Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER III. - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Continuation from July 1790 to July 1791—Author travels again throughout the kingdom—Object of his journey—Motion in the House of Commons to resume the hearing of evidence in favour of the abolition—List of all those examined on this side of the question—Machinations of interested persons, and cruel circumstances of the times previously to the day of decision—Motion at length made for stopping all further importation of Slaves from Africa—debates upon it—motion lost—Resolutions of the committee for the Abolition of the Slave-trade—Establishment of the Sierra Leone Company.
It was a matter of deep affliction to us to think, that the crimes and sufferings inseparable from the Slave-trade were to be continued to another year. And yet it was our duty, in the present moment, to acquiesce in the postponement of the question. This postponement was not now for the purpose of delay, but of securing victory. The evidence, on the side of the abolition, was, at the end of the last session, but half finished. It was impossible, for the sake of Africa, that we could have then closed it. No other opportunity might offer in parliament for establishing an indelible record in her favour, if we were to neglect the present. It was our duty therefore even to wait to complete it, and to procure such a body of evidence, as should not only bear us out in the approaching contest, but such as, if we were to fail, would bear out our successors also. It was possible indeed, if the inhabitants of our islands were to improve in civilization, that the poor slaves might experience gradually an improved treatment with it; and so far testimony now might not be testimony for ever: but it was utterly impossible, while the Slave-trade lasted, and the human passions continued to be the same, that there should be any change for the better in Africa; or that any modes, less barbarous, should come into use for procuring slaves. Evidence therefore, if once collected on this subject, would be evidence for posterity. In the midst of these thoughts another journey occurred to me as necessary for this purpose; and I prayed, that I might have strength to perform it in the most effectual manner; and that I might be daily impressed, as I travelled along, with the stimulating thought, that the last hope for millions might possibly rest upon my own endeavours.
The committee highly approved of this journey. Mr. Wilberforce saw the absolute necessity of it also; and had prepared a number of questions, with great ingenuity, to be put to such persons, as might have information to communicate. These I added to those in the tables, which have been already mentioned; and they made together a valuable collection on the subject.
This tour was the most vexatious of any I had yet undertaken; many still refused to come forward to be examined, and some on the most frivolous pretences; so that I was disgusted, as I journeyed on, to find how little men were disposed to make sacrifices for so great a cause. In one part of it I went over nearly two thousand miles, receiving repeated refusals. I had not secured one witness within this distance. This was truly disheartening. I was subject to the whims and the caprice of those, whom I solicited on these occasions* . To these I was obliged to accommodate myself. When at Edinburgh, a person who could have given me material information, declined seeing me, though he really wished well to the cause. When I had returned southward as far as York, he changed his mind; and he would then see me. I went back, that I might not lose him. When I arrived, he would give me only private information. Thus I travelled, backwards and forwards, four hundred miles to no purpose. At another place a circumstance almost similar happened, though with a different issue. I had been for two years writing about a person, whose testimony was important. I had passed once through the town, in which he lived; but he would not then see me. I passed through it now, but no entreaties of his friends could make him alter his resolution. He was a man highly respectable as to situation in life; but of considerable vanity. I said therefore to my friend, on leaving the town, You may tell him that I expect to be at Nottingham in a few days; and though it be a hundred and fifty miles distant, I will even come back to see him, if he will dine with me on my return. A letter from my friend announced to me, when at Nottingham, that his vanity had been so gratified by the thought of a person coming expressly to visit him from such a distance, that he would meet me according to my appointment. I went back. We dined together. He yielded to my request. I was now repaid; and I returned towards Nottingham in the night. These circumstances I mention, and I feel it right to mention them, that the reader may be properly impressed with the great difficulties we found in collecting a body of evidence in comparison with our opponents. They ought never to be forgotten; for if with the testimony, picked up as it were under all these disadvantages, we carried our object against those, who had almost numberless witnesses to command, what must have been the merits of our cause! No person can indeed judge of the severe labour and trials in these journeys. In the present, I was out four months. I was almost over the whole island. I intersected it backwards and forwards both in the night and in the day. I travelled nearly seven thousand miles in this time, and I was able to count upon twenty new and willing evidences.
Having now accomplished my object, Mr. Wilberforce moved on the fourth of February in the House of Commons, that a committee be appointed to examine further witnesses in behalf of the abolition of the Slave-trade. This motion was no sooner made, than Mr. Cawthorne rose, to our great surprise, to oppose it. He took upon himself to decide, that the house had heard evidence enough. This indecent motion was not without its advocates. Mr. Wilberforce set forth the injustice of this attempt; and proved, that out of eighty-one days, which had been given up to the hearing of evidence, the witnesses against the abolition had occupied no less than fifty-seven. He was strenuously supported by Mr. Burke, Mr. Martin, and other respectable members. At length, the debate ended in favour of the original motion, and a committee was appointed accordingly.
