HC Deb 05 March 1811 vol 19 cc233-40
Mr. Brougham

rose, agreeably to notice, to move for leave to bring in a Bill for rendering more effectual the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He moved, that the Resolution of the House of the 10th of June 1806, be read; and the same was read as follows: "Resolved, That this House, conceiving the African Slave Trade to be contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy, will, with all practicable expedition, proceed to take effectual measures for abolishing the said trade, in such manner, and at such period, as may be deemed advisable." He also moved, That the Resolution of the House, of the 15th of June, in the last session of parliament, respecting the Slave Trade, be read: And the same was read, as follows:

"Resolved, nem. con. That this House has learnt, with great surprise and indignation, the attempts which have recently been made to evade the prohibitions of the Act abolishing the African Slave Trade; and that this House will, early in the next session of parliament, take into its consideration such measures as may tend effectually to prevent such daring violations of the law."—The resolutions being read, the hon. and learned gent. said that he now rose, in pursuance of the notice he had given, and of the resolutions which had just been read, to move for leave to bring in a bill for the more effectually preventing the dealing in slaves. When he remembered the almost unanimous feeling of the House on this subject, when the resolution which had been last read was come to; when he reflected on the triumph with which the exertions of his hon. friend, the member for Yorkshire, had ultimately been crowned in this glorious struggle, he was induced to believe that it would scarcely be necessary for him to do more than to state, that, notwithstanding the acts of the legislature, notwithstanding the more recent resolution of that House expressive of their determination to see that act strictly enforced, still it appeared that there were persons who, in despite of their authority, did deal in this horrid trade, and did contrive to evade the penalties which they had imposed for the purpose of preventing it. He might appeal for the truth of this statement, to the evidence on the table of the House, and to various other sources of information which had come to his hands, and which were also known to many other members of the House, and which could leave no doubt whatever that a considerable traffic was still carried on in the trade in question, by subjects of this country, resident in our colonies. It would be better for him, however, instead of referring to the evidence generally, to notice one or two instances which had come to his own knowledge, and which must satisfy any man, that the trade was persisted in, not only in defiance of the acts of the 46th and 47th of the king, but even in defiance of the last resolution of the House. In doing so, he should have a disagreeable task to per-form; and, as he should have to allude to persons against whom he had such evidence as would be sufficient to lead to their conviction, were they to be sued for penalties, or even to bring home to them a capital felony, had it pleased the legislature to make it an offence of that nature, while he made his statement with full confidence of the truth of what he stated, he should, on account of the heaviness of the charge, not mention the names of the parties, nor even allude to them in any pointed manner. The trade was now carried on, not by vessels supposed to be employed in such a traffic, but in the more innocent one of trading in wood and ivory. One ship, the Neptune, belonging to persons who had formerly been large dealers in this trade, had lately been sent on a voyage for the purchase of wood and ivory. After its return, however, two of the men, persons of excellent character, had stated that the captain also took on board thirteen slaves and two boys, who were carried to the isle of Princes, belonging to Portugal. The captain, after this, bought a smaller vessel, and carried on a traffic between the African coast and some foreign possessions, which served him as an entrepot. Another vessel, named the George, but the name of the captain of which he should not mention, it had been confessed by the captain himself had sailed expressly on a slaving voyage. The captain had been heard to express his anxiety to get safely out of the port from whence he was to clear, not doubting that if he did so, he should be sure of sailing without interruption. Three months ago one of our king's ships stopped a merchant vessel, of which suspicions were entertained, and on examination, the carpenter declared that he had been ordered to fit her out with bulkheads and boards, which are the never-failing symptoms of a slave-trader. On the 12th of December, after the House had expressed its indignation at the attempts to continue this trade, a king's ship fell in with a vessel which bore the name of the Marquis Romana, but which was in reality the Prince William, an English vessel, the owners of which were well known, and on board of which vessel there were not fewer than 109 negroes. There were others in the same situation, but which he should not mention. He could not help, however, alluding to other two vessels, which passed by the names of the Gallicia and Palafox, it being pretended that they were Spanish vessels. It was made incontestibly evident, however, that they belonged to English owners resident in this country, and were in part manned with English. These vessels were stopped on another ground, and were on the point of being released, when it appeared from the deposition of one of the masters, that they were the Queen Charlotte and Mohawk; that they were well known to be the property of English owners; were under the superintendence of English supercargoes; and that the name of one of the captains was George Woodbine, which he had changed to that of Giorgio Mandesilva, for the sake of carrying on the deception. Not to trouble the House with more instances of this kind, he begged only to call their attention to some letters from colonel Maxwell, and from the judge of the Admiralty at Sierra Leone. These proved, that though the traffic was greatly diminished, and bore no proportion to its former extent, yet that there still existed sufficient to render it highly worthy of the attention of parliament, and that it well became them to consider how they should best free