HL Deb 08 July 1925 vol 61 cc1138-52

LORD LAMINGTON had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether they propose to take into consideration, either in consultation with the Imperial Economic Committee or otherwise, methods of improving the shipping communications between this country and the West Indies, and also the inter-communication between the Wrest Indian Islands themselves. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question that I have upon the Paper deals with another part of our Imperial Dominions than that with which the debate to which we have just listened concerned itself. This question is by no means a new one, but it has been giving great anxiety to those who are responsible for the administration of our Colonies for several years past, and time does not seem to have provided any solution. I venture to say that communications with the West Indies to-day are no better, if they are not actually worse, than they were twenty years ago. Personally I have no solution to offer, and what I have to say is rather by way of suggestion than a concrete plan. Only personal experience can bring home to one how great is the lack of communication, not so much with the West Indies, as between the different islands which form that group. I had the good fortune to be a member of the Empire Parliamentary Association delegation which went out this year. My noble friend Lord Newton was also a member. We found, when we got there, that if we wanted to extend our visit to the islands the difficulties were almost insurmountable, except by way of some chance steamer. My noble friend behind me, Lord Burnham, has had previous occasion to visit the West Indies, and has made himself thoroughly acquainted with conditions there, and I hope that he will bear out the points that I propose to lay before your Lordships.

It is to be remarked that Mr. Wood, who was then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, made a tour of the West Indies in 1921–22, accompanied by Mr. Ormsby-Gore, and in his Report he stated that they could not have visited all the different islands—broadly speaking, the Lesser Antilles—had it not been that the Government were good enough to provide a vessel for them, so that they could go to each individual island. That bears out my contention that intercommunication between the islands is very difficult indeed. I do not propose to go into all the many ramifications of this question. That would take far too much of your Lordships' time, and without a large scale map it would be very difficult to elaborate or to define exactly what needs to be done. I will take only the more salient points in connection with this question of communications.

First of all, with regard to communications with the chief island of all, Jamaica, I do not think that there is very serious cause for complaint concerning the lack of transport from this country. There is a fortnightly boat of Elders and Fyffes' Line, and there are occasional boats crossing the southern portion of the Caribbean Sea in the direction of Bermuda. There is also a boat every three weeks, run by the Leyland Line, and communications are possible by Canada, the United States and round the Bahamas to Jamaica—a very roundabout and expensive route, but still a means of arriving at Jamaica. Accordingly, I do not want to lay stress upon lack of communications in this direction, except to say that I think it might be possible to establish an arrangement that was recommended by the West Indian Shipping Committee, which reported in 1919. The Report said, in Paragraph (47), sub-paragraph (9):— If direct communication between Jamaica and the United Kingdom could be secured by some service proceeding through the Panama Canal, a small subsidy would be worth paying for the purpose of securing such communication. I think that this would be a possible undertaking, and not a very costly one.

I have so far referred only to passenger communications, but, as regards cargo going from Jamaica to the United Kingdom, the position is very different indeed. The Elders and Fyffes boats, which carry on the main traffic with a fortnightly service, are all for the pur- pose of carrying bananas, and the banana trade requires such special fittings that other forms of cargo cannot be taken, as, for some reason or other, it does some harm to the fittings that have been established. Consequently practically no cargo at all goes out by those boats to Jamaica, and there is only an occasional cargo boat—I am not sure whether the Leyland Line run one or not—that goes there, with the result, among other things, that, in the first place, the Jamaican people feel themselves entirely in the hands of the great American fruit company that carries on its properties in Jamaica for the purpose of supplying bananas to the United States and to Canada, because the bananas of Jamaica do not for the most part come to this country. Those which do come from Central America. They are taken by boats, which call at Kingston but have filled up before arriving there.

