Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. V. - An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. V. - Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species 
An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, particularly the African, translated from a Latin Dissertation, which was Honoured with the First Prize, in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785, with Additions (London: J. Phillips, 1786).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Some people may suppose, from the melancholy account that has been given in the preceding chapter, that we have been absolutely dealing in romance: that the scene exhibited is rather a dreary picture of the imagination, than a representation of fact. Would to heaven, for the honour of human nature, that this were really the case! We wish we could say, that we have no testimony to produce for any of our assertions, and that our description of the general treatment of slaves has been greatly exaggerated.
But the receivers, notwithstanding the ample and disinterested evidence, that can be brought on the occasion, do not admit the description to be true. They say first, “that if the slavery were such as has been now represented, no human being could possibly support it long.” Melancholy truth! the wretched Africans generally perish in their prime Let them reflect upon the prodigious supplies that are annually required, and their argument will be nothing less than a confession, that the slavery has been justly depicted.
They appeal next to every man’s own reason, and desire him to think seriously, whether “self-interest will not always restrain the master from acts of cruelty to the slave, and whether such accounts therefore, as the foregoing, do not contain within themselves, their own refutation.” We answer, “No.” For if this restraining principle be as powerful as it is imagined, why does not the general conduct of men afford us a better picture? What is imprudence, or what is vice, but a departure from every man’s own interest, and yet these are the characteristicks of more than half the world?—
—But, to come more closely to the present case, self-interest will be found but a weak barrier against the sallies of passion: particularly where it has been daily indulged in its greatest latitude, and there are no laws to restrain its calamitous effects. If the observation be true, that passion is a short madness, then it is evident that self-interest, and every other consideration, must be lost, so long as it continues. We cannot have a stronger instance of this, than in a circumstance related in the second part of this Essay, “that though the Africans have gone to war for the express purpose of procuring slaves, yet so great has been their resentment at the resistance they have frequently found, that their passion has entirely got the better of their interest, and they have murdered all without any discrimination, either of age or sex.” Such may be presumed to be the case with the no less savage receivers. Impressed with the most haughty and tyrannical notions, easily provoked, accustomed to indulge their anger, and, above all, habituated to scenes of cruelty, and unawed by the fear of laws, they will hardly be found to be exempt from the common failings of human nature, and to spare an unlucky slave, at a time when men of cooler temper, and better regulated passions, are so frequently blind to their own interest.
But if passion may be supposed to be generally more than a ballance for interest, how must the scale be turned in favour of the melancholy picture exhibited, when we reflect that self-preservation additionally steps in, and demands the most rigorous severity. For when we consider that where there is one master, there are fifty slaves; that the latter have been all forcibly torn from their country, and are retained in their present situation by violence; that they are perpetually at war in their hearts with their oppressors, and are continually cherishing the seeds of revenge; it is evident that even avarice herself, however cool and deliberate, however free from passion and caprice, must sacrifice her own sordid feelings, and adopt a system of tyranny and oppression, which it must be ruinous to pursue.
Thus then, if no picture had been drawn of the situation of slaves, and it had been left solely to every man’s sober judgment to determine, what it might probably be, he would conclude, that if the situation were justly described, the page must be frequently stained with acts of uncommon cruelty.
It remains only to make a reply to an objection, that is usually advanced against particular instances of cruelty to slaves, as recorded by various writers. It is said that “some of these are so inconceivably, and beyond all example inhuman, that their very excess above the common measure of cruelty shews them at once exaggerated and incredible.” But their credibility shall be estimated by a supposition. Let us suppose that the following instance had been recorded by a writer of the highest reputation, “that the master of a ship, bound to the western colonies with slaves, on a presumption that many of them would die, selected an hundred and thirty two of the most sickly, and ordered them to be thrown into the sea, to recover their value from the insurers, and, above all, that the fatal order was put into execution.” What would the reader have thought on the occasion? Would he have believed the fact? It would have surely staggered his faith; because he could never have heard that any one man ever was, and could never have supposed that any one man ever could be, guilty of the murder of such a number of his fellow creatures. But when he is informed that such a fact as this came before * a court of justice in this very country; that it happened within the last five years; that hundreds can come forwards and say, that they heard the melancholy evidence with tears; what bounds is he to place to his belief? The great God, who looks down upon all his creatures with the same impartial eye, seems to have infatuated the parties concerned, that they might bring the horrid circumstance to light, that it might be recorded in the annals of a publick court, as an authentick specimen of the treatment which the unfortunate Africans undergo, and at the same time, as an argument to shew, that there is no species of cruelty, that is recorded to have been exercised upon these wretched people, so enormous that it may not readily be believed.
[* ]The action was brought by the owners against the underwriters, to recover the value of the murdered slaves. It was tried at Guildhall.