William Huskisson on the relaxation of the navigation laws, 13 May 1826



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William Huskisson on the relaxation of the navigation laws, 13 May 1826


(Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, New Series, XV, 1144-1187; in A. Aspinall and E. Anthony Smith, eds., English Historical Documents, XI, 1783-1832, New York: Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 664-71. William Huskisson (1770-1830), President of the Board of Trade, reviews the history of the Navigation Acts and urges the adoption of free trade on the basis of reciprocity.)

... The great charter of the navigation system of this country is the Act of the twelfth of Charles 11. The different modes which that Act provided for the encouragement of shipping, may be arranged under the five following heads:

First, the fisheries. The ocean is a common field, alike open to all the people of the earth. Its productions belong to no particular nation. It was, therefore, our interest to take care that so much of those productions as might be wanted for the consumption of Great Britain, should be exclusively procured by British industry, and imported in British ships. . . . In this part of our navigation system, no alteration whatever has been made; nor do I believe that any will ever be contemplated.

The second object ... was to give to the shipping of this country employment in what is called the coasting trade. When those laws were first passed, that trade was confined to England only, but, since we have become legislatively united with Scotland and with Ireland, it has embraced the whole of the British islands.... The law in this respect, remains unchanged, and will remain unchanged so long as we have a desire to maintain a great commercial marine.

The third object of our navigation system was the European trade. The rule laid down ... was that the ships of the other states of Europe were to be at liberty to bring, from any port in Europe, any article of European production, with the exception of certain articles, since known in trade by the name of the 'enumerated articles'. They amount in number to 28, and include those commodities which, being of the most bulky nature, employ the greatest quantity of shipping. With respect to these ‘enumerated articles’ the exception was this -that they should not be brought to our ports in any other than British ships, or ships of the country in which they were produced, proceeding directly from such country to this….The regulations of that period were not framed merely for the preservation and encouragement of our own commerce, but also to weaken the powerful marine of Holland. Guided by this policy our ancestors applied more severe measures towards the Dutch than they thought necessary towards any other nation. In this spirit it was that they prohibited the importation, generally, of the productions of the other countries of Europe from Holland, instead of confining that prohibition to the 28 enumerated articles.

The fourth object . . . was to regulate our commerce with Asia, Africa and America.... No article, the produce of either of those three quarters of the globe, should be allowed to be brought into an English port, except in a British ship.

The fifth and last part of the system ... related to our colonies. The principle on which we acted towards those colonies was strictly to confine them, in all matters of trade, to an intercourse with the mother country. They were not avowed to dispose of any of their produce otherwise than by sending it in British vessels to this country. They were equally restricted from receiving any articles necessary for their consumption, except from this country, and in British bottoms....

The peace with America [1783] gave the first great blow to the navigation system of this country. There had now arisen an independent state in the New World.... That part of the system which provided that none of the productions of Asia, Africa or America should be imported into England except in British vessels, could no longer be adhered to.

... By that system [i.e. adopted by Congress in 1787] a heavy blow was aimed at the navigation of this country. It was resolved that all foreign ships trading to America should pay half a dollar-which was afterwards raised to a dollar-per ton duty, beyond what was paid by national ships. And further, that goods imported in foreign vessels should pay a duty of ten per cent over and above what was demandable on the same description of goods imported in American vessels.

This system-in the adoption of which, the Americans had, in a considerable degree, followed the example of their English ancestors-was likely to become seriously prejudicial to the commerce and navigation of this country. . . . This country found it necessary to adopt the system of reciprocity, on which, since the year 1815, the commercial intercourse between the two countries has been placed; namely, equality of all charges upon the ships belonging to either country in the ports of the other, and a like equality of duty upon all articles the production of the one country, imported into …whether such importation be made in the ships of the one or the other....

At the latter period [1815], peace being restored, and with it, the independence of the states which had been incorporated with France, the commerce of the world began to revert to its ancient channels. The nations of Europe whose flags had, for so long a series of years, disappeared from the ocean, were now naturally anxious that their own trade should be carried on in their own ships. This gave a check to the shipping of the United States, which was also felt by the shipping of this country. Perhaps in a greater degree by our own shipping, in consequence of the restitution of several extensive and valuable colonies which we had captured and held during the war.

