HC Deb 22 May 1857 vol 145 cc748-53

On the Motion "That Mr. Speaker do leave the Chair for the House to go into Committee of Supply,"


said, that various treaties had been made by the noble Viscount (Viscount Palmerston), when at the head of the Foriegn Office, to abolish the slave trade, and large sums of money paid for the purpose, and he was astonished beyond expression at seeing what had happened since the noble Viscount had left the department of which he had been so conspicuous an ornament. The noble Viscount had succeeded in dissuading Brazil from countenancing the traffic, and Brazil now treated the slave trade as piracy. It was impossible to doubt that the Emperor of the Brazils was honest and sincere in his desire to put down the slave trade, and Brazil was doing her best to co-operate with us. There was now no further occasion for ships to watch the Brazilian coast, and they might safely be withdrawn and brought to a coast where the slave trade flourished more than ever. In 1853, Mr. Hume obtained a Committee to see what foreign countries had fulfilled or neglected the treaties on this subject. The Report of that Committee was drawn up with great moderation. The Spanish authorities passed a decree to enforce the registration of slaves. The British Government had been deceived by this proceeding, and had relaxed their efforts to suppress this vile traffic. The class of vessels employed on the coast of Cuba was not adapted to that service; they ought to be of light draught, whereas they were vessels drawing from sixteen to nineteen feet of water, and were almost entirely useless. Moreover, the ships were not numerous enough, many of the vessls that ought to be employed on the coast are sent away to other stations. The blue book published on this subject last year showed that the Government were chargeable with laxity or some other quality in not compelling Spain to put down the slave trade with Cuba. The correspondence sent by the Commissary Judge of Havannah to Lord Clarendon, proved that large numbers of slaves were imported into Cuba, and that the system of registration was not honestly carried out. The owners of slaves were actually furnished with register tickets by the Cuban officials, to be ready when the next cargo of slaves arrived, so that the additional number on the estate were thereby provided for. The law of registration not being rigorously enforced, the traffic went on as before, unchecked. Mr. Crawford, Commissary Judge, wrote in July, 1855, that only one case of capture came before the mixed court during the previous six months. In January, 1856 again he wrote that no case had been brought before that tribunal during the last half-year, and yet thirteen days later they had the same authority stating that the slave traffic was carried on with more than ordinary activity. In 1855, 4,806 slaves were actually landed in Cuba, of which number the Spanish authorities captured only 125. The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to various returns for the purpose of proving that no real effort had been made to suppress the slave trade in those seas, and that the vessels which ought to be engaged in looking out for slavers were employed in some West Indian port or other. The feeling of the inhabitants of Jamaica on this subject was shown on a late occasion in that island. A meeting was held in February last, the Bishop of Kingston in the chair, for the purpose of petitioning both Houses of Parliament to direct that immediate and effective steps should be taken to suppress the slave traffic in accordance with the existing treaties. They had adopted resolutions stating the constant violation of the treaties on the coast of Cuba, and calling on the Government to insist upon their proper observance. Last year he had suggested that some of the gun-boats which had been made use of during the war should be stationed on the coast of Cuba, and he had understood the noble Viscount to promise that this should be done. To his great surprise the First Lord of the Admiralty had since stated that these boats would be a great deal too hot for the crew in that climate. Surely, however, proper vessels could be found of a light draught for the purpose required, and the Jamaica people were so impressed with the desirability of employing some sort of boat of this description that they had, in anticipation of their arrival, chalked out the very points at which they ought to be stationed; and if it was necessary to show the advantage of small vessels being employed, the case of the slaver captured by the boat of the Arab afford satisfactory proof that by such means these vessels can easily be seized. In dealing with the suppression of the slave trade there were difficulties to be encountered not merely with the Captain General of Cuba, but with the population of the island generally. Difficulties also arose from the fact of the ship-owners of the United States acting in complicity with the slave dealers in fitting out vessels for that trade and the use of the American flag. We ought either to compel the Government of Spain to observe the treaties which had been entered into, or withdraw our ships altogether. He thought if our Government made arrangements with the Court of Madrid to establish depôts of boats along the coast of Cuba it would be most effectual for putting down this traffic.


