HC Deb 27 February 1807 vol 8 cc1040-53

On the order of the day being read for the house resolving itself into a committee on the slave-trade abolition bill,

Sir Charles Pole

declared himself so impressed with the impolicy of the abolition, that he was induced, in every stage, to thwart a bill, ruinous to the colonies and to the commerce of the country; a measure which would put into the hands of the enemy, those objects on which he had so steadfastly fixed his attention, and the want of which, in a great degree, restrained the progress of his arms, and prevented the accomplishment of those menaces, with which he had so long threatened this empire. It was a great sacrifice to risk one-third of the British exports, besides imports to a large amount, independent of the employment given to such a number of seamen, as were annually engaged in the trade with Africa. He wished not to delay the house, but he strenuously recommended a prolongation of the time when the bill should begin to operate, and a total change of the preamble of the bill.

Mr. Hughan ,

on rising for the first time to address the house, solicited the indulgence usually extended t young members, and declared, that a consciousness of his own inexperience in debate would have deterred him from delivering his sentiments on the present occasion, did not an imperious sense of duty, an irresistible impression of the magnitude and importance of the question to the best interests of the state, rise paramount to all other ,considerations, and induce him to appeal to the sober and deliberate judgement of the house, against that strain of eloquent declamation which, on a former evening, had been so zealously and successfully employed to rouse the passions, to overpower and mislead the reason. He trusted that an humble individual might be permitted to raise his voice in defence of that system of our an- cestors under which our commercial prosperity had attained its present extent, and our naval strength its power. He was the more anxious to make this attempt, from observing that no one possessing personal knowledge, or local experience of the real condition of slavery in the West Indies, had yet offered any information to the house, and having spent a considerable part of his life in the most important of our colonies, and having therefore some knowledge of the subject, he would endeavour to convey juster ideas of the present state of negroes in these settlements than seemed now to prevail. Indeed, the representations which had been made, and descriptions given, were of that nature, that they had excited no small degree of astonishment in his mind; so much so, that doubts might have arisen (if these relations were deserving of credit) whether all that he had heard or witnessed during a residence of 10 years in the West Indies, must not have passed in a dream; and he would tell the hon, members, from his own personal observation, that there did not exist a more happy race than the slaves in our colonies, it any trust was to be placed in outward appearances, which universally indicated cheerfulness and contentment. If the statements which had been given were correct, if the enormities which had been related were practised, he had no difficulty in saying, that man must be destitute of the common attributes of humanity, who, believing such accounts, did not cordially join the advocates of the present measure in voting for the abolition of the trade; nay, for the abolition of slavery itself. But he must totally deny the truth of these general accusations, and demand proof: neither could he admit, that one or two instances of severity or oppression, if established even, (such circumstances must and do happen in every country,)—could be admitted as evidence of the delinquency of the system at large; and it was singular, that the most exalted characters, those heroes, the ornament and pride of their, country, and who had been employed in the colonies almost to a man, bore testimony to the milt and lenient treatment of slaves in the West Indies.—Here the hon. gent. lamented, that the legislature had thought fit to deny itself the benefit of all additional information, by evidence, on this important question, on the alledged ground that nothing new could be adduced. During the period which had elapsed since the enquiry on this subject was closed, he would ask, had no new occurrences taken place, which ought to influence opinion and govern the judgement? Did the rebellion in Grenada, the Charib insurrection in St. Vincents, the Maroon war in Jamaica, and, above all, the revolution in St. Domingo, afford no lesson, no experience by which our decision might be guided? It could be clearly shewn, that the latter most disastrous event had its origin in, and was accelerated by, doctrines similar to those which were now espoused in this country, first promulgated in France, and afterwards most industriously disseminated, until, in their natural course, they buried that