HL Deb 27 March 1885 vol 296 cc815-20

in asking Her Majesty's Government, Whether it is their intention to increase the naval forces in the China Seas and Straits Settlements? pointed out the utterly defenceless position of Singapore and the whole of the Straits Settlements, in consequence of the entire absence of fortifications and naval defence. Although no one could forsee the turn events might take, he could not help feeling that the presence of a hostile Force in those seas must cause great alarm among those who had property in the Islands, and still more among those who held the Colonial Empire of this country most dear to the interests of England. He felt so strongly on this question that, if Parliament should separate without Her Majesty's Government giving some assurance as to an addition being made to our Naval Forces in those seas, he should move a Resolution on the subject immediately after the re-assembling of the House.


said, that, in answering the Question of the noble Viscount, he must ask leave to correct his statement of what took place the other day. The noble Viscount had not given any similar Notice on any former occasion. What he did was to put another Question, in which he discussed a great number of naval subjects, and asserted that the Navy of England was not much better than the Navy of France—a statement which the noble Viscount had never substantiated, and which he himself had always positively denied as being in consistent with the facts of the case. The noble Viscount stated, as an argument in support of his assertion, that the Naval Force of England in the Chinese Seas was not so strong as that of France. To that statement the answer was that the French were at war with the Chinese, and that Her Majesty's Government did not think it necessary on that account to immediately increase our Squadron in the Chinese waters to the strength of the French Fleet; also that such an increase of our Naval Force, under those circumstances, would only have the effect of creating suspicion and irritation, and endangering the present state of good will between the two countries. The naval strength of a nation could not be said to depend upon the amount of Force that happened at any time to be in any particular part of the world. Instructions had been given to the Commander of our Squadron in Chinese waters to arrange for the protection of British and other foreign residents at the Treaty ports in China. There was nothing to make us suppose that those duties had not been efficiently performed by Her Majesty's Forces in China. There was no complaint whatever that those Forces were not amply sufficient for the protection of British interests; on the contrary, Her Majesty's Government had received assurances from British merchants and others at the Treaty ports in China that Her Majesty's Forces had given them every necessary protection. If Her Majesty's Government thought it necessary for the protection of British interests and commerce in China to increase our Forces, they would do so from time to time according to the requirements of the case. At present they deemed those Forces sufficient. With respect to the fortification of coaling stations, he had always thought that the efficient protection of coaling stations was most desirable. As regarded Singapore, as he had already stated, the work had been postponed till next year. The work at all the coaling stations could not be done at the same time; and where it was a question of time between Hong Kong and Singapore, the former was regarded as the more important of the two. Her Majesty's Government could not pledge themselves to station an ironclad or any particular class of ship at the Port of Singapore. The Admiralty had always resolutely opposed the principle that any of Her Majesty's ships should be told off to remain stationary at any particular port. They considered it necessary that Her Majesty's ships should be free to go wherever necessary in time of war. The Commander-in-Chief in China and the Admiralty were perfectly aware of their responsibilities, and would take such measures as they might think most desirable for the protection of British interests in that part of the world.


said, he agreed with the noble Earl that the responsibility of providing for the defence of each particular port rested entirely with Her Majesty's Government, and he had no doubt that they would discharge that responsibility to the best of their ability. The noble Earl had not touched upon one point. It was well known that this country was in a position in which it might at any moment be involved in war. At the Port of Singapore there was a very large store of coal, and the possession of that station would be very desirable for any belligerent Power. One Power with which this county might be involved in hostilities had, at the present time, one of its most powerful ironclads in the Harbour of Singapore. Could not the Government give some assurance that might alleviate the feeling of apprehension which naturally existed in the country when they saw the state of things that existed in the Harbour of Singapore at this moment? If war should break out, Singapore would be lost to this country in 24 hours, unless some preparations had been made not hinted at by Her Majesty's Government. Another matter to which he should like to advert in this connection, and which also bore on the protection of our people in those seas, was this—What was the position which we had now taken up with regard to neutral rights? It was within his own personal knowledge, as a fact for which he could vouch, that within the last few days a cargo which was to have been taken out to China by an English ship had been, in consequence of the action of Her Majesty's Government, transferred to German bottoms and taken out in them, because the position with regard to the French right of search was such that it was more safe to trust cargoes to German ships than to take them out in English ships.




said, he supposed that it was because the Germans did not take the same exaggerated and over-scrupulous view with regard to the French right of search as Her Majesty's Government did.


said, he would remind the noble Viscount of his statement the other night, that the French had given positive assurances as to the equal treatment of neutral ships.


said, he did not dispute the fact of the French declaration that their right of search was extended to other nations as well as England; but he maintained that we were so oversensitive as regards France that we took their intimations as positively settling the question, while the Germans did not take these assertions in the same sense. THE LORD CHANCELLOR said, that he did not know what questions might have arisen with respect to the right of search between these Powers; but he imagined that the Germans, like ourselves, would hold themselves entitled to the same lights and bound by the same obligations of International Law on that subject. By that law no Power could impose on neutrals with respect to trade any regulations of its own which were not in accordance with International Law. Any Power would be entitled to object to, and remonstrate against, any action taken against its neutral rights which might be against its views of the rules of International Law. The proper way to raise this question was not by entering into a discussion before the question arose. If any ship of this country were treated by France in a manner we did not think justified by International Law, we should have a right to remonstrate. If the French should hold that any such ship had broken the rules of International Law—by breach of a blockade, for example, or by carrying articles that were contraband—their course would be to take the ship before a Prize Court in the first instance; and if this or any other Government ultimately came to the conclusion that that had been done which was inconsistent with International Law, it would have the right still to treat it as a matter of International complaint, for which redress should be given.


said, that he had only instanced a case within his own personal knowledge of a cargo being transferred to a German bottom—a practice which would be very disadvantageous to our trade.


remarked, that there was no possibility of preventing such an occurrence as that.


said, he thought that the question of the light of search was hardly relevant to the Notice which the noble Viscount had put on the Paper. With respect to the protection of our coaling stations, he could assure the House that Her Majesty's Government were quite as much alive to the importance of dealing with that question as anyone could be. He must remind their Lordships that the present circumstances were somewhat extraordinary and exceptional, looking at the situation in the Soudan and South Africa and in Afghanistan. A very large outlay was inevitable, and many things which it was desirable to do might in consequence have to be postponed. Taking a broad view of the question he thought that with regard to the protection of those coaling stations the Government were doing everything that was reasonable, and their Lordships were aware of what had been done towards increasing the general strength of the Navy.


said, that he had addressed this Question, not to the First Lord of the Admiralty or to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, but to Her Majesty's Government, because he considered that it was incumbent upon the Government to see that all our Colonies were safe in the event of war; and his point was whether, if war broke out now, these Colonies would be safe.