HL Deb 06 July 1896 vol 42 cc760-4

had the following notice on the Paper:— To ask Her Majesty's Government if they will lay on the Table of the House all Papers connected with the late trial of Major Lothaire, in Africa, for the execution of Mr. Stokes; to ask if an appeal for a new trial has been lodged, such trial to take place in Belgium; and also to call the attention of her Majesty's Government to an article by Captain Salusbury, published in the United Service Magazine of June 1896, in which Captain Salusbury states that British subjects from Sierra Leone were hired as labourers for the Congo Free State by officers of that State, and that when they refused to land at Boma (hearing that they were to be used as soldiers), they were fired upon and some killed, and that others were forcibly taken up country and forced to serve in several expeditions; also, that some of these British subjects fled to the British Consulate, 'from which asylum they were dragged,' and that when Vice-Consul Bannister protested against such violation of the Consulate, he was subjected to a heavy fine by the officials of the Congo State. On the notice being reached, the noble Lord said that, as the first two questions were practically answered in the House of Commons on the previous Friday, he would not trouble the Government with them. But he was very desirous to ascertain whether the Government could give any information, either by way of confirmation or contradiction, in regard to the statements made by Captain Salusbury, and whether it was true that Vice-Consul Bannister was fined under the circumstances stated in the Question.


I am afraid I have not seen the article in question, but I have made inquiries with respect to the statements contained in the Question of my noble Friend. It is not quite easy to recognise the incidents to which he refers, but doubtless the most serious one is that "British subjects from Sierra Leone were hired as labourers by the Congo Free State by officers of that State, and that when they refused to land at Boma they were fired upon, and some killed." As far as I can find out, this refers to events which took place so far back as 1892. No inquiry appears to have been made at that time on the subject, and the Report that came to us indicated that the labourers were engaged as soldiers, and that they attempted to run away. It was said that they ran away in consequence of ill-treatment, but at this distance of time it is almost impossible to verify whether that statement was true or not. The allegations with respect to Vice-Consul Bannister appear to be an entire mistake. He was fined, undoubtedly, but what he was fined for was for taking a paper that did not belong to him from a clerk in the service of the Congo Free State. That clearly did not fall within the scope of his Vice-Consular duties, and therefore no diplomatic question could be raised if he was dealt with according to the ordinary law of the land for the offence he committed. In respect to that offence, he underwent a small fine, and it had nothing to do with the protection of British subjects. It is very difficult to deal publicly with assertions that are made on authority which is not accepted or recognised by the State against whom they are made. Statements have been published in Belgium with respect to Major Lothaire which would make it quite impossible to press the Congo Free State diplomatically in regard to allegations which did not rest upon authoritative evidence. I do not wish to go further into the matter than that, but I must say that I do not think the very violent language or statements he has used are, as far as I can judge, justified by the facts, or that the Congo Government would be bound to treat those allegations as matters for which they could be asked to give compensation, or in respect of which any punishment of their officials could be claimed. That is all I have to say with regard to that question. With respect to the much more important question of the execution of Mr. Stokes, I have to say that the evidence came into my hands only three days ago, and that until I have had an opportunity of consulting the Law Officers of the Crown I cannot announce any intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government. ["Hear, hear!"]


I should like to say a word or two on the subject of the treatment of the labourers who are engaged in our colonies by the Congo Free State. I have no cognisance of the particular matter referred to by the noble Lord, but I am able to say that during the time I had the honour of holding the seals of the Foreign Office, very serious complaints reached the Government on this subject. So serious were they, indeed, that it was thought necessary to prohibit the Congo Free State from engaging labourers in the Gold Coast and other colonies. It was alleged that men were engaged to work on railways or other works, and that then they were compelled to enter the service of the Congo Free State as soldiers; and, as I have just said, there was reason to believe that this led to great abuse, and led to steps being taken against it. I do not wish to ask the noble Marquess to make any statement on the subject at present, but I do trust that very close and serious attention is given to the treatment of the labourers engaged from our colonies by the Congo State. I hope that the prohibition to which I just now referred is still in existence, and I should be glad to hear that it had been extended to the whole of our colonies in West Africa, at all events, until we have satisfactory reason to believe that the labourers when engaged will be properly treated when they go to the Congo State. ["Hear, hear!"]


said he called attention to the subject because he had noticed in several magazines quotations taken from articles communicated by Captain Salusbury, and because in one of the principal weekly periodicals—the Spectator—there was a leading article on the subject. It was well, he thought, that the statements there made should, if possible, be set at rest. Since he came down to the House he had received a letter from Captain Salusbury, saying he was quite prepared to substantiate his statements.


I think it would be better I should look over the Papers to see whether there are any which can be produced and give my noble Friend more detailed information. His interest in the matter is quite legitimate and is one to which we ought to give every satisfaction we can. Until I have examined the Papers, however, I really cannot tell what there is to produce. I remember that Lord Granville once said that nobody in charge of Foreign affairs ought to answer a question of which notice had not been given, and that must be my answer if I go slightly only over the ground pursued by the noble Lord opposite. [The EARL of KIMBERLEY:" I quite agree."] The matter is one which has occupied serious attention. I believe the abuse has existed to a very great extent. I have every ground to believe it has diminished in extent, though I should be very sorry to pledge myself it has disappeared. The fact of the existence of the abuse is occupying the careful attention both of her Majesty's Government and of the colonial Governments, and the particular remedy which the noble Lord indicates—viz., that of forbidding the enlistment of these people, except under satisfactory conditions, is naturally the remedy to which we should have resort. The noble Lord knows quite well that not only on the West Coast of Africa, but everywhere where the labour of indigenous races under our protection is required, we have to exercise the most careful supervision to prevent the power given to their masters being abused. I assure the noble Lord we are quite as sensible of our responsibility as he can, be and that we shall continue give every attention to the subject. The particular question how far these conditions extend now is not one I can answer on the spur of the moment.

House adjourned at Twenty minutes before Six o'clock till to-morrow, Eleven o'clock.