Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2
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CHAPTER I. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2 
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. 2.
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Continuation from June 1788 to July 1789—Author travels to collect further evidence—great difficulties in obtaining it—forms committees on his tour—Privy council resume the examinations—inspect cabinet of African productions—obliged to leave many of the witnesses in behalf of the abolition unexamined—prepare their report—Labours of the committee in the interim — Proceedings of the planters and others—Report laid on the table of the House of Commons—Introduction of the question, and debate there—twelve propositions deduced from the report and reserved for future discussion—day of discussion arrives—opponents refuse to argue from the report—require new evidence—this granted and introduced—furtherconsideration of the subject deferred to the next session—Renewal of Sir William Dolben’s bill—Death and character of Ramsay.
Matters had now become serious. The gauntlet had been thrown down and accepted. The combatants had taken their stations, and the contest was to be renewed, which was to be decided soon on the great theatre of the nation. The committee by the very act of their institution had pronounced the Slave-trade to be criminal. They, on the other hand, who were concerned in it, had denied the charge. It became the one to prove, and the other to refute it, or to fall in the ensuing session.
The committee, in this perilous situation, were anxious to find out such other persons, as might become proper evidences before the privy council. They had hitherto sent there only nine or ten, and they had then only another, whom they could count upon for this purpose, in their view. The proposal of sending persons to Africa, and the West Indies, who might come back and report what they had witnessed, had been already negatived. The question then was, what they were to do. Upon this they deliberated, and the result was an application to me to undertake a journey to different parts of the kingdom for this purpose.
When this determination was made I was at Teston, writing a long letter to the privy council on the ill usage and mortality of the seamen employed in the Slave-trade, which it had been previously agreed should be received as evidence there. I thought it proper, however, before I took my departure, to form a system of questions upon the general subject. These I divided into six tables. The first related to the productions of Africa, and the disposition and manners of the natives. The second, to the methods of reducing them to slavery. The third, to the manner of bringing them to the ships, their value, the medium of exchange, and other circumstances. The fourth, to their transportation. The fifth, to their treatment in the Colonies. The sixth, to the seamen employed in the trade. These tables contained together one hundred and forty-five questions. My idea was that they should be printed on a small sheet of paper, which should be folded up in seven or eight leaves, of the length and breadth of a small almanac, and then be sent in franks to our different correspondents. These, when they had them, might examine persons capable of giving evidence, who might live in their neighbourhoods or fall in their way, and return us their examinations by letter.
The committee having approved and printed the tables of questions, I began my tour. I had selected the southern counties from Kent to Cornwall for it. I had done this, because these included the great stations of the ships of war in ordinary; and as these were all under the superintendence of Sir Charles Middleton, as comptroller of the navy, I could get an introduction to those on board them. Secondly, because sea-faring people, when they retire from a marine life, usually settle in some town or village upon the coast.
Of this tour I shall not give the reader any very particular account. I shall mention only those things which are most worthy of his notice in it. At Poole in Dorsetshire I laid the foundation of a committee, to act in harmony with that of London for the promotion of the cause. Moses Neave, of the respectable society of the Quakers, was the chairman; Thomas Bell, the secretary, and Ellis. B. Metford and the reverend Mr. Davis and others the committee. This was the third committee, which had been instituted in the country for this purpose. That at Bristol, under Mr. Joseph Harford as chairman, and Mr. Lunell as secretary, had been the first. And that at Manchester, under Mr. Thomas Walker as chairman, and Mr. Samuel Jackson as secretary, had been the second.
As Poole was a great place for carrying on the trade to Newfoundland, I determined to examine the assertion of the Earl of Sandwich in the House of Lords, when he said, in the debate on Sir William Dolben’s bill, that the Slave-trade was not more fatal to seamen than the Newfoundland and some others. This assertion I knew at the time to be erroneous, as far as my own researches had been concerned: for out of twenty-four vessels, which had sailed out of the port of Bristol in that employ, only two sailors were upon the dead list. In sixty vessels from Poole, I found but four lost. At Dartmouth, where I went afterwards on purpose, I found almost a similar result. On conversing however with Governor Holdsworth, I learnt that the year 1786 had been more fatal than any other in this trade. I learnt that in consequence of extraordinary storms and hurricanes, no less than five sailors had died and twenty-one had been drowned in eighty-three vessels from that port. Upon this statement I determined to look into the muster-rolls of the trade there for two or three years together. I began by accident with the year 1769, and I went on to the end of 1772. About eighty vessels on an average had sailed thence in each of these years. Taking the loss in these years, and compounding it with that in the fatal year, three sailors had been lost, but taking it in these four years by themselves, only two had been lost, in twenty-four vessels so employed. On a comparison with the Slave-trade, the result would be, that two vessels to Africa would destroy more seamen than eighty-three sailing to Newfoundland. There was this difference also to be noted, that the loss in the one trade was generally by the weather or by accident, but in the other by cruel treatment or disease; and that they, who went out in a declining state of health in the one, came home generally recovered, whereas they, who went out robust in the other, came home in a shattered condition.
At Plymouth I laid the foundation of another committee. The late William Cookworthy, the late John Prideaux, and James Fox, all of the society of the Quakers, and Mr. George Leach, Samuel Northcote, and John Saunders, had a principal share in forming it. Sir William Ellford was chosen chairman.
From Plymouth I journeyed on to Falmouth, and from thence to Exeter, where having meetings with the late Mr. Samuel Milford, the late Mr. George Manning, the reverend James Manning, Thomas Sparkes, and others, a desire became manifest among them of establishing a committee there. This was afterwards effected; and Mr. Milford, who, at a general meeting of the inhabitants of Exeter, on the tenth of June, on this great subject, had been called by those present to the chair, was appointed the chairman of it.
With respect to evidence, which was the great object of this tour, I found myself often very unpleasantly situated in collecting it. I heard of many persons capable of giving it to our advantage, to whom I could get no introduction. I had to go after these many miles out of my established route. Not knowing me, they received me coldly, and even suspiciously; while I fell in with others, who, considering themselves, on account of their concerns and connexions, as our opponents, treated me in an uncivil manner.
But the difficulties and disappointments in other respects, which I experienced in this tour, even where I had an introduction, and where the parties were not interested in the continuance of the Slave-trade, were greater than people in general would have imagined. One would have thought, considering the great enthusiasm of the nation on this important subject, that they, who could have given satisfactory information upon it, would have rejoiced to do it. But I found it otherwise, and this frequently to my sorrow. There was an aversion in persons to appear before such a tribunal as they conceived the privy council to be. With men of shy or timid character this operated as an insuperable barrier in their way. But it operated more or less upon all. It was surprising to see what little circumstances affected many. When I took out my pen and ink to put down the information, which a person was giving me, he became evidently embarrassed and frightened. He began to excuse himself from staying, by alleging that he had nothing more to communicate, and he took himself away as quickly as he could with decency. The sight of the pen and ink had lost me so many good evidences, that I was obliged wholly to abandon the use of them, and to betake myself to other means. I was obliged for the future to commit my tables of questions to memory, and endeavour by practice to put down, after the examination of a person, such answers as he had given me to each of them.
Others went off because it happened that immediately on my interview, I acquainted them with the nature of my errand, and solicited their attendance in London. Conceiving that I had no right to ask them such a favour, or terrified at the abruptness and apparent awfulness of my request, some of them gave me an immediate denial, which they would never afterwards retract. I began to perceive in time that it was only by the most delicate management that I could get forward on these occasions. I resolved therefore for the future, except in particular cases, that, when I should be introduced to persons who had a competent knowledge of this trade, I would talk with them upon it as upon any ordinary subject, and then leave them without saying any thing about their becoming evidences. I would take care, however, to commit all their conversation to writing, when it was over, and I would then try to find out that person among their relations or friends, who could apply to them for this purpose with the least hazard of a refusal.
There were others also, who, though they were not so much impressed by the considerations mentioned, yet objected to give their public testimony. Those, whose livelihood, or promotion, or expectations, were dependent upon the government of the country, were generally backward on these occasions. Though they thought they discovered in the parliamentary conduct of Mr. Pitt, a bias in favour of the cause, they knew to a certainty that the Lord Chancellor Thurlow was against it. They conceived, therefore, that the administration was at least divided upon the question, and they were fearful of being called upon lest they should give offence, and thus injure their prospects in life. This objection was very prevalent in that part of the kingdom which I had selected for my tour.
The reader can hardly conceive how my mind was agitated and distressed on these different accounts. To have travelled more than two months, to have seen many who could have materially served our cause, and to have lost most of them, was very trying. And though it is true that I applied a remedy, I was not driven to the adoption of it till I had performed more than half my tour. Suffice it to say, that after having travelled upwards of sixteen hundred miles backwards and forwards, and having conversed with forty-seven persons, who were capable of promoting the cause by their evidence, I could only prevail upon nine, by all the interest I could make, to be examined.
On my return to London, whither I had been called up by the committee to take upon me the superintendence of the evidence, which the privy council was now ready again to hear, I found my brother: he was then a young officer in the navy; and as I knew he felt as warmly as I did in this great cause, I prevailed upon him to go to Havre de Grace, the great slave-port in France, where he might make his observations for two or three months, and then report what he had seen and heard; so that we might have some one to counteract any false statement of things which might be made relative to the subject in that quarter.
At length the examinations were resumed, and with them the contest, in which our own reputation and the fate of our cause were involved. The committee for the abolition had discovered one or two willing evidences during my absence, and Mr. Wilberforce, who was now recovered from his severe indisposition, had found one or two others. These added to my own made a respectable body: but we had sent no more than four or five of these to the council when the King’s illness unfortunately stopped our career. For nearly five weeks between the middle of November and January the examinations were interrupted or put off so that at the latter period we began to fear that there would be scarcely time to hearth rest; for not only the privy council report was to be printed, but the contest itself was to be decided by the evidence contained in it, in the existing session.
The examinations, however, went on, but they went on only slowly, being still subject to interruption from the same unfortunate cause. Among others I offered my mite of information again. I wished the council to see more of my African productions and manufactures, that they might really know what Africa was capable of affording instead of the Slave-trade, and that they might make a proper estimate of the genius and talents of the natives. The samples which I had collected, had been obtained by great labour, and at no inconsiderable expense: for whenever I had notice that a vessel had arrived immediately from that continent, I never hesitated to go, unless under the most pressing engagements elsewhere, even as far as Bristol, if I could pick up but a single new article. The Lords having consented, I selected several things for their inspection out of my box, of the contents of which the following account may not be unacceptable to the reader.
The first division of the box consisted of woods of about four inches square, all polished. Among these were mahogany of five different sorts, tulip-wood, satin-wood, cam-wood, bar-wood, fustic, black and yellow ebony, palm-tree, mangrove, calabash, and date. There were seven woods of which the native names were remembered: three of these, Tumiah, Samain, and Jimlaké, were of a yellow colour; Acajoú was of a beautiful deep crimson; Bork and Quellé were apparently fit for cabinet work; and Benten was the wood of which the natives made their canoes. Of the various other woods the names had been forgotten, nor were they known in England at all. One of them was of a fine purple; and from two others, upon which the privy council had caused experiments to be made, a strong yellow, a deep orange, and a flesh-colour were extracted.
The second division included ivory and musk; four species of pepper, the long, the black, the Cayenne, and the Malaguetta: three species of gum; namely, Senegal, Copal, and ruber astringens; cinnamon, rice, tobacco, indigo, white and Nankin cotton, Guinea corn, and millet; three species of beans, of which two were used for food, and the other for dyeing orange; two species of tamarinds, one for food, and the other to give whiteness to the teeth; pulse, seeds, and fruits of various kinds, some of the latter of which Dr. Spaarman had pronounced, from a trial during his residence in Africa, to be peculiarly valuable as drugs.
