HC Deb 20 March 1822 vol 6 cc1200-6
Mr. Marryat

presented a petition from the council and the house of assembly of the island of Grenada, complaining of the distress to which the inhabitants of that island, in common with those of all the other British West India colonies, were reduced, and praying that the House would afford them such relief as was absolutely necessary to save them from impending ruin The hon. member stated, that the distress of the agriculturists at home had a prior claim to the attention of the House, but that the next subject, in point of importance was, the distress that prevailed among the agriculturists of our West India colonies. He had read in a pamphlet, said to be published under official authority, that the total of all the sums raised upon the land, in Great Britain and Ireland, under the several heads of beer, of malt, of hops, and of land-tax, for 1821, was about 9,000,000l.; and that the customs and excise on our colonial produce afforded little less than 8,200,000l. to the revenue: so great, according to the author of the "State of the Nation," was the claim of our sugar colonies to a degree of political import- ance, next only to our landed interest: "nec longo intervallo proximus." The petitioners stated the sources of their distress to be, the want of their former intercourse with the United States of America, and the very low prices of their produce. In consequence of the former circumstance, the prices of lumber and provisions in the British islands were double those paid in the foreign islands, into which American vessels were admitted. This difference was partly owing to the prime cost of some of the articles being higher in the British provinces in North America than in the United States; partly to the communication with Canada, and, indeed, most of the ports in the British North American provinces, being interrupted by the ice or tempestuous weather during a considerable part of the year; and partly to the markets in all those ports being so overloaded with rum—the article in which the returns for lumber and provisions were made—that they would take no more, and therefore discontinued sending the necessary supplies. The fact was, that the whole consumption of rum in the British provinces in North America, including Newfoundland, did not exceed 25,000 puncheons per annum, which was only the produce of two small islands, and did not exceed one-eighth of the whole. The consumption of the United States, while the intercourse with them was open, was six times the quantity taken by the British provinces, which was nearly equal to the proportionate population of the two countries: but since we had excluded their ships from our colonies, they had excluded the produce of our colonies from their ports, and the loss of this market had been grievously felt by the British West India planters. The consequence was, that the redundant quantity sent to Europe had so reduced the price, that it did not actually defray the charges of distillation. Leeward Islands rum, of proof strength, had been selling for several months at 1s. 4d. per gallon; the freight and charges upon it were 8d., the cask that contained it cost 4d., and the remaining 4d. did not reimburse the planter for the coals sent out from England, and the cost and repair of the stills and worms, vats and other utensils, necessary for distillation; so that the rum, instead of providing, as formerly, for the greater part of the island expenses of a sugar estate, was now a total loss to the planter. The price of sugar was also so much depressed, as not to pay the expense of cultivation; and the British planter found his labour lost, and his property annually diminishing.—The petitioners ascribed the present depreciation of their staple commodity to the increased interference of East India sugar in the consumption of the mother country, and to the augmented produce of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies where the slave-trade was still carried on. With respect to the first of these circumstances, the additional duty imposed upon East India sugar was intended as a protection to West India sugar, unless the price should advance upon the consumer beyond a reasonable rate; but it did not at present answer that purpose. Since the opening of the private trade to India, the number of ships sent from Great Britain to that part of the world had greatly increased. The only commodities they could find there to use as ballast in the voyage home, were saltpetre and sugar; and as the quantity of the former was very insufficient for that purpose, they made up the deficiency with the latter. Sugar from India, therefore, being merely a substitute for ballast, might be considered as coming home freight free—an advantage which was, never contemplated when the duties were arranged; and the quantity introduced into home consumption was annually increasing. The petitioners contended, that as their trade was restricted to Great Britain, they were entitled to a preference in the British market; and that such countervailing duties ought to be imposed upon East India sugar as to ensure the West India planters a fair price, before it was admitted into competition with them.—The other and far more important cause of their distress was, the vast increase that had taken place in the cultivation of sugar in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, where the slave-trade was still carried on. It was long ago predicted, that unless this trade was abolished by Great Britain in concert with the other powers of Europe, the great objects of humanity would be defeated, and the British West India colonies be ruined. The former prediction had always been accomplished, and the latter was in a fair way of being so. The abolition by Great Britain had served as a stimulus to other nations to continue it to a greater extent than ever, and under circumstances of accumulated barbarity. The growth of sugar in the foreign colonies had thus increased to a degree that inundated every market in Europe, and brought great distress on the British planter, who depended upon those markets to take off the surplus of, his produce beyond what was required for home consumption. The first remedy prayed for by the petitioners, was, the renewal of the former intercourse between the British West India colonies and the United States. He was an advocate for the navigation system; but could not forget the observation of Mr. Burke, that "if that law be suffered to run the full length of its principle, and is not changed and modified according to the change of time and circumstances, it must do great mischief, and frequently defeat its own purpose. It will not only tie, hut strangle." This was, in his opinion, a case of that description; for the effect of its enforcement was not only to double the cost of the supplies necessary for the British planter, but also to deprive him of the best market for his rum, and tender it of no value whatever. The only interests that could possibly be affected by this measure were those of the British provinces in North America, and the British ship-owners. The objections of the former might be done away, by the imposition of a duty, upon such American articles as came into competition with those that were the growth and produce of our own provinces; this would give them all that colonies could reasonably claim—protection without monopoly. The interests of the British ship-owners would suffer more by driving the West India planters to extremity and ruin, as must be the consequence of continuing the present system, than by granting them the relief prayed for. If they were incapable of continuing the cultivation of sugar and rum, without loss, they must give it up, and raise provisions for their own subsistence, and that of their slaves. The ship-owners would then lose a far more important branch of their carrying trade, than the cross voyages between the West India colonies and the British provinces in North America.