HC Deb 10 February 1807 vol 8 cc717-22

A Message was sent to the house by the house of lords, announcing that their lordships had passed a bill, entitled, An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and to which they desired the concurrence of the house; the bill being laid upon the table,

Lord Howick

rose and moved, that this Bill be read a first time; upon which

Mr. George Hibbert,

in a maiden speech, said, that he could not suffer a measure of such great and critical importance to pass even over this stage without remark: although in seeking to impress upon the house the duty of giving to it the most calm and solemn deliberation, he should be careful to abstain from any argument concerning the principle or provisions of the bill, for which he knew there would be another and a fitter opportunity. It was a bill that, without question, put to risk our West India commerce, a most important resource of the empire, and of peculiar value at the present moment: nothing that had passed in another house of parliament; nothing in the form of resolutions or opinions of a former parliament; no popular sentiment out of doors, however assiduously and enthusiastically excited, ought to affect their deliberations. To this parliament, to which they were called, the question came unembarrassed and unprejudged, and to many of the members of that house its temperate discussion must be novel. They were not a commitium, a mere organ of the voice of the multitude, but a deliberate body, limited in their number that they might the better deliberate, bound to maintain the rights, and to consult the interests and the wishes of the people, but bound to decide as their consciences should dictate for the good of the whole, after full and free discussion. He trusted, therefore, that gentlemen would come to this subject with minds impressed with its importance, and open to its calm and dispassioned investigation. He was aware of the disadvantages he must encounter in contending with the hon. gent. (Mr. Wilberforce); he could not for a moment pretend to ascend the heights on which the confidence of that house, due to the hon. gent's talents and virtues, had entrenched him; but if he would descend and fight this battle upon the level plain of fact and experience, he, (Mr. H.) should feel it his duty to assume the courage to meet him, and to oppose at every step a measure which he believed in his heart to be grounded on a delusive promise of good which it never would accomplish, and to be pregnant with inevitable, immediate, and extensive mischief.

Lord Howick

agreed with the hon. gent. in the great importance of the present bill. It was indeed important in the highest degree, not merely to the cause of humanity and justice, but it was also highly important to the real interests of the West India merchants themselves. It certainly would never be argued in that house, that the West India Islands were not an important part of the British empire, and that their interests did not deserve the most serious consideration. When the bill should come seriously to be discussed, it would be considered not only on the ground of humanity, but also of sound policy, as it affected the West India Islands, and the general interests of the empire. He, therefore, wished as much as any man, that this important subject should be considered with calmness and due deliberation. The hon. gent. had spoken of pains taken to raise a popular clamour against the Slave Trade: he, however, knew of no such practices. He knew, indeed, that there had been a most laudable and persevering attention on the part of the hon. gent. (Mr. Wilberforce) who originated the measure, but this attention was never employed to mislead any body, but merely to make the subject generally understood. He had never laboured to excite a prejudice or clamour, but merely to convince the understandings of all dispassionate persons. There certainly ought to be a fair time allowed for the discussion, but when he recollected how much time had been already given, and what notice the persons concerned had already had from the proceedings in the other house, he could not consent to postpone the second reading farther than to Tuesday next; the hon. gent. would then have an opportunity of arguing the subject fully.

General Gascoyne

thought it could only be from the multiplicity of business in which the noble lord (Howick) was engaged, that it had escaped his notice, that every measure that invention or artifice could devise to create a popular clamour was resorted to on this occasion. The church, the theatre, and the press, had laboured to create a prejudice against the Slave Trade. It had even been maintained from the pulpil, that "England could never expect to be victorious in war, while she persisted in such an abominable traffic." Now this doctrine, which certainly ought never to have come from such a place, had beer completely falisfied, for England never was more victorious by land and by sea than in the present reign, and in the present war; and some of those victories had been obtained by men who, in another place boldly professed their opinion to be against this bill. The attempts to make a popular clamour against this trade were never so conspicious as during the late Election, when the public newspapers teemed with abuse of this trade, and when promises were required from the different candidates that they would oppose its continuance. There never had been any question agitated since that of parliamentary reform, in which so much industry had been exerted to raise a popular prejudice and clamour, and to make the trade an object of universal detestation. In every manufacturing town and borough in the kingdom, all those arts had been tried. It was not his intention to speak at present upon the general subject, as he would consider it disrespectful to the lords, if any bill which came down from their house should not at least be read a first time; but as it was a subject respecting which former parliaments had expressed great doubts, and as the bill went to abrogate all the colonial laws of the country, he intreated that the house would give the measure the fullest and most serious consideration.

