HC Deb 12 June 1827 vol 17 cc1242-56
. Dr. Lushington,

in rising to make his motion respecting the People of Colour in the West Indies, observed, that he was sure when the House became acquainted with the circumstances of the case, they would be of opinion with him, that it was one deserving the most serious consideration. There were few members of that House, except those who had local connexions with the West Indies, who had any idea of the number, wealth, and importance, of the description of individuals whose Petition he was about to present, and whose cause he meant to advocate To those members who were locally connected with the West Indies, this was well known. By those who had sons, daughters, brothers, friends, among the petitioners, he trusted he should be supported, in endeavouring to rescue from a state little short of slavery, individuals thus attached to them by the dearest ties of blood and in- timacy. He should abstain from pointing out any particular instances of the kind to which he alluded; not for want of accurate and abundant information on the subject, but because, if the motion should be negatived, he should be sorry to have uselessly hurt feelings which he was desirous of respecting. The House had probably very little idea of the relative numbers of the different classes of the population of our West-India islands. In Jamaica, by far the most important of our colonies, the population was estimated to be as follows:—whites, 25,000; free people of colour, 30,000; free blacks, 10,000; blacks, 340,000. Such were the relative numbers as estimated in 1825. Every hour increased the number of the brown, and decreased the number of the white, population; and that for the plainest possible reasons. In the first place, the climate was hostile to whites, who being born in Europe, transferred themselves to the West Indies; so hostile indeed, that if the details of the mortality which prevailed among the new-comers could be displayed to the House, they would regard them with horror. In the second place, the whites who went to the West-India islands were principally males; few females resorting thither for the purpose of taking up their residence. These two causes were perpetually operating to diminish the white part of the population. The brown part of the population, on the contrary, was increasing with great rapidity. It had been declared by Bryan Edwards, and by every other author who had treated of the West Indies, that of all the races by which those islands were inhabited, there were none so healthy, so free from tendency to disease, and so long-lived, as the mixed part of the population. They were allowed, on all hands, to be peculiarly strong and hardy. But if it was true, that the brown population, as compared with the blacks and the whites, was rapidly increasing, it was a circumstance of no small importance; and one which, in the course of time, and that at no very distant period, would imperatively demand the attention of parliament. For let not the House suppose that this class of the West-India population was low, degraded, or destitute. In Jamaica, the brown population was supposed to be worth at least three millions sterling. He had been told, that they were worth five millions; but he took three millions, as the most moderate calculation. To show how wealth accumulated among them, he would mention a few instances of sums that had been bequeathed in several cases. A Dr. Dickenson had left 120,000l.; a Mr. Swaney, 150,000l.; a Mr. Kingall, 200,000l.; a Mr. Scott. 250,000l. In St. James's parish, Jamaica, alone, three individuals who had signed the petition in his hand, were said to be worth together above 120,000l. Not only were the people of colour wealthy, but they possessed extensive landed property. With the exception of one estate (belonging to the hon. member for Surrey), all the pimento plantations were in their hands. They also had a great number of the coffee plantations. Many of the houses in Kingston, and the other towns in Jamaica, belonged to them. Such was the condition, such the respectability, of a race who had nevertheless been, for a long period, deprived of those rights which were originally conferred upon them by charter. It was declared by all the original charters granted to the West-India islands, "That all children of whites born on the island should be, from their birth free denizens of England; holding the same privileges as free-born subjects of England." Such was the practice for a considerable time. At last, a practice grew up, by which the privilege of British subjects was taken away from the offspring of white men by brown or black women. In progress of time, the acts of the colonial assemblies to this effect received the sanction of the mother country. Strange to say, in the year 1711, a statute was passed, disabling the individuals in question from holding public situations. The hon. and learned gentleman here read the opinion given at that period on the subject by lord Chancellor West; who, while he allowed that slaves might be treated as their owners thought proper to treat them, denied that it could be just to exclude free persons of colour from the privileges of the other free inhabitants of the colonies. No man could bequeath to a child of colour more than 1,400l. These laws were contrary to all principles of justice, and an outrage on every natural feeling. It was found in practice impossible to continue them, amongst any society of human beings, whatever might be their principles or their feelings. Immediately after this, he found an act, passed in 1762, to enable one W. F. Brown to bequeath his property to his children. In 1784, an act was passed, to permit a woman of colour to leave her property to her child. He should now allude to the law, which required, that a certain number of white persons should be kept upon every estate, and which imposed a penalty, when the estate was the property of the free men of colour. The government at home rejected this act, as it amounted to a very severe tax upon absentees. But this objection was attempted to be overcome or avoided, by passing similar acts repeatedly: and it was only six months ago that the governor of Jamaica, the duke of Manchester, was obliged to withhold his assent from such a bill, upon the ground of its operating as a tax upon persons residing out of the colony.