HL Deb 25 July 1844 vol 76 cc1372-86
The Earl of Aberdeen

said, that he had the honour to lay upon the Table Copies of Instructions which had recently been prepared for the guidance of naval officers in Her Majesty's service engaged in the suppression of the Slave Trade. Early last Session he had stated to the House that Her Majesty's Government had thought it expedient to submit to revision the Instructions under which these officers had hitherto been acting in the discharge of their duty, and that revision being now completed, he thought it proper that the result should be laid before their Lordships, in order that all the world might become aware not only of their general principles and motives, but also of every thing by which the conduct of their cruisers was regulated in the execution of the objects they had in view. Her Majesty's Government felt that as they had nothing to conceal upon this subject, the greatest possible publicity would be desirable—they felt that this course would afford the best refutation to the calumnies and false accusations which had been made against this country for her conduct in the suppression of the Slave Trade, imputing that under the pretext of humanity she only sought to extend her own commerce, and to cripple and discourage that of other countries. The revision of these Instructions was in truth not only expedient, but necessary and indispensable. On coming into office he found the Instructions on this subject in existence very inadequate and imperfect; in some respects, indeed, contradictory and inconsistent, and not always conformable to public law and justice. Under these circumstances, some inquiry seemed to be indispensable as to the nature of these Instructions, and the mode in which they had been hitherto framed and communicated to the parties for whose guidance they were intended. It was then found that the custom had been that, as from time to time treaties were entered into with Foreign Powers for the suppression of the Slave Trade, copies of them were sent to the naval officers engaged in this department of public service, without being accompanied with any instructions or explanation, those parties being left to execute them according to the best of their judgment. When he reflected upon the number of these treaties (and there were not less than thirty) and the nice distinctions which there were in some, while the distinctions in others were great and striking, and the amount of judgment and discretion which was required justly to carry out all their intentions, it appeared to him that their officers had a right to expect that Government should give them every possible assistance in the execution of their very important, but difficult and delicate duties. For this purpose, therefore, he had proposed that such Gentlemen should undertake the revision of the whole of these Instructions as appeared to him likely to carry with them the confidence of the public in any matter which they might undertake; and he felt bound to state the names of the Gentlemen who had undertaken this important inquiry, because, beyond the approval of their own consciences, they would receive no reward, except the thanks of the Government, and the grateful feelings of the country to whom they had rendered this service. The first Gentleman appointed was Dr. Lushington, of whom he should certainly say nothing on the present occasion, but of whose great learning and long and active exertions in regard to this question their Lordships were already aware. The second Gentleman was Mr. Bandinel, of the Foreign Office, who had been for some time charged with the official superintendence of a department relating to this matter, and whose services had been of the greatest possible utility. The next name was that of Captain Denman, whose experience on the coast of Africa, and whose general activity and intelligence had been eminently distinguished in this service. The fourth Gentleman appointed was Mr. Rothery of Doctors' Commons, whose attention had been long directed to this subject. These four Gentlemen undertook the task during the whole of the last year, and had bestowed unremitting and most laborious attention upon the subject of inquiry submitted to them; and as the result of their labours, had recently submitted to him (the Earl of Aberdeen) a Report containing a complete body of Instructions, which after having been submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown, and received such modifications as appeared to be necessary and desirable, were now in the state in which he had the honour to lay them on their Lordships' Table. He wished to take this opportunity of stating, however, that necessary as these Instructions were, he had been much astonished at the general sound judgment and discretion displayed by the officers engaged upon this service. It was perfectly true that with that intrepidity which was displayed by our Navy on all occasions, and particularly when engaged in suppressing practices which they in common with all men held in great detestation,—it was perfectly true, and it was not surprising, that occasional error may have been committed, arising out of an excess of zeal on the part of the officers in the discharge of their duty; but he must say that, upon the whole, it was wonderful to observe how much discretion, forbearance, and caution, had been shown by them in the discharge of this duty, and when errors had been committed, his (the Earl of Aberdeen's) endeavour had been promptly to make redress where injury had been inflicted:—and this was a matter of very great importance, for it was the first great point to attain towards the redress of one class of injuries, that wrong be not done to other parties; and he had always felt