HL Deb 20 April 1826 vol 15 cc385-96
Lord Redesdale

presented a petition from certain merchants and others of the city of London, who hold mortgages, or have made advances on West-India property. In presenting this petition, the noble and learned lord dwelt at length on the distress to which persons interested in West-India property had been reduced. At present, no person would advance a shilling on West-India estates. But, amidst their distress, the unfortunate proprietors were obliged to go on, or the slaves would starve. Thus, there was no hope for them, since they could not get rid of their property; and if they continue to cultivate, it was at a loss. Married women, whose settlements depended on plantations, and orphan children, were left entirely destitute. Persons who held mortgages, if they applied to the proprietors of plantations, could ob- tain no money. They had no resource but to institute proceedings in the West-India courts for the sale of the mortgaged estates; and if they adopted that course there were no buyers to be found. The noble and learned lord implored the House to reflect on the unfortunate situation in which the petitioners were placed, and to take into consideration the object of the petition, which was, to induce the legislature to do something towards restoring, in some degree, the value of this property, by the deterioration of which they suffered so much injury. With regard to the emancipation of the slaves, the noble and learned lord agreed with those who were of opinion that that measure could only be brought about by the operation of time. Rash and precipitate measures might be attended with the most mischievous consequences, and lead to all the horrors which the decree of the National Assembly had produced in St. Domingo. The prudent course would be, to teach the negroes to feel the value of property, and of some distinction of rank in society. Time was necessary for the cautious and prudent measures which this preparation for a state of freedom required. While the negroes remained all in a state of equality, this preparation could not be accomplished. It did not become him to throw out suggestions to the colonial assemblies for their guidance; but he thought that the steps towards such an object would be with most advantage taken entirely by the colonial assemblies themselves. The petitioners deprecated any interference with the colonial legislatures, as acts of power might produce effects which, at present, could not easily be foreseen. It seemed to be suggested as a principle, to be adopted on the other side of the Atlantic, that no further European influence should be allowed to extend itself there. He trusted, however, that, under all the circumstances which might arise, the colonies would always look for protection to this country, and would find it afforded them. Something, he thought, ought to be speedily done, to give confidence to the persons interested in the property of our West-India islands.

The following is a copy of the Petition:—

The Petition of the undersigned Merchants trading from London to the British West-India colonies, and others holding Mortgages and other Securities upon Slaves and Lands in the said Colonies, humbly shewcth—

"That your petitioners form a portion of those British subjects who have embarked capital upon the security of slaves, lands, and other property in the West-India colonies, in full reliance upon acts and declarations of the British legislature, which, during nearly two centuries, have sanctioned and encouraged such investments in furtherance of the cultivation and prosperity of those colonics.

"That among the statutes of the realm to which your petitioners refer, that of the 6th Geo. 2, c. 13 (entitled an act for better securing and encouraging the trade of his majesty's sugar colonies in America), declares by its preamble, 'that' the welfare and prosperity of his majesty's sugar colonies in America are of the greatest consequence and importance to the trade, navigation, and strength of 'the kingdom,' and proceeds to enactments advantageous to the colonies. The act of 13th Geo. 3, c. 14, invites loans from aliens, on the security of freehold or leasehold estates in his majesty's colonies in the West Indies; and that of 14?th Geo. 3, c. 79, legalizes the taking interest by British subjects for sums advanced on mortgages and securities of any lands, tenements, hereditaments, slaves, cattle, and other things, at the rate allowed by the law in the colony where the mortgaged premises lie.

"That the cultivation of the British West-India colonics, by the labour of negro slaves imported from Africa, had, in this long period, not the cognizance merely, but the express sanction and encouragement of the legislature, which, in the preamble to the act of the 23rd Geo. 2nd, cap. 31, declares, that 'the trade to 4 and from Africa is very advantageous to Great Britain, and necessary for the supplying the plantations and colonies there unto belonging, with a sufficient number 'of negroes at reasonable rates,' and proceeds to enact that 'the said trade shall' be free and open to all his majesty's subjects.'

"That occasional efforts made by the colonial legislatures to check an excessive importation of slaves have been repelled and reproved by the mother country, whose deliberate counsels had established her African slave trade, and encouraged it upon grounds distinct from colonial interests before her colonies existed; that your petitioners, therefore, must protest against the injustice of throwing discredit upon West-India commerce and se- curities, by mixing up the case of those connected with that trade and property with the odium which in this free country is excited by the bare knowledge of the existence of slavery, an odium which, so far as the British West-India colonies are concerned, attaches not to your petitioners, but to the nation.

