PP/GC/PO/86 Letter from Lord Ponsonby to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, concerning the members of the Belgian government and the French attitude towards Belgium, 18 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 received Palmerston's letter of 15 March the previous day. When he last wrote, Ponsonby could not report the whole of his conversation with the Regent, so he will now describe a few more things that he said. Concerning the signature of the French ambassador to the protocols, he said, "'Bah ! Who pays any attention to what may be done by a Talleyrand ?'" When Ponsonby said the British government wished to see a strong government for Louis Philippe, firstly because he was the "friend of rational liberty" and also, because he was the best guard against impractical plans of policy, "`Confess', said he, `that you English like Philippe because he is a weak man and does not know how to resist your diplomacy, which is certainly infinitely superior to that of the French.'" What Ponsonby said in reply is not important, but what Chokier said goes to show his views, although they are seen to vary at times. For example, he expressed a firm wish to blow up all the fortresses which he said would prevent Belgium being permanently occupied by France. He asked why England would not be satisfied with treaties forbidding naval arsenals at Antwerp. Ponsonby thinks the Regent would be independent if he could. Ponsonby told him how completely Van der Weyer had misunderstood the opinions of the British government and of England, when he asserted that Britain would not and could not go to war to prevent the supremacy of French policy and dominion in Belgium. He did not give the slightest credit to Ponsonby, and he did not believe that any measures would be taken about Maastricht. Ponsonby did not think he could tell Chokier that France had consented to the blockade if the freedom of communications was not restored, because he was not quite sure that the type of communications demanded was certain. He refers Palmerston to his despatch number forty four. Mr Hume is in correspondence with Van der Weyer, and Ponsonby believes that much of the Regent's confident belief that he may continue, with impunity, to act the part which the provisional government began to play, is derived from that source. The Regent has sent troops and artillery towards Luxembourg with orders to occupy the country and to resist whoever opposes them. Ponsonby is not sure of the orders. They may only be against the Dutch. General Belliard "rather wishes to check the exhibition of the warlike ardour of les braves Belges", but the time is not yet right for it. Ponsonby is glad Palmerston has shown the General up. They must know the report came from Ponsonby and he suspects the General will be very angry. Palmerston will remember what Ponsonby wrote about the weakness of Maastricht against a real attack, indeed it is said to have been on the point of falling into the hands of the Belgians, and the suspension of arms saved it. The Belgians had a majority of the population on their side at that time, and a plan was formed for an attack on the garrison when the place was attacked from the outside. General Dibbets has now fortified the interior against the inhabitants, and is fully a match for the Belgians, but not for the French. Belliard said, two days previously, "'Vous serez reconnu par la France, et elle vous soutiendra, quand meme. Toute tentative, meme de la part des Belges, pour remettre le P[rince] d'Orange sur la trone sera regardee comme une tentative pour une restoration, et en consequence comme une acte hostile contre la France. France will never permit the Germanic confederation to interpose with arms in the affairs of the Duchy of Luxembourg.'" Belliard continued, "'France will never adhere to the latter protocoles, [le Roi] a vertement signifee son mecontentement a Mons[ieu]r de Talleyrand for having signed them'" but he added that he said this privately as he had no official character. Shortly after, when the conversation turned to General Mellinet, he observed that it was known at Paris that Mellinet had had liaisons with the Dutch and that the French could not count on him or his volunteers. Belliard had been sent in haste to Brussels to press the Belgian government to recall him. Belliard called on the Belgians to open Maastricht's communications, claiming that unless they did so they would never obtain the evacuation of the citadel of Antwerp and never yield the right of free passage for troops: the importance of Maastricht in case of war was well known, as the key to the Rhine. With a good garrison, well victualled, the Maastricht fortress could cause France great embarrassment. It would require at least six weeks' open trench warfare. If Palmerston can make use of this information, he should disguise its source, if he wants Ponsonby to be on good terms with