HL Deb 12 June 1835 vol 28 cc711-6
Lord Brougham

said, that he had yesterday asked a question relative to slavery in the Mauritius, when his noble Friend the Secretary for the Colonies was not present. He now begged leave to repeat that question. There were 30,000 negroes in the Mauritius as slaves. They were made so by acts of piracy and otherwise; and he wished to know, first, whether any means had been adopted to effect their release; and, secondly, whether any steps had been taken to interpose a public decree, which should render it impossible for any one of the slaves thus detained to be taken into the account in the distribution of the twenty million sterling, which had been voted as compensation to the slave-owner.

Lord Glenelg

said, that in order to answer the question put to him by his noble and learned Friend, he feared he would have to trespass for a longer period on their Lordships' attention than he could have wished. His noble and learned Friend had truly said that this was a most important and interesting subject, and he (Lord Glenelg) could assure their Lordships that no one felt its interest and importance more deeply than he did. His noble and learned Friend, however, had allowed that it was a subject surrounded by difficulties, and no one could more accurately judge of those difficulties than his noble and learned Friend. He (Lord Glenelg) offered this observation merely to show to their Lordships that the subject had not wholly escaped his attention, and that he was fully aware of the practical difficulties in the way of accomplishing the object which his noble and learned Friend seemed to have in view. Although he said this, he would be most happy to give his support to any measure by which the evil could be remedied; but he, at the same time, feared that the period for such a measure had long since passed. Their Lordships must all feel that the difficulties which surrounded the identification of any individual negro who had been illegally imported into the Mauritius were all but insurmountable. It was, he admitted, quite true that there had been illegal importations of slaves into that colony. The fact had been satisfactorily ascertained by the Commissioners who had been sent out there to inquire into the subject. And although they stated that this illegal traffic had been carried on to a considerable extent, they did not specify whether the number of negroes imported amounted to 30,000, or any other number; they mentioned no specific number. Now, besides the difficulty of selecting and identifying any individual negro who had been illegally imported, there were a great variety of other difficulties in the way; inasmuch as the importation of slaves into the Mauritius had altogether ceased during the last fifteen years. It had been his duty since he entered the office which he had the honour to hold, to examine into the facts connected with this question, and from the best information he was able to procure on the subject, he had arrived at the conclusion that since 1820 no importation of slaves had taken place into the Mauritius. It was in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819, that the first attempts to put an end to the traffic in the colony were made by Colonel Hall and Colonel Darling. Those officers did their duty admirably, and the result was, that an end was put to all further importation of slaves. In 1821, a treaty was made with the King of Madagascar, he being the great importer of slaves, the effect of which was, to put an end to any further importation. In 1826, another measure was passed relative to the trade, and which completely answered its purpose. He mentioned these facts, in order to show that they must go back for nearly twenty years to find out any individuals who had been illegally imported as slaves. The difficulty of proving the fact of illegal importation would, therefore, be very great; and this he said, not from any opinion he had formed himself upon the subject, but upon the authority of gentlemen who were well acquainted with legal proceedings, and consequently enabled to speak with accuracy on such matters. He was told that a negro who had been illegally imported was entitled to his freedom, because, never having been a slave, he had never forfeited his liberty; but then came the difficulty of proving such a case. It could not, as he understood, be proved in any Court in the Isle of France, and although an appeal might be made to the Court of Admiralty, he believed that such an appeal would not be successful, because, even admitting the negro to he evidence in his own case, still the confusion in which such testimony was proverbially involved, a confusion inconceivable to persons unacquainted with the character of such witnesses, rendered it utterly impossible to arrive at the truth. Until the Isle of France became an acquisition of this country, the slave trade was carried on there to a considerable extent; but he admitted that his noble Friend (Lord Ripon), when at the head of the Colonial Department, applied himself to this subject. His noble Friend commissioned a gentleman to go out to the Isle of France to ascertain whether or not illegal importations were still carried on there; and this gentleman, but not without great trouble and expense, succeeded in bringing several cases of this description to trial. The number of negroes thus proved to have been illegally imported amounted to from 400 to 500; but he (Lord Glenelg) doubted very much whether, if a similar attempt were now made, it would not be completely baffled. Indeed, he did not believe that it would be possible to arrive at any certain conclusion under such circumstances, which, no doubt, was the reason why the Government had not been able to follow up the course which his noble Friend had adopted. Now he (Lord Glenelg) lamented that such was the case, as he was as desirous as any one could be to arrest the evil. He did not, however, see how that could be done; but if his noble and learned Friend would suggest any means of effecting that object, all he could say was that it should have his best consideration. To show that he was not indifferent to the subject, he was ready to admit that even if one single instance could be established, it should be visited with the penalties of the law; but while he said this, he would, with their Lordships' permission, take the liberty of making one observation, which would go to show that slaves were not now in so wretched and deplorable a condition as formerly. He was by no means desirous of narrowing the feeling with which they were generally regarded, but it must be acknowledged on all hands that their situation since the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act was better than it had been at any former period. He had already admitted that if even a single case of illegal importation could be brought home, it would justify the interposition of the Government; but as the negro, whether slave or not, would have to pass through an apprenticeship before he received his freedom, it was, he must say, a source of consolation to think that the change which had taken place in the law had so far improved his situation, as he had now only to work seven Hours and a half a day, and was amply provided with both food and raiment. While he said this, he wished it to be fully understood that if any cure for the evil could be discovered, he should gladly avail himself of it; but at the same time he thought that the representation came too late to enable the application of a remedy, as the Rules and Orders respecting the compensation to be given to the slave-owners must have reached the Colony in January or February last, and were now actually in force. For these reasons he should be reluctant to take any step at present upon the subject; but, with respect to the question of compensation, he certainly should regret extremely that any person who had taken part in the illegal importation of slaves should also share in the compensation to be given to the bonâ fide slave-owner. He feared, however, they were precluded from raising the objection by the Slavery Abolition Act; but if that were not the case, all he could now do was to repeat his readiness to consider any suggestion on the subject which might be thrown out.

