« ZurückWeiter »
care little for strangers, and are content with themselves. If they are to depart from their ways, they must be coaxed and treated gently, not threatened and driven. No surer receipt for the miscarriage of an expedition in Iceland could be invented than a high-handed off-hand method of dealing with the inhabitants. It is perfectly true that 'rough and ready' is a good motto for travelling in some countries, but Iceland is not one of them. There the rule must be fair and softly, and if this be never lost sight of the traveller will not only find himself • far on at the end of the day,' but farther far than the man who, starting with poor cattle and ignorant and cowardly guides, loses his temper and tries to force them to perform feats in wayfaring which they could never be expected to accomplish. And here we take our leave of Captain Burton, who, bold traveller as he is, and interesting as these volun undoubtedly are, would have succeeded much better in his discoveries had he not evidently despised both the natural obstacles of the island and the character of the people.
ART. IX.-1. Acte de Concession et Cahier des Charges pour
la Construction et l'Exploitation du Grand Canal Maritime
de Suez et Dépendances. Signed 5th January, 1856. 2. Statuts de la Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime
de Suez. Paris et Alexandrie: 1856. 3. Rapport de M. Ferdinand de Lesseps à l'Assemblée Géné
rale des Actionnaires. Paris, 29th July, 1875. 4. Documents Diplomatiques. Affaire du Canal de Suez.
Novembre 1875. (Livre jaune déposé à l'Assemblée
Nationale.) 5. Histoire du Canal de Suez. Par M. FERDINAND DE
LESSEPS. 1870. [Translated into English by Sir HENRY
DRUMMOND WOLFF, M.P.] 6. Enquête sur la Question du Tonnage. Recueil des Documents. 1868, 1870, 1871, 1872, 1873. o one doubts that her Majesty's Ministers were actuated
by patriotic, generous, and, as they thought, politic motives, when they took the prompt and unusual step, which was the result of the Cabinet deliberations on the 25th of November. A vigorous and manly act of policy on the part of the British Government commands at once the enthusiastic sympathy of the nation and the respect of foreign States. The suddenness of the resolution, the boldness with which Ministers
took on themselves a great responsibility, the acknowledged interest we have in the independence and prosperity of Egypt, the immense traffic of British vessels through this high road to the far East, including both our Indian empire and our establishments in China, and the impression that this purchase had some great, though uncertain, bearing on the Eastern question in Europe, all contributed to render it popular throughout the land. On the Continent a feeling of sympathy and admiration was roused by the surprising discovery that the policy of England was not altogether sunk in indifference, inertness, and abstention from the affairs of the world. An air of romance was thrown over a great transaction of finance and of trade; and we can readily believe that the measure was not less welcome to the fiery imagination of the first Minister of the Crown than it was to his designs as a statesman and his calculations as a politician. He saw the opportunity to strike a bargain, which he conceived to be favourable to our national interests, now and hereafter ; he thought that it would redound to the credit of his administration at home and abroad ; and with a splendid munificence worthy of one of his own princes of fiction, four millions of money were placed, with the assistance of a great Hebrew banking-house and the electric telegraph, at the disposal of the Khedive of Egypt in exchange for the shares he held in the Suez Canal Company.
Aladdin held the magic lamp and used it. That this extraordinary transaction was accomplished within a few hours is susceptible of demonstration from the facts which are already
The Khedive was known, early in November, to be struggling with serious financial difficulties. It was by no means certain that he could find the means to meet the payments of his next instalment of interest due on his floating debt; and the recent example of the Porte warranted an apprehension that he might be driven to compound with his creditors. Egyptian stocks fell rapidly, and the credit of the Ruler of Egypt was at the lowest ebb. Under these circumstances a proposal was made by the Egyptian Government on the 12th November, through the firm of A. Dervieu & Co., to a syndicate of capitalists in Paris to sell the 176,602 shares held by the Khedive in the Canal for 92,000,000 francs to be paid in three instalments, the Khedive guaranteeing by the Port Said customs 10 per cent. interest on this sum for the nineteen years during which the coupons on these shares have been renounced or retroceded to the Company. This proposal was rejected in Paris. Even 11 per cent. was refused. On the
19th November the Khedive proposed to other capitalists in France, not to sell but to pledge these shares, for an advance of 85,000,000 francs for three months. This proposal also failed. He was therefore reduced to all but the last extremity; and the terms on which he sought temporary relief would only have completed his total ruin. At this moment Colonel Staunton, the British Consul-General in Egypt, appears to have come to the assistance of the embarrassed Prince with a suggestion, which the Egyptian Government would hardly have ventured to dream of, and we suspect that the conception originated in the arcana of the Synagogue. However this may be, within six days, the British Government had come to the relief of the Khedive in a far more liberal manner. One hundred million francs were placed at his disposal, and the interest or the purchase-money, due for nineteen years, was reduced from 10 or 11 per cent. to five. As we do not suppose that the Egyptian Government was negotiating simultaneously in the two countries, we must conclude that this proposal reached London upon the failure of those made in Paris, and that the British Government instantaneously accepted it.
