HC Deb 25 April 1826 vol 15 cc577-87
Mr. Hume

presented a petition from Mr. Augustus Hardin Beaumont, a planter and slave-owner of Jamaica, but now resident in London, praying that the House might not pass hastily any measures respecting the West-India colonies, by which the property of planters and slave-owners might be injured. The hon. member observed, that the petitioner was, like the great body of the West-India planters and slave-owners, naturally apprehensive that his property would be much injured, as well by the measures actually contemplated with respect to the colonies, as by others, not so well defined, which were threatened. He sincerely hoped that no measures for ameliorating the condition of the slaves, might be passed, unless accompanied with a guarantee on the part of this country, that the property of the colonists should not be injured. Law was the protection of all property, and the estate of the nobleman in this country was not more entitled to such protection than was the property of the planter in the colonies. He thought that, upon this principle, the prayer of the petitioner was most reasonable. He stated, that he had acquired his property under the direct sanction of this country. He and other planters in Jamaica had repeatedly signed petitions to the legislature of Jamaica for bettering the condition of the slaves, and even of granting emancipation, provided their property was protected against injury by such measures; and he begged to state to the House, that the West-India proprietors were quite ready to concur in any measures adopted by this country for those purposes, provided an assurance was given that they should be protected from loss. The hon. member observed, that the West-India proprietors were fully entitled to such a guarantee. It should be remembered, that several attempts, which were made in the colonies to abolish the slave-trade, long before the act for its abolition had passed in this country, were resisted and reproved by the government at home, on the ground that the trade was too profitable to the mother country. A direct sanction was thus given to the acquisition of property in slaves, and it would be unjust now to take any step by which property thus acquired would be injured. He regretted to have heard the right hon. Secretary, on a former evening, intimate, that inattention to the instructions sent out by government would be considered as contumacious, and that government had the power of enforcing an attention to them. Such an intimation was not calculated to produce a spirit of conciliation, unless the right hon. Secretary was prepared to add, that this country would make good the losses to be sustained by individuals in consequence of the instructions sent out. The hon. member then proceeded to urge the justice and sound policy of not endeavouring to attain the object of amelioration of the condition of the slaves, and the gradual abolition of slavery, at the expense of those whose property was in the colonies. He admitted that the attainment of those objects were desirable, and that the abolition of slavery would remove what was now a stain on our nation; but then it ought not to be removed by unjust means. After again urging the reasonableness of the petition, he concluded by repeating from it—"that as the black man was by nature entitled to the mercy of the legislature, so was the white man entitled to its justice."

Mr. Secretary Canning

said, he did not rise to offer any objection to the petition, still less to enter into any statements in answer to the hon. member's speech—a speech in which the hon. member had touched upon almost all the topics on both sides of this important subject. He was the less inclined to enter into the Question now, as, from there being no question before the House, it could lead to no satisfactory result. The hon. gentleman would have an opportunity, in a short time, of again entering fully into the question, on the motion of the hon. and learned member (Mr. Brougham), which stood for the 11th of May, and which he saw nothing to prevent its coming on upon that day. But it would be only prejudicing the general question, if, on presenting petitions, discussions were entered into, calculated to raise irritated feelings, which were, at present, happily allayed, and prematurely introducing topics which involved the character of the government.

