Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXII. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XXII. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1 
The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. (London: L. Taylor, 1808). Vol. 1.
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Further progress to the middle of May—Petitions begin to be sent to parliament—The king orders the privy council to inquire into the Slave-trade—Author called up to town—his interviews with Mr. Pitt—and with Mr. (now Lord) Grenville—Liverpool delegates examined first—these prejudice the council—this prejudice at length counteracted—Labours of the committee in the interim—Public anxious for the introduction of the question into parliament—Message of Mr. Pitt to the committee concerning it—Day fixed for the motion—Substance of the debate which followed—discussion of the general question deferred till the next sessions.
By this time the nature of the Slave-trade had, in consequence of the labours of the committee and of their several correspondents, become generally known throughout the kingdom. It had excited a general attention, and there was among people a general feeling in behalf of the wrongs of Africa. This feeling had also, as may be collected from what has been already mentioned, broken out into language: for not only had the traffic become the general subject of conversation, but public meetings had taken place, in which it had been discussed, and of which the result was, that an application to parliament had been resolved upon in many places concerning it. By the middle of February not fewer than thirty-five petitions had been delivered to the commons, and it was known that others were on their way to the same house.
This ferment in the public mind, which had shown itself in the public prints even before the petitions had been resolved upon, had excited the attention of government. To coincide with the wishes of the people on this subject, appeared to those in authority to be a desirable thing. To abolish the trade, replete as it was with misery, was desirable also: but it was so connected with the interest of individuals, and so interwoven with the commerce and revenue of the country, that an hasty abolition of it without a previous inquiry appeared to them to be likely to be productive of as much misery as good. The king, therefore, by an order of council, dated February the eleventh, 1788, directed that a committee of privy council should sit as a board of trade, “to take into their consideration the present state of the African trade, particularly as far as related to the practice and manner of purchasing or obtaining slaves on the coast of Africa, and the importation and sale thereof, either in the British colonies and settlements, or in the foreign colonies and settlements in America or the West-Indies; and also as far as related to the effects and consequences of the trade both in Africa and in the said colonies and settlements, and to the general commerce of this kingdom; and that they should report to him in council the result of their inquiries, with such observations as they might have to offer thereupon.”
Of this order of council Mr. Wilberforce, who had attended to this great subject, as far as his health would permit, since I left him, had received notice; but he was then too ill himself to take any measures concerning it. He therefore wrote to me, and begged of me to repair to London immediately in order to get such evidence ready, as we might think it eligible to introduce when the council sat. At that time, as appears from the former chapter, I had finished the additions to my Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, and I had now proceeded about half way in that of the Impolicy of it. This summons, however, I obeyed, and returned to town on the fourteenth of February, from which day to the twenty-fourth of May I shall now give the history of our proceedings.
My first business in London was to hold a conversation with Mr. Pitt previously to the meeting of the council, and to try to interest him, as the first minister of state, in our favour. For this purpose Mr. Wilberforce had opened the way for me, and an interview took place. We were in free conversation together for a considerable time, during which we went through most of the branches of the subject. Mr. Pitt appeared to me to have but little knowledge of it. He had also his doubts, which he expressed openly, on many points. He was at a loss to conceive how private interest should not always restrain the master of the slave from abusing him. This matter I explained to him as well as I could; and if he was not entirely satisfied with my interpretation of it, he was at least induced to believe that cruel practices were more probable than he had imagined. A second circumstance, of the truth of which he doubted, was the mortality and usage of seamen in this trade; and a third was the statement, by which so much had been made of the riches of Africa, and of the genius and abilities of her people; for he seemed at a loss to comprehend, if these things were so, how it had happened that they should not have been more generally noticed before. I promised to satisfy him upon these points, and an interview was fixed for this purpose the next day.
At the time appointed I went with my books, papers, and African productions. Mr. Pitt examined the former himself. He turned over leaf after leaf, in which the copies of the muster-rolls were contained, with great patience; and when he had looked over above a hundred pages accurately, and found the name of every seaman inserted, his former abode or service, the time of his entry, and what had become of him, either by death, discharge or desertion, he expressed his surprise at the great pains which had been taken in this branch of the inquiry, and confessed, with some emotion, that his doubts were wholly removed with respect to the destructive nature of this employ; and he said, moreover, that the facts contained in these documents, if they had been but fairly copied, could never be disproved. He was equally astonished at the various woods and other productions of Africa, but most of all at the manufactures of the natives in cotton, leather, gold, and iron, which were laid before him. These he handled and examined over and over again. Many sublime thoughts seemed to rush in upon him at once at the sight of these, some of which be expressed with observations becoming a great and a dignified mind. He thanked me for the light I had given him on many of the branches of this great question. And I went away under a certain conviction that I had left him much impressed in our favour.
My next visit was to Mr. (now Lord) Grenville. I called upon him at the request of Mr. Wilberforce, who had previously written to him from Bath, as he had promised to attend the meetings of the privy council during the examinations which were to take place. I found in the course of our conversation that Mr. Grenville had not then more knowledge of the subject than Mr. Pitt; but I found him differently circumstanced in other respects, for I perceived in him a warm feeling in behalf of the injured Africans, and that he had no doubt of the possibility of all the barbarities which had been alleged against this traffic. I showed him all my papers and some of my natural productions, which he examined. I was with him the next day, and once again afterwards, so that the subject was considered in all its parts. The effect of this interview with him was of course different from that upon the minister. In the former case I had removed doubts, and given birth to an interest in favour of our cause. But I had here only increased an interest which had already been excited. I had only enlarged the mass of feeling, or added zeal to zeal, or confirmed resolutions and reasonings. Disposed in this manner originally himself, and strengthened by the documents with which I had furnished him, Mr. Grenville contracted an enmity to the Slave-trade, which was never afterwards diminished* .
