HC Deb 06 October 1831 vol 8 cc176-84
Mr. Poulett Thomson

said, that in rising to move for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the state of the West-India Colonies, it would not be necessary for him to trespass for more than a very few moments on the attention of the House, in stating very briefly the object of that Committee. Although that Committee would have for its object an inquiry into the cause of the present distress, his Majesty's Government could not propose it with the view presumed by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite, because, if his Majesty's Ministers supposed they could give relief, it would not have been their duty to move for the appointment of this Committee at all, but to have been prepared to offer some specific remedy for the distress. The Ministers, however, had not been able, from the consideration they had given this subject, to suggest any plan by which that relief could be afforded. It would be in the recollection of the House, that at the end of the last Session of Parliament, a Committee was talked of in that House, but, at the request of the West-India body, was not appointed. Ministers felt it their duty to institute an inquiry, and the result of it was communicated to the West-India body, and to this House, but it was not such as to place it in their power to offer any specific measure to the consideration of the House. At that time, at meetings which took place with the West-India body, it was proposed to them on the part of the Government, that they should consent to the appointment of a Committee to take into consideration the general causes of the distress which existed; that proposal was rejected by them, and they distinctly admitted that they did not wish to have any such Committee appointed. At a subsequent period, however, a Committee was moved for by the hon. member for Kirkcudbright, with the view of inquiring into the statement of facts made on the part of the West Indies. On a late occasion, however, it was proposed that a Committee should be appointed for the purpose of taking into consideration the commercial state of the West-India body; no opinion was offered on the part of the West-India body, but it certainly did appear to him to meet with a great deal of favour from several hon. Gentlemen who spoke on the subject, who appeared anxious that that course should be adopted, and it consequently became his duty to give notice of the intention of his Majesty's Government in this respect. It was proposed that this Committee should inquire—if the House would consent to its appointment—simply into the commercial state of the West Indies, keeping entirely distinct from that inquiry, the whole question relating to the political state of the West Indies, and the relation between master and slave. The cause of the distress which existed had been too much noticed, and too fully discussed, to require any further observations now. By making every possible inquiry, they had ascertained one of the causes of that distress, without, however, being able to suggest a remedy. Complaints were constantly made on the part of the West-India body, that no further steps were taken for their relief, and as Ministers could suggest none which would not involve general interests, which they were bound to respect and consider, they came before the House to ask for the appointment of a Committee. This step must necessarily satisfy all parties, inasmuch as it must either go far to prove that the view of Ministers was correct, and that no remedy could be found, or be the means of discovering some hitherto unknown mode of relief, at which no one would more sincerely rejoice than his Majesty's Ministers. He should confine the objects of the Committee, as formerly, to an inquiry into the commercial state of the West Indies, and being quite sure that on the part of those connected with the West-India interest no objection would be made, he hoped that Gentlemen unconnected with the colonies would not throw any difficulties in his way. He begged to move that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the commercial state of the West-India colonies, and to report their observations and opinion thereupon to the House.

Mr. Goulburn

said, this discussion was one of great moment, and the consequences to which it might lead were of great importance; and, though he felt most anxious in respect of the subject before the House, he was so fatigued, both in body and mind, as to be utterly unable to enter into the question. He could not, however, conceal his surprise at the circumstance of the right hon. Gentleman having thought it right, after repeated postponements, evening after evening, to bring forward, at that hour of the night, a question which, whatever might be its results to the interests of a large body of this country, must deeply and materially affect their comforts and feelings, In the first instance, they had been called upon to decide a measure with respect to the sugar-refiners. Great doubts were entertained by several parties interested as to the working of that measure, and he should have stated some doubts of that description, if he could have found an opportunity of presenting to the House a petition with which he had been intrusted by a most respectable body of merchants in the great and important town of Liverpool; other subjects, however, which had occupied the attention of the House had prevented him from doing so. But would this Committee be efficient to answer the purposes for which it was intended? It would not; because the delay that would be occasioned by such an inquiry would be so great, that it would be impossible to take any measure for some time after that Committee had been appointed. He would not say what motives had actuated the right hon. Gentleman opposite, in refusing the appointment of a Committee when it was applied for, and might have been effective. It was said, that his Majesty's Government were willing to grant an inquiry into the commercial state of the West-India colonies. Could any man believe, that at this period of the Session there could be time to effect an adjustment between two contending interests to make any useful inquiry into the general state of the commercial interests of the West-India colonies, or to adopt any measure for their relief? The right hon. Gentleman could not suppose it possible; he must know, that before that Committee could have before it the evidence on which it would be necessary to make up its mind, the period would arrive at which the House would have adjourned. The Committee would have met once or twice; and that would have been the only progress made in the inquiry into West-Indian affairs. This Motion was either an absolute delusion, or Government must have some object in view in adopting this course of proceeding. The right hon. Gentleman said, that if he were prepared to suggest a mode of relief, he would not now ask for the appointment of a Committee. Very likely not; but he did not come down to that House to move for a Committee of this kind, unprepared with a general view of the course which the inquiry was to take, and what was, in his opinion, likely to be the result of it. On a motion like this, they had a right to hear some grounds of justification, and a general view of the case. Whatever might be the views of the right hon. Gentleman, this would be considered by all parties interested as a gross delusion, and as a mode of getting rid, for the moment, of the troublesome and embarrassing questions attending an investigation of the case of this suffering part of the community, who would now add to all those feelings of mental anxiety to which the commercial part of this country must be exposed, the greater disappointment to find, that instead of a fair and honest compliance upon points in which they were deeply interested, the House was about to proceed in this way, without inquiry, and upon party interests. He would oppose any motion that his Majesty's Government might think necessary for the relief of this portion of the community, brought forward at that hour of the morning.

