HC Deb 27 March 1823 vol 8 cc766-71
Sir Robert Wilson

said, that the petition which he held in his hand, and which he was proud and happy to have the honour of presenting to the House, came from a certain number of the electors whom he had the happiness of representing. He was instructed to say, that this petition would have been submitted for signatures for a longer period, and would in that case, no doubt, have received the unanimous approbation of all the electors of Southwark, had there been time to allow of calling a meeting of those individuals before the Easter recess. It was, however, considered by the petitioners, and in his opinion very advisedly, that to wait for the convening of such a meeting would be inexpedient. They had therefore determined to present their petition before the recess; that the feeling of the country might be fully known upon it, and that public attention might be awakened to the proposition to which the hon. member for Bramber had recently called the attention of the House and the country; namely the abolition of slavery through- out the British dominions. The cause of humanity was deeply indebted to the hon. member for Bramber, who, he trusted, would yet have the happiness to witness the consummation of the labours of his life in general emancipation, and to receive the grateful thanks of those for whose benefit he had so unremittingly exerted himself. He felt some pain and humiliation when he adverted to the subject of slavery and the sufferings of slaves, residing within our own dominions. It was impossible for any man of common humanity not to feel distressed and disgusted, when he found that in our West Indian colonies there were about one million of human beings, who every morning as the sun rose, were awakened by the echoing lash of the whip, and knew but too well that they were to be treated, for the remainder of the day, like cattle, or even in a worse way than cattle, at the caprice or the discretion of a tyrannical overseer. It was stated in the petition; that a very respectable individual, who had been a missionary to one of the islands, declared, that he had never seen a black who did not bear on his flesh, the marks of the severe infliction of the whip [Hear, hear! from Mr. Bright]. The hon. gentleman cried hear, hear! but he would read the paragraph in the petition. [This the hon. member did, and it was to the same effect as the statement which he had just made.] Was it to be endured, that, in these enlightened times, nearly a million of our fellow-creatures, without any consideration of feeling or humanity, should continue to be treated as if they were mere material objects? That the wife should be separated from the husband, the mother from the child, and sold for the payment of the debts of the profligate and unthinking master? Such was the degraded condition in which the slaves were placed in our colonies, that any crime or atrocity on the part of a white man would go unpunished, if committed in the presence of blacks only, whose evidence was not receivable in a court of justice. There were many other circumstances of similar oppression; but it was not his wish, or that of the petitioners, to exaggerate the facts of the case. All that they wished was, to call the attention of parliament to the indispensable necessity of interference. The petitioners, actuated by the spirit of justice, did not ask for the immediate emancipation of the slaves. All that they required was, that such measures might be adopted as should insure that emancipation at as early a period as was compatible with the safety and security of all who were connected with the question. It was indispensably necessary to adopt some measures, were it only in counteraction of the hostility that had been manifested by the colonial authorities against all emancipation whatever. It was not his, nor the petitioners' wish, to aggravate any of the evils attendant on this system; but he might be allowed to state, that in 1802 an act was passed in Barbadoes, to increase the fines for manumission from 50l. to 200l. each. In Bermuda, an act had been passed to prohibit emancipation entirely; and to prevent people of colour from being seised of estates; and he was sorry to add, that these acts had received the sanction of the king in council. The hon. and gallant member went on to contrast our conduct in regard to slaves with that of the new republic of Colombia; one of the first acts of which was, to declare every black infant, born of slave parents, manumitted after he should have attained eighteen years of age; and in the meanwhile to declare them no longer slaves, but to continue them as apprentices under their masters, providing, moreover, for them a fund, from which, after their manumission, they might be vided with the means of seeking future support. This was an institution worthy of a nation that had achieved its freedom. How much nobler an object of the expenditure of public money was the provision of such a fund, than the attempt to support a race of foreign princes, who were tottering and falling beneath their follies, their vices, and their crimes. When hon. gentlemen remembered the government of St. Domingo, exercising all the rights of civilized power and policy, could they suppose that our black population in the West Indies would remain long in ignorance of their own degraded condition; or remain passive under what they had a right to consider as their wrongs? He asked those gentlemen who had possessions in the West Indies therefore—and many of them sat in that House—whether it would not be more advantageous even for themselves to come forward and support the proposition of the hon. member for Bramber, in order to prevent our islands from becoming a scene of carnage and desolation? Would they not other- wise be responsible for all the evils which might accrue? He trusted that the people of England would on this occasion discharge the duty which they owed to their own character, and that they would come forward and express their loud and unanimous opinion on the subject. He trusted that our government would not imitate the governments composing the holy alliance, under whose sanction slaves were openly sold as at Constantinople. Until we abolished slavery, foreigners would never believe that we had been sincere in the abolition of the slave trade. They had always thought that we wished to abolish the slave trade, because our own islands were sufficiently stocked with slaves; and of the error of that opinion, nothing but emancipation would convince them.

