HL Deb 23 June 1828 vol 19 cc1463-75
Earl Grosvenor

said, he had a petition to present from Chester, on the subject of "the Abolition, of Slavery in the West-Indian Colonies". Their lordships were perfectly aware that since the year 1807, when the Slave-trade was put an end to, until 1823, little or nothing was done with a view to the amelioration of the slave-population, or of putting an end to slavery itself. It therefore happened that in 1823 there was an universal call upon government to come forward and do something; and a most distinguished minister did, much to his honour, propose certain resolutions, which were adopted. Subsequent to that period certainly more than before was done, but so little, that he was sorry to state how little was done, with a view to carry those resolutions into effect. What had been done? In Trinidad, after a long period, a Colonial Assembly did pass a law, such as it was; but when it came over to this country for the approval of the king, his ministers advised him to return the bill as most inadequate for the purpose. He now came to another colony, Demerara, which had no legislature of its own. That colony was selected for the trial of the measures of government, and a petition was sent over from that colony to this country against those measures. He must say that it certainly was wise in those persons who were anxious to defeat the object of government, to put forward the colony of Demerara, which was under the more immediate control of government, to see whether that colony could induce the government to pause in carrying into effect the vital object manumission. If the colony of Demerara, having no legislature had succeeded, the colonies having legislatures could not have failed in effecting that purpose. If the slaves were not allowed to work out their freedom, what could happen but misery and despair? Besides having the Sundays to themselves, they ought to be allowed some portion of the week days; otherwise, how was it possible for these unfortunate people to obtain the means of ultimately indemnifying their masters. In this state of things, what was the conduct of the West-India colonies? They had arraigned in the severest terms the conduct of the government, in recommending manumission, and declared their determination to mar that object. It was said, indeed, by their partisans, that if the slaves were manumitted, no work would be done, and the estates would be permitted to remain uncultivated. He admitted that there were instances in which this might have been the case; but there were other instances in which free labour had been beneficially conducted. On this point he regretted that the particular facts, as connected with St. Domingo, were not before them; for then they could see how far they were dependent for the supply of sugar on the West-India islands, or if the latter were at the bottom of the ocean, whether they would not have elsewhere an abundance of sugar. As to the predictions of the colonists, before the abolition of the Slave-trade, it had been said, that if the motion were carried, a supply of negroes would not be found to work the lands. Mr. Pitt ably demonstrated the fallacy of such an apprehension, and the result had proved the correctness of his judgment. The fact was, that the class of planters who were satisfied with a fair portion of slave-labour always had their work well done; while there were others, who were never satisfied with what they got in field service. The greatest abuse had been heaped upon a late right hon. gentleman, and on the noble earl opposite (earl Bathurst) for their attempts to get the manumission clause acted upon; and it was in vain to hope the colonies would obey, without compulsion, the orders in Council. If this privilege were not secured for the slave-population, there would be an end to their moral as well as religious improvement. When men became acquainted with their rights, they must feel acutely the miseries of bad treatment, and be driven to despair if their wrongs were left unredressed. The enslavement of the mind must necessarily follow that of the body; and therefore he was anxious to avert, if possible, the evils which must attend a prosecution of the present vacillating system. The questions which he wished to ask were; first, what were the intentions of government respecting the manumission clause, if the colonies continued to be refractory? It had been recommended in that case to withdraw from them the bounties and protecting duties. Something ought surely to be done to command their compliance. Next, he wished to know what was the state of the mixed commission for arbitration; how far it had been successful, and at what expense? He was very anxious to see the Slave-trade put down under foreign flags, though he confessed he could not hope for the completion of that advantage until slavery was abolished in the British colonies. There was one other point on which he wished information; namely, what steps had been taken to improve the condition of the people of colour in the colonies?