Belliard. The Belgian government is extremely angry with Ponsonby, and he believes they wish to get rid of him because he knows what they are planning. Ponsonby has great hopes for a change in the French ministry. Casimir Perier has the strongest pecuniary interest in preventing free commercial intercourse between Belgium and France. He expects the Belgian government to double their exertions to force France into war. They have hardly any other chance to retain their power, since "distress is operating with encreased rapidity and force in every part of the territory". There have been threats and intentions of a visit to Brussels by thousands of men formerly actively employed in the coal workings in Hainault. The labourers in Brussels and elsewhere, supported by the government, are on the point of being left without pay. Many of the upper classes are against paying taxes. It is said that the government cannot raise them by distress. Tielemans, the Minister of the Interior, and a friend of de Potter's has proposed the establishment of a forced loan. There is talk of calling Congress together immediately. It is due to meet on 15 April. Everyone except the priests seem to support the Prince of Orange. He would be restored at once if it were not for the fears entertained of France, and the threatenings of her agents and friends. If Palmerston forces the government at Paris to change its conduct, he must reckon upon it provoking the mobs at Lisle and other frontier towns, encouraging crowds to pass into Belgium, particularly to Brussels, to create tumult against the Prince. The revolution was actually created by vagabonds, the French and other nations. The Belgian population took no part in the struggle for two days, and all the heroes of the combat, who are now ministers in consequence of their courage, were safe at Vallenciennes until all danger was past. It was the "incredible stupidity" of Prince Frederick that lost Belgium for his father. Either the French government or the Jacobin party will play this "game". If the government discourages it, the force at Brussels, both military and civic, will be amply sufficient to resist all that Lisle and other places can do, and Ponsonby believes Van der Weyer and his friends will run away as fast as they can. The army officers are establishing clubs in favour of the Prince of Orange. Ponsonby thinks Palmerston should decide to see the Prince brought in by the army and the people despite the Congress. In consequence, the constitution will be disregarded. Ponsonby understands that the Prince's friends intend to call a new Congress and to establish a representative government on bases that may permit the existence of a monarch, but he cannot pretend to guess how all this may turn out. "The feeble character of the Prince is the great difficulty and evil." In Ponsonby's opinion there is no other chance, at present, for preserving Belgium from subjugation to France except by the Prince's restoration, but time may be gained to consider the way to obtain effectual security. Ponsonby presumes that Palmerston regards security as of primary importance to England. It is evident, and certain, that Holland cannot be saved from the clutches of France if Belgium is allowed to fall into them. It is not necessary to say what it would then cost England to defend herself. Ponsonby has used the influence of his opinions to prevent attempts being made by force to overthrow the Belgian government, by discussing the likely dangers to the liberty and independence of Belgium of such a move; also, by showing that the time had not yet come when it was prudent to decide what was best to be done for its happiness and prosperity. Palmerston must decide the question. Ponsonby has already spoken to the Regent in strong terms, in the way Palmerston wishes. He thinks it best to say nothing more to the Regent until he has received the next letters from Palmerston, which may be in two days' time. "Your true no meaning, puzzles more than wit, so there is a sort of stupidity and cunning that drives one to despair when it is to be combatted. The Regent believes that an appeal on his part to the sense of justice of mankind will raise armies to defend his possession of territories justly the property of Holland. Van der Weyer believes in Mr Hume. The Regent thinks such a strict alliance with France the way to preserve the independence of Belgium. Mr Van de Weyer thinks the English are willing to submit to France, to save money, and that Grey is a republican and yourself a Jacobin." Palmerston will see from General Belliard's conversation that he states himself not to be an accredited agent from France, and towards the end of the conversation he said that he hurried from Paris to push the Belgian government to recall General Mellinet. Ponsonby questions whether Belliard is a "mouchard" [spy] of the Parisian police. Belliard seems to be received by the Regent as