. Now, I have not the least idea whether these alleged facts are correct; but these are the statements that have been made, and your Lordships are aware that there is nothing in the international law nor in the treaty of 1842 to justify the adoption of those measures. My Lords, if these facts be literally true it is impossible that the Government can defend them. But I entirely agree with what my noble Friend has said, that the American flag is frequently prostituted to cover the slave trade and other illegal acts. It is most desirable, therefore, that some agreement should be come to by the Governments of the two countries by which it will be distinctly understood that certain proceedings may be taken by the officers of the respective States with the view to the discovery of the impositions to which I have alluded, whilst at the same time nothing shall be done that could be offensive to the honest trader. It is to that point I have directed the attention of the United States Government, in my conversation with the Minister of that country. I do not think there is any great difference between us as to the view in which we regard the matter. After the conversations I have held with the Minister on the subject; after the despatch which I have written to Lord Napier; and after the distinct orders sent out to the squadron in those seas, I trust, my Lords, that there will be no repetition of the acts described. Under these circumstances, I trust and hope that in the meantime no act will be committed by either conntry calculated to give offence. I believe that as soon as the conversations to which I have referred are repeated upon the other side of the Atlantic, this country will remain under no apprehension of any consequences occurring at all likely to break that alliance between the two great Powers which have so happily existed for many years.


My Lords, I wish to say a few words in reference to the service with which I have the honour to be connected. Her Majesty's Government have proceeded in this matter most carefully and deliberately, and they have sent out distinct orders as to the operations to be performed by the officers employed in this service in regard to questions of nationality. If these operations have been exceeded by any of our officers they must be responsible for that excess. They were especially admonished to give no offence, if possible, to any nation in conducting their operations in those seas.

House adjourned at a quarter to Seven o'clock, to Thursday next, half-past Ten o'clock.