HL Deb 04 March 1869 vol 194 cc620-4

Order of the Day for the House to be put into a Committee on the said Bill, read.


said, that before he asked their Lordships to go into Committee on this Bill he wished to advert to something that had fallen from the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Cairns) on the occasion of the second reading. It was absolutely necessary to recall the reasons why the former Bill had been passed, because it was framed and agreed to in order to stop the slave trade, and that trade had been stopped accordingly for ten or twelve years. Exception had been taken by the noble and learned Lord to the Bill, in ignorance, apparently, of the fact that it had been drawn by the Law Officers of the late Government last year. It was intended to be introduced by Lord Stanley, but it was first referred to the Law Officers of the late Government, and was approved by them in the exact form in which it now stood, with the exception of one verbal alteration made at the Foreign Office in the Preamble. He regretted the absence of another noble and learned Lord (Lord Chelmsford), who was generally so regular in his Parliamentary attendance that he had not thought it necessary—as he otherwise should have done—to give him notice of his intention of referring to this matter. It would be in the recollection of their Lordships that the noble and learned Lord (Lord Chelmsford) stated he had not been consulted about the measure of 1845 before it passed, and that when it was proposed by Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons he had the greatest difficulty in finding arguments in its favour. It was not regular to read the opinions of the Law Officers of the Crown, but he held in his hand an abstract of the opinion of the Law Officers of that day upon the Bill. That opinion was conclusive in favour of further legislative enactments such as were afterwards embodied in the Bill, and it bore the signatures of Sir John Dodson, Sir William Follett, and Sir Frederick Thesiger. He felt it his duty to draw the attention of their Lordships to this circumstance, not in order to convict the noble and learned Lord of inaccuracy, but because he feared that the effect of the noble and learned Lord's speech, backed as it had been by that of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the Opposition, would be likely to produce a very injurious effect at Rio. He was, of course, far from attributing any such motive to the noble and learned Lord, but his speech might have the effect of encouraging the owners of Brazilian cruizers to suppose that they had claims against the English Government when no such claims could be recognized. If, however, there were any persons in Rio who looked forward to bringing any such claims before Parliament, on the authority of the noble and learned Lord, it would be well for them to know that the noble and learned Lord, when a Law Officer of the Crown, had signed an opinion directly opposite to that which he had expressed on Tuesday on the second reading of the Bill.


said, he could not help thinking it would have been better if the noble Earl, intending to refer to what touched so directly the recollection of his noble and learned Friend on a matter which occurred so long ago as 1845, and regarding which there was a difference of opinion, had given notice, so that his noble and learned Friend might have been present to hear what was said and answer any charge that might be preferred. The noble Earl was about to take a course so unusual, and in his experience without precedent, of reading the opinion given by the Law Officers of the Crown upon the Aberdeen Act. The opinion given by the Law Officers of the Crown to their Governments had always been held to be sacred com- munications, never to be divulged to the public.


said, he had only intended to read the substance of the Opinion.