A report having gone abroad, that the committee of privy council would only examine those who were interested in the continuance of the trade, I found it necessary to call upon Mr. Pitt again, and to inform him of it, when I received an assurance that every person, whom I chose to send to the council in behalf of the committee, should be heard. This gave rise to a conversation relative to those witnesses whom we had to produce on the side of the abolition. And here I was obliged to disclose our weakness in this respect. I owned with sorrow that, though I had obtained specimens and official documents in abundance to prove many important points, yet I had found it difficult to prevail upon persons to be publicly examined on this subject. The only persons, we could then count upon, were Mr. Ramsay, Mr. H. Gandy, Mr. Falconbridge, Mr. Newton, and the Dean of Middleham. There was one, however, who would be a host of himself, if we could but gain him. I then mentioned Mr. Norris. I told Mr. Pitt the nature* and value of the testimony which he had given me at Liverpool, and the great zeal he had discovered to serve the cause. I doubted, however, if he would come to London for this purpose, even if I wrote to him; for he was intimate with almost all the owners of slave-vessels in Liverpool, and living among these he would not like to incur their resentment, by taking a prominent part against them. I therefore entreated Mr. Pitt to send him a summons of council to attend, hoping that Mr. Norris would then be pleased to come up, as he would be enabled to reply to his friends, that his appearance had not been voluntary. Mr. Pitt, however, informed me, that a summons from a committee of privy council sitting as a board of trade was not binding upon the subject, and therefore that I had no other means left but of writing to him, and he desired me to do this by the first post.
This letter I accordingly wrote, and sent it to my friend William Rathbone, who was to deliver it in person, and to use his own influence at the same time; but I received for answer, that Mr. Norris was then in London. Upon this I tried to find him out, to entreat him to consent to an examination before the council. At length I found his address; but before I could see him, I was told by the Bishop of London, that he had come up as a Liverpool delegate in support of the Slave-trade. Astonished at this information, I made the bishop acquainted with the case, and asked him how it became me to act; for I was fearful lest, by exposing Mr. Norris, I should violate the rights of hospitality on the one hand, and by not exposing him, that I should not do my duty to the cause I had undertaken on the other. His advice was, that I should see him, and ask him to explain the reasons of his conduct. I called upon him for this purpose, but he was out. He sent me, however, a letter soon afterwards, which was full of flattery, and in which, after having paid high compliments to the general force of my arguments, and the general justice and humanity of my sentiments on this great question, which had made a deep impression upon his mind, he had found occasion to differ from me, since we had last parted, on particular points, and that he had therefore less reluctantly yielded to the call of becoming a delegate,—though notwithstanding he would gladly have declined the office if he could have done it with propriety.
At length the council began their examinations. Mr. Norris, Lieutenant Matthews, of the navy, who had just left a slave-employ in Africa, and Mr. James Penny, formerly a slave-captain, and then interested as a merchant in the trade, (which three were the delegates from Liverpool) took possession of the ground first. Mr. Miles, Mr. Weuves, and others, followed them on the same side. The evidence which they gave, as previously concerted between themselves, may be shortly represented thus: They denied that kidnapping either did or could take place in Africa, or that wars were made there, for the purpose of procuring slaves. Having done away these wicked practices from their system, they maintained positions which were less exceptionable, or that the natives of Africa generally became slaves in consequence of having been made prisoners in just wars, or in consequence of their various crimes. They then gave a melancholy picture of the despotism and barbarity of some of the African princes, among whom the custom of sacrificing their own subjects prevailed. But, of all others, that which was afforded by Mr. Norris on this ground was the most frightful. The king of Dahomey, he said, sported with the lives of his people in the most wanton manner. He had seen at the gates of his palace, two piles of heads like those of shot in an arsenal. Within the palace the heads of persons newly put to death were strewed at the distance of a few yards in the passage which led to his apartment. This custom of human sacrifice by the king of Dahomey was not on one occasion only, but on many; such as on the reception of messengers from neighbouring states, or of white merchants, or on days of ceremonial. But the great carnage was once a year, when the poll tax was paid by his subjects. A thousand persons at least were sacrificed annually on these different occasions. The great men, too, of the country cut off a few heads on festival-days. From all these particulars the humanity of the Slave-trade was inferred, because it took away the inhabitants of Africa into lands where no such barbarities were known. But the humanity of it was insisted upon by positive circumstances also, namely, that a great number of the slaves were prisoners of war, and that in former times all such were put to death, whereas now they were saved; so that there was a great accession of happiness to Africa since the introduction of the Trade.
These statements, and those of others on the same side of the question, had a great effect, as may easily be conceived, upon the feelings of those of the council who were present. Some of them began immediately to be prejudiced against us. There were others who even thought that it was almost unnecessary to proceed in the inquiry, for that the Trade was actually a blessing. They had little doubt that all our assertions concerning it would be found false. The Bishop of London himself was so impressed by these unexpected accounts, that he asked me if Falconbridge, whose pamphlet had been previously sent by the committee to every member of the council, was worthy of belief, and if he would substantiate publicly what he had thus written. But these impressions unfortunately were not confined to those who had been present at the examinations. These could not help communicating them to others. Hence in all the higher circles (some of which I sometimes used to frequent) I had the mortification to hear of nothing but the Liverpool evidence, and of our own credulity, and of the impositions which had been practised upon us: of these reports the planters and merchants did not fail to avail themselves. They boasted that they would soon do away all the idle tales which had been invented against them. They desired the public only to suspend their judgment till the privy council report should be out, when they would see the folly and wickedness of all our allegations. A little more evidence, and all would be over. On the twenty-second of March, though the committee of council had not then held its sittings more than a month, and these only twice or thrice a week, the following paragraph was seen in a morning paper:—“The report of the committee of privy council will be ready in a few days. After due examination it appears that the major part of the complaints against this Trade are ill-founded. Some regulations, however, are expected to take place, which may serve in a certain degree to appease the cause of humanity.”