The examinations began again on February the seventh, and continued till April the fifth, when they were finally closed. In this, as in the former session, Mr. Wilberforce and Mr. William Smith principally conducted them; and indeed it was necessary that they should have been present at these times; for it is perhaps difficult to conceive the illiberal manner, in which our witnesses were treated by those on the other side of the question. Men, who had left the trade upon principle, and who had come forward, against their apparent interest, to serve the cause of humanity and justice, were looked upon as mercenaries and culprits, or as men of doubtful and suspicious character. They were brow-beaten. Unhandsome questions were put to them. Some were kept for four days under examination. It was however highly to their honour, that they were found in no one instance to prevaricate, nor to waver as to the certainty of their facts.
But this treatment, hard as it was for them to bear, was indeed good for the cause; for, coming thus pure out of the fire, they occasioned their own testimony, when read, to bear stronger marks of truth than that of the generality of our opponents; nor was it less superior, when weighed by other considerations. For the witnesses against the abolition were principally interested. They who were not, had been hospitably received at the planters’ tables. The evidence too, which they delivered, was almost wholly negative. They had not seen such and such evils. But this was no proof that the evils did not exist. The witnesses, on the other hand, who came up in favour of the abolition, had no advantage in making their several assertions. In some instances they came up against their apparent interest; and, to my knowledge, suffered persecution for so doing. The evidence also, which they delivered, was of a positive nature. They gave an account of specific evils, which had come under their own eyes. These evils were never disproved. They stood therefore on a firm basis, as on a tablet of brass. Engraved there in affirmative characters; a few of them were of more value, than all the negative and airy testimony, which had been advanced on the other side of the question.
That the public may judge, in some measure, of the respectability of the witnesses in favour of the abolition, and that they may know also to whom Africa is so much indebted for her deliverance, I shall subjoin their names in the three following lists. The first will contain those, who were examined by the privy council only; the second those, who were examined by the privy council and the house of commons also; and the third those, who were examined by the house of commons only.
The evidence having been delivered on both sides, and then printed, it was judged expedient by Mr. Wilberforce, seeing that it filled three folio volumes, to abridge it. This abridgement was made by the different friends of the cause. William Burgh, esquire, of York; Thomas Babington, esquire, of Rothley Temple; the Reverend Thomas Gisborne, of Yoxall Lodge; Mr. Campbell Haliburton, of Edinburgh; George Harrison, with one or two others of the committee, and myself, were employed upon it. The greater share, however, of the labour fell upon Dr. Dickson. That no misrepresentation of any person’s testimony might be made, Matthew Montagu, esquire, and the honourable E. J. Eliott, members of parliament, undertook to compare the abridged manuscripts with the original text, and to strike out or correct whatever they thought to be erroneous, and to insert whatever they thought to have been omitted. The committee, for the abolition, when the work was finished, printed it at their own expense. Mr. Wilberforce then presented it to the House of Commons, as a faithful abridgement of the whole evidence. Having been received as such under the guarantee of Mr. Montagu and Mr. Eliott, the committee sent it to every individual member of that House.
The book having been thus presented, and a day fixed for the final determination of the question, our feelings became almost insupportable: for we had the mortification to find, that our cause was going down in estimation, where it was then most important that it should have increased in favour. Our opponents had taken advantage of the long delay, which the examination of evidence had occasioned, to prejudice the minds of many of the members of the House of Commons against us. The old arguments of emancipation, massacre, ruin, and indemnification, had been kept up; but, as the day of final decision approached, they had been increased. Such was our situation at this moment; when the current was turned still more powerfully against us by the peculiar circumstances of the times. It was indeed the misfortune of this great cause to be assailed by every weapon, which could be turned against it. At this time Thomas Paine had published his Rights of Man. This had been widely circulated. At this time also the French revolution had existed nearly two years. The people of England had seen, during this interval, a government as it were dissected. They had seen an old constitution taken down, and a new one put up, piece by piece, in its stead. The revolution, therefore, in conjunction with the book in question, had had the effect of producing dissatisfaction among thousands; and this dissatisfaction was growing, so as to alarm a great number of persons of property in the kingdom, as well as the government itself. Now will it be believed that our opponents had the injustice to lay hold of these circumstances, at this critical moment, to give a death-blow to the cause of the abolition? They represented the committee, though it had existed before the French revolution or the Rights of Man were heard of, as a nest of Jacobins; and they held up the cause, sacred as it was, and though it had the support of the minister, as affording an opportunity of meeting for the purpose of overthrowing the state. Their cry succeeded. The very book of the abridgment of the evidence was considered by many members as poisonous as that of the Rights of Man. It was too profane for many of them to touch; and they who discarded it, discarded the cause also.
