HC Deb 06 July 1837 vol 38 cc1822-31

The Order of the Day having been moved for the House to resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House on the Slave Treaties Bill,

Sir R. Inglis

said, he felt he should not perform his duty were he not to take that opportunity of calling the attention of the House to the state of the slave trade in some countries with which we had entered into treaties. He alluded in the first place, and more particularly, to Brazil, and in regard to the state of the slave trade in that country, he had received information on authority so unexceptionable, that he thought he should not abuse the time of the House by laying a statement of the facts before it. On the 5th of July last year, the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Foreign Department, Stated in his place in that House, that he thought England would have just ground of complaint against Portugal for non-fulfilment of treaties, if there were no rational prospect of obtaining from that country ampler means for putting an end to the slave trade carried on under her flag, "because Great Britain had paid to Portugal a very large sum, on a distinct understanding, that the slave trade should be terminated in all parts of her dominions." It might be objected, that this had no reference to Brazil; but he held, that Portugal was bound, not only to abolish the slave trade in her own dominions, but to lend her aid to England in putting an end to the traffic in slaves everywhere. By the convention of 1815 it was declared unlawful for Portugal to continue the trade in slaves, except so far as regarded the supply of slaves to some portions of her transatlantic possessions, and by that convention a period was thereafter to be fixed at which the trade in slaves should altogether cease. But notwithstanding the agreements into which Portugal then entered, the slave trade was still carried on to a considerable extent under the Portuguese flag; and that, too, under such circumstances, that it was not attempted to be said, that the traffic was continued for the purpose of supplying the transatlantic possessions of Portugal with slaves. In the first instance, as a justification of himself for occupying, even for a short space of time, the attention of the House at this period of the Session, he (Sir R. Inglis) would read the particulars of sundry vessels which under the Portuguese flag arrived in ballast at Rio Janeiro in the month of December, 1836, after having landed cargoes of slaves on other parts of the coast of the Brazils. He had a list of the names of those vessels, and his wish was to call upon the noble Lord opposite (Lord Palmerston) to state, as far as the noble Lord could, consistently with the public service, what course it was his intention to recommend to her Majesty to pursue in the matter. In the list before him of vessels which had entered Rio Janeiro, in December 1836, he found that one vessel had embarked 400 slaves, seventy-five of whom died on the passage, and the remaining 325 were landed at St. Sebastian; another vessel had landed 284 slaves within a few leagues from Rio Janeiro; and another, the Minerva, landed 370 slaves. There were several others with which he would not trouble the House. One only he would mention, viz.—a brig from Mozambique, it appeared, had embarked 800 slaves, and of these 300 died on the passage. Now, he would ask the House whether, if this statement were borne out by facts, it did not justify this country in taking such measures as would compel the powers which were parties to the slave treaties to fulfil the engagements contracted by them. It was right, perhaps, that he should state, that although this trade was carried on under the Portuguese flag, the real owners of the vessels engaged in it were Brazilian subjects, or residents there subject to the Brazilian laws, and who were therefore amenable to the provisions of the existing conventions as to the slave trade in the Brazils. Whether, therefore, the House looked to the capital employed, or to the flag which covered it, it would be seen that Portugal and Brazil alike violated their obligations to England. The next return to which he should allude was a return of the same character as that from which he had already read extracts, and it was the particulars of the vessels engaged in the slave trade under the Portuguese flag which arrived at Rio Janeiro in the month of January, 1837. Of this he should only read one part, which stated, that a brig embarked 855 slaves, that of those 283 died or were thrown overboard alive during the voyage. [Captain Pechell: The name of the vessel?] The name was the Leao, from Quilinane. She had embarked 855 slaves. The small-pox having appeared, thirty were thrown overboard alive, and the measles having carried off 253 more, she landed the remaining 572 slaves upon the Brazilian coast. He conceived that these two facts alone were sufficient to show the extent of cruelty inflicted, and sufferings endured, under the flag of a nation which had solemnly declared, that the slave trade should no longer be carried on in that quarter, and by the means of the subjects of a power which had as solemnly entered into a similar compact with this country that the slave trade should not be carried on any where by her people. The hon. and gallant Officer opposite, who had inquired the name of the vessel to which he had last adverted, must know, if not from his own professional friends, at all events from documents which were already