HL Deb 19 July 1867 vol 188 cc1714-7

presented a Petition of W. Baxter & Co., owners of the ship Mermaid, complaining of the sinking of that vessel by the Spaniards and praying for redress; and, asked Her Majesty's Ministers whether the Tornado has been restored to her Owners, or the legality of the Detention submitted to a proper Tribunal? The facts relative to the case of the Mermaid were simply these — the vessel was fired into while passing the Spanish fort at Ceuta, on the African coast, and sunk. The reason assigned by the Spanish authorities for having fired at the ship was that she did not display her ensign when passing within the prescribed distance of the coast. The owners' case was that stress of weather drove them near the coast, and rendered them unable to show their colours in consequence of their rigging being damaged. The case was considered by Her Majesty's Government, and compensation demanded; but the demand was refused by the Spanish Government, and the demand had not been persisted in. There seemed to be a determination on the part of the Spanish Government not to do justice with regard to this case; and he regretted to say that there appeared a disposition on the part of Her Majesty's Government not to press the matter. With regard to the Tornado there seemed to be a similar determination on the part of the Spanish Government not to do justice. The Spanish Government undertook that the case should be adjudicated upon "in accordance with international rights and natural equity;" instead of which there was a trial, which was a perfect farce, and which was admittedly informal in every respect. On those proceedings being declared null and void, the Spanish Government still refused to release the ship, on the ground that there was to be a new trial. No proper tribunal, however, for that purpose existed in the country, and until the Government chose to erect one they detained the ship. This was not justice. The crew, moreover, had been treated in a most unjustifiable way. They were robbed of their property, their working tools, and their money—the Spanish Government admitted so much—and then the Papers would not be given for the inspection of our Minister until they were subjected to a previous examination by the Spanish authorities, which examination could not take place for a long time. Now, he would put it to the noble Earl whether the Spanish Government were not wanting in that due respect and consideration which were due to Her Majesty's Government?


I understand the noble Marquess to put two Questions—in the first place whether the Tornado has been returned to her owners; and, in the next place, whether the matter has been referred to any Court for adjudication? I can only say that the objections which have been taken by Her Majesty's Government with respect to the Tornado are not in the slightest degree connected with the assumed merits of the case—and I respectfully decline entering upon them now—but only with the mode in which the trial was originally conducted, according to which the parties were condemned without having had an opportunity of making their defence. The noble Lord the Foreign Secretary made a strong representation on that subject, and the result was that the original proceedings were declared to be null and void in consequence of informality, and the Spanish Government expressed their intention of proceeding to a new trial. I am not aware that that new trial has as yet commenced. The case, however, has not been lost sight of by Her Majesty's Government. The noble Marquess knows that the Spanish Government are not remarkable for the rapidity of their proceedings; but I must say that the owners of the vessel, though desirous of getting her back, do not seem very desirous of any investigation upon the merits of the case. Indeed, so far as I can learn, neither party is anxious for an investigation upon the merits.


said, that the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Clanricarde) had frequently in the course of the Session put on the paper notice of Questions on this subject—his obvious intention being to urge Her Majesty's Government to high-handed measures against the Spanish Government. Having read the papers on the subject with great care, he was bound to say that he entirely approved the course taken by Her Majesty's Government, and he believed it would be very wrong to urge them to any stronger measures against the Government of Spain. It was very natural, when a vessel carrying British colours was seized, that Members either of that or the other House should desire that strong measures should be taken; and it was, moreover, impossible to deny that the Spanish Government had behaved cruelly and, as he believed, unjustly to the crew of the Tornado. That had been taken strong notice of by Her Majesty's Government; but, as regarded the ship, he could not help saying that, to use the mildest language, she was seized under circumstances of the most violent suspicion. This case threw an important light upon the imperfect state of the law with respect to such matters. It was impossible to doubt that a regular trade in ironclad vessels of war would become a regular item in the shipbuilding of this country. In time of peace that trade would be legitimate and ought to be encouraged; but in time of war the Legislature had declared that the supply, to belligerent countries, of ships of war, even partially equipped, was liable to expose this country to serious risk. The weaker of two belligerents usually required ships. Now, in time of peace, they could buy what ships they wanted and carry them to their own country; but in time of war there was the greatest risk that those vessels would be seized by the stronger belligerent. The temptation, therefore, was irresistible to come to a private understanding with a builder that the ostensible change of property should not take place in this country, but that the vessel should go out with the British flag until it reached the country which had made the purchase. Now, that class of vessels must be built to contract; because they were so expensive that it was out of the question to suppose that they should be built on mere speculation. It was not a case of guns and other arms which were manufactured in the ordinary course of trade, for the capital invested in ironclads was so great that no shipbuilder would build them except upon a specific contract. Therefore, the House might take it for granted that such vessels were all sold before they sailed from this country. Under these circumstances, no nation that was strong enough to resist would permit such vessels to pass their shores or their ships of war. He was quite sure that in our own case we would not suffer it. It seemed to him, therefore, that some change in our laws was absolutely required which would enable the Government to do, as a matter of course, what the late Government had done, as it was alleged, in violation of the law in the case of the Alexandra and other vessels. It was because the same thing was not done in the case of the Alabama that we were now involved in very disagreeable proceedings with the United States. There was, he believed, a Commission now sitting upon the subject, and he hoped that the result of its recommendations would be to strengthen the hands of the Government in such cases. With respect to the Tornado, numerous attempts had been made to induce the Government to arrest that vessel; but they did not consider themselves armed with sufficient authority to do so. There were few things which he deprecated more than that this country should insist upon a course towards nations comparatively weak which she would not pursue towards nations comparatively strong.


said he did not wish to make any observation in reply to the opinions of the noble Duke, but as to some matters of fact he desired to say a few words. The noble Duke if he referred to the Papers, would see that the vessel had been examined by the officers of our Government, and reexamined, or as he had quoted on a former occasion, she had been "rummaged and re-rummaged," without anything being found to criminate her. As for such ships being always built to order, as the noble Duke had said, the fact was that the very parties who owned the Tornado took four ships previously across the Atlantic and sold them to the Brazilians; and not only that, but after the outward voyage they chartered them before the sale in such a way as to make an exorbitant profit.


expressed his approval of the course taken by the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs on this question, and saw no reason for impugning the conduct of Her Majesty's Government in the matter.