The Jamaican people therefore feel that they wish to have a more independent service for the purpose of marketing their own fruit in this country, and not a service or organisation which may be in any way controlled by the United States. I think that their fears in this regard are vain, but at the same time they do feel that the trade is controlled by American companies. One result is that of the total shipping that cleared in Jamaica in 1923, four million odd tons, 1,760,000 tons alone were British. All the rest was foreign tonnage. This illustrates how the greater proportion of the cargo that goes to Jamaica comes from Canada or the United States, and very little is taken direct from this country to Jamaica. These trade figures are also shown by the imports into Jamaica for 1923. The total imports were 5,200,000 odd tons, and of these only 1,500,000 tons came from the United Kingdom. Of the remainder, no doubt a million came from other Colonies, probably almost entirely from Canada. Therefore about half the trade was of an Imperial character, and the other half was entirely foreign. The export figures are pretty much on the same lines. Out of the total exports of 4,200,000 tons, only 1,240,000 tons were to the United Kingdom, 600,000 tons going to other Colonies. That is not altogether a satisfactory state of things, and certainly you can appreciate that people living in Jamaica would rather have a closer service or services with the United Kingdom.

Leaving Jamaica and going to the southern portion of the Caribbean Sea—Barbados, Trinidad, and British Guiana—communication with this country is really not bad. They have Dutch and French services, and the Harrison Line runs a service every three weeks to Barbados and Trinidad, and there are other fairly reasonable services connecting with British Guina. There is no reason to complain of that, but it is different when the Windward and Leeward Islands come under consideration. Being at Barbados last February, I found a couple who had been waiting there a month to get, I think, to Antigua. There was no communication directly whatever, except by a boat which comes from Canada every three weeks to the Leeward and Windward Isles and on to Barbados.

One suggestion—apart from having a small subsidy for ships going through the Panama Canal—is that there should be some means of linking up services which come direct from Europe to Barbados or Trinidad—some communication established by which people in the Leeward and Windward Islands could have a regular service to Jamaica, etc., without any very long wait. That, I think, might afford a fairly satisfactory solution of the difficulty, at any rate for the present. At the present moment Jamaica is altogether cut off from the other portions of the West Indies. There is no communication, except chance communication, and you would have greater cohesion among the scattered portions of the Empire if the Government were to subsidise or set up some line of steamers connecting Barbados and Jamaica with these other islands. I am no great believer in subsidies in ordinary circumstances, but the circumstances of these Islands are so peculiar, and there is so much hardship inflicted upon the inhabitants of these Islands, that I think the Government might well do something.

In this connection it rather surprised me to read in The Times of yesterday that the Prime Minister, in reply to a Question in another place, stated that he was advised that the existing facilities for the conveyance of mails to the West Indies were adequate. He saw no reason, therefore, to make a special contract involving payment of a subsidy. That may be quite true for such places as Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica, but I do not think it is at all applicable to those people who live in the Windward or Leeward Islands. Surely something should be done to bring them into closer touch with the rest of the Empire.

In bringing forward this Question I am animated by a desire, having been out there this last winter, to try to do something to bring these Islands into closer touch with the rest of the West Indian Islands. There is a feeling out there that in the past the Colonial Office have neglected them, and that their aspirations and their wants have not been duly considered. I am sure that that is a wrong idea, and that it is only because of the great difficulties of the situation that more has not been done. As Mr. Wood says in his report, one object of his going out there in 1921 was to bring home to the people there the idea that there was sympathy felt with them, and that it wag most desirable that a better understanding should be obtained of what they wanted done for them. He said: The occasion was therefore regarded as a new departure by the Colonial Office, deliberately conceived with the object of pro-mooting a closer touch between those responsible in the United Kingdom for the administration of the Colonies and their inhabitants. And he goes on to say how his visit was everywhere much appreciated. I think I may say the same thing with regard to the visit undertaken by Lord Burnham and the Imperial Parliamentary Association.

