HL Deb 11 December 1857 vol 148 cc514-21

said, seeing his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in his place, he would ask him a question relative to the state of the contract supposed to exist between a house in Marseilles and some African chiefs for the supply of free emigrants to the French colonies. It had been reported that this contract had been ratified by a decree of the Imperial Government, and the people of England were fearfully alive to the probable, nay, almost certain revival of the horrors of the African slave trade. He wished to ask how far this report was true; whether, if the decree had been issued, there was any hope of its revocation, and generally what was the position of the whole matter?


said, in answer to the questions of his noble Friend, he had to state that he had no reason to believe that the decree to which his noble Friend alluded had been issued; but he believed there was no doubt that a contract had been entered into by the French Government and a certain firm for the supply of negroes to the French colonies, which only received the sanction of the Imperial Government on condition that it was to be bond fide a free emigration. That the condition thus imposed, and which he was sure had been imposed by the French Government in perfect good faith, should be fulfilled was perfectly impossible. There could be no such thing as a free emigration from Africa. We ourselves had tried the experiment sixteen years ago, and with every precaution and every safeguard to prevent abuses, so as to secure the freedom of the African labourer on his passage, and his proper treatment while employed in our colonies, as well as to guarantee his return home at the expiration of his engagement if he wished it. Notwithstanding all these safeguards the plan utterly and entirely failed, and it was not likely that it would ever succeed under any circumstances. But this was what the French contractors were compelled to do. They engaged with the African chiefs to supply a certain number of slaves at so much a head, who were placed on board of ship, when a certain formality was gone through, with the view of ascertaining whether they were willing to work at stated wages, and for a limited time, in the French colonies or not. Now, whether the negroes understood that question or not, it was manifest that when once on board of ship they had no choice in the matter. Besides, the result was, that by this system the French contractors were brought into competition with the regular slaveholders, who offered ninety dollars a head for slaves, while the French contractors had only the power to give fifty dollars. There had in consequence been a failure of the contract; but that in no way altered the character of the transaction, because if slaves were to be procured at all, it must be by purchase, and they could not be obtained unless the chiefs kidnapped negroes or made war upon their neighbours, it being, of course, a matter of utter indifference to those chiefs whether those slaves, whom they sold to the highest bidders, were manumitted after their arrival in the French colonies, or whether they were worked to death. The wars carried on with that view were of the most barbarous character, and caused great loss of life. Whole districts were depopulated, and not one-half of those captured survived the sufferings they met with on their way to the coast. The French contractors said that it was an act of huma- nity to the negroes themselves to give them that opportunity of emigrating to places where they could be profitably employed; but in point of fact it was the knowledge that there were purchasers that placed them in that position. But he would remind their Lordships that it was putting a stop to the legitimate and prosperous trade which within the last few years had sprung up on the coast of Africa in almost every locality in which the slave trade had been carried on, and by which the natives of Africa were greatly benefited. In the spring of this year he (the Earl of Clarendon) received two despatches on this subject, which were of such great interest and contained such full and valuable information as to the trade in palm oil that he did not wait to have them published in the regular course, but laid them at once upon the table of their Lordships' House. Since that time he had ascertained that the trade at Lagos in palm oil had increased 50 per cent, and now amounted to upwards of £2,000,000 a year. But the whole of this rising trade, and this increasing prosperity to the Africans was now threatened with destruction if this system were carried on. There were now extensive preparations for war being made in all the countries from which the slaves were brought, and as the matter was one of so much interest and importance he would read a very short extract from a despatch which he had received from Mr. Campbell, the Consul at Lagos. Mr. Campbell, at the beginning of September last, wrote, in allusion to the contract of M. Regis, that,— Unless the intention of purchasing slaves at Whydah is abandoned we shall have the