HL Deb 15 February 1904 vol 129 cc1294-9

My Lords, I rise to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the gross treatment at Buenos Ayres of Mr. Edward McCully, chief officer of the British ship "Kam-bira," who, upon the suggestion of the British Consul at that port, was lodged in an Argentine gaol, where he existed for fifty-seven days without trial under the most degrading conditions; to ask whether it is a fact that, on the case being tried, it was at once dismissed by the Federal Judge on the ground of hishaiving no jurisdiction; if so, whether His Majesty's Government have taken any steps regarding the Consul referred to; and whether they are prepared to compensate Mr. McCully for the serious injury and expense sustained by him owing to the extraordinary way in which he was dealt with by an official representing British interests abroad?

I think it highly necessary that I should draw your attention and that of His Majesty's Government to this very serious matter, and particularly so because it disturbs our confidence in the representatives of this country abroad in their dealings with those of our fellow-subjects who have the right of protection at their hands. In putting the case as briefly as possible, I may say that the chief officer named in my notice was charged at the British Consulate by certain members of his crew with certain acts of cruelty and ill-treatment. Under Sections 480, 481, and 483 of the Merchant Shipping Act, the British Consul had full powers to immediately call a naval Court consisting of not more than five and not less than three persons, with himself as President, in order to thoroughly investigate the charges. All the necessary witnesses could have been called immediately, and the Court would have the power to suspend or cancel the officer's certificate, to call upon him to forfeit the whole or any part of his wages, to pay the whole or a part of the costs of the Court out of his wages, or, under Section 689 of the same Act, the Consul could have inquired into the case upon oath. Then, if it so required, he could have despatched the offender, as soon as practicable, in safe custody to any British possession in which there is a Court capable of taking cognizance of the offence, to be there proceeded against according to the law.

What, however, were the methods adopted by the British Consul at Buenos Ayres? Throwing aside his own responsibility and powers—for what cause I am at a loss to think, except that it was sheer laziness—he handed Mr. MeCully over to the tender mercies of the Argentine police authorities. Not content with this arbitrary act, he despatched a note to these authorities to the effect that Mr. McCully had conducted himself in a brutal manner towards several of the crew, and he was sorry that he could not give a complete list of the other members of the crew who had been the victims of the mate's fury. He ended by asking the judge to pass the severest sentence against the said chief officer as a lesson to men who are accustomed to act in this way. Assuming for the moment that the chief officer in question was guilty of the charges, such a communication to foreign authorities cannot be too strongly condemned. The Consul gave the chief officer no opportunity of defending himself, and his action can only be characterised as an outrage on British justice. It is all the worse when perpetrated by a responsible official of our Government, who himself had full power to deal with the case.

What was the result of this Consul's extraordinary communication? The chief officer, Mr. McCully, was at first locked up without a bed, and for the first twenty-seven hours had nothing to eat, being ultimately sent to the city prison, and compelled to linger, under the vilest conditions, in close confinement for no fewer than fifty-seven days. The captain of the ship on which the cruelties were alleged to have been committed stated without hesitation that the whole thing was a conspiracy. The crew swore or made statements against the chief officer of cruelty committed on the passage and whilst in Canadian ports; these cruelties he never heard of until he was called before the Consul. It is a very fortunate fact that Mr. McCully had some friends in the port—members of the Merchant Service Guild—who, by means of subscriptions and in other ways, took the matter up. Otherwise the likelihood is that Mr. McCully would have been languishing in gaol even yet. Perhaps your Lordships may remember the case of the steamer "Greylands" which I brought to your notice, where two officers and five seamen were kept in gaol at the same port (Buenos Ayres) for nearly five months without trial.

