HC Deb 06 June 1821 vol 5 cc1119-25
Lord Nugent

rose to move for a committee to inquire into certain abuses in the Administration of Justice in the island of Tobago. He said, that towards the end of the last session, Mr. Capper, who had been attorney general of the island, had stated certain facts that appeared to him to amount to flagrant denials of justice, and indeed to great personal cruelty. Mr. Capper having been appointed early in 1819, went out to Tobago, but soon found that he must either make himself a party to the unjust practices prevailing, must subject himself to a life of disquiet and mortification, or must relinquish his appointment. He preferred the latter, and returning at great personal inconvenience, he laid the whole case before the Colonial department. Lord Bathurst communicated with the authorities of the island on the subject; he received a report denying the charges, and imputing unworthy motives to Mr. Capper; and upon that report his lord- ship had acted. He (lord N.) had received information on many cases, but he should rely principally upon two; not depending merely upon the statement: of Mr. Capper, but upon the affidavits of several witnesses of unimpeachable characters, and filling respectable situations. In the May after the arrival of Mr. Capper, he happened to see, through the bars of the prison at Scarborough, a miserable creature of the name of Edward Hoskin, an Englishman, who had then been imprisoned twelve weeks on a charge of assault. He was dreadfully emaciated, and seemed almost forgotten by his gaoler. The deputy provost marshal, Mr. R. Mitchell, was the responsible authority in the gaol; but he was only the deputy of his father, and had under him a Spaniard of the name of Savadra. Mr. Capper, asked for the warrant of commitment of Hoskin; but none, could be produced-.by Mr. Mitchell. A month afterwards Mr. Capper heard that the wretched prisoner was in a dying state, and he found him in a lower dungeon than that he had previously occupied, shut from the common air in an almost insupportable climate, and with his left leg in the stocks, where it had been for no less than a fortnight. His haggard body was excoriated by sitting, without the power of changing his posture, in the filth and ordure that had accumulated during his miserable confinement. Mr. Capper went to sir F. Robinson, the president, and described the situation of the unfortunate man; and sir Frederick accompanied him to see him the next morning. On seeing his situation, with feelings such as became a man of humanity, he expressed his regret at what he saw. But it was said at the, time that the man was insane. If he even were so, great God! was that the treatment for a ease of insanity? he was never visited by a medical person, nor was there one of that description in the gaol. Although insanity was the ostensible plea for the man's treatment, yet they subsequently confessed the true reason of his detention, to be an expression that escaped him in his sufferings, which was, that if ever he got back to England, he should apply for redress to the courts of justice or to parliament. The next step taken by Mr. Capper was to apply to the court of chancery of the island for a writ de lunatico inquirendo. The application was opposed by Mr. Collier, the deputy provost marshals but Mr. Capper declared that if the writ were not issued, and in the event of the man's death from the rigours he was enduring, he should proceed by a capital indictment. The man was remanded to prison, and in about three weeks after he was shipped off to England. The second case was that of three seamen, who charged the master of a brig then lying in the bay with having violently assaulted them, and stabbed them with a cutlass while serving on board. They made their complaint to a magistrate, who issued his warrant, and the captain as well as the sailors appeared on the appointed day. And here he had the painful task of introducing a name which was long associated with the most affectionate recollections of many who heard him"— he meant Mr. Elphinstone Pigott. Mr. E. Pigott was not only chief justice of the island, but he was also Speaker of the House of Assembly, one of the bench of committing magistrates, and the manager of three estates. Such a combination of employments was well calculated to give an improper bias to his mind, in the administration of some pf the duties which devolved upon him. Before that gentleman the master of the brig was brought up; and without hearing the seamen, the former was liberated upon his own statement, and allowed to sail from the island, leaving behind the three seamen, houseless and pennyless. They slept for fifteen nights on the bare beach, and were at length only rescued from their miserable situation by Mr. Capper, who procured for them a passage home. Before they sailed, however, an attempt was made to induce them to sign a paper confessing themselves to have been guilty of mutiny, in order to prevent them from obtaining redress. This, however, they refused, and upon their return to this country, they not only obtained their arrear of wages, but a further compensation for the assault, by the adjudication of a bench of English magistrates. It might be asked what interest the magistrates of Tobago could have in refusing to administer justice? The question was easily answered; for Mr. Robley, one of the magistrates, and a man of great weight in the island, was consignee of the goods with which the brig was laden, and he knew that if the vessel were detained, and the master committed for trial, his rums and sugars would lose the market. Mr. Robley's own words were, that he did not pare a damn whether the master were hang- or not when he returned to England, so that his rums at sugars were sold." He trusted he had laid a sufficient ground for the appointment of a committee. His motion was not for condemnation, but for inquiry. He would just allude to one other case. A man of the name of Duff was charged on suspicion of having broken open the house of Mr. Collier, the; deputy provost marshal. Mr. Collier stood in rather a singular relation to this man, for he was at once his prosecutor, a magistrate and his gaoler; and availing himself of this mixed relation, he had him put into irons, and kept him handcuffed for four months. The man was never brought to trial, but was sent as a convict to a rock off St. Lucie, called Pigeon Island. With regard to the defence set up by the magistrates of Tobago, that was contained in the report which had been transmitted to this country; and if ministers resisted inquiry on the ground of that report, it would not be difficult to meet their case. If they reisted it on some new grounds, it would not be too much to ask the House to enter into the inquiry. He found nothing in the report, from the beginning to the end of it, but a strong denial of some of the facts, and a violent recrimination of Mr. Capper. None of the material facts were, however, impugned. The noble lord then proceeded to make some observations upon the abuses which existed in the administration of justice in Tobago, and the oppression and cruelty which were resorted to in the treatment of the slaves. Every one who opposed the present corrupt system, or who wished to ameliorate the condition of the slaves, was denounced as a person connected with the African institution, or he was termed a Wilberforcean. Little did those persons who employed such a term as a stigma, imagine with what wisdom and goodness, with what warm benevolence and love of human nature the name of Wilberforce was here associated. The rejection of the evidence of a slave against a colonist was one instance of gross injustice, which, upon every ground of equity and policy, ought be longer to disgrace the administration of justice. In this opinion sir W. Young, late governor of Tobago, entirely concurred, though he was opposed to the abolition of the slave-trade. The noble lord made a few more observations relative to the degraded state of the slave population, and emphatically remarked, that this wretched class of persons only knew civili- zation by that perversion of its character which pampered luxury, defended fraud, and trampled on the rights of humanity. He severely animadverted on the odious practice of profaning the sabbath by the sale1 and punishment of slaves; a day which ought to be devoted to rites of religion and the exercise of mercy, was there set apart for the flogging and torturing of bur unhappy and destitute fellow-creatures. He concluded by moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into certain abuses in the Administration of Justice in the Island of Tobago."

