The Story of the Life of Lord Palmerston by Karl Marx


The petitions presented to the House of Commons on April 26, 1836, and the resolution moved by Mr. Patrick Stewart in reference to them, referred not only to the Danube, but to Circassia too, the rumour having spread through the commercial world that the Russian Government, on the plea of blockading the coast of Circassia, claimed to exclude English ships from landing goods and merchandise in certain ports of the eastern littoral of the Black Sea. On that occasion Lord Palmerston solemnly declared:

“If Parliament will place their confidence in us—if they will leave it to us to manage the foreign relations of the country—we shall be able to protect the interests and to uphold the honour of the country without being obliged to have recourse to war.”—(House of Commons April 26, 1836.)

Some months afterwards, on October 29, 1836, the Vixen a trading vessel belonging to Mr. George Bell and laden with a cargo of salt, set out from London on a direct voyage for Circassia. On November 25, she was seized in the Circassian Bay of Soudjouk-Kale by a Russian man-of-war, for “having been employed on a blockaded coast.”—(Letter of the Russian Admiral Lazareff to the English Consul, Mr. Childs, December 24, 1836.) The vessel, her cargo, and her crew were sent to the port of Sebastopol, where the condemnatory decision of the Russians was received on January 27, 1837. This time, however, no mention was made of a “blockade,” but the Vixen was simply declared a lawful prize, because “it was guilty of smuggling,” the importation of salt being prohibited, and the Bay of Soudjouk-Kale, a Russian port, not provided with a customhouse. The condemnation was executed in an exquisitely ignominious and insulting manner. The Russians who effected the seizure were publicly rewarded with decorations. The British flag was hoisted, then hauled down, and the Russian flag hoisted in its stead. The master and crew, put as captives on board the Ajax—the captor—were despatched from Sebastopol to Odessa, and from Odessa to Constantinople, whence they were allowed to return to England. As to the vessel itself, a German traveller, who visited Sebastopol a few years after this event, wrote in a letter addressed to the Augsburg Gazette: “After all the Russian ships of the line which I visited, no vessel excited my curiosity more than the Soudjouk-Kale, formerly the Vixen, under the Russian colours. She has now changed her appearance. This little vessel is now the best sailer in the Russian fleet, and is generally employed in transports between Sebastopol and the coast of Circassia.”

The capture of the Vixen certainly afforded Lord Palmerston a great occasion for fulfilling his promise “to protect the interests and to uphold the honour of the country.” Besides the honour of the British flag, and the interests of British commerce, there was another question at stake—the independence of Circassia. At first, Russia justified the seizure of the Vixen on the plea of an infraction of the blockade proclaimed by her, but the ship was condemned on the opposite plea of a contravention against her custom-house regulations. By proclaiming a blockade, Russia declared Circassia a hostile foreign country, and the question was whether the British Government had ever recognised that blockade? By the establishment of custom-house regulations, Circassia was, on the contrary, treated as a Russian dependency, and the question was whether the British Government had ever recognised the Russian claims to Circassia?

Before proceeding, let it be remembered that Russia was at that epoch far from having completed her fortification of Sebastopol.

Any Russian claim to the possession of Circassia could only be derived from the Treaty of Adrianople, as explained in a previous article. But the treaty of July 6, 1827, bound Russia to not attempting any territorial aggrandisement, nor securing any exclusive commercial advantage from her war with Turkey. Any extension, therefore, of the Russian frontier, attendant on the Treaty of Adrianople, openly infringed the treaty of 1827, and was, as shown by the protest of Wellington and Aberdeen, not to be recognised on the part of Great Britain. Russia, then, had no right to receive Circassia from Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey could not cede to Russia what she never possessed, and Circassia had always remained so independent of the Porte, that, at the time when a Turkish Pasha yet resided at Anapa, Russia herself had concluded several conventions with the Circassian chieftains as to the coast trade, the Turkish trade being exclusively and legally restricted to the port of Anapa. Circassia being an independent country, the municipal, sanitary or customs' regulations with which the Muscovite might think fit to provide her were as binding as his regulations for the port of Tampico.

On the other hand, if Circassia was a foreign country, hostile to Russia, the latter had only a right to blockade, if that blockade was no paper blockade—if Russia had the naval squadron present to enforce it, and really dominated the coast. Now, on a coast extending 200 miles, Russia possessed but three isolated forts, all the rest of Circassia remaining in the hands of the Circassian tribes. There existed no Russian fort in the Bay of Soudjouk-Kale. There was, in fact, no blockade, because no maritime force was employed. There was the offer of the distinct testimony of the crews of two British vessels who had visited the bay—the one in September, 1834, the other, that of the Vixen—confirmed subsequently by the public statements of two British travellers who visited the harbour in the years 1837 and 1838, that there was no Russian occupation whatever of the coast.—(Portfolio, VIII, March 1, 1844.)

