HC Deb 13 June 1815 vol 31 cc772-85
Mr. Wilberforce

rose, pursuant to notice, to bring under the consideration of the House, his motion respecting the registry of slaves in the British colonies. He felt a satisfaction, he said, in thinking that the measure which he intended to propose was one which involved no novelty of principle, but was, in fact, merely a supplement to the Bill for the abolition of the Slave-trade. It had been already adopted, to a certain extent, in the island of Trinidad, after a most mature and deliberate investigation, and had proved highly beneficial. He was happy to add also, that the principle of the measure was one which had received the decided approbation of the late Mr. Perceval, and which it had always been his intention to extend to those colonies which have colonial legislatures, as well as to those which had not. He was concerned to hear, however, that he might expect to receive opposition from many gentlemen in that House, who represented the West-India interest in it; and that opposition rendered it the more necessary that he should distinctly state the great principle upon which he intended to rest his measure. The object of it was not merely to check the various means by which the abolition laws were evaded or violated, but to prevent the continuance of the source of the evil itself. Many of his friends who then heard him would remember that, during the various discussions upon the abolition of the Slave-trade, it was constantly urged, both in that House and out of it, that no substantial benefit could be obtained, unless measures were devised to introduce those moral regulations with respect to the treatment of the slaves, which might secure a supply of slaves without looking to the slave-market for that supply. The great object of the abolitionists at that time certainly was to stop the supply from Africa, and thus lay the foundations for any superstructure which it might afterwards be expedient to raise. But it was impossible to do all that might have been wished, at once; and indeed he would frankly confess, that when the Slave-trade Bill passed, the friends of that measure did not dare to encumber it then with more extensive operations than at that time belonged to it. Now, however, the period had arrived when supplementary measures might not only be resorted to, but when in fact they were called for from the practices which undoubtedly existed in the West India islands. He most earnestly entreated those gentlemen, therefore, who intended to resist the motion he should have the honour of submitting, maturely and deliberately to weigh all the merits of it before they were induced to oppose it. He had been informed, from various sources of intelligence, that the illicit introduction of slaves into the West India islands (he was bound, injustice, however, to except the island of Jamaica) was still carried on to a very great extent; and a strong fact in confirmation of that intelligence was, that there had been but little increase in the price of slaves since the passing of the Abolition Act. Great and dreadful abuses also in the treatment of those unhappy beings still prevailed; and it was impossible, he feared, to expect any beneficial reform till some positive enactment took place, which should clearly render it the interest of those who had a property in them to promote their comforts, and secure the means of their increase without any possible supply from Africa. He was now contending for the happiness and benefit of the West Indian slaves; and undoubtedly if there were any means that could be proposed which would render completely effectual the Abolition Act, he could not doubt that the House would be earnestly disposed to promote them. He would therefore stale to the House the measure which he had in contemplation for accomplishing that object. It was in fact by the means of registering the slaves. The House was aware that a register of them was already kept in every island; but it was not so particular and exact, as to render it a specification by which the identity of the slave could be ascertained. The mode of registry which he intended to propose would precisely accomplish that object; a duplicate or counterpart of it would also be transmitted to this country, where it would be preserved, and constitute the title of the owner to the negro; so that in order to prove that title or claim to a negro, it would be absolutely necessary to produce the register. The illicit introduction of slaves would thus be effectually prevented, as all frauds or falsification in that register would be subjected to heavy punishment. Such was the leading principle of his measure, which was so simple that it explained itself, and so safe and so useful, that he thought it would be laying the foundation-stone of a reform which would gradually operate through all the ramifications of West-Indian management with respect to slaves; and if such were the effects that might be anticipated, who that felt any interest in the welfare and happiness of those unfortunate beings, would hesitate to give his support to it?—With respect to the objection, that the measure would interfere with the colonial legislatures, he denied its cogency. The most enlightened of those legislators would also deny it. The paramount right of control on the part of the Legislature of this country, had been at all times acknowledged. On this subject the delusion would soon pass away, as it had passed away on the subject of the abolition of the Slave-trade itself—a measure which was now universally allowed to be one of undeniable justice and humanity. It was not to be expected that the colonial powers would resist the operation of this proposed measure; and were they to resist it, that resistance would be ineffectual. There were other considerations, of a much more powerful nature, to induce the House to accede to his proposition, arising out of the duty of Parliament to provide for the moral and religious instruction of the negroes; and thus to endeavour to make them some amends for their sufferings in this world, by opening to them brighter prospects of a future existence. Above all other circumstances, he had looked to the encouragement of marriage among the slaves, as a necessary and most beneficial consequence of the abolition of the trade. In Africa, it appeared from Park's account that marriages were very prevalent, and very rarely violated. In St. Domingo, after the slaves had vindicated their rights, marriages became universally prevalent, and were much encouraged by rendering unmarried men incapable of admission to high offices in the state. Adverting to the abolition of the Slave-trade in France, he observed that the character of Buonaparté justified the suspicion that he would endeavour to tamper with our islands, and thus the expediency was confirmed of attaching to ourselves as much as possible the negroes as well as the free coloured race; the recent admission of the last of which to the right of giving evidence on criminal trials, he had been very happy to learn. Another stimulus to a due attention to the interests of the negro population arose from the contemplation of the numbers of our brave soldiers who had fallen victims to their efforts. How desirable would it be to convert the slaves into a free and happy peasantry, capable of defending the islands which they inhabited, instead of endangering them by their presence! The legislature of Antigua had done themselves immortal honour by their resolution expressive of their willingness to accede to any plan of rational and practicable reform; and he trusted that, on cool consideration, all the rest of our colonies would see the advantage of imitating so liberal an example. He should be most happy to have them for his coadjutors in this great work. In conclusion, he moved for leave to bring in a Bill "for better preventing the illicit Importation of Slaves into the British Colonies."