Mr. W. Smith

rose to second the motion. With respect to the conduct of Mr. Pigott, he should merely observe, that men of good intentions were often warped in their conduct by the influence of the prejudices and habits of the associations into which they were thrown. What, he would ask, must be the state of society in a place where such oppression was suffered to exist? What remedy could be devised in order to produce a better state of things? The fair remedy would be to make a trial, whether justice could not be administered in the island by those over whom prejudice could have very little influence, and circumstances none whatsoever. Why could not justice be administered by persons who should make a circuit of the island, like the judges of England? Why were the interests of justice supposed to be safer in the hands of our judges than in those of the local magistracy? Because the former could not be influenced by local feelings, and in all probability formed but few local acquaintances. In the West Indies, more particularly in the small islands, the case was directly the reverse. They had heard much of- the respectability of the House of Assembly at Tobago; but he believed that, with the exception of the chief-justice and one other individual, the 22 or 23 members of whom it was composed were agents and attorneys. If this were so, then these 22 or 23 persons formed a society amongst themselves; and a man, whether he were rich or poor, stood a very bad chance of succeeding when he set up the justice of his case against the prejudices of those individuals. It was morally impossible to establish an efficient local jurisdiction in the small islands, if the existing system were continued.

Mr. Goulburn

said, he would not follow the noble lord into the details of his state- ment. In his general observations with respect to the system of internal government in the island, he partly concurred, and partly differed. It was a difficulty which he always felt in questions of era present nature, that the West-India islands had independent legislatures, exercising within the several colonies all the privileges and power which the legislature exercised here, but with diminished information and diminished moral authority. In nine out of ten cases of this kind brought before the House, it was necessary to bear this system in mind, at until the British parliament decided against that system, they must judge the conduct of the parties, not as if their acts had been committed in this country, but as half pening in another, where there was so different and inferior a mode of government. With respect to the particular question for a select committee to inquire into the administration of justice, it was with regret, that lie ever felt himself called upon to resist a motion of this! kind; but be was under the necessity of opposing the present motion, because he was convinced that such an investigation would have the result, not of a committee of inquiry, but of condemnation. In the present period of the session, when the evidence on one side was in England, and that on the other in the West Indies, ii was impossible to come to an impartial decision. He hoped the noble lord would see the impracticability of instituting1 any effectual inquiry during the present session.

Mr. Barham

regretted that his noble friend had not confined himself to the precise object of his motion, instead of deviating into general assertions and statements. It was his intention to submit an amendment, in order to make the motion commensurate with the charges. After defending the planters from the loose and unwarranted accusations which were continually made against them, he moved, by way of amendment, "That this House will, early in the next session, appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the Administration of Justice in the West-India Colonies."

Sir J. Mackintosh

was desirous that the present proceeding should be remedial hot criminatory. The questions for the House to determine were, first, was there a case for any inquiry at all; secondly, if that question were answered in the affirmative what ought to be the time and place of that inquiry? He maintained that the administration of justice in the colonies ought to be subject to parliamentary vigilance, and inspection; and thought that the cases adverted to by his noble friend afforded a sufficient proof that the system on which justice was administered in Tobago demanded inquiry. He recommended his hon. friend to withdraw his amendment, for the purpose of allowing the introduction of some other, which, although it should assume the shape of a resolution, that the House would take the subject up in the next session, should also limit the consideration to the island of Tobago.

Mr. Marryat

denied that the administration of justice could not be impartial in the small West-India islands. He had lived in one of them ten years, and had twice had occasion to go into a, court of justice. One of his accusations was brought Against the president of the island, another against one of he judges. In both cases he had obtained verdicts, which could not have been given had the system been such as had been described. The proposition for a sort of ambulatory or sailing commission to administer justice in all the West-India islands, he thought very objectionable. He should hot object to a commission being sent but to inquire into the administration of justice in Tobago, but the appointment of a select committee would certainly meet with his opposition.

Mr. Wilberforce

thought, from the facts which had been stated, the presumption was, that acts of gross impropriety had occurred, and was therefore of opinion that inquiry ought to take place. This was due even to the individuals who were implicated. The inquiry would, he thought, be better prosecuted in this country, and he therefore hoped the suggestion of his hon. and learned friend would be agreed to.

Lord Nugent

consented to withdraw his motion, and moved, instead thereof, "That this House will, early in the next session, appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the Administration of Justice in the Island of Tobago."

The House divided: Ayes, 66;iNoes, 105.