HC Deb 20 April 1826 vol 15 cc489-98
Mr. Baring

presented a petition from the Merchants of London trading to the West Indies, Mortgagees, and others, having claims upon West-India Estates, praying the interference of the House to give them some further protection for their property, or else compensation. He bespoke the earnest attention of the House to the complaints and representations of this respectable body of petitioners upon a subject of very considerable importance to the ultimate welfare of the empire. He could not but think this appeal to their consideration somewhat superfluous when he reflected that the petition which he was introducing to their notice was a claim of right upon the protection of the British parliament, in behalf of a species of property which was formerly reckoned, however now reduced below that standard, among the most sure and valuable in the possession of British subjects. And, that property in these colonies was no longer regarded with the same feeling of confidence as to its stability, it did not need this petition to tell them. The fact had long since established itself in the minds of those whose attention had been called to the subject. It had become matter of notoriety, and, at length, had reached that alarming point at which it was deemed necessary for the preservation of individual property, to call in aid the specific interference of parliament. He professed himself to be an anxious friend to the emancipation of the negroes from slavery; but it did not therefore follow that he was a disciple of the sect called the Abolitionists; or that he would league himself in any of the rash schemes proposed for the precipitation of that measure. If done at all, it could only be done, with safety and justice, by gradual approaches, by moderate and well-digested measures, preparatory in their nature, and carried into execution under the guiding hand of wisdom and discretion. In no other way could this most desirable end be attained. Valuable property, however, was tampered with by those who sought, by exaggeration, to excite the feelings and mislead the minds of the people of this country. It was not to be wondered at that the West-India planters and proprietors acted under the undue influence of heat. The proprietors in those colonies could not but feel alarmed at what they saw going on in this country. They could not refrain from feeling indignant at the unfounded aspersions cast upon them by the overheated advocates of emancipation in England; and when they considered that it was by the representation of those individuals that public opinion in this country was guided, and at their instigation that the government was induced to act, what else but alarm for the security of their property could they feel? If the planters and proprietors in the West-India colonies could be made to believe that the House would not go further in their plans of amelioration than was proposed by the instructions of his majesty's government, he was convinced they would make no resistance to those plans. But, seeing the exaggerated statements, the highly-coloured pictures, and; the personal aspersions on themselves, their conduct, and designs, put forth on this occasion, it was not strange they should conceive these to be the work of their enemies, and that there was an ulterior intention of carrying the case far beyond the views at present promulgated.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he rose merely to repel the insinuations of the hon. member, against the abolitionists, and to deny every word and every assertion to their prejudice uttered by the hon. gentleman, or contained in the petition on the table. He thought he could not better illustrate the question at issue between himself and the hon. member, than by reading a few lines from a petition which was presented to that House on Friday last, from the Board of Council and House of Assembly of the island of Antigua, which set forth, "That, year after year the memorialists have represented the distressed situation of that colony, produced by the continuation of the war-duties on their staple commodities, during a period of twelve years' peace, in utter disregard of the pledge given at the time of the augmentation of those duties by the ministers of the day, that such duties should cease on the return of peace and tranquillity; that, although no notice has been hitherto taken of the just claims of the memorialists to relief, they trusted the time would yet arrive when they should be allowed to participate in the prosperity enjoyed by all other classes of his majesty's empire; but so far from such expectations having been realized, the memorialists find that accumulated burthens, and measures tending still further to their oppression and ruin, have lately taken place; the sense of these grievances, however, is lost in the astonishment with which the memorialists view the malignant feelings excited against them by certain dangerous demagogues and interested persons, acting, to suit their own immediate purposes, in coalition with the canting pretenders of the day to religion, who, not content with usurping the rights of the established church, seek also to invade the private property of his majesty's loyal West-Indian subjects, many of whose ancestors sought in those climates formerly, a refuge from puritanical persecution, and, having lost their all, supporting the royal cause against the disciples of hypocrisy, in the time of the unfortunate Charles, were content to seek an asylum under the Tropics, and to leave their hard-earned acquisitions as a poor equivalent to their children; this inheritance, guaranteed by the imperial parliament for more than one hundred and fifty years, the memorialists now see placed in jeopardy; they are weary of refuting the never-ending calumnies propagated by designing individuals against them, fully convinced, that the ultimate object in view is, not the welfare of the negro, but to tamper with his feelings, to rouse him to the destruction of the colonist." In reply to the language of that petition, he would only say, that he had concurred in almost every measure which his majesty's ministers had taken with respect to the slave-population of our colonies; and, whether for those measures ministers deserved the character given of them by the Antigua petitioners or not, he was content to share in the obloquy attached to them by those petitioners. But he had a still better answer to what he had just read. He could show, from evidence taken before a committee, respecting the state of the slaves in the island of Antigua, that formerly there were very few christian slaves in the island, and that their condition was very ignorant and barbarous; but that now the number of christian slaves had considerably increased, chiefly by the exertions of the Moravian missionaries; that the character of the slaves had improved; that they were much better treated, and that they deserved it; that they went to the Methodist meetings on Sundays, and conducted themselves well, but that the regular clergy were not known to have paid any particular attention to the subject. This was one instance, at least, to show how ill deserved had been that species of abuse which had been heaped upon those who endeavoured to procure an amelioration of the condition of the slaves.

