HC Deb 05 July 1815 vol 31 cc1127-33
Mr. Wilberforce

brought up a Bill for more effectually preventing the unlawful importation of Slaves, and the holding free persons in Slavery in the British Colonies. On the question that the Bill be read a first time,

Mr. Barham

said, he did not rise to oppose the Bill itself, because he believed it might be a good and useful Bill if it went upon proper principles; but he wished to call the attention of the House to some circumstances which compelled him to object, to the Bill in its present shape and form. He believed it was intended to be the ground-work of another Bill, which would perhaps be the means of producing many benefits to the situation of the slaves in the West India islands; and to any Bill that in his opinion tended to the amelioration of the condition of the slaves themselves, no man in that House or out of it would be found to be more friendly; but he could not bring himself to vote for the present Bill, because it supposed a traffic of a very injurious kind, which he did not admit to exist. It supposed that a contraband trade in slaves was now carrying on by merchants and planters in the several islands, and it proceeded to enact penalties against such contraband trade. Now he contended that before such an enactment ought to be permitted to take place, some proof should be adduced that there was actually such a contraband trade carried on. He was persuaded that was not the case, and he thought neither the hon. member who brought forward this Bill, or any other person, could possibly prove, by even primâ facie evidence, that there was any such contraband trade in existence. He had another objection, which was that this Bill would be altogether nugatory and ineffectual. It was a matter of great difficulty, indeed, to prove the identity of negroes. This had been shown in various instances, and the hon. member and all those interested in the Bill would find it to be the fact. The fair and proper course to pursue would be to establish proof that any such practice really existed. This could only be done by inquiry, and to such an inquiry he would gladly afford every assistance in his power; but to make enactments of a penalty against a practice on vague and uncertain supposition, was neither fair nor just. The evils against which the Bill was pretended to be directed had no real existence; and if passed into a law, therefore, it could only be in the spirit of the advice given by Ovid to a lover with respect to the affectation of attention to his mistress; "Et si nullus erit pulvis, tamen excute nullum." While he was on his legs he would observe that it was his intention in the next session of parliament to revive the Bill which, having recently passed through that House, had been rejected elsewhere. In adverting to the coarse language of a passionate individual which had been used in another place towards himself as the framer of the Bill, the House, he was sure, would do him the justice to believe that he treated it with the contempt which it deserved. He could not, however, help lamenting the general apathy which had been manifested on that subject. The Deity of the African Institution appeared to have fallen asleep; or peradventure he was journeying. With respect to the Bill now introduced, he repeated that it was uncalled for, and that the imputations which in its very preamble were thrown on the colonies, were wholly without foundation.

Mr. W. Smith

fully approved of the Bill which had just been introduced, convinced as he was, from all that he had heard, of its necessity. He had received information from the best authority, and those intimately acquainted with the West Indian seas, that from the nature of the currents which flowed round some of the islands, it was morally impossible to prevent the illicit importation of slaves, but by some such measure as that now brought in by his hon. friend. He was satisfied, when the hon. gentleman who had last spoken, came to consider the provisions of this Bill, that he would be more disposed to favour it than to throw impediments in its way.

Mr. A. Browne

warmly vindicated the West India body from the aspersions of his hon. friend (Mr. Barham), and insisted that this impossibility of proceeding in any inquiry at the advanced period of the session, was their only motive for not pressing for the appointment of a committee to inquire into the general administration of the colonies; but he was persuaded, that the result of that inquiry would show that they were not deserving of that obloquy which had been thrown around them in a publication which had been lately given to the world.—With respect to the Bill before the House, he felt it his duty, in every stage of its discussion, to reprobate it, as a measure uncalled for upon any parliamentary ground, or by any evidence whatever of the existence of the evil which it was intended to prevent: a measure highly objectionable in principle, as assuming a questionable and hazardous interference in the internal conduct of the colonies, and in its oppressive details endangering the whole system of colonial policy, by which the security both of the properties and the lives of the white population was preserved. He admitted, that with the sense which Parliament had expressed of the nature of the African Slave-trade, they might naturally be anxious to prevent any evasion of the Abolition Bill, or any clandestine opportunities for the existence of the evil. Bat before they went on a pursuit of fresh penalties, or fresh enactments to prevent the evil, they ought to be satisfied, by the usual and established course of parliamentary proceeding, that the evil existed, and that the law as it stood was insufficient for the purpose, and that it was necessary to provide other enactments to perfect their object. With- out this ground of proceeding, the House would set out on a crusade of legislation derogatory to the character of Parliament, and which, growing out of the ardent zeal and inflamed stale of men's minds in the attainment of a favourite object, might lead to consequences highly injurious to other interests connected with that favourite object. In the present instance, the mode proposed for the prevention of the supposed evil by the establishment of a machinery of internal regulation, was one of a very unusual nature, and founded upon the assumption of a right to interfere in the internal conduct of the colonies, questionable in itself; but which, if it did belong to the Parliament of this country, all must agree, should only be exercised upon the strongest grounds of necessity. If the clandestine importation of slaves did exist in the colonies, which he denied, and of which there was not the slightest proof,—and if a registry of slaves be necessary to prevent that evil,—why is the Parliament of this country, even if they possessed the right of legislating for the colonies, called upon to pass such a law, until they found that the legislatures of the colonies would not of themselves do so? Would it not be wise to see whether the legislatures themselves will not co-operate with the mother country in rendering the abolition perfect, before Parliament resorted to the unusual course of forcing such a measure upon them? There is some reason to believe that this co-operation would be afforded. In Antigua there had been every disposition to promote the abolition, as the hon. gentleman had himself admitted; and that disposition might be felt in the other islands. Why then have recourse to this measure, unless more was aimed at than is avowed? Why could it be necessary, unless this was intended as the commencement of a series of legislation on the part of this country, which, if carried to the length, and directed to the object professed in a work lately given to the public, would put at imminent risk and destroy the whole system of colonial policy, by which the property, the peace, and happiness of individuals, and the security of life itself, are altogether maintained?—The melioration of the state and condition of slaves in the West Indies, was an object that might well enter into the feelings of men, and he would be glad to go every rational and convenient length in the attainment of that object; but he conjured the House, while they were employed in that gratifying work, not to overlook and disregard the interests and the security of individuals who were unfortunately possessed of that species of property. He conjured them, while they were endeavouring to benefit the blacks, not to sacrifice the whites. He would not enter at large into the topics to which he had alluded, as the Bill was agreed to be read the first time; but viewing the measure as one that had much of evil in itself, and much of evil in view, he should give it his decided opposition in all stages of its discussion.