whole of the Youraba country plunged into warfare to supply the demand of the slave market at Whydah. The example of the people of Abcokuta is to be followed by the people of Ibaddan, who are preparing to attack the Jaboo country, and, as a preliminary step, several Jaboos peacefully attending the market at Ibaddan have been seized, some put to death, others sent to Why-dab, for sale, and all intercourse between the two countries has been stopped by the closing of the paths and roads, and if the speculation of M. Regis is carried out it will be followed by other countries. But the people of that country had during the last thirty years acquired such a taste for industrial pursuits, and had become so much alive to the advantages arising therefrom, that it was with the utmost reluctance they were now induced to engage in wars, while formerly every man was eager for strife and plunder, and the chiefs were now actually compelled to suspend all trade, and to deprive the people of all means of livelihood, before they could induce them to engage in hostilities. In order to prove that fact, he would read an extract from a proclamation issued by the chief of Abbeokuta:— 1. In order to procure a large army for the Albo war, soon to be undertaken, trade must be stopped now, and during the war nothing must be sold and nothing bought. 2. In order to this the passengers by land and the river to Ijai, Ibaddan, Lagos, and other adjacent towns that trade with Abbeokuta must be stopped. 3. No canoe shall be allowed to appear in the river, excepting the missionaries', who are no traders. 4. That instant death on the spot be the penalty inflicted upon violation of any of these rules. It was not necessary to enter into further details, but he thought he had said enough to prove that the Government were alive to the dangers of any such scheme as had been alluded to. It would, therefore, be readily understood that they had felt it their duty to bring the matter under the serious consideration of the French Government, not doubting that that Government felt an equal abhorrence of any attempt to revive the slave trade, and also not doubting that although no convention existed at this moment between the two countries, yet that the French Government would feel itself bound to act upon the spirit of the Declaration made by the great Powers that the slave trade should exist no more in any of their colonies, and that they would prevent their subjects from engaging in it directly or indirectly. The British Government told the French Government that they believed the latter had proceeded on erroneous information, and only required to be put in possession of facts to be induced to put an end to a system, which, however benevolent in intention, must inevitably lead to great danger of a revival of slavery. The answer of the French Government had been, that while they fully admitted the engagement to discourage slavery to be binding upon them, yet they did not consider the steps which were in progress to obtain a supply of free labour for their colonies constituted any violation of that engagement, but that, on the contrary, it was an act of humanity to procure that labour in an honest and open manner, which otherwise would be procured with all the horrors of a clandestine slave trade. At the same time the French Government desired that there should be no abuse of the system, and they would take into their serious consideration the representations which had been made to them by Her Majesty's Government, in order to stop any inconveniences which might arise. The French Government also admitted that, although there was no treaty between themselves and this country, yet they were bound to act up to the spirit of the Declaration of the Congress, and that they were now as anxious to put an end to the slave trade as they were in 1815. That Declaration was so short that he (the Earl of Clarendon) thought it would be useful at the present time to recall its terms to the public mind. The Declaration of the eight Powers in 1815 was,— That the Plenipotentaries assembled at this Congress cannot do greater credit to their mission, better fulfil their duty, and manifest the principles which actuate their august Sovereigns, than by endeavouring to carry this engagement into effect, and by proclaiming, in the name of their Sovereigns, their wish of putting an end to a scourge which has so long desolated Africa, degraded Europe, and afflicted humanity. Consequently, &c that the engagement reciprocally contracted in the present Declaration between the Sovereigns who are parties to it cannot be considered as completely fulfilled until the period when complete success shall have crowned their united efforts. To that Declaration the French Government had expressed its emphatic determination to adhere. He had now stated the actual state of affairs, and thought, after the assurances of the French Government, there was great reason to hope that at no distant day the system which had created such universal consternation among the well-wishers of Africa would be entirely abolished.


