HL Deb 21 February 1860 vol 156 cc1461-9

THE EARL OF SELKIRK moved an Address for Copies or Extracts of certain Letters connected with the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China, and not contained in the Correspondence hitherto presented.


My Lords, I do not rise to object to the Motion; but as the papers for which the noble Lord has moved, relate to a matter affecting myself, not in the position I now hold as a member of Her Majesty's Government, but in the position I occupied in China, I trust I may be permitted to address to your Lordships a very few words by way of personal explanation. I am not in the habit of trespassing on your Lordships' attention; and therefore I hope that when I proffer this request, as I do most reluctantly, and only from the conviction that an explanation is essential to vindicate my character and conduct, I shall meet with your Lordships' indulgence. I am aware of the great inconvenience, and, as a general rule, of the great impropriety of referring in this House to what passes "in another place." At the same time I cannot help thinking that my position as ex-Minister to China, more especially in the present critical state of our relations with that country, is one of a somewhat peculiar and anomalous character, and this may perhaps justify me in the expectation of receiving something more than an ordinary measure of indulgence from your Lordships. It does so happen that both Administrations —the one from which I received my first official instructions, and the other under which my important duties were performed—have passed from their political state of existence. At the present moment, therefore, there is no person in office who is personally cognizant of many of the transactions which occurred during the greater part of my mission in China, or who is able from his own knowledge to answer any inquiry that may be made, or to remove, by an explanation of facts, any erroneous impression that those transactions may have produced. Perhaps I may be allowed to mention, in illustration of what I mean, that a few days ago, when it was asked in the House of Commons, with something like a taunt, which elicited a cheer, why the noble Lord who negotiated the treaty of Tien-tsin, did not himself proceed to Pekin to exchange the ratifications, if there had been in the other House any official person qualified as I have described, the answer might have been given that, in point of fact, I was never charged with the duty of exchanging the ratifications of the treaty, that the treaty was never placed in my possession; that I never had the option of going to Pekin. I do not mean in making that statement, to cast the slightest reflection upon my noble Friends opposite for the course they adopted in regard to the treaty of Tien-tsin. On the contrary, I think they acted properly and naturally in charging the Minister who was to remain permanently in China with the duty of ex- changing the ratifications of the treaty; but I venture to say that, if the question to which I have alluded implied any insinuation—if it implied—as I suspect from the manner in which it was put it did imply —any doubt as to my willingness and readiness to discharge a difficult and disagreeable portion of my mission, the sting of the implied accusation would have been removed by such an answer. Upon another occasion, when some very severe reflections were cast upon me by an hon. Gentleman whom I do not consider to be quite responsible for those reflections, because I read them, as well as the greater part of the rest of his speech, in an American review some days before he addressed the House of Commons—when I was charged, almost in the words of an article, of which I think I am capable of saying who the author was, with having shown undue harshness to the Chinese, and with having pressed demands upon them, which some of the representatives of other nations did not venture to put forward, my accuser might have been reminded that I did not go to China without instructions; that it was not altogether a matter of choice to me whether I should make this or that demand upon the Chinese Government; and, above all, that I should have assumed a serious responsibility if I had abstained from pressing the demand for a resident Minister in Pekin, in the face of the positive and peremptory instruction from my Government, that if I were forced to have recourse to coercive measures, I was not to make a permanent arrangement with the Government of China—by which was meant, I presume, because we always use euphemisms in speaking of China, that I was not to make peace with China—except after having obtained that concession. Here again, I do not mean to rest the justification of my demand for a resident Minister in Pekin upon the fact that such was my instruction. I am ready to justify that demand upon its merits; for I am confident that if we intend to maintain permanent pacific relations with some 400,000,000 of the human race, scattered over a country some 1,500 miles long by as many broad; if we intend that our merchants shall conduct their trade and commerce with that vast population in peace, in some shape or other, under some modification or another, we must establish direct diplomatic relations with the Imperial Government of Pekin. It is not because I doubt the propriety of the demand that I should have wished an explanation to be given in the House of Commons, but because I think the answer which I have suggested would at least have relieved me from the imputation of having been unduly harsh and severe in my conduct towards the Chinese, and from the still graver imputation that the spirit indicated by the tone of my despatches was totally different from that by which my acts were characterized. These inconveniences were very little felt by me last year, because at that time a certain halo which surrounded all the results of my mission— although, no doubt, many of the proceedings to which I was a party were fairly open to