HL Deb 29 May 1907 vol 174 cc1586-99

rose to call attention to the action of His Majesty's Government in regard to the Transvaal Registration Bill, and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my object is to obtain the presentation to Parliament of Papers in continuation of Command Paper No. 3308 entitled "Correspondence relating to legislation affecting Asiatics in the Transvaal. "I have no doubt that such Papers will, in due course, and as a matter of course, be laid before Parliament; but I think there is some occasion for rather more expedition than is usual in the publication of official Papers, and at any rate for some statement in anticipation of that publication on the part of the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The Blue-book to which I have just referred led up to an important despatch dated 29th November, in which the Secretary of State for the Colonies gave his reasons for declining to proceed further with what is known loosely as the Transvaal Ordinance. The reasons given for this refusal were that the noble Earl found it impossible to regard the proposals embodied in the draft Ordinance as affording an adequate measure of relief from the disabilities to which British Indians were subject in the Transvaal. It was clear to him, said the noble Earl, that they fell far short of the reforms which Her late Majesty's Government repeatedly pressed on the Government of the late South African Republic, and that they did not contain more than an instalment of the measures of relief which had been advocated by his predecessor.

The declaration made in this despatch, which, if I may say so, was couched in weighty and conciliatory, but, at the same time, firm, language, gave rise to a confident hope that the noble Earl would persist in his determination to obtain justice for our Indian fellow-subjects and that he would not relax his endeavours to succeed where his predecessors had failed. Meanwhile self-government was granted to the Transvaal Colony in circumstances with which your Lordships are familiar, and on 20th and 21st March the new Transvaal Legislature passed a Bill practically identical in substance with the rejected Ordinance. Naturally there was much speculation as to the action which would be taken by the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies and by His Majesty's Government. The next thing we heard was the statement made in another place, on behalf of the noble Earl, to the effect that the Government had decided not to advise His Majesty to disallow the Act, having regard to the fact that it was supported, by the unanimous authority of a Parliament newly elected in a self-governing Colony. I venture to think, my Lords, that this reason—the only reason—for a complete reversal of what had hitherto been the policy of His Majesty's Government under both Parties, was entirely inadequate. If it were adequate, what had become of the objections which had been made by the noble Earl and by his predecessors on the score of equity and of justice?

If it is the case that the unanimous authority of the Transvaal Parliament cannot be questioned, what was the object, I should like to ask, of the provision in the Constitution which reserved for the decision of His Majesty's Government any law whereby persons not of European birth or descent may be subjected or made liable to any disabilities or restrictions to which persons of European birth or descent are not also subjected or made liable? Would this reservation also be nugatory in the circumstance, the not absolutely impossible circumstance, of the Transvaal Legislature deciding by a unanimous vote that they would maintain the institution of Chinese indentured labour?

It is necessary to refer to the circumstances in which what is called the unanimous authority of the Transvaal Parliament was given. The Bill was rushed through all its stages in both Houses of the Legislature within a period of twenty-four hours. I need not point out how little discussion there could have been in those circumstances, or how much consideration could have been given to the objections which had been repeatedly and clearly stated on behalf of His Majesty's Government. I will content myself by quoting the words of Mr. Lionel Curtis, who was the Colonial Secretary to the Colony under the previous régime and who was himself actually the author of the Ordinance which had been superseded by this Registration Bill. Mr. Curtis, in the debate, said— While supporting the Government in the most welcome action they had taken that day in regard to Asiatics, he also supported the Amendment of Mr. Martin. The Amendment of Mr. Martin was nothing more than a modest suggestion that the Committee stage should be postponed until the next day, so that the members of the Council might acquaint themselves with the Bill. Mr. Curtis went on to say— If the measure before the House was rushed on the first day of the sitting, and especially without discussion in that Council, they would be putting a most powerful weapon in the hands of the antagonists in England of His Majesty's Government there. This matter was thrown out before, not on principle but on details, and how many members could say that they had familiarised themselves with the Bill? It was as important a measure as any which that or any other Parliament could deal with. The warning by Mr. Curtis was disregarded, and the Bill was rushed through without discussion and without consideration.

