HL Deb 27 April 1865 vol 178 cc1075-80

, in rising to call attention to the imprisonment and severe treatment to which a British Consul and other British subjects had been exposed by the orders of the Emperor of Abyssinia, and to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, What steps had been taken to relieve our fellow-countrymen from the severities to which they had been subjected, and to which it was believed they were still subjected, said, that several of our fellow-countrymen had been kept in imprisonment at Gondar, exposed to the most cruel sufferings, and a general impression prevailed that these sufferings were attributable to the want of prompt and judicious measures on the part of the English Foreign Office. Mr. Plowden, the British Consul at Massowah, a few years ago was met by an overpowering body of the rebels against the Emperor of Abyssinia. He was taken prisoner, but was ransomed, and afterwards died of his wounds. In July, 1862, Captain Cameron, the new Consul, who was the bearer of certain presents sent by this Government to the Emperor of Abyssinia, met with a most flattering reception at the hands of that Sovereign, who expressed a desire that the negotiation for a treaty between the Government of Abyssinia and this country, which had fallen through in 1849, should be renewed. An autograph letter of the Emperor to Her Majesty was delivered to Captain Cameron, in November, 1862, who thereupon took steps to forward it to this country; but the Emperor being at that time engaged in war with certain rebels, the communication with the coast was cut off, and the letter did not arrive here until February, 1863. Shortly after this an invasion of the northern parts of Abyssinia by the Egyptian Government took place. Captain Cameron endeavoured to settle the dispute, but was compelled to desist from his pacific endeavours in consequence of the remonstrances of the Egyptian authorities. Captain Cameron having ceased to exert himself in favour of the Abyssinian Emperor, that Sovereign felt himself much aggrieved, especially as he had received no reply to his autograph letter to this country. Unfortunately, further cause of offence arose. In November, 1863, Mr. Stern a missionary, sent out by the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, sought an interview with the Emperor. He was accompanied by two servants as interpreters; but as they did not perform their duty to the satisfaction of the Emperor, he ordered them to be scourged, and one of them was beaten to death. Mr. Stern, in his excitement, turned away from the sight and bit his tongue; and he was thereupon ordered to be beaten, and for some time his life was in danger, and he was chained to an Abyssinian soldier. Two days afterwards, the missionaries, including several ladies, were seized and sent to a prison, where they were treated very rigorously; and all the Europeans in Abyssinia, including Captain Cameron, were loaded with chains and put in prison. The Emperor called a great council of his grandees, and before it Mr. Stern and Mr. Rosenthal, another missionary, were charged with using offensive expressions, which amounted, in the eyes of the Abyssinian law, to high treason. The Council found the prisoners guilty, and some of the grandees were of opinion that they ought to be put to death. Fortunately, milder counsels prevailed, and these unfortunate persons were ordered back to prison. As if to complicate matters just at this time a letter arrived from England, which, instead of being a reply to the Emperor's letter, simply directed Captain Cameron to return to his post and not to interfere further in the Egyptian dispute. In consequence of this neglect of Her Majesty's Government to reply to the Emperor's letter, Captain Cameron was loaded with heavier fetters, and was treated with far greater severity, and the whole of the prisoners were chained night and day to a Native soldier. Captain Cameron subsequently managed to get the following note conveyed to England:— Gondar, Feb. 14, 1864. Myself, Stern, Rosenthal, Cairns, Bardel, and M'Kiloie, are all in chains here. Flad, Staiger, Branders, and Cornelius, sent to Gaffat to work for the Emperor. No release till a civil answer to Emperor's letter arrives. Mrs. Flad, Mrs. Rosenthal, and children, all of us well. Write this to Aden and to Mrs. Stern, 16, Lincoln's Inn Fields. To C. Speedy, Esq., Massowah. This letter did not reach England until May 25, 1864, and on the 3rd of June a question was put in the House of Commons to Mr. Layard the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, upon this subject; in answer to which that hon. Gentleman stated that Her Majesty's Government would, of course, do all they possibly could to obtain the release of Captain Cameron and of the missionaries, and that the most likely way would be to send some person to that country in order to get them set free; but Her Majesty's Government were afraid that any person sent for that purpose would be likely to share the fate of the Consul and the missionaries rather than succeed in obtaining their release. The question was, how to get at the Emperor without endangering the liberty of others; but he trusted that means would soon be found of communicating with the Emperor; and that the subject was under the serious consideration of the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office. The autograph letter of the Emperor arrived in this country in February, 1863, and remained unnoticed until June, 1864, and then what the Government did amounted to a condemnation of their own conduct. In that month a letter was prepared to be sent to the Emperor of Abyssinia; but if it was right to send a letter in June, 1864, much more necessary was it to have sent a letter shortly after the month of February, 1863. There could be no doubt that if a letter had been sent with presents and conveyed by an Englishman of some rank, the release of these unfortunate prisoners would have taken place. At last when a letter was sent the person selected to deliver it was Mr. Rassam, an Asiatic gentleman, Assistant Superintendent to the Political Agent at Aden: a man of great experience and ability, but just the sort of person who ought not to have been selected for the purpose; and the consequences which occurred were just such as might have been expected. Mr. Rassam took the autograph letter, as also one of introduction, to the Coptic Bishop. The letter of introduction he sent to the Em- peror; but he received no reply, and up to March of the present year Mr. Rassam appeared to have received no reply to his intimation that he had the autograph letter. On the 17th January, 1865, a letter was received from Mr. Stern, from the prison of Amba Magdala, in Southern Abyssinia, in which he stated that sixteen months of unparalleled sufferings had rolled over him; that he was not mad, sick, or dead, but must be attributed to the interposition of a gracious Providence, and describing generally the nature of these sufferings, which had not been put an end to, although a friendly letter had arrived from the British Government. Let their Lordships, then, consider the situation of those unhappy persons during the whole of the present year. Under those circumstances, he thought that he was fairly entitled to ask why the autograph letter of the Emperor of Abyssinia, which arrived in February, 1863, was utterly disregarded until the month of June, 1864; because the omission to answer that letter might have occasioned, or, at all events, considerably aggravated the sufferings of the prisoners. He (Lord Chelmsford) could not move formally for papers, as he had not given notice for the particular documents which he wished to have laid upon the table, but he would take an early opportunity to do so.


