HL Deb 05 June 1874 vol 219 cc1032-7

moved an Address to Her Majesty for Copies of any existing treaties or conventions for ensuring the neutralization of the Suez Canal in war time. The noble Lord said, that great as were our interests, political and mercantile, in the Suez Canal trade, it was remarkable that there was no kind of provision made for protecting our interest by any Treaty in the event of war breaking out. He ventured to think that these interests were imperilled. We had to deal not with a single Power, but with two Powers—namely, the Porte and the Khedive, not to mention M. de Lesseps and his Company. That being so, he thought it necessary that we should have a defined understanding with the parties responsible to us for the non-interruption of the traffic. The Papers for which he moved showed that the dangers that might be anticipated were not chimerical. In fact a total suspension of the traffic had been very recently threatened and had led to great complications: and the Correspondence which had been recently published by the Foreign Office—considerable portions of which the noble Lord read to the House—showed that, even with all Europe on our side we might have to submit to the stoppage of our traffic until we had compromised any matter in dispute. The official intelligence furnished was very meagre; but in these days, through the enterprise of newspaper proprietors, full and accurate intelligence of great public events reached the country much earlier than it did the Government. From the correspondence which appeared in the newspapers it seemed that the Khedive had to threaten M. de Lesseps with the employment of absolute force if he carried out his intention of interfering with the traffic and closing the Canal. The fact that the Suez Canal Company had threatened to close the Canal pending the settlement of any dispute was of itself sufficient to warrant the Government in taking steps to prevent the recurrence of such a danger to our interests, because it was quite within the bounds of possibility that what had been once attempted might be at any moment actually done. There could not be a more favourable moment than the present for buying up the pecuniary rights of the Company, and he did not suppose that there were any other rights which would have to be settled. The serious political difficulties which existed when France claimed the chief influence in Egypt and opposed the influence of this country did not now stand in our way; but those obstacles, or similar difficulties, might spring up if we missed the present opportunity.

Moved, That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty for Copies of any existing treaties or conventions for insuring the neutralization of the Suez Canal in war time.—(The Lord Dunsany.)


My Lords, I quite agree in what the noble Lord (Lord Dunsany) said at the beginning of his observations with respect to the importance of the Suez Canal. It is undoubtedly a great work, and one which has given M. de Lesseps a high and an enviable reputation. It is a work which has benefited all Europe; and contrary to general expectation, and especially to the expectations entertained in this country, it has been of greater advantage to the trade and the administration of the British Empire—to our interests both commercial and political—than to those of any other country, or, perhaps, all other countries put together. So far I quite agree with my noble Friend; but I cannot agree with him when he speaks of our position in regard to the Canal as precarious, and of our interests and rights as unprotected. I will not trouble the House by reading documents, but the Concession of 1856, granted by the Viceroy of Egypt, and sanctioned by the Porte, does define in a very precise manner the rights and duties of the Canal Company, and the position of those who use the Canal;—and I may mention in passing that the concession secures the entire neutrality of the Canal as regards commercial relations. As to what my noble Friend said when he referred to the late dispute between M. de Lesseps and all the European Powers, and the threatened closing of the Canal, no doubt, there was a short period of uneasiness and anxiety. Your Lordships will remember that M. de Lesseps claimed a higher rate of tonnage than the Governments of Europe thought he was entitled to. The question was referred to a Commission, which, acting under the sanction of the Sultan, examined the matters in dispute, and a decision was come to on the claims of the Canal Company. M. de Lesseps at the first moment expressed his intention to dispute that decision; but all the Governments of Europe, including that of France, were unanimous as to the rights of the case. Opinion was brought to bear, representations were made to the Sultan, and the Sultan and the Khedive honourably adhered to the engagements they had entered into; and the result was that the Egyptian Government, acting under the authority of the Sultan, announced their intention to take possession of the Canal if the Company in- terfered to stop the traffic. The good sense of M. de Lesseps and the general unanimity of opinion which prevailed among the European Governments prevented matters coming to extremities. At the last moment the managers of the Canal Company gave way and the traffic proceeded as usual. But, my Lords, if that had not been the case—if matters had been pushed to extremities—no worse consequence would have happened than that the Canal would have been temporarily taken possession of by the Government of Egypt, acting under the authority of the Sultan, and for a time—but only for a short time—inconvenience would have been caused to ships passing through in the absence of the skilled artizans and other persons usually employed on the Canal, and whose places could not at once have been filled. But my noble Friend says that we cannot tell what M. de Lesseps may do in the future—that we cannot tell what may happen if a similar difficulty arose, and that it is desirable to take some course which will prevent the possibility of the closing of the Canal. Now, as to the latter eventuality, we ought to bear in mind that we are accustomed to act on the assumption that persons do not do that which would be manifestly opposed to their own interests; but for my own part I am quite prepared to join in considering any reasonable proposition for preventing a recurrence of the difficulty. At the same time I have not the slightest doubt that if it did arise again it would end as it did the other day. Then my noble Friend asks me whether we are prepared to take over the Canal from M. de Lesseps and his shareholders, and—as I suppose he means—to work it by an International Commission. Well, my answer to that is, in the first place, that it is useless to talk of buying a property which is not in the market. I do not suppose anyone would propose to put pressure on M. de Lesseps and his shareholders and buy the property against their will—indeed, considering that they have had all the risk of the undertaking, that would hardly be fair or generous; but whether it would be fair and generous or not, it would be impossible, because it could not be done without the unanimous concurrence of the European Powers; and I venture to affirm that their unanimous concurrence could not be obtained. So much for compulsory purchase. As to the idea of a purchase to be made with the assent of the shareholders, I think it is sufficient to say that no such offer has been put before us. I hope my noble Friend will not ask me to express an opinion in the abstract on a transaction of that kind; because when a man wants to buy a house, or an estate or anything else, he does not, if he is a man of sense, begin by telling the party who has to sell it that its possession is indispensable to him. If a proposition for the transfer of the Canal to an International Commission were to come before us, framed in such a manner that all the Governments would participate in the advantages of the Canal on equal terms, I do not say that might not be a fair proposal to entertain. But it has not been made, and I have no reason to think it will be made. As to the neutralization of the Canal in time of war, that is a large question, but as my noble Friend has not entered upon it I shall not discuss it. As to the Papers for which my noble Friend has asked, I do not think there are any which correspond with the terms of his Notice.


said, it was a very unsatisfactory thing that a work of so important a character as the Suez Canal should remain permanently in the hands of an almost insolvent Company. He thought it, too, a great pity that the man who had carried out the greatest enterprise of the present age should not only derive no benefit from it, but really suffer pecuniary loss. He did not think the noble Earl was quite right in supposing that the property of the Company had not been in the market. He believed it had been in the market and that it was in the market now; and he also believed that the shareholders would be very ready under certain circumstances which could not entail any great pecuniary loss either upon this country or others to place the property of the Canal on a more satisfactory position. He did not think the noble Earl was justified in not considering the subject of the neutralization of the Canal in time of war—it certainly pressed much upon his mind. He could not but think it extremely dangerous to leave the Canal in the hands of a private Company. He thought that if the Canal could not be placed under an International Commission some arrangement might be made between this country and the Porte, by which the Khedive might acquire absolute possession of it, and then we should know with whom we had to deal. Depend upon it this country would never permit its commercial or political interests to be interfered with by disputes between M. de Lesseps and other parties as to the use of the Canal.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.