Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2
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CHAPTER II. - 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 July 1789 to July 1790—Author travels to Paris to promote the abolition in France—attends the committees of the Friends of the Negros—Counter attempts of the committee of White Colonists—An account of the deputies of Colour—Meeting at the Duke de la Rochefoucauld’s—Mirabeau espouses the cause—canvasses the National Assembly—Distribution of the section of the slave-ship there—Character of Brissot—Author leaves Paris and returns to England—Examination of merchants and planters’ evidence resumed in the House of Commons—Author travels in search of evidence in favour of the abolition—Opposition to the hearing of it—This evidence is at length introduced—Renewal of Sir William Dolben’s bill—Distribution of the section of the slave-ship in England—and of Cowper’s Negro’s Complaint—and of Wedgewood’s Cameos.
We usually find, as we give ourselves up to reflection, some little mitigation of the afflictions we experience; and yet of the evils which come upon us, some are often so heavy as to overpower the sources of consolation for a time, and to leave us wretched. This was nearly our situation at the close of the last session of parliament. It would be idle not to confess that circumstances had occurred, which wounded us deeply. Though we had foiled our opponents at their own weapons, and had experienced the uninterrupted good wishes and support of the public, we had the great mortification to see the enthusiasm of members of parliament beginning to cool; to see a question of humanity and justice (for such it was, when it was delivered into their hands) verging towards that of commercial calculation; and finally to see regulation, as it related to it, in the way of being substituted for abolition. But most of all were we affected, knowing as we did the nature and the extent of the sufferings belonging to the Slave-trade, that these should be continued to another year. This last consideration almost overpowered me. It had fallen to my lot, more than to that of any other person, to know these evils, and I seemed almost inconsolable at the postponement of the question. I wondered how members of parliament, and these Englishmen, could talk as they did on this subject; how they could bear for a moment to consider their fellowman as an article of trade; and how they should not count even the delay of an hour, which occasioned so much misery to continue, as one of the most criminal actions of their lives.
It was in vain, however, to sink under our burthens. Grief could do no good; and if our affairs had taken an unfavourable turn, the question was, how to restore them. It was sufficiently obvious that, if our opponents were left to themselves, or, without any counteracting evidence, they would considerably soften down the propositions, if not invalidate them in the minds of many. They had such a power of selection of witnesses, that they could bring men forward, who might say with truth, that they had seen but very few of the evils complained of, and these in an inferior degree. We knew also from the example of the Liverpool delegates, how interest and prejudice could blind the eyes, and how others might be called upon to give their testimony, who would dwell upon the comforts of the Africans, when they came into our power; on the sprinkling of their apartments with frankincense; on the promotion of music and the dance among them; and on the health and festivity of their voyages. It seemed therefore necessary, that we should again be looking out for evidence on the part of the abolition. Nor did it seem to me to be unreasonable, if our opponents were allowed to come forward in a new way, because it was more constitutional, that we should be allowed the same privilege. By these means the evidence, of which we had now lost the use, might be restored; indifference might be fanned into warmth; commercial calculation might be overpowered by justice; and abolition, rising above the reach of the cry of regulation, might eventually triumph.
I communicated my ideas to the committee, and offered to go round the kingdom to accomplish this object. The committee had themselves been considering what measures to take, and as each in his own mind had come to conclusions similar with my own, my proposal was no sooner made, than adopted.
I had not been long upon this journey, when I was called back. Mr. Wilberforce, always solicitous for the good of this great cause, was of opinion, that, as commotions had taken place in France, which then aimed at political reforms, it was possible that the leading persons concerned in them might, if an application were made to them judiciously, be induced to take the Slave-trade into their consideration, and incorporate it among the abuses to be done away. Such a measure, if realized, would not only lessen the quantity of human suffering, but annihilate a powerful political argument against us. He had a conference therefore with the committee on this subject; and, as they accorded with his opinion, they united with him in writing a letter to me, to know if I would change my journey, and proceed to France.
As I had no object in view but the good of the cause, it was immaterial to me where I went, if I could but serve it; and therefore, without any further delay, I returned to London.
As accounts had arrived in England of the excesses which had taken place in the city of Paris, and of the agitated state of the provinces, through which I was to pass, I was desired by several of my friends to change my name. To this I could not consent; and, on consulting the committee, they were decidedly against it.
I was introduced as quickly as possible, on my arrival at Paris, to the friends of the cause there, to the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, the Marquis de Condorcet, Messieurs Petion de Villeneuve, Claviere, and Brissot, and to the Marquis de la Fayette. The latter received me with peculiar marks of attention. He had long felt for the wrongs of Africa, and had done much to prevent them. He had a plantation in Cayenne, and had devised a plan, by which the labourers upon it should pass by degrees from slavery to freedom. With this view he had there laid it down as a principle, that all crimes were equal, whether they were committed by Blacks or Whites, and ought equally to be punished. As the human mind is of such a nature, as to be acted upon by rewards as well as punishments, he thought it unreasonable, that the slaves should have no advantage from a stimulus from the former. He laid it down therefore as another principle, that temporal profits should follow virtuous action. To this he subjoined a reasonable education to be gradually given. By introducing such principles, and by making various regulations for the protection and comforts of the slaves, he thought he could prove to the planters, that there was no necessity for the Slave-trade; that the slaves upon all their estates would increase sufficiently by population; that they might be introduced gradually, and without detriment, to a state of freedom; and that then the real interests of all would be most promoted. This system he had begun to act upon two years before I saw him. He had also, when the society was established in Paris, which took the name of The Friends of the Negros, enrolled himself a member of it.
The first public steps taken after my arrival in Paris were at a committee of the Friends of the Negros, which was but thinly attended. None of those mentioned, except Brissot, were present. It was resolved there, that the committee should solicit an audience of Mr. Necker; and that I should wait upon him, accompanied by a deputation consisting of the Marquis de Condorcet, Monsieur de Bourge, and Brissot de Warwille: Secondly, that the committee should write to the president of the National Assembly, and request the favour of him to appoint a day for hearing the cause of the Negros; and, Thirdly, that it should be recommended to the committee in London to draw up a petition to the National Assembly of France, praying for the abolition of the Slave-trade by that country. This petition, it was observed, was to be signed by as great a number of the friends to the cause in England, as could be procured. It was then to be sent to the committee at Paris, who would take it in a body to the place of its destination.
I found great delicacy as a stranger in making my observations upon these resolutions, and yet I thought I ought not to pass them over wholly in silence, but particularly the last. I therefore rose up, and stated that there was one resolution, of which I did not quite see the propriety. But this might arise from my ignorance of the customs, as well as of the genius and spirit of the French people. It struck me that an application from a little committee in England to the National Assembly of France was not a dignified measure, nor was it likely to have weight with such a body. It was, besides, contrary to all the habits of propriety, in which I had been educated. The British Parliament did not usually receive petitions from the subjects of other nations. It was this feeling, which had induced me thus to speak.
To these observations it was replied, that the National Assembly of France would glory in going contrary to the example of other nations in a case of generosity and justice, and that the petition in question, if it could be obtained, would have an influence there, which the people of England, unacquainted with the sentiments of the French nation, would hardly credit.
To this I had only to reply, that I would communicate the measure to the committee in London, but that I could not be answerable for the part they would take in it.
By an answer received from Mr. Necker, relative to the first of these resolutions, it appeared that the desired interview had been obtained: but he granted it only for a few minutes, and this principally to show his good will to the cause. For he was then so oppressed with business in his own department, that he had but little time for any other. He wrote to me however the next day, and desired my company to dinner. He then expressed a wish to me, that any business relative to the Slave-trade might be managed by ourselves as individuals, and that I would take the opportunity of dining with him occasionally for this purpose. By this plan, he said, both of us would save time. Madame Necker also promised to represent her husband, if I should call in his absence, and to receive me, and converse with me on all occasions, in which this great cause of humanity and religion might be concerned.
