HL Deb 18 July 1902 vol 111 cc640-4

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the finding of the Transvaal Concessions Commissioners in regard to the Netherlands South African Railway Company, that— The Company did, before war was declared, initiate and organise elaboiate plans, and afterwards effectively carried them out, causing great damage, delay, and loss to the Queen's armies. And to ask whether action has been taken, or is going to be taken, to punish the Company for these belligerent operations. The active part which was taken by the Netherlands Railway Company in the late war is a matter of considerable notoriety. I ventured, just a year ago, † to bring the finding of the Commissioners before your Lordships, and to ask what indemnity, or other punishment, it was intended to inflict for the unwarrantable attack by this Company on Great Britain. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs told me at that time that the matter was under consideration, that a correspondence was taking place with foreign Powers, and that His Majesty's Government were unable at that moment to give me any answer. A year has elapsed, and I now venture to repeat my question. The facts are not in dispute; they have been investigated, and I am anxious to know whether anything has been done, or is going to be done, to punish the Company for their operations. When I brought this matter before your Lordships a year ago, I entered in considerable detail into the investigations of the Commission, and, therefore, it will not be necessary for me today to trouble your Lordships with more than a very few remarks on that part of the subject. As I have said, the See (4) Debates xcii., 8. main facts are not in dispute; but, lest it should be supposed that anything is wanting to make the case against this railway company complete, I would remind your Lordships that, according to their own admissions, the managers and the staff in South Africa, the board of directors in Amsterdam, and also the shareholders, aided and abetted, more or less actively, in the action that was taken at that time by the Company, Just before the outbreak of the war, M. Van Kretschmar, the directing manager of the railway in the Transvaal, took a very lively and direct interest in the prospects of the Republic. He called their attention to the fact that they had not sufficiently provided for defence and offence, and went so far as to produce schemes, and give them advice as to how they should attack Natal and defend themselves. He did more. He suggested that the employees of the Company should be commandeered, and he paid those employees while-they were actually engaged in operations against the British troops. He directed those operations, suggested that they should blow up bridges, and acted from beginning to end as an open enemy of this country. So much for the direction. I will now read to your Lordships what M. Van Kretschmar's opinion was as to the result of his action. After the fortunes of war had turned, he wrote to his directors in Amsterdam as follows— I am afraid we have hopelessly compromised ourselves in deed, word, and writing. We have made cannon and ammunition; we have sold material to the Republics; we have blown up bridges on English territory, and have not discharged our staff on commando. Passing to the staff, how did they carry out M. Van Kretschmar's directions? They assumed open action as belligerents; they blew up the bridge at Colenso, arid when the Boers were in retreat subsequent to the relief of Ladysmith, they also broke up the line of railway and protected the retreating enemy. Another portion of the railway staff blew up bridges in Cape Colony and protected the retreating Boers by destroying the communications. We have it on record, in a letter written by M. Van Kretschmar, that the Board in Amsterdam were greatly pleased with the action he had taken in the first instance; but when the fortunes of war changed they recognised that what had been done might prove detrimental to their interests, and they advised M. Van Kretschmar to take up a different line of action, to which he replied— I like to hoar your judgment—you who were so proud when you heard of the deeds of heroism of the Company in the destruction of bridges, etc., and wished for special data in order Co refer to it in your Annual Report. We are now once for all in a boat, and must remain in it to the other bank. When the Transvaal Concessions Commission was sitting, they invited the Board of this Company in Amsterdam to send witnesses to give some account of themselves and explain what had been done, but from that day to this no answer has been received from the Board, and we must therefore assume that they agreed with the action of their manager in South Africa. Even the shareholders received the Report in silent acquiescence, and it was not till the war was nearly over that they ventured to intimate some doubts as to the wisdom of the course that had been followed. There is no doubt that the servants of this Railway Company openly aided and abetted belligerent operations against the British troops, and we have the right to exact the full penalty for this audacity. In justice to the taxpayer that penalty ought to be exacted, for no inconsiderable part of the cost of the war was due to the destruction of the communications by the Company's servants. I submit that the fact that there are foreign shareholders of the Company has nothing to do with the question. The point in question is, What is the damage that has been done to this country? And it is only right and fair that the people who did the damage should pay for it. I regret the long delays and correspondence which have taken place, because they suggest that this country is to get nothing in the end. This is the most flagrant case I have ever heard of; and if by any misfortune the penalty which is undoubtedly due is not exacted, then our leniency will be entirely misplaced and very much misunderstood.


said the word "punish" in the noble Earl's Question was not in accord with the general amnesty which, though not proclaimed, had been virtually acted upon in South Africa. He took it that this Company was composed, not of Trans-vaalers, but of Dutchmen, and they had a perfect right to do the best they could for their fellow countrymen in South Africa. The feelings of the Dutch had not been properly understood, because the history of the Boer War which had been most in circulation began in 1806 instead of in 1795; thus misleading by an error of eleven years. In 1795 the Duke of York, with a British army, was in the Low Countries in alliance with, and in support, of the Dutch against the French. He had always regarded the noble Earl who had asked this Question as a sensible and moderate Liberal-; and as the feeling of the country was that the Liberal Party in both Houses wanted strengthening, he hoped to -see the noble Earl join the Opposition, and in that way make the Opposition Benches less attenuated and more respectable.


My Lords, the belligerent acts of the Company are admitted on all hands. At the time the war broke out the Company was paying a handsome dividend, and its shares stood at 230 or 240. As soon as the British troops occupied the country through which the railway ran, the railway was taken possession of by them. That itself is a serious penalty. The noble Earl said that there had been considerable delay in announcing the intentions of the Government. That delay hurts the shareholders much more than His Majesty's Government, because in the meanwhile the shareholders are not receiving a penny. The Transvaal Concessions Commission advised the Government that this concession ought not to be recognised; and His Majesty's Government thought that in that recommendation the Commission were perfectly correct. But the money invested by the railway was invested by different classes of persons. There were those who invested money on debenture. They had no voice in the management of the railway. Others invested in shares, and it was within their power to control the board of directors who sat at Amsterdam. It was in the power of the directors to dismiss their officers in South Africa. These two classes of investors ought to be treated very differently; and His Majesty's Government do not intend to allow the debenture-holders to suffer for action which they could not control. But with regard to the shareholders, the concession not being recognised, the whole matter is entirely in the hands of His Majesty's Government, who are still considering what, if anything, should be done ex gratia, but hot of right, for those who have bonâ fide invested their money in the shares. The noble Earl may rest assured that the damage inflicted on the armies of the King will not be left out of consideration in any arrangement which may hereafter be come to ex gratia with the shareholders.