Mr. W. Plumer

begged leave to set right the hon. gent. who had last spoken; and to inform him, that no one man, in the whole county he represented, ever asked him to pledge himself upon the subject of this bill. He could assure him, that if any man had asked him to pledge himself upon that, or any subject, he would have refused to accept of his vote. He should, therefore, vote quite free and uncontrouled for the abolition of the trade. He did not know what the hon. gent. might have met with in boroughs; but as to cabinet measures, and cabinet ministers, he cared not for any measures which were so denominated. The time was, when a member would have been called to order for having hinted at such things as cabinet measures.

General Gascoyne ,

in explanation, said, he did not mean to express himself so generally as what the hon. gent. had supposed he had done. He rather meant to say, that there was scarcely a city or borough, that had not imposed restrictions upon the representatives returned.

Mr. T. W. Plummer

thought it necessary, that a bill of such general interest should not be rapidly carried through its different stages, but that sufficient time should be given for the consideration of the measure. On which account, he concluded, that the proper time to debate the question would be on the second reading of the bill, which he hoped would be fixed for a day sufficiently distant to admit of members being furnished with every information on this important subject.

Lord Howick

was almost persuaded, that from the number of years which had elapsed since the first discussion of this bill, and from the frequent debates which had since taken place on this subject, as well as the decision of the last parliament, there would be no necessity to postpone its consideration to a more remote period than Tuesday next.

Mr. G. Hibbert

was of opinion this period would not be sufficient to admit a meeting of those merchants, who were, above all others, concerned in the present measure; and therefore requested the noble lord would put off the second reading until this day fortnight.

Lord H. Petty

hoped the humane movers of this salutary and merciful measure, would persevere in bringing it, as soon as convenient, again before the house. It had already been submitted, for above a month or six weeks, to the public, during its discussion in the upper house, from which it had come with every recommendation. As that house undoubtedly contained many of the most enlightened and virtuous statesmen, this was a consideration, which he hoped would have its due weight with gentlemen. He concluded with expressing a wish, that the second reading of the bill should not meet with any unnecessary delay.

Captain Herbert

thought with the hon. gent. near him (Mr. Hibbert) that time should be given to consider the consequences arising from the passing of the bill just now read. This bill, he was of opinion, would not effect the abolition of the Slave Trade, but rather would become the ruin of the British Colonies in the West Indies, and consequently of our finances in that part of the world. As to the argument resorted to by the noble lord who proposed the motion, he conceived it to be very defective, inasmuch as he was not, nor could he devise how he should be, bound to conform to the decision of the last parliament.

Mr. H. Addington

thought it necessary to defer the second reading to a more remote day. In which opinion he was supported by Mr. Lethbridge.

Mr. I. H. Browne

said, that; though the uniform enemy of the Slave Trade, and that from a conviction of its injustice, inhumanity, as well as impolicy, yet, when an innovation was about to be made on the private properties of a considerable portion of this commercial country, he could not think the suggested delay of a fortnight unreasonable. He should, if the house divided on this point, certainly vote for the postponement, and therefore could not be content without expressing himself as he had done, lest he might be supposed an enemy to the abolition of this detestable traffic.

Lord Temple

objected to the day intended for the second reading of the bill, and was at a loss to conjecture the reason of his noble friend's wishing thus to hurry the bill through its stages. He conceived it would be prudent, in a case of this importance, to furnish the house with a printed account of the evidence in the other house. It should be remembered, that this bill was introduced with the blanks filled up; and in this respect, not similar to other bills, on their first reading, which originate in this house. From these circumstances, he was induced to hope the noble lord would concur with him in deferring the second reading for another week.

Mr. Tierney

thought there was abundance of time for a meeting of the West India Planters; and the same counsel, if it should be thought expedient to hear counsel on the subject, might be employed in this, as in the other house.

Mr. Babington

thought a meeting of the West India Merchants could easily meeting called within the time appointed by the noble lord.

Mr. Hibbert

wthen moved, as an amendment, that the second reading be fixed for this day fortnight.

Lord Howick

wishing above all things, that no pretence should be given for cavil- ling, to the enemies of the bill, he would, if the hon. gent. withdrew his amendment, fix the second reading for Friday week; which being assented to, the motion for the second reading on Friday se'nnight, was put and carried.