§ MR. H. BAILLIE
said, the question of which he had given notice in reference to the conduct of Admiral Stirling and Captain Elliot in the China Seas required a few words of explanation. A statement had appeared in the public papers, purporting to be the report of the proceedings of Her Majesty's fleet in those seas. (Cries of "Order!")
§ MR. II. BAILLIE
said, he should then move the adjournment of the House, at its rising, till Monday. Although the Government might think proper to discredit the statements which appeared in the newspapers, they were not justified in allowing false statements and misrepresentations to pass current for a length of time without contradiction when they reflected on the honour and character of the British navy. The statement to which he was about to refer was this,—that Admiral Stirling, being in command of the British fleet in the China Seas, had received instructions to pursue, capture, and destroy a Russian squadron which was known to be in those waters, and that, under those circumstances, he thought it consistent with his duty to devolve that command upon a junior officer, and to occupy himself with a treaty—a so called commercial treaty with Japan. Captain Elliot, the officer in question, found the Russian squadron at anchor in De Castries Bay. Two statements had been published with respect to the strength of the Russian squadron. One statement, which differed very little from the other, was issued by the Russian Government, and published in the St. Petersburg Gazette, and according to that statement the Russian force consisted of one frigate, one corvette, and three transports encumbered and loaded with the fugitives—men,women, and children—from the Russian settlement of Petropaulovski. The other statement was made by a gentleman, who had lately published a book upon the subject, a friend of Captain Elliot, Captain Whittingham, an officer of Engineers, who was on board ship with Captain Elliot. He would read that statement to the House, though it differed very little from the Russian account. Captain Whittingham stated that there were a frigate and a long corvette, mounting eighteen or twenty guns, two 454 corvettes, or, perhaps, armed transports, mounting ten or twelve long guns each; a brig and a small steamer:—From each masthead of all the Russian vessels their white ensigns waved. From our masthead the number of guns seen on each vessel was reported, and it was conjectured that the frigate was the Aurora, of 44 guns: that the corvette was probably the Dwina, of 18 or 20; but whether the other vessels were corvette of 20, or armed transports of 10 or 12 guns, seemed problematical in the unaccountable and blamable state of ignorance all the officers seemed in of the number, sine, and description of the few vessels Russia possessed in these seas, and this lamentable ignorance existed thirteen months after the declaration of war.It appeared from this statement that Captain Elliot had not really ascertained what the strength of the Russians was, or whether the ships before him were ships of war or transports. Having stated the strength of the Russian squadron, he would state also the strength of the English squadron. It consisted of a first-class frigate, the Sybille, of 40 guns, the Hornet, of 17 guns, and the Bittern, of 12 guns. It was under those circumstances, that Captain Elliot declined to engage the Russian squadron, lie determined to send one of his ships to search for the Admiral, who was, he believed, in Japan, 1,500 miles off, and appeared not to have thought it necessary to blockade the Russian force. He would give the statement of his proceedings:—No sooner had the daylight entirely failed than the three vessels stood out to sea, and during the two following days slowly sailed to the south, to accompany the Bittern (what did the Bittern want of their company?), which left us on the 23rd, when the frigate and corvette commenced cruising in a narrow part of the gulf, to prevent the escape southward of the Russian squadron, until the 27th, when the two vessels bore up to Do Castries Bay.It appeared that, after a week, Captain Elliot thought it necessary to go and see what the Admiral was doing, and he appeared to have been surprised to find that the Russians had refused to wait for the convenience of himself and the gallant Admiral. As soon as they saw the coast clear, they set sail for the mouth of the Amoor River, and arrived at their destination. They passed the bar safely, and placed their ships in a state of security. That was the statement that had been current for some time, and which he believed to be true. He should be happy if the First Lord of the Admiralty could give a satisfactory explanation; but, in the 455 meanwhile, he wished to ask whether the Government had received an official statement of those proceedings; whether these despatches would be laid upon the table; whether the Government were satisfied with the conduct of their officers; or whether they intended to submit that conduct to a court martial? The hon. Member concluded by moving the adjournment of the House.
