HC Deb 16 August 1848 vol 101 cc175-81

On the Motion that the Speaker do leave the chair, to go into Committee of Supply,


moved— That, from the Correspondence laid upon the table of this House in reference to the suppression of the Slave Trade in Mussulman Countries, it appears that Her Majesty's Servants have adopted proceedings calculated to aggravate the horrors of the Traffic, and to alienate from this Country the good-will of the Governments and Nations so interfered with. In introducing this Motion, he would state to the House that there was a very essential difference between slavery in the East and slavery in the West; and, taking the contrast presented by the two systems of slavery into consideration, it would be seen that a very gross abuse had been introduced into that House, and had been sanctioned by it. He knew the feelings and habits of Eastern countries, and he could appreciate the offensive character of our intervention, The case which he had to submit was, that a Government of this country had attempted to interfere with the slave trade in a manner which was opposed to the laws and customs of other lands. The Government had gone the length of threatening with confiscation the property of those countries who pursued that trade, and it had even stated that the abolition of the slave trade was the interest of Islamism. There had been a communication sent from the Anti-Slave Trade Society to the representative of Great Britain in Turkey on this subject; and upon that communication, the Ambassador sent a letter stating that since that House was about to sanction this interference, he might mention some circumstances with reference to the opinions of the principal persons in Turkey on the subject. The consideration with which slaves were treated in Turkey was so great, and the num- ber of slaves so large, that universal confusion would necessarily follow any attempt to change the general system; and Lord Ponsonby further added, that he feared that the attempt to abolish slavery might give offence, if urged forward with importunity. He (Mr. Urquhart) thought that if ever philanthropy, in its wildest crusade, could have met with a rebuff which would destroy its illusions, it would be in the reply of Lord Ponsonby. The philanthropy of this country was not to be arrested by reason, nor its folly by argument; and, consequently, these attempts were persevered in. They were at first confined to representations of the evils of the slave trade, and a request that some of its abuses might be modified. So far as these negotiations went, he should abstain from entering upon them, or their success; but he would state that the Turkish Government made no concession; and, in reply to the noble Lord, it stated that it could not give way, as it considered the slave trade perfectly legal. The expression of Lord Cowley, in his letter of December 17, 1847, distinctly conveyed that in the opinion of the Turkish Government this trade was quite legal; and further informed the Government that no obstruction whatever was placed by the Turkish Government in the way of that trade. With regard to Persia, it would be found, from despatches sent to Lord Palmerston, that the Shah of Persia awaited the result of the application made to the Porte before taking any decided step in the matter. In the first despatch it would be seen that the English Government rested its application upon the condition that the Turkish Government should accede to their request in the first instance; and in the next despatch, the representative of England in Turkey informed the noble Lord that he founded his hopes of obtaining some concession from the Shah upon the consent of the Turkish Government to the request made by the British Government. In an enclosure in the same despatch there was a document from the Minister of the country to our representative, discussing the question upon its merits, and stating that the slave trade was not so much a matter affecting our law as our religion. The reply of our representative expressed a distinct threat, by stating that, if the Persian ships proceeded to the coast of Africa to engage in this trade, they would suffer loss; clearly referring to the risk of confiscation by the English Government. The course which had been pursued prostituted our diplomacy to the purposes of an unreasonable fanaticism, and to an endeavour to force upon others opinions which we entertained contrary to their customs and belief. He then came to a further portion of the correspondence. In an enclosure of a despatch of 1847, they would find what was called a pledge, on the part of the Persian Government, to follow the decision of Turkey. On reference to the document, however, it would be found that the agent of the British Government merely felt himself warranted in stating that the example of the Porte would be followed by the Shah. The question, however, took a very different shape. The remonstrance addressed by the British Government against slavery was presented to a slave—for the Foreign Minister of Turkey was himself a slave—and with what ear could he listen to such a remonstrance? Why, in the East the punishment reserved for slaves was that of manumission. That was of course incomprehensible to us, with our ideas of Christianity and civilisation; but in the countries of the East slavery was a condition limited and defined by law, in which the duties of religion were prescribed and observed, and the persons subjected to the redemption from the power and protection of their masters were considered to suffer the greatest misfortune and reproach. In Turkey and Persia no one sold a slave without a character of reproach attaching to him; but this did not interfere with the legality of the condition of slavery. The noble Viscount's instructions on this head had led to a tedious, useless, and undignified correspondence between the British Ambassador in Persia and the Persian Government, full of inconsistencies and contradictions, in which the most extraordinary assertions were made. The British Minister declared to the Government of the Shah that Turkey had come to an agreement to abolish the slave trade—a statement which was quite without foundation. It was an indubitable fact that the intervention of England on the coasts of Arabia and Persia to put down the slave trade would be impossible, unless we chose to carry there another African squadron. The policy of the Government in that part of the world had only been to rouse the hostility of the people of those countries, who were strongly attached to the institution of slavery. And for those and other causes he had named, he now asked the House to affirm the pro- position which he begged to submit to the House.


