HC Deb 14 April 1815 vol 30 cc607-13
Mr. Wilberforce

rose, for the purpose of moving an Address to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, that he would be graciously pleased to have the several Petitions of Messrs. Brodie, Cooke, and Dunbar, convicted in Sierra Leone of being engaged in the Slave Trade, and certain other papers relative to their subsequent pardon, laid on the table of the House of Commons. His object, in submitting this motion, was for the purpose of showing that those persons were pardoned, not from the merits of the case, but in consequence of some informality in the mode of their conviction. It appeared, that they were tried before an incompetent tribunal, and that the judge who presided was not of the profession of the law, but appointed pro tempore by the Chief Justice of the Upper Court. In the decision of this question the precedents of the Chief Justice were followed as closely as possible, and in so doing the Judge thought himself acting upon sure grounds; but the irregularity was this—the crime of which those three men were accused, was not committed upon British territory, and the ordinary criminal court of Sierra Leone had no authority to take cognizance of the fact. The hon. member expressed his apprehension that a considerable error had crept into the world upon this subject. It was too generally believed that those persons were pardoned upon the merits of the case, without any regard to the point of law upon which, in reality, then pardon was founded; he therefore thought, it desirable that the papers mentioned in his motion should be produced, for the purpose of obviating the ill consequences of such an opinion.—The motion being read,

Mr. Addington

contended that the production of the papers was unnecessary, and unauthorized by the custom of parliament. Had there been any impropriety in the conduct of the ministers who advised the Prince Regent to extend his mercy to the persons concerned, it would have been a good ground for parliamentary inquiry; but none had been imputed to them in the present instance. The only reason he could discover for the motion was, that a pamphlet had been lately published, reflecting with some severity on the African Company, and misstating the case of those three men. He would assure his hon. friend, that the law-officers of the Crown had delivered it as their opinion, that the individuals in ques- tion were tried before an incompetent tribunal, and on that account alone the Prince Regent had been advised to remit the sentence.

Mr. Horner

expressed his surprise that the right hon. gentleman should oppose the motion, and observed that there was, in the present instance, sufficient reason for parliamentary inquiry. The case was this, Parliament had felt a great and laudable anxiety for the total abolition of the Slave Trade. It was therefore a very natural curiosity in them to inquire, why three persons convicted of being engaged in that traffic, should have received the royal pardon. It should be shown to Parliament and the country, that it was in consequence of some defect in the manner of their conviction, and not from the merits of the case. It should be shown that the authority of the Crown was not exercised to sanction that traffic; for these, as well as for ulterior objects, the motion should be acceded to. If the acquittal arose from some defect in form—from some inadequacy in the Act, or in the commission—it was important that the House should strengthen the Executive against all future cases, lest similar acquittals might be the consequence of the present system. This case had been stated by a person high in judicial authority in Sierra Leone (Dr. Thorpe); and by him it had been studiously reported, that they were acquitted, although British subjects, because the crime had not been committed within British territory. Every lawyer, however, must perceive, that by the letter of the law, any British subject who was found guilty of slave-trading might be made amenable to the law. One of these men pleaded guilty. Another was, on the clearest evidence, proved to be guilty. The third alleged that he was a subject of Ferdinand the 7th; it appeared, however, on the trial, that he was a native-born subject, and that his pretence for calling himself a subject of Ferdinand 7 was, that he had served for a certain time on board a Spanish slave-ship. He was perhaps a very fit subject for such a sovereign. He did not mean to impute the slightest blame to Government on this oocasion, but he saw no reason for refusing the papers.

Mr. Bathurst

deprecated all interference by Parliament, in the exercise of the prerogative of the Crown, and in none more than that most valuable one, of extending mercy. He thought the production of the papers unnecessary, and would, there fore, oppose the motion.

Mr. Whitbread

said, he was sure if his hon. friend had spoken from any other part of the House, [Mr. Wilberforce was sitting on the Opposition bench], and the right hon. gentleman had not had the benefit of his glasses, he would have acceded to the motion. He begged to remind the right hon. gentleman, that the object of the motion was not to impeach the Government, or the conduct of his noble relative in the exercise of what he conceived to be his duty: but it was to prevent any misrepresentation going forth to the world as to the grounds upon which those persons had been pardoned. Now really, when they recollected all that was necessary for furthering the great work of the abolition, it could not be unimportant to have all the aspersions and calumnies which had been cast upon the Government removed; and to show that it had not taken any part against the abolitionists, but that the sentence had been remitted through a mere defect of form in the trial. He would again beg the right hon. gentleman to recollect that it was the member for Bramber who had brought forward the motion, and that though accidentally among them, he was not one of those who wilfully sat upon that bench.

The Solicitor General

said, that the opinion which the law officers of the Crown had given on the occasion, was not founded either on the imperfection of the act of parliament for the abolition of the Slave Trade, or on that of the commission which was sent out to carry the purposes of the Act into execution. There was no question, that whenever the crime was committed, if by a British subject, it was liable and punishable by law. But the opinion was founded on the deficiency of the power of the colonial jurisdiction. This crime was tried by the colonial court of Sierra Leone, though not committed within the territories of Sierra Leone. It might be another question, whether it might not be right to give the colonial court the same powers in criminal matters which the courts here have. But the fact was, that they had not them. He said thus much to show that it was not on the ground of any point of form, but on that of the deficiency of the jurisdiction of the colonial court, that the sentence had been laid aside. On no other occasion did Parliament give a colonial court a power to try for crimes committed out of the colonial territories, and it was not extraordinary that they did not do so in this.