Mr. A. Browne

said, that he felt considerable difficulty in addressing the House, after the eloquent and impressive speech they had just heard; but he would not shrink from the task from any sense of personal inconvenience. The House would perceive in the explanation which the hon. member had given of the object of his Bill, abundant reason for postponing any further consideration of it, in the present advanced state of the session, even if they should be disposed to grant leave to bring it in; and indeed if the session were not so far advanced, considering how seriously the Bill affected the private interests of individuals unrepresented in this House, and who are removed to a distance from the immediate influence and protection of the government, and how seriously it affected the constitutional and local authorities of the colonies,—the House in its justice would feel the necessity of postponing any proceedings upon it, until the nature and object of the Bill was known to those who had so deep an interest in its enactments.

He regretted to find so much room for objection, both in the principle and in the detail of the plan, by which the hon. gentleman sought to accomplish the purpose of preventing the clandestine importation of slaves. Possibly no professions of his, with respect to a desire on his part to see the great work of abolition carried into effect, would be received with much credit by the hon. gentleman or those who acted with him. The noble lord over the way had not been free from that suspicion; and if after the anxiety which he had manifested to extend and perfect that great object,—if after all the great talent which he had employed to extend the influence of our opinion of the nature of this trade, to the other Powers of Europe, with a view to one common and general condemnation of it,—if after all his exertion, he had not escaped suspicion,—it was not for him to complain, if without such claims, or without, indeed, any claims whatever, he should be subject to the like suspicion. Undoubtedly, however, there had been no want of co-operation on the part of those members of the House, who were connected with the colonies, in any and every measure that had been devised to give effect to the abolition law. An Act had been passed to render the offence a felony, against which not a voice had been raised: and this year, an Act had passed this House at least, with very little objection, which had been thought elsewhere to be carried to an unnecessary and extravagant length. He was entitled, therefore, to say, that whatever difference of opinion the present proposition might occasion, that difference of opinion must proceed upon other grounds than a want of feeling to give effect to the bonâ fide abolition of the trade.

