PP/GC/PO/119 Letter from Lord Ponsonby to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, concerning his efforts to avoid war in Belgium, 1 June 1831
Letter from John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, [British Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium], Brussels, to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston: he did not have time the previous day, between the arrival of the messenger from London and the departure of his messenger for Ostend, to say anything in detail about his motives for disobeying Palmerston's instructions [to go to London]. Knowing that Palmerston wanted to avoid war, he risked disobedience rather than provoke an immediate and inevitable beginning to conflict, which was evident to General Belliard as well as to himself. Palmerston's continuing belief that the Congress can accept his proposition is an error. "It dare not, it will not, it cannot accept it, but the measures which have been taken with success are calculated to give the Congress the power to act, as prudence so peremptorily demands of it to act. The thing must be done by degrees." The "violent war party" has already been defeated in most of its attempts, and some members, who hitherto have thought otherwise, are beginning to admit the need to maintain peace. "The policy pursued by the government is a necessary step towards an entire submission to the demands of the Conference, and it may lead to it, as it has already established almost a de facto assent to the material, though not to the verbal, submission to them." The first advantage gained from the nomination of Prince Leopold is that of time to instil reason into the mass of the nation. The second is that the weakness of the violent party has been exposed and people are emboldened to oppose it. "My letter has torn the veil from before the eyes of the nation. I made it, in part, offensive to the popular vanity with the precise intention to force it upon the general notice, and I am indebted to that part which has excited anger and disapprobation for the extreme publicity which arguments and statements have obtained which have never hitherto reached the minds of the mass." Ponsonby believes he has spoken out as strongly as Palmerston could wish, and it has had as good an effect as could have been produced by his formal retreat from Brussels. Many problems have already been avoided. If Ponsonby had left Brussels, the peaceful party would have been overpowered immediately, and war would already have been declared: within a few hours attacks would have been made on Antwerp, leading to the destruction of thousands of lives and the conflagration of a beautiful city by the fire from the citadel. The Dutch would open the sluices and inundate the whole country up to the gates of Ghent, causing damage in a few hours for crowds of innocent people which years could not restore. Maastricht would be attacked, and as there is a conspiracy in the fortress there, the inhabitants would probably either become the victims of General Dibbets' measures of defence, or the place would be taken from the garrison. Hordes of French would almost certainly burst into Belgium from the frontier towns to help their brother bandits already sent from Paris to Brussels by Lafayette and others aiming for plunder and power, and above all "to give blows, mortal ones if possible, to the ministry of Casimir Perier". Nothing could induce Ponsonby to contribute to such misery without first informing Palmerston that he believed it inevitable, if he obeyed instructions. Having now done so, he is prepared for "litteral and passive obedience". Ponsonby's letter states strongly to Lebeau and to the Belgian world the Conference's determination to exact due respect to the obligation of treaties. Ponsonby has tried everything to convince individuals of the justice of what the Conference is doing, of the folly of the course pursued by the Congress, and the ruin into which Belgium will fall if she perseveres in her resolution to sacrifice prudence to pride. He has shown and convinced many that Belgium cannot obtain, under any circumstances, what she seeks to have by arms, but that there are not any insurmountable obstacles in the way of her obtaining most of it, if not nearly all of it, by negotiation. "I would say to you, if I could hope that my experience of facts, my knowledge of the true state of this country could make up for the inferiority of my judgement, so far as to give any influence to my opinion and entreaties, `Have still patience ! Permit things to remain still undecided ! It is always time enough to come to blows, let the fever of revolution subside. Men are fast coming to their senses, the blood is cooling, the voice of the physician is listened to.' You have already all, nearly, in fact that could be expected so suddenly and I should say more than it was reasonable to hope for. The dispute now is really about a very few square miles and a mere phrase. The first may be settled and the last compromized or evaded or conceeded by Belgium, though I will risk saying that the Conference is so powerful that it may easily condescend to flatter the folly of the weak and mad patient it has to deal with. But are the possessions really in dispute, and the phrases which is refused, of worth enough to risk a general convulsion, to embarras the French government, to destroy thousands of lives, however guilty of madness the loosers may be, and to subject this fine country to anarchy and pillage and devastation of all kinds ?" The Jacobin plan is to raise the French tricolour, claim the help of the French, and to subject the country to France. These men will control the Belgian government when Palmerston orders Ponsonby to leave Brussels and communicate the protocol. Nobody knows Belgium better than General Belliard, and it can be presumed that he knows France perfectly also. Nothing Ponsonby has said would exaggerate Belliard's apprehensions about the effects of obeying the orders of the Conference. Ponsonby hears from Lord Granville that, although