I would ask what possible reason for this urgency can there have been? We have heard nothing to show that there was any sudden emergency or any danger of disturbance. Indeed, what danger of disturbance could there have been from the peaceful, law-abiding, gentle Indian folk who ply their various vocations in the Transvaal? The situation was this. On the one hand there were over 250,000 white men with full political power in their hands and with an open door through which an unlimited accession of their numbers could take place; on the other hand, there were approximately 14,000 British Indians with no power or privileges whatever, and—though it has not been proved—an alleged monthly increase of 100. It would be foreign to my purpose to comment on the general aspects of this trial of strength between the Parliament of the new Colony and His Majesty's Government; but surely the circumstances left it open to His Majesty's Government, without any fear of being considered unreasonable or of meeting with any formidable challenge on the part of the Colonists, to use the power which they had expressly reserved, in order, at least, to impose some condition on their assent to the proposed legislation. But, so far as we know, assent to the Bill was given unconditionally and without any qualifications whatever. At least, it ought to have been made a condition of the assent to the Bill that the regulations under the Bill, in which most of the harshness and injustice is found, should be so revised as to make them less degrading and humiliating.

I dare say the noble Earl will tell me that General Botha, the Premier of the Transvaal, has given assurances that this will be done as far as possible; but, my Lords, the personal assurance of the Premier of the Colony, however much value we may set on it—and I am sure there is nobody who would question the value of an assurance on the part of General Botha—cannot be the same thing as a condition offered by His Majesty's Government and accepted by the Government of the Colony. There are two sides to this question, of course, as there are to every question of importance. I do not ignore the Colonial side of the question, but I do maintain that our side is equally important, and that, therefore, this was a matter for compromise and not for surrender. What reality or what value can there be in our Imperial hegemony if we have to give up rights which we are bound to safeguard on behalf of the Empire as a whole in the face of threats from a section of the community in any part of the Empire?

We all admit in the fullest manner the right of the self-governing Colonies to manage their domestic concerns in their own way; but we cannot admit, nor can the Colonies claim, nor do they claim, that this right includes the liberty to injure any other part of the Empire. But this legislation does injure us. It vitally touches our honour, it renders of no account the pledges, actual and implied, which our statesmen have given to the peoples of India ever since we have ruled over that great Dominion of the Crown. To show your Lordships how we are being discredited in this matter I would like to quote what took place, if the newspaper reports are to be believed, at a recent meeting of the German Colonial Society. A resolution was passed at that meeting threatening British Indians in the German Colonies with differential legislation, and a Deputy of the Reichstag is said to have remarked that the Boers had passed sharp laws against the Indians and the British had taken them over, and that, therefore, there was no reason to fear complications with Great Britain. That shows what other countries are beginning to think of us, and I need not enlarge again on the opinion that will be formed in India of the failure of His Majesty's Government to redeem their pledges.

I have said that there are two sides to this question. The attitude of the colonists in the matter is perfectly intelligible, and I am certainly not going to deny that from their point of view it is reasonable. They claim that the country that they have won with toil and strife should remain their country—a white man's country. We must admit their right to establish that condition of affairs; we must also admit that it is necessary, for the purpose, to restrict Asiatic immigration, and that the restrictions must be effective; but we cannot admit that those measures must be harsh, vindictive, and unjust. Take, for instance, registration, which is the instrument by which this immigration is restricted. Why should it be necessary to insist on a system of finger-print identification, a system which is associated in the minds of every Indian solely with the identification of criminals? There are only a proportion of the Indians in the Transvaal who cannot write. Why should it not be permissible for those who can write to give their signatures as other people do? Or, if a further condition were necessary, why should it not be permissible for them to furnish at their own expense photographs as a means of identification? Then the system of identification by finger-print would merely be confined to those who are illiterate and are unable to comply with the other and more reasonable conditions.

There are other harsh regulations on which I do not intend to dwell, as on the present occasion I am dealing merely with general considerations. But while we are obliged, as reasonable men, to concede that the present condition of South Africa necessitates restrictions to which we must object on principle, we can, at the same time, consistently retain our ideal, and claim that nothing should be done now which would prevent the ultimate realisation of that ideal—that all who are subjects of His Majesty the King should be able to claim under the British flag in any part of the Empire, whatever their race, their colour, or their creed, rights and privileges which they could not claim elsewhere. The citizenship of the British Empire should carry with it something of the prestige which was associated with the proud boast Civis Romanus sum under the ancient Empire of Rome. We ought to be able to regard the present restrictions of British citizenship in the Transvaal as a temporary and transient condition of affairs, incidental, inevitably incidental perhaps, to a new country, but which will pass off when the country has been settled and fully developed by those who have the first right, as we admit, to own its resources. But that is not the case at present in view of the recent action of His Majesty's Government.

