HL Deb 23 November 1927 vol 69 cc199-213

EARL BUXTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will state what steps have lately been taken to deal with the question of slavery in Sierra Leone, and what further steps are being taken to bring about a total abolition of slavery in all its forms in the Colony, according to the terms of the new Anti-slavery Convention issued by the League of Nations and ratified by this country; and to move for Papers The noble Earl said: My Lords, I feel that I owe something of an apology to noble Lords for so often raising points regarding slavery and the status of slavery in the Dominions, but I think that your Lordships will agree that this is a matter to which public opinion ought to be directed and that the vigilance of members of your Lordships' House is well worth while. I need hardly say that my Question was not put down in any hostile spirit towards His Majesty's Government or the Colonial Office. On the contrary, I venture to congratulate them on the prompt action which they took in regard to this question of Sierra Leone as soon as it was raised and brought to their attention, and I think that possibly my noble friend opposite will welcome the opportunity of making some statement as to what has occurred.

The other day—I do not know how far noble Lords may have followed the question—a remarkable and somewhat unexpected judgment was given by the Appellate Court in Sierra Leone. The decision practically came to this: that in British territory the body of one man belongs so absolutely to another that the master is entitled under the law forcibly to capture a runaway slave and to take him back to his work. I think that this decision of a majority of the Court came as a surprise to the Colonial Office, and it certainly came as a shock to the public opinion in this country which takes an interest in these things. That a slave should in British territory be in the power of his master when he has escaped from him is certainly contrary to all our ideas regarding slavery. I remember that about fifty years ago there arose the case of what was called the slavery circular, directing our cruisers in certain circumstances to return slaves to their masters. We had one of the strongest of Governments in office at that time, but they had to give way—though it was all due to a misunderstanding—because public opinion was so averse from such action.

I think it has also come as something of a surprise and a shock to many people to find that, apart from this question of returning a runaway slave to his master, slavery in a certain form should exist at all in one of our Colonies and be tacitly allowed to continue. I should like to say at once that I do not impugn for a moment the judgment given by a majority of two Judges out of three, who were quite obviously deciding the matter solely on the legal position. The fact remains that there was this very considerable loophole in existing legislation under which a runaway slave could be returned to his master. Public attention was drawn to the matter by Sir John Simon in a very forcible letter, and the Press and the public generally took up the question as one of serious import. I should like to add that I am quite certain that it required no pressure from outside to induce the Colonial Office to take action in this matter. So far as I personally have had anything to do with the Colonial Office, I have always found that in these matters of status or of domestic slavery they have taken an enlightened and progressive view. In this matter they at once took action of their own volition and, in conjunction with the Government of Sierra Leone, at once introduced and passed an Ordinance abolishing the status of slavery for the future. I venture again to congratulate them upon their action and upon the promptitude with which it was taken.

I recognise, of course, that the so-called slavery in Sierra Leone is not quite the slavery of the old days, when true slavery was abolished. It is what is called domestic slavery, but nevertheless it is a form of slavery. According to a Report of the late Governor, Sir Ransford Slater, it varies very much in different parts of the Colony and is in some parts much more of a real servitude than in others. At the same time he points out that even this domestic slavery is demoralising to the employer and debasing to the slave, while I need hardly say that it is utterly opposed to ordinary ideas of English justice and English law. He also points out that economically, from the point of view of the Colony itself, it is a very serious stumbling-block in the way of development. It is not necessary, however, to go into the past history of the question of slavery in the Protectorate of Sierra Leone—and I ought perhaps, in my earlier remarks, to have distinguished between the Colony itself and the Protectorate, which is undeveloped and under the control practically of the chiefs. It is in the latter part only that this slavery has existed. From time to time attention has been drawn to it and various steps have been taken to reduce it gradually, but there have always been difficulties in the way of abolishing it altogether. Even the late Governor, Sir Ransford Slater, who had this matter very much at heart, in his final recommendation to the Colonial Office before he left pointed out that we must proceed more or less by degrees. His proposal was that every child born in slavery should be freed, and on the death of an owner of slaves all the slaves should become free and no compensation should be paid. It would, of course, have taken a generation before that plan could be carried through, but fortunately, if I may be allowed to say so, we have now had this judgment which has enabled the Colonial Office and His Majesty's Government to take immediate action, to cut the knot and to remove the difficulty.

