HC Deb 18 March 1823 vol 8 cc624-30
Mr. Wilberforce

said, that in rising, in pursuance of his notice to offer to the House the interesting petition which had been intrusted to his care, he felt confident, that the subject of the petition would of itself recommend it to the attention of a British House of Commons, and that an additional motive for that attention would be found in the character of the parties from whom the petition proceeded; a body of individuals who seldom came forward to take any share in public concerns, and who could be induced to do so only when they felt themselves called upon by considerations and objects affecting the hest and highest interests of society. On the part of the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers, in Great Britain and Ireland, he held in his hand a petition which he begged leave to present, praying for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British dominions. He well remembered, to the great honour of the same class of individuals, that they were the first to present a petition to parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. On that occasion, they had appealed to the great principles of humanity and religion. They had also maintained, and the event proved the accuracy of their reasoning, that the abolition was required by considerations of true policy, as much as by considerations of justice and humanity. The retiring disposition and quiet habits of the petitioners prevented them, as he had already observed, from obtruding themselves on public attention, except in such cases as appeared to be of paramount duty. When such a case occurred, however, they were never found deaf to the call of justice and humanity. Their sentiments on the present, as on every occasion, were expressed with moderation and a seriousness, calculated to give them great additional weight; although it was natural to suppose, that the very circumstance of their feeling themselves called upon to bear testimony against the continuance of slavery in the British dominions, might be calculated to excite some degree of warmth in their bosoms. It certainly was an extraordinary anomaly, that the freest nation that ever existed on the face of the earth—a nation in possession of true liberty—in. which the blessings of equate law was extended to the whole community—that such a country should be chargeable with the guilt and inconsistency of allowing slavery in any place under its control. It was, indeed, strange, that those who were so justly jealous of the slightest infringement of their own liberty, should, year after year, and century after century, persist in depriving a great number of persons of that blessing. It was under these circumstances that the petitioners had come forward: and they were entitled to the greater attention, because their efforts were directed against slavery wherever it existed. They asserted, that it was the duty of parliament to put an end to slavery in the British dominions, and to restore those unhappy persons who were suffering under its yoke to the moral dignity of the enjoyment of liberty. There was this to be said with respect to slavery in the East—namely, that there it had, from time immemorial, built for itself a nest—that there it had fenced itself round with mounds and ramparts, and had almost become a part of individual existence; but, an attack had commenced upon that strong hold of cvil; its outworks had been demolished, and the territories invaded; and the cause of truth and liberty was advancing. Ancient history proved, that in the part of the world to which he alluded, many of the evils which were so much deplored, had existed so long as two thousand years ago. The accounts of recent travelers scarcely differed from the descriptions which had been left by the ancients. But, how different were the circumstances attending the existence of slavery in the West Indies! There the evil was of our own creation. The slaves had originally been carried thither, not by their own will, but against it; being seized by fraud, and conveyed by force. To those men, and to their posterity, the country owed the solemn duty of making the best reparation they could for the injustice which had been inflicted upon them. It was really astonishing, that parliament should now be called upon to put an end to slavery, in any part of the British dominions. Never, perhaps, since the world began, had there been known such an extraordinary instance of the sufferance of an evil, in consequence of its being removed out of sight. By degrees, the country had be, come habituated to it; until at length it had actually been considered as a necessary part of the constitution of society, in the place where it existed. He now regretted that he, and those honourable friends who thought with him on this subject, had not before now attempted to put an end, not merely to the evils of the slave-trade, but to the evils of slavery itself. When the question of abolition was in its early progress before the legislature, he well recollected that many honourable members of high character and attainments expressed their decided opinion, that it was the duty of parliament, not to confine itself to the mere question of the abolition of the trade in slaves, but to abolish slavery altogether. Such had been the declared opinion of the late lord Thurlow, of Mr. Sheridan, of a noble friend of his, still living, but, now in the other House, then lord Percy, the present duke of Northumberland: who, when in the House Of Commons, absolutely proposed the abolition of slavery. It might be asked, why that proposition was not warmly supported by those who were then endeavouring to effect the abolition of the slave trade? The truth was, that they were apprehensive, that to press it might prove fatal to the measure which they were desirous, in the first place, to secure. It was, at the period to which he alluded, objected to the friends of the abolition of the slave trade, that their great object was total emancipation. The friends of the abolition of the slave trade allowed, that the abolition of slavery was, ultimately their object; and they certainly, felt that there was no mode by which it was more likely that that object would be obtained, than by, in the first instance, abolishing the slave trade. Among other advocates, however, for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery together, was the late lord Melville, who, when Mr. Dundas, proposed to the House of Commons, that the slave trade and slavery should end together on the 1st of January, 1800. He, however (Mr. W.), and his immediate friends, were satisfied with endeavouring, in the first instance, to secure the