HL Deb 07 July 1843 vol 70 cc735-42
Lord Brougham

rose to bring before their Lordships the important subject of which he had given notice. He now found himself placed in the by no means painful predicament of urging on their Lordships measures of justice, humanity, and sound policy, which, notwithstanding, were only to be carried by the sacrifice of the particular interests of large classes of their fellow-subjects. It did so happen, that if every principle of justice and humanity urged the adoption of this measure, for the more effectual prevention of the traffic in slaves, and of the employment of British subjects and capital in supporting slavery, our own fellow-subjects in the colonies had a mere pecuniary interest as direct in favour of the measure he now proposed, as the interest which the friends of humanity and justice took in the measure, on more extensive views, could be. He wished shortly to remind their Lordships of what the peculiar position of the Parliament and the Crown was with respect to our colonial fellow-subjects; first, when they abolished the slave-trade, and next, when they abolished slavery as a status, or condition, in our own colonies. In both these instances it was in vain to deny that the course of our legislation ran counter to the interests of the colonial communities of the empire. When Parliament put down the slave-trade, it abolished at once a most lucrative branch of commerce, speculative, adventurous, hazardous, beyond all doubt, but still affording such large gains to those who chose to embark in it, that he believed he might say with perfect confidence, that there never was any branch of British mercantile industry so eagerly plunged into, and so fondly and pertinaciously clung to, as the African slave-trade. It was the nature of mankind, and of mercantile speculation, that the very risk enhanced the delight of the gain which those who won the prizes in the lottery were sure to make, that gain being so enormous, that it was calculated if one voyage out of five or six succeeded, all the rest being mere failures, that fifth or sixth part of the stake played for, made the fortune of all those engaged in it. The resolution of Parliament on this subject was founded, no doubt, on justice, humanity, and sound policy, but, undoubtedly, also, it was detrimental to a large class of the traders of this country. So, again, when slavery was abolished in 1833, so satisfied were they that in taking away all property in slaves, as it was impiously and profanely called by those who assumed the right of holding property in the persons of their fellow-creatures, and in declaring by law, that they would no longer permit any man to hold such property—so undeniable was it, that they confessed it to be so by the compensation they gave for it, that a very great loss was instantly and inevitably incurred by the slave-holders—that a sum of 20,000,000l. sterling was generously, but not more generously than justly, given by Parliament for the purpose of compensation. That was a large sum for this country to give, but justice compelled him to add, that it was not an extravagant sum for the planters. It might be very large for us, regard being had to the pressure of our burdens, and the condition of the country, but although the sacrifice made was such as to redound to the eternal honour of the people. their Government, and Parliament, if he were asked whether he believed, from all the inquiries he had been able to make into the consequences of the measure, that the compensation was complete and perfect, he was bound to answer in the negative. He was bound to state his clear and decided opinion, that notwithstanding the great sacrifice made on our parts, the planters, as a body, had suffered very greatly in their pecuniary interests. Some estates were so circumstanced from the land being worn out, and in general from the bad condition of the property, that almost the only valuable portion of them was the slaves. To those who were receiving only a very moderate return from their property in the West Indies, their rightful share of the 20,000,000l., proportioned to the number of their slaves, came to be a most valuable accession, enabling them to pay off their incumbrances, and leaving them, in some instances, a lucrative reversion; so that their affairs were in a better condition than before. These persons had no right to complain of emancipation; but their number bore but a small proportion to that of others, who had suffered most severely. He did not wish to name names —it would be invidious to do so—but some most valued Friends of his both in that House and the other—not to go be. yond the precincts of Parliament—had been losers to a great extent by the act of emancipation. He knew persons who had once counted their returns by thousands, but they had now sunk to hundreds —he knew others who had drawn hundreds, but who had now scarcely any West-India property at all. The question then at once suggested itself, and this brought him to the leading feature of the present bill, when Parliament inflicted the Emancipation Act on the West-Indian body, did they mean that the planters should suffer for the gain of foreign colonies, not for that of their own fellow-subjects? Did they mean, when they prohibited the \Vest-Indians from trafficking in slaves, and declared the African slave-trade felony, when they abolished slavery, and awarded compensation to the owners, to transfer the slave-trade to the Spaniards or the Portuguese, or to the British subject who lent his