I admit that this Protectorate is largely undeveloped and uncivilised and there will probably be some difficulty in enforcing this abolition of the status of slavery. I am sure, however, that the matter will be undertaken with great care and great tact, and I think we may trust those on the spot to carry it out with the best results and with the least friction. Already similar steps have been taken in the Gold Coast in Nigeria and in Gambia, without any difficulty, though I admit that those Colonies are more developed and civilised than Sierra Leone, where there may be some obstacles. These, however, ought not to stand in the way of an immediate application of this Ordinance to Sierra Leone. My purpose in rising is to ask my noble friend to give us such information as he can in regard to this matter and to assure us, as I am sure he will, that the status of slavery in the Protectorate of Sierra Leone will be abolished without qualification, without delay and without compensation. We should like also to know something as to the methods by which the Administration proposes to carry out this Ordinance. My noble friend very courteously sent me a copy of the new Ordinance, the main proposition of which is that the legal status of slavery is hereby declared to be abolished throughout the Protectorate.

I would ask his attention to this point in connection with this Ordinance. It is unfortunate that Sierra Leone has copied, in that Ordinance, that very pernicious habit of legislation by reference. This Ordinance is the worst case that I have seen of legislation by reference, and I would ask the noble Lord whether, in a matter of this sort, in which we want to know how the matter stands, the Ordinance cannot be reprinted, as it is now the law of Sierra Leone, repealing all the previous Orders. After all it is difficult enough for some of us, who have had experience of these matters, to understand this Ordinance, and how much more difficult must it be for the native chiefs and others to know what is the effect of the Ordinance. I would, therefore, commend to the noble Lord the re-enactment of the Ordinance in a better form.

As I said just now, I am anxious for information as to what is going to be done in order to carry out effectively the abolition of the status of slavery in Sierra Leone, and I thought that the simplest way of asking for information was to put a series of questions. I took the opportunity of sending a copy of those questions to my noble friend, so that he would be in a position to know exactly what information I desired to ask of him. With the leave of the House I will read those questions which I have sent to the noble Lord who represents the Colonial Office. The information required is, firstly, as to the administrative machinery for informing the 200,000 slaves of their right to be free, so that—and this is the second point—before the Ordinance comes into force, and under the Ordinance, the owners shall be left no loophole for depositing their slaves, by means of pawning, etc., with their tribal relations, over the Liberian border. We previously saw a great deal of this in the direction of Liberian slaves being imported into Sierra Leone, and the fear is that the opposite may now take place.

The third question is: What administrative arrangements will be made for the care of any of the slaves who may be unable to care for themselves? There must be a considerable number of aged persons and others who have no means of subsistence, and who are unable to take care of themselves, and who would therefore require aid from the Administration. The last is a very important point. It is: How do the Administration propose to deal with the question of the steps that should be taken in regard to the allotment of land and roaming forest rights for the slaves given their freedom, so that they may become economic units, and what steps will be taken to protect, on the one hand, the rights of the chiefs in regard to the collection of kernels, and, on the other, to secure that the freed slaves will have an opportunity of collecting? The House would like to know on what sort of lines that question will be dealt with.

In my question I refer to the League of Nations, because we have put our hands to a Slavery Convention, under which we and other nations agree that every vestige of slavery, of all sorts, is to be abolished within our Dominions. This is a step carrying out our obligations under the League of Nations, and therefore I need not further refer to it, except to say that I think that the League of Nations, in this matter, and in the publicity which has been given to it, has not only done in our case, but in other cases, very considerable service to the cause of the liberty of the slave and native races. I am glad that we have now made in our West African Colonies a clean sweep of every form of servitude or domestic slavery, by any name under which it goes, and I think we may therefore say, as I said just now, that startling as was the judgment given the other day, really out of that judgment has come great good, for this matter has been enabled to be dealt with rapidly, and is now by way of being decided.

So much with regard to Sierra Leone. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to add one question on a matter which affects the question of slavery, although I am afraid it is hardly within the noble Lord's competence to deal with it. At the same time, though I am not asking for an answer, I think he will admit that it is just as well to have the matter on record, so that it may receive full attention. The question has arisen lately with regard to the Blue Nile and Abyssinia. A question has arisen with regard to certain works and who should do them, and we know that various firms were prepared to tender for the works. Some time ago there was a communication in The Times, the substance of which I would like to read to the House. It affects the question of slavery. It is from The Times correspondent in Washington, and it says:— The Department of Commerce has just issued an appeal to American capital to enter Abyssinia, an almost virgin field for productive effort. … In a recent statement to the Press the Abyssinian Regent suggested that American capitalists should employ the slaves, who still constitute a large part of the population, for development of coffee, rubber and copper, paying the slave-owners a yearly sum for five years as a rental for this human property, after which the slaves should be 'free,' although the nature and degree of this freedom was not defined. I understand that we are in such a position with regard to Abyssinia that under Treaty we have a right of interference and veto in regard to any big undertaking, such as the Blue Nile undertaking, before it is carried out.

