HC Deb 02 May 1814 vol 27 cc637-47
Mr. Wilberforce

said, that in rising to make the motion which he now intended to propose, he felt gratified in reflecting that it would not be necessary to take up the time of the House, by detailing, at any length, those considerations which rendered such a step advisable. The House had already recognized and acted upon them in 1806 and 1810, when they consented to an address to the throne, similar, in effect, to what he now wished them to adopt. It was impossible for any one to open his eyes, and look abroad upon the world, without feeling that there never was a period when the general circumstances of all nations were more favourable to such a motion than the present, and when there existed such powerful motives for them to accede to its object. It was something to have an occasion like this presented, when all the great powers of Europe were assembled in congress to consider and discuss the very elements, as it were, of their own political rights; it was something to have such a moment presented for urging the consideration of the wrongs of Africa. When, indeed, he reflected upon these circumstances, and when he recalled to memory that extraordinary succession of providential events which had placed the world in its present state of hope and security, he could not but contemplate in them the hand of the Almighty stretched out for the deliverance of mankind. And what more acceptable token of gratitude could be displayed towards heaven—what more acceptable proof of our delight and thankfulness for such mercies, than a measure like the one he now meant to propose? It might truly be said, that the great continental powers had been acting in its very spirit and effect; and when, too, were considered the provocations that all of them had received, and some in particular, and the glorious revenge they had taken, saving from ruin instead of inflicting it; the recognition of the principles he was about to recommend was so plain, that it afforded a sure ground and confident hope that they would be acknowledged, in all which he now wished to obtain, as a sequel merely of what they had so nobly begun. There was but one objection that he had ever heard made against the proceeding he meant to recommend; and that was, when he had been talking of the continental powers acceding immediately to a general abolition of the slave trade, the reply had been, why we ourselves did not abolish it till after eighteen or nineteen years of enquiry, and how can we expect that they should do it precipitately? But this was not the fact. When the features of that trade were truly developed, when its character was fully known, when its effects were thoroughly understood, we got rid of it directly. It was on its trial during that time, and its sentence followed immediately upon conviction. When the whole system was unfolded, every one acknowledged that we were bound to abolish it, as a traffic inconsistent with every feeling of justice, religion, and humanity. When the question was first entered upon, no one properly understood its details; by degrees, however, the light broke in upon that den of serpents; and when it did so, and it was seen in all its hideous deformity, there existed but one opinion among men of any sense of duty, or any feelings of humanity. It should be remembered too, that great and powerful interests were opposed to it. It was said, our commerce would be destroyed, our marine would be destroyed, and that our settlements in the West Indies could not subsist at all without a regular importation of slaves; while in Africa they would continue to be brought down to the coast, and when no market was open for them they would be murdered. Thus it was foretold, that nothing but disaster would take place in Europe, in the western hemisphere, and in Africa itself, by the abolition; yet, all these predictions proved fallacious; and therefore, in soliciting other countries to adopt the same course, we call upon them to run no risk, nor to attempt any untried scheme. But, in fact, the greater nations of Europe, and particularly France, had no direct interest in the continuance of this trade. With regard to France, the war had practically abolished it for many years past; and, therefore, if carried on by her, it would be creating it anew. In that country therefore, there was no commerce to be destroyed, no marine to suffer, no manufactures to decay, as a consequence of not participating in this traffic. The hon. member then drew a parallel between what had been the conduct of Buonaparté with respect to the slave trade, and the difficulty which Mr. Fox had found in persuading him that our abolition of it arose from any principle of justice; and what might be expected from the virtues, humanity, and religious feelings of Louis 18. With regard to Spain also, happier results might be anticipated. She was not now in a situation where she feared to displease any particular city; she was no longer placed in those delicate circumstances; her power was more secured, and she was now placed in a condition that enabled her to think of safety and honour in the way that nations and individuals always secured it, by a rigid adherence to just and honourable principles. Looking to Portugal, he entertained similar hopes; and he would not now go into a paper which he held in his hand, and which had been issued by that government. It was a sort of vindication of what is called the Middle Passage; and the principle of it was, that the slave trade should be carried on by the ports of Brazil, till the population of that extensive country was in proportion to its magnitude. He had really never read a paper which contained so much feeling and humanity, (a laugh.) Any person perusing it, might think that its whole object was, to diffuse the greatest possible happiness among the most favoured individuals. It was, in truth, a melancholy document; and yet he was pleased with it. It at least shewed, that the Portuguese government were attentive to the calls of humanity, though in this instance it had been perverted, because they were deceived as to the occasions for exerting it. When they were reminded, that this trade was wholly incompatible with humanity, and when the Prince Regent of Portugal was convinced of the impolicy of supplying the Brazils with a factitious population, there could be no doubt that he would resolve to co-operate cordially with this country. This co-operation would be more prompt and effective also, when the removal of the court of Portugal to Europe should have taken place. With regard to the other powers of Europe,—Russia, Austria, and Prussia, who were unstained by a traffic which we, to our shame be it spoken, had once participated in, let it not be supposed that they would be indifferent to its annihilation, or that they would be tardy in assisting to complete that object.

