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Volume 220: debated on Friday 26 June 1874

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, in rising to call the attention of the House to the difficulties which arise from the Consular Jurisdiction in Egypt, more especially as it affects our relations with the Suez Canal Company; and to move—

"That the commerce of this Country being so deeply interested in the uninterrupted navigation of the Suez Canal, it is desirable that Her Majesty's Government should at once give its adhesion to the proposed judicial reforms in Egypt, suggested and approved of by the representatives of all the European Powers, by which tribunals will be created for the better administration of justice in Egypt and the adjudication of differences which may arise between British shipowners and the administrators of the Suez Canal Company,"
said, some years had now elapsed since a Commission at Constantinople had considered the important question he was desirous of bringing before the House, and still the matter remained in a state of uncertainty. He had on a former occasion called attention to the matter, but nothing had since been accomplished to remedy the defects of a system which concerned all European nations. It was important that the House should express some opinion on the unsatisfactory state of the Consular jurisdiction in the East, and in the first place, he would point out its present condition, then the recommendations of the Commissioners, and finally how they bore upon our relations with the East generally, and the question of the Suez Canal especially. The present Consular jurisdiction was the growth of three centuries, and the French were first to have their Consuls established in the East. At first, the Consuls only demanded the right of being present at the trial of British subjects, and no doubt when their jurisdiction was originally established, the state of Turkey was such that it was very essential that the Consuls should have great power, it being then impossible to leave English interests in the hands of Turkish tribunals. But the Consuls gradually extended their authority, until at last they claimed the power of trying cases themselves. That led to a most anomalous and unsatisfactory state of things, and one that did not exist in any other country, for there were in Alexandria no fewer than 100,000 foreigners belonging to 17 different nationalities, and every one of those persons claimed the right to have his case tried in the Consular Court of his nation. The result was, that in Egypt the Viceroy could not impose taxes without foreigners refusing to pay them, and when his Government brought an action against them, it was tried in a Consular Court, when the verdict was given in favour of the foreigner; and the consequence was, that when foreigners escaped from paying the taxes, the Viceroy's own subjects refused to pay them also. How could affairs be expected to go on where such a state of lawlessness prevailed as took away all power from the Government of the country? The effect of this system was, that in a country where there was a surplus revenue of £1,600,000 or more, they could not obtain money at less interest than 12 or 14 per cent. Lord Stanley, in his despatch of the 18th of October, 1867, speaking of Consular jurisdiction, described it as—
"injurious to British interests and derogatory to the character and well-being of the Egyptian Administration;"
and his Lordship added, that—
"Her Majesty's Government are certainly not inclined to hold out for a jurisdiction for which they have no treaty right, which they admit to he an usurpation, though brought about by force of circumstances."
Again, Lord Granville, writing to Lord Lyons in 1870, said—
"The Governments of England and France agreeing to the proposed reforms, it seems to Her Majesty's Government that the fact of that accord should be made known to the other Powers who are represented on the Commission that sat at Cairo. It remains for the Viceroy to obtain the consent of the Sultan to these proposed reforms, and it is for the Sultan to inform all the Powers that these reforms are sanctioned by law."
Lord Granville had the weakness, as he must call it, to say that he could not act in the matter until they had the acquiescence of the French Government; and the whole thing, therefore, was at a standstill, and likely to continue in that state, if they were to wait for that acquiescence. Nothing could be fairer than the Report of the Commission on that subject. They proposed that there should be established not only an original Court, but a Court of Appeal and a Court of Revision, with Judges composed one-half of foreigners, and one-half of Egyptians, whose proceedings were to be conducted in French, the language of diplomacy. Those Courts were to have cognizance of all cases which might be brought before them. If that system were adopted it would produce a most beneficial change in the whole state of affairs in Egypt. He now came to the question of the Suez Canal—one of immense interest to this country. Great difficulties had lately arisen on the subject of the tonnage rate, and he complained that the original rates of tonnage had been departed from. In the original Convention made by M. de Lesseps with the Turkish Government, it was distinctly stated that the rate should be estimated according to the actual carrying power of the ship. Afterwards, M. de Lesseps adopted the principle of charging not upon the net, but upon the gross tonnage of the ship, which made a difference of over 50 per cent to the Peninsular and Oriental Company and others, who had been heavily mulcted in consequence. For the last two years he had been charging on the gross tonnage, and no vessel was permitted to enter the Canal without paying on that scale. He was speaking under the correction of the Foreign Office. Protests were made and some proceedings were taken, and a decision was given by the Court of Paris on the subject. It was denied that the Egyptian Court had any authority at all in the matter. The Sultan of Turkey took the question in hand, a Commission sat, and they came to the decision that M. de Lesseps was in the wrong, but he might surcharge three francs per ton, subject to a small reduction, for a certain amount of additional tonnage. M. de Lesseps, however, complained that he had been ill-treated, and he threatened all kinds of proceedings when he had the power to carry them out. They were accustomed to hear continually that this was a French Canal, constructed by French enterprise and French money. It was also well kown that Lord Palmerston was opposed to the construction of the Canal, and he was right, because at one of the early meetings of the shareholders the project was spoken of as a sword to stab the heart of England. No doubt, the French at all times had the greatest jealousy of English influence in Egypt, and as a proof of that, he might refer to the expedition of the First Napoleon to that country in the beginning of the present century; and there was little doubt that jealousy of the facilities afforded to this country by the railway from Alexandria to Suez had been the main cause which led to the construction of the Canal. When, however, they were told that the Canal was constructed by French capital, it should be remembered that £14,000,000 was contributed by the Khedive, and £7,000,000 or £8,000,000 by the French. The greater part of the capital, therefore, was supplied by Egypt, and not by France, and this fact appeared to be entirely ignored by M. de Lesseps. The Khedive had also, under the terms of the concession, to find a certain amount of labour, and failing to do that, he had to compensate the Company for his breach of engagement, and the matter having been referred to the late Emperor Napoleon as arbitrator, he decided that the Viceroy should pay a further sum of £3,800,000, for which he was not to receive any interest for 25 years. That fact did not, however, prevent the Khedive from being a real Power in connection with the undertaking. Notwithstanding all that contribution the whole management of the Canal was in the hands of the French, for there was not a single employé engaged on the Canal who did not belong to that nation; and that it was not now closed to British shipping was due solely to the energy of the Viceroy. What the French claimed, indeed, was to deal with the Canal independently of the country to which it belonged. M. de Lesseps remarked at the last meeting of the shareholders that all the projected improvements were stopped, and that he renounced for the future any generous action. This declaration was received with great enthusiasm—
"What is remarkable," M. de Lesseps added," is that these improvements are suggested by the English Government to enable their transports of 4,500 tons to pass through the Canal."
Upon this The Messager de Paris observed—
"It is the English Government which has imposed its resolutions on the Sultan. It is with profound regret our readers will learn that it is England which has shown this contempt for French interests."
It was time, when these statements were made, that we should learn what was really our position with regard to the Canal, for it was not becoming the dignity of this country, especially as she was the best customer of the Canal, that she should be placed in a position of inferiority in Egypt. The last Return of the number of ships which passed through the Canal that he had by him was that for 1872. In that year 1,082 vessels passed through the Canal, and of these 761 were British, 80 French, 66 Italian, 61 Austrian, 83 Turkish, 16 German, 13 Dutch, 10 Russian, and 10 Portuguese. They might perhaps be told that if the Canal were closed, they could again revert to the old route; but they might as well be told that if the railway system were abandoned, they could recur to the older modes of conveyance. This question was one intimately connected with the Amendment he had placed on the Paper, and with proper Egyptian Courts, questions affecting the Canal would come before them for decision, instead of being submitted to the French Consul, and the country which actually possessed the Canal would have a share in its control. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the commerce of this Country being so deeply interested in the uninterrupted navigation of the Suez Canal, it is desirable that Her Majesty's Government should at once give its adhesion to the proposed judicial reforms in Egypt, suggested and approved of by the representatives of all the European Powers, by which tribunals will be created for the better administration of justice in Egypt and the adjudication of differences which may arise between British shipowners and the administrators of the Suez Canal Company,"—(Mr. Baillie Cochrane,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

