No. 302.
Mr. Moran to Mr. Fish.

No. 478.]

Sir: The London newspapers of last evening and this morning announce, on the authority of a telegram from Melbourne of the 7th instant, that the sovereignty of the Fiji Islands has been formally ceded by King Thakobau to England; and that Her Britannic Majesty’s consul there, Mr. Edward Leopold Layard, has accepted the cession, subject to the ratification of Her Majesty’s government.

Such a proceeding has been deemed possible here for some time past, and no longer ago than the 30th of last March Mr. William McArthur, member of Parliament for Lambeth, gave notice in the House of Commons that he would call attention on an early day to the present state of affairs with reference to those islands. This was in continuation of his course on the subject last year, when his motion that Great Britain [Page 503] should assume either the protectorate or the sovereignty of the islands received 50 votes in a house of 136members. I was present on the 30th ultimo when he gave notice of his new motion, and it was favorably received.

Her Majesty’s government have no advices from Melbourne or elsewhere confirming the news of the alleged cession.

* * * * * * *

A commission of inquiry was sent to the islands some time ago, and Mr. Layard is a member of it. The cession may have been offered, but the question of acceptance is yet to be decided. I think, however, from the tone of public opinion here that the transfer will be agreed to by this government. The question of the cession of these islands to England as involving the rights of certain American citizens to lands there was brought to Mr. Dallas’s notice by General Cass in his No. 178 of the 16th of May, 1859; and Mr. Dallas, in his numbers 199 and 200 of the 15th and 21st of July of that year, reported his conversations with various members of Her Majesty’s government on the subject.

I send herewith copies of editorial articles touching this probable cession, taken from the leading London newspapers of this morning; and as the transfer of sovereignty may in some way affect private American interests, I have thought it proper promptly to report the present aspect of the affair to you.

I have, &c.,


The telegraph informs us that the sovereignty of the Fiji Islands has been formally ceded by the King to England, and that Mr. Layard, the British consul, has accepted the cession, subject to the ratification of the home government.

This announcement is not altogether intelligible in its present form, but it indicates, no doubt, that a considerable step has been taken in a matter which is of more importance than we are willing to recognize. To appreciate the news it must be remembered that last year, not for the first time, a resolution was moved in the House of Commons by Mr. McArthur, to the effect that it is desirable for Great Britain to assume either the protectorate or the sovereignty of the Fiji Islands. The motion was rejected by a majority of 86 to 50. But in the course of it Mr. Gladstone made a speech, in which he announced, on the part of the government, measures with which the present intelligence is probably connected. He dwelt on the many objections which might be raised to Mr. McArthur’s proposal, but he did not peremptorily reject it. The point on which he principally insisted was that we possessed no information sufficient for our guidance. “As yet,” he said, “we know next to nothing about the interior of the Fiji Islands, the character of the islanders, or to what extent the authority of the King and of the two chiefs who have joined him extends in comparison with the entire population. Above all, we know nothing of that vital question, the tenure and occupation of the land;” consequently, he added that, for the purpose of inquiry on these points, the government had secured the services of two competent and trustworthy men. One was Captain Goodenough, of the royal navy; the other was Mr. Consul Layard, brother to our minister at Madrid, who has been appointed consul at Fiji. The latter gentleman was in fact only awaiting his instructions, and it was expected that in the autumn of last year he and his coadjutor “would apply themselves to their task, and would prosecute it with all the dispatch which was compatible with thoroughness of execution.” Under these circumstances a statement that Consul Layard has “accepted the cession, subject to the ratification of the home government,” possesses more importance than would usually attach to such an announcement.

A consul would ordinarily refer such a proposal to his government, as a matter of course, and his provisional action would indicate in no way the ultimate decision of the English government. But in this instance the intelligence would seem to imply that the person specially commissioned by our government to inquire into the circumstances of the islands approves a cession offered by the King. If this be the case—though our ministers are certainly not pledged to follow the course recommended by [Page 504] our representative—they will he hound to give it a careful if not a favorable consideration; and, at all events, the proposal to annex the Fiji Islands will demand, in the course of a year, a decisive answer.

The question, as our readers will generally be aware, is by no means a new one. As long ago as 1859 the principal chiefs, in some sense or other, offered the country to the Queen. An inclination to accept British authority has since been more than once expressed; and Mr. McArthur stated last year that a fresh petition in favor of annexation was on its way to England. It is indeed easy to understand the need which is felt for the establishment in the islands of some strong government. According to Mr. Gladstone’s statement of last year they contain a population of about 140,000 natives, and 2,000 whites. These whites include some exceedingly turbulent and unprincipled characters; and though the chief members of the government are of white extraction, the King is a native, and he is probably unable to enforce law and keep the peace with any sufficient success. We are utterly ignorant, as Mr. Gladstone said, of the condition of the native population; but it is again highly probable that they are keenly sensible of the encroachments of the white settlers, and that they would be glad of any government which would give them protection.