This occurred not long ago, but no attention was drawn to it, and I think it is worth while drawing attention to it now, as there seems an almost certain prospect of the Blue Nile works being undertaken under the auspices of Abyssinia. Abyssinia is a country which has joined the League of Nations and has signed the Slavery Convention, although it has not yet abolished slavery, and I think it is well, before things go too far, that the British Government should be aware of the position. I am certain that they will give the matter their best attention, and take care that under our auspices, in agreement with Abyssinia, nothing of this sort is allowed with regard to public improvements for which we have a responsibility.


My Lords, I do not wish to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes. I have been to Sierra Leone twice in my life—once in the 'eighties and once later. This question of slavery in Sierra Leone is a very interesting and curious one. Your Lordships must remember that when it was decided by England that she could not allow slavery in any part of the world, if she could possibly help it, Sierra Leone was the place where the slaves were dumped down, and a very curious state of affairs hag arisen there. These so-called slaves have a peculiar language of their own, and that is one of the difficulties which have met every Governor and every statesman who has had to deal with this matter. Let me give you an instance of this. Supposing one of these natives of Sierra Leone, these so-called slaves, wishes to tell you that his master is dying. He says: "He lived for die." That has begun to be understood. Then we come to a much later period in the 'nineties; when I was there then I saw a tremendous change. They were independent, they brought their wares to market and sold them in the open market, and they seemed quite happy and contented. I remember that there had been a very heavy storm of rain—what they call a tornado—and the whole place was cool and comfortable. These so-called domestic slaves were very different people from what they were before.

The noble Earl has mentioned the collection of kernels. I do not really know whether the chiefs make these domestic slaves collect kernels or not. There is no doubt they did make them do it, and derived a great benefit from it. But you must remember that now, according to the International Convention with the object of securing the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, we have agreed with all the nations, Commonwealths, and Dominions to put a stop to this slavery to the best of our ability. I have this International Convention before me, and it is very satisfactory to know that practically the whole world, in agreement with us, is quite determined to stop slavery in any form whatsoever. But you must also remember that this domestic slavery at Sierra Leone was not by any means a great hardship on these men. A domestic slave at all events was well treated—it did not pay to treat him badly—he had plenty to eat (a very important thing for the native races there) and he was well looked after and kept warm—because sometimes it is very cold there. I need say no more, but, having been in the country and seen the immense change that has taken place, I thought it only right to address your Lordships upon this subject.


My Lords, I should like in the first place to thank the noble Earl who raised this debate for affording an opportunity of making a statement on behalf of the Colonial Office, for the courteous manner in which he has brought the matter forward, and the notice he has given of the special questions which he wished to have dealt with. I do not think that the noble Earl would wish me to go at any length into the history of domestic slavery in the Sierra Leone Protectorate, but I do think it is necessary to say that the moment the British Government took over the Protectorate of Sierra Leone slavery in the ordinary sense ceased. It was decided then that it was impossible, in view of tribal customs, to depart from the state of domestic slavery which existed, but in 1896 and 1901 regulations were passed, under which any person who so wished could very simply, merely on a payment of £4, pass out of the state of domestic slavery. Twenty-three separate Ordinances were made improving their conditions up to the year 1926, which is the first period with which I think it is necessary for me to deal.

In that year Sir Ransford Slater brought forward an Ordinance by which he freed all persons to be born in the Protectorate after the passing of the Ordinance, and by which all persons treated as slaves should become free on the death of their masters. The Ordinance also reiterated an already established provision of the law that no claims for, or in respect of, any slave should be entertained by any of the Courts of the Protectorate. He was evidently satisfied, as we see by his introductory speech in the Legislative Council, in which he said:— If you pass this Bill you will thereby remove the last vestige of recognition by local law of the status of slavery; I feel confident you will agree with me such a step was long overdue. This was the position, as the noble Earl, Lord Buxton, has pointed out, until the time when the decision of the Courts was made last July, by which it was seen that the wish to abolish any recognition of slavery by law was not actually made effective. Action was immediately taken, and the Ordinance of September, 1927, was passed.

