HC Deb 10 May 1824 vol 11 cc609-17

Mr. Manning moved the second reading of this bill.

Mr. Huskisson

did not mean to say, that there might not exist a strong case on the part of this particular company for incorporation; but he could see nothing at present which took it out of the rule which he had just laid down. Without attempting to question the policy of incorporating a West-India company, he took the objection which he had before urged generally—that the origin of it was irregular, and that the parties must be required to begin with obtaining first of all their charter from the Crown; and if it should be found that its powers were insufficient, they would then be intitled to come to parliament either for the enlarging or confirming of those powers.

Mr. Ellice

understood from the right hon. gentleman, that the gas bill to which he had referred had been granted conditionally; that was to say, if the company could not obtain a charter from the Crown then the powers of the bill were to be inoperative. Why not allow this bill to proceed upon the same conditions?

Mr. Huskisson

repeated his objection to allowing any bill for incorporation, which was not preceded by a charter obtained from the Crown.

Mr. Sykes

thought that the present bill could not be allowed to proceed to a second reading. He looked upon it as an aggressive and encroaching measure introduced under the modest garb of a private bill, to the great prejudice of the public interests. He could not at all conjecture how it tended to give any relief to the West-India proprietors, which they could not obtain quite as easily at present. His chief objections to it were on public grounds. He disliked the command which the accumulation of so large a capital as four millions would give the company over the West-India trade. He knew that no undertaking could be more hazardous than such an investment and it was a still stronger objection that the creditors of the company would have no security for their debts, excepting the property comprised in the act of incorporation. The separate members would be rendered individually irresponsible. Was it to be endured that the unfortunate people who might be induced to intrust them with their property without ever supposing that they were not responsible individually, should be left in a state so disadvantageous? He himself knew of parties who had sued a mayor and corporation and recovered from them: but still the mayor and corporation laughed at the success of the suitor, because their corporate property and responsibility only being in question, there was nothing upon which he could seize of sufficient value to meet his demand. Not one in a thousand who might deal with this company would be aware, that the members were not answerable individually for their debts. But they had more than this to dread. This influence of so formidable a company over the West-India trade would be extremely detrimental. What individual merchant could compete with a company possessing four millions of capital? Then it was to be observed, that this capital was to be divided into 40,000 shares at 100l. each. He did not wish to say any thing at present upon the West-India system; but he could not but observe, that, against the dictates of reason and sound policy, it was yet very strongly supported. It was a subject, the interest of which had crept into that House, and held many to it on both sides of it. He did not wish for the success of this new plan, which would tend to spread its influence over the whole population of the country, and by that means become a considerable accession of power in a quarter already too strong. It was apian in short for enlisting 40,000 persons on the side of the present West-India system. What necessity could there be for making these new levies to serve under the banners of the West-Indian army? If money were wanted, it could be borrowed on terms quite as reasonable as this company could afford. The ulterior dangers, however, which were greatest, were those of injuring the West-India trade and the interests of our manufactures as far at they were connected with it, and strengthening another interest, which, with respect to justice and humanity, might be regretted as being already too strong.

Mr. Grenfell

said, it was suggested, that the establishment of this company would tend to make the condition of negro-slavery in the West Indies worse than at present. If it should turn out, on examination of the subject at any future time, that he could be brought to that opinion, he would instantly withdraw his name from it. But as he thought there was a good opportunity for employing a portion of that capital which was now fleating about for want of some opportunity of' investment, he would support it; especially as he had heard nothing to induce him to believe that it would make the condition of slavery worse in the West Indies.

Mr. T. Wilson

defended the plan, as one of peculiar accommodation to the West-India proprietors, who would, but for this establishment, be obliged to go hawking about their securities, and by that means incur the disagreeable suspicion of being in insolvent circumstances.

Mr. W. Williams

would oppose the bill in every stage. How could a company carry on the business of plantations better than expert individuals? Did it become parliament to sanction the pretence of a more profitable investment of capital, which might sweep scores of help- less families into its vortex if it should not be successful? But he chiefly objected to it because it offered an obstacle to the finai abolition of slavery. It was in vain to look for any such result, if the estates in the West Indies should have to be managed by a company residing here, actuated solely by a sense of pecuniary interest, instead of being subjected, as at present, to the occasional visits of an enlightened and humane proprietor, educated with all the moral advantages which generally went to form the character of an English gentleman. Instead of this, should the company be incorporated, every thing would be left to sordid and unfeeling agents; and all the hopes which had been entertained in regard to the unfortunate slaves would give place to the abuses which had been the subject of complaint in parliament for thirty years past.