The third division contained an African loom, and an African spindle with spun cotton round it; cloths of cotton of various kinds, made by the natives, some white, but others dyed by them of different colours, and others, in which they had interwoven European silk; cloths and bags made of grass, and fancifully coloured; ornaments made of the same materials; ropes made from a species of aloes, and others, remarkably strong, from grass and straw; fine string made from the fibres of the roots of trees; soap of two kinds, one of which was formed from an earthy substance; pipe-bowls made of clay, and of a brown red; one of these, which came from the village of Dakard, was beautifully ornamented by black devices burnt in, and was besides highly glazed; another, brought from Galàm, was made of earth, which was richly impregnated with little particles of gold; trinkets made by the natives from their own gold; knives and daggers made by them from our bar-iron; and various other articles, such as bags, sandals, dagger-cases, quivers, grisgris, all made of leather of their own manufacture, and dyed of various colours, and ingeniously sewed together.
The fourth division consisted of the thumb-screw, speculum oris, and chains and shackles of different kinds, collected at Liverpool. To these were added, iron neck-collars, and other instruments of punishment and confinement, used in the West Indies, and collected at other places. The instrument, also, by which Charles Horseler was mentioned to have been killed, in the former volume, was to be seen among these.
We were now advanced far into February, when we were alarmed by the intelligence that the Lords of the Council were going to prepare their report. At this time we had sent but few persons to them to examine, in comparison with our opponents, and we had yet eighteen to introduce: for answers had come into my tables of questions from several places, and persons had been pointed out to us by our correspondents, who had increased our list of evidences to this number. I wrote therefore to them, at the desire of the committee for the abolition, and gave them the names of the eighteen, and requested that all of them might be examined. I requested also, that they would order, for their own inspection, certain muster-rolls of vessels from Poole and Dartmouth, that they might be convinced that the objection which the Earl of Sandwich had made in the House of Lords, against the abolition of the Slave-trade, had no solid foundation. In reply to my first request they informed me, that it was impossible, in the advanced state of the session (it being then the middle of March), that the examinations of so many could be taken; but I was at liberty, in conjunction with the Bishop of London, to select eight for this purpose. This occasioned me to address them again; and I then found, to my surprise and sorrow, that even this last number was to be diminished; for I was informed in writing, “that the Bishop of London having laid my last letter before their Lordships, they had agreed to meet on the Saturday next, and on the Tuesday following, for the purpose of receiving the evidence of some of the gentlemen named in it. And it was their Lordships’ desire that I would give notice to any three of them (whose information I might consider as the most material) of the above determination, that they might attend the committee accordingly.”
This answer, considering the difficulties we had found in collecting a body of evidence, and the critical situation in which we then were, was peculiarly distressing; but we had no remedy left us, nor could we reasonably complain. Three therefore were selected, and they were sent to deliver their testimony on their arrival in town.
But before the last of these had left the council-room, who should come up to me but Mr. Arnold! He had but lately arrived at Bristol from Africa; and having heard from our friends there that we had been daily looking for him, he had come to us in London. He and Mr. Gardiner were the two surgeons, as mentioned in the former volume, who had promised me, when I was in Bristol, in the year 1787, that they would keep a journal of facts for me during the voyages they were then going to perform. They had both of them kept this promise. Gardiner, I found, had died upon the Coast, and his journal, having been discovered at his death, had been buried with him in great triumph. But Arnold had survived, and he came now to offer us his services in the cause.
As it was a pity that such correct information as that taken down in writing upon the spot should be lost (for all the other evidences, except Dr. Spaarman and Mr. Wadstrom, had spoken from their memory only), I made all the interest I could to procure a hearing for Mr. Arnold. Pleading now for the examination of him only, and under these particular circumstances, I was attended to. It was consented, in consequence of the little time which was now left for preparing and printing the Report, that I should make out his evidence from his journal under certain heads. This I did. Mr. Arnold swore to the truth of it, when so drawn up, before Edward Montague, esquire, a master in chancery. He then delivered the paper in which it was contained to the Lords of the Council, who, on receiving it, read it throughout, and then questioned him upon it.
At this time, also, my brother returned with accounts and papers relative to the Slave-trade, from Havre de Grace; but as I had pledged myself to offer no other person to be examined, his evidence was lost. Thus, after all the pains we had taken, and in a contest, too, on the success of which our own reputation and the fate of Africa depended, we were obliged to fight the battle with sixteen less than we could have brought into the field; while our opponents, on the other hand, on account of their superior advantages, had mustered all their forces, not having omitted a single man.
I do not know of any period of my life in which I suffered so much both in body and mind, as from the time of resuming these public inquiries by the privy council, to the time when they were closed. For I had my weekly duty to attend at the committee for the abolition during this interval. I had to take down the examinations of all the evidences who came to London, and to make certain copies of these. I had to summon these to town, and to make provision against all accidents; and here I was often troubled by means of circumstances, which unexpectedly occurred, lest, when committees of the council had been purposely appointed to hear them, they should not be forthcoming at the time. I had also a new and extensive correspondence to keep up; for the tables of questions which had been sent down to our correspondents, brought letters almost innumerable on this subject, and they were always addressed to me. These not only required answers of themselves, but as they usually related to persons capable of giving their testimony, and contained the particulars of what they could state, they occasioned fresh letters to be written to others. Hence the writing of ten or twelve daily became necessary.
But the contents of these letters afforded the circumstances, which gave birth to so much suffering. They contained usually some affecting tale of woe. At Bristol my feelings had been harassed by the cruel treatment of the seamen, which had come to my knowledge there: but now I was doomed to see this treatment over again in many other melancholy instances; and additionally to take in the various sufferings of the unhappy slaves. These accounts I could seldom get time to read till late in the evening, and sometimes not till midnight, when the letters containing them were to be answered. The effect of these accounts was in some instances to overwhelm me for a time in tears, and in others to produce a vivid indignation, which affected my whole frame. Recovering from these, I walked up and down the room. I felt fresh vigour, and made new determinations of perpetual warfare against this impious trade. I implored strength that I might proceed. I then sat down, and continued my work as long as my wearied eyes would permit me to see. Having been agitated in this manner, I went to bed: but my rest was frequently broken by the visions which floated before me. When I awoke, these renewed themselves to me, and they flitted about with me for the remainder of the day. Thus I was kept continually harassed: my mind was confined to one gloomy and heart-breaking subject for months. It had no respite, and my health began now materially to suffer.
But the contents of these letters were particularly grievous, on account of the severe labours which they necessarily entailed upon me in other ways than those which have been mentioned. It was my duty, while the privy council examinations went on, not only to attend to all the evidence which was presented to us by our correspondents, but to find out and select the best. The happiness of millions depended upon it. Hence I was often obliged to travel during these examinations, in order to converse with those who had been pointed out to us as capable of giving their testimony; and, that no time might be lost, to do this in the night. More than two hundred miles in a week were sometimes passed over on these occasions.
The disappointments too, which I frequently experienced in these journeys, increased the poignancy of the suffering, which arose from a contemplation of the melancholy cases which I had thus travelled to bring forward to the public view. The reader at present can have no idea of these. I have been sixty miles to visit a person, of whom I had heard, not as possessing important knowledge, but as espousing our opinions on this subject. I have at length seen him. He has applauded my pursuit at our first interview. He has told me, in the course of our conversation, that neither my own pen, nor that of any other man, could describe adequately the horrors of the Slave-trade, horrors which he himself had witnessed. He has exhorted me to perseverance in this noble cause. Could I have wished for a more favourable reception?—But mark the issue. He was the nearest relation of a rich person concerned in the traffic; and if he were to come forward with his evidence publicly, he should ruin all his expectations from that quarter. In the same week I have visited another at a still greater distance. I have met with similar applause. I have heard him describe scenes of misery which he had witnessed, and on the relation of which he himself almost wept. But mark the issue again.—“I am a surgeon,” says he: “through that window you see a spacious house. It is occupied by a West Indian. The medical attendance upon his family is of considerable importance to the temporal interests of mine. If I give you my evidence I lose his patronage. At the house above him lives an East Indian. The two families are connected: I fear, if I lose the support of one, I shall lose that of the other also: but I will give you privately all the intelligence in my power.”
The reader may now conceive the many miserable hours I must have spent, after such visits, in returning home; and how grievously my heart must have been afflicted by these cruel disappointments, but more particularly where they arose from causes inferior to those which have been now mentioned, or from little frivolous excuses, or idle and unfounded conjectures, unworthy of beings expected to fill a moral station in life. Yes, O man! often in these solitary journeyings have I exclaimed against the baseness of thy nature, when reflecting on the little paltry considerations which have smothered thy benevolence, and hindered thee from succouring an oppressed brother. And yet, on a further view of things, I have reasoned myself into a kinder feeling towards thee. For I have been obliged to consider ultimately, that there were both lights and shades in the human character; and that, if the bad part of our nature was visible on these occasions, the nobler part of it ought not to be forgotten. While I passed a censure upon those, who were backward in serving this great cause of humanity and justice, how many did I know, who were toiling in the support of it! I drew also this consolation from my reflections, that I had done my duty; that I had left nothing untried or undone; that amidst all these disappointments I had collected information, which might be useful at a future time; and that such disappointments were almost inseparable from the prosecution of a cause of such magnitude, and where the interests of so many were concerned.
Having now given a general account of my own proceedings, I shall state those of the committee; or show how they contributed, by fulfilling the duties of their several departments, to promote the cause in the interim.
In the first place they completed the rules, or code of laws, for their own government.
They continued to adopt and circulate books, that they might still enlighten the public mind on the subject, and preserve it interested in favour of their institution. They kept the press indeed almost constantly going for this purpose. They printed, within the period mentioned, Ramsay’s Address on the proposed Bill for the Abolition; The Speech of Henry Beaufoy, esquire, on Sir William Dolben’s Bill, of which an extract was given in the first volume; Notes by a Planter on the two Reports from the Committee of the honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica; Observations on the Slave-trade by Mr. Wadstrom; and Dickson’s Letters on Slavery. These were all new publications. To those they added others of less note, with new editions of the old.
They voted their thanks to the reverend Mr. Gifford, for his excellent sermon on the Slave-trade; to the pastor and congregation of the Baptist church at Maze Pond, Southwark, for their liberal subscription; and to John Barton, one of their own members, for the services he had rendered them. The latter, having left his residence in town for one in the country, solicited permission to resign, and hence this mark of approbation was given to him. He was continued also as an honorary and corresponding member.
They elected David Hartley and Richard Sharpe, esquires, into their own body, and Alexander Jaffray, esquire, the reverend Charles Symmons of Haverfordwest, and the reverend T. Burgess (now bishop of St. David’s), as honorary and corresponding members. The latter had written Considerations on the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave-trade upon Grounds of natural, religious, and political Duty, which had been of great service to the cause.
Of the new correspondents of the committee within this period I may first mention Henry Taylor, of North Shields; William Proud, of Hull; the reverend T. Gisborne, of Yoxall Lodge; and William Ellford, esquire, of Plymouth. The latter, as chairman of the Plymouth committee, sent up for inspection an engraving of a plan and section of a slave-ship, in which the bodies of the slaves were seen stowed in the proportion of rather less than one to a ton. This happy invention gave all those, who saw it, a much better idea than they could otherwise have had of the horrors of their transportation, and contributed greatly, as will appear afterwards, to impress the public in favour of our cause.
The next, whom I shall mention, was C. L. Evans, esquire, of West Bromwich; the reverend T. Clarke, of Hull; S. P. Wolferstan, esquire, of Statford near Tamworth; Edmund Lodge, esquire, of Halifax; the reverend Caleb Rotheram, of Kendal; and Mr. Campbell Haliburton, of Edinburgh. The news which Mr. Haliburton sent was very agreeable. He informed us that, in consequence of the great exertions of Mr. Alison, an institution had been formed in Edinburgh, similar to that in London, which would take all Scotland under its care and management, as far as related to this great subject. He mentioned Lord Gardenston as the chairman; Sir William Forbes as the deputy chairman; himself as the secretary; and Lord Napier, professor Andrew Hunter, professor Greenfield, and William Creech, Adam Rolland, Alexander Ferguson, John Dickson, John Erskine, John Campbell, Archibald Gibson, Archibald Fletcher, and Horatius Canning, esquires, as the committee.
