PP/GC/PO/85 Letter from Lord Ponsonby to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, reporting a conversation with the Belgian Regent, 15 March 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 could not see the Regent until three o'clock that day, and he kept Ponsonby for two and a half hours, so he has hardly got time to repeat the outline of their conversation. Ponsonby told the Regent that Comte d'Arschot had shown him his nomination as envoy to Britain and that under the circumstances, Ponsonby thought the Regent might like to know his private opinion that there might be some difficulty about receiving the Comte in that capacity. Ponsonby wished only to prevent the occurrence of anything the Regent might dislike and had acted solely with that motive. Ponsonby observed that although the independence of Belgium had been "substantially admitted and supported" by the British government, the Belgian government had not been formally recognized. Recognition depended on circumstances already made known and must take place according to prescribed form. Ponsonby presumed that until the recognition had taken place, a diplomatic minister could not be received. The Regent replied, "But you have acknowledged our independence. We have affairs to treat of with you; how are we to do it without a minister ?" Ponsonby observed that the Regent conducted business with him, although he was not a regular diplomatic agent. The Regent said that he had thought the demand Ponsonby had made for information regarding his function and title had been intended to induce him to send a mission to London. Ponsonby said that in fact it was merely wanted as information for the British government and the Conference. The Regent asked Ponsonby what he should do, and received the reply that the Comte could be sent in the same capacity as Ponsonby held at Brussels, and if necessary, he could be given credentials to be produced on a proper occasion. The Regent said he would consult with the Comte and Van der Weyer. Ponsonby believes the Regent was pleased with what he had done, and felt that Ponsonby intended to do what was civil. Ponsonby spoke of the protocols and their rejection, in the manner of Palmerston's letter. The Regent defended the government, saying they could not receive documents attacking their independence. Ponsonby observed that it was still not necessary to return them. Chokier asked what else they could have done, to which Ponsonby replied that the government could have answered them, and declared their opinions. The Regent promised to do so in future, and said that he wished to act most respectfully in every way towards the great powers. The conversation centred mainly on the debt. Chokier explained at length the injustice which he claimed his country had been done in the settlement of the debt. Ponsonby said that the settlement was not considered final, and that the Conference had applied to Van der Weyer for information on the subject and had not received it. Chokier said Van der Weyer did not possess the necessary information because the Hollanders had carried off the archives, which contained the materials for the correct investigation of facts, to The Hague. Ponsonby thought that the subject might be reserved for future discussion. Ponsonby told the Regent that it was necessary to come to some clear understanding of the position in which they all stood, and asked whether he intended to have anything to do with the powers of Europe. When he replied, "Assuredly", Ponsonby asked how they would arrive at any settlement, since Belgium was so placed that everything that concerned her touched the interests of every other country, and consequently they had the right to interfere. Chokier admitted this but said the interference about limits was unjust, that the territories claimed by Belgium and taken away by the protocols belonged to Belgium, and he entered into historical detail on the rights of his country. Ponsonby declined the argument, saying that he thought it unnecessary to waste his time by answering Chokier's pretensions, and that he was sure he could not satisfy Chokier's mind. He had no authority to agree to any arrangement of the question which had already been fully considered and decided upon by the Conference, but he asked the Regent to consider all the consequences to his country of the measures he pursued about limits. Chokier said he wished to do everything that his own honour and the honour of Belgium would permit, but that on this point he was already decided, that he would prefer war to the concession of the rightful possessions of Belgium. Ponsonby, putting aside the question of right, tried to get Chokier to think about the consequences of his determination to prefer war: the whole question, the facts, must depend on the power of France; Chokier must be aware that France had admitted the justice of the settlement of limits, and that to take the Belgian side, France must betray all her engagements; it was Ponsonby's duty to tell Chokier that if France did betray them, the other powers of Europe would not allow any portion of territory admitted by them to belong to Holland to be taken away from Holland; the Regent himself might be the cause of a general war; he could be deceived in the idea that France would be victorious over all Europe, and Belgium, instead of gaining anything, might lose much; even if France were victorious, Belgium would be merged with France, and the independence of which the Regent was so justly proud and the honour of his country would be the prize of the victor. Chokier said he hoped this would not happen, that people were now more enlightened than before, and justice and policy might produce a different result. A long discussion followed on the means and chances possessed by France, including the likely effects of the widespread revolutionary principle. Ponsonby ended by asking what the fate of Belgium would be if the French were beaten after a long war. Chokier replied that Belgium would be partitioned and extinguished. Ponsonby asked whether such a result was worth risking since, in his opinion, victory was not only possible but probable for the other powers of Europe. The Regent said that his oath and his honour prevented him consenting to any dismemberment of the country. On it being suggested that the Germanic Confederation might take Luxembourg by force of arms, he claimed France would never permit it, and that he was sure it would never be attempted. Ponsonby told him he might be mistaken, although he himself knew nothing of the intentions of the Confederation. Chokier said that Belgium made no claim on the fortress. "I expressed my affliction at seeing things in such a gloomy position as they were now to be viewed in, that however his honor as an individual might be considered by him to be engaged in the attempt to retain the territories in question, I could not comprehend that his honor as Regent consisted in exposing his country to the chances of annihilation, for the sake of additions to her extent of little or no importance to her in the actual state of