—In 1796, immediately after the termination of the Maroon war, the free men of colour were allowed to bear testimony against whites in cases of assaults. They were not allowed to produce collateral testimony, and they were to be transported, if guilty of perjury. Lord Balcarras, the then governor, was an eye witness to a case of the most atrocious assault upon a person of colour by a white inhabitant; but he found himself unable to convict the culprit, or to punish the outrage. It was afterwards, in reward for the important services rendered by the people of colour in the Maroon war, that the privilege was conferred upon them, of giving evidence against the whites in cases of assault. In 1813, a great alteration took place in the state of the black and coloured population. Their condition was materially improved by certain concessions made to them by the House of Assembly; though, he regretted to say, that the boon had not been granted with the liberality he could have wished. The House of Assembly passed an act, by which they gave certain privileges to free persons of colour, upon their taking out what were called privilege papers. In 1816, an act passed, to enable free people of colour to navigate their own vessels, and to drive their own carts and hackney-coaches. From this act, a pretty good opinion might be formed of their previous condition. Bryan Edwards, alluding to their sufferings, had said, "The mischief of the rigour of the law is, that it tends to degrade them in their own eyes and in the eyes of the community; it is carried so far as to make them wretched in themselves, and useless to others." In 1823, a petition was presented to the House of Assembly, signed by all the principal people of colour in the island. It complained, that they were not allowed to participate in any of the advantages of government. In 1826, there were unequivocal signs that there had been a great progress in public opinion, both in the House of Assembly, amongst the persons of colour, and even amongst the slaves themselves. The inhabitants of the two parishes of St. James and St. Elizabeth, petitioned the House of Assembly in favour of concessions to the people of colour. It was impossible for any petitions to have contained more sound principles, or to have been expressed in better language. But the House of Assembly rejected the petitions. They rejected every measure proposed, but they turned round and conferred the whole of the privileges prayed for in those petitions, upon the Jews. Yet the Jews had never petitioned upon the subject. He meant no offence to the Jews: he was far from entertaining the unjust, absurd, and mischievous, prejudices which existed against them. He could not, however, refrain from regretting, that the House of Assembly should have extended to them those privileges which they had refused to the free men of colour, who were Christians; and who, even in point of complexion, could scarcely be distinguished from the whites themselves. Some of the free people had, however, been selected, and had had conferred upon them all the privileges of British subjects. Facilities were given to individuals to obtain these privileges by private bills; the fees upon passing which through the House were dispensed with. But many persons were above suing for these privileges, upon such terms. What would be thought of the government of England, if they attempted to introduce a practice of bringing in bills, one by one, to emancipate the Catholics? The free men of colour were still excluded from sitting upon juries, from holding public offices, and from any exercise of the elective franchise. It was the same in almost all the West-India islands. There were certain public schools in the island of Jamaica, which were supported by taxes, levied equally on blacks, whites, and persons of every shade of colour. With the exception of the parish of St. James, persons of colour were excluded from all such schools. Even in St. James, the system was most unjust. He found that, in that parish, there were seventy free persons of colour educated, at an average charge of five pounds each, whilst six white persons were educated at the expense of not less than one thousand pounds. Free persons of colour were prevented from serving upon juries; and the consequence was, an impossibility for any person of that description to obtain justice against a white. He would allude to a trial, in which two persons, named James and Hector Mitchell, bore a most conspicuous part. The brother of the present Attorney-general was, at the time, the person before whom the cause was tried. He charged the jury in strong language; but they refused to obey. The learned judge had said, that the evidence of Hector Mitchell ought not to have been received; and the House would not differ from this opinion when they were told that the witness, at the outset, had positively refused to give his testimony at all, if he were not allowed to give it in his own way, and just as he thought proper. This was acceded to him; and he accordingly did give his evidence in a way peculiar to himself, and contrary to all the principles of testimony acknowledged in our jurisprudence. He ran on in a confusion of hearsay evidence; and although he was contradicted by six other witnesses, the jury, notwithstanding this, and notwithstanding the opinion of the judge, gave their verdict against the man of colour, and in favour of the person of their own complexion. So strong was the case, that the judge immediately declared, that he would grant a new trial, if the aggrieved party desired it. But the unfortunate plaintiff replied, "What will it avail me to have an impartial judge, or excellent counsel? the jury will still be white men, and I have no chance of success." The want of a sufficient number of white men to form juries often occasioned a most strange, if not ridiculous practice. It frequently happened, that they could not produce a sufficient number of white men to form a coroner's inquest. In such cases it was the practice at Kingston to send to the barracks, to procure soldiers, or to the ships to get sailors to convert into jurymen.