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CHAP. IX. - 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).
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The reader may perhaps think, that the receivers have by this time expended all their arguments, but their store is not so easily exhausted. They are well aware that justice, nature, and religion, will continue, as they have ever uniformly done, to oppose their conduct. This has driven them to exert their ingenuity, and has occasioned that multiplicity of arguments to be found in the present question.
These arguments are of a different complexion from the former. They consist in comparing the state of slaves with that of some of the classes of free men, and in certain scenes of felicity, which the former are said to enjoy.
It is affirmed that the punishments which the Africans undergo, are less severe than the military; that their life is happier than that of the English peasant; that they have the advantages of manumission; that they have their little spots of ground, their holydays, their dances; in short, that their life is a scene of festivity and mirth, and that they are much happier in the colonies than in their own country.
These representations, which have been made out with much ingenuity and art, may have had their weight with the unwary; but they will never pass with men of consideration and sense, who are accustomed to estimate the probability of things, before they admit them to be true. Indeed the bare assertion, that their situation is even comfortable, contains its own refutation, or at least leads us to suspect that the person, who asserted it, has omitted some important considerations in the account. Such we shall shew to have been actually the case, and that the representations of the receivers, when stripped of their glossy ornaments, are but empty declamation.
It is said, first, of military punishments, that they are more severe than those which the Africans undergo. But this is a bare assertion without a proof. It is not shewn even by those, who assert it, how the fact can be made out. We are left therefore to draw the comparison ourselves, and to fill up those important considerations, which we have just said that the receivers had omitted.
That military punishments are severe we confess, but we deny that they are severer than those with which they are compared. Where is the military man, whose ears have been slit, whose limbs have been mutilated, or whose eyes have been beaten out? But let us even allow, that their punishments are equal in the degree of their severity: still they must lose by comparison. The soldier is never punished but after a fair and equitable trial, and the decision of a military court; the unhappy African, at the discretion of his Lord. The one * knows what particular conduct will constitute an offence; the other has no such information, as he is wholly at the disposal of passion and caprice, which may impose upon any action, however laudable, the appellation of a crime. The former has it of course in his power to avoid a punishment; the latter is never safe. The former is punished for a real, the latter, often, for an imaginary fault.
Now will any person assert, on comparing the whole of those circumstances together, which relate to their respective punishments, that there can be any doubt, which of the two are in the worst situation, as to their penal systems?
With respect to the declaration, that the life of an African in the colonies is happier than that of an English peasant, it is equally false. Indeed we can scarcely withhold our indignation, when we consider, how shamefully the situation of this latter class of men has been misrepresented, to elevate the former to a state of fictitious happiness. If the representations of the receivers be true, it is evident that those of the most approved writers, who have placed a considerable share of happiness in the cottage, have been mistaken in their opinion; and that those of the rich, who have been heard to sigh, and envy the felicity of the peasant, have been treacherous to their own sensations.
But which are we to believe on the occasion? Those, who endeavour to dress vice in the habit of virtue, or those, who derive their opinion from their own feelings? The latter are surely to be believed; and we may conclude therefore, that the horrid picture which is given of the life of the peasant, has not so just a foundation as the receivers would lead us to suppose. For has he no pleasure in the thought, that he lives in his own country, and among his relations and friends? That he is actually free, and that his children will be the same? That he can never be sold as a beast? That he can speak his mind without the fear of the lash? That he cannot even be struck with impunity? And that he partakes, equally with his superiours, of the protection of the law?—Now, there is no one of these advantages which the African possesses, and no one, which the defenders of slavery take into their account.
Of the other comparisons that are usually made, we may observe in general, that, as they consist in comparing the iniquitous practice of slavery with other iniquitous practices in force among other nations, they can neither raise it to the appearance of virtue, nor extenuate its guilt. The things compared are in these instances both of them evils alike. They call equally for redress, and are equally disgraceful to the * governments which suffer them, if not encourage them, to exist. To attempt therefore to justify one species of iniquity, by comparing it with another, is no justification at all; and is so far from answering the purpose, for which the comparison is intended, as to give us reason to suspect, that the comparer has but little notion either of equity or honour.
