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River Gambia—Resolution

Volume 228: debated on Tuesday 2 May 1876

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rose to call the attention of the House to the present position of the British Possessions on the Gambia, with a view to place them on a permanently satisfactory footing, and also, in the interests of commerce, to open up communications by that great navigable river with the interior of Africa. His object in bringing this subject forward was to endeavour to elicit from Her Majesty's Government some declaration as to their policy with regard to the future of these settlements. He reminded the House that at an early period of last Session the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs stated in "another place" that it was desirable to concede the Gambia to France, in exchange for some small settlements on the Gold Coast. The negotiations then going on had, he (Mr. Alderman M'Arthur) was glad to say, since fallen through, for what reasons it was not necessary for him now to inquire. Nor need he take up the time of the House in bringing forward arguments against the cession of the Gambia. He had only to express his regret that the noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies, who had conducted the business of his Department with such marked ability and general satisfaction, should have sanctioned, even for a moment, a project that was unjust to the colony, directly in opposition to the traditions of his Party, and unpopular with the country at large. He trusted that no Government would again attempt to hand over to a foreign Power some 14,000 of Her Majesty's subjects without asking their consent, and that they would not surrender for imaginary advantages one of the noblest rivers on the western coast of Africa. It was due to those British subjects who had been engaged in trade on the Gambia that they should be kept no longer in suspense; but that Her Majesty's Government should give such an assurance with regard to the future as might inspire confidence, give security to property, and lead to the further development of the trade of the colony. The House would bear in mind that the settlements on the Gambia had existed in their present form for more than half a century, that a considerable number of Native merchants, traders, and shopkeepers had been brought up under English rule, and also, that of the 14,190 inhabitants a considerable proportion had been educated in the mission schools, speaking the English language, and claiming the privileges of British, subjects. As to the Gambia, it must be evident to any one who studied the map of the country that it possessed advantages over almost every other place in Western Africa for bringing within the reach of British civilization and British influence a large and fertile country. The Gambia might fairly be classed with the Niger and the Senegal in giving direct and easy access into the interior. It possessed a magnificent harbour; it was navigable for nearly 400 miles; it was the great water highway to Northern Africa, and the direct route to Futu, Segou, Timbuctoo, and other large towns; and, what was of great importance, within 11 days'sail of Liverpool. For years past the intention had been avowed again and again of handing the Gambia over to France, although the proposal was contrary to the wish of the whole population. Such a declaration of policy was calculated to injure trade and retard its progress, and to a certain extent discourage all attempts at improvement. Strange to say, however, in the face of these obstacles, trade had neither been injured nor its progress retarded, for the exports and imports had increased, and, if fair play were given, would continue to increase. The ground nut trade formed one of the principal trades of the colony. In 1837, the total export was 87 tons; the annual average now was 15,000 tons. In 1874 it rose to 20,000 tons, which, taken at £11 per ton, gave a trade of £220,000 a-year in one product alone. The average value of imports since 1850 had been £120,000, and of exports £160,000. In 1869 there were employed in the Gambia trade 188 vessels, with an aggregate of 46,396 tons; and in 1870, 55,046 tons, or 171 vessels. The revenue in 1867 amounted to £22,000; in 1870, to £17,100. But how was this revenue appropriated? The House would be surprised to learn that £12,000 was spent on salaries and pensions alone; in fact, 75 per cent of the revenue raised in the colony was paid to servants of the Crown, in whose appointments the taxpayers had no voice whatever. Nor had these officials any interest in the colony beyond drawing their salaries and pensions. Had part of this money been spent in developing the trade of the interior, or in promoting sanitary improvements in the colony, a much better state of things would have been the result. Instead of that a miserable, cheese-paring policy was adopted at the time. Would it be believed by the House that when, a few years ago, a request was made to allow one of Her Majesty's gunboats to proceed up the river for three days, in order to show the Natives that the colony was under the protection of the British flag, such request was actually refused, unless the Settlements would undertake to pay for the coal consumed on the trip, while at the very same time no less a sum than £4,125 was being spent out of the local revenue for further enlarging and embellishing the Governor's house—already one of the first official residences on the coast? It should also be borne in mind that the colony at present did not cost the British Government one shilling. The troops had been withdrawn, and the Settlements left without any protective Force. Situated as these Settlements were in the vicinity of warlike and perhaps hostile tribes, such a proceeding on the part of the Government was, he contended wholly unjustifiable. The colonists were quite willing to pay for such a Force, if they were allowed requisite control over the management of their finances. One of Her Majesty's ships should also occasionally call at Bathurst, a station which, the colonists complained, a man-of-war had not visited for many years. He was aware that one of the arguments employed against the colony was its unhealthy condition; but it had been proved that it was not more unhealthy than other parts of the coast. Colonel Ord stated in his Report that for a sum of £7,000 a thousand acres of the swamp at Bathurst could be drained, and the locality made healthy. Governor M'Donellin 1851, referred to a tract of land near Cape St. Mary, within eight miles of Bathurst, varying in its elevation above the sea from 50 feet to 90 feet, which enjoyed a more salubrious climate and a cooler average temperature throughout the year than most places in the West Indies. Governor O'Connor, in reference to that place, remarked—

"The climate is good and salubrious, the country freee from swamps and clear of jungle, the soil fertile, and the cape, elevated some 70 feet above the level of the sea, lies open to the full fresh breezes of the Atlantic Ocean."