But while they who were interested had produced this outcry against us, in consequence of what had fallen from their own witnesses in the course of their examinations, they had increased it considerably by the industrious circulation of a most artful pamphlet among persons of rank and fortune at the West end of the metropolis, which was called, Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave-trade. This they had procured to be written by R. Harris, who was then clerk in a slave-house in Liverpool, but had been formerly a clergyman and a Jesuit. As they had maintained in the first instance, as has been already shown, the humanity of the traffic, so, by means of this pamphlet they asserted its consistency with revealed religion. That such a book should have made converts in such an age is surprising; and yet many, who ought to have known better, were carried away by it; and we had now absolutely to contend, and almost to degrade ourselves by doing so, against the double argument of the humanity and the holiness of the trade.
By these means, but particularly by the former, the current of opinion in particular circles ran against us for the first month, and so strong, that it was impossible for us to stem it at once: but as some of the council recovered from their panic, and their good sense became less biassed by their feelings, and they were in a state to hear reason, their prejudices began to subside. It began now to be understood among them, that almost all the witnesses were concerned in the continuance of the Trade. It began to be known also, (for Mr. Pitt and the Bishop of London took care that it should be circulated,) that Mr. Norris had but a short time before furnished me at Liverpool with information, all of which he had concealed* from the council, but all of which made for the abolition of it. Mr. Devaynes also, a respectable member of parliament, who had been in Africa, and who had been appealed to by Mr. Norris, when examined before the privy council, in behalf of his extraordinary facts, was unable, when summoned, to confirm them to the desired extent. From this evidence the council collected, that human sacrifices were not made on the arrival of White traders, as had been asserted; that there was no poll-tax in Dahomey at all; and that Mr. Norris must have been mistaken on these points, for he must have been there at the time of the ceremony of watering the graves, when about sixty persons suffered. This latter custom moreover appeared to have been a religious superstition of the country, such as at Otaheite, or in Britain in the time of the Druids, and to have had nothing to do with the Slave-trade* . With respect to prisoners of war, Mr. Devaynes allowed that the old, the lame, and the wounded, were often put to death on the spot; but this was to save the trouble of bringing them away. The young and the healthy were driven off for sale; but if they were not sold when offered, they were not killed, but reserved for another market, or became house-slaves to the conquerors, Mr. Devaynes also maintained, contrary to the allegations of the others, that a great number of persons were kidnapped in order to be sold to the ships, and that the government, where this happened, was not strong enough to prevent it. But besides these draw-backs from the weight of the testimony which had been given, it began to be perceived by some of the lords of the council, that the cruel superstitions which had been described, obtained only in one or two countries in Africa, and these of insignificant extent; whereas at the time, when their minds were carried away as it were by their feelings, they had supposed them to attach to the whole of that vast continent. They perceived also, that there were circumstances related in the evidence by the delegates themselves, by means of which, if they were true, the inhumanity of the trade might be established, and this to their own disgrace. They had all confessed that such slaves as the White traders refused to buy were put to death; and yet that these traders, knowing that this would be the case, had the barbarity uniformly to reject those whom it did not suit them to purchase. Mr. Matthews had rejected one of this description himself, whom he saw afterwards destroyed. Mr. Penny had known the refuse thrown down Melimba rock. Mr. Norris himself, when certain prisoners of war were offered to him for sale, declined buying them because they appeared unhealthy; and though the king then told him that he would put them to death, he could not be prevailed upon to take them, but left them to their hard fate; and he had the boldness to state afterwards, that it was his belief that many of them actually suffered.
These considerations had the effect of diminishing the prejudices of some of the council on this great question: and when this was perceived to be the case, it was the opinion of Mr. Pitt, Mr. Grenville, and the Bishop of London, that we should send three or four of our own evidences for examination, who might help to restore matters to an equilibrium. Accordingly Mr. Falconbridge, and some others, all of whom were to speak to the African part of the subject, were introduced. These produced a certain weight in the opposite scale. But soon after these had been examined, Dr. Andrew Spaarman, professor of physic, and inspector of the museum of the royal academy at Stockholm, and his companion, C. B. Wadstrom, chief director of the assay-office there, arrived in England. These gentlemen had been lately sent to Africa by the late king of Sweden, to make discoveries in botany, mineralogy, and other departments of science. For this purpose the Swedish ambassador at Paris had procured them permission from the French government to visit the countries bordering on the Senegal, and had ensured them protection there. They had been conveyed to the place of their destination, where they had remained from August 1787 to the end of January 1788; but meeting with obstacles which they had not foreseen, they had left it, and had returned to Havre de Grace, from whence they had just arrived in London, in their way home. It so happened, that by means of George Harrison, one of our committee, I fell in unexpectedly with these gentlemen. I had not long been with them before I perceived the great treasure I had found. They gave me many beautiful specimens of African produce. They showed me their journals, which they had regularly kept from day to day. In these I had the pleasure of seeing a number of circumstances minuted down, all relating to the Slave-trade, and even drawings on the same subject. I obtained a more accurate and satisfactory knowledge of the manners and customs of the Africans from these, than from all the persons put together whom I had yet seen. I was anxious, therefore, to take them before the committee of council, to which they were pleased to consent; and as Dr. Spaarman was to leave London in a few days, I procured him an introduction first. His evidence went to show, that the natives of Africa lived in a fruitful and luxuriant country, which supplied all their wants, and that they would be a happy people if it were not for the existence of the Slave-trade. He instanced wars which he knew to have been made by the Moors upon the Negros (for they were entered upon wholly at the instigation of the White traders) for the purpose of getting slaves, and he had the pain of seeing the unhappy captives brought in on such occasions, and some of them in a wounded state. Among them were many women and children, and the women were in great affliction. He saw also the king of Barbesin send out his parties on expeditions of a similar kind, and he saw them return with slaves. The king had been made intoxicated on purpose, by the French agents, or he would never have consented to the measure. He stated also, that in consequence of the temptations held out by slave-vessels coming upon the coast, the natives seized one another in the night, when they found opportunity; and even invited others to their houses, whom they treacherously detained, and sold at these times; so that every enormity was practised in Africa, in consequence of the existence of the Trade. These specific instances made a proper impression upon the lords of the council in their turn: for Dr. Spaarman was a man of high character; he possessed the confidence of his sovereign; he had no interest whatever in giving his evidence on this subject, either on one or the other side; his means of information too had been large; he had also recorded the facts which had come before him, and he had his journal, written in the French language, to produce. The tide therefore, which had run so strongly against us, began now to turn a little in our favour.