Besides this material circumstance, there were others ... which had a natural and inevitable tendency to interfere with, and diminish the employment for shipping in this country.

The first ... is the abolition of the slave trade.... The arguments in opposition to the measure were grounded chiefly on the danger with which it threatened the shipping interests of the country. The necessity of kidnapping cargoes of slaves on the coast of Africa was at that time, as coolly defended, on the score of encouragement to our marine, as the taking of cod-fish on the banks of Newfoundland could be at the present day. That traffic was however abolished in 1806 [sic]; and happy I am that the interest of humanity and the honour of the English name were from that year no longer sacrificed to the plea of the shipping interest; though I may, I think, fairly adduce the abolition of the slave trade as having taken away one source of employment.

After the general pacification of Europe, but before we dismantled our fleet, we insisted on the powers of Barbary desisting from the practices of maritime warfare carried on by cruisers under their flags, in the Mediterranean. These corsairs were constantly taking prisoners either for the sake of ransom or for the purpose of carrying them into slavery. . . . Since the bombardment of Algiers, the flag of every petty state bordering on that sea, floats in equal security with our own. I am not accurately informed what was the quantity of British shipping employed in the carrying and coasting trade of those states before this change, but I have heard it stated ... that from 8,000 to 10,000 British seamen, and from 700 to 800 British vessels, were engaged in that commerce. Consequently, to that extent has the employment for British ships been diminished in the Mediterranean.

... With the termination of hostilities there was necessarily a diminished demand for ships in the public service. The greatest proportion of those which had been taken up as hired transports were discharged. . . . The diminution is not less than 1226 vessels, amounting to 270,382, tons.

In the next place we had to sell out of the king's service a number of vessels which were no longer wanted in the navy.... His majesty's government have set free, to compete with the commercial marine of the country, 1559 vessels, amounting in tonnage to 363,912 tons; a quantity nearly equal to one-fourth of the whole shipping of the country, as it stood in the year 1793....

In consequence of the restoration of peace, the demand for shipping . . . was much diminished, and the rates of freight were considerably lowered after the year 1815. This gave rise to great complaints on the part of the shipping interest. In the hope of finding some remedy for their difficulties, the House, in the year 1820, appointed a select committee to inquire into the state of our foreign commerce.... One change recommended by that committee, in the navigation laws was to the following effect-that whereas certain goods . . .-enumerated articles-could only be imported in British ships or in the ships of the country in Europe of which they were the produce, and directly from that country, it was the opinion of the committee that the law ought to be so far relaxed as to allow the importation of these articles in the ships of any country into which they had been previously imported.

The recommendation of the committee was adopted by the legislature. That this relaxation has been beneficial to our commerce and navigation is now, I believe, placed beyond all doubt....

Another alteration in our navigation system has since been adopted, which certainly ought not to have been so long delayed. This alteration consists in putting the trade between Great Britain and Ireland upon the footing of a coasting trade. Every gentleman must, I think, see that, from the time at least of the union of the two countries, it was desirable that their interest and commercial system should be identified as much as possible. From that period it was absurd to consider the commercial intercourse with Ireland as a part of our foreign trade, and to subject the shipping employed in it to the restrictive regulations and higher charges of that trade.

. . . . The revolutions which have occurred in the political state of the world, in our time, rendered other changes indispensable. There has grown up over the whole continent of America, a situation of affairs similar to that which the United States presented after their separation from the mother country. This change, from a colonial to an independent existence, necessarily draws after it, in each particular case, the application of the new rule which ... unavoidably grew out of the independence of the United States.

The first application of that rule occurred in respect to Brazil. From the moment when in 1808 the house of Braganza transferred the seat of empire to Brazil, that country virtually ceased to be a colony. Great Britain had no choice but to apply the European principles to the commerce and navigation of Brazil, though out of Europe, and to admit Portuguese shipping-and, since the separation of Portugal and Brazil, Brazilian shipping-coming from that country into our ports, upon the same footing as the ships of any other independent nation.

This principle has been extended, from time to time, as new states have risen up in America.... We have disarmed all suspicion as to our commercial pretensions by frankly declaring that we sought no exclusive advantages for British ships or British trade, and that the principle of our intercourse with the new states, as with the old states, of the world, would be that of a fair and equal reciprocity.