The present proposition involved something further than the mere preventing, by a prohibitory statute, any clandestine importation of slaves—it went to effect a measure of internal regulation in the colonies, and involved therefore the doubtful and hazardous question of the right of this country to legislate for the internal and domestic concerns of the colonies. It was subversive of the local constitutional authorities of their legislatures, and seemed to threaten with the most fearful consequences, the whole tenure of private property. The hon. member had employed himself, not for the purpose of satisfying the House, that in spite of the law as it stood, a clandestine importation of slaves had taken place, so as to make further measures of prohibition necessary; but he had used almost the whole of his speech in reprobation of the general system of the colonies, and to excite that general feeling which had been so useful upon former occasions: but he would confidently appeal to the House, whether, in a due regard to the consistency of their own proceedings, they ought not to be satisfied that the evil against which they were about to guard, did in point of fact exist, and that the law as it stood was insufficient to prevent it. The general system of the colonies, whether good or bad, was foreign to the present question: they were desired to give leave to bring in a Bill to prevent the clandestine importation of slaves. The Statute Book being full of Acts to prevent the carrying on any traffic whatever in slaves, and to make it a felony for any one to do so; surely before the House could be reasonably asked to make any further law upon the subject, it ought to be shown, in a regular parliamentary way, that the law was insufficient to prevent the offence, and that a clandestine importation had taken place. He himself did not believe that any such clandestine importation had taken place in any of the islands. The hon. member had admitted that there had been none in Jamaica. He (Mr. Browne) was persuaded there had been none in Antigua: nor did he believe, from any inquiries that he had been enabled to make, that any clandestine importation had taken place in any of the other islands. It was his intention, therefore, to move for a committee to inquire into the fact, as the necessary foundation of any further legislative proceedings. If it should be found that the evil did exist, he would go every length in his power to prevent it; but without the establishment of the fact by a parliamentary inquiry, he would not involve a whole class of men, unfortunately doomed to a residence in the West Indies, in a charge of so conniving to elude the law, as to make it necessary to render the offence more penal or more difficult to be committed. It was due to those whose characters were thus involved, and it was moreover due to the regular course of parliamentary proceeding.

But the hon. member aimed at something more than preventing any clandestine importation of slaves,—he aimed at a general power of legislating for the colonies; and this was the commencement of a system of interference on the part of this country, which was to effect a change conformably to the views of the hon. gentleman, but destructive of the whole tenure of property. It was unnecessary for him to give any opinion, at this period of the discussion, upon the right which the Parliament of this country possessed to legislate for the colonies, in matters of internal regulation; but the possession of a right, and the exercise of it, were two distinct things. If the right were possessed, undoubtedly it would not be fit to exercise it, without a strong case of necessity; without a due regard to the feelings of persons who were interested in it; and above all, without a due regard to that security and sanctity of private property, around which our constitution and our laws had thrown the impenetrable shield of their protection. If the measure of a registry of slaves be the best expedient that could be devised to prevent the clandestine importation of slaves, why not, in the first instance, propose to the colonies, under a recommendation from the colonial secretary, to pass a law to that effect themselves? What occasion was there for any great haste? Why not wait to see what they would do in the first instance? Why irritate their feelings by passing such a law here unnecessarily? They have delegated to them the power of legislating for themselves. That power cannot be interfered with (to concede for the sake of argument the question of right) without some imputation upon their own conduct, and without giving occasion for much dissatisfaction and discontent. Could it be necessary to risk all this? The purpose may be effected in a better way: if it should be found that they will not adopt the recommendation; if their sincerity with respect to the abolition should be doubted;—why, then it may be time enough to stand upon the right, and insist upon carrying the object into effect. There would then be some foundation for this extravagant proceeding, and the House would find its own justification in the necessity of the case: but as the case stood, without any parliamentary evidence of the existence of the evil—without having ascertained whether the legislatures themselves will do, of their own accord, that which the House is required to do for them offensively and injuriously; it would be highly unwise for the House to go the length that the hon. gentleman had proposed: it was not necessary for the purpose which the hon. gentleman professed to have in view, and if it was necessary for other purposes, surely it became the House to look upon it with some suspicion, and to consider its probable effect upon the general interests of the colonies, which had been established by the Parliament of this country, at the best period of its history, and continued during a period of two centuries. These were considerations not to be overlooked, not to be sacrificed to the wild and indigested theories of those who seemed to be exclusively occupied in the general emancipation of the negroes. The House would not disregard the moral duty while they were endeavouring to benefit the one description of persons, not to do a vital injury to the other. As the Bill, however, could not be proceeded upon this year, he would, for the reasons which he had stated, move as an amendment to the motion of the hon. gentleman, "That a committee be appointed to inquire whether any clandestine importation of slaves into the colonies had taken place since the Abolition Act."