Mr. Bright

said, he felt himself impelled, by a strong sense of duty, to notice the gross exaggerations which the petition contained; such, for instance, as that there was not a negro on whom the marks of the lash were not visible. He was perfectly confident, that if the allegations of the petition were strictly examined, they would be found to contain a much larger portion of falsehood than of truth. As to the character of the individual to whose authority the petitioners referred, he knew nothing respecting it. But it appeared that that person had been sent out as a missionary to his estate by a benevolent planter, who had proved the humanity of his disposition by reducing the labour which used to be performed by his slaves one-fourth. After having been so sent out, what did that person do? He was three years, and he complained that he had been allowed to preach to the negroes only eleven times a year; but preaching was not the way to ameliorate the condition of the slaves. His duty was to have visited them; to have seen to their wants; to have relieved their necessities. The individual in question, however, had too much spiritual pride to do any thing but preach; and yet it was on the authority of such a man that the petitioners called on the House to believe the allegations of their petition. The hon. member for Southwark had referred to the conduct of the republic of Colombia as an example to be followed by England with regard to the slaves in the West Indies. Now the conduct of the Colombian republic could furnish no precedent for this country. The number of slaves in Colom- bia was only 60,000, whilst the free population amounted to 2,500,000. Was that the proportion in the West Indies? In other respects, too, no comparison could be instituted between the Spanish colonies and our own. He was no friend to Catholicism, but it was an undeniable fact, that in those colonies in which the Catholic religion was established, the Catholic priests devoted their time to the slaves, they were their comforters, and the mediators between them and their masters. They educated them, they baptised them, they warded them. What analogy was there between the two cases? could any man argue from those who were attended to, to those who were neglected? He deprecated all clamour and overcharged statement on this most important subject. Such were the representations with respect to the laws at Barbadoes, regarding emancipation. Those laws were intended not to obstruct emancipation, but to provide a fund for the support of slaves after emancipation. The hon. gentleman concluded by declaring, that the gradual progress of civilization in the West Indies would do more towards ameliorating the condition of the black population, than could be effected by the enactment of positive laws.

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, he did not rise to take any part in the discussion; but rather to induce hon. gentlemen to postpone any further observations until the proper time should arrive. It was a subject so important, that he had no hesitation m saying, that great practical results must, in some way or other, proceed from the consideration of it. But of this he was sure, that such incidental and premature discussions as the present must materially diminish the chance of obtaining a result of a beneficial or effective character. It was unnecessary for him, who, during the whole of his parliamentary life, from its beginning until the triumph of his hon. friend, the member for Bramber, had taken a humble part in the cause of the abolition of the slave trade, to say, that it was not possible he could entertain any feeling which would induce him to oppose himself to a fair consideration of the question of emancipation. But he was sure that his hon. friend himself would agree with him, and that the House would have his hon. friend's example in support of the proposition that it was not by inflaming the passions, that the cause of humanity could be essentially served, or that they could hope to arrive at a fair and useful conclusion upon this great subject. The time would soon arrive when it would be taken into full and serious consideration; and they must not flatter themselves that they could look at it in any other way than as surrounded by difficulties of no ordinary description; affecting as it did the rights, the property, and the feelings of so many thousand human beings. He was anxious, therefore, to submit to hon. gentlemen the expediency, not of abstaining from presenting petitions expressive of the sense of the people upon this important question, but of abstaining from enlarging on the various topics connected with it, of abstaining from the statement of facts, which, whether exaggerated or not, must be unnecessary; as there could be no doubt that there was abundantly sufficient in the state of the society to which those petitions and statements referred, to demand the serious attention of parliament, without any additional motive being presented to their minds.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he was very much inclined to follow the advice of the right hon. gentleman, though the personal attack of an hon. member, in a sort of parable, was very little calculated to put an end to discussion. Though he did not personally know the individual alluded to, he could, from what he had heard of him, give a direct contradiction to the imputation of the hon. member.

Mr. Bright

explained, that he was not personally acquainted with the individual referred to.

Sir R. Wilson

said, that two years ago, he had given notice of a motion on the emancipation of slaves in the Cape of Good Hope, which he had given up on a promise from his majesty's government; but, as nothing had since been done, he had thought fit to call the attention of his majesty's ministers to the subject.

Ordered to lie on the table.