HL Deb 19 August 1839 vol 50 cc382-7

The Slave-Trade Suppression Bill was read a third time.

On the question that the bill do pass.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that he had precisely the same objection to the bill in its present shape, which he had expressed upon its second reading. He was altogether opposed to the principle of the bill. He could not help thinking, that before the bill was brought to its present stage, their Lordships ought to have received some intimation of her Majesty's intentions with reference to this subject; that they should have received something more than the small amount of information which had been given by the noble Earl opposite, who was the individual to whom the exercise of the authority given under this bill would be intrusted. In pursuance of the long established usage, their Lordships ought to have received by way of message, a communication of her Majesty's intentions, before they were called on to take this very serious step; and it had been his impression, that such would be the case. He must say, that he did not think the bill was in the least improved, or that any of the objections to it were removed. The measure still retained its criminal character—it was a breach of the law of nations—a breach of treaties entered into between England and other countries. The vessels of other countries were made liable by the bill to be detained, boarded, searched, and their papers examined by cruisers and other vessels commanded by persons in her Majesty's service. He contended, that such detention, boarding, and searching, which was absolutely necessary in order to ascertain whether the vessel was a slaver or not, was contrary to the treaties which had been entered into between her Majesty's Government and nearly all the powers of Europe; and that such measures must lead to discussions of the most disagreeable nature. In his opinion the measure would tend more to prevent the accomplishment of the very object proposed, than to promote it. He would put a case, which he was convinced that no noble Lord would say might not probably occur. He would suppose a French vessel sailing in fifteen degrees of north latitude, and thirty degrees of longitude, calculated from the meridian of Paris. He would suppose that this vessel was detained, boarded, and searched, by one of her Majesty's cruisers, or by one of those other vessels which were under the command of persons employed in her Majesty's service. He asked their Lordships whether this would or would not be a breach of the treaty between this country and the king of the French; and whether, in the case of a Spanish vessel, it would not be a breach of our treaty with her Catholic Majesty? The persons to whom he had alluded as being in her Majesty's service, and intrusted with the command of these vessels, were a very large, and, he believed, a very respectable class; but they were not commissioned officers in her Majesty's service. Nothing could be more delicate than the execution of orders of this description; and it might happen, that French merchant vessels might be searched, under the authority of this Act of Parliament, in a way to involve a breach of the treaty made with the king of the French, for the very purpose of putting down this traffic in slaves; yet their Lordships were called on to pass an Act which would give occasion to this very breach of treaty. No doubt, they must indemnify the parties engaged in these captures, and prevent them from the liability of being punished in a court of justice. What he contended for was, that these men ought not to be put in a situation which would render them liable to commit such mistakes. The Government of the country must eventually suffer from the irritation which this attempt must necessarily produce, in the ports of other countries with which we were now in alliance. There was a municipal law in Portugal, which the subjects of that Crown violated when they engaged in the slave traffic, as well as the treaty with Great Britain. Really, he (the Duke of Wellington) could not consent to a bill of this description. In his opinion, the foundation of the political power of this country was its moderation and its justice; and, in his opinion, also, if moderation and justice were banished from the diplomacy and acts of all the councils in the world, they ought even with respect to vessels engaged in an improper species of commerce, to find an asylum in the councils of the British Government; and, instead of passing this bill to put down a traffic, which most certainly was infamous, if the Government had taken the more manly course of declaring that they would go to war with those powers who refused or neglected to perform their treaties with this country, there could be no doubt but that by return of post they would learn that they had effected the object which noble Lords opposite had in view. Looking back to the probability of the exercise of the right of search being extended to many powers with whom this country had no treaties whatever, and remembering that the greatest judge who had ever pre- sided in the Court of Admiralty had held such search to be illegal in time of peace, he thought their Lordships ought to be most cautious on this subject—a subject which he earnestly recommended noble Lords opposite well to consider before they proceeded to carry this into execution. He would not make any professions of an anxiety to put down the slave-trade. He had passed a long life in the service of her Majesty's predecessors. He had served them in diplomatic situations, in their councils and in arms, and he believed people could not accuse him of saying one thing and meaning another; but thus much he would say, that on this subject of the slave-trade there was no person, excepting one illustrious individual under whose directions he had acted, and whose loss, whose melancholy loss, he had never ceased to deplore—with the exception of that one individual, there was no person now living, or who was lost to the public service, who had written more or negotiated one-tenth as much as himself, on this very subject, with which he was now told he was not conversant. He should certainly say "not content" to the passing of this bill.