Mr. W. Whitmore

strongly opposed the bill, because it threatened the freedom and general interests of the sugar-trade, and tended to establish a baneful monopoly. It was well known, that the West-India sugar market had produced an excess of the article for several years past, which was now, however, rapidly diminishing. Let this company once be established, and not only would the excess be diminished to nothing, but the public might be called upon to pay from 50 to 100 per cent beyond the natural value of the commodity. He thought it extraordinary, after the lamentable example of the South-Sea scheme, that there should be any attempt to renew the experiment. There should be the most unquestionable proof, before granting the charter, that there was no mode of carrying on the trade so safe or convenient as by an incorporated company. For want of this precaution, Adam Smith, in commenting on the South-Sea scheme, had asserted on the authority of a French author, that from the year 1680, to his time, there had been no less than fifty-five joint-stock companies incorporated in Europe, every one of which had failed.

Mr C. R. Ellis,

though indirectly interested in this question, would only give his consideration to it upon public grounds, upon which grounds he wished it every success. The House had it in their power to pledge his hon. friend, either to obtain a charter before the bill should come out of the committee, or to withdraw it altogether. He approved of it as an admi- rable means for the employment of barren capital; and the names of successful capitalists in the direction gave a sufficient promise of advantage and success. He approved of the bill, because it tended to diffuse more widely a sense of the importance of the West-India islands, and be-cause it would act as a caution among the people of this country, not to be too ready to interpose in the internal government of those colonies, to the evident risk of their natural interests; and he could not have anticipated that this would have been urged as any objection to the bill.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that the system the colonies were pursuing, was one which must end in their complete ruin; and the effect of the measure now proposed would be, to involve them in far greater misery than what they now suffered. Looking at the proposed company only as a private one, he could not but think, that whatever advantages of local knowledge they might possess would be more than counterbalanced by the prejudices which might be supposed to actuate them. In nine cases out of ten, they would consider what might be the interests of the company rather than those of the planters. But there was another point of view in which this measure seemed still more objectionable. At present the West-India interests enjoyed the advantage of a monopoly of sugar, supported by a high protecting duty. Now, the only means by which this company could hope to gain any advantage from their enterprise must be by raising the price of sugar; and to this end they were to be allowed to buy and sell to the amount of four millions. This consideration, if it were the only one, ought to induce the House to pause before they agreed to the present bill.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that if he understood that the bill was to have the operation which the hon. gentleman had ascribed to it, he should think it highly objectionable on the general principle. The hon. gentleman had argued as if the effect of the bill would be, to secure the whole trade of the West Indies to the company proposed to be formed. He had stated, that it could not fail to raise the price of sugar, because the company were to become great dealers in it; and with a capital of four millions, to unite in themselves a monopoly both as planters and as traders. This was, however, not the intention of the company. They did not propose to trade at all. They never in- tended to become either the buyers or sellers of sugar, but to be in precisely the same situation as what were now called West-India houses of agency; that was to say, they were to receive the consignments of the produce of West-India estates, as West-India agents did, and in that capacity they were to sell them: but they were not, in any case, to go into the market as dealers, or to employ their capital for the purpose of dealing in West-India commodities. The authorities of Adam Smith and the Abbé Maury had been thrust forward, and all the arguments urged against monopolies and joint-stock companies had been applied to this. It was, however, not only no monopoly, but, when the circumstances in which the West-India interests were placed were fully considered, he thought the House would be induced to permit the plan to be carried into effect, in the hope of relieving those interests. He would not support any company, whose object it should be to raise the price of sugar by means of a monopoly. But, was there, at this moment, nothing in the condition of the West-India proprietors, that made it desirable for the House to encourage—if they could do so without the violation of any sound principle—any plan which should appear likely to afford them relief, by furnishing them with a loan of money? The occasional unproductiveness of their estates, and the consequently insufficient security, had prevented the owners from borrowing money at the legal rate of interest. He appealed to the landed interest of England, whether, if such a state of things prevailed here—if they were pressed by their creditors, and without the means of raising money—they would not gladly adopt an expedient devised for affording them relief, by a mortgage of their estates? This was the whole intent of the present bill. As it was admitted, that the loan of money would afford important relief to the West-India interests, and that individuals were disposed to furnish that relief, he was at a loss to guess upon what good ground it could be objected to. It had been said elsewhere, that nothing could be more likely to produce the amelioration of the condition of the slaves than the distress of the West-India proprietors. If he entertained any such belief, he might perhaps be induced to oppose the bill; but he besought the House to look at the situation of the planters, and to say, whether, unable as they were to live but by means of loans at exorbitant interests, the slaves were more likely to be taken care of, than if a more prosperous state of things could be restored to the colonies? The distress of the masters must naturally aggravate the distress of the slaves; and any relief to the former would be relief to both; because it would enable and induce the masters to co-operate with the government at home to alleviate the condition of their slaves. With respect to the capital of the proposed company, he believed there were agency houses now in England, who employed nearly as large an amount. Upon these grounds, and without pledging himself wholly to the support of the bill, he thought it ought to proceed to the second reading.