Mr. Warre

said, that although he was an advocate for the amelioration of slavery, and although he admitted that much had been effected towards the attainment of that measure, he thought that the conduct pursued by persons in this country who professed themselves to be the advocates of emancipation, had retarded rather than promoted the great cause which they had espoused. Many members of the House, and more particularly those gentlemen who were interested in the West-India question, had most likely read a pamphlet, written by a master in Chancery, who once had been a member of the House. Whatever might be the opinion of hon. gentlemen of that work, he could not but think that it contained passages of a highly inflammatory and injurious nature. Mr. Stephen had dragged into the discussion persons and circumstances that had better have been omitted. What necessity, for instance, was there for the introduction of a passage like this: "You are zealous in the cause of the oppressed Greeks, and the feeling does you honour. You reprobate strongly the illiberal despotism that presses down its yoke on the necks of the unfortunate Spaniards; and it is a right and generous indignation. Can you then be insensible to the far more intolerable wrongs, to the far more goading oppression, which the poor Africans suffer under your own dominion? The Greeks have not yet been driven by the cart whip; and many a tyrant, more illiberal and ungrateful than Ferdinand, are maintained by British bayonets, as he by French ones, on the petty thrones of the plantations." He again contended that such exaggerated and illiberal language as this had a direct tendency to retard the march of genuine improvement. He was no enemy to the cause of negro improvement, when temperately and properly conducted; but he felt deeply the difficulties of the question; and whatever evils belonged or had belonged to the slave system, it ought to be remembered that that system had not originated solely with the slave proprietors, but had grown up, not only under the protection, but under the encouragement and control of Great Britain. He had always voted, and was willing to vote again, for every thing practicable in the shape of amelioration; but he could not but deprecate such language as that which he had quoted. It did appear to him, that the West-India planters had cause to complain of the manner in which they were spoken of by those who supported the question. They had been assailed by invective instead of argument; and aspersions the most unjust and unhandsome had been used against them.

Dr. Lushington

said, he was sorry that on the mere presentation of a petition on this subject, he could not feel himself at liberty to remain silent; but he must say something respecting the observations of the hon. member for Taunton. The hon. member had said, that there had been great exaggerations on both sides. Now, he would be glad to know who they were that thus exaggerated, and to whom the blame chiefly belonged. He maintained, that if there had been any, it was very little indeed, on the side of those who were anxious to ameliorate the condition of the negroes. Every document from the colonies showed that their statements had not been exaggerated; and he invited the hon. member for Rochester, who said "hear, hear!" to read those statements, and then to prove, if he could, that the charges of the degradation and oppression of the negroes by West-India planters were unfounded. Every charge made by the abolitionists would be borne out by these documents. Out of a pamphlet of a hundred pages, written by a distinguished individual, the hon. member who spoke last had quoted one short passage, which he considered as intemperate and exaggerated; but the hon. member had made no allowance for the very great provocation which that distinguished person had received from the zealous endeavours of the slavery partizans to hold him up to public indignation. It ought to be recollected, that the very able pamphlet in question had been written by a gentleman of high character, and great personal information on the subject. Whoever read that pamphlet, would find that it was the work of one who had great personal knowledge of the subject, as well as a work of the greatest ability that had ever appeared on the subject. He would not then enter into the general merits of the question; but he could not help raising his voice, even on that occasion, against any general charge of exaggeration on the part of those who advocated the cause of amelioration. The documents from the colonies themselves proved that the exaggeration, if any, had been extremely little indeed.