—He had taken care to be correct in what he stated, and his views were not the result of one single instance, but of cases taken indifferently from time to time. Free people of colour were compelled by law to serve in the militia of Jamaica, but they could not rise higher than the rank of serjeant. Thus, a free man of colour, possessed of 100,000l. might be commanded by his clerk. It might be supposed, that the natural effect of such a system of treatment would be to oblige the people of colour to throw themselves largely upon the public funds for support. So far from this being the case, it was principally the whites who were obliged to resort to public charity. In Kingston, the proportion was as ten to one. The number of browns was greater than the whites; and yet they had to contend with all these restrictions. The proportionate allowances to the different classes were most unjust. Thus, to destitute blacks was allowed 5s., to browns, 6s. 8d., and to pauper whites from ten to twenty shillings. It might be supposed, that the system would have the effect of demoralizing the free brown population; but he found the offences committed by the white population to exceed those charged against persons of colour. In the course of the last forty years, only four brown persons had been executed; whilst, of the white population, the instances were more frequent. After the Maroon war, the House of Assembly passed a vote of thanks to the free people of colour, for their services during that dangerous conflict. In no instance had they ever been charged with disloyalty; although the treatment they had met with might have misled their passions, and they had in their hands a tremendous power. The militia of the island consisted of not less than 10,000 men; of which about 5,000 were persons of colour. There were seldom more than 2,000 regular troops upon the island. He trusted that the House would undertake such measures as were likely to remedy the mischief. The scandalous effect of the present system was, to induce the daughters of persons of colour to live in a state of prostitution to the whites. The policy of Jamaica was to discourage marriage in any shape, and prostitution was more common than could be conceived. If a brown man had an illegitimate child by a white woman, it might inherit the parent's property; but if he married her, his legitimate child would be disfranchised. This was practically to give a premium upon concubinage, and to inflict a penalty upon marriage. The absurdity of the laws could not admit of a doubt. The children of slaves might be slaves in virtue of the laws of property, but the children of brown persons were deprived of their privileges, for no other reason, but because their complexion happened not to be white. It was the duty of the government to remedy these inconveniences. He, however, would not press any particular mea- sure; for he thought it desirable that the House of Assembly should have another opportunity of discussing the subject. He felt he was pursuing the course best calculated to obtain the end he had in view, in allowing the government to take whatever measures they deemed best calculated to remedy the evil. Perhaps there did not exist any system of abuse against which public opinion was so strong, and so decidedly unanimous. So much did he consider the ridicule, the injustice, the oppression, under which these unfortunate people were labouring; so urgent was the necessity for relief; so replete with danger was the continuance of the system, that he should consider it his bounden duty, in a future session, if his hope of something effectual being accomplished was not realized, to renew the subject, and to endeavour to bring the House to some agreement upon the measures of remedy proper to be pursued.—He had another petition to present from a person scarcely distinguishable from himself in point of complexion. So comprehensive and uncompromising were these laws, that the restrictions extended to persons of colour of every nation. They were not confined to the blacks or negroes of Africa, but they extended to the people of colour of America, and even to every variety of the Indian race.—He could not help availing himself of the present moment to allude to the late deportation of persons of colour from the island of Jamaica. He had investigated the subject, and he entertained not the shadow of a doubt as to the nature of that transaction. He was willing, at the present moment, to postpone this case, as he was aware, that since the changes incidental to the illness of the earl of Liverpool, it had been impossible for ministers to have made themselves perfect masters of the subject. It was necessary for the character of public justice that the House should, in this case, protect the injured. The hon. and learned gentleman then presented a petition from the freeholders of the mixed race, and others, free inhabitants of the island of Jamaica, for admission to the full protection of the law and the privileges of British subjects; and also a similar petition from George Hyde, on behalf of the free people of colour in the colony of Honduras.

