HL Deb 21 December 1888 vol 332 cc937-47

, in rising to call attention to East African affairs and to move for Papers, said, that the Zanzibar question was a most serious one, and it had become more serious than it was when he last addressed their Lordships on the subject. The information before Parliament and the public was of a most meagre kind. We had embarked in an undertaking of which the end could not be foreseen. About three weeks ago he gave their Lordships reasons for anticipating that great difficulties might arise out of our action in those waters. He then said that there was no reason to suppose from the Correspondence before Parliament that Germany was in any sense precluded from military undertakings, and that he was very anxious and uneasy on the subject. Unfortunately, events had justified him in what he then said; and he devoutly wished they had not done so. Operations had been undertaken on land; two towns had been bombarded, and one completely destroyed; and British Indian subjects had suffered grievous loss of property, while, of course, there had been loss of life on the part of the natives. If the matter was serious three weeks ago it was much more serious now. What was the object of the operations? Our object in the blockade was the suppression of the Slave Trade; but we had the authority of Bishop Smythies—and it was difficult to find a better—for the belief that the operations of Germany had nothing to do with the Slave Trade, and, as affecting its suppression, the blockade was, to use his words, a "gigantic fraud." There might be some exaggeration in these words; but there could be little doubt, from the strong opinion he expressed, that the suppression of the Slave Trade was not likely to be furthered by the blockade, and that the operations on shore were not rendered necessary by any proceedings of the Slave Traders. It was easy to see what the effect of the operations was to be. It was to re-establish the German East African Company in the position which it had forfeited by its blunders. The Prime Minister, in a despatch to Sir Edward Malet, was very strong on that point. He had no objection to the re-establishment of a trading company of any country. England would always be willing to assist any nation in extending civilizing influence in savage or semi-savage countries. But the question was not quite so simple when the lives and interests of British subjects were involved. British subjects had suffered, and were suffering seriously, and the correspondent of The Times said that their position wag daily becoming worse. British interests were likely to suffer in a diminution of British influence, for which no compensation was possible. Our position was peculiar, because the British Crown had more Mahomedan subjects than any other Power. On that account it behoved us to be exceptionally careful in dealing with questions that affected Mahomedan peoples. At one time we had a large and even a commanding influence at Zanzibar; and the waning of our influence had not been attended with salutary results. It would be a lamentable thing that the influence of this country should be jeopardized, not only in Zanzibar, but on the mainland, by the action we were taking in concert with Germany. It was idle to say we could dissociate ourselves from responsibility for the action of Germany because we did not participate actively in the operations on land. It would require more sophistry and casuistry than were possessed by the Natives to enable them to draw a distinction between operations on land and operations at sea. He did not see what the end was to be. The debate in the Richstag was most instructive. The tenour of it was to the effect that operations on land were to be continued. The Representative of Hamburg said that the Slave Trade would not be suppressed by operations confined to the sea. The Representative of another important town said that the object was to re-establish the East African Company, and to let all people know that when Germany had put her foot down she would not withdraw. These sentiments were not explained away nor extenuated as the debate proceeded. The Foreign Minister suggested that there should be a gendarmerie of 800 or 900 men under 30 European officers, with a reserve at Zanzibar. What would be our position supposing this gendarmerie was created? It appeared to him that we were going too far, or else not far enough, in this matter. He could judge only by the Papers which had been presented to Parliament, and, as far as he could see, no provision had been made whereby this country had any voice whatever in determining whether operations were to be conducted on land or not, and what limit was to be placed upon any operations which might be undertaken. He saw no provision whatever whereby this country was to withdraw from the arrangements, whatever they might be, that Her Majesty's Government had entered into with Germany. These partnerships were, in his opinion, matters of doubtful utility, and the experience of them in the past was not very re-assuring. The utterance of the Prime Minister the other day, and what had taken place since, reminded him of a statement made by Lord Derby some time ago. Lord Derby assured their Lordships and the country that there was no reason to suppose that any foreign country had designs upon New Guinea. That utterance was closely followed by the annexation of the greater part of New Guinea and one or two other islands. With regard to Zanzibar, the Prime Minister a little while ago said that the German Government had no intention to resort to any action on shore, and these words were closely followed by action on shore. He did not mean for one moment to attribute any want of bona fides on the part of the noble Marquess, but he wished to point out how impossible it was for the best instructed mind to foretell in cases of this kind the course which events might take. There was another matter which appeared to be very ominous, and that was the absolute silence of noble Lords who usually sat on the Front Bench opposite. Lord Granville had been Foreign Secretary and Colonial Minister. Lord Derby had also occupied those posts, and his policy changed sides before he did himself. He had no hesitation in saying that the general policy of those two noble Lords must be baneful to the interests of this country; and that if their policy had not been controlled and interrupted by the occasional