Dr. Lushington

objected to the principle of the bill, and reminded the House that if they consented to give this company what they now asked, it would be easy for them to obtain the sanction of the Crown to become a corporation. The right hon. gentleman had not stated, in the course of his observations, what was too well known; namely, that the colonies had been a losing concern for some years back; and he had no less carefully abstained from stating his own opinion, that this proposed advance of capital would be enough to keep the system alive. The legal rate of interest on West-India property was now 6 per cent; but, was that the rate at which money was ever lent? Was not, in reality, the interest on advances of money by consignees, and the insurance of the stores, nearer to 10 per cent? It was said, that West-India property was insecure. True, it was so; and why? Because the returns of the estates were insufficient, and therefore advances were never made but under the circumstances, and upon the terms he had stated. And how was the proposed company to relieve this state of things? It must be either by raising the price of sugar, or by their becoming the holders of the West-India estates. If they should become the holders of those estates, they would, in their character of mortgagees, be unable to exercise all that privilege of manumitting the slaves, which was exercised by the proprietors, and which was, in every point of view, of the deepest importance. There were other grounds upon which he felt obliged to oppose the bill. It empowered the company to lend money in any part of the globe; there was no limitation to the West Indies nor to any other colony [Mr. Huskisson said, across the table, that any persons might, at present, lend money on any security they thought proper]. The right hon. gentleman was quite correct; any person might do so; but this company asked to do it under the authority of parliament, and in the form of a corporation. Be-sides, if so much good was to be expect-ed from such a measure, why had it not already been tried? What had prevented those gentlemen who proposed to form the new company from having made advances? He objected particularly to that clause in the bill, which, under certain circumstances, would enable the company to hold the estates on which they were to lend money, in mortua manu, until the attorney-general should file an information, or a foreclosure of the mortgage should be decreed by a court of equity. He should certainly vote against the further progress of the bill.

Mr. F. Buxton,

after the length to which the discussion had proceeded, would, in a few words, enter his protest against the measure, as highly detrimental to the interests of the slaves. In the first place, by enhancing their value, it would make the chance of their manumission more remote; and in the second, by placing them in the power—not of their owners, but—of persons who would not have the power, even if they had the inclination, to give them their freedom, it would render their situation far more hopeless than it was at present. He should, therefore, feel it to be his duty to oppose the bill at every possible opportunity.

Mr. Wilmot Horton

was convinced that the bill would be rather beneficial than; injurious to the slaves. If by any means the value of West-India property was in-creased, and if at the same time the slaves were allowed to work out their freedom, the increased value given for their labour would the sooner enable them to accomplish their emancipation. His learned friend had contended, that the bill would cause a forced influx of capital into the West-Indies. Now, it would not cause an influx, but a transfer only. There was no difference, as regarded the quantity of capital, whether the mortgages of West-India property were in the hands of individuals, or of a corporation; but, if the West-India proprietors were pressed upon by the private mortgage, it might be a great relief to him to be able to transfer his mortgage to a company, which could deal with him liberally. He saw no difficulty in adopting the principle of the bill; which was merely to allow a company to make advances of money in a manner in which it was now perfectly lawful for individuals to make them.

Mr. Evans

said, he felt it his duty to throw every obstacle in his power in the way of the passing of this bill. The supporters of it professed to raise the value of West-India property. He could not conceive how this could be done, without raising the price of the produce; unless, which the projectors disclaimed, by lowering the duties on sugar. The bill gave to a greater number of persons in this country, an interest in the West-India colonies, and would thus render more difficult any improvement in the condition of the slaves.

Mr. Manning

supported the bill, and said, that it would only enable the company to do collectively, what the members of it might now do individually.

Mr. Sykes

apprehended, that the immense capital of the company, and the influence which it would consequently procure them, would enable them to obtain a monopoly of the market for West-India produce. The West-India merchants already possessed a monopoly of the home-market; there would, therefore, be a monopoly within a monopoly, an imperium in imperio. Another consequence of the passing of the bill would be, an increase of the quantity of sugar; which could not, he conceived, be beneficial to any party. Under these circumstances, he would move, "that the bill be read a second time this day six months."

The House divided: For the second reading 102: Against it 30.