HC Deb 07 June 1852 vol 122 cc101-6

On Order of the Day for bringing up the Report of Committee of Supply,


seeing the right hon. the Secretary for the Colonies in his place, begged his attention to some observations he felt compelled to make on a subject in which he was personally and deeply interested, and which personal considerations—as not being a supporter of the present Government he was anxious not to do anything that would wear the appearance of unkindness or ill-will—had induced him hitherto to refrain from pressing. But really affairs in Jamaica were now looking so awfully ruinous, and prospects so mournfully distressing, that he, as a West India proprietor, did not know what to do. He held in his hand a letter from his agent, dated the 13th of May, relating to the distress existing in that island, in consequence of the deficient supply of labour, the results of which he would beg leave shortly to state to the House. He would not enter into any topics of party difference, nor any disputed grounds of policy, but would address himself simply to this one point—that point which was of the greatest magnitude to the Colonies—the want of labour and of men. The successive and calamitous dispensations of Providence—the ravages of the cholera last year, and of the small-pox this year, bade fair to deprive the colonists of the legitimate stock of labour to which they were entitled. He did not like to allude to this subject, or to matters of personal consideration; but, knowing the circumstances, he thought it better, by the statement of a few facts within his own knowledge, to confirm the truth of the representations which he felt it his duty to press on the consideration of the House, and the consideration, the efficient consideration, of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Last year he was himself deprived, on his property in the north of the island of Jamaica, of 120 labourers out of the stock he had, by the cholera. That number actually perished by that dreadful visitation; and they were, as his agent informed him, the most efficient labourers in the district—and again this year the labourers were quite decimated by the small-pox, and his agent was now obliged to look on 14 or 15 bands as the whole supply of adult labour for the estate, the remainder being made up of children from 9 to 14 years of age, who were much more expensive and far less effective; and the agent added, in his communication, that he was now training up a gang of children which, with a few coolies, was all he had to depend upon for the future supply of labour; but he was consoled in some measure for being compelled to have recourse to the labour of children by the consideration that they were being trained up to habits of useful industry. Such was the state of things now going on, not only in his (Mr. Bernal's) immediate district in the north, but in all other parts of the island, and in others of the colonies; and unless they had some strong auxiliary support—he did not mean in the way of money—but by way of some efficient and ready remedial measures from the Home Government for the supply of labour, he could not see what help Jamaica had to look for, or from whence assistance was to be obtained in this her most calamitous and unfortunate situation; and he dared not shut his eyes to the possible issue—the risk and the danger that threatened. He wished not to cast the slightest disloyal tincture into his observations, but he did feel that the situation of our West Indian Islands was such that unless some remedy were introduced, a crisis was imminent. He made no charge against the present Ministry, as being the cause of the evils with which these colonies were afflicted; but the last and the previous Ministries he did accuse of great neglect in not foreseeing what must happen from the policy they adopted, and providing the necessary precautions for guarding against those very evils which had resulted. Either our Colonies were of use to us, or they were not; and if not, there should still be some feeling of kindly relationship for "auld langsyne" which should induce us to pay attention to the horrible complaints which reached this country from the West Indies by every monthly packet. He was not saying one word about the price of labour; they all knew that labour in Jamaica was excessively dear, and the fact he would state would show it: his agent informed him that he had paid since the 31st of January to the 13th of May, 1,000l. for farm labour on his (Mr. Bernal's) account, without taking into account salaries, ordinary agricultural expenses, and taxes. It was evident such a state of things could not last. He was quite aware, and they must all be aware, that there must be a halt soon; and, condensing his observations into the smallest compass, and without wishing to tinge them with one angry word, he would now ask his right hon. Friend whether he was prepared, on the part of the Government, to consider or initiate measures, or whether he felt himself in a condition to accept or confirm, or to combine in any efforts that might be thought of by others, for assisting the Island of Jamaica and our other colonies similarly situated, by providing for them an immediate and sufficient supply of labour?