Mr. Protheroe

was not only desirous of promoting by every means the great object of the entire abolition of the Slave-trade, but he was even desirous of lending his support to the plan which his hon. friend had now brought forward. But while he said this, he owned he was also a good deal struck with what had fallen from an hon. gentleman who spoke last. It became the House, in a business of consequence, not to proceed with any undue haste. Did his hon. friend think that it would be possible to proceeed through the Bill in the present session, and that an affair of so great interest to the colonies should be decided on without affording them an opportunity of expressing their sentiments? He was not very sanguine, however, in his expectations, that the colonial legislatures would adopt this measure; and it was the less likely because the measure was brought forward here, as they would consider it an infraction of their rights. He was willing to allow that the Legislature of the parent country had a paramount right to legislate for the Colonies; but the exercise of that right ought to be determined by the combined consideration of the importance of the object, and the possibility of its being effected. He hoped his hon. friend would move for the appointment of a committee, that the result of their labours might be laid before the House in the next session.

Sir John Newport

said, if the lateness of the session was prejudicial to the consideration of the Bill, it was equally unfavourable to the formation of a committee. What would the committee do? They would prepare a Bill, which would lie over from next session to the following. He deprecated the proposed delay, and thought that this blessing ought to be conferred on these unfortunate individuals at as early a period as possible. In all the colonial legislatures the members must be guided by the feelings of the people whom they represent, and the imperial legislature ought to interpose its authority in a case of this consequence.

