HC Deb 21 May 1824 vol 11 cc796-804
Dr. Lushington

rose to present a petition to which he requested the attention of the House, and particularly of ministers of his majesty's government. If the facts alleged were true, there never was a case which called more loudly for their interference; not only with a view to do justice to the oppressed, but also to punish the oppressors. The petition stated, that the petitioners are freemen of colour, natives of Kingston, in the island of Jamaica, where they had constantly resided; that they were married to women, also natives of that island, and had each four children—that they were engaged in business as liquor-merchants—that they held the rank of serjeants in the militia, in which they have served since the year 1813; and that they possessed property in the island, consisting of houses, land, and slaves: that about the latter end of September last, the petitioners underwent an examination before certain magistrates of Kingston as to the proofs they possessed of being British-born subjects, when they produced, in support of that fact, the certificates of their baptism, and other necessary documents— that on the 7th of October following, petitioners were apprehended, and carried to prison, for the purpose, as they were informed, of being summarily removed from the island of Jamaica, as aliens, and dangerous persons; but a writ of habeas corpus having been issued, on their application to the grand court of the island, their case underwent a full and minute investigation before Mr. Chief-justice Scarlett, and the two assistant judges, Mills and West, on the 25th of the same month; and the sentence pronounced by the court was, that the petitioners were both British-born subjects, and as such entitled to their discharge, and to the enjoyment of all their privileges as British citizens. He felt it incumbent on him to state to the House, that these petitioners were not persons of no estimation, in a low line of life, or un- known to the other inhabitants of the island; for their petition went on to state, that upon their subsequently appearing before the said chief-justice, they were attended by six freeholders for the purpose of giving bail. Upon that occasion, the chief-justice declined to receive the offered bail, on the ground, that he knew of no charges against them. That the petitioners were thus discharged, after a detention of 18 days, without any distinct communication having been made to them of the grounds of their imprisonment—that during their imprisonment, a memorial, bearing testimony to the general good conduct of the petitioners, was addressed to his excellency the governor, by thirty of the most respectable merchants and magistrates, of whom one was a member of the council, six were magistrates, and one was the provost-marshal general. Up to the time of their arrest, therefore, the House must be satisfied, that the petitioners were men of irreproachable character. After their discharge, the petitioners returned to their usual occupations with increased confidence of security, having thus received from the first judicial authority in the island, a full acknowledgment of their claim to the title of British subjects, and as they fully believed, to all the legal protection which belongs to that character. After what had passed, the House would experience as much surprise as the petitioners felt, when, whilst they were peaceably engaged in their private business, on the evening of the 29th of last November, their store or shop was surrounded by marshalmen and constable, the petitioners were suddenly seized under an alleged order of his excellency the governor, on the same charge as that on which they had formerly been arrested, viz. that of being Aliens and dangerous persons—forcibly dragged from their families and homes, without being allowed time even to see their children, and hurried on board his majesty's guardship the Serapis. Nobody, he presumed, would say that this was such conduct as ought to have been adopted by a government founded on free and liberal principles. If the governor of Jamaica had felt it to be his duty to arrest the petitioners a second time, it would have been no less his duty to have the question of their guilt or innocence fairly investigated, and to examine the evidence which might be brought against them, before he ventured to decide that they were guilty, and sen- tence them to so heavy a punishment. With what indignation, then, as well as astonishment, would the House hear, that without any such investigation, without, affording the petitioners any opportunity, of providing for their defence, or of communicating with their friends or relatives, they were, on the day succeeding that on which they had been seized, transported to St. Domingo, where they were landed. The petitioners stated this in the following terms:—"That the petitioners were assured at the time, by the alien officer who arrested them, that they would be allowed to remain ten days on board that ship, in order that they might communicate with the governor on the subject of their apprehension, and make the necessary arrangements respecting their property and mercantile concerns. That this promise, however, was not fulfilled; for on their being taken on board the Serapis, so severe was the restraint imposed upon them, that they were not permitted to hold the slightest communication with their families (although they came alongside in a boat for the purpose), nor even to send on shore a letter of directions for the management of their affairs; but that on the following morning about four o'clock, they were removed from the Serapis to his majesty's ship Helicon, and immediately conveyed to Jacmel, in the island of St. Domingo. That on the arrival of the Helicon at Jacmel, they were, by the captain of that ship, turned ashore to shift for themselves, in a foreign country, in which, but for the kind assistance afforded them by certain British merchants resident there, they must have suffered the greatest distress." He (Dr. L.) was at a loss to conceive what excuse could be offered for so gross a violation of the rights of British subjects. It would not, he was sure, be said, in an English House of Commons, that because men were a shade darker than those who were born in our own climate, they