With respect to the other resolutions nothing ever came of them; for we waited daily for an answer from the president during the whole of his presidency, but we never received any; and the committee in London, when they had read my letter, desired me unequivocally to say, that they did not see the propriety of the petition, which it had been recommended to them to obtain.
At the next meeting it was resolved, that a letter should be written to the new president for the same purpose as the former. This, it was said, was now rendered essentially necessary. For the merchants, planters, and others interested in the continuance of the Slave-trade, were so alarmed at the enthusiasm of the French people, in favour of the new order of things, and of any change recommended to them, which had the appearance of promoting the cause of liberty, that they held daily committees to watch and to thwart the motions of the Friends of the Negros. It was therefore thought proper, that the appeal to the Assembly should be immediate on this subject, before the feelings of the people should cool, or, before they, who were thus interested, should poison their minds by calculations of loss and gain. The silence of the former president was already attributed to the intrigues of the planters’ committee. No time therefore was to be lost. The letter was accordingly written, but as no answer was ever returned to it, they attributed this second omission to the same cause.
I do not really know whether interested persons ever did, as was suspected, intercept the letters of the committee to the two presidents as now surmised; or whether they ever dissuaded them from introducing so important a question for discussion when the nation was in such a heated state; but certain it is that we had many, and I believe barbarous, enemies to encounter. At the very next meeting of the committee, Claviere produced anonymous letters, which he had received, and in which it was stated that, if the society of the Friends of the Negros did not dissolve itself, he and the rest of them would be stabbed. It was said that no less than three hundred persons had associated themselves for this purpose. I had received similar letters myself; and on producing mine, and comparing the hand-writing in both, it appeared that the same persons had written them.
In a few days after this the public prints were filled with the most malicious representations of the views of the committee. One of them was, that they were going to send twelve thousand muskets to the Negros in St. Domingo, in order to promote an insurrection there. This declaration was so industriously circulated, that a guard of soldiers was sent to search the committee-room; but these were soon satisfied, when they found only two or three books and some waste paper. Reports equally unfounded and wicked were spread also in the same papers relative to myself. My name was mentioned at full length, and the place of my abode hinted at. It was stated at one time, that I had proposed such wild and mischievous plans to the committee in London relative to the abolition of the Slave-trade, that they had cast me out of their own body, and that I had taken refuge in Paris, where I now tried to impose equally on the French nation. It was stated at another, that I was employed by the British government as a spy, and that it was my object to try to undermine the noble constitution, which was then forming for France. This latter report at this particular time, when the passions of men were so inflamed, and when the stones of Paris had not been long purified from the blood of Foulon and Berthier, might have cost me my life; and I mentioned it to General la Fayette, and solicited his advice. He desired me to make a public reply to it: which I did. He desired me also to change my lodging to the Hotel de York, that I might be nearer to him; and to send to him if there should be any appearance of a collection of people about the hotel, and I should have aid from the military in his quarter. He said also, that he would immediately give in my name to the Municipality; and that he would pledge himself to them, that my views were strictly honourable.
On dining one day at the house of the Marquis de la Fayette, I met the deputies of Colour. They had arrived only the preceding day from St. Domingo. I was desired to take my seat at dinner in the midst of them. They were six in number; of a sallow or swarthy complexion, but yet it was not darker than that of some of the natives of the south of France. They were already in the uniform of the Parisian National Guards; and one of them wore the cross of St. Louis. They were men of genteel appearance and modest behaviour. They seemed to be well informed, and of a more solid cast than those, whom I was in the habit of seeing daily in this city. The account which they gave of themselves was this. The White People of St. Domingo, consisting of less than ten thousand persons, had deputies then sitting in the National Assembly. The People of Colour in the same island greatly exceeded the Whites in number. They amounted to thirty thousand, and were generally proprietors of lands. They were equally free by law with the former, and paid their taxes to the mother-country in an equal proportion. But in consequence of having sprung from slaves they had no legislative power, and moreover were treated with great contempt. Believing that the mother-country was going to make a change in its political constitution, they had called a meeting on the island, and this meeting had deputed them to repair to France, and to desire the full rights of citizens, or that the free People of Colour might be put upon an equality with the Whites. They (the deputies) had come in consequence. They had brought with them a present of six millions of livres to the National Assembly, and an appointment to General la Fayette to be commander in chief over their constituents, as a distinct body. This command, they said, the General had accepted, though he had declined similar honours from every town in France, except Paris, in order to show that he patronised their cause.
I was now very anxious to know the sentiments which these gentlemen entertained on the subject of the Slave-trade. If they were with us, they might be very useful to us; not only by their votes in the Assembly, but by the knowledge of facts, which they would be able to adduce there in our favour. If they were against us, it became me to be upon my guard against them, and to take measures accordingly. I therefore stated to them at once the nature of my errand to France, and desired their opinion upon it. This they gave me without reserve. They broke out into lavish commendations of my conduct, and called me their friend. The Slave-trade, they said, was the parent of all the miseries in St. Domingo, not only on account of the cruel treatment it occasioned to the slaves, but on account of the discord which it constantly kept up between the Whites and People of Colour, in consequence of the hateful distinctions it introduced. These distinctions could never be obliterated while it lasted. Indeed both the trade and the slavery must fall before the infamy, now fixed upon a skin of colour, could be so done away, that Whites and Blacks could meet cordially, and look with respect upon one another. They had it in their instructions, in case they should obtain a seat in the Assembly, to propose an immediate abolition of the Slave-trade, and an immediate amelioration of the state of slavery also, with a view to its final abolition in fifteen years.
But time was flying apace, I had now been nearly seven weeks in Paris; and had done nothing. The thought of this made me uneasy, and I saw no consoling prospect before me. I found it even difficult to obtain a meeting of the Friends of the Negros. The Marquis de la Fayette had no time to attend. Those of the committee, who were members of the National Assembly, were almost constantly engaged at Versailles. Such of them as belonged to the Municipality, had enough to do at the Hotel de Ville. Others were employed either in learning the use of arms, or in keeping their daily and nightly guards. These circumstances made me almost despair of doing any thing for the cause at Paris, at least in any reasonable time. But a new circumstance occurred, which distressed me greatly; for I discovered, in the most satisfactory manner, that two out of the six at the last committee were spies. They had come into the society for no other reason, than to watch and report its motions, and they were in direct correspondence with the slave-merchants at Havre de Grace. This matter I brought home to them afterwards, and I had the pleasure of seeing them excluded from all our future meetings.
From this time I thought it expedient to depend less upon the committee and more upon my own exertions, and I formed the resolution of going among the members of the National Assembly myself, and of learning from their own mouths the hope I ought to entertain relative to the decision of our question. In the course of my endeavours I obtained a promise from the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, the Comte de Mirabeau, the Abbé Syeyes, Monsieur Bergasse, and Monsieur Petion de Villeneuve, five of the most approved members of the National Assembly, that they would meet me, if I would fix a day. I obtained a similar promise from the Marquis de Condorcet, and Claviere and Brissot, as members selected from the committee of the Friends of the Negros. And Messieurs de Roveray and Du Monde, two Genevese gentlemen at Versailles, men of considerable knowledge and interest, and who had heard of our intended meeting, were to join us at their own request. The place chosen was the house of the Bishop of Chartres at Versailles.
