Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XXIII. - 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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Continuation to the middle of July—Anxiety of Sir William Dolben to lessen the horrors of the Middle Passage till the great question should be discussed—brings in a bill for that purpose—debate upon it—Evidence examined against it—its inconsistency and falsehoods—further debate uponit—Bill passed, and carried to the Lords—vexatious delays and opposition there—carried backwards and forwards to both houses—at length finally passed—Proceedings of the committee in the interim—effects of them.—End of the first volume.
It was supposed, after the debate, of which the substance has been just given, that there would have been no further discussion of the subject till the next year: but Sir William Dolben became more and more affected by those considerations which he had offered to the house on the ninth of May. The trade, he found, was still to go on. The horrors of the transportation, or Middle Passage, as it was called, which he conceived to be the worst in the long catalogue of evils belonging to the system, would of course accompany it. The partial discussion of these, he believed, would be no infringement of the late resolution of the house. He was desirous, therefore, of doing something in the course of the present session, by which the miseries of the trade might be diminished as much as possible, while it lasted, or till the legislature could take up the whole of the question. This desire he mentioned to several of his friends; and as these approved of his design, he made it known on the twenty-first of May in the House of Commons.
He began by observing, that he would take up but little of their time. He rose to move for leave to bring in a bill for the relief of those unhappy persons, the natives of Africa, from the hardships to which they were usually exposed in their passage from the coast of Africa to the Colonies. He did not mean, by any regulations he might introduce for this purpose, to countenance or sanction the Slave-trade, which, however modified, would be always wicked and unjustifiable. Nor did he mean, by introducing these, to go into the general question which the house had prohibited. The bill which he had in contemplation, went only to limit the number of persons to be put on board to the tonnage of the vessel which was to carry them, in order to prevent them from being crowded too closely together; to secure to them good and sufficient provisions; and to take cognizance of other matters, which related to their health and accommodation; and this only till parliament could enter into the general merits of the question. This humane interference he thought no member would object to. Indeed, those for Liverpool had both of them admitted, on the ninth of May, that regulations were desirable; and he had since conversed with them, and was happy to learn that they would not oppose him on this occasion.
Mr. Whitbread highly approved of the object of the worthy Baronet, which was to diminish the sufferings of an unoffending people. Whatever could be done to relieve them in their hard situation, till parliament could take up the whole of their case, ought to be done by men living in a civilized country, and professing the Christian religion: he therefore begged leave to second the motion, which had been made.
General Norton was sorry that he had not risen up sooner. He wished to have seconded this humane motion himself. It had his most cordial approbation.
Mr. Burgess complimented the worthy Baronet on the honour he had done himself on this occasion, and congratulated the house on the good, which they were likely to do by acceding, as he was sure they would, to his proposition.
Mr. Joliffe rose, and said that the motion in question should have his strenuous support.
Mr. Gascoyne stated, that having understood from the honourable Baronet that he meant only to remedy the evils, which were stated to exist in transporting the inhabitants of Africa to the West Indies, he had told him that he would not object to the introduction of such a bill. Should it however interfere with the general question, the discussion of which had been prohibited, he would then oppose it. He must also reserve another case for his opposition; and this would be, if the evils of which it took cognizance should appear not to have been well founded. He had written to his constituents to be made acquainted with this circumstance, and he must be guided by them on the subject.
Mr. Martin was surprised how any person could give an opposition to such a bill. Whatever were the merits of the great question, all would allow that, if human beings were to be transported across the ocean, they should be carried over it with as little suffering as possible to themselves.
Mr. Hamilton deprecated the subdivision of this great and important question, which the house had reserved for another session. Every endeavour to meddle with one part of it, before the whole of it could be taken into consideration, looked rather as if it came from an enemy than from a friend. He was fearful that such a bill as this would sanction a traffic, which should never be viewed but in a hostile light, or as repugnant to the feelings of our nature, and to the voice of our religion.
Lord Frederic Campbell was convinced that the postponing of all consideration of the subject till the next session was a wise measure. He was sure that neither the house nor the public were in a temper sufficiently cool to discuss it properly. There was a general warmth of feeling, or an enthusiasm about it, which ran away with the understandings of men, and disqualified them from judging soberly concerning it. He wished, therefore, that the present motion might be deferred.