Mr. Bernal

said, he could not but feel that the pamphlet contained many exaggerations, although he was not prepared at present to point them out. There was one mis-statement in that work, however, to which he should now refer, for the purpose of supporting his assertion. He alluded to the branding of slaves. During the time that the slave trade was in existence, and slaves were imported in a state of the grossest barbarism, the practice had been resorted to, and was generally prevalent; but, as the black population became a Creole or native population, it was abandoned, and any one who should now attempt any thing of the kind, would be stigmatised and scouted by the planters. He did not mean to say that those who had been convicted in courts of justice might not be so branded; but the practice, as applicable to the creole population, under any other circumstances, had no existence whatever. He had heard it, however, repeatedly asserted, and within those walls, as well as in a variety of pamphlets, that it did exist, and the proprietors were stigmatised in consequence, as barbarous and inhuman monsters. He would also ask the hon. member whether, when the Legislative Assembly of Jamaica passed an act, to exempt slaves from working on Saturdays, it was not an exaggeration to say, that the act had been passed as much for the benefit of the masters as of the slaves? He challenged any hon. member to say, that it was for the benefit of the masters. If the hon. member would meet him fairly, and bring forward specific cases, he would pledge himself to convince him, that there had been gross exaggerations, and in channels where it was difficult to contradict them. It was easy, when the main party resided at a distance of four thousand miles, to bring forward accusations against him. It was not so easy to find the means of gainsaying those accusations, and this was a consideration which ought to weigh with the House, whenever any of those extraordinary statements were put forth, by which the public mind had been so violently and so unjustly agitated.

An hon. member, whose name we could mot learn, observed, that all he wished to know upon the subject, wa6 really required of the West-India planters. It was easy to deal in general declamation and undefined charges, but he would give no support to the petition, or to any resolution which might be brought forward, unless it denned the concessions which were required.

Mr. Manning

said, it was impossible to refute such general charges as those which were always brought forward in discussions on this subject. He had read the pamphlet which had been alluded to, and entertained the highest respect for its author, but he could not justify the language which was used in some parts of it. He would appeal to the under Secretary of State for the colonies, whether the petitioners stated the truth or not, when they asserted that there were 800,000 slaves in a state of degradation and misery. He knew, from personal experience, that there was gross exaggeration in the pictures which had been drawn of the state of the slave-population in the West Indies. Abuse was not the way to promote improvement, but, on the contrary, to obstruct it.

Mr. Sykes

said, that, on which ever side the alleged exaggerations might have preponderated, he held a paper in his hand which showed how far the zeal of the hon. member for Rochester would carry him. The hon. member had asserted, that it was not the general practice of the Jamaica planters to brand their negroes. Now he had happened to look at the Jamaica Gazette, and he found from that paper that it was still as common a practice to brand the negroes of the soil, or the freehold negroes, as to brand any others. There were freehold negroes, of the names of Bullock and Cæsar, stated to have been so branded on the shoulders and other places; and in the whole it appeared, out of a list of three or four columns, that twenty freehold negroes had been branded in the same manner. This was, therefore, an unfortunate instance, to prove that the Abolitionists had been guilty of exaggeration. One word as to Mr. Stephen. It was certainly not fair to read a single passage of a long pamphlet, as a proof of general exaggeration on the part of those who promoted the amelioration of the slaves, when the writer of that pamphlet was not present to defend his language. He was not sorry, however, that the pamphlet had been mentioned, as it might have the effect of calling attention to its contents; for it certainly appeared to him the ablest pamphlet that had ever been written on the subject.

Mr. Canning

said, he did not think it fair to call upon persons in official situations to answer questions put by members on the presentation of petitions, as had been done by the hon. gentleman behind him. He, therefore, thought that he was doing the House a favour when he in-treated his hon. friend (Mr. Horton) not to answer such questions.

