PP/GC/PO/29 Letter from Lord Ponsonby to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, concerning the French position regarding Belgium, 2 January 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: Palmerston will not be surprised, after all he has heard from Ponsonby about the provisional government, to learn that several members have been involved in a project to unite Belgium with France. This plan has doubtless been encouraged by the discontent of the Luxembourg deputies, although it certainly existed before any discontent derived from protocol number seven. Ponsonby noted in his last letter that those who had previously been particularly anxious to keep back all information on the protocol, had become most insistent that it should be conveyed immediately to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. Ponsonby now suspects that this change came from a hope of using the protocol to gain strength for themselves, by involving through it the personal interests of many in the success of the plan for joining Belgium to France. Palmerston will remember that Ponsonby was opposed to the agitation concerning the Luxembourg question. In spite of his suspicions of some of the provisional government, Ponsonby has until recently been unable to agree measures with Bresson, because until a few days previously he was without specific instructions from Comte Sebastiani, and did not know himself precisely what Sebastiani might try to do concerning the French party. In such circumstances, Ponsonby could not speak to Bresson quite openly. Bresson has now received "the most plain and decisive" instructions from Paris, and Bresson himself has been very decisive in his conduct. Bresson is well aware that the objectives of the so-called French party would endanger the throne of Louis Philippe, and that they are acting in concurrence with democrats at Paris, although Ponsonby thinks Bresson is wrong in his opinion of the general sentiments of the Belgian nation. When Bresson received a despatch from Sebastiani, dated 30 December, which was "more strong and more explicit than any preceeding one", he asked Comte de Celles to call a meeting of the provisional government and the Committee for Foreign Affairs, so that he could explain the opinions of his government to them. The meeting was held and attended also by the ministers. Bresson said that, since it had been given out that the French government wished to unite Belgium to France, or to put a French prince on the throne, and were ready to support Belgium in any claims she might make on the borders or rights of other countries, he was there to declare explicitly that the French government would not accept Belgium if she were offered to France, that they would not allow a French prince to become the sovereign of Belgium, and that they were resolved to stick to the policy they had adopted and act in complete concurrence with the great powers and in union with England. What he said was received with displeasure, and he was asked whether the French government had abandoned its friends in Belgium. "He replied, `What have you done to impose on the French government any obligations ? They feel for you an honest sympathy. They desire to see you happy and secure, they have acknowledged your independence, their policy is to preserve your rights. They have been active in obtaining for you the freedom of the Scheldt, and they will ensure it, but they will not occasion a universal war to please a party in your country. They will not break the principle of non intervention and refuse to other nations the right to maintain their own legal jurisdiction in their own territories.' One of the deputies from Luxemburgh to the Congress and member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, Monsieur Nothomb, said, `Though your government may abandon us, the people of France will not and we will proclaim in Congress the union of Belgium with France, and demand the Duc de Nemours for our King.' Monsieur Bresson answered, `I am the Minister of the King of the French. I obey the instructions of his government. I have nothing to do with the party which may be your friends in France, and on which alone you can rely for the gratification of your desires. If you demand the Duc de Nemours for your King, go and fetch him if you can get him, but I tell you in the name of the King that he will have nothing to do with you.'" Ponsonby believes Bresson is mistaken in believing that the Belgian nation wishes to be united to France rather than to be independent, although that independence would have to be secure. "I think that opinion contrary to the fact, and in itself actually contrary to natural feelings, for who will chuse to be dependent and subaltern when he can be free and eminent in degree ?" What Ponsonby has said fully illustrates the state of affairs in Belgium so far as the provisional government, and part of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, and some of the ministers, are concerned. Certainly it is not satisfactory. Gendebien's letters from Paris have been the main cause of excitement, and the anger about Luxembourg has aggravated the feelings of many. The provisional government believed the reports sent by Gendebien from Paris, asserting the feebleness of the King's government and the strength of the democratic and war party, and thought the time had come when they could, "with impunity, violate their duty and the law of their country, and adopt a scheme for the destruction of its independence by subjecting it to France, and even expose it to become the theatre of war. Perhaps the Count de Celles has been doubtful which party in France, the King's, or the democratic, might prevail, and has been temporizing till he can see where his interest lies. I believe Monsieur Van de Weyer is not connected with the plot to make his country a petty province. The question now is what is best to be done, and it is my duty to give my opinion upon the point." It is imperative to open the Scheldt without delay, in order to preserve tranquillity, to remove from the provisional government "the power of seducing the people", and to enable those who wish for peace to restrain the volunteers from committing new acts of hostility against