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The alarmed Ministers now mustered what ships they could, and despatched Admiral Byng with them from Spithead on the 7th of April. The whole of these ships amounted only to ten, in a half rotten condition and badly manned; and they commenced their voyage only three days before the French armament issued from Toulon, the English having to cross the Bay of Biscay, and traverse two hundred leagues of the Mediterranean, whilst the French had only seventy leagues to travel altogether. The French armament consisted of twelve ships of the line, and numerous transports, under Admiral La Galissonire, consisting of sixteen thousand men, under the command of the Duke de Richelieu. General Blakeney received news of the approach of this fleet by means of a fast-sailing sloop, and began in all activity to prepare for his defence. He collected his forces into the castle of St. Philip, commanding the town and harbour of Mahon, calling in five companies from Ciudadela. All his troops, however, amounted only to two thousand eight hundred. He had large quantities of cattle driven into the fort, flour and bakers were got in, the ports blocked up, and he sank a sloop in the channel to obstruct the entrance to the harbour. The French fleet appeared off port Ciudadela on the 18th of April, but Byng did not come in sight till the 19th of Maya month afterand then he came disappointed and dispirited. There was a mutual attempt made by Byng and by Blakeney to effect communication, but it does not appear to have been of a determined character, and it failed. La Galissonire was now bearing down on Byng, and the next day, the 20th of May, the two fleets confronted each other. Byng, about two o'clock, gave the signal to Rear-Admiral West to engage, which West did with such impetuosity, that he drove several of the French ships out of line. But Byng himself did not follow the example of West; he hung back, and thereby prevented West from following up his advantage. It was in vain that Byng's own captain urged him to advance; he pretended that it could not be done without throwing his ships out of regular line; and he kept at such a distance that his vessel, a noble ship carrying ninety guns, never was fairly in action at all, and had not a single man killed or wounded. Thus deserted, West was compelled to fall back; and La Galissonire, who showed no disposition to continue the fight, sailed away. Byng retired to Gibraltar. It would seem that the law officers of the Crown despaired of proceeding in the old way, but they, or the Ministers themselves, hit on a new and more daring one. On the 27th of March the Secretary of State addressed a circular letter to the lords-lieutenant of counties, informing them that the Law Officers were of opinion that a justice of the peace may issue warrants to apprehend persons charged with the publication of political libels, and compel them to give bail; and he required the lords-lieutenant to communicate this opinion to the ensuing Quarter Sessions, that all magistrates might act upon it. This was the most daring attack on the liberty of the subject which had been made in England since the days of the Stuarts. Lord Grey, on the 12th of May, made a most zealous and able speech in the House of Lords against this proceeding, denouncing the investment of justices of the peace with the power to decide beforehand questions which might puzzle the acutest juries, and to arrest and imprison for what might turn out to be no offence at all. He said:"If such be the power of the magistrate, and if this be the law, where, I ask, are all the boasted securities of our independence and freedom?" But it appears from the correspondence of Lord Sidmouth, that he was at this moment glorying in this expedient and triumphing in its imagined success. He said the charge of having put such power into the hands of magistrates, he would do his best and most constant endeavour to deserve; and that already the activity of the dealers in libellous matter was much diminished. He had, in truth, struck a deadly terror to the hearts of the stoutest patriots, who saw no prospect but ruin and incarceration if they dared to speak the truth. Cobbett then fled, and got over to America. In taking leave of his readers, in his Register of March 28th, he gave his reasons for escaping from the storm:"Lord Sidmouth was 'sorry to say' that I had not written anything that the Law Officers could prosecute with any chance of success. I do not remove," he continued, "for the purpose of writing libels, but for the purpose of being able to write what is not libellous. I do not retire from the combat with the Attorney-General, but from a combat with a dungeon, deprived of pen, ink, and paper. A combat with the Attorney-General is quite unequal enough; that, however, I would have encountered. I know too well what a trial by special jury is; yet that, or any sort of trial, I would stand to face. So that I could be sure of a trial of whatever sort, I would have run the risk; but against the absolute power of imprisonment, without even a hearing, for time unlimited, in any gaol in the kingdom, without the use of pen, ink, and paper, and without communication with any soul but the keepersagainst such a power it would have been worse than madness to attempt to strive."