The others were, the reverend J. Bidlake, of Plymouth: Joseph Storrs, of Chesterfield; William Fothergill, of Carr End, Yorkshire; J. Seymour, of Coventry; Moses Neave, of Poole; Joseph Taylor, of Scarborough; Timothy Clark, of Doncaster; Thomas Davis, of Milverton; George Croker Fox, of Falmouth; Benjamin Grubb, of Clonmell in Ireland; Sir William Forbes, of Edinburgh; the reverend J. Jamieson, of Forfar; and Joseph Gurney, of Norwich; the latter of whom sent up a remittance, and intelligence at the same time, that a committee, under Mr. Leigh, so often before mentioned, had been formed in that city* .
But the committee in London, while they were endeavouring to promote the object of their institution at home, continued their exertions for the same purpose abroad within this period.
They kept up a communication with the different societies established in America.
They directed their attention also to the continent of Europe. They had already applied, as I mentioned before, to the King of Sweden in favour of their cause, and had received a gracious answer. They now attempted to interest other potentates in it. For this purpose they bound up in an elegant manner two sets of the Essays on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species and on the Impolicy of the Slave-trade, and sent them to the Chevalier de Pinto, in Portugal. They bound up in a similar manner three sets of the same, and sent them to Mr. Eden (now Lord Auckland), at Madrid, to be given to the King of Spain, the Count d’Aranda, and the Marquis del Campomanes.
They kept up their correspondence with the committee at Paris, which had greatly advanced itself in the eyes of the French nation; so that, when the different bailliages sent deputies to the States General, they instructed them to take the Slave-trade into their consideration as a national object, and with a view to its abolition.
They kept up their correspondence with Dr. Frossard of Lyons. He had already published in France on the subject of the Slave-trade; and now he offered the committee to undertake the task, so long projected by them, of collecting such arguments and facts concerning it, and translating them into different languages, as might be useful in forwarding their views in foreign parts.
They addressed letters also to various individuals, to Monsieur Snetlage, doctor of laws at Halle in Saxony; to Monsieur Ladebat, of Bourdeaux; to the Marquis de Feuillade d’Aubusson, at Paris; and to Monsieur Necker. The latter in his answer replied in part as follows: “As this great question,” says he, “is not in my department, but in that of the minister for the Colonies, I cannot interfere in it directly, but I will give indirectly all the assistance in my power. I have for a long time taken an interest in the general alarm on this occasion, and in the noble alliance of the friends of humanity in favour of the injured Africans. Such an attempt throws a new lustre over your nation. It is not yet, however, a national object in France. But the moment may perhaps come; and I shall think myself happy in preparing the way for it. You must be aware, however, of the difficulties which we shall have to encounter on our side of the water; for our colonies are much more considerable than yours; so that in the view of political interest we are not on an equal footing. It will therefore be necessary to find some middle line at first, as it cannot be expected that humanity alone will be the governing principle of mankind.”
But the day was now drawing near, when it was expected that this great contest would be decided. Mr. Wilberforce on the nineteenth of March rose up in the House of Commons, and desired the resolution to be read, by which the house stood pledged to take the Slave-trade into their consideration in the then session. He then moved that the house should resolve itself into a committee of the whole house on Thursday, the twenty-third of April, for this purpose. This motion was agreed to; after which he moved for certain official documents, necessary to throw light upon the subject in the course of its discussion.
This motion, by means of which the great day of trial was now fixed, seemed to be the signal for the planters, merchants, and other interested persons to begin a furious opposition. Meetings were accordingly called by advertisement. At these meetings much warmth and virulence were manifested in debate, and propositions breathing a spirit of anger were adopted. It was suggested there, in the vehemence of passion, that the Islands could exist independently of the Mother-country; nor were even threats withheld to intimidate government from effecting the abolition.
From this time, also, the public papers began to be filled with such statements as were thought most likely to influence the members of the House of Commons, previously to the discussion of the question.
The first impression attempted to be made upon them was with respect to the slaves themselves. It was contended, and attempted to be shown by the revival of the old argument of human sacrifices in Africa, that these were better off in the islands than in their own country. It was contended also, that they were people of very inferior capacities, and but little removed from the brute creation; whence an inference was drawn, that their treatment, against which so much clamour had arisen, was adapted to their intellect and feelings.
The next attempt was to degrade the abolitionists in the opinion of the house, by showing the wildness and absurdity of their schemes. It was again insisted upon that emancipation was the real object of the former; so that thousands of slaves would be let loose in the islands to rob or perish, and who could never be brought back again into habits of useful industry.
An attempt was then made to excite their pity in behalf of the planters. The abolition, it was said, would produce insurrections among the slaves. But insurrections would produce the massacre of their masters; and, if any of these should happily escape from butchery, they would be reserved only for ruin.
An appeal was then made to them on the ground of their own interest and of that of the people, whom they represented. It was stated that the ruin of the islands would be the ruin of themselves and of the country. Its revenue would be half annihilated. Its naval strength would decay. Merchants, manufacturers and others would come to beggary. But in this deplorable situation they would expect to be indemnified for their losses. Compensation indeed must follow. It could not be withheld. But what would be the amount of it? The country would have no less than from eighty to a hundred millions to pay the sufferers; and it would be driven to such distress in paying this sum as it had never before experienced.
The last attempt was to show them that a regulation of the trade was all that was now wanted. While this would remedy the evils complained of, it would prevent the mischief which would assuredly follow the abolition. The planters had already done their part. The assemblies of the different islands had most of them made wholesome laws upon the subject. The very bills passed for this purpose in Jamaica and Grenada had arrived in England, and might be seen by the public: the great grievances had been redressed: no slave could now be mutilated or wantonly killed by his owner; one man could not now maltreat, or bruise, or wound the slave of another; the aged could not now be turned off to perish by hunger. There were laws also relative to the better feeding and clothing of the slaves. It remained only that the trade to Africa should be put under as wise and humane regulations as the slavery in the islands had undergone.
These different statements, appearing now in the public papers from day to day, began, in this early stage of the question, when the subject in all its bearings was known but to few, to make a considerable impression upon those, who were soon to be called to the decision of it. But that, which had the greatest effect upon them, was the enormous amount of the compensation, which, it was said, must be made. This statement against the abolition was making its way so powerfully, that Archdeacon Paley thought it his duty to write, and to send to the committee, a little treatise called Arguments against the unjust Pretensions of Slave-dealers and Holders, to be indemnified by pecuniary Allowances at the public Expense in case the Slave-trade should be abolished. This treatise, when the substance of it was detailed in the public papers, had its influence upon several members of the House of Commons. But there were others, who had been as it were panic-struck by the statement. These in their fright seemed to have lost the right use of their eyes, or to have looked through a magnifying glass. With these the argument of emancipation, which they would have rejected at another time as ridiculous, obtained now easy credit. The massacres too and the ruin, though only conjectural, they admitted also. Hence some of them deserted our cause wholly, while others, wishing to do justice as far as they could to the slaves on the one hand, and to their own countrymen on the other, adopted a middle line of conduct, and would go no further than the regulation of the trade.
While these preparations were making by our opponents to prejudice the minds of those, who were to be the judges in this contest, Mr. Pitt presented the privy council report at the bar of the House of Commons; and as it was a large folio volume, and contained the evidence upon which the question was to be decided, it was necessary that time should be given to the members to peruse it. Accordingly the twelfth of May was appointed, instead of the twenty-third of April, for the discussion of the question.
This postponement of the discussion of the question gave time to all parties to prepare themselves further. The merchants and planters availed themselves of it to collect petitions to parliament from interested persons against the abolition of the trade, to wait upon members of parliament by deputation, in order to solicit their attendance in their favour, and to renew their injurious paragraphs in the public papers. The committee for the abolition availed themselves of it to reply to these; and here Dr. Dickson, who had been secretary to Governor Hey, in Barbadoes, and who had offered the committee his Letters on Slavery before mentioned and his services also, was of singular use. Many members of parliament availed themselves of it to retire into the country to read the report. Among the latter were Mr. Wilberforce and Mr. Pitt. In this retirement they discovered, notwithstanding the great disadvantages under which we had laboured with respect to evidence, that our cause was safe, and that, as far as it was to be decided by reason and sound policy, it would triumph. It was in this retirement that Mr. Pitt made those able calculations, which satisfied him for ever after, as the minister of the country, as to the safety of the great measure of the abolition of the Slave-trade; for he had clearly proved, that not only the islands could go on in a flourishing state without supplies from the coast of Africa, but that they were then in a condition to do it.
At length, the twelfth of May arrived. Mr. Wilberforce rose up in the Commons, and moved the order of the day for the house to resolve itself into a committee of the whole house, to take into consideration the petitions, which had been presented against the Slave-trade.
This order having been read, he moved that the report of the committee of privy council; that the acts passed in the islands relative to slaves; that the evidence adduced last year on the Slave-trade; that the petitions offered in the last session against the Slave-trade; and that the accounts presented to the house, in the last and present session, relative to the exports and imports to Africa, be referred to the same committee.
These motions having been severally agreed to, the house immediately resolved itself into a committee of the whole house, and Sir William Dolben was put into the chair.
Mr. Wilberforce began by declaring, that, when he considered how much discussion the subject, which he was about to explain to the committee, had occasioned not only in that house but throughout the kingdom, and throughout Europe; and when he considered the extent and importance of it, the variety of interests involved in it, and the consequences which might arise, he owned he had been filled with apprehensions, lest a subject of such magnitude, and a cause of such weight, should suffer from the weakness of its advocate; but when he recollected that in the progress of his inquiries he had every where been received with candour, that most people gave him credit for the purity of his motives, and that, however many of these might then differ from him, they were all likely to agree in the end, he had dismissed his fears and marched forward with a firmer step in this cause of humanity, justice and religion. He could not, however, but lament that the subject had excited so much warmth. He feared that too many on this account were but ill prepared to consider it with impartiality. He entreated all such to endeavour to be calm and composed. A fair and cool discussion was essentially necessary. The motion he meant to offer was as reconcileable to political expediency as to national humanity. It belonged to no party-question. It would in the end be found serviceable to all parties; and to the best interests of the country. He did not come forward to accuse the West India planter, or the Liverpool merchant, or indeed any one concerned in this traffic; but, if blame attached any where, to take shame to himself, in common indeed with the whole parliament of Great Britain, who, having suffered it to be carried on under their own authority, were all of them participators in the guilt.