This brings me to the gravamen of the charge made against his Majesty's government-namely, the step taken by them, in furtherance of this principle, by the introduction of a law, enabling the crown, with the advice of the Privy Council, to remit all discriminating duties on the goods and shipping of such countries, as may agree to impose no higher charges or duties upon British ships, and the goods imported therein, than upon their own ships, and the like goods imported in such ships.

If the system of discriminating duties for the encouragement of shipping were a secret known to this country alone; if a similar system were not, or could not be, put in force in every country, I should not be standing here to vindicate the measure to which I have just referred. . . . So long as, in fact, no independent trading, community existed out of Europe, and so long as the old governments of Europe looked upon these matters ... as little deserving their attention, and were content, either from ignorance or indifference, not to thwart our system, it would have been wrong to disturb any part of it. But is this the present state of the world? Did not the United States of America, in the first instance, for the purpose of raising to themselves a great commercial marine, and of counteracting our navigation laws, adopt, in their utmost rigour, the rules of those laws, and carry, even further than we had ever done, in respect to foreign ships, this principle of discriminating duties against our shipping? Can we shut our eyes to the fact that other nations have followed, or are following, their example? Do we not see them, one after the other, taking a leaf out of our own book? Is not every government in Europe, if possessed of sea-ports, now using its utmost endeavours to force a trade, and to raise up for itself a commercial marine? Have we not boasted of our navigation laws till we have taught other nations to believe (however erroneous that belief) that they are almost the only requisite, or at least, the sine qua' non of commercial wealth and of maritime power? ...

It would be worse than idle, it would be dangerous, to dissemble to ourselves the great changes which have been wrought since the establishment of American independence, in the views and sentiments of Europe upon all matters connected with commerce and navigation....

In this altered state of the world it became our duty seriously to inquire whether a system of commercial hostility, of which the ultimate tendency is mutual prohibition-whether a system of high discriminating duties upon foreign ships, with the moral certainty of seeing those duties fully retaliated upon our own shipping in the ports of foreign countries-was a contest in which England was likely to gain and out of which, if persevered in, she was likely to come with dignity or advantage? ... In the long run, this war of discriminating duties, if persevered in on both sides, must operate most to the injury of the country which, at the time of entering upon it, possesses the greatest mercantile marine. How can it be otherwise? What are these discriminating duties but a tax upon commerce and navigation? Will not the heaviest share of that tax fall, therefore, upon those who have the greatest amount of shipping and of trade? ...

... His Majesty's Government have thought it more prudent and more dignified to enter into amicable arrangements with other powers, founded on the basis of mutual interest, and entire reciprocity of advantages, rather than embark in a contest of commercial hostility and reciprocal exclusions system, at best, of doubtful benefit to the stepping interest. . . . We entered upon an amicable negotiation with the Prussian government, upon the principle of our treaty with the United States, that of abolishing, on both sides, all discriminating duties on the ships and goods of the respective countries in the ports of the other.

Having concluded an arrangement with Prussia upon this basis, we soon found it necessary to do the same with some other of the northern states. Similar conventions were accordingly entered into with Denmark and Sweden. Reciprocity is the foundation of all those conventions....

A few observations on our commercial policy with regard to our colonies abroad, will bring me, I hope, to the conclusion of this important investigation. The former colonial system of this country was simply this, that our possessions abroad should receive all their supplies from hence in British shipping, and they were prohibited from trading directly with any other country. But, so early as the year 1783-the year in which we recognized the independence of the United States of America-it occurred to the government at home that it might be somewhat hard to require of the West India colonies to draw all their supplies from the mother country. . . . Orders-in-council, allowing those colonies to trade directly with the United States of America in British shipping, were passed, from time to time, as occasions required, and the ministers as often came down to Parliament for bills of indemnity for having so far violated the plantation laws.

In process of time, however, the government of the United States, jealous of a trade in which British shipping alone was employed, said to this country: “if you want the productions of our country for the use of your colonies, and will not allow us to send them in our ships, we will entirely prohibit the exportation to your colonies, in British shipping, of those articles of which your colonies stand in need”. They did so. . . . After a suspension of intercourse had continued for some time, Parliament, in the year 1822, passed an Act by which American ships were allowed to trade, directly, between the United States and our colonies, in the West Indies and North America.

