HC Deb 26 February 1864 vol 173 cc1191-9

, in asking, pursuant to notice, Whether Her Majesty's Government intended to carry into execution the provisions of the treaty with the United States for the suppression of the slave trade, by stationing cruisers off the coast of Cuba, said, it was with great diffidence he ventured again to bring this subject before the House, as he felt he might lay himself open to the charge of occupying the time of hon. Members with an obsolete and unpractical subject. He was well aware that of late years many circumstances had combined to modify the strong feeling which formerly prevailed in the House and the country upon the subject of slavery. Information had, however, reached him which he thought justified the course he was about to take, and he would be very brief. He felt, moreover, however various might be the opinions which prevailed on the subject of involuntary servitude, there could be but one upon the slave trade. No English voice would be raised in its defence, and no Englishman would now deem it anything but a most detestable crime, whether they contemplated the misery inflicted upon the unhappy captives torn suddenly from their peaceful homes with every circumstance of atrocity, or upon their families, if any were left, who had escaped the torch and weapons of the manstealer; or whether, taking a wider view, they reflected that the testimony of all travellers, from Bruce and Mungo Park to his distinguished friend Captain Speke, united in condemning the slave trade as the greatest bar to the civilization and improvement of the tribes even far in the interior of the great African continent. But to come home to ourselves, there surely must be many who saw with apprehension how dependent we were upon this broken reed, and how sorely we might some day suffer from so unsatisfactory a position. He would explain his meaning in a few words. Thirty years ago the people of England, awakened to the evils of slavery, emancipated the negroes in their colonies at the cost of an enormous sum of money and of a social revolution from which few of those colonies had yet recovered. That was, in the eyes of the world, a remarkable sacrifice of expediency to principle. Some years later the increase of manufacturing industry in the midland counties gave an immense impetus to the growth of cotton. The internal slave trade peopled the cotton fields of the south, and the slave States of America obtained the monopoly of supply. We were now lamenting the consequences. A few years later we opened our ports to slave grown sugar. The African slave trade revived with all its atrocities, and the production of free labour languished throughout the world. We now depended upon slavery not only for two-fifths of our supply, but for nearly half the vast revenue derived from sugar. Should an insurrection break out in Cuba—and four years ago such an event would have seemed far more probable than the disruption of the United States—we might have cause to regret a change of policy which, in the eyes of many in this country, and still more out of it, seemed a remarkable sacrifice of principle to expediency. He had long felt the anomaly and danger of depending for so large a portion of our revenue upon a source which we condemned and were doing our best to destroy. There was now a race between our own colonies and Cuba. British Guiana, in a recent memorial to the Colonial Office, one of the best written and most temperate documents that ever came from a colony, stated, that with n, steady supply of immigrants she could compete with slavery, but not with the slave trade. The House knew how we had striven year after year, at considerable expense, and the sacrifice of many valuable lives, to put down this abominable traffic, and how we had been baffled by other nations allowing their flags to shelter it. One of the most promising changes in this respect had been the Treaty of 1862, under which the United States conceded the right of search in case of suspicion of slave trading. It was supposed that, this point gained, our difficulties would vanish, and that a few fast steamers off the coast of Cuba, where they were so efficient before (till recalled, owing to difficulties which had been removed by this treaty), would entirely put an end to the slave trade. What, then, had been the result? How did we stand in 1864? That was the information he sought from Her Majesty's Government, as the papers which had been presented to Parliament left them in a state of complete uncertainty. We were now advanced some little way into the present year, yet these interesting documents (Slave Trade Correspondence A and B) did not carry us beyond 1862; and it was most extraordinary and unfortunate that, on three important points, they broke off at the most critical moment, leaving us in the tantalizing case of the readers of sensation novels in monthly parts, with this difference, that our curiosity could not be satisfied till, at the earliest, the lapse of another year. What, then, did these papers tell us, and what did they leave untold? They told us that the trade to Cuba was as brisk as ever. That, although less than 12,000 slaves had, been reported as landed during the year, yet that so many new estates had been established in remote districts that vast numbers of slaves had been smuggled on to the keys or small rocky islets with which the coast of Cuba was fringed, whence they were removed a few at a time in country boats, so that it was impossible to say how many had been imported. They informed us that slaves were so valuable, that on one occasion the owners could afford to pay no less than £12,000 as hush money to Spanish officials for a cargo of 490. These papers mention, that the vigilance of Spanish cruisers had diminished in consequence of the sailors having been kept out of their prize money by the authorities. We learnt from