When the Vixen entered the harbour of Soudjouk-Kale

“there were no Russian ships of war in sight nor in the offing. ... A Russian vessel of war came into the harbour thirty-six hours after the Vixen had cast anchor, and at the moment when the owner and some of the officers were on shore fixing the dues demanded by the Circassian authorities, and payable on the value of the goods. ... The man-of-war came not coast-wise, but from the open sea.”—(Mr. Anstey, House of Commons, February 23, 1848.)

But need we give further proofs of the St. Petersburg Cabinet itself seizing the Vixen under pretext of blockade and confiscating it under pretext of custom-house regulations?

The Circassians thus appeared the more favoured by accident, as the question of their independence coincided with the question of the free navigation of the Black Sea, the protection of British commerce, and an insolent act of piracy committed by Russia on a British merchant ship. Their chance of obtaining protection from the mistress of the seas seemed less doubtful, as

“the Circassian declaration of independence had a short-time ago been published after mature deliberation and several weeks' correspondence with different branches of the Government, in a periodical (the Portfolio) connected with the foreign department, and as Circassia was marked out as an independent country in a map revised by Lord Palmerston himself.”—(Mr. Robinson, House of Commons, January 21, 1838.)

Will it then be believed that the noble and chivalrous viscount knew how to handle the case in so masterly a way, that the very act of piracy committed by Russia against British property afforded him the long-sought-for occasion of formally recognising the Treaty of Adrianople, and the extinction of Circassian independence?

On March 17, 1837, Mr Roebuck moved, with reference to the confiscation of the Vixen, for “a copy of all correspondence between the Government of this country and the Governments of Russia and Turkey, relating to the Treaty of Adrianople, as well as all transactions or negotiations connected with the port and territories on the shores of the Black Sea by Russia since the Treaty of Adrianople.”

Mr. Roebuck, from fear of being suspected of humanitarian tendencies and of defending Circassia, on the ground of abstract principles, plainly declared: “Russia may endeavour to obtain possession of all the world, and I regard her efforts with indifference; but the moment she interferes with our commerce, I call upon the Government of this country [which country exists in appearance somewhat beyond the limits of all the world] to punish the aggression.” Accordingly, he wanted to know “if the British Government had acknowledged the Treaty of Adrianople?”

The noble lord, although pressed very hard, had ingenuity enough to make a long speech, and

“to sit down without telling the House who was in actual possession of the Circassian coast at the present moment—whether it really belonged to Russia, and whether it was by right of a violation of fiscal regulations, or in consequence of an existing blockade, that the Vixen had been seized, and whether or not he recognised the Treaty of Adrianople.”—(Mr. Hume, House of Commons, March 17, 1837)

Mr. Roebuck states that, before allowing the Vixen to proceed to Circassia, Mr. Bell had applied to the noble lord, in order to ascertain whether there was any impropriety or danger to be apprehended in a vessel landing goods in any part of Circassia, and that the Foreign Office answered in the negative. Thus, Lord Palmerston found himself obliged to read to the House the correspondence exchanged between himself and Mr. Bell. Reading these letters one would fancy he was reading a Spanish comedy of the cloak and sword rather than an official correspondence between a minister and a merchant. When he heard the noble lord had read the letters respecting the seizure of the Vixen, Daniel O'Connell exclaimed, “He could not keep calling to his mind the expression of Talleyrand, that language had been invented to conceal thoughts.”

For instance, Mr Bell asks “whether there were any restrictions on trade recognised by His Majesty's Government? as, if not, he intended to send thither a vessel with a cargo of salt.” “You ask me,” answers Lord Palmerston, “whether it would be for your advantage to engage in a speculation in salt ” and inform him “or commercial firms to judge for themselves whether they shall enthat it is for commercial firms to judge for themselves whether they shall enter or decline a speculation.” “By no means,” replies Mr. Bell; “all I want to know is, whether or not His Majesty's Government recognises the Russian blockade on the Black Sea to the south of the river Kuban?” “You must look at the London Gazette,” retorts the noble lord, “in which all the notifications, such as those alluded to by you, are made.” The London Gazette was indeed the quarter to which a British merchant had to refer for such information, instead of the ukases of the Emperor of Russia. Mr. Bell, finding no indication whatever in the Gazette of the acknowledgement of the blockade, or of other restrictions, despatched his vessel. The result was, that some time after he was himself placed in the Gazette.

