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Lords Chamber

Volume 110: debated on Thursday 18 April 1850

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House Of Lords

Thursday, April 18, 1850.

MINUTES.— Sat first. The Lord Godolphin, after the death of his Father.

1a Process and Practice (Ireland).

2a Pirates (Head Money).

Pirates (Head Money) Repeal Bill

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, did not consider it necessary to say more than that the object of it was to repeal the law under which all persons engaged in the capture or destruction of piratical ships and vessels were entitled to be rewarded by head-money. It was a measure adopted when piracy at sea was more universal than it was at present. In the early part of the reign of George IV. the sea on the coast of China swarmed with pirates; and it was with a view of stopping their atrocious proceedings that the Act of the 6th of George IV. obtained the sanction of Parliament. It was not intended by the present Act to exclude all persons engaged in the capture or destruction of pirate vessels from rewards; but it was thought better to give to the Crown the power of rewarding them according to the nature and extent of their services.

observed, that piracy formerly existed to a great extent in the Mediterranean as well as the West Indies, and indeed in all parts of the world, and the Legislature thought it desirable that rewards should be given to Her Majesty's forces for the performance of services frequently attended with great danger and loss of life. An analogous case was that of rewards given during the war, for the capture of privateers belonging to nations with whom His Majesty was at war. With reference to the present Bill, he must say that he thought it would be very in-convenient to apply to Parliament in every case of a pecuniary reward being earned, and perhaps the noble Marquess would say in what manner the reward was proposed to be given.

said, that the Admiralty would have the power of adjudicating the reward in every case.

was of opinion that if the noble Marquess had referred to the Act which this Bill was intended to repeal, the course which he would have recommended the House to pursue would have been somewhat different. The party now engaged in capturing or destroying piratical ships and vessels would have to go to the Admiralty to get his money for such services; but the misfortune was that the money was already earned. Nay, more, the noble Marquess would find that the money would be claimed by parties rendering such services. The principle was admirable that the Admiralty should adjudicate upon all such services; but his objection to the Bill was that it did not give the Admiralty the power of paying the reward. It would not be difficult to fix a limit to the rewards which the Admiralty should be authorised to pay; and he suggested to the noble Marquess that such a limit should be at once fixed. He approved of the repeal of the existing law, for the remuneration which it authorised was extravagant. It was four times the amount of that given to those who captured or destroyed ships and vessels in action with a national enemy. He had recently seen with feelings of the deepest pain an account of an action where, without the loss of a single man on our part, British ships with shot and shell and 32-pounders had captured, destroyed, and sunk certain vessels and ships alleged to be piratical. On the coasts of China it might be necessary that such military executions—for he could characterise such attacks by no other term than that of military executions—should sometimes be inflicted. He did not, however, think them justifiable on the coast of Borneo. He thought that an engagement of such a kind as that of which we had recently heard was not in the purview of Parliament when it passed the Act of the 6th of George IV. It never could have been the intention of the Legislature to give head-money for the destruction, he would even say the extermination, of whole tribes, by 32-pounders for alleged acts of piracy. Another objection to this Bill, in his mind, was, that it took notice only of actions at sea; but the most daring and dangerous operations against pirates occurred when they had left the sea, and had drawn their ships up the rivers, and had made stockades and other defences for their protection on shore. He recollected a case some two years ago, where considerable danger was incurred and much gallantry was displayed by our seamen in forcing the stockades of some pirates on shore, where a boom was even thrown across a river to impede, if not to prevent, our approach. This was not, however, the case in the recent engagement to which he had already referred, where the boats of the natives were met in the open sea, not engaged, as he was informed, in piratical enterprise, but in carrying on an international war. There was likewise another point to which he wished to call the attention of the noble Marquess, as some additional provisions were required upon it. Where pirates were pursued and attacked in the eastern seas, the ships of the East India Company, as well as those of Her Majesty, were oftentimes engaged. No provision was made for taking into account the services rendered by the ships of the East India Company, and no remuneration was made to the officers and seamen employed on board those ships. It was only fair that they should be placed in similar circumstances, as to remuneration, with the officers and seamen of the Royal Navy. Not that he wished their reward to come from the public purse of this country; but the East India Company, he thought, should be placed under an obligation to do that for its officers and seamen which the Admiralty was to be authorised to do for the officers and men of Her Majesty's Navy. He did not altogether approve the principle of the present measure, namely, that all the information relative to the capture and destruction of piratical ships and vessels should be placed before the Admiralty, and that thereupon the Admiralty should suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer what vote he should propose to the House of Commons for the remuneration of the captors. He had every respect for the House of Commons, but he must express his doubts whether a numerous representative assembly was the authority to which it would be the most convenient to refer for the purpose of fixing the precise remuneration to be given to the men and officers engaged in action with pirates, or parties whom they might please to treat as pirates. This, however, must be the case now, as the Admiralty had only the power to recommend a vote to the Chan- cellor of the Exchequer, and had no funds of its own out of which it could make good that vote. The Chancellor of the Exchequer must go to the House of Commons, the papers in each case must he printed, and on the evidence of the papers so printed the House of Commons would have to decide in each case. This was an unknown principle for the House of Commons to act upon, and would be found full of inconvenience in practice. It should be left to the Crown to decide what rewards should be granted to its naval and military officers. He then gave notice that when the Bill got into Committee he should move a substitute for one of the present clauses, the effect of which would be to give the same power of conferring rewards on those engaged with pirates on shore which was now granted to the Admiralty with regard to those engaged with pirates at sea. He should also propose some minor amendments for the purpose of avoiding some inconsistencies which he perceived in the Bill at present.