devoted and ill-fated colony in devastation and ruin. In a case of so much moment to the parties, he also contended, that they had a right, an undoubted right, to be patiently heard in their own defence; and he must, therefore, regret, that those highly respectable characters who were offered as witnesses at the bar, had not been received. The mode in which the question had been treated, he (Mr. H.) strongly deprecated, Out of doors, the grossest exaggeration and misrepresentation had been resorted to, and in that house, declamation was substituted for argument, and pathetic addresses to the feelings for sound reasoning. The noble lord who introduced the bill, had set the example, which had been universally followed, and an hon. and learned gent. (the solicitor-general) had been carried so far by the spirit of disingenuous animadversions, that he did not scruple to ascribe all the laws of the colonial legislatures which had been passed for the security and protection of the negroes, to an insidious design merely to impose on the public of this country, with the view of stifling farther enquiry or discussions as to slavery, and, as he alledged, none of them were put in force. To a man acquainted with the facts, such an assertion appeared monstrous; and when that learned gent. quoted the words of an obsolete law of Barbadoes to shew the estimation in which, in legal language and proceedings, negroes were held, it would have been more candid had he at the same time stated the date of that law, and mentioned that it was passed upwards of a century ago. Even the hon. member for Yorkshire (Mr. Wilberforce), in a recent publication, had been compelled to admit that the consolidated slave law of Jamaica was enacted previous to the agitation of the question of Abolition, and could not therefore have been framed with the intent imputed to the West-Indians by the solicitor-general. To that law he (Mr. H.) would refer for a refutation of such. charges: let its provisions be examined, and it would be seen, whether the interests and protection of the slaves were so completely over-looked as had been asserted. So much for the means which had been employed for the accomplishment of this measure.—With regard to its general tendency and result, he would not hesitate to affirm, than it must prove as little beneficial to the Africans themselves, as it would be injurious to the colonial interests and naval superiority of the empire. Throughout the whole discussion, cause and effect had been studiously blended; slavery-with the slave trade. The slave trade in Africa was the result of slavery, and slavery was produced by the barbarism of the inhabitants. History, ancient and modern, proved the universal existence of slavery in all the countries of Africa, inhabited by negroes, and that this system prevailed ages before the commencement of the European slave-trade. Mr. Parke, the favourite author of the abolitionists, informed us, that three-fourths of the negroes were in a state of slavery; and from one fact which he mentioned, it might be presumed that in this calculation the numbers of slaves were underrated; for he tells us that of 900 prisoners taken in one battle only 70 were free persons. Such, then being the state of the population of Africa, where the, inhabitants were totally ignorant of any other distinction than that of master and slave, how would the condition of these slaves be. ameliorated by the extinction of one branch only of the trade? The European trade in slaves was derives from that description of individuals who were slaves in their own country, and if put an end to, not one less would exist in Africa. But this was not all; for the proposed act only abolished the British slave-trade., Would the French, the Dutch, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, or the Americans abandon it? It wan not even pretended that any of the former nations had shewn the smallest disposition to relinquish the traffic, and the latter understand the own interest too well to give it up: The French knew the value of this, trade, and that their colonial, commerce, the chief support of the naval power of every Euro- pean state, depended on it. Indeed, their own experience was more ample than that of any other country. France, previous to the revolution, as she possessed the most extensive colonies, had the greatest,share of this trade. From Nantz alone, 320 ships were employed in it, and 150 from Bourdeaux; and the French minister had lately told our negociator what co-operation we had to expect from that nation; fairly acknowledging, that, France would be guided by a sense of her own interest, and not by any fanciful and speculative notions of what is termed benevolence and philanthropy. The fact therefore was, that this measure could not produce any reduction in the number of slaves in Africa, and that not one less would be exported from that continent; a temporary interruption of the trade might perhaps take place, and