Mr. Keith Douglas

wished to state, that the opposition he made was grounded on this fact—that the subject had not been fully argued with regard to the causes of the distress under which the West-India interests laboured. No man who had looked into this subject with any degree of attention, could fail to be conscious of the difficulties under which those interests laboured. What he proposed to do was this—when that House resolved itself into a Committee—to move certain resolutions indicative of the state of distress which existed. He could not refrain from saying, that a subject of this importance ought not to be brought forward at a time like this, when every indication had been given of an approaching termination of the Session; and when, in point of fact, it would seem as if this inquiry were to be instituted by Government, without any serious intention of applying a remedy. It was true there were great difficulties in this case, and there might be every disposition to meet them fairly and honestly. It was extremely difficult for the former Government to bring forward this question, and so it was for the present; not so much in respect of removing the distress, as in removing those party feelings which interposed and mixed themselves up with the question. The late Government were disposed to accede to a proposition that was made to them to refer to the House of Lords the question of the whole state of society in the West Indies, in order that the public might be informed of the real situation of these colonies—information which might have the effect of doing away with a great deal of the existing feeling on the subject. The matter had been postponed by his Majesty's Government from time to time; but he would put it to the hon. Gentleman, whether, if he really wished to improve the condition of these interests, the Government had not better allow the question to come before the House of Lords, where unfair prejudices might, by investigation, be removed, and this House be placed in a situation to meet fairly the commercial difficulties that attended the question?

Lord Althorp

said, the hon. Gentleman assumed, that because they were anxious to proceed with this subject to-night, therefore the Session was near a close. He hoped it was not. But even supposing the hon. Gentleman to be right, his experience of the business of Parliament must convince him of the advantage which would arise from the appointment of this Committee. Therefore, in proposing it, and pressing it upon the adoption of the House that night, they were not guilty of the delusion which the honurable Gentleman attributed to them. Every body must admit the distress of the West-India colonies. The hon. Gentleman said, that the reason why they had not proposed a remedy was, because they were actuated by party feeling. Such an accusation ought not to come from the other side of the House. When he proposed this Committee he did so with the most sincere views of doing good.

Mr. Irving

said, that supposing this Committee to be appointed, its proceedings could not, by possibility, give rise to any benefit to the colonies this year. He agreed, however, with the noble Lord, that its inquiries might ultimately prove advantageous; and therefore, in opposition to many hon. Members on that side of the House, with whom he had usually acted, he should give his vote for the appointment of this Committee.

Mr. Burge

could not be a party to the final adjustment of this question at such an hour as the present. If the noble Lord was right in his supposition that, the Session would yet continue for some time, where was the necessity of pressing for the appointment of this Committee at such an hour as three o'clock in the morning. He begged to move that the Debate be adjourned till the next day.

Mr. Bernal

regretted extremely the light in which his hon. and learned friend viewed the proposition for the appointment of this Committee. He regretted also, that an incidental discussion of this kind should have arisen upon the question, because it was calculated to convey any other than a favourable impression to the minds of the parties interested. He could not perceive the policy of resisting the present proposition of the Government, although he certainly agreed with those who thought that the best means of eliciting the causes of the West-India distress, would be by a Committee appointed by the House of Lords, because a Committee selected from that body would investigate the subject with greater calmness and temper than could possibly be expected from any body of Members selected from that Mouse, However, as information upon the subject was necessary, and as a means of acquiring it was now offered, the West-India colonies would not entertain a very favourable opinion of the sincerity of that House to remedy the evils under which they were suffering, if that, offer were rejected. He would not inquire whether the Committee was likely to sit for a month or for much longer; but he saw no earthly reason why the question of its appointment should be postponed. As for discussion, he himself could speak for five hours upon the question, and many others could do the same; but this was quite unnecessary. As to the assertion that the members of the Government had this night deliberately stood up in their places to submit a proposition for the purpose of deluding such great interests as those of the West. Indies, he would refute it as unfounded, and as utterly unworthy of those who had advanced it. Knowing his noble friend, in pressing for the appointment of this Committee to be actuated by no other than an honest sincerity of purpose, he trusted that the hon. and learned Gentleman would withdraw his Motion for the adjournment of the Debate.