“I referred Mr. Bell,” says Lord Palmerston, “to theGazette, where he would find no blockade had been communicated or declared to this country by the Russian Government—consequently, none was acknowledged.” By referring Mr. Bell to the Gazette, Lord Palmerston did not only deny the acknowledgment on the part of Great Britain of the Russian blockade, but simultaneously affirmed that, in his opinion, the coast of Circassia formed no part of the Russian territory, because blockades of their own territories by foreign States—as, for instance, against revolted subjects—are not to be notified in the Gazette. Circassia, forming no part of the Russian territory, could not, of course, be included in Russian custom-house regulations. Thus, according to his own statement, Lord Palmerston denied, in his letters to Mr. Bell, Russia's right to blockade the Circassian coast, or to subject it to commercial restrictions. It is true that, throughout his speech, he showed a desire to induce the House to infer that Russia had possession of Circassia. But, on the other hand, he stated plainly, “As far as the extension of the Russian frontier is concerned, on the south of the Caucasus and the shores of the Black Sea, it is certainly not consistent with the solemn declaration made by Russia in the face of Europe, previous to the commencement of the Turkish war.” When he sat down, pledging himself ever “to protect the interests and uphold the honour of the country,” he seemed to labour beneath the accumulated miseries of his past policy, rather than to be hatching treacherous designs for the future. On that day he met with the following cruel apostrophe:

“The want of vigorous alacrity to defend the honour of the country which the noble lord had displayed was most culpable; the conduct of no former minister, had ever been so vacillating, so hesitating, so uncertain, so cowardly, when insult had been offered to British subjects. How much longer did the noble lord propose to allow Russia thus to insult Great Britain, and thus to injure British commerce? The noble lord was degrading England by holding her out in the character of a bully—haughty and tyrannical to the weak, humble and abject to the strong.”

Who was it that thus mercilessly branded the truly English Minister? Nobody else than Lord Dudley Stuart.

On November 25, 1836, the Vixen was confiscated. The stormy debates of the House of Commons, just quoted, took place on March 17, 1837. It was not till April 19, 1837, that the noble lord requested “the Russian Government to state the reason on account of which it had thought itself warranted to seize in time of peace a merchant vessel belonging to British subjects.” On May 17, 1837, the noble lord received the following despatch from the Earl of Durham, the British Ambassador at St. Petersburg:

“With respect to the military de facto occupation of Soudjouk-Kale, I have to state to your lordship that there is a fortress in the bay which bears the name of the Empress (Alexandrovsky), and that it has always been occupied by a a Russian garrison.

“I have, etc.,

It need hardly be remarked that the fort Alexandrovsky had not even the reality of the pasteboard towns, exhibited by Potemkin before the Empress Catherine II on her visit to the Crimea. Five days after the receipt of this despatch, Lord Palmerston returns the following answer to St. Petersburg:

“His Majesty's Government, considering in the first place that Soudjouk-Kale, which was acknowledged by Russia in the Treaty of 1783 as a Turkish possession, now belongs to Russia, as stated by Count Nesselrode, by virtue of the Treaty of Adrianople, see no sufficient reason to question the right of Russia to seize and confiscate the Vixen.”

There are some very curious circumstances connected with the negotiation. Lord Palmerston requires six months of premeditation for opening, and hardly one to close it. His last despatch of May 23, 1837, suddenly and abruptly cuts off any further transactions. It quotes the date before the Treaty of Kutchuk-Kainardji,[38] not after the Gregorian but after the Greek chronology. Besides, “between April 19 and May 23,” as Sir Robert Peel said, "a remarkable change from official declaration to satisfaction occurred—apparently induced by the assurance received from Count Nesselrode that Turkey had ceded the coast in question to Russia by the Treaty of Adrianople. Why did he not protest against this ukase?”—(House of Commons, June 21, 1838.)

Why all this? The reason is very simple. King William IV had secretly instigated Mr. Bell to despatch the Vixen to the coast of Circassia. When the noble lord delayed negotiations, the king was still in full health. When he suddenly closed the negotiations, William IV was in the agonies of death, and Lord Palmerston disposed as absolutely of the Foreign Office, as if he was himself the autocrat of Great Britain. Was it not a master-stroke on the part of his jocose lordship to formally acknowledge by one dash of the pen the Treaty of Adrianople, Russia's possession of Circassia, and the confiscation of the Vixen, in the name of the dying king, who had despatched that saucy Vixen with the express view to mortify the Czar, to disregard the Treaty of Adrianople, and to affirm the independence of Circassia?