While these examinations were going on, petitions continued to be sent to the house of commons, from various parts of the kingdom. No less than one hundred and three were presented in this session. The city of London, though she was drawn the other way by the cries of commercial interest, made a sacrifice to humanity and justice. The two Universities applauded her conduct by their own example. Large manufacturing towns and whole counties expressed their sentiments and wishes in a similar manner. The Established Church in separate dioceses, and the Quakers and other Dissenters, as separate religious bodies, joined in one voice upon this occasion.
The committee in the interim were not unmindful of the great work they had undertaken, and they continued to forward it in its different departments. They kept up a communication by letter with most of the worthy persons who have been mentioned to have written to them, but particularly with Brissot and Claviere, from whom they had the satisfaction of learning, that a society had at length been established at Paris for the Abolition of the Slave-Trade in France. The learned Marquis de Condorcet had become the president of it. The virtuous Duc de la Rochefoucauld, and the Marquis de la Fayette, had sanctioned it by enrolling their names as the two first members. Petion, who was placed afterwards among the mayors of Paris, followed. Women also were not thought unworthy of being honorary and assistant members of this humane institution; and among these were found the amiable Marchioness of la Fayette, Madame de Poivre, widow of the late intendant of the Isle of France, and Madame Necker, wife of the first minister of state.
The new correspondents, who voluntarily offered their services to the committee during the first part of the period now under consideration, were, S. Whitcomb, esq., of Gloucester; the reverend D. Watson, of Middleton Tyas, Yorkshire; John Murlin, esq., of High Wycomb; Charles Collins, esq., of Swansea; Henry Tudor, esq., of Sheffield; the reverend John Hare, of Lincoln; Samuel Tooker, esq., of Moorgate, near Rotherham; the reverend G. Walker, and Francis Wakefield, esq., of Nottingham; the reverend Mr. Hepworth, of Burton-upon-Trent; the reverend H. Dannett, of St. John’s, Liverpool; the reverend Dr. Oglander, of New College, Oxford; the reverend H. Coulthurst, of Sidney College, Cambridge; R. Selfe, esq., of Cirencester; Morris Birkbeck, of Hanford, Dorsetshire; William Jepson, of Lancaster; B. Kaye, of Leeds; John Patison, esq., of Paisley; J. E. Dolben, esq., of Northamptonshire; the reverend Mr. Smith, of Wendover; John Wilkinson, esquire, of Woodford; Samuel Milford, esquire, of Exeter; Peter Lunel, esquire, treasurer of the committee at Bristol; James Pemberton, of Philadelphia; and the President of the Society at New York.
The letters from new correspondents during the latter part of this period were the following:
One from Alexander Alison, esquire, of Edinburgh, in which he expressed it to be his duty to attempt to awaken the inhabitants of Scotland to a knowledge of the monstrous evil of the Slave-trade, and to form a committee there to act in union with that of London, in carrying the great object of their institution into effect.
Another from Elhanan Winchester, offering the committee one hundred of his sermons, which he had preached against the Slave-trade, in Fairfax county in Virginia, so early as in the year 1774.
Another from Dr. Frossard, of Lyons, in which he offered his services for the South of France, and desired different publications to be sent him, that he might be better qualified to take a part in the promotion of the cause.
Another from professor Bruns, of Helmstadt in Germany, in which he desired to know the particulars relative to the institution of the committee, as many thousands upon the continent were then beginning to feel for the sufferings of the oppressed African race.
Another from the reverend James Manning, of Exeter, in which he stated himself to be authorised by the dissenting ministers of Devon and Cornwall, to express their high approbation of the conduct of the committee, and to offer their services in the promotion of this great work of humanity and religion.
Another from William Senhouse, esquire, of the island of Barbadoes. In this he gave the particulars of two estates, one of them his own and the other belonging to a nobleman, upon each of which the slaves, in consequence of humane treatment, had increased by natural population only. Another effect of this humane treatment had been, that these slaves were among the most orderly and tractable in that island. From these and other instances he argued, that if the planters would, all of them, take proper care of their slaves, their humanity would be repaid in a few years by a valuable increase in their property, and they would never want supplies from a traffic, which had been so justly condemned.
Two others, the one from Travers Hartley, and the other from Alexander Jaffray, esquires, both of Dublin, were read. These gentlemen sent certain resolutions, which had been agreed upon by the chamber of commerce and by the guild of merchants there relative to the abolition of the Slave-trade. They rejoiced in the name of those, whom they represented, that Ireland had been unspotted by a traffic, which they held in such deep abhorrence, and promised, if it should be abolished in England, to take the most active measures to prevent it from finding an asylum in the ports of that kingdom.
The letters of William Senhouse, and of Travers Hartley, and of Alexandet Jaffray, esquires, were ordered to be presented to the committee of privy council, and copies of them to be left there.
The business of the committee having almost daily increased within this period, Dr. Baker, and Bennet Langton esquire, who were the two first to assist me in my early labours, and who have been mentioned among the forerunners and coadjutors of the cause, were elected members of it. Dr. Kippis also was added to the list.
The honorary and corresponding members elected within the same period, were the Dean of Middleham, T. W. Coke esquire, member of parliament, of Holkham in Norfolk, and the reverend William Leigh, who has been before mentioned, of Little Plumstead in the same country. The latter had published several valuable letters in the public papers under the signature of Africanus. These had excited great notice, and done much good. The worthy author had now collected them into a publication, and had offered the profits of it to the committee. Hence this mark of their respect was conferred upon him.
