HL Deb 20 April 1874 vol 218 cc809-11

, in rising to present (by command) certain Papers relating to the affairs of the Fiji Islands, said, that he lately declined to produce the Papers asked for on this subject, it being then uncertain what stage the Commissioners' inquiry had reached. A telegram had since reached this country announcing the formal cession of the Islands to the British Crown; but there had been no official communication of this, and he had no reason to believe in its accuracy, for he believed he should otherwise have heard of it, and it was not competent for the Commissioners to take such a step on their own responsibility. Feeling sure, however, that the inquiry had concluded, it was desirable to produce the Papers. The Papers which would shortly be in their Lordships' hands would show the object which the late Government had in view, and the scope which was assigned by them to the Commissioners. These instructions indicated certain possible forms of government which might be set up in such a country as Fiji, and stated certain inquiries which it was the business of the Commissioners to make. Many of those inquiries were of a very important nature. They related to the tenure of land, the amount of land which was held, or supposed to be held by different companies, to tribal customs, and to much which would affect the ultimate question of administration, if the Islands were hereafter annexed. (Since the Commissioners proceeded to the scene of their inquiry a considerable change had occurred. The Government—if it deserved the name of Government—of those Islands had been greatly altered, the whole authority residing in the hands of three Englishmen, who certainly appeared not to be very popular. The Treasury—if so it could be called—was in a state of greater indebtedness than before, and the distress which previously existed was augmented. In fact, with 170,000 Natives and 3,000 or 4,000 Whites, who were very much at variance with each other, it had been difficult to restrain the discontent within reasonable bounds, and on several occasions it had been on the point of coming to actual and open warfare. The law- lessness had been, he doubted not, considerable, and had really been kept in check only by the not very well defined, but very wholesome jurisdiction administered by various captains of English men-of-war on the station. In laying the Papers on the Table, he certainly at that moment desired to draw no inference from them. They would be found to contain a great deal of important and interesting matter; but their Lordships would see that the question of the annexation of these Islands was, in all respects, a very large one. They had been repeatedly offered to the British Crown, and the offers had been more than once declined. On other occasions those offers had been endorsed, so to speak, by some of the Australian Colonies—Victoria, New South Wales; and, indeed, all of them had expressed opinions in that direction. More than that—one, if not two, companies had been formed to obtain land and administer the Islands. No one who had at all looked into the matter could fail to be aware of the great importance, in more than one respect, of those Islands. Formerly, they were isolated, but latterly they had come more and more into the track, so to say, of civilization by legitimate, and, he feared, also illegitimate trade. In looking at the question, many considerations forced themselves upon one's mind. There were the considerations of climate and production, of winds and currents, of expense, of organization of administration; and there was, lastly, but by no means least of all, the very serious question as to the feelings of the Native races. He could not but think that the Islands were now in very much the same state and condition in which New Zealand was 25 or 30 years ago; and, with the experience of New Zealand before them, it behoved Her Majesty's Government to look all round the subject, and not to prejudge it or come to any hasty conclusion upon it. He was, from week to week, awaiting the Report of the Commissioners. Until that Report was in their hands, and they were able to judge of the arguments and information it contained, it would, he conceived, be premature to express any opinion upon that which he regarded as a very important question.

Copy of a letter addressed to Commodore Goodenough, R.N. and E. L Layard, esquire, Her Majesty's Consul in Fiji, instructing them to report upon various questions connected with the Fiji Islands; with enclosures; Presented (by command), and ordered to lie on the Table.

House adjourned at a quarter-past Seven o'clock, 'till To-morrow, Half-past Ten o'clock.