This place appeared to possess suitable conditions for a sanitarium. Considerable efforts had been made to promote education and to introduce Christian instruction, among the Native population. For many years—as far back as 1821—the Wesleyan Missionary Society had occupied this post as most favourable for the introduction of Christianity among the tribes in the interior. One of the secretaries of that society, the Rev. W. B. Boyce, had stated, in a deputation to Lord Carnarvon, that the society had already expended about £100,000 on missions and schools. They had seven chapels and other places of worship, attended by congregations numbering upwards of 6,000 persons; they had seven day schools in active operation; religious instruction was given in the English language, while a number of Native agents preached in the African tongue; a grammar of the Mandingo language had been published; and the new Testament had been translated into the same language. A high-class school had lately been established, and 15 of the most promising youths were receiving an education which would fit them for any post of usefulness that might be open to them. Numerous applications for admission had been refused, as at present there was not accommodation for a larger number. For more than 250 years the British flag had been associated with some kind of political or commercial influence on the Gambia; but what use had we made of our influence to promote civilization in that region of Africa? The enterprize of a few merchants had created trade, and the zeal of our missionaries had converted a few thousand Natives to Christianity; but as a Government we had done almost nothing. If protection were given to our merchants, the commerce of the river, there was every reason to believe, would increase out of all proportion to the cost of such protection. The French were wise in their day and generation; they wanted the Gambia, because they knew that in their hands it would become valuable. He was anxious that we should adopt the same policy; and, therefore, he hoped that Her Majesty's Government would not look coldly upon projects for the extension of our trade, but would rather regard the trader as an ally in the great work of civilizing Africa. He spoke with the utmost confidence on this subject, because he did not hesitate to say that the influence of our legitimate commerce on the Gambia had been very beneficial. Our territory was a small one, but it was all under cultivation. We had redeemed a population there from savagery; we had won over thousands of Africans to habits of peaceful industry; we had repressed the slave trade, and had exercised a salutary influence over many of the warlike tribes adjoining the Settlements. Therefore, he confidently appealed to the House whether, now that we had decided to retain the Gambia, it was not our duty to open up that great river to legitimate commerce. In order to accomplish this, an exploration of the river, as well as of the upper waters of the Niger should be made; for only a few days' march separated these two great natural highways into the interior of Africa, and if the whole country which could thus be brought into direct relations with the Gambia were opened up, we might obtain by that means hundreds of thousands of new customers. It was of great importance to secure the trade of the Upper Niger, for this would assuredly fall into the hands of the first comer. There was a direct caravan route from Segou to Salagha, north of Coomassie, which had lately been visited by Dr. Gouldsworthy, who had just arrived in Liverpool, and had, it was stated, made arrangements for opening trade with Salagha. Arabic was largely understood in the Niger country, and therefore that language at once afforded a medium for intercourse with the Natives. It was also of great importance during the trade season that an armed steamer should be on the river, especially in that part of it above M'Carthy's Island. Since the withdrawal of the troops in 1870 the trade of the upper part of the river had diminished, and much of what used to find its way down the Gambia now went to the Senegal, particularly the trade in ivory, gold dust, hides, and bees' wax. In regard to opening up our relations with the interior, it had been suggested, instead of employing Englishmen or British Native subjects as Consuls in the principal towns of the interior, that the chief or head man in each of the principal towns on the road between the Gambia and the Niger should be nominated as British Agent, with a small annual subsidy of from £10 to £15, according to the importance of the town, and at Segou from £20 to £25. These Agents should be furnished with an English Union Jack and with some insignia of office, and in return they should be expected to facilitate trade and the passage of travellers through their towns and territories, providing lodging and carriage, and also messengers for the transit of letters. At Bathurst there should be an officer, who might be styled Inspector of Native Agencies, who should act as the medium of all communications between the Chiefs and the Colonial Government. By thus enlisting Natives themselves on our side in the interests of trade and order, we should be conferring both moral and material benefits, without