Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XI. - An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species
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CHAP. XI. - 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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Having now considered both the commerce and slavery, it remains only to collect such arguments as are scattered in different parts of the work, and to make such additional remarks, as present themselves on the subject.
And first, let us ask you, who have studied the law of nature, and you, who are learned in the law of the land, if all property must not be inferiour in its nature to its possessor, or, in other words, (for it is a case, which every person must bring home to his own breast) if you suppose that any human being can have a property in yourselves? Let us ask you appraisers, who scientifically know the value of things, if any human creature is equivalent only to any of the trinkets that you wear, or at most, to any of the horses that you ride: or in other words, if you have ever considered the most costly things that you have valued, as equivalent to yourselves? Let us ask you rationalists, if man, as a reasonable being, is not accountable for his actions, and let us put the same question to you, who have studied the divine writings? Let us ask you parents, if ever you thought that you possessed an authority as such, or if ever you expected a duty from your sons; and let us ask you sons, if ever you felt an impulse in your own breasts to obey your parents. Now, if you should all answer as we could wish, if you should all answer consistently with reason, nature, and the revealed voice of God, what a dreadful argument will present itself against the commerce and slavery of the human species, when we reflect, that no man whatever can be bought or reduced to the situation of a slave, but he must instantly become a brute, he must instantly be reduced to the value of thosethings, which were made for his own use and convenience; he must instantly cease to be accountable for his actions, and his authority as a parent, and his duty as a son, must be instantly no more.
Neither does it escape our notice, when we are speaking of the fatal wound which every social duty must receive, how considerably Christianity suffers by the conduct of you receivers. For by prosecuting this impious commerce, you keep the Africans in a state of perpetual ferocity and barbarism; and by prosecuting it in such a manner, as must represent your religion, as a system of robbery and oppression, you not only oppose the propagation of the gospel, as far as you are able yourselves, but throw the most certain impediments in the way of others, who might attempt the glorious and important task.
Such also is the effect, which the subsequent slavery in the colonies must produce. For by your inhuman treatment of the unfortunate Africans there, you create the same insuperable impediments to a conversion. For how must they detest the very name of Christians, when you Christians are deformed by so many and dreadful vices? How must they detest that system of religion, which appears to resist the natural rights of men, and to give a sanction to brutality and murder?
But, as we are now mentioning Christianity, we must pause for a little time, to make a few remarks on the arguments which are usually deduced from thence by the receivers, in defence of their system of oppression. For the reader may readily suppose, that, if they did not hesitate to bring the Old Testament in support of their barbarities, they would hardly let the New escape them.
St. Paul, having converted Onesimus to the Christian faith, who was a fugitive slave of Philemon, sent him back to his master. This circumstance has furnished the receivers with a plea, that Christianity encourages slavery. But they have not only strained the passages which they produce in support of their assertions, but are ignorant of historical facts. The benevolent apostle, in the letter which he wrote to Philemon, the master of Onesimus, addresses him to the following effect: “I send him back to you, but not in his former capacity,*not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved. In this manner I beseech you to receive him, for though I could enjoin you to do it, yet I had rather it should be a matter of your own will, than of necessity.”
It appears that the same Onesimus, when he was sent back, was no longer a slave, that he was a minister of the gospel, that he was joined with Tychicus in an ecclesiastical commission to the church of the Colossians, and was afterwards bishop of Ephesus. If language therefore has any meaning, and if history has recorded a fact which may be believed, there is no case more opposite to the doctrine of the receivers, than this which they produce in its support.
It is said again, that Christianity, among the many important precepts which it contains, does not furnish us with one for the abolition of slavery. But the reason is obvious. Slavery at the time of the introduction of the gospel was universally prevalent, and if Christianity had abruptly declared, that the millions of slaves should have been made free, who were then in the world, it would have been universally rejected, as containing doctrines that were dangerous, if not destructive, to society. In order therefore that it might be universally received, it never meddled, by any positive precept, with the civil institutions of the times: but though it does not expressly say, that “you shall neither buy, nor sell, nor possess a slave,” it is evident that, in its general tenour, it sufficiently militates against the custom.
