HL Deb 14 April 1885 vol 296 cc1603-7

asked, Whether the attention of Her Majesty's Government has been directed to the fact that the sole method of telegraphic communication with Hong Kong and some other British settlements in the East is by wires passing through a territory in the possession of a foreign Power; and whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to adopt immediate measures to insure the safety of intercourse by electric telegraph with those parts? The noble Viscount said, he was not quite sure whether he was correct in his statement of the facts; but he thought the matter one of sufficient importance to justify him in giving the Government an opportunity of making a statement on the subject.


in reply, said, the noble Viscount was probably aware that there were two alternative lines of telegraphic communication between this country and Hong Kong. One of those lines passed through Russian territory in Siberia and down the Chinese Coast to Hong Kong; the other—the route more generally used—was from England to Singapore, and then through the Straits Settlement to Saigon and thence to Hong Kong. Thus the noble Viscount would perceive that those lines, though they passed through foreign territory, yet did not pass through the territory of the same Power; and that if by any unfortunate event communication by one line was cut off there would still remain the other. He did not, of course, deny the disadvantage of not having a line of communication in their own hands; but he need not point out that there was a material difference between having only one line of communication passing through the territory of a Foreign Power and having two alternative routes passing through different States. There was at the present time under the consideration of the authorities a proposal to make a line direct from Singapore to Hong Kong. That proposal was being considered by the various Departments concerned; but he understood, and, indeed, was authorized by his noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty to say, that the Naval Authorities, while not denying that such a line would be useful, did not regard it as of primary urgency, and they considered that the expenditure which would be involved might be more usefully incurred elsewhere. At the same time, that was the opinion of only one of the Departments concerned, and no final decision had been come to by the Government as a whole. But there were two matters that must be considered. In the first place, the expense of maintaining the line between Singapore and Hong Kong would be very heavy—about £20,000 a-year; in the nest place, even if they made that line it would not serve the purpose in view—namely, that of having a line of telegraphic communication that did not pass through foreign territory. Unless they had also an independent line of communication to Gibraltar and Malta, the object of the proposal to create an entirely independent line to Hong Kong would not be obtained.


said, that this question of submarine telegraphs ought not to be considered simply and solely on the ground as to whether the line would pay commercially. It must be remembered that these stations were valuable to this country, not only as great commercial emporia, but they were great military and naval coaling stations. He did not understand one remark of the noble Earl; he had spoken as if there were no direct submarine telegraph between England, Gibraltar, and Malta. So far as he (the Earl of Carnarvon) understood it, there was such communication, for he himself had seen it at work. He wished to call attention to an important point in connection with this matter; and that was the extreme importance at this particular moment of the Government taking every precaution in their power against these submarine telegraphs being exposed to greater risks than necessary. It should be remembered that most of their commercial transactions at the present time were begun in the first instance by telegraph, and also that nearly all these lines were worked and managed by English capital. Commercially and politically, therefore, they were English property, and deserved every consideration at the hands of the Government. But what he wished more particularly to point out was that these submarine lines were in times of war exposed to special and peculiar risks. While in the development of modern science they could be easily repaired, yet it was necessary that stores of material should be close at hand and available. He sincerely trusted that during a time of peace, when the Government had full opportunity of making preparations, they had taken the necessary steps to secure an available supply of stores. There was not a large stock of telegraphic cable in this country; but it could be manufactured very rapidly when a certain stage of the proceedings had been arrived at. The matter was a delicate one; but he thought it right to remind the House and the country that in 1878, when there were great alarms as to a Russian war, the Russian Government, who were, perhaps, more alive to the circumstances of the case than we generally were, had taken measures for cutting the submarine cables, and for equipping ships for that special purpose. It was said at the time and on good authority, and was generally believed, that there was a carefully elaborated scheme for taking measures against our submarine cables in the Eastern waters. It was quite right to mention these matters now, and he trusted that Her Majesty's Government had not been blind to the difficulty and danger of leaving them unprovided for; but that while they had had the opportunity and a full warning they had taken those steps and those measures which might be necessary to provide against this danger.


said, that the question to which the noble Earl referred was of a somewhat delicate character, and that if he thought it necessary to bring the matter to the notice of the Government it would have been more advisable to do so by means of a private communication. If by making these remarks the noble Earl meant to imply that those who were responsible for such matters were not alive to their importance, he was quite mistaken. What his noble Friend behind him (the Earl of Derby) had said with regard to the telegraphic communication in question was perfectly correct. No doubt there was a line almost entirely in English hands to Gibraltar and Malta, and so on to Hong Kong and Shanghai. In regard to the route from Singapore to Hong Kong, there were two lines—one through Russia, and the other submarine touching at Saigon. Under the circumstances of the case, it appeared to the Admiralty—that was the advice which they thought it desirable to give to the Colonial Office—that if a subsidy was to be given for the construction of a new line of telegraph, there were other lines of communication of greater importance than this peculiar line. He could assure the noble Earl that he was quite mistaken in supposing that the Government were not alive to the general subject. He did not understand what had been said by his noble Friend (the Earl of Derby) was intended to dispute that these submarine communications had other importance than that of mere commercial lines, and the Government were by no means blind to that fact.


said, that the noble Earl (the Earl of North-brook) had applied a rather severe measure of interpretation to the language of his noble Friend. In the first place, the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) not only did not say that there was a submarine line to Gibraltar, but exactly the reverse.


was understood to say that he stated, in reply to the noble Viscount (Viscount Sidmouth), that there was no independent line to Gibraltar and Malta.


said, that another point on which the noble Earl entirely misunderstood his noble Colleague was on the question whether commercial considerations were to be of predominant weight in these matters. The Secretary of State for the Colonies had distinctly stated, as a ground for not making this submarine line to Hong Kong, that it would cost £20,000 a-year. That was the very commercial consideration which the First Lord of the Admiralty had repudiated. There was a peculiar point with respect to this question of submarine lines; and he did not know whether it had attracted the attention of the noble Earl (Earl Granville)—namely, whether it had been decided that a neutral's duty was fulfilled if he conveyed warlike messages of a belligerent by telegraph through his territories? If there was any doubt on that point, of course the question of submarine lines would become very important. He had heard it raised, and he was not aware whether it had been decided or not. He could easily imagine that if the neutrality of any Power towards us was not very benevolent the difficulty might arise.

House adjourned at a quarter past Five o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.