PP/GC/PO/99 Letter from Lord Ponsonby to Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, concerning Maastricht, Luxembourg and the possibilities of a general war, 12 April 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: [Transcript] "Immediately after I received your letter of the 8th inst[ant] I acquainted Mons[ieu]r Lebeau with your decision respecting Comte D'Aerschot. Mons[ieu]r Lebeau, after having restated the motives of his conduct, requested me to assure you in the strongest terms that the recal of the Comte D'Aerschot was not intended to show the least want of respect for the British gover[nmen]t, but was the effect of the circumstances in which the Belgian ministry were placed. I have since reported, confidentially, to Mons[ieu]r Lebeau, Sir James Kemp's opinion relative to the practice and principle by which the case of [f.1v] of Maestricht should be governed. The question has been submitted to the council, but I have not yet received a reply. If your true object should be merely to have Maestricht placed in a state fit to resist an attack from the French, not to render it free to be converted into a means for the collection of a Dutch army for military operations against Belgium, I think it probable the Belgian gov[ernme]nt would consent to render the communications perfectly free for such a purpose, if you could give them an assurance that they should be used only for that object. The present ministers loudly disclaim every intention of furthering [f.2r] the views of France, and profess to act solely on purely national and independent principles. I reported to Mons[ieu]r Lebeau the complaints of the Dutch prisoners, and I urged him to release them at once. He gave me hopes of doing what I asked, but added, it would take time to determine on the measure. He further said that no complaint had been made to the Minister of War, by the prisoners themselves, and he furnish'd me with the written assurance of that fact which I enclose herewith. I had hope, when I last wrote to you, that the gov[ernme]nt were not absolutely serious about war; I have since seen cause to fear that they are in earnest, and Mons[ieu]r Lebeau has unequivocally, and solemnly [MS "solemny"], assured me that they are determined to defend Luxembourg to the last extremity, and he added that, if it were not his own policy and his own feeling to do so, he should [f.2v] still be obliged to act in that measures by the violent and unanimous sentiments of the nation. In reply to my remonstrances, he said he had well weighed the disparity of force between the contending parties, and the possible consequences of the contest upon Europe as well as upon Belgium, and was prepared to risk them. He did not combat what I urged to justify, or as[k] the motives of, your determination to insist upon the settlement of the limits in complete correspondance with the protocole of 20th, but set forward reasons why he thought the policy you had adopted might be advantageously altered with reference to European and British interests. He said that his gove[rnme]nt as now administered was formed upon the principle of Belgian independance, that he and his colleagues were declaredly and decidedly hostile to French influence in the counsels [f.3r] and ready to sacrifice their lives rather than submit to the controul of France, that in this they were supported by the nation, and strongly by the National Association, in which the French party, though the founders of it, had entirely lost the influence they once possessed, which now had passed into the hands of young Belgians animated, in the highest degree, by independant principles and a disgust of France derived from the crooked policy she had practised, but more strongly arising from their feelings of national pride and the honest desire to be masters at home, instead of servants of the stranger. He repeated, `We are ready to resist France in arms, if you will give us justice, and support us, if an attempt be made to overpower us. We will destroy all the fortresses by which France would be enabled to hold possession of our country, if once obtained, and we will preserve those which will secure to England and Germany the means [f.3v] of coming to our aid against the French. We will destroy all the defences of Antwerp and the English, by obtaining the fortification of Breskens opposite Flushing, may hermetically seal the Scheldt. We will consent to have Maestricht garrisoned by German troops. We will pay any sum of money that may be demanded, to indemnify the King of Holland for his title to Luxemburg, and will take upon ourselves the same obligations to the Diet, as those now on him, leaving the fortress in the hands of the Diet.' Lebeau said that the Luxembourgeois were naturally hostile to the French and, if relieved from the hated dominion of the King, would be an efficient and resolute check to French aggression on that side; that Europe, and England particularly, wanted to keep Belgium out of the hands of France, and [f.4r] that the new gov[ernme]nt, with the nation at their back, were animated with the same desire; that they knew and felt that France had no other object than to subjugate their country and that England could have no object but to protect it, that their eyes and wishes were, therefore, turned that way and all their peculiar interests identified with those of Great Britain, but he added, `With all this before our eyes, we will not give up our honor, we will defend it to the utmost, and we will * will * endeavour, by the vigour of our defence against our enemies, to prove that our friendship is worth having, and rather than submit, we will throw ourselves unconditionally into the arms of France, or of any party in France who will espouse our cause.' I replied that whatever might be the