HL Deb 11 March 1889 vol 333 cc1353-6

, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government whether any definite arrangement has been made for providing the requisite dock accommodation for the ships of Her Majesty's Navy at Bombay, said: My Lords, a Question upon this subject was, as far back as December last, put by me to Her Majesty's Government, and I was on that occasion answered by my noble Friend the Secretary of State for India, who said that the negotiations between the India Office and the Admiralty, which naturally must precede any definite adoption of plans, were almost completed, and that he hoped that very shortly the works would be commenced. My noble Friend—and indeed everyone who has had to do with the Admiralty—have repeatedly expressed their opinion—an opinion in which I am quite sure every noble Lord who has considered this subject will concur—that docks at Bom- bay, capable of accommodating the largest vessels, are absolutely necessary; and the question I wish to ask is, whether there is any hitch in the progress of the matter; and, if so, whether that hitch will be very shortly removed, so that the works may go forward? I think I need not take up your Lordships' time by pointing out the extreme necessity which exists for this work. In the event of war, we should have a great deal of work for our Navy in these seas, and quite probably in the immediate vicinity of Bombay. Without wishing to re-open the interesting discussion we had the other day upon the question of dock accommodation at Gibraltar, I may just point out that the views which my noble Friend (Lord Carnarvon) expressed on that occasion certainly do not hold good in this instance, for the distance from the Indian Seas to the nearest available dock is very much greater than the distance which my noble Friend quoted as being sufficient for Gibraltar—namely, three days' sail from Plymouth. Some years ago an accident occurred in the Indian Ocean to a ship much smaller than the vessels which we should be employing in the event of actual hostilities, and she had to be towed all the way through the Red Sea to Suez, simply because in our greatest Colony, in which centres an enormous proportion of our commerce, where it is quite certain our Possessions would be the object of the strongest attack by any enemy, there was no accommodation for the repairs that were necessary. The nearest dock is at Mauritius, which is not a Government dock, and it is some 3,000 miles away. The next nearest dock is at Hong Kong. So that, in the event of accident to any vessel on the Indian Station, she would, have to be taken off the station, which would thereby be, to the extent of that vessel's capabilities, unprotected. Her Majesty's Government have stated on two previous occasions that they were bound to see the construction of a naval dock at Bombay carried forward at once, and I should like them to explain why the work has been entirely suspended, and nothing whatever done for the last 12 months.


I Can assure your Lordships that the Government are fully sensible of the desirability, and even of the absolute necessity, of having a dock at Bombay. I admit at once the force of the arguments that have been put forward by my noble Friend; but, owing to more pressing demands of an important character, it has not been found advisable to commence the work of construction this year. There is a scheme which has, practically, the approval of the Admiralty, for the construction of a first-class dock at Bombay; but, pending the distribution of the expense between the Imperial and the Indian Governments, the matter is still under the consideration of both Governments. My noble Friend may permit me to remind him that there is already at Bombay a dock belonging to the Port Trust, which will be available for small vessels, and they are now constructing a graving dock inside.


I should like to add that, with regard to the action that is being taken by the Port Trust at Bombay, I have had private intimation that a larger dock might be constructed if certain money were handed over by the Government to assist in the cost of construction. Seeing the great delay that has taken place on the part of the Imperial Government, I am now in communication with the Government of India to see whether we cannot come to some arrangement with the Bombay Port Trust, in order to make the graving dock of theirs of sufficient size to take the largest vessels. I am quite aware that that would involve the enlarging of the wet dock, through which all the ships would have to pass in order to get to the graving dock; but I am informed privately that there would be practically no difficulties in the way except that of money, and I hope that some arrangement may be come to between the Imperial and the Indian Governments, whereby something, at all events, may be done in the way of assisting the Bombay Port Trust to so enlarge their docks that they may be utilized in case of need by Her Majesty's Navy.


As my noble Friend (Viscount Sidmouth) has referred to what I said the other day, I rise just to make two observations. So far from objecting to the construction of a dock at Bombay, I am very glad to bear out what has been said by my noble Friend as to the urgent necessity of carrying out that work. As a matter of fact, Bombay is so situated that there is no convenient dock within a large distance which would be available in such an emergency as that contemplated by the noble Lord. But I must protest against the argument of my noble Friend, when he asked what would be the consequences of a breakdown near Gibraltar. If there was any logical conclusion to be drawn from the argument, it was that we should have a large dock constructed there at enormous expense, which would, after all, not be in a tenable and defensible position. I confess that I object to the construction of a dock at Gibraltar, and I do so on the broad ground that it is not possible, as I understand, in the present condition of modern gunnery, to make it defensible against an enemy who held the Spanish heights. If, in the chances and exigencies of war, Spain were to be our opponent, the dock at Gibraltar would be wholly indefensible. The case of Bombay, however, as my noble Friend knows, and as must be appreciated by anyone with naval experience, is entirely different. A dock there is, as far as I understand, desirable; and I shall be glad to see it constructed as rapidly as possible.


Having brought the question of dock accommodation at Bombay before your Lordships last Session, I wish to point out that the answer then given was that there was no ironclad on the Indian Station, and that our fleet in Indian waters was, notwithstanding, superior in force to that of any other Naval Power there. Since then, in consequence of what has occurred at Zanzibar, it has been found necessary to send an ironclad to that station; and, in view of the increased Naval Forces of other Powers, it may be necessary to send more. In that case, there is no adequate dock accommodation for them between Malta and the Cape of Good Hope. I would venture to point out that this fact shows the importance of making some provision for our vessels at some point nearer to Zanzibar than is at present available.