that the cause they were engaged in would suffer more from acts of injustice, violence, and oppression, than even the escape of guilty parties—for their Lordships must be perfectly aware that this country could never alone accomplish the suppression of the Slave Trade—it was obvious that they must depend for the success of that undertaking upon the goodwill and co-operation of other countries, and, to attain these, they must prove that they were animated by disinterested and pure motives, and show a due regard for their rights and privileges. He did not propose to enter, at that moment, into any justification on the part of Her Majesty's Government for anything they had done with respect to the suppression of the Slave Trade. He did not see any disposition to cast any censure there, or anywhere, upon them. He did not propose either to enter into any lengthened view of the progress that had been made by this country in the suppression of the Slave Trade. He might, however, just mention, that notwithstanding the unceasing exertions and the great sacrifices made by this country, their work was still very imperfect; and although much had been done, still they were far from arriving at a completely successful result. It appeared that for many years, from the first tolerably accurate account on the subject, down to a recent period, about the same number of slaves continued to be imported into the American Colonies and Continent. The number of 100,000 slaves annually appeared to have been exported from Africa down to a recent period—even the abolition of the Slave Trade by this country did not appear materially, or in any degree, to affect the amount of slaves that were torn from their country. The only period in which there appeared to be any considerable diminution was from the year 1830, to 1835, for during these years the average amount of slaves exported from Africa appeared to have been 58,000. Down to that period, from 1768, when they had the first notice of the numbers, the number varied from 90,000 to 100,000, but from 1830 to 1835 the number had fallen to 58,000; but then, he regretted to say, in the five succeeding years, that was from 1835 to 1840, the number had again risen to 99,300 and odd. From 1840 to 1844, three years during which Her Majesty's Government, as he understood, had been said to be more remiss or lukewarm than their predecessors in their seeking the attainment of that great object—the suppression of the Slave Trade. It would be a sufficient answer to observe that the numbers exported averaged only 28,000, being the lowest average by far that had ever been assigned. The lowest exportation of slaves from Africa was in the year 1842, when it appeared, that including Brazil and Cuba, there were only 17,000 slaves exported. He was sorry to say that in the last year, 1843, the number had risen to 38,000, making an average for the three years of 28,000. This fact was to be attributed to two causes. First, the necessity that was imposed upon this country of removing a considerable number of their squadron which was on the coast of Brazil, watching for slavers, in order to attend to the British interests, which were very materially affected and endangered by the senseless war carried on between Buenos Ayres and Monte Video. The lives and properties of British subjects were so much compromised by that war, that it was impossible to allow the same number of cruisers to remain on the coast of Brazil. The second reason was the change in the Captain-Generalship of Cuba. During the last year of the Administration of General Valdez, there were only 3,000 slaves imported into Cuba. He had said in that House, and he had no doubt that he was within the fact in making the assertion, that had General Valdez remained as Captain General of Cuba, and had he continued to possess the confidence of the Government at home, the Slave Trade would have been completely annihilated in that country. The Spanish Government of the Regent, though well disposed to the abolition of the Slave Trade did not, however, support General Valdez in his humane intentions, in particular towards the close of his administration, when he received positive orders from the government of the Regent to relax in his endeavours to suppress the traffic. Whether, then, that honourable person would have obeyed these instructions, or have resigned his office he did not know; but he was recalled shortly after these instructions had been sent to him. The Slave Trade interest in Spain must have been very strong, when it was able to force the Regent to give orders which certainly were against his own inclination. Their Lordships would now see what amount of misery still remained, and what measures they were prepared to take to put an end to it if possible, or at least greatly to counteract it. They had reduced the exportation to the settlement of the west, for the slaves that were now carried from Africa were confined to Cuba Brazil, and Porto Rico. At present no other countries but Spain and the Brazils profited by the trade, for he was happy to say that the Portuguese government, since the treaty concluded with this country for the abolition of the Slave Trade in the year 1842 had acted with good faith on this question; and their superior officers on the coast of Africa showed every desire to co-operate with England in putting down the traffic. He had, therefore, reason to hope, that Portugal had entered upon a new course of conduct with respect to the Slave Trade. The change that had taken place in Cuba, and the conduct of the local authorities of Brazil, were certainly topics which he was unwilling to dilate in the manner in which he felt they deserved, but these states should recollect that England had treaties with