LORD STRATFORD DE REDCLIFFE
My Lords, before the House proceeds to the business on the paper I should wish to ask some questions of the noble Lord who 1648 more immediately represents the Foreign Department in this House, in relation to a subject which has only to be mentioned to excite the deepest sympathy. The subject to which I allude is that of the massacres which appear to have lately taken place in Syria, and to which the great journal of this country that appeared this morning, in its own emphatic and truly national tone, particularly directed the attention of the public. I have endeavoured, in the short time which has elapsed since the intelligence was first received, to obtain some information as to the circumstances, which cannot be deemed unworthy of your Lordships' attention. At the same time, although I took the precaution yesterday, in a private manner, to apprise the noble Lord of my intention to put certain questions to him, I shall not enter fully into so extensive and important a subject now, as perhaps, from the shortness of the time and my inability to give exact information as to the questions that I was about to ask, the noble Lord may not be prepared to give as complete an answer as the subject requires. Your Lordships are aware that the country in which these massacres are reported to have taken place is one which forms an important part of the Turkish empire, and to which, historically and politically, very momentous considerations are attached. The country is of a very peculiar nature, being entirely of a mountainous district and inhabited by tribes of very imperfect civilization, who are more separated from each other by religious animosities and more exposed to violent collisions in consequence than even the inhabitants of other parts of Turkey, where such causes of discord and mutual excitement are at all times ready enough to break into flame. Your Lordships will remember that at an antecedent period the country was occupied by the Pasha of Egypt; and it is only fair to say—though Her Majesty's forces mainly contributed, for political reasons, to restore it to Turkey—that Mehemet Ali, during the time he possessed it, appears to have governed it in a manner calculated to give more security to the inhabitants than any which they have enjoyed of late. The principal tribes are the Druses, of Pagan origin, who generally profess the Mahomedan creed, and add to the prejudices of religion a character marked with no small degree of ferocity; and the Maronites, who, as your Lordships know, are Christians, but, in spite of their Christianity, 1649 act from time to time with little regard for humanity in their disputes among themselves and with their neighbours. The other tribes, such as the Motualis and Yezidis, are of less political weight and very inferior in numbers. The Druses, by their religion, have the most intimate relations with the Turkish Government, while the Maronites, being Christians, have looked at all times more to the Christian Powers, and especially to France, whose Government, from an early period, by its tradition, policy, and common faith, has been considered their more immediate protector—to say nothing of the interests founded on its commercial establishments in Mount Lebanon. It appears that in the month of May last an attack was made by the Druses on a place near the coast named Beit Meri, a Maronite village, where acts of violence and bloodshed had been previously perpetrated, to the destruction of a considerable number of the inhabitants. More recently the Druses, increased in numbers by reinforcements from the Kurds and Bedouin tribes in the neighbourhood, collected in considerable force, and attacked in succession several large towns, perpetrating acts of the greatest atrocity. I am told that women and children were included in a common slaughter with the men, until in some instances scarce a living soul was left. They subsequently marched on Zahleh, a town at no great distance from the Mediterranean coast and the city of Beyrout. In addition to these destructive operations, what immensely increases the painful interest of the subject is that, not contented with all these horrors of plunder and butchery, they have surrounded Damascus, and, as I understand, have threatened to take possession of that place. The Christians there are very naturally in the last stage of anxiety and alarm. The circumstances thus brought under your Lordships' consideration are not only such as to interest deeply our feelings of humanity, but they evidently involve political consequences of the deepest moment. France, if she has not a positive right, has the strongest motives for interfering and taking a strenuous part in the repression of these enormous outrages. I learn from the public prints that the French Government have already announced to the Porte their intention to interfere with decision for the purpose of preventing any repetition of these outrages and for the protection of their own subjects and the Christians in general through- 1650 out Syria. I am assured that they have given the Porte to understand that if the Turkish authorities do not put down those disturbances France is prepared to operate with her own strong hand, and to obtain justice without further delay or hesitation. There is another consideration, too, which enhances the importance of the question, and that is the movements—I mean the diplomatic movements—of Russia in reference to the Christians of other parts of the Turkish empire. If anything more were wanting to give importance of the deepest character to the subject I have brought forward it is supplied by the rumours which are afloat as to the existence of some understanding between the two great Powers of the Continent who are most disposed to take an active interest in the affairs of Turkey. It appears to me that on all these grounds it is of the utmost consequence that Her Majesty's Government should adopt with immediate promptitude that line of conduct which is best calculated not only to serve the cause of humanity but to provide for those political interests which might be so seriously compromised by delay, indifference, or mistake. My long experience of the affairs of Turkey inclines me to ask whether the Turkish authorities have shown themselves sufficiently alert in meeting the danger which threatens the security of those who are so immediately entitled to their constant and efficient protection. I feel assured that your Lordships will be grievously sorry to find any grounds for supposing that any remissness on the part of the Turkish authorities has been the cause of outrages which all must unite in