§ VISCOUNT STRATFORD DE REDCLIFFE
rose to call the attention of their Lordships to the case of the English subjects captive in Abyssinia, with the view of asking some Questions on the subject. The matter had been brought under the notice of the House last Session, but since then the condition of the unfortunate captives had remained unchanged. It was not his intention to go into the past circumstances of the case, or to enter into the question as to what was the original cause of the calamity which had overtaken these unfortunate persons, and whether any fault was attributable to Her Majesty's Government, It was enough for him to consider that these persons who were envoys from Her Majesty, bearing a letter in her own handwriting, and who had been sent out under the express authority of the Government to effect the liberation of the prisoners, were still captives. To show their Lordships what was the deplorable condition of these unfortunate persons, he would read an extract from a work recently published by Dr. Beke. He said—Captain Cameron, Her Britannic Majesty's Consul in Abyssinia, two missionaries of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, and several other British subjects and persons connected with British missionary societies—men, women, and children—have been for three years the captives of Theodore, Emperor of Abyssinia, Her Majesty's representative and several of these captives have further been subjected to the greatest indignities, and even to cruel torture, and they have long remained in prison, chained hand and foot, herded together with the lowest criminals; while, to add to the difficulties and disgrace of all parties concerned, Mr. Rassam, the envoy sent by the Government of this country, with a letter signed by Her Majesty's own hand, with a view to effect the liberation of the unfortunate persons who have so long lingered in captivity, has himself been thrown into prison, together with the members of his suite.He could not consider any subject better 240 calculated to rouse the spirit of the people of England. That a number of English subjects should be at the mercy and caprice of a person like this Emperor of Abyssinia came home to our English feelings with a force that could hardly be exaggerated. Not only was our common humanity interested in this case, but our national honour and dignity were also at stake. There was a time when it used to be said that England, if she did no right to other nations, would suffer no wrong to be done to herself; and no doubt the epigram expressed pretty accurately the spirit of our policy at that time; but now the case seemed to be reversed, for at no previous period had so much sensitiveness been displayed with regard to the rights of other nations, and so much solicitude displayed to abstain from anything that could give them offence. He should be exceedingly sorry in any way to be the medium of placing this country in danger of war; but there were certain plain duties inseparable from our position among nations which could not be abandoned, without incurring even greater risk of the danger so justly feared. If upon repeated occasions we exhibited a want of sensibility to that which our interest or our honour required, we should soon discover by fresh insults offered to us that no nation can afford to brook indignities, and we might some day be called on to vindicate our honour at vastly greater cost. He therefore begged to ask the noble Earl at the head of the Government, What were the number, quality, and condition of the British captives in Abyssinia at the period of the latest reliable information received respecting them by Her Majesty's Government; what steps, if any, had been taken for their liberation since the close of the last Session of Parliament; was it in the contemplation of Her Majesty's Government to adopt any further measure for that purpose either alone or in concert with any other Government; and, was it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to present any additional correspondence on the subject of our relations with King Theodore to the two Houses of Parliament?
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
said, that on receipt of intimation as to the question which his noble Friend (Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe) proposed to put, he had thought it his duty to ask what further information, if any, had been received at the Foreign Office, with a view of enabling him to answer those Questions specifically. 241 The subject was one of very deep and painful interest, and he wished it were in his power to give any assurance that the steps which had been taken were likely to lead to any satisfactory result. He was sorry to say that, according to the latest accounts, the captives remained in the same; state; and, although there was no reason to believe that they were treated with any fresh or extraordinary cruelties, they were still retained in imprisonment. In answer to the first Question put by his noble Friend as to the number, quality, and condition of the prisoners, he had to state that the number reported to Mr. Rassam on the 4th of April, 1866, as being in confinement, consisted of Consul Cameron, two Missionaries, Mr. Rassam and his suite, and several others, amounting in all to eighteen persons. In the autumn of last year intelligence was transmitted to this country that King Theodore had liberated the whole of the captives, and that they were placed at the disposal of Mr. Rassam; but, notwithstanding that this statement was made in a letter to the Queen, he not only failed to release the prisoners, but detained Mr. Rassam and his suite, which included two or three gentlemen of the Indian service as well. On receiving the assurance of the Emperor that the captives would be released, a number of presents had been sent out in accordance with his desire, together with a number of English artizans who were willing to go into Abyssinia to render their services on certain public works. But, when it was found that Mr. Rassam and the other gentlemen were detained, notwithstanding the assurance of King Theodore, instructions were given to Her Majesty's representative to take charge of the presents and not to permit the artizans to proceed further than Massowah, and on no account to give up one or the other except on the actual release of the captives, there being reason to believe that the object of the Emperor was to get possession of the presents and workmen and still to retain the captives in his own hands. It was known that the letter written by the Queen to King Theodore had been received; but no official reply had yet been received, consequently the presents had all been detained, and the artizans had returned, having abandoned the idea of going to Abyssinia. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had thought it proper to write to the Emperor in the name of the Queen requiring that the captives should forthwith be given up, and informing 242 him that if, within three months, they had not all left Abyssinia the presents would be returned to England. To that last communication no reply had yet been received, and till some further information was obtained, Her Majesty's Government were not prepared to state what course they would pursue. He might, however, state that any course which was adopted would be taken by themselves alone, and not in conjunction with any other Power. The Government would be very willing to lay any further correspondence upon the table; but in whatever course they adopted they must be guided by considerations affecting the safety of the prisoners. It was perfectly well known that nothing passed in the Parliament, or in this country, intelligence of which was not transmitted to King Theodore, and it was at the greatest possible risk that any opinions were expressed, or any discussions held in public, lest these should be conveyed in a shape unfavourable to the prisoners. He trusted their Lordships would therefore forgive him if he did not venture to enter into any further explanation than that which he had already given of the actual state of the relations between King Theodore and Her Majesty.
§ VISCOUNT STRATFORD DE REDCLIFFE
asked whether, at the date of the latest information received, the captives were kept in chains?
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
said, that sometimes the prisoners were chained and sometimes released; in point of fact, it was impossible to say from month to month, or from week to week, what were the precise circumstances under which they were detained; but, as he had said, there was reason to suppose that their captivity was not attended with any circumstances of rigor or cruelty.
said, that he had seen a letter received from Consul Cameron, which was written in very bad spirits, and contained this expressive phrase "perhaps the sooner the mauvais quart d'heure is over the better."
§ EARL GRANVILLE
repeated the advice which he had offered on the previous evening, that when Motions of an important character, affecting public business, were intended to be brought forward, notice to that effect ought to be given. To the question under discussion he would not add one word beyond the expression of his own satisfaction at hearing from Her Majesty's present Ministers language very 243 nearly similar to that which fell from Her Majesty's late Government.