Mr. C. N. Pallmer

said, he felt as anxious as the learned gentleman to see the question that agitated the colonies settled finally and satisfactorily. There was no difference between him and the learned gentleman, except as to the mode in which their common object should be carried into effect. It was hardly fair, in discussing such a question as the present, to go back to the reign of queen Anne. It should be considered, not as it was, but as it now is. He denied that justice was refused to the brown population. He never knew an instance of oppression exercised upon one of them; and though a single case had been mentioned by the learned gentleman, one case was not sufficient to establish a principle. He had not the slightest hesitation in saying, that substantial justice was done, in all cases, to the brown population in Jamaica. In 1761, a law had been passed prohibiting legacies to a large amount being left to illegitimate children; but not to those born in wedlock; the object of it being to discourage the prevalence of illicit intercourse. He rose for two purposes—the one was to deny the partiality and injustice complained of, the other to resist, as far as he could, the too sudden changes sought to be introduced amongst the population of the West Indies. He admitted that justice in the West Indies was, in general, badly administered; and bore testimony to the good conduct of the brown population, and to the favourable feeling entertained towards them amongst the whites; but he feared that parliamentary interference might check those benevolent feelings. The hon. gentleman concluded by reading an extract of a speech of a distinguished member of the House of Representatives, in which that gentleman recommended caution and moderation in the promotion of the brown population.