said, he felt a great difficulty in addressing the House on this subject, lest anything which fell from him might give offence to the King of Abyssinia and expose Consul Cameron and the other prisoners to greater hardships than they had yet suffered. He would briefly refer to the chief circumstances connected with this matter. The former Consul, Mr. Plowden, had been very well received in Abyssinia, and when he died the King paid respect to his remains. When Captain Cameron was appointed Consul he was ordered to convey presents to the King and a letter from Her Majesty thanking him for the kindness he had shown to the late Consul. But at the same time the Consul's proper place was at Massowah, and he would have returned there had he not been violently interrupted on his journey. The noble and learned Lord (Lord Chelmsford) seemed to think that when the King had written an autograph letter to the Queen it would have been a very simple matter to answer it civilly at once, and to send out some person to deliver the reply. But many difficulties stood in the way. The letter of the King of Abyssinia asked permission to send an embassy to this country. The state of Abyssinia was unsettled at that time, and it had become more unsettled since. The King complained that the Turks and Egyptians encroached on his territory, and he wanted the English and French to interfere and take part in his wars—a course which Her Majesty's Government thought by no means desirable. It became, therefore, matter for consideration what answer should be given; and the question being one of Eastern policy, the Secretary of State for India had to be consulted before any answer was returned. It appeared that in the meantime the King of Abyssinia had taken great offence at the conduct of some missionaries. On this fact being officially communicated to Her Majesty's Government, Her Majesty was advised to forward a letter to the King, replying to certain complaints made, and expressing regret at the occasion of them. The noble and learned Lord seemed to think that Mr. Rassam was not a proper person to be charged with this duty. But Mr. Rassam was a man of considerable experience and importance in the service; and when he (Earl Russell) found that he held the office of first Assistant Secretary to the Political Resident at Aden, he thought no better person could be selected to execute this mission. Mr. Rassam was, accordingly, sent with this letter of Her Majesty, and the King of Abyssinia was informed that he was the bearer of a letter from the Queen of England. That was in August, 1864. By the last accounts it did not appear that the King of Abyssinia had actually received that letter. It was very difficult to publish the information communicated by persons residing in the territory without exposing them to considerable danger; he might, however, state that, according to the most recent information received from that country, it appeared that the chains were taken off the arms and legs of the Consul, and that he was not fastened to any other person. The King of Abyssinia had been all this time engaged in a war with some of his own people who were in rebellion against him, and with some of the neighbouring chiefs; he had left his capital in consequence of this war, and it was said that as soon as he came back he would most probably take steps to liberate the missionaries. No doubt endeavours had been frequently made to excite the mind of the King of Abyssinia against certain persons, sometimes English and sometimes French subjects. Her Majesty's Government never thought it advisable to use or threaten force in any way. The King was, in fact, told that if those prisoners were liberated no reparation would be required. There was, however, no justification for the conduct of the King of Abyssinia. Some months ago it was suggested that some person in official uniform should be employed to demand the release of the prisoners; but he (Earl Russell) must confess that he was by no means sanguine as to the efficacy of such a measure. He believed that the real grievance felt by the King of Abyssinia was the fact that no aid had been given by this country to His Majesty while he was engaged in the wars to which he had alluded. The Government of Her Majesty had used all the means in their power to procure the release of the prisoners. Some persons thought that if we sent out a magnificent mission with presents to the King, it would be the means of attaining their object and securing the respect of the people; but to him it appeared that the natural inference from such a proceeding would be that the way to obtain consideration and respect from this country would be to imprison one of our Consuls. The matter had been fully considered by the Foreign Office, but he had no further explanation to offer. He trusted that the noble and learned Lord would not move for papers, because a great deal of the information in the possession of the Government came from persons who would be exposed to danger if it were published.

House adjourned at a quarter past Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.