HL Deb 28 June 1861 vol 164 cc1-8

said, that seeing on the bench below him his noble Friend who represented the Foreign Department in that House (Lord Wodehouse), he wished to take the opportunity of asking a question with respect to the recent important event which had occurred at Constantinople. The death of one Sultan and the accession of another were occurrences which could not fail to attract their Lordships' attention, and to interest them by their bearing on the policy which they had reason to expect from the new ruler. These events had occurred at a crisis of considerable moment, to which the attention of this country, in common with the other Powers of Europe, might well be directed. Whatever might be the circumstances to which they must look forward—whether satisfactory or not—whether progressive or reactionary—still very great interests, both of this country and of Europe, were involved in them; and he thought it right that the earliest opportunity should be taken, at least to draw the attention of Parliament to such important subjects. He ventured to do so, not at all in the spirit of any want of confidence in Her Majesty's Government, but for the purpose of calling the attention of the country and of Parliament to a subject which involved interests of vast importance. The history of Turkey during the last two reigns had presented features of great interest, not only to Turkey but to Europe. The reforms so necessary for the Empire were commenced by Sultan Mahmoud. That Sultan showed great qualities of courage and perseverance in adopting those reforms for the benefit of his country which anterior circumstances showed to be desirable. He had the good fortune—if it might be so called—to put down that body of Janissaries who interfered with the interests and good government of the country. He put them down with a hand red with blood, and with a sanguinary determination; but, perhaps, as in other instances in ancient and modern times, it was an act of necessary severity. He also laid the foundation of great reforms in religion; and, in general, his reign was marked by the recovery of that Imperial power so necessary for the administration of affairs in Turkey. But, at the same time, he was unfortunate enough to have to make great sacrifices of territory to a neighbouring Power; he had the misfortune to lose a great portion of his navy, and in that branch of the service under his reign there was a great diminution of the power of the Ottoman Empire. He was compelled by circumstances to admit the establishment of the monarchy of Greece, and he was obliged also to leave Egypt in the possession of a rebellious subject. Carrying on their view to the next reign, it was but just to the late Sultan, Abdul Medjid, to say that, notwithstanding the faults which he was free to say marked his character, instead of losing territory, he recovered part of that which his father had lost; that he carried out that great system of reforms which his father had begun; and that, in general, he showed a protecting and benevolent spirit towards all the subjects of his Empire and particularly towards the Christians; he placed the Protestants of the Empire on the footing of the old established religious communities in his dominions, and he proclaimed unlimited liberty of conscience in religious matters throughout the whole extent of his empire. Many other things he did in a similar spirit; for instance, he abolished torture, and other salutary and humane measures were adopted under his reign—all certainly calculated to soften the impression which might be entertained by those who knew only the less brilliant parts of his character, which he must admit had certainly affected the state of affairs in Turkey. In looking to the character of the present, who, he presumed from unofficial reports, was the brother of the late Sultan, and according to the Oriental custom his heir, it was, of course, of great interest to know how far the policy of the country might be affected by the change. In an arbitrary system of Government the personal character of the Sovereign was of course of great importance. For himself he had no personal knowledge of the present Sultan, as it would have been a great breach of prudence on the part of a foreign representa- tive, especially of the representative of this country, to have interfered in any way during the lifetime of the late Sultan with that system of reserve and retirement to which all the Princes of the Imperial family were subjected. If we were to listen, however, to public report we might perhaps be led to entertain some anxiety on the subject. The new Sultan had been represented as a man of decided and also of a rather violent character; and he was supposed to be surrounded by persons who would willingly see a reactionary system adopted. At the same time it would be well, in entering on this new reign, if foreign Powers, more especially Her Majesty's Government, were to give him credit for good intentions, and to encourage him if he were disposed rather to carry out the system which had been adopted for some time in Turkey than to place himself at the head of a reactionary party, which would not only prove injurious to him and what remained of his empire, but would also put him at variance with those friendly Powers whose assistance in time of need would be of such importance to him. At the same time, no better moment could be chosen for giving, in a friendly tone and with that moderation which the circumstances demanded, advice which might assist in keeping him steady to those good purposes if he entertained them, or might lead him to a more salutary frame of mind if that were not the case. And it appeared to him that from no quarter could that advice proceed so well as from Her Majesty's Government, acting as it did with other Powers of Europe, who had pledged themselves to maintain, so long as was possible, the independence and integrity of the Turkish Empire, and being at the same time free from any of those suspicions which might attach to the policy of those Powers, who, being neighbours of Turkey, might be supposed to be actuated by interested motives—he said that under these circumstances advice proceeding from the British Government was more likely to recommend itself to the new Sultan's mind than advice proceeding from any other quarter. As he had already said, a change of Sovereigns in Turkey was an event which might very seriously affect the future state of the empire, and, consequently, its relations with this country; and it was in this spirit that he had risen to put his Question to his noble Friend which he was sure he would answer without difficulty. It was of great consequence that the new Sovereign of the Turkish Empire should be led to believe and to understand that this great country took a real and systematic interest in maintaining his power in so far as it was wielded for good purposes. Not only had we an interest in a general point of view in leading the Sultan's mind to a right course of policy, but we were under obligations to Turkey, which, if we were called on to carry them out, must have the effect of entailing great sacrifices upon us, and put us in a position of great anxiety and danger. Without the policy which it was so desirable to recommend to the Sultan, it was impossible, in his humble opinion, that we could escape from those dangers. It was only by taking up the subject in time, and by pressing upon the Sultan those reforms which had been recommended for so many years, which the Sovereign of Turkey himself had adopted, and which he had proclaimed and recorded in public documents, that we could stave off and avoid these dangers. In the present state of Europe and in the uncertainties which prevailed as to the feeling of other Powers which were interested in that part of the world, and which were likely to be called into activity if England did not at once take a decided line—if England did not take up a proper attitude and show herself prepared to carry out her engagements, and to stand by that empire, her responsibility would be great and she would have to repent of her negligence. He trusted he was not trespassing too much upon the House, but it must be remembered that he had himself been a personal witness of all that had taken place in that country for many years, and without pretending to any superior judgment his personal experience must necessarily give him a stronger impression on these subjects than would be entertained by those who had only viewed the matter at a distance. He did not pretend to enter into the general question of the policy of this country, as to how far in other respects it might be necessary to act with regard to Turkey; but he saw in the strongest point of view the dangers to which we were exposed by any degree of neglect in this country, and that it was the bounden duty of the Government to consider this question in all its bearings, and to do everything in their power, consistent with the interests of the country in other respects, to give effect to those improvements which had been so often discussed, and towards which many import- ant steps had been taken. We had engaged to maintain the integrity and independence of the Turkish Empire, and it was not only the right but the bounden duty of our Government to call upon the Government of Turkey to carry into practical and early effect those reforms which had been adopted and proclaimed throughout the Sultan's dominions, and to the value of which he had heard the strongest testimony given by some of the late Sultan's Ministers. Any neglect on the part of Her Majesty's Government must necessarily carry with it a heavy responsibility, not only on their own consciences but towards the country at large. He wished to ask his noble Friend whether the Government had received any official intelligence or announcement of the accession of the Sultan Abdul Aziz to his brother's throne, and whether any indication had been given of the line of policy which might be expected to be followed under the new reign? There was another point which he wished to mention before sitting down. According to the invariable custom and policy of Constantinople the present Sultan had, during his brother's lifetime, been completely at his brother's mercy; and so the children of the late Sultan would, in like manner, be entirely at the disposal of the reigning Sovereign. He hoped that the present Sovereign, having experienced the kindness of his brother, would, in the same spirit, extend to his children that treatment which the interests of the country and humanity required at his hands.