the world; that it was a serious thing for him to have the fate of Europe hang upon his decision of the present question. Why then, he said, will you take from us what is our own, and what is of no importance to you ? I said, laying aside the question of right and property, there are the most important reasons why the limits should be fixed as they have been. I will speak only to one part of the arrangement because that distinctly affects England. Antwerp and the Scheldt are by the arrangement to be placed in your hands. Is it not proper there should be some control over the river placed in your hands when we know you may be too weak, if not unwilling, to keep France from taking possession of a position so highly important to ourselves ? Your policy, he said, is inconsistent. You make us weak at the same time that you desire us to be able and willing to resist France. I replied, if there was a certainty of your will, it would be the interest of all the powers and particularly of England to make you strong enough to be truly independent. He said, we wish for independence. It is our own interest, if the combination for the Duc de Nemours had been successful, we should have established our independence upon the best grounds. I said, we can never be persuaded that a French prince, acting with a ministry devoted to France, can be the creators of an indepen[den]ce on that nation. Our most eminent men, however, he said, are most interested of all, in preserving this country from dependancy on France, and he enumerated the various ways in which their interests would be affected by the predominance of this country. I said, prove to me that you are desirous and able to preserve your country free from all French influence and I shall believe the peace of Europe and the happiness and security of Belgium may easily be secured. We, England in particular, are highly interested in seeing you prosperous and strong, France alone is interested in your weakness and that because she wishes to possess your country; if she has not that wish she also will be interested in your strength. I cannot see of what moment it is to you under these circumstances that your limits should be larger than what what the five powers have determined. You can have nothing to apprehend from any other nation except France. No other would desire to attack you, unless it should be Holland, and that will not be permitted." The conversation continued for some time, but Ponsonby must stop since the departure time for the messenger has passed. He will try to include anything useful in the next post, confining himself to results. The Regent distinctly declared he preferred war to concession on the question of limits. Ponsonby would be glad to have another opportunity of speaking to the Regent before any irrevocable resolutions are taken. It is clear he is entirely influenced by the confidence he has in French help. Ponsonby told him plainly that the affairs of Belgium must be settled at Paris, which he received as a matter of course. Ponsonby believes the Regent strongly wishes for independence for his country, but under his influence, it is impossible to obtain and keep it. "If the thing can be done at Paris, well. Here, although I have expressed my wish to try the Regent again, I am afraid I must say, the thing is impossible, unless it can be done by the Prince of Orange, who must make his attempt before the French occupy the fortresses, or not at all. I believe the army to be for him almost unanimously, but if a French commander in chief is given by the government, etc., this favorable opinion, etc. may be changed by the arts and influence easily so to be used." Ponsonby has reliable information that there are now 10,000 men at Lisle in addition to the garrison, and that orders have been given to the Mayor to provide lodgings for 10,000 more. An army could move from Lisle to Antwerp in four days, and Ponsonby doubts if Antwerp is prepared to resist a strong attack. There are troops at Valenciennes and other frontier towns. If Belgium and her fortresses were in safe hands, the French could not spare troops to undertake the siege of those places. Ponsonby hears from Munich that the Austrians are not resolved to interfere in the affairs of Italy so as to force France into war. The "revolutionists" in Belgium have taken possession of the Regent. "They believe their interest intimately connected with a war of principle, revolution against establishment." They will do all they can to provoke war in Belgium. Palmerston will know best if they are capable of achieving this, and whether or not Antwerp can be kept out of their hands. Ponsonby hopes France is not ready for war, but if Louis Philippe refuses to go to war, Ponsonby is sure that the Belgian ministers will try all they can to achieve his overthrow. The despatch about Maastricht was written in the greatest hurry. Ponsonby is not at all confident that the interpretation he has put on the meaning of freedom of communication is the correct one, but he thought it the safest thing to say. Palmerston can make a concession if he thinks fit. Ponsonby spoke very moderately to the Regent on the subject. On the whole, they are excellent friends. Ponsonby explained his conduct about the Prince of Orange, to which the Regent alluded. Ponsonby said it was his duty to hear everybody on every subject, and to report to Palmerston. Originally, his opinion had been the exact opposite of what it was now, but he had for some time thought, and still believed, the choice of a Nassau was the best way out of all the current difficulties. Britain did not interfere, and if the Regent chose to have a republic or to elect the Pope, the British were quite indifferent, as long as he did not give Belgium to France. The British regard it as a military question, and it would be maintained by force if necessary, "so long as England had a man or a guinea". Chokier seemed well satisfied with what Ponsonby said as far as Ponsonby himself was concerned. Ponsonby asks Palmerston to excuse the manner of his letter, which he has not had time to read through because the Regent kept him so late. 15 Mar 1831 The letter is marked: "Private" and it is noted on the docket that it was received on 17 March 1831. Enclosed is a newspaper cutting, in French, concerning the inevitability of war in Belgium. No date Mar 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
Erasme Louis, Baron Surlet de Chokier, Regent of Belgium
Philippe Jean Michel, Comte d'Arschot Schoonhoven, candidate for Belgian minister plenipotentiary at London
William IV, King of England
London Conference on Belgian independence
Sylvain van der Weyer, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs
Antwerp, Belgium
River Scheldt, Belgium
Louis, Duc de Nemours, second son of Louis Philippe, King of the French
William Frederick, Prince of Orange, later William II, King of Holland
Lille, Valenciennes, France
Munich, Bavaria, later Germany
Louis Philippe, King of the French
Maastricht, Netherlands
House of Nassau, Dutch royal family
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