The committee ordered a new edition of three thousand of the Dean of Middleham’s Letters to be printed. Having approved of a manuscript written by James Field Stanfield, a mariner, containing observations upon a voyage which he had lately made to the coast of Africa for slaves, they ordered three thousand of these to be printed also. By this time the subject having been much talked of, and many doubts and difficulties having been thrown in the way of the abolition by persons interested in the continuance of the trade, Mr. Ramsay, who has been often so honourably mentioned, put down upon paper all the objections which were then handed about, and also those answers to each, which he was qualified from his superior knowledge of the subject to suggest. This he did, that the members of the legislature might see the more intricate parts of the question unravelled, and that they might not be imposed upon by the spurious arguments which were then in circulation concerning it. Observing also the poisonous effect which The Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave-trade had produced upon the minds of many, he wrote an answer on scriptural grounds to that pamphlet. These works were sent to the press, and three thousand copies of each of them were ordered to be struck off.
The committee, in their arrangement of the distribution of their books, ordered Newton’s Thoughts, and Ramsay’s Objections and Answers, to be sent to each member of both houses of parliament.
They appointed also three sub-committees for different purposes: one to draw up such facts and arguments respecting the Slave-trade, with a view of being translated into other languages, as should give foreigners a suitable knowledge of the subject; another to prepare an answer to certain false reports which had been spread relative to the object of their institution, and to procure an insertion of it in the daily papers; and a third to draw up rules for the government of the Society.
By the latter end of the month of March, there was an anxious expectation in the public, notwithstanding the privy council had taken up the subject, that some notice should be taken in the lower house of parliament of the numerous petitions which had been presented there. There was the same expectation in many of the members of it themselves. Lord Penrhyn, one of the representatives for Liverpool, and a planter also, had anticipated this notice, by moving for such papers relative to ships employed, goods exported, produce imported, and duties upon the same, as would show the vast value of the trade, which it was in contemplation to abolish. But at this time Mr. Wilberforce was ill, and unable to gratify the expectations which had been thus apparent. The committee, therefore, who partook of the anxiety of the public, knew not what to do. They saw that two-thirds of the session had already passed. They saw no hope of Mr. Wilberforce’s recovery for some time. Rumours too were afloat, that other members, of whose plans they knew nothing, and who might even make emancipation their object, would introduce the business into the house. Thus situated, they waited as patiently as they could till the eighth of April* , when they resolved to write to Mr. Wilberforce, to explain to him their fears and wishes, and to submit it to his consideration, whether, if he were unable himself, he would appoint some one, in whom he could confide, to make some motion in parliament on the subject.
But the public expectation became now daily more visible. The inhabitants of Manchester, many of whom had signed the petition for that place, became impatient, and they appointed Thomas Walker and Thomas Cooper, esquires, as their delegates, to proceed to London to communicate with the committee on this subject, to assist them in their deliberations upon it, and to give their attendance while it was under discussion by the legislature.
At the time of the arrival of the delegates, who were received as such by the committee, a letter came from Bath, in which it was stated that Mr. Wilberforce’s health was in such a precarious state, that his physicians dared not allow him to read any letter, which related to the subject of the Slave-trade.
The committee were now again at a loss how to act, when they were relieved from this doubtful situation by a message from Mr. Pitt, who desired a conference with their chairman. Mr. Sharp accordingly went, and on his return made the following report: “He had a full opportunity,” he said, “of explaining to Mr. Pitt that the desire of the committee went to the entire abolition of the Slave-trade. Mr. Pitt assured him that his heart was with the committee as to this object, and that he considered himself pledged to Mr. Wilberforce, that the cause should not sustain any injury from his indisposition; but at the same time observed, that the subject was of great political importance, and it was requisite to proceed in it with temper and prudence. He did not apprehend, as the examinations before the privy council would yet take up some time, that the subject could be fully investigated in the present session of parliament; but said he would consider whether the forms of the house would admit of any measures, that would be obligatory on them to take it up early in the ensuing session.”
In about a week after this conference, Mr. Morton Pitt was deputed by the minister to write to the committee, to say that he had found precedents for such a motion as he conceived to be proper, and that he would submit it to the House of Commons in a few days.
At the next meeting, which was on the sixth of May, and at which major Cartwright and the Manchester delegates assisted, Mr. Morton Pitt attended as a member of the committee, and said that the minister had fixed his motion for the ninth. It was then resolved, that deputations should be sent to some of the leading members of parliament, to request their support of the approaching motion. I was included in one of these, and in that which was to wait upon Mr. Fox. We were received by him in a friendly manner. On putting the question to him, which related to the object of our mission, Mr. Fox paused for a little while, as if in the act of deliberation; when he assured us unequivocally, and in language which could not be misunderstood, that he would support the object of the committee to its fullest extent, being convinced that there was no remedy for the evil, but in the total abolition of the trade.
At length, the ninth, or the day fixed upon, arrived, when this important subject was to be mentioned in the House of Commons for the first time* , with a view to the public discussion of it. It is impossible for me to give within the narrow limits of this work all that was then said upon it; and yet as the debate, which ensued, was the first which took place upon it, I should feel inexcusable if I were not to take some notice of it.
