HL Deb 16 May 1876 vol 229 cc764-9

rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Whether he can communicate to the House any information received by Her Majesty's Government respecting the measures recently taken by the naval and civil authorities of the Gold Coast against the King of Dahomey, and the fine demanded of him for outrages committed on British subjects at Whydah? The noble Lord said, that a short time ago he called attention to the expedition undertaken against the King of Dahomey, and his noble Friend was at that time unable to give any information on the subject; but, as several transactions had since occurred, he hoped he would be pardoned if he ventured to repeat his Question. What had since occurred, as far as we knew, was that, without any previous application to that Sovereign, the Commodore on the Gold Coast and the Governor of Lagos had proceeded to Whydah and held an inquiry there, the result of which was that the King of Dahomey was fined 500 barrels of palm oil worth about £6,000, and if he did not pay by the 1st of June his coast was to be blockaded. The fine was a large one for a monarch in the position of the King of Dahomey to be called upon to pay. That, however, might be the best way of dealing with such a Chief; but it might lead to very serious results. Suppose the King refused to pay? He had no doubt dealt with us in an overbearing and unscrupulous way. We were informed that his answer to the Commodore's communications was that he would not open the letters, as he was a King, but that if the Commodore liked to come and get the fine he would pay him in powder and bullets. Yet if we resorted to extremities it might lead to inconvenient consequences. The result seemed to be that ulterior measures would have to be taken; and the question was what those measures should be. The first thing that suggested itself was a blockade of the coast. But that would not be very injurious to the King himself; the sufferers would be the English, French, and Portuguese who had property there, and whose business would be entirely stopped. If the blockade failed of effect, we should demand that more energetic measures should be taken, and if we did not get our money something more would have to be done. What was that something more? We might go the King's capital, as a few years back we went to that of the King of Ashantee; but Her Majesty's Government would be slow to undertake a similar campaign, which, though full of glory, led to a large expenditure of money and great loss of life. Another alternative was to take Whydah as a material guarantee—it was a very convenient place, and the possession of which, politically and commercially, might be advantageous to this country. He wished to know whether communications had been made to the Home Government by the officers concerned before they set out on this expedition? He was quite aware that the naval and military officers of this country should always be prepared whenever it was necessary to assume responsibility, and if they did so the Government at home would always support them if they acted with prudence. The Government would, of course, proceed with much more effect than any individual could do, and representations might have been made, in conjunction with the Portuguese Government. But if the officer on the spot chose to demand compensation, he was, of course, treated with contempt. He trusted, therefore, Her Majesty's Government would take the matter into their own hands;—and also that they would give the House any information they might be able to afford.