Mr. Brougham

said, he felt no small degree of disappointment from the speech which he had just heard. He was ready to acknowledge, that the long residence in Jamaica of the hon. member, gave considerable authority to what he said; but still, that authority had not the weight of facts. But, without taking nice distinctions between the value of his authority and the weight of established facts, he would come to the point with him.—Were the brown population in the habit of receiving substantial and practical justice? Were there not thirty or forty thousand of the king's free and meritorious subjects who received neither justice nor fair deal- ing? The hon. member had himself borne testimony to their good conduct; and, was it to be endured, that men, against whom no charges had been substantiated, should be denied the first rights of British subjects? He could not allow gentlemen to go back to the reign of queen Anne, or to the first of the late king. "Don't listen to those," said the hon. gentleman, "who tell you how things have been; but listen to me, while I do not tell you any thing." It was in vain that he told them of the industry, and the moderation, and the candour, of the learned member, while he said to the House, "pay no attention to his facts, but listen to my no-facts—listen to me, who tell you nothing, but pay no regard to him who speaks to the purpose." There had not been, he would contend, the slightest attempt to show, that the brown population received justice from the courts that sat in Jamaica. As often as a court sat, so often it was to do injustice. It was morally and physically impossible that they could be done justice to. They wese not tried by their own members. Was that nothing? It was said, that the courts were open to the wealthy—they might there be sued for any offence—they might there be permitted to try questions relating to such property as the law permitted them to have a title to. But, could they have a judge or jury of their own people. Could they be tried by a jury of brown men? How would the hon. member himself like to be tried by a jury of brown men—of Irishmen—of Scotchmen—of Frenchmen? Confident he was, that the hon. gentleman would not desire to be tried by a jury, all the individuals of which were abolitionists. The law which said to an individual, "You shall be tried by men who are aliens and enemies," was manifestly unjust. Would the hon. gentleman like to be tried by a brown jury, who were his enemies? for enemies we had made them, by our absurd laws, in spite of the commands of Providence, and the dispensation of nature. These regulations had raised a barrier between two divisions of the human race; a partition wall was erected, by the interposition of which the tenants of the one side were rendered the artificial enemies of those of the other. The slowness with which the West-Indian legislatures proceeded was attempted to be justified by the difficulties of the case; which difficulties, it was added, the House of Commons had itself felt and admitted. He confessed he did not see the force of this argument; and could not receive it as a satisfactory explanation of the total inertness of the colonists. No resemblance whatever existed between the case of the Catholics and Protestant Dissenters of this country, and the condition of the negroes and people of colour of the West Indies. Yet a comparison had been instituted. The Mulatto was made to bear the burthen of his parents crimes. Not for any fault of his, but because others had sinned, was he persecuted. If any thing was calculated to drive men to madness and despair, it was a condition such as this.—If any thing deserved to bear the name of cruel, it was a policy such as this.—If any thing deserved to be denominated by the title of childish and contemptible, it was a policy like this—the rather when it was considered that one half of our colonial militia was composed of these very men of colour, who were themselves deprived of the rights of humanity, and who were also the brethren of those negroes, by whom the colonists were out-numbered and surrounded. When it was considered that the Mulattoes were allied by a shade of skin to those countless thousands held in bondage by the West-India planters, the consequences of irritating them must be most alarming. Again, while they allowed their blacks occasionally to be free, refusing a similar boon to the Mulatto, and attempting to restrain all with their petty handful of whites, they might say, if they pleased, that this was a correct policy—that this was the slow progress so mightily commended by their advocates; but, for his part, he conceived that such a state of things could only be continued by a gross misunderstanding of what was the best interest of the colonists themselves. He promised his learned friend success, if he persevered: he promised him many triumphs in the good cause—triumphs in which he hoped to participate with him. He was sorry his learned friend could not bring forward the duke of Manchester's case this session. He would say what his learned friend's modesty prevented him from saying; that he had taken great, and not unavailing, pains with the subject. He would venture to claim for his learned friend the praise of having applied skill and diligence, almost incredible, to the case. He hoped he would, at a future period, bring it forward; but he also entertained a belief, that circumstances might arise which would render the introduction of his learned friend's proposition unnecessary. He said this, because he confided in the activity and honesty of that government, in which he would again express his confidence. He trusted his majesty's government would bring forward such measures as might spare his learned friend the trouble of calling the attention of the House to the question. The conduct of the chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Canning), while Secretary for Foreign Affairs, had afforded him the highest gratification; seeing that, in a short time, the slave-trade would no longer exist anywhere by law. The exertions of that right hon. gentleman had been unwearied; and to those exertions it was owing, that a treaty had been concluded, by which the duration of the abominable trade, in the only country where, at present, it existed by law, was limited to a period, not exceeding three years. The right hon. gentleman deserved the praise of having been the first, as far as laws and regulations could effect the mighty object, completely to do away with what Mr. Pitt had emphatically called, "the greatest practical evil that ever afflicted humanity."

Mr. Wilmot Horton

expressed his satisfaction at the general tone in which the debate had been conducted, for if the great object in view were to be carried into effect through the intervention of the Colonial Legislatures, it was expedient, as much as possible to abstain from irritation; never forgetting the complicated circumstances which led to the disabilities under which the Africans laboured, nor the difficulties of removing them at all, much less with any degree of rapidity. Time was necessary to remove an evil which centuries had completed. He could not admit that the colonial assemblies had shewn no desire to promote the interests of the slaves; but he nevertheless wished the House to stamp its opinion, that it was the true interest of the whites of the West Indies to remit the existing disabilities. In his view, it was far wiser to wait until gradual improvement in education and property among the negroes had produced its influence on the colonial legislatures, than to call upon those bodies peremptorily to change their system at once, and to threaten them with the vengeance of parliament at home, if they did not instantly follow a course which might be abstractedly right, but wrong in its immediate application. What chance was there that laws would be carried into effect which were not voluntarily adopted, but forced upon the colonial assemblies?