But these were not the only circumstances which were used as means, at this critical moment, to defeat us. News of the revolution, which had commenced in St. Domingo in consequence of the disputes between the Whites and the People of Colour, had, long before this, arrived in England. The horrible scenes which accompanied it, had been frequently published as so many arguments against our cause. In January new insurrections were announced as having happened in Martinique. The Negros there were described as armed, and the planters as having abandoned their estates for fear of massacre. Early in the month of March insurrections in the smaller French islands were reported. Every effort was then made to represent these as the effects of the new principles of liberty, and of the cry for abolition. But what should happen, just at this moment, to increase the clamour against us? Nothing less than an insurrection in Dominica.—Yes!—An insurrection in a British island. This was the very event for our opponents. “All the predictions of the planters had now become verified. The horrible massacres were now realizing at home.” To give this news still greater effect, a meeting of our opponents was held at the London Tavern. By a letter read there it appeared, that “the ruin of Dominica was now at hand.” Resolutions were voted, and a memorial presented to government, “immediately to dispatch such a military force to the different islands, as might preserve the Whites from destruction, and keep the Negros in subjection during the present critical state of the slave-bill.” This alarm was kept up till the seventh of April, when another meeting took place to receive the answer of government to the memorial. It was there resolved, that “as it was too late to send troops to the islands, the best way of preserving them would be to bring the question of the Slave-trade to an immediate issue; and that it was the duty of the government, if they regarded the safety of the islands, to oppose the abolition of it.” Accounts of all these proceedings were inserted in the public papers. It is needless to say that they were injurious to our cause. Many looked upon the abolitionists as monsters. They became also terrified themselves. The idea with these was, that unless the discussion on this subject was terminated, all would be lost. Thus, under a combination of effects arising from the publication of the Rights of Man, the rise and progress of the French revolution, and the insurrections of the Negros in the different islands, no one of which events had any thing to do with the abolition of the Slave-trade, the current was turned against us; and in this unfavourable frame of mind many members of parliament went into the House, on the day fixed for the discussion, to discharge their duty with respect to this great question.
On the eighteenth of April Mr. Wilberforce made his motion. He began by expressing a hope, that the present debate, instead of exciting asperity and confirming prejudice, would tend to produce a general conviction of the truth of what in fact was incontrovertible; that the abolition of the Slave-trade was indispensably required of them, not only by morality and religion, but by sound policy. He stated that he should argue the matter from evidence. He adverted to the character, situation, and means of information of his own witnesses; and having divided his subject into parts, the first of which related to the manner of reducing the natives of Africa to a state of slavery, he handled it in the following manner.
He would begin, he said, with the first boundary of the trade. Captain Wilson and Captain Hills, of His Majesty’s navy, and Mr. Dalrymple of the land service, had concurred in stating, that in the country contiguous to the river Senegal, when slave-ships arrived there, armed parties were regularly sent out in the evening, who scoured the country, and brought in their prey. The wretched victims were to be seen in the morning bound back to back in the huts on shore, whence they were conveyed, tied hand and foot, to the slave-ships. The design of these ravages was obvious, because, when the Slave-trade was stopped, they ceased. Mr. Kiernan spoke of the constant depredations by the Moors to procure slaves. Mr. Wadstrom confirmed them. The latter gentleman showed also that they were excited by presents of brandy, gunpowder, and such other incentives; and that they were not only carried on by one community against another; but that the Kings were stimulated to practise them, in their own territories, and on their own subjects: and in one instance a chieftain, who, when intoxicated, could not resist the demands of the slave-merchants, had expressed, in a moment of reason, a due sense of his own crime, and had reproached his Christian seducers. Abundant also were the instances of private rapine. Individuals were kidnapped, whilst in their fields and gardens. There was an universal feeling of distrust and apprehension there. The natives never went any distance from home without arms; and when Captain Wilson asked them the reason of it, they pointed to a slave-ship then lying within sight.
