HL Deb 30 March 1868 vol 191 cc452-6

rose, according to Notice, to call the Attention of the House to the Papers presented respecting Hostilities in the River Plate. The noble Lord was understood to complain that the official papers on that subject which had been produced were very defective, and failed to give their Lordships the information that was desirable on various points connected with that question. He entertained the greatest confidence in the intentions of the noble Lord the present Foreign Secretary, although during his tenure of office this country had been plunged into one of the most impracticable and useless, as well as costly, little wars—namely, the Abyssinian war—probably because he had thought that public opinion was in its favour. On the present subject Lord Stanley lays down the positive rule to Mr. Lettsom— I have to observe to you, as this is a subject in which Her Majesty's Government have no direct interest, they do not feel justified in expressing any opinion thereon to the Government of the Oriental Republics. The state of affairs in the South American Governments had been of late years very curious; and it was almost impossible to ascertain the nominal motives of the hostilities in which they were engaged, although the real motives were obvious. He was glad to see that the Correspondence which had been laid on the table was entirely free from any notion of interference on our part in those wars, the origin of which appeared to be an attempt on the part of the Brazilian Government, in alliance with the Argentine Republic, to get possession of the territory of the Plate. It appeared, however, that the Government of Paraguay detained a number of British subjects, chiefly engineers and medical men, in a besieged place called Humaita, and refused to liberate them, lest they should give information to the enemy or engage in his service. Mr. Gould, the British Consular Agent there, stated that a party of forty-six Europeans were so detained; but President Lopez denied that there were more than six Europeans in Paraguay, and asserted that they were resident in the State of their own free will, carrying out a contract entered into with the Government. There was a great discrepancy between the statements of Mr. Gould and President Lopez; and it was desirable that their Lordships should have the means of knowing what was the exact number of the British subjects detained; whether they were really detained against their will, or under contract; and, if under contract, what the nature of the contract was, and whether it had or had not expired? Mr. Gould said, that without the presence of a British ship of war, he could not obtain the release of our subjects; but how was a British ship of war to get up there? The gun-boat Dotterel had been stranded three times in attempting it. Mr. Gould had told President Lopez that he would hold him responsible for whatever might happen to our countrymen. One question which deserved attention was this—Were we clearly entitled to say that International Law prevented a State in besieged warfare from detaining the subjects of a neutral, whether under contract or otherwise, if it suspected that they might join or help the enemy? It appeared to him that if the Government engaged in this dispute they ought to make sure of even step they took, or else the affair might end very perilously and expensively. He did not mean positively to accuse Mr. Gould of any partiality; but he was bound to notice the contradictions in his accounts and those of other officers. Mr. Gould said— The Paraguayan forces amount altogether to about 20,000 men; of these 10,000, or 12,000 at most, are good troops; the rest are mere boys from twelve to fourteen years of age, old men and cripples, besides from 2,000 to 3,000 sick and wounded. The men are worn out with exposure, fatigue, and privations; they are actually dropping down from inanition. They have been reduced for the last six months to meat alone, and that of a very inferior quality. They may once in a way get a little Indian corn; but that, mandioc, and especially salt, are so very scarce, they are, I fully believe, only served out to the sick. In the whole camp there is absolutely nothing for sale. There must be, judging from what I saw, a great scarcity of drugs and medicines, if not a total want of them for the sick, whose number is rapidly increasing. Few recover, as may naturally be expected under such circumstances. Cholera and smallpox, which exist to a certain extent in the allied camp, are spreading very much among the Paraguayans. The horses have nearly all died off, and the few hundreds that yet remain are so weak and emaciated they can scarcely carry their riders. The last 800 or 900 mares in the whole country have, however, just been brought in. The draught oxen are in a dreadful state, and cannot last much longer. The cattle in the camp, some 15,000 or 20,000 head, are dying very fast for want of pasturage. Captain Michell, on the other hand (the officer in command of the Dotterel), spoke of the forces in high terms. Writing on the same day, and describing the same army, he said— At Curupaity, while waiting for Mr. Gould and the British subjects, I had the honour of being presented to President Lopez, who received me most kindly, showing me from a high position, with a powerful spyglass, the whole of his lines and trenches at Curupaity, which are of great strength, and I believe impregnable to the allies. The troops appeared in good health and spirits, and are an extraordinarily fine race of men. They do not suffer half the hardships that are reported. Large quantities of cattle and sheep were in the camps. The question was, which of these two reports was the more accurate. It was difficult to decide on which side the truth lay; but that was the more reason why the Government should act with caution, and should enlighten public opinion on this matter. In June last Lord Stanley wrote to Mr. Mathew, stating that he had called the attention of the Chargé d'Affaires of Paraguay in this country to the detention of British subjects in Paraguay, and suggesting that a gunboat should be sent to receive them on board. Since that time we had received a new Minister, and yet appointed none of our own. The public were entitled to know why, if President Lopez had so violated International Law, as asserted by Mr. Gould, we should retain and receive his Chargé d'Affaires, and why we had none in Paraguay? The public were also entitled to know whether the Government had any accurate information relative to these contracts: and, whether, assuming that they were acting in accordance with International Law, they had taken the best course to put an end to this dispute. If this country were carried into war there would be no knowing where it would end.