advantages or disadvantages \ of the line of conduct / which England had adopted or of that which he had described, your gov[ernme]nt was bound by their engagements and would abide by them; that [f.4v] his acceptance of the limits as described in the protocole was a necessary preliminary to the establishment of any closer friendship between England and Belgium. I repeated and exhausted all my arguments to shew him that ruin to his cherished independence and the erasure of the name of his country from the list of nations would be the consequence of his determination to resist by force of arms the combined powers of all the military actions of Europe. He replied, `If I wished to act otherwise, which I do not, I have not the power to do so. England is about to destroy a natural friend or force her into the arms of a rival I will hope for a revision of this policy and I will trust to you to state to your gov[ernme]nt the facts and reasonings I have brought forward: we will be English if you will allow us: do not [f.5r] force us to become French !' It is not for me to speak of the value of what Mons[ieu]r Lebeau said, but it is my duty to tell you that I do think him sincere. The change in the influence exercised over the National Association has been mentioned above by Mon[sieu]r Lebeau, and the change in the Congress has been even still more remarkable; the ministry have now become so strong there, as to be, apparently, able to direct it in most of its operations, and the most noisy of the late opponents of Mons[ieu]r Lebeau, I speak of Mons[ieu]r Robaulx, has lately made overtures to him, and will be in place immediately unless he aspires too high. Van de Weyer has been forced to seek ground to stand upon in the ostentatious display of a zeal for national independence, not easily [f.5v] to be reconciled with his support for the Duc de Nemours; and the French party is at this moment reduced to a feeble minority seeking strength in a union with the few republicans. It was from this set of men that a proposition came, which has been just made to the Congress, for a decree authorizing the executive gover[nmen]t to appoint a foreigner to be commander in chief of the army in case of war, and also to make some minor appointment in the same way. This proposal was taken up by the minister, and will be carried. The original proposers intended to name Gen[era]l Lamarque, but Mons[ieu]r Lebeau tells me it is not to be so. I asked him why he had given his assent and countenance to the measure, and he answered that, as he was to be forced into a war, he must take every measure [f.6r] in his power to make it with success and that there was no Belgian fit to command the army. The supplies have been voted without opposition. Such is the present state of the administration and \ of / their avowed policy. The conduct of the French gov[ernmen]t, and their views, are as they always have been, far from frank and honest, in as much as I can judge of them. Mons[ieu]r de Celles, whose influence or at least intimacy at the Palais Royal you are acquainted with, has written several letters to his friends here, always saying `point de Leopold !' I know the fact, but Lebeau told it me. He also said that he knew Talleyrand was at the bottom of the conduct of Sebastiani and the French ministry, with respect to this country, and that Talleyrand was really working to force Belgium to belong to France; he said, but I beg this may be kept quite secret, that he knew the above from Gen[era]l Belliard, who he represented to be disgusted with the parts assigned to him to act, and to have gone, he believed, [f.6v] to Paris to put an end to it one way or another. Gen[era]l B[elliard], he said, was a man possessing many friends in this country, already old, enjoying a good reputation which he would not sacrifice, and that he had complained to him of the policy of Tallyrand. Mons[ieu]r Lebeau burst out into invectives against Sebastiani and Talleyrand, and said the baseness of the gover[nme]nt will soon make me execrate the French nation. He may have been acting, but I felt that he was sincere. I may have been wrong. I have been anxious to acquaint myself with the opinion and probable conduct of the gov[ernmen]t and Congress respecting the choice of Leopold, which has been so much talked of. Mons[ieu]r Lebeau has spoken to me in the most undisguised manner on the subject. I must again require secrecy as to what I now report. He told me that he was resolved to elect Leopold and \ was / sure of the consent of Congress, provided he could also be assured that Leopold would accept [f.7r] the crown, that to obtain certainty on that point he had resolved to send, instantly, to London, Mons[ieu]r Villain 14, and the Abbe de la Foere, to propose the crown to Leopold and demand a final decision from him as to the acceptance or rejection of it. I endeavoured, but in vain, to dissuade him from this, and you may expect the arrival of those persons within two days after you receive this letter. He intends, if Leopold will accept, to have the election immediately, whether France likes it or not; to instal the new King as soon as possible in the Palace, but to defer offering him the oath, in order that he may be at liberty to settle the question of limits with less difficulty. As to the election, I know that the clergy and Catholick body, are not only consenting but desirous of it, on condition that Leopold [f.7v] will marry a Catholick and have his children brought up in the Catholick religion. There was yesterday a meeting of 20 of the chiefs of that sect, deputies in Congress, and 16 declared for him: one said he would not vote against him, and three only objected. All the other parties in the country, excepting the French and republicans, and it may be some of the Orangists, are for