HC Deb 03 July 1857 vol 146 cc885-93

said, that he had given notice to present a petition from British Guiana on the immigration of free labourers, but he had since decided as the better way of calling the attention of the Government to the subject to ask a question of the President of the Board of Trade. At the end of March last a most respectable and influential meeting had been held at George Town, Demerara, to take into consideration the supply of labour for the wants of the colony; that a resolution to petition Parliament on the subject was adopted unanimously at that meeting; and a petition in accordance with that resolution had been forwarded to him with a request that he would present it to the House of Commons. He had readily undertaken that duty, because the petition demanded nothing incompatible with justice; because it uttered no angry complaints as to the effect of the commercial policy of this country upon the colony in question; because it indicated no party or political bias; and because it manifested no feeling of hostility towards any particular Minister. That petition, moreover, stated facts and circumstances in connection with the colony as well as with this country which demanded, in his (Mr. Baring's) opinion, the immediate consideration of Her Majesty's Government, and which claimed the attention and sympathy of the House. It was not necessary for him to refer to the importance to the mother country of the prosperity of the Colonies, especially those colonies which, like the colony in question, produced articles which entered largely into the consumption of the population of this country; nor to discuss the Importance of proving the advantages of free labour over slave labour in the production of these articles. British Guiana comprised an extent of 70,000 square miles, and contained upwards of 50,000,000 of acres of the most fertile land; it had the advantage of an excellent internal communication by means of its large rivers; and it had a great extent of sea coast. Moreover, it was within a month or six weeks' sail of this country; and therefore in a most favourable position for supplying it with produce. Of this immense surface, however, there were only some 60,000 acres under cultivation because of the deficiency of labour, although the soil and climate were calculated to grow cotton as well as sugar, and notwithstanding the cotton from that quarter had obtained a medal at the Great Exhibition. Of the population of 90,000, about one-fourth only could be called labourers, and to these must be added some 20,000 Portuguese and coolies. The practical problem to be solved, therefore, was how labour was to be furnished to a colony so rich in all other advantages without interfering with the obligations due to humanity. Unfortunately, natives of Africa, of India, or of China, were the only persons who could cultivate the soil in the climate of that colony; and the complaint of the petitioners was, that they were hampered in obtaining a supply of labour from these sources by the various and unnecessary restrictions that had been imposed upon the immigration of labourers. He (Mr. Baring) was quite ready to allow that, if it should be found that the effect of emigration to our colonies from Africa led to all those unnatural wars and those acts of barbarity which distinguished the slave trade, we ought not to listen to the suggestion of procuring a supply of labour for the colony of British Guiana from that quarter of the globe. But this was a question which ought not to be neglected, and if emigration from Africa were resorted to in order to furnish the means of labour, in this case it was a source of supply which ought to be watched by the Government. The petitioners prayed that they might be permitted to import emigrants from any part of the globe in which a British Consul resided. If Africa were excluded, what was the case with regard to India? An attempt had been made to procure coolies, but in India there was the greatest restriction imposed upon emigration. Only 350 coolies were allowed to leave in one ship, however large that ship might be; and the Great Eastern, which could convey 10,000 passengers, would be confined to the smaller number, if she sailed from Calcutta. The result of this restriction was, that an inferior class of ships were taken up for the emigration of coolies; and he (Mr. Baring) had been informed that the mortality and disease on board French emigrant ships of a large size, with a greater number of labourers on board, was considerably less than in British ships of a smaller capacity, which the restriction in question brought into the trade, to the exclusion of others better adapted for it in every respect. That was the first clog to the supply of labour for the Colonies. The next was the regula- tion making it compulsory on the Colonies to send back the labourer, at their own expense, when his term of five or ten years had expired. The coolie was not allowed to stay; he was not permitted to take an equivalent in money, but he was obliged to go back, and the colony had to pay the cost of his transport. What the colonists wished was, that the coolie, who, in many cases, had amassed considerable sums of money by the end of his servitude, should be suffered to make his own bargain, for which he was perfectly competent; and they objected to being shackled with these restrictions. The principle that ought to be adopted in this case was the same as had been adopted in commercial matters—that of absolute freedom, so far as was compatible with what was due to humanity. The principle acted upon was, on the contrary, almost prohibition, through the stringent nature of the regulations insisted on, and of these regulations he thought the colonists had a just right to complain. The result was, that, in the seven years, from 1848 to 1854, 22,000 labourers had been imported into the colony, of which 10,000 only were coolies, the remainder being from Madeira and Sierra Leone. These labourers were all in better circumstances in the colony than they could be at home; for they were able sometimes to earn as much as 1s. an hour, but they could constantly obtain from 2s. 6d. to 3s. wages on snort time each day. In 1834 an ordinance was passed by the Indian Government by which, under the plea of preventing hardship to the labourer, the emigration of coolies was virtually suspended; and now there were no longer any means of obtaining labour for British Guiana from India. But then it might be said that China was open to the colonists. But while the Chinese had been flocking to every other colony, and had been carried in British ships to many foreign possessions, they had not been allowed to enter British Guiana. In that colony there had been a virtual prohibition of Chinese labour during the last few years, not on the ground of international policy, nor because the Chinese, as a class, were not industrious and useful labourers, nor because they would not answer the purpose for which they were required, nor because they did not increase the prosperity of the colonies in which they had settled—Singapore and Java for instance—but because they were not accompanied by their wives. It had, however, always been the course of emigration that the males went out first and the females followed after; and it was shown by the condition of the Chinese themselves in Java and in other places of the Eastern Archipelago to which they had migrated. Besides that, marriages in China presented an almost insuperable difficulty in the case of the poorer emigrant, inasmuch as, instead of the father giving a dowry with his daughter, the husband was expected to pay the father for his wife. The real question in the case was, what the Government proposed to do for the purpose of taking steps to obtain labour. It was a question of the greatest importance to the future of the colony; and on its solution depended not only the prosperity of the colony, but also the prosperity of this country, inasmuch as it involved the cheapness or dearness of articles of primary consumption. Moreover, it involved the further problem of how far it could he proved to the world that our Colonies, with free labour alone, were able to compete with the sugar and cotton-growing States of America. In this delicate and complicated matter it was desirable that the Colonies should act in concert with the Government in endeavouring to mitigate the evils complained of, and, in the exercise of his discretion, he should now simply ask the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Colonies whether Her Majesty's Government had adopted any measures to facilitate immigration into British Guiana?