Mr. William Smith said, that if the motion of the honourable Baronet had trespassed upon the great question reserved for consideration, he would have opposed it himself; but he conceived the subject, which it comprehended, might with propriety be separately considered; and if it were likely that a hundred, but much more a thousand, lives would be saved by this bill, it was the duty of that house to adopt it without delay.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, though he meant still to conceal his opinion as to the general merits of the question, could not be silent here. He was of opinion that he could very consistently give this motion his support. There was a possibility (and a bare possibility was a sufficient ground with him) that in consequence of the resolution lately come to by the house, and the temper then manifested in it, those persons who were concerned in the Slave-trade might put the natives of Africa in a worse situation, during their transportation to the colonies, even than they were in before, by cramming additional numbers on board their vessels, in order to convey as many as possible to the West Indies before parliament ultimately decided on the subject. The possibility, therefore, that such a consequence might grow out of their late resolution during the intervening months between the end of the present and the commencement of the next session, was a good and sufficient parliamentary ground for them to provide immediate means to prevent the existence of such an evil. He considered this as an act of indispensable duty, and on that ground the bill should have his support.
Soon after this the question was put, and leave was given for the introduction of the bill.
An account of these proceedings of the house having been sent to the merchants of Liverpool, they held a meeting, and came to resolutions on the subject. They determined to oppose the bill in every stage in which it should be brought forward, and, what was extraordinary, even the principle of it. Accordingly, between the twenty-first of May and the second of June, on which latter day the bill, having been previously read a second time, was to be committed, petitions from interested persons had been brought against it, and consent had been obtained, that both counsel and evidence should be heard.
The order of the day having been read on the second of June for the house to resolve itself into a committee of the whole house, a discussion took place relative to the manner in which the business was to be conducted. This being over, the counsel began their observations; and, as soon as they had finished, evidence was called to the bar in behalf of the petitions which had been delivered.
From the second of June to the seventeenth the house continued to hear the evidence at intervals, but the members for Liverpool took every opportunity of occasioning delay. They had recourse twice to counting out the house; and at another time, though complaint had been made of their attempts to procrastinate, they opposed the resuming of their own evidence with the same view,—and this merely for the frivolous reason, that, though there was then a suitable opportunity, notice had not been previously given. But in this proceeding, other members feeling indignant at their conduct, they were overruled.
The witnesses brought by the Liverpool merchants against this humane bill were the same as they had before sent for examination to the privy council, namely, Mr. Norris, Lieutenant Matthews, and others. On the other side of the question it was not deemed expedient to bring any. It was soon perceived that it would be possible to refute the former out of their own mouths, and to do this seemed more eligible than to proceed in the other way. Mr. Pitt, however, took care to send Captain Parrey, of the royal navy, to Liverpool, that he might take the tonnage and internal dimensions of several slave-vessels, which were then there, supposing that these, when known, would enable the house to detect any misrepresentations, which the delegates from that town might be disposed to make upon this subject.
It was the object of the witnesses, when examined, to prove two things: first, that regulations were unnecessary, because the present mode of the transportation was sufficiently convenient for the objects of it, and was well adapted to preserve their comfort and their health. They had sufficient room, sufficient air, and sufficient provisions. When upon deck, they made merry and amused themselves with dancing. As to the mortality, or the loss of them by death in the course of their passage, it was trifling. In short, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies “was one of the happiest periods of a Negro’s life.”
Secondly, that if the merchants were hindered from taking less than two full-sized, or three smaller Africans, to a ton, then the restriction would operate not as the regulation but as the utter ruin of the trade. Hence the present bill, under the specious mask of a temporary interference, sought nothing less than its abolition.
These assertions having been severally made, by the former of which it was insinuated that the African, unhappy in his own country, found in the middle passage, under the care of the merchants, little less than an Elysian retreat, it was now proper to institute a severe inquiry into the truth of them. Mr. Pitt, Sir Charles Middleton, Mr. William Smith, and Mr. Beaufoy, took a conspicuous part on this occasion, but particularly the two latter, to whom much praise was due for the constant attention they bestowed upon this subject. Question after question was put by these to the witnesses; and from their own mouths they dragged out, by means of a cross-examination as severe as could be well instituted, the following melancholy account:
Every slave, whatever his size might be, was found to have only five feet and six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth, to lie in. The floor was covered with bodies stowed or packed according to this allowance. But between the floor and the deck or ceiling were often platforms or broad shelves in the mid-way, which were covered with bodies also. The height from the floor to the cieling, within which space the bodies on the floor and those on the platforms lay, seldom exceeded five feet eight inches, and in some cases it did not exceed four feet.
The men were chained two and two together by their hands and feet, and were chained also by means of ring-bolts, which were fastened to the deck. They were confined in this manner at least all the time they remained upon the Coast, which was from six weeks to six months as it might happen.
Their allowance consisted of one pint of water a day to each person, and they were fed twice a day with yams and horse-beans.
After meals they jumped up in their irons for exercise. This was so necessary for their health, that they were whipped if they refused to do it. And this jumping had been termed dancing.
They were usually fifteen and sixteen hours below deck out of the twenty-four. In rainy weather they could not be brought up for two or three days together. If the ship was full, their situation was then distressing. They sometimes drew their breath with anxious and laborious efforts, and some died of suffocation.