I understand that the Merchant Service Guild have made very strong representation0 on this case of Mr. McCully to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and it is noteworthy that the Buenos Ayres Herald, and other papers in that quarter, printed in our own language, commented in no measured terms on the acts of so-called British representatives at the port. The Foreign Office, in reply to the, Merchant Service Guild, bear out the fact that, as I have stated, a naval Court would have been competent to investigate the charges brought against Mr. McCully, and that it is the usual and most desirable course for a Consul to follow in summoning such a naval Court. The Foreign Office remarked that it was unfortunate that the charges did not come to the notice of the Consul until the necessary witnesses had disappeared. Surely in view of this fact his action was the more unjustifiable and injudicial. We have the right to expect our representatives to act with a better sense of justice and judgment than this. It seems that the Consul appears to have been anxious, as he states, to check the ill-treatment to which seamen on Nova Scotian vessels are sometimes subjected. I am glad to hear that the Merchant Service Guild have protested against any such assumption, which they say is based on what is practically ancient history, and for which there is no actual foundation at the present time. At the same time I very strongly contend that ill treatment or no ill-treatment, the case of Mr. McCully has been handled in a shocking manner. The Guild, I believe, are informed that both the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs deprecate the practice of handing over a British subject to be dealt with by local authorities for offences alleged to have been committed on board a British vessel, when the recognised machinery for dealing with the case under British law can possibly be employed. They are also of opinion that the Consul should not have asked that Mr. McCully should be punished with the greatest severity which the law allows, inasmuch as by so doing he seemed to prejudice the case and to lay himself open to a suspicion of animus against the accused. I do not know whether your Lordships would consider "suspicion" quite the right term. I should call it an intemperate and wilfully malicious statement.

I hope that I have indicated to your Lordships how the interests of British ships are attended to by our representatives at Buenos Ayres, and I trust that you will agree with me that their action merits direct condemnation and censure at the hands of His Majesty's Government. There remains the fact that, apart from personal suffering and degradation, the chief officer of the ship "Kambira" has been subjected to very great expense, and the least that His Majesty's Government can do is to offer some compensation as a solatium. I have read in one of our leading shipping Dailies of three Danish seamen, against whom an unsubstantiated charge of mutiny and setting fire to a British barque on the high seas was preferred at Dover, who received an indemnity from the Treasury, together with the wages alleged to have been withheld from them by the British Consul who sent them to England. If it is the case that His Majesty's Government are able to act in this way towards foreign seamen in our ships, there is no possible excuse for not granting one of our own subjects, a chief officer of a British ship, practical consideration of a similar nature. The last instance of a British officer being badly treated was in Japan, and the noble Marquess very kindly interested himself in the matter. The result was that the judge and officials concerned were punished and the noble Marquess very kindly put forward a suggestion that the Japanese Government should pay a certain sum by way of compensation. I think the sum they finally offered was 5s. 6d. I hope His Majesty's Government will be prepared to grant a more substantial sum than that to Mr. McCully for the serious injury and expense sustained by him owing to the extraordinary way in which he has been dealt with by an official representing British interests abroad.


My Lords, I have made inquiries into this case and have been informed that on the arrival of the ship referred to the crew made a number of complaints to the British Consul, Mr. Ross, of the manner in which they had been ill-treated by Mr. McCully, the chief officer. The complaints, which were of a serious kind, referred to various acts of cruelty, and in particular to a case in which Mr. McCully was alleged to have knocked down an able seaman and kicked four of his teeth out while the man was lying down. The same seaman was said to have had three of his fingers injured by a blow from a capstan bar. There were other complaints. These had reference partly to occurrences which took place during the voyage, and partly to occurrences which took place in port. I believe I am right in saying that the Argentine Courts are competent to deal with cases of this kind when they occur within an Argentine port. But be that as it may, I agree with the noble Lord that the whole of these cases, whether they occurred in port or during the voyage, ought properly to have been referred to a naval Court. Mr. Ross, however, who evidently took a very serious view of these complaints, acting under a misapprehension, referred the case to the local Courts. The result was that Mr. McCully was imprisoned. The Courts were in vacation at the time and bail was refused by the local authorities. Mr. Ross did all he could to hasten the trial, and when it took place the Court, for reasons of which I am not aware, but which the noble Lord perhaps knows, decided that the offences were outside its jurisdiction, possibly because the particular offences specified took place during the voyage and not in port. Our view is that Mr. Ross, whose record in the Consular Service is a highly creditableone—he has the honour of beinga Companion of the Order of the Bath, awarded to him in recognition of Consular Service—committed an error of judgment in sending the case to the local Court; and no doubt it would have been much better if he had not expressed a strong opinion, as he appears to have done, in regard to the culpability of an accused person. Our view has been intimated to Mr. Ross, who, I have no doubt, will have taken the reproof—for it is a reproof—to heart. I am advised that the case is not one for which any claim for compensation could be admitted by His Majesty's Government.

House adjourned, at Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, halt-past Ten o clock.