I was now in hope that I should soon bring the question to some issue; and on the fourth of October I went to dine with the Bishop of Chartres to fix the day. We appointed the seventh. But how soon, frequently, do our prospects fade! From the conversation which took place at dinner, I began to fear that our meeting would not be realized. About three days before, the officers of the Guard du Corps had given the memorable banquet, recorded in the annals of the revolution, to the officers of the regiment of Flanders which then lay at Versailles. This was a topic, on which the company present dwelt. They condemned it as a most fatal measure in these heated times; and were apprehensive, that something would grow immediately out of it, which might endanger the King’s safety. In passing afterwards through the streets of Versailles my fears increased. I met several of that regiment in groups. Some were brandishing their swords. Others were walking arm in arm and singing tumultuously. Others were standing and conversing earnestly together. Among the latter I heard one declare with great vehemence, “that it should not be; that the revolution must go on.” On my arrival at Paris in the evening the Palais Royale was full of people, and there were movements and buzzings among them, as if something was expected to happen. The next day, when I went into the streets it was obvious what was going to take place. Suffice it to say, that the next evening the King and Queen were brought prisoners into Paris. After this, things were in such an unsettled state for a few days, and the members of the National Assembly were so occupied in the consideration of the event itself, and of the consequences which might attend it, that my little meeting, of which it had cost me so much time and trouble to procure the appointment, was entirely prevented.
I had now to wait patiently till a new opportunity should occur. The Comte de Mirabeau, before the departure of the King, had moved and carried the resolution that “the Assembly was inseparable from his majesty’s person.” It was expected, therefore, that the National Assembly would immediately transfer its sittings to Paris. This took place on the nineteenth. It was now more easy for me to bring persons together, than when I had to travel backward and forward to Versailles. Accordingly, by watching my opportunities, I obtained the promise of another meeting. This was held afterward at the Duke de la Rochefoucauld’s. The persons before mentioned were present; except the Comte de Mirabeau, whose occupations at that moment made it utterly impossible for him to attend.
The Duke opened the business in an appropriate manner; and concluded, by desiring each person to give his opinion frankly and unequivocally as to what might be expected of the National Assembly relative to the great measure of the abolition of the Slave-trade.
The Abbé Syeyes rose up, and said, it would probably bring the business within a shorter compass, if, instead of discussing this proposition at large, I were to put to the meeting my own questions. I accordingly accepted this offer; and began by asking those present, “how long it was likely that the present National Assembly would sit.” After some conversation it was replied, that, “it would sit till it had completed the constitution, and interwoven such fixed principles into it, that the legislature, which should succeed it, might have nothing more to do, than to proceed on the ordinary business of the state. Its dissolution would probably not take place till the month of March.”
I then asked them, “whether it was their opinion, that the National Assembly would feel itself authorized to take up such a foreign question (if I might be allowed the expression) as that of the abolition of the Slave-trade.” The answer to this was, “that the object of the National Assembly was undoubtedly the formation of a constitution for the French people. With respect to foreign possessions, it was very doubtful, whether it were the real interest of France to have any colonies at all. But while it kept such colonies under its dominion, the Assembly would feel, that it had the right to take up this question; and that the question itself would naturally spring out of the bill of rights, which had already been adopted as the basis of the constitution.”
The next question I proposed was, “whether they were of opinion, that the National Assembly would do more wisely, in the present situation of things, to determine upon the abolition of the Slave-trade now, or to transfer it to the legislature, which was to succeed it in the month of March.”
This question gave birth to a long discussion; during which much eloquence was displayed. But the unanimous answer, with the reasons for it, may be conveyed in substance as follows. “It would be most wise, it was said, in the present Assembly to introduce the question to the notice of the nation, and this as essentially connected with the bill of rights, but to transfer the determination of it, in a way the best calculated to ensure success, to the succeeding legislature. The revolution was of more importance to Frenchmen, than the abolition of the Slave-trade. To secure this was their first object, and more particularly, because the other would naturally flow from it. But the revolution might be injured by the immediate determination of the question. Many persons in the large towns of Bourdeaux, Marseilles, Rouen, Nantes, and Havre, who were now friends to it, might be converted into enemies. It would also be held up by those, who wished to produce a counter-revolution, (and the ignorant and prejudiced might believe it,) that the Assembly had made a great sacrifice to England, by thus giving her an opportunity of enlarging her trade. The English House of Commons had taken up the subject, but had done nothing. And though they, who were then present, were convinced of the sincerity of the English minister, who had introduced it; and that the trade must ultimately fall in England, yet it would not be easy to persuade many bigoted persons in France of these truths. It would therefore be most wise in the Assembly only to introduce the subject as mentioned; but if extraordinary circumstances should arise, such as a decree, that the deputies of Colour should take their seats in the Assembly, or that England should have begun this great work, advantage might be taken of them, and the abolition of the Slave-trade might be resolved upon in the present session.”
The last question I proposed was this, “If the determination of this great question should be proposed to the next legislature, would it be more difficult to carry it then than now.”
This question also produced much conversation. But the answer was unanimous, “that there would be no greater difficulty in the one than in the other case; for that the people would daily, more and more admire their constitution; that this constitution would go down to the next legislature, from whence would issue solid and fixed principles, which would be resorted to as a standard for decision on all occasions. Hence the Slave-trade, which would be adjudged by it also, could not possibly stand. Add to which, that the most virtuous members in the present would be chosen into the new legislature, which, if the constitution were but once fairly established, would not regard the murmurs of any town or province.” After this, a desultory conversation took place, in which some were of opinion that it would be proper, on the introduction of the subject into the Assembly, to move for a committee of inquiry, which should collect facts and documents against the time, when it should be taken up with a view to its final discussion.
As it now appeared to me, that nothing material would be done with respect to our cause till after the election of the new legislature, I had thoughts of returning to England to resume my journey in quest of evidence; but I judged it right to communicate first with the Comte de Mirabeau and the Marquis de la Fayette, both of whom would have attended the meeting just mentioned, if unforeseen circumstances had not prevented them.
On conversing with the first, I found that he differed from those, whom I had consulted. He thought that the question, on account of the nature and urgency of it, ought to be decided in the present legislature. This was so much his opinion, that he had made a determination to introduce it there himself; and had been preparing for his motion. He had already drawn up the outlines of a speech for the purpose; but was in want of circumstantial knowledge to complete it. With this knowledge he desired me to furnish him. He then put his speech into my hand; and wished me to take it home and peruse it. He wrote down also some questions, and he gave them to me directly afterwards, and begged I would answer them at my leisure.
On conversing with the latter, he said, that he believed with those at the meeting, that there would be no greater difficulty in carrying the question in the succeeding than in the present legislature. But this consideration afforded an argument for the immediate discussion of it: for it would make a considerable difference to suffering humanity, whether it were to be decided now or then. This was the moment to be taken to introduce it; nor did he think that they ought to be deterred from doing it, by any supposed clamours from some of the towns in France. The great body of the people admired the constitution; and would support any decisions, which were made in strict conformity to its principles. With respect to any committee of inquiry, he deprecated it. The Slave-trade, he said, was not a trade. It dishonoured the name of commerce. It was piracy. But if so, the question, which it involved, was a question of justice only; and it could not be decided with propriety by any other standard.” I then informed him, that the Comte de Mirabeau had undertaken to introduce it into the Assembly. At this he expressed his uneasiness. “Mirabeau,” says he, “is a host in himself; and I should not be surprised if by his own eloquence and popularity only he were to carry it; and yet I regret that he has taken the lead in it. The cause is so lovely, that even ambition, abstractedly considered, is too impure to take it under its protection, and not to sully it. It should have been placed in the hands of the most virtuous man in France. This man is the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. But you cannot alter things now. You cannot take it out of his hands. I am sure he will be second to no one on this occasion.”