In sparing Paris, and in the sudden and complete abandonment of every hostile feeling, the allied powers had afforded a pledge of further magnanimity and humanity of conduct. He trusted, that all would concur in this grand object. Government had already obtained the acquiescence of Sweden. Denmark had abolished the slave trade at an early period. America the same. And here he begged to guard himself against the imputation of being supposed to wish, by this motion, to remind his Majesty's ministers of that sacred duty which he was persuaded they were ready cheerfully and spontaneously to perform. His object was merely to strengthen their hands, and, by the renewal of a solemn declaration from parliament, to show that their former proceedings had originated not in a transient or mistaken fit of humanity, but in a just and sound view of all the bearings and relations of the subject. He must repeat, that he really thought there was something in the present state, and circumstances of things which justified the most favourable expectations. It would be refreshing to the mind, after so long a period of calamity, to witness a general acknowledgment of the grand and immutable principles of justice and humanity. It would raise Great Britain still higher in the scale of nations, if, after all she had done and suffered for Europe, she should ask, as a compensation, not any political or commercial advantage, not territory or wealth, but only an acquiescence in the establishment of a principle so intimately connected with, the happiness of mankind. The most dreadful consequences would result to Africa, should foreign powers not consent to unite in the desired object. That wide continent would again be made the scene of horror; and our praises and thanksgivings to the Divine Being for his recent blessings to us, would be accompanied by the shrieks and screams of those whom we were persecuting. But he trusted this would not be the case. Whatever might be his opinion of the Roman Catholic religion, to the professors of that religion Europe owed much of its existing liberty; and he hoped that they would feel that their religion, no less than Protestantism, called on them to abolish that inhuman traffic which Mr. Pitt had truly called "the greatest practical evil that had ever been suffered to exist in the would." He concluded by moving,

"That an humble Address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, to assure his Royal Highness, that this House, relying, with perfect confidence, on the solemn assurances received by parliament in 1806 and 1810, that his Majesty's government would employ every proper means to obtain a convention of the powers of Europe for the immediate and universal abolition of the African Slave Trade, beg leave humbly and earnestly to represent to his Royal Highness, that the happy and glorious events which promise the general pacification of Christendom, the present union and assembly of its greatest sovereigns, and the great and generous principles which they proclaim as the rule of their conduct, afford a most auspicious opportunity for interposing the good offices of Great Britain to accomplish the above noble purpose, with the weight which belongs to her rank among nations, to the services which she has rendered to European independence, and to the unanimous and zealous concurrence of her parliament and people:

"That we feel ourselves authorized, by our own abolition of this trade, of the guilty profits of which we enjoyed the largest share, by the fellowship of civilization, of religion, and even of common humanity, to implore the other members of the commonwealth of Europe to signalize the restoration of its order and security by the prohibition of this detestable commerce, the common stain of the Christian name, a system of crimes by which the civilized professors of a beneficent religion spread desolation and perpetuate barbarism among helpless savages, whom they are bound, by the most sacred obligations of duty, to protect to instruct, and to reclaim:

"Humbly to represent to his Royal Highness, that the high rank which this kingdom holds among maritime and colonial stales imposes a very serious duty upon the British government at this important juncture; and that, unless we interpose, with effect, to procure a general abolition, the practical result of the restoration of peace will be to revive a traffic which we have prohibited as a crime, to open the sea to swarms of piratical adventurers, who will renew and extend, on the shores of Africa, the scenes of carnage and rapine in a great measure suspended by maritime hostilities, and the peace of Christendom will kindle a thousand ferocious wars among wretched tribes, ignorant of our quarrels and of our very name:

"That the nations who have owed the security of their navigation to our friendship, and whom we have been happy enough to aid in expelling their oppressors, and maintaining their independence, cannot listen without respect to our voice raised in the cause of justice and humanity; and that, among the great states, till of late our enemies, maritime hostility has in fact abolished the trade for twenty years, no interest is engaged in it, and the legal permission to carry it on would practically be a new establishment of it, after the full developement of its horrors:

"That we humbly trust, that in the moral order by which Divine Providence administers the government of the world, this great act of atonement to Africa may contribute to consolidate the safety, and prolong the tranquillity of Europe, that nations may be taught a higher respect for justice and humanity by the example of their sovereigns, and that a treaty, sanctioned by such a disinterested and sacred stipulation, may be more profoundly reverenced, and more religiously observed, than even the most equitable compacts for the regulation of power or the distribution of territory."