There is one more point to which I should like to call attention. His Majesty's Government have promised to guarantee a loan of £5,000,000 to the Government of the Transvaal Colony, and it is remarked that a principal condition of that loan is a settlement of the Chinese labour question satisfactory to His Majesty's Government. I would ask, Is it also a condition of that£5,000,000 liability which the taxpayer of this country is to undertake in order to save the honour of a political Party that the British Indian question should be settled in a manner satisfactory to the nation? I trust that the noble Earl will be able to promise the early publication of further correspondence, and that he will meanwhile inform the House of the precise conditions, if any, on which he gave assent to the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, "That an humble address be presented to His Majesty for further Papers in regard to the Transvaal Registration Bill."—(Lord Ampthill.)


My Lords, the noble Lord in reverting to the subject to which he drew your Lordships' attention some little time ago has, I think, still maintained, to a certain degree, the proposition which I then thought scarcely justifiable, namely, that it was necessary to vindicate the right of admission for all subjects of His Majesty, including His Majesty's subjects in India, into any part of the British Dominions. I do not think myself that that can be accepted without limitations.


I said as an ideal.


I quite agree as an ideal. I only wish to put the point that there must be limitations to that ideal, and I was going on to observe that in another part of his observations to-night the noble Lord did accept that position, because, in speaking of the right of self-governing Colonies to legislate, he admitted that circumstances might occur in which it was necessary for the self-governing Colonies to exercise the right of imposing limitations upon other subjects of the Crown or upon aliens entering their possessions. That being so, what we really have to deal with in this question is not the admission of Asiatics, but their fair treatment when they are in the country. With regard to that, I think I said last time that I had always maintained in India, and that I maintained here, that we had a right to claim from the Colonies that they should give fair treatment to those subjects of the Crown of Asiatic birth whom they admit to dwell within their territory.

Then the question is, how is that fair treatment to be secured? Granting, as the noble Earl does, the right of legislation to the self-governing Colonies, it can only proceed by the legislation which the self-governing Colonies adopt. The Ordinance which was before Parliament on the former occasion, and which His Majesty's Government advised that they could not accede to, was an Ordinance adopted by the Crown Colony Government which existed at that time in the Transvaal, and adopted at a very late stage in the existence of that Government. It was known to us that within a very few months that Government was to be changed and a self-governing Administration set up, and as there were certain modifications which, under our responsibilities in Crown Colonies, we would have desired to have insisted upon had the Crown Colony continued, we thought it necessary not to sanction that Ordinance at the time, because it was obvious that there would not be an opportunity for the then existing Government to consider and introduce the modifications which we required.

That was the position, therefore, when the Government changed. But the Government now is the ordinary Government of a self-governing Colony. That Government immediately on meeting passed, I quite admit with very great haste, a Bill which substantially was on the lines of the Ordinance which had been submitted to us. I regret very much that they thought it necessary to take that step; but I do not think it is correct to say that the only reason given for the precipitancy was the unanimous consent of all sections of the white population, though I am bound to say that the unanimous consent of all the representatives of the white population in the Colony is a very material fact. But there was another reason for prompt action, and that was that there was an illicit and unathorised influx of Asiatics into the Transvaal going on, which it was desired to check.

Now, returning to the distinction which I drew at the beginning between the admission of Asiatics and their fair treatment in the Colony after admission, I think I have also a right to claim the assent of the noble Lord when I say that it was not unreasonable that the new Government should wish promptly to obtain powers adequately to check an illicit and unauthorised influx of Asiatics. The noble Lord seemed to think—and of course unless one considers the circumstances it was natural to think—that the fact that the Parliament had just met was a sufficient reason for taking longer time for consideration; but I would remind the House that the Parliament had to adjourn, and was adjourned, immediately, in order that the Prime Minister might attend the Colonial Conference in this country. Therefore, if the powers which were desired were to be obtained for use during these months until Parliament reassembled, the Bill had to be passed in the way in which it was passed.