before Parliament, that the great difficulty in the way of preventing the traffic arose from the clause in the convention of 1815, by which the flag of Portugal was permitted to cover the slave trade, in so far as the supply of the transatlantic possessions of Portugal were concerned. As long as that exception continued, it would be impossible for the noble Lord opposite, even by the exercise of all the powers with which he was invested, to prevent that trade being carried on in other quarters also. He trusted, therefore, that the noble Lord would be enabled to state, that her Majesty's Government had been, and still were engaged, in endeavouring to induce the Crown of Portugal, and the Crown of the Brazils to concur with him in the total abolition of the trade, even for the supply of their own transatlantic possessions. He (Sir R. Inglis) had also a document, in the accuracy of which he placed the most implicit reliance, before him, which stated, that no less than 103 vessels had cleared out from the port of Rio de Janeiro alone from the coast of Africa in the year 1836. Now those 103 vessels were capable of bringing back at least 50,000 slaves. If the noble Lord opposite, or any hon. Member, doubted the accuracy of these details, he held in his hand a document which proved almost to a legal certainty the nature of the traffic in which these vessels were engaged. That document was a return of the nature and character of the goods exported from Rio Janeiro to the coast of Africa in the course of the last year, and from that one port alone it appeared there had been exported 5,819 packages of gunpowder, 530 cases of guns, 2,176 pipes of rum, 130 pipes of wine, seventy-five boxes of wine, 3,192 barrels of gin, with several thousand empty casks. Now could any man doubt that the first of these articles were designed as articles of barter by which the slaves were to be purchased, and that the last (the empty casks) were intended to convey sufficient water for the outward voyage. Unfortunately the state of public opinion on this subject in the Brazils differed from the state of public opinion in this country, and in fact he learned, with deep regret, that petitions had been addressed to the Brazilian Chambers by the people, praying for the repeal of the Act of 1821—an Act passed for the prevention of the slave trade, except for the supply of the colonies, and even in the present year the budget had been brought forward without any vote for the support of the usual force formerly maintained by the Brazils for the prevention of slave traffic. This showed, that the Brazilian authorities at least colluded with those engaged in the trade. He must also state, that goods to the amount in value of 500,000l. were annually exported from Rio alone, destined for the coast of Africa, and that the amount of the lawful returns on those exports was little more than one-tenth of that amount, leaving the balance to be used as the means of bartering for human beings. This trade was carried on, too, upon British capital, because the goods exported to Africa from Rio were bought at a credit of six months from British merchants resident in the Brazils. By the effects of this traffic alone the depreciation in the exchanges between Rio and London had been nearly twenty per cent, in the last year. He had also received information, that in Pernambuco a joint-stock company had been formed for the purpose of carrying on this trade, and he had also been furnished with the names of officers in the Brazilian navy who were actually now engaged in the slave trade. All these documents and returns had been communicated to him from the Brazils, and he had tested them by viva voce information. He had reason to think that similar communications had been made to the noble Lord; and his own motive in bringing the subject before the House was chiefly to elicit from the noble Lord a declaration of the course, which, the facts being admitted, he intended to pursue upon it. For himself, he must say, that, apart from all considerations of the crime itself, of its demoralizing effects upon America, of its prejudicial effects upon commerce — apart on the one hand, from all sordid considerations of pounds, shillings, and pence; apart, on the other hand, from the higher considerations of religion and humanity, upon which he should himself desire to rest the case, he thought that the honour of the nation, and the faith of treaties, combined to furnish a sufficient justification to him for the course which he was taking, even at this late period of the Session, in bringing the question before the House. He would say nothing which should give a political character to the discussion; but he hoped that he might without offence observe, that the interest which her Majesty's Government took in the affairs of the Peninsula, entitled them to interfere with great influence in this matter. He, therefore, indulged the hope that the noble Lord opposite would feel himself called upon now to state to the House and to the country, that the treaty between this country and Portugal with reference to the slave trade, which, from the clause of exception, was at present almost worse than useless, should be made really sufficient for its professed purpose, by declaring that such trade was piracy; and that the convention with Brazil, which purported to abolish the traffic, but which, under all the circumstances stated by him, was at present a dead letter, should be carried into full and complete force and effect.

