HL Deb 28 July 1904 vol 138 cc1433-6

My Lords, I see my noble friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in his place, and I should like to ask him a Question of which I have given him general notice. I want to know if he can give the House any information with respect to the recent seizures of British ships by the Russians —either by the so-called Volunteer Fleet which came through the Dardanelles as private vessels under the merchant flag and subsequently hoisted the national flag and acted as warships, or by the regular men-of-war of the Russian navy. The first class includes the "Malacca," the "Formosa," and other ships; and the second class the "Knight Commander," which is reported to have been sunk by the Russians. I need not say more, in asking this Question, than that considerable anxiety has been occasioned by these seizures and this action by the Russian ships in the Red Sea and elsewhere, and that it will give great satisfaction to the country if the noble Marquess can give us information which will reassure us on this important point.


My Lords, I gather that my noble friend has addressed this Question to me rather with the object of eliciting from me some statement of the facts and of the situation which at this moment confronts us, than with the expectation that I should enter into anything like a discussion of the complicated and difficult problems of international law which arise in connection with the incidents to which he has referred.


Hear, hear!


The later phase of this question may, I think, be considered to have commenced with the seizure of the Peninsular and Oriental steamship "Malacca, to which the noble Earl referred. That ship, having on board a miscellaneous cargo of about 4,000 tons, of which twenty-three tons consisted of munitions of war,the property of HisMajesty's Government, and destined for the dockyards at Hong-Kong and Singapore, was seized on the 13th of this month in the Red Sea. Her passengers and the crew were landed at Port Said, with the exception of the chief officer and two other persons. The ship was sent homewards flying the Russian flag and in charge of a Russian prize crew.

We conceived it to be our duty to make a strong representation to the Russian Government in consequence of this occurrence. Our representation was based mainly upon the character and antecedents of the ship by which the seizure was made. That ship belonged to the Russian Volunteer Fleet. She had lately passed through the Dardanelles; and, in our view, it would have been impossible for her without a breach of the law of Europe to pass through these Straits if she had at the time been a ship of war. If on the other hand it were assumed that she was, at the time of her passage through the Straits, a peaceful vessel, it seemed to us intolerable that within a short space of time she should be transformed into a ship of war and should be found harrying neutral commerce in the waters of the Red Sea. We mentioned, as a subsidiary point in our protest, the fact that the munitions of war on board of her were the property of the Government, and therefore could not be regarded as contraband of war.

My Lords, the result of our remonstrance was as follows. We received, in the first place, from the Russian Government an assurance that the "Malacca" would be released as soon as orders for her release could be conveyed to those on board. She had left Port Said before these orders could reach her, and she did not touch port again until she reached Algiers, at which place she arrived yesterday. I am glad to say she was released last night, and, I believe, at this moment flies the British flag. The second result of our representations was that orders were given by the Russian Government to prevent a recurrence of any similar captures by ships of the Volunteer Fleet; and it was also explained to us that, if any such captures should occur before the orders to prevent them could reach their destination, those captures would be regarded as non avenus and as the result of a misunderstanding. In compliance with that assurance the "Ardova" and "Formosa," two other steamers which had been seized, I believe by the same Russian vessel, were released yesterday. We have also been informed that these Volunteer ships are to be withdrawn from the Red Sea to some other destination, and we understand that it is not intended that they shall in the future be employed upon a similar service.

I venture to hope that your Lordships will think that, so far as these particular incidents are concerned, the controversy may be considered as having passed out of the acute stage, if, indeed, it can be said to have ever entered that stage at all. But it will be obvious to your Lordships that there remain other and very serious questions which will have to engage the attention of His Majesty's Government—such questions, I mean, as the question of principle involved in the status of these Volunteer ships; such questions, again, as arise in connection with the effect of international engagements upon the navigation of the approaches to the Black Sea. All these questions, at any rate, can be examined without the impediment which would certainly have been occasioned had these ships still remained in the hands of their captors. Amongst other points for consideration, I may refer to cases in which mails have been interfered with by Russian cruisers, and cases in which, unless we are misinformed, the cargoes of captured vessels have been taken off them before they have been under the adjudication of a Prize Court.

But, my Lords, in our view, infinitely the most serious of these outstanding cases is that of which the noble Earl spoke: the case, I mean of the "Knight Commander." The "Knight Commander"—a British vessel —was on her way from Hoboken to Japan with a miscellaneous cargo on board. The facts, so far as we have been able to ascertain them, are as follows. She was required to stop by ships belonging to the Vladivostok Squadron. She obeyed the orders. She was boarded by men from the Russian ships. Her captain and crew were taken off her after what appears to have been a very perfunctory examination. And when the crew had been taken on board the Russian ships, two shells were fired into the "Knight Commander," with the result that she sank immediately. The British crew were taken to Vladivostok, and the native crew were put on board another vessel which happened to be passing. Now, my Lords, unless we have been wholly misinformed in regard to the facts of the case, we can come to no other conclusion but that a serious breach of international law has been committed by the captors of the "Knight Commander." Upon no hypothesis of international law can we conceive that a neutral ship, even if it be assumed that her cargo included contraband of war, could be destroyed in this manner upon the mere fiat of the commanding officer of the capturing squadron and without reference to a properly-constituted Prize Court.

My Lords, it follows that we have considered it our duty to lodge a strong protest against the conduct of those Russian ships, and we have accompanied that protest by a request that orders may be issued to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents. We have also demanded the release of the British crew, which, as I said just now, was taken to Vladivostok. It only remains for me to say that we are confident that these representations will have the desired effect, and that the Russian Government will not hesitate to disavow the conduct of the persons by whom this outrage—for it was an outrage if the facts are as stated—was committed". I hope I may add that the manner in which the Russian Government has dealt with the representations which we have already felt it our duty to make with regard to the other cases justifies us in the hope that the representations which we have now made will not have been made in vain.

The subject then dropped.