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Chapter XXXVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2


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The foregoing is an outline of the case made against the Government in the course of a debate which lasted four days, and which excited extraordinary interest,, because it was felt not only by the House, but by the public, that the fate of the Government depended upon the issue. The following is an outline of the defence, which was commenced by Mr. Labouchere. He said that when the case was fairly and impartially considered, the House would be of opinion that no blame justly attached to our local authorities at Canton or to the Government at home - who could have pursued no other course than they had taken, without betraying the interests entrusted to their care, and lowering the British character in the eyes of the world. The transactions had taken place before the great community of merchants who had been libelled by Mr. Cobden. French and American merchants had coincided with ours in their view of the conduct of the Chinese authorities, which had become absolutely unbearable. He denied that the British functionaries had evinced any want of forbearance. On the part of the Government at home, he should regret if it had been so weak and pusillanimous as to fail in supporting officials placed in a difficult position, whose conduct had been applauded by the representatives of foreign nations. We were not at war with the court of Pekin, but with the local government at Canton, and he hoped that the result of these hostilities would be to place the relations of Europe with China upon a safer and more satisfactory footing. Mr. Lowe contended that the real question was not one of legality, but of the animus of the Chinese authorities, and it was impossible to acquit them of a bad animus in the matter. Much as he deplored the consequences, it appeared to him that upon those authorities, not upon the British Government or its officials, rested the responsibility. The Lord Advocate of Scotland argued upon the facts, that there was no ground for asserting that international law had been transgressed by our authorities abroad. He contended that the Hong Kong ordinance of 1855 was a valid law as respected the Chinese, and whether or not it was contrary to our municipal law had nothing to do with the question. The boarding of the lorcha was no doubt preconcerted; it was regarded by Sir John Bowring as an outrage, as an international and deliberate insult; and he wanted to know what Sir John was to have done. He warned the House to pause before it put between us and China a barrier which might be far more dangerous than any yet offered. Mr. Horsfall also believed that the insult was intended, and therefore he saw nothing to justify a vote of censure. Sir George Grey observed that every one conversant with the trade of China knew that these lorchas were essentially not Chinese, but sailed under various European flags as well as under native colours, and if the outrage in question had been overlooked it would have been a virtual abandonment of the protection which, our flag had afforded for years. Referring to the strictures of Sir James Graham upon Sir John Bowring, he reminded the House that that gentleman had been appointed to the office of plenipotentiary by Lord Aberdeen's Government, of which Sir James Graham himself was a member; and as that functionary had the concurrence of Sir M. Seymour in all that he did, the attacks upon him were unfair, ungenerous, and unjust. He warned the House to hesitate before it came to a vote that would have a prejudicial effect throughout the world, in comparison with which the defeat of a Ministry, and the transfer of power to a combination of parties, were of minor importance. Mr. Robertson stated that his experience of the Chinese authorities led him to believe that the affront was deliberately intended. He thought access to the authorities at Canton was necessary; the restriction was a degrading one, intended to lower us in the eyes of the people. He cautioned the House against faltering and falling back by passing a vote of censure upon the Government, the effects of which would be disastrous, and would not be confined to Canton. Mr. Bernai Osborne remarked that "the question had been so obfuscated by the arguments of lawyers that it had got into a morass." He warned the House that the consequence of passing a vote of censure upon the Government in this matter would be the presentation of a bill for damages by the American and other merchants to the amount of 5,000,000, besides the loss of life. He complained of the attacks upon Sir John Bowring, who, he said, had been hunted down, called a liar, a blunderer, and everything but a thief. But it was not Sir John Bowring at Hong Kong, who was struck at; it was the Minister in Downing Street. The real object was to displace Lord Palmerston, to throw overboard the man who had brought us through the war, who never forsook a friend, and had no enemies but those of his country.