"That it cannot be disputed that the well-being and comforts of the slaves in our colonies have been materially and progressively bettered since the time when the nation was holding out the strongest inducements to an increase of that number, during which period, and even subsequently, when great Britain abandoned and abolished her African slave trade, no intimation, with any semblance of authority, was announced, of effecting an extinction of slavery in the colonies, otherwise than by the means which an able writer, zealous for the attainment of that object, has pointed out, 'the same happy means which formerly put an end to it in England, viz.—by a benign, though insensible revolution in opinion and manners, by the encouragement of particular manumissions, and the progressive melioration of the condition of the slaves, till it should glide insensibly into general freedom:' the emancipation looked to was declared to be that of which, 'not the slaves but the masters, should be willing instruments and authors.'

"That your petitioners, by means of their constant intercourse with the colonies, are enabled confidently to assert that there prevails throughout the proprietors thereof, a liberal and constant attention to the wants and comforts of the slave-population, which is evinced by a plentiful supply (even in times when the returns may be inadequate to the costs) of such articles as will contribute to their well-being, and this resulting as well from considerations of humanity as from the known and acknowledged fact, that, upon the effective strength, comfort, and contentment of the labouring population attached to it, essentially depends the value of any West-India plantation.

"That your petitioners are well aware that your right hon. House may command from the highest and most unquestionable authority, evidence which will fully bear out these assertions respecting the existing comforts and progressively improving condition of the slaves in our West-India colonies.

"That representations of a contrary tendency, which, having been addressed to popular meetings, have excited those petitions which, from various parts of the kingdom, have been presented to your right hon. House, are not grounded upon such information and acquaintance with the subject as your petitioners have access to, nor upon that respectable evidence to which they have alluded, and to which they fearlessly appeal; but originating in exaggeration or misrepresentation, have, by zealous persons associated for that purpose, been successfully applied in irritating the feelings of the public, and inducing a hasty call for an emancipation of the slaves, with but small regard either to the advantage of the slaves themselves, or to the justice due to your petitioners.

"That the measures which, from motives of regard towards the slaves, have been adopted by his majesty's government, have unfortunately, and doubtless unintentionally, already caused a great deterioration of the property of your petitioners. These measures having been generally understood, as expressly preparatory to, and directly connected with, the emancipation of the slaves, and having not been accompanied with a distinct and explicit pledge of indemnification for the injury which property must sustain, not only in the attainment of the final object, but in the progressive operation of the means for its attainment. That owing to these causes, the confidence of capitalists has been influenced to such a degree, that West-India securities are become nearty valueless as transferable property—a circumstance which, at a period of general alarm and panic, similar to that which has lately occurred, must subject the holders of such property to extreme and peculiar difficulties. That, to this effect must powerfully contribute the measure announced of offering, as an adequate compensation in cases of compulsory emancipation, the estimated value of the liberated slave or slaves—a proceeding pregnant with alarm to the mortgagees and others of your petitioners holding various securities upon lands cultivated by slaves. And your petitioners humbly represent, that, until it shall be proved by experience that free negroes will work for hire, and carry on the ordinary cultivation of estates in a regular and effectual manner, the slaves must be considered as forming the essential part of the securities held by your petitioners, since land in the colonies would cease to be of any worth when deprived of its labourers; and that, therefore, without the test just mentioned, or full and immediate indemnification, the process of compulsory emancipation cannot even be experimentally commenced upon a West-India estate with justice to the various parties holding legal claims upon the property.

"That it has been the wise and just practice of parliament, when authorizing in this country any infraction of private: right or private property, to provide that the individuals so deprived shall receive from the public (for whose objects the sacrifice is demanded) a full and fair compensation for what is taken away, and even to admit that there be included in the price a consideration for the inconvenience and contingent loss which the individual may suffer from being compelled to part with his property. And your petitioners trust that the like measure of justice may be extended to their case; and that what would be considered to be injustice to a British subject holding property in Britain, will equally be considered to be injustice to a British subject holding property in the colonies.

"That your petitioners are persuaded that the reluctance and distrust with which the suggestions of the British government respecting an amelioration of the condition of the slaves have been received in various colonies, have been caused or aggravated in many instances by an indignant sense of those offensive misrepresentations of the conduct and motives of the colonists, which, in speeches and writings by eminent persons, have been so profusely addressed to the British public; and more especially and universally by the apprehension of danger threatening their properties and political rights; and your petitioners are confident, that were those feelings removed, together with the delusion which has been excited in the minds of the slaves by the prolonged discussions on the subject, the colonial legislatures would, with sincerity, zeal, and discretion, apply themselves to the deliberate consideration of all the communications made to them, with a view to correct whatever may be amiss, and to supply what may be wanting towards improving the condition and promoting the civilization of the slave population.