Mr. Bell, as we stated, went into the Gazette, and Mr. Urquhart, then the first secretary of the Embassy at Constantinople, was recalled, for “having persuaded Mr. Bell to carry his Vixen expedition into execution.”

As long as King William IV was alive, Lord Palmerston dared not openly countermand the Vixen expedition, as is proved by the Circassian Declaration of Independence, published in the Portfolio; by the Circassian map revised by his lordship; by his uncertain correspondence with Mr. Bell; by his vague declarations in the House; by the supercargo of the Vixen; Mr. Bell's brother receiving, when setting out, despatches from the Foreign Office, for the Embassy at Constantinople, and direct encouragement from Lord Ponsonby, the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte.

In the earlier times of Queen Victoria the Whig ascendency seemed to be safer than ever, and accordingly the language of the chivalrous viscount suddenly changed. From defence and cajolery, it became at once haughty and contemptuous. Interrogated by Mr. T. H. Attwood, on December 14, 1837, with regard to the Vixen and Circassia: “As to the Vixen Russia had given such explanations of her conduct as ought to satisfy the Government of this country. That ship was not taken during a blockade. It was captured because those who had the management of it contravened the municipal and customs’ regulations of Russia.” As to Mr. Attwood’s apprehension of Russia's encroachment—“I say that Russia gives to the world quite as much security for the preservation of peace as England.”—(Lord Palmerston, House of Commons, December 14, 1837)

At the close of the session the noble lord laid before the House the correspondence with the Russian Government, the two most important parts of which we have already quoted.

In 1838 party aspects had again changed, and the Tories recovered an influence. On June 21 they gave Lord Palmerston a round charge. Sir Stratford Canning, the present Ambassador at Constantinople, moved for a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations made by Mr. George Bell against the noble lord, and in his claims of indemnification. At first his lordship was highly astonished that Sir Stratford's motion should be of “so trifling a character.” “You,” exclaimed Sir Robert Peel, “are the first English minister who dares to call trifles the protection of the British property and commerce.” “No individual merchant,” said Lord Palmerston, “was entitled to ask Her Majesty's Government to give an opinion on questions of such sort as the right of Russia to the sovereignty of Circassia, or to establish those customs and sanitary regulations she was enforcing by the power of her arms.” “If that be not your duty, what is the use of the Foreign Office at all?” asked Mr. Hume. “It is said,” resumed the noble lord, “that Mr. Bell, this innocent Mr. Bell, was led into a trap by me, by the answers I gave him. The trap, if there was one, was laid, not for Mr. Bell, but by Mr. Bell,” namely, by the questions he put to innocent Lord Palmerston.

In the course of these debates (June 21, 1838), out came at length the great secret. Had he been willing to resist in 1836 the claims of Russia, the noble lord had been unable to do so for the very simple reason that already, in 1831, his first act on coming into office was to acknowledge the Russian usurpation of the Caucasus, and thus, in a surreptitious way, the Treaty of Adrianople. Lord Stanley (now Lord Derby) stated that, on August 8, 1831, the Russian Cabinet informed its representative at Constantinople of its intention “to subject to sanitary regulations the communications which freely exist between the inhabitants of the Caucasus and the neighbouring Turkish provinces,” and that he was “to communicate the above-mentioned regulations to the foreign missions at Constantinople, as well as to the Ottoman Government.” By allowing Russia the establishment of so-called sanitary and custom-house regulations on the coast of Circassia, although existing nowhere except in the above letter, Russian claims to the Caucasus were acknowledged and consequently the Treaty of Adrianople, on which they were grounded. “Those instructions,” said Lord Stanley, “had been communicated in the most formal manner to Mr. Mandeville (Secretary to the Embassy) at Constantinople, expressly for the information of the British merchants, and transmitted to the noble Lord Palmerston.” Neither did he, nor dared he, “according to the practice of former Governments, communicate to the committee at Lloyd’s the fact of such a notification having been received.” The noble lord made himself guilty of “a six years concealment,” exclaimed Sir Robert Peel.

On that day his jocose lordship escaped from condemnation by a majority of sixteen: 184 votes being against, and 200 for him. Those sixteen votes will neither out-voice history nor silence the mountaineers, the clashing of whose arms proves to the world that the Caucasus does not “now belong to Russia, as stated by Count Nesselrode,” and as echoed by Lord Palmerston.