intended to confine his observations on this subject to one object alone, and that was, to doing justice to an individual whom every one would rank hereafter with the heroes of civilisation—he meant Sir James Brooke. What the noble Earl had just said in his speech about Borneo, was calculated to give countenance to the observations which had been made on that subject elsewhere, and which he never expected to have heard repeated in that House. For his own part, he could not see the distinction which the noble Earl had drawn between the commission of piracy on the shallow coast of China, and its commission in the deeps which surrounded Borneo. The noble Earl would find it difficult to get legal evidence of piracy in cases where the pirates murdered every person who fell into their hands; but, in the present case, there was sufficient evidence to prove that the persons whose operations Sir J. Brooke intercepted were engaged in the most sanguinary piracy. When he heard the noble Earl complaining that we had brought shot and shell and 32-pounders to bear on boats filled with naked savages, he could not help asking the noble Earl whether he would have us dispense with all the advantages which the superiority of skill and ingenuity and civilisation gave us in our future contests with the natives of the East? Would he have us sacrifice the lives of our seamen and merchants and fellow-country-men in the seas of Borneo by neglecting to use the means which Providence had placed at our disposal for their protection against pirates? If so, it would be better for us to give up at once all our schemes of colonisation, and all our attempts at civilising the world. He could not hear any question started in that House injurious to the character of Sir J. Brooke, without entering his protest against it, and without disputing the distinction, which the noble Earl had endeavoured to draw between international war and the most atrocious piracy. He (Lord Ellesmere) had done all that he could to obtain from the Government the establishment of Labuan; and he had little doubt that under the salutary superintendence of Sir J. Brooke, with whom he had no personal acquaintance, it would soon become a thriving and flourishing settlement.