The first doctrine which it inculcates, is that of brotherly love. It commands good will towards men. It enjoins us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to do unto all men, as we would that they should do unto us. And how can any man fulfil this scheme of universal benevolence, who reduces an unfortunate person against his will, to the most insupportable of all human conditions; who considers him as his private property, and treats him, not as a brother, nor as one of the same parentage with himself, but as an animal of the brute creation?
But the most important doctrine is that, by which we are assured that mankind are to exist in a future state, and to give an account of those actions, which they have severally done in the flesh. This strikes at the very root of slavery. For how can any man be justly called to an account for his actions, whose actions are not at his own disposal? This is the case with the *proper slave. His liberty is absolutely bought and appropriated; and if the purchase is just and equitable, he is under the necessity of perpetrating any crime, which the purchaser may order him to commit, or, in other words, of ceasing to be accountable for his actions.
These doctrines therefore are sufficient to shew, that slavery is incompatible with the Christian system. The Europeans considered them as such, when, at the close of the twelfth century, they resisted their hereditary prejudices, and occasioned its abolition. Hence one, among many other proofs, that Christianity was the production of infinite wisdom; that though it did not take such express cognizance of the wicked national institutions of the times, as should hinder its reception, it should yet contain such doctrines, as, when it should be fully established, would be sufficient for the abolition of them all.
Thus then is the argument of you receivers ineffectual, and your conduct impious. For, by the prosecution of this wicked slavery and commerce, you not only oppose the propagation of that gospel which was ordered to be preached unto every creature, and bring it into contempt, but you oppose its tenets also: first, because you violate that law of universal benevolence, which was to take away those hateful distinctions of Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, bond and free, which prevailed when the gospel was introduced; and secondly, because, as every man is to give an account of his actions hereafter, it is necessary that he should be free.
Another argument yet remains, which, though nature will absolutely turn pale at the recital, cannot possibly be omitted. In those wars, which are made for the sake of procuring slaves, it is evident that the contest must be generally obstinate, and that great numbers must be slain on both sides, before the event can be determined. This we may reasonably apprehend to be the case: and we have * shewn, that there have not been wanting instances, where the conquerors have been so incensed at the resistance they have found, that their spirit of vengeance has entirely got the better of their avarice, and they have murdered, in cool blood, every individual, without discrimination, either of age or sex. From these and other circumstances, we thought we had sufficient reason to conclude, that, where ten were supposed to be taken, an hundred, including the victors and vanquished, might be supposed to perish. Now, as the annual exportation from Africa consists of an hundred thousand men, and as the two orders, of those who are privately kidnapped by individuals, and of those, who are publickly seized by virtue of the authority of their prince, compose together, at least, nine-tenths of the African slaves, it follows, that about ten thousand consist of convicts and prisoners of war. The last order is the most numerous. Let us suppose then that only six thousand of this order are annually sent into servitude, and it will immediately appear that no less than sixty thousand people annually perish in those wars, which are made only for the purpose of procuring slaves. But that this number, which we believe to be by no means exaggerated, may be free from all objection, we will include those in the estimate, who die as they are travelling to the ships. Many of these unfortunate people have a journey of one thousand miles to perform on foot, and are driven like sheep through inhospitable woods and deserts, where they frequently die in great numbers, from fatigue and want. Now if to those, who thus perish on the African continent, by war and travelling, we subjoin * those, who afterwards perish on the voyage, and in the seasoning together, it will appear that, in every yearly attempt to supply the colonies, an hundred thousand must perish, even before one useful individual can be obtained.