On my return to my hotel, I perused the outlines of the speech, which the Comte de Mirabeau had lent me. It afforded a masterly knowledge of the evils of the trade, as drawn from reason only. It was put together in the most striking and affecting manner. It contained an almost irresistible appeal to his auditors by frequent references to the ancient system of things in France, and to their situation and prospects under the new. It flowed at first gently like a river in a level country; but it grew afterwards into a mountain torrent, and carried every thing before it. On looking at the questions, which he had written down for me, I found them cousist of three. 1. What are the different ways of reducing to slavery the inhabitants of that part of Africa, which is under the dominion of France? 2. What is the state of society there with respect to government, industry, and the arts? 3. What are the various evils belonging to the transportation of the Africans from their own country?
It was peculiarly agreeable to me to find, on reading the first two questions, that I had formed an acquaintance with Monsieur Geoffroy de Villeneuve, who had been aide du camp to the Chevalier de Boufflers at Goree; but who was then at his father’s house in Paris. This gentleman had entertained Dr. Spaarman and Mr. Wadstrom; and had accompanied them up the Senegal, when under the protection of the French government in Africa. He had confirmed to me the testimony, which they had given before the privy council. But he had a fund of information on this subject, which went far beyond what these possessed, or I had ever yet collected from books or men. He had travelled all over the kingdom of Cayor on foot; and had made a map of it. His information was so important, that I had been with him for almost days together to take it down. I determined therefore to arrange the facts, which I had obtained from him, of which I had now a volume, that I might answer the two first questions, which had been proposed to me; for it was of great importance to the Comte de Mirabeau, that he should be able to appeal, in behalf of the statements in his speech to the Assembly, to an evidence on the spot.
In the course of my correspondence with the Comte, which continued with but little intermission for six weeks, many circumstances took place, which were connected with the cause, and which I shall now detail in their order.
On waiting upon Mr. Necker, at his own request, he gave me the pleasing intelligence, that the committee of finances, which was then composed of members of the National Assembly, had resolved, though they had not yet promulgated their resolution, upon a total abolition of all the bounties then in existence in favour of the Slave-trade.
The Deputies of Colour now began to visit me at my own hotel. They informed me, that they had been admitted, since they had seen me, into the National Assembly. On stating their claims, the president assured them, that they might take courage; for that the Assembly knew no distinction between Blacks and Whites, but considered all men as having equal rights. This speech of the president, they said, had roused all the White Colonists in Paris. Some of these had openly insulted them. They had held also a meeting on the subject of this speech; at which they had worked themselves up so as to become quite furious. Nothing but intrigue was now going forward among them to put off the consideration of the claims of the free People of Colour. They, the deputies, had been flattered by the prospect of a hearing no less than six times; and, when the day arrived, something had constantly occurred to prevent it.
At a subsequent interview, they appeared to be quite disheartened; and to be grievously disappointed as to the object of their mission. They were now sure, that they should never be able to make head against the intrigues and plots of the White Colonists. Day after day had been fixed as before for the hearing of their cause. Day after day it had been deferred in like manner. They were now weary with waiting. One of them, Ogé, could not contain himself, but broke out with great warmth—“I begin,” says he, “not to care, whether the National Assembly will admit us or not. But let it beware of the consequences. We will no longer continue to be beheld in a degraded light. Dispatches shall go directly to St. Domingo; and we will soon follow them. We can produce as good soldiers on our estates, as those in France. Our own arms shall make us independent and respectable. If we are once forced to desperate measures, it will be in vain that thousands will be sent across the Atlantic to bring us back to our former state.” On hearing this, I entreated the deputies to wait with patience. I observed to them, that in a great revolution, like that of France, things, but more particularly such as might be thought external, could not be discussed either so soon or so rapidly as men full of enthusiasm would wish. France would first take care of herself. She would then, I had no doubt, extend her care to her Colonies. Was not this a reasonable conclusion, when they, the deputies, had almost all the first men in the Assembly in their favour? I entreated them therefore to wait patiently; as well as upon another consideration, which was, that by an imprudent conduct they might not only ruin their own cause in France, but bring indescribable misery upon their native land.
By this time a large packet, for which I had sent from England, arrived. It consisted of above a thousand of the plan and section of a slave-ship, with an explanation in French. It contained also about five hundred coloured engravings, made from two views, which Mr. Wadstrom had taken in Africa. The first of these represented the town of Joal, and the King’s military on horseback returning to it, after having executed the great pillage, with their slaves. The other represented the village of Bain; from whence ruffians were forcing a poor woman and her children to sell them to a ship, which was then lying in the Roads. Both these scenes Mr. Wadstrom had witnessed. I had collected also by this time, one thousand of my Essays on the Impolicy of the Slave-trade, which had been translated into the French language. These I now wished to distribute, as preparatory to the motion of Mirabeau, among the National Assembly. This distribution was afterwards undertaken and effected by the Archbishop of Aix, the Bishop of Chartres, the Marquis de la Fayette, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, the Comte de Mirabeau, Monsieur Necker, the Marquis de Condorcet, Messieurs Petion de Villeneuve, Bergasse, Claviere and Brissot, and by the Marchioness de la Fayette, Madame Necker, and Madame de Poivre, the latter of whom was the widow of the late Intendant of the Isle of France.
This distribution had not been long begun, before I witnessed its effects. The virtuous Abbé Gregoire, and several members of the National Assembly, called upon me. The section of the slave-ship, it appeared, had been the means of drawing them towards me. They wished for more accurate information concerning it. Indeed it made its impression upon all who saw it. The Bishop of Chartres once told me, that, when he first espoused our cause, he did it at once; for it seemed obvious to him that no one could, under the Christian dispensation, hold another as his slave; and it was no less obvious, where such an unnatural state existed, that there would be great abuses; but that, nevertheless, he had not given credit to all the tales which had been related of the Slave-trade, till he had seen this plate; after which there was nothing so barbarous which might nor readily be believed. The Archbishop of Aix, when I first showed him the same plate, was so struck with horror, that he could scarcely speak: and when Mirabeau first saw it, he was so impressed by it, that he ordered a mechanic to make a model of it in wood, at a considerable expense. This model he kept afterwards in his dining-room. It was a ship in miniature, about a yard long, and little wooden men and women, which were painted black to represent the slaves, were seen stowed in their proper places.
But while the distribution of these different articles thus contributed to make us many friends, it called forth the extraordinary exertions of our enemies. The merchants and others interested in the continuance of the Slave-trade wrote letters to the Archbishop of Aix, beseeching him not to ruin France; which he would inevitably do, if, as then president, he were to grant a day for hearing the question of the abolition. Offers of money were made to Mirabeau from the same quarter, if he would totally abandon his motion. An attempt was made to establish a colonial committee, consisting of such planters as were members of the National Assembly; upon whom it should devolve to consider and report upon all matters relating to the Colonies, before they could be determined there. Books were circulated in abundance in opposition to mine. Resort was again had to the public papers, as the means of raising a hue and cry against the principles of the Friends of the Negros. I was again denounced as a spy; and as one sent by the English minister to bribe members in the Assembly to do that in a time of public agitation, which in the settled state of France they could never have been prevailed upon to accomplish. And as a proof that this was my errand, it was requested of every Frenchman to put to himself the following question, “How it happened that England, which had considered the subject coolly and deliberately for eighteen months, and this in a state of internal peace and quietness, had not abolished the Slave-trade?”