said, he did not doubt the sincerity of the French Government when they stated their belief that in sanctioning this system they had no idea of a revival of the slave trade. Every one, however, who was acquainted with the subject was fully aware that, as the noble Earl had said, a supply of free labour from Africa was absolutely impossible. Whatever precautions might be taken, with whatever safeguards the system might be surrounded, it would speedily become a slave trade in disguise so thin and transparent that it could deceive no one with the slightest experience. It was well known that in Africa the people had no power to dispose of themselves, and a supply of labour could only be obtained thence either by direct purchase or by the indirect method of enabling the labourer to pay the chief for a licence to quit the country, which, in fact, was a sale by the chief of the man whom he allowed to be taken away to the man who made arrangements to pay for the licence—and that resolved itself into the slave trade. There was only one portion of the answer of the noble Earl which was not perfectly satisfactory, and that was the statement that the French Government, while expressing its determination to adhere to its engagements to suppress the slave trade, still did not consider that the scheme which had been referred to came at all under that denomination, and that therefore they could not feel bound to discountenance it. The noble Earl had not given the House to understand that he had been able to prevail upon the French Government to put an end to the system which was objected to, but only to the extent that they would put an end to all the inconveniences attaching to the system. He (the Earl of Derby) emphatically declared his full conviction that, surround such a system with all possible safeguards, it would be impossible to prevent abuses—that there was no way to put an end to the abuses but to put an end to the system itself. The French Government were deceiving themselves and ignoring the lesson derived from the experience of this country if they did not perceive that the maintenance of the system as it now stood was identical in substance, if not in form, with maintenance of the slave trade itself.


I was extremely desirous, in replying to the question of my noble Friend, not to overstate, and therefore I gave as nearly as possible the words used by the French Government; but I have reason to believe, although I cannot at present venture to state, that the present scheme will be abandoned at no very distant period.


hoped and trusted that the system which had been brought under their notice would be speedily abandoned, for there was no possibility of dealing with it by halves. He relied fully upon Her Majesty's Government not to allow this matter to sleep. It would of course be improper under present circumstances to ask that the correspondence should be produced; but if, unhappily, the result of that correspondence should be unsatisfactory—a result which he would not for a moment believe possible, for it would be disgraceful to the great nation with which it was carried on—then he hoped the papers would be laid before the House, as the only means which they had of acting upon a great country like France was to publish the whole proceedings, and submit them to the judgment of the whole civilized world. He would only add a few words from his own experience. During the time he had the honour of holding the seals of the Colonial Office the subject of free labour had been frequently brought under his notice. He was urged over and over again by persons connected with the West Indies to permit free labourers to be imported from the coast of Africa. The Government of that day were anxious to do all in their power to relieve the colonies, and agreed to fit out a steamer and make an endeavour to procure labourers. They sent persons in whom they had confidence to the African coast, and adopted every measure which was suggested to them, save one. It was urged that it would be an act of humanity to ransom the unhappy prisoners taken in war, as they would be in a better condition as labourers in the West Indies than as captives in Africa; but he (Earl Grey) always said that it was against the plain principle that "you can't buy stolen goods without sharing the guilt of the thief." Upon that plain principle the Government would not allow a shilling to be given either to the immigrant on board the ship or to the chief on the African coast. Upon these conditions, however, only some twenty or thirty Kroomen were induced to embark, and the result of that experiment was, in his opinion, sufficient to show what might be expected to happen at the present day. He should only add that this was, in his opinion, a moment when especial care should be taken to prevent so iniquitous a scheme as that which was said to have been set on foot from being carried into execution, inasmuch as it would appear from the representations of those distinguished travellers who had recently returned from Africa that civilization was beginning to penetrate into the heart of that great continent—a state of things which it was desirable to foster, instead of promoting a scheme by which the progress which had begun to manifest it-self was sure to be checked. The question was one of the deepest importance, not alone to England, but to the cause of civilization throughout the world, and he therefore hoped that many weeks—nay, that many days—might not elapse before his noble Friend would be in a condition to declare that the Government of France repudiated all connection with the movement upon which it was reported to have embarked.