Gracious God! how wicked, how beyond all example impious, must be that servitude, which cannot be carried on without the continual murder of so many and innocent persons! What punishment is not to be expected for such monstrous and unparalleled barbarities! For if the blood of one man, unjustly shed, cries with so loud a voice for the divine vengeance, how shall the cries and groans of an hundred thousand men, annually murdered, ascend the celestial mansions, and bring down that punishment, which such enormities deserve! But do we mention punishment? Do we allude to that punishment, which shall be inflicted on men as individuals, in a future life? Do we allude to that awful day, which shall surely come, when the master shall behold his murdered negroe face to face? When a train of mutilated slaves shall be brought against him? When he shall stand confounded and abashed? Or, do we allude to that punishment, which may be inflicted on them here, as members of a wicked community? For as a body politick, if its members are ever so numerous, may be considered as an whole, acting of itself, and by itself, in all affairs in which it is concerned, so it is accountable, as such, for its conduct; and as these kinds of polities have only their existence here, so it is only in this world, that, as such, they can be punished.
“Now, whether we consider the crime, with respect to the individuals immediately concerned in this most barbarous and cruel traffick, or whether we consider it as * patronized and encouraged by the laws of the land, it presents to our view an equal degree of enormity, A crime, founded on a dreadful pre-eminence in wickedness,—a crime, which being both of individuals and the nation, must sometime draw down upon us the heaviest judgment of Almighty God, who made of one blood all the sons of men, and who gave to all equally a natural right to liberty; and who, ruling all the kingdoms of the earth with equal providential justice, cannot suffer such deliberate, such monstrous iniquity, to pass long unpunished.†
But alas! he seems already to have interfered on the occasion! The * violent and supernatural agitations of all the elements, which, for a series of years, have prevailed in those European settlements, where the unfortunate Africans are retained in a state of slavery, and which have brought unspeakable calamities on the inhabitants, and publick losses on the states to which they severally belong, are so many awful visitations of God for this inhuman violation of his laws. And it is not perhaps unworthy of remark, that as the subjects of Great-Britain have two thirds of this impious commerce in their own hands, so they have suffered in the same proportion, or * more severely than the rest.
How far these misfortunes may appear to be acts of providence, and to create an alarm to those who have been accustomed to refer every effect to its apparent cause; who have been habituated to stop there, and to overlook the finger of God, because it is slightly covered under the veil of secondary laws, we will not pretend to determine? but this we will assert with confidence, that the Europeans have richly deserved them all; that the fear of sympathy, which can hardly be restrained on other melancholy occasions, seems to forget to flow at the relation of these; and that we can never, with any shadow of justice, wish prosperity to the undertakers of those, whose success must be at the expence of the happiness of millions of their fellow-creatures.
But this is sufficient. For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.
[* ]Epist. to Philemon.
[* ]The African slave is of this description; and we could wish, in all our arguments on the present subject, to be understood as having spoken only of proper slaves. The slave who is condemned to the oar, to the fortifications, and other publick works, is in a different predicament. His liberty is not appropriated, and therefore none of those consequences can be justly drawn, which have been deduced in the present case.
[* ]See the description of an African battle, p. 98.
[* ]The lowest computation is 40,000, see p. 140.
[* ]The legislature has squandered away more money in the prosecution of the slave trade, within twenty years, than in any other trade whatever, having granted from the year 1750, to the year 1770, the sum of 300,000 pounds.
[† ]Sermon preached before the University of Cambridge, by the Rev. Peter Peckard.
[* ]The first noted earthquake at Jamaica, happened June the 7th 1692, when Port Royal was totally sunk. This was succeeded by one in the year 1697, and by another in the year 1722, from which time to the present, these regions of the globe seem to have been severely visited, but particularly during the last six or seven years. See a general account of the calamities, occasioned by the late tremendous hurricanes and earthquakes in the West-Indian islands, by Mr. Fowler.
[* ]The many ships of war belonging to the British navy, which were lost with all their crews in these dreadful hurricanes, will sufficiently prove the fact.