HC Deb 18 March 1825 vol 12 cc1081-90

On the order of the day, for reading the Annual Duties bill a third time,

Mr. Sykes

said, that, before this bill was read a third time, he wished to make a few observations respecting the Sugar trade. He did not know on what principles ministers were acting. It seemed to be the policy of this country to prohibit the importation of sugar, unless it came from the West Indies. Now, on what good principle such a policy could be founded he knew not. If it should be said, that East-India sugars might be imported, he admitted the assertion; but only to a very small extent, for it was notorious, that the immense duty laid on sugar imported from the East Indies, amounted almost to a prohibition of that article. This appeared to him to be totally at variance with sound policy, which would rather induce ministers to favour the importation of the products of a country that took so many of our manufactures in return. He called upon gentlemen on the other side of the House to state why, and on what grounds, such a duty had been laid upon a most important produce of our Indian empire which contained a population of 80,000,000 of souls, who were ready to take our manufactures to a very large amount, provided they could find in our markets a vent for that native produce? If he was told, that the object of the government had been to protect the West-India interest, he must contend, that the only effect of such a system was, to keep up and sustain an accursed and detestable system of slavery, the existence of which every man must join with him in sincerely deploring. When he stated, that the duty on West-India sugars was 27s., while that upon East India was about 37s., the House must immediately perceive that such a difference as 10s. between the two duties, was calculated to keep one of these sugars almost entirely out of the market; and, by consequence, greatly to diminish the supply that would otherwise be poured into it. Now, it was pretty generally allowed, that abundance of produce was the very sinews of commercial prosperity. It was true, there was a drawback allowed on the exportation of sugars, amounting to 6s. per cwt.; but it could be easily shown, that that drawback, without effecting any benefit for this country generally, by increasing the supply and diminishing its price, served only to put upwards of a million of money into the pockets of the West-Indians. It was with pain that he felt himself bound, on this occasion, strongly to object to the course which ministers seemed disposed to take. He had with pleasure supported them in the principal measures of what he conceived to be their improved policy. He had had the gratification to see them reduce the duties on wool, timber, iron, hemp, and wine itself; and in all the principles upon which right hon. gentlemen over the way had suggested those reductions, he had most cordially concurred. Even upon questions, perhaps of more doubtful expediency, he had gone with ministers, because he conceived that trade could only flourish by being entirely free. But, to retain the duty upon East-India sugars did appear to him calculated materially to injure our commerce. Why was that duty to be continued, if it was so contrary to those principles of free trade which ministers themselves had advocated in other cases? He called upon the government to set open the sugar trade, as it had done others. As for the West-Indians, all the benefit which the present regulations might procure to them was lost to us. At present, the produce was so much greater than the consumption, that the drawback in question was not so great a bonus to the West-India grower, as, under other circumstances, it might be. But, what would be the case, whenever the consumption should equal the supply? Why, whenever we happened to grow no more sugar in the West-Indies than was equal to the consumption, or demand of the market, the West-India interest would have a complete monopoly of that market. The East-India trade, in the mean time, was suffering severely from the inequality of duties, and the public were left without the benefit of a fair competition. No other heavy goods were called for in the East-India trade, except rice, saltpetre, and sugar; but sugar alone offered that permanent and advantageous article of commerce, which it was the duty of the government to encourage by a more equal apportionment of the duties. The keeping up this prohibitory system, not only encouraged slavery in the West Indies, but had, in a considerable degree, cramped the productive energies of India. To prove that the West-Indians themselves considered that they derived no very material benefit from the drawback allowed on the exportation of sugars, he should cite the authority of a gentleman who was allowed to possess the most extensive information on these subjects, and who was himself the agent for the island of Jamaica. He meant Mr. Hibbert. A letter signed by Mr. George Hibbert, and published in the Royal Gazette of Jamaica, contained an admission on the part of the writer, that the drawback allowed on refined sugars was little short of a gratuitous bounty of about 6s. per cwt. on the exportation of all West-India sugars. The House would observe, that this drawback of 6s. per cwt. would amount, upon the sugars imported from the West Indies into this country, which was perhaps 190,000 tons, to about 1,140,000l. Now, these facts were admitted by Mr. Hibbert himself. He allowed that the bonus afforded by this drawback on bounty would be to such an extent; and yet that, large as this bonus was, it would not answer the necessities of the West-Indians. It would be observed that, year after year, the West-Indians came to that House, asking for further relief; and yet that, to whatever extent that assistance might be afforded, it never proved sufficient. He had a further objection, however, to bounties of any kind; upon this principle —that they never, or rarely, were serviceable to the country. A free, unfettered trade, left to its own energies, was that which mainly enriched the country. If a bounty was allowed on sugar, or any other article, the only effect was, that the foreign consumer would buy it so much cheaper; and in that case it must be allowed, that we ourselves made a present of so much to the foreign consumer. It had been said, that a rise of prices in colonial produce was rather beneficial than otherwise; and thus it was often argued, that such a rise of prices improved the condition of the West-India slaves. But, he denied this. He had reason to believe, that the only effect of such an advance in prices was, that the slave was compelled to work the harder during all the time the improved market was likely to last. The free labourer might benefit under such circumstances; but not the slave. And this would appear from a slight review of one or two important facts. In the Bahama Islands, where the slaves were generally better treated than in many parts of the West Indies, and sugar was not cultivated, the average increase of slave population, with reference to other of the islands, was about three per cent. In Barbadoes, where very little sugar was raised, the increase was about one-and-a-half per cent. In the larger island of Jamaica, where the cultivation of this produce was carried on to a much larger extent, the decrease of human life was about one per cent; but, in Demerara, in Guiana, the great mart for sugars, and where the most considerable number of slaves were employed in its cultivation, the decrease of human life was about three per cent. The hon. gentleman, after again calling on government to remedy such a defective inequality of duties as that which he had pointed out, sat down, protesting that he should never cease to advocate the cause of free trade all over the world.

