HC Deb 14 July 1857 vol 146 cc1492-501

rose to move— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to employ all the means in Her power in order to put down the African Slave Trade, and to obtain the execution of the Treaties made for that purpose with other Powers. He said that in doing so he was anxious not to embarrass the action of the Government on this subject, but if possible to strengthen their hands in dealing with other nations upon it, by a cordial expression of opinion on the part of the House of Commons. He was sorry to say that there had been a great increase of the slave trade between Cuba and the coast of Africa. In 1847 the number of slaves imported into Cuba was only 1,000; but in the last two years they had reached 12,000 or 13,000. As an illustration of the suffering of negroes in the course of this trade he might mention the case of a vessel of 150 tons, which was taken a few weeks ago by one of our cruisers, with no fewer than 500 slaves on board. The poor creatures were crammed between decks, where they could neither stand up nor lie down, and such were their sufferings from want of air, water, and food, that 140 perished in a few weeks. As a matter of humanity alone, he thought the House ought to require that this infamous traffic should be put down. But happily in this case humanity and wise policy went hand in hand. The greater was the increase of the slave trade the less would be the opportunities afforded of legitimate trade on the coast of Africa. That commerce promised an extraordinary development. A few years ago there were scarcely any exports from the coast of Africa, but, chiefly from our having maintained a strong squadron there, legitimate traffic had taken deep root, and the exports of palm oil and other matters to all parts of the world were now valued at £3,000,000. But the resources of the country were, in fact, boundless, and promised us a vast supply of gold dust, arrow-root, ivory, timber of all kinds, and many other commodities. The most important feature connected with this trade, however, was the prospect of our getting a large supply of cotton from that coast. It was ascertained only three or four years ago that cotton was to be had there in very considerable quantity and of the same quality as that we got from America. A gentleman interested in the subject had brought to England two intelligent negro lads, who had been trained in all the processes of cotton growing and cleaning, and then sent out to Africa. Agents also had been established for the purpose of holding out inducements to the negroes to engage in this species of industry. The plan pursued was to exchange cotton gins for so much cotton brought in, and in that way one or two hundred cotton gins had been bartered with the natives in the last year, and 10,000Ibs. of cotton had been brought to Manchester and sold at the same price as that imported from America. It, therefore, became us, not only as a Christian country, but as leading the commerce of the world, to foster and encourage this trade, and the best way to do that was to act vigorously in putting an end to the slave trade. Indeed, a sense of our own dignity ought to induce us to take steps for its prevention, for we had been completely bamboozled on the question by Spain. The existing slave trade was carried on in direct violation of our treaties with Spain. In 1820 she pledged herself to abolish the slave trade, but she did nothing till 1835, when the Queen Regent Christina promised to pass a severe penal law against the traffic. Ten years elapsed before that law was enacted, and up to the present day Spain had refused to make the slave trade piracy. There was every possible connivance by Spain at this trade in Cuba, and it was notorious that from the Captain General down to the lowest official, every one of the Government officers in that island participated in the profits of the trade. Even when captured negroes were set free in Cuba they were brought back to slavery; for when they were emancipated by decrees of the Mixed Commission Court, they were handed over to slave owners on payment of certain fees, which were supposed to go to support the charities of Cuba. Spain had cheated us in every way, and done her best to foster this abominable trade. She had induced this country to give her £400,000 as a compensation for suppressing this traffic, and after taking the money she had done all she could to sneak out of her bargain. He could not use stronger language on that point than that used by the noble Lord at the head of the Government, in a despatch to Lord Howden. The noble Lord said:— That for fourteen or fifteen years the engagements entered into by Spain with regard to the slave trade had been violated; that slaves had been allowed to be taken into Cuba; and those violations of treaties and engagements could not and would not have happened to any Government which was determined to prevent them. We need not be embarrassed by any feeling of delicacy towards Spain, or treat her with respect in this matter, for she had shown that she had no respect for herself. He wished to inquire from the noble Lord whether it would not be possible to adopt with regard to Cuba the same course which had been pursued with regard to Brazil. He knew that there were some hon. Gentlemen in that House of such original minds as to think that Brazil had not suppressed her slave trade in consequence of our interference. But how stood the facts? Why, that when the British Government threatened to send our cruisers into the Brazilian waters, for a time the trade was stopped. Afterward it was renewed, and then our cruisers were sent into the Brazilian waters. Upon this the Brazilian Government said that if our cruisers were withdrawn they would put down the trade, and they did so. He (Mr. Buxton) had a lingering faith in cause and effect, and he believed in this case there was a notable instance of cause and effect. He could see no reason why the same course should not be pursued with regard to Cuba which had been so successful with Brazil. The proper way would be, to send our cruisers into the waters of Cuba, and say openly that we would no longer permit this trade, and there was no doubt that it would be suppressed. Except for the purpose of influencing Spain, it was doubtful whether our cruisers would be so effectual in capturing slavers on the waters of Cuba as on the coast of Africa. The number of ports on the coast of Africa in which the slave trade was carried on was much smaller than was generally supposed, while the coast of Cuba was 1,500 miles in extent, much indented with creeks and bays, and the great number of vessels engaged in legitimate trade on that coast would materially interfere with the operations of the cruisers, by rendering it difficult to distinguish, the slaver from the honest merchant ship. Perhaps the best course would be, to make our squadron on the coast of Africa as effective as possible, placing there our swiftest cruisers, and adopting the inshore system of tactics, as had been recommended by naval men, instead of cruising in the open sea. A further suggestion had been made by a high legal authority, who was anxious for the suppression of the slave trade—that, whenever a slaver was taken, instead of allowing the captains and mates to go scot-free, some punishment, either imprisonment or transportation, should be inflicted upon them. To this, no doubt, it might be objected that it might involve us in difficulties with other nations, but this might easily be settled by expressing our perfect readiness to give up these persons to such nations as liked to claim them. It would rarely happen that any nation would wish to obtain possession of such scoundrels. It had been also suggested that the best way to prevent the slave trade would be, to promote the supply of free negroes into our own colonies, so as to enable them to compete with Cuba. Every one who was interested in our West India colo- nies would be glad to see a large supply of negroes if they went there of their own accord. On parts of the coast of Africa, as at the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, where we possessed authority, the Government might encourage the immigration of free negroes, but if any person was to be allowed to go to any part of the coast and get labourers, it would in fact be slave trade and nothing else. The negroes were extremely indisposed to quit their own country, and it was to be doubted, moreover, if their labour would be of much value unless given of their own free will. It was stated that the planters of Martinique had petitioned the Emperor of the French not to allow the importation of free negroes there. He (Mr. Buxton) was of opinion that the attempt of the French to procure free negro labourers would really end in the revival of a slave trade. The negroes would be bought from the King of Dahomey, who would make war on different tribes for the purpose of obtaining them. Indeed, it was stated that, at Abbeokuta, where the cotton-growing experiment of which he had spoken was being tried, they were expecting an invasion from the King of Dahomey, for the purpose of obtaining slaves. What he wished to enforce on the Government as proper to be done on this question by them was, in the first place, to show Spain that, if she could not or would not suppress the Cuban slave trade, we could go into her waters, and do it for her; secondly, to make our squadron on the coast of Africa a more effective one; thirdly, to induce Spain to declare the slave trade to be piracy: and, fourthly, to punish persona taken in the act of carrying on the slave trade; while, if we could also promote the immigration of free negro labourers into our colonies, so much the better; and, if these courses were taken, he believed the result would be the complete suppression of this abominable traffic. It was a common feeling, that it was no use for us to attempt to suppress the iniquities of other nations, and that our endeavours to put down the slave trade had been a failure; but, in point of fact, our success had been splendid. In the beginning of the present century, the slave trade was carried on by Turkey, Denmark, Holland, Portugal, Spain, England, France, the United States, and Central America; now it was suppressed in all of them with the exception of Spain, and there it existed only in the island of Cuba, He thought, therefore, that there had been a remarkable success in the suppression of the trade. Fifty years ago the trade was not discountenanced by public opinion, and a large capital was invested in it, while its opponents were a band of obscure men of the middle class, and yet they had not only induced our own Government to suppress the trade, but also to interfere and induce other nations to do so. Indeed, the policy of England in this question had not only been praiseworthy for the originality of its conception, but for the perseverance with which it had been carried out. No two men now alive had done so much to put an end to this iniquitous traffic as the noble Lord at the head of the Government and the noble Lord the Member for the City of London (Lord J. Russell), and he hoped the House would, by assenting to the Resolution, strengthen the efforts of the Goverement to put down the remnants of this brutal and unchristian commerce.