Mr. Pitt rose. He said he intended to move a resolution relative to a subject, which was of more importance than any which had ever been agitated in that house. This honour he should not have had, but for a circumstance, which he could not but deeply regret, the severe indisposition of his friend Mr. Wilberforce, in whose hands every measure, which belonged to justice, humanity, and the national interest, was peculiarly well placed. The subject in question was no less than that of the Slave-trade. It was obvious from the great number of petitions, which had been presented concerning it, how much it had engaged the public attention, and consequently how much it deserved the serious notice of that house, and how much it became their duty to take some measure concerning it. But whatever was done on such a subject, every one would agree, ought to be done with the maturest deliberation. Two opinions had prevailed without doors, as appeared from the language of the different petitions. It had been pretty generally thought that the African Slave-trade ought to be abolished. There were others, however, who thought that it only stood in need of regulations. But all had agreed that it ought not to remain as it stood at present. But that measure, which it might be the most proper to take, could only be discovered by a cool, patient, and diligent examination of the subject in all its circumstances, relations, and consequences. This had induced him to form an opinion, that the present was not the proper time for discussing it; for the session was now far advanced, and there was also a want of proper materials for the full information of the house. It would, he thought, be better discussed, when it might produce some useful debate, and when that inquiry, which had been instituted by His Majesty’s ministers, (he meant the examination by a committee of privy council,) should be brought to such a state of maturity, as to make it fit that the result of it should be laid before the house. That inquiry, he trusted, would facilitate their investigation, and enable them the better to proceed to a decision, which should be equally founded on principles of humanity, justice, and sound policy. As there was not a probability of reaching so desirable an end in the present state of the business, he meant to move a resolution to pledge the house to the discussion of the question early in the next session. If by that time his honourable friend should be recovered, which he hoped would be the case, then he (Mr. Wilberforce) would take the lead in it; but should it unfortunately happen otherwise, then he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) pledged himself to bring forward some proposition concerning it. The house, however, would observe, that he had studiously avoided giving any opinion of his own on this great subject. He thought it wiser to defer this till the time of the discussion should arrive. He concluded with moving, after having read the names of the places from whence the different petitions had come, “That this house will, early in the next session of parliament, proceed to take into consideration the circumstances of the Slave-trade complained of in the said petitions, and what may be fit to be done thereupon.”
Mr. Fox began by observing, that he had long taken an interest in this great subject, which he had also minutely examined, and that it was his intention to have brought something forward himself in parliament respecting it: but when he heard that Mr. Wilberforce had resolved to take it up, he was unaffectedly rejoiced, not only knowing the purity of his principles and character, but because, from a variety of considerations as to the situations in which different men stood in the house, there was something that made him honestly think it was better that the business should be in the hands of that gentleman, than in his own. Having premised this, he said that, as so many petitions, and these signed by such numbers of persons of the most respectable character, had been presented, he was sorry that it had been found impossible that the subject of them could be taken up this year, and more particularly as he was not able to see, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had done, that there were circumstances, which might happen by the next year, which would make it more advisable and advantageous to take it up then, than it would have been to enter upon it in the present session. For certainly there could be no information laid before the house, through the medium of the Lords of the Council, which could not more advantageously have been obtained by themselves, had they instituted a similar inquiry. It was their duty to advise the King, and not to ask his advice. This the constitution had laid down as one of its most essential principles; and though in the present instance he saw no cause for blame, because he was persuaded His Majesty’s ministers had not acted with any ill intention, it was still a principle never to be departed from, because it never could be departed from without establishing a precedent which might lead to very serious abuses. He lamented that the Privy Council, who had received no petitions from the people on the subject, should have instituted an inquiry, and that the House of Commons, the table of which had been loaded with petitions from various parts of the kingdom, should not have instituted any inquiry at all. He hoped these petitions would have a fair discussion in that house, independently of any information that could be given to it by His Majesty’s ministers. He urged again the superior advantages of an inquiry into such a subject, carried on within those walls, over any inquiry carried on by the Lords of the Council. In inquiries carried on in that house, they had the benefit of every circumstance of publicity; which was a most material benefit indeed, and that which of all others made the manner of conducting the parliamentary proceedings of Great Britain the envy and the admiration of the world. An inquiry there was better than an inquiry in any other place, however respectable the persons before and by whom it was carried on. There, all that could be said for the abolition or against it might be said. In that house, every relative fact would have been produced, no information would have been withheld, no circumstance would have been omitted, which was necessary for elucidation; nothing would have been kept back. He was sorry therefore that the consideration of the question, but more particularly where so much human suffering was concerned, should be put off to another session, when it was obvious that no advantage could be gained by the delay.
He then adverted to the secrecy, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had observed relative to his own opinion on this important subject. Why did he refuse to give it? Had Mr. Wilberforce been present, the house would have had a great advantage in this respect, because doubtless he would have stated in what view he saw the subject, and in a general way described the nature of the project he meant to propose. But now they were kept in the dark as to the nature of any plan, till the next session. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had indeed said, that it had been a very general opinion that the African Slave-trade should be abolished. He had said again, that others had not gone so far, but had given it as their opinion, that it required to be revised and regulated. But why did he not give his own sentiments boldly to the world on this great question? As for himself, he (Mr. Fox) had no scruple to declare at the outset, that the Slave-trade ought not to be regulated, but destroyed. To this opinion his mind was made up; and he was persuaded that, the more the subject was considered, the more his opinion would gain ground; and it would be admitted, that to consider it in any other manner, or on any other principles than those of humanity and justice, would be idle and absurd. If there were any such men, and he did not know but that there were those, who, led away by local and interested considerations, thought the Slave-trade might still continue under certain modifications, these were the dupes of error, and mistook what they thought their interest, for what he would undertake to convince them was their loss. Let such men only hear the case further, and they would find the result to be, that a cold-hearted policy was folly, when it opposed the great principles of humanity and justice.
He concluded by saying that he would not oppose the resolution, if other members thought it best to postpone the consideration of the subject; but he should have been better pleased, if it had been discussed sooner; and he certainly reserved to himself the right of voting for any question upon it that should be brought forward by any other member in the course of the present session.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, that nothing he had heard had satisfied him of the propriety of departing from the rule he had laid down for himself, of not offering, but of studiously avoiding to offer, any opinion upon the subject till the time should arrive when it could be fully argued. He thought that no discussion, which could take place that session, could lead to any useful measure, and therefore he had wished not to argue it till the whole of it could be argued. A day would come, when every member would have an opportunity of stating his opinion; and he wished it might be discussed with a proper spirit on all sides, on fair and liberal principles, and without any shackles from local and interested considerations.