an accredited agent, as Ponsonby conjectures from an event which at the time he did not think worth while noticing or relating to Palmerston. When Ponsonby dined with the Regent, and he was only invited because he was Commissioner, General Belliard was given precedence and placed on the right hand of the Regent. Ponsonby hopes he was not wrong to take no notice of this. He did not think it would hurt either the dignity or interests of Great Britain, "our aiery [aerie] buildeth in the cedar's top", and besides, he himself is "nearly a non-descript" in Belgium. Ponsonby has just received a note from Van der Weyer which he sends in a despatch. It fully confirms Palmerston's suspicions. Ponsonby will merely acknowledge receipt of it. He might embarrass Palmerston by saying anything before he hears from Palmerston fully on the subject of Maastricht, but he believes things are at a crisis. "I have just heard from a man this evening returned from - I will not venture to mention names - that the army of the Meuse is secured to the Prince, as well as the army at Antwerp, and that they will act in the course of the next week." They expect the Prince to be at Rotterdam, and are only waiting for a messenger to arrive with news. They are sure there will not be any opposition from the civic guard, and Ponsonby too believes that everyone is against the government, and that as far as Brussels is concerned, all will be rallied at once and without the slightest struggle. He is thinking of going to Antwerp for a few days to be out of the way, as he is concerned that applications might be made to him, if he remains at Brussels, which would be difficult to answer without committing himself. "If I learn that things are actually come to an extremity, I shall get your despatches as soon and be able to execute your orders in four hours after receiving them. It is but 25 miles distant." Ponsonby does not really understand what Palmerston said about the commissioners. He asks how commissioners could be named by Belgium to draw the line of separation between the countries when the Belgian government rejects the protocol which establishes the limits. "To ask for or to consent to their nomination by Belgium might, it seems to me, be involving the acknowledgement that the protocole was not unchangeably fixed in its decisions. Commissioners might be named to settle about les enclaves, but to that the Belgian government would not consent. The whole thing is embrouillee in the highest degree, and I much fear the hurt will be to be cut by the sword. Can it be that the French government think this Luxembourg a good cause in which to seek a quarrel ? I do not believe it. I believe the ministers here are in league with the Jacobins in Paris and Van de Weyer is fool enough to think Hume and company can palsy your government." Ponsonby cannot discover with any certainty what Belliard is planning. Bresson delayed his departure from Brussels for an extra day. Bresson may have had something to do with Van de Weyer, and is so mortified at his own failure that Ponsonby thinks he would be glad to create confusion in Belgium and force his government to pursue the plans he began to put in motion. If Ponsonby hears more decisive intelligence about the Prince of Orange he will send a messenger to Palmerston. 18 Mar 1831 The letter is marked: "Private" and it is noted on the docket that it was received on 21 March 1831. Palmerston's letter of 15 March, to which Ponsonby alludes, is numbered PP/GC/PO/639. Enclosed is a copy of an extract from Ponsonby's letter, with parts crossed through in pencil.
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
Erasme Louis, Baron Surlet de Chokier, Regent of Belgium
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince de Benevent, French ambassador at London
Louis Philippe, King of the French
Sylvain van der Weyer, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs
Maastricht, Netherlands
Mr Hume
General Auguste Daniel, Comte Belliard, French Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium
General Bernardus Johannes Cornelius, Baron Dibbets, Dutch commander at Maastricht
General Francois Aime Mellinet, French commander of the Belgian troops around Maastricht
River Rhine
Casimir Perier, President of the French Council of Ministers, French Minister of the Interior
Hainault, province, Belgium
J.F.Tielemans, Belgian Minister for Home Affairs
Louis de Potter, Belgian republican, formerly member of the provisional government
William Frederick, Prince of Orange, later William II, King of Holland
Lille; Valenciennes, or Vallenciennes, France
Prince Frederick of the Netherlands
William I, King of the Netherlands, later King of Holland
Charles Grey, second Earl Grey, British Prime Minister
River Meuse, alias Maas, France, Belgium, Netherlands
Rotterdam, Netherlands
Charles Joseph Bresson, later Comte Bresson
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