May I assure the noble Lord in a word that it is believed that the status of domestic slavery is abolished absolutely and finally, and this will be made known in the Protectorate with the least possible delay? The Government have fully considered the various methods by which it should be made known right through the tribes. They have, after serious consideration, definitely rejected the idea of notifying them, so to speak, by the town-crier method, in the first place because the Ordinance is generally known, and some of the tribes, even as early as the 1926 Ordinance, already imagined that domestic slavery had been abolished. The Government considered that in order to avoid the difficulties of the matter, with two classes interested, the best way to proceed was by instructions given to the thirty-one political officers, directing them to take the action required in the spheres which they governed, and, during the period that would elapse until this Ordinance was thoroughly known and realised, to take in the Courts some of the cases which are generally dealt with in the Court of the Paramount Chief. In this way it is believed that information will go out from thirty-one centres, and the Government are satisfied that this will be known immediately throughout the length and breadth of the Protectorate.

With regard to the second point raised by the noble Earl as to the arrangements to be made to see that none of the present slaves are pawned over the Liberian frontier, action will be taken to see that that does not happen. I may point out that the approach to Liberia from Sierra Leone is remarkably difficult except by sea. It is through a jungle country, the paths are few and the whole approach between the two countries is for the most part, I should say, by sea. The next Question raised by the noble Earl was as to the administrative steps taken to look after those domestic slaves who are not able to look after themselves, and I would prefer to take the third and fourth questions together and to answer them as one. It is necessary to point out to your Lordships, I think, that the wealth of the country is in agriculture and that the system of agriculture in Sierra Leone is what is called chena or shifting cultivation. That system of cultivation is probably as nearly allied to the principle under which the Chinaman was supposed to burn his house down in order to roast pig as anything that exists. It is the worst form of cultivation. It has already reduced the forests of the Protectorate by nearly 90 per cent., most of which has been done during the period of British occupation. That is one of the reasons why what I may call the town-crier method is not to be adopted—because it is not desired that any increase in the roaming or chena cultivation shall be made immediately.

The whole trend of cultivation, not only in Sierra Leone but in Nigeria, is as far as possible, by improved crop rotation, to fix the people on the soil and enable the forests, which are a necessary portion of native life, to exist to the maximum that is possible. As your Lordships are aware, Sierra Leone is in serious danger of suffering from lack of forests and any Ordinance or regulation which would induce further forest fires with a view to increasing the area of chena cultivation would be dangerous. There is a further point. It is important to follow out as far as possible the principle which has been accepted and under which the whole arrangements run—that the land belongs to the tribal authorities, and any interference with tribal authority is a thing to be deprecated to the greatest extent possible, Now that these slaves are set free any division of lands will be followed with the closest attention by the officers concerned. I may point out to the noble Earl that there is no great danger that these men will not get such land as they require, because although the term "domestic slave" is used, some of these men are sub-chiefs and headmen in their districts.

There is a further point which might alleviate any anxiety the noble Earl might feel. In the north the chief tribes believed that they were already entirely set free by the Ordinance of 1926, and they have already taken up land there in considerable quantities. I hope that these answers to his four questions will satisfy the noble Earl that everything is being done to give effect to the Ordinance with the least possible delay and the least possible derangement of existing conditions. No one who has read the debate which took place when this Ordinance was accepted can think too highly of the attitude of the Paramount Chiefs who, undoubtedly, were losing something by the passing of this Ordinance.

The noble Lord has raised another question regarding the making of the dam at Lake Tsana. I am glad indeed to hear that he is certain as to the prospect of those works. I can imagine nothing which will more readily solve the Egyptian question and the Sudan question than the damming of that great lake which, I believe, has a capacity equal to the difference between a full normal flow and a flood on the Nile. Even if I knew I very obviously could not say anything at the present time about that.




But I should like to inform the noble Earl that I will certainly bring this matter to the notice of the Department concerned.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on the very satisfactory answer he has given. That, no doubt, will be dealt with by the noble Earl. This question of slavery is one of far-reaching importance. It is true that the last relic of slavery in British Protectorates is in Sierra Leone and that it will come to an end under the Ordinance of 1927. I think there can be no doubt about that. But our Protectorate commenced there in 1895, as I think the noble Lord will agree, and since that date there have been in all twenty-three Ordinances, all of which have dealt more or less, if I may use that expression, with this question of slavery. It is unsatisfactory, no doubt, that the decision should have been given by a majority in the Appeal Court of Sierra Leone, that the status of slavery still existed. It was given in rather unfortunate circumstances, because what was held to be justified was the recapture of slaves who sought to escape from their masters. That is very much the question which was discussed by Lord Mansfield in the great Somerset case. I will not go into the legal aspect of it, but I am sure the noble Lord will agree with me, that what was said in Sierra Leone ought to have no bearing on the great principle laid down by Lord Mansfield—that so odious a condition as slavery could not be supported without extreme positive law in any civilised country. In that respect I hope that both the law and the general outlook are the same as they were in Lord Mansfield's day.