inroads of a sensible Tory policy it would have been disastrous to the interests of the United Kingdom. He thought it most ominous that noble Lords who sat on the Front Bench opposite appeared to entirely approve the state of things which existed at the present time on the East Coast of Africa. He had before said that certain eventualities might occur which would possibly entangle this country in a position from which it might be difficult to extricate her without jeopardizing her neutrality or without causing friction. An influential portion of the French Press had expressed the utmost satisfaction at the position of this country in connection with Germany at Zanzibar. France and Germany were happily at profound peace with each other, but it was absurd to suppose that they entertained towards each other feelings of profound affection, and we could not blind ourselves to the fact that things might occur which might lead to a European war. He held it most dangerous, therefore, that this country should be placed in a position in which she would be likely in any way to compromise her neutrality, or from which she could only extract herself by giving offence to one country or another. That was all he wished to say upon this question. What he complained of was the scantiness of the information laid before Parliament. They had absolutely no knowledge whatever of the attitude of France in regard to this matter. They only knew that France absolutely denied the construction put upon her words and intentions. They had no information of the nature of the arrangements made with Portugal, or of the actual opinions of Italy or any other of the Great Powers. They had no knowledge as to the nature of any agreement entered into by this country with Germany, or as to whether any agreement had been entered into. They had no knowledge as to whether this country had any voice whatever in deciding the nature of the operations that took place, or as to whether any operations would take place on shore. And they had no knowledge of any means by which the Government could extricate the country from its present position. If he were speaking from a Party point of view he would urge the noble Lords on the Front Ministerial Bench to consider the fact that the one thing which the people of this country disliked was to be kept in ignorance. He hoped that it might be possible before Parliament was prorogued for the Government to give some further information upon these matters. Before he sat down he wished to say a word or two as to the position of affairs at Suakin. The action of the Government in both these cases was influenced by the same motive—the suppression of the Slave Trade. He would not enter fully into the question whether or not negotiations might have been attempted before an action was fought. His opinion was that, considering the position in which matters were, it would have been perfectly useless to attempt to negotiate without having first dislodged the enemy. They had dislodged the enemy, and had had a very brilliant and complete success, occasioning, no doubt, a considerable loss of human life, which must be regretted. This action might have been absolutely necessary; but at least it was their duty to consider whether they could not in the future deal with the question without the necessity of destroying human life. He took it that Suakin was to be retained. The words of the noble Marquess upon the retention of Suakin had been considerably canvassed of late, and no doubt it would be interessing if the Prime Minister would explain what his meaning was when he spoke about the value of Suakin to Egypt. He looked upon what the noble Marquess had said as not being the words of the Prime Minister, speaking, as it were, ex cathedrâ, but merely saying that if he were in the position of Egypt he would not consider Suakin of vital importance. It was a totally different thing to lay it down that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Govern ment Suakin was of no importance to Egypt. He took it that Suakin was of great strategical importance to Egypt, and to any country vitally interested in Egypt. Suakin was also essential to our success in dealing effectually with the Slave Trade. He therefore hoped it was the intention of the Government to retain Suakin. If so, the question was how it could be occupied at the least expense of human life and money. The course of re conquering the Soudan was out of the question, but there was the alternative of endeavouring by negotiation to occupy Suakin with the consent of the neighbouring coast tribes. One thing which was universally held to be utterly repugnant to the coast tribes was Egyptian rule; and if they were assured that they would not be handed over to Egyptian rule, and that we occupy Suakin directly and not as agents of Egypt, there was little doubt that negotiations could be successfully entered into with them. There was a strong feeling among a military party that our policy was to take Handoub and other places, and establish ourselves in the vicinity of Suakin. Therefore, he thought it would be well if Her Majesty's Government would express their intention not to go any further, if that was their fixed determination. He also asked whether they would endeavour to open negotiations with the coast tribes. By that proceeding, and also by encouraging legitimate trade, they would be doing the only thing by which they could succeed in suppressing the Slave Trade. The Arabs were keen traders, and by all accounts the coast tribes were anxious to trade; and there would be no difficulty in dealing with them provided they felt certain that under no circumstances would they be handed over to Egypt, and that Suakin would be occupied by us directly. He believed that in the adoption of that policy lay the only solution of that question. The future repetition of the events of yesterday morning, brilliant as was their success, would be a subject of regret, but they must look for their recurrence unless they could devise some more safe and satisfactory way of occupying Suakin; and that result could only be attained, as he had said, by securing the friendship of the coast tribes and occupying Suakin ourselves in the manner that he had indicated. The noble Earl concluded by moving for the production of Papers.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for Papers relating to East African affairs."—(The Earl of Dunraven.)