capital, industry, and skill, to the slavers of Cuba or Brazil? When his noble Friend, Lord Seaford, at once yielded to the justice and humanity of the Emancipation Act, and his hon. Friend, Mr. Bernal, of whom, after twenty years' experience, be might say that he had never known a better West Indian, yielded in like manner, did Parliament tell them, "We have taken your slave property from you in order to endow others with it, that they may gain what you have lost, that they may become your competitors in the markets of the world for the supply of produce which we will no longer allow you to rear, as you heretofore have done?" Quite the contrary. It was the plain and evident intention of the Legislature to prevent British subjects all over the world from trading in slaves and investing their capital either in slave-ships or slave-plantations. He was not now bringing forward any measure opposed to the interests of the planters, but those very intereste were just as much bound up in it as those of justice and humanity. The Consolidation Act of the 4th George 4th, prohibited British merchants from engaging directly or indirectly in the buying or selling of slaves all over the world. He had detailed to their Lordships on a former occasion his reasons for holding that this was the true meaning of the act, and that there was not a shadow of foundation for the opinion that it was confined to British subjects engaged in the carrying trade from Africa across the sea, but that it was intended to prohibit also any buying or selling by British subjects out of the dominions of the Crown, as well as by any person, British subject or not, within the dominions of the Crown, with this proviso however, that the penalties should not extend to persons engaged in buying, selling, or conveying slaves coastwise, or from one island to another, provided that such was done within the dominions of the Crown—a proof that the exception was not intended ' to extend to transactions of this kind without the dominions of the Crown. Different opinions having, however, been entertained as to the construction of this act, there appeared to be a necessity for a declaratory clause, enacting that it should be unlawful for any British subject, in any part off the world, to take part in any such transactions; the only question being whether the operation should be made prospective, so as to leave impunity to acts hitherto done in real or supposed ignorance of the law. If this course were to be adopted, it would he necessary not only to state that the act should not have its application before a certain time, but to give a distinct indemnity to persons who might have acted in ignorance. No man doubted that if a British subject carried a cargo of slaves from the coast of Brazil to that of Cuba, he was guilty of felony by the Slave-trade Abolition Act, just as much as if he were engaged in carrying a cargo from the coast of Africa to the West Indies; but what was doubtful was the purchasing within Brazil or Cuba the slaves necessary for cultivating a given plantation. See how near this came to African slave-trading. How was the line to be drawn. Was a British subject, who happened to have a plantation near Rio Janeiro, and wanted to buy five or six slaves in order to supply the deficiency of his number, or extend cultivation, to be allowed to go out and meet a slaver at sea, in order to get the first of the market? Was he to go ten leagues out to sea with wherries, in which he might transfer the slaves to land? It would be monstrous to say no. It would be as much an act of slave-trading as if he had gone to the coast of Africa, and purchased slaves from the native chiefs. For this purpose the word transhipment had been used in his act. Was it to be allowed that an English planter was to go into the harbour of Rio, and wait there till a slaver arrived, and when the black flag was hoisted, or when whatever other signal that was customary had been made, was the English planter to be allowed to go and buy the unhappy slaves, and bring them on shore? Was not that just as much an act of felony by the Slave-trade Abolition Act, as if the planter had gone and bought his slaves on the coast of Africa? Then how were they to draw a line between the man who acted as he had described, and one who went for the purpose of trade traffic into the slave bazaar at Rio, where the poor creatures were cooped up like cattle, with chains upon their limbs, and weak and emaciated after all the horrors of the middle passage? Was the Englishman to be allowed to go and take away his purchased slaves from that bazaar? He had no means of distinguishing between such practice and common slave-dealing, and he should continue to believe, till the Legislature told him the contrary, that it had been quite as much the object of the Legislature to put down all such acts as he had described, as those more open acts of the slave-trade against which our legislation had been more immediately directed. The first part of the bill to which he was now directing the attention of their Lordships, went to declare all buying, selling, or dealing in slaves, wherever it might be committed, to be a felonious action. Another part of the bill he admitted, went a step farther than the law had hitherto gone. Its object was to prevent British subjects from investing their property in slaves; not merely to prevent them from purchasing slaves, but from continuing to hold slaves purchased in times past. No doubt this was the part of his bill that was most likely to lead to differences