Lord Palmerston began his speech by observing that he should not have expected from Mr. Cobden such a motion, or such a speech in its support, nor should he have anticipated the bitterness of his attack upon Sir John Bowring, an ancient friend, a man who had raised himself by his talents, attainments, and public services, and who was a fit person for the situation he held. If there was any man less likely than another to get the country into hostilities, it was Sir John Bowring, who had been a member of the Peace Society. But what most surprised him in Mr. Cobden's speech was the anti- English spirit which pervaded it, and an abnegation of the ties which bound men to their country and their countrymen. With regard to the question under discussion, the noble lord said that we had a treaty with the Chinese, stipulating that British vessels should not be boarded without a previous application to the British Consul; and the question is, What did the Chinese know or believe about the nationality of the Arrow? Did they consider her a British vessel? He affirmed they did, and if they knowingly violated the treaty, it was immaterial whether, according to the technicalities of the law, the register had expired. It was the animus of the insult, the wilful violation of the treaty, that entitled us to demand reparation for the wrong, and an assurance of future security. He insisted that, after the refusal of reparation - only one of many violations of treaty rights by the Chinese - hostilities were amply justified, and that our proceedings were marked by extreme forbearance, compared with the proceedings of the Americans, when their flag was insulted. The outrage was only part of a deliberate system to wrest from us a right essential to our commerce in those waters. Lord Palmerston referred to the barbarities of the local authorities at Canton; the Commissioner Yeh having beheaded 70,000 persons in less than a year. What was the Government expected to do - to send out a message to Yeh that ho was right? This would be withdrawing from the British community protection against a merciless barbarian. It would disgrace this country in the eyes of the civilised world, and especially in the estimation of Eastern nations. The House, therefore, had in its keeping not only the interests, the property, and the lives of many of our fellow-subjects abroad, but the honour and the character of the country.

Mr. Cobden having briefly replied, and having withdrawn the first paragraph of his resolution, the concluding portion was put to the vote - to the effect that the papers laid before the House failed to establish satisfactory grounds for the violent measures resorted to at Canton. The numbers were - for the motion, 263; against it, 247; majority against the Government, 16.

This important division took place on March 3rd. Two days of anxious suspense passed, during which the political world was full of speculation as to the alternative Lord Palmerston would adopt - resignation or dissolution. Mr. Disraeli had challenged him to appeal to the country, but without such a provocative, that was the course which a man of Lord Palmerston's spirit and determination was most likely to adopt. Accordingly, on the 5th, Lord Granville in the Upper House, and the Prime Minister in the Lower, announced that Her Majesty's Ministers had advised her to dissolve Parliament. The latter explained the grounds of his decision. Under ordinary circumstances, the result of a vote of censure would be resignation, and to those who had obtained a majority in favour of such a vote would be left the responsibility of conducting the affairs of the country. But the present case seemed to Lord Palmerston or so peculiar a character that he did not think it his duty to adopt that course. The vote did not seem to imply a general want of confidence, though it would render it very difficult, if not unseemly, to conduct the business of the country in the ordinary manner during the remainder of a long session. The Parliament was then in its fifth session, and might be considered comparatively a very old Parliament, for it had witnessed more important events than it had fallen to the lot of most Parliaments to see. It had seen three administrations; it had seen the transition from a state of profound peace to a great European war; it had seen the transition from a great European war to the fortunate restoration of European peace. Consequently, as concerned the events of which it had been a spectator, it had done as much as could be expected to fall to the lot of one which had completed its full term of existence. He therefore proposed that the House should content itself with such provisional and temporary measures as might be necessary to provide for the public service until the earliest period at which a new Parliament could assemble. Mr. Disraeli concurred in this course, and said he would give every possible facility to public business. Mr. Cobden inquired what the Government were about to do in order to carry out the solemn vote to which the House had come. If any danger to British residents in China was to be apprehended from the vote, the first consideration ought to be their safety, and a competent person should be sent out by the next steam-ship, armed with full authority to supersede all existing British authority in China, and to act according to circumstances. If Lord Palmerston did not intend to take this course, what course would he take? A new Parliament could not meet until the end of May. Mr. Sidney Herbert also inquired whether Government would continue the war for the same object - namely, the entry of Sir John Bowring into Canton; and whether the conduct of affairs there was to be left to a man who, in the opinion of the House, had brought about the present dangerous crisis. Sir George Grey answered those questions by stating that they did not intend to send out any civil or military officers to act in accordance with the views of Mr. Cobden. All necessary precautions would be taken to protect the lives and property of British subjects. Mr. Cobden had no right to assume that the Government had any other object than to place our relations with China on a proper footing. They would employ the means which in their opinion were best calculated to accomplish this object, and he trusted the House would leave the honour and interests of the country in their hands.