themselves from what still remained of it. The judge mentioned that since his arrival in March, 1809, no fewer than 1091 slaves had been brought for condemnation in his court. He was, therefore, warranted in saying, though the trade was greatly diminished, that what remained of it was well worthy the attention of the House. He was not disposed to state that many of the slaves so carried off were introduced into the British colonies; but he did say that they were carried to St. Bartholomew's, and St. Croix, for the purpose of being sent from thence into other islands. In the latter island, advertisements for the sale of such slaves were even exhibited publicly and in open day. It was not necessary for him to accuse those interested in our West India possessions with violating the act of the legislature of this country, and the resolutions of the House; it was sufficient if these slaves were carried to Demarara, Berbice, and the other newly conquered islands. If necessary, on this point he could refer to a contest between the governor of Demarara and the planters of Beibice, where, in a memorial by the latter, signed with their own names, it appeared, that they not only continued to import negroes, but that they were even ignorant of any law to prevent them from doing so, or if they were aware of such a law, that they were not disposed to attend to it. What these memorialists principally complained of, was the frequent seduction of their weak-minded and new negroes. Gentlemen might suppose that this was before the expression of the feelings of that House on the subject. But no such thing. This was only in November, 1809, no less than four years after the resolution of the House, and two years and a half after the passing of the statute. In defiance of these resolutions and of the statute, therefore, the House saw the importation of new negroes encouraged. If such a trade was suffered to be carried on, it would be better to stiller it to proceed as formerly, so that the honest dealer, as well as the smuggler, might have the means of carrying it on. It was unjust to the fair trader, that he should be excluded, while the unfair trader made a calculation of the chances in his favour, and was suffered to be in a better situation than before the trade was put a stop to. The West Indian himself must be anxious to cut down a trade in which he himself had no share. If, again, the House looked to the shipowners, they had now little or no interest in such a traffic, having diverted their capital into another channel. The trade was so much reduced, so far as they could be concerned, that a love of contraband alone could induce them to wish its continuance. Thus, it was only from one description of persons that the House could now look for opposition to the effectual abolition of this traffic; and they were the persons who, so far from being objects of favour or compassion, were those who ought peculiarly to be struck at, being those who were now concerned in an attempt to continue this trade in defiance of the resolutions of the House, and of the acts of the legislature. It was enough for him only to allude to this fact, to take from such persons any portion of the favour of the House. One successful adventure, it appeared, was sufficient to cover three or four failures, and with such prospects of advantage, not having the benefit of insurance, adventurers of this kind finding it necessary to be their own insurers, saw their advantage in having three or four ships out at one time. If the House only considered that such persons could not but be aware of the nature of the trade in which they were about to deal, they could hardly fail being satisfied that there was not a single object more appropriate for criminal legislation. A person fitting out a vessel for this trade knew that he was to arrive on the coast of Africa, and that in various ways he was to get into his possession a cargo of human beings; that he was to sell them into a state of slavery, infinitely exceeding every other, and with circumstances too disgusting to be dwelt on. It was impossible, that a person engaged in such a speculation could have his eyes shut to the evils he was about to inflict; so that instead of being a malum prokibitum, it must be seen to be a malum in se. Without going further into the cruelties of the trade, without looking to the hardships of the middle passage, it was impossible for any man to shut his eyes against the horrors of such a traffic: and, what then should be said to a person in this country sending his deputies abroad to inflict miseries and cruelties greater than any other? That such would properly fall under the cognizance of the criminal law, it would not be necessary for him to adduce many instances to prove. By an act in the reign of George 2, any waterman on the river, carrying above a certain number of passengers in his boat or wherry, if by any accident a life should be lost, was declared guilty of felony. So even while the slave trade was tolerated, it was punishable to carry above a certain number, in proportion to the tonnage of the vessel, through the middle passage. There were many other instances which he might mention. It was declared to be felony, without benefit of clergy, to damage any public works; to damage London bridge, Fulham bridge, &c. &c.; to destroy any lock or sluice on a canal; to destroy any turnpike house or gale, &c.; and by the 48th of the king, it was declared to be felony to steal oysters, for which the persons offending were subject to transportation for 14 years, or to hard labour for three years. The House would recollect that he was talking of that which was robbery, torture, murder, and they would not fail to punish such an offence with something at least equal to the punishment imposed for stealing an oyster. It was said that the great bulk of this trade in slaves, was carried on by the Americans and the Spaniards. It would appear, however, that both of those countries were putting down the traffic as we had done, and the message from the president to the congress of the United States, recommended the taking of further measures for the complete abolition of that trade. The measure he proposed to introduce would have the effect of making the supercargoes liable, who would be struck at by the act; and if foreign cruizers should endeavour to come into any of our settlements, they might be brought to trial, as a foreigner in this country trying to escape might be brought to punishment.