them upon this subject—that they had entered into engagements with England, and that they had thereby placed themselves under obligations as binding and as strong as if they had ceded towns or provinces to us, that we had achieved the conquest of humanity and were as much entitled to enjoy the fruits of that conquest as of any other; and that these treaties they must be prepared to fulfil, and that England must propose the means by which these treaties should be executed honestly and faithfully. He had no hesitation in saying this, that if the Governments of Brazil and Spain had but for two or three years executed faithfully, honestly and zealously those treaties with this country, the Slave Trade would be now absolutely at an end. He had no doubt that such would be the case, and he, therefore, need not say, that no efforts would be spared to accomplish the object (seeing how the field had been contracted and narrowed) to secure the fulfilment of those treaties. The noble Lord opposite (the Earl of Clarendon), who formerly filled the station of Minister of this country at the court of Madrid, and by whom a treaty was concluded in 1835 with Spain, was aware that by the second Article of that treaty the Spanish Government engaged that a law would be enacted in a few months after the treaty had been signed, by which there should be affixed a very severe punishment upon persons engaged in the Slave Trade. Now, from that time to this, the noble Lord knew that all the expectations of this country on the subject had been vain; no such law had been enacted until very recently; but within a very few weeks, he was happy to say, the very honourable and estimable person who had been for a very short time only, at the head of the Spanish Ministry, and had now resigned (the Marquess of Villuma) had signalized his brief tenure of office by proposing a law perfectly satisfactory upon the subject. M. Villuma had sent instructions out to Cuba, which would have the force of law there, until they received the sanction of the Cortes and was made law in Spain. This was the first indication of a desire to fulfil that pledge which had been given in 1835. He also wished to mention another circumstance which led him to entertain the hope of success: that hope was afforded to him by the very active co-operation and perfect understanding which existed between the commanders of Her Majesty's cruisers on the coast of Africa, and those of the squadron of the United States. The officers employed by the United States had co-operated cordially with Her Majesty's officers and there could be no doubt but that the greatest possible advantage was derived from that good understanding. This was of the more importance, because it showed that the slight differences existing between us in connection with certain claims made respectively by the two Governments required nothing but a conciliatory spirit and a friendly disposition on the part of the persons engaged to render that difference of no importance, although had a different spirit prevailed, difficulties might have arisen from a difference of view. Such in the present case, could end in no disagreeable result. He had also reason to know that the French Government had recently shown a disposition to take a more active part than they had hitherto done in the suppression of the Slave Trade by means of their cruisers on the coast of Africa. With the co-operation, then, of the squadrons of the United States and the French cruisers, they had a better prospect than before of a successful termination to their exertions. It might be proper for him, in speaking of these prospects, and as to what was to be done on the const of Africa, to advert to a plan of Her Majesty's Government—a plan which they had decided to adopt as part of the course of their operations, though it was not yet complete, but from which he sanguinely believed the greatest advantages might be derived, and which would ulti- mately be attended with the greatest success. It had always appeared to him that our efforts for the suppression of the Slave Trade were open to a considerable objection; for he always thought that an imperfect watch on the coasts of Africa and America—unless they could suppose that slaves were to arise from the depths of the sea—would prove an injudicious mode of employing our force. Every place was known from which slaves could come, and the most natural thing he thought for them to do was to watch the places where the slaves must come from. Having always entertained these views, he was much struck with the evidence of Captain Denman before the Committee of the House of Commons in the year 1842, in relation to this subject. Having since then had frequent communication with that gallant officer, and other officers of great experience on the coast of Africa, he had determined to have the greatest possible increase of force on that coast, with a view of preventing any export whatever of negroes. This plan had been spoken of as a blockade. Nothing could be more incorrect—a blockade was a belligerent right, and this could only be exercised by those who engaged in acts approaching to hostility. In this case, there was to be no blockade; so far from that, there was the greatest desire, by every possible means, to extend the commerce and trade with the African coast. It was to be no blockade—it was to be only a strict watching of these vessels, belonging to countries which had bound themselves to England by treaties, and which vessels they, by the Law of Nations, as well as by the municipal law of this country had a right to visit and detain. Difficult as this undertaking might appear, yet they had the opinion of those best acquainted with the service on the coast, and all agreed as to the