The hon. Member has stated that he and I differ very widely on questions of foreign policy. You are very well aware we do, and never were we more completely at issue than, as is evident from his speech of this evening, we are upon the present question. It is quite clear, from the speech of the hon. Member, that whether because of a peculiarity in his natural disposition, or owing to habitual associations with a long residence in Eastern countries, that the hon. Member is quite enamoured with the institution of domestic slavery. Now, here there is an inexorable difference between him and me. I own I have a great, an unmitigable detestation of all slavery whatsoever, whetner that of the domestic slave or the field labourer; and while I admit that the constitution of that bondage to which the domestic slave is subjected differs from that which the field slave has to endure, I nevertheless maintain that the crimes and the horrors which are perpetrated in bringing both the one and the other into the market, are in each case exactly the same. Therefore, although the considerations of humanity which urge us to prevent domestic slavery may not be quite as numerous as those which impel us to discourage the other description of bondage, there is in point of fact as strong a motive of benevolence in the one case as in the other. The hon. Member disapproves of the course of policy we have adopted with reference to the suppression of the slave trade in the Eastern countries. I am surprised that, in speaking of lands in which he passed, as he has often given us to understand, so many pleasant hours, nay, days and years, he did not think fit to include them in the category of cultivated nations. Yet, so it is. After his long and close intimacy with them, the hon. Member regards them and speaks of them as mere and absolute barbarians. With reference to the spirit of the addresses which have been adopted by Parliament with respect to the slave trade, I regret that I cannot agree with the hon. Member. Neither can I agree with him in his interpretation of the general wish of the English people on the subject of slavery. It is my impression that that wish is adverse to slavery. I think it is almost universally so; but, nevertheless, there may be, and, indeed, I now find that there is, an exception. To endeavour to persuade all nations, as well Mahometan as Christian, to put an end to slavery, has long been a cherished object with the British Government. The first country to which we addressed ourselves in the furtherance of that object was Tunis, and we were successful. The Bey of Tunis agreed with the English Government not only to abolish the slave trade, but to put an end to the "institution" of slavery altogether. There we gained a triumph, which the hon. Member has proved to demonstration to have been wholly impossible in a Mahometan country, for the Bey of Tunis has by law acknowledged the extinction of slavery. We next addressed ourselves to the Sultan. At first we apprehended that it was not at all likely that we should succeed in our efforts to induce him to restrain and prevent the traffic in slaves amongst his subjects; but we were agreeably deceived, for after long and painful endeavours, we did at length succeed in inducing him to issue a firman prohibiting the slave trade in the eastern seas. The next Mussulman potentate to whom we applied was the Imaum of Muscat, under whose authority the slave trade was conducted at sea in a manner peculiarly barbarous and revolting, which led to a lavish sacrifice of human life. With that prince also we have been to some extent successful, for he, too, has issued firmans preventing his subjects, with certain limits, from trafficking in the slave trade. We then addressed ourselves to the Arab chiefs in the Persian Gulf and the neighbouring coasts, and with them we made treaties, by which they engaged themselves not to carry on the slave trade. We then went to Persia. The hon. Member read long extracts from the correspondence which passed on this subject between the Governments of England and of Persia. I cannot say that I at all regret his having made such copious extracts from the despatches of Colonel Sheil; for that officer has uniformly discharged his duties in the most exemplary manner; and I am sure that the more his despatches become known, the greater the credit they will reflect upon him. Colonel Sheil laboured long, and with great assiduity, to persuade the Persian Government to follow the example of the Sultan of Turkey, the Imaum of Muscat, and the Arab chiefs, by taking effective measures to prevent the subjects of the Shah from carrying on the slave trade. The hon. Member roundly asserts that there was no promise to that effect on the part of the Persian Government; but I take leave to say that there was such a promise, and Colonel Sheil has not ceased to claim the faithful performance of it. The hon. Member has carried the history of the transactions between us and the Persians to that point at which he says that there is no alternative but that the Persian Government will accept the quarrel which he says we have prepared for them, and throw themselves into the arms of Russia, rather than comply with our request. The hon. Member has built up the turris excelsœ tabulœ, and he would have it that debent esse altiores. He argues at very great length, and with very great labour, that it is impossible that Persia can make any arrangement with England for the suppression of the slave trade. Nevertheless, she has done so. Had the hon. Member taken the pains to consult the documents which were laid before the Slave Trade Committee, he would have seen there a communication, by which it is intimated that since the close of the correspondence from which he has quoted, the Shah has issued a firman to prevent his subjects from carrying on the slave trade. I will content myself with these statements, which I think satisfactorily prove that we have taken measures to provide against the calamity with which the hon. Member has threatened us. With regard to what the hon. Member has said as to the operations against Herat and the Affghan expedition, I think it only necessary to remind the House that we have the admission of the hon. Member himself that our policy in that case was quite defensible, inasmuch as that the Persian expedition against Herat was in point of fact an attack upon our Indian possessions. I am happy to have the acknowledgment of the hon. Member that we were right in our views of the danger which then impended, and that consequently we were justified in the course which we adopted upon that occasion. With these observations I will leave the Motion in the hands of the House.


observed, that during the last fourteen years the English Government had been instrumental in greatly aggravating the sufferings of from 80,000 to 100,000 human beings. These poor creatures had, by our laws, been made to endure great torture by reason of the overcrowding of ships, and want of water. He feared, moreover, that he should be justified in asserting that there were no two persons in the empire who had done more to increase the slave trade than the noble Lord at the head of the Ministry and the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, by advocating the admission of slave-grown sugar.

Amendment negatived.