No one will complain or regret that, if this large advance of public money was to be made at all to a foreign and friendly potentate, it should be made on liberal terms. Great Britain could have no hand in a speculative or usurious contract. Five per cent. is the rate at which money is lent under a Government guarantee in India, and 5 per cent. was all that could be asked or required here. But we cannot view with equal favour the extraordinary precipitation with which this decision was taken. It has been said that this was inevitable, because if England had refused or hesitated, there were other parties eager or ready to snap up the shares. That remains to be proved. We doubt it. In France the attempt to raise the money had failed, not from want of capital but from want of confidence; and we still more question whether any other State or body of capitalists in Europe was in a condition on November 25th to hand over 4,000,0001. to the Khedive at a few hours' notice.
A prompt and vigorous resolution excites our admiration when it is taken with a thorough and complete knowledge of the facts of the case. Was the Government in possession of that knowledge ? Had they carefully considered the very peculiar provisions of the Act or Charter (as we should call it) under which the Company of the Suez Canal is constituted ? Had they certain and accurate information of the true financial condition of the Company, which has notoriously been frequently in great embarrassments, and has had recourse to a variety of financial expedients to meet them? Had they examined the nature of the liabilities incumbent on all the shareholders in this great enterprise, and henceforth incumbent on the British Government to the extent of nearly half the outlay upon it? Had they full engineering reports before them as to the material condition of the Canal itself and of the harbours, including the current and prospective expenses of repairing it and keeping it in working condition ? Had they well considered the financial position of the Khedive and what security could be obtained for the interest of 4,000,0001. for nineteen years, amounting to very nearly 4,000,0001. more? Had they time to discuss and decide the very complicated considerations of international law and policy to which this purchase must give rise? We are unable to answer these questions; but considering the vast extent of the information required to form a judgment on all these things, we should say it is little less than miraculous if they were all considered and settled in a few hours. It is not for us to conjecture what evidence the Government possessed, or what reasons decided them to adopt the course they took. But certain it is that upon all these points, the public are still at the moment at which we write completely in the dark, and that the enthusiasm of the nation has been excited, without knowing with any certainty what it is that we have really purchased, or whether, in reality, we have acquired, in exchange for our money, anything at all.
And here we are compelled to enter a strong and solemn protest against the course Ministers have adopted in not calling Parliament together at the earliest period, in order to explain the grounds on which the Government proceeded, to cover their own responsibility by the approval of the great Council of the nation, and to obtain a constitutional sanction to the expenditure of four millions of public money, unauthorised by the House of Commons. We do not presume to say they. have not a perfectly good statement to present to Parliament. We do not blame Ministers for acting promptly and secretly, if the circumstances of the case and the interests of the country demanded it. But the better their case and the sharper the emergency may have been, the more were they bound to lay the whole matter before Parliament as soon as possible. Nothing was more easy. A month elapsed between the signing of the contract and the Christmas holidays. Parliament stood prorogued to December 15th. It might easily have met. The last time the Bank Charter Act was suspended, on November 12th, 1857, Parliament was summoned to meet on December 3rd. That was comparatively a very small occasion. But now, when one of the most important decisions has been taken which could arise—unforeseen—involving, perhaps, a great change of policy-requiring the immediate disbursement of an enormous sum of money to a foreign State--requiring that this sum of money should be raised by exceptional means--creating new liabilities of unknown extent--and urgently demanding a full and unreserved discussion of the whole matter, on which the very existence of the Government depends (for the approval of Parliament is of course indispensable to the contract), no attempt is made to obtain that sanction for more than two months, and the proper channels of official information are closed. This is a course which appears to us in the highest degree unconstitutional and improper, and we will add impolitic, for the sooner the whole matter was explained to the country, the more likely would the country be to take a favourable view of it. Fortunately, however, the French Government have been much more communicative. They laid before the National Assembly, without the loss of a day, a volume of papers which throws considerable light on these transactions; and with the assistance of these documents and of the official Reports which we have prefixed to this article we shall endeavour to find an answer to some of the questions which naturally occur to our impatience and our ignorance. Before we enter upon these details, however, we shall venture to make one or two general observations.
It will not be disputed that it is, as a general rule, contrary to a wise policy, and peculiarly inconsistent with the policy of this country, for the Government or the State to take a direct part in any joint-stock company or commercial enterprise. A very strong case of necessity or of public advantage must be made out to justify such a departure from a sound and established principle; and we are far from saying that such a case may not be made out in the present instance. But the objections to this species of association with a trading concern are greatly increased when the company is a foreign one, in which we only hold a partial interest, our co-shareholders being of another nation, or rather of several other nations, with some interests distinct from, and possibly opposed to, our own; and still more when the locus rei site, as the lawyers call it, the actual property in which we have purchased so large a share, is in a foreign country, subject to the laws and authority of a foreign potentate, and over which her Majesty has no legal control. On the contrary, that foreign potentate, the ruler of