The motion having been read from the Chair,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he was happy to give his most cordial concurrence to the motion of the hon. gentleman; and he could not refrain from hoping, that when the subject should be submitted to the consideration of that most illustrious assembly of sovereigns, its important views would be effected, and they would be anxious to wipe away the iniquitous stain. He could not but hope, that the unanimous declaration of the British parliament would have a due effect; and that the hon. gentleman would witness the conclusion of that happy work, which he had so ably and so perseveringly carried forward.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, he was happy to give his unqualified approbation to the Address; and agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in opinion, that it could not fail to have great weight with the Allied Powers on the continent. Experience had proved, that too great extension of empire had only led to the degradation and unhappiness of that portion of mankind who possessed it. Luckily for the world, the late events had decidedly shewn this, and brought the different powers to a sense of the real state of things, which contributed to make an empire or a kingdom truly powerful, or only comparatively so; and it would be making a mockery of what had passed, and losing sight of all the advantages which had really taken place, if we were to suffer those advantages to be confined to Europe, and not extend them to Africa; a quarter of the globe which had been so long and so grievously afflicted by the cruel and unjust treatment it had received from the European powers. Whatever advantages had been derived to this country from the Slave Trade, taken in a commercial point of view, they were certainly much greater than those of any other power; and having so cheerfully sacrificed them for the sake of promoting the ends of justice and humanity, we were certainly entitled to the right of endeavouring to bring our Allies into the same praise-worthy principles; and it would be an act of hypocrisy worse than that of the Inquisition, (which, when it condemned a criminal to death, delivered him over to the secular power with a recommendation of mercy) if we did not exert ourselves at the present auspicious moment to obtain the concurrence of all the powers of Europe in a measure, of the philanthropy, the advantage, and necessity of which we had so long been convinced.

Mr. Canning

rose, not to express his sentiments on the abolition of the Slave Trade; that was unnecessary, as they were already well known to the House; he rose to declare it to be his opinion, that the vote which they were about to come to that night, would not be a barren vote; but one that would materially aid the great cause they were anxious to promote. Their unanimity on this occasion would not merely support what they had already done, but would do much towards persuading the great powers of Europe to unite with England to put down the Slave Trade. Let it not be said, when this language was held, that the English were always vaunting of their importance in, and influence over Europe. On such an occasion, they had a right to expect that their authority and example would produce the happiest results. With those powers who had not acknowledged the injustice of this traffic in human blood, the authority of Great. Britain must have some weight; and with that larger portion, who, approving the principle acted upon by England, feared the application of it in their own case, our example must prevail. The apprehensions they at present entertained, must be in a great measure removed, when they saw that we, after cutting off that trade, which was to us a source of wealth and power (if it ever had been a source of wealth and power to any nation on earth), had lost nothing by obedience to the dictates of humanity, but had still been able, not only to defend ourselves, but to contribute largely to the restoration of the independence of Europe. With those powers who had not recognized the propriety of abolishing the Slave Trade, he would now take a higher tone than he thought would have been wise in the day of their distress, when, struggling with difficulties, they looked to this country; and he would take a higher tone with them for this reason: were they in some sort dependant on us, a strong remonstrance on this subject would have gone with too much of authority; but now that the danger was past, and they had recovered their independence, we might assume a loftier tone without appearing to insult them, by holding out a threat if they refused to comply with our wishes. Spain and Portugal could now defend themselves without our assistance; and they could decline attending to our representations, without fear of being abandoned to ruin. This then was the time when we could speak with most freedom; for as we could urge it with more of delicacy than formerly, so we could press it with more of firmness. The happy adjustment of the affairs of the world, which seemed now about to take place, would be incomplete, if an attempt to put an end to the Slave Trade did not form one grand feature of it. The technical consent to its abolition of those powers who were not actively engaged in it, ought to be obtained; for if this were not done, their flags would be abused by individuals belonging to other countries, who would be ready to avail themselves of this subterfuge to avoid punishment The sanction of all the great nations of Europe to its being done away, was necessary, and of vast importance; not so much for the mighty power they possessed, as for the use they had made of that power. If their consent were not given to the abolition of the Slave Trade, things would not merely remain as they are in this respect; but the traffic in slaves would be greater than it had been for many years. The question then was, whether the æra of a general peace in Europe should secure the repose of Africa, or furnish a new starting post for the plunder and devastation of that quarter of the globe. He hoped, the voice of the people, heard through the unanimous vote of that House, in favour of that which justice, humanity, and sound policy, combined to recommend to every nation, would not appeal to the assembled majesty of Europe in vain.