thought that there was no subject more worthy of consideration, as affecting English interests, than that which had been brought under their attention by the hon. Member (Mr. Baillie Cochrane), but he had been disappointed in the wording of the Resolution and in the speech of his hon. Friend, because he had mixed up two subjects which ought to be kept quite separate, namely, the question of the judicial system in Egypt as regarded the Consular jurisdiction, and the question of the Suez Canal. The latter question not only affected the interests of Europe, but also of England, and it was necessary, therefore, that the attention of the House and the country should be drawn to the issues connected with it. The present judicial system was based on no right that could show a legal title, and was merely the outcome of abuses which had existed for centuries. He believed, however, that Consular jurisdiction abroad involved no more than a fair and right guarantee which was demanded by civilized Governments for the protection of their subjects from Governments which were not civilized. The present condition was this in regard to Egypt. An international Conference met at Cairo, and, after conferring with the Egyptian Government, proposals were made and accepted for a new judicial system, with certain guarantees. But when, two years ago, the question was brought before the House by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, and the hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that, although the Convention had been signed, and the draft adopted unanimously, that draft had never been put in execution; the then Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs said he felt confident that within six months a judicial system of reform of the whole Egyptian Empire would be put in operation. Nevertheless, it appeared that although two years, instead of six months, had elapsed, the same judicial system existed now which existed seven years ago. What had stopped the way in the execution of a reform which had been decided to be necessary by the Representatives of all the European States? He believed that what had really slopped the way was the unfortunate jealousy of France as to exercising a certain kind of Protectorate over the Latin Christians; but it seemed to him that where there was a concurrence of opinion among the chief maritime countries of Europe, it became a question whether some pressure should not be put upon the Egyptian Government. He thought the present position of affairs was one which had deleterious consequences both to Egypt and to our own commercial interests. It was not a question of M. de Lesseps, but the real question was, whether any action was going to be taken to carry into execution a sound and approved proposal for an improved judicial system in Egypt. Such a course would tend materially to the interest of all concerned.

