HC Deb 19 March 1845 vol 78 cc1151-4
Mr. Aldam

said, he wished to ask the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Treasury, a question upon a subject of great interest to this country. It appeared that the President of the United States, in addressing the Representatives in Congress respecting the conduct of the British Government, said,— The slaves, when captured, instead of being returned back to their homes, are transferred to her Colonial possessions in the West Indies, and made the means of swelling the amount of their products by a system of apprenticeship for a term of years; and the officers and crew who capture the vessel receive, on the whole number of slaves, so many pounds sterling per capita by way of bounty. It must be obvious that, while these large interests are enlisted in favour of its continuance, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to suppress the nefarious traffic, and that its results would be in effect but a continuance of the Slave Trade of another and more cruel form; for it can be a matter of little difference with the African whether he is torn from his country and transported to the West Indies, as a slave, in the regular course of the trade, or captured by a cruiser, transported to the same place, and made to perform the same labour under the name of an apprentice, which is at present the practical operation of the policy adopted. He wished to know whether President Tyler had been correctly informed when he made those statements, and whether the condition of these captured negroes was no better than that of slaves?

Sir R. Peel

was glad that the hon. Gentleman had given him notice of his intention to ask this important question. He thought that it was to be regretted that the President of the United States of America should send a formal message to Congress on the subject of negroes, who were removed from a state of slavery to freedom, and who had been captured, at great expense to this country, without first ascertaining what was their real condition in the British Colonies. He must also say, that if the President of the United States should think fit to appoint a Commission for the purpose of going to the British West Indian Colonies, and investigating into the condition of the liberated negroes, and of examining whether they were in the state described in his message, so far from there being any objection, every facility would be afforded on the part of the British Government in assisting the Commission to carry on its inquiries, so that the Commissioners might present to their own country a true picture of the condition of the captured and liberated negroes in the English West Indian Colonies. The first passage from the message of the President read by the hon. Gentleman was,— The slaves, when captured, instead of being returned to their homes, are transported to the English Colonial possessions in the West Indies, and made the means of swelling the amount of their products by a system of apprenticeship for a term of years, and that the stale of the apprentice was nearly the same as that of the slave, for he was equally denied the exercise of his free will. Now, it was well known that the state of apprenticeship had been altogether abolished in the West Indies, and no negro who had been captured, and liberated, and sent there, was now, or ever had been, made to serve for a time as an apprentice. He was perfectly free when he landed, and was entitled to all the rights of freedom. But he must be permitted to state what was the course pursued by the British Goverment with regard to the negroes captured by our cruisers. If the slave ship was captured on the coast of Africa, the negroes were generally taken to Sierra Leone, and they were at perfect liberty to determine whether they would remain there or go to the English Colonies in the West Indies. They were also at liberty to determine whether they would return to the districts of which they were natives; in short, there was not the slightest restraint on their movements. There was a Treaty with Spain, in which were stipulations concerning captured Spanish slave ships. By this Treaty it was agreed that the slaves so captured were to be sent to Africa and delivered up free to the countries to which they belonged. This country had a vessel at the Havannah, on board of which the negroes were in the first instance placed who were captured in the neighbourhood of Cuba. Every individual slave was not sent to Africa, as that would be impossible. Some were sent to the West Indian Colonies, but there was no compulsion whatever as to their going thither, nor were they compelled to perform any particular description of labour. No doubt they might enter into contracts as to their own labour, but this was entirely voluntary on their parts. So much for the continuance of slavery in a much worse form. He, however, could understand what occasioned the mistake of President Tyler. By the act abolishing slavery in the British Colonies it was enacted that they should remain in the condition of apprentices for a certain period before they were declared free; and by the Treaty with Spain, in 1835, it was declared that the captured negroes sent to the British Colonies should be put on the same footing as the negro population in them. But in 1836, the apprenticeship system was put an end to in our Colonics, and, consequently, these liberated negroes could not be placed in that situation. In addition to this, there was a Treaty entered into with Brazils in 1827 on the subject of captured negroes. By this Treaty it was provided that captured slaves should be given up to the country to which the slave ship belonged, from whence they were to be conveyed to the country to which the slaves belonged. There was a difference between the Treaties on this subject which this country had made with Brazils and Portugal. By the former it was declared that the captured slaves should become freemen. The Brazilians, however, notwithstanding the stipulations of the Treaty, did not allow their liberated negroes to remain in a state of freedom, but kept them in slavery. In consequence of repeated proofs of this it was signified to the Brazilian Government that for the future the slaves captured should not be given up, if security was not given that they should be in a state of freedom, as the English Government declared that they should not be given up to a state of slavery. Since that time a vessel had been kept at Rio for the reception of captured slaves taken off the coast of Brazil; and more recently they had been removed and kept in some of our West Indian possessions in a state of freedom. He confessed that he was surprised that there should be a message of this kind sent by the President of the United States to the Congress of that country, which was so entirely groundless, and the want of foundation of which could be so readily found out by the slightest inquiry. As to the other part of the message—namely, that subjects of the United States and Great Britain were engaged in carrying on this detestable traffic, it was a very serious matter for consideration. He did not deny the fact, and he would only observe, that if the law could reach the owners of British capital embarked in the Slave Trade, every exertion should be made to enforce it to the utmost.