"That those independent colonial legislatures upon which for a long period has practically rested (subject to the sanction of the king in council) the right of municipal and internal regulation, will, however, claim that themselves from their local experience and immediate knowledge of all that is passing around them, can best judge of the fittest time and manner of introducing any changes in their law and practice; and will plead, that while they feel the responsibility of their situation, they cannot consistently be required to do what they conscientiously consider as dangerous to the tranquillity and prosperity of the colonies over which they preside.

"That your petitioners have embarked their property in colonial securities, greatly induced thereto by their confidence in the experience and practical knowledge of the colonial legislatures, and in the advantage of having the laws and internal regulations of the colonies framed by those most competent to adapt them to the immediate character, habits, and intelligence of the various classes which compose their population; that if the slaves be taught to look for their protection and government to any other authority than that of the king and the legislative, or other local power which they have been long accustomed to respect and obey, the tranquillity of the colonies, and consequently the security of property therein, will be greatly endangered.

"That your petitioners would therefore regard an interference by the Imperial Parliament with the established jurisdiction of those legislatures, as a removal of one of the securities of property invested in the colonies; and they know that the bare suggestion of such interference has contributed to the discredit which already attaches to West-India securities.

"That the conduct of the colonial legislatures respecting the registry laws, together with the zealous reception and liberal support of the religious establishments with which they have been favoured, prove the good-will of the colonists, and their inclination to acquiesce in those views of the parent legislature which are directed to objects of unquestionable utility, provided they be secured against attacks upon their constitutional privileges, and those rights of property which have been established under titles and sanctions as valid as the law could give them.

"That your petitioners feel themselves authorized to declare, that the opinions which in 1823 were expressed to his majesty's ministers by several possessors of colonial property, resident in this country, and which have often, in discussion upon this subject, been referred to, were directed solely towards measures of amelioration, and did neither contemplate any compulsory emancipation of the slaves, nor any constraint upon the independence of the colonial legislatures.

"That Great Britain, if she have the will, may doubtless impose upon her colonies a constraint which they cannot resist; and it is equally true that precipitate acts of power might produce ruinous extremities which the mother country did not contemplate, and which she might in vain attempt to remedy; but the attribute of the British legislature is justice, and to that your petitioners will make their appeal. Confident in their undeviating attachment to his majesty's person and government, and conscious of no crime by which their title to protection is forfeited, they do respectfully, but firmly, prefer their claim to full indemnification for all injury which constraint and force may inflict upon that property which, whatever may have been the circumstances of its original acquisition, is held, as it now stands, under the solemn guarantee of British laws.

"That your petitioners cannot conclude without noticing, that in many of the petitions to your right honourable House, which ask its interference with the colonial legislatures, there is a prayer that, in respect to the West-India colonies, the mother country will depart from that established policy by which the produce of capital and industry, which is purely and intimately British, and situated in parts of the empire whose commerce the mother country strictly controls, has a protection afforded to it in the home consumption over that which is foreign, or brought from appendages of the empire not so controlled, and less identified with the resources and interests of the mother country.

"That this prayer, if traced to its source, would, as your petitioners believe, be found to originate in interests of commercial rivalry; since it is at variance with a spirit of humanity towards the slave, whose well-being cannot possibly be promoted by any proceeding which tends to impoverish his master.

"Upon the grounds which your petitioners have now staled, they humbly pray, That your right honourable House will, by a legislative declaration, or by such other means as to your wisdom shall appear most expedient, restore to the property of your petitioners, and of other British subjects connected with the West India colonies, that credit and confidence which is ever due to property protected by British laws, and also that your right honourable House will forbear to adopt towards the local legislatures in the West-India colonies any measures which may be at variance with the rights of internal legislation which they have so long exercised."