Mr. Wood says: It is impossible to begin any report on the West Indian Colonies without reference to what for any visitor must be the outstanding characteristic of them all. Diverse as they are in almost every other respect, there is no difference in the matter of loyalty to the Throne and to the person of His Majesty the King. Then he adds: The effect of it is constantly to direct the gaze of the West Indian communities towards Britain and towards the visible symbol of unity that the person of the Sovereign affords. The worth of such an influence in maintaining imperial solidarity and in counteracting the possible growth of other tendencies can hardly be placed too high, and it is well that citizens of the United Kingdom should appreciate it. He said that the other tendencies were, of course, that the connection with the United States had become so very strong by way of trade, even all the money transactions being in dollars, that there might be some risk that their feelings might be diverted so as to desire a closer alliance with the United States of America. I do not believe that for a moment. Nothing is so strong as the desire that they should remain a component part of our Empire. I only wish that those who live in this country would realise what wonderful possessions they have in the West Indies which are full of historic and romantic interest, with miles of the finest scenery. If people, instead of going to the Mediterranean or Monte Carlo for the winter, were to go a little further and spend a holiday in the West Indies, they would have an enjoyable time and get a warm welcome from the inhabitants.


My Lords, I am sure the West Indies will be very grateful to my noble friend Lord Lamington for having drawn your Lordships' attention to their long-standing but ever urgent grievance, and to the lamentable, and I do not hesitate to say disgraceful, state of their sea communications. I cannot help being a little pleased to think that the peoples of our Colonies are not able as yet to take advantage of any medium of seeing the super-select state of your Lordships' House when these matters are under discussion. It seems to me that the House of Lords never functions to greater advantage than when it constitutes itself virtually representative of our Colonies and Dependencies, the interests of which cannot be considered in another place, and whose grievances are scarcely heard in Parliament. This afternoon my noble friend has drawn attention to what is, of course, the great question in all the Caribbean Sea. I suppose that in future these matters will be referred to the Standing Committee which has just been set up at the Colonial Office to deal with the affairs of Colonies and Protectorates. I am far from saying that that is a bad step: I conceive it to be a very good one. On the other hand, these Government Committees are sometimes the most ingenious agents for procrastination that our Constitution allows of. I am a little anxious whether we shall be told on all occasions that such a question as this is under the consideration of the Standing Committee of the Colonial Office. If it is, I hope that they will get through with their public business in such a way that the West Indian Colonies will not have to wait another quarter of a century before any attention is paid to their sea services, and, in fact, their communications as a whole.

My noble friend has dealt with several aspects of the question. Like the conventional sermon, it divides itself into three parts, the communications we have with the premier Colony of Jamaica, the communications with the other Colonies of the West Indies, British Guiana and British Honduras, and the inter-island communications between themselves. I do not intend to trouble your Lordships with the last matter, because it is at this moment being considered at a conference at Ottawa, at which all the West Indian Colonies as well as British Honduras are represented, and which is to determine the nature of the contract which, after October, will obtain for the conveyance of goods and passengers as between Canada and the West Indies The service at present runs from Halifax and St. John to St. Kitts, and down the Islands to British Guiana, whilst another service visits the Bahamas, Jamaica and British Honduras. This is capable of great improvement. Considerable fault is found with the Canadian service to the West Indies, which is said to provide no refrigerating plant and not to make the most of the arrangement by which mutual preference is given between Canada and the West Indies, which has resulted in a considerable consumption of West Indian sugar in Canada. It is to be settled whether the contract is to be renewed with the Canadian Royal Mail Line or with the Canadian Merchant Marine. However, that is out of our hands. I would like your Lordships to realise that for communications as between themselves the West Indies are almost entirely dependent upon Canadian goodwill and Canadian self-interest.

The main point to which I wish to draw your Lordships' attention this afternoon is the state of our communications with Jamaica. It is quite true, as my noble friend has stated, that Elders and Fyffes, which are really part of the huge American Combine of the United Fruit Company, do provide a passenger service which more or less satisfies the needs of that Island. On the other hand, the complaint is made that, though the passenger traffic is not so good as it used to be—and I am afraid that in regard to our Colonies that is often the complaint—still the goods traffic is very largely left unprovided for. No cargo is taken out from this country in return for the bananas which are sent here, though, as my noble friend says, they are not produced in the Island of Jamaica, but almost entirely on the mainland.