Viscount Palmerston

assured the hon. Baronet that he only did justice to him and to every Member of her Majesty's Government in believing that they fully shared those sentiments of indignation which he had expressed at the extent to which the traffic in slaves still continued under the flag of Portugal; and he could further assure the hon. Baronet that he only did them justice in believing that no effort had been spared on the part of the British Government to induce the government of Portugal to accede to stipulations which should put it not in their power, but in the power of Great Britain, to prevent the continuance of this disgraceful trade. The hon. Baronet must be aware that the British Government had been in negotiation with the government of Por- tugal for two or three years for the purpose of inducing the latter to agree to a new treaty, which should arm the British Government with the same powers of search, seizure, and condemnation, with which it had been armed by the government of Spain under the late treaty which had been concluded with that country. Such a treaty was very nearly concluded with the Portuguese government in the month of September last, but the circumstances which then took place in Portugal, and the unsettled state of the government of that country from that period to the present had interrupted the negotiation, and prevented its being brought to a conclusion. It was, however, only due to the Portuguese government to state, that they had, in the course of the present year, done that which no preceding government of Portugal could be brought to do; although they had not concluded a treaty with Great Britain upon the subject, they had, nevertheless, passed a law of their own, abolishing the slave trade, and making it highly penal in their dominions. But the hon. Baronet had stated only what was perfectly true when he said, that even supposing the governments of Portugal and Brazil to be as sincere as Great Britain was in a desire to suppress the trade, so far from being supported by public opinion in either of those two countries or by the obedience of the local authorities, on whom the execution of the law must chiefly depend, they were, on every occasion, thwarted and opposed by great private interests, and also by the indisposition of their own authorities to carry into execution the laws and stipulations which they might make. He was not, however, without hopes that her Majesty's Government would obtain from the Portuguese government such stipulations as would enable Great Britain to put down the slave trade under the Portuguese flag in the same way as it was prevented under the Spanish flag. He used the word "Portuguese flag," because, as the hon. Baronet opposite had correctly stated, the great amount of crime perpetrated under the Portuguese flag was not committed for the benefit of Portugal herself or of Portuguese individuals, but for the benefit of Spanish and Brazilian slave traders, and of the slave traders of other countries, who were permitted by the local authorities in the Portuguese colonies to prostitute the Portuguese flag and use it as a cover for their infamous trade. He admitted that nothing could exceed the horrors of that traffic. He would state one fact which had come to his knowledge. A ship had been taken coming out of Sierra Leone under the Portuguese flag, and they found on board from 300 to 400 negroes stowed between two decks, the interval between which was not more than two feet and a half. The House would judge what must have been the sufferings of those persons, confined in so small a space in so hot a climate. With regard to the stipulations with Portugal, he had claimed the power to seize and condemn all their ships south of the line trading in slaves: he had claimed the consent of the Portuguese government to the seizure by English men-of-war of all ships found fitted up for the slave trade; which were to be liable to condemnation, though no slaves should be found on board (a stipulation which had been agreed to by Spain): he also wanted its consent to a stipulation that ships seized and condemned should not be sold as now, and then again brought into the slave trade, but should be broken up and sold as old timber. With regard to the Brazils, these two last stipulations were wanting in the treaty which at present existed; but the Brazilian government, two years ago, by articles agreed to them. However, as the power to ratify these articles was not vested in the government but in the Chambers, the latter were not favourable to the proposition, and in consequence the government had not been able to obtain a ratification of those articles. He was happy to say that her Majesty's Government continued to receive the acquiescence of several foreign powers in their endeavours to put an end to the slave trade in all parts of the world. They had obtained the accession of the government of the Hanse Towns and the government of Tuscany, they were at present in negotiation for the same purpose with Naples, and he was in great hopes of shortly obtaining a treaty, with the same views, with Mexico. He could assure the hon. Baronet he felt thankful to him for affording him (Lord Palmerston) an opportunity of stating thus much upon this important and interesting subject, and of showing him that the Government were anxious to carry out those views which did him honour, and in which every person in this country concurred. He was in sanguine expectation of being in. possession before the meeting of the new Parliament of several other treaties of accession.