—The next remedy to which the petitioners begged to call the attention of the House, was the effectual abolition of the slave trade by the other powers of Europe. That his majesty's ministers had, made great sacrifices, in order to accomplish this object he readily admitted; and he hoped that their persevering endeavours in this good cause would be crowned with final success. Appearances, however, were far from promising. The government of Spain had, indeed, lately passed a law, inflicting punishment on those who carried it on; but for many years past, neither the laws nor treaties of Spain had been observed in the island of Cuba. By the treaty between Spain and Great Britain, the final abolition of the slave trade in the Spanish colonies was to have taken place in October 1820, and the judges and commissioners appointed by the powers to try all violations of the abolition laws arrived at the Havannah previous to that period; but, in the face of them all, the intendant at the Havannah took upon himself the responsibility of admitting every slave ship that came to that port, whether under the Spanish, French, or Portuguese flag; and the judges and commissioners had never been allowed to interfere. So late as October last, a friend of his (Mr. M's.) sailed from the Havannah for this country, and on the same day four vessels left that port, that were avowedly fitted out for the coast of Africa, to bring back slaves. The Portuguese government still refused even to fix a period for the abolition of the slave trade; and the emperor of Russia, who, at the congress of Vienna, approved of the proposition of the noble marquis opposite, to exclude the produce of those colonies who refused to accede to the abolition, had so regulated his late tariffs of duties, as to give a monopoly of the consumption of sugar in his dominions to the colonies of the only powers by whom the slave trade was carried on. Under these circumstances, the most strenuous exertions of ministers would be necessary to secure the effectual abolition of the slave trade; and the prospect of relief to the British West India planters from this event was, he feared, very distant:—The petitioners also urged, that the duty on sugar ought not to be arbitrary, but to depend upon its value, because, as at present regulated, it fell on the planter, and not on the consumer. He confessed, however, that in the present distressed state of the country, so expectation of any diminution in the duty could reasonably be entertained. Another mode of relief suggested by the petitioners, was, permission to export their rum in British ships, to any port is Europe—a permission which had already been given them as to all their produce, to any port in Europe south of Cape Finisterre. The greatest part of the rum sent from the West Indies to this country was re-exported at a double set of charges, which absorbed a considerable portion of its value, and which might be saved by shipping it direct to the places of its consumption. This permission would not only be useful to the planters, but to the British ship-owners, who would receive an increased freight for the longer voyage; and, upon the same principle that ships going from the West Indies to ports south of Cape Finisterre were permitted to load back with certain enumerated articles, they might be allowed to return from the Baltic with lumber, and from Hamburgh with staves, direct to the West Indies; which, under the present system, must, in the first instance, be landed in Great Britain, and then reshipped to the West Indies at an enormous and unnecessary expense. Independently of the advantage of procuring employment to the British ship-owners, by thus increasing the sources of supply of lumber for the West India colonies, the price would be kept down; and in case of war, the planters would be less sensibly affected by the loss of any one market, than if they depended for a supply on that one only. It appeared highly advisable to extend the permission prayed for, to sugar as well as to rum, as was already the case with vessels bound from the West Indies to any port of Europe south of Cape Finisterre. The present Russian tariff, if it continued in force, would soon induce our planters to resume the practice of cloying sugars, in order to secure their admission into the Russian market. Under the present system, they must first be landed in Great Britain, and then reshipped from hence at a double set of charges; but if permission were given to send them direct to Russia, they would then come into competition wish the clayed sugars of the Brazils and Cuba, which were sent there direct on equal terms as to freight and charges. Perhaps the House was not aware of the extent of the distress that at present existed in the British West India colonies. One planter wrote, that no credit could be obtained for provisions and clothing, except under a law of the island, which gave those supplies a priority even over mortgages, if furnished within the last 12 months; and that this credit was purchased at the rate of 50 per cent advance on the cash price of the articles, with the certainty of actions being brought to recover the amount, within the time prescribed by law for securing the priority. Another stated, that one third of the last year's taxes remained unpaid, without any possibility of being collected; and that the legislature of the island in which he resided were now imposing new taxes, under which those who could pay must make up the deficiencies of those who could not. Another declared his determination, unless things should take a more favourable turn, to abandon the cultivation of produce, and divide his land among his negroes, whom he could no longer-support, in order that they might raise-provisions for their own maintenance. As an instance of the depreciation of property, he might mention a fact that had come within his own immediate knowledge. An estate in Demerara, that was purchased about 7 years ago for 40,000l., was sold at the marshal's sale last spring for 13,400l. He trusted that some measure calculated to meet the urgency of the case, would speedily be brought forward.

Mr. Wilmot

said, that the state of the colonies had not escaped the attention of his right hon. friend the president of the board of trade, who meant in the ensuing week to submit a motion on the subject of regulating the intercourse of the colonies with Canada.

Mr. Ellis

confirmed all that had been said respecting the severe distress under which the colonies now laboured. That the planters had not sooner appealed to parliament was owing to the confidence they reposed in the protection of the legislature.

Mr. Bright

begged also to express his concurrence in the opinion, that the distresses of the colonies required immediate attention.

Ordered to lie on the table.