would repeat what he had formerly said. He thought that the whole character of the operations which were in contemplation by the natives of Borneo savoured more of international war than of that which we called piracy. The law which it was now sought to repeal, never had in its purview any interference with operations of international war. It looked to piratical objects, and to piratical objects alone; it never once contemplated the extermination of whole tribes. The tribe which we had attacked was not in vessels or ships of war, but in boats; it was not in possession of musketry, it was only armed with bows and arrows, and it was only in contemplation of future danger to European commerce that it was attacked and exterminated. The noble Earl had informed their Lordships that he had done all that he could for the establishment of Labuan. He (the Earl of Ellenborough) was in office at the time. He had read with the greatest care and deliberation all the papers presented to him on the subject, and he had then done all that he could to prevent the establishment of Labuan. Nothing had since occurred to satisfy him that he had been wrong in so doing. Labuan had now twenty-nine inhabitants, and five of them were women. That population was fixed on a small peninsula, the whole of which, during five or six months in the year, was a swamp. It was said that a company was formed to work the mines of coal it contained. Whether such a company had ever been formed he could not say, but this he know, that no company had yet appear- ed to work any mines there. It was utterly useless to England, but it was not useless to those who, like Sir J. Brooke and others, were speculating in Borneo, It would require for its protection a naval force which was not necessary for the interests of our commerce in Borneo, although it would have a tendency to favour the pretensions of Sir J. Brooke. He had recently read with great alarm a proposition of Sir J. Brooke to establish a fort at the mouth of one of the rivers of Borneo, and to post armed vessels at the mouths of two other rivers, and he now warned the Government against the occupation of any part of Borneo by the troops and sailors of England. We had already colonies enough, and we should be weakening our naval and military force most injudiciously by taking possession of new settlements, which we should have to defend by military garrisons in case of hostilities with an European power. He therefore augured ill of that proposition. They might depend upon it, if they once set their feet in Borneo, and proceeded to build forts there, that they would be led on step by step from one war to another, and from one conquest to another, until they were involved in transactions which would tend, not to the prosperity, but to the injury of this country.

said: The noble Earl who has just resumed his seat has stated that the operations of these pirates were more in the nature of international war, than what might properly be called a piratical transaction. I hold in my hand a copy of a paper which I received by the mail of yesterday, a Singapore newspaper, containing an account of the proceedings in the admiralty court in that settlement, which, I think, afford the most conclusive answer to that allegation. I find there copies of the depositions of numerous parties with respect to what had been the conduct of that very fleet of pirates which Sir James Brooke and the force employed under his directions attacked and destroyed. I will not trouble your Lordships by reading at any length the depositions of these persons, but will refer to one or two merely as specimens:—