of opinion; but he could not see a reason why, after Parliament had put down slavery in the British dominions, British subjects should nevertheless be allowed to continue to hold slaves in foreign countries. If this were allowed, there would be a competition of English capital against English colonists, and this competition it was, that the Legislature was undeniably bound to prevent if it could. This the bill proposed to do, by making it penal for a British subject to hold slaves in any foreign settlement. But then, it had been said, a British subject might become possessed of slaves without any voluntary act of his own; and against that objection he had provided by a clause, stating that no part of this act should extend to any property coming to a British subject by marriage, descent, or bequest, or by any transfer of mortgage, provided it took place without any voluntary act of his own. There was another exception, to this purpose: the act prohibited the selling of slaves under a heavy penalty, and also the holding of slaves, though under a minor penalty; but persons already possessed of slaves were to have eight or ten months given them, within which period they were to be al. lowed to part with that possession. The consequence would be, that all persons who, not only before the act of 1824, but even subsequently to the passing of that act—and here he was, bound to say that his views had been warmly opposed by other abolitionists—and he had found it very difficult to answer their objections —but he was to consider that all who had become possessed of slaves, even since the act of 1834, should all be held to have acted innocently, and should be enabled, till the bill now pro- posed came into operation, innocently to part with those slaves. There were some minor points to which it would not now be necessary for him to call their' attention, but which would probably come under their notice in the course of the progress of the measure. There were two clauses—the 9th and 10th, which had been intended to empower British consuls to watch the proceedings of British subjects and British trading companies in countries where slavery existed, but this he had since been assured, might lead to some embarrassments, and his right hon. Friend Mr. Ellis, who had lately returned from Brazil, where his mission had by no means been unattended with result, even as far as the object was concerned, had assured him (Lord Brougham) that no good was likely to be obtained from retaining this clause in the bill. Under such circumstances, he should not, of course, persist in pressing this clause on Parliament. There was another point on which it was necessary for him to say a few words. The way in which an innocent trade on the African coast was carried on, presented a subject of no little difficulty. Many persons in this country fitted out expeditions with goods for the African coast, and on their arrival there, those goods immediately found their way into the hands of persons engaged in the slave-trade, by whom they were afterwards employed in the purchase of slaves. Now, it would be a very unfortunate thing if the innocent trade to the African coast was put down; on the contrary, it was the wish of Parliament that that trade should be encouraged as much as possible, as the most effectual means of civilising that great continent. He proposed to meet the difficulty by giving to the executive government the power of issuing orders in council from time to time, for the purpose of regulating the trade, and correcting any abuses that might spring up in it. Lastly, with respect to mining companies in the hands of British speculators, he proposed to give to Government the power of requiring security that those companies would not engage in any traffic that would directly or indirectly lead to the African slave trade. The noble Lord concluded by moving the second reading of the Slave Trade Suppression Bill.

Lord Ashburton

did not rise to offer any opposition to the bill of his noble and learned Friend. He had no doubt the measure would be made to attain a very desirable object, and he had no doubt, at the same time that care would be taken to prevent the measure from bearing with severity on innocent persons, who happened to be engaged in commercial pursuits in those countries where slavery still continued to exist. No doubt it would be perfectly right and proper to prevent British subjects from purchasing property within countries where slavery continued to exist, and then investing capital in slaves for the purpose of working that property. But in Cuba and Brazil there were British merchants engaged in important commercial undertakings, men of extensive connections, who had invested millions of money, and gave employment to thousands of their fellow subjects. Now it would not be an easy matter for men so circumstanced to pass their lives in such a country, without being drawn into the commission of acts that might he construed into offences against the provisions of this bill. He had not read the whole of the bill, but he hoped that provisions for the protection of such persons had been already introduced in it; or, if not, that such provisions would be introduced into it when in committee. There were a thousand chances by which property connected with slaves might come into a man's hands, but he had no doubt that before the bill passed through the two Houses of Parliament, it would be carefully looked at and examined by persons whose interests were likely to be affected by it. Bill read a second time.