The position which His Majesty's Government took on this subject was that we were sorry that it was necessary to act in a manner which might be called hasty, but we did recognise the force of the reasons given and to which I have already referred. But in doing so we stated most distinctly in the despatch, which I shall have no objection to lay on the Table, that we adhered to the opinions expressed by successive Secretaries of State as to the desirability of relaxing the restrictions to which Asiatics are at present subject, and that we commended this view to the Transvaal Government in the hope that it might be considered how far practical effect might be given to it. We did not say that without some reason to suppose that that observation would be taken into consideration, because this took place during the time that the Prime Minister of the Transvaal was in this country; and, carrying out a promise which I made to the House on the last occasion, I did take every opportunity I could during the sittings of the Conference to confer with the representatives from the Colonies in regard to this matter.

I should like to point out to the noble Lord, with regard to the fair treatment of Asiatics, that the greater part of the Bill simply enacts that registration should take place. Registration must take place. It is prescribed in the legislation which now exists, but it is not effective. If there is to be restriction at all of an illicit and unauthorised influx, a proper registration must take place. The regulations to which the noble Lord quite justly takes exception in some eases are not laid down in the Bill itself, but under powers in the 18th Section of the Bill. Powers are there given to the Governor in Council from time to time to alter and repeal regulations for certain purposes. Among these are the regulations to which the noble Lord called attention with regard to finger-prints. I am aware that there is a connection in people's minds between finger-prints and criminals, because I think it was during my time in India that the system of using finger-prints for identification of prisoners was very much developed there. But I do not see that making a mark with the thumb instead of with the pen should necessarily have any criminal connection.

There is this further circumstance which I may perhaps mention. I had the honour of receiving a deputation at the time when the former Ordinance was under consideration, and one of the Native gentlemen who came from the Transvaal as a member of that deputation produced a pass which he himself had, and I found in the corner of it a fingerprint. I asked him to explain this. An attack was being made on the new Ordinance with regard to the adoption of finger-prints, yet here was a pass under the old Ordinance on which a finger-print was observable. He replied that that was true, but that it was given voluntarily. That was the distinction which he made. I believe there has been a further distinction drawn, that under the regulations as they were proposed not only the thumb but the fingers of the hand were to be imprinted. I only mention this to show that, if you argue the thing out, you come to a variety of distinctions, and this seems to me to diminish the seriousness of the objections to the regulations. However that may be, I do not wish to argue in favour of finger-prints except as being admittedly the easiest and most effective way of registering the identity of persons of deficient education. But, as I say, I had conferences with the representatives of the Colonies, and they made no objection whatever to undertaking to consider fairly and frankly this particular regulation when they went back, and also whether or not photography or some other method could be adopted.

I have only to say, with regard to the Bill, that His Majesty's Government, while there were things that they would have liked to have seen altered in the regulations before the Bill had been passed, while they would have preferred to have seen the Bill longer debated and passed with the deliberation which characterises the proceedings of this House, did not think they would be justified in refusing sanction to this Act, coming as it did with the unanimous assent of the Transvaal representatives.

As I have mentioned the Colonial Conference, I would like to take this opportunity of adding that I did confer, not only with the Prime Minister of the Transvaal, but also with the Prime Ministers and representatives of other Colonies on the whole of this subject. In some cases, as in the case of the Transvaal, those were personal conferences; but in one case, that of Australia and the position of Asiatics in that part of the world, the question did come before the Conference as a whole, at a meeting at which the representative of India was present and upon a point upon which India was particularly interested, the employment of lascars upon ocean-going steamers. In that case the view taken by His Majesty's Government was that they could not admit for a moment that the employment of lascars in these great lines of ocean-going steamers could legitimably be prevented, or that they could concur at any rate in its being prevented, by Colonial legislation. Of course, the Colonial Legislatures have a right to say what ought to be done in their own waters and with regard to their own coasting trade, but for the main trade between Australia and other parts of His Majesty's Dominions we maintained stoutly that the employment of lascars must continue to be permissible. I do not know that I have more to say in regard to this Bill, except to repeat that I am quite willing to give the despatches in connection with it. I think they are only two, but I will take the earliest opportunity of issuing the Papers in which they will be included.


My Lords, I have never concealed from myself that the noble Earl has had a very difficult problem to deal with in connection with this matter. It is a problem which must be specially embarrassing to him, because he must evidently be drawn both ways, sometimes by his recollection of the country over which he presided as Viceroy with so much distinction, and sometimes by the claims of the Colonies, for whose interests he is now responsible. There can be no doubt that, as he has put it to your Lordships, the dominant fact we have to deal with is that the Transvaal has been given full responsible self-government, and that it would be a negation of that Government to deprive the people of the colony of the full right of, as it has been described, deciding the materials of which the future nation shall be built up.