inquiry—indisposed persons to raise objections or to indulge in criticism. But the circumstances of the present time are very different. A great calamity has occurred, and it is perfectly natural and right that the acts of the diplomatic agents who have been employed in China for some time past should, so far as they have a bearing upon the present state of affairs, be open to investigation and censure. I do not complain of that. All I ask is, that when I am attacked where I have not the means of defending myself, and where there is no Member of the Government personally conversant with the facts and capable of answering for me, I may be excused if I take the liberty of making my defence in my place in this House, and if I appeal to your Lordships for permission to do so. With respect to the particular subject referred to in the despatches which have been moved for by my noble Friend opposite, I shall only say that it has given me more pain and distress than all the other circumstances which occurred in connection with my mission put together. I gather from the usual sources of information that a gallant Admiral with whom I was associated in the discharge of very important duties in China, took advantage—and it was very natural that he should do so—of an opportunity afforded to him by a discussion upon Chinese affairs some short time ago in the House of Commons, to enter into a review of all the transactions in which he had been engaged in China, from the commencement of the unfortunate affair of the lorcha Arrow down to the last transaction with which he was connected in that country, the capture of Canton; and in the course of that review he gave his own version of the circumstances which prevented him from supplying me in the north of China in April, 1858, with that particular description of force—namely, gun- boats drawing little water—for which I had applied, which I certainly understood him to have promised, and which I considered to be essential to enable me to carry out the policy which I was endeavouring to pursue in that quarter. I cannot, of course, he expected to acquiesce altogether in the view which the gallant Admiral takes of the transaction in question; but that view was so temperately expressed, and it was so natural that he should desire to place before the public his own version of the affair, that if his statement had stood alone, I should not have thought it necessary to take any notice of it whatever. But I must say I read with some feeling of surprise the observations which fell from a right hon. Baronet, the late First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir John Pakington), who referred to a verdict which he stated had been pronounced upon the unfortunate misunderstanding which has arisen between the gallant Admiral and myself—a verdict which I have never seen, and the grounds of which I do not know. It does seem to me to be a most unusual proceeding, when differences have occurred between two persons in any position of life, that a verdict should be given in favour of one of the parties without the other being informed either of the result which has been arrived at or of the grounds upon which it is based. I presume I shall know with the rest of your Lordships what the verdict is when the papers now moved for have been placed in your hands. Of course I do not intend to enter into the question now. I shall only say that I think when those papers are laid on the table, your Lordships will see that I was placed in a position of very great difficulty at the commencement of 1858, after the capture of Canton, with the forces at my disposal reduced by the demands of India and the requirements of the Canton garrison, with instructions directing me to obtain from the Chinese Government concessions which amounted to an entire subversion of the traditional policy of that great empire, and with orders to prosecute my mission in combination not only with the representative of France, with whom I was associated, and with whom I acted in the most friendly concert throughout, but also with the representatives of two other Powers, Russia and America, who were still in the position of neutrals, and from whom, if we were forced into acts of hostility, we must entirely have broken off. My Lords, I think you will gather from these papers that I had some good reason for believing that prompt, direct, and energetic action in the shape of a demonstration in the neighbourhood of the Court of Pekin was the only expedient which seemed to afford any hope of our being able to bring to an early close, and without bloodshed, the hostilities in which we were then engaged with China upon conditions consistent both with my instructions and with what I believed to be required by the honour and interests of this country. I can assure your Lordships that when I proceeded to the north I went in the firm belief that the gallant Admiral was entirely cognizant of the policy I intended to pursue in that quarter, that he thoroughly sympathized with that policy, and that I might count upon his ready and energetic support. I do not refer to private communications which passed between us, and of which no record is kept, but I had in my possession at the time a despatch, to which I may now refer, because it is before your Lordships—a despatch written by the gallant Admiral in answer to my applications for gun-boats, not stating that he did not know the object for which I wanted them, or that the monsoon or any other difficulty would prevent him from supplying them, but, on the contrary, stating most distinctly that the subject had been under his consideration for a long time—this despatch was written on the 2nd March—-that one of the gun-boats had already started, and that arrangements were in progress for others to follow. The most conclusive proof I can give of how thoroughly I supposed I was acting in full concurrence with the gallant Admiral is the fact that I went to the north at all; because it would have been an act of