practical effect certain to follow from the means they proposed. He might mention the names of Captain Matson and other officers who had been most successfully engaged in this service. He was, therefore, very sanguine indeed that the measure they were adopting would be attended with success. It was not to be imagined that they intended to abandon altogether the cruising on the coast of Brazil. The force there was diminished, because Her Majesty's Government had not sufficient ships at their disposal to perform that, with other services required. A force, however, would be kept up there to intercept those slavers who might possibly escape from the cruisers on the coast of Africa; but from the plan they adopted, and from the proper disposition of their Forces, they did believe that it would be impossible for a single ship to escape from the coast of Africa. They did not, he begged to observe, mean to confine themselves to the western coast of Africa alone. By no means; for there would be a sufficient number of cruisers allotted to the eastern coast also. That was a coast more easily watched, and where ships were required of so much larger size, so that their cruisers, he was sure, would be able to act with the greatest possible success. Without a careful watch upon both coasts he thought that nothing effectual could be done. He trusted then to have a sufficient force allotted to the eastern coast of Africa as well as on the western coast. Moreover it was to be observed, that there was this advantage, that here there was no political interest to interfere with the strict discharge of this duty. On the coast of Brazil, they were liable to interruption, for it was impossible to neglect the rights and interests of British subjects, even for so great an object as the abolition of this trade: whereas, on the coast of Africa there was nothing of the kind to be apprehended; and there these ships could, without the slightest interruption persevere in the object they had in view. It was very possible that improvements might hereafter take place, as compared with the first distribution of their naval force. He must say, that from the conjoint opinions he had received on the subject, he thought that they might anticipate the most favourable results. It was, then, with these views that the present Instructions had been framed for the guidance of the officers entrusted with this service; and in adverting to these general Instructions, he did not now mean to detain their Lordships by describing these Instructions more particularly. In these Instructions the endeavour was made to embrace every possible object, and to provide against every difficulty—from the persons that had been employed, and the time and labour that had been given to this subject, he hoped that all that could be expected would be found to be provided for. They were composed of different parts, and applied to different objects; and in addition to the Instructions, every treaty on the Slave Trade was given, with a digest of those treaties, the peculiarities of which were pointed out, with specific directions applicable to each: and as he hoped and believed that those Instructions would be useful to the officers employed, so he also was confident that they would be found of great advantage to them in the service on which they were engaged, and in the attainment of the great object for which they were engaged.

The Earl of Minto

said, he had heard with great satisfaction the speech of his noble Friend, and believed the regulations were very satisfactory, and would afford useful instruction to officers as to the mode of carrying into effect the measures for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. His noble Friend had made one or two observations upon the want of such instructions under the preceding Government: but he was not aware of any instance in which the slightest difficulty had occurred on the part of any officer employed in executing the treaties, which were extremely intelligible. Approving as he did of the system which his noble Friend could not call a blockade, but a watchful attention to the coast of Africa, he still thought that there must be a vigilant attention paid to the importation of slaves into Cuba and elsewhere: He thought the reduction of our naval force had had some unfavourable influence upon the trade, and that, by employing a considerable force on the coast of Africa, the trade, if not entirely put an end to, might be very materially reduced.

Lord Colchester

said, that having been in command of one of Her Majesty's ships on the coast of Africa, he could not help thanking the noble Earl (the Earl of Aberdeen) for issuing those precise and full Instructions for the guidance of officers on that coast. He knew, from his own experience, the difficult situation in which officers were placed when nothing was put into their hands but the treaties themselves, of which they had to make the best use they could, without any precise instructions. Those Instructions would, therefore, be most useful to officers so employed. With respect to the number of slaves exported from Africa between 1830 and 1835, it was to be recollected that, in 1830, slavery was abolished in the Brazils, or rather a treaty was concluded with the Brazils for that object, and the Brazilians had previously increased their stock of slaves, so that in subsequent years they had imported but few. As to the system of a stricter watch on the mouths of the African rivers, he believed that this would prove very efficient. It was pretty well known on the coast of Africa what vessels were. He was glad also to know that a distinction was made between a blockade and watching the coast. The word "blockade" led to great misconceptions abroad.