involve the objects of it in horrors on the,coast, to which they were not during its continuance .exposed,—With respect to the carrying trade, it was under the controul of humane. regulations; if the acts already passed were not sufficient, the legislature might and ought to adopt other measures; but it was worthy of remark, that all the enormities which had been cited and dwelt on, referred not to the present state of the trade, but to the period antecedent to passing sir W. Dolben's regulation act,and if any instances of atrocity had recently occurred, it was fair to presume, that the abolitionists who had access to the journals of each voyage, which were by law lodged at the different custom-houses, would not have failed to make use of them. Indeed, it could easily be shewn, that, so far from these descriptions being consistent with truth, it was no uncommon thing for a slave ship to perform a voyage without losing a negro during its continuance.—In the West Indies, this act would be received with dissatisfaction and disgust. It would endanger the existence of the colonies, and must produce their ultimate decay, if not their immediate destruction. The negroes, who had always been accustomed to look to reinforcement of strength by the purchase of Africans, as a boon to themselves and an alleviation of their labours in cultivating the plantations, would become discontented; and, as they could not distinguish,between the nice refinements of justice,that discontent was likely to ripen into resistance to their masters, when they found that they alone were to be the ob- jests of slavery. The white population of the islands must be diminished, and the Security against external and internal danger thereby destroyed; no adventurers would hereafter be found to hazard their lives in an unwholesome climate, because the stimulus was taken away. The road to competence and independence amongst the white persons employed in the plantations, who composed the militia and strength of the islands, was the application of their first earnings to the purchase of a few Arican negroes, whose numbers were progressively increased by additional purchases, until of sufficient importance to establish a new plantation or invigorate an old. All the plantations which had been recently opened, and on which great sums had been expended in the construction of buildings, the clearing of lands, &c., and which were approaching towards maturity, would be immediately checked, and for want of the assistance of fresh labourers, calculated on, and absolutely necessary for their cultivation, must eventually be. abandoned.—That the negro population of the West Indies could not be supported without importation, was demonstrated by experience, admitting a few exceptions from rare and peculiarly favourable circumstance, and this part of the question never had been fairly stated or met by the abolitionists. The inequality of the sexes, and many other causes, contribued to produce this effect; and it must be enquired, whether what was termed a waste of human life, although improperly so denominated, was a sufficient reason for abandoning any great resource of the revenue or bulwark to the safety of the state. If so, many of the manufactories carried on in England, and the whole system of national defence ought to be abolished; for it could not be pretended that some of the most lucrative branches of manufacture, or the great establishments of our army and navy contribute to keep up the population of the empire.—The whole system of the colonies depending on long-sanctioned usages and established laws, would be abrogated, and all this was to be effected to gratify false philanthropy arid mistaken philosophy. Let the house consider the importance of these colonies to the general interest of the nation, and then weigh the consequences. The West-India trade composed one third of the whole amount of the trade, both import and export, of Great Britain. Put not this great stake to hazard. Re- flect that a separation of interests must cause an alienation of the minds .of the colonists. If their lives and property were hazarded, these men, although actuated by the most loyal principles, could not but view this measure as an infringement of their rights. While they were sacrificed, the prosperity of their neighbours and rivals must necessarily be advanced; for the obvious effect of this measure would be to afford greater facilities to the improvement of the colonies of our enemies, by reducing the cost of slaves to cultivate-them.—A detail of but a small part of the advantages which resulted to Great Britain from her colonial commerce, would occupy too much of the time of the house, and was the less necessary as these advantages were generally admitted: all these were to be hazarded, nay to be sacrificed, for the attainment of a phantom. He therefore entered his solemn protest against the adoption of a measure fraught with ruin to the colonies and to the empire.