I was not in the least aware of the intention of my hon. Friend to make these observations upon this painful and deeply interesting subject. If I had known that he intended to call the attention of the House to the subject, I would have made myself better prepared with regard to details than I can possibly be under these circumstances—and would have made my answer more satisfactory. The subject being brought forward in an unexpected manner, I think my hon. Friend will feel that all I can do is to meet his observations by a general answer. But I must assure him, and assure the House, that I do not think there is any man in this House more painfully alive than I am to this distressed and exhausted condition of these colonies. My hon. Friend, I am sure, will not fail to recollect that this is a subject to which I had given attention long before I came into office; and my attention has been painfully kept alive by the representations I have constantly received since I have been in office; and at a very recent date I have had interviews with a body of delegates, gentlemen whom my hon. Friend well knows, who are now in this country in order to represent the state particularly of Jamaica; and both from those gentlemen and from private persons, owners of estates, I have constantly received the most painful representations of the distress existing in Jamaica, with explanation also of the particular causes of that distress to which my hon. Friend has adverted. So far as the dreadful ravages of the cholera and the present difficulties arising from smallpox are concerned, I am sure he will admit that these are visitations of Providence, and that as such, while they excite our sympathy and make us more anxious to afford relief if we can, they do not in any way touch the legislation or the policy of this country. But I have never shrunk from stating my opinion that, irrespective of these visitations of Providence, the great distress of our West India Colonies must be traced in a large degree to the policy that was adopted by this country in 1846. When we first came into office, it became, of course, a grave question for the consideration of the Government whe- ther, under the peculiar circumstances of the present Session, we were justified in addressing ourselves to the consideration of that policy. My hon. Friend will remember, that on one of the very first days—I believe on the first day on which we took our seats in this House as a Government—it became my duty to explain the intentions of Her Majesty's Ministers; and that I then said that upon a careful consideration of the whole subject, we did not think we should be justified, under the peculiar circumstances of this Session, and looking to the position of the Government, in making the state of the West Indian Colonies, painful and bad as it is, an exception from the general rule which we bad laid down for our conduct. But, though the alteration of the sugar duties, either by checking the descent of the foreign duty, or by lowering the duty upon colonial produce, is one subject which has of course been strongly pressed upon the consideration of Her Majesty's Ministers, and is a question to which we must hereafter address our serious consideration, my hon. Friend is aware that that is by no means the only remedy which has been pointed out, and he has himself in his observations this morning adverted to other subjects, which may be well taken into consideration. I hope, as far as I am concerned, my hon. Friend will bear in mind the overwhelming duties I have had to discharge. During the period that I have been in office, there have been the extraordinary state of affairs at the Cape of Good Hope, which necessarily engrosses a large portion of my attention—the Government and Constitution of New Zealand—the unprecedented addition to the labours of the Colonial Office, caused by the discoveries of gold in Australia—the question of railways in the North American Provinces; and, considering all this accumulation of heavy duties, I hope my hon. Friend will not think that I have been negligent or at all forgetful of the interest I have ever expressed in West Indian affairs, if up to this moment I have not been able to take any active steps upon the subject. To show him that I am not forgetful of the state of these colonies, I beg to say that three or four days ago I communicated with one of the senior clerks in the West Indian department of the Colonial Office, and told him that as soon as ever the immediate pressure of colonial business should be relaxed—as soon as I might have more leisure than the present state of business in this House affords me—I wished him to prepare all the necessary papers, that I might, without loss of time, direct my attention to two important subjects—the supply of labour, and the present state of the labour laws in these colonies. I have given directions already to have all the necessary information in preparation for me upon those two subjects; so that, whatever may be the ultimate policy of the Government with regard to the sugar duties, at all events I as Secretary of State for the Colonies, may not lose a day beyond what I can possibly avoid in directing my anxious attention to the question whether I may be able to afford to those Colonies any relief upon these two subjects.

Report brought up:—Resolutions reported.

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