HC Deb 07 December 1812 vol 24 cc198-201
Mr. Wilberforce,

observing that there had been recently published in the daily prints some circumstances of a nature calculated to excite the attention and anxiety of all those who felt an interest in the complete accomplishment of that most important object, the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and that it was highly advisable that the most satisfactory information relative to these circumstances should be laid before parliament, moved "That an humble Address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, that he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, copies of all communications from the governor of the Cape of Good Hope, and from the governor of the islands of Bourbon and Mauritius, received since the capture of those settlements respectively, so far as they relate to the carrying on of the Slave Trade in those settlements, or in any of the neighbouring islands."

Mr. Browne

said, he did not rise to oppose the motion, but he could not refrain from saying that if an excuse were wanting for that sort of evasion of the Abolition Bill, of which the honourable member complained, it was to be found in that system of recruiting in Africa which had been lately established under the authority of government for the purpose of filling up the ranks of the Black regiments in the West Indies; a system which, while it had the effect of reviving, nay and of perpetuating all the evils of a trade which had been characterised as inhuman and unjust, had, at the same time, the effect of inducing in the eyes of Europe, a doubt of the sincerity and good faith of our intentions on the great question of the abolition of that trade, and at a time, too, when as his Majesty's ministers had before informed the House, they were using their utmost endeavours to effect a general co-operation in the total abandonment of the trade, upon which that amelioration in the state of Africa which we contemplate must mainly depend. It was no answer to say, that the object of this recruiting establishment was to procure free persons only. He was at a loss to know where persons were to be found in Africa to exercise any discretion upon the question of enlistment, but admitting it to be practicable; still, as the procuring of men there was the object in view, and as that object might be accomplished by means not unlike the means resorted to during the continuance of the trade, which it would be out of the power of the government there to controul or prevent, that of itself, should have been a motive sufficient to prevent this evil establishment, at least with those who sincerely felt anxious to see the practical benefits of the abolition manifesting themselves in Africa.

Lord Castlereagh

remarked, that as no objection was made to the production of the papers moved for by the hon. gentleman near him, whatever foundation there might be for the apprehension of the hon. gentleman who had just sat down, would be a subject better fitted for discussion on some future day when these papers might be on the table of the House.

Mr. Bennet

wished to know whether or not, in spite of our efforts to prevent it, the Portuguese and Spaniards did not carry on a traffic for slaves with the British colonies—a traffic composed of piracy and oppression? He wished also to make another inquiry connected with this interesting subject. We had a chain of forts in Africa, which, during the existence of the Slave Trade, were used as depots for slaves. He was positively informed, that during last summer, the governors of some of these forts actually supplied no less than 47 Portuguese vessels with slaves. Had steps been taken by government to put an end to this shameful abuse?

Lord Castlereagh

expressed his regret at not being able at that moment completely to satisfy the hon. gentleman's enquiries. He could assure him, however, that the exertions of his Majesty's government had been used most sincerely to prevail upon those countries with which they had any influence to concur in terminating this abominable traffic. He trusted that these countries were inclined to adopt the measures suggested to them for that purpose, and that the trade would soon be wholly suppressed. With respect to the statement made by the hon. gentleman, relative to the conduct of the governors of some of our forts in Africa, all he could say was, that the information alluded to by the hon. gentleman had not come within his knowledge,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the forts mentioned by the hon. gentleman were under consideration at the time of Mr. Perceval's death, but the change of government, which followed upon that event, prevented, as yet, any further consideration of the subject.

Mr. Bennet

wished to know whether the government had received any communication respecting the breach of the Abolition Act by the governors of any of these forts?

Mr. Goulburn

said, there had been one communication to that effect, made to the naval commander upon that station, but upon investigation it was found to have been groundless.

The motion was then agreed to.

Mr. Wilberforce

proceeded to move for further papers connected with the same subject. He confessed that he had listened to the speech of the hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Browne) with some disquiet, as, in the early part of it, there seemed an intimation similar to that which had so frequently been urged in parliament against the abolition itself, namely, that the existence of an enormity in one place justified the practice of an enormity in another. This disquiet, however, was removed by the conclusion of the hon. gentleman's observations. With respect to the scheme of enlisting Africans on the coast, to fill up the black corps in the West Indies, he confessed that he was acquainted with the original intention of carrying that scheme into effect, and that he thought it was accompanied by guards sufficient to prevent it from being abused. How far these guards had actually turned out to be adequate to their object, was certainly a question of considerable importance; and one which ought to be investigated deliberately, and not incidentally. But at any rate, it appeared to him that all idea of compulsion—of slavery—was wholly out of the question.—With respect to the conduct of our navy on the African station, it had been such as reflected upon it the highest credit. Even the common sailors had refused to share the wages of iniquity; in one case in particular, in which a number of unfortunate African slaves, men, women, and children, had been discovered hidden on board a vessel professedly laden with cattle. These wretched beings had been induced to conceal themselves and to abstain almost from breathing, by the master of the vessel, who told them, that if they were discovered, they would be killed and eaten. They were, however, discovered and released, and this occurrence afforded an additional proof of that humanity by which our naval officers and seamen were no less distinguished than by their bravery, and the eminent services they had rendered to their country. As to the abuses that were alleged to have crept into the enlisting for the black corps, he repeated that they ought to be enquired into, and if they really existed, to be stopped. But he confessed he did not believe, that with the guards which had been devised, any such abuses could prevail. He concluded by moving, "That there be laid before this House, copies of all communications received by the lords commissioners of the Admiralty from the chief naval officer at the Cape of Good Hope, so far as they respect the carrying on of the Slave Trade in that settlement, or in any of the neighbouring islands."—Ordered.