The clamour which was now made against the abolition, pervaded all Paris, and reached the ears of the King. Mr. Necker had a long conversation with him upon it. The latter sent for me immediately. He informed me, that His Majesty was desirous of making himself master of the question, and had expressed a wish to see my Essay on the Impolicy of the Slave-trade. He desired to have two copies of it; one in French, and the other in English; and he would then take his choice as to which of them he would read. He (Mr. Necker) was to present them. He would take with him also at the same time the beautiful specimens of the manufactures of the Africans, which I had lent to Madame Necker out of the cabinet of Monsieur Geoffroy de Villeneuve and others. As to the section of the slave-ship, he thought it would affect His Majesty too much, as he was then indisposed. All these articles, except the latter, were at length presented. The King bestowed a good deal of time upon the specimens. He admired them; but particularly those in gold. He expressed his surprise at the state of some of the arts in Africa. He sent them back on the same day on which he had examined them, and commissioned Mr. Necker to return me his thanks; and to say that he had been highly gratified with what he had seen; and, with respect to the Essay on the Impolicy of the Slave-trade, that he would read it with all the seriousness, which such a subject deserved.
My correspondence with the Comte de Mirabeau was now drawing near to its close. I had sent him a letter every other day for a whole month, which contained from sixteen to twenty pages. He usually acknowledged the receipt of each. Hence many of his letters came into my possession. These were always interesting, on account of the richness of the expressions they contained. Mirabeau even in his ordinary discourse was eloquent. It was his peculiar talent to use such words, that they who heard them, were almost led to believe, that he had taken great pains to cull them for the occasion. But this his ordinary language was the language also of his letters; and as they show a power of expression, by which the reader may judge of the character of the eloquence of one, who was then undoubtedly the greatest orator in France, I have thought it not improper to submit one of them to his perusal in the annexed note* . I could have wished, as far as it relates to myself, that it had been less complimentary. It must be observed, however, that I had already written to him more than two hundred pages with my own hand; and as this was done at no small expense, time and trouble, and solely to qualify him for the office of doing good, he could not but set some value upon my labours.
When our correspondence was over, I had some conversation with him relative to fixing a day for the motion. But he judged it prudent, previously to this, to sound some of the members of the Assembly on the subject of it. This he did; but he was greatly disappointed at the result. There was not one member, out of all those, with whom he conversed, who had not been canvassed by the planters’ committee. And though most of them had been proof against all its intrigues and artifices, yet many of them hesitated respecting the abolition at that moment. There was a fear in some that they should injure the revolution by adopting it; others, who had no such fears, wished for the concurrence of England in the measure, and suggested the propriety of a deputation there for that purpose previously to the discussion of the question in France. While others maintained, that as England had done nothing, after having had it so long under consideration, it was fair to presume, that she judged it impolitic to abandon the Slave-trade; but if France were to give it up, and England to continue it, how would humanity be the gainer?
While the Comte de Mirabeau was continuing his canvass among the members of the National Assembly, relative to his motion, attempts were again made in the public papers to mislead them. Emancipation was now stated to be the object of the Friends of the Negros. This charge I repelled, by addressing myself to Monsieur Beauvet. I explained to him the views of the different societies, which had taken up the cause of the Africans; and I desired him to show my letter to the planters. I was obliged also to answer publicly a letter by Monsieur Mosneron de Laung. This writer professed to detail the substance of the privy council report. He had the injustice to assert, that three things had been distinctly proved there: First, that slavery had always existed in Africa; Secondly, that the natives were a bloody people, addicted to human sacrifice, and other barbarous customs; and, Thirdly, that their soil was incapable of producing any proper articles for commerce. From these premises he argued, as if they had been established by the unanimous and uncontradicted testimony of the witnesses; and he drew the conclusion, that not only had England done nothing in consequence, but that she never would do anything, which should affect the existence of this trade.
But these letters had only just made their appearance in the public papers, when I was summoned to England. Parliament, it appeared, had met; and I was immediately to leave Paris. Among those, of whom I had but just time to take leave, were the Deputies of Colour. At this, my last conference with them, I recommended moderation and forbearance, as the best gifts I could leave them; and I entreated them rather to give up their seats in the Assembly, than on that account to bring misery on their country; for that with patience their cause would ultimately triumph. They replied, that I had prescribed to them a most difficult task. They were afraid that neither the conduct of the White Colonists nor of the National Assembly could be much longer borne. They thanked me, however, for my advice. One of them gave me a trinket, by which I might remember him; and as for himself, he said, he should never forget one, who had taken such a deep interest in the welfare of his mother* . I found, however, notwithstanding all I said, that there was a spirit of dissatisfaction in them, which nothing but a redress of their grievances could subdue; and that, if the planters should persevere in their intrigues, and the National Assembly in delay, a fire would be lighted up in St. Domingo, which could not easily be extinguished. This was afterward realized: for Ogé, in about three months from this time, left his companions to report to his constituents in St. Domingo the state of their mission; when hearing, on his arrival in that island, of the outrageous conduct of the Whites of the committee of Aquin, who had begun a persecution of the People of Colour for no other reason than that they had dared to seek the common privileges of citizens; and of the murder of Ferrand and Labadie, he imprudently armed his slaves. With a small but faithful band he rushed upon superior numbers; and was defeated. Taking refuge at length in the Spanish part of St. Domingo, he was given up; and his enemies, to strike terror into the People of Colour, broke him upon the wheel. From this time reconciliation between the parties became impossible. A bloody war commenced, and with it all those horrors which it has been our lot so frequently to deplore. It must be remembered, however, that the Slave-trade, by means of the cruel distinctions it occasioned, was the original cause; and though the revolution of France afforded the occasion; it was an occasion which would have been prevented, if it had not been for the intrigues and injustice of the Whites.
Another, upon whom I had time to call, was the amiable Bishop of Chartres. When I left him, the Abbé Sieyes, who was with him, desired to walk with me to my hotel. He there presented me with a set of his works, which he sent for, while he staid with me; and on parting, he made use of this complimentary expression, in allusion, I suppose, to the cause I had undertaken,—“I am pleased to have been acquainted with the friend of man.”
It was necessary that I should see the Comte de Mirabeau and the Marquis de la Fayette, before I left Paris. I had written to each of them to communicate the intelligence of my departure, as soon as I received it. The Comte, it appeared, had nearly canvassed the Assembly. He could count upon three hundred members, who, for the sake of justice, and without any consideration of policy or of consequences, would support his motion. But alas! what proportion did this number bear to twelve hundred? About five hundred more would support him; but only on one condition; which was, if England would give an unequivocal proof of her intention to abolish the trade. The knowledge of these circumstances, he said, had induced him to write a letter to Mr. Pitt. In this he had explained, how far he could proceed without his assistance, and how far with it. He had frankly developed to him the mind and temper of the Assembly on this subject; but his answer must be immediate; for the White Colonists were daily gaining such an influence there, that he foresaw it would be impossible to carry the measure, if it were long delayed. On taking leave of him he desired me to be the bearer of the letter, and to present it to Mr. Pitt.
On conversing with the Marquis de la Fayette, he lamented deeply the unexpected turn, which the cause of the Negros had lately taken in the Assembly. It was entirely owing to the daily intrigues of the White Colonists. He feared they would ruin every thing. If the Deputies of Colour had been heard on their arrival, their rights would have been acknowledged. But now there was little probability that they would obtain them. He foresaw nothing but desolation in St. Domingo. With respect to the abolition of the Slave-trade, it might be yet carried; but not unless England would concur in the measure. On this topic he enlarged with much feeling. He hoped the day was near at hand, when two great nations, which had been hitherto distinguished only for their hostility, one toward the other, would unite in so sublime a measure; and that they would follow up their union by another, still more lovely, for the preservation of eternal and universal peace. Thus their future rivalships might have the extraordinary merit of being rivalships in good. Thus the revolution of France, through the mighty aid of England, might become the source of civilization, of freedom, and of happiness to the whole world. No other nations were sufficiently enlightened for such an union, but all other nations might be benefited by it.
