HL Deb 16 May 1889 vol 336 cc200-5

My Lords, I rise to ask the question of which I have given notice, and that is to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether the Dominion Government of Canada have assented to the proposed arrangement for the defence of the harbour of Esquimault, in Vancouver's Island, which he stated last year had been sent out on the 12th of June, 1888; whether the contemplated works had been commenced and the armament sent out; whether the Government would now state the date when the fortifications of this important harbour (being the headquarters of our Navy on the Pacific Station) would be completed and the guns placed in position. I desire to call attention to the present position of this matter, the peculiar and unsatisfactory position of the naval headquarters at Esquimault, in Vancouver's Island, and their present undefended state. Your Lordships will remember that about a year ago I went very fully into this question, and endeavoured not only to show that the port of Esquimault was utterly undefended, but also that the naval headquarters ought to be transferred to Burrard's inlet, the terminus of the Pacific Railway. During that discussion the Government endeavoured to show that it was impossible to make the proposed alterations, and that it had finally been decided that the naval headquarters were to remain at Esquimault. That being the decision arrived at, I will not again attempt to prove that the headquarters ought to have been removed, although I am confident I am right. Whether the decision of the Government was right or not, all authorities—Canadian, English, and officers of the Army and Navy are agreed that Esquimault is a place of very great importance, and that if it is to be our naval headquarters and our only coaling station on the Pacific Station, there can be no doubt that it ought to be put into a position of being able to defend itself. Last year I stated that at that time there were no guns or any fortifications which could withstand a hostile attack, and that the place was absolutely undefended. I pointed out that the two torpedo boats which were at that port were old and obsolete, and could not, therefore, be made available. The noble Lord who represented the Admiralty did not attempt to controvert this. He practically acknowledged that at the time the place was undefended. It was stated that Esquimault was to be the permanent headquarters, and that the Government fully concurred that it ought to be defended, that a large number of guns were ready to be sent out, and that the only reason the matter was not at once concluded was that there was some slight difference of opinion between the Colonial Government and the Imperial Government upon some details on the question of defence. My noble and gallant Friend who represents the Admiralty stated that "the plans for the defence of Esquimault are all completed. They are cut and dried, so to speak. Men and guns are ready to be sent out to-morrow." He said that it was intended to place the harbour in a good condition of defence, and that the only difficulty which arose was that it was necessary for certain arrangements to be carried out. The noble Lord who represented the War Office on his part went further into details, and after acknowledging that the place ought to be at once armed, explained that there had been some slight alteration in the proposed armament, but that it was now decided to have two 6-in. guns, four 9-in., two quick-firing, six 16-pounders, and six rifled machine guns; that they were prepared to spend £31,000 upon armament, £10,000 upon submarine stores, and about £10,000 upon submarine mines and torpedos, and that the guns were nearly all ready to send out with a supply of ammunition. In July last I asked what had actually been done, and I was told by the Secretary of State for the Colonies that a letter had been sent out to the Dominion Government of Canada on the 12th of June last year asking for their assent to certain arrangements, and that immediately a reply was received the work should be carried out. Twelve months have passed since that time, and if I am rightly informed nothing whatever has been done. The promises made have not been carried out; no guns have been sent, and no definite arrangements have been completed. Who is actually to blame I cannot tell. I have heard from many quarters that there has been a "Midshipman Easy" kind of triangular duel of correspondence going on. The Admiralty has written to the War Office, the War Office has written to the Admiralty, and both Departments have written to the Colonial Office. The Colonial Office has written to the Dominion of Canada, and they have all written again to each other, and the grand result has been absolutely nil. Early this Session I put this notice on the Paper, and I was asked to postpone it because the Government had reason to believe the matter would be at once settled. Now that three months have elapsed I hope that my noble and gallant Friend who will reply to the question will be able to say that I am mistaken, and that really something has been done. But I cannot help thinking from all I have heard that from want of determination on the part of those in high authority we are actually in a worse position than we were 12 months ago, and I should not be surprised to find that a new set of correspondence has been set on foot in lieu of that of last year, and that the guns have been distributed to other places and used elsewhere. At the end of last Session I ventured to ask my noble Friend the Secretary for State for the Colonies what had then been done, and he then stated that a letter embodying