With respect to their health in these voyages, the mortality, where the African constitution was the strongest, or on the windward coast, was only about five in a hundred. In thirty-five voyages, an account of which was produced, about six in a hundred was the average number lost. But this loss was still greater at Calabar and Bonny, which were the greatest markets for slaves. This loss, too, did not include those who died, either while the vessels were lying upon the Coast, or after their arrival in the West Indies, of the disorders which they had contracted upon the voyage. Three and four in a hundred had been known to die in this latter case.
But besides these facts, which were forced out of the witnesses by means of the cross-examination which took place, they were detected in various falsehoods.
They had asserted that the ships in this trade were peculiarly constructed, or differently from others, in order that they might carry a great number of persons with convenience; whereas Captain Parrey asserted that out of the twenty-six, which he had seen, ten only had been built expressly for this employ.
They had stated the average height between decks at about five feet and four inches. But Captain Parrey showed, that out of the nine he measured, the height in four of the smallest was only four feet eight inches, and the average height in all of them was but five feet two.
They had asserted that vessels under two hundred tons had no platforms. But by his account the four just mentioned were of this tonnage, and yet all of them had platforms either wholly or in part.
On other points they were found both to contradict themselves and one another. They had asserted, as before mentioned, that if they were restricted to less than two full-grown slaves to a ton, the trade would be ruined. But in examining into the particulars of nineteen vessels, which they produced themselves, five of them only had cargoes equal to the proportion which they stated to be necessary to the existence of the trade. The other fourteen carried a less number of slaves (and they might have taken more on board if they had pleased): so that the average number in the nineteen was but one man and four-fifths to a ton, or ten in a hundred below their lowest standard* . One again said, that no inconvenience arose in consequence of the narrow space allowed to each individual in these voyages. Another said, that smaller vessels were more healthy than larger, because, among other reasons, they had a less proportion of slaves as to number on board.
They were found also guilty of a wilful concealment of such facts, as they knew, if communicated, would have invalidated their own testimony. I was instrumental in detecting them on one of these occasions myself. When Mr. Dalzell was examined, he was not wholly unknown to me. My Liverpool muster-rolls told me that he had lost fifteen seamen out of forty in his last voyage. This was a sufficient ground to go upon; for generally, where the mortality of the seamen has been great, it may be laid down that the mortality of the slaves has been considerable also. I waited patiently till his evidence was nearly closed, but he had then made no unfavourable statements to the house. I desired, therefore, that a question might be put to him, and in such a manner, that he might know that they, who put it, had got a clew to his secrets. He became immediately embarrassed. His voice faltered. He confessed with trembling, that he had lost a third of his sailors in his last voyage. Pressed hard immediately by other questions, he then acknowledged that he had lost one hundred and twenty or a third of his slaves also. But would he say that these were all he had lost in that voyage? No: twelve others had perished by an accident, for they were drowned. But were no others lost besides the one hundred and twenty and the twelve? None, he said, upon the voyage, but between twenty and thirty before he left the Coast. Thus this champion of the merchants, this advocate for the health and happiness of the slaves in the middle passage, lost nearly a hundred and sixty of the unhappy persons committed to his superior care, in a single voyage!
The evidence, on which I have now commented, having been delivered, the counsel summed up on the seventeenth of June, when the committee proceeded to fill up the blanks in the bill. Mr. Pitt moved that the operation of it be retrospective, and that it commence from the tenth instant. This was violently opposed by Lord Penrhyn, Mr. Gascoyne, and Mr. Brickdale, but was at length acceded to.
Sir William Dolben then proposed to apportion five men to every three tons in every ship under one hundred and fifty tons burthen, which had the space of five feet between the decks, and three men to two tons in every vessel beyond one hundred and fifty tons burthen, which had equal accommodation in point of height between the decks. This occasioned a very warm dispute, which was not settled for some time, and which gave rise to some beautiful and interesting speeches on the subject.
Mr. William Smith pointed out in the clearest manner many of the contradictions, which I have just stated in commenting upon the evidence. Indeed he had been a principal means of detecting them. He proved how little worthy of belief the witnesses had shown themselves, and how necessary they had made the present bill by their own confession. The worthy Baronet, indeed, had been too indulgent to the merchants, in the proportion he had fixed of the number of persons to be carried to the tonnage of their vessels. He then took a feeling view of what would be the wretched state of the poor Africans on board, even if the bill passed as it now stood; and conjured the house, if they would not allow them more room, at least not to infringe upon that, which had been proposed.
