HL Deb 08 February 1881 vol 258 cc331-3

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies, What steps Her Majesty's Government intend to take in consequence of the wanton and cowardly murder of Captain Elliot, a British officer, by a party of Boers, he being at the time unarmed and a prisoner of war on parole? He would not go into the details of the affair, as they had been already related by Captain Lambart, the surviving officer, in a letter which had been published in the newspapers. That letter, wherever the English language was spoken, would be read with a feeling of horror and of pity for the unfortunate officer; and in his (the Earl of Annesley's) opinion, there could be but one answer to the conduct of the perpetrators of the murder—namely, condign punishment. If, at the end of the war, it was found impossible to punish the perpetrators, the people of this country would not be satisfied unless a heavy and adequate indemnity were demanded of the Boers of the Transvaal. It was for the purpose of eliciting the opinion of Her Majesty's Government on the subject that he had put the Question on the Paper. He would ask a similar Question with reference to some statements which had appeared in the morning papers as to other alleged atrocities by the Boors. According to the statements, not only had outrage been committed, but an insult had intentionally been put upon this country and our gallant soldiers, for it appeared in a letter from one of the survivors of the detachment overpowered on the first occasion in this contest, that they were ordered by the Commandant to Heidelberg; and that in the course of the journey they were driven like cattle, the Boers having cracked their whips over the heads of the British soldiers. He trusted Her Majesty's Government would issue stringent orders to the officers commanding our troops in South Africa to take whatever notice they thought desirable with regard to such insults and outrages.


My Lords, with regard to the Question of which the noble Earl gave Notice, I need hardly say that the facts as reported would indicate that a brutal and cowardly murder was committed; but, in the present state of affairs, I am not aware that we have any power to take any steps in addition to those taken some time since by Sir George Colley, which have been already made known in a communication through the newspapers, it being dated as far back as the 28th of January. In it Sir George Colley states that he sent a copy of Captain Lambart's statement as to the alleged murder of Captain Elliot to Joubert, the Commander of the Boers, and that the latter expressed horror of the act, and threatened punishment on the offenders. Intelligence of the result has not yet been received. I am sorry to say that we are not in a position to take any further steps; but I think that the fact that the Boer Commander has expressed his horror at the act is, for the present, a satisfactory indication that they are prepared to do what every just and reasonable person would expect. With regard to the other acts referred to by the noble Earl, I have no information except that of which he himself is in possession. Your Lordships must be aware that when a war breaks out, and especially a war of this kind, many acts are, unfortunately, often committed which we most deeply deplore; and I am afraid that this war is not going to prove an exception to the general rule. The steps that we are taking to defend ourselves and assert the Queen's authority are certainly the only steps that are open to us to dispense punishment or exact redress for any acts that may be complained of. I rather deprecate our accepting as correct, before they are sifted, all those statements which we receive, because, in the excitement which prevails, persons of the most perfect fairness and sincerity are apt to exaggerate somewhat what has really occurred. I am not saying that any of those particular facts which have been recently reported are untrue; but, as a general principle, I think it would be well we should exercise a general caution, and that we should have before us the most authentic information before we pass final judgment on what has taken place. Our desire is, as has already been stated in Parliament, that in carrying on this war our troops should observe the rules of civilized warfare, and we have the right to expect that our opponents will do the same. Those rules are well known, and I trust the Boers will observe them; but, undoubtedly, if those rules are transgressed and crimes committed which are inexcusable, and for which we can bring the perpetrators to justice, Her Majesty's Government will not be backward in doing so.