The Duke of Wellington

said, he could assure the noble earl, that his majesty's servants who were in office when these resolutions had been passed, the government which had succeeded them, and the present administration, were each, and all of them invariably determined to give effect to the views of parliament on this subject. They had felt it their duty to proceed, in the sense and the spirit of the votes to which he alluded; namely, gradually, so as to keep in view the peace and tranquillity of the colonies, and the property and prosperity of all classes of the inhabitants. His majesty's servants had taken the most prudent steps for this purpose, and not without having made some progress in the work, as well as having gone far in establishing the principle they were enforcing. He ought likewise to observe upon the irritation displayed by Jamaica and other colonies on this subject. He might be permitted to say, that it was natural for men to be irritable who thought their property likely to be seriously affected by these measures of legislation. Still he admitted it was the duty of government to persevere in executing the wishes of parliament, until they were complied with— a compliance no less necessary for the advantage of the colonial proprietors, than of the slave population under them. To show how far the principle had been adopted by the colonial authorities, he had only referred to the Jamaica act of the last Legislative Assembly, which, though it had not received the royal assent, was not on account of any refusal to adhere to the principle, which it had fully recognized, but because of its having mixed up separate matters in the act, which it were better to have detached from it. Jamaica had, therefore, adopted a great part of the principle recommended by the government at home; and other colonies, St. Christopher, for instance had gone some way in the same path. On the whole he should say, considering the prejudices naturally interwoven with West-India views of this subject, it was more wonderful to behold the progress already made, than to express any strong censure for what remained to be done in furtherance of this business. Nevertheless, it was the duty of government to persevere in the mode best calculated to execute all these measures gradually and temperately. The noble earl had asked what they intended to do respecting manumission. They ought to recollect, that the Court of Policy of Demerara had petitioned against that part of the Order in Council; the Privy Council had not yet decided upon that petition. It was no doubt intended to carry that principle into execution; still, like every other part of so nice and complicated a consideration, the mode of acting upon it must be regulated by contingent circumstances. They must bear in mind, that, within the last year, there had been no less than four gentlemen in the office of Secretary for the Colonies, and really it was not possible, without very calm and deliberate consideration, to come to a safe conclusion upon a point of this kind: for himself he could own, that, up to the present day, the government had not made up their minds as to the mode of giving a practical application to the principle which, he again admitted, they were bound to see executed.—As to the general state of the Slave-trade, notwithstanding the treaties for its limitation or suppression which Great Britain had already made with every maritime state in the world, it was melancholy to be obliged to admit, that it was still carried on to a lamentable extent. He adverted to this fact, to show all the difficulties which surrounded this subject. England had spared no pains nor expense to arrange these treaties; yet he was afraid it would appear that at this very moment more slaves were borne away from Africa (not however into the British colonies), than were exported from thence before the abolition. As to the courts of Arbitration at Sierra Leone, they were very active: above a hundred cases had been brought before them for adjudication in the course of a few years; about twelve thousand slaves had been, through their agency, set at liberty, and the expense was near 16,000l. a-year. If they had not been as effectual as could have been wished, no blame attached to the individuals engaged in them, who were certainly both zealous and active. With respect to the people of colour, regulations had been framed in Jamaica for enabling them to enjoy certain privileges, and hold certain situations in common with the white inhabitants.

Lord Calthorpe

said, that, instead of being disposed to look with confidence towards the colonies for a redress of wrongs, he saw nothing in their conduct which did not lead him to draw an opposite inference. He was quite at a loss to reconcile the noble duke's hopes with the recorded acts of these colonial bodies, and their avowed determination to thwart all the recommendations of the government at home upon the subject. In fact, the negroes had been very little relieved by any of these ameliorating acts of the colonies. The colonies did not, indeed, say; "wait until we can see if we can execute these orders; give us time to adapt ourselves to the change." On the contrary, they denounced the attempt to legislate for them throughout, as unjust and ruinous, and demonstrative of the ignorance of the government at home of their real situation in the colonies. How could the government, then, place any hopes in the promises of people, who plainly told them, that the parliament in framing these resolutions had not been governed by its proper legislative wisdom, but had on the contrary lent itself to the dictation of a set of fanatics who, in their indiscriminate wishes to tamper with the slave-population, were prepared to plunge the islands into bloodshed and ruin?—The noble lord then referred to the last Jamaica bill, and denied that it bore the character ascribed to it by the noble duke. He contended, that the baneful effect of slavery was in no case so remarkable as in these repeated aspersions of the deliberate decision of parliament. And who were the parties who denounced the British legislature in its attempts to save the colonists themselves from the blind fallacy of their own views? Why, they were planters who depended for subsistence upon the admission of their sugars into the British market, on terms which they would be unable to obtain in any other part of the world,— persons who solely depended for their safety on the presence of the British troops. It was only necessary to withdraw the latter, if they wished to have these people overrun by the immense native population that surrounded them. In fact, he saw no reason for the hopes which had been held out: even the strong- declaration of confidence expressed by the noble duke was more calculated to destroy than to strengthen their consummation.