The Earl of Clarendon

expressed his satisfaction at the speech of his noble Friend opposite, and his fervent wish that the measures which had been taken would be successful in abating the Slave Trade, and procuring for us what we had never yet obtained, however justly we were entitled to it, namely, the hearty co-operation of other countries in our humans endeavours. From what had fallen from his noble Friend, he was glad to find that we had a right now to expect such co-operation from France and from the United States, and he thought his noble Friend had done extremely well in procuring from the Spanish Government the order which it appeared had been sent to Cuba. It was true that the Treaty to which he (Lord Clarendon) had been instrumental in 1835 did contain an article of a similar purport, but although he had certainly pressed to have that article carried into effect, he was constantly told that it was impossible in the state of feeling then existing in Spain, and that the proposal of such a measure to the Cortes would create a still greater feeling of dissatisfaction. There was one point upon which he thought it desirable that his noble Friend should give an explanation, and that was the mode in which he proposed to deal with the barracoons on the African coast. That point had been adverted to in the other House, and the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government had said that it was not the intention of the Government to permit the naval officers to destroy the barracoons, unless the previous consent of the African chiefs was obtained. He thought such a regulation would be satisfactory. It was consistent with the law of nations; and he did not believe there would be any difficulty in obtaining such consent. The new regulations in train with respect to the barracoons had no reference to the Spaniards who were called the proprietors of them; for by the Treaty of 1817, all Spaniards were expressly prohibited from dealing in any way with slaves on that coast; and he believed there was an action now pending against Captain Denman for the destruction of a barracoon which a Spaniard claimed as his property; but he believed that his holding such property on the coast of Africa was in direct contravention of the laws of his own country. He wished he (Lord Clarendon) could share in the sanguine expectations of his noble Friend, as to the success of the proposed regulations; but he feared they would be no more successful than any other steps that had been taken, for the more he considered all that had been done for the abolition of the Slave Trade, and the prospect which was now before us, notwithstanding what had fallen from his noble Friend, the greater and the more discouraging did the difficulties appear, for the enormous expense we had incurred and must still incur, and the danger of embroiling ourselves in war with other countries, were not more manifest to his mind, than the failure of all that had been done hitherto. And indeed so far as success had crowned our efforts, it had only been the means of extending the Slave Trade, and adding incalculably to the sufferings of the unhappy creatures who were sacrificed to it, because those unhappy creatures of rapacity were now battened down in vessels constructed exclusively with reference to speed, and the mortality was far greater than before; and in order to fill up the deficiencies thus occasioned by death or by capture—his noble Friend did not believe this—but he (Lord Clarendon) believed he was rather understating than overstating the case, when he said that double the number of persons were torn from their families and friends and sold into bondage, than when the Slave Trade was free, and the dealer was able to treat his living cargo as he pleased. These were melancholy reflections, but it would be trifling with the great interests of humanity to shut our eyes to the fact, and to continue relying exclusively for success upon arrangements which had hitherto not been successful. He thought too much credit could not be given to the predecessor of his noble Friend; he felt that the gratitude, not only of this country, but of the whole civilized world was due to him for the persevering and successful efforts he had made to engage other countries to join with us in a crusade against this unholy traffic. That was certainly the right course to pursue after our own act of emancipation but experience had shown what it was worth, and what had been its effect, and he thought we had no right to expect better results from treaties than they had produced hitherto. His noble Friend might not agree with him, but let him recollect that of the countries which had concluded those treaties, some had been bribed, others had been influenced by political considerations, but not one had entered into them with the same spirit of philanthropy that had actuated our conduct. There was not one of those States that had signed a Treaty without an intention of violating its stipulations. He thought all must concur in the praise bestowed by his noble Friend upon General Valdez. He was sure that a more honourable or upright man could not be sent with authority to a distant country, and he believed he would have resigned rather than comply with the instructions of Espartero, to be no longer active in the Suppression of the Slave Trade; but the circumstance of Espartero being obliged to send out such instruction, showed how strong the feeling must be in Spain, and in Cuba also, for it was in consequence of communications from Cuba that they were sent. We have seen how faithfully the Treaty had been observed by Valdez, and how shamefully it