were therefore to be deprived of the privileges which the constitution of Great Britain extended equally to her most exalted and her meanest subjects. After they were landed at St. Domingo, the fate which awaited them seemed to be at least as unhappy as that which had befallen them in Jamaica. They became immediately objects of suspicion to the government of Hayti, and were taken up again as aliens and dangerous persons. He held in his hand a Haytian Gazette, in which this fact was stated; and if it had not happened, by good fortune, that there was on board the ship which had brought them a Jamaica newspaper, containing an account of their being first arrested in the latter island, and the proceedings on the habeas corpus, they would again have been doomed to the pain of imprisonment. Upon the evidence of this newspaper, however, the Haytian government released them, and they were allowed to remain under the protection, and indebted for the means of subsistence, to the kindness of some British merchants resident there. The petitioners went on to state, "that for treatment so severe, and so arbitrary, and so contrary not only to British law, and to the spirit of the British constitution, but even to the laws of Jamaica itself, no cause whatever has yet been assigned to them; and to the present day they have been wholly unable, although they have used many entreaties and much exertion for that purpose, to learn on what grounds or for what supposed offence on their part they have been subjected to such harsh and illegal punishment. That the circumstances attending their first apprehension in the month of October last, and the subsequent appointment of a secret committee of the House of Assembly of Jamaica to inquire into certain treasonable practices which were suspected to have had their rise in Kingston, and the parties immediately concerned in which were supposed to be foreigners, agents of Boyer, the President of Hayti, have led the petitioners, in the absence of all direct and authentic information on the subject, to conjecture that their deportation must have been occasioned by the renewed efforts of secret enemies to fix on them the character of aliens and dangerous persons. That, however, of their being British subjects by birth, the petitioners had before furnished the most satisfactory proofs; while the entire consciousness they possessed of having on all occasions conducted themselves as peaceable and loyal subjects, rendered them perfectly ready to meet any legal trial to which they might be brought, and perfectly confident of being able to rebut any charge which might be preferred against them; but that this justice was denied to the petitioners. That on their arrival at St. Domingo, the petitioners lost no time in addressing a memorial to his excellency the governor of Jamaica, praying to be made acquainted with the accusations against them, and confronted with their accusers; and to be allowed the opportunity of legally vindicating themselves; but that to this application no answer has been returned. That having waited in St. Domingo, in the expectation of such answer, until the month of March last, the petitioners determined, as their only remaining resource, to proceed to this country, and to solicit the protection of his majesty's paternal government, and of the British Parliament. That to this honourable House the petitioners do most humbly, but confidently, appeal, declaring most explicitly and solemnly, that they are wholly unconscious of having committed any offence whatever against his majesty's government, or of being chargeable with any conduct calculated to endanger the safety, or disturb the peace, of the island of Jamaica—that they have never held any correspondence with St. Domingo, or any other country than Great Britain, and that they have on all occasions discharged their duties as loyal citizens and subjects of his majesty. That the petitioners, besides being subjected to a great variety of heavy expenses, have to lament their ruined fortunes, their blasted prospects in life, and their distressed and impoverished families, in consequence of the unjust and illegal proceedings of which they have been the victims. That the petitioners, therefore, as men, as freemen, and above all, as British subjects, who have been deprived of that privilege which is never denied to the greatest criminals—that of not being condemned unheard—implore this honourable House to institute an inquiry into the premises which they are ready to establish by proof at the bar of this honourable House, and to grant them such redress, particularly in enabling them to return to their home, their families, and friends, as to the wisdom of your honourable House shall seem meet." He had stated the facts without exaggerating a single circumstance; and he did not at that moment intend to detain the House with many observations on the case. If these facts were true, the outrage which had been committed was so flagrant a one, that he was sure his hon. friend could not be prepared to justify it. If, on the contrary, the facts were untrue, he called upon the government to furnish the House with satisfactory proofs of their-falsehood. He had himself seen, and examined, end cross-examined, the pet- sons by whom the petition was signed: he had sought information from others, as to the character of the petitioners, and in no respect had he discovered any thing which could induce him to doubt their credibility. He called, therefore, upon the government to explain to the House the reasons upon which this violent deportation of the petitioners had been resolved upon; and to state why they had been torn away from their homes, without notice of any accusation, and without time to provide for their defence. He called upon them to state, if they could, any circumstances which could justify the condemning a man without a trial, upon the same charge of which he had once been acquitted, and that totally unheard. Unless the most satisfactory explanation should be given, he should feel it his duty to call the serious attention of the House to the subject: and would not rest until he had rescued the character of the British nation from the foul disgrace of having participated in an act of such odious oppression as that which the petition detailed.?