As my noble Friend has given your Lordships an accurate sketch of what has taken place in these countries I need say no more on that subject. I am happy to relieve the mind of the noble Lord of the notion that Her Majesty's Government are about, to embark in another Abyssinian war in South America. There is not the slightest, chance of our being engaged in such a proceeding. It is true that certain Englishmen are detained in the camp of President Lopez; but our information on that subject is extremely vague, and it is impossible for me to say how a list can be made out. Mr. Gould was in a difficult position when he first went out, and he had great difficulty in obtaining information. The same might be said of Captain Michell, and it was to be expected that their separate accounts of what they saw would not agree. But the most important point is one to which the noble Lord has not alluded—the chance of our being able to put an end to this sanguinary war. I do not know whether the noble Baron wished Her Majesty's Government to mediate between the two parties. I believe that our interposition would do more harm than good. There is, therefore, no intention on the part of the Government to interfere until we see a much better chance of success than that which now exists. It is quite true that the desirability of mediation has been hinted at, but the Government have confined themselves to instructing our Minister at Buenos Ayres to do what he can to obtain the release of these Englishmen. I will not go into the question of how far International Law has been violated in the detention of these six Englishmen in the camp of President Lopez. I can easily perceive from the character of President Lopez, that their position is anything but agreeable. At the same time it must be borne in mind that Lopez himself is in a very peculiar position. He is blockaded in his camp; and it is not to be expected that, as he is beleaguered, he will allow any person to leave his camp and give information as to his means of defence, which might be useful to the enemy. I am asked, whether the Government are aware of the contracts with those Englishmen, and whether they have expired or not? We have no information on that subject; but it would naturally become a question rather of a civil than any other process between these persons and those who engaged them. It would be very difficult for us to go into a country so wild and in such a state of warfare. All that can be done at present for those Englishmen, will be to recommend our Minister to watch carefully the course of events and to obtain their release as soon as possible. I do not think your Lordships will consider it wise on the part of the Government to make any offer of mediation at the present time, and there is not the slightest danger of our being involved in hostilities in these countries.


feared, from the temper of Mr. Gould's correspondence, that if any discretionary power were intrusted to that gentleman, he would sooner or later involve us in hostilities. He thought it was extremely wrong for this country to allow itself to be drawn into a war on behalf of persons who, for their own objects and interests, had become connected with barbarous or semi-barbarous Powers. If any persons placed themselves in positions in which they were very likely to be ill treated by such men as Lopez and others, they could not expect the power of this country to be put forth for their release. He hoped no force would be placed at the disposal of our diplomatic agents; for if ships of war were sent to the spot, they would be tempted to make use of them, and England might sooner or later be dragged into a war.