Lord Belgrave (now Grosvenor) animadverted with great ability upon the cruelties of the trade, which he said had been fully proved at the bar. He took notice of the extraordinary opposition which had been made to the bill then before them, and which he believed every gentleman, who had a proper feeling of humanity, would condemn. If the present mode of carrying on the trade received the countenance of that house, the poor unfortunate African would have occasion doubly to curse his fate. He would not only curse the womb that brought him forth, but the British nation also, whose diabolical avarice had made his cup of misery still more bitter. He hoped that the members for Liverpool would urge no further opposition to the bill, but that they would join with the house in an effort to enlarge the empire of humanity; and that, while they were stretching out the strong arm of justice to punish the degraders of British honour and humanity in the East, they would with equal spirit exert their powers to dispense the blessings of their protection to those unhappy Africans, who were to serve them in the West.
Mr. Beaufoy entered minutely into an examination of the information, which had been given by the witnesses, and which afforded unanswerable arguments for the passing of the bill. He showed the narrow space, which they themselves had been made to allow for the package of a human body, and the ingenious measures they were obliged to resort to for stowing this living cargo within the limits of the ship. He adverted next to the case of Mr. Dalzell; and showed how one dismal fact after another, each making against their own testimony, was extorted from him. He then went to the trifling mortality said to be experienced in these voyages, upon which subject he spoke in the following words: “Though the witnesses are some of them interested in the trade, and all of them parties against the bill, their confession is, that of the Negros of the windward coast, who are men of the strongest constitution which Africa affords, no less on an average than five in each hundred perish in the voyage,—a voyage, it must be remembered, but of six weeks. In a twelvemonth, then, what must be the proportion of the dead? No less than forty-three in a hundred, which is seventeen times the usual rate of mortality; for all the estimates of life suppose no more than a fortieth of the people, or two and a half in the hundred, to die within the space of a year. Such then is the comparison. In the ordinary course of nature the number of persons, (including those in age and infancy, the weakest periods of existence,) who perish in the space of a twelvemonth, is at the rate of but two and a half in a hundred; but in an African voyage, notwithstanding the old are excluded and few infants admitted, so that those who are shipped are in the firmest period of life, the list of deaths presents an annual mortality of forty-three in a hundred. It presents this mortality even in vessels from the windward coast of Africa; but in those which sail to Bonny, Benin, and the Calebars, from whence the greatest proportion of the slaves are brought, this mortality is increased by a variety of causes, (of which the greater length of the voyage is one,) and is said to be twice as large, which supposes that in every hundred the deaths annually amount to no less than eighty-six. Yet even the former comparatively low mortality, of which the counsel speaks with so much satisfaction, as a proof of the kind and compassionate treatment of the slaves, even this indolent and lethargic destruction gives to the march of death seventeen times its usual speed. It is a destruction, which, if general but for ten years, would depopulate the world, blast the purposes of its creation, and extinguish the human race.”
After having gone with great ability through the other branches of the subject, he concluded in the following manner: “Thus I have considered the various objections which have been stated to the bill, and am ashamed to reflect that it could be necessary to speak so long in defence of such a cause: for what, after all, is asked by the proposed regulations? On the part of the Africans, the whole of their purport is, that they, whom you allow to be robbed of all things but life, may not unnecessarily and wantonly be deprived of life also. To the honour, to the wisdom, to the feelings of the house I now make my appeal, perfectly confident that you will not tolerate, as senators, a traffic, which, as men, you shudder to contemplate, and that you will not take upon yourselves the responsibility of this waste of existence. To the memory of former parliaments the horrors of this traffic will be an eternal reproach; yet former parliaments have not known, as you on the clearest evidence now know, the dreadful nature of this trade. Should you reject this bill, no exertions of yours to rescue from oppression the suffering inhabitants of your Eastern empire; no records of the prosperous state to which, after a long and unsuccessful war, you have restored your native land; no proofs, however splendid, that, under your guidance, Great Britain has recovered her rank, and is again the arbitress of nations, will save your names from the stigma of everlasting dishonour. The broad mantle of this one infamy will cover with substantial blackness the radiance of your glory, and change to feelings of abhorrence the present admiration of the world—But pardon the supposition of so impossible an event. I believe that justice and mercy may be considered as the attributes of your character, and that you will not tarnish their lustre on this occasion.”
The Chancellor of the Exchequer rose next; and after having made some important observations on the evidence (which took up much time), he declared himself most unequivocally in favour of the motion made by the honourable baronet. He was convinced that the regulation proposed would not tend to the Abolition of the trade; but if it even went so far, he had no hesitation openly and boldly to declare, that if it could not be carried on in a manner different from that stated by the members for Liverpool, he would retract what he had said on a former day against going into the general question; and, waiving every other discussion than what had that day taken place, he would give his vote for the utter annihilation of it at once. It was a trade, which it was shocking to humanity to hear detailed. If it were to be carried on as proposed by the petitioners, it would, besides its own intrinsic baseness, be contrary to every humane and Christian principle, and to every sentiment that ought to inspire the breast of man, and would reflect the greatest dishonour on the British senate and the British nation. He therefore hoped that the house, being now in possession of such information as never hitherto had been brought before them, would in some measure endeavour to extricate themselves from that guilt, and from that remorse, which every one of them ought to feel for having suffered such monstrous cruelties to be practised upon an helpless and unoffending part of the human race.