I give the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Sir G. Pechell) every credit for his untiring efforts to effect the suppression of the slave trade, which he directs more especially to Cuba. I cannot, however, support his opinion, that gun-boats are adapted for that service. They afford no accommodation for officers and men, and would inevitably lead to a greater sacrifice of life in a climate where the heat by day and the dew by night debilitate the strongest frame, and dispose it to the most malignant fevers. I therefore must warn the First Lord of the Admiralty not to accede to that, proposition; but, in the employment of vessels upon that service, duly to regard the accommodation so absolutely essential to the preservation of the lives of officers and men. The circuit of the coast line of the Island, I may mention, extends 2,000 miles, and is hardly accessible for at least one-third that extent, owing to the prevalence of reefs and shoals, except to vessels of a light draught of water; and without the employment of a very large force it would be impossible to form any efficient blockade of the coast. In 1823 I was in command of a frigate off the coast of Cuba, for the purpose of putting down piracy, and preventing the landing of slaves. I found my ship, from her draught of water, unfit for the service, and I was reluctantly compelled to employ boats, the orders under which I acted being to the effect that I was not to value life in the attempt, the atrocities committed by the pirates having arrived at so deplorable a state as to necessitate their extirpation at all cost. Being unwilling to employ officers and men on a duty I would not undertake myself, I went in command of the boats, and I was fortunately successful as regarded the pirates, but not with regard to the landing of slaves. The coast so abounding, as I have remarked, with creeks and inlets that, without a considerable force, it is impossible to suppress the slave trade in Cuba. I was employed for many weeks in the execution of this service, having with me from fifty to sixty officers and men. I searched from four to five hundred miles of the coast on the north side of the Island, and on my return to Jamaica my health was so broken as to oblige me to resign the command of my ship, by invaliding; many of my men did the same, and a fever breaking out in the frigate, led to the loss of several lives. No doubt the cause of humanity impelled us to take steps for the suppression of the slave trade, abhorrent as it was to every feeling heart, and a burning disgrace to our common Christianity; but still we should have some consideration for the lives of our brave officers and men, and not needlessly expose them. I confess I see no method of accomplishing the object in view other than to adopt the course which the noble Lord at the head of the Government had so successfully pursued with the Government of Brazil, to use his influence with the Crown and Government of Spain to come forward themselves, and put down the obnoxious traffic. They could do it with greater advantage; for they had men inured to the climate, and possessed full information on the subject. It is a circumstance deeply to be deplored, that after the earnest and unrivalled endeavours of this country to suppress slavery, that after the sacrifice of hundreds of officers and men, and the expenditure of untold wealth, to a great extent it is still carried on, with inhumanity revolting, and almost incredible, but for facts known universally.


said, that the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Sir George Pechell) had been more suc- cessful in pointing out the difficulties which beset our efforts for the suppression of the slave trade than in suggesting how they might be got over. No doubt many vessels were sent out from America which were sold or transferred, and then employed in this traffic; so that the difficulty of knowing the slavers from the genuine American merchantmen, which we could not touch, was very much increased. As to the suggestion that we should establish a series of coastguard stations round the coast of Cuba, if the Spanish Government would allow us to do that, they might just as well suppress the slave trade themselves, which they could do with the greatest ease. He was afraid, however, that the whole people of Cuba, from the Governor General downwards, were bent on favouring this traffic, from which they thought that they gained such great advantage. He was of opinion that the most effectual means of putting down the traffic, at present in our power, was by increasing the African squadron. The Government had considered the proposal to send out gun-boats, but English sailors could not stand the unusual heat and unhealthiness of the climate, added to the heat from the steam-engines and furnaces.


said, he did not consider it wise policy to keep our seamen employed on that coast. If we sent out any force at all to suppress the slave trade, it should be a large force; but he was opposed to sending out any force, because he believed it was sacrificing valuable lives with no result.


said, he wished to know whether Her Majesty's Ministers had of late addressed any representations to the Spanish Government, for the purpose of putting a stop to the traffic in slaves in Cuba? It would appear that the slave trade was at present more extensively carried on than ever in that quarter, as was shown by an account recently published in the public papers as to the enormous profits gained upon the cargoes of slaves. A captain engaged in the traffic, whose vessel had been seized, was reported to have said that, though he had lost £6,000 by the seizure, yet he stood to gain £32,000, had he succeeded in running the cargo. Perhaps the noble Lord at the head of the Government would afford some explanation with respect to the present state of the negotiations between the Ministers of this country and of Spain in reference to that subject.


said, that his noble Friend the Secretary for Foreign Affairs had very recently renewed the representations which we had so repeatedly made to the Government of Spain with respect to the state of the slave trade along the coast of Cuba. The Spanish Government had invariably given the most satisfactory answers to those representations, and had issued orders for the exercise of increased vigilance for the prevention of that traffic, but had at the same time invariably expressed doubts of the truth of the accounts which the British Government had received, and had forwarded to them. The fact was, that it was very difficult to act through a Government at Madrid on a Government at Cuba, which Government, he was afraid, was swayed by arguments usually very powerful with those colonial authorities. He could, however, assure his hon. Friend that, as far as diplomatic representations could go, no efforts were wanting on the part of Her Majesty's Ministers to induce the Spanish Government to take real and effectual steps for the suppression of the slave trade in Cuba.