was violated under O'Donnell. We knew that the Slave Trade was at this moment as much carried on under the flags of Spain and of Brazil as ever, and that notwithstanding our laws and public opinion in this country, British merchants and British capital were involved in it—we knew how narrowly we were exposed to the danger of war with France and the United States, but he rejoiced to hear of the satisfactory state of the vexed question of the Right of Search. Far be it from him to say that we ought to abandon our system to release other countries from the engagements by which they were bound, or to cease to place our cruisers where the Government of the country thought they would be most useful; but he said that we ought to prove to other countries that the labour of freemen was more productive than that of slaves; and, therefore, that it was the interest of other countries to put an end to slavery. It was because we had not given that proof to other countries that they looked upon our experiment as a failure, and viewed our disinterested philanthropy as a trick only intended to delude. And the reason why we had not given that proof was, that in our Colonies free labour had not had a fair trial. In the larger Colonies the agricultural population formerly employed in the cultivation of sugar was now otherwise engaged, and the production of sugar had fallen off; but in the smaller Colonies, where the population was dense, and where the land was appropriated, the production of sugar was increased, and the cost diminished, so that it might now be considered as proved that where the population was in proportion to the soil, and to the value of the capital invested, the labour of the negro was more productive as a freeman than it had been when he was a slave, and that the wages which he received in producing cheaper sugar were sufficient to keep him not only in comfort, but in luxury. If our larger colonies, which were superior to Antigua and Barbadoes in fertility and natural advantages, were placed in the same position, their production would be increased twelve or thirteen per cent., like that of Antigua, instead of having fallen off one half. The long and severe struggle which had preceded emancipation gave rise to angry and suspicious feelings, which unfortunately survived that great act of humanity, and the conduct of the Government since had been a continued pandering to the suspicion and jealousy which existed. If the affairs of our Colonies were administered with a regard for the best interests of all parties, they would not now be in that state of depression which was appealed to in all parts of the world as the strongest proof of the necessity of slavery. If the Government, and not Exeter Hall, would legislate—if they would assist labour for the Colonies in a less jealous, and suspicious, and niggardly spirit than hitherto—if they would secure to the labourers the same civil rights as their employers enjoyed—if they would remove the restrictions which still weighed upon our colonial trade—he believed in his conscience that the time was not far distant when differential duties would become unnecessary, the West Indies would be a source of prosperity instead of being a cause of irritation and discontent, and the success of free labour would become the most formidable weapon for the abolition of slavery in all parts of the world. These were his opinions, and having had the opportunity of many years examination of the subject, and communication with countries where the Slave Trade was encouraged; and as he yielded to no man in an earnest desire for the extinction of the whole system, he had not hesitated to express his opinion that no sacrifice of life or capital on our part, no treaties however binding, no regulations however stringent, would be effectual in putting an end to the Slave Trade, until we had given undeniable proof to slaveholding countries that free labour would be more beneficial to them than slavery.

Lord Brougham

agreed in all that had been said in approval of the wise, judicious and humane proceedings of the Government, and thanked them for having adopted them. He thought also that the thanks of the Parliament and of the Government were due to those who had long laboured for the suppression of the Slave Trade, and to whom such an acknowledgment would be the only remuneration they could receive. There was one point which seemed to require a little explanation. It would be unfair to conclude that because the number of slaves exported after the Abolition Act of 1805, and the Acts of 1806–7, was as great as before that, therefore those Acts had had no effect, because if those Acts had not been passed, there was every reason to believe the number would have been greater than before, and that while foreign countries increased their Slave Trade, we in Guiana, in Trinidad, and even in our own Colonies, would have been carrying on the Slave Trade with the effect certainly of having cheaper sugar, but at the expense of unfortunate Africa. He heartily hoped that much good would result from the new course suggested by his gallant Friend Captain Denman, and, he was sure, from what had been said by his noble Friend, that we had a just prospect of seeing an end put to the Slave Trade. He agreed with his noble Friend near him (Lord Clarendon) that any thing which tended to promote the supply of free labour to the Colonies would go to the root of the evil—the abolition of slavery, and that would put an end to the Slave-Trade. At the same time neither he nor his noble Friend was for waiting till all slavery should cease before they put a stop to the Slave Trade.

Subject dropped.