Mr. Marryatt

thought, injustice to themselves and the colonies, that the House ought to have a legislative foundation to act on. He considered the committee from which this measure proceeded, as by no means the safest guides for the House. By their construction of the Abolition Act and our Treaties with Spain and Portugal, which had been sent to all commanders of vessels, numerous captures had been made of vessels belonging to those countries: and our Government had been obliged to pay Portugal 300,000l. for vessels unjustly captured, and Spain was claiming two millions of dollars on the same account, which he had no doubt we should be obliged to pay. This was brought on the country by the abolitionists taking on themselves official authority, without being in official situations. It was not only a loss of money, but a loss of national honour, and we owed it to the African Institution. He thought the African Institution had not dealt with candour by the public—they had published only the documents in their own favour, but had withheld other documents which were of a contrary description. He would instance the unfairness of suppressing a letter from the governor of Sierra Leone, for eight years, which had lately come out. In the publication of the late mission of the late unfortunate Mungo Park, they had given statements with a view of establishing the increase of the domestic industry of the natives of the country round Sierra Leone, which when properly explained would bear no such construction. They had obtained reports from all the governors on the coast of Africa in answer to questions respecting the progress of agriculture and domestic industry among the natives since the abolition, stating that there had been none whatever. But all these reports were suppressed. This was hardly fair. He did not impute any unfair motives to the body of the African Institution; but he contended that they had not had sufficient time for the consideration of all the subjects before them, and that they had entrusted these matters to individuals who had not dealt with candour towards the public. The arguments in favour of clan- destine importation, derived from the comparison of returns in the island of Trinidad, were by no means conclusive, as the old returns were extremely defective. He could say that no less than 51 estates had been abandoned in Trinidad for want of negroes to cultivate them. The negroes had decreased in number in that country. In Grenada the same thing had taken place. A poll-tax was laid on the negroes of that island; and from that tax it appeared that the number in 1808 amounted to 26,109, and in 1813 only to 22,565. It had been contended that no amelioration had taken place in the condition of the slaves since the abolition; but he could say that a great amelioration had taken place in the island of Grenada, the colony with which he was best acquainted, where before the abolition the slaves worked day and night, and were divided into gangs, as on board of ships but this practice had been abolished. The expense of the returns in Trinidad had been enormous, and the proprietors of slaves had been put to a great deal of unnecessary trouble. It had been said, that without such a registry as that proposed, no man could prove his freedom; but every man who resided in the West Indies could have no difficulty in proving his freedom. It was no uncommon thing for slaves to run from one island to another, where they gave themselves out as free men: this description of people would be protected by the proposed measure. A man who was really free, took out a passport when he left a place, and it was impossible then to molest him. Registers of the sort proposed would be of use to criminal and run-away slaves, but of no use to innocent people. A good deal had been said about colonial rights:—he was not now disposed to deliver an opinion on the subject, but he knew what opinions had been delivered on the subject during the American war. The Act of the 18th Geo. 3, renounced the right of raising money in any of his Majesty's colonies, without the consent of the assemblies of these colonies. This Bill was in effect a Money-bill; for it would operate as a tax on the people. We ought to recollect, that by persisting in the question of right we lost America. We ought to recollect, also, that the same object might be attained another way. If we did as the hon. gentleman wished us, we should only be raising up a stone wall to break our own heads against. We had only to prohibit the leading any money to any colony which did not agree to such a register as that now wanted. If we acted as the hon. gentleman recommended, we might perhaps light up a flame between the mother country and the colonies, which would one day be deeply deplored. He hoped the hon. member would withdraw his motion for the present.

Mr. F. Douglas

condemned the traffic on any grounds as immoral and abominable, and trusted that no opportunity would be lost of ameliorating the condition of the slaves. He was strongly in favour of the motion; he felt as anxious as any individual for the safety of our colonies; but saw no danger that could result to them from the regulations proposed. It would appear extraordinary to all Europe if we should now, out of delicacy to our own colonies, abstain from fulfilling the intention of the Act of Abolition.

Sir Samuel Romilly

thought it was deeply to be lamented, that so long time should have been suffered to elapse before the supplementary measure of his hon. friend had been brought forward. The establishing a registry of slaves, and declaring all persons not found in the list to be free men, was the only way by which the illicit trade in slaves could be prevented. It was nothing more than establishing a registry of real property, and securing slaves to their owners, in the same way as it would secure to them their cattle. He lamented that the Act for the Abolition had scarcely at all tended to ameliorate the condition of the negroes. It was only in Jamaica that free men of colour were now permitted to give evidence in civil causes. In all the British colonies, it appeared, that any man not of a white complexion was presumed to be a slave, and any man who stole his certificate from an unhappy-black who had procured his freedom, stole from him his liberty. Every black man was in all these islands primâ facie a slave, unless he was able to show that he had obtained his freedom; and it was even common for negroes to be seized, and sold, to pay their prison fees. All, therefore, that the measure would effect was, to enable these unhappy people to prove themselves free when they were so. The Parliament of this country, when it imposed laws on the colonies, had found, as it ought, that they had been implicitly obeyed. The assemblies, who thought that a British governor ought not to interfere with the colonial laws between the whites and their slaves, ought to be con- vinced of their error. If such notions as the legislative assembly had presumed to entertain,—that the killing of a slave was only to be punished by a fine of 18l. yet continued,—they could not be too soon undeceived. The hon. and learned gentle man then proceeded to reply to all the objections of Mr. Marryatt, and concluded with observing that the measure recommended was not even one of experiment; as a registry of slaves had been established at Trinidad, St. Lucie, and the Isle of France. He commented on the cruelties that had been proved to have been committed, by the flogging of negroes in the severest manner; and, alluding to the execution of a planter some time ago for the murder of his slave, when the governor was obliged to call out the militia to prevent him from being rescued, he asked what the House must think of such a deplorable state of society, and whether they could go home that night and sleep with tranquillity, if they did not unite to adopt a measure that must improve it.

