HL Deb 04 February 1807 vol 8 cc613-8

Council having been called in, pursuant to order, Mr. Plumer and Mr. Dallas attended, on behalf of the West-India merchants; Mr. Alexander, for the merchants of Liverpool; Mr. Scarlet, for the merchants and planters of the islands of Jamaica and Trinidad; and Mr. Clarke, on the part of the corporation of Liverpool, and the trustees of the dock of that port. The arrangement with respect to the order in which the learned counsel for the several interests should be heard, having been referred to their own decision; Mr. Alexander, for the merchants of Liverpool, first addressed their lordships, and concluded with requesting that, according to the prayer of the petitioners for whom he appeared, witnesses might be called in.—The counsel having been ordered to withdraw,

Lord Grenville

said, that for the purpose he then had in view, it would not be at all necessary to enter into the general question; the simple enquiry was, whether, in the present situation of things, it was or was not expedient to hear the depositions of the witnesses, according to the recommendation of the learned counsel. In his opinion, there could be no ground for this mode of proceeding, unless their lordships thought that this was a subject utterly unknown to them; and that in consequence of the deficiency of all former experience and information, it was necessary to go into a long and formal examination of the matter. This. was not the first time, or the first year, that the enquiry was made before their lordships: it was the 20th year in which it had been brought under their consideration; and there was no one session during that long period in which it had not been, in some form or other, submitted to the investigation of parliament. Could any individual peer suppose, that, to enable him to decide on the principle of this bill, it was expedient to examine how far the local interests of the ship-owners of Liverpool were concerned, and what were their comparative profits in the subsisting intercourse between Africa and the West Indies? This bill was not offered to their lordships, because the capital of no British subjects was employed in the Slave Trade, or because no British mariners were engaged in it; but expressly because the property and persons of the subjects of this realm were engaged in it: and hence it called upon the justice and humanity of their lordships to prevent this misapplication both of the one and the other. Their lordships were not now to determine, if a few more or a few less ships were devoted to this commerce, but to wipe away the disgrace of this country, by the direction thus given to the industry and talents of British merchants. The learned counsel, by shewing that the capital of this description of persons was largely concerned, in part supplied the motive on which the proposal for the abolition was founded. Thus, without any confirmation from the witnesses proposed, all the facts that were material were admitted. It might be easy to shew, that particular items to which the learned counsel adverted, did not operate in aid of his argument: thus, the premiums paid to insurers were not to be deemed all profit; they were a consideration for certain risk, and were in proportion to the hazard to which the property would be exposed. The principal motive, then, of the bill was, that British capital was engaged in the trade; and an additional instigation to the adoption of it was, that in the present posture of affairs, it could be supported by no other capital; so that, by withdrawing the subjects of this country from the commerce, it would be effectually abolished.

Lord Eldon

was willing to admit, that, in the instance now before their lordships, the examination of witnesses would not be necessary; but he was anxious to enter his protest against any determination not to hear evidence in a future stage of the proceeding. It was true that this grave and important subject had been long under discussion; but it was not merely expedient to shew that this trade was contrary to justice and humanity. Admitting it to be so, the circumstances, the mode, and the time of its abolition, were proper matters of consideration. What had been the course of proceeding? A noble lord, in the last session, had brought forward Resolutions, which embraced a vast deal more than was comprised in the present bill: those extended to the total abolition of the Slave Trade. He did not believe that the measure now proposed would diminish the transport of negroes, or that a single individual would be preserved by it; at the same time that it would be utterly destructive of the British interests involved in that commerce. This house was always disposed to proceed with deliberation and with justice; and in pursuance of that line of conduct, it had determined not to hear the evidence on this affair in a committee above stairs. He trusted that the same discretion would be now em- ployed; and that, if any important facts were to be ascertained, the witness would be heard at their lordships' bar. Was it right, because there was a change of men, and of public measures in consequence, that the interests of these petitioners should be disregarded; and what was before determined to be fit matter of enquiry, should now be rejected, as immaterial and inapplicable? If these interests had any existence, redress ought to be given, compensations ought to be assigned; and the extent of these could only be ascertained by testimony. He would repeat, that he did not contend that evidence should now be heard; but he thought it extremely probable that, on further progress, it would be discovered that witnesses ought to be examined.

Earl Grosvenor

was very anxious to do justice to all parties, but thought that to hear evidence in this stage of the enquiry would be useless, and would be a departure from the propriety of their lordships' proceedings. There were many occasions on which it was extremely desirable to hear evidence, especially where the subject was novel: but this was not a case of that sort; much testimony had already been supplied, which was still in the recollection of their lordships. Indeed, so completely had the question been examined, that resolutions had been entered into, coinciding with those passed in another place, that a termination should be put to this nefarious trade. If the learned counsel wished to prove that the great lord Somers was auxiliary in passing certain bills favourable to the trade, or that charters, at various times, had been granted to favour it, no depositions in the form now proposed were at all necessary. If he were desirous of shewing, that after the bill should have passed into a law, the merchants would be ruined, and they must throw themselves upon the liberality of parliament, neither did this require any immediate confirmation; the proper time to adduce such proof would be when the measure, productive of such effects, had become the law of the land. The same might be said as to any evidence applicable to mere speculative propositions. After the resolutions their lordships had come to last year, it would not be consistent with their dignity to enter into such a mode of examining the fitness of their own deliberate determinations.

