HC Deb 29 June 1827 vol 17 cc1424-6
The Earl of Harrowby

rose for the purpose of presenting a petition from the Free People of colour in Jamaica. If this petition proceeded from that class of persons which generally addressed their lordships, calling their attention to the common topics to which it had been usually directed, he should not think it necessary to say a single word on the subject of the petition, and would leave it to speak for itself. But, in presenting this petition from a class of persons who had never before appeared before their lordships, and with the peculiar circumstances of whose situation he believed many of their lordships were unacquainted, he should feel it necessary to request their indulgence while he stated the present situation of the petitioners, and the nature of that which they desired. The petitioners were entitled to the attention of their lordships on account of their number, their wealth, and their good conduct; and the petition itself was entitled to attention, from the temperate terms in which the petitioners described the grievances they laboured under, and the moderate nature of the requests which it contained. These persons were the offspring, in different degrees of remoteness, of the black and the white population. It appeared from Mr. Edwards, that, at the time he wrote his History of the West Indies, the population consisted of 30,000 white people, 240,000 slaves, and 10,000 free people of colour. What was the state of the population at present? The number of whites from 30,000 had diminished to 25,000; the number of free people of colour was 30,000—10,000 of whom were blacks; and the number of the slaves from 240,000 had increased to 320,000. The petitioners were, therefore, as far as number was concerned, sufficiently numerous to attract attention. A population of 30,000 complaining of one common grievance, deserved to have that, grievance considered. They were persons, however, who had been under a singular state of degradation from not being allowed to in- herit, and from various other oppressive laws; but, in consequence of a relaxation of those laws, their property was now not less than 3,000,000l. The fortunes of four persons, he understood, amounted together to 700,000l. The class was in possession of the whole of the pimento plantations, and were masters of 50,000 slaves. With respect to wealth, they were, therefore, entitled to consideration. Their conduct was spoken of in the highest terms by Mr. Edwards, who wrote his History in 1793. Subsequently to that period, their conduct in very difficult circumstances—in the Maroon war, for instance—was eminently loyal; and it procured, at different times, some important relaxations of the severity of the laws against them. They had subsequently received the public thanks of the Assembly for their loyalty; and he need say no more, than that of the militia, of 10,000 persons, one half was composed of free persons of colour. There could not, therefore, be any distrust of their loyalty.—He now thought it necessary to state for what those persons petitioned, and what it was that they wanted. There were different wants that applied to different classes. The wealthy wanted the possibility of attaining that degree of consideration to which wealth and talents were, in other parts of the world, entitled. These people were not eligible to serve in parish vestries, or in the General Assembly: they could not act in any office of public trust, not even in the subordinate situation of constable; though agricultural labourers, employed upon their own property, could fill that situation. They could not hold commissions in the black and mulatto regiments; and they were further disqualified from serving as jurors. In the militia, when disabled, they had only one third of the provision that was allowed to the whites. With respect to schools, if not absolutely excluded, obstacles were thrown in the way of their admission. When relieved by poor-rates, they only got one half the allowance given to whites. In church, where one would suppose all distinctions would be laid aside, with respect to seats, there was a complete line of separation. For the last fifty years, between forty and fifty whites had been executed, while only four persons of colour had suffered. The degradation to which the petitioners were subjected, was the result of that odious state of slavery, which not only corrupted every thing it touched with its plague-spots, but tainted every thing within its atmosphere. But he might be asked, for what purpose he brought forward this petition? Did he mean to propose any measure? At that period of the session, he knew it was impossible for any measure to be introduced; but he wished to be understood as stating, that, from the extreme difficulty and complicated nature of the subject, if ever it should be taken up by parliament, with a view to a measure of relief, its introduction must be committed to the hands of an individual of far more ability than he could pretend to. He was satisfied, from the respectful nature and moderate terms of the petition, that its prayer must, one time or other, be granted. It was something for the petitioners to know, that the individuals of that unfortunate and degraded race were considered, by the peers of Great Britain, as their brethren.

Lord Ellenborough

supported the prayer of the petition, though he understood that the lower class of the petitioners were not in a situation to enjoy the civil rights they prayed for.

Lord Seaford

supported the petition, and bore testimony to the respectability and good conduct of the petitioners. Still he thought it would not be wise to interfere with the subject at present. It was a case of great difficulty, for which there was no parallel in the history of the world. The noble lord, after taking a review of the different measures which, at various times, had relieved the petitioners from several of the disabilities under which they laboured, concluded by stating, that the colonial legislature were now more favourably disposed to them, and he was therefore anxious that the question should be left in its hands, lest the agitation of it should produce a re-action.

Lord Calthorpe

was not disposed to place the same confidence in the local legislature that his noble friend did. He thought it incumbent on their lordships to attend to the prayer of the petition.

Ordered to lie on the table.