arousing any of the jealousies engendered by the appointment of White men as Consuls; and in the course of time the Native races would be more ready and willing to pass under our direct influence. Doubtless some difficulties would arise in carrying out this scheme at first; but none which ready resource and intelligence could not meet. The plan thus sketched was one which France—he had good authority for making the statement—had intended to adopt, in order to open up the trade of the interior. The Rev. Mr. Adcock, who had lately arrived from the Gambia, a short time before leaving sailed up the river as far as Yarbutenda, on the direct route to Timbuctoo, and near where Mungo Park started for the interior. In a letter addressed to the Wesleyan Missionary Society, Mr. Adcock remarked—
"This is the largest trading emporium in the river, and also the most distant, being about 480 miles from the Atlantic. The river here is about 200 yards wide, and for some distance above and below is of an average depth of four fathoms, thus allowing vessels drawing 10 feet of water to visit it with safety."
Mr. Adcock further said—
"The Gambia is, indeed, a wonderful river, and would become a mine of incalculable wealth if its ample resources were fully developed. Wax, gold, ivory, and hides are as plentiful as as ever they were when they ranked among the staple exports of the country. The castor-oil plant grows in forests almost without cultivation, while I have several times seen indigo pulled up in the streets of M'Carthy's Island as a common weed. Should the French succeed in effecting the change they seek they will soon make it their richest colony, and we shall wake up too late to mourn our loss. The French offer us Grand Bassam and Assinnee—places where they hoist no flag and pay no official. As for the other two places—Benti, in the Mellacourie, and Sejour, on the Cazamance River—I have visited both, and the two together are not worth our mission ground and property at St. Mary's. But, apart from all these considerations, we have no right to give up the Gambia. We colonized it as a matter of pure philanthropy, in order to put down the Slave Trade. Thousands of human beings were rescued. We have no right to hand them over to a people whose government and religion are alike distasteful to them."
Every word of that statement the hon. Member endorsed, and he heartily rejoiced that the project had been abandoned. In conclusion, the hon. Member laid stress on the thoroughly practical character of the object he had in view. The British nation was always eager to recognize and to admire the self-sacrificing labours of men like Livingstone and Speke, Burton, and Cameron; but it was to be remembered that these explorers had toiled for the future rather than for the present, and, so far as he could judge, generations might elapse before British enterprize could hope to spread over the territories they had discovered. But in the Gambia we possessed one of the greatest rivers in Africa, and with its aid we could gain ready access to the interior of the country. We owed a heavy debt to the African Continent, which it would not be easy for us to wipe off; but that debt could best be discharged by the course of policy which he recommended. If the Government were thus to protect and extend the commerce of the Gambia, they would by that policy, assist Great Britain to maintain her industrial supremacy, and at the same time further the great cause of peace, civilization, and Christianity. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Resolution.

in seconding the Motion, said, that he had been up the Gambia several years ago in command of one of Her Majesty's frigates; and at that time was in favour of an exchange of territory with France. That opinion, which was based chiefly upon military considerations he had since had reason to alter. The Settlement had a low situation, and at the time he was there some dreadful outbreaks of cholera took place. The harbour was certainly a very good one. When he was there the Governor asked him to recommend that larger guns should be put in the fort, so as to increase its importance; but he declined to make such recommendation, because, if it had been acted upon, we should have had the French down upon us at once; and he believed it was because we had done nothing of the kind that we had been left in peace and quietness. Whatever drainage might do, it could not get rid of the fact that the place was so low. A peculiar feature of the trade was that it was carried on in English bottoms at a French port, and almost all the produce of the place went to Marseilles and very little to Liverpool. The fact that he had taken a 35-gun frigate up the Gambia showed that it was a magnificent river; and, as we had it, we ought to maintain it, and to do everything in our power to improve the condition of the Settlement. He was sure that in time to come it would be a prosperous colony, and a very advantageous one to this country.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That it is expedient that the British possessions on the Gambia be placed on a satisfactory footing, and that, in the interests of commerce, communication be opened up by that river with the interior of Africa."—(Mr. Alderman M'Arthur.)

