HL Deb 21 June 1888 vol 327 cc785-7

in rising to ask whether Her Majesty's Government proposed to issue instructions to naval commanders or colonial governors with regard to the entry of foreign ships of war and transports carrying troops into fortified ports in Her Majesty's dominions? said, there were few questions of greater importance from a military and naval point of view. We possessed first-class harbours in various parts of the world, some of them being under Imperial control, and others under Colonial control. Among the former were the harbours at Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malta, and among the latter such harbours as those of Sydney and Melbourne. Some of these ports were centres of much commerce and wealth, and were of great political importance; others were in the nature of coaling stations for the Navy, and on these in time of war the safety and success of our maritime operations would depend. But whether merely centres of wealth or merely coaling stations, they were alike places of immeasurable importance. That was the first point to be borne in mind. The second point was that the world had arrived at a stage when all the conditions of naval warfare were enormously altered. Foreign squadrons now consisted of heavily-armed ironclads. While the armour a few years ago probably did not exceed some five or six inches, its thickness was now at least twice as great and the armament carried was proportionately stronger. In the event of hostile operations, if an enemy's squadron, consisting of such iron-clads, were to be within the waters of one of our great colonial ports, the place would be absolutely at its mercy. It might be said that an operation such as he contemplated could only be carried out at the outbreak of a war and in circumstances of surprise amounting almost to treachery. He did not desire to impute any unfairness or treachery to any nation, least of all to any of the great European Powers; but, on the other hand, they were bound to remember that the stake in such a case would be enormous, that the history of wars was a history of surprises, that certain grave theories had been deliberately published by eminent foreign military critics, and that modern warfare was, in all its operations, essentially rapid. Therefore, it was the bounden duty of those who were responsible for the safety of these ports to leave nothing to chance. What, he asked, was our practice with respect to the entrance of foreign warships into our colonial ports? We had, he believed, no rule upon the subject. But what was the practice of other great Powers? The Italians admitted ships into their ports in certain numbers only, and he doubted whether this privilege of limited admission did not depend upon the nationality of the vessels. The Germans excluded ships of war altogether, and the French excluded them from their chief ports—Brest and Toulon. The Russians, who at one time did admit a limited number of foreign cruizers into the port of Vladivostock, now excluded them absolutely. We alone, with everything to lose, with far more at stake than any other nation—we alone had no fixed rule, unless it was a rule permitting free entry into every one of Her Majesty's ports. By making and enforcing a rule of prohibition we should not be laying ourselves open to any charge of lack of international amity, for we should be following simply the practice of other nations. In thinking over the subject and in talking to experts it seemed to him that there were only three courses possible. The first would be to limit the number of foreign men-of-war entering a port; the second would be to assign to foreign ships particular waters within our harbours; and the third would be to exclude them altogether. A great deal might be said in favour of each one of these three courses, but his own view was that the last would be the best because it was the simplest and suited the practical and strategical conditions of every port. There was more than one port in which the presence of one single powerful ship of war might render of no avail all the fortifications around it. The last course he had named would be by far the best. At all events, it was the duty of the Government to lay down some distinct rule on this subject, and he would urge that such a rule could not be in contravention of the comity of nations. This was the time for making such a regulation. When we were on good terms with every other nation of the world, there could be no offence in following their example, but if once relations were strained between us and any other Power, such a regulation would have the semblance, at all events, of unfriendliness. He hoped Her Majesty's Government might be able to show that this matter had been under their careful consideration, and that before long they would be able to take some action upon it.


said, the noble Earl would hardly expect him to enter into the details to which he had referred, many of which were still under the consideration of Her Majesty's Government. So far as the matter had gone, it was not convenient, consistently with due regard to the interests of the Public Service, to make any statement, and that being the case, no instructions had been issued to naval commanders on the subject.