Mr. Martin complimented Mr. Pitt in terms of the warmest panegyric on his noble sentiments, declaring that they reflected the greatest honour upon him both as an Englishman and as a man.
Soon after this the house divided upon the motion of Sir William Dolben. Fifty-six appeared to be in favour of it, and only five against it. The latter consisted of the two members for Liverpool and three other interested persons. This was the first division which ever took place on this important subject. The other blanks were then filled up, and the bill was passed without further delay.
The next day, or on the eighteenth of June, it was carried up to the House of Lords. The slave-merchants of London, Liverpool, and Bristol, immediately presented petitions against it, as they had done in the lower house. They prayed that counsel might open their case; and though they had been driven from the commons, on account of their evidence, with disgrace, they had the effrontery to ask that they might call witnesses here also.
Counsel and evidence having been respectively heard, the bill was ordered to be committed the next day. The Lords attended according to summons. But on a motion by Dr. Warren, the bishop of Bangor, who stated that the Lord Chancellor Thurlow was much indisposed, and that he wished to be present when the question was discussed, the committee was postponed.
It was generally thought that the reason for this postponement, and particularly as it was recommended by a prelate, was, that the Chancellor might have an opportunity of forwarding this humane bill. But it was found to be quite otherwise. It appeared that the motive was, that he might give to it, by his official appearance as the chief servant of the crown in that house, all the opposition in his power. For when the day arrived, which had been appointed for the discussion, and when the Lords Bathurst and Hawkesbury (now Liverpool) had expressed their opinions, which were different, relative to the time when the bill should take place, he rose up, and pronounced a bitter and vehement oration against it. He said, among other things, that it was full of inconsistency and nonsense from the beginning to the end. The French had lately offered large premiums for the encouragement of this trade. They were a politic people, and the presumption was, that we were doing politically wrong by abandoning it. The bill ought not to have been brought forward in this session. The introduction of it was a direct violation of the faith of the other house. It was unjust, when an assurance had been given that the question should not be agitated till next year, that this sudden fit of philanthropy, which was but a few days old, should be allowed to disturb the public mind, and to become the occasion of bringing men to the metropolis with tears in their eyes and horror in their countenances, to deprecate the ruin of their property, which they had embarked on the faith of parliament.
The extraordinary part, which the Lord Chancellor Thurlow took upon this occasion, was ascribed at the time by many, who moved in the higher circles, to a shyness or misunderstanding, which had taken place between him and Mr. Pitt on other matters; when, believing this bill to have been a favourite measure with the latter, he determined to oppose it. But, whatever were his motives (and let us hope that he could never have been actuated by so malignant a spirit as that of sacrificing the happiness of forty thousand persons for the next year to spite the gratification of an individual), his opposition had a mischievous effect, on account of the high situation in which he stood. For he not only influenced some of the Lords themselves, but, by taking the cause of the slave-merchants so conspicuously under his wing, he gave them boldness to look up again under the stigma of their iniquitous calling, and courage even to resume vigorous operations after their disgraceful defeat. Hence arose those obstacles, which will be found to have been thrown in the way of the passing of the bill from this period.
Among the Lords, who are to be particularly noticed as having taken the same side as the Lord Chancellor in this debate, were the Duke of Chandos and the Earl of Sandwich. The former foresaw nothing but insurrections of the slaves in our islands, and the massacre of their masters there, in consequence of the agitation of this question. The latter expected nothing less than the ruin of our marine. He begged the house to consider how, by doing that which might bring about the Abolition of this traffic, they might lessen the number of British sailors; how, by throwing it into the hands of France, they might increase those of a rival nation; and how, in consequence, the flag of the latter might ride triumphant on the ocean. The Slave-trade was undoubtedly a nursery for our seamen. All objections against it in this respect were ill-founded. It was as healthy as the Newfoundland and many other trades.