Lord Seaford

said:—My lords; though I cannot consider the present occasion, when there is no practical question before the House, to be one on which it can be desirable to discuss so delicate a question as that of the emancipation of the slaves in the West-India colonies, yet, as the noble lord who began this discussion, and the noble lord who spoke last, have both of them thought fit to enter very widely into this subject, and to indulge in some animadversions upon the conduct of the colonial legislatures, and the disposition of the inhabitants of the colonies, which appear to me to be neither correct nor deserved, I feel that it would be a failure of duty on my part, connected as I am with the colonies, if I were to allow those observations to pass altogether without some notice.

Never having had an opportunity of taking any part in your lordships' discussions on this subject, I am anxious in the first place, to state generally, and I will endeavour to do so very shortly, the outline of my opinions upon this question; and as those opinions happen to be in accordance with the principles and doctrines which have been laid down in the course of the discussions upon the abolition of the slave-trade and the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies, by persons of the highest authority, not only as eminent statesmen, but as the most distinguished amongst the abolitionists, I will use their words, in illustration of my opinions, as well for the purpose of insuring to those opinions all the weight that is due to them, as for that of avoiding all possible cavil as to their title to such high sanction.

The soundest and most correct doctrine as it appeal's to me, with respect to the extinction of slavery in the West-India colonies, is to be found in a report of the African Institution, published in 1815: "They did not aim at an emancipation to be effected by insurrection in the West Indies, or to be ordained precipitately by positive law; but they never denied, and scrupled not to avow, that they did look forward to a future extinction of slavery in the colonies to be accomplished by the same happy means which formerly put an end to it in England; namely, by a benign, though insensible revolution in opinions and manners, by the encouragement of particular manumissions, and the progressive melioration of the condition of the slaves, till it should slide insensibly into general freedom. They looked, in short, to an emancipation, of which not the slaves but the masters should be the willing instruments, or authors."

My lords; I too look to the future extinction of slavery in our colonies through a benign though insensible revolution in opinions and manners; and through a progressive improvement in the condition of the slaves; and I too consider that the only safe process by which the state of sla- very can be converted into that of general freedom, is one by which it shall slide insensibly from the one end to the other—that it must be an emancipation of which not the masters but the slaves shall be the instruments, and the willing instruments also. I further consider, that the improvement in the condition of the slave, which is to lead the way to this happy change, must be accomplished through the medium and instrumentality of their masters.

This opinion is supported by the authority of Mr. Canning, who, when speaking as the organ of the government in 1824, (in the speech in which he stated to the House of Commons the measures adopted by the government in pursuance of their resolutions of the preceding year) thus expresses himself:—" If the condition of the slave is to be improved, that improvement must be introduced through the medium of his master. The masters are the instruments through whom, and by whom, you must act upon the slave-population; and if by any proceedings of ours we shall unhappily place between the slave and his master a barrier of insurmountable hostility, we shall at once put an end to the best chance of emancipation, or even of amendment. Instead of diffusing gradually over those dark regions a pure and salutary light, we may at once kindle a flame only to be quenched in blood."