We come now to those scenes of felicity, which slaves are said to enjoy. The first advantage which they are said to experience, is that of manumission. But here the advocates for slavery conceal an important circumstance. They expatiate indeed on the charms of freedom, and contend that it must be a blessing in the eyes of those, upon whom it is conferred. We perfectly agree with them in this particular. But they do not tell us that these advantages are confined; that they are confined to some favourite domestick; that not one in an hundred enjoy them; and that they are never extended to those, who are employed in the cultivation of the field, as long as they can work. These are they, who are most to be pitied, who are destined to perpetual drudgery; and of whom no one whatever has a chance of being freed from his situation, till death either releases him at once, or age renders him incapable of continuing his former labour. And here let it be remarked, to the disgrace of the receivers, that he is then made free, not—as a reward for his past services, but, as his labour is then of little or no value,—to save the*tax.
With the same artifice is mention also made of the little spots, or gardens, as they are called, which slaves are said to possess from the liberality of the receivers. But people must not be led away by agreeable and pleasant sounds. They must not suppose that these gardens are made for flowers; or that they are places of amusement, in which they can spend their time in botanical researches and delights. Alas, they do not furnish them with a theme for such pleasing pursuits and speculations! They must be cultivated in those hours, which ought to be appropriated to ∥ rest; and they must be cultivated, not for an amusement, but to make up, if it be possible, the great deficiency in their weekly allowance of provisions. Hence it appears, that the receivers have no merit whatever in such an appropriation of land to their unfortunate slaves: for they are either under the necessity of doing this, or of losing them by the jaws of famine. And it is a notorious fact, that, with their weekly allowance, and the produce of their spots together, it is often with the greatest difficulty that they preserve a wretched existence.
The third advantage which they are said to experience, is that of holy-days, or days of respite from their usual discipline and fatigue. This is certainly a great indulgence, and ought to be recorded to the immortal honour of the receivers. We wish we could express their liberality in those handsome terms, in which it deserves to be represented, or applaud them sufficiently for deviating for once from the rigours of servile discipline. But we confess, that we are unequal to the task, and must therefore content ourselves with observing, that while the horse has one day in seven to refresh his limbs, the happy African has but one in *fifty-two, as a relaxation from his labours.
With respect to their dances, on which such a particular stress has been generally laid, we fear that people may have been as shamefully deceived, as in the former instances. For from the manner in which these are generally mentioned, we should almost be led to imagine, that they had certain hours allowed them for the purpose of joining in the dance, and that they had every comfort and convenience, that people are generally supposed to enjoy on such convivial occasions. But this is far from the case. Reason informs us, that it can never be. If they wish for such innocent recreations, they must enjoy them in the time that is allotted them for sleep; and so far are these dances from proceeding from any uncommon degree of happiness, which excites them to convivial society, that they proceed rather from an uncommon depression of spirits, which makes them even sacrifice their * rest, for the sake of experiencing for a moment a more joyful oblivion of their cares. For suppose any one of the receivers, in the middle of a dance, were to address his slaves in the following manner: “Africans! I begin at last to feel for your situation; and my conscience is severely hurt, whenever I reflect that I have been reducing those to a state of misery and pain, who have never given me offence. You seem to be fond of these exercises, but yet you are obliged to take them at such unseasonable hours, that they impair your health, which is sufficiently broken by the intolerable share of labour which I have hitherto imposed upon you. I will therefore make you a proposal. Will you be content to live in the colonies, and you shall have the half of every week entirely to yourselves? or will you choose to return to your miserable, wretched country?”—But what is that which strikes their ears? Which makes them motionless in an instant? Which interrupts the festive scene?—their country?—transporting sound!—Behold! they are now flying from the dance: you may see them running to the shore, and, frantick as it were with joy, demanding with open arms an instantaneous passage to their beloved native plains.
Such are the colonial delights, by the representation of which the receivers would persuade us, that the Africans are taken from their country to a region of conviviality and mirth; and that like those, who leave their usual places of residence for a summer’s amusement, they are conveyed to the colonies—to bathe,—to dance,—to keep holy-day,—to be jovial.—But there is something so truly ridiculous in the attempt to impose these scenes of felicity on the publick, as scenes which fall to the lot of slaves, that the receivers must have been driven to great extremities, to hazard them to the eye of censure.