Bill passed.

The Earl of Minto

said, he had been most anxious that the bill should become the law of the land, and as it had now passed, and in the hope of giving greater publicity through the public press to the horrible devices contrived by the parties engaged in the slave-trade, he would take this opportunity of mentioning a circumstance which by being made known might save the lives of some of those individuals against whom the diabolical contrivances were directed. He had received since this subject had been last mentioned, a despatch from the officer commanding on the coast of the Brazils, in which he stated, on the authority of Sir George Hamilton, her Majesty's Minister at the Brazils, that on the examination of the papers of the Portuguese slaver Maria, which had been captured by her Majesty's sloop Grecian, there had been found a diabolical correspondence between the slave merchants there and their agents on the coast of Africa, from which it appeared that directions had been sent to the latter to poison a cask of wine and the water to be left on the decks of the slavers, liable to be taken by the crews of her Majesty's cruisers. Then when the seamen boarded the slave ships they would drink the wine and the water and be poisoned. This was pointed out as the only way to deal with the English crews. As he was upon his legs, he might be permitted to say one word, in order to remove any anxiety that the noble Duke opposite, or any other noble Lord, might have on the subject of the right of search. That right would not be otherwise exercised than at present. Even now it was necessary, in order to ascertain whether a vessel carrying the flag of France or Spain was a Portuguese slaver, that the British officer should go on board and deal with her as might be required. This was all that would be done under this bill. With regard to the objection that no message or communication had been made from the Throne as to the orders issued by her Majesty, he (the Earl of Minto) begged to remind their Lordships that a communication had been made in answer to the address of this House, stating that it was her Majesty's intention to issue such orders as had been thought proper by the House; and after that, it had not been thought requisite to communicate by another message that the orders which it had been stated should be issued had actually been issued.


The following protest was entered against the Third Reading of the Bill. DISSENTIENT— 1. Because no communication has been made to this House by message from the Queen which can render necessary, or which can alone justify, this House in agreeing to the proposed enactments of this bill. 2. Because those enactments authorize measures and operations of war against the subject of a foreign power, Portugal, and their property, for breaches of treaty concluded between her Majesty's royal predecessors and Portugal; and for offences committed against the laws of Portugal on the high seas and on the coast of Africa; and provides that subjects of Portugal and their property are to be brought to England or elsewhere in her Majesty's dominions, to be adjudicated by her Majesty's High Court of Admiralty, or a Court of Vice-Admiralty. 3. Because the enactments proposed in this bill deprive those foreigners thus to be adjudicated of all national protection. 4. Because they authorize the detention at sea, the boarding, the demand, search for, and examination of, the papers of all vessels met at sea by her Majesty's cruisers, or any person in her Majesty's service, in direct violation of all the treaties made with each of nearly all the Powers of Europe, for regulating a mutual right of search by ships-of-war of merchant- vessels, for the suppression of the traffic called the slave-trade. 5. Because the amendments in the first clause of the bill leave the objection to the exercise of the right of search, exactly where it stood in the bill before it was discussed and altered in committee. 6. Because vessels sailing under the flag of any nation may be detained, boarded, searched, the demand for papers made (which must be inspected), before the illegal or predatory character of the vessel detained can be established, each of which acts of detention, boarding, demand, search for and examination of papers, is a violation of treaty as between her Majesty and each of nearly all the Powers of Europe, as applied to vessels sailing under their flags respectively. 7. Because the exercise of such right of detention, boarding, search for and examination of papers of vessels on the high seas, in time of peace, has been declared illegal by the highest judicial authority that ever presided over the English Court of Admiralty. 8. Because the exercise of such right is liable to be resented and retaliated by all the Powers of the world including those with which her Majesty is bound by treaties; each authorizing restricted and regulated mutual search of merchant-vessels in certain localities, in order to suppress the traffic called the slave-trade.