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The Steamship "Chieftain"

Volume 203: debated on Thursday 14 July 1870

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said, he wished to ask the Secretary to the Admiralty or the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Whether he is aware that the steamship "Chieftain" (lately the "Mutine" corvette of the Royal Navy) belonging to Messrs. Robertson and Co., Cornhill, City, was entered out at the Custom House on the 7th of April, took on board a general cargo in the West India Docks for Yokohama, Japan, and on the 11th of May last sailed from London; that when going down Channel she was on the 16th, from bad weather, obliged to put into the port of Plymouth; that while there she was searched by an officer of Her Majesty's Customs and an officer of the Royal Navy, her papers twice examined, and her Captain requested by the Collector of Her Majesty's Customs not to leave without his permission; that during the night of the 16th an iron-clad war vessel was moved down and anchored outside the "Chieftain," apparently with the intention of preventing her from going to sea, and that the "Chieftain" was detained nearly all next day; if so, will he state why this vessel was searched and her crew and captain disturbed at Plymouth in the prosecution of a lawful voyage, as the Admiral and the Customs authorities there and the Commissioners of Customs here refuse to give any satisfactory answer to those concerned; and, is the Government prepared to make any compensation to the owners of the "Chieftain" for the expenses and detention and loss of time thereby incurred? He wished further to ask whether the Customs authorities were not on board the vessel, in discharge of their duty, almost every day for four weeks?

said, in reply, that he would endeavour to answer the Question with a due regard to what had recently fallen from the Chair. It appeared that the Chieftain was sold to Messrs. Robertson, who at the time of the purchase asked that they might also be allowed to buy her armament, and, the fact becoming known at the Foreign Office, representations were made, and the armament was not sold with the vessel. Shortly afterwards information was received at the Foreign Office that the vessel was proceeding down the river, armed, and it was thought proper to make inquiry respecting the character and destination of an armed vessel leaving this country when she again touched at an English port. Therefore, upon the arrival of the vessel at Plymouth, inquiry was made as to her destination and character, and when it was found that one of the partners of the firm owning the vessel was on board her, inquiry immediately ceased. No doubt these proceedings might have occasioned some inconvenience, but there was no unnecessary detention; and the inconvenience, such as it was, might have been obviated if the parties who purchased and despatched this armed vessel had communicated with the Foreign Office and had made known the country for which she was destined. It would be obviously impossible to carry out the Neutrality Laws of this country if armed vessels belonging to private persons were to be permitted to leave the country without inquiry as to their character and destination.

said, he wished to ask if the Foreign Office was aware for whom the vessel had been purchased, and where she was going to?

So far as he was aware, the vessel had been purchased for the Government of Japan, and had already passed the Suez Canal, en route for Yokohama.

said, he wished to ask whether the hon. Gentleman was not aware that the vessel had lain four weeks at the docks taking in her cargo?

said, he had been informed that her cargo consisted principally of Armstrong guns—an additional reason for an inquiry.