said, he would not follow the hon. Member (Mr. M'Arthur) through the negotiations which were in progress for some years between the English and the French Governments, with regard to the exchange of possessions on the West Coast of Africa, and which, the House was aware had been definitively abandoned. The hon. Member was not quite accurate in identifying the present Government with those negotiations, for they were in progress, under successive Governments, for several years. For himself, he did not disguise his opinion that an exchange would have been advantageous; but it was not found possible to make the arrangements that were contemplated, and the project had now been abandoned. The hon. Gentleman's history of the Settlement on the Gambia was, in many respects, quite accurate; but he had been betrayed on some points into a little over colouring, especially when he spoke of the Settlement as a healthy one, although it might be so as compared with some other settlements. Statistics showed that, from time to time, epidemics had swept over the colony, including yellow fever and cholera, so much so that during eight years from 1859 to 1866, the number of deaths had exceeded that of births by upwards of 1,200. The Administrator stated that the rains were fatal to Europeans, and cold weather was fatal to the Africans. That was hardly a satisfactory state of affairs. The hon. Member alleged that the sanitary state of the town was owing to the want of proper precautions on the part of the authorities. That led him (Mr. Lowther) to the state of the revenue. The hon. Gentleman said, that three-fourths of the gross revenues of the colony were spent in salaries and remuneration to the various public officers. In all our colonies of this description, however, the principal item of expenditure must be the payment of the public servants. It was impossible to carry on the Government without proper officers; but in the Gambia Settlements the salaries were by no means high, and some re-adjustment of the present system would be necessary. The hon. Member said that a cheeseparing system had been in vogue for the last five or six years. He would not deny it. For many years past a cheeseparing system had prevailed in cutting down the necessary expenses without which it was impossible to carry on the Government of these Settlements. He trusted that the hon. Member and his Friends would assist the present Government in putting an end to this system. With regard to the scheme for draining a large swamp in the neighbourhood of Bathurst, at a cost of £4,500, the reason why it was not carried out was because in the interests of trade the presence of a vessel of war was necessary, and the expenditure of draining the swamp was diverted to another purpose. How did the hon. Member propose to supplement the revenue, which had for several years been considerably below the expenditure? In 1873 the revenue of the Settlement was £19,000, while the expenditure was over £24,000,leaving a deficit of £4,700. In 1874 there was a deficit of £3,000. In other years there had been a surplus, but it had been exhausted by these deficits. He was afraid that the only remedy was a grant from the Imperial Exchequer, which the Government would not willingly recommend if any other resource could be devised. It would be the duty of the Government to consider the question, and, if no other remedy could be found, to recommend Parliament to make a grant to the colony. The duties upon the goods imported into the colony had been considerably augmented of late years, and no further income, as it seemed, could be derived from that source. The hon. Member said that trade on the Gambia had not been sufficiently studied by the Home Government; but he did not indicate any specific measure by which it could be improved. It was at first sight not a little remarkable that the enterprize of the trading community had made so few attempts during the last 250 years to open up the trade with Timbuctoo and the interior. The reason was that the state of the district had not been such as to encourage the most hardy and enterprizing merchants to penetrate into the interior. The river was navigable for 500 miles, but it ran through a mountainous, swampy, and unhealthy district. The Native tribes were usually at war with each other, and in order to open up a trade with the interior a temporary footing must first be obtained by means of an armed force. The hon. Member might rest assured that the whole subject of the colony was under the consideration of the Government. As it was now determined to retain the colony, it would be the duty of Her Majesty's Government to consider whether its resources could not be materially improved, and, if it were necessary to ask for a grant for that purpose from the Imperial Parliament, he trusted that the hon. Member would render them all the assistance in his power. In the mean while, the interests of the colony would receive all the attention which the Government could bestow upon the subject.

in reply, said, that the colony would very much improve if the cession to France were, as the House had been told, definitely abandoned. In future it would, he hoped, be allowed to develop its resources, and in that ease it would not fail to become a prosperous colony.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.