held that England had no special interest in Egpyt, except in so far as that country was the high road to our Indian possessions. Their only possible difficulties, therefore, in connexion with Egypt must have reference to the possession and working of the Suez Canal, and he could not help saying that they might have appropriated it if they had not exhibited that absurd commercial jealousy which was now charged upon France. So far, however, from M. de Lesseps having a jealousy of English commerce, he (Sir Edward Watkin) could say from personal knowledge that he had ever wished to cooperate with England as his best customer, and that he was willing to accept our assistance with a view to the improvement of that great work. There was no doubt that Lord Palmerston, in particular, had shown a remarkable prejudice in the matter, and he (Sir Edward Watkin) remembered having heard Mr. Robert Stephenson, the celebrated engineer, declare, in effect, in that House, in 1857—first, that the Canal could never be made; secondly, that if made it could not be kept open; and, thirdly, that if made and kept open, it would never be of use to any one. When asked afterwards why he had condemned the scheme so strongly, Mr. Stephenson simply said—"Palmerston told me to speak." Now that the Canal was constructed we recognized its value, and it seemed to him that some scheme might readily be devised by our own Government, in concert with others, with the object of making the Canal as deep and wide as had originally been intended, and of obtaining a guarantee which would be the means of obviating a recurrence of difficulties in the future. It should also be placed under a judicious police control, for if anything was likely to arise to complicate our arrangements with France and Turkey, it would result from disputes relative to this high road between Europe and India, seeing that no engagements had been entered into which would secure the neutrality of the Canal in time of war. That it was our shortest way to India, and that that advantage was appreciated, was shown by the fact that it was already traversed by 700 of our vessels (luring the year. He thought, therefore, that if the Government wished to promote the interests of British commerce, to facilitate our access to India, and to prevent diplomatic difficulties, they must purchase the right to interfere in the police and management of the Canal.

said, he trusted that the recommendations which had been made would be carried out by the Government. He rose to defend the policy of Lord Palmerston with regard to the construction of the Suez Canal; for he (Mr. Kinnaird) contended that the noble Lord's opposition was not to the construction of the Canal, but to the terms of the proposed concession to France, which would have given her sovereign rights over a large extent of territory, and would have authorized the construction of the works by slaves instead of by free labour. He trusted that the Government would not shrink from securing this highway between Europe and India, even if it were by means of a guarantee, seeing that even if they were ever called upon to repay any portion of the borrowed money, the loss would be amply compensated for by the commercial advantages which this country would obtain from the Canal being kept open.