At Calcutta, Francis, Clavering, and Monson were deeply engaged in what appeared to them a certain plan for the ruin of Hastings. The Maharajah Nuncomar, who styled himself the head of the Brahmins, came forward and laid before them papers containing the most awful charges against Hastings. These were that Hastings had encouraged him, at the command of the Secret Committee, to produce charges against Mohammed Rheza Khan and Shitab Roy, when they were in prison, in order to extort money from them; and that Hastings had accepted a heavy bribe to allow Mohammed to escape without punishment. Hastings broke up the Council, declaring that he would not sit to be judged by his own Council. If they had charges to prefer against him, they might form themselves into a committee, and transmit such evidence as they received to the Supreme Court of Justice at Calcutta, or to the Directors at home. But the three declared themselves a majority, voted their own competence to sit and try their own chief, and preferred another huge charge introduced by Nuncomarnamely, that Hastings had appropriated to[327] himself two-thirds of the salary of the Governor of Hooghly, a post formerly held by Nuncomar himself. They determined to introduce Nuncomar to confront Hastings at his own Council board. Hastings declared the Council not sitting; the three declared it sitting and valid, and called in Nuncomar, who proceeded to detail his charges, and ended by producing a letter from the Munny Begum, now Governor of Oude, expressing the gratitude which she felt to the Governor-General for her appointment as guardian of the Nabob, and that in token of this gratitude she had presented him with two lacs of rupees. Immediately on hearing that, Hastings declared the letter a forgery, and that he would prove it so; and he was not long in procuring an absolute denial of the letter from the Begum. Things being driven to this pass, Hastings commenced an action against Nuncomar, Mr. Fowke, one of the most active agents of the trio, and others, as guilty of a conspiracy against him. This was supported by native witnesses, and the Supreme Court of Justice, after a long and careful examination of the case, held Nuncomar and Fowke to bail, and bound the Governor-General to prosecute. MOB BURNING A FARM IN KENT. (See p. 325.)

THE ENGLISH PLENIPOTENTIARIES INSULTED IN THE STREETS OF UTRECHT. (See p. 7.) The advice of Pitt prevailed. Ministers determined to bring in two Acts in accordance with his counsels: an Act declaratory of the supreme[189] power of Parliament over the colonies, and another repealing the Stamp Act, on the plea which he had suggested. The Declaratory Act passed readily enough, for all parties agreed in it; but the repeal of the Stamp Act met with stout opposition. Grenville, with the pertinacity of a man who glories in his disgrace, resisted it at every stage. When he was hissed by the people, he declared that "he rejoiced in the hiss. If it were to do again, he would do it!" In the Lords there was a strong resistance to the repeal. Lord Temple, who had now deserted Pitt, supported his brother Grenville with all his might. Lords Mansfield, Lyttelton, and Halifax, the whole Bedford faction, and the whole Bute faction, opposed it. The king declared himself for repeal rather than bloodshed.

On the 6th of November the second reading of the Bill was carried by a majority of twenty-eight, the numbers being one hundred and twenty-three to ninety-five, which the Government considered equivalent to a finding of guilty. It appears from these numbers that a large proportion of their lordships abstained from voting. The Bishops had an insuperable objection to the divorce clause; but in committee it was sustained by a majority of one hundred and twenty-nine to sixty-two, the Opposition having nearly all voted for the clause, with a view of defeating the Bill in its last stage. Consequently, for the third reading, on the 10th of November, the majority was only nine, the numbers being one hundred and eight to ninety-nine. Upon this announcement Lord Liverpool rose and said, that upon so slender a majority he could not think of pressing the measure further, and so he begged leave to withdraw the Bill. The truth is, he had no option. It had not the slightest chance of passing through the Lower House, where ignominious defeat awaited the Government.