With regard to the inquiries instituted before the committee of privy council, he was sure, as soon as it became obvious that the subject must undergo a discussion, it was the duty of His Majesty’s ministers to set those inquiries on foot, which should best enable them to judge in what manner they could meet or offer any proposition respecting the Slave-trade. And although such previous examinations by no means went to deprive that house of its undoubted right to institute those inquiries, or to preclude them, they would be found greatly to facilitate them. But, exclusive of this consideration, it would have been utterly impossible to have come to any discussion of the subject, that could have been brought to a conclusion in the course of the present session. Did the inquiry then before the privy council prove a loss of time? So far from it, that, upon the whole, time had been gained by it. He had moved the resolution, therefore, to pledge the house to bring on the discussion early in the next session, when they would have a full opportunity of considering every part of the subject: first, Whether the whole of the trade ought be abolished; and, if so, how and when. If it should be thought that the trade should only be put under certain regulations, what those regulations ought to be, and when they should take place. These were questions which must be considered; and therefore he had made his resolution as wide as possible, that there might be room for all necessary considerations to be taken in. He repeated his declaration, that he would reserve his sentiments till the day of discussion should arrive; and again declared, that he earnestly wished to avoid an anticipation of the debate upon the subject. But if such debate was likely to take place, he would withdraw his motion, and offer it another day.
A few words then passed between Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox in reply to each other; after which Lord Penrhyn rose. He said there were two classes of men, the African merchants, and the planters, both whose characters had been grossly calumniated. These wished that an inquiry might be instituted, and this immediately, conscious that the more their conduct was examined the less they would be found to merit the opprobrium with which they had been loaded. The charges against the Slave-trade were either true or false. If they were true, it ought to be abolished; but if upon inquiry they were found to be without foundation, justice ought to be done to the reputation of those who were concerned in it. He then said a few words, by which he signified, that, after all, it might not be an improper measure to make regulations in the trade.
Mr. Burke said, the noble lord, who was a man of honour himself, had reasoned from his own conduct, and, being conscious of his own integrity, was naturally led to imagine that other men were equally just and honourable. Undoubtedly the merchants and planters had a right to call for an investigation of their conduct, and their doing so did them great credit. The Slave-trade also ought equally to be inquired into. Neither did he deny that it was right His Majesty’s ministers should inquire into its merits for themselves. They had done their duty; but that house, who had the petitions of the people on their table, had neglected it, by having so long deferred an inquiry of their own. If that house wished to preserve their functions, their understandings, their honour, and their dignity, he advised them to beware of committees of privy council. If they suffered their business to be done by such means, they were abdicating their trust and character, and making way for an entire abolition of their functions, which they were parting with one after another. Thus
“Star after star goes out, and all is night.”
If they neglected the petitions of their constituents, they must fall, and the privy council be instituted in their stead. What would be the consequence? His Majesty’s ministers, instead of consulting them, and giving them the opportunity of exercising their functions of deliberation and legislation, would modify the measures of government elsewhere, and bring down the edicts of the privy council to them to register. Mr. Burke said, he was one of those who wished for the abolition of the Slave-trade. He thought it ought to be abolished, on principles of humanity and justice. If, however, opposition of interests should render its total abolition impossible, it ought to be regulated, and that immediately. They need not send to the West Indies to know the opinions of the planters on the subject. They were to consider first of all, and abstractedly from all political, personal, and local considerations, that the Slave-trade was directly contrary to the principles of humanity and justice, and to the spirit of the British constitution; and that the state of slavery, which followed it, however mitigated, was a state so improper, so degrading, and so ruinous to the feelings and capacities of human nature, that it ought not to be suffered to exist. He deprecated delay in this business, as well for the sake of the planters as of the slaves.
Mr. Gascoyne, the other member for Liverpool, said he had no objection that the discussion should stand over to the next session of parliament, provided it could not come on in the present, because he was persuaded it would ultimately be found that his constituents, who were more immediately concerned in the trade, and who had been so shamefully calumniated, were men of respectable character. He hoped the privy council would print their Report when they had brought their inquiries to a conclusion, and that they would lay it before the house and the public, in order to enable all concerned to form a judgment of what was proper to be done relative to the subject, next session. With respect, however, to the total abolition of the Slave-trade, he must confess that such a measure was both unnecessary, visionary, and impracticable; but he wished some alterations or modifications to be adopted. He hoped that, when the house came to go into the general question, they would not forget the trade, commerce, and navigation, of the country.
Mr. Rolle said, he had received instructions from his constituents to inquire if the grievances, which had been alleged to result from the Slave-trade, were well founded, and, if it should appear that they were, to assist in applying a remedy. He was glad the discussion had been put off till next session, as it would give all of them an opportunity of considering the subject with more mature deliberation.
Mr. Martin desired to say a few words only. He put the case, that, supposing the slaves were treated ever so humanely, when they were carried to the West Indies, what compensation could be made them for being torn from their nearest relations, and from every thing that was dear to them in life? He hoped no political advantage, no national expediency, would be allowed to weigh in the scale against the eternal rules of moral rectitude. As for himself, he had no hesitation to declare, in this early stage of the business, that he should think himself a wicked wretch if he did not do every thing in his power to put a stop to the Slave-trade.
Sir William Dolben said, that he did not then wish to enter into the discussion of the general question of the abolition of the Slave-trade, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was so desirous of postponing; but he wished to say a few words on what he conceived to be a most crying evil, and which might be immediately remedied, without infringing upon the limits of that question. He did not allude to the sufferings of the poor Africans in their own country, nor afterwards in the West India islands, but to that intermediate state of tenfold misery which they underwent in their transportation. When put on board the ships, the poor unhappy wretches were chained to each other, hand and foot, and stowed so close, that they were not allowed above a foot and a half for each individual in breadth. Thus crammed together like herrings in a barrel, they contracted putrid and fatal disorders; so that they who came to inspect them in a morning had occasionally to pick dead slaves out of their rows, and to unchain their carcases from the bodies of their wretched fellow-sufferers, to whom they had been fastened. Nor was it merely to the slaves that the baneful effects of the contagion thus created were confined. This contagion affected the ships’ crews, and numbers of the seamen employed in the horrid traffic perished. This evil, he said, called aloud for a remedy, and that remedy ought to be applied soon; otherwise no less than ten thousand lives might be lost between this and the next session. He wished therefore this grievance to be taken into consideration, independently of the general question; and that some regulations, such as restraining the captains from taking above a certain number of slaves on board, according to the size of their vessels, and obliging them to let in fresh air, and provide better accommodation for the slaves during their passage, should be adopted.