We know that it is the desire of this particular Colony that it shall be a white man's country, and we can understand their natural wish to prevent anything like an inroad of an alien population. The people of the Transvaal have before them the experience of the Colony of Natal, where the introduction of Asiatics has been freely permitted, and in which, unless I am misinformed, there are something like thirteen non-Europeans to every ten Europeans in the country. Of course, in an inland colony like the Transvaal the difficulty is greater, because it is not easy to prevent the gradual infiltration of Asiatics across a land frontier of considerable extent. I noticed that the noble Earl spoke more than once of what he called an illicit and unauthorised influx of Asiatics, and I take it that he meant by that a surreptitious introduction of Asiatics in opposition to the law or regulation now in force.


That was the reason which was given for the former Ordinance by the Transvaal Government, and it is repeated now.


Under the present law this influx is illegal?


It is said to be illegal, but there is no proper registration to go upon, and the matter is difficult to check.


Of course, if there is a doubt as to the illegality—


I did not mean that there was the slightest doubt on that point.


In the circumstances it is difficult to see what else the Colonial Government can do, if the introduction of these people is really illegal, except to take such measures as are within their reach to prevent the introduction from proceeding, and at the same time to treat with proper consideration and in an equitable spirit those Asiatics who have already acquired a domicile in the colony, and for whom; we are bound, as the noble Earl admits, to secure fair treatment. The question is, does this new law really secure what the noble Earl means by fair treatment? I own that I have a little difficulty in persuading myself that it does, because we have on record the statement of the noble Earl that the Ordinance which His Majesty's Government in the first instance disallowed contained proposals which could not be regarded as affording an adequate measure of relief from the disabilities to which British Indians were subject in the Transvaal, and therefore fell far short of the reforms repeatedly pressed upon the Government of the late South African Republic. Now the noble Earl tells us that the Act which has been passed differs very little from the Ordinance which he denounced in such clear and emphatic language; therefore we certainly cannot congratulate the noble Earl upon having succeeded in obtaining for British Indians what he has himself described as fair treatment. With regard to the system of registration and the use of digital marks, the noble Earl has mentioned his conversation with a gentleman who of his free will allowed his thumb mark to be put upon a document which he carried in his pocket.


There was a space for it.


That is not the same thing as inflicting upon the whole of these people a system of registration by the marks of the ten digits, which these Indians unquestionably connect in their minds with the system of police supervision of the criminal classes. What hope does the noble Earl hold out to us that this state of things will be in any way improved? My noble friend behind me suggested, and I think very fairly, that the occasion was one when the noble Earl, so to speak, held a good many trumps in his hand, and when he might have given his approval to the proposed legislation conditionally upon some of these matters being put straight. The noble Earl has told your Lordships that he could not do this, because the matter was argent owing to the Asiatics continuing to pour into the Transvaal. I do not think that is a very conclusive reason. Even supposing that a few hundred more of these people had succeeded in crossing the frontier, that is surely a lesser evil than even in appearance to throw over the interests of these Indians, who themselves look to you for protection, and whose fellow countrymen in India are watching what is taking place. The hurry in passing the legislation seemed to me, I must say, indecent. The noble Earl, with a smile on his countenance which he could not conceal, spoke of the Bill having passed through the Colonial Parliament with more precipitation than is usual in your Lordships' House, but I think he must look to that exceptional activity which this House sometimes displays in the dog days if he wants to find anything like an expedition corresponding to that displayed by the Transvaal Legislature on this particular occasion.

The only gleam of hope which the noble Earl held out was this. He told us the other day that, although in his opinion the matter was not one which he could ask the Conference to deal with, there might be informal conferences on the subject, and he tells us this evening that His Majesty's Government have signified a hope that there may be some improvement in the treatment of the Indians already domiciled. We all remain under the favorable impression left here by the distinguished statesman of the Transvaal who has lately honoured this country by his presence; and I feel sure that if he has given the noble Earl any encouragement to expect that these matters will be reconsidered, such encouragement has not been given in vain. But I frankly own that, looking at the matter as it stands at this moment, the position in which these British Indians have been left does not appear to me to be satisfactory or very creditable to the manner in which their interests have been watched over by the Government of this country.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.