Skip to main content

France And Prussia—Neutral Vessels—Question

Volume 203: debated on Thursday 21 July 1870

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

said, he would beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury, If Neutral Vessels will be interrupted in their trade with France and the North German Confederation; if so, what time will be granted for sailing to and from belligerent ports; within what distance of British and Colonial Coasts and Harbours capture or seizure by either of the belligerent Powers will be considered legal; and, if it is intended to define what Merchandize is contraband of war, in order thereby to avoid many of the complications which arose during the American Civil War; and, if Coal conveyed to non-blockaded ports will be legal traffic?

Sir, the Questions on the Notice Paper which have been put by my hon. Friend, and two other Questions of which he has given me private Notice, are of very great importance; and I must ask permission to preface my replies with two observations. In the first place, without in the slightest degree finding fault with my hon. Friend in putting his Questions, I must venture generally to express a hope that as far as possible, and for the better security of those who are interested in mercantile transactions affected directly by the war, it is advisable that they should depend on written rather than spoken answers—a written answer being always in their hands for reference and guidance. The other remark I have to make is this—that my hon. Friend will recollect that I cannot pretend to speak with any authority for the conduct or views or intentions of any Government except our own; and with regard to the views this Government take of points of law arising in connection with the position and duties of Neutrals, they must never be understood to lay down rules of law as binding on other Powers, or undertake to speak for other Powors. The first Question of my hon. Friend is—

"If Neutral Vessels will be interrupted in their trade with France and the North German Confederation; if so, what time will be granted for sailing to and from belligerent ports?"
Upon that subject I do not know that the information in our possession is absolute and final. It has come in two documents by telegram, which, if he pleases, I will read in the terms in which I received them. Of course, they are of the same authority as if they had been received by despatch. I have no reason to doubt them—

"Paris, July 21, 10 a.m.

"The following, dated yesterday, appears in the official part of the Journal Officiel of to-day:—With regard to the enemy's merchant vessels which are now in the ports of the Empire, or which may enter them in ignorance of the state of war, His Majesty has been pleased to order that they should be allowed a period of 30 days to quit those ports. Safe conducts will be given to them to enable them to enter freely the ports to which they belong ( ports d'attache) or to sail direct to their port of destination. Vessels which shall have shipped cargoes for French ports and on French account in the ports of the enemy or of neutrals previous to the declaration of war are not subject to capture. They may freely discharge their cargoes in the ports of the Empire, and receive safe conducts to return to the ports to which they belong ( ports d'attache).'"

That is on the part of France. This is a telegraphic despatch that relates to the other party to the war—

"Ministry of Commerce, Trade, and public Works.

"Official Telegraphic Despatch.

"The Ministry of Commerce to the Presidents of Königsberg, Stettin, Hanover, and Kiel.

"The Federal Council has decided that in the event of the outbreak of war with France, French merchant vessels which may happen to be in German ports at the commencement of the war, or which may enter such ports before they shall have been informed of the outbreak of war, will be permitted to remain in the ports in which they may find themselves for a period of six weeks, reckoned from the day of the outbreak of war, and to take in or discharge their cargoes as the case may be."

That is all the information which is in our actual possession; but I do not doubt that the proceedings of those two great, powerful, and highly civilized States with reference to Neutrals and the transactions of commerce will be directed by liberal principles. With respect to the next Question—

"Within what distance of British and Colonial Coasts and Harbours capture or seizure by either of the belligerent Powers will be considered legal?"

I presume that the three-mile limit is that which will be applicable to the decision of these questions; but I believe the right in all cases of decision is with the Prize Court of the capturing Power. My hon. Friend next asks—

"Whether it is intended to define what Merchandize is contraband of war, in order thereby to avoid many of the complications which arose during the American Civil War; and if Coal conveyed to non-blockaded ports will be legal traffic?"

In answer to the first part of that Question, I have to say that it is not intended on the part of Her Majesty's Government to define what merchandize is contraband of war. As far as I can answer that would be a task too difficult to undertake by any general definition. There are some articles which from their character are easily pronounced to be contraband of war, but there are others which, though of vital importance in carrying on belligerent operations, can only have their character defined by the circumstances of the case. But it may be as well that I should read to the House a Letter that was written from the Foreign, Office by the direction of Lord Malmesbury on the 18th of May 1859. It contains the view which Her Majesty's Government of that day held, and that view we have seen no reason to change, especially as far as it relates to the subject of coal. The letter is addressed to Messrs. Smith and Gregory, and is as follows—

"Foreign Office, May 18, 1859.

"Gentlemen,—I am directed by the Earl of Malmesbury to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 18th inst., requesting to be informed whether, under the Proclamation lately issued by Her Majesty, there is any restriction to British ships loading coals and proceeding therewith to French ports, and I am to state to you, in reply, that Her Majesty's Proclamation does not specify, and could not properly specify, what articles are or are not contraband of war, and that the passages therein referring to contraband are intended not to prohibit the exportation of coal or any other article, but to warn Her Majesty's subjects that if they do carry, for the use of one belligerent, articles which are contraband of war, and their property be captured by another belligerent, Her Majesty's Government will not undertake to interfere in their favour against such capture or its consequences. I am to add that the Prize Court of the captor is the competent tribunal to decide whether coal is or is not contraband of war, and that it is obviously impossible for the Government of Her Majesty, as a neutral Sovereign, to anticipate the result of such decision. It appears, however, to Her Majesty's Government, that, having regard to the present state of naval armaments, coal may in many cases be rightly held to be contraband of war, and, therefore, that all who engage in this traffic must do so at a risk from which Her Majesty's Government cannot relieve them.

"Messrs. Smith and Gregory."

I have also been asked whether the Proclamation of Neutrality issued by Her Majesty's Government is based upon law, or whether it is merely intended to act as a guide to Her Majesty's subjects. As far as I am aware, the Proclamation is strictly based upon law, and quotes, as my hon. Friend will see, the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act. It is possible, if the foreign enlistment be extended, though I will not say whether it will be necessary, that the provisions of that Act may be embodied in a separate Proclamation.