§ SIR CHARLES WOOD
Sir, I certainly have not seen the statements in newspapers to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded, and I certainly cannot admit that it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government to sift every story that may appear in the public papers. It would be a serious addition indeed to the duties of a Minister if he had to reconcile all the conflicting statements that appeared. The best course, I think, will be for me to state what I know to be the facts from the official accounts. There is no doubt that the admiral had the usual orders to take, capture, and destroy all the enemy's vessels that he could fall in with. It is not true that Admiral Stirling delegated to a junior officer the authority to search for the Russian squadron. He sent an officer (Captain Elliot) with some ships to intercept the escape of the crew of the Russian frigate Pallas, which was lost on the coast of Japan, and the crew of which was supposed to be endeavouring to effect their escape to their own country. Captain Elliot was also directed to cruise in the tipper waters of the Pacific, in the hope of meeting any Russian vessels that might happen to be there. There was no reason to suppose that the vessels from Petropaulovski would be found there. It is a part of the world of which very little is known, and of which no accurate chart was in the possession of Captain Elliot at the time he went there. Perhaps, in order that the House may clearly understand what occurred, I may be permitted very shortly to state the nature of those seas. There is a narrow sea between the island of Saghalien and the coast of Tartary, called the Gulf of Tartary; near the head of this gulf is De Castries Bay, and at its upper extremity is a narrow and shoal passage into the Gulf of the Amoor— a narrow strait, twenty-five miles in width, called La Perouse's Straits, separates the southern end of Saghalien from the islands of Japan. At the close of May, Captain Elliot reached the upper part of the Gulf of 456 Tartary, and on the 20th of May, with the force which the hon. Gentleman has accurately stated, consisting of the sailing frigate Sybille, of 40 guns, the sailing vessel Bittern, of 12 guns, and the Hornet steamer, he came in sight of De Castries Bay. In that bay they discovered the Russian vessels, and the Hornet was sent in to reconnoitre. Later in the day Captain Elliot went on board the Hornet and completed the reconnaissance. The Russian force consisted of the large frigate Aurora, of 44 guns; the large corvette Olovetska, of 24 guns; and the Dwina, another vessel of 20 guns, lying moored with their broadsides to the entrance of the bay, and behind them a larger vessel bearing a rear-admiral's flag. They could not make out whether this was a large armed transport or a corvette, but it turned out afterwards that it was an armed transport of eight guns. There was also a steamer of six guns, and another vessel, making in all six Russian vessels discovered in the harbour. Shots were exchanged with one of the corvettes, which fell short on both sides. The hon. Gentleman asks whether we are of opinion that Captain Elliot did wrong in not attempting to enter the harbour. The opinion we have formed is, that Captain Elliot was perfectly justified in not attempting to enter the harbour under the circumstances. He had two sailing vessels and only one steamer; it was an unknown harbour, the soundings of which had not been taken, and it now turns out that if they had attempted an entrance it is almost certain they would, from the shoally nature of the water, have been lost. It appears that the passage which they would have attempted, and which was the only one of which they then knew, was not the real one. The next question put by the hon. Gentleman is as to the blockade of the port. What Captain Elliot did was to lie off the harbour next day, and try to provoke the Russians to come out. But they knew their own game better than that, and remained safe in the harbour, defending the only possible entrance. The wind blew off the shore, and it was impossible for them to enter an unknown channel guarded by the broadsides of three vessels. Captain Elliot then had to consider what course was best to be taken to insure the objects for which he was there, and lo prevent the escape of the Russian fleet. I will read Captain Elliot's account of the course he adopted:— 457It appears to me highly probable that the Russian squadron will immediately attempt to escape to the southward, out of the Gulf of Tartary. My object will now be to prevent their doing so, and I shall take up such positions with the Sybille and the Hornet as to watch their movements should that be their intention. My opinion is, that if they move they will do so at once, and try to make their escape through the Straits of Perouse. This Strait being