I dare say the noble Lord will recollect that this view has been reinforced by Sir Frederick Lugard, a great authority in these matters. Sir Frederick's view of the Ordinance, as the noble Lord knows, is that although you allow slavery in the sense that so long as a slave desired to continue with his master he might accept that status and that it would be the status between them; yet that did not mean that if he wished to break the status he was not perfectly free to do so. That was the real question involved in the decisions to which attention has been called. I only wish to express my own view that Sir Frederick Lugard's dictum and his knowledge of the subject are perfectly accurate. We have always taken the foremost part in all those questions of freedom, particularly of slaves, and it can never, I think, be said again that slavery does exist in any part or any Protectorate of the British Empire. I also think it can be said to our honour—and I congratulate the Colonial Office upon it—that so soon as this decision, which, as I understand from the noble Lord, was a rather startling decision to them, was brought to their knowledge, they at once made up their mind to introduce the Ordinance, which I have carefully read, and which undoubtedly is sufficient to abolish slavery of all kinds in Sierra Leone in future. I feel what the noble Earl has said, that the Ordinance itself is a difficult one even for an English lawyer to understand. What the noble Lord has told us with regard to the method of ensuring that the natives shall have the advantage of all that is intended to be given to them under the Ordinance is entirely satisfactory. More than once I have criticised the present Government in relation to Conventions made at Geneva. We know that they ratified the Slavery Convention, and it is extremely gratifying to find that on the first occasion they have shown their loyalty to that ratification.


My Lords, I do not rise to continue the debate for more than a very few moments. I should like, in the first place, if I may be allowed to do so, to thank my noble friend for the statement he has made as to the position, and I am quite sure that all your Lordships will agree with what Lord Parmoor has said, that nothing could have been more satisfactory and more loyal to the Slavery Convention than the action which the Government took the moment the decision of the Sierra Leone Court was announced. I do not think there is any need for apprehension, such as was hinted at by my noble friend, Lord Parmoor, that anything that has happened in Sierra Leone can in any way interfere with the general principle laid down by Lord Mansfield. I do not anticipate that in any way. I can only say that if all the nations in the world will act as loyally and vigorously on the Slavery Convention as we have done, then slavery will very shortly be a thing of the past.

There is only one observation I may venture to make to my noble friend Lord Buxton. It is not quite true to say that the Slavery Convention was issued by the League of Nations. It may seem a very small point to take, but in view of the many misunderstandings of the League of Nations perhaps I may be allowed to point out that is not really what happened. The machinery of the League of Nations was utilised by the various Governments in order to make the Convention. The Convention was, of course, signed and ratified by the various Governments and was not in any sense issued by the League of Nations. But that is a small matter. There is another point on which I wish to add a word. My noble friend Lord Buxton referred to the question of Lake Tsana and the possibility, as I understood it, of the utilisation of slave labour for works which might or might not be carried out in that district, and he uttered what does seem to me to be—and I am sure my noble friend Lord Lovat would agree—a very necessary caution. We could not possibly consent, if we have any power to stop it, to a work being earned out for our benefit or the benefit of Egypt, by slave labour. That would be an intolerable situation to put us into.

I confess that Abyssinia does seem to me, if I may say so without indiscretion, to be the one black spot in the world with regard to slavery at the present time. All the accounts one reads of the state of things there are terrible—the devastation of districts, the wiping out of whole tribes, a shocking state of things undoubtedly. I believe the present ruler of Abyssinia is anxious to put a stop to slavery, but owing to the Constitution of the country it is extremely difficult for him to do it. I trust the matter will not be lost sight of by His Majesty's Government and, if I may say so, by my noble friend Lord Buxton. It is a matter in which this House and the Government ought to do their utmost to strengthen the good elements in Abyssinia and really to clear out the scandalous state of things which at present exists in that country.


My Lords, I only desire to thank my noble friend for his speech. I feel that we are quite safe in leaving the matter in his hands. I hope this will be the last occasion on which I shall have to raise the question of slavery in any part of the British Dominions. I understand that the noble Lord has no objection to laying Papers.

On Question, Motion for Papers agreed to, and ordered accordingly.