Lord Brougham

must say, that if we were to pay 500,000l. or 600,000l. in respect of illegally imported slaves, or in other words, for felony and piracy, it would be one of the most hateful operations ever perpetrated in the financial concerns of this country. He was not sure, however, that we should not be compelled to do some thing of this kind, but thought that means might be found to narrow the amount of this species of compensation by instituting a proper inquiry on the spot. He had received suggestions on this subject from persons acquainted with the Mauritius, which he should refer to the Colonial-office, in the hope that they would not be discarded till they were found after mature consideration incapable of producing the effect which their authors anticipated from their adoption.

The Earl of Ripon

said, that when in the Colonial-Office he had applied his attention to this subject, and, acting on information communicated to him by persons well acquainted with the Mauritius, he gave instructions to facilitate the bringing cases of illegally imported slaves before the Court of Admiralty. The result of the inquiries made had been more efficacious than his noble Friend supposed: for before his instructions were sent out upwards of 1,200 individuals had been released. How many more were liberated after the new instructions went out he could not tell. [Lord Glenelg:—I believe 500.] Very likely. With regard to compensation, if it could be proved in reference to any one person that he had been illegally imported, the owner could not claim compensation on account of an individual who, though held in slavery, in point of law never was a slave. He admitted that proof of the fact would be attended with incalculable difficulty. However, he again said, if it could be shown that an individual had been illegally imported, neither on account of him nor of his descendants was an owner entitled to compensation. The whole slave population of the Mauritius did not exceed 65,000, and he thought his noble and learned Friend had overstated the amount of compensation for illegally imported slaves when he fixed it at 600,000l.

Lord Glenclg

said, that from 1810 to 1826 nearly 3,000 persons held in slavery had been liberated; but those were slaves captured by our cruisers or illegally adjudged.