The last point that remains to be considered, is the shameful assertion, that the Africans are much happier in the colonies, than in their own country. But in what does this superiour happiness consist? In those real scenes, it must be replied, which have been just mentioned; for these, by the confession of the receivers, constitute the happiness they enjoy.—But it has been shewn that these have been unfairly represented; and, were they realized in the most extensive latitude, they would not confirm the fact. For if, upon a recapitulation, it consists in the pleasure of manumission, they surely must have passed their lives in a much more comfortable manner, who, like the Africans at home, have had no occasion for such a benefit at all. But the receivers, we presume, reason upon this principle, that we never know the value of a blessing but by its loss. This is generally true: but would any one of them make himself a slave for years, that he might run the chance of the pleasures of manumission? Or that he might taste the charms of liberty with a greater relish? Nor is the assertion less false in every other consideration. For if their happiness consists in the few holy-days, which in the colonies they are permitted to enjoy, what must be their situation in their own country, where the whole year is but one continued holy-day, or cessation from discipline and fatigue?—If in the possession of a mean and contracted spot, what must be their situation, where a whole region is their own, producing almost spontaneously the comforts of life, and requiring for its cultivation none of those hours, which should be appropriated to sleep?—If in the pleasures of the colonial dance, what must it be in their own country, where they may dance for ever; where there is no stated hour to interrupt their felicity, no intolerable labour immediately to succeed their recreations, and no overseer to receive them under the discipline of the lash?—If these therefore are the only circumstances, by which the assertion can be proved, we may venture to say, without fear of opposition, that it can never be proved at all.
But these are not the only circumstances. It is said that they are barbarous at home.—But do you receivers civilize them?—Your unwillingness to convert them to Christianity, because you suppose you must use them more kindly when converted, is but a bad argument in favour of the fact.
It is affirmed again, that their manner of life, and their situation is such in their own country, that to say they are happy is a jest. “* But who are you, who pretend to judge of another man’s happiness? That state which each man, under the guidance of his maker, forms for himself, and not one man for another? To know what constitutes mine or your happiness, is the sole prerogative of him who created us, and cast us in so various and different moulds. Did your slaves ever complain to you of their unhappiness, amidst their native woods and desarts? Or, rather, let me ask, did they ever cease complaining of their condition under you their lordly masters? Where they see, indeed, the accommodations of civil life, but see them all pass to others, themselves unbenefited by them. Be so gracious then, ye petty tyrants over human freedom, to let your slaves judge for themselves, what it is which makes their own happiness, and then see whether they do not place it in the return to their own country, rather than in the contemplation of your grandeur, of which their misery makes so large a part.”
But since you speak with so much considence on the subject, let us ask you receivers again, if you have ever been informed by your unfortunate slaves, that they had no connexions in the country from which they have forcibly been torn away: or, if you will take upon you to assert, that they never sigh, when they are alone; or that they never relate to each other their tales of misery and woe. But you judge of them, perhaps, in an happy moment, when you are dealing out to them their provisions for the week; and are but little aware, that, though the countenance may be cheered with a momentary smile, the heart may be exquisitely tortured. Were you to shew us, indeed, that there are laws, subject to no evasion, by which you are obliged to clothe and feed them in a comfortable manner; were you to shew us that they are * protected at all; or that even one in a thousand of those masters have † suffered death, who have been guilty of premeditated murder to their slaves, you would have a better claim to our belief: but you can neither produce the instances nor the laws. The people, of whom you speak, are slaves, are your own property, are wholly at your own disposal; and this idea is sufficient to overturn your assertions of their happiness.
But we shall now mention a circumstance, which, in the present case, will have more weight than all the arguments which have hitherto been advanced. It is an opinion, which the Africans universally entertain, that, as soon as death shall release them from the hands of their oppressors, they shall immediately be wafted back to their native plains, there to exist again, to enjoy the sight of their beloved countrymen, and to spend the whole of their new existence in scenes of tranquillity and delight: and so powerfully does this notion operate upon them, as to drive them frequently to the horrid extremity of putting a period to their lives. Now if these suicides are frequent, (which no person can deny) what are they but a proof, that the situation of those who destroy themselves must have been insupportably wretched: and if the thought of returning to their country after death, when they have experienced the colonial joys, constitutes their supreme felicity, what are they but a proof, that they think there is as much difference between the two situations, as there is between misery and delight?
Nor is the assertion of the receivers less liable to a refutation in the instance of those, who terminate their own existence, than of those, whom nature releases from their persecutions. They die with a smile upon their face, and their funerals are attended by a vast concourse of their countrymen, with every possible * demonstration of joy. But why this unusual mirth, if their departed brother has left an happy place? Or if he has been taken from the care of an indulgent master, who consulted his pleasures, and administered to his wants? But alas, it arises from hence, that he is gone to his happy country: a circumstance, sufficient of itself, to silence a myriad of those specious arguments, which the imagination has been racked, and will always be racked to produce, in favour of a system of tyranny and oppression.