The hon. and learned gent, concluded by moving "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to render more effectual the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade."

Mr. Marryatt

said, he had received information of one ship having been seized laden with slaves, and that there were three others in similar circumstances which were following. From every information the trade was still carried on to a great extent, and he trusted every measure would be adopted totally to prevent it.

Mr. Wilberforce

strongly supported the measure now recommended to the House, and begged his hon. and learned friend to accept his warmest thanks for the great trouble and anxiety he had shewn in bringing the matter before the House. He hoped, that as they had a great deal to answer for in allowing so horrid a traffic to exist for such a length of time in this country, the House would now do all they could to make a compensation for the evils they had so long suffered to exist, by providing, by every means in their power, for its total prevention in future. The measure of his hon. and learned friend, he trusted, would have this effect. He had no doubt it would be unanimously agreed to; but, if it should prove ineffectual, other measures must be resorted to.

Mr. Barham

was sorry to understand, that the illicit trade in slaves had so greatly increased, that if not effectually checked, it seemed as if it would shortly exceed that slave trade which had been abolished. The Chancellor of the Exchequer fully agreed in the necessity of taking every step for stopping so unjust a traffic. He could not suffer the business to pass, however, without distinctly stating that the object of the hon. and learned gent., as imparted to him, did not go to make the offence a capital felony, but one punishable by transportation or imprisonment.

Mr. Brougham explained,

that such was his object in the first instance. He should propose transportation for any period not exceeding it years, or imprisonment for not more than three nor less than two years. It was impossible, however, for him to pledge himself that he might not afterwards, if the present measure was found inadequate, move that the punishment be made capital.

Mr. Canning,

though no person viewed the traffic with more horror than he did, was still of opinion, that having been so long suffered to exist, the House ought not at once to go the length of punishing it with death. To the proposition of the hon. and learned gent, as now stated by him, he gave his hearty assent.

The motion was then put and carried nem. con. and Mr. Brougham, Mr. Wilberforce, and Mr. Whitbread, had leave to prepare and bring in the bill.—Shortly after the bill was brought in and read a first time.