HL Deb 20 September 1841 vol 59 cc608-10
Lord Brougham

said, he held in his hand a petition to which he would beg to call the earnest attention of the House, as it related to a subject of the deepest importance. It was from the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, by whose chairman it was signed; but though, according to the forms of their Lordships' House, it must be taken only as the petition of the individual who signed it, there could be no doubt that it spoke the sentiments of the very respectable body from whom it came. After all the laws which had been passed in this and in many foreign countries for putting down the Slave-trade, it was greatly to be regretted that British capital and British skill were still found engaged in that infernal traffic. The petitioners stated, that several British mining companies were established in the Brazils and Cuba, that these mines were worked chiefly by slaves, and that British capital was employed by British subjects in the purchase of newly imported slaves from Africa, to supply the waste and mortality and other exigencies connected with those mines. Now, though it might be lawful for the subjects of some foreign countries to embark in the Slave-trade in those countries, it was not so with British subjects; for, no matter whether the trading in slaves in some foreign countries was illegal or not, if a British subject was proved to have been engaged in carrying on the Slave-trade in such countries he would be liable to be tried and convicted as a felon and a pirate, and to sentence of transportation for life, as the law now stood; but as it stood a few sessions back he would be liable to the punishment of death. The question then would arise, whether it would according to our law be considered a trading in slaves, to purchase newly-imported negroes from Africa? On that point there could be no manner of doubt that the British subject so employing his capital would subject himself on conviction to the penalty of transportation for life. The petitioners further complained that officers belonging to the British army and navy held appointments under the companies to which he had referred. They also stated, that British banking companies had been formed in those countries where the dealing in African slaves was carried on, and that these banking companies were the consignees of goods from British merchants, which goods they must know were used and could be used only as barter in the purchase of slaves. He did not mean to assert that those banking companies, or the consignees of British goods, even though they well knew the purposes to which they were to be applied, were, as the laws now stood, acting illegally, but according to the statement of the petitioners some of those parties went a step further—a step which, in his mind, left no doubt that they were acting in direct violation, not only of the spirit, but also of the letter of the law passed in this country for putting down the traffic in slaves, for it appeared that they did not dispose of the consigned goods at a price, but that it was a condition of the sale that the price was to be a share to a certain extent in the profits which were to be made from the dealing in slaves. Now it was quite clear that this was illegal, and subjected all the British subjects engaged in it to the penalties he had mentioned. He did not state, that there was direct evidence of this as against the merchants and companies referred to, but in a report made by commissioners sent out to the African coast it was stated, that goods sent to that coast were not paid for at a fixed price, but that the sale was made on a condition that the vendors of the goods should share in the profits of the Slave-trade. Such a dealing was no doubt against the spirit of our laws against slave-trading, and he hoped it would be treated as felony and piracy. The petitioners also stated, that large consignments were sent out of fetters and shackles to the Brazils and to Cuba, the parties sending them well knowing the uses to which they were to be ap plied. He did not say, that as the law against slave-dealing now stood such trading as this came within its prohibitions, but there could be no doubt that the law required amendments, so as to bring such practices within its reach. The petitioners went on to say, that vessels were being built in this country which, from their structure and internal arrangement, could leave no doubt that they were intended for the Slave-trade. One vessel was now nearly completed in one of our best harbours, which was to be sent to the Havannah, and no doubt thence to the coast of Africa. Under these circumstances the petitioners prayed their Lordships to extend the provisions of the 5th of George 4th, to such dealings in slaves as they had described, and to appoint a committee to inquire into the whole of the allegations of the petitioners. He would earnestly urge their Lordships to comply with the prayer of the petitioners, which sought for inquiry. He hoped his noble Friend at the head of the Board of Trade, would have no objection to the production of the report of Dr. Madden, which contained some important facts as to the state of slave trading on the western coast of Africa.

The Earl of Ripon

said, that the report referred to by his noble and learned Friend was not addressed to the department over which he had the honour to preside. It was addressed to one of the Secretaries of State, and as it was not in. his office he was not prepared to say whether it was a document which he could lay before the House. He would, however, make inquiry on the subject. As to the other part of the prayer of the petition for inquiry, he thought if it could be shown that any British subjects were engaged in that degrading traffic it would be a ground for the interference of Parliament. If his noble and learned Friend was prepared to show that, in a moral point of view, British subjects were implicated in that odious traffic, it would form a ground for inquiry.

Lord Brougham

said, that the document to which he alluded had been addressed to Lord John Russell. As to the remark of his noble Friend about the proof of the statements of the petition, he begged to be understood as not at all pledging himself for the proof of any one of them. He spoke on the assumption that the petitioners could prove their own statements.

Petition laid on the Table.