In endeavouring to explain the great business of the day, he said he should call the attention of the house only to the leading features of the Slave-trade. Nor should he dwell long upon these. Every one might imagine for himself, what must be the natural consequence of such a commerce with Africa. Was it not plain that she must suffer from it? that her savage manners must be rendered still more ferocious? and that a trade of this nature, carried on round her coasts, must extend violence and desolation to her very centre? It was well known that the natives of Africa were sold as goods, and that numbers of them were continually conveyed away from their country by the owners of British vessels. The question then was, which way the latter came by them. In answer to this question the privy council report, which was then on the table, afforded evidence the most satisfactory and conclusive. He had found things in it, which had confirmed every proposition he had maintained before, whether this proposition had been gathered from living information of the best authority, or from the histories he had read. But it was unnecessary either to quote the report, or to appeal to history on this occasion. Plain reason and common sense would point out how the poor Africans were obtained. Africa was a country divided into many kingdoms, which had different governments and laws. In many parts the princes were despotic. In others they had a limited rule. But in all of them, whatever the nature of the government was, men were considered as goods and property, and, as such, subject to plunder in the same manner as property in other countries. The persons in power there were naturally fond of our commodities; and to obtain them (which could only be done by the sale of their countrymen) they waged war on one another, or even ravaged their own country, when they could find no pretence for quarrelling with their neighbours: in their courts of law many poor wretches, who were innocent, were condemned; and, to obtain these commodities in greater abundance, thousands were kidnapped and torn from their families and sent into slavery. Such transactions, he said, were recorded in every history of Africa, and the report on the table confirmed them. With respect, however, to these he should make but one or two observations. If we looked into the reign of Henry the Eighth, we should find a parallel for one of them. We should find that similar convictions took place; and that penalties followed conviction. With respect to wars, the kings of Africa were never induced to engage in them by public principles, by national glory, and least of all by the love of their people. This had been stated by those most conversant in the subject, by Dr. Spaarman and Mr. Wadstrom. They had conversed with these princes, and had learned from their own mouths, that to procure slaves was the object of their hostilities. Indeed, there was scarcely a single person examined before the privy council, who did not prove that the Slave-trade was the source of the tragedies acted upon that extensive continent. Some had endeavoured to palliate this circumstance; but there was not one who did not more or less admit it to be true. By one the Slave-trade was called the concurrent cause, by the majority it was acknowledged to be the principal motive, of the African wars. The same might be said with respect to those instances of treachery and injustice, in which individuals were concerned. And here he was sorry to observe that our own countrymen were often guilty. He would only at present advert to the tragedy at Calabàr, where two large African villages, having been for some time at war, made peace. This peace was to have been ratified by intermarriages; but some of our captains, who were there, seeing their trade would be stopped for a while, sowed dissension again between them. They actually set one village against the other, took a share in the contest, massacred many of the inhabitants, and carried others of them away as slaves. But shocking as this transaction might appear, there was not a single history of Africa to be read, in which scenes of as atrocious a nature were not related. They, he said, who defended this trade, were warped and blinded by their own interests, and would not be convinced of the miseries they were daily heaping on their fellow-creatures. By the countenance they gave it, they had reduced the inhabitants of Africa to a worse state than that of the most barbarous nation. They had destroyed what ought to have been the bond of union and safety among them: they had introduced discord and anarchy among them: they had set kings against their subjects, and subjects against each other: they had rendered every private family wretched: they had, in short, given birth to scenes of injustice and misery not to be found in any other quarter of the globe.
Having said thus much on the subject of procuring slaves in Africa, he would now go to that of the transportation of them. And here he had fondly hoped, that when men with affections and feelings like our own had been torn from their country, and every thing dear to them, he should have found some mitigation of their sufferings: but the sad reverse was the case. This was the most wretched part of the whole subject. He was incapable of impressing the house with what he felt upon it. A description of their conveyance was impossible. So much misery condensed in so little room was more than the human imagination had ever before conceived. Think only of six hundred persons linked together, trying to get rid of each other, crammed in a close vessel with every object that was nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling with all the varieties of wretchedness. It seemed impossible to add any thing more to human misery. Yet shocking as this description must be felt to be by every man, the transportation had been described by several witnesses from Liverpool to be a comfortable conveyance. Mr. Norris had painted the accommodations on board a slave-ship in the most glowing colours. He had represented them in a manner which would have exceeded his attempts at praise of the most luxurious scenes. Their apartments, he said, were fitted up as advantageously for them as circumstances could possibly admit: they had several meals a day; some, of their own country provisions, with the best sauces of African cookery; and, by way of variety, another meal of pulse, according to the European taste. After breakfast they had water to wash themselves, while their apartments were perfumed with frank-incense and lime-juice. Before dinner they were amused after the manner of their country: instruments of music were introduced: the song and the dance were promoted: games of chance were furnished them: the men played and sang, while the women and girls made fanciful ornaments from beads, with which they were plentifully supplied. They were indulged in all their little fancies, and kept in sprightly humour. Another of them had said, when the sailors were flogged, it was out of the hearing of the Africans, lest it should depress their spirits. He by no means wished to say that such descriptions were wilful misrepresentations. If they were not, it proved that interest or prejudice was capable of spreading a film over the eyes thick enough to occasion total blindness.
Others, however, and these men of the greatest veracity, had given a different account. What would the house think, when by the concurring testimony of these the true history was laid open? The slaves who had been described as rejoicing in their captivity, were so wrung with misery at leaving their country, that it was the constant practice to set sail in the night, lest they should know the moment of their departure. With respect to their accommodation, the right ancle of one was fastened to the left ancle of another by an iron fetter; and if they were turbulent, by another on the wrists. Instead of the apartments described, they were placed in niches, and along the decks, in such a manner, that it was impossible for any one to pass among them, however careful he might be, without treading upon them. Sir George Yonge had testified, that in a slave-ship, on board of which he went, and which had not completed her cargo by two hundred and fifty, instead of the scent of frankincense being perceptible to the nostrils, the stench was intolerable. The allowance of water was so deficient, that the slaves were frequently found gasping for life, and almost suffocated. The pulse with which they had been said to be favoured, were absolutely English horse-beans. The legislature of Jamaica had stated the scantiness both of water and provisions, as a subject which called for the interference of parliament. As Mr. Norris had said, the song and the dance were promoted, he could not pass over these expressions without telling the house what they meant. It would have been much more fair if he himself had explained the word promoted. The truth was, that, for the sake of exercise, these miserable wretches, loaded with chains and oppressed with disease, were forced to dance by the terror of the lash, and sometimes by the actual use of it. “I,” said one of the evidences, “was employed to dance the men, while another person danced the women.” Such then was the meaning of the word promoted; and it might also be observed with respect to food, that instruments were sometimes carried out, in order to force them to eat; which was the same sort of proof, how much they enjoyed themselves in this instance also. With respect to their singing, it consisted of songs of lamentation for the loss of their country. While they sung they were in tears: so that one of the captains, more humane probably than the rest, threatened a woman with a flogging because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings. Perhaps he could not give a better proof of the sufferings of these injured people during their passage, than by stating the mortality which accompanied it. This was a species of evidence which was infallible on this occasion. Death was a witness which could not deceive them; and the proportion of deaths would not only confirm, but, if possible, even aggravate our suspicion of the misery of the transit. It would be found, upon an average of all the ships, upon which evidence had been given, that, exclusively of such as perished before they sailed from Africa, not less than twelve and a half per cent. died on their passage: besides these, the Jamaica report stated that four and a half per cent. died while in the harbours, or on shore before the day of sale, which was only about the space of twelve or fourteen days after their arrival there; and one third more died in the seasoning: and this in a climate exactly similar to their own, and where, as some of the witnesses pretended, they were healthy and happy. Thus, out of every lot of one hundred, shipped from Africa, seventeen died in about nine weeks, and not more than fifty lived to become effective labourers in our islands.
Having advanced thus far in his investigation, he felt, he said, the wickedness of the Slave-trade to be so enormous, so dreadful, and irremediable, that he could stop at no alternative short of its abolition. A trade founded on iniquity, and carried on with such circumstances of horror, must be abolished, let the policy of it be what it might; and he had from this time determined, whatever were the consequences, that he would never rest till he had effected that abolition. His mind had indeed been harassed by the objections of the West India planters, who had asserted, that the ruin of their property must be the consequence of such a measure. He could not help, however, distrusting their arguments. He could not believe that the Almighty Being, who had forbidden the practice of rapine and bloodshed, had made rapine and bloodshed necessary to any part of his universe. He felt a confidence in this persuasion, and took the resolution to act upon it. Light indeed soon broke in upon him. The suspicion of his mind was every day confirmed by increasing information, and the evidence he had now to offer upon this point was decisive and complete. The principle upon which he founded the necessity of the abolition was not policy, but justice: but, though justice were the principle of the measure, yet he trusted he should distinctly prove it to be reconcileable with our truest political interest.
In the first place, he asserted that the number of the slaves in our West India islands might be kept up without the introduction of recruits from Africa; and to prove this, he would enumerate the different sources of their mortality. The first was the disproportion of the sexes, there being, upon an average, about five males imported to three females: but this evil, when the Slave-trade was abolished, would cure itself. The second consisted in the bad condition in which they were brought to the islands, and the methods of preparing them for sale. They arrived frequently in a sickly and disordered state, and then they were made up for the market by the application of astringents, washes, mercurial ointments, and repelling drugs, so that their wounds and diseases might be hid. These artifices were not only fraudulent but fatal: but these, it was obvious, would of themselves fall with the trade. A third was, excessive labour joined with improper food; and a fourth was, the extreme dissoluteness of their manners. These also would both of them be counteracted by the impossibility of getting further supplies: for owners, now unable to replace those slaves whom they might lose, by speedy purchases in the markets, would be more careful how they treated them in future, and a better treatment would be productive of better morals. And here he would just advert to an argument used against those who complained of cruelty in our islands, which was, that it was the interest of masters to treat their slaves with humanity: but surely it was immediate and present, not future and distant, interest, which was the great spring of action in the affairs of mankind. Why did we make laws to punish men? It was their interest to be upright and virtuous: but there was a present impulse continually breaking in upon their better judgment, and an impulse, which was known to be contrary to their permanent advantage. It was ridiculous to say that men would be bound by their interest, when gain or ardent passion urged them. It might as well be asserted that a stone could not be thrown into the air, or a body move from place to place, because the principle of gravitation bound them to the surface of the earth. If a planter in the West Indies found himself reduced in his profits, he did not usually dispose of any part of his slaves; and his own gratifications were never given up, so long as there was a possibility of making any retrenchment in the allowance of his slaves.—But to return to the subject which he had left: He was happy to state, that as all the causes of the decrease which he had stated might be remedied, so, by the progress of light and reformation, these remedies had been gradually coming into practice; and that, as these had increased, the decrease of slaves had in an equal proportion been lessened. By the gradual adoption of these remedies, he could prove from the report on the table, that the decrease of slaves in Jamaica had lessened to such a degree, that from the year 1774 to the present it was not quite one in a hundred, and that in fact they were at present in a state of increase; for that the births in that island, at this moment, exceeded the deaths by one thousand or eleven hundred per annum. Barbadoes, Nevis, Antigua, and the Bermudas, were, like Jamaica, lessening their decrease, and holding forth an evident and reasonable expectation of a speedy state of increase by natural population. But allowing the number of negros even to decrease for a time, there were methods which would ensure the welfare of the West India islands. The lands there might be cultivated by fewer hands, and this to greater advantage to the proprietors and to this country, by the produce of cinnamon, coffee, and cotton, than by that of sugar. The produce of the plantations might also be considerably increased, even in the case of sugar, with less hands than were at present employed, if the owners of them would but introduce machines of husbandry. Mr. Long himself, long resident as a planter, had proved, upon his own estate, that the plough, though so little used in the West Indies, did the service of a hundred slaves, and caused the same ground to produce three hogsheads of sugar, which, when cultivated by slaves, would only produce two. The division of work, which, in free and civilized countries, was the grand source of wealth, and the reduction of the number of domestic servants, of whom not less than from twenty to forty were kept in ordinary families, afforded other resources for this purpose. But, granting that all these suppositions should be unfounded, and that every one of these substitutes should fail for a time, the planters would be indemnified, as is the case in all transactions of commerce, by the increased price of their produce in the British market. Thus, by contending against the abolition, they were defeated in every part of the argument. But he would never give up the point, that the number of the slaves could be kept up by natural population, and without any dependence whatever on the Slave-trade. He therefore called upon the house again to abolish it as a criminal waste of life—it was utterly unnecessary—he had proved it so by documents contained in the report. The merchants of Liverpool, indeed, had thought otherwise, but he should be cautious how he assented to their opinions. They declared last year that it was a losing trade at two slaves to a ton, and yet they pursued it when restricted to five slaves to three tons. He believed, however, that it was upon the whole a losing concern; in the same manner as the lottery would be a losing adventure to any company who should buy all the tickets. Here and there an individual gained a large prize, but the majority of adventurers gained nothing. The same merchants, too, had asserted that the town of Liverpool would be ruined by the abolition. But Liverpool did not depend for its consequence upon the Slave-trade. The whole export-tonnage from that place amounted to no less than 170,000 tons; whereas the export part of it to Africa amounted only to 13,000. Liverpool, he was sure, owed its greatness to other and very different causes; the Slave-trade bearing but a small proportion to its other trades.