Mr. Young wished the consideration of the whole subject to stand over to the next session.
Sir James Johnstone, though a planter, professed himself a friend to the abolition of the Slave-trade. He said it was highly necessary that the house should do something respecting it; but whatever was to be done should be done soon, as delay might be productive of bad consequences in the islands.
Mr. L. Smith stood up a zealous advocate for the abolition of the Slave-trade. He said that even Lord Penrhyn and Mr. Gascoyne, the members for Liverpool, had admitted the evil of it to a certain extent; for regulations or modifications, in which they seemed to acquiesce, were unnecessary where abuses did not really exist.
Mr. Grigby thought it his duty to declare, that no privy council report, or other mode of examination, could influence him. A traffic in the persons of men was so odious, that it ought everywhere, as soon as ever it was discovered, to be abolished.
Mr. Bastard was anxious that the house should proceed to the discussion of the subject in the present session. The whole country, he said, had petitioned; and was it any satisfaction to the country to be told, that the committee of privy council were inquiring? Who knew any thing of what was doing by the committee of privy council, or what progress they were making? The inquiry ought to have been instituted in that house, and in the face of the public, that every body concerned might know what was going on. The numerous petitions of the people ought immediately to be attended to. He reprobated delay on this occasion; and as the honourable baronet, Sir William Dolben, had stated facts which were shocking to humanity, he hoped he would move that a committee might be appointed to inquire into their existence, that a remedy might be applied, if possible, before the sailing of the next ships for Africa.
Mr. Whitbread professed himself a strenuous advocate for the total and immediate abolition of the Slave-trade. It was contrary to nature, and to every principle of justice, humanity, and religion.
Mr. Pelham stated, that he had very maturely considered the subject of the Slave-trade; and had he not known that the business was in the hands of an honourable member, (whose absence from the house, and the cause of it, no man lamented more sincerely than he did,) he should have ventured to propose something concerning it himself. If it should be thought that the Trade ought not to be entirely done away, the sooner it was regulated the better. He had a plan for this purpose, which appeared to him to be likely to produce some salutary effects. He wished to know if any such thing would be permitted to be proposed in the course of the present session.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said he should be happy, if he thought the circumstances of the house were such as to enable them to proceed to an immediate discussion of the question; but as that did not appear, from the reasons he had before stated, to be the case, he could only assure the honourable gentleman, that the same motives which had induced him to propose an inquiry into the subject early in the next session of parliament, would make him desirous of receiving any other light which could be thrown upon it.
The question having been then put, the resolution was agreed to unanimously. Thus ended the first debate that ever took place in the commons, on this important subject. This debate, though many of the persons concerned in it abstained cautiously from entering into the merits of the general question, became interesting, in consequence of circumstances attending it. Several rose up at once to give relief, as it were, to their feelings by utterance; but by so doing they were prevented, many of them, from being heard. They who were heard spoke with peculiar energy, as if warmed in an extraordinary manner by the subject. There was an apparent enthusiasm in behalf of the injured Africans. It was supposed by some, that there was a moment, in which, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had moved for an immediate abolition of the Trade, he would have carried it that night; and both he and others, who professed an attachment to the cause, were censured for not having taken a due advantage of the disposition which was so apparent. But independently of the inconsistency of doing this on the part of the ministry, while the privy council were in the midst of their inquiries, and of the improbability that the other branches of the legislature would have concurred in so hasty a measure; What good would have accrued to the cause, if the abolition had been then carried? Those concerned in the cruel system would never have rested quietly under the stigma under which they then laboured. They would have urged, that they had been condemned unheard. The merchants would have said, that they had had no notice of such an event, that they might prepare a way for their vessels in other trades. The planters would have said, that they had had no time allowed them to provide such supplies from Africa as might enable them to keep up their respective stocks. They would, both of them, have called aloud for immediate indemnification. They would have decried the policy of the measure of the abolition;—and where had it been proved? They would have demanded a reverse of it; and might they not, in cooler moments, have succeeded? Whereas, by entering into a patient discussion of the merits of the question; by bringing evidence upon it; by reasoning upon that evidence night after night, and year after year, and thus by disputing the ground inch as it were by inch, the Abolition of the Slave-trade stands upon a rock, upon which itnever can be shaken. Many of those who were concerned in the cruel system have now given up their prejudices, because they became convinced in the contest. A stigma too has been fixed upon it, which can never be erased: and in a large record, in which the cruelty and injustice of it have been recognised in indelible characters, its impolicy also has been eternally enrolled.
[* ]I have not mentioned the difference between these two eminent persons, with a view of drawing any invidious comparisons, but because, as these statements are true, such persons as have a high opinion of the late Mr. Pitt’s judgment, may see that this great man did not espouse the cause hastily, or merely as a matter of feeling, but upon the conviction of his own mind.
[* ]See his evidence Chap. xvii.
[* ]This was also the case with another witness, Mr. Weuves. He had given me accounts, before any stir was made about the Slave-trade, relative to it, all of which he kept back when he was examined there.
[* ]Being a religious custom, it would still have gone on, though the Slave-trade had been abolished: nor could the merchants at any time have bought off a single victim.
[* ]Brissot attended in person at this committee in his way to America, which it was then an object with him to visit.
[* ]David Hartley made a motion some years before in the same house, as has been shown in a former part of this work, but this was only to establish a proposition, That the Slave-trade was contrary to the Laws of God and the Rights of Man.