The debate having closed, during which nothing more was done than filling up the blanks with the time when the bill was to begin to operate, the committee was adjourned. But the bill after this dragged on so heavily, that it would be tedious to detail the proceedings upon it from day to day. I shall, therefore, satisfy myself with the following observations concerning them. The committee sat not less than five different times, which consumed the space of eight days, before a final decision took place. During this time, so much was it an object to throw in obstacles which might occupy the little remaining time of the session, that other petitions were presented against the bill, and leave was asked, on new pretences contained in these, that counsel might be heard again. Letters also were read from Jamaica, about the mutinous disposition of the slaves there, in consequence of the stir which had been made about the Abolition, and also from merchants in France, by which large offers were made to the British merchants to furnish them with slaves. Several regulations also were proposed in this interval, some of which were negatived by majorities of only one or two voices. Of the regulations, which were carried, the most remarkable were those proposed by Lord Hawkesbury (now Liverpool); namely, that no insurance should be made on the slaves except against accidents by fire and water; that persons should not be appointed as officers of vessels transporting them, who had not been a certain number of such voyages before; that a regular surgeon only should be capable of being employed in them; and that both the captain and surgeon should have bounties, if in the course of the transportation they had lost only two in a hundred slaves. The Duke of Chandos again, and Lord Sydney, were the most conspicuous among the opposers of this humane bill; and the Duke of Richmond, the Marquis Townshend, the Earl of Carlisle, the Bishop of London, and Earl Stanhope, among the most strenuous supporters of it. At length it passed, by a majority of nineteen to eleven votes.
On the fourth of July, when the bill had been returned to the Commons, it was moved that the amendments made in it by the Lords should be read; but as it had become a money-bill in consequence of the bounties to be granted, and as new regulations were to be incorporated in it, it was thought proper that it should be wholly done away. Accordingly Sir William Dolben moved, that the further consideration of it should be put off till that day three months. This having been agreed upon, he then moved for leave to bring in a new bill. This was accordingly introduced, and an additional clause was inserted in it, relative to bounties, by Mr. Pitt. But on the second reading, that no obstacle might be omitted which could legally be thrown in the way of its progress, petitions were presented against it both by the Liverpool merchants and the agent for the island of Jamaica, under the pretence that it was a new bill. Their petitions, however, were rejected, and it was committed, and passed through its regular stages and sent up to the Lords.
On its arrival there on the fifth of July, petitions from London and Liverpool still followed it. The prayer of these was against the general tendency of it, but it was solicited also that counsel might be heard in a particular case. The solicitation was complied with; after which the bill was read a second time, and ordered to be committed.
On the seventh, when it was taken next into consideration, two other petitions were presented against it. But here so many objections were made to the clauses of it as they then stood, and such new matter suggested, that the Duke of Richmond, who was a strenuous supporter of it, thought it best to move that the committee, then sitting, should be deferred till that day seven-night, in order to give time for another more perfect to originate in the lower house.
This motion having been acceded to, Sir William Dolben introduced a new one for the third time into the Commons. This included the suggestions which had been made in the Lords. It included also a regulation, on the motion of Mr. Sheridan, that no surgeon should be employed as such in the slave-vessels, except he had a testimonial that he had passed a proper examination at Surgeons’-Hall. The amendments were all then agreed to, and the bill was passed through its several stages.
On the tenth of July, being now fully amended, it came for a third time before the Lords; but it was no sooner brought forward than it met with the same opposition as it had experienced before. Two new petitions appeared against it, one from a certain class of persons in Liverpool, and another from Miles Peter Andrews, esquire, stating that, if it passed into a law, it would injure the sale of his gunpowder, and that he had rendered great services to the government during the last war by his provision of that article. But here the Lord Chancellor Thurlow reserved himself for an effort, which, by occasioning only a day’s delay, would in that particular period of the session have totally prevented the passing of the bill. He suggested certain amendments for consideration and discussion, which, if they had been agreed upon, must have been carried again to the lower house and sanctioned there before the bill could have been complete. But it appeared afterwards, that there would have been no time for the latter proceeding. Earl Stanhope, therefore, pressed this circumstance peculiarly upon the Lords who were present. He observed, that the King was to dismiss the parliament next day, and therefore they must adopt the bill as it stood, or reject it altogether. There was no alternative, and no time was to be lost. Accordingly he moved for an immediate division on the first of the amendments proposed by Lord Thurlow. This having taken place, it was negatived. The other amendments shared the same fate; and thus, at length, passed through the upper house, as through an ordeal as it were of fire, the first bill that ever put fetters upon that barbarous and destructive monster, The Slave-trade.
The next day, or on Friday, July the eleventh, the King gave his assent to it, and, as Lord Stanhope had previously asserted in the House of Lords, concluded the session.
While the legislature was occupied in the consideration of this bill, the Lords of the Council continued their examinations, that they might collect as much light as possible previously to the general agitation of the question in the next session of parliament. Among others I underwent an examination. I gave my testimony first relative to many of the natural productions of Africa, of which I produced the specimens. These were such as I had collected in the course of my journey to Bristol and Liverpool, and elsewhere. I explained, secondly, the loss and usage of seamen in the Slave-trade. To substantiate certain points, which belonged to this branch of the subject, I left several depositions and articles of agreement for the examination of the council. With respect to others, as it would take a long time to give all the data upon which calculations had been made and the manner of making them, I was desired to draw up a statement of particulars, and to send it to the council at a future time. I left also depositions with them relative to certain instances of the mode of procuring and treating slaves.