With respect to that assistance which this benevolent, but most difficult work, must receive from legislative enactments, I find a sanction for the operation which I myself have always entertained from the first moment that I was enabled to form an opinion upon this subject, in Mr. Brougham's work upon Colonial Policy:— "Any parliament, council or senate, which should begin such a work, would find it necessary to give up legislating for the mother country, in order partly to mar and partly to neglect the legislation of the colonies. Let this branch of the imperial administration then he left to the care of those, who are themselves the most immediately interested in the good order and government of those different provinces,—and whose knowledge of local circumstances (of those things which cannot be written down in reports, nor told by witnesses) is more full and practical."

Further, in confirmation of the doctrine here laid down by Mr. Brougham, of the expediency of leaving the task of legislation to the colonial assemblies, and in refutation of the favorite doctrine of the present day, which has been so much pressed upon your lordships, by the two noble lords who have just addressed you, (lord Grosvenor and lord Calthorpe) of the expediency of parliament taking the measure of emancipation into their hands, I cite the great authority of Mr. Fox.—Mr. Fox, in the year 1806,—and the moment, my Lords, is remarkable—when he was at the head of one of the strongest administrations which this country has ever seen, which at once immediately abolished the slave-trade, which not all the eloquence of Mr. Wilberforce, aided by the power and eloquence of Mr. Pitt, had been able to accomplish. Mr. Fox, in the plenitude, and with the full consciousness, of all that power, thus expresses himself on the subject of emancipating the slaves in the West-India colonies by act of parliament: —"The idea of an act of parliament to emancipate the slaves in the West Indies, without the consent and concurrent feelings of all parties concerned, both in this country and in that, would not only be mischievous in its consequences, but totally extravagant in its conception, as well as impracticable in its execution— and therefore I see no good in discussing that point."

My lords, I will quote only one authority more, but that the one which on this question is perhaps the highest authority of all—that of Mr. Wilberforce. Mr. Wilberforce, in a speech on his motion for the abolition of the slave trade in 1804, thus expresses himself:—" After the question of abolition shall be disposed of, any subsequent measures must be left with the colonial assemblies themselves, and with them it would rest, how far the condition of the slaves was capable of further improvement."

My lords, the principles and doctrines laid down (in the extracts which I have quoted) by the African Institution, by Mr. Canning, Mr. Brougham, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Wilberforce, constitute my creed on the subject of West-India slavery.

To any measures founded upon or in conformity with these principles I should feel it my duty to give my humble, but most sincere and zealous support, but in the measure of compulsory manumission, as it is termed, it is impossible for me to concur.

My lords, I deeply regret that the go- vernment have thought it right or necessary to depart from the sound principle laid down by the African Institution, of working out the extinction of slavery in our West-India colonies by the same happy means which had put an end to it in England, the only means of which history affords us any successful example, viz.—"the encouragement of particular and voluntary manumissions;" and that they should have thought fit to substitute in its place the regulation of compulsory manumission, a measure which I conceive to be unsound in its principle, mischievous in its immediate consequences, and totally inoperative as to its ultimate object."

So long as the slave looks up to his master as possessing the absolute power of granting or withholding his freedom, so long will he feel it to be his interest, with the view of accomplishing that object, to conciliate the good will of his master by his good conduct; but when you grant to him the privilege of compelling his master to manumit him, that motive will cease, and another will be substituted in its place. He will not fail to discover that the price of his manumission will be estimated in proportion to the value to his master—that in proportion as he is well behaved and industrious, and a valuable labourer or servant, in the same proportion will the price of his freedom be enhanced, and the period at which he can hope to attain it rendered more distant. He will consequently feel it to be his interest to diminish his value—to render himself as worthless to his master as he can possibly be.

On the other hand, if the master should apprehend any inconvenience from the loss of his slave (and otherwise the compulsory privilege is useless) he will feel it to be his interest to prevent his acquiring the means of purchasing his freedom, by depriving him of many of the indulgences which the slaves now enjoy, and which you cannot compel their masters to grant to them.