The last person whom I saw, was Brissot. He accompanied me to my carriage. With him therefore I shall end my French account; and I shall end it in no way so satisfactory to myself, as in a very concise vindication of his character, from actual knowledge, against the attacks of those who have endeavoured to disparage it; but who never knew him. Justice and truth, I am convinced, demand some little declaration on this subject at my hands. Brissot then was a man of plain and modest appearance. His habits, contrary to those of his countrymen in general, were domestic. In his own family he set an amiable example, both as a husband and as a father. On all occasions he was a faithful friend. He was particularly watchful over his private conduct. From the simplicity of his appearance, and the severity of his morals, he was called The Quaker; at least in all the circles which I frequented. He was a man of deep feeling. He was charitable to the poor as far as a slender income permitted him. But his benevolence went beyond the usual bounds. He was no patriot in the ordinary acceptation of the word; for he took the habitable globe as his country, and wished to consider every foreigner as his brother.
I left France, as it may be easily imagined, much disappointed, that my labours, which had been of nearly six months continuance, should have had no better success; nor did I see, in looking forward, any circumstances that were consoling with respect to the issue of them there; for it was impossible that Mr. Pitt, even if he had been inclined to write to Mirabeau, circumstanced as matters then were with respect to the hearing of evidence, could have given him a promise, at least of a speedy abolition; and, unless his answer had been immediate, it would have arrived, seeing that the French planters were daily profiting by their intrigues, too late to be effectual.
I had but just arrived in England, when Mr. Wilberforce made a new motion in the House of Commons on the subject of the Slave-trade. In referring to the transactions of the last sessions, he found that twenty-eight days had been allotted to the hearing of witnesses against the abolition, and that eleven persons only had been examined in that time. If the examinations were to go on in the same manner, they might be made to last for years. He resolved therefore to move, that, instead of hearing evidence in future in the house at large, members should hear it in an open committee above stairs; which committee should sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the house itself. This motion he made; and in doing it he took an opportunity of correcting an erroneous report; which was, that he had changed his mind on this great subject. This was, he said, so far from being the case, that the more he contemplated the trade, the more enormous he found it, and the more he felt himself compelled to persevere in endeavours for its abolition.
One would have thought that a motion, so reasonable and so constitutional, would have met with the approbation of all; but it was vehemently opposed by Mr. Gascoyne, Alderman Newnham, and others. The plea set up was, that there was no precedent for referring a question of such importance to a committee. It was now obvious, that the real object of our opponents in abandoning decision by the privy council evidence was delay. Unable to meet us there, they were glad to fly to any measure, which should enable them to put off the evil day. This charge was fixed upon them in unequivocal language by Mr. Fox; who observed besides, that if the members of the house should then resolve to hear evidence in a committee of the whole house as before, it would amount to a resolution, that the question of the abolition of the Slave-trade should be put by, or at least that it should never be decided by them. After a long debate, the motion of Mr. Wilberforce was voted without a division; and the examination of witnesses proceeded in behalf of those who were interested in the continuance of the trade.
This measure having been resolved upon, by which dispatch in the examinations was promoted, I was alarmed lest we should be called upon for our own evidence, before we were fully prepared. The time which I had originally allotted for the discovery of new witnesses, had been taken up, if not wasted, in France. In looking over the names of the sixteen, who were to have been examined by the committee of privy council, if there had been time, one had died, and eight, who were sea-faring people, were out of the kingdom. It was time therefore to stir immediately in this business. Happily, on looking over my letters, which I found on my arrival in England, the names of several had been handed to me, with the places of their abode, who could give me information on the subject of our question. All these I visited with the utmost dispatch. I was absent only three weeks. I had travelled a thousand miles in this time, had conversed with seventeen persons, and had prevailed upon three to be examined.
I had scarcely returned with the addition of these witnesses to my list, when I found it necessary to go out again upon the same errand. This second journey arose in part from the following circumstances. There was a matter in dispute relative to the mode of obtaining slaves in the rivers of Calabàr and Bonny. It was usual, when the slave-ships lay there, for a number of canoes to go into the inland country. These went in a fleet. There might be from thirty to forty armed natives in each of them. Every canoe also had a four- or a six-pounder (cannon) fastened to her bow. Equipped in this manner they departed; and they were usually absent from eight to fourteen days. It was said that they went to fairs, which were held on the banks of these rivers, and at which there was a regular show of slaves. On their return they usually brought down from eight hundred to a thousand of these for the ships. These lay at the bottom of the canoes; their arms and legs having been first bound by the ropes of the country. Now the question was, how the people, thus going up these rivers, obtained their slaves?
It was certainly a very suspicious circumstance, that such a number of persons should go out upon these occasions; and that they should be armed in such a manner. We presumed therefore, that, though they might buy many of the slaves, whom they brought down, at the fairs, which have been mentioned, they obtained others by violence, as opportunity offered. This inference we pressed upon our opponents; and called upon them to show what circumstances made such warlike preparations necessary on these excursions. To this they replied readily. The people in the canoes, said they, pass through the territories of different petty princes; to each of whom, on entering his territory, they pay a tribute or toll. This tribute has been long fixed; but attempts frequently have been made to raise it. They who follow the trade cannot afford to submit to these unreasonable demands; and therefore they arm themselves in case of any determination on the part of these petty princes to enforce them.
This answer we never judged to be satisfactory. We tried therefore to throw light upon the subject, by inquiring if the natives, who went up on these expeditions, usually took with them as many goods, as would amount to the number of the slaves they were accustomed to bring back with them. But we could get no direct answer, from any actual knowledge, to this question. All had seen the canoes go out and return; but no one had seen them loaded, or had been on board them. It appeared, however, from circumstantial evidence, that, though the natives on these occasions might take some articles of trade with them, it was impossible from appearances, that they could take them in the proportion mentioned. We maintained then our inference as before; but it was still uniformly denied.
How then were we to decide this important question? for it was said, that no white man was ever permitted by the natives to go up in these canoes. On mentioning accidentally the circumstances of the case, as I have now stated them, to a friend, immediately on my return from my last journey, he informed me, that he himself had been in company, about a year before, with a sailor, a very respectable-looking man, who had been up these rivers. He had spent half an hour with him at an inn. He described his person to me. But he knew nothing of his name, or of the place of his abode. All he knew was, that he was either going, or that he belonged to, some ship of war in ordinary; but he could not tell at what port. I might depend upon all these circumstances, if the man had not deceived him; and he saw no reason why he should.
I felt myself set on fire, as it were, by this intelligence, deficient as it was; and I seemed to determine instantly that I would, if it were possible, find him out. For if our suspicions were true, that the natives frequently were kidnapped in these expeditions, it would be of great importance to the cause of the abolition to have them confirmed; for as many slaves came annually from these two rivers, as from all the coast of Africa besides. But how to proceed on so blind an errand was the question. I first thought of trying to trace the man by letter. But this might be tedious. The examinations were now going on rapidly. We should soon be called upon for evidence ourselves. Besides, I knew nothing of his name. I then thought it to be a more effectual way to apply to Sir Charles Middleton, as comptroller of the navy, by whose permission I could board every ship of war in ordinary in England, and judge for myself. But here the undertaking seemed very arduous; and the time it would consume became an objection in this respect, that I thought I could not easily forgive myself, if I were to fail in it. My inclination, however, preponderated this way. At length I determined to follow it; for, on deliberate consideration, I found that I could not employ my time more advantageously to the cause; for as other witnesses must be found out somewhere, it was highly probable that, if I should fail in the discovery of this man, I should, by moving among such a number of sea-faring people, find others, who could give their testimony in our favour.