only twenty-five miles across, their squadron is less likely to escape me there than it would be by my cruising in the northern part of the Gulf of Tartary, where there is a greater breadth to guard; the alternate strong winds and thick fogs of those seas being much against successfully blockading or watching a port. The Gulf of Tartary is also somewhat contracted between Cape Lamarnon and the Isle de la Prise. I therefore propose guarding that channel for a day or two, should the weather remain favourable for my doing so, and then to cruise between Cape Romanzotf, in lat. 45° 25 N., long. 4418 34 E., and the opposite shore of Cape Crillon.That is the official Report of the course which Captain Elliot thought it advisable to take, and that is confirmed by several private letters written by Captain Elliot which I have seen, and which state that the weather was so thick and the fog so prevalent that it was impossible to watch any port. What he really wanted was steamers small enough to enter the harbour, and he took the wise measure of sending to the Admiral to obtain more reinforcements, especially steamers. It was desirable that the enemy should not know the direction in which he was gone, and, therefore, Captain Elliot sailed at night. He proceeded to the southward to watch the narrow part of the Gulf of Tartary, because it was there that, in his opinion, he was likely to intercept the enemy. I will read the following extract from a private letter of Captain Elliot: —With my two ships I could only attempt to stop their going in what I thought the most likely direction for them to take, as it is impossible to keep sight of a place in the thick fogs of these seas, and with a constant south wind, a few hour's fog would be quite sufficient for them to run out of sight with.These are the reasons that induced Captain Elliot to take the course he did. I am inclined, however, to think that he ought to have remained off the mouth of De Castries Bay, and I think no sufficient reason has been given for his not doing so. On the other hand, it would be rash of us sitting here, and not knowing the state of the weather at the time, to attempt to come to any decisive opinion. Captain 458 Elliot is a young and a very enterprising officer, as he proved during his service in the Mediterranean. He had looked forward most anxiously to the capture of the Russian frigate, and I have no doubt that he honestly and conscientiously believed, upon the grounds I have stated, that he was taking the course best calculated to insure that capture. There was great probability, that the Russian squadron would not be able to escape at all to the northward, and he thought that even if it should reach a place of refuge it certainly could not reach any port of the eastern seas, where it could do any injury to our trade. On the other hand, he well knew that it might be able to inflict serious injury on our trade if it succeeded in escaping through the Straits of Perouse. He believed that it was of paramount importance to prevent the Russians from going southward, and that if they escaped northward it would ultimately be in his power, when a reinforcement arrived, to effect their capture. I certainly think that he was wrong in not remaining off the mouth of the bay, but I cannot say that if he had remained there the result would have been different.
§ MR. ELLIOT
thought that the friends of Captain Elliot had some reason to coin-plain of the mode in which this question had been brought before the House by the hon. Gentleman opposite. If the hon. Gentleman, on the notice of a question to the First Lord of the Admiralty, intended to make a statement injurious to Captain Elliot, it would surely have been but fair to put such a notice on the paper as would have enabled Captain Elliot's friends to prepare themselves to meet any accusations ho was about to bring against him. The hon. Gentleman, if he (Mr. Elliot) understood him rightly, made two distinct accusations against Captain Elliot. The first was, that he did not, when he ought to have done so, attack the Russian ships in Castries Bay. The second accusation was, that he had not blockaded Castries Bay; but, when he might have done so, had preferred to "sail away to the south," leaving it to be inferred that, by so doing, he wished to avoid the enemy. This insinuation he (Mr. Elliot) considered to be most ungenerous, and one which he felt sure the House would agree with him in thinking unworthy of being pointed against any officer in the British navy. Now, what was Captain Elliot's position? Having 459 arrived at Castries Bay, an unsurveyed port, on an unsurveyed coast, where he had bad weather and dense fogs with a lee shore, he found the enemy's ships anchored in a bay, the entrance to which was unknown, whilst they were apparently protected by shoals which lay between them and our