them that the horrors of the middle passage had not diminished, when we read that there was a slaver captured by Her Majesty's ship Antelope, measuring from 85 to 90 tons, having 558 slaves on board, besides her crew, or seven persons to a ton, with a slave deck only thirty inches high, and insufficient food and water for the voyage of 50 days to Cuba. We had the usual passages of arms, or rather of sharp writing, between the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office and the Spanish authorities, which were very cre- ditable to the acuteness of both parties, but did not materially advance the question. We found, however—that this was most important—that in May 24, 1862, the noble Lord communicated the American Treaty to the French Government, and suggested that a similar right of search might be conceded by France. He (Mr. Cave) looked most anxiously for the reply. It was not given in the papers, but on the 31st of December, the last day to which the papers extended, he found a complaint to Lord Cowley, that a steamer with French colours had just left the coast of Africa with 1,000 slaves. In June the same year he found a similar proposal to the Sultan of Zanzibar. Again, he found no notice of the result. But, at any rate, Her Majesty's Government must have taken advantage themselves of that treaty with the United States which was to remove all our difficulties. At least, so he thought when he found Lord Russell, on the 11th of September, 1862, not brooking the tedious delay of the post or even of a courier, telegraphing to Sir John Crampton at Madrid, that Her Majesty's Government were going to send men-of-war to cruise off Cuba, and instructing him to propose to the Spanish Government that these cruisers should have liberty to anchor off any part of the coast. He looked carefully for the reply, but was still entirely in the dark, as far as those papers went, whether the required permission was given or, indeed, whether the cruisers were sent at all. This, then, was the point at which these papers left us more than a year ago. What had been done since? He feared nothing had been done. A recent memorial from Jamaica complained that the trade was being carried on in full vigour. A naval officer of the station wrote last month from Port Royal in the following terms:— The past year has been one in which much might have been done to suppress the slave trade, as our treaty with the United States regarding the right of search was ratified early in 1863. Notwithstanding the principal objection was removed by that treaty, no advantage has yet been taken of it, and the cruisers have been so few in number and tied down by such rules, that the blockade of the coast of Cuba has not even been one which could be put on paper. As I now write, there is not a single vessel on the Cuban coast from this division, and I am certain that those in the Bahamas do not come down, except to get a stock of cigars now and then at Havannah. In fact, their duties are too arduous at Nassau in looking after British interests, and preventing attacks from Federal ships of war. We have at anchor to-day the gunboats Cygnet, Steady, Landrail; sloops Peterel, and Barracouta; corvettes Jason and Challenger, and flagship Nile. If the commanders were allowed their own discretion in cruising off Cuba they would pay for information, which is easily obtained; and, as was the case a few years ago, slavers would be taken at the rate of three or four a month; as it is, not one has been taken since we have been on the station. The commanders naturally do not enter with much zeal into the cruising, as they are told off for a particular station, and there they must remain, and their cruising ground is as well known to the slavers as to the commodore. Our papers authorize us to search the vessels of every nation, save France, and there ought to be six vessels on the north and six on the south if we wish to be in earnest and stop the slave trade. He (Mr. Cave) had the honour of transmitting to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, a few weeks since, two schemes for watching the Cuban coast, written without concert by persons who were well acquainted with those regions, and fully borne out by this letter received only a few days ago from an entirely independent source. The price of sugar was rising, which would enable the Cuban planter to give a higher price for slaves, and the demand would assuredly be met by increased supply. It was stated, indeed, that the new Captain General of Cuba was determined to stop the trade, and had already given proof of his sincerity. If this were really so, the thing would be done, as Spain, doubtless, had the power in her own hands; but he could not forget that the same good tidings had been received of one Captain General after another for years past, and had not been borne out by the result. At any rate, such good resolves would not be weakened by absence of temptation, and he trusted that the new admiral, Sir James Hope, than whom no man was more capable from former experience of coping with the slave trade, would take care that the temptation to which the Captain General might be exposed was not greater than he could resist. It was now well nigh fifty years since nearly half-a-million was paid to Spain in consideration for treaties which had been systematically evaded, for undertakings which had never been performed. We all knew too well the expenditure of English money and the waste of valuable English lives which had during that long interval been caused by this breach of faith, and he (Mr. Cave) thought the time was now come, when the people of this country had a right to know whether there was any better hope for the future or not; and, if not, then it would be for them to decide whether the partial success which had hitherto attended our efforts was worth the heavy cost at which it had been attained.


