HC Deb 29 August 1848 vol 101 cc630-4

I rise to move— That the petition of the Speaker and Members of the House of Assembly of Tobago, [presented 7th August] be printed. There is now before the House a measure for granting a loan to the West India Islands and the Mauritius, for the purpose of promoting immigration and other purposes. I had the honour to present a petition from the Speaker and Assembly of Tobago, in which they complain of partial and oppressive policy on the part of Earl Grey in refusing them any share in any loan that may be granted for the purposes of immigration. I think, therefore, I am not out of place in insisting upon my privilege of bringing forward this question before entering upon the Orders of the Day, one of which is that the House go into Committee to consider the West India Colonies and Mauritius Loan Bill. The colony of Tobago is a small and weak colony; but the petitioners express their hope that, inasmuch as they are totally unrepresented in the British House of Commons, the House will be more disposed to treat them with leniency and liberality. They complained that Earl Grey announced in the despatch which he forwarded in answer to their memorial—both which answer and memorial were appended to the petition, but which you, Sir, decided could not be presented to the House in that form—that he could not consent, on two grounds, to give them a share of the loan. One ground on which the refusal rests, is the allegation that the island of Tobago had not previously contributed to the immigration of free labourers, and that, consequently, the parties have not the same title, in his (Earl Grey's) opinion, to relief as the colonies of Trinidad and British Guiana. But, Sir, these petitioners complain further of Earl Grey, that the principal ground alleged by him for the refusal of any assistance to Tobago is, that they have refused the supplies, an act to which their poverty and not their will, impelled them. The colony of Tobago contains about 13,000 inhabitants, and the expenditure of the island is 11,000l.; and the petitioners, in stating this, add that the value of the produce of the island, in the years 1831, 1832, and, 1833, averaged 183,000l., and that it is now reduced to much less than one-half of that sum, whilst the amount of the taxes and of the expenditure is the same. But as regards free immigration, they say that, though they have not expended any money in the importation of free labourers into the island, they have suffered very much by the competition which has seduced labourers from the smaller to the larger islands. In this way, they say, they have been seriously injured. But Earl Grey sets forth another reason why Tobago should not receive a share of those free labourers that are to be transported from the British West Indies at the expense of the Imperial Government; and it is suggested that those islands should receive those immigrants which offer the highest wages to them. But the colonists of Tobago set forth in their petition that there are other considerations of higher value in their estimation than the mere question of higher or lower wages. They state the great number of places of public worship, and of schools in connection with the Established Church, they have in proportion to the number of the inhabitants of the island, and the high state of social improvement exhibited among the negroes on their plantations; and they further allege that whilst, in 1843, the return of houses of freeholders and of renters of plantations was 712, the number has increased, in 1847, to 1,445; so that the renters and freeholders of houses attached to sugar estates have nearly doubled in the short period of four years—a circumstance affording the greatest proof that could be offered of the high state of the social institutions of Tobago, and giving the planters and proprietors in that island the strongest claim to any assistance in the shape of labour that could be afforded them. They have, too, another claim to equal justice, in this respect, with other colonics, and a claim which I must say I think very hard to answer, namely, that, if it be true that, in proportion to the extent of their lands cultivated, there is a larger population in Tobago than in British Guiana and Trinidad, and that, when slave compensation was given, it was given in proportion to the population of the islands, then the Tobago proprietors were paid at a lower rate than that of British Guiana and Trinidad; and, in common justice, they have now a claim to this extent, that if you are now, in your generosity, going to give to the British possessions in the West Indies the benefit of an importation of labourers, they, the planters of Tobago, should have their just share of that benefit. And, though I cannot speak particularly of the island of Tobago itself, yet I could show this House that the smaller West India islands generally suffer equally with the larger ones by the reduction of the price of their produce. It is an easy matter to get up in Parliament and say, that these smaller islands require no assistance: I think, however, that I have given proof of the way in which these lesser islands suffer by the general reduction of the value of the produce of the West Indies, in the diminished importations of the goods they have been able to make in the last six months of the year 1846, as compared with the first six months of the same year. But there is still another claim which I think Tobago has to the attention of this House. It will be in the recollection of this House and of the country, that Tobago has been made the subject of observation by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, to the effect that this was the island that ought to be cited as a proof of the great prosperity of the British West Indies under the present law, and also as a proof that free labour was cheaper than slave labour. A despatch was written by Major Greene, in the early part of the year 1846, and has been quoted in the course of the present Session as a proof of the great prosperity of the British West Indies, in which it was stated, that whereas it cost 8l. sterling to prepare and open an acre of plantation in Tobago by slave labour, the same was now done with free labour at so little cost as 1l. 19s. 10d. Now, it was stated in the same despatch that Tobago was an island peculiarly favoured, inasmuch as it was out of the reach of hurricanes, and generally free from those risks and hazards to which other islands were liable—indeed, that it was not only without the boundary line of hurricanes, but seldom affected by earthquakes; whilst the rains also were more plentiful there than elsewhere. The despatch also stated that its forests were, unlike those of other colonies, more abounding in singing birds, of beautiful plumage, and more exempt from the monkey tribe. But it did so happen that Tobago was but lately ravaged by one of the most violent hurricanes that ever devastated a country; and this House, in its generosity, has voted a sum of 50,000l. in consequence of that terrific calamity, under which two-thirds of the buildings were razed to the ground, together with a large proportion of the plantations of the island; and Major Greene had to take shelter with his family in a cellar, and from that cellar to write the account of that dire disaster, from the like of which it had been said this island was wholly exempt. I have, then, Sir, thought it only just that, when there is a measure before the House for granting relief to the colonies, attention should be called to the claims of these petitioners, and that there should be some expression of feeling on the part of the British Parliament, in order that the Secretary of State may know that, if he is disposed to visit on this ruined colony his wrath, for that it is not in a condition to furnish the supplies, this House, at all events, will not be indifferent to any such proceeding; and in calling attention to this petition, I would beg to ask, if it is intended that the Secretary of State is to have despotic power to distribute as he thinks fit a loan of half a million granted by the Commons of England; and to be at liberty to visit his wrath on every colony which, either from the ruin your measures have brought upon it, or from scourges inflicted by Providence, should be unable or unwilling to grant supplies to maintain the great expenditure to which these British colonies are exposed on a footing on which such expenditure might have been tolerable when the produce, revenues, and profits of these islands were double what they are now; but which is altogether intolerable now that you have reduced by your legislation the value of their produce below the cost of production. I take leave to ask you whether, if Tobago, small and weak of itself, is to be subject to this ban of the Secretary of State, you propose that Trinidad and British Guiana, which also threaten to stop the supplies, are to be placed on the same footing with Tobago? If so, for what purpose are we voting this grant of 500,000l.? Is it to be swallowed up by some servile colony that never showed any independence, or exercised the right of a free and independent people to stop the supplies when they think they have suffered intolerable grievances? Sir, I know that this petition has been printed already, though smothered up in the Appendix to the Votes; but, as I was requested to bring it more fully under the notice of Parliament, by moving that it be printed as I have proposed, I have thought it my duty to make these few remarks; and I have now only to add that, as I feel I shall have answered the purpose of the Assembly of Tobago by having thus called attention to their petition, I shall not now persevere with the Motion with which I commenced, and which I will now, with the permission of the House, beg to withdraw.

Motion withdrawn.