ships. Captain Elliot, after making the best examination in his power, and after consulting the captains of the other ships, reluctantly came to the conclusion that he would not be justified in making the attack. He was not then aware that any passage existed from the north end of the Gulf of Tartary into the Gulf of the Amoor. He had no charts and no information of any such passage existing, and he therefore naturally concluded, if the Russian ships attempted to come out of Castries Bay, their only point of escape would be to the southward, down the Gulf of Tartary; and his great object, therefore, was to prevent their going in that direction. The question then was, how could this he host effected? His right hon. Friend had stated it to be his opinion that it would have been better had ho remained in sight of Castries Bay, but his right hon. Friend had read an extract from a letter of Captain Elliot's which showed that this was "impossible," which he (Mr. Elliot) would have thought a sufficient reason for not doing so. The weather appeared to have been gales of wind from the south and dense fogs. Had he attempted to remain off the bay under such circumstances, it is evident he could not have accomplished an effectual blockade. Every gale would have sot him to lee-wards, that is, to the northward of the bay, and would thus have left it in the power of the enemy to escape to the southward without his knowing what had become of them. The course he adopted, therefore, was to proceed himself to the southward, to a part of the Gulf of Tartary, which is narrower than the rest, and where he felt the Russian ships could not pass him unobserved, and having from thence despatched the Bittern with information to the admiral, he and the Hornet cruised in that narrow part of the gulf till he was satisfied the Russian ships had not attempted to run to the southward. He then returned to Castries Bay to see if they were still there, and on his arrival found they wore gone. Being then satisfied that they had not gone to the southward, he naturally inferred that they must 460 have gone to the north, and that, perhaps, there might be some entrance into the Amoor, or some other place of refuge in that direction. Captain Elliot's plan, then, had so far answered, that he had got satisfactory information of the Russian ships being at the head of the Gulf of Tartary, in what he had reason to believe was a cul-de-sac. Having satisfied himself on this point, he then proceeded to join the admiral at his rendezvous, under the firm belief that on the arrival of the reinforcements the Russian ships would be found somewhere at the head of the gulf, where they would be immediately pursued. A considerable delay, however, occurred before the admiral reached Jonquier Bay, nearly opposite Castries Bay in the gulf. As to what the causes of that delay were, he (Mr. Elliot) could form no opinion. When he did arrive, Captain Elliot was, of course, under his orders; and a day or two afterwards was sent once more to reconnoitre Castries Bay, with orders to return to the admiral the following day. Finding that the Russian ships were not there, he availed himself of the opportunity to attempt a survey of the flats, and to search for a passage to the northward, but which the state of the weather and the limited time allowed for his absence did not permit him to complete. On the return of Captain Elliot to Jonquier Bay, the admiral determined to sail with all the squadron to the south. It appeared to him (Mr. Elliot) that Captain Elliot could have done nothing better than he did. He would certainly not have been justified on entering the bay to attack a superior force in such a position without any knowledge of the shoals or soundings; had he done so, as his (Mr. Elliot's) right hon. Friend has shown, and as was afterwards proved, he would have run his ship on shore in the attempt. He was unable, from the fogs and the state of the weather, to keep sight of the port, and, consequently, to maintain an efficient blockade; and therefore, in cruising in the narrowest part of the Gulf of Tartary, he adopted the most sure course to intercept the Russian ships. And finally, he (Mr. Elliot) must add, that even at the last it is more than probable that these ships, which it has since been shown did not succeed in placing themselves in security in the Amoor for sonic weeks, would have been captured had they after the arrival of the squadron been pursued to the end of the gulf. He 461 (Mr. Elliot) must repeat that he considered this question to have been brought before the House in an unfair manner. He, however, felt perfectly satisfied that if any further inquiry or investigation should take place in this matter, that Captain Elliot's conduct on this occasion will he shown to be, what it always has been, that of a most zealous, enterprising, and gallant officer.