Sir, I can assure the hon. Member that the Government feel as deeply as he can on the subject to which he has drawn the attention of the House; and, if I may be allowed to speak of individuals, I venture to say that no men in the country have felt more warmly, and, within the limits of their spheres of action, have exerted themselves more for the suppression of the slave trade than my noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Office and myself. At the same time, when we recollect the great difficulty which was experienced in this country in gaining a victory over interested parties who maintained the slave trade, we must make some allowances for the reluctance which other Governments manifest to adopt the course which we have so honourably followed. But great progress has been made, though it is natural for man to look rather to that which remains to be done than to that which has been accomplished. In a survey of the whole matter, however, it is right to look both ways; and when we consider that the Brazilian slave trade, which formerly amounted to 60,000 or 70,000 slaves a year, and which implied the wretchedness and misery of three times that number of persons, including those who were torn from their homes, and died on their passage inland, or in crossing the Atlantic, we may say that a very great and important benefit has been done in the cause of humanity by the extinction of the slave trade of Brazil. Then there remains the slave trade of Cuba. That used to be, I believe, an importation of 20,000 slaves, or more, a year. According to the last accounts we have received from those who look to these matters, we have reason to think that the actual importation in 1863 has not exceeded 6,000 or 7,000. This is a very great reduction, and has been owing, in a great degree, to the treaty with the United States. The protection afforded for a great number of years to the slave trade by the American flag gave impunity to a vast extent of crime, and the President of the United States in the handsomest manner agreed — nay, almost himself proposed to us—to make a treaty for a mutual right of search, which has proved most valuable for the accomplishment of our object. I am sorry to say that the Government of France has not thought fit to follow the example of the United States—and that is more to be regretted as France took the lead in abolishing of her own accord the slave trade, and for a certain time agreed to a treaty for a mutual right of search. But a feeling of jealousy arose with respect to the national flag, and that treaty was put an end to, and we have not been able to obtain a renewal of it. France, however, does employ cruisers on the coast of Africa, and I have reason to hope that the action of France will be directed energetically and sincerely to put an end to the slave trade. We know that for a certain time the pretended immigration of free labourers into the French colonies, obtained I must hope under false representations, the sanction of the French Government. That was, in fact, the slave trade in its purest form, as far as concerned Africa. But, as slavery was abolished in the French colonies, these wretched immigrants when they arrived at their destination were not called slaves, but apprentices for a certain time. It was a great abuse, and the French Government felt it proper to put an end to it on condition of having the power of exporting coolies under regulations from our Eastern possessions. I am bound to say with respect to the present Governor and Commander-in-Chief in Cuba, that he has acted most honourably, and has exercised his power in every case effectually for the suppression of the slave trade. But the power of the Governor is not complete, as there are certain laws of Spain which cramp his action, and at his suggestion we have forwarded an earnest recommendation to the Government at Madrid to repeal those laws. This representation has not yet been successful, but I hope shortly that the Spanish Crown will feel it due to itself and the honour and good faith of the Spanish nation, to remove the obstacles which stand in the way of the accomplishment of the purposes for which the treaties for the suppression of the slave trade were concluded. We have forwarded to all our cruisers on the American station warrants authorizing them to exercise the right of search with respect to all the flags in reference to which we possess that right. It is very natural for those who look at one part of a question to think that part all important; and sometimes, if they succeed by their eloquence and energy in effecting their object, they may do as much harm as good. I recollect that the late Sir Fowell Buxton, as sincere an advocate for the abolition of slavery as ever lived, and who to his honour laboured with great success in the cause, at one time took up the notion that trading up the African rivers would be the great impediment to slavery. He published a book, and in his earnestness declared that the employment of those other means which were thought necessary by other people had failed. The hon. Member opposite attaches great value, and deservedly, to the action of our cruisers on the coast of Cuba. There is no doubt of their importance, and the warrants given to them to examine suspected vessels under the American flag will very much assist them in the performance of their duty; but I take leave to say that the value of captures in different places may be stated in the proportion I am now going to mention. The most important capture is the slave ship equipped and prepared on the coast of Africa without any slaves on board. That is the most important capture, because that prevents the misery entailed by the embarkation of the negroes, and throws on the hands of the chief, who makes money by selling them, the commodity before he has received the money. The next valuable capture is a ship with negroes on board, but off the coast of Africa, because then the negroes escape the sufferings of the middle passage which the hon. Member has so forcibly described. The third important capture is a slaver, with negroes on board, off the coast of Cuba, because those who have thus far survived the voyage are rescued from the doom to which they were destined, and restored to comparative freedom. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not at all blind to the importance of the points upon which he has dwelt. Admiral Hope, a most active and energetic officer, than whom no man has more at heart the abolition of slavery, and who has a local knowledge of these matters, will, I have no doubt, under the instructions of the Admiralty, do everything in his power to effect that object. There is one point which, I think, the hon. Member hinted at. We applied to the Spanish Government to give permission to our cruisers on the coast of Cuba to anchor within their territorial limits. I am sorry to say that they have not hitherto agreed to that proposal. There may be some feeling of national jealousy in the matter, or those who influence the Spanish Government may be actuated by other motives, not, perhaps, so honourable. I hope, however, we may yet prevail on them to con- cede tills privilege, because it would be a great advantage to our cruisers. The channels by which these slaves arrive are well known, and limited in number; and if we could station our vessels so as to command those channels, it would greatly facilitate captures. It is well known that the Spanish Government have been urged over and over again, by every motive of national honour and good faith, to exert themselves for the suppression of slavery. They have always stated that orders of the most stringent character had been sent to Cuba, but that the difficulty of putting them into execution had hitherto foiled the intentions of the Government, I know that the Marquis of Miraflores, who was not long ago at the head of the Spanish Government, was most sincerely and honourably anxious to do all in his power to carry out the treaty. As to the papers relating to the slave trade, they include reports and correspondence from distant parts, and some time must elapse before they are all received and ready for presentation to Parliament. Those for the last year are now in course of preparation, and will, I believe, be laid before Parliament very shortly. I trust that they will show a considerable diminution in the slave trade of Cuba.