Lord John Russell, however, considered that the House was entitled to ask for an explanation of the policy intended to be pursued for the next three months, after it had decided that their past conduct was worthy of censure. They should state what terms were asked of China; what, in fact, was the object of the hostilities. He denied emphatically that he, and other members of the Liberal party who had voted with him on this question, had, as alleged, entered into any combination with the Conservatives. The charges of a factious and unscrupulous union of parties, in order to obtain a certain object, he pronounced to be entirely false and calumnious. There was no one in a condition to prove such charges or to produce the least evidence in their support. They had concurred in the vote honestly and upon its merits, and he believed it would form an honourable precedent in history. The House had shown that, while it was ready to make any sacrifices to carry on a just and necessary war, it would not approve blindly all hostilities which it might be asked to sanction, and for which no case of justice could be established. Mr. Roebuck also positively denied that he had been a party to any conspiracy of the kind alluded to. He had voted with Mr. Cobden only because he agreed with him. The House, coming to the rescue of England's honour, declared against the noble lord and his government. " It would have been otherwise," said Mr. Roebuck, "if the noble lord had continued to be what he was in times past, when he declared himself the supporter of liberal institutions and liberal opinions. "We have not deserted him, but he has deserted us. Where he went we would not follow, because it was to disgrace, and it was because we anticipated disgrace and dishonour to England that we voted against him." Mr. Gladstone demanded upon whose policy were the measures in China to be carried on till the new Parliament met. The House was bound to require an answer to that question. It was not right to vote supplies for carrying on a war which had been condemned by Parliament. Lord Palmerston had talked of a combination, but when had it before happened that a case was so strong as to compel the House to interpose in order to check the mad career of the Government in another quarter of the globe? Overruling necessity had altered usage, and the division comprised the names of Lord John Russell, who had led the Liberal party during more than twenty most eventful years, and Mr. Roebuck, no political enemy of Lord Palmerston. Mr. T. Duncombe noticed the fact that twelve out of the fifteen metropolitan members voted in the minority. If Lord Palmerston proclaimed to the country that he would maintain the honour of the national flag, he might defy the petty jealousy by which he was surrounded, and set at nought unprincipled cabals.

Lord Palmerston ultimately replied to the various questions as to the policy to be adopted in China. Every one knew that if a great extension of commercial intercourse between the nations of Europe and China was ever obtained, it would be an immense advantage to the cause of civilisation, and productive of great benefit to the industry of the nations trading with that country. The difficulty having been greatly increased by the unfortunate events that had occurred, it must strike every one that the selection of a person to whom should be committed the grave and important charge of conducting negotiations should be a subject of serious deliberation. It must strike every one that he should be imbued with the feelings of the Government on this subject; and that, being the recipient of their verbal instructions, he would be likely to carry more weight than any person who might happen to be now in China. He by no means undervalued the services of Sir John Bowring, to whom the greatest injustice had been done, and whose merits had been disparaged to a degree that astonished him; at the same time, the Government could not shut their eyes to the gravity and importance of the matters in hand. But the House must expect their policy to remain the same - it was, to maintain the rights and to protect the lives and properties of British subjects, to improve our relations with China, and in the selection of those means and the arrangement of them to perform the duty they owe to the country.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8 page 2

The Earl of Clarendon
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Lord Palmerston
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Port of the city of Canton
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