Mr. Thomas Wilson

did not think, that the planters ought to suffer unfounded statements against them to pass uncontradicted. It was due to them to repel such statements when made. A learned friend of his had denied that any exaggeration had been used by those who supported the question of amelioration. Now, a petition from London, signed by 70,000 persons, had been presented in favour of amelioration. And how had that petition been got up? The representation of a negro in chains had been exhibited all over London, and by means of this exhibition, which had a tendency to create the most unfavourable impression against the planters, a great part of these signatures had, no doubt, been obtained. In truth many of the petitions had been got up in a manner disgraceful to the cause. The Anti-slavery Society had sent round the country printed forms of petitions, and used many other unfair means to promote their object; and, if any thing could be more unfair than another, it was the holding out to the people, that the ministers expected their petitions, in order to enable them to carry their purposes into effect. He trusted ministers would know their duty better titan to pay any regard to popular clamour; and that they would proceed upon a sound, temperate, and deliberate view of what the real interests of the country demanded. Another point in some of these petitions deserved notice. They spoke of a protecting duty on West-India sugar, which the petitioners seemed to wish done away with, and so to put an end to slavery. But we had done much more for the amelioration of the slaves than had been done by the Brazilians, some of the Spanish, and other colonies; and, if the protecting duties on West-India sugars were to be repealed, the effect would be, to ruin the British colonies, to make sugars dearer, and to establish a system of slavery ten times more grievous than ours! He trusted, ministers would not act upon these wild views. Some of the petitioners stated, that they did not wish to injure private property, and offered indemnity; but indemnity was of two kinds; first, indemnity when the thing should be done; and indemnity accompanied by a previous inquiry. The inquiry ought to take place first. The St. Domingo negroes did not produce nearly so much sugar, nor so good, as the sugar produced by the negroes in our colonies.

Mr. Evans

said, that if the hon. gentleman would take the trouble of looking at the petition, he would find that it did not pray for the introduction of sugar by free labour, and not by slave labour, to the prejudice of the West-India manufacturers. He confessed, however, that he did not think it fair that sugar made by free labour should be subject to a higher duty than that which was produced by the labour of slaves.

Mr. W. Smith

entreated the attention of his hon. friend, the member for Rochester, for whom he had the greatest respect, while he undertook to convince him that gentlemen of his description on this side of the water were ignorant of what was passing on the other side. His hon. friend had stated, that branding negroes was a practice now never heard of in the West Indies. Now, he held in his hand the supplement to the Royal Gazette of Jamaica, published on the 16th of February, 1826, in which was an account of the apprehended deserters then in the Clarendon workhouse. The first mentioned was Dick, a Creole negro, marked with the letter H. The next was named Richard Smith, also a Creole negro, five feet four inches high, and marked with the letters W. S. and a diamond above them. The hon. gentleman read several other instances of the same kind in St. Mary's Workhouse. One half of the deserters, he added, were Creole negroes, and they were all marked. For his part, he solemnly declared, that if he lived in Jamaica, he would rather run the risk of never getting his Creoles again, than offend the eyes and the ears of the British people by inflicting so inhuman and degrading a stigma. The slaves thus treated must be creoles, as it was 19 years since an African negro had been imported into Jamaica.

Mr. Bernal

said, it should be borne in mind that there were upwards of 300,000 slaves in the island of Jamaica. His hon. friend, in his zeal against slavery, had taken up a copy of the Jamaica Gazette, and finding that some deserters were there stated to be marked, he concluded that all the negroes were branded. What he had stated was, that branding was a practice generally going into disuse. The negroes who had taken refuge in the workhouse were, it was to be presumed, notorious runaways, and that disposition rendered it necessary to mark them. They, however, bore but a small proportion to the whole negro population. He was a decided enemy to the practice himself, even with regard to runaways, and he was satisfied that it was by no means general.

Mr. C. R. Ellis

said, that the practice of branding, where it was unnecessarily applied, was not only regarded as cruel, but condemned as illegal. He knew an instance in which the owner of a slave had been prosecuted for this offence, under an act of the colonial legislature. If any doubt existed as to the fact, he pledged himself to produce the case.

Ordered to be printed.