"Burut, a Bornean, maketh oath and saith, that his residence is at Brune, that he was at Mato when that place was attacked by the Serebas pirates about two months ago. Deponent was one of the crew of a large trading prahu, about 60 ft. 5 in. long, and 17 ft, beam, built at Striki, belonging to Nakodah Masallah, and had just arrived at Singapore: the cargo was piece goods. On her arrival at Mato the greater part of the cargo was landed. The prahu was anchored outside the defences across the river; there was another large prahu there, also laden with sago, and bound for Singapore. The Serebas pirates captured, plundered, and burnt both these prahus: the crews escaped on shore. The fleet then attacked Mato, and were beaten off; there were upwards of 100 prahus. If it had not been for the booms secured across the river below the town, the place must have been taken. These defences were made to protect the town against the people of Serebas and Sakarran. The deponent is certain that the fleet was either from Serebas or Sakarran."
That is one case, and there are dozens of similar ones. There are cases of fishermen in their boats, engaged in peaceful occupations, attacked not only for the sake of their property, but for their heads, for your Lordships are probably aware that it is considered a great achievement to have a number of human heads hanging up in the houses of the savages. Then we have, my Lords, depositions of unfortunate men, driven from their boats, and wandering about the interior in a state of the utmost wretchedness, to escape from the pirates—boats engaged in the peaceful occupations both of fishing and commerce—instances of whole villages along the coast attacked without warning by these piratical fleets, and atrocities of the most monstrous character perpetrated up to the very moment in which they received the treatment which they so richly deserved, at the hands of Her Majesty's naval force and Sir J. Brooke. In this Singapore paper I also find an address presented to Sir J. Brooke, signed by all the principal mercantile firms in that settlement, stating that this system of piracy is destructive of and opposed to the progress of peaceful commerce and to the hope of civilisation extending in that region of the world. I have no doubt whatever that this statement is perfectly correct. What, my Lords, has been the result of Sir J. Brooke's operations? I am not sufficiently acquainted with the pronunciation of these eastern names, or the exact geography of the island, to be able to describe the place exactly to your Lordships; but I find that along the whole coast, up to a point somewhere about 500 miles from Labuan, about five years ago there was nothing but insecurity—no unarmed ships could attempt to carry on any trade in that part; but, in consequence of the operations and conduct of Sir J. Brooke, the trade of the whole of that large extent of coast is now completely opened to unarmed ships. Commerce is in consequence taking root; a lucrative trade is springing up, and with it other civilising influences, and a diffusion of knowledge both of European manners and of Christianity by missionaries and others. I want to know whether this is or is not a line of policy which it becomes a great country to pursue? Are we or are we not to use our superior force to provide that the progress of peaceful commerce shall not be interrupted, and that the peaceful fisherman and trader shall not be plundered and slaughtered by a horde of barbarians? This is, therefore, what we have done. Every warning had been given to these tribes. They received a severe lesson about two years since from Captain Keppel. For some time that lesson made an impression upon them, and their piratical attacks were not continued. They, however, forgot the lesson, resumed their previous conduct, and brought upon themselves this merited punishment. Sir J. Brooke applied to the naval commander on the station, who placed a force at his disposal, and proceeded to put an end to these wanton attacks. The noble Earl complained that we had not lost a man in the engagement. Would the noble Earl have thought the case better if Sir J. Brooke, instead of taking care that the force should be skilfully as well as gallantly employed, had lost 50 or 100 of our brave sailors in the conflict? The noble Earl also complained of the conduct of our naval force because the pirates had only bows and arrows. Does he suppose that we should generously have refused the use of our 32-pounders because those who were opposed to us had only bows and arrows? If so, that is a doctrine which I certainly cannot understand. He also referred to the settlement—I cannot call it a colony—and said that we had colonies everywhere already, and wanted no more. I, too, am far from considering that we ought to extend our colonial possessions. Labuan, however, is not a colony; it is an island occupied for the same purposes, and in a manner analogous precisely to that of Singapore. The same complaints as have been made with respect to Borneo were made when the settlement of Singapore was first established, and the same prophecies of evil were made on the subject. Will any man now say that the formation of the settlement at Singapore has not been of immense advantage to British commerce, and has done much towards civilising and improving these distant regions of the earth? It was intended by the settlement of Labuan to provide a secure depot for our commerce in that part of the world, and also as a station from which could be obtained valuable supplies of coal for our shipping. At the time when Her Majesty's present advisers were appointed to office, I found in the records of the office with which I had the honour to be invested, a considerable amount of correspondence on this subject, and found that the noble Earl who was, in the previous Administration, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, had very strongly expressed his opinion in favour of the policy of occupying that settlement. That opinion was, I believe, dissented from by my immediate predecessor in the Colonial Office; but I must say, that, upon comparing the reasoning of the two, it appeared to me that the arguments of the noble Earl were completely conclusive on the subject, and steps were accordingly taken in pursuance of the recommendations of the noble Earl. But the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Ellenborough) has stated that this settlement is a complete failure. Now, it so happens that I received only yesterday from Sir J. Brooke a report of the progress of that settlement, which gives the most decisive proofs to the contrary. It is undoubtedly true that the settlement had in the first instance many grave difficulties to surmount. Your Lordships are well aware that a settlement never is made for the first time in any tropical clime upon land which is in a state of nature without disease generally breaking out among the settlers. Borneo was no exception to this rule. There was a large marsh in the immediate vicinity of Labuan, owing to which disease broke out in 1848 to a very large extent. That marsh, however, has been drained, and the jungle, full of deep waterpits, cut down, and last year no case of fever had occurred. I have the report of the surgeon, with an account of every case of sickness which arose in the island, and that appeared in Labuan, and he says that the health of Labuan is now