him, so that it may be expected he would have somewhere about 40 or 45 votes at most against him, supposing all the above should write to oppose his election. The public voice is decidedly for him, because the settlement of the question of a sovereign is passionately desired, and because those engaged in trade hope to find in it some chance of relief from the ruinous stagnation of baseness under which they now suffer. Lebeau expressed violent indignation gainst [f.8r] the French reproduction of Charles of Naples as a candidate. I have perhaps nothing further to say to you on this part of the subject but to add that all the other members agree with Mons[ieu]r Lebeau in the desire for Leopold and in his general ideas of policy. It may be well to mention that Mons[ieu]r Lebeau has sent a confidential agent to Berlin charged to endeavour to conciliate the goodwill of Prussia. He said to me that he wished, by all ways open to him, to seek the establishment of a national interest with Europe and to escape from French despotism. It may be presumptuous in me to venture to canvass the situation of affairs, or it may be my duty to do so. I will trust then to your lenity for my pardon if I err on the one side, rather than risk a fault on the other. Whilst France refused to ratify her engagements so recently contracted with the rest of Europe and seemed ready to support the claims of Belgium to Luxemberg against the rights she had herself recognized, war appeared inevitable sooner or later and, being inevitable, could not perhaps be commenced so advantageously for us [f.8v] in any other quarter or on any other ground as that afforded by the Luxemberg question. France must then have shewn not only her open disregard of her engagements, but the ambitious motives which governed her. There would have been a strong moral force in operation against her and the feeling of common interest, more or less, in all other countries, to check her views of conquest. France has now accepted the protocole and disclaimed all intervention in Luxemberg. War, therefore, is not now inevitable; it is not, therefore, any longer advantageous that it sh[oul]d commence in Luxemberg because it will not now commence there on the same grounds as it would have done previous to the adhesion of France to the protocole. The question is then narrowed and is, whether or not it be worth while to risk the excitement of a general war by the attack upon Luxemberg or whether it be better to endeavour to avoid coming to a crisis in that country by retarding, by such measures as may be applicable, the march of the troops of the Diet into the Duchy. [f.9r] I presume this question is to be determined mainly by the following considerations. Belgium, as I have said, is determined to maintain the war at all costs. Money has been found. Troops are marching to the contested country and recruits are actually rushing to the army. 1,000 enlisted this day in Brussels and 500 yesterday. The population of the province next to the Duchy is ready to march en mass. Luxemberg is a country in which, it is said, no regular army can have on its side the peculiar advantages of discipline. It is like a barricadoed city, a succession of posts in which the most untaught men may defend themselves with advantage. The Belgians are good marksmen and do not, I believe, want courage. They will have perhaps at least 60,000 men of one sort or another in arms. To oppose these means of defence, an army of 25,000 men followed by 15,000 reserve is said to be designed by the Diet. These troops are belonging to different countries, and raw levies, and cannot be expected to be animated by any spirit on which dependance can be placed. [f.9v] Is their success certain ? If they fail, what will be the situation of affairs ? Either humiliation, or a renewed effort, on a greater scale, on the part of the great powers against an enemy strengthened by success. May there not be in this an inherent powerful cause of a general war ? It is stated in the newspapers that the French population of the department of the Moselle is ready to march to the aid of the Belgians. I have reason to know that there may be too much truth in the assertion. I have seen letters from those parts, written by reputable persons, wherein it is positively announced that many officers of the line, whose names are mentioned, of the rank of captain, have declared that they will bring over their companies to Luxemberg in defiance of the orders of the French gov[ernme]nt. Can the French gov[ernmen]t controul this action, if it desire it ? Can the gov[ernme]nt of Belgium prevent this assistance or can [f.10r] it desire to reject it under the circumstances of an attack ? If these things take place, can the general peace be preserved ? Is it worth while to originate a general war on account of the protocole ? The King of Holland, no doubt, considers war as the only remaining chance for the recovery of his lost fortunes, and will insist upon his recognized rights in Luxemberg. What sacrifice ought to be made to his claims or interests ? It is essentially important to support Holland, but Holland gains no strength from Luxemberg, and has no interest in it. Holland, besides, must, for her own sake, desire to see Belgium strong and free from French dominion, because Holland must feel that if Belgium is swallowed up by France, her own turn to be devoured is near at hand. If the attack upon Luxemberg should be made without success, there is reason to fear it will produce the most mischevous effects upon the popular mind. I cannot but apprehend that \ the / Jacobin spirit of the worst sort will receive from it a strong additional [f.10v] force. It must also be apprehended that the mere fact of a combat in Luxemburg may produce such consequences in France as the prudent