The Petition was then read. It purported to be the Petition of Augustus Hardin Beaumont, late of the Island of Jamaica, but at present of the City of London, setting forth,

"That the petitioner is entitled to the reversion of a considerable number of slaves in Jamaica, and at present is in the actual possession of property in that island; that the petitioner's sole dependence is in such property; that the petitioner is fully impressed with the just and benevolent intentions of the House in the resolutions expressed by them against the existence of slavery in the West-India colonies, and is desirous that the same may be abolished, as humanity and justice require; that the petitioner's ancestors, with many other persons, then inhabitants of Jamaica, in the year 1764, prayed the Legislative Assembly of that island to restrict the Slave-trade, which was then a lawful traffic, and encouraged by the House; that, in further proof of the anxiety of the Jamaica colonists, on the one hand, to abolish the Slave-trade, and of the determination of parliament to continue and encourage it, the petitioner craves leave to submit to the consideration of the House a few historical facts. Previous to the existence of any of the West-India colonies, England commenced the Slave-trade; this traffic was established in the reign of queen Elizabeth, who personally had a share in it; her successors encouraged it by every possible means, and king William 3rd, by lord Somers, his minister, declared that the Slave-trade 'was highly beneficial to the nation;' numerous acts of parliament, from the reign of king William till within a few years of the Slave-trade-abolition laws, are to be found in the Statute-book of the British parliament, encouraging and fostering this traffic; and when, in 1760, South Carolina (then a British colony) passed a law prohibitory of further importations of slaves into that dependency, Great Britain indignantly rejected the act, and declared that the Slave-trade was beneficial and necessary to the mother country; the governor who sanctioned the prohibitory act was reprimanded, and a circular was sent to all other governors, warning them against a similar offence, which, however, was repeated in 1765, and Jamaica stood forward as the advocate of the black man; for in Jamaica a bill was twice read in the Legislative Assembly for the purpose of limiting the importation of slaves, when this measure was again frustrated by Great Britain, through the governor of Jamaica, who sent for its Assembly, and told them that, consistently with his instructions, he could not give his assent, therefore the bill was dropped, and the Slave-trade continued: again, in 1774, the Jamaica Assembly actually passed two bills to restrict the Slave-trade, but Great Britain again resisted; Bristol and Liverpool (which are now clamorous for the abolition of slavery itself) then found it suited their interest to petition for the continuation of the importation of our African black brethren, and the matter being referred to the Board of Trade, that board reported for the continuation of the Slave-trade; thereupon, the colonies, by the agent of Jamaica, remonstrated and pleaded against the report on all the grounds of justice and humanity; but Great Britain, by the mouth of the earl of Dartmouth, then president of the Board of Trade, answered by the following declaration—'We cannot allow the colonies to check or discourage in any degree a traffic so beneficial to the nation;' the petitioner begs the House to consider, that this declaration was made in 1774; that, in consequence of the resolution of parliament to encourage the Slave-trade, slaves were, and continued to be, imported into Jamaica in great numbers, until the enactment which passed the imperial parliament, declaring that nefarious practice a felony; that the tenure by which the petitioner's ancestors, and many other persons in Jamaica, held their lands, rendered it necessary that they should become proprietors of slaves, inasmuch as the patents by which they held such lands required that they should possess a certain number of slaves, in propor- tion to the extent of their plantations, as by reference to the patents will appear; that the petitioner submits, that his ancestors became possessed of the species of property in which his rights are now invested in consequence of the act of the House, and which the petitioner humbly submits must be considered as the act of the British nation; that the late determination of the House, gradually to abolish slavery, has caused a great depreciation in the value of the property in which the petitioner's rights are invested, inasmuch as the estate in fee simple held thereon is reduced into an estate at the will of the House; that the petitioner being desirous to get rid of property, the nature of which is alien to the resolutions of the House, has endeavoured to sell the same, as well in possession as in reversion, but could not find a purchaser, although he tendered to take one-fourth less than had been offered the petitioner a few years previous; that, to prove the depreciation of such property, the petitioner craves leave to submit the following facts out of many; in November, last year, Dover Castle sugar estate, in Jamaica, which: had been mortgaged, a few years antecedently, for 30,000l., was sold to Mr. Solomon Mendez da Silva for 6,000l., and this, although there had been no other deterioration of the property but that consequent upon an opinion of its insecurity, such opinion resulting from the resolutions expressed by the House; another sugar estate, called Hall's Delight, and situate in St. Andrew's, Jamaica, containing TOO acres of land, with the houses, 101 slaves, 45 cattle, and 14 mules, were sold for 5,000l. currency, equal to 3,500l. sterling; and which last-mentioned property, fairly estimated under other circumstances, was worth; 20,000l., or four times the sum for which it was purchased; that the petitioner's rights in reversion are wholly valueless, as the House may declare the time for absolutely emancipating the slaves has arrived, before the petitioner's rights come: into possession; that the petitioner does not, however, expect or desire that a system productive of injustice should exist for his benefit, or