Having gone through that part of the subject which related to the slaves, he would now answer two objections which he had frequently heard started. The first of these was, that the abolition of the Slave-trade would operate to the total ruin of our navy, and to the increase of that of our rivals. For an answer to these assertions, he referred to what he considered to be the most valuable part of the report, and for which the house and the country were indebted to the indefatigable exertions of Mr. Clarkson. By the report it appeared, that, instead of the Slave-trade being a nursery for British seamen, it was their grave. It appeared that more seamen died in that trade in one year than in the whole remaining trade of the country in two. Out of 910 sailors in it, 216 died in the year, while upon a fair average of the same number of men employed in the trades to the East and West Indies, Petersburgh, Newfoundland, and Greenland, no more than 87 died. It appeared also, that out of 3170, who had left Liverpool in the slave-ships in the year 1787, only 1428 had returned. And here, while he lamented the loss which the country thus annually sustained in her seamen, he had additionally to lament the barbarous usage which they experienced, and which this trade, by its natural tendency to harden the heart, exclusively produced. He would just read an extract of a letter from Governor Parrey, of Barbadoes, to Lord Sydney, one of the secretaries of state. The Governor declared he could no longer contain himself on account of the ill treatment, which the British sailors endured at the hands of their savage captains. These were obliged to have their vessels strongly manned, not only on account of the unhealthiness of the climate of Africa, but of the necessity of guarding the slaves, and preventing and suppressing insurrections; and when they arrived in the West Indies, and were out of all danger from the latter, they quarrelled with their men on the most frivolous pretences, on purpose to discharge them, and thus save the payment of supernumerary wages home. Thus many were left in a diseased and deplorable state; either to perish by sickness, or to enter into foreign service; great numbers of whom were for ever lost to their country. The Governor concluded by declaring, that the enormities attendant on this trade were so great, as to demand the immediate interference of the legislature.
The next objection to the abolition was, that if we were to relinquish the Slave-trade, our rivals, the French, would take it up; so that, while we should suffer by the measure, the evil would still go on, and this even to its former extent. This was, indeed, a very weak argument; and, if it would defend the continuance of the Slave-trade, might equally be urged in favour of robbery, murder, and every species of wickedness, which, if we did not practise, others would commit. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that they were to take it up, What good would it do them? What advantages, for instance, would they derive from this pestilential commerce to their marine? Should not we, on the other hand, be benefited by this change? Would they not be obliged to come to us, in consequence of the cheapness of our manufactures, for what they wanted for the African market? But he would not calumniate the French nation so much as to suppose that they would carry on the trade if we were to relinquish it. He believed, on the other hand, that they would abolish it also. Mr. Necker, the present minister of France, was a man of religious principle; and, in his work upon the administration of the finances, had recorded his abhorrence of this trade. He was happy also to relate an anecdote of the present King of France, which proved that he was a friend to the abolition; for, being petitioned to dissolve a society, formed at Paris, for the annihilation of the Slave-trade, his majesty answered, that he would not, and was happy to hear that so humane an association was formed in his dominions. And here, having mentioned the society in Paris, he could not help paying a due compliment to that established in London for the same purpose, which had laboured with the greatest assiduity to make this important subject understood, and which had conducted itself with so much judgment and moderation as to have interested men of all religions, and to have united them in their cause.
There was another topic which he would submit to the notice of the house before he concluded. They were perhaps not aware, that a fair and honourable trade might be substituted in the natural productions of Africa, so that our connection with that continent in the way of commercial advantage need not be lost. The natives had already made some advances in it; and if they had not appeared so forward in raising and collecting their own produce for sale as in some other countries, it was to be imputed to the Slave-trade: but remove the cause, and Africa would soon emerge from her present ignorant and indolent state. Civilization would go on with her as well as with other nations. Europe three or four centuries ago was in many parts as barbarous as Africa at present, and chargeable with as bad practices. For, what would be said, if, so late as the middle of the thirteenth century, he could find a parallel there for the Slave-trade?—Yes. This parallel was to be found even in England. The people of Bristol, in the reign of Henry the Seventh, had a regular market for children, which were bought by the Irish: but the latter having experienced a general calamity, which they imputed as a judgment from Heaven on account of this wicked traffic, abolished it. The only thing, therefore, which he had to solicit of the house, was to show that they were now as enlightened as the Irish were four centuries back, by refusing to buy the children of other nations. He hoped they would do it. He hoped, too, they would do it in an unqualified manner. Nothing less than a total abolition of the trade would do away the evils complained of. The legislature of Jamaica, indeed, had thought that regulations might answer the purpose. Their report had recommended, that no person should be kidnapped, or permitted to be made a slave, contrary to the customs of Africa. But might he not be reduced to this state very unjustly, and yet by no means contrary to the African laws? Besides, how could we distinguish between those who were justly or unjustly reduced to it? Could we discover them by their physiognomy?—But if we could, Who would believe that the British captains would be influenced by any regulations made in this country, to refuse to purchase those who had not been fairly, honestly, and uprightly enslaved? They who were offered to us for sale were brought, some of them, three or four thousand miles, and exchanged like cattle from one hand to another, till they reached the coast. But who could return these to their homes, or make them compensation for their sufferings during their long journeyings? He would now conclude by begging pardon of the house for having detained them so long. He could indeed have expressed his own conviction in fewer words. He needed only to have made one or two short statements, and to have quoted the commandment, “Thou shalt do no murder.” But he thought it his duty to lay the whole of the case, and the whole of its guilt, before them. They would see now that no mitigations, no palliatives, would either be efficient or admissible. Nothing short of an absolute abolition could be adopted. This they owed to Africa: they owed it, too, to their own moral characters. And he hoped they would follow up the principle of one of the repentant African captains, who had gone before the committee of privy council as a voluntary witness, and that they would make Africa all the atonement in their power for the multifarious injuries she had received at the hands of British subjects. With respect to these injuries, their enormity and extent, it might be alleged in their excuse, that they were not fully acquainted with them till that moment, and therefore not answerable for their former existence: but now they could no longer plead ignorance concerning them. They had seen them brought directly before their eyes, and they must decide for themselves, and must justify to the world and their own consciences the facts and principles upon which their decision was formed.
Mr. Wilberforce having concluded his speech, which lasted three hours and a half, read, and laid on the table of the house, as subjects for their future discussion, twelve propositions, which he had deduced from the evidence contained in the privy council report, and of which the following is the abridged substance:
1. That the number of slaves annually carried from the coast of Africa, in British vessels, was about 38,000, of which, on an average, 22,500 were carried to the British islands, and that of the latter only 17,500 were retained there.
2. That these slaves, according to the evidence on the table, consisted, First, of prisoners of war; Secondly, of free persons sold for debt, or on account of real or imputed crimes, particularly adultery and witchcraft; in which cases they were frequently sold with their whole families, and sometimes for the profit of those by whom they were condemned; Thirdly, of domestic slaves sold for the profit of their masters, in some places at the will of the masters, and in others, on being condemned by them for real or imputed crimes; Fourthly, of persons made slaves by various acts of oppression, violence, or fraud, committed either by the princes and chiefs of those countries on their subjects, or by private individuals on each other;—or, lastly, by Europeans engaged in this traffic.
3. That the trade so carried on had necessarily a tendency to occasion frequent and cruel wars among the natives; to produce unjust convictions and punishments for pretended or aggravated crimes; to encourage acts of oppression, violence, and fraud, and to obstruct the natural course of civilization and improvement in those countries.
4. That Africa in its present state furnished several valuable articles of commerce which were partly peculiar to itself, but that it was adapted to the production of others, with which we were now either wholly or in great part supplied by foreign nations. That an extensive commerce with Africa might be substituted in these commodities, so as to afford a return for as many articles as had annually been carried thither in British vessels: and, lastly, that such a commerce might reasonably be expected to increase by the progress of civilization there.
5. That the Slave-trade was peculiarly destructive to the seamen employed in it; and that the mortality there had been much greater than in any British vessels employed upon the same coast in any other service or trade.
6. That the mode of transporting the slaves from Africa to the West Indies necessarily exposed them to many and grievous sufferings, for which no regulations could provide an adequate remedy; and that in consequence thereof a large proportion had annually perished during the voyage.
7. That a large proportion had also perished in the harbours in the West Indies, from the diseases contracted in the voyage and the treatment of the same, previously to their being sold, and that this loss amounted to four and a half per cent. of the imported slaves.
8. That the loss of the newly imported slaves, within the three first years after their importation, bore a large proportion to the whole number imported.
9. That the natural increase of population among the slaves in the islands, appeared to have been impeded principally by the following causes:—First, By the inequality of the sexes in the importations from Africa. Secondly, By the general dissoluteness of manners among the slaves, and the want of proper regulations for the encouragement of marriages and of rearing children among them. Thirdly, By the particular diseases which were prevalent among them, and which were in some instances to be attributed to too severe labour, or rigorous treatment, and in others to insufficient or improper food. Fourthly, By those diseases, which affected a large proportion of negro-children in their infancy, and by those, to which the negros newly imported from Africa had been found to be particularly liable.
10. That the whole number of the slaves in the island of Jamaica in 1768 was about 167,000, in 1774 about 193,000, and in 1787 about 256,000: that by comparing these numbers with the numbers imported and retained in the said island during all these years, and making proper allowances, the annual excess of deaths above births was in the proportion of about seven-eighths per cent.; that in the first six years of this period it was in the proportion of rather more than one on every hundred; that in the last thirteen years of the same it was in the proportion of about three-fifths on every hundred; and that a number of slaves, amounting to fifteen thousand, perished during the latter period in consequence of repeated hurricanes, and of the want of foreign supplies of provisions.
11. That the whole number of slaves in the island of Barbadoes was in the year 1764 about 70,706; in 1774 about 74,874; in 1780 about 68,270; in 1781, after the hurricane, about 63,248, and in 1786 about 62,115: that by comparing these numbers with the number imported into this island (not allowing for any re-exportation), the annual excess of deaths above births in the ten years from 1764 to 1774 was in the proportion of about five on every hundred; that in the seven years from 1774 to 1780 it was in the proportion of about one and one-third on every hundred; that between the year 1780 and 1781 there had been a decrease in the number of slaves of about five thousand; that in the six years from 1781 to 1786 the excess of deaths was in the proportion of rather less than seven-eighths on every hundred; that in the four years from 1783 to 1786 it was in the proportion of rather less than one-third on every hundred; and that, during the whole period, there was no doubt that some had been exported ftom the island, but considerably more in the first part of this period than in the last.
12. That the accounts from the Leeward Islands, and from Dominica, Grenada, and St. Vincent’s, did not furnish sufficient grounds for comparing the state of population in the said islands at different periods with the number of slaves, which had been from time to time imported there and exported therefrom; but that from the evidence which had been received respecting the present state of these islands, as well as that of Jamaica and Barbadoes, and from a consideration of the means of obviating the causes, which had hitherto operated to impede the natural increase of the slaves, and of lessening the demand for manual labour, without diminishing the profit of the planters, no considerable or permanent inconvenience would result from discontinuing the further importation of African slaves.
These propositions having been laid upon the table of the house, Lord Penrhyn rose in behalf of the planters, and, next after him, Mr. Gascoyne (both members for Liverpool) in behalf of the merchants concerned in the latter place. They both predicted the ruin and misery, which would inevitably follow the abolition of the trade. The former said, that no less than seventy millions were mortgaged upon lands in the West Indies, all of which would be lost. Mr. Wilberforce therefore should have made a motion to pledge the house to the repayment of this sum, before he had brought forward his propositions. Compensation ought to have been agreed upon as a previously necessary measure. The latter said, that in consequence of the bill of last year many ships were laid up and many seamen out of employ. His constituents had large capitals engaged in the trade, and, if it were to be wholly done away, they would suffer from not knowing where to employ them. They both, joined in asserting, that Mr. Wilberforce had made so many misrepresentations in all the branches of this subject, that no reliance whatever was to be placed on the picture, which he had chosen to exhibit. They should speak however more fully to this point, when the propositions were discussed.
