HC Deb 05 March 1828 vol 18 cc975-81
Mr. Denison

presented a petition from the Auxiliary Anti-Slavery Society of the county of Surrey. Above four years had elapsed since the House had agreed, upon the motion of Mr. Canning, to certain resolutions expressive of their sense of the expediency of such an amelioration of the condition of the Slaves in the West Indies as might gradually lead to their emancipation. He believed, however, that no step had been taken by the Colonial Assemblies in furtherance of that most desirable object. He would take the liberty of asking what course ministers intended to pursue with reference to this most important matter—whether they meant to take the prosecution of it into their own hands, or to leave it in the hands of the colonial legislatures? If the latter still opposed every attempt to remedy the evils, government had the remedy entirely in their own hands. It was a short and simple one. Let a temporary duty be imposed on all sugar imported from our colonies into this country, until the planters became sensible of the necessity of a change in their conduct.

Lord F. Gower

said, that he was not immediately able to answer the hon. gentleman's inquiry.

Mr. Bernal

said, he was as anxio s as the hon. member for Surrey to know what course ministers intended to pursue; whether the colonies were still to consider themselves as component parts of the British empire, or whether they were to be entirely isolated and distinct from that empire. It was high time to determine, whether the link which still bound the colonies to the mother country was to be dissolved or not. When the hon. gentleman talked of adopting a measure, for the purpose of bringing the question to a speedy issue, he seemed to forget that, by imposing a duty on the sugar exported from our colonies, a bounty would be given on the increase of the slave-trade, by the encouragement which would thereby be given to the importation of sugar from Martinique, the Havannah, the Brazils, &c. where, the slave trade was still carried on to a horrible extent; more especially under the French flag. At that very moment an immense number of slaves were constantly transferring from the coast of Africa to the colonies he had mentioned.

Sir A. Grant

said, that if the object of the petitioners was the annihilation of the slave trade, they could not do a greater favour to the West Indies than by petitioning for its utter annihilation. Great evil resulted to our West-India islands from the continuance of the trade in other quarters. As to the amelioration of the state of the slaves, a unanimous feeling pervaded the whole of the West-India proprietors to contribute to that object as far as it was in their power to do so; but to pursue that object by the means resorted to by many persons in this country, would only produce irritation in the minds of the colonists.

Sir R. Wilson

said, that if the mischief likely to arise from the conduct of the petitioners was the abolition of female whipping and the compulsory manumission of slaves, he was one of those who would do all in his power to promote such mischief.

Mr. Hume

expressed a wish that the duties on East and West India sugars should be equalized,

Mr. Baring

thought that this country, having taken upon itself the duties of the police of the world, in suppressing the Slave-trade, had entailed upon it an immense expenditure of life and money.

Dr. Lushington

thought, that the country stood so strongly pledged to the abolition of slavery, that no minister would dare to recede from those pledges.

Mr. Brougham

said, that as government had given a pledge to the country, that certain measures would be taken if the colonial legislatures did not do what was requisite to carry into effect its views, with respect to the abolition of the slave-trade, he wished to ask what had been done to procure from the colonial legislatures an acquiescence in the views of government with respect to the slave population; or, whether the proceedings of the colonial legislatures appeared to government to be so satisfactory as to preclude the necessity of any further measures in this country?

Mr. Secretary Huskisson

said, that the only answer he could give to the learned gentleman was, to refer him, in the first place, to the ample information which had been laid upon the table of the House. The resolution agreed to in 1823, with the returns consequent upon that measure, were both before parliament, and would soon be followed by further returns, developing what had been done, and what was in course of progress, relative to the improvement of the condition of the slaves. If that were considered the proper opportunity he would have no opportunity to enter into a statement of what had been effected by such of the colonies as possessed legislatures towards accomplishing the great work. There could not be the slightest doubt that the resolution of 1823, contemplated for the slave population the ultimate possession of civil rights, but it also contemplated that this transition should be effected without any interference with the rights of private property. It was perfectly true that no change had taken place in the system on which govern- ment had acted towards the colonies, on he subject of slavery. The instructions sent out to the colonial governments were of the most clear and explicit nature, and founded upon the resolutions laid upon the table of that House. Now, those resolutions having been distinctly communicated, he was justified in drawing the inference, that the acquiescence which had taken place amounted to nothing less than implied adoption. In those colonies which had no local legislatures, some of the propositions adopted under the sanction of parliament had been carried into effect; and from their operation, it had been ascertained that no practical evil had resulted. In those having legislatures, the measures in question had been carried into effect with a greater or less degree of success; and as near an approximation had been made to the attainment of the objects in view as the fears and prejudices of the parties would allow. It was greatly to be regretted, that the resolutions of that House could not be carried into effect as speedily as was desirable; for if they went on as fast as they could wish, there was the utmost danger of throwing the colonies into confusion, without advancing the interests of the slaves, or attaining any of the objects which parliament had in view. Whatever change was to be effected, he hoped would be effected gradually, safely, and steadily—that they would advance towards their object with that regard for the interests of the colonists which justice demanded. It might be true, and he believed it was, that no subject of his majesty was engaged in this traffic; be that, as it might, that the Police establishment was kept up; but assuredly it would form a very fit subject for the committee of finance to determine, whether this country should continue to expend for such a purpose so large an amount of British treasure and British life. That a great waste of both had taken place in the efforts to put down the slave-trade, as carried on by other countries, was a proposition which would not be disputed; and he was sorry to say, that the success attendant upon those measures was by no means commensurate to their cost. That species of smuggling trade offered a temptation so irresistible, presented a profit so enormous, resembled so strongly a trade without duty and without insurance, that nothing less than gigantic efforts could suppress it. He doubted whether any naval power that we could conveniently bring into operation against it, would ever prove sufficient to suppress this traffic in human misery, stimulated as it ever was by unbounded cupidity. He assured the House, that every information upon the subject would be most cheerfully laid upon the table of the House, and that it was in full accordance with the duty as well as with the inclination of government, to carry into full effect the resolutions of parliament.