Mr. Hume

did not understand his hon. and learned friend to object to the Motion for the appointment of the Committee, but merely to its being brought forward at this hour of the night. He wished to know whether it was intended that this Committee should take into its consideration the propriety of sending out certain Orders in Council to the West-India colonies? What he complained of was, that the Government, by their interference, instead of doing those colonies any good, were, in point of fact, bringing about their ruin; therefore, he wished to know, whether certain Orders in Council, which his Majesty's Government had in contemplation to issue, would be delayed until the appointment of this Committee? As to the noble Lord's sincerity, he did not doubt it for a moment; he believed him to be as anxious as any man living to relieve the distresses of the colonies.

Mr. Courtenay

supported the motion of the hon. and learned member for Eye, for the adjournment of this Debate; at the same time, he perfectly agreed with the hon. member for Bramber in the propriety of appointing the Committee which the right hon. Gentleman had moved for, even if this Session should very soon terminate. His reason for supporting the Motion of his hon. and learned friend behind him, was, that in all his experience he never know a Committee of that House, appointed without previous debate, which did not fail of attaining the object for which it was appointed. This was the result of the experience of many year; therefore, without the slightest hostility to the noble Lord, or to the Motion which the right hon. Gentleman had submitted, he concurred in the propriety of postponing the further consideration of the subject till next day.

Mr. Burge

vindicated himself from a charge which he thought extremely unjust— namely, that, in proposing the adjournment of the Debate upon this question, he was not acting with fairness towards the Government. He never accused the noble Lord of delusion; but understanding that it was his intention to bring forward this Motion to-night, he had intimated to him the inconvenience of doing so, in consequence of the absence of many who were anxious to make some observations upon it. He did not object to the appointment of the Committee, but to the Motion being pressed forward at that late hour.

Lord Althorp

said, that when he thought of the appointment of this Committee, it undoubtedly did not occur to him, as a desireable course, that they should previously have a long debate on the affairs of the West Indies. All that could be advanced in such a debate would be much better reserved for the consideration of the Committee, by whom it would be treated with greater calmness and temper. It was upon that ground that he postponed the Motion for the appointment of the Committee till that evening; it was upon that ground that he persevered in the Motion now. In answer to the question which was put by the hon. member for Middlesex, he would state, that it certainly was not his intention to enter into the question between master and slave in this Committee. That was a separate question, and demanded a separate consideration. Therefore, as the Order in Council to which the hon. Gentleman had alluded, applied principally to that question, it ought not to come under the consideration of this Committee.

Sir Charles Forbes

, as a friend to the West-India interests, could only say, that he should be grad to see this Committee appointed. It would be a pity that any means of inquiry, particularly when offered by the Government, should be resisted.

Mr. Ewart

expressed his full concurrence in the propriety of the Motion for the appointment of this Committee. It was highly desirable that an inquiry should take place.

Mr. Irving

asked the noble Lord, whether it was the intention of his Majesty's Government to send out to the West Indies the Order in Council which had been lately prepared, either now or in the course of some short time? He asked, because he was convinced that, whenever it might be sent, the colonies would not submit to it.

Lord Howick

thought this no convenient time to discuss an Order in Council which had not yet been prepared. It was the intention of Government, with the shortest possible delay, to pass that Order in Council, with such alterations and improvements as might seem necessary, and then to recommend it to the adoption of the colonies.

Mr. Hume

said, if the Government were anxious to excite a civil war between the colonies and the mother country, they could not do better than adopt this Order in Council. He had not seen one individual connected with the West Indies who did not protest against such an Order being sent out. With respect to the question more immediately before the House, in his opinion it was most improper to press so important a matter forward after three o'clock in the morning. He joined with those, therefore, who wished to postpone the further debate upon the question.

Mr. Burge

said, if he had abstained from entering into the question of thi Order in Council, it was not because he was insensible to its importance, and to its impropriety, but because he thought that the present was not the most convenient opportunity for discussing it. His only object in rising now was, to withdraw his Motion for the adjournment of the Debate upon the question of the appointment of the Committee proposed by the noble Lord. His sole object in doing so was to prevent the possibility of its being supposed that he would stand in the way of any inquiry being made into the state of the West Indies.

Amendment withdrawn.—Main Question agreed to, and Select Committee appointed.