equal to that of any other tropical clime. Another proof of the improved state of health at Labuan was afforded by the fact that, upon the relief of the detachment of the army stationed in that place, there were only two men upon the sick list. The settlement is now, therefore, perfectly healthy. But the noble Earl said it was making no progress. It has only been formed a year and a half; and it must be borne in mind that it was never expected that Englishmen would go out and settle there to any extent, but that Chinese and other merchants would establish themselves at Labuan for purposes of commerce, and in that manner a large tropical commerce would be carried on with the coast of Ceylon and other parts; because in these barbarous countries it is impossible for trade to be safely carried on unless there existed some place which might serve as a depot where goods could be deposited and kept in safety, for the purpose of their being conveyed by larger vessels, which were, of course, not always be found. The settlement has had to endure all the privations of a famine consequent upon the sickness which broke out in 1848; that famine, however, has been removed, and Sir J. Brooke now informs me that many Chinese, and other traders who frequented the place, had come to the determination of transferring their establishments altogether to Labuan. That was exactly what was anticipated would take place, and that the merchants and traders of those parts would take shelter under the British flag, and make that settlement the centre of their commercial transactions. Sir J. Brooke goes on to say, that already 124 town allotments had been disposed of; that the entire amount of revenue estimated under that head had been fully realised; and that there prevailed throughout the settlement a very general opinion of the ultimate success of the undertaking. This information was contained in a despatch dated so recently as the 2nd of February last. The noble Earl has said that the prosperity of the settlement was represented to depend, in the first instance, upon the working of its coal mines, and that those mines were to be worked by a commercial company, and that no such company had ever yet appeared. It is perfectly true that the operations of the coal company have been far from being so active as I anticipated. There were, however, various causes which would account for this state of things. Among other things the general disturbance of commerce in 1848, and we all know how severely commerce was affected in every part of the world; the number of failures which occurred, not only in England but in India, and the many difficulties to which the mercantile classes were exposed during that period. Those circumstances will, I believe, account mainly for the great want of exertion which had been displayed on the part of the company. But at the same time it must be stated that they have made a beginning; and X find that there have been already furnished to Her Majesty's Navy very nearly 2,000 tons of most excellent coal; and the reports of the engineers of Her Majesty's steamers upon the quality of the coal have been highly favourable. Now what is the difference in price at which coals are contracted to be furnished to Her Majesty's Navy by the new company, as compared with the previous contract prices? The present contract price at the pit's mouth is 11s. per ton, but of course there is considerable expense incurred in conveying the coal to the coast in consequence of the deficiency of suitable roads, and the admiral on the station has agreed to pay 17s. 6d. per ton upon delivery on board the steamers, after a deduction of 2s. 6d. per ton duty; whereas the previous contract price at Singapore was 33s. 6d. per ton. So that in the first instance, and at the commencement of the company's operations, a very considerable advantage has accrued to the Government, I am also informed that excellent coal has been discovered close to the harbour, which will enable the company to deliver the coals at a much lower rate by saving the heavy expense of transit to the coast. Now, having made these statements, I cannot help referring, and referring with great regret, to an observation which was made by the noble Earl in the course of his address. He stated that this settlement would never be of any advantage to the country, but that it might be advantageous to Sir J. Brooke, and to the other speculators who had embarked with him in the concern. I confess that I did not expect to hear a charge of that description made in this House. I agree with the noble Earl on the cross benches (the Earl of Ellesmere) in his opinion of Sir J. Brooke, and I admire the character of Sir J. Brooke more than that of almost any man whose character has been before the public. His self-devotion, his entire disinterestedness, his refusal to take any advantage for himself, and the fact that he has been governed only by the highest motives of charity and Christianity, are to me beyond all doubt. I have seen, but a few days since, an answer made by Sir J. Brooke to a letter sent to him, in which a commercial speculator pointed out to him that if he would join him in some enterprise which he wished to establish, and give up his former notions of keeping himself entirely independent from all commer- cial transactions, that with his influence and ability he might soon become the richest commoner in England. What was the answer of Sir J. Brooke? He said—
"I see no objection to others who are fairly engaged in commerce engaging in these transactions of a pecuniary nature. But this is not my object. My object is an entirely distinct one; and I will not sacrifice or endanger those higher objects which I have in view by having any concern with speculations which have any reference to pecuniary profit."
This letter was written so long ago as December, 1846, and I think it is a complete answer to the charge brought against him by the noble Earl. I think I am justified in saying, that, so far from Sir J. Brooke having made any profit of what he has done, he has sacrificed very largely his own private fortune in carrying out his great enterprise of humanity. More than that, I grieve to say, that by accounts which I received yesterday, I greatly fear that Sir J. Brooke has certainly endangered his most valuable life. It is difficult for me to describe the grief with which I yesterday read in his report to me that his State of health was such that his medical advisers had declared it absolutely necessary, in consequence, that he should immediately retire from Labuan to Penang, and if that change of climate did not in a short time effect an improvement in his health, that he should return to England. Sir J. Brooke never thoroughly recovered from the effects of the fever which he suffered in Labuan in 1848, and his recent exposure in the boats against the pirates has brought on additional attacks, which have most seriously endangered his health and his life. At the moment when we have this painful information with respect to this most generous, most public-spirited man, who has been risking his life and fortune in furtherance of objects of the highest importance—to hear him in this House classed with others as a mere speculator, who, for his own selfish purposes, and for the promotion of his own advantages, would cause this country to incur any amount of expense, has, I must say, given me the greatest pain.

