HL Deb 09 March 1883 vol 276 cc1889-93

I wish to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Whether it is in the contemplation of Her Majesty's Government to recognize the claim of Portugal to dominion over the territory adjoining the River Congo; and, if so, whether he has reason to anticipate that the policy that has hitherto prevailed in that territory will not be reversed in regard to the Slave Trade and freedom of commerce? I have been prompted in this matter by the alarm of the manufacturers and merchants concerned in the trade of this district. They are of opinion that if the Portuguese should succeed in exercising a Sovereign jurisdiction over the Native Tribes of that country, the restrictive and obstructive policy which has hitherto been characteristic of the Portuguese Government would seriously interfere with the existing trade, and would also prevent that full development of it which is now anticipated. There is every reason to believe that hereafter the River Congo may become the great highway to Inland Tribes, who are industrious and peaceful, and ready to enter into commercial relationship with Europeans. The civilization of these African Tribes appears to depend in a great measure upon free and legitimate commerce with Europeans; and, therefore, all who are interested in the development of the civilization of the African Tribes must be interested in the answer that the noble Earl will give to my Question.


I am glad that the noble Lord has put this Question to me, as it will enable me, I trust, to put an end to misapprehensions which seem to exist, and which, to a certain degree, are shared by himself, as to this important matter. It appears to be supposed by some that Her Majesty's Government propose to give up a vast extent of territory which belongs to this country, with some vague hope that the Portuguese will furnish an obstacle to the ambitious designs of other Powers. The noble Lord is not misinformed to this extent; but even he has considerable misapprehensions on the subject. I do not think it is unnatural that those who have taken a great interest, either in the question of slavery or as to the question of religious efforts, or on questions of trade and commerce in these countries, should feel most sensitive with regard to any proceedings that are likely to be taken. It is not so very long ago that the interests of Europeans in the Congo and other African Rivers were centred in the desire of monopolizing the Slave Trade in them. It will be a great glory for this country that she took the lead in reversing this policy and leading the way to a suppression of this abominable traffic. But a great change has come over the African question. The labours of men like Livingstone, of Stanley, and others, have given us a knowledge of the physical character of Central Africa, and of the populations which inhabit it, showing that there are great capabilities for the development of trade, and we are now better informed as to the civilizing effects which are the sure results of commerce. The work of the Philanthropic International Association, in which the King of the Belgians takes a great interest, the mission of M. do Brazza, the increasing trade in different degrees of the English, the Portuguese, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, and the Belgians on the Congo and its banks, is acting as a stimulus, and affords grounds why no reasonable endeavours should be neglected to insure freedom of commerce and navigation, and to anticipate possible jealousies, which so easily check trade, and which, under the pretence of securing peculiar advantages to some, are really injurious to all. There is much now which is not satisfactory on the Congo. In those territories which we acknowledge to belong to Portugal, complaints are made of high duties, of a differential treatment of the foreign and Portuguese flags, of arbitrary fines, and of other vexations, all of which are great impediments to commercial intercourse. On the Congo itself the Portuguese declare that the Slave Trade is entirely at an end; and there can be no doubt that it is greatly diminished, partly owing to the ceasing of the Transatlantic demand for slaves, partly to our efforts, and partly to a change of policy on the part of the Portuguese Government. But this is not in the least the case as regards East Africa, where we struggle at great disadvantage when trying to suppress the Slave Trade, in consequence of the want of a proper understanding with the Portuguese Government. But there are territories on the Congo to which the Portuguese lay a claim, in the most solemn manner in which it is possible for a nation to put it forward, by diplomatic declarations and by legislative enactments, which, however, have been as constantly repudiated and resisted by us as a matter of right. Successive Secretaries for Foreign Affairs have stated that the fear of encouraging the Slave Trade, and the danger of interference with our commerce, were the political reasons which induced them to lay further stress on the matter of right. The present state of these territories is unsatisfactory as regards the present and the future. It is true that there are many respectable firms who manage to work fairly and harmoniously with the Natives. But it cannot be denied that there is no acknowledged jurisdiction; that in places anarchy prevails; that there are many cases of practical slavery, of cruelty, and then of retaliatory outrages, without any opportunity for redress. It became thus a matter of some urgency to consider whether, without abandoning our position as to the matter of right, the political objections to which I have alluded could in any way be met. An important interchange of views took place in 1881 between our Minister, Mr. (now Sir) Robert Morier, and M. de Serpa, who initiated it. In last October, 1882, M. de Serpa renewed this conversation. The chief object of Her Majesty's Government in assenting to the renewal of the conversation was stated by me to be the abolition of slavery, and the civilization of Africa by the extension of legitimate commerce. The Portuguese Government declared, in still more emphatic terms, that their objects were the same. They gave proof of their being in earnest by expressing their assent to the perfectly free navigation, not only of the Congo, but of other African Rivers, which are arteries of trade; and agreed not only to establish in the territories which we have not recognized as belonging to Portugal, but in all the African possessions of Portugal, the liberal commercial system which was established in 1877 in Mozambique. The general principles of the agreement do not offer any difficulty; but I am far from being sure of coming to an understanding on the conditions which in our view are indispensable. It may be convenient that I should state what appear to us to be essential points. I need not say, in the first place, that the agreement as to dealing with slavery must be complete. In the second place, it is necessary there should be complete security that undue burdens, which do not now exist, should not be placed in any part of the Portuguese possessions upon missionaries, shipowners, or traders. I said that it was supposed by some that we were giving away boundless territory which belonged to us; but, in reality, we are doing no such thing. What we propose is that, without receding from the position of legality as to the right which is claimed, we should agree, on the conditions which we have stated, together with some arrangements of a satisfactory character as to Whydah, to withdraw our objections for the future to Portuguese jurisdiction, within certain defined geographical limits. This engagement ought not to be merely of a bilateral character; and we will, therefore, give our full support to Portugal to obtain a similar assent from other Powers. I am far from being certain that these negotiations will be successful; but if a good Treaty is obtained—and a bad one would be worse than nothing—I believe we shall strengthen the general principle of freedom of navigation and commerce in the great rivers of the world, and that in Africa itself we shall greatly advance the interests of civilization and of commerce. It has been asked what security shall we have that the Portuguese will observe the conditions of any Treaty? This is an argument which, if valid, is fatal to all Treaties. It would be unbecoming in my position to admit that this result would be likely to happen; but, admitting it hypothetically, I would ask how should we have less moral and physical power to enforce the conditions of a Treaty to which Portugal has consented, than that by which we now resist the claim of Sovereignty which Portugal so strongly asserts? It would be wrong of me to go into great detail on matters which are under negotiation; but I trust that the statement which I have made of the general character of the negotiations will be sufficient to enable this House to judge of the principles on which Her Majesty's Government are acting.