The latter declaration called up Mr. Wilberforce again, who observed, that he had no intention of misrepresenting any fact. He did not know that he had done it in any one instance; but, if he had, it would be easy to convict him out of the report upon the table.
Mr. Burke then rose. He would not, he said, detain the committee long. Indeed he was not able, weary and indisposed as he then felt himself, even if he had an inclination to do it; but as, on account of his other parliamentary duty, he might not have it in his power to attend the business now before them in its course, he would take that opportunity of stating his opinion upon it.
And, first, the house, the nation, and all Europe were under great obligations to Mr. Wilberforce for having brought this important subject forward. He had done it in a manner the most masterly, impressive, and eloquent. He had laid down his principles so admirably, and with so much order and force, that his speech had equalled any thing he had ever heard in modern oratory, and perhaps it had not been excelled by any thing to be found in ancient times. As to the Slave-trade itself, there could not be two opinions about it where men were not interested. A trade, begun in savage war, prosecuted with unheard-of barbarity, continued during the transportation with the most loathsome imprisonment, and ending in perpetual exile and slavery, was a trade so horrid in all its circumstances, that it was impossible to produce a single argument in its favour. On the ground of prudence, nothing could be said in defence of it; nor could it be justified by necessity. It was necessity alone, that could be brought to justify inhumanity; but no case of necessity could be made out strong enough to justify this monstrous traffic. It was therefore the duty of the house to put an end to it, and this without further delay. This conviction, that it became them to do it immediately, made him regret (and it was the only thing he regretted in the admirable speech he had heard) that his honourable friend should have introduced propositions on this subject. He could have wished that the business had been brought to a conclusion at once, without voting the propositions, which had been read to them. He was not over fond of abstract propositions. They were seldom necessary; and often occasioned great difficulty, embarrassment, and delay. There was besides no occasion whatever to assign detailed reasons for a vote, which Nature herself dictated, and which Religion enforced. If it should happen, that the propositions were not carried in that house or the other, such a complication of mischiefs might follow, as might occasion them heartily to lament that they were ever introduced. If the ultimate resolution should happen to be lost, he was afraid the propositions would pass as waste paper, if not be injurious to the cause at a future time.
And now, as the house must bring this matter to an issue, he would beg their attention to a particular point. He entreated them to look further than the present moment, and to ask themselves, if they had fortified their minds sufficiently to bear the consequences, which might arise from the abolition of the Slave-trade, supposing they should decide upon it. When they abandoned it, other foreign powers might take it up, and clandestinely supply our islands with slaves. Had they virtue enough to see another country reaping profits, which they themselves had given up; and to abstain from that envy natural to rivals, and firmly to adhere to their determination? If so, let them thankfully proceed to vote the immediate abolition of the Slave-trade. But if they should repent of their virtue (and he had known miserable instances of such repentance), all hopes of future reformation of this enormous evil would be lost. They would go back to a trade they had abandoned with redoubled attachment, and would adhere to it with a degree of avidity and shameless ardour, to their own humiliation, and to the degradation and disgrace of the nation in the eyes of all Europe. These were considerations worth regarding, before they took a decisive step in a business, in which they ought not to move with any other determination than to abide by the consequences at all hazards. The honourable gentleman (who to his eternal honour had introduced this great subject to their notice) had in his eloquent oration knocked at every door, and appealed to every passion, well knowing that mankind were governed by their sympathies. But there were other passions to be regarded. Men were always ready to obey their sympathies, when it cost them nothing. But were they prepared to pay the price of their virtue on this great occasion? This was the question. If they were, they would do themselves immortal honour, and would have the satisfaction of having done away a commerce, which, while it was productive of misery not to be described, most of all hardened the heart, and vitiated the human character.
With respect to the consequences mentioned by the two members for Liverpool, he had a word or two to offer upon them. Lord Penrhyn had talked of millions to be lost and paid for. But seeing no probability of any loss ultimately, he could see no necessity for compensation. He believed, on the other hand, that the planters would be great gainers by those wholesome regulations, which they would be obliged to make, if the Slave-trade were abolished. He did not however flatter them with the idea that this gain would be immediate. Perhaps they might experience inconveniences at first, and even some loss. But what then? With their loss, their virtue would be the greater. And in this light he hoped the house would consider the matter; for, if they were called upon to do an act of virtuous energy and heroism, they ought to think it right to submit to temporary disadvantages for the sake of truth, justice, humanity, and the prospect of greater happiness.
The other member, Mr. Gascoyne, had said, that his constituents, if the trade were abolished, could not employ their capitals elsewhere. But whether they could or not, it was the duty of that house, if they put them into a traffic, which was shocking to humanity and disgraceful to the nation, to change their application, and not to allow them to be used to a barbarous purpose. He believed, however, that the merchants of Liverpool would find no difficulty on this head. All capitals required active motion. It was in their nature not to remain passive and unemployed. They would soon turn them into other channels. This they had done themselves during the American war; for the Slave-trade was then almost wholly lost, and yet they had their ships employed, either as transports in the service of Government, or in other ways.
And as he now called upon the house not to allow any conjectural losses to become impediments in the way of the abolition of the Slave-trade, so he called upon them to beware how they suffered any representations of the happiness of the state of slavery in our islands to influence them against so glorious a measure. Admiral Barrington had said in his testimony, that he had often envied the condition of the slaves there. But surely, the honourable admiral must have meant, that, as he had often toiled like a slave in the defence of his country, (as his many gallant actions had proved,) so he envied the day, when he was to toil in a similar manner in the same cause. If, however, his words were to be taken literally, his sensations could only be accounted for by his having seen the negros in the hour of their sports, when a sense of the misery of their condition was neither felt by themselves nor visible to others. But their appearance on such occasions did by no means disprove their low and abject state. Nothing made a happy slave but a degraded man. In proportion as the mind grows callous to its degradation, and all sense of manly pride is lost, the slave feels comfort. In fact, he is no longer a man. If he were to define a man, he would say with Shakespeare,
But a slave was incapable of looking before and after. He had no motive to do it. He was a mere passive instrument in the hands of others, to be used at their discretion. Though living, he was dead as to all voluntary agency. Though moving amidst the creation with an erect form, and with the shape and semblance of a human being, he was a nullity as a man.
Mr. Pitt thanked his honourable friend Mr. Wilberforce for having at length introduced this great and important subject to the consideration of the house. He thanked him also for the perspicuous, forcible, and masterly manner, in which he had treated it. He was sure that no argument, compatible with any idea of justice, could be assigned for the continuation of the Slave-trade. And, at the same time that he was willing to listen with candour and attention to every thing, that could be urged on the other side of the question, he was sure that the principles from which his opinion was deduced were unalterable. He had examined the subject with the anxiety which became him, where the happiness and interests of so many thousands were concerned, and with the minuteness which would be expected of him, on account of the responsible situation which he held; and he averred, that it was sophistry, obscurity of ideas, and vagueness of reasoning, which alone could have hitherto prevented all mankind (those immediately interested in the question excepted) from agreeing in one and the same opinion upon the subject. With respect to the propriety of introducing the individual propositions, which had been offered, he differed with Mr. Burke, and he thanked his honourable friend Mr. Wilberforce for having chosen the only way, in which it could be made obvious to the world, that they were warranted on every ground of reason and of fact in coming to that vote, which he trusted would be the end of their proceeding. The grounds for the attainment of this end were distinctly stated in the propositions. Let the propositions be brought before the house, one by one, and argued from the evidence; and it would then be seen, that they were such as no one, who was not deaf to the language of reason, could deny. Let them be once entered upon the journals of that house, and it was almost impossible they should fail. The abolition must be voted. As to the mode of it, or how it should be effected, they were not at present to discuss it; but he trusted it would be such, as would not invite foreign powers to supply our islands with slaves by a clandestine trade. After a debt, founded on the immutable principles of justice, was found to be due, it was impossible but the country had means to cause it to be paid. Should such an illicit proceeding be attempted, the only language which it became us to adopt was, that Great Britain had resources to enable her to protect her islands, and to prevent that traffic from being clandestinely carried on by them, which she had thought fit from a regard to her character to abandon. It was highly becoming Great Britain to take the lead of other nations in such a virtuous and magnificent measure, and he could not but have confidence, that they would be inclined to share the honour with us, or be pleased to follow us as their example. If we were disposed to set about this glorious work in earnest, they might be invited to concur with us by a negotiation to be immediately opened for that purpose. He would only now observe, before he sat down, in answer to certain ideas thrown out, that he could by no means acquiesce in any compensation for losses, which might be sustained by the people of Liverpool, or by others in any other part of the kingdom, in the execution of this just and necessary undertaking.
Sir William Yonge said, he wanted no inducement to concur with the honourable mover of the propositions, provided the latter could be fairly established, and no serious mischiefs were to arise from the abolition. But he was apprehensive that many evils might follow, in the case of any sudden or unlooked-for decrease in the slaves. They might be destroyed by hurricanes. They might be swept off by many fatal disorders. In these cases, the owners of them would not be able to fill up their places, and they who had lent money upon the lands, where the losses had happened, would foreclose their mortgages. He was fearful also that a clandestine trade would be carried on, and then the sufferings of the Africans, crammed up in small vessels, which would be obliged to be hovering about from day to day, to watch an opportunity of landing, would be ten times greater than any which they now experienced in the legal trade. He was glad, however, as the matter was to be discussed, that it had been brought forward in the shape of distinct propositions, to be grounded upon the evidence in the privy council report.
Mr. Fox observed, that he did not like, where he agreed as to the substance of a measure, to differ with respect to the form of it. If, however, he differed in any thing in the present case, it was with a view rather to forward the business than to injure it, or to throw any thing like an obstacle in its way. Nothing like either should come from him. What he thought was, that all the propositions were not necessary to be voted previously to the ultimate decision, though some of them undoubtedly were. He considered them as of two classes: the one, alleging the grounds upon which it was proper to proceed to the abolition; such as that the trade was productive of inexpressible misery, in various ways, to the innocent natives of Africa; that it was the grave of our seamen; and so on: the other, merely answering objections which might be started, and where there might be a difference of opinion. He was however glad that the propositions were likely to be entered upon the journals; since, if from any misfortune the business should be deferred, it might succeed another year. Sure he was that it could not fail to succeed sooner or later. He highly approved of what Mr. Pitt had said, relative to the language it became us to hold out to foreign powers in case of a clandestine trade. With respect, however, to the assertion of Sir William Yonge, that a clandestine trade in slaves would be worse than a legal one, he could not admit it. Such a trade, if it existed at all, ought only to be clandestine. A trade in human flesh and sinews was so scandalous, that it ought not openly to be carried on by any government whatever, and much less by that of a Christian country. With regard to the regulation of the Slave-trade, he knew of no such thing as a regulation of robbery and murder. There was no medium. The legislature must either abolish it, or plead guilty of all the wickedness which had been shown to attend it. He would now say a word or two with respect to the conduct of foreign nations on this subject. It was possible that these, when they heard that the matter had been discussed in that house, might follow the example, or they might go before us and set one themselves. If this were to happen, though we might be the losers, humanity would be the gainer. He himself had been thought sometimes to use expressions relative to France, which were too harsh, and as if he could only treat her as the enemy of this country. Politically speaking, France was our rival. But he well knew the distinction between political enmicy and illiberal prejudice. If there was any great and enlightened nation in Europe, it was France, which was as likely as any country upon the face of the globe to catch a spark from the light of our fire, and to act upon the present subject with warmth and enthusiasm. France had often been improperly stimulated by her ambition; and he had no doubt but that, in the present instance, she would readily follow its honourable dictates.