deploring, and still more so if there were reason to suspect them of positive connivance. I should myself be slow to entertain any suspicion of the kind; but I must say that there are circumstances, not yet confirmed or proved, which seem to open a door for some distrust on the subject, and at all events to furnish an additional reason for desiring to ascertain from Her Majesty's Government the real state of the case, and for pressing upon them the importance of bringing the Porte and its subordinate authorities to a sense of their duty, not only towards their own subjects, but towards the great Christian Powers who interfered at such a sacrifice of blood and treasure to preserve them from a great danger. I cannot conceal from myself that an Empire which has been confessed to exist politically on sufferance has a para- 1651 mount duty to perform towards its allies, as well as towards its own subjects. It does, I confess, appear to me that, whatever suspicions we may have entertained in former times with regard to the intentions of Russia, and however we may have acted for the repression of her apparent disposition to interfere too much with the Porte's independence, it is exactly in proportion to our own interference on that subject that we are bound, as one of the principal Powers of Europe, to see that justice be done to the Christian subjects of the Porte—aye, and to their Mussulman subjects too—and that the security which has been given to the Turkish Government by the Treaty of 1856 be not made use of as a screen for their negligence and for the faults of administration which allow of the perpetration of atrocities such as those which it has been my painful duty to describe. It would be out of season on this occasion to enter more in detail into the subject to the principal points of which I think I have called your Lordships' attention; but reserving to myself the right of bringing the matter specially before the House, after receiving the answer of my noble Friend, I beg leave to put to him the following Questions, which I trust he will be able to answer in satisfactory terms—whether any official accounts confirming the rumour of massacres lately perpetrated on the Christian population in sundry parts of Syria have been received by Her Majesty's Government, and, if so, when, and up to what date, they were received? whether Her Majesty's Government intend to lay any part of the information in question on the table of the House, and in that case when? whether Her Majesty's Government have taken any and what steps, either singly or in concert with other Powers, for the protection of the Christians, and in particular of Her Majesty's subjects in Syria? and whether any information has reached Her Majesty's Government to the effect that the French Ambassador at Constantinople has been directed by M. Thouvenel to announce to the Porte that France is bound to put a stop to the massacre of the Christians in Syria?
Before sitting down I wish to allude to an expression which fell from my noble and learned Friend (Lord Brougham) last night in reference to a matter which affects very nearly the principle involved in the subject which I have had the honour of bringing before your Lordships to-night. My noble 1652 Friend, in his natural and praiseworthy zeal against violence and inhumanity, especially when they take the form of a tyrannical Government, treated the great principles of international law, which are so closely connected with this and many other subjects affecting the interests of Europe and civilization, in a manner which rather surprised me, coming from such a source. I should be glad, therefore, to afford my noble and learned Friend an opportunity of expressing himself more completely with reference to the value and importance of sustaining the principle of international law, notwithstanding the great provocation which may occasionally be given by misguided persons.
My Lords, I am afraid that, as my noble Friend did not furnish me with a copy of the exact questions which he meant to ask, I may not be able to answer all of them as precisely as I should have wished; but with regard to the general question of what information the Government have received from Syria, I am sorry to say that I can confirm entirely the lamentable accounts which he has given of the events which have taken place there. Despatches received yesterday, of a recent date—I cannot call to mind what is the latest, but I remember one despatch was dated the 18th of last month—describe a state of things than which nothing can be more miserable, or more deserving the compassion of all Christian nations. The principal places at which these outrages have taken place are Hasbeiya and Zahleh. At Hasbeiya the principal Christians were congregated together, and, having been induced by the Turkish authorities to lay down their arms, they were next day attacked by the Druses, and a large portion of them massacred in the presence of the Turkish troops in the place, who do not appear to have interfered. Your Lordships have probably seen in the newspapers accounts of this massacre, but it is stated in one of the despatches that a considerable number of the Christians had escaped; and we, therefore, have reason to hope that the massacre was not so general as has been represented. It seems that this massacre was not confined merely to the Christians, but that the chief of the Druses, who had command on that occasion, took the opportunity to revenge himself on some Mussulmans, with whom there had been a feud. It seems that at Zahleh the people made a defence, but were at last overpowered. The Druses gained possession of 1653 the town, and committed most horrible butcheries. But there also a considerable number of the Christian population were able to retire before the massacre began. It is quite true that the general state of that country is, as my noble Friend described it, one of the greatest confusion and disturbance. How the feud originated is at present a matter of doubt, for not only does it appear to have sprung from the hereditary hatred of the Druses against the Maronites, but the Druses are joined by other tribes, and to some extent by the Mussulman population generally. The Turkish authorities are much to be blamed for not having taken active measures. The Turkish troops in the neighbourhood of Zahleh not only took no steps to put down the disorder, and to resist the Druses, but they also failed to afford the Christians any facilities for escape. The only excuse for the Turkish authorities is that practically they are powerless. There is a great want of troops, and their authority is altogether