Mr. Wilmot Horton

said, he was not able to meet the statement of his learned friend, for want of particular information, as to the several matters contained in the petition. All that his majesty's ministers knew was, that the petitioners had been complained of to the magistrates of Kingston as being aliens, dangerous persons to the government, and engaged in a treasonable conspiracy against it. It was true that the duke of Manchester had put the alien act in force against them. It seemed to be equally true, that they had applied for writs of habeas corpus, which had been granted. But, his learned friend had admitted, that if these men were aliens, the magistracy of Jamaica were empowered by law to remove them from the island. The question, then, first seemed to be, whether the petitioners were or were not aliens. As to what had been stated of the proceedings in the court of King's-bench, that was merely an exparte proceeding, and the affidavits upon which the decision of the court of King's-bench had been formed could not be received as conclusive evidence of the fact of the petitioners being British-born subjects. He was ready to allow, that if it should appear they were not aliens, the government of Jamaica had incurred a most serious responsibility, and one in which it could neither be countenanced nor excused. But, it was evident, from the proceedings which had been adopted, that the duke of Manchester thought they were aliens. A committee had been appointed to inquire into the causes of the disturbances, and had reported the petitioners, not only to be engaged in a treasonable conspiracy, but also that they were intimately connected with the slaves who had been tried for rebellion, and to whom one of the petitioners had sold arms. These were points which required explanation. His learned friend had roused the feelings of the House by appeals to the British constitution; but the situation of the duke of Manchester ought to be recollected. There could be no doubt that a rebellion had existed against the government; and his grace was called upon to exercise every legal power that he possessed, which might tend to the security of the colony. He assured the House that every possible step should be taken to procure that information, without which it was obvious the House could not safely proceed.

Mr. Brougham

was truly sorry that the hon. gentleman was not prepared with a fuller explanation, if not a contradiction, of the statements contained in the petition. From the information of which he was in possession, it appeared, however, that the governor of Jamaica had arrested two persons, whose alienship had come in question before the supreme court of judicature in that island. And here he begged to set the hon. gentleman right in one of the facts he had stated. The inquiry before the court was not an exparte proceeding. The duke of Manchester was there present, represented by his attorney-general, to examine the proof which was offered. It was in the discretion of the court to pronounce upon the arguments against, as well as for the parties accused. Upon that inquiry, however, the certificates of the baptism of these supposed aliens were produced, and proved that they were born at Kingston. The attorney-general's objections were heard; and the court resolved, that the petitioners were not aliens, but British-born subjects. After the lapse of a few weeks, during which the duke of Manchester had acquiesced in the decision of the court: he, having heard some other matters alleged against the petitioners, as he (Mr. B.) was bound in charity to suppose he had, ordered them again to be arrested, and sent away from the island without permitting them to receive the ad- vice or assistance of friends, counsel, or agent; and consequently without affording them the possibility of again appealing to that court, before which, upon full discussion and after hearing evidence, their birth-rights had been established. This was his charge against the duke of Manchester—that he had done this after the decision of the court of King's-bench, and in the teeth of that decision. The duke of Manchester might be able to explain this. As he was in some measure now on his trial, he would not prejudge him; but he could not help feeling surprise, that his communications with his majesty's government had not furnished them with the means of contradicting (if they could be contradicted) the statement of the petitioners.

Mr. Grossett

said, he had been informed by letters from Jamaica, that one of the petitioners (Lecesne) was supposed to be the person who had supplied the rebellious negroes with arms. It seemed that the negroes of the northern parts of the island had contributed money, as was supposed, for a missionary; but which was afterwards devoted to the purchase of about 20 stands of arms, conveyed across the island to the parishes of St. Mary and St. George; and there was at least a strong imputation against the petitioner that it was by him those arms hail been furnished.

Mr. W. Horton

explained, that between the first arrest and subsequent deportation of the petitioners, two facts had been established against them; first, that they were in truth aliens, notwithstanding what had appeared before the court of King's-bench; and, secondly, that they had been engaged in a treasonable conspiracy. The affidavits made in the first instance in favour of the petitioners might turn out to be false; and hence the court might have decided in error.

Mr. Brougham

asked, if the duke of Manchester had obtained subsequent information, why the question had not been brought again before the court of King's-bench? Suppose the subsequent information were true, why had not the parties been tried? Why send them off without a moment's warning? If the accused had confessed all that was laid to their charge, did it authorise the governor to send them away without trial?

Dr. Lushington

said, it was true that, on a subsequent trial in January, 1824, there was found a negro who stated that arms had been purchased of Lescesne. The men were convicted, but he held in his hand a letter from the rector of the parish, in which he said, that he believed in his conscience that the slaves were innocent; further, that there had been a conspiracy of the grossest kind against them, and that Baptiste, the witness, was an emissary from St. Domingo, and one of the most murderous, diabolical, and insidious fiends that had ever been let loose on society. Lecesne was ready to take his trial before any judge or jury; he sought investigation and justice: and would not cover any offence imputed to him by evasion or falsehood. His hon. friend had mentioned circumstances that came out before a secret committee. Whatever those circumstances might be, it was impossible that they could justify seizing the petitioners and sending them to St. Domingo, not only without trial, but in absolute defiance of the decision of the court of King's-bench. If it should turn out that they were aliens, at least they had spent their lives in Jamaica, from their earliest infancy. How did it happen that ministers had no information? Did the duke of Manchester think he was justified in keeping the government at home in ignorance? Nothing even like an excuse had been attempted, and he called upon ministers to lay upon the table all the information they possessed relative to these individuals. If it were refused, he would submit a distinct motion for it on the earliest possible opportunity, and he pledged himself to prosecute the matter in every way, until the House arrived at some becoming determination.

Ordered to lie on the table.