Mr. (now Lord) Grenville would not detain the house by going into a question, which had been so ably argued; but he should not do justice to his feelings, if he did not express publicly to his honourable friend, Mr. Wilberforce, the pleasure he had received from one of the most masterly and eloquent speeches he had ever heard,—a speech, which, while it did honour to him, entitled him to the thanks of the house, of the people of England, of all Europe, and of the latest posterity. He approved of the propositions, as the best mode of bringing this great question to a happy issue. He was pleased also with the language which had been held out with respect to foreign nations, and with our determination to assert our right of preventing our colonies from carrying on any trade, which we had thought it our duty to abandon.
Aldermen Newnham, Sawbridge, and Watson, though they wished well to the cause of humanity, could not, as representatives of the city of London, give their concurrence to a measure, which would injure it so essentially as that of the abolition of the Slave-trade. This trade might undoubtedly be put under wholesome regulations, and made productive of great commercial advantages. But, if it were abolished, it would render the city of London one scene of bankruptcy and ruin. It became the house to take care, while they were giving way to the goodness of their hearts, that they did not contribute to the ruin of the mercantile interests of their country.
Mr. Martin stated, that he was so well satisfied with the speech of the honourable gentleman, who had introduced the propositions, and with the language held out by other distinguished members on this subject, that he felt himself more proud than ever of being an Englishman. He hoped and believed, that the melancholy predictions of the worthy aldermen would not prove true, and that the citizens of London would have too much public spirit to wish that a great national object (which comprehended the great duties of humanity and justice) should be set aside, merely out of consideration to their own private interests.
Mr. Dempster expected, notwithstanding all he had heard, that the first proposition submitted to them, would have been to make good out of the public purse all the losses individuals were liable to sustain from an abolition of the Slave-trade. This ought to have been, as Lord Penrhyn had observed, a preliminary measure. He did not like to be generous out of the pockets of others. They were to abolish the trade, it was said, out of a principle of humanity. Undoubtedly they owed humanity to all mankind. But they also owed justice to those, who were interested in the event of the question, and had embarked their fortunes on the faith of parliament. In fact, he did not like to see men introducing even their schemes of benevolence to the detriment of other people; and much less did he like to see them going to the colonies, as it were upon their estates, and prescribing rules to them for their management. With respect to his own speculative opinion, as it regarded cultivation, he had no objection to give it. He was sure that sugar could be raised cheaper by free men than by slaves. This the practice in China abundantly proved. But yet neither he nor any other person had a right to force a system upon others. As to the trade itself, by which the present labourers were supplied, it had been considered by that house as so valuable, that they had preferred it to all others, and had annually voted a considerable sum towards carrying it on. They had hitherto deemed it an essential nursery for our seamen. Had it really been such as had been represented, our ancestors would scarcely have encouraged it; and therefore, upon these and other considerations, he could not help thinking that they would be wanting in their duty, if they abolished it altogether.
Mr. William Smith would not detain the house long at that late hour upon this important subject; but he could not help testifying the great satisfaction he felt at the manner, in which the honourable gentleman who opened the debate (if it could be so called) had treated it. He approved of the propositions as the best mode of bringing the decision to a happy issue. He gave Mr. Fox great credit for the open and manly way, in which he had manifested his abhorrence of this trade, and for the support he meant to give to the total and unqualified abolition of it; for he was satisfied, that the more it was inquired into, the more it would be found that nothing short of abolition would cure the evil. With respect to certain assertions of the members for Liverpool, and certain melancholy predictions about the consequences of such an event, which others had held out, he desired to lay in his claim for observation upon them, when the great question should come before the house.
Soon after this the house broke up; and the discussion of the propositions, which was the next parliamentary measure intended, was postponed to a future day, which was sufficiently distant to give all the parties concerned time to make the necessary preparations for it.
Of this interval the committee for the abolition availed themselves to thank Mr. Wilberforce for the very able and satisfactory manner, in which he had stated to the house his propositions for the abolition of the Slave-trade, and for the unparalleled assiduity and perseverance, with which he had all along endeavoured to accomplish this object, as well as to take measures themselves for the further promotion of it. Their opponents availed themselves of this interval also. But that, which now embarrassed them, was the evidence contained in the privy council report. They had no idea, considering the number of witnesses they had sent to be examined, that this evidence, when duly weighed, could be right reasoning have given birth to the sentiments, which had been displayed in the speeches of the most distinguished members of the House of Commons, or to the contents of the propositions, which had been laid upon their table. They were thunder-struck as it were by their own weakness; and from this time they were determined, if possible, to get rid of it as a standard for decision, or to interpose every parliamentary delay in their power.
On the twenty-first of May, the subject came again before the attention of the house. It was ushered in, as was expected, by petitions collected in the interim, and which were expressive of the frightful consequences, which would attend the abolition of the Slave-trade. Alderman Newnham presented one from certain merchants in London; Alderman Watson another from certain merchants, mortgagees, and creditors of the sugar-islands; Lord Maitland another from the planters of Antigua; Mr. Blackburne another from certain manufacturers of Manchester; Mr. Gascoyne another from the corporation of Liverpool; and Lord Penrhyn others from different interested bodies in the same town.
Mr. Wilberforce then moved the order of the day, for the house to go into a committee of the whole house on the report of the privy council, and the several matters of evidence already upon the table relative to the Slave-trade.
Mr. Alderman Sawbridge immediately arose, and asked Mr. Wilberforce, if he meant to adduce any other evidence, besides that in the privy council report, in behalf of his propositions, or to admit other witnesses, if such could be found, to invalidate them. Mr. Wilberforce replied, that he was quite satisfied with the report on the table. It would establish all his propositions. He should call no witnesses himself: as to permission to others to call them, that must be determined by the house.
This question and this answer gave birth immediately to great disputes upon the subject. Aldermen Sawbridge, Newnham, and Watson; Lords Penrhyn and Maitland; Mr. Gascoyne, Marsham, and others spoke against the admission of the evidence, which had been laid upon the table. They contended, that it was insufficient, defective, and contradictory; that it was ex parte evidence; that it had been manufactured by ministers; that it was founded chiefly on hearsay, and that the greatest part of it was false; that it had undergone no cross-examination; that it was unconstitutional; and that, if they admitted it, they would establish a dangerous precedent, and abandon their rights. It was urged on the other hand by Mr. Courtonay, that it could not be ex parte evidence, because it contained testimony on both sides of the question. The circumstance also of its being contradictory, which had been alleged against it, proved that it was the result of an impartial examination. Mr. Fox observed, that it was perfectly admissible. He called upon those, who took the other side of the question, to say why, if it was really inadmissible, they had not opposed it at first. It had now been a long time on the table, and no fault had been found with it. The truth was, it did not suit them, and they were determined by a side-wind as it were to put an end to the inquiry. Mr. Pitt observed that, if parliament had previously resolved to receive no evidence on a given subject but from the privy council, such a resolution indeed would strike at the root of the privileges of the House of Commons; but it was absurd to suppose that the house could upon no occasion receive evidence, taken where it was most convenient to take it, and subject throughout to new investigation, if any one doubted its validity. The report of the privy council consisted, first, of calculations and accounts from the public offices, and, next, of written documents on the subject; both of which were just as authentic, as if they had been laid upon the table of that house. The remaining part of it consisted of the testimony of living witnesses, all of whose names were published, so that if any one doubted their veracity, it was open to him to reexamine all or each of them. It had been said by adversaries that the report on the table was a weak and imperfect report, but would not these have the advantage of its weakness and imperfection? It was strange, when his honourable friend, Mr. Wilberforce, had said, “Weak and imperfect as the report may be thought to be, I think it strong enough to bear me out in all my propositions,” that they, who objected to it, should have no better reason to give than this, “We object, because the ground of evidence on which you rest is too weak to support your cause.” Unless it were meant to say (and the meaning seemed to be but thinly disguised) that the house ought to abandon the inquiry, he saw no reason whatever for not going immediately into a committee; and he wished gentlemen to consider whether it became the dignity of their proceedings to obstruct the progress of an inquiry, which the house had pledged itself to undertake. Their conduct indeed seemed extraordinary on this occasion. It was certainly singular that, while the report had been five weeks upon the table, no argument had been brought against its sufficiency; but that on the moment when the house was expected to come to an ultimate vote upon the subject, it should be thought defective, contradictory, unconstitutional, and otherwise objectionable. These objections, he was satisfied, neither did nor could originate with the country gentlemen; but they were brought forward, for purposes not now to be concealed, by the avowed enemies of this noble cause.
In the course of the discussion, which arose upon this subject, every opportunity was taken to impress the house with the dreadful consequences of the abolition. Mr. Henniker read a long letter from the King of Dahomey to George the First; which had been found among the papers of James, first Duke of Chandos, and which had remained in the family till that time. In this, the King of Dahomey boasted of his victory over the King of Ardrah, and how he had ornamented the pavement and walls of his palace with the heads of the vanquished. These cruelties, Mr. Henniker said, were not imputable to the Slave-trade. They showed the Africans to be naturally a savage people, and that we did them a great kindness by taking them from their country. Alderman Sawbridge maintained that, if the abolition passed, the Africans, who could not be sold as slaves, would be butchered at home; while those, who had been carried to our islands, would be no longer under control. Hence insurrections, and the manifold evils which belonged to them. Alderman Newnham was certain that the abolition would be the ruin of the trade of the country. It would affect even the landed interest, and the funds. It would be impossible to collect money to diminish the national debt. Every man in the kingdom would feel the abolition come home to him. Alderman Watson maintained the same argument, and pronounced the trade under discussion to be a merciful and humane trade.
Compensation was also insisted upon by Mr. Drake, Alderman Newnham, Mr. Henniker, Mr. Cruger, and others. This was resisted by Mr. Burke; who said that compensation in such a case would be contrary to every principle of legislation. Government gave encouragement to any branch of commerce, while it was regarded as conducive to the welfare of the community, or compatible with humanity and justice. But they were competent to withdraw their countenance from it, when it was found to be immoral, and injurious, and disgraceful to the state. They, who engaged in it, knew the terms under which they were placed, and adopted it with all the risks with which it was accompanied; and of consequence it was but just, that they should be prepared to abide by the loss which might accrue, when the public should think it right no longer to support it. But such a trade as this it was impossible any longer to support. Indeed it was not a trade. It was a system of robbery. It was a system, too, injurious to the welfare of other nations. How could Africa ever be civilized under it? While we continued to purchase the natives, they must remain in a state of barbarism. It was impossible to civilize slaves. It was contrary to the system of human nature. There was no country placed under such disadvantageous circumstances, into which the shadow of improvement had ever been introduced.
Great pains were taken to impress the house with the propriety of regulation. Sir Grey Cooper; Aldermen Sawbridge, Watson, and Newnham; Mr. Marsham, and Mr. Cruger, contended strenuously for it, instead of abolition. It was also stated that the merchants would consent to any regulation of the trade, which might be offered them.
In the course of the debate much warmth of temper was manifested on both sides. The expression of Mr. Fox in a former debate, “that the Slave-trade could not be regulated, because there could be no regulation of robbery and murder,” was brought up, and construed by planters in the house as a charge of these crimes upon themselves. Mr. Fox, however, would not retract the expression. He repeated it. He had no notion, however, that any individual would have taken it to himself. If it contained any reflection at all, it was on the whole parliament, who had sanctioned such a trade. Mr. Molyneux rose up, and animadverted severely on the character of Mr. Ramsay, one of the evidences in the privy council report, during his residence in the West Indies. This called up Sir William Dolben and Sir Charles Middleton in his defence, the latter of whom bore honourable testimony to his virtues from an intimate acquaintance with him, and a residence in the same village with him, for twenty years. Mr. Molyneux spoke also in angry terms of the measure of abolition. To annihilate the trade, he said, and to make no compensation on account of it, was an act of swindling. Mr. Macnamara called the measure hypocritical, fanatic, and methodistical. Mr. Pitt was so irritated at the insidious attempt to set aside the privy council report, when no complaint had been alleged against it before, that he was quite off his guard, and he thought it right afterwards to apologize for the warmth into which he had been betrayed. The Speaker too was obliged frequently to interfere. On this occasion no less than thirty members spoke. And there had probably been few seasons, when so much disorder had been discoverable in that house.