Mr. W. Smith

said, that the hon. member for Surrey had complained of the injustice of referring to circumstances which had occurred half a century ago. He should have entirely agreed with him, provided the act of 1761 had been repealed or materially amended in many of the islands; but the fact was, that, till very recently, that act had scarcely been at all altered for the benefit of the negroes. It was urged, that time ought to be allowed; but, had gentlemen forgotten, that it was now forty years since this question had been first agitated before the British legislature? He admitted that some amelioration of the condition of the men of colour had recently taken place; but, if it went on no faster than it had hitherto done, he feared that the present, and even the next, generation would pass away before the object was effected. The hon. gentleman concluded, by reading an extract of a letter from a British officer in one of the colonies, giving a familiar account of a marriage between a man of colour and a white woman, whom he was said to have "bought." This phrase referred to the disparity of circumstances between the parties, and it was held by all persons in the colony, as one of the greatest acts of atrocity that had ever been perpetrated in the West Indies. He could, if it were necessary, adduce a multitude of other instances to show the degradation which the difference of colour occasioned in the colonies, out of which arose the impossibility to the coloured race of obtaining impartial justice.

Mr. Canning

said, that, as no question had been raised to excite a difference of opinion, this debate might have closed with the remarks in reply of the hon. and learned mover, who had so fairly and temperately introduced the subject. In justice to the hon. member for Surrey, he felt it necessary to say, that his speech had not left the impression upon his mind, which it seemed to have made upon that of the learned member for Winchelsea. He did not understand that hon. member as defending, but as lamenting the system—not as contending that it ought to be permanent, but regretting the slow pro- gress of improvemement. He confessed he rather augured from the hon. member's language, a fair disposition to meet this part of the subject with a desire, as far as human means could accomplish it, to get rid of all possible difficulties. But the speech of the hon. member for Norwich, and particularly the fact with which he had concluded, proved still more strongly, how much ought to be left to time and circumstances. If once an adverse disposition were created, it might be found impossible to accomplish the object. The hon. member had quoted a letter, giving an account of a union, or rather of what the French called a mésalliance between a man of colour and a white woman, which was termed buying a white woman, and which had diffused general disgust as a monstrous atrocity. This fact established the enormous difficulty of the subject; it was inherent in the nature of the thing, and no proceeding of the legislature could precipitate its removal. The advocates for acceleration adopted before the senate of Great Britain, the reasoning of Shylock before the senate of Venice:— You have among you many a purchas'd slave, Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts, Because you bought them. Shall I say to you, Let them be free—marry them to your heirs? It was easy to say, "let them be free—marry them to your heirs;" but the thing was now impossible; and it might be long before the time arrived when it would be possible. He felt as strongly as any hon. gentleman, that impartial justice should be meeted out to the slave-population, and the people of colour in the West Indies. But it was one thing to fight against the dictates of nature and the established order of things, and another to correct errors which might have insinuated themselves into the administration of justice. The one object was beyond the province of parliament, the other within it. The latter was in the province of legislation; the former in the province of manners. In that case, he could not see the object to which the exertions of the legislature were to be applied: the grievance, if such it were, must be left to a slower process to correct it—the progress of opinion. He concurred with an hon. member, that it was impossible justice should be done, unless the prejudices of the colonists were broken down; first trying the power and willingness of the local legislature, and in- terposing with the higher power of parliament, if it were found necessary. The whites in one island had been stated at twenty-five thousand, the blacks at three hundred and sixty thousand; and there were besides thirty thousand neutrals, whom the governing part of the society might win to themselves by indulgence and conciliation, and whom it would be absolute madness, and the most incredible folly, with their eyes open, not to conciliate, and thereby gain a most important acquisition. He would leave to the colonies the means of attaining this object as fast as they could by a conquest of prejudice; but he would exact from them the removal of positive evil. In due time, if they did not remove it themselves, it must be removed for them.

Ordered to lie on the table.

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