The committee also for effecting the abolition of the Slave-trade continued their attention, during this period, towards the promotion of the different objects, which came within the range of the institution.
They added the reverend Dr. Coombe, in consequence of the great increase of their business, to the list of their members.
They voted thanks to Mr. Hughes, vicar of Ware in Hertfordshire, for his excellent Answer to Harris’s Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave-trade, and they enrolled him among their honorary and corresponding members. Also thanks to William Roscoe, esquire, for his Answer to the same. Mr. Roscoe had not affixed his name to this pamphlet any more than to his poem of The Wrongs of Africa. But he made himself known to the committee as the author of both. Also thanks to William Smith and Henry Beaufoy, esquires, for having so successfully exposed the evidence offered by the slave-merchants against the bill of Sir William Dolben, and for having drawn out of it so many facts, all making for their great object, the abolition of the Slave-trade.
As the great question was to be discussed in the approaching sessions, it was moved in the committee to consider of the propriety of sending persons to Africa and the West Indies, who should obtain information relative to the different branches of the system as they existed in each of these countries, in order that they might be able to give their testimony, from their own experience, before one or both of the houses of parliament, as it might be judged proper. This proposition was discussed at two or three several meetings. It was however finally rejected, and principally on the following grounds: First, It was obvious, that persons sent out upon such an errand would be exposed to such dangers from various causes, that it was not improbable that both they and their testimony might be lost. Secondly, Such persons would be obliged to have recourse to falsehoods, that is, to conceal or misrepresent the objects of their destination, that they might get their intelligence with safety; which falsehoods the committee could not countenance. To which it was added, that few persons would go to these places, except they were handsomely rewarded for their trouble; but this reward would lessen the value of their evidence, as it would afford a handle to the planters and slave-merchants to say that they had been bribed.
Another circumstance, which came before the committee, was the following: Many arguments were afloat at this time relative to the great impolicy of abolishing the Slave-trade, the principal of which was, that, if the English abandoned it, other foreign nations would take it up; and thus, while they gave up certain national profits themselves, the great cause of humanity would not be benefited, nor would any moral good be done by the measure. Now there was a presumption that, by means of the society instituted in Paris, the French nation might be awakened to this great subject, and that the French government might in consequence, as well as upon other considerations, be induced to favour the general feeling upon this occasion. But there was no reason to conclude, either that any other maritime people, who had been engaged in the Slave-trade, would relinquish it, or that any other, who had not yet been engaged in it, would not begin it when our countrymen should give it up. The consideration of these circumstances occupied the attention of the committee; and as Dr. Spaarman, who was said to have been examined by the privy council, was returning home, it was thought advisable to consider whether it would not be proper for the committee to select certain of their own books on the subject of the Slave-trade, and send them by him, accompanied by a letter, to the King of Sweden, in which they should entreat his consideration of this powerful argument which now stood in the way of the cause of humanity, with a view that, as one of the princes of Europe, he might contribute to obviate it, by preventing his own subjects, in case of the dereliction of this commerce by ourselves, from embarking in it. The matter having been fully considered, it was resolved that the proposed measure would be proper, and it was accordingly adopted. By a letter received afterwards from Dr. Spaarman, it appeared that both the letter and the books had been delivered, and received graciously; and that he was authorised to say, that, unfortunately, in consequence of those hereditary possessions which had devolved upon his majesty, he was obliged to confess that he was the sovereign of an island, which had been principally peopled by African slaves, but that he had been frequently mindful of their hard case. With respect to the Slave-trade, he never heard of an instance, in which the merchants of his own native realm had embarked in it; and as they had hitherto preserved their character pure in this respect, he would do all he could, that it should not be sullied in the eyes of the generous English nation, by taking up, in the case which had been pointed out to him, such an odious concern.
By this time I had finished my Essay on the Impolicy of the Slave-trade, which I composed from materials collected chiefly during my journey to Bristol, Liverpool, and Lancaster. These materials I had admitted with great caution and circumspection; indeed I admitted none, for which I could not bring official and other authentic documents, or living evidences if necessary, whose testimony could not reasonably be denied; and, when I gave them to the world, I did it under the impression that I ought to give them as scrupulously, as if I were to be called upon to substantiate them upon oath. It was of peculiar moment that this book should make its appearance at this time. First, Because it would give the Lords of the Council, who were then sitting, an opportunity of seeing many important facts, and of inquiring into their authenticity; and it might suggest to them also some new points, or such as had not fallen within the limits of the arrangement they had agreed upon for their examinations on this subject; and Secondly, Because, as the members of the House of Commons were to take the question into consideration early in the next sessions, it would give them also new light and information upon it before this period. Accordingly the committee ordered two thousand copies of it to be struck off, for these and other objects; and though the contents of it were most diligently sifted by the different opponents of the cause, they never even made an attempt to answer it. It continued, on the other hand, during the inquiry of the legislature, to afford the basis or grounds upon which to examine evidences on the political part of the subject; and evidences thus examined continued in their turn to establish it.