observed, that the blue book which treated on the condition of Labuan had recently been laid on the table by the noble Earl who spoke last, and he had taken his facts, and formed his opinions, on the statements contained in that blue book. The noble Earl (Earl Grey) himself lived in a coal country, and knew well the difference between the value of different kinds of coal. Some coal at 33s. a ton might be cheaper than other coal at 20s. a ton. Now, if the noble Earl thought that the coal of Labuan or Borneo was likely to be of use to Her Majesty's steamers, he would recommend him to have its value tested by engineers of competent talent. He (the Earl of Ellenborough) had himself been in the country, and the impression on his mind was, that so far as regarded the purposes of steam navigation, the coal of the East was so unequal in its operation as to be far dearer than the coal of England or Wales. Besides, the coal of the East was more liable to spontaneous combustion. He recollected that during the expedition to China 500 tons of coal were lost at one time at Hong-Kong by spontaneous combustion. He was satisfied that in time of war it would be cheaper for Government to import coal from Wales, for steam navigation, than to buy cheap coal in the East. The noble Earl had told their Lordships that Labuan would succeed as Singapore had succeeded. But what was the reason that Singapore had succeeded? The success of Singapore was owing to its being on the high road of commerce. Was that the case with Labuan? No; Labuan was hundreds of miles out of that high road, and, therefore, Labuan could not succeed, unless, by some unexpected contingency, a new commerce should spring up around it. He had not intended on this occasion to enter into any discussion on the conduct and character of Sir James Brooke. He would say candidly that he thought Sir James Brooke a great, generous, and romantic English gentleman. Sir James evidently thought that, by extending the influence of England and his own in those seas, he would render great services to humanity. On the other hand, he (the Earl of Ellenborough) was of opinion that Sr. James Brooke would fail in his great objects, and that he would bring on a great amount of evil and suffering. Yes, that gentleman was so blindly devoted to his own ideas that the consequence might be much injury to himself and to humanity, worked out on the most conscientious principles. What he (the Earl of Ellenborough) dreaded was this—nay, what he well knew was this—that by bringing the naval force of England to Labuan, where it was not wanted, it would be practically used to work out Sir James Brooke's objects, be they bad or be they good, and in the attempt he was certain that great injury would be done to humanity.

assured the noble Earl opposite that reports of the great value of Labuan coal had been received from engineers of first-rate ability.

After a few words from the Earl of WALDEGRAVE,

Bill read 2a .

said, that in order that the House might be furnished with more complete information on the subject, he would postpone the further stages of the Bill until copies of the despatches relating to the destruction of the pirates of Borneo had been laid upon their Lordships' table. On the subject of the destruction of human life in the engagement with the pirates, very erroneous statements had been made. Instead of 1,000 persons having been killed in the engagement, there had been only 500.

said, that 500 persons had been killed in the jungle, in addition to those killed in the engagement. He also wished to know whether the Admiralty approved of the attack?

said, that it formed no portion of the duty of the Board of Admiralty to express any opinion upon the policy of the measure; but the Lords of the Admiralty had highly approved of the courage and bravery of the officers and seamen who were engaged in the attack.

The Bill was then ordered to be committed to a Committee of the whole House on Thursday next.

House adjourned till To-morrow.