My Lords, I confess there is some difficulty in following the noble Lord in all the matters with which he has dealt. In view of the present state of the House, and of the Bench I see opposite, I feel some difficulty in discussing the colonial policy of Lord Granville and Lord Derby; and I do not know that, in the absence of those two noble Lords, any other occupant of the Bench opposite will care to do so. But my noble Friend is very angry with the German Government, and objects to many things which they have done. He is also angry with the German Reichstag, and objects to many things which the Members of that body have said. I have nothing to say against his taking these objections, but I must protest earnestly against the idea that I am responsible for the German Government or for the Members of the German Reichstag. The noble Lord was severe on me because he said that I misled him as to the intentions of the German Government. Well, in the first place, I would say that in furnishing my views to him as to what I thought the German Government was likely to do, I was not to be understood as entering into any pledge on behalf of the German Government or on my own behalf; and it cannot give the noble Lord any right to complain if my anticipations were not fulfilled. I was misunderstood when I talked of action on shore. I was speaking of the wider question of a military expedition into the interior. Whether bombardment is to be described as an action on sea or land is a nice question, because the shells obviously start from the sea and fall on the land; and it may, therefore, be described either way. When the noble Lord asked the question some time ago, there had already been action of this kind on the part of the German Fleet on the coast of Zanzibar, and therefore it is obvious that I could not have meant bombardment when I told him that the German Government would not take action on land. But as he holds me responsible for any forecast I may make as to the action of the German Government I will not make any more; and I will leave it to the noble Lord's imagination to fancy that the Germans are going to march across Africa, if he pleases. Whatever the German Government has done, whether good or bad, expected or unexpected, it would have been done in exactly the same manner if we had taken no action at all. The German Government is dealing with a territory under their own influence, with regard to which it has Treaty rights, and is acting within the strict limits of International Law. We have no claim to remonstrate against or to prevent its action; and we are in no way responsible for the action it has taken. We have a certain partnership with the German Government in respect to one particular matter. My noble Friend says we have come to the assistance of the German Government. I am not prepared to admit that that is a correct mode of describing the action we have taken. I should say that we have accepted the assistance of the German Government in carrying out what we have been engaged in for three quarters of a century—namely, the suppression of the Slave Trade by sea. For that purpose we have accepted the assistance of the German Government, and it is very valuable, because it enabled us to establish this blockade of the coast by which we can stop vessels of all Flags. But beyond that strictly limited department we have no action in common with the German Government; and if they are, indeed, as my noble Friend thinks they are—I do not myself think they are—going to undertake military operations into the interior, it will in no degree concern us, and we shall not imitate them. We are not going to undertake action on land, but intend to confine ourselves to action by sea, to paralyze the Slave Trade. I am sorry my noble Friend has not had more information on these matters. Almost all the points he adverted to are dealt with in the Papers already laid on the Table; but it was not possible to get them ready for circulation in time, considering the vast amount of work which the printers' offices have to do. Of course the noble Lord is aware that before despatches are published it is necessary to consult those by whom they are written, and a con siderable length of time elapses necessarily before they can be published, but I hope that the Papers which he asks for will be before Parliament in a very short period. As to Suakin, I imagine that I agree very closely with my noble Friend, but I do not know how far his view extends. I entirely agree that there should be no expedition into the desert; I agree that Suakin must not be abandoned to the Soudanese. The precise limit of the interest of Egypt in Suakin I will not discuss. When I discussed the matter before in this House, as far as