the Dutch, who provoke them every day. If they waited for the time fixed by the King of the Netherlands for opening the Scheldt, it would be too late. Force should be used to open the river now. The Belgians will never believe in the just and honest intentions of the great powers until they see proof of it, and without it, Ponsonby fears they will fall into the hands of the "Jacobins and seekers of mischief". Bresson has written in this vein to Paris, and has demanded the immediate appearance of French ships of war in the Scheldt to free it at once from the blockade, regardless of the King of the Netherlands' insistence on the exclusion of the Belgian flag. Immediate action is necessary in order to give a chance of preserving the peace in Belgium. "Who knows how soon events at Paris may give us cause to lament that any part of the settlement of Belgium has been delayed. I conceed that settlement to afford the only means of obtaining a temporary relief from war." Sebastiani believes that a rapid arrangement of Belgian affairs is necessary. He must see that the democratic party at Paris have chosen Belgium as a place from which to try to create difficulties for the French government, and as long as the provisional government remains in Belgium, so the democratic party will be gaining strength and means of annoying the government of France. It is true that the fate of Belgium absolutely depends on France, but the French government is anxious to prevent war, and Ponsonby believes the English should assist. Ponsonby need not report the measures he took to guard against the effects of the proclamation of a union with France which Bresson stated in his letter to Prince Talleyrand. The union has not happened, and it is enough to recount the steps Ponsonby took to try to counteract the intentions of the French party in the provisional government. The various schemes have been made known to those who are opposed to French connection and who have the military force in their hands, who have been encouraged to exert their power to maintain the law. At the same time, their fear of France was removed by pointing out to them the conduct of the French minister in Belgium under orders from his government, and showing that it is in the interests of the French government to keep down and prevent the planned acts of the French party, which would produce the utmost embarrassment to the French party, and perhaps force it to enter into a general war before it was prepared for it. Baron Hooghvorst is the main person whom Ponsonby relies on for assistance, and as he commands the popular force, Ponsonby hopes he may be able to prevent trouble at Brussels. Ponsonby will take the best measures he can to act in Congress against the French party, but he does not have much power. The burgher guard is said to have intended to turn out the provisional government and to dissolve the Congress that day by force. Hooghvorst did not mention this to Ponsonby, and nothing of the sort has been attempted. Ponsonby believes the government is odious to the people and generally despised by them, but it has the partial support of the French party, and of the Jacobins of a certain class. Nevertheless, it could be safely overturned. It has also been said that there is a plan, agreed to by the provisional government, to induce the burgher guard to leave the city to preserve the peace at Mons. Ponsonby has begged Hooghvorst to prevent this because it seems probable that the aim is to give sole control of Brussels to the provisional government. Hooghvorst agreed, and said he would prevent the guards leaving, if possible. Palmerston knows of the difficulties that have arisen in France regarding Prince Leopold's election and the change of opinion of the French government. There is now, therefore, no pretender to the sovereignty, and Bresson has suggested Prince Otto of Bavaria for the consideration of the world. Bresson asked Ponsonby beforehand if he had any objection, to which he replied he did not object to anyone except the proscribed persons, but thought it would be better to wait until the Conference had been consulted. Bresson said he only intended to try the ground, although he has had the name mentioned "with great activity", and he claims with success. This Prince is only sixteen, so there would be a regency and the provisional state of government would in effect be continued, which Ponsonby sees as "a most essential evil". Bresson made light of this, and seems to want a regency. When it becomes known, as Ponsonby already knows, who the members of the regency would be, "I feel the certainty that every difficulty we now have to encounter will be perpetuated". There is said to be a large band of hungry French patriots or Jacobins waiting in the frontier French towns to burst into Belgium as "friends and liberators", and to gather the spoils. The propagandists at Paris have sent General Favier to Brussels, who is well known for the part he played in Greece, who is "a regular agitator, a man of no great ability but great audacity". The personal party of the Prince of Orange is supposed to be active in trying to prevent the success of every settlement that is proposed, and support for the party is increasing every day. If there was a way of curing the hostility of large and powerful sections of the population towards the Prince, and if there was not a certainty of the instability of a government with him at the head, Ponsonby might be tempted to think that, under the actual circumstances, it might be better to try to help him than to prolong the dangers of a provisional state as at present. If a temporary government could be established, there would be much to say for the Prince, and although it would be nearly certain of causing a disturbance, this could be quelled. He could now be forced on the unwilling part of the people by the influence of foreign powers and members of the population of Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and some other towns, and if France were to help, there would be no danger from it except to the Prince himself. If, however, a permanent settlement of Belgium is thought possible, and its continued existence as a barrier against France, the establishment by force of a Prince