Lord Hawkesbury

said, that with regard to the immediate question now before the house, he very much concurred with his noble and learned friend (lord Eldon), that no witnesses need at present be called. Whether in a future stage it would be right to have recourse to such assistance, it was not now necessary to enquire; he should on this subject reserve his opinion for the proper occasion when it should be expedient to declare it. He was not disposed, however, to be equally silent on the concluding sentiment delivered by the noble earl who had just sat down, which, if adopted, would defeat the purposes of all parliamentary deliberation. He said, that because the house in the last session thought it expedient to give its opinion on the subject of the slave trade, it would be now inconsistent with its dignity to examine witnesses on the subject matter of this bill. This was to assert that their lordships were to be so bound by their former determination, that they were to be precluded from hearing testimony as to matters, however strongly urged by counsel, and however important to the decision on the merits of the present bill. Were the resolution passed during the last session to be considered in a more serious light than a bill which had gone through the progressive steps, until it was finally transmitted to the commons? Such a bill might be rejected, and could, in such case, be cited as no authority by which the opinion of their lordships should be governed. It was obvious that such resolutions were not to prevent the exercise of their deliberative functions, and thus much he thought it necessary to say, that these functions might remain entire and unimpaired.

Lord Holland

perfectly agreed with his noble friend (earl Grosvenor), and thought that the commentary of the noble lord who had just sat down, originated in a misapprehension of the terms employed. The noble earl did not say that the previous opinion declared, however solemnly, should preclude all examination of any future measure connected with the same subject; but he said that when such a determination was made, that the trade was contrary to the broad principles of justice and humanity, it would not become the dignity of the house to enter into minute enquiries into the precise profits, of which the adventurers would be deprived. This was the sentiment expressed by the noble earl, and supported by the general tenour of his speech; and, on his mind, they were neither subversive of the constitutional privileges of their lordships, nor destructive of their deliberative functions in any particular.

The Duke of Clarence

was of opinion that the counsel ought not to be allowed to call evidence in the present case. His reason was, that all the evidence necessary to illustrate the interests of the petitioners was before the house. Their lordships had materials enough before them to form their judgment. His royal highness, however, reserved to himself the right of considering whether it would not be necessary to hear evidence on other points.

Mr. Clarke

was then heard as counsel for the corporation of Liverpool. He asked leave to examine Mr. Foster, to shew the interest which the corporation of Liverpool had in the wet docks of that port.—Lord Grenville moved, that the next counsel be heard. Ordered.—Mr. Plumer was called in, and a addressed their lordships as counsel for the planters, &. of the island of Jamaica. He concluded by requesting the permission of the house to examine the earl of Balcarras.

The Lord Chancellor

asked what facts the counsel expected lord Balcarras to prove?

Mr. Plumer

observed, that from the long period his lordship had been governor of the island of Jamaica, he would be able to point out the consequence of the abolition of the West-India colonies.

Lord Grenville

remarked, that it was irregular to examine witnesses at their lordships' bar, who had no facts to state, but were merely called to explain their views and opinions. Facts might he sworn to, but prophecies could not. That kind of evidence was not fit for their lordships to hear, nor for others to give. He moved, that the next counsel be called in.

The Duke of Clarence

did not oppose the motion, but he observed, that since the evidence was last heard on this subject by their lordships, alterations had occurred in the state of the West Indies, which might render it necessary to hear further evidence. There were three principal points of which his royal highness thought it necessary to remind their lordships: 1st, The evacuation of the island of St. Domingo by the British troops, which left it to be considered what effect the state of that island might have on Jamaica. 2dly, the possession of the island of Trinidad, which was, as to cultivation, almost in a virgin state. 3dly, the catastrophe which had befallen the island of Dominico. How were the lives which had been lost there to be supplied?

Lord Holland

observed, that, according to the speech of the learned counsel, theorists were those that had stated facts as they were, and then the learned counsel proposed to call men of experience to prophesy to the house the effect which this measure would produce in future.

The Bishop of London

declared, that after the ample evidence which had been produced, particularly in the examinations before the privy council, and the discussions which had already taken place on this subject, he much doubted whether all the evidence which counsel could produce, would be sufficient to invalidate the proofs of the cruelty of this trade. The persons who then gave evidence, were men of high distinction, and unquestionable veracity. He deprecated any delay, which might prove fatal. Every moment was precious; numbers of poor Africans were now perishing in the holds of slave ships, and suffering incredible hardships in the seasoning, which would be increased if this measure were unnecessarily delayed.—The motion was then put and carried. After Mr. Scarlet had been heard,

Lord Eldon

moved, "that an humble address be presented to his majesty, that there might be laid on the table of the house copies of the correspondence between the then secretary of state and the government of Trinidad, in 1799, respecting grants of lands to be made to any persons settled in that island."

Lord Grenville

said, he should not object to this motion, but believed that no such permission would be found to have been granted to the government of Trinidad; as it was in the contemplation of government, at that period, that if the island should remain alter peace to this country, no encouragement should be given to any new and large importation of negroes into that settlement, and that no steps should be taken with respect to that island, which should obstruct any ulterior measures respecting the abolition of the slave trade.—He then moved, that the order for the second reading of the bill be discharged, and that the bill be read a second time to-morrow, clearly wishing it to be understood, that the debate on the main question would then come on.—Agreed to.