said, he entirely concurred in the opinions of his hon. Friend, that no more important question relating to our colonial policy could possibly engage the attention of the House than that which his hon. Friend had brought forward; nor did he differ from his hon. Friend, in any essential degree, as to the general principles he had enunciated. Important as the subject was at all times, it, was especially so under existing circumstances. The present very high price of sugar was drawing the attention of all the sugar-producing countries of the world to the supply of labour—a matter which lay at the very foundation of their cultivation, and formed the very life-blood of their prosperity. It was, therefore, the duty of the Government, by all lawful means, to provide our Colonies with a proper supply of labour, not only for the sake of the colonists themselves, but because there was no more effectual mode of discouraging slavery and the slave trade than by proving to the world that, under a state of freedom, these articles of general consumption, especially sugar, could be produced with quite as much advantage as under compulsory labour. He had always held that the importation of free labourers to the West Indies should be promoted in every legitimate way; but there were certain conditions for its regulation, to which they ought steadfastly to adhere. Those conditions were, first, that they should take care that the laws of humanity were not violated; that every man who engaged himself as a labourer was a free agent; and that no system of internal slave trade, with all its attendant atrocities, should be fostered in the country from which these persons were brought. Next, their passage across the seas should be so managed as to guard against the recurrence of any of those fearful calamities on board the vessels which formerly excited so much horror among the people of England. The third condition which ought to be enforced was, that when the labourers reached the Colonies, they should be treated with all the humane consideration due to free men, and that, under no system of so-called apprenticeship or contracts, should the institution of slavery, on which he trusted the brand of this country had been indelibly fixed, be in any degree revived. Another condition, scarcely less important than any of the foregoing, was, that in any such plan of immigration, a due proportion between the sexes should be observed, and that a reasonable number of women should be introduced, to avoid the frightful evil inseparable from the carrying of an exclusively male population to any British possession. Under these restrictions, the Government were anxious to encourage emigration to our Colonies, from whatever source that emigration might be derived. The hon. Member talked as if nothing had been done of late years in this matter. But, in fact, an immense emigration, under stringent regulations, had been conducted, in many instances, with signal benefit both to the Colonies and to the emigrants themselves. In the case of the Mauritius, they had a striking exemplification of the possibility of cultivating sugar by free labour, not only at a profit, but at a greater profit than by slave labour. From its proximity to India, the Mauritius had no difficulty in procuring an ample supply of labour, and within the last ten years, as many as 100,000 coolies had been transported thence to that island, and were engaged in the cultivation of its sugar plantations. The result was, an enormous increase in the production of that colony, with a high state of consequent prosperity, which, so far from being purchased at the expense of inhumanity towards these labourers, enabled them to accumulate property, and settle on the island, or, if they returned to their native country, they carried the fruits of their industry with them. There was no pretext whatever for saying that the coolies in the Mauritius were not duly protected and benefited by the system there in operation. He (Mr. Labouchere) could assure his hon. Friend that if our West Indian possessions had not enjoyed the same advantages to an equal degree, that had not been the result of any unnecessary obstruction on the part of the Government, but was owing to their geographical position in relation to the source of the supply of labour not being so favourable as that of the Mauritius. His hon. Friend asked why they confined themselves to India, and did not go to Africa and China. It was due no less to the remarks of so high an authority as his hon. Friend than to the importance of the subject itself, that the House should know that it was on no light or ill-considered grounds that the Government had discouraged emigration to the West Indies from these two countries. The attempt to obtain a supply of labour from Africa had been made in our own possessions, and on the Kroo coast, but without success. The experiments, which had been tried with the greatest care, had entirely failed; and he was satisfied that any extensive efforts to procure negroes would infallibly lead to the fostering of an internal system of slavery in Africa. It might be said, it could do no harm to take the negro away from domestic slavery, and transport him as a free labourer to our Colonies. That might be true if they looked only to the case of the individual negro; but, what would be the result? His place would be immediately filled up by somebody else. This would increase the value of the negro, and speedily cause a revival of all the horrors incident to intestine war, and an internal slave trade. The greatest caution ought to be exercised before they took steps which might lead to such monstrous results. He had been gratified beyond expression by the accounts he had received during the last two years, describing the growth of legitimate traffic on the western coast of Africa. Commerce, peace, civili- zation, and, let him add, Christianity, were spreading in those regions. A recent communication from the Governor of Sierra Leone stated that he had