Mr. Anthony Browne ,

not having succeeded in procuring the speaker's notice, on the second reading of the bill, was desirous of explaining briefly the grounds on which his opposition was founded. He did not defend the slave trade, with reference to Holy Writ, or to any existing moral or political evil of our own government; on the contrary, he admitted that the trade was a great political evil of itself; but yet it was an evil interwoven with the most important interests of the country, and with a complication of private interests on which thousands and thousands of our fellow subjects depended! the redress of which should be relatively considered, and taking into view, on the one hand, the radical barbarous internal situation of Africa, the inadequate and incomplete object of that abolition which was proposed by the bill, and on the other, the magnitude of the danger to the colonies, he was of opinion, that the remedy was worse than the disease, and that we were incurring a most fearful risk, without the power or the means, of extending to Africa, the practical benefits of those principles of justice and humanity on which the bill was speciously founded. He entered into a minute description of the Situation and circumstances of Africa, to shew that a state of slavery was the radical and incurable inheritance of her soil, not induced by the slave trade, but arising from the petty divisions of her states, the jealousies inseparable from those opposing authorities, and that state of incivilization and barbarism in which Africa remained, amidst the improvements of other nations. Besides this objection, he said, that the bill was incompetent to effect the abolition of the slave trade. Great Britain possessed not more than one-fifth of that trade; she could do no more than abandon that part of the trade which she possessed, she could not compel Africa to abolish the trade: such an object could only be accomplished by the concurring opinion of the other nations of Europe that maintain the trade for the same political reasons that we do. We must establish a sincerity of feeling on the other nations, of the injustice of this trade; leading to an active honourable pursuit of the same object, and by one common voice to that complete and entire abolition of the trade, from which alone the consummation of that great object could he accomplished. This view was sufficient to raise a doubt of the practical advantages of the bill to Africa, and when contrasted with the danger which threatens our colonies, was decisive of the necessity of rejecting it. The danger to the property of the colonies, arose from the necessity of a continued supply of negroes for the cultivation of property, without which experience had proved, that the supply could not be maintained even in the old islands, under every system of meliorated treatment which could be devised, and under the advantages of religious establishments. The happy effects of which on the minds, habits, and regularity of the negroes, in the island of Antigua he could unequivocally assert from his own knowledge. The danger arose also from the probability of a diminished white population; on that part of it especially which constitutes the yeomanry of the colonies, and its permanent military strength, by withholding the only means of advancement which the limited circumstances of the colonies afford. From the probability also of a diminution in the value of West-India property, and the serious consequences to those who stood in situations of pecuniary embarrassments. All those were exposed to utter ruin; for it could not be expected that a creditor will rest satisfied with security of deteriorated value and security, if it might be so called, exposed to daily annihilation. But, said he, there is another danger still more alarming, a danger to the lives and existence of our fellow subjects, which it is not in my power to estimate. I view those consequences with fearful anxiety, as leading, necessarily leading, to a fatal paroxyem of disaffection and insurrection, and to a renewal of those revolutionary horrors, from the effects of which Europe is not now free, and which will live in the recollection of mankind, an aweful lesson of the dangerous effects of innovating schemes of great national import, and a just and powerful motive for a reverential deference to those long-established habits and institutions which may be reckoned the foundation of national prosperity and happiness. When the negroes in the islands learn that the parliament has pronounced their condition to be unjust and inhuman, and that they are not to be benefited by the bill, it will be sufficient to animate them to a spirit of discontent and a desire of redress, from which a scene of misery and horror may be contemplated, equal in enormity to that which has lately disgraced the character of France. And can it be the policy of Great Britain to encounter all these fearful hazards, from a doubtful chance of benefit to the native African, who is in a situation not to be benefited by your exertions, a situation of hopeless and hereditary slavery?

Mr. Barham

entered into an exculpation of the planters in the West Indies, from the charge of cruelty to the slaves, and quoted several instances of kindness and humanity on the part of the overseers towards the slaves, and the gratitude of the latter in return. He considered that, in order to promote any thing of civilization and religion among the negroes, it would be necessary to educate them, and to accomplish that, it would necessary to give them more liberty: this however, would be a dangerous experiment, and he was at a loss to say, what would be the best mode to remedy the evil. From his own experience, he was not warranted in supposing that the negro population could be kept up in the colonies. He had not, on his plantation, neglected any means that humanity or prudence could suggest to keep up his stock, to which he had determined, for years back, not to add a single newly purchased slave, and yet he had not been able to succeed. If any means could be devised for so desirable an end, he should be very happy to make the experiment; but he much feared that none such was likely to offer. Still he was determined, upon the principles of humanity, to support the Abolition, regret- ting merely that it had so long continued, but deprecating any reproach on the merchants and planters concerned in it. For, of any guilt that attached to this trade they were at most but partners with the parliament which tolerated it, and the country which profited so much from it. These planters, therefore, ought not now, in his opinion, to be dismissed with censure, or without that fair and honourable compensation to which they were entitled.

