HL Deb 13 March 1876 vol 227 cc1851-5

rose to move an Address for Papers relating to the government of Heligoland. The noble Earl said, he had no intention of entering into a detailed statement on the subject of those Papers; but he thought a word or two of explanation due to their Lordships when a Member of the House was moving for documents of so remote a date and relating to so small a dependency. He presumed that the knowledge which most of their Lordships had of Heligoland did not go much beyond the facts that a gambling-table existed there some few years ago, and that in combination with this moral peril, the island had been supposed to be in physical danger from rabbits. But it was not because Heligoland happened to be the smallest of Her Majesty's dependencies we should be justified in disregarding the rights of its inhabitants. It formerly belonged to the King of Denmark as Duke of Schleswig-Holstein—a potentate with whom we were then at war; but in 1807 it was ceded to Great Britain by capitulation, and was taken possession of by Admiral Russell, who was then commanding the English fleet in those seas. It was said that the terms of that capitulation guaranteed to the inhabitants all their ancient rights and liberties which they had enjoyed under their former constitution. What those ancient rights and liberties were was one of the points on which he was now seeking for information. He believed, however, it was an established fact that every householder of Heligoland had a right to be summoned to a Council before any taxation could be imposed, and that every householder could on demand have the Communal Council of the island summoned. Such appeared to be the position of the inhabitants when they came under the sway of Great Britain. Well, after the Treaty of Capitulation the next document of importance as bearing on their rights and liberties appeared to be the Order in Council of the 7th of January, 1864, by which a Legislative Council was created. The Council was to be composed of 12 persons summoned by Royal Warrant; but when questions of taxation were involved, 12 burghers to be elected by the householders were to be added to the Council. As far as he was aware, there was no serious objection to that constitution; but, if there was, that rather afforded a reason for the production of Papers giving information on the point; and, with the view of obtaining that information, he asked for a copy of the Order in Council dated the 7th of January, 1864. If a statement issued by the Governor two years after the constitution was conferred by that Order and two years before it was abolished was correct, the constitution was working most admirably, because from the Governor's statement it appeared that while the inhabitants had not paid the taxes imposed on them, the debt of the island had actually been reduced by the large sum of £760. He did not know whether that result was entirely owing to the constitution of 1864; but it seemed to him that a country in which no taxes were paid, while the national debt was at the same time reduced, must be a most desirable one. In this respect he was perfectly certain that this country would suffer by a comparison with Heligoland. In that state of paradise were the Heligolanders when the Duke of Buckingham, Colonial Secretary of the day, appeared in full uniform on a man-of-war, landed on the island, and in the most Cromwellian manner abolished the constitution. This might be regarded as a small matter; but the people of Heligoland were as much entitled to respect for their rights and liberties as were the inhabitants of Cromarty or Rutlandshire. Attention had been called to the matter by the German press, and that in a manner by no means complimentary to England. Pointing to Heligoland, it drew attention to the difference between our professions and our practice. It stated that while we had preached the granting of constitutions all over the face of the earth, here was the case of our abolishing in the most summary manner the constitution of one of our own dependencies. He did not say that the Government of the day was not justified in adopting that highhanded proceeding; but, at least, the question was one on which we wanted information. Indeed, he ventured to think that a thing of the kind should not be done without information such as he now asked for being afforded to Parliament, and he, therefore, begged to move for the Papers he had mentioned in the course of his few observations.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for, Copies of (1) the capitulation of September 1807 by which Heligoland was ceded to Great Britain; (2) the Order in Council of 7th January 1864 relating to the government of Heligoland; and (3) Papers explaining the revocation of that Order in 1868.—(The Earl of Rosebery.)


said, he did not complain of his noble Friend (the Earl of Rosebery) having brought forward this question. Heligoland was certainly one of the smallest colonies or possessions of the Crown, but it by no means followed that it did not deserve the attention of Parliament, or that its inhabitants were not entitled to the consideration due to all Her Majesty's subjects. As regarded the Papers, he was afraid he could not produce all his noble Friend asked for. There was no objection to the production of the Order in Council of the 7th of January, 1864. He owned that it was with regret he should refuse the Capitulation of 1807, because it was a historic document: but, on the other hand, it was a Paper drawn up in a time of war, when there was a great deal of animosity on both sides, and when conditions were asked on the one side and were refused or granted on the other. The Heligolanders were a sensitive race, and a result of laying the Capitulation on the Table of that House would probably be to revive bad feelings which had long been dormant or had ceased to exist. It would be very undesirable to disturb the good feelings which at present existed between the dependency and this country. His noble Friend had given as a reason for desiring the production of the Capitulation that he understood there was one clause in it which confirmed to the inhabitants all their ancient rights and liberties of the island. Now, he could state that the Capitulation contained no such clause. For a nearly similar reason to that which induced him to object to produce the Capitulation he objected to produce the Papers explaining the revocation of the Order in Council of 1864. It would revive wranglings which, happily, were now things of the past, the island being now in a state of contentment and satisfaction. Though the Capitulation was in 1807, the island was only ceded to Great Britain in 1815 by the Treaty of Vienna. By the constitution giving to Heligoland the island had a Legislative Council of six, who were to call in six more under certain circumstances. The connection in those days between Denmark and the island was much closer than it was afterwards, and the system of government to which he had alluded was not long in operation before its evil effects became manifest. It was impossible to recover debts or to enforce legal processes on the island, and gambling tables were set up there, which became a great public scandal. In addition to these evils, great difficulties arose in regard to wrecking and to salvage cases; so—that Heligoland acquired a not very favourable reputation. In 1863 a correspondence passed on the subject, and in 1864 the change was made to which his noble Friend referred. It was a change in the direction of an increase of self-government. The Legislative Council was doubled, and an extension of the franchise, so to speak, was granted. That experiment failed also; and at last his noble Friend the Duke of Buckingham appeared and effected that change in the constitution of the island to which his noble Friend had made humorous allusion, but which, he was bound to say, had been attended with the happiest possible results. There was a Lieutenant Governor, who had the assistance of a Council, and an English officer called the Receiver of Wrecks. The abuses had not only been abated, but had come to an end: the gambling tables had been swept away; there was a good salvage system in operation, a telegraph and ship-signal station had been established, and the debt of the colony had undergone a more material reduction than that which had been mentioned by his noble Friend as having been brought about when the island had a constitution. It was true that the system of government now existing was in the nature of that of a Crown colony; but the Secretary of State was responsible for it, and he could assure his noble Friend that the island was now in a much more prosperous and contented state than it was at the time when it was in what his noble Friend, in rather glowing terms, had described as a state of paradise.


, in corroboration of the statements of the noble Lord (Lord Carnarvon), referred to a case in which it had been found impossible to give effect to a judgment obtained by an underwriter against some Heligoland wreckers. An attempt had been made to remedy this state of things by the grant of a comparatively free constitution. This having failed, he believed that the present form of government was more suited to the circumstances of the island. The ease was not one to be judged of by ordinary rules.


suggested that the noble Earl the Secretary for the Colonies might, perhaps, produce a selection from all the documents referred to by the noble Earl. Heligoland was a very small colony, but the inhabitants were of European race, and this fact lent special interest to the subject.


said, he would look through the Papers with the view of acting on the suggestion.


agreed to change the terms of his Motion in order to enable the noble Earl the Secretary for the Colonies to carry out the suggestion.

Motion amended, and agreed to.

Resolved that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for Copies of the Order in Council of 7th January, 1864, relating to the Government of Heligoland, and Papers explaining the revocation of that Order in 1868.

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