seen fifty canoes coming down the river laden with native produce; and it was remarkable how the exportation of palm oil and other products was increasing. They were, therefore, at length, exercising a substantial influence on the internal condition of Africa, and they ought to have a care how they did anything to destroy this newborn commerce, and to mar such fair prospects. With regard to the importation of labour from China, to which a gentleman from British Guiana had informed him the hopes of that colony were more especially directed, he would admit the Chinese made very useful and industrious labourers; they were hardy, frugal, willing to work, and moreover, did not want to be sent back again; and if they could be induced to go out to British Guiana, and to other parts of the West Indies, they would be valuable auxiliaries to the cultivator. Still, it was most important that the rule requiring that a certain number of women should accompany the male Chinese emigrants should be adhered to. At one time there were no less than 20,000 of those emigrants, and only three women in the colony of Victoria. They were all labourers, and the state of things became so shocking to the moral feelings of the colonists, that they adopted a peculiar plan for keeping Chinese emigrants out of the colony. They imposed a tax of £10 upon every Chinese emigrant that came into it. But that plan failed, because neighbouring colonies did not adopt it, and the emigrants having obtained an entrance into them, contrived by indirect means to pass into the colony of Victoria. The question of inducing Chinese women to follow the men was not, by any means, so simple as his hon. Friend seemed to consider; for Her Majesty's Government had received from Sir John Bowring the strongest remonstrances against any attempt to induce Chinese women, by Government agency, to emigrate from China, because it would infallibly produce a system of fraud and violence of the most reprehensible character. The Government held the whole question to be of such grave importance that they instructed Lord Elgin, on his going out to China, to avail himself of every opportunity of obtaining correct and unprejudiced information on it, and he (Mr. Labouchere) could assure his hon. Friend, on the part of the Government, that if he could see his way to a plan for encouraging Chinese emigration to our Colonies, without introducing evils of the most alarming magnitude, he should rejoice to adopt it. His hon. Friend had said that there were several minute regulations with regard to the coolies, which operated as cheeks to their emigration. He seemed to think that the master of a coolie in one of our colonies was compelled to convey him to his native country. That was not so. All that they were obliged to do was, to give them a back-passage money, which was quite a different thing from expelling them from the colonies. He (Mr. Labouchere) could only say, it appeared to him the time had come when that question might be fairly considered. The coolies were now so much accustomed to West Indian labour, that they could judge for themselves on that point; but it was a point on which the Indian Government felt great difficulty. The state of the question now was this:—He (Mr. Labouchere) had written to the Indian Government, requesting them to give their most serious consideration to the matter, and he inferred from their answer, there was some probability as to their relaxing that rule. They had, however, always attached the greatest importance to it, because they were apprehensive that the coolies might be taken in. They thought it was only fair to the coolies, that after so long a residence as that of ten years in a colony, they should be furnished with the means of returning to their own country. He should be very glad if it should be found possible, consistently with the interests of those poor people, to relax the rule. His hon. Friend had said that, although the French authorities, in permitting the emigration of coolies from Pondicherry, followed a different rule from ours with regard to the tonnage of the vessels, that there was less mortality in the French ships than in the English. That was a startling fact, if true. He could only say, the Emigration Commissioners informed him that that was contrary to their experience, and that the rule laid down by them, of one coolie to a ton, was the proper rule; that it could not be altered without danger, and that it would be against the sanitary regulations which it was thought necessary to observe in this matter, to follow the French rule. That subject was also one of importance, and he had directed strict inquiry to be made on the spot by impartial persons. The Government could have no object in retaining any restrictions, except those which were necessary to secure to the coolies fair and proper treatment in their passage across the ocean. Every suggestion from the Colonies on this subject had received, and would receive, the most attentive consideration from the Government; but the national faith and honour, and the interests of the Colonies themselves in the long run, required that they should not depart from that policy which this country had persevered in for so many years with regard to emigration to the West Indies. His hon. Friend said there was an arbitrary rule as to the number of emigrants to be taken in any vessel. The rule arose from this: that the emigration agents supposed vessels of a moderate size, and not exceeding a certain tonnage, were the most convenient for conducting this emigration, and that if vessels of a larger size were employed, they would he kept too long waiting before they could be filled. This rule, therefore, was adopted for the convenience of the colony itself. If anything could increase the desire of Her Majesty's Government to consult the wishes of the people of British Guiana, it would be the temperate tone of their petition, and the importance of discouraging the horrors of the slave trade in other countries.