I must now inform the reader, that ships of war in ordinary, in one of which this man was reported to be, are those, which are out of commission, and which are laid up in the different rivers and waters in the neighbourhood of the King’s dock-yards. Every one of these has a boatswain, gunner, carpenter, and assistants on board. They lie usually in divisions of ten or twelve; and a master in the navy has a command over every division.
At length I began my journey. I boarded all the ships of war lying in ordinary at Deptford, and examined the different persons in each. From Deptford I proceeded to Woolwich, where I did the same. Thence I hastened to Chatham, and then, down the Medway, to Sheerness. I had now boarded above a hundred and sixty vessels of war. I had found out two good and willing evidences among them. But I could gain no intelligence of him, who was the object of my search.
From Chatham, I made the best of my way to Portsmouth-harbour. A very formidable task presented itself here. But the masters’ boats were ready for me; and I continued my pursuit. On boarding the Pegase, on the second day, I discovered a very respectable person in the gunner of that ship. His name was George Millar. He had been on board the Canterbury slave-ship at the dreadful massacre at Calabàr. He was the only disinterested evidence living, of whom I had yet heard. He expressed his willingness to give his testimony, if his presence should be thought necessary in London. I then continued my pursuit for the remainder of the day. On the next day, I resumed and finished it for this quarter. I had now examined the different persons in more than a hundred vessels in this harbour, but I had not discovered the person I had gone to seek.
Matters now began to look rather disheartening, I mean, as far as my grand object was concerned. There was but one other port left, and this was between two and three hundred miles distant. I determined however to go to Plymouth. I had already been more successful in this tour, with respect to obtaining general evidence, than in any other of the same length; and the probability was, that, as I should continue to move among the same kind of people, my success would be in a similar proportion according to the number visited. These were great encouragements to me to proceed. At length, I arrived at the place of my last hope. On my first day’s expedition I boarded forty vessels, but found no one in these, who had been on the coast of Africa in the Slave-trade. One or two had been there in King’s ships; but they had never been on shore. Things were now drawing near to a close; and, notwithstanding my success as to general evidence in this journey, my heart began to beat. I was restless and uneasy during the night. The next morning, I felt agitated again between the alternate pressure of hope and fear; and in this state I entered my boat. The fifty-seventh vessel, which I boarded in this harbour, was the Melampus frigate. One person belonging to it, on examining him in the captain’s cabin, said he had been two voyages to Africa; and I had not long discoursed with him, before I found, to my inexpressible joy, that he was the man. I found too, that he unravelled the question in dispute precisely as our inferences had determined it. He had been two expeditions up the river Calabàr in the canoes of the natives. In the first of these, they came within a certain distance of a village. They then concealed themselves under the bushes, which hung over the water from the banks. In this position they remained during day-light. But at night they went up to it armed; and seized all the inhabitants, who had not time to make their escape. They obtained forty-five persons in this manner. In the second they were out eight or nine days; when they made a similar attempt, and with nearly similar success. They seized men, women, and children, as they could find them in the huts. They then bound their arms, and drove them before them to the canoes. The name of the person, thus discovered on board the Melampus, was Isaac Parker. On inquiring into his character from the master of the division, I found it highly respectable. I found also afterwards, that he had sailed with Captain Cook, with great credit to himself, round the world. It was also remarkable that my brother, on seeing him in London, when he went to deliver his evidence, recognised him as having served on board the Monarch man-of-war, and as one of the most exemplary men in that ship.
I returned now in triumph. I had been out only three weeks, and I had found out this extraordinary person, and five respectable witnesses besides. These, added to the three discovered in the last journey, and to those provided before, made us more formidable than at any former period; so that the delay of our opponents, which we had looked upon as so great an evil, proved in the end truly serviceable to our cause.
On going into the committee-room of the House of Commons on my return, I found that the examinations were still going on in the behalf of those, who were interested in the continuance of the trade; and they went on beyond the middle of April, when it was considered that they had closed. Mr. Wilberforce moved accordingly on the twenty-third of the same month, that Captain Thomas Wilson, of the royal navy, and that Charles Berns Wadstrom and Henry Hew Dalrymple, esquires, do attend as witnesses on the behalf of the abolition. There was nothing now but clamour from those on the opposite side of the question. They knew well, that there were but few members of the House of Commons, who had read the privy council report. They knew therefore, that, if the question were to be decided by evidence, it must be decided by that, which their own witnesses had given before parliament. But this was the evidence only on one side. It was certain therefore, if the decision were to be made upon this basis, that it must be entirely in their favour. Will it then be believed that in an English House of Commons there could be found persons, who could move to prevent the hearing of any other witnesses on this subject; and, what is more remarkable, that they should charge Mr. Wilberforce, because he proposed the hearing of them, with the intention solely of delay? Yes. Such persons were found, but, happily, only among the friends of the Slave-trade. Mr. Wilberforce, in replying to them, could not help observing, that it was rather extraordinary that they, who had occasioned the delay of a whole year, should charge him with that, of which they themselves had been so conspicuously guilty. He then commented for some time on the injustice of their motion. He stated too, that he would undertake to remove from disinterested and unprejudiced persons many of the impressions, which had been made by the witnesses against the abolition; and he appealed to the justice and honour of the house in behalf of an injured people; under the hope, that they would not allow a decision to be made till they had heard the whole of the case. These observations, however, did not satisfy all those, who belonged to the opposite party. Lord Penrhyn contended for a decision without a moment’s delay. Mr. Gascoyne relented; and said, he would allow three weeks to the abolitionists, during which their evidence might be heard. At length the debate ended; in the course of which, Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox powerfully supported Mr. Wilberforce; when the motion was negatived without any attempt at a division.
The witnesses in behalf of the abolition of the Slave-trade now took possession of the ground, which those in favour of it had left. But what was our surprise, when only three of them had been heard, to find that Mr. Norris should come forward as an evidence! This he did to confirm what he had stated to the privy council as to the general question; but he did it more particularly, as it appeared afterwards, in the justification of his own conduct: for the part, which he had taken at Liverpool, as it related to me, had become a subject of conversation with many. It was now well known, what assistance he had given me there in my pursuit; how he had even furnished me with clauses for a bill for the abolition of the trade; how I had written to him, in consequence of his friendly cooperation, to come up as an evidence in our favour; and how at that moment he had accepted the office of a delegate on the contrary side. The noise, which the relation and repetition of these and other circumstances had made, had given him, I believe, considerable pain. His friends too had urged some explanation as necessary. But how short-sighted are they who do wrong! By coming forward in this imprudent manner, he fixed the stain only the more indelibly on himself; for he thus imposed upon me the cruel necessity of being examined against him; and this necessity was the more afflicting to me, because I was to be called upon, not to state facts relative to the trade, but to destroy his character as an evidence in its support. I was to be called upon, in fact, to explain all those communications, which have been stated to have taken place between us on this subject. Glad indeed should I have been to have declined this painful interference. But no one would hear of a refusal. The Bishop of London, Mr. Pitt, and Mr. Wilberforce, considered my appearance on this occasion as an imperious duty to the cause of the oppressed. It may be perhaps sufficient to say, that I was examined; that Mr. Norris was present all the time; that I was cross-examined by counsel; and that after this time, Mr. Norris seemed to have no ordinary sense of his own degradation; for he never afterwards held up his head, or looked the abolitionists in the face, or acted with energy as a delegate, as on former occasions.