that of any other person; that, from the nature of slavery, injustice cannot always be prevented, for who can say, that whilst the power of constraining the slave to labour exists, that power will not sometimes be abused, the more especially as the odium raised against the West-India colonies now prevents reputable persons from emigrating to them to fill the subordinate offices over the slave population settled on large plantations; that the only termination of the possibility of oppression is the absolute extinction of labour by constraint, or, in other words, of slavery; that, as the slave can see no moral right why he should toil for another's advantage, he cannot be expected thus to toil without constraint; that the removal of such constraint would, in fact, be the complete abolition of slavery, and, unless compensation be afforded, would be the destruction of the petitioner's rights of property; rights which are only cognizable between the slave proprietor and the British nation, which constrained the slave proprietor and his ancestors to acquire those rights of property, but which the slave is not morally bound to respect, and which he will not respect, when education has taught him to appreciate his natural rights, and enabled him to estimate his physical force; that the petitioner is ready to yield up to the House any or all the rights of property he now possesses, and which the British parliament has sanctioned him and his ancestors in acquiring, and all the persons interested in any manner in such property, with the petitioner, will join him in relinquishing such rights to the House, but the petitioner humbly submits that he is justly entitled to have his property fairly estimated, and that he ought only to be required to sustain a proportionate loss of the real value, in common with all the petitioner's fellow-subjects, as well in the United Kingdom as in the colonies; that the petitioner has observed, among the petitions presented to the House for the abolition of slavery, there are several which slate that the petitioners are willing to be taxed to compensate the West-India proprietors for the loss they must sustain if that measure be effected; that the sentiments of such petitioners are directly in accordance with the desires of all the slave proprietors resident in Jamaica; and, if the recommendations of these petitioners were carried into effect, all opposition on the part of the resident colonists would instantly cease, and they would zealously co-operate in enforcing the desires of the British nation, as declared by the House; that, in proof of the correctness of the petitioner's statement, he begs leave to refer to a speech made by Mr. Burke, a barrister of England, and member of the Jamaica Assembly, whose sentiments greatly influenced that body, he stated, that 'the avowed 'object of the anti-colonists is ultimate 'emancipation, and we are only required 'in the mean time to do what may be 'necessary to render our slaves fit for the 'enjoyment of the new state into which 'they are to enter; here is a plain avowal 'of an intended interference with, and vio- 'lation of, the right of property; our pro- 'perty is certainly not of a very enviable 'description; a property in human flesh 'and blood and bones and sinews is not 'greatly to be coveted, and, I am sure, 'there exists no West-India proprietor 'who would not gladly exchange it for 'property of inferior value of any other 'kind; it is, however, property which has 'been sanctioned by repeated acts of the 'British parliament, and which has 'descended to us from our ancestors, who 'were encouraged by repeated acts of 'parliament to embark themselves and 'their fortunes in the cultivation of the 'colonies; then my right to my slave is as 'much sanctioned by law, and should be 'as sacredly protected to me as the right 'of any gentleman in England to every 'acre of land which he possesses; this 'right, so sanctioned, it is intended to 'sacrifice; be it so, I would go hand in 'hand with the emancipators, I am as true 'a lover of freedom as the most sincere 'among them, and I do believe that some 'of them do act, from motives of honour 'and sincerity; but if we are to aid in the 'great work of freedom, at least let not 'justice be altogether lost sight of; let us 'not be the only sufferers; let a definite 'pledge of compensation be given; let the 'amount be full and fixed at once; let the 'source whence it is to flow be pointed 'out, and all opposition on the part of the 'colonists, it cannot be doubted, would 'instantly cease; but has this fair, this 'reasonable, this honest kind of considera- 'tion been ever bestowed on our own case? 'not at all! compensation has been hinted 'at, but at a distance, and we are required 'to go on step by step, by means of our 'own enactments, to diminish the value of 'our properties, and when at last they shall 'have become totally valueless, then we 'shall be asked, perhaps exultingly, what 'is the amount of compensation to which 'you think you ore now entitled? This is 'the fate with which we are threatened; 'our only chance of averting it must be 'sought in our own firmness;' The petitioner submits, that the quotation he has just made conveys the same sentiments as in many petitions now before the House, which pray that compensation may accompany emancipation; that the petition signed by near 17,000 inhabitants of Edinburgh; and all similar petitions that pray for the abolition of slavery, without alluding to compensation, are, as the petitioner humbly submits, not entitled to the favourable consideration of the House, inasmuch as those petitioners are liberal, not at their own expense, but at that of the petitioner, and other slave proprietors; and the petitioner further submits, that if the existence of slavery be a crime, it is a crime in which not the West-India colonists alone, but the whole British nation are implicated, and therefore 'the wrong should be done to right' at the expense of the whole peccant body, and not of a part, and that part not of the most guilty; that if the last-mentioned petitioners for emancipation seek to demonstrate their sincerity, they ought, as the petitioner submits, to commence a subscription, to be general throughout the British empire, for the purpose of purchasing