The Earl of Liverpool

said, he was sure that the petition which had just been presented would be received by the House with that respect to which, from the subject and the manner in which it was drawn up, it was entitled; but he wished to take that opportunity of saying a few words, in consequence of some observations which had fallen from his noble and learned friend. He could assure his noble and learned friend, that if there existed an intention in any party in this country to precipitate the emancipation of the negroes, without due preparation, no man could be more opposed to such intention than himself. He had always felt, that that was a measure which ought to be approached with caution and deliberation. The great interests and property at stake demanded this caution, and it was also to be considered, that the government and parliament of this country had been parties to the evils of slavery, in consequence of the direct encouragement which had, for a hundred and fifty years, been given to the state of things existing in the West Indies. Having said thus much, he must express his deep regret that the colonial legislatures should have proceeded in the course which they had hitherto thought fit to pursue. That in some of the colonies, from special circumstances, the measures recommended by the government might appear inapplicable was possible; but that could not afford an excuse for the conduct of the assemblies in refusing to legislate. It had been thought proper to mark out the course which appeared proper to be followed to accomplish the object which government and parliament had in view, and to hold up an example to the colonial legislatures. For this purpose instructions were sent out to the colonies under the immediate control of government. The example had been set in Demerara and Berbice, and it was the desire of government and parliament that similar measures of amelioration should be adopted in the other colonies. If their lordships looked at what had thus been done, they would find nothing like precipitation. On the contrary, they would see a series of measures recommended to the adoption of the colonies, which had for their object the gradual improvement of the slaves, and which required a certain course of time to be carried into effect. If the colonial assemblies wished to be regarded as really disposed to acquiesce in the views of parliament, let them lend themselves to the counsels of those who recommended measures of amelioration. On the contrary, they had shown a disposition, not to amelioration, but to resistance. British protection would not be withheld from those to whom it ought to be given; but it was for the colonies to follow that course which would prove that they were entitled to it. He desired that their lordships would look at the nature of the measures directed in the instructions contained in the order in council which had been sent out to the West Indies, and to say whether any possible evil could result to the colonies from adopting those measures. It was possible that some irritation might, from misunderstanding, take place; but that could not excuse the course which had been pursued by the colonies. He agreed with his noble and learned friend, that the measures of amelioration which ought to be adopted with respect to the slave-population could be most advantageously carried into effect by the colonial legislatures themselves. But if they persisted in refusing to attend to the recommendation which had been given them, it would be the duty of parliament to interfere. The best way for the colonies would doubtless be, to render all interference on the part of the mother country unnecessary. With that view he would urge upon them, as the best thing which could be done for their own safety and prosperity, that they should set about the work of legislation with a real, anxious, and sincere desire to improve the condition of their slave-population. Let them adopt this course, and he was sure they would have nothing to fear from other countries, and would never have reason to complain of the mother country. He trusted, however, that whatever regulations the colonial assemblies might think fit to carry into effect would be adopted in the spirit of peace and conciliation, and that the government would not be placed in the unfortunate situation of being obliged to resort to measures to enforce the course which had been recommended.

Lord Suffield

vindicated the abolitionists from the charges which had been thrown out against them. At none of the meetings which he had attended had any thing like precipitation in giving liberty to the slave been suggested. On the contrary, the greatest caution had been always recommended. As to the object of the petition, he must observe, that West-India property had always been distressed, and would continue so to be, until compulsory labour was done away with, and free labour introduced.

Lord Redesdale

admitted the advantages of free labour, but the difficulty was how to introduce it.

The Lord Chancellor

said, he regarded it as most fortunate for the country, that the language which had from first to last been held on this question in parliament, had always been recommendatory of a gradual abolition, to be brought about by precautionary and prudent measures. He must, however, beg leave to doubt, whether the same opinion pervaded the whole body of the abolitionists; for he believed, if the noble lord would examine the greater number of the petitions which had been presented to the House on this subject, he would find that they contained an express prayer for the immediate emancipation of the negroes.

The Marquis of Lansdown

said, he could not agree with the noble and learned lord, that the greater part of the petitions relative to negro slavery prayed for immediate emancipation. Every petition which he had been called upon to present, was of a different description; for he had not failed to look at each, with reference to that particular point, before he presented it; and, if in any one petition he had found a prayer for an object so pregnant with mischief to the negro-population, as well as to the planters, he should certainly have expressed his dissent from it. He was now about to present a petition which, like others which he had before submitted to their lordships, contained a declaration, that the petitioners approved of the resolutions adopted by the House of Commons in 1823, and wished to see the principle of those resolutions carried into effect: and to that extent he fully concurred with the petitioners. In adverting to what had fallen from the learned lord opposite, he must observe, that the petition to which their lordships' attention had been called, as it prayed for the improvement of West-India property, was one which ought to have been addressed to the colonial legislatures. He knew of no other parties to whom the petitioners could with so much propriety address themselves; for those legislative bodies had it in their power to improve the property of the colonists, and prevented that improvement by their refusal to ameliorate the condition of the slaves. An opportunity had been afforded them of retracing their steps; which it was to be hoped they would seize. Their policy ought to be, to raise the negro to that state which was consistent with the progress of knowledge, and the general improvement of the world, and not to leave him in a condition which formed a state of society never before existing in any country, and which could not fail to be attended with the effect of depreciating the property of the colonists. What was most necessary to be done was, to call upon the colonists to consider well the perilous condition in which they were placed, and from which they could only be rescued by adopting the course which had been recommended to them, and following the example held up to their imitation. This consideration, he trusted, would induce the colonial assemblies to fulfil those expectations which their imprudent conduct had so often disappointed-With regard to the measures for emancipation, there could be but one sentiment, which was, that they ought to be gradual, and of a nature calculated to ensure that moral improvement, by which alone the negroes could be fitted for the enjoyment of freedom. He concluded by presenting a petition, praying for the abolition of slavery.

Ordered to lie on the table.