Mr. Peter Moore

said, that he had laid the foundation-stone of this debate, as the petitions presented by those persons had been orignally transmitted through him. He had no hesitation in acknowledging, that lord Sidmouth and the rest of his Majesty's ministers would have acted with justice and liberality towards those men; but he must say, that but for his exertions their case would not have been so attentively considered, and that they would now have been perhaps suffering the penalties of their sentence. It had been asserted, that the judge who tried this case had been appointed by the chief justice of the upper court; this he felt authorized distinctly to contradict. But, in reality, there had been no evidence to convict the prisoners. He had both read and written on this subject, and he felt satisfied that the best mode of treating it would be in a committee. There they could examine into the nature and efficacy of the Act, and of the manner of carrying it into execution; and there, too, be feared, they would discover that the present system, under the operation of that Act, had done greater injury to the cause of humanity than the Slave Trade itself, during the unlimited violence of its fury. This alone would be a good ground for instituting a committee, to which should be referred the papers now moved for, forming a mass of evidence, and of valuable information. He conceived the case of the individuals who had been convicted, to be extremely severe, and those who declared them British subjects, and guilty under the Act, seemed but little acquainted with the circumstances. In fact, only one of them was a British subject, Mr. Brodie, and he had not, been engaged in that traffic for near twelve months previous to the passing of the Act under which he had been convicted, and of the others, one was an American and one a Spaniard. Could it be denied, that such an occurrence did not call loudly for inquiry? And where could the case be so well investigated as in a committee? He would, therefore, entreat the hon. member to prefer that mode of procedure, in which he promised him his most sincere co-operation; his time and his exertions should be most sedulously devoted to the attainment of that interesting object of their mutual wishes.

Mr. J. H. Smyth

contended, that the doubts of the law which had been, expressed by the Solicitor General, afforded an additional proof of the necessity of acceding to the motion.

Mr. Wilberforce,

in reply, maintained, that unless his motion were granted, the world would understand, that the crime of which these persons had been convicted might be committed with impunity. He was most anxious that it should, on the contrary, be distinctly understood to be a great and atrocious crime, punishable by the British laws; and that, in the present instance, the individuals convicted of it had been pardoned simply because they had been tried by an incompetent tribunal. Adverting to the calumnies which had been cast on the proceedings of the Sierra Leone Company, he said, that with respect to his lamented friend, the late Mr. Henry Thornton, he had been top long known in that House, and too highly respected for his ability, and integrity, to render it necessary that he should be vindicated on this occasion. [Hear, hear!] But he wished to state, with regard, to another gentleman, whose character was not so much, in public view, he meant Mr. Macaulay, that a greater public benefactor, a more disinterested and indefatigable individual, he had never met with in the course of his experience. As to the wish of his hon. friend, for the appointment of a committee to inquire into the subject, he was convinced, that the more light was thrown on the conduct of the Company the purer would it appear; and he would court the inquiry, were it not that he really did not think it a pleasant thing to spend morning after morning in a contentious investigation on the subject. With respect to the appointment of Mr. Purdy, in contradiction to the statement of his hon. friend, he read an extract of a letter from Dr. Thorpe, in which Mr. Purdy was recommended for the situation. He complained of the small sum, only 96,000l. granted the Sierra Leone Company for civilizing the country around them, while there had been two millions granted formerly for rendering Sierra Leone a depôt for the Slave Trade.

Mr. Addington

said, that the judge who tried those persons, not thinking the evidence conclusive, was resolved to recommend them to mercy; but that, subsequently, the question of the point of law was started, on which the pardon was founded.

Mr. Horner

said, he understood the three men had, in their petitions, acknowledged their guilt.

Mr. Addington

replied, that such was the impression at present on his mind.

Mr. William Smith

said, that as no injury would arise from the motion, he hoped there would be no farther opposition to it.

Mr. Barham

said, that as we were calling on other nations to put down the Slave Trade, and as many doubts were thrown on our own sincerity, every opportunity should be taken to show the injustice of such calumnies; he thought, therefore, that the papers should not be refused.

The Attorney General

defended his hon. and learned friend, the Solicitor General, from the charge of throwing any doubt on the existing law. His hon. and learned friend had distinctly stated, that Slavetrading by British subjects, was always felony. If it were thought by any one, that the pardon of the individuals in question proceeded from any disposition on the part of Government to relax in their honourable perseverance in destroying, root and branch, the horrible traffic in human blood, such a supposition was utterly unfounded; it arose from a laudable solicitude to keep different jurisdictions distinct and separate—a precaution indispensably necessary for the security of the liberty of the subject.

Lord Castlereagh

put it to his hon. friend, whether his object had not been completely answered by the discussion which had taken place? It was manifest, that the indulgence which had been granted to the persons in question, arose not out of the merits of their case, but out of the nature of the jurisdiction by which they had been tried. Under these circumstances, he submitted to his hon. friend, whether it would not be wise to withdraw his motion?

Mr. Wilberforce

acquiesced in this proposition; and, after paying a compliment to the accurate manner in which what passed in that House was stated to the public, withdrew his motion.