HL Deb 15 July 1870 vol 203 cc339-42

rose to put a Question to the Secretary of State for the Colonies respecting the proposal to transfer the Settlement of the Gambia to the French. The transaction to which his Question referred was a subject of serious importance, as it appeared to him to involve the undue exercise of the Prerogative of the Grown. He understood that it was intended to hand over a part of the British dominions to the Emperor of the French on this day month. He hoped this was not the case, for if the sad events which the noble Earl (Earl Granville) had said we must anticipate were about to occur, it seemed to him that we could not, without a breach of neutrality, hand over a seaport of great capacity, and advantageously situ- ated for a coaling station, to a nation which was at war with one of our allies. The Gambia Settlement was no burden to us, and in the event of war it would be of very great importance. It had a river without a bar, was completely landlocked, and might be used as a coaling station. If the French thought it desirable to obtain it, it must be equally desirable for us to keep it. In addition to that, he thought we ought not to transfer the inhabitants of the territory to another Power without their consent. Again, in his opinion, the Government ought not to diminish the British territories without the sanction of Parliament; and he thought that our distant possessions ought also to be consulted on the question of transferring so important a coaling station as the Gambia. The inhabitants of the country were decidedly opposed to the contemplated transfer— indeed, he was informed that 600 of the coloured inhabitants had of their own motion, without instigation on the part of any Englishman, signed a Petition which had been sent to the Colonial Office, protesting against being handed over to Franco. The charge for the payment of English officials in the settlement was £10,000 a year, and a sum of £2,000 was paid for pensions. Its revenue more than covered its expenses, and it was estimated that there would be a surplus revenue this year of £7,000; and he believed the Colony already had some money invested in New Zealand Bonds, by direction of the Government. The inhabitants were strongly in favour of the territory being maintained as a British settlement, instead of being handed over to France; for it was of great importance as regards their trade that they should not be under the authority of the French, who had driven away English trade from every part of that coast which they occupied. It might, perhaps, be urged that our trade on the West Coast of Africa was not on the increase; but it certainly was not decreasing at this particular part of the coast. The Gambia was the best river on the Western Coast of Africa, and might be of very great use to us in the case of a naval war if we retained it in our hands, and he hoped the Government would not on any account give up so important a position to France or to any other country. He was the more anxious on this head because he feared the projected transfer might be the first step towards abandoning our Colonies. In conclusion, he asked the noble Earl to give the House some account of what had been done.


I can readily answer the noble Duke as to the alleged undue exercise of the Royal Prerogative, because at the beginning of the negotiations with the French we distinctly stated to them that nothing could be completed without the consent of Parliament. As I was chiefly concerned in the matter, my noble Friend (the Earl of Kimberley) has requested me to say that when the matter comes before Parliament for discussion you will find it excessively difficult to show what advantage is gained by this country by retaining possession of this settlement. No doubt, many years ago, when there was a profitable slave trade going on, we might have had an interest in it of a particular sort; and at a later period, when we were exerting ourselves to suppress the slave trade, we also had an interest in keeping the settlement; but as there is not a slave trade at present, and it is extremely improbable that it will ever again revive—and even if it should the French would be as anxious to repress it as we are—that reason entirely vanishes. The noble Duke says, however, that the place will be very advantageous in the event of war. I am sorry to say that this point was entirety left out of consideration by me while I was conducting the negotiations, for I cannot conceive what use Gambia could be in time of war, unless our seamen were seized with an unusual whim to run away and hide themselves from the rest of the world. With regard to the trade of the settlement also, I think the noble Duke has been most strangely misinformed. The trade has steadily fallen off, and the revenue with it. Last year there was a deficiency, and I cannot believe in the great surplus which the noble Duke has promised us this year. The trade of the French has been increasing steadily, while ours has been as steadily diminishing. The trade is of a kind, which better suits the French than ourselves—chiefly consisting in palm oil and ivory—and there seems no reason why they should not prosecute it under their own management. The number of ships and their tonnage belonging to the Colony is ridiculously small for a great maritime country such as this. There are not more than 30 or 40 European subjects at the settlement, and there is no use in sending out official servants of the Crown to so deleterious a climate, and where they are exposed to all kinds of demoralization. The climate is such that the mortality produced by it among our representatives there has been greater than similar unfortunate occurrences in any other Colony; and while I was at the Colonial Office there was more trouble in settling the quarrels between different officials there than in transacting all the business of the Colony. Under these circumstances, I think the burden of proving that retaining the Colony will contribute in any degree to our prestige or trade rests with those who wish to keep it. It is very remarkable that our exports, which have been as high as £75,000, were last year only £25,000; while the exports from the African settlement, where there is no European Government at all, amount to £600,000. The noble Duke spoke of the wishes of the inhabitants, and remarked that they were all natives who had petitioned and showed a high class of education for such people. It is very remarkable, however, that they appear to have almost all written the same handwriting, and I am told that the getting up of the Petition was intrusted to a very respectable man who keeps a grog shop. I cannot, therefore, regard the Petition as entirely conclusive evidence upon any point. While the Colony would be of great advantage to the French in connection with their flourishing Colony of Senegal, I think it is no exaggeration to say that Gambia is to our country an absolute burden without any redeeming characteristics.


hoped the Government would lay upon the Table of the House such Papers relating to the trade and revenue of the settlement and to the terms of the proposed cession as would give their Lordships full information upon the subject when they came to discuss it.


said, such Papers would be laid upon the Table.

House adjourned at half-past Eight o'clock, to Monday next, Eleven o'clock.