may wish to avoid all chance of creating. Laying, for a moment, aside the consideration of the engagements of England, contracted in the Conference, and the essential policy of an adherence to treaties, etc., may not it be doubtful whether or not that which is sought to be established as the rule for the acknowledgement and constitution of the monarchy of Belgium, be necessary to the general interests of Europe ? Belgium cannot be, without a violence too great to be thought of, partitioned amongst the neighbouring states, were it otherwise politick so to act towards her. She must therefore exist, and her existence as a free and powerful barrier against France is the sole interest of all other nations. It is evident that united by contract with Holland, but divided from her by strong antipathies, she was useless as a barrier against a power to which she would prefer subjection to her union with Holland. She is therefore now, even in her most diminished [f.11r] extent, calculated to be a better barriere than before, provided she be animated by a spirit of nationality and independance. It is a fact not to be doubted any longer that her people are actuated by a strong national spirit: the resistance they now unanimously offer to the power of nearly all Europe is a proof that they are so, and it is to all appearances equally true that they would, if they could, defend themselves against the dominion of France however that may be attempted to be imposed upon them, provided it shall not come to them under the disguise of assistance against oppression and in defence of their national liberty and honor. Are we not putting to risk the vital force of this people as a barrier ? May we not be preparing these for the arms of France, Jacobin or conqueror ? Are the importance of the territories and places in dispute of so much general interest to Europe in point of the fact of their being in the custody of their present holders as to authorize the risk - great risk - of throwing into the hands of France four millions of people [f.11v] desirous of being Belgians instead of Frenchmen and having feelings as well as interest not French, rather than take steps to hear and try what means are possible to be divested for making Belgium European by avoiding war now, and arranging those possessions in such a way as to incur no danger of their becoming a prey to the French ? Surely Maestricht even, as well as the Duchy might be secured against France as well as it now is by the Dutch. As to the other arrangements, they do not at all touch the interest of the security of any of us against France. I have considered the subject seperated from all connection with the faith of treaties, and our engagements. I have perhaps been impertinent in doing so freely, what I have done, but my intention is to do my duty. I have only to add that the late news from Poland has given additional confidence to all people here. I believe we shall lament it if we miss the occasion that may offer to make Belgium our own in feeling as much as it is so by its true interests. [f.12r] I forgot at the time I heard it, for it does not concern my business, to tell you that I had cause to imagine Louis Philippe contemplated the possibility of marrying the Duc de Nemours to Dona Maria da Gloria and obtaining the crown of Portugal." 12 Apr 1831 The letter is marked: "Private" and it is noted on the docket that it was received on 14 April 1831. Enclosed is a letter, in French, from Jean Louis Joseph Lebeau, [Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs], Brussels, to John Ponsonby, second Baron Ponsonby, [British Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium]: following the conversation which Lebeau had with Ponsonby about the complaint made by the cabinet of The Hague about the treatment of Dutch prisoners, Lebeau went to see the Minister of the Interior to get information for Ponsonby. In an interview which Lebeau had had with the minister that day, he said that no such complaint had reached his department. 11 Apr 1831
Six papers, tied with green ribbon, plus one enclosure of one paper
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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
Jean Louis Joseph Lebeau, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs
Philippe Jean Michel, Comte D'Arschot Schoonhoven, alias Aerschot, Belgian representative at London
Maastricht, alias Maestricht, Netherlands
Breskens; Flushing, Netherlands
River Scheldt, Belgium
William I, King of the Netherlands, later King of Holland
Alexandre Robaulx, member of the Belgian Congress
Sylvain van der Weyer
Louis, Duc de Nemours, second son of Louis Philippe, King of the French
General Maximilien, Comte Lamarque
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later Leopold I, King of the Belgians
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince de Benevent, alias Tallyrand, French ambassador at London
Francois Horace Bastien, Comte Sebastiani, French Minister for Foreign Affairs
General Auguste Daniel, Comte Belliard, French Joint Commissioner of the London Conference to the provisional government of Belgium
Charles Ghislain Guillaume, Viscomte Vilain XIIII, alias Villain 14, member of the Belgian Congress
Abbe Defoere, alias de la Foere, member of the Belgian Congress
Orangists, supporters of William Frederick, Prince of Orange, later William II, King of Holland, and his claim to the Belgian throne
Charles Ferdinand, Prince of Capua, brother of Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies
Moselle, province, France
London Conference on Belgian independence
Louis Philippe, King of the French
Maria II da Gloria, Queen of Portugal
Etienne Noel Joseph, Comte de Sauvage, Belgian Minister for Home Affairs
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