HL Deb 13 June 1865 vol 180 cc109-12

said, that when this subject was under discussion a few evenings ago, the noble Earl the Secretary for Foreign Affairs stated that from a memorandum received at the Foreign Office it appeared to be Sir William Coghlan's opinion that it would be inexpedient to send a mission to the King of Abyssinia until the prisoners were liberated. At the time he thought that a most extraordinary opinion, inasmuch as the object of the proposed mission was the liberation of the prisoners. He now begged to read a letter, dated June 3, which a gallant Friend of his had received from Sir William Coghlan, from which it would appear that the noble Earl had taken an erroneous view of Sir William's memorandum:— I kept no copy of the memorandum which I sent to the Foreign Office, and therefore I cannot say precisely how far I may have exposed myself to be misunderstood. What I intended to say was, that a mission of some dignity should be sent with an answer to the King's letter, and, as there would be an awkwardness in Her Majesty recognizing the fact of the captivity of her subjects, it would be expedient to make no mention of it in the answer, but to leave the Envoy to find it out, and, by the exercise of the large discretion to be accorded to him, to effect their release before he proceeded to the complimentary part of his mission, as he could not make presents and pay compliments while the captives wore kept. That is what I meant, and I believe that to have been the right view at that time. But since the subject has been largely and publicly discussed, my suggestion that it should be left to the Envoy to discover the captivity of our people is no longer compatible. The Queen's letter must now recognize the fact, and the Envoy should be empowered to obtain their release by any means which may appear to him most suitable. It is impossible to prescribe for him a strict line of proceeding; the man sent on a mission of such difficulty and danger must be trusted. That is my present view of the case, and I am ready to act on it whenever called on. The postscript followed, which it was evident the writer had not intended to be read to their Lordships; but he would take the liberty of reading it:— P.S.—On looking over what I have written, it seems to me somewhat too free for publication in the House of Lords; but if Lord Chelmsford wishes to make use of it there, I dare say he will be able to extract enough for his purpose. Mr. Rassam's efforts appear to have failed, and there is now nothing for it but to make one from England. There is no disguising the fact that long delay has added to the difficulty, but that difficulty must be encountered and overcome. He had felt it right to show how the matter really stood, and he thought the noble Earl would be ready to admit that there had been a mistake.


Certainly I did understand Sir William Coghlan's memorandum to be to the effect which I stated on a former occasion; but it appears, from the letter just read by the noble and learned Lord, that I was mistaken. The noble and learned Lord says he thought that it would have been a very extraordinary thing for Sir William Coghlan to be of opinion that a mission should not be sent to Abyssinia before the prisoners were liberated; but I must say that it would appear to me to be a very extraordinary proceeding to send out an English mission to go humbly before the King and ask him to receive presents while our Consul and other Europeans are still in custody under the circumstances which have been already detailed to your Lordships. The subject is attended with considerable difficulty; but I shall be ready to adopt any means that may appear feasible for the liberation of the captives.


I wish to ask the noble Earl whether the report is true which I have heard on what I believe to be good authority—namely, that the unfortunate mistake through which the letter of the King was detained for some months did not arise in the Foreign Office, but in the India Office. If this is the fact I think the public ought to know it; for, as respects the dignity of this country, this imprisonment of the Consul is one of the most important events which I remember to have occurred in our diplomatic history. It is true that a Consul does not stand in the rank of an Ambassador, but he occupies an official position to which he is appointed by the Crown, and his person is always considered as sacred as that of an Ambassador. I do not say that the noble Earl has been remiss in this matter; but I do not think he has been as prompt in vindicating the rights of a British subject as the case demands. I would remind your Lordships of some occurrences which have taken place of late years. In 1852, when an ill-mannered boy interfered with the band of an Austrian regiment at Florence and received a would, the sum of £250 which I demanded in compensation for that offence was, by many persons in this country, thought to be an insufficient sum. In 1858, when the French Consul at Jedda was murdered and an attempt was made to assassinate the English Consul, what was done by the Government of Lord Derby? The compensation which was demanded not having been paid, an English ship bombarded the town, and we insisted on and obtained the execution of the murderers. I do not know whether the noble Earl is of opinion that his arm is not long enough to reach Abyssinia. But if so it comes to this—that the Queen cannot be advised to send her servants to places too far away to be reached by the arm of England, because if Ambassadors or Consuls are sent to such places, disgrace may fall upon this country, to say nothing of the cruelties which may be perpetrated upon individuals. I hope the noble Earl will take some action, and will do what he can to show that English servants are as safe under the protection of England now as ever they have been.


As to inducing the King of Abyssinia by force to give up these captives, the noble Earl knows that the whole country is now disturbed by civil war; that there are three or four different pretenders in possession of different points, all endeavouring to force the King into a corner. Instead of sending one ship we should have to send three or four, with some three or four thousand men, who would have to march through a hot climate before they could reach the King. On the other hand, I believe it is the opinion of those best able to judge, that if we were to send any mission to the King of Abyssinia he would probably imprison the persons composing it, with a view to forcing us to take his part against his rivals.