The hearing of evidence continued to go on in behalf of the abolition of the trade. No less than twenty-four witnesses, altogether, were heard in this session. And here it may not be improper to remark, that, during the examination of our own witnesses as well as the cross-examination of those of our opponents, no counsel were ever employed. Mr. Wilberforce and Mr. William Smith undertook this laborious department; and as they performed it with great ability, so they did it with great liberality towards those, who were obliged to come under their notice in the course of this fiery ordeal.
The bill of Sir William Dolben was now to be renewed. On this occasion the enemies of the abolition became again conspicuous; for on the twenty-sixth of May, they availed themselves of a thin house to propose an amendment, by which they increased the number of the slaves to the tonnage of the vessel. They increased it too, without taking into the account, as had hitherto been done, the extent of the superficies of the vessels, which were to carry them. This was the third indecorous attempt against what were only reasonable and expected proceedings in the present session. But their advantage was of no great duration; for, the very next day, the amendment was rejected on the report by a majority of ninety-five to sixty-nine, in consequence, principally, of the private exertions of Mr. Pitt. Of this bill, though it was renewed in other years besides the present, I shall say no more in this History; because it has nothing to do with the general question. Horrible as it yet left the situation of the poor slaves in their transportation, (which the plate has most abundantly shown) it was the best bill, which could be then obtained; and it answered to a certain degree the benevolent wishes of the worthy baronet, who introduced it: for if we could conclude that these voyages were made more comfortable to the injured Africans, in proportion as there was less mortality in them, he had undoubtedly the pleasure of seeing the end, at least partially, obtained; though he must always have felt a great drawback from it, by reflecting that the survivors, however their sufferings might have been a little diminished, were reserved for slavery.
The session was now near its close; and we had the sorrow to find, though we had defeated our opponents in the three instances which have been mentioned, that the tide ran decidedly against us, upon the general question, in the House of Commons. The same statements, which had struck so many members with panic in the former sessions, such as that of emancipation, of the ruin and massacre of the planters, and of indemnification to the amount of seventy millions, had been industriously kept up, and this by a personal canvass among them. But this hostile disposition was still unfortunately increased by considerations of another sort. For the witnesses of our opponents had taken their ground first. No less than eleven of them had been examined in the last sessions. In the present, two-thirds of the time had been occupied by others on the same side. Hence the impression upon this ground also was against us; and we had yet had no adequate opportunity of doing it away. A clamour was also raised, where we thought it least likely to have originated. They (the planters) it was said, had produced persons in elevated life and of the highest character as witnesses; whereas we had been obliged to take up with those of the lowest condition. This idea was circulated directly after the introduction of Isaac Parker, before mentioned; a simple mariner; and who was now contrasted with the admirals on the other side of the question. This outcry was not only ungenerous, but unconstitutional. It is the glory of the English law, that it has no scale of veracity, which it adapts to persons, according to the station, which they may be found to occupy in life. In our courts of law the poor are heard as well as the rich; and if their reputation be fair, and they stand proof against the cross-examinations they undergo, both the judge and the jury must determine the matter in dispute by their evidence. But the House of Commons were now called upon by our opponents, to adopt the preposterous maxim of attaching falsehood to poverty, or of weighing truth by the standard of rank and riches.
But though we felt a considerable degree of pain, in finding this adverse disposition among so many members of the Lower House, it was some consolation to us to know, that our cause had not suffered with their constituents, the people. These were still warmly with us. Indeed, their hatred of the trade had greatly increased. Many circumstances had occurred in this year to promote it. The committee, during my absence in France, had circulated the plate of the slave-ship throughout all England. No one saw it but he was impressed. It spoke to him in a language, which was at once intelligible and irrestistible. It brought forth the tear of sympathy in behalf of the sufferers, and it fixed their sufferings in his heart. The committee too had been particularly vigilant during the whole of the year, with respect to the public papers. They had suffered no statement in behalf of those interested in the continuance of the trade, to go unanswered, Dr. Dickson, the author of the Letters on Slavery before mentioned, had come forward again with his services on this occasion, and by his active cooperation with a sub-committee appointed for the purpose, the coast was so well cleared of our opponents, that, though they were seen the next year again, through the medium of the same papers, they appeared only in sudden incursions, as it were, during which they darted a few weapons at us; but they never afterward ventured upon the plain to dispute the matter, inch by inch, or point by point, in an open and manly manner.
But other circumstances occurred to keep up a hatred of the trade among the people in this interval, which, trivial as they were, ought not to be forgotten. The amiable poet Cowper had frequently made the Slave-trade the subject of his contemplation. He had already severely condemned it in his valuable poem The Task. But now he had written three little fugitive pieces upon it. Of these the most impressive was that, which he called The Negro’s Complaint, and of which the following is a copy:
This little piece, Cowper presented in manuscript to some of his friends in London; and these, conceiving it to contain a powerful appeal in behalf of the injured Africans, joined in printing it. Having ordered it on the finest hot-pressed paper, and folded it up in a small and neat form, they gave it the printed title of “A Subject for Conversation at the Tea-table.” After this, they sent many thousand copies of it in franks into the country. From one it spread to another, till it travelled almost over the whole island. Falling at length into the hands of the musician, it was set to music; and it then found its way into the streets, both of the metropolis and of the country, where it was sung as a ballad; and where it gave a plain account of the subject, with an appropriate feeling, to those who heard it.
Nor was the philanthropy of the late Mr. Wedgwood less instrumental in turning the popular feeling in our favour. He made his own manufactory contribute to this end. He took the seal of the committee, as exhibited in the first volume, for his model; and he produced a beautiful cameo, of a less size, of which the ground was a most delicate white, but the Negro, who was seen imploring compassion in the middle of it, was in his own native colour. Mr. Wedgwood made a liberal donation of these, when finished, among his friends. I received from him no less than five hundred of them myself. They, to whom they were sent, did not lay them up in their cabinets, but gave them away likewise. They were soon, like The Negro’s Complaint, in different parts of the kingdom. Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freeedom.
I shall now only state that the committee took as members within its own body, in the period of time which is included in this chapter, the Reverend Mr. Ormerod, chaplain to the Bishop of London, and Captain James Bowen, of the royal navy; that they elected the honourable Nathaniel Curzon (now Lord Scarsdale), Dr. Frossard of Lyons, and Benjamin Garlike, esquire, then secretary to the English embassy at the Hague, honorary and corresponding members; and that they concluded their annual labours with a suitable report; in which they noticed the extraordinary efforts of our opponents to injure our cause, in the following manner: “In the progress of this business a powerful combination of interest has been excited against us. The African trader, the planter, and the West India merchant have united their forces to defend the fortress, in which their supposed treasures lie. Vague calculations and false alarms have been thrown out to the public, in order to show, that the constitution and even the existence of this free and opulent nation depend on its depriving the inhabitants of a foreign country of those rights and of that liberty, which we ourselves so highly and so justly prize. Surely in the nature of things and in the order of Providence it cannot be so. England existed as a great nation, long before the African commerce was known amongst us, and it is not to acts of injustice and violence that she owes her present rank in the scale of nations.”
[* ]“Je fais toujours mille remercimens plus empressés et plus affectueux à Monsieur Clarkson pour la vertueuse profusion de ses lumieres, de ses reserches, et de ses travaux. Comme ma motion et tous ses developpemens sont entierement prêts, j’attends avec une vive impatience ses nouvelles lettres, afin d’achever de classer les faits et les raisonnemens de Monsieur Clarkson, et, cette deduction entierement finie, de commencer à manœuvrer en tactique le succès douteux de cette perilleuse proposition. J’aurai l’honneur de le recevoir Dimanche depuis onze heures, et même dix du matin jusqu’à midi, non seulement avec un vif plaisir, mais avec une sensible reconnoissance.