Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV: INDIA—IV.: PERVERSION OF AFFGHAN DESPATCHES - Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions
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IV: INDIA—IV.: PERVERSION OF AFFGHAN DESPATCHES - John Bright, Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions 
Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions, introduction by Joseph Sturge (London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1907).
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INDIA—IV.: PERVERSION OF AFFGHAN DESPATCHES
House of Commons, March 19, 1861.
[Mr. Dunlop brought forward a motion to inquire into the discrepancies between certain sets of documents, relating to the Affghan war of 1837–8. It appeared that some passages in the despatches of Sir Alexander Burnes had been mutilated, in order to make it appear that he advised a policy which he really condemned. Mr. Dunlop moved for a Committee to inquire into this alleged mutilation of despatches presented to the House. The motion was negatived.]
When the noble Lord rose, I observed, from his countenance and from his language, that he seemed to be suffering from the passion of anger. [Viscount Palmerston: “Not much.”] “Not much,” the noble Lord says. I admit that in the course of his speech he calmed down; but he was so far led from what I think was a fair course as to charge the hon. and learned Gentleman who introduced this Motion with making a violent and vituperative speech, and he spoke of “that vocabulary of abuse of which the hon. Gentleman appeared to be master.” Now, I will undertake to say that I am only speaking the opinion of every Gentleman in the House who heard the speech which introduced this question, when I say that there has rarely been delivered here on any subject a speech more strictly logical, more judicially calm, and more admirable than that which we have heard to-night from the hon. and learned Member for Greenock. But the fact is the noble Lord felt himself hit.
The noble Lord is on his trial in this case, and on that account I expect that at the conclusion of the debate he will not feel himself at liberty to object to the appointment of this Committee. After a few sentences the noble Lord touched upon the case of Sir Alexander Burnes, and he made a very faint denial of the misrepresentations which are charged against the Government of that day in the case of that gentleman. But he went on to say that, after all, these things were of no importance; that what was in, or what was left out, was unimportant. But I should like to ask the noble Lord what was the object of the minute and ingenious, and I will say unmatched care, which was taken in mutilating the despatches of a gentleman whose opinions were of no importance and whose writings could not make the slightest difference either to the question or to the opinions of any person concerned? The noble Lord, too, has stooped to conduct which, if I were not in this House, I might describe in language which I could not possibly use here without being told that I was transgressing the line usually observed in discussions in this assembly. The noble Lord has stooped so low as to heap insult, throughout the whole of his speech, upon the memory of a man who died in the execution of what he believed to be his public duty—a duty which was thrust upon him by the mad and obstinate policy of the noble Lord; and whilst his blood cries to Heaven against that policy, the noble Lord, during a three-quarters of an hour’s speech in this House, has scarcely ceased to heap insult on his memory.
What the noble Lord told us throughout his speech was that Sir Alexander Burnes was a man of the greatest simplicity of character. I could not, however complimentary I were disposed to be, retort that upon the noble Lord. He says that Sir Alexander Burnes—of whom he spoke throughout in the most contemptuous manner—an eminent political agent at the Court of Dost Mahommed, was beguiled by the treachery of that Asiatic ruler; that he took everything for truth which he heard, and that, in point of fact, he was utterly unfit for the position which he held at Cabul. But although the noble Lord had these despatches before him, and knew all the feelings of Sir Alexander Burnes, he still continued Sir Alexander Burnes there. He was there two years after these despatches were written, in that most perilous year when not only himself but the whole army—subjects of the Queen—fell victims to the policy of the noble Lord. Now, I must tell the noble Lord what my hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Greenock, did not discuss, and what the Committee is not to do—because every Member who heard the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Greenock, and those who listened to the speech of the noble Lord, must have seen that from the first the noble Lord evaded the whole question. He endeavoured to lead the House to believe that my hon. and learned Friend was going into some antiquarian researches about the policy of the English or the Indian Government twenty years ago, and that it was proposed to have a Committee to dig up all the particulars of our supposed peril from the designs of Russia at that time. But the fact is that my hon. and learned Friend had no such intention; and there was no man in the House more cognizant of that fact than the noble Lord when he ingeniously endeavoured to convey a contrary impression to the House.
It is not proposed to go into the policy of the war. And there is another question that it is not proposed to go into. It is not proposed to inquire whether Sir Alexander Burnes or Lord Auckland was Governor-General. We know that Lord Auckland was Governor-General; but we know that a Governor-General who may be many hundreds, or in India, perhaps, 2,000 miles away from the place where particular events are transpiring, must rely to a considerable extent on the information he receives from the political agent who is on the spot. If this be so, clearly what Sir Alexander permit Ministers of the Crown to lay upon the table, upon questions involving the sacrifice of 20,000,000l. of money and 20,000 lives, documents which are not true, which slander our public servants, and which slander them most basely when they are dead and are not here to answer. I do not believe that the gentlemen of England in this House—upon that side of the House or upon this—will ever consent to sit down with a case proved to clearly as this is without directing the omnipotent power and eye of Parliament into the matter. I say, seeing the charge, seeing that the noble Lord was at the head of the Foreign Office at the time, that the policy of the Affghan war was always considered to be his, and that the responsibility of this act must rest between him and Lord Broughton—I should not like to hold the opinion, and I do not hold the opinion, that the noble Lord will object to a Committee to inquire into a matter in which he is himself so directly concerned.