abolition of the slave trade. That object had at length been effected, as far as it could be effected by a legislative measure. It would be impossible, however, to prevent the slave trade entirely, until a complete system of registration were established. There was reason to fear that, in some of the colonies, the trade had been secretly permitted. He owned he thought, that at one period, there was strong circumstantial evidence to show, that in the island of Jamaica, illicit importation of slaves had been permitted. What rendered it still more probable that to a certain extent illicit importation of slaves was carried on, was the universal declaration, previous to the abolition, of every individual possessing property in the West Indies, that it would be absolutely impossible to prevent the importation of slaves into the West India islands. That declaration had made a strong impression on his mind. One great principle by which the friends of the abolition of the slave, trade had been actuated was, that the conviction that there was no possible way of obtaining fresh negroes, would induce the planters to adopt, towards their present slaves, a mode of treatment calculated to effect with regard to them, a great physical and moral reform. They had trusted, that the abolition of the slave trade would induce a diminution of the labour of the slaves, a greater attention to, their health, a communication to them of the blessings of religious instruction, and an advancement of their rank in the scale of human beings. Such had been their expectations. They had hoped, that the despair of being able to obtain any addition to the number of their slaves by importation, would be binding on the planters to diminish the evils to which the slaves already in their possession were subjected. That the moral effect had not been so great as was anticipated, was, in a great measure, attributable to the defective registration, by which the illicit importation of slaves was encouraged. He remembered but too well, that an individual, of whom he could never speak but with the highest respect, Mr. Burke, declared his distrust of all general principles, which were not connected with positive regulations for carrying them into effect. The immediate friends of the abolition, however, were satisfied, at, that time, with the attainment of that single object, for the reasons which he had already stated, and which might, perhaps, extenuate his own guilt in not having sooner proposed the termination of that evil, against which the prayer of the petition which he held in his hand was directed. He might be mistaken; but he sincerely believed, that, while the great measure which he and the petitioners were now endeavouring to recommend to the House, was enjoined on them by the highest motives which could actuate, human beings, it was also recommeded by every view of true policy, and of the best interests of the West India proprietors themselves. He hoped, therefore, that the question would be made one of serious consideration. He earnestly commended the House to take this great subject up, not with violent zeal, not with headlong haste, but with a determination to do their duty, If, in the course of their deliberations upon it they should find, that the great object in view, could not be obtained without injury to individuals in the colonies, it would be for them to consider by what means those individuals might properly be compensated by the mother country; never, however, forgetting, in their solicitnde, to discharge any obligations, of that nature, that they had no right to pay British debts with African freedom. All he meant to request was, that the question might receive the fair and impartial consideration of that House; and let hon. members keep it in mind that, this question involved the liberty and happiness of several hundreds of thousands of their fellow creatures; men who, when transplanted to a more genial soil, and blessed with the benefits of education, had shown, by the very rapid progress which they made in humanity, religion, and civilization, that they were nor inferior to any other nation in capability of improvement. He felt that, when arguing upon the fate of a great number of human beings, it would be degrading the subject to confine himself merely to the necessity of supplying them with food and clothing. He regretted, that it had, for some time, been too much the fashion to confine the wants and necessities of slaves merely to food and clothing. Let hon. members look to the principle upon which those unfortunate personages had been, for a long time, indtteed5 to work. That principle was, that they were incapable of recollecting a past, or looking forward to a future punishment; and that it was necessary to go on, constantly applying the stimulus of the whip. In adverting to the former conduct of slave owners, he wished to make every possible allowance for the prejudices and feelings by which they were actuated, and to which he himself would have been equally subject, under similar circumstances. He was fully aware of the feelings entertained, and the difficulties which he had had to encounter, when he first brought the question of the African slave trade before parliament, between thirty and forty years ago. He well remembered, that those who were neutral, as well as several who were friendly to the question, repeatedly told him, it was impossible he could ever succeed in his object. He, however, determined to persevere, feeling quite sure, that in England such a cause must finally be successful. He would say the same now. He stood upon principles which, however tardily, would at length make their way with the people of England. In presenting this petition, he considered that the first stone was laid of an edifice which would flourish at some future period an ornament to the land.

The Petition was brought up and read. After eulogizing the perseverance with which the legislature had followed up the measure of abolition of the slave trade, it went on point out the evils to which hundreds of thousands of fellow-beings were still-exposed, by acontinuance of their bondage in the British colonies, and concluded by imploring parliament to adopt the most efficacious measures for redeeming them from their present degraded situation.

Mr. Canning

asked whether it was the intention of his hon. friend to found any motion upon the petition.

Mr. Wilberforce

said it was not, but that such was the intention of an hon. and much esteemed friend of his.

Mr. F. Buxton

then gave notice, that on the 22nd of April, he would submit a motion, that the House should take into consideration the state of slavery in the British colonies.