the rights of the slave proprietor; and the British nation will not find the resident Jamaica proprietors at all inferior to them in actual liberality; that to effect the gradual emancipation of the slave, the co-operation of the resident proprietors is, as the petitioner submits, absolutely necessary; for in Jamaica, as in all other countries, public opinion is in the nature of a law, and far more powerful than any positive enactment; in consequence, if the House, and the other branches of the British parliament, enact laws for that island, the inhabitants of that island will not consider the violation of such acts as disgraceful, because they will not respect them as laws, inasmuch as they were not sanctioned by their own legislature; thence the result will be, as the petitioner submits, that the spirit of such laws will constantly be evaded; and jealousy and mistrust too will frustrate the benign intentions of the House, because the resident proprietors entertain an erroneous impression that the House intends, step by step, to deprive them of their property without fair compensation; that the petitioner is apprehensive that the Legislative Assembly of Jamaica may (to use the language of the House) be contumacious, for the petitioner knows that many of the members have pledged themselves not to alter their laws as directed by the House, or as suggested by his majesty's ministers, until they receive from the House a specific pledge for compensation, in the event of their property being deteriorated by the operation of such alterations of their laws, or entirely destroyed by a revolution; that the ultimate consequence of the jealousy and mistrust thus subsisting, and of the several other premises stated by the petitioner, must, as he fears, be the immediate, and not gradual, emancipation of the slave population by a revolution, whereby the beneficent designs of the House would be defeated, and the petitioner's property entirely destroyed, without any fault of his; that, to avoid these evils, is, as the petitioner most humbly submits, an object, which the House desires, and the petitioner further humbly submits, that it may be attained by giving the colonists a pledge to compensate them, should any ill result from fulfilling the desires of the House; that the anxiety of the colonist for such a pledge is, as the petitioner submits, most natural, for the rights for which they contend are the sum and substance wherewith they live; if they are deprived of them, what shall they do? 'they cannot dig, to beg they are 'ashamed;' but once let compensation be specifically pledged, they would emulate their fellow subjects in effectuating their benevolent intention of restoring the bondman to the freedom which nature gave him; that such compensation, as the petitioner submits ought at once to be defined, and its medium of appreciation not procrastinated until the before-mentioned species of property be further deteriorated in value; the petitioner most humbly submits, that commissioners should be appointed to value the property of the petitioner, and other persons holding any property in the West Indies, and that the colonists should be declared entitled to compensation in accordance with the value of their property, as reported by the commissioners, in the event of a total loss of their possessions in obeying the directions of parliament, and so rateably for every partial deterioration, and that a particular fund be appropriated for providing such compensation; the petitioner further humbly submits, that the place of the fund thus appropriated may be supplied in two ways, either by a voluntary subscription or benevolence, of all the friends of the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire, including the colonies; or else by parliament taking all West-India possessions under its control (after compensating the present proprietors), and disposing of the proceeds in the stead of the fund appropriated as before-stated, and then the House might proceed with facility to emancipate our black fellow-subjects, either immediately or gradually, and with or without restrictions, as to the House might seem expedient; that the petitioner is not tainted with any of the prejudices which are frequently attributed to the West-Indians resident in the colonies, and he begs leave to state, that, in fulfilling the duty which man owes to his fellow map, at the trial of a slave for treason in Kingston, Jamaica, the petitioner voluntarily came forward to impeach the testimony of a prevaricating witness named Corberand; that the petitioner claims no merit for merely discharging an imperative duty to his fellow mortal, but merely adduces the fact to prove, that he is not the monster which it is usual to describe West-Indians; that the petitioner has committed no offence, and therefore humbly submits that he ought not to be amerced by taking away his property, either in possession or in reversion; that the petitioner and the other proprietors resident in Jamaica, are not represented in the House, and are therefore defenceless, for though many West-India proprietors, resident in the united kingdom, are members of the House, they are unacquainted with the local concerns and peculiar circumstances of the West-India colonies, and being generally possessed of means independent of their colonial property, cannot sympathize with the petitioner and other resident West-Indians, who have no other dependence; that the petitioner is assured that it is the desire of the House to act impartially, and feeling too, as he knows the House all feel, that it is expected from the House that they will execute justice and have mercy, the petitioner therefore humbly prays, that he may be heard at the bar of the House, for the purpose of showing that he is justly entitled to have the propositions he has most humbly submitted acceded to by the House; and the petitioner humbly, prays for the favourable reception of this his humble petition, and that his rights of property may be protected; for as the black man is by nature entitled to the mercy of the House, so the white man is not the less entitled to the justice of the House; and the petitioner prays for such other relief in the premises as to them shall seem meet."

Ordered to lie on the table.