The difficulty is annually augmented by the increase of the white element in the South Seas, and it must be recognized as one of the complications of the problem that the islands are in any case not likely long to remain independent. If not annexed by England, they may be by the United States; and thus the people of Fiji, and we ourselves, have to consider that the choice may be not between independence and annexation to England, but between annexation to England and to some other power. There seems little doubt of the alternative the Fijians would prefer, but it is for us to take into account, not merely their preference, but the probable advantage or disadvantage of accepting such an addition to our territory. The advocates of annexation are in many respects able to make out a favorable case for their proposal. It is said that the islands occupy one of the most important positions in the Pacific; that, in the opinion of high naval authorities, no better station for our ships of war is to be found in the great highway between America and Australia; that they are exceedingly fertile, producing all kinds of tropical fruits, and particularly favorable to the growth of the cotton-plant. It is urged, moreover, that in view of the growth of other powers in the Pacific we need such a station for the convenience of our navy, and there is a very strong party in Australia in favor of annexation. On one point, indeed, the present telegram seems to be at variance with the assurance of Mr. McArthur and his supporters. He spoke last year of the probable expenses of the government being six or seven thousand a year, while the treasurer anticipated a revenue of £30,000, and believed that in two years it would reach £100,000. These estimates it would seem are matters of pure anticipation. The telegram probably expresses the results of Mr. Layard’s inquiries, and according to it the Fiji exchequer is insolvent, the expenditure having amounted during the last two years to £124,000, while the revenue during the same period was only £40,000. Still, it is not probable that the existing government of the islands have had either the ability or the disposition to make the best use of their resources; and if the climate, the soil, and the situation of the group deserve the praise bestowed on them, there ought to be no difficulty in rendering the annexation inexpensive. There is, moreover, one still more urgent reason in favor of such a step.

The islands are said, under their present government, to afford most mischievous facilities for the slave-traffic, which is the curse of the Southern Pacific. Mr. Gladstone was obliged to admit last year “the importance of this country taking all proper and reasonable steps in order to put an end to a state of things in which British subjects, removing themselves from the territorial jurisdiction of the home or colonial government, plant themselves in a region of the earth having little or no political relation with us, and defile that region by what is either avowedly or virtually a traffic in human flesh, with its usual accompaniments of moral degradation and physical cruelty.”

We have ourselves experienced the difficulty of putting a stop to this crime, and it is probable that such a government as that of Fiji will never be able to exert any effectual control over the white adventurers who are guilty of it.

We are assured the only way to put down the slave-trade, against which we have declared war, is to take the islands into our own hands, and thus deprive the offenders of the shelter they can now obtain.

These arguments, it must be owned, constitute a fair case for consideration, and the latter argument in particular will have great weight with Parliament and the country. At the same time we may be confident the present government, like the last, will be fully alive to the risks and responsibilities of annexation.

The first question to be asked is whether we are sure the “cession” of which the telegram speaks, and the petition of which we heard last year, really represent the dominant feeling among the inhabitants, both white and native.

It was not considered clear last year that the King had the power to transfer his [Page 505] authority in the manner he proposed, and this is the part of the telegram to which we referred at the outset as not sufficiently explicit. Mr. Gladstone justly laid great stress on the necessity of our assuring ourselves on this point; but it is to be presumed the two commissioners whom he sent out have obtained sufficient information. A letter from our correspondent at Sydney, which we publish this morning, states that these gentlemen had issued a proclamation which was in Australia regarded as an overture from the British government. It announced that the desire of Great Britain was for the peace and prosperity of the country, if the King undertakes to govern well; but he must rule well and with a righteous hand, and he was requested to consider how difficult this will be when the elements of his dominions are so various as they presently will be. His Majesty was asked to think well over the position, conferring with his people, and it remained to be seen whether they would prefer annexation or native rule.

We have yet to learn whether this cession by the King was the result of such a conference with his people. If we were sure of the good-will of the mass of the population, one great anxiety would, no doubt, be removed; but unknown difficulties might await us in the internal administration of the islands, and we learned in New Zealand what can be the cost of misunderstandings with a native population. On principle, moreover, we are most averse from any addition to our already unwieldy territories, and there can be no doubt this country would rather avoid the annexation if it could do so with a due regard to our duty and our interests. The latter, perhaps, will be not unfairly balanced, so far as we are in a position to estimate them. But the relation of the islands to the slave-traffic raises the gravest questions respecting the obligation entailed by our position in the Australian Seas, and it may prove that we can only fulfill this obligation by accepting the offer which has been so persistently thrust upon us.