There is something much more than that in the complaint which the West Indies make to your Lordships' House. The whole of the immediate development of Jamaica, so far as transport goes, looks as if it would eventually pass to the United States. What my noble friend said about the loyalty of the West Indian Colonies is profoundly true. Their loyalties are wholly British, but their interests are becoming more and more American. Parliament here and the Government will soon have to decide whether, in fact if not in form, the West Indian Islands will have to remain part of the British Empire. Bananas, of course, have been in a sense the salvation of Jamaica, and it would be ungrateful and unfair to deny the debt of gratitude which Jamaica owes to the United Fruit Company. Those who have experience, and none has so great an experience here as the noble Lord who sits on the Front Bench opposite, will, I am sure, be aware of the manner in which the lands of Jamaica have been reclaimed and cultivated to the best advantage by the United Fruit Company, and of the fact that bananas came into play to prevent the bankruptcy of the Island when the sugar trade had largely failed owing partly, no doubt, to the indifference of this country.

On the other hand, when there is a monopoly of transport, as there is today, for the main crop of the Island—because that might almost be said of bananas now—there is always the danger that independence and enterprise outside it are wholly crushed out of existence. That is what is happening in Jamaica now. Banana growers outside the United Fruit Company cannot get their goods out of the Island or, if that is a slight exaggeration, can only send them to the United States. They cannot get them home. Their wish is to find a market in this country for the fruit they produce; but they have no means of doing so. They are, in fact, precluded from any chance of doing it by the disabilities and difficulties under which they suffer. I saw in the paper only yesterday that there is a commercial crisis in Jamaica at this moment because of the low prices paid for bananas, which are sold at 2s. 6d. a bunch, whereas the price when they are taken to the market is 12s. 6d. That shows what a wide gap there is between the reward which goes to the growers and the huge profit which must go to the trader and the middleman.

Your Lordships are asked to consider whether a good case has not been made out for assisting Jamaica to help herself by opening up possibilities of transport other than those afforded by the United Fruit Company, and to the home market rather than exclusively to North America. For the moment that is the most important subject which has to be considered in connection with the West Indies, and I have no wish to direct your attention to any other. Whether this new Economic Committee is in being or not, I hope that if it is a proper matter of expenditure or at least of guarantee, the Government will provide some means of transport for those who are being crushed under the heel of a great American monopoly which, though in its way beneficent, absolutely does away with anything and anybody outside its own path. There is a very strong feeling, which I fear is largely justified, in spite of the protest of the noble Earl below me when it was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lamington, that in spite of their historic claim upon our imagination and our gratitude, the West Indies have been sorely neglected, especially during the last half century. They have been treated as a negligible quantity in the immensely varied organisation of the British Empire. If anything comes of the Motion made by my noble friend this afternoon regarding one of their grievances, something, I think, will have been done. I wish, however, to state most emphatically that the sea communications with the whole of our Colonies there are most discreditable to this country, and if those sea communications are not amended and improved it will end in their drifting towards an American connection which, I suppose, no one would deplore more than your Lordships.


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Viscount in congratulating the West Indies upon having obtained, in the person of the noble Lord who made this Motion, and I hope also in the person of the noble Lord who is now talking to him, two further recruits in the ventilation of their interests in this country, which was so fully done just now by the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, in a speech full of knowledge and understanding.

This is a question with which I have been concerned for many years, and I look back with very great regret to what I might call the palmy days of West Indian communications. When I went into the Colonial Office rather more than forty years ago there was a reasonable and a rational service of communication with the West Indies under the contract with the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. That company received a subsidy of £80,000 a year, and for that they sent a main line of steamers direct to Barbados; from Barbados they radiated three lines of steamers, one to the Leeward Islands, one to Trinidad and the Lesser Windward Islands, and a third down to Demerara; while the main line steamers went on to Jamaica. From Jamaica a small steamer went on to British Honduras. That was a connected, and logical and, I think one may say, Imperially conceived service of traffic for our connection with the West Indies. On the return journey the process was reversed. They converged, and all the traffic and mails and passengers passed from one part of that system to another with, I think, the least possible difficulty, once a fortnight. That was an admirable and a quite satisfactory service.