It remains only, that we should now conclude the chapter with a fact, which will shew that the account, which we have given of the situation of slaves, is strictly true, and will refute at the same time all the arguments which have hitherto been, and may yet be brought by the receivers, to prove that their treatment is humane. In one of the western colonies of the Europeans, * six hundred and fifty thousand slaves were imported within an hundred years; at the expiration of which time, their whole posterity were found to amount to one hundred and forty thousand. This fact will ascertain the treatment of itself. For how shamefully must these unfortunate people have been oppressed? What a dreadful havock must famine, fatigue, and cruelty, have made among them, when we consider, that the descendants of six hundred and fifty thousand people in the prime of life, gradually imported within a century, are less numerous than those, which only *ten thousand would have produced in the same period, under common advantages, and in a country congenial to their constitutions?
But the receivers have probably great merit on the occasion. Let us therefore set it down to their humanity. Let us suppose for once, that this incredible waste of the human species proceeds from a benevolent design; that, sensible of the miseries of a servile state, they resolve to wear out, as fast as they possibly can, their unfortunate slaves, that their miseries may the sooner end, and that a wretched posterity may be prevented from sharing their parental condition. Now, whether this is the plan of reasoning which the receivers adopt, we cannot take upon us to decide; but true it is, that the effect produced is exactly the same, as if they had reasoned wholly on this benevolent principle.
[* ]The articles of war are frequently read at the head of every regiment in the service, stating those particular actions which are to be considered as crimes.
[* ]We cannot omit here to mention one of the customs, which has been often brought as a palliation of slavery, and which prevailed but a little time ago, and we are doubtful whether it does not prevail now, in the metropolis of this country, of kidnapping men for the service of the East-India Company. Every subject, as long as he behaves well, has a right to the protection of government; and the tacit permission of such a scene of iniquity, when it becomes known, is as much a breach of duty in government, as the conduct of those subjects, who, on other occasions, would be termed, and punished as, rebellious.
[* ]The expences of every parish are defrayed by a poll-tax on negroes, to save which they pretend to liberate those who are past labour; but they still keep them employed in repairing fences, or in doing some trifling work on a scanty allowance. For to free a field-negroe, so long as he can work, is a maxim, which, notwithstanding the numerous boasted manumissions, no master ever thinks of adopting in the colonies.
[∥ ]They must be cultivated always on a Sunday, and frequently in those hours which should be appropriated to sleep, or the wretched possessors must be inevitably starved.
[* ]They are allowed in general three holy-days at Christmas, but in Jamaica they have two also at Easter, and two at Whitsuntide: so that on the largest scale, they have only seven days in a year, or one day in fifty-two. But this is on a supposition, that the receivers do not break in upon the afternoons, which they are frequently too apt to do. If it should be said that Sunday is an holy-day, it is not true; it is so far an holy-day, that they do not work for their masters; but such an holy-day, that if they do not employ it in the cultivation of their little spots, they must be starved.
[* ]These dances are usually in the middle of the night; and so desirous are these unfortunate people of obtaining but a joyful hour, that they not only often give up their sleep, but add to the labours of the day, by going several miles to obtain it.
[* ]Bishop of Glocester’s sermon, preached before the society for the propagation of the gospel, at the anniversary meeting, on the 21st of February, 1766.
[* ]There is a law, (but let the reader remark, that it prevails but in one of the colonies), against mutilation. It took its rise from the frequency of the inhuman practice. But though a master cannot there chop off the limb of a slave with an axe, he may yet work, starve, and beat him to death with impunity.
[† ]Two instances are recorded by the receivers, out of about fifty-thousand, where a white man has suffered death for the murder of a negroe; but the receivers do not tell us, that these suffered more because they were the pests of society, than because the murder of slaves was a crime.
[* ]A negroe-funeral is considered as a curious sight, and is attended with singing, dancing, musick, and every circumstance that can shew the attendants to be happy on the occasion.
[* ]In 96 years, ending in 1774, 800,000 slaves had been imported into the French part of St. Domingo, of which there remained only 290,000 in 1774. Of this last number only 140,000 were creoles, or natives of the island, i. e. of 650,000 slaves, the whole posterity were 140,000. Considerations sur la Colonie de St. Dominique, published by authority in 1777.
[* ]Ten thousand people under fair advantages, and in a soil congenial to their constitutions, and where the means of subsistence are easy, should produce in a century 160,000. This is the proportion in which the Americans increased; and the Africans in their own country increase in the same, if not in a greater proportion. Now as the climate of the colonies is as favourable to their health as that of their own country, the causes of the prodigious decrease in the one, and increase in the other, will be more conspicuous.