Now let me ask, was it politic, was it altogether consistent with impartiality and our friendly relations with the north of Europe, to grant to the shipping of the United States, first in the trade between them and this country, by the treaty of 18l5; and secondly, in the trade, by this act regularly legalized, between those states and our colonies, privileges which we continued to deny to the shipping of Prussia, of Denmark, of Sweden, of Hamburg, and of other trading communities of Europe? Upon what principle of fairness, upon what principle of sound policy were we to continue this preference exclusively to a power, towards which, God knows, I entertain no feeling of hostility-far from it-but, when I am speaking of that nation in a British House of Commons, it is not improper to say, that in matters of navigation and naval power, there exists towards us, a spirit of rivalry in the United States; a spirit of which I do not complain, but which should incline every Englishman to doubt the wisdom of any measure tending to encourage the growth of the commercial marine of America, by giving to it privileges greater than are permitted to the shipping of other states....

Considering, therefore, the act of 1822, and the changes which had taken place in the colonial system of other powers, it appeared to me that the time was arrived when upon every sound principle it would be right to extend to the foreign shipping of Europe, the same privilege of trading with our colonies in the New World, which had been granted to the shipping of America; and also to give a greater facility, and extension, to the intercourse between foreign countries and our colonies generally- strictly confining, however, to British shipping only, all trade between this country and the colonies, and all inter-colonial trade between the different foreign possessions of the British Empire.

Whether we look to the interests of our commerce, which are also the interests of our navigation-whether we look to the separate interests of the colonies, or to the general interests of the parent country-or whether we consider the changes which have recently taken place, especially in the New World-all these considerations appear to me to concur in support of the measures to which I have referred, and the enlarged views of policy upon which they are founded.

Shipping, like other branches of business in this country, is liable to fluctuation. There may be great excitement at one period, and great depression at another. Last year, for instance, the demand far exceeded the means of the British ship owners to supply it. The price of freight for foreign adventures was, in consequence, so much raised as to become a very serious injury and interruption to other branches of navigation, more especially to our coasting trade. Yet, such was the unbridled rage for speculation which then prevailed, that our tonnage could not keep pace with it, and foreign vessels were taken up in every port of Europe, not from a preference, but because British ships could not be procured. This is not the proper occasion to inquire into the origin of the almost universal mania which appears to have seized upon merchants and manufacturers, not of this country only, but, more or less, upon those of other countries, during the last year. It is now too generally seen and admitted, even by those who were most infected by that mania, that their speculations were carried on without reference to the habitual scale of our consumption, or to the rapid accumulation of goods, or to any of those circumstances which, in their calmer moments, direct the operations of commercial men. When prices had risen, in the first instance from natural causes perhaps, speculation soon forced a further and more rapid rise, and the only inference, for a time, among buyers, seems to have been that it would continue progressive and almost indefinite.

Connecting this rage for speculation with the employment of shipping, the House will be surprised to hear in what a degree the quantity of bulky articles from foreign countries, and from our possessions in North America, in the last year, exceeded the importations of former years. In the year 1822, the total importation of timber from foreign countries was 140,715 loads-in 1825 it amounted to not less than 301,548 loads.


In 1822 In 1825

Of flax 607,143 cwts. 1,042,956 cwts

tallow 805,238 ” 1,164,029 ”

wool 19,048,879 lbs. 43,700,533 lbs.



Linseed 1,411,137 bushels 2,876,571 bushels
. . . .The result of all this overtrading of last year . . .is the depression which now prevails, the interruption of commercial credit, the great diminution of employment for manufacturing labour in this country, and the general derangement of business in the countries with which our principal interchange of commodities is carried on.

... The severe distress under which the country now labours, is attributed in some quarters to the changes which have recently taken place in our navigation system and in our commercial policy. If any hon. members entertain that opinion, all that I ask of them is to come forward, and point out distinctly to the House the specific changes to which they ascribe these consequences. It is for them to show, if they can, by evidence or by argument, the connexion of cause and effect between those changes and the difficulties in which the country is now, unhappily, involved ....

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