As a compulsory measure against the master in this respect it is utterly inefficient. You may compel him, and justly, to afford to the slave the means of subsistence and comfort, ample and abundant, equal to those which are within the reach of the free labouring population of this or any other country; but further you cannot go —you cannot compel him, in addition to such means of subsistence, to grant to his slave the further means of accumulating property sufficient to pay the price of his manumission.

At the same time by giving to the slave only a nominal and illusory privilege, professedly independent of his master, but which he cannot exercise against the will of his master, you only suggest to him an additional motive for being discontented with his condition, without affording him the means of changing it—you aggravate, instead of mitigating, the evils necessarily inherent in the relation of master and slave,—you implant in the breast of each, feelings towards the other utterly at variance and inconsistent with that reciprocal good-will absolutely essential to the moral and physical improvement of the condition of the slaves, which it is the object of all the regulations proposed by parliament to promote. For these reasons I lament, not so much on behalf of the master, as of the slave, that the government have thought it necessary to adopt this regulation, and I cannot but deprecate its enforcement.

Of all the other measures which have been suggested by the government to the colonial legislatures for their adoption, I have no hesitation in declaring now, as I have publicly declared elsewhere, that I entirely approve:—and I cannot but lament that they have not met with a more favorable reception in the colonies. On the other hand, I feel equally bound to say, that I think the indisposition of the colonies to meet the wishes of the government and of this country has been greatly exaggerated by both the noble lords, (lords Grosvenor and Althorpe) and that the measures which have been adopted by them have been misrepresented, undervalued and treated with a degree of contempt which they by no means merit.

Much has undoubtedly been done, in principle, as has been properly stated by the noble duke—many excellent regulations have also been adopted—as I could prove to your lordships by reading the enactments of the last consolidated slave-law of Jamaica, (which I hold in my hand) the act which the noble lords have referred to, and with which they have found so much fault.

But I will not trespass upon your lordships' time by going into those details.— I will content myself with calling your lordships' attention to one point, which I consider of the highest importance, and on which I can venture to assert that there exists no cause to be dissatisfied either with the disposition of the colonial assemblies to forward the views of the government by legislative enactments, or of good-will on the part of the owners of slaves to afford their individual co-operation—I mean, the moral improvement and religious instruction of the negroes.

For the correctness of this assertion I appeal to the noble lord under whose auspices the extension and reform of the church establishment of the colonies was commenced, who has received the written, reports of the bishops, and subsequently had the opportunity of having the fullest personal communications with them—to him, and to the other members of his majesty's government who have had similar means of information, I confidently appeal as to the disposition of the inhabitants of the colonies on this most important point.

My lords, I attach the more importance to that disposition, because the moral improvement of both the white and black population of the colonies must be the foundation of all other improvement—because this is the necessary preliminary to all that other class of regulations which relate to civil rights and privileges—because you must first produce that revolution in morals and manners which shall prepare the slaves to receive, before you can justly or safely call upon their masters to grant, that participation in civil rights and privileges which the two Houses of parliament have declared it to be their purpose to impart to our slave-population of the colonies—because you cannot otherwise fulfil that purpose consistently with the condition which in the same resolution you have annexed to it—and to which you are not less solemnly pledged than to the fulfilment of that purpose itself, however imperative and sacred that duty may be—the condition that both the means and the period of fulfilling that purpose shall be compatible with the well-being of the slaves themselves, the safety of the colonies, and a due regard for the interests of private property.

Earl Bathurst

said, he had great pleasure in being enabled to state, from communications he had had with the bishops of Jamaica and Barbadoes, that these prelates in their circuits through the islands had found the planters most solicitous to promote morality and religion among their slaves. In another particular he must corroborate the statement of his noble friend. Government were pledged to the abolition of slavery, but they were equally pledged that it should be accomplished in a manner compatible with the welfare of the slaves, and the integrity of property. One of these pledges was as binding upon them as the other, and it was their duty to attempt to fulfil both.

Ordered to lie on the table.