On the windward coast, it appeared from Lieutenant Story and Mr. Bowman, that the evils just mentioned existed, if possible, in a still higher degree. They had seen the remains of villages, which had been burnt, whilst the fields of corn were still standing beside them, and every other trace of recent desolation. Here an agent was sent to establish a settlement in the country, and to send to the ships such slaves as he might obtain. The orders he received from his captain were, that “he was to encourage the chieftains by brandy and gunpowder to go to war, to make slaves.” This he did. The chieftains performed their part in return. The neighbouring villages were surrounded and set on fire in the night. The inhabitants were seized when making their escape; and, being brought to the agent, were by him forwarded to his principal on the coast. Mr. How, a botanist in the service of Government, stated, that on the arrival of an order for slaves from Cape Coast Castle, while he was there, a native chief immediately sent forth armed parties, who brought in a supply of all descriptions in the night.
But he would now mention one or two instances of another sort, and these merely on account of the conclusion, which was to be drawn from them. When Captain Hills was in the river Gambia, he mentioned accidentally to a Black pilot, who was in the boat with him, that he wanted a cabin-boy. It so happened that some youths were then on the shore with vegetables to sell. The pilot beckoned to them to come on board; at the same time giving Captain Hills to understand, that he might take his choice of them; and when Captain Hills rejected the proposal with indignation, the pilot seemed perfectly at a loss to account for his warmth; and drily observed, that the slave-captains would not have been so scrupulous. Again, when General Rooke commanded at Goree, a number of the natives, men, women, and children, came to pay him a friendly visit. All was gaiety and merriment. It was a scene to gladden the saddest, and to soften the hardest heart. But a slave-captain was not so soon thrown off his guard. Three English barbarians of this description had the audacity jointly to request the general, to seize the whole unsuspicious multitude and sell them. For this they alleged the precedent of a former governor. Was not this request a proof of the frequency of such acts of rapine? for how familiar must such have been to slave-captains, when three of them dared to carry to a British officer of rank such a flagitious proposal! This would stand in the place of a thousand instances. It would give credibility to every other act of violence stated in the evidence, however enormous it might appear.
But he would now have recourse for a moment to circumstantial evidence. An adverse witness, who had lived on the Gold Coast, had said that the only way, in which children could be enslaved, was by whole families being sold when the principals had been condemned for witchcraft. But he said at the same time, that few were convicted of this crime, and that the younger part of a family in these cases was sometimes spared. But if this account were true, it would follow that the children in the slave-vessels would be few indeed. But it had been proved, that the usual proportion of these was never less than a fourth of the whole cargo on that coast, and also, that the kidnapping of children was very prevalent there.
All these atrocities, he said, were fully substantiated by the evidence; and here he should do injustice to his cause, if he were not to make a quotation from the speech of Mr. B. Edwards in the Assembly of Jamaica, who, though he was hostile to his propositions, had yet the candour to deliver himself in the following manner there. “I am persuaded,” says he, “that Mr. Wilberforce has been rightly informed as to the manner in which slaves are generally procured. The intelligence I have collected from my own Negros abundantly confirms his account; and I have not the smallest doubt, that in Africa the effects of this trade are precisely such as he has represented them. The whole, or the greatest part, of that immense continent is a field of warfare and desolation; a wilderness, in which the inhabitants are wolves towards each other. That this scene of oppression, fraud, treachery, and bloodshed, if not originally occasioned, is in part (I will not say wholly) upheld by the Slave-trade, I dare not dispute. Every man in the Sugar Islands may be convinced that it is so, who will inquire of any African Negros, on their first arrival, concerning the circumstances of their captivity. The assertion that it is otherwise, is mockery and insult.”
But it was not only by acts of outrage that the Africans were brought into bondage. The very administration of justice was turned into an engine for that end. The smallest offence was punished by a fine equal to the value of a slave. Crimes were also fabricated; false accusations were resorted to; and persons were sometimes employed to seduce the unwary into practices with a view to the conviction and the sale of them.
It was another effect of this trade, that it corrupted the morals of those, who carried it on. Every fraud was used to deceive the ignorance of the natives by false weights and measures, adulterated commodities, and other impositions of a like sort. These frauds were even acknowledged by many, who had themselves practised them in obedience to the orders of their superiors. For the honour of the mercantile character of the country, such a traffic ought immediately to be suppressed.