everything is currently quiet in France, the acclamation with which Louis Philippe has been received on his tour through parts of France proves the strength and security of Perier's government. It is clear, however, that Perier's ministry is not secure until the elections have proved the nature of public feeling and thus given them the basis of power. Ponsonby only pleads for time. It has been obtained in Belgium. He asks for Palmerston to grant it on his part. Ponsonby will relate the details of events the next day when he knows the effect produced by the publication of those protocols which were sent to him as secret. They may totally overturn every advantage that has been achieved, or they may do good; but it is surely wrong that such important measures as are now in motion, which concern all the powers of Europe, should be exposed to iniquity by the unauthorised publication of private documents. Robaulx, who produced these protocols, said that he got them from London. Ponsonby suspects they might come from the King of Holland who apparently mistakenly believes that war is his only chance. Ponsonby used all these arguments to Lebeau and to others, and he also mentioned to Lebeau what Palmerston said in his previous letter about the squadron under Sir E[dward] Codrington. He did not carry Palmerston's instructions any further, for Lebeau is a man of sense, who is working "with might and main" for peace: the threat produced only the proper effect on him, "but on the maniacs we have to deal with threats will only have a mischevous effect. They must actually have felt the strait waistcoat before they know how to tremble at its name." Ponsonby is aware of the difficulties in which Palmerston is placed by engagements to the King of Holland, and does not pretend to know how they are to be avoided or overcome, but he is sure that the advantages obtained in Belgium ought not to be abandoned, still less that the Congress should be given an advantage over Britain which would result from the proposed decisive steps being taken. "Congress would have to say to the world, we have elected a King confessedly agreeable to Europe, we have already made such concessions as we think we can do with honor, we confide to our new King the task of negotiating with the great powers, but they will not even hear us when we speak for the first time, by the organ they have themselves wished us to employ. At the moment, the Conference has a right to say that it is the defender of treaties and of general liberty; will it have the same clear right to say that it is the protector of peace, if it proceeds to treat with contempt the offers of the Belgians ? The discussions and votes of yesterday in the Congress shew the tendency of people's minds, and it is at least to be suspected that they would yield if they knew how." Ponsonby is aware of the responsibility he takes upon himself when he ventures to discuss and even suspend Palmerston's instructions, but at a time when every hour brings about a change in the situation, when even the short distance between London and Brussels is enough to prevent Palmerston having a perfect knowledge of the state of affairs, Ponsonby believes it is his duty to his government to act as he does. He sees things as they are at the moment when action becomes necessary and he feels that, considering the "peculiar state of the general public mind", and that of the people of France in particular, an error on one side might be fatal whereas delay, which is all he has to answer for, cannot produce any ill result. He forwards separately the account of the votes in Congress on 1 June, and also some newspapers: the ministers do not have a single newspaper on their side because they have refused to use any influence to obtain the support of "those most pure organs of public opinion". The TRIBUNES are filled by Robaulx because of his power and influence as questor of the assembly, and are therefore packed. Congress has risen, and Ponsonby encloses a printed account of the decrees [not present]. Palmerston will see that they have rejected the proposition about Maastricht, which creates a new difficulty. Ponsonby thinks the protocols have "produced their fire". Leopold will be elected the following day by a large majority. General Belliard is anxious that the commissioners should see the result without taking any further part. Ponsonby agrees with him, and thinks war may still be prevented, though things do look bad. All resistance in Belgium is built on the belief that France will not act with the other powers. 1 Jun 1831 The letter is marked: "Private" and it is noted on the covering paper that it was received on 4 June 1831.
Four papers
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John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, later first Viscount Ponsonby, British Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium
Belgium: revolt; revolution; independence
Ostend, or Ostende, or Oostende, Belgium
General Auguste Daniel, Comte Belliard, French Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later Leopold I, King of the Belgians
Antwerp; Ghent, Belgium
Maastricht, or Maestricht, Netherlands
General Bernardus Johannes Cornelius, Baron Dibbets, Dutch commander at Maastricht
Marie Jean Paul Roch Yves Gilbert Motier, Marquis de la Fayette, alias Lafayette, member of the French Chamber of Deputies, commander of the Parisian national guard
Casimir Perier, President of the French Council of Ministers, and French Minister of the Interior
Jean Louis Joseph Lebeau, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs
London Conference on Belgian independence
Granville Leveson Gower, first Viscount Granville, later first Earl Granville, British ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary at Paris
Louis Philippe, King of the French
Alexandre Robaux, member of the Belgian Congress
William I, King of the Netherlands, later King of Holland
Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the Channel squadron
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