But the traffic of the West Indies went down. The sugar industry fell into decay. The banana industry had not yet revived, and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company passed into the hands of a very efficient business manager, well known in your Lordships' House and in the Empire as one of the most able of our traffic steamer managers at the present time. When my noble friend, who was then Sir Owen Phillips and is now Lord Kylsant, took over the chairmanship of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company he found that he could not continue to carry out this philanthropic enterprise, as it then was, and, forced by economic circumstances, he had progressively to reduce the facilities which the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company gave, first to Jamaica and then to the other Islands. The Post Office, as the noble Lord has said, found that by making ship contracts and simply paying for ship's letters they could increasingly get them conveyed to the West Indies without any fixed contract. The result of that was that Jamaica was entirely dissociated from direct communication with the other Colonies and, indeed, very largely from this country until communication was again improved by the contracts entered into with Sir Alfred Jones, who founded the banana shipping connection between Jamaica and this country.

As both noble Lords have said, that has increasingly resulted in the fact that though Jamaica can get a good passenger service, she cannot and does not get a good goods service because, quite apart from the fact that Elders and Fyffes' steamers are not well constructed for the carriage of freight, and have to do their business too quickly to bother themselves very much with it, there is also the fact, which has been pointed out to your Lordships, that they are part of that very large American combine the United Fruit Company, which itself is a company interested in the conveyance of American goods and in the American export trade, and is not at all likely to go out of its way to do anything to encourage trade between this country and America.

Further than that, when I went to Jamaica we were still enjoying the benefits, such as they were, of the contract which the Imperial Government had made with Sir Alfred Jones, and we were still paying a subsidy, although the management of that line had passed from Sir Alfred Jones and Elder, Dempsters into the hands of Elders & Fyffes, who were a sub-department of the United Fruit Company. From that time the Jamaica shippers complained increasingly that they could not get shipment for their goods, and that they could not get shipment for their fruit. And, whereas Jamaica produces admirable oranges and other citrus fruits, the development of citrus fruit production in Jamaica was and is still very gravely hindered, if not crippled, by the fact that they could get no shipment for their fruit, except through the hands of the United Fruit Company. That is the position in Jamaica.

The position of the other West Indies has been spoken of by my noble friend Viscount Burnham and, as he says, we are at the present moment looking forward with considerable anxiety to the outcome of the conference to which he referred to ascertain whether the present contract will be renewed. The contract at present is in the hands of the Canadian branch of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and I am not at all confident that that company will be prepared to renew it, because the very energetic noble Lord who presides over the affairs of that company, according to my experience, rather prefers to build large ships and get a handsome profit upon them to building small ships and ranking a moderate loss, which is what he complains, is generally the case with his ventures in these more modest fields of enterprise.

In dealing with these problems as Governor of Jamaica and otherwise, I have been more and more forced to the belief that the only substantial way of helping ourselves out of the difficulty was to get an improved and increasing connection with the Dominion of Canada. When I was in Jamaica we really had some rather promising negotiations with Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, as he then was, of the Canadian Pacific Company, which was considering the question of developing trade through the Panama Canal, and at the same time of linking up that service with a line on to England. It is, I think, in the improvement of our Canadian trade, and in the improvement of our shipping facilities between the West Indies and Canada, which has proved very beneficial to the West Indian trade with Canada and also to Jamaica; it is on that basis and looking to the substantial economic facts of the case that we must hope for an improvement in conditions. I am afraid it is too late in the day to expect that this Government will do what possibly the French Government or any other more enterprising Socialistic Government might do. It is too late to expect that the Post Office will any longer pay handsome subsidies to companies for a collective service when they can get their letters by a non-collective service. It is too much to expect also that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be more disposed than he has been for 30 or 40 years past to spend any money whatever on maintaining steam communication with the West Indian Dominions. At the same time, we recognise, as both noble Lords have said, that any idea of developing the solidarity of our West Indian Dominions, which we are constantly urged to do by the Chamber of Agriculture and commercial conferences and so on, is continually rendered futile by the extraordinary and maddening difficulties of inter-communication with the Islands. I heartily support the appeal of the noble Lord and the noble Viscount to His Majesty's Government to do all they can to help the West Indies in this matter, and to bring to a satisfactory conclusion the negotiations that are now proceeding in Canada.


