HL Deb 20 July 1855 vol 139 cc1196-200

presented, pursuant to notice, a Petition from the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, complaining that the office of High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands is held by a slaveholder, and praying for measures to prevent the continuance of certain evil practices complained of in the Petition. His Lordship said, it was mainly owing to the exertions of this society during the last forty years that they were indebted for measures for completing the abolition of slavery, and for the ultimate measure for the emancipation of the slave. The petition stated that those in high employment, in high offices in this country, having foreign possessions, were owners of slave property in the West Indies. In the Dutch colony of Surinam, and in British Guiana, a proposition had been made to liberate all the slaves born of slave mothers after a certain date, but this proposition had been opposed by the planters. And here he must say, that the despatch penned on this subject by the noble Earl (the Earl of Malmesbury) while at the Foreign Office, had elicited his warmest admiration, and for its wisdom as well as its humanity did its writer the highest honour. Individuals, no doubt of great respectability, had succeeded by inheritance to estates in our Colonies, by means of which they were involuntarily made the owners of slaves; but it was very desirable that such persons should be made fully aware of the great delicacy of the predicament in which they, perhaps unconsciously, stood. They were legally entitled to hold slave property, but they must take care how they purchased slaves—an act which had been rendered felony. The existing laws relating to slavery enabled persons inheriting estates in foreign plantations worked by slaves to get rid of their slave property by sale; but the power of purchase was certainly not conferred upon them. These proprietors should, therefore, be warned against incautiously exceeding the exceptional provisions made in their favour by the Act of 1843, and by previous Acts. One of the warmest and most eminent advocates of the abolition of slavery used to complain bitterly that, being the proprietor of a life interest in a West India estate, he could not get rid either of the estate itself, or (while the slave trade was permitted) of the necessity for actually buying slaves for its cultivation and management. It must, however, be highly satisfactory to those who took an interest in the cause of the negro to witness the progress which it was making in other countries as well as in our own Colonies; and he trusted that the noble Lord opposite (the Earl of Clarendon) would be able to hold out some hopes that our attempts to induce Spain to restrain the most execrable crime of the slave trade, and to keep down the importation of slaves into Cuba to the lowest possible dimensions, would be more successful hereafter than they had heretofore proved. Within the last year of which we possessed accounts, the number of slaves landed in Cuba was no less than from 14,000 to 15,000. How different, happily, had been the conduct of the Government of Brazil in relation to this important matter! Within the last two years the slave trade in Brazil had been entirely extinct. Four years before this the number of slaves imported into that country amounted to 49,000 or 50,000; in the following year it stood at 23,000 l.; in the third year it had dwindled down to 3,000 some odd hundreds; and in the next the traffic had altogether ceased. The consequences of this policy had been most beneficial to the planters of Brazil. The 2,000,000l. a year that were formerly spent in the purchase of slaves had, since the entire abolition of the traffic, been applied to innocent and also lucrative employment; and the accounts from that country indicated that Brazil had, within the last three or four years, made more progress in agricultural and general improvement than had been made for a quarter of a century preceding. These results reflected the greatest credit on the firmness and the wisdom of the very popularly-elected Government of the Brazilian empire. He was glad to say, too, that the tone of feeling on this subject in the Chambers at the present time was very different from that by which they were animated in 1842, when they declared their opinion that the abolition of the slave trade was impossible by human means. The abolition of the Brazilian Government, too, had not been confined to the abolition of the slave traffic; and the manner in which the coloured population was treated in Brazil contrasted most favourably with the infamous treatment they received in the United States. In Brazil a free negro, if he were a native of the country, possessed all the privileges of a citizen, and was eligible for the highest offices, civil, military, or naval; and he was informed that the most skilful physician in Rio, the Emperor's own physician, was a coloured man. He did not wish to speak harshly of the United States in this respect, because he was inclined to hope, from what he had lately heard, that a better state of things was about to arise there. Nothing would rejoice him more than to see that law of Carolina abolished by which every free negro landing in the State was liable to be punished with imprisonment the first time, to be whipped the second time, and the third time to be sold as a slave. The Federal Government had no power to repeal this law; all that it could do was to use its influence to persuade the State Legislature to repeal it. He hoped, however, that his noble Friend opposite would be able to say that his last communications with the Federal Government afforded some prospect of this law being abolished, and that he would be able, too, to give some indication of a speedy decrease in the Spanish slave trade.


said, he had no doubt that the warning addressed by his noble and learned Friend to those who were so unfortunate as to possess estates in British Guiana would be carefully attended to. With regard to Spain, he feared that it was not in his power to say to the noble and learned Lord anything of a very satisfactory character, though he was happy to say that he could afford him some little comfort on the subject. It was true that in the year 1853 a large number of slaves had been imported to Cuba, during the governorship of the late Captain General; but in the year 1854—the returns for which year had not as yet been laid upon the table—there were symptoms of a decline in the traffic. The number of slaves imported during that year was stated to be 7,000, and allowing one-third for unreported landings, there were probably about 10,000 imported—a large number, certainly—but a diminution of the importations during the previous year. Notwithstanding the great temptations which the lucrative nature of the slave trade enabled those who pursued it to hold out to the Spanish authorities in Cuba, and of which those authorities were generally so unscrupulous as to avail themselves, some Captains General had displayed the most praiseworthy determination to discountenance this most horrible traffic. The Marquess de Ribeira, who was Captain General in 1832, published some severe ordinances against it, which were rigidly enforced, and several were punished under them. The late Captain General, Concha, had also set his face very decidedly against the slave trade, but —whether it was carried on with greater secrecy than before—his efforts did not appear to be attended with any very great success. The conduct of the Brazilian Chambers in the matter of the slave trade, he concurred with his noble and learned Friend in regarding as most creditable. The slave trade might be said now to have entirely disappeared from the Brazils. And what was very remarkable was the briefness of the period within which this happy result had been attained. In 1848 there were 60,000 slaves there; in 1850, the number imported was 23,000; in 1852, it had fallen to 1,500; and during the last two years not one slave had been imported. It was satisfactory to think that the embarkation of slaves on the coast of Africa was something less. With regard to the Carolina law, he need not say that it was a delicate and difficult matter to interfere with any foreign country on such a question; but he hoped that the progress of enlightened opinion in the country itself would lead to the establishment of a happier state of things than at present existed there.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.