Mr. R. Gordon

threw back the insinuation, that the rise in the price of sugar was beneficial only to the West-India planter or proprietor. When the question came under discussion in a more regular form, he should be ready to give a direct and positive contradiction to the state- ments which had been advanced by the hon. member.

Mr. Robertson

suggested, that the most effectual relief to be afforded to our colonies, was to be derived from a total emancipation of the slaves. Unless the owners of colonial property did this, they would do nothing which would afford them permanent relief.

Captain Maberly

observed, that the protecting duty on West-India sugar had been defended, on the ground that the legislature, by its enactments, had induced individuals to embark their property in the West-India colonies; but that he held to be no sufficing reason for keeping up the price of an article which might be denominated a necessary of life. In his opinion, it would tend greatly to the interest of this country, if we were not at all connected with the West-India Islands. From the time of Adam Smith, down to the present day, every intelligent writer on political economy had condemned our colonial connexions. The trade to the West-India Islands was, to all intents and purposes, a losing trade to this country; and the sooner England got rid of those colonies, and of the heavy expense which they incurred, the better would it be for her interests. Sugar could be procured at a comparatively moderate price from the East Indies; and by importing it from that part of the globe a double advantage would be gained; on the one hand, the article would be cheaper; and, on the other, the country would be relieved from those heavy military and civil establishments, which she, and not the colonies, now supported.

Mr. Blair

supported the West-India interest. The country, he contended, was not prepared to adopt the sweeping proposition of the hon. member who had just spoken.