absolute insanity to do so had I not felt assured of the gallant Admiral's support when I arrived there. The Admiral arrived on the 24th of April, and informed me, that so far from the gunboats being at hand, very few of them had been ordered to leave Hong Kong, and that those few would not leave until a period long after that at which I had been led to understand they were to arrive in the north. I confess that information filled me with the greatest possible disappointment, and it is very probable that the despatches which I wrote at that time bore the reflex of my feelings. My disappointment arose from the fear which I entertained, not only that the policy I was engaged in carrying out in that quarter would be compromised by the non-arrival of the gun-boats, but that the honour of our country, our commercial interests, and even the lives of Europeans in the different open ports of China would be placed in jeopardy; because I apprehended that if we made an abortive attempt of that kind in the north, the Emperor would be very likely to send down word to the authorities in the different provinces to attack the Europeans in the open ports. Our apprehensions on that head are entirely borne out by what has actually occurred. The Emperor did send down such a message as I anticipated to the Provinces, but it took effect only at Canton; there the war was revived; and in consequence such urgent representations were made to us to send back from the north the forces we had collected there on our advance to Tien-tsin, that we were obliged, as soon as the treaty of Tien-tsin was signed, to give up the intention I had always had of proceeding direct to Pekin, there to carry out the policy which I believed to be absolutely essential to the perfect execution of the treaty, and to return to Canton. I believe that to that unfortunate omission the whole of our present disasters are due; because I believe that if I had been able to deliver that letter of credence to the Emperor at Pekin, I should have been able to have made such arrangements with the Imperial Court as would have disposed of that delicate question of the personal reception of the British Minister, and then none of the difficulties we are now involved in would have occurred. There is another point I must refer to, because the misconstruction repeatedly put on it in various quarters has created, very naturally, a strong prejudice against me. It has been observed that the despatches to which I have referred, which were written home at the time, were not shown by me to the gallant Admiral. That is perfectly true. I have been for seventeen years employed in the public service, and I do not think I ever showed to any one a despatch which I had thought it my duty to write to the Secretary of State; and I am quite sure I never saw any despatch written to the head of a Department in which my own conduct was commented upon. I have always understood that despatches addressed to Secretaries of State by public servants are private and confidential, and that the Secretary of State alone was at liberty to relieve them from the condition of secrecy. At the same time I must solemnly say that when Admiral Seymour made to me the communica- tion I have referred to, I stated to the gallant Admiral that it was absolutely necessary, not only for my own vindication, but also in order that Her Majesty's Government might be in possession of the facts of the case, that I should report in the fullest manner to the Government the extent to which, in my opinion, the prospects of our mission in the north were compromised by the failure on his part to furnish me with the armament on which I had relied. I added that if he had any counter statement to make, if he thought anything in my conduct, either in the way of omission or commission, was the cause of this failure, I begged of him to make a corresponding report to the Admiralty, in order that the whole case might be laid before Her Majesty's Government. My Lords, I state this on my honour as a Peer, and am quite ready to repeat it in any other more solemn form in which an asseveration can be made. I ought to add, and it is the only sentence in the whole of this address which I have any satisfaction in uttering, that, apart from the unfortunate misunderstanding I have alluded to, and which the looseness and forget fulness pertaining to verbal communications may, perhaps, explain, nothing could be more loyal, more cordial, more generous, or more gallant than the support which I received throughout the whole of these transactions from all the officers commanding Her Majesty's forces. I must say I think there were some performances of the British navy during that period of a most remarkable character. I think the manner in which we visited many parts of the coast of Japan and the expedition for 600 miles up an unknown river, without pilot or chart, accomplished both in going and returning with perfect safety and good order, were transactions reflecting the highest credit on the gallant officers who were engaged in them. In alluding more particularly to these circumstances, I wish to say at the same time that an equal degree of gallantry and skill was shown by the whole of the fleet in all the operations which occurred, whether belligerent or otherwise; and I have only to repeat what I have more than once said in private and official communications, that to the happy audacity of my gallant Friend Captain Osborne, on board of whose ship I was for sixteen months, I was much indebted for the success of my mission.


said, that an imputation of the utmost gravity had been cast upon the conduct of the gallant Admiral who commanded in China at the time the events referred to by the noble Earl took place. He would not then go into the question which had been raised; but he begged their Lordships to suspend their judgment on the matter until all the papers bearing upon it were before them.

Motion agreed to.

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