seconded the Motion.


could not refrain—while rendering his humble support to a Motion which had been so ably brought forward—from reminding the House what had been the predictions of his late lamented friend Lord George Bentinck, consequent upon the withdrawal of protection from our West India colonies. And though he should rejoice to see the noble Lord at the head of the Government adopting the measures pointed out for the suppression of this abominable traffic, still it could not but be denied that all those measures would be more than counterbalanced by the direct encouragement given by England to the production of slave-grown sugar. The consequence of the withdrawal of protection from the West India colonies had been to raise the price of sugar, and the result of that had been that the slave-owners had diverted the labour of their slaves from the production of cotton to the field of diminished produce—the cultivation of sugar. The staple manufacture of England had, therefore, been threatened to a most serious degree. Although he could tender his most cordial support to the Resolution before the House, still he hoped hon. Gentlemen would forgive one who held in mind the unwearied exertions of the late Lord George Bentinck to impress upon the country what must be the certain results of the abandonment of protection in the case of our sugar colonies—if he reminded them that it had been foretold, over and over again, that England would yet have to struggle against an increased disposition to traffic in human beings, without her reaping the advantages so fondly anticipated in the lasting prosperity of the manufacturing districts. Those were matters which it might be too late to remember; but he mentioned them in order the more strenuously to impress upon the Government the necessity of England at once making such exertions for the suppression of this abominable traffic as came within the focus of the policy of the present day.