Mr. Protheroe

said, he would not attempt to detain the House but for a very few moments, lest what he might say should weaken the effect produced by the speakers who had preceded him. He could not, however, withhold himself from expressing his approbation of the conduct of ministers, in having so warmly seconded the Address; and hoped they would use their strenuous endeavours with the Allied Powers to induce them to concur cordially in the measure, which he feared would otherwise be nugatory.

Mr. Marryatt

could take upon himself to state, that those connected with the West India colonies were as anxious as any other class of persons could be, for the universal abolition of the Slave Trade. Unless, however, the House and the country went farther than they had yet gone in this business, though they had washed their own hands of the guilt, they had done little towards lessening the evil which they proposed to remedy; as, while the subjects of other countries engaged in it at all, they did more in proportion as this country did less. From the Report of the African Society it appeared, that up to the year 1810, the average number of slaves obtained from Africa annually amounted to 80,000; one half of which were carried away by the Spaniards, and the other half by the Portuguese. The traffic which was formerly carried on in English ships was thus kept up in Spanish and Portuguese vessels. The abolition of the Slave Trade had produced one good effect, that of greatly ameliorating the condition of the slaves in the colonies. The negroes were much better treated, and the old system of having night and day gangs had been abandoned. The total abolition of the Slave Trade would be a glorious consummation of the happy events lately witnessed in Europe; and he thought the Prince Regent could not be called upon to perform a more grateful task, than that which the resolution before the House, went to assign, to him.

Mr. J. Smith

could not refrain from ex expressing a hope, that the peace of Europe would give repose to all parts of the world; and that those events which restored the inhabitants of one quarter of the globe to freedom, would not consign the natives of another to bondage and oppression.

Mr. Whitbread

said, those were deceived, who imagined that every man in England wished for the abolition of the Slave Trade. Before he knew any thing of the present motion, it had come to his ears, that there were persons in this country base enough to wish for the return of peace, on account of the facilities it would afford for carrying on this detestable traffic under another flag. He was glad that this motion had been so ably supported by his right hon. friend near him (Mr. Ponsonby), and the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. Canning); as the demonstration, thus made, would convince those persons to whom he had alluded, that the legislature was intent upon procuring the perfect abolition of the Slave Trade throughout the world. At a former period, when we recommended the abolition of the Slave Trade to the other powers of Europe, it was thought we ought to set the example, by abolishing it ourselves. It was under such circumstances that the last peace was concluded; and reflections were then cast on the advocates for the abolition of the Slave Trade in that House, because such a step had not been taken. That blot remained on our character no longer. We had now set the example. He was glad to concur in the Address, and he hoped it would produce a general and beneficial effect—beneficial even according to the most sordid calculation—as the trading interest of every country would profit by it. He had been present at many of the debates that preceded the abolition of the Slave Trade in this country, which perhaps boasted the greatest display of eloquence (from the members then on both, sides of the House) ever witnessed in the world. Mr. Pitt commenced the march, of one of his speeches, by appealing to those who would only consider their interest, who had no feeling but in their purse; and demonstrated, by arguments which could not be answered, that it was their interest to put an end to a traffic so disgraceful. He had then, with that eloquence which he so well knew how to use, applied himself to persuade them to do it. This argument ought now to be held out to the deluded governments of Spain and Portugal, and to that most deluded go vernment which attempted to justify the Slave Trade. They ought to be made to understand, that their interest required that this traffic should be no more. He could not anticipate opposition to the motion; and, but for the desire he felt to express his own feeling on this subject, he should have thought it quite unnecessary to add one word to the able speeches of those who had preceded him.

Mr. W. Smith

observed, it must be remembered, that the chief opposition to the abolition of the Slave Trade came from Liverpool, from Bristol, and from those connected with the West Indies. They had lived to see that which was too extraordinary ever to have been prophesied or expected. They had seen (on the present occasion) a motion, which had for its object the total annihilation of the Slave Trade, supported and eulogized by the eloquent member for Liverpool, by the member for Bristol, and by a gentleman intimately connected with the West Indies, who, he believed, might be considered to act almost officially for the colonial interest. This circumstance was so remarkable that he could not help noticing it. Nothing could be more consoling than this reflection; and nothing could hold out a more well-founded hope that the whole world would eventually join in the same object.

The motion was then agreed to, nem. con.

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