Mr. Barham

declared he would go as far as any man for emancipation. He thought the measure proposed both important and excellent; and might even be much improved in time. He wished a ground was laid for the proceeding by a previous committee He thought the title of the Bill assumed the fact that there still were illicit importations of slaves; and this was a circumstance well worth inquiring into; otherwise the registry of slaves as now proposed, would be so incomplete as not to be of any use. He denied the truth of the contents of a pamphlet, issued under the sanction of the African institution, and which they appeared to have fulminated as their manifesto. A committee of inquiry into the condition of the slaves would be highly desirable and judicious. But as to the motion before the House, he regretted that he could not consistently vote for it.

Lord Castlereagh

agreed with his hon. friend who spoke last, that it was extremely desirable to know the extent of the evil which was meant to be cured. He thought it highly proper to ascertain whether any illicit traffic was continued or not. His Majesty's ministers, having pledged themselves to facilitate every measure that would tend to abolish the Slave-trade, must stand pledged to support such a measure as that now proposed. He was, however, afraid of the delusion that might prevail in the colonies against it; and that it would, therefore, if precipitated, be attended with danger, and fail in its object. If there was not virtue enough in the people of Jamaica to second such a measure, what good could be hoped from it? On this ground, therefore, it ought to be made fully understood, before it should be carried into execution. The Crown had done much to facilitate the measure, and a very great support might be expected for it from all the islands, if we did not act with too much precipitation. It appeared to him that by pursuing the measure more deliberately, all disgust might be done away. He should think it most important if the colonies were to carry this measure into effect by their own legislature; this would be a great triumph to the cause. In order to give the colonies time to understand the measure fully, he trusted that his hon. friend would not object to any reasonable delay in carrying it through the House, instead of precipitating Parliament into an arrangement that might be attended with some evil consequences. There was every reason to hope, that all the European Powers would shortly join in stopping all the supplies from Africa; and he was sure that if we could persuade the colonies to pass this measure voluntarily, in the spirit in which it was meant to operate, that it would be far more beneficial than forcing upon them a law from Parliament, which they might try to circumvent. He trusted that his hon. friend would, for these reasons, pursue the measure with as much prudence as he did zeal; and though he was not disposed to support him in proceeding further with his motion this session, yet he firmly hoped it would be ultimately effectual.

Mr. W. Smith

declared, that he felt great weight in what had been urged by the noble lord; but in his own opinion, there was no ground for the committee: it might do much harm, and could not do any good, as proof would be wanting of the illicit traffic. He thought much good might result from a general law that should be applicable to, and operate upon all the colonies at once. He had no hope of the colonies taking up the measure on their own account. The hon. gentleman, to support this opinion, read a petition from the free people of colour to the assembly in Barbadoes, in 1811, on their being debarred from giving evidence; it stated, that the lower orders of white people entered their houses and treated them with gross outrage and indecency, without their having any redress, because they could not give evidence. Yet this petition, requiring so humble a boon, was treated with the utmost contempt, and these free people were still in the same situation as when their petition was presented; this would show that the British parliamentary interference was, as the noble lord had termed it, the last resource. He had no wish to press the measure this session, but he felt convinced that it was the only one which would be found effectual.

Mr. Wilberforce

shortly replied. He acknowledged that the session was so far advanced that it might not be advisable to press forward a measure which might meet with opposition in all its stages. He should therefore yield to the general wish of the House.

Mr. A. Browne

withdrew his amendment, after which leave was given to bring in the Bill.