observed that he could not help thinking that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Buxton) had overlooked the fact that the success of the slave trade was mainly owing to the great value of slave labour to the countries where it was enforced. He believed it to be a fact, that the value of a slave had increased within the last ten years, in the southern states of America, from £100 to £300. It was, perhaps, a very mournful circumstance to mention, nevertheless it was a fact, that while the consumption of cotton had doubled within the last twelve years, the free labour employed in its production had only increased at the rate of 28½ per cent, since 1790. At present four millions of our population were employed, or at least fed, by the cotton manufactures; and of the 1,000,000,000lbs. of the raw material imported every year, 700,000,000lbs. were produced by slave labour, and only 300,000,000lbs. by free; so that there were in this country 2,800,000 persons dependent for their bread upon slave labour. The people of this country were therefore responsible more than any other in the world for the slave trade. No doubt violent means of repression might go a great way to put down the slave trade, but still the chief cause of the trade would remain—that, however, was within their own control. It seemed to him, therefore, that if England were to direct her attention more to the means of substituting free-labour cotton for slave-grown cotton, she would be doing greater things for the suppression of the slave trade than by addressing remonstrances, however just, to the Emperor of the French, or by increasing her squadron on the coast of Africa.


Sir, I cordially agree to the Address which my hon. Friend has proposed. I am sure the House will do the Government the justice to believe that that Address only embodies the feelings and wishes of the Government. No doubt, the adoption of that Address by such an assembly as this will prove to the world how anxious England is for the completion of that work which so long engaged her attention. My hon. Friend has justly remarked that there is perhaps nothing more remarkable in the history of the world than the progress that has been made with respect to the question of the slave trade and slavery, by the exertion of this country throughout, I may say, the whole of Europe. There was a time when the general prejudice of this country ran in favour not merely of the existence of slavery, but of the slave trade. It was a few noble-minded men who originally started that view of the matter which has since prevailed, and who by their persevering exertions and the goodness of their cause won their way, first of all by procuring the abolition of the British slave trade, and next by enlisting the exertions of the British Government to procure from all other countries declarations and treaties for the abolition of the slave trade generally, and ultimately crowned their efforts so far as concerned England by the abolition of slavery itself in this country. Sir, that indeed would be a noble passage in the history of any country, and it would be truly mortifying if the exertions of the country to put an end to this abominable crime were defeated by the bad faith or a want of exertion on the part of a Government which has bound itself by solemn treaties to co-operate with us to the fullest extent in the extinction of the traffic. My hon. Friend has clearly pointed out some of the many advantages which have accrued to this country from the suppression of the slave trade. He has shown the great increase of legitimate commerce that has resulted from the intercourse between this country and the coast of Africa. He has pointed out the enormous increase in the importation of palm oil and other articles, and he has touched upon the trade in that article, of which we stand so much in need, and the importation of which might be greatly increased by a little effort—I mean the article of cotton for our manufactures. When it is remembered that almost the whole population of Western Africa and the people far in the interior are clothed with articles made of cotton, it is manifest that the cotton plant must be well adapted to the soil and climate of that part of the world. It is quite evident, also, that if pains were taken by the capitalists and merchants of England to obtain a supply of cotton from thence, Africa would in a short period become quite as prolific a source of supply as any other part of the globe. Therefore, regarding the matter merely in the light of national interest, and divesting it of those higher considerations which have hitherto governed our conduct, the House will see that the suppression of the slave trade, which is a sine quâ non condition of the development of legitimate traffic in Africa, is well deserving the attention of this country, I regret that the Spanish Government have not been as alive as they ought to have been to the pledges which they gave for the suppression of the slave trade in their dominions. It is quite true they have forgotten too much the money payments we have made to secure their co-operation in that object. At the same time, we know that there are temptations in Cuba which it is very difficult for the Governor, or for any of the other officers there, to resist; and we also know that there has exsisted an apathy on the part of the mother country to fulfil the engagements he has undertaken. When the hon. Gentleman, however, says that we ought to apply the same measures to Spain as to Brazil, he must allow me to point out the difference between the two cases. Brazil had bound itself by a general agreement to put an end to the slave trade; but it refused, when the former treaty expired, to enter into any new treaty which should establish detailed arrangements for executing the general engagement. In that state of things the Government of England acted towards Brazil as it had before done towards Portugal under similar circumstances. A law was passed authorizing the capture of Brazilian slavers, and the adjudication upon those ships, not before a Brazilian Court, but before the Court of Admiralty of this country. But Spain has not refused to enter into treaty engagements. We have a treaty with her by which all Spanish slavers captured by our vessels should be taken before mixed Courts of Commission. Therefore, as long as that treaty remains, unless we can show that there has been a deliberate and positive violation of its stipulations, we have not the same ground of proceeding in regard to Spain as we have towards Brazil. I can only say that I thank my hon. Friend for having elicited from this House what I trust will be an unanimous vote in favour of the Address which he has moved; and I beg to assure him and the House that no efforts shall be wanting on the part of Her Majesty's Government to give full effect to his feelings and wishes.

Motion agreed to. Resolved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to employ all the means in Her power, in order to put down the African Slave Trade, and to obtain the execution of the Treaties made for that purpose with other Powers.