The result of the debate was, a permission to those interested in the continuance of the Slave-trade to bring counsel to the bar on the twenty-sixth of May, and then to introduce such witnesses, as might throw further light on the propositions in the shortest time: for Mr. Pitt only acquiesced in this new measure on a supposition, “that there would be no unnecessary delay, as he could by no means submit to the ultimate procrastination of so important a business.” He even hoped (and in this hope he was joined by Mr. Fox) that those concerned would endeavour to bring the whole of the evidence they meant to offer at the first examination.
On the day appointed, the house met for the purposes now specified; when Alderman Newnham, thinking that such an important question should not be decided but in a full assembly of the representatves of the nation, moved for a call of the house on that day fortnight. Mr. Wilberforce stated that he had no objection to such a measure; believing the greater the number present the more favourable it would be to his cause. This motion, however, produced a debate and a division, in which it appeared that there were one hundred and fifty-eight in favour of it, and twenty-eight against it. The business of the day now commenced. The house went into a committee, and Sir William Dolben was put into the chair. Mr. Serjeant Le Blanc was then called in. He made an able speech in behalf of his clients; and introduced John Barnes, esquire, as his first witness, whose examination took up the remainder of the day. By this step they, who were interested in the continuance of the trade, attained their wishes, for they had now got possession of the ground with their evidence; and they knew they could keep it, almost as long as they pleased, for the purposes of delay. Thus they, who boasted, when the privy council examinations began, that they would soon do away all the idle tales, which had been invented against them, and who desired the public only to suspend their judgment till the report should come out, when they would see the folly and wickedness of all our allegations, dared not abide by the evidence, which they themselves had taught others to look up to as the standard by which they were desirous of being judged: thus they, who had advantages beyond measure in forming a body of evidence in their own favour, abandoned that, which they had collected. And here it is impossible for me not to make a short comparative statement on this subject, if it were only to show how little can be made out, with the very best opportunities, against the cause of humanity and religion. With respect to ourselves, we had almost all our witnesses to seek. We had to travel after them for weeks together. When we found them, we had scarcely the power of choice. We were obliged to take them as they came. When we found them, too, we had generally to implore them to come forward in our behalf. Of those so implored three out of four refused, and the plea for this refusal was a fear lest they should injure their own interests. The merchants, on the other hand, had their witnesses ready on the spot. They had always ships in harbour containing persons, who had a knowledge of the subject. They had several also from whom to choose. If one man was favourable to their cause in three of the points belonging to it, but was unfavourable in the fourth, he could be put aside and replaced. When they had thus selected them, they had not to entreat, but to command, their attendance. They had no fear, again, when they thus commanded, of a refusal on the ground of interest; because these were promoting their interest by obliging those who employed them. Viewing these and other circumstances, which might be thrown into this comparative statement, it was some consolation to us to know, amidst the disappointment which this new measure occasioned, and our apparent defeat in the eyes of the public, that we had really beaten our opponents at their own weapons, and that, as this was a victory in our own private feelings, so it was the presage to us of a future triumph.
On the twenty-ninth of May, Mr. Tierney made a motion to divide the consideration of the Slave-trade into two heads, by separating the African from the West Indian part of the question. This he did for the more clear discussion of the propositions, as well as to save time. This motion, however, was overruled by Mr. Pitt.
At length, on the ninth of June, by which time it was supposed that new light, and this in sufficient quantity, would have been thrown upon the propositions, it appeared that only two witnesses had been fully heard. The examinations, therefore, were continued, and they went on till the twenty-third. On this day, the order for the call of the house, which had been prolonged, standing unrepealed, there was a large attendance of members. A motion was then made to get rid of the business altogether, but it failed. It was now seen, however, that it was impossible to bring the question to a final decision in this session, for they, who were interested in it, affirmed that they had yet many important witnesses to introduce. Alderman Newnham, therefore, by the consent of Mr. Wilberforce, moved, that “the further consideration of the subject be deferred to the next session.” On this occasion, Mr. William Smith remarked, that though the decision on the great question was thus to be adjourned, he hoped the examinations, at least, would be permitted to go on. He had not heard any good reason, why they might not be carried on for some weeks longer, It was known that the hearing of evidence was at all times thinly attended. If therefore the few members, who did attend, were willing to give up their time a little longer, why should other members complain of an inconvenience in the suffering of which they took no share? He thought that by this proceeding the examination of witnesses on the part of the merchants might be finished, and of consequence the business brought into a very desirable state of forwardness against the ensuing session. These observations had not the desired effect, and the motion of Mr. Alderman Newnham was carried without a division. Thus the great question, for the elucidation of which all the new evidences were to be heard at the very first examination, in order that it might be decided by the ninth of June, was by the intrigue of our opponents deferred to another year.
The order of the day for going into the further consideration of the Slave-trade having been discharged, Sir William Dolben rose to state, that it was his intention to renew his bill of the former year, relative to the conveyance of the unhappy Africans from their own country to the West Indies, and to propose certain alterations in it. He made a motion accordingly, which was adopted; and he and Mr. Wilberforce were desired to prepare the same.
This bill he introduced soon afterwards, and it passed; but not without opposition. It was a matter, however, of great pleasure to find that the worthy baronet was enabled by the assistance of Captain (afterwards Admiral) Macbride, and other naval officers in the house, to carry such clauses, as provided in some degree for the comfort of the poor seamen, who were seduced into this wicked trade. They could not indeed provide against the barbarity of their captains; but they secured them a space under the half deck in which to sleep. They prescribed a form of muster-rolls, which they were to see and sign in the presence of the clearing officer. They regulated their food both as to kind and quantity; and they preserved them from many of the impositions, to which they had been before exposed.
From the time when Mr. Wilberforce gave his first notice this session to the present, I had been variously employed, but more particularly in the composition of a new work. It was soon perceived to be the object of our opponents, to impress upon the public the preference of regulation to abolition. I attempted therefore to show the fallacy and wickedness of this notion. I divided the evils belonging to the Slave-trade into two kinds. These I enumerated in their order. With respect to those of the first kind, I proved that they were never to be remedied by any acts of the British parliament. Thus, for instance, what bill could alter the nature of the human passions? What bill could prevent fraud and violence in Africa, while the Slave-trade existed there? What bill could prevent the miserable victims of the trade from rising, when on board the ships, if they saw an opportunity, and felt a keen sense of their oppression? Those of the second I stated to admit of a remedy, and, after making accurate calculations on the subject of each, I showed that those merchants, who were to do them away effectually, would be ruined by their voyages. The work was called An Essay on the comparative Efficiency of Regulation or Abolition as applied to the Slave-trade.
The committee also in this interval brought out their famous print of the plan and section of a slave-ship; which was designed to give the spectator an idea of the sufferings of the Africans in the Middle Passage, and this so familiarly, that he might instantly pronounce upon the miseries experienced there. The committee at Plymouth had been the first to suggest the idea; but that in London had now improved it. As this print seemed to make an initantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it, and as it was therefore very instrumental, in consequence of the wide circulation given it, in serving the cause of the injured Africans, I have given the reader a copy of it in the annexed plate, and I will now state the ground or basis, upon which it was formed.
It must be obvious that it became the committee to select some one ship, which had been engaged in the Slave-trade, with her real dimensions, if they meant to make a fair representation of the manner of the transportation. When Captain Parrey, of the royal navy, returned from Liverpool, to which place Government had sent him, he brought with him the admeasurement of several vessels, which had been so employed, and laid them on the table of the House of Commons. At the top of his list stood the ship Brookes. The committee therefore, in choosing a vessel on this occasion, made use of the ship Brookes; and this they did, because they thought it less objectionable to take the first that came, than any other. The vessel then in the plate is the vessel now mentioned, and the following is her admeasurement as given in by Captain Parrey.
The committee, having proceeded thus far, thought that they should now allow certain dimensions for every man, woman, and child; and then see, how many persons, upon such dimensions and upon the admeasurements just given, could be stowed in this vessel. They allowed, accordingly, to every man slave six feet by one foot four inches for room, to every woman five feet by one foot four, to every boy five feet by one foot two, and to every girl four feet six by one foot. They then stowed them, and found them as in the annexed plate, that is, they found (deducting the women stowed in Z of figures 6 and 7, which spaces, being half of the half deck, were allowed by Sir William Dolben’s last bill to the seamen) that only four hundred and fifty could be stowed in her; and the reader will find, if he should think it worth while to count the figures in the plate, that, on making the deduction mentioned, they will amount to this number.
The committee then thought it right to inquire how many slaves the act of Sir William Dolben allowed this vessel to carry, and they found the number to be one hundred and fifty-four; that is, they found it allowed her to carry four more than could be put in without trespassing upon the room allotted to the rest; for we see that the bodies of the slaves, except just at the head of the vessel, already touch each other, and that no deduction has been made for tubs or stanchions to support the platforms and decks.
Such was the picture, which the committee were obliged to draw, if they regarded mathematical accuracy, of the room allotted to the slaves in this vessel. By this picture was exhbited the nature of the Elysium, which Mr. Norris and others had invonted for them during their transportation from their own country. By this picture were seen also the advantages of Sir William Dolben’s bill; for many, on looking at the plate, considered the regulation itself as perfect barbarism. The advantages however obtained by it were considerable; for the Brookes was now restricted to four hundred and fifty slaves, whereas it was proved that she carried six hundred and nine in a former voyage.
The committee, at the conclusion of the session of parliament, made a suitable report. It will be unnecessary to detail this for obvious reasons. There was, however, one thing contained in it, which ought not to be omitted. It stated, with appropriate concern, the death of the first controversial writer, and of one of the most able and indefatigable labourers, in their cause. Mr. Ramsay had been for some time indisposed. The climate of the West Indies, during a residence of twenty years, and the agitation in which his mind had been kept for the last four years of his life, in consequence of the virulent attacks on his word and character by those interested in the continuance of the trade, had contributed to undermine his constitution. During his whole illness he was cheerful and composed; nor did he allow it to hinder him, severe as it was, from taking any opportunity which offered of serving those unhappy persons, for whose injuries he had so deeply felt. A few days only before he died, I received from him probably the last letter he ever wrote, of which the following is an extract:
“My health has certainly taken a most alarming turn; and if some considerable alteration does not take place for the better in a very little time, it will be all over with me; I mean as to the present life. I have lost all appetite; and suffer grievously from an almost continual pain in my stomach, which leaves me no enjoyment of myself, but such as I can collect from my own reflections, and the comforts of religion. I am glad the bill for the abolition is in such forwardness. Whether it goes through the House or not, the discussion attending it will have a most beneficial effect. The whole of this business I think now to be in such a train, as to enable me to bid farewell to the present scene with the satisfaction of not having lived in vain, and of having done something towards the improvement of our common nature; and this at no little expense of time and reputation. The little I have now written is my utmost effort; yet yesterday I thought it necessary to write an answer to a scurrilous libel in The Diary by one Scipio. On my own account he should have remained unnoticed, but our great cause must be kept unsullied.”
Mr. Ramsay was a man of active habit, of diligence and perseverance in his undertakings, and of extraordinary application. He was of mild and humble manners. He possessed a strong understanding, with great coolness and courage. Patriotism and public spirit were striking traits in his character. In domestic life he was amiable: in the ministry, exemplary and useful; and he died to the great regret of his parishioners, but most of all to that of those, who moved with him in his attempts to bring about the important event of the abolition of the Slave-trade,
[* ]On the removal of Mr. Leigh from Norwich, Dr. Pretyman, precentor of Lincoln and a prebend of Norwich, succeeded him.