Among the other books ordered to be printed by the committee within the period now under our consideration, were a new edition of two thousand of the Dean of Middleham’s Letter, and another of three thousand of Falconbridge’s Account of the Slave-trade.
The committee continued to keep up, during the same period, a communication with many of their old correspondents, whose names have been already mentioned. But they received also letters from others, who had not hitherto addressed them; namely, from Ellington Wright of Erith, Dr. Franklin of Philadelphia, Eustace Kentish esquire, high sheriff for the county of Huntingdon, Governor Bouchier, the reverend Charles Symmons of Haverfordwest; and from John York and William Downes esquires, high sheriffs for the counties of York and Hereford.
A letter also was read in this interval from Mr. Evans, a dissenting clergyman, of Bristol, stating that the elders of several Baptist churches, forming the western Baptist association, who had met at Portsmouth Common, had resolved to recommend it to the ministers and members of the same, to unite with the committee in the promotion of the great object of their institution.
Another from Mr. Andrew Irvin, of the Island of Grenada, in which he confirmed the wretched situation of many of the slaves there, and in which he gave the outlines of a plan for bettering their condition, as well as that of those in the other islands.
Another from I. L. Wynne, esquire, of Jamaica. In this he gave an afflicting account of the suffering and unprotected state of the slaves there, which it was high time to rectify. He congratulated the committee on their institution, which he thought would tend to promote so desirable an end; but desired them not to stop short of the total abolition of the Slave-trade, as no other measure would prove effectual against the evils of which he complained. This trade, he said, was utterly unnecessary, as his own plantation, on which his slaves had increased rapidly by population, and others which he knew to be similarly circumstanced, would abundantly testify. He concluded by promising to give the committee such information from time to time as might be useful on this important subject.
The session of parliament having closed, the committee thought it right to make a report to the public, in which they gave an account of the great progress of their cause since the last, of the state in which they then were, and of the unjustifiable conduct of their opponents, who industriously misrepresented their views, but particularly by attributing to them the design of abolishing slavery; and they concluded by exhorting their friends not to relax their endeavours, on account of favourable appearances, but to persevere, as if nothing had been done, under the pleasing hope of an honourable triumph.
And now having given the substance of the labours of the committee from its formation to the present time, I cannot conclude this volume without giving to the worthy members of it that tribute of affectionate and grateful praise, which is due to them for their exertions in having forwarded the great cause which was intrusted to their care. And this I can do with more propriety, because, having been so frequently absent from them when they were engaged in the pursuit of this their duty, I cannot be liable to the suspicion, that in bestowing commendation upon them I am bestowing it upon myself. From about the end of May 1787 to the middle of July 1788 they had held no less than fifty-one committees. These generally occupied them from about six in the evening till about eleven at night. In the intervals between the committees they were often occupied, having each of them some object committed to his charge. It is remarkable, too, that though they were all except one engaged in business or trade, and though they had the same calls as other men for innocent recreation, and the same interruptions of their health, there were individuals, who were not absent more than five or six times within this period. In the course of the thirteen months, during which they had exercised this public trust, they had printed, and afterwards distributed, not at random, but judiciously, and through respectable channels, (besides twenty-six thousand five hundred and twenty-six reports, accounts of debates in parliament, and other small papers,) no less than fifty-one thousand four hundred and thirty-two pamphlets, or books.
Nor was the effect produced within this short period otherwise than commensurate with the efforts used. In May 1787, the only public notice taken of this great cause was by this committee of twelve individuals, of whom all were little known to the world except Mr. Granville Sharp. But in July 1788, it had attracted the notice of several distinguished individuals in France and Germany, and in our own country it had come within the notice of the government, and a branch of it had undergone a parliamentary discussion and restraint. It had arrested also the attention of the nation, and it had produced a kind of holy flame, or enthusiasm, and this to a degree and to an extent never before witnessed. Of the purity of this flame no better proof can be offered, than that even bishops deigned to address an obscure committee, consisting principally of Quakers, and that churchmen and dissenters forgot their difference of religious opinions, and joined their hands, all over the kingdom, in its support.
end of the first volume.
Printed by Richard Taylor and Co. Shoe Lane.
[* ]The falsehood of their statements in this respect was proved again afterwards by facts. For, after the regulation had taken place, they lost fewer slaves and made greater profits.