Mr. Charles Ellis

said, that a solemn compact had been entered into between the mother country and her colonies; the former having stipulated to grant every protection to the latter. That compact ought never to be lost sight of. Upon that ground, he objected to the course proposed to be adopted by the hon. member with whom the debate had originated, and, generally, to the arguments of those individuals who advocated the introduction of East-India sugar, and who would fain force West-India sugar out of the market. He conceived it to be most unjust to attempt to deprive the colonies of the protection which they now enjoyed in the markets of this country. Every species of British manufacture was protected against competition. The same might be said of the linen of Ireland, and of the salt-fish of North America; and why should not the same protection be afforded to our colonial produce? Did those who wished to have the sugar of the East Indies imported into this country, mean to grant to the persons who cultivated it, all the rights and privileges which they themselves enjoyed—all those rights and privileges which were possessed by the West-India proprietors? He believed they did not; and if that were the case, then he came to this conclusion—that the same protection which was afforded to the West-India planters ought to be conceded to them. The advocates for East-India sugar argued, that it ought to be imported, because it was produced by free labour; but, if this argument relative to free labour were carried to its full extent, it would be very unfavourable for many of those who adopted it. Gentlemen would recollect, that the greater part of the cotton which was manufactured in this country, was brought in its raw state from the southern provinces of America (Georgia for instance) and Brazil. Did they not know that a great portion of those who cultivated cotton in Georgia were slaves, and that the whole of the cultivators of cotton in Brazil were also slaves? Were they not apprized of the fact, that the numbers were kept up by constant draughts of negroes from Africa? Now, he would ask, did not those persons who purchased cotton thus raised encourage, nay, aggravate slavery? Why, if they held slavery in such abhorrence, should they encourage it by using the slave-labour of another country? Yet, if they did not, they would be obliged to break up their intercourse with a great part of America, and altogether with Brazil—a sacrifice, which his right hon. friend, the president of the Board of Trade, would not, he apprehended, be very ready to make. Neither did he think, even if the matter were explained to the manufacturers of this country, that they would be ready to accede to a proposition for refraining from the use of cotton the produce of slave-labour. He contended, that the bounty on the exportation of refined sugar, the produce of the West Indies, was perfectly just. He wished that his right hon. friend could bring forward some equtitable ar- rangement, by which the interests of the two parties connected with this question would be preserved, while each of them received a certain benefit. As to the proposition of his right hon. friend, with reference to rum and brown sugar, he feared, if it were not considerably modified, that it would prove an injury, instead of a benefit, to the colonies.

Mr. Fowell Buxton

said, he should not have trespassed on the House at that time, had he not thought it his imperious duty. The question was one which was foreign to his studies, and on which he felt in general little disposed to address the House. A dry question of duties was not one which he usually liked to speak on; and, before he said any thing further, he could assure the House, that though he warmly opposed slavery, he had not the smallest particle of hostility towards the West-India proprietors. A good deal had been said about the bounty afforded to the West-India proprietors. One gentleman had said it was 3s.; another that it was really nothing; and a third had told them it was something, but he did not state what. It was, therefore, he conceived, a fair subject of inquiry. He hoped ministers would grant a committee, before which the facts would be stated; and then he had no doubt that what his hon. friend who introduced the subject had said, would be found to be correct. It was asserted that a rise in the price of sugar was good for the slave, and that a depreciation of price was prejudicial to him. Now, he denied this. A reduction of the price of sugar must of necessity occasion a reduced growth of sugar; and how, he asked, was that to injure the negro? A reduction in the price must produce one of two effects—either the proprietor would cultivate less land, or that if he did continue to cultivate it, he would substitute some other article of growth. In either case, this must be beneficial to the negro. If the proprietor ceased from cultivating his estate, the negro would, of course, be exempted from labour; but if, on the other hand, he continued to cultivate, the negro must be employed in raising provisions. He was sure, that the custom of not growing provisions was one of the greatest evils in the colonial system; and he believed that many persons thought the growth of provisions in the colonies should be attended to almost exclusively. The custom of keeping up high prices by giving arti- ficial bounties, caused the neglect of this branch of cultivation. The removal of a system which had such injurious effects would be extremely beneficial. Take it either way, it must do good: if the cultivator ceased to employ the negroes, there would be a diminution of labour but if he still chose to employ them, there would be an increase of provisions. It was quite clear, that where the least quantity of sugar was grown, the slave was better off than where the cultivation of sugar was carried to a great extent. In Barbadoes, each slave was calculated to cultivate annually five cwt. of sugar; in Jamaica, two and a half; and in Demerara, seven cwt. In the first island, there was a small decrease in the population; in the second a small increase; and, in the third, the diminution was as great as could be occasioned by war, famine or pestilence. This, he thought, was a satisfactory evidence how injurious to the slaves was the cultivation of sugar, and how much they would be benefitted by the necessity of cultivating it being diminished.