disregarded by the mountaineers. Where even they have the will they have not the power to preserve order. The Ambassadors of the different Powers at Constantinople met together some weeks ago and agreed to send instructions to their consuls in Syria to communicate with the Turkish Pashas, and to endeavour to induce them to take some active measures. We have not received the information, but intelligence has reached France that Fuad Pasha has been sent with extensive powers to put down rebellion, that reinforcements of troops have also been sent, and that efforts will be made to restore order. The latest accounts from the English Consul at Damascus, state that great apathy is displayed by the Turkish authorities, and that apprehension is entertained of an outbreak in that city, but he thinks that apprehension is not altogether well founded. It is only right to say that there are other persons who take a different view; but it is the consul's opinion that if the Turkish authorities do their duty, Damascus will not undergo the same horrors which have occurred in other towns, and that it will be able to resist all attacks which may be made upon it. My noble Friend asks whether we can lay the papers on the subject on the table of the House. I have not had an opportunity of communicating with my noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Office, but I do not think it likely that there will be any objection to their production. With regard to the steps which have been taken by Her 1654 Majesty's Government, as soon as intelligence reached us, before the latest accounts, orders were sent to Admiral Martin to proceed with a squadron to the coast of Syria, to take such steps as might be necessary for the protection of British subjects, and the safety of the Christian population. We are informed that the French Government have sent some ships of war for the same purpose to that coast, and that there are also vessels there belonging to Russia and other Powers. Her Majesty's Government are in communication with the Governments of Turkey, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France as to the further measures which will become necessary. With regard to any communication by M. Thouvenel to the Porte that the French Government will be compelled to take strong measures if the Porte is not able to repress these disorders, I can only say that we have not received any intimation of it from Paris, and that we are not aware of any such communication having been made. The whole of the Powers have an earnest desire that some steps should be taken to prevent the recurrence of these atrocities, and the deepest attention of Her Majesty's Government is fixed upon this important matter. One of the consuls reports that there are 20,000 women and children wandering over these mountains, without shelter, and with the chance of being murdered by the infuriated Druses. The lamentable condition of the Christian population demands the fullest consideration of the Government, and I also agree with the noble Lord that they are bound to give their most earnest attention to the political aspect of the affair, inasmuch as Syria is a quarter of the Turkish empire where the authority of the Porte is known to be exceedingly weak. The noble Lord having referred indirectly to other parts of the Turkish empire, I may mention that the result of the communications between the different Powers upon the proposals made by the Russian Government, has been that a Commission has been sent by the Porte to inquire into the condition of the northern provinces; and that all the Powers have agreed to wait to see what the result of that Commission will be, in the hope that these inquiries will be conducted with impartiality and with a desire to find out clearly what may be the real state of things in those provinces.
My Lords, I am sorry to find from the statement of the noble Lord that my noble Friend who brought forward this question has been but 1655 too well informed, and that, to a great extent indeed, miserable scenes have taken place in Syria. It is most painful to humanity, and not free from difficulty—nay, it is full of difficulty, because, however much we may commiserate those unfortunate persons who have been sufferers from these outrages, unhappily it may all arise, not from the bad faith or obstinacy of the Turkish Government, hut from its weakness and incapacity; and I gravely fear that that is the origin of these atrocities. I think my noble Friend will do well to bring this matter before your Lordships in a more formal manner after the papers have been produced which the noble Lord says there is no objection to lay on the table of the House.
My noble Friend said, he had not had an opportunity of consulting the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office; but I think I may assume that there will be no difficulty in producing those papers. My noble Friend who introduced this subject referred to an observation which I made last night, and upon which he has entirely misunderstood me. Heaven forbid that I, of all men, should undervalue the law of nations, or in any respect whatever underrate the great importance of its principles and the absolute necessity of always maintaining those principles sacred. But I held it to be, and I still hold it to be, no part of the law of nations to interfere in other countries to prevent the people from doing justice to themselves, from righting themselves, and from vindicating themselves. On the contrary, I hold it to be the most sacred principle of the law of nations to prevent all interference by one Power, or any combination of Powers, with the internal affairs of any other Power. No doubt, there might be strong cases of exception to all rules; but it is needless to indicate what would form a case to justify a breach of the principle of non-interference, because I can hardly conceive any case which could justify it. With respect to the case of Sicily, which gave rise to my observations, I held, and I hold it still, to be no part of the law of nations to render the Sicilians incompetent to right themselves and to throw off any form of government which they dislike, or under which they may suffer, without our help. On the contrary, it is according to the law nations that they should do so of them- 1656 selves. And when it is said that General Garibaldi is a foreigner and not a Sicilian, I say he is as much a Sicilian as William III. was an Englishman, with this difference, that General Garibaldi has not married the Neapolitan King's daughter, and is not the Neapolitan King's nephew, as was the case of William III. in relation to James II.