said, he did not think he could add much to his noble Friend's information on this subject, but what information he had was at the disposal of his noble Friend and the House. The facts of the case were briefly these:—In the latter part of January Mr. Turnbull, an agent or member of one of the commercial firms at Whydah, made a protest against the illegal seizure of his goods by an agent of the King of Dahomey. That protest caused a great deal of ill-feeling on the part of the King; Mr. Turnbull was seized, stripped, and subjected to great indignities; but was released on the following day. The whole transaction appeared to have created much excitement, and complaints were made by the merchants in Whydah to the Admiral on the station, Sir William Hewitt. In the following month the Admiral found himself and his squadron on the coast, and he invited the headmen of Whydah to a palaver or conference. The palaver took place; but the headman, the representative of the King, did not appear. On the contrary, he sent a wholly subordinate agent, and he omitted some of those formalities the omission of which was considered a great disrespect to the person entitled to receive them. Sir William Hewitt, in his despatch, stated that he was satisfied that Mr. Turnbull's case was a sound and valid one, and that his conduct throughout the transaction would bear the closest examination. Under these circumstances, the non-attendance of the proper officer and the refusal of the proper formalities, the Commodore of his own authority imposed a fine on the King of Dahomey, and in default of payment threatened that he would blockade the coast on the 1st of June. Subsequently, by a communication from the Admiralty, Sir William Hewett had been cautioned not to enforce the blockade until the 1st of July, so that one full month in addition might be given the King for consideration. Some further communications seem to have passed; for about the middle of March the headman of the King returned an answer, which subsequent inquiry proved to be false, and designedly false, to the effect that the King had refused to receive the Commodore's letters. It appeared that the King did not refuse to receive the letters; but that he sent a message saying that he would make the payment in bullets and powder should the Commodore come. These were the whole circumstances of the case so far as the Government knew. With regard to the King of Dahomey himself, he occupied on that Coast very much the same position towards the surrounding tribes as the King of Ashantee did towards his neighbours; and, as far as the character of the King and the institutions of his country were concerned, there was nothing to choose between them and the character of the King of Ashantee and the institutions of that country:—or perhaps it would be more true to say that the utter cruelty and barbarism of the King of Dahomey were greatly in excess of the cruelty and barbarism of his compeer—the country was in a state of utter barbarism, and the human sacrifices were horrible. While, he might add, he concurred with the noble Lord in the opinion that our officers abroad would do well to take every opportunity of consulting the Home Government before they acted; yet they were sometimes obliged to act on their own responsibility, and it behoved the Home Government not only to accord to them the most favourable consideration, but as far as possible to support their action. He might go further, and say that Her Majesty's Government, looking at the whole facts of the case, and seeing that a gross outrage had been committed—besides which there were others of a similar nature—and considering the manner in which Sir William Hewett's message had been received, felt it would be impossible to shut their eyes to the transactions which had occurred, and do nothing at all. The only doubt was whether the institution of a blockade was the best and most effective course to adopt; and he might point out that on several occasions the particular line of Coast in question, or that immediately adjoining it, had been blockaded. It had been blockaded in 1852, and again in 1859 and in 1863, and apparently with admirable effect. On the last occasion it had proved effectual within a month. As the effect had been beneficial before it was to be hoped it would prove so again. It was impossible, of course, to say what the result of the present blockade would be; but he hoped, for his own part, it would be sufficient to make the King of Dahomey reflect very seriously on the course which he pursued. Taking all the circumstances into consideration, it had been determined to postpone the blockade till the 1st of July. His sincere hope was that no further steps would be rendered necessary; but if the blockade were resorted to, it was likely to prove effectual, for it would take away from the revenue of the King, deprive him of supplies, and place the Coast at our mercy.


said that, however desirable it might be to keep out of little wars, when we had a Naval Officer on the Coast, the best thing was to render him strong support, otherwise these petty Princes might be encouraged to acts of violence against British subjects, which might produce a lengthened and bloody war. Although no honour was perhaps to be gained by a war with such a Monarch as the King of Dahomey, he trusted the Government would act with firmness in the present instance, for to pursue a different course would only lead to the commission of further aggressions.


concurred in the main with his noble Friend who had just spoken. He was not acquainted with the full details of what had taken place, but if the King of Dahomey had committed the outrage attributed to him, and had refused reparation, he did not see that the Government could have done otherwise than take steps to enforce redress, and he hoped with his noble Friend opposite that the proposed blockade would be effectual, for the principal supplies of powder and arms, and everything on which he set a high value, were procured by the King through the port of Whydah. Our position on the Gold Coast was not to be treated with indifference. England was practically the only European Power on the Coast, and though the French had some small ports on the Coast, on us depended the promotion of civilization in that district of country. In case of the blockade not fulfilling expectation, we might find the people of Abbeokuta useful allies; and the King of Dahomey had been twice or thrice foiled in his attempts against that country—so that he would be likely to think twice before giving fresh provocation.


expressed his cordial agreement in the remarks which had just been made, and pointed out that any observations which might be made in their Lordships' House which should show the slightest want of approval of the course taken by the Government might occasion mischief in cases where difficulties arose with a barbarous potentate like the King of Dahomey. It was of great importance that the King of Dahomey should understand that we were in earnest in this matter. The King was reported to have said that he should treat a message from the Commodore with contempt, but that one from the Queen of England would be treated very differently. It was desirable that this potentate should be taught that the Commodore was the representative of Her Majesty. It was important to prevent such mischievous notions getting abroad, and if the blow which we felt bound to strike in such cases was to be effective it must not always be deferred until after a long correspondence with home, because sometimes the effect of the blow lay in its being promptly given.