Mr. Goring

wished to know whether any steam-vessels had been sent by the Government to the coast of Africa, for the suppression of the slave trade? He was satisfied that all efforts on the part of the Government would be vain, unless aided by other powers, and he hoped that any ship taken in the trade would not only be broken up, but that the persons employed in them would be hanged at the yard-arm.

Colonel Thompson

said, he happened to be a living governor of Sierra Leone, rather a rare species he believed on earth, and therefore could not well avoid confirming the opinion of the hon. Member who last sat down, that steam-boats at the mouths of the rivers would be the effectual instrument for putting down the slave trade on the coast of Africa. He had likewise no objection to the other instrument which had been recommended by the same hon. Member, the yard-arm, whenever arrangements could be made for administering it by due course of law; for he was convinced that on treating the slave-trade as piracy by European nations, depended the chance of ultimate suppression. It was seventeen years since he had had the honour of negotiating, under the orders of Sir William Keir Grant in the Persian Gulf, the first treaty or public act in which the slave-trade was written down by its proper name of piracy. This act took place in January, 1820, and had been public law in the countries concerned ever since. An act to the same effect was issued by America in the same year; but he had had the honour of comparing dates with Mr. Rush, the American minister, and Mr. Rush told him the American act took place in May; so that the British was actually the prior, though, from the difference in the modes of communication, the American act was known in England first. It might be acceptable to many that heard him to be made acquainted with these facts. But the use he wanted to make of them now was, to give additional stimulus to the Government to go on, and above all things not to expose themselves to the charge of stopping the small flies in their net, and letting the great ones through.

Mr. Hume

wished to press upon Government the necessity of adopting the employment of steam-vessels on the coast of Africa, for the purpose of preventing the carrying on the slave trade. He thought if an inquiry was instituted on the subject of the slave trade now carried on in different parts, there would be found to be a more revolting mass of evidence brought forward than that produced in the time of Mr. Wilberforce. The fact was, that the course pursued by this country had driven the slave-trade into those parts where the greatest inhumanity was exercised.

Mr. Charles Wood

would state that a steamer had been employed on the coast of Africa, but had not answered the expectations that had been formed; the fact was, that the difficulty arose, not from the want of cruisers on the coast of Africa, but from the want of power to seize vessels unless slaves were on board. Whatever had not been done with respect to the prevention of the carrying on of the slave trade, arose not from a want of prudence on the part of the Government, but from the want of treaties with other powers, which should give to the British cruisers a more extensive power of search and seizure.

Dr. Bowring

said, that not one word had passed in the progress of the debate which any friend of the abolition of the slave trade could listen to without interest and gratification. It was indeed a subject of congratulation that one great question of humanity at least had reached that safe position in which all parties from all sides of the House were lending a willing aid for its future progress. It was a proud thing to England to witness this unanimity. He wished it to spread to another great nation. The conduct of the United States in this matter was distressing to her best friends. Would it be believed that under her republican auspices the slave trade was introduced into the province of Texas, from which it had been excluded by the Mexican authorities she had transplanted. Not only did she make no difficulty in admitting to her union new states in which slavery had long existed, but by her instrumentality slavery was forced into countries where it had been wholly extirpated. He hoped that the feelings of England would be communicated officially as far as it could be done with propriety, to the American government: at all events those feelings would not fail to reach the American people.

The Bill went through Committee.

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