Mr. P. Moore

concurred in this opinion, and trusted the measure would receive no further countenance. At all events, it ought to be preceded by the appointment of a committee up stairs, for the purpose of ascertaining how far the Acts at present in force for the prevention of the Slave-trade were or were not operative. If they proceeded without this inquiry, they would be legislating in the dark, and interfering with those reforms which would, it was presumed, emanate from the legislative bodies in the colonies. The hon. gentleman then referred to the late case of Brodie, Dunbar, and another, to show that a variety of practices existed, which were much more open to reprehension, and much fitter for inquiry, than those to which allusion had been made.

Mr. Gordon

thought such a measure as this was not fairly introduced, by being coupled with a tissue of general allegations against particular bodies. The hon. gentleman here look occasion to eulogise his hon. friend near him (Mr. Barham), whose management of his West India property was productive of infinite service. If the abuses proceeded from any improper act on the part of the local assemblies, then let the facts be proved, and let those assemblies be altogether abolished, and the government vested in the hands of the colonial governor; this would be the proper course to adopt. He concurred in the opinion, that no facts were made out to justify this motion, and thought the moment inopportune, at a time when the colonial governments were themselves employed in ameliorating the condition of their slaves. The inquiry which was the foundation of this Bill, seemed to have emanated from a long string of complaints, which had been in one sense unanimously transmitted to the African Association, and then formed into a sort of criminatory shape, for the purpose of bringing forward a measure of this kind.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, that nothing could be a stronger proof of the necessity of some bill of the nature of the present, than the universal admission, not only of the planters, but of the historian of the West Indies, that all attempts to prevent the importation of slaves into the islands would prove vain. He had been accused of dealing in general charges against the people of the West Indies. When speaking against the system of the West Indies, he was always happy to bear testimony to exceptions to it; but he would contend, that the general system was, in the highest degree, vicious. Seriously and soberly standing in his place, he would say, that the general condition of slaves in the West Indies, was worse than that of any description of slaves in ancient times. It was admitted by the opponents of the present Bill, that evasion of the abolition laws was but too easy, and they might be said to be friendly to the object of it. He had heard enough of the West-Indian legislature, not to have any very sanguine expectations from that quarter. It was melancholy to reflect, that notwithstanding all the admonitions which they had received on the subject of mitigating the state of slavery, so little had been done by them, that the unhappy beings were liable to be torn away from their little domiciles, when they had at length, perhaps, forgot their native home, and found a second home in the West Indies, on account of their masters' debts—husbands torn from their wives, parents from their children, the most sacred ties of human nature dissolved. Not in one single island had a law to make slaves astricti glebæ been passed, notwithstanding the recommendations of the duke of Portland, the West-Indian committee, sir William Young, and many others. It was a complete misapplication of language to compare these legislatures to that of Great Britain. What sort of British constitution was it in which nine-tenths of the people were not even virtually represented? The evidence of a slave could not even be taken. With respect to the charges against the African Institution, brought forward by an hon. member (Mr. Marryatt) some time ago, they were altogether groundless. On inquiry into the subject of the letter stated to have been suppressed by them, he found that the African Insti- tution, at the period alluded to, was not in existence—that was only one specimen. All the charges were entirely groundless. With respect to the sums stated to have been paid by Government in consequence of the interference of the African Institution with the slave ships of Portugal, and a similar claim set op by Spain on that account, the fact was, that they had never interfered with Spain, and the transaction with regard to Portugal was altogether mis-stated. It was acknowledged by an hon. friend of his (Mr. Barham), that there was no such thing as marriage among the West-India slaves. In Africa these people married—in St. Domingo, marriage was as prevalent as in any other community on earth. He believed that the Bill would be productive of the most extensive reform.

The Bill was then read a first time, and ordered to be read a second time, and printed.