My Lords, when we talk about the indifference and want of interest shown in this country to the West Indies it is sincerely to be hoped no inhabitant of the West Indies is present this afternoon, otherwise, judging by the appearance of this House, he might get it into his head that that indifference was even greater than we are generally credited with showing. I only rose for the purpose of saying that I was in Jamaica for some time in the past winter, and, like everyone else, I could not help being struck with the intense want of inter-communication between the Islands. It only requires a single sentence from me to put the matter before your Lordships. It sounds almost incredible, but I believe it to be the fact, that if you wish to write from Kingston in Jamaica to Barbados the quickest way is to send the letter via England. That ought to demonstrate to everybody what the conditions are, and I do not think it necessary to add any further comments.


My Lords, the Question which my noble friend, Lord Lamington, has addressed to His Majesty's Government divides itself really into two parts. The first part deals with the question of a direct service between the West Indies and this country, and the second part with the question of inter-communication between the Islands themselves. Dealing with the first part, I should like to say that His Majesty's Government are quite aware that the shipping communications between this country and the West Indies are not altogether satisfactory. From time to time the Imperial Shipping Committee have carefully investigated applications which have been made to them by the West Indian Islands with regard to a direct service between this country and those Islands, but in practically every case, I am informed, the trade was really not sufficient, in the opinion of the Committee, to justify them taking any steps in the matter.

The real difficulty, I think, is stated in the Report of the West Indian Shipping Committee, which was published as a Parliamentary Paper, I think in 1919. In that Paper, I believe, it is made quite clear that the real difficulty is one of maintaining a regular service between widely scattered communities which only provide an amount of passenger and freight traffic limited in extent, and subject to marked seasonal fluctuations. I need hardly say that His Majesty's Government is ready at all times to consider any practical proposals that may be put forward by the West Indian Colonies, some, I think I may rightly say, of our most loyal Colonies, in order to improve the communications between this country and those Islands. I cannot refrain from adding this further remark, that in view of what I have just said I cannot but feel there will be no question of any alteration in the happy relations which exist between this country and those Islands. The Report of the Imperial Economic Committee has not yet been received in this country, and we do not yet know whether in that. Report this Committee will make any recommendations upon this particular subject, but I can assure your Lordships of this fact, that, if they do make any recommendations, those recommendations will receive the most full and careful consideration at the hands of His Majesty's Government.

With regard to inter-communication between the West Indian Colonies themselves, this is very largely dependent upon the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., which operates between Canada and, I believe, the eastern groups of Islands, and also upon a service which was instituted as a result of the Canada-West Indies Trade Agreement of 1920, made between Canada, the Bahamas, Jamaica and British Honduras. As was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Burnham, one of the principal duties of the conference which is now sitting will be to review this agreement of 1920, and it will also be their duty to review the question of an adequate mail passenger and freight service between the Islands, as well as any other subjects of mutual interest. Pending the result of the deliberations of this Conference, at which, I may say, His Majesty's Government is represented, I am afraid I cannot usefully add anything further at this moment on this particular aspect of the question.


My Lords, may I be allowed to say one word. I thank the noble Earl for having answered me sc fully and kindly, but my chief point is that while there may be sufficient direct communication, or rather a fair amount of direct communication, between these Islands and Great Britain, the lesser isles are practically cut off altogether. I want a service from Barbados which will satisfy the people living in this particular part of the Carribean Sea.