must say the noble Earl took rather a peculiar view of what was private and confidential if he considered that he was entitled to communicate the substance of the opinion, provided only that the words of the opinion were not conveyed to the public With one exception, where a protest was made that it should not be drawn into a precedent, the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown had always been considered sacred and not to be divulged. But what was of more importance, the noble Earl had not thought it right to inform his noble and learned Friend of the charge in respect to his memory which he perfectly well knew he was going to make. The noble Earl had said that he had criticized the Preamble of the Bill. What he had said was—as the right thing was going to be done, it might be invidious to criticize the manner of doing it; but he thought the Preamble should simply state that it was desirable to repeal the Aberdeen Act. He gave that as his opinion, and their Lordships would, of course, take it for what it was worth. The noble Earl said further that the late Government, of which he (Lord Cairns) was a member, had prepared a Bill on the subject, which had been settled by the Law Officers of the Crown; to which he could only reply that, while he was a Member of the Government no such Bill was even under consideration of the Government, and that he had never heard of it until he heard from the noble Earl opposite that he was about to introduce this Bill. He then told the noble Earl he (Lord Cairns) was glad that it was to be introduced. In 1864, in the House of Commons, he had expressed his opinion in regard to the Aberdeen Act in very unqualified terms—he said— As a question of international law it was impossible to look at that Act without feelings of unmitigated amazement. He firmly believed there was not. a country in the world of whose strength we had reason to be afraid against whom we should ever have ventured to direct such a measure."—[3 Hansard, clxxvi. 1642.] When the noble Earl said that the observations which fell from him might have a serious effect in Brazil with re- ference to claims which might be raised—that effect might have been produced some years ago; but it was quite impossible that any such claims could be raised by any slaver. Whatever right of objection existed on the part of the Brazilian Government to the law as it existed, no right could exist on the part of any Brazilian subject to make any such claim. It would, be absurd. He repeated his opinion that, although Brazil might have been charged with a violation of the treaty, and though we might have had a perfect right to send in reclamations against the way in which they were violating it, we had no right by legislation to authorize our subjects to seize when they found in Brazilian waters or even on the high seas, but more especially in Brazilian waters, Brazilian subjects engaged in the slave trade. No one could feel more strongly than he did the horrors of the trade which Brazil was at that time carrying on, and the great propriety of this country doing everything that could be done to stop that trade; but it was a very serious thing that we should make a precedent which might be used against ourselves by other countries, as we undoubtedly did when we conducted our legislation in violation of the principles of international law—and he feared that might be said of the Aberdeen Act. To that opinion he still adhered.


said, he greatly regretted that he had not been present the other night when this subject was referred to, but he would not enter into the personal part of the subject. He would simply say that he quite approved of the principle of the measure which had been introduced for the repeal of the Aberdeen Act. There was one point of the utmost importance, and one which should be put on a proper footing, otherwise not only misconception but positive evil might arise. The subject was of the greatest importance, and it would be most unfortunate if it should go out to Brazil that the Parliament of England had made a great mistake and committed an injustice by the Act of 1845, and that this Bill was a reparation of that injustice. Against such an inference and such a statement he most strongly protested. His belief was that Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen were incapable of acting contrary to justice towards another country. He believed that the opinion given by the Law Officers of the Crown was the right opinion. The question of the slave trade, as already stated by his noble Friend, stood on grounds of high morality, which was the foundation of all international law, and in passing the Aberdeen Act Parliament did an act of justice and morality. No injustice was committed by the Act; it had answered all its purposes, and therefore in duty and wisdom it was now time to repeal it. What was really the efficient cause of the cessation of the slave trade in Brazil? The efficient cause was not any change in public opinion in Brazil, but the order which was given to the Admiralty, by the advice of Lord Palmerston, then at the head of the Foreign Office, that Her Majesty's ships of war and cruizers should go into the waters of Brazil and seize any Brazilian vessel engaged in the slave trade. There was no better title to the regard which the memory of Lord Palmerston was always sure to inspire than that which he derived from the acknowledgment that he always looked to the justice as well as to the technicalities of a case. The consequence was, as had been reported by Dr. Livingstone, that in Africa the name of Lord Palmerston was known and celebrated as the name of a man who had put an end to that inhuman and abominable traffic called the slave trade. He was very sorry that there should be any person whatever who should call in question the justice of the Act of 1845, and that the motive of passing a Bill for the purpose of repealing it should in any way be misunderstood. He had himself in the House of Commons opposed the repeal of that Act, and he should have opposed it now if the slave trade of Brazil were not abolished. It was the honour and glory of this country to have suppressed that horrid traffic called the slave trade, and he trusted it would soon be possible to withdraw the African squadron from the station where so much loss of life and hardship had been suffered in order to extinguish it.

House in Committee accordingly; Bill reported without Amendment; and. to be read 3a To-morrow.

House adjourned at a quarter before Eight o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter before Five o'clock.