Mr. Courtenay

as the great majority on the second reading of the bill had been ascribed by some of the members to a pathetic and persuasive appeal to the passions which had hurried the house into a precipitate vote, remarked, that the abolition bill would have passed many years ago, if oratory alone governed and directed the decisions of the house; for many members of the house, he said, still must remember the strenuous and noble exertions of two eminent statesmen of the most distinguished and splendid talents, who had displayed the superior power of their capacious minds on this most interesting question. The vigour, the logical precision, the commanding and luminous eloquence of the one, blended and associated with the copious, brilliant, and impressive eloquence of the other, penetrated the most callous and obdurate hearer, and carried conviction to the most prejudiced and interested understanding. No more rivals fur power, or divided on some great political principle, but cordially united like brothers in the sacred cause of justice and humanity, we hay only to lament that they no longer exist, the pride and ornament of the country, to enjoy the glorious triumph of their genies and virtue. I shall now presume to add a word on the merits of another gentleman, the original mover of the question. The great and brilliant eloquence we so lately heard, still vibrates on the ears a the house; but he has his reward— What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy, The soul's calm sunshine, and the heart-felt joy of having rescued thousands of the unhappy, oppressed natives of Africa from the scourge, avarice, and tyranny of Europe, he has at last the conscious pleasure of seeing his laudable exertions, his unwearied zeal, his indefatigable perseverance, crowned with success, ant he has been singularly happy in throwing a sacred lustre over his moral and pathetic reasoning, by the affecting fervour of his religious sentiments.

Sir Ralph Milbanke

could not do justice to the sentiments of his Constituents, nor to his own, if he were to give a silent vote in favour of the bill. He therefore offered a few observations in support of it.

Mr. Montague

spoke in favour of the abolition, to which he had, from his earliest years, devoted himself with a zeal and attention inferior only to those of his hon. friend (Mr. Wilberforce). He would ask one of the opposers of the bill, who was a member of the board of aldermen of London, whether he would think it a happy change, to be snatched away from one of the city banquets, and crammed into a slave ship as the blacks were? He blamed the planters for not making preparation in compliance with the notices they had received.

Mr. Hibbert ,

in reply to his hon. friend, observed, that he was now in the very situation he had described. He was now no longer an alderman of the city of London; he no longer banqueted upon the luxuries of the civic board, but bore the burthen of a slave; for he had embarked all his property in our West-India colonies; he felt the shackles of the slave about him, and he no longer enjoyed that freedom he was before possessed of. After some general observations, he concluded by expressing his decided opposition to the measure in its present shape.

Mr. Bathurst

objected to the principle of the bill, as well as to the consequences which would unavoidably result from passing it into a law. He recommended a gradual decrease.

Mr. Jacob

contended, that the abolition itself would furnish ample compensation to the planters, as it must naturally tend to enhance the value of their present negroes and plantations, while he argued that a continuance of this traffic would, by operating to increase the means of cultivation, serve to extend the produce, which was already superabundant, and thus lead to the ruin of the planters more immediately and effectively than could, by any calculation, be apprehended from an immediate abolition.— Amidst a loud cry of question! question!.

Mr. Secretary Windham rose ,

and said, from the lateness of the hour and the eagerness which the house very naturally felt to go into the committee, be should reserve the sentiments which he entertained upon this important subject for another stage of this bill. Differing, as he did upon this question, from many of those whom he most respected and esteemed, he was naturally desirous for an opportunity of stating the grounds which appeared to his mind to justify this difference. With all the reverence which he felt for the principles of justice and humanity, still he confessed that he had not courage to come to the decision which the advocates of this measure proposed; contemplating as he did the effects which its adoption threatened to produce; and apprehending from it; and at no very distant period too, no less than the ruin of the country. He most fervently wished that these apprehensions might prove to be unfounded; but yet they had made such an impression on his mind, that, considering the necessity for the passing of this bill was not, on the score of morality, so overruling as to leave no option, he could not forbear, consistently with his sense of duty, to resist it. As those gentlemen who supported this bill, were anxious to wash their hands of the guilt which appeared to them to attach to the traffic it proposed to abolish, so he was equally anxious to wash his hands of the consequences which that abolition, in his judgement, threatened to produce.