said, he was not surprised at the anxiety displayed by his noble Friend respecting the state of affairs at Constantinople, in consequence of the death of the late Sultan, and the accession of a new one. Such events were of great importance in every country, but especially must they be important in a country like Turkey, where the personal character of the Sovereign was of such consequence. He believed that the account given by the noble Lord from his personal knowledge of the amiable qualities of the late Sultan was perfectly accurate, but he could himself add nothing to that subject. With regard to the new Sultan, who, as his noble Friend observed, was the brother of the late Sultan, and was entitled by the law of Turkey to the succession, the Government had received an authoritative announcement of his accession to the throne, and had also received assurances that it was his intention to pursue the same foreign policy as had been pursued by his predecessor, and, as to the internal affairs of Turkey, that he would inaugurate useful and salutary reforms. At the same time the Turkish Ambassador told his noble Friend the Foreign Secretary, that an Imperial Hatti-Scheriff would shortly be issued, in which a full statement would be made respecting the policy of Sultan Aziz in regard to the internal affairs of Turkey. He would not attempt to draw the horroscope of the new Sultan, but hoped His Majesty would have a fortunate reign, entirely agreeing, however, with his noble Friend as to the extreme necessity of immediate and important reforms being made in the Turkish administration, and especially in relation to its finances. He was confident that if the new Sultan followed the advice which would be disinterestedly given him by his allies, and sought to develope the great resources of his empire, introducing regularity into his finances and selecting and supporting honest men under him, so that their measures might be fairly carried out, it was not yet too late for the Turkish Empire to enter into an era of prosperity.


said, their Lordships would, perhaps, think it extraordinary that he should venture to join in a discussion on foreign policy, but having in early life passed a great many years in Turkey, and watched the course of British policy towards that empire, he had imbibed a strong opinion on this subject. To his mind no policy was more calculated to weaken the power of any nation than the policy of interference which had been pursued by Great Britain towards Turkey, and which, as he gathered from the speech of the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, it was intended to continue. If they wished to make Turkey strong, they must govern her according to Turkish law. It was idle for a Christian nation to suppose that its advice could ever tally with the tenets of the Koran. The Turkish was a theocratic Government; its laws were supposed to be of Divine origin; and to force the advice of a Christian Government upon the Sultan was to weaken his hands instead of strengthening them—to make him looked upon as a "Giaour" by his own people—as one who was neither Christian nor Turk, but infidel. Such a policy, if continued, would not add to the strength of the Turkish Empire, but would rather bring it to destruction. There was now an opportunity under a new Sultan of in- augurating a new policy. Let the Sultan govern by Turkish law, and according to the wishes and the feelings of the Turkish people; or on the other hand to overturn his Government at once and Christianize his empire. There must not be an attempt to thrust upon Turkey laws which might suit English tastes and English policy, but were quite inconsistent with the customs, habits, and religion of a Mahommedan people. No doubt our laws were infinitely better than theirs, but before those laws could be usefully transplanted into Turkey, and could be of any use for the support of the empire, the Turks must be made Christians.


said, he should take the earliest opportunity of bringing this subject before the House by a Motion for papers. Without questioning the sincerity of the opinions of his noble Friend (the Earl of Hardwicke) he must say that the doctrines he had just heard from his noble Friend with regard to Turkey were at variance with his own experience there, and with the policy which of both sides of the House had for the last twenty years been adopted towards that country—doctrines, he believed, as fraught with mischief as could well be imagined.