hated by large masses of the people would be a serious error. It is hard to speak positively on the possibility of making Belgium a real barrier. Ponsonby hopes it may be achieved by increasing the territorial force of the country and by creating a nation. Despite Bresson's opinion to the contrary, there is a national spirit in the people, and interests tending to make them cling to a national government. There are reasons behind a growing disinclination towards union with France. The priests cannot fail to cultivate distaste for France, because the priests know their power is odious in France and to all philosophers of the French school. In many of the country parts of Belgium, the language and manners of the people differ greatly from those of France. Time is necessary if Belgium is to become a secure barrier, although even now it is better in that capacity than it was or ever could be under the rule of the King of the Netherlands. Whether or not that time is available is a problem. The fortresses are in a lamentable state, and totally incapable of creating any serious resistance to a strong attack, although they may be repaired. An opposition speaker in the Chamber of Deputies spoke of the necessity of making Belgium strong "as a covering for the frontier of France". It would be fortunate if this should continue to be a common wish, but the French generally feel that Belgium is assured prey the moment France thinks fit to go to war. "It is this persuasion that consoles (and perhaps does more) Monsieur Bresson, for the necessity, derived from the situation of France, which he admits to exist for her abandonment of the natural frontier of his country." Ponsonby apologises for the lack of order in his comments, but hopes he has made himself intelligible. He hopes Palmerston will see, like himself and Bresson, the need for the immediate liberation of the Scheldt and as rapid a general settlement as possible. Ponsonby encloses the report of the Comte de Celles' answers to questions relating to the diplomatic relations of Belgium. Preparations for hostilities continue in Belgium. 2 Jan 1831 Enclosed is a newspaper article, in French, with the report of the Committee for Foreign Relations of the provisional government given to the Congress by Comte de Celles on 31 December 1830: In the note of 30 [December], you returned to the Committee for Foreign Relations a message in which the national Congress requested the provisional government to reveal to them: The state of our diplomatic relations and on what footing they have begun with the envoys of the five great powers at London If the choice of head of state counts or counted for anything in the negotiations Whether, if Holland perseveres in not fully complying with the conditions of the cease fire, measures had been taken and orders given for the renewal of hostilities within any sort of time limit If negotiations have been opened or are going to be opened with France for a commercial treaty which would facilitate the exchange of reciprocal products. The information which follows satisfies the wish of the national Congress and in consequence it could be informed of them: Diplomatic relations with the envoys of the five great powers are based on the protocol of 4 November, and have been followed with the object of arriving at the conclusion of an armistice, of which the free navigation of the Scheldt is for us a condition sine qua non. The state of these relations is such that, according to the official announcement which Comte Sebastiani made at Paris, and that the President of the Council of Ministers of France has just confirmed to the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies, the five powers have recognised in principle the independence of Belgium. The choice of a future head of state does not count for anything in the negotiations. The positions which have been taken up in succession by different army corps have been planned to give an advantage at the renewal of hostilities, should Holland persevere in not complying fully with the conditions of the cease fire. No order has yet been given, nor a timescale determined for the renewal of hostilities. Attempts are being made to collect all information necessary for the opening of negotiations for a commercial treaty with France. The commissions which work in each province and their reports will be the object of exhaustive discussion. 31 Dec 1830
Five 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; partition of the Netherlands; Luxembourg question
Protocol seven of the London Conference of 20 December 1830: the dissolution of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and allowance for a future independent Belgium
Charles Joseph Bresson, later Comte Bresson, French Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium
Francois Horace Bastien, Comte Sebastiani, French Minister for Foreign Affairs
Louis Philippe, King of the French
Antoine Charles Fiacre, Comte de Wisher de Celles, Vice President of the Committee for Foreign Relations of the provisional government of Belgium
River Scheldt, Belgium
Jean Baptiste Nothomb, member of the Committee for Foreign Relations of the provisional government of Belgium, leading member of the Belgian French party
Louis, Duc de Nemours, second son of Louis Philippe, King of the French
Alexandre Gendebien, member of the central committee of the provisional government of Belgium
William I, King of the Netherlands, later King of Holland
Sylvain van der Weyer, member of the central committee of the provisional government of Belgium
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince de Benevent, French ambassador at London
Emmanuel Constantin Ghislain van der Linden, Baron van Hooghvorst, or Hoogvorst, commander in chief of the burgher guard in Brussels, and member of the provisional government of Belgium
Mons, Ghent, Antwerp, Belgium
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later Leopold I, King of the Belgians
Prince Otto, or Otho, of Bavaria, later Otto I, or Otho I, King of Greece
General Charles Nicholas, Baron Fabvier, alias Favier, formerly in the service of Greece
William Frederick, Prince of Orange, later William II, King of Holland
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