Mr. Trant

feared that the effect of discussions like that which had arisen on the present question would be highly injurious to the interests which were involved in it. He was sure that if similar measures were adopted with respect to the East-India interests, the consequences would be such as must be universally deplored. Whatever might be the opinion of the House as to the principles on which the privileges enjoyed by the West-India proprietors was founded, it would, in his opinion, be equally unwise and unfeeling to take from them at this time those advantages.

Mr. Bright

said, he should not have been induced, at so late an hour, to have addressed the House, but for the silence which his majesty's ministers had thought fit to observe upon this occasion. He did so now, chiefly for the purpose of expressing his hope, that those persons who professed themselves the friends to the principles of free trade would take care that the West-India interests were not the only exception to the general application of those principles. Those interests had already suffered materially from the effects of a system opposed to that liberal one which was now so warmly praised. The exports from the West Indies to North America had been reduced to almost nothing. He could not sit down without observing on one of the statements which had been made, in the course of the discussion. It was said, that the mortality among the slaves was proportioned to the great or small production of sugar, in the various places where it was cultivated. In support of this assertion, a comparison was drawn between the slaves in Demerara and Jamaica, and those of the Bahama Islands. Nothing could be less satisfactory than such a comparison; because, the occupation and the habits of the slaves in those places were wholly distinct, and the fertility of the soil was not less different. It would be as just to compare the slaves of Jamaica with those who were employed to work the Mexican mines. It had been said, too, that the condition of the slaves was more to be deplored in those colonies where the production of sugar was ample, than where it was scanty. This was opposed to the concurrent testimony of every man who had written upon, or who knew any thing of, the subject. It was the interest of the planter to take care that his slaves were well fed and clothed; and it was obvious that he was better able to provide for them, when a large supply and better prices were the consequences of their labours. It had been proved, beyond all question, that the condition of the slaves was, in all respects, better in times and places where the general interest was flourishing, than where it was depressed. He would not now enter further upon the subject, but he called upon hon. gentlemen, and upon the ministers in particular, to take such measures with respect to the West-India interests, as were consistent with the principles of free trade; to do justice to those interests; and not to leave them in the lurch, while they professed to extend the benefit of such principles universally.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he wished to explain why he had refrained from taking any part in the present discussion. The bill had passed through all its stages up to the third reading, without any objection, or the show of any opposition, having been offered on the subject of the duties. He had, indeed, been given to understand by the hon. member for Weymouth, that it was his intention, and that of some of his, friends, to avail themselves of the opportunity which the third reading would give them, of expressing their opinion on a part of the question. He had suggested to the hon. gentleman that such a course would be inconvenient; but still it was preferred, and had now been followed. No opposition had, however, been offered, nor had any alteration been suggested, with respect to the duties. He conceived, therefore, that he was fully justified in remaining silent, and that it could not be thought he had done so from any feeling of disrespect to the gentlemen who had thought fit to express their sentiments on other parts of the measure. What his opinion was, the bill he had brought in sufficiently explained. The duties for the year to come would be the same as they had been for the year past. He felt that, whatever might be the theoretical principles belonging to this measure, it was one of so much difficulty and delicacy, that it would at present be highly inexpedient to act upon them in their rigid extent. Whether future circumstances would occasion a change in the measure he had submitted or not, was what he would not now speculate upon; but, he should have thought it unreasonable if he had proposed any scale of duties different from those contained in the bill.

The bill was then read a third time.