Mr. Whitbread

said, when a man of such enlightened mind, and such known humanity as his right hon. friend, thought it necessary to get up at that hour to state his perseverance in his opposition to the abolition,.and to his own original sentiments, he felt it incumbent on him to declare his conviction of the justice and truth of the uniform consent he had given to the sentiments, and the propriety of the support he had given to the efforts of the hon. gent. who was the chief promoter of that measure, (Mr. Wilberforce). The able speeches he had heard in the recent discussions confirmed the opinions he had entertained, The same exploded arguments, the same groundless and disproved assertions which had been so often refuted on former occasions, were all that could be now advanced against this bill. The cruelties, incapable of being exaggerated by any. mouth or mind, which the house was called upon to abolish, were inherent in the thing, and not the result of the individual disposition of the planters, many of whom were, he was sure, men of great humanity. The islands had had sufficient warning, and if they were not prepared for the abolition of the trade now, they never would. If we abolished the trade on our part, we should have done our duty, and given to other na tions the example of theirs. It was complained, that too much feeling and too much passion had been carried into this discussion. He complained; on the contrary, that it had been made too little a question of feeling, and that it had been made almost intirely a matter of cold calculations. Of profit and loss between English money and African blood. It was thought necessary to prove to the house, that the country could not lose by abstaining from murder. It had been proved by Mr. Pitt, from the most undeniable calculations, that the islands and the empire at large, would gain in revenue, in seamen, in commerce, instrength, and in profit; by the abolition; and when France would see these beneficial effects, she would be induced by interest if not by feeling or principle, to follow the example. There was one circumstance connected with the trade, which had been communicated to him by a friend, and which he thought necessary to state to the house. A fine young slave had been purchased for his estate, who at first seemed afflicted and sullen, but whose discontent Was expected to wear off with time. After a short period, however; another cargo of slaves arrived, and the newly imported negroes, upon meeting with the former, prostrated themselves before him as their chief. The violence of his emotions at the contrast between what he was and what he had been, drove him within twelve hours to commit suicide. One such instance as this wag enough to shew the iniquity of the traffic.

Mr. Fuller

was of opinion, that the abolition of the slave trade would have the effect of rendering the condition of the slaves much worse in the West-India islands. The negroes upon his estate were more Comfortable than labourers in this country, and it would be his desire to place them upon the same footing in every respect. This, however, was impossible, because the fertility of the soil was such in many parts of the West Indies,that by the labour of a day and a half per week, one negro could procure support for a whole family, and in that case would not be disposed to work; so that it was necessary to keep them employed by moderate disicipline.

Mr. Herbert ,

of Kerry, in pursuance of the instructions of his constituents, was bound to vote for the abolition and after all he had read and heard upon the subject, he could not conceive any good ground for the continuance of the trade.

Lord Howick

was far from expecting that, after the solemn decision which had already taken place on-the bill, it would again have undergone such a protracted discussion. At so late an hour he would not enter into any-reply to predictions of ruin,&c. to the country, if this measure was adopted. Another occasion would offer for that purpose, when he trusted be should be able to prove, that, so far from being in any. degree, detrimental to the interests of the country, it must powerfully conduce to its prosperity and glory. At so late an hour, he should not attempt to go into the nature of the clauses which it was his intention to move in the committee; but if the house was inclined to save much of their time and attention, they would agree to what he should now propose, namely, to pass the bill through the committee, pro formâ, fill up the blanks, have the bill printed, and in the hands of the members, previously to its being, recommitted, and then get through it with a more perfect and satisfactory knowledge of all its bearings and tendencies; he hoped however that another long debate upon the principle of the bill was not to be enterer into.—On the motion that the speaker do now leave the chair,

General Gascoync

said, that he had no wish on his part to renew the debate, but that if any other gentleman thought proper to do so, he should not think himself precluded from answering many of the objections that had that night been urged against the opposers of the bill.—The question was now universally called for, and carried without a division. The house then went into a committee upon the bill pro formâ, and the blanks being filled up and the house resumed, it was ordered to be recommitted on Wednesday.