Mr. Brougham

said, that there were not two opinions relative to the abolition of the slave-trade. The House was bound by every principle of duty, as well as of national honour, to persist firmly in its course, until, as far as possible, that abominable traffic was abolished. AH he wished to know was, whether the government were satisfied with the acts of the local legislatures. If government were dissatisfied, then no further proceedings on his part would be necessary; but if they were satisfied with what had been done, he should bring forward the subject after the recess. The ultimate abolition of slavery had been the object of Mr. Pitt, and of Mr. Dundas. It was quite clear, that sooner or later the slaves in our colonies must become free. But the House must perceive, that the progress of the colonies was so slow as to be imperceptible to all human eyes, save their own; it did appear to him, that they themselves must perceive that they were standing still instead of advancing towards the goal at which it was the wish of that House they should gradually, but certainly arrive. If that was his view of the question, it became his duty, as a member of the legislature, to see that the intentions of that House were carried into effect, not precipitately, but without any unnecessary delay. Whether little had been done or much had been done by our colonists, it was not his intention at that moment to inquire; but it did appear to him, with respect to the colonies generally, that out of twenty heads of regulation and improvement recommended to them, there were no less than nine in which not a single, colony had taken, or even affected to take, a single step. He would take two of our principal colonies —Jamaica and Barbadoes; one having a population of 360,000, and the other a population of 80,000 or 90,000 persons, making in all a population of between 400,000 and 500,000 slaves; and he found that in these extensive colonies not one single step had been taken with respect to sixteen out of twenty heads of regulation proposed to them by the Colonial Department. In looking to what little had been done by the colonies, in obedience to the recommendation of the legislature, it was impossible that that House could, consistently with its own character and dignity, allow a sixth year to elapse, without adopting some effectual means to enforce the salutary regulations they had so fruitlessly recommended to our colonial establishments. That all proper attention should be paid to the protection of private property, he fully admitted: he might, however, be allowed to take one exception, in which, he believed, he differed from his hon. friend (Mr. Bernal); namely, that they ought to take no step for the manumission or relief of the slave, until they had established a perfect scale of remuneration. If they were to lay down such a rule as this, it was impossible that any thing beneficial could ever be carried into effect; it would, in fact, be in such a case impossible ever to abolish the slave-trade. To take a case in point—What scale of remuneration was laid down, when, by the abolition of the slave-trade, some thousand tons of shipping were thrown out of employment? Did any man dream of retarding that great measure, until the merchants and shipowners were protected against any loss to their trade? No such thing: the measure was introduced, and the ships were turned into privateers (a service not far removed from piracy) and sent upon other services, but the country heard nothing of any claims for remuneration. Where a grievance of this crying nature existed, their first duty was to put an end to it; and if it was afterwards found that parties were injured by such a measure, then would come the question of compensation. Why, he asked, not call upon the colonies at once to consider this subject? If they wanted the will, it was as bad in his view as if they wanted the power; and in either case parliament was bound equally to interfere. Let the House do that which they thought right; and when persons could make out that they had been damnified by the measures so adopted, then would come the time for talking of compensation. Let the House remedy any loss which individuals may sustain by their efforts to do justice to the slave-population of our colonies; but let them not refrain from doing justice until they had fixed the manner and amount of that remedy. It was probable, too, that the remedy, if they were to set about fixing it, would be for an imaginary injury; for there were many points upon which it would be wild to talk of compensation. He would take one by way of illustration, and in support of which he was supported by the opinions of the present lord chancellor and several high authorities—he meant the propriety of taking the evidence of slaves in all legal proceedings. This was a reform which might be easily, surely, and safely effected, and which they were, therefore, called upon to effect. But if they did that, who was there to come forward and say that he had a claim to compensation? The same observation would apply to most of the heads of regulation to which he had alluded. He should be most happy to see the colonial legislatures acting as they should do; but if he found such not to be the case, the present might be considered as a notice of his intention to take up the subject soon after the recess.

Ordered to lie on the table.