I remember, I was trying to give an explanation of the grounds on which the Egyptian Government was acting, and I indicated that I thought, from their point of view at the time, they were not likely to attach much value for their own purposes to Suakin; but it is a subject on which a great many different opinions are held, according to the point of view from which the matter is looked at. And I do not think it is necessary or expedient to discuss further how far the Egyptian Government is interested in keeping Suakin. I will only say I believe that that Government and the Turkish Government, if we consulted together, would agree with us that Suakin should not be abandoned to the Soudanese. My noble Friend says you must not be satisfied with repelling attacks on Suakin, but you must make such attacks for ever impossible by negotiating with the friendly tribes. Is he not a little misled by mere words? What does he mean by negotiating with the friendly tribes? What have we to offer them? You cannot negotiate with them unless you have something to offer or something to threaten. Well, we have nothing to threaten. What have we to offer? We might offer them one thing—that is, to defend them against the dervishes; but that would involve us in an expedition into the interior—the very thing against which my noble Friend desires us to guard. No doubt you might invite the friendly tribes to come into closer connection if you extended the circle of your operation and defended a large circle around Suakin; but if you extend the circle of your defence, you must also extend the garrison and means required for that defence. You extend the cost of the measures by which that defence will be accompanied; and that will make it essential to inquire how far the return is likely to be equivalent to the great sacrifices you have been called upon to incur. My noble Friend has one simple solution of the difficulty. He says that it is a matter universally acknowledged, that the tribes detest the Egyptians and like us. I beg to withdraw my own individual unit from that universal acknowledgment. I do not know where he gets the evidence of that universal belief. I expect it is to be found chiefly in the minds of persons who, I think, assume their information on this subject very readily and very rashly. The tribes differ, I believe, very much in opinion. They differ very much in the strength of their Mahomedan fanaticism, and they do not hold the same mood from year to year or month to month; and I believe any policy founded on a belief in the permanent inclination on the part of the tribes for England rather than Egypt would be a policy based on the sands. I have only one other suggestion to offer. I do not like to dwell on it, but the importance of it my noble Friend will recognize at once—that before he recommends us to hoist the English Flag at Suakin and keep the town for ourselves, he should study the provisions of the Treaty of Paris.


said, he wished to refer to the question of the wounded at Suakin. While our own wounded, he was pleased to think, had all the medical attention it was possible to command, it was far otherwise with the wounded of a gallant enemy, who, probably, were scattered about the desert, or were laid in the enemy's camp, subject to the most horrible tortures under a burning sun. No one who had not seen the surroundings of the ordinary battle fields in the Soudan could adequately understand the sufferings of those wounded, who crawled under the scanty shade of a thorn tree to die in agony. A great deal might be done to alleviate the sufferings of the enemy's wounded, and to produce a friendly feeling with the Natives, if Her Majesty's Government would recommend to the Governor at Suakin that he should issue a Proclamation to the enemy informing them that their wounded, if sent into Suakin, would be cared for. It could also have no other effect than humane and beneficial, if a convoy of camels laden with lime juice, oranges, or other medical comforts for the wounded, was sent into the enemy's camp. The enemy, as we knew, were suffering great privation prior to the battles, and their wounded must be in a bad way for even the bare necessaries of life. The arrival of a few camel loads of medical comforts for the sick in their camp must tend to blunt the edge of their hatred towards the victor, and to facilitate the negotiations which he trusted would now follow. If Emin or other European prisoners were in the hands of the Mahdi, it was likely that their treatment would be favourably influenced by such conduct on our part, as it would prove to the enemy that, though England resists aggression, she acts magnanimously to the vanquished.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.