said, that no one would regret that this subject had been brought before the House by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, seeing its important character. The increasing cultivation of cotton, and the commercial enterprise dependent upon, and the amount of capital invested in, the Suez Canal, had rendered a judicial reform in Egypt absolutely necessary; and beyond that, their communications with India and other places were also daily becoming more important. No one could deny the evils of the present system. Under the treaties and capitulations now in force, each European Government had acquired a distinct jurisdiction, with unlimited power over its respective subjects. Thus, groups of people of different nationalities in Egypt formed distinct colonies, having different laws, Courts, procedure, prisons, and judicial staff, and the result was that 16 or 17 Consulates and Consular Courts exercised jurisdiction on different principles. The universal rule was, that each defendant must be brought before his own tribunal. That rule was almost invariably taken advantage of, and the result was, that there was a direct premium upon breaches of contract, because the plaintiff in an action could not possibly toll in which of these numerous Courts his remedy against the defendant must be sought; and beyond that, each party to a suit wished to be made defendant, so that he might choose the tribunal. If a plaintiff brought an action against one member of a firm consisting of a Greek, a Russian, and an Austrian, and recovered judgment in the Greek Court, the execution of that judgment was sure to be opposed by the Russian and Austrian Courts, and it would be necessary to recover judgment in both those Courts before the plaintiff could obtain payment of his debt. In the case of an execution, the property of a debtor was sometimes assigned to another nationality, and then the Consul of the country of that person who occupied the property, stepped in to prevent the enforcement of execution. In cases of bankruptcy, too, when the firm consisted of persons of different nationalities, there might be three or four sets of assignees and as many modes of proceeding. But when the question was between the Egyptian Government and a foreigner, the case became more difficult, because if the foreigner refused to go into an Egyptian Court, the claims were settled by diplomatic action upon the Report of the various Consuls, instead of being settled as they should be, by the judicial power. It was, therefore, in the interest both of Egypt and Europe that the Egyptian judicature should be reformed. The case of the Suez Canal had nothing to do with the question before the House. Her Majesty's Government had always held the Suez Canal Company to be an Egyptian Company, and therefore the rule applied, that if it were sued, it must be in a Court of its own country. His hon. Friend had suggested that the Suez Canal Company had an interest in keeping up the present condition of affairs, and that it was the duty of this country to take steps to carry out the judicial reforms which had been recommended, even without the intervention of France. Such a proceeding, would, however, be likely to defeat its own object. The result would be, that France would refuse to recognize the judicial reforms when they were effected, and would retain the same power she now had under treaties and stipulations; and if she were so inclined, she could recommend the Suez Canal Company to resort to the Consular Court when they had occasion to sue. That, he thought, would be an undesirable course for the Government to take; while, as to the objects of M. de Lesseps or the interests of this country in purchasing the Suez Canal, that also was not the question before the House. This country had all along held the same language—that any reform of the Courts of Alexandria must be beneficial; but if the European nations abandoned the Consular jurisdiction, it was absolutely necessary that the tribunal to be established should be one in which perfect confidence could be placed, in which the law to be administered should be clear and uniform, its procedure simple, and its practice well defined; that there should be an appeal from its decisions, and that its decrees should be carried out by officers belonging to the Court itself. His hon. Friend suggested that the Papers on the subject should he laid upon the Table. Well, the negotiations with various Powers were very voluminous, extending over 600 or 700 pages. They might be thus summed up—In 1867, Nubar Pasha brought the subject before Her Majesty's Government, and they acceded to his view. An International Commission was appointed, which sat at Constantinople, and which made a recommendation that was accepted by this country, but some of the details of which were objected to by Prance. The French Government suggested another scheme, and that also was accepted generally by Her Majesty's Government, the Law Officers of the Crown declaring, on inspection, that it was immaterial which was adopted. Circumstances, however, arose which prevented the scheme being carried into effect. Questions arose between the Porte and the Viceroy, and then the Franco-German War intervened, and caused further delay. Last year a Conference was held at Constantinople, and the Viceroy and the Representatives of the various Powers assented to the scheme of Prance. Since that time, however, France had raised some difficulty as to a question of detail relating to fraudulent bankruptcy. Her Majesty's Government were now in communication with the Government of France, and were not without hope that those difficulties would be over come. If they were not, it would be open to Her Majesty's Government to act upon the suggestion made, and to adopt the scheme without France joining them. That was a course which the Government would much regret to adopt, because they felt satisfied that if those judicial reforms were to be successfully carried out, all the Powers should join together in giving effect to them. With respect to the Papers, any one conversant with foreign affairs must see that, as the negotiations had been pending almost continually since 1867, it would have been prejudicial to their success had they been produced. When, however, a conclusion had been arrived at, either with or without the assent of France, he should be prepared to lay on the Table all the Papers that were necessary to elucidate the question. They were most anxious to aid the Viceroy in his reforms. He had long shown that he entertained most enlightened views upon the subject, and they were very desirous, in the interests of Egypt and of the commerce of this country, that, in giving effect to those views, he should receive the cordial assistance of Her Majesty's Government. He hoped that, after the statement he had made, his hon. Friend and the House would see that it was impossible the Government could accept the Motion he had submitted.

said, he had hoped to hear from the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, some explanation of the circumstances which were detailed in the Report of the Suez Canal Company. That Report led him to the conclusion that the diplomatic influence of England had been exerted in a sense ungenerous and unfair towards the Company. In the scheme which would shortly be laid before the House, for forming a friendly legislative connection on equitable terms between this country and Ireland, the foreign relations of the Empire would of course be referred to. These foreign relations the Irish Members intended to leave, as at present, to the control of this country; but the sentiment and opinion of Ireland would, he hoped, exercise some influence over the foreign policy of England. But the people of Ireland would never be able to sympathize with a policy that was greedy or selfish; and he feared that it had been selfish in the case of the Suez Canal. It would be very ungenerous and very unfair if England, who owned seven-tenths of the vessels which passed through the Canal, so acted as to prevent the shareholders of the Company from deriving a fair profit from their undertaking.

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."