the views of the Government had been sent to the Government of the Dominion of Canada and they were only waiting for the result. Of course, my Lords, under ordinary circumstances this would be merely ludicrous, but the real danger of leaving that naval station undefended is so grave that I ventured to call your Lordships' serious attention to it, as in case of war with Russia our position in the Pacific Ocean, with its greatest commercial interests, would certainly be compromized. Let us for a moment see what this harbour being undefended means. Esquimault, in the whole of the Pacific Ocean, is the only place where ships can go for coal, shelter, or repair. Of its strategic importance, having regard to the great development of Western Canada and the recently constructed Canadian Pacific Railway, it would be impossible to say too much. Russia has a great naval arsenal at Vladivostock, only a few days' steam away, which is often described as one of the first in the world. In urging the importance of this matter, I should like to say that in considering the possibilities of war. I allude specially to what would happen if war with Russia were to break out. Any question of war with the United States is one which I do not think ought to enter into our minds. Such a war would be fracticidal and, to my mind, impossible, and not within the scope of practical politics. With Russia, however, it is different. It must not be forgotten that a few years ago a Russian squadron was concentrated at San Francisco at a time when a war with this country was imminent, and it was well known that one object was to capture the harbour of Esquimault and the coaling station of Nanaimo. I think that of itself is sufficient to show the enormous importance of the question, and that I need not offer any apology for bringing it forward again. I hope the noble Lord will be able to give me some satisfactory statement, and that he will tell me whether I am right in saying that the guns which were prepared for this place last year are no longer ready to be sent there, but have been distributed to other coaling stations, and that nothing whatever has been done.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for postponing his question, which one must acknowledge has been for some time on the Notice Paper. I must, first, quite admit the great importance of the question. I went fully into the matter last year, and I will not weary your Lordships by going over it again. In the dispatch of 13th of June, it was stipulated, among other things, that while the Imperial Government, ammunition, and submarine stores, the Dominion Government, on their part, were to provide the permanent garrison, and trained instructors capable of instructing the artillery and submarine miners, who would form part of the local force. On further consideration it appeared that the Dominion Government would probably find very great difficulty, and certainly very great expense would be thrown upon them were they to be called upon to provide the artillerymen, submarine miners, and officers capable of instructing the local force, and it has therefore been decided that a force of 75 Royal Marine Artillery are to be offered to the Dominion Government, including three officers. Fifty of those men will act as artillerymen, and 15 as submarine miners. The charge for maintaining that force—£7,000 a year—will be borne by the Dominion Government. The whole force will be under the command of a field officer, who will take command of the whole garrison. The officers will be capable of training the men of the local force in artillery and submarine drill. A Despatch to that effect was sent out on May 2 last. The Admiralty have already selected the officers and men for that purpose, and they can, if required, be sent away at two or three days' notice with the exception of the submarine miners. The reason of that exception is that the military and naval submarine drill are different, and it is thought desirable to have the men trained in the military drill as otherwise there would be two different systems and sets of stores in the colony, which would be sure to lead to confusion. Application as to the training of those men has been made to the War Office. With regard to the second part of the question, which asks whether the works have been commenced and when they will be completed, that is a question rather for the War Office than the Admiralty, but I apprehend that they are both very much in the same position, that is to say, that neither can take any step forward until the Canadian Government have replied to the Despatch of May 2. With regard to the guns, my noble Friend (Lord Harris) is unable to be present, and has authorized me to say that part of the armament that was to have gone to Esquimault has been sent to the coaling stations at Jamaica and St. Lucia, and for sea service. The quick-firing guns are in the manufacturers' hands, and the machine guns are being re-bored. There is no doubt that the armament will be ready as soon as the fortifications are fit to receive them. The Government do not feel justified in keeping guns in England awaiting the completion of fortifications which are only in contemplation, while there are other important fortifications and ships ready to receive guns.


My Lords, I beg to give notice that I will put this question again when sufficient time has elapsed to enable the Dominion Government to reply to the Despatch of May 2nd, and I also give notice that I shall inquire as to the progress that has been made with the defences of King George's Sound and Thursday Island, which, I understand, are at present in a very backward state.