Yet these things, however clearly proved by positive testimony, by the concession of opponents, by particular inference, by general reasoning, by the most authentic histories of Africa, by the experience of all countries and of all ages,—these things, and (what was still more extraordinary) even the possibility of them, were denied by those, who had been brought forward on the other side of the question. These, however, were chiefly persons, who had been trading governors of forts in Africa; or who had long commanded ships in the Slave-trade. As soon as he knew the sort of witnesses which was to be called against him, he had been prepared to expect much prejudice. But his expectations had been greatly surpassed by the testimony they had given. He did not mean to impeach their private characters, but they certainly showed themselves under the influence of such gross prejudices, as to render them incompetent judges of the subject they came to elucidate. They seemed (if he might so say) to be enveloped by a certain atmosphere of their own; and to see, as it were, through a kind of African medium. Every object, which met their eyes, came distorted and turned from its true direction. Even the declarations, which they made on other occasions, seemed wholly strange to them. They sometimes not only forgot what they had seen, but what they had said; and when to one of them his own testimony to the privy council was read, he mistook it for that of another, whose evidence he declared to be “the merest burlesque in the world.”
But the House must be aware that there was not only an African medium, but an African logic. It seemed to be an acknowledged axiom in this, that every person, who offered a slave for sale, had a right to sell him, however fraudulently he might have obtained him. This had been proved by the witnesses, who opposed him. “It would have stopped my trade,” said one of them, “to have asked the broker, how he came by the person he was offering me for sale”—“We always suppose,” said another, “the broker has a right to sell the person he offers us”—“I never heard of such a question being asked,” said a third; “a man would be thought a fool, who should put such a question.”—He hoped the House would see the practical utility of this logic. It was the key-stone, which held the building together. By means of it, slave-captains might traverse the whole coast of Africa, and see nothing but equitable practices. They could not, however, be wholly absolved, even if they availed themselves of this principle to its fullest extent; for they had often committed depredations themselves; especially when they were passing by any part of the coast, where they did not mean to continue or to go again. Hence it was (as several captains of the navy and others had declared on their examination) that the natives, when at sea in their canoes, would never come near the men of war, till they knew them to be such. But finding this, and that they were not slave-vessels, they laid aside their fears, and came and continued on board with unsuspecting cheerfulness.
With respect to the miseries of the Middle Passage, he had said so much on a former occasion, that he would spare the feelings of the committee as much as he could. He would therefore simply state that the evidence, which was before them, confirmed all those scenes of wretchedness, which he had then described; the same suffering from a state of suffocation by being crowded together; the same dancing in fetters; the same melancholy singing; the same eating by compulsion; the same despair; the same insanity; and all the other abominations which characterized the trade. New instances however had occurred, where these wretched men had resolved on death to terminate their woes. Some had destroyed themselves by refusing sustenance, in spite of threats and punishments. Others had thrown themselves into the sea; and more than one, when in the act of drowning, were seen to wave their hands in triumph, “exulting” (to use the words of an eye-witness) “that they had escaped.” Yet these and similar things, when viewed through the African medium he had mentioned, took a different shape and colour. Captain Knox, an adverse witness, had maintained, that slaves lay during the night in tolerable comfort. And yet he confessed, that in a vessel of one hundred and twenty tons, in which he had carried two hundred and ninety slaves, the latter had not all of them room to lie on their backs. How comfortably then must they have lain in his subsequent voyages! for he carried afterwards in a vessel of a hundred and eight tons four hundred and fifty, and in a vessel of one hundred and fifty tons, no less than six hundred slaves. Another instance of African deception was to be found in the testimony of Captain Frazer, one of the most humane captains in the trade. It had been said of him, that he had held hot coals to the mouth of a slave, to compel him to eat. He was questioned on this point; but not admitting, in the true spirit of African logic, that he who makes another commit a crime, is guilty of it himself, he denied the charge indignantly, and defied a proof. But it was said to him, “Did you never order such a thing to be done?” His reply was, “Being sick in my cabin, I was informed that a man-slave would neither eat, drink, nor speak. I desired the mate and surgeon to try to persuade him to speak. I desired that the slaves might try also. When I found he was still obstinate, not knowing whether it was from sulkiness or insanity, I ordered a person to present him with a piece of fire in one hand and a piece of yam in the other, and to tell me what effect this had upon him. I learnt that he took the yam and began to eat it, but he threw the fire overboard.” Such was his own account of the matter. This was eating by duresse, if any thing could be called so. The captain, however, triumphed in his expedient, and concluded by telling the committee, that he sold this very slave at Grenada for forty pounds. Mark here the moral of the tale, and learn the nature and the cure of sulkiness.
But upon whom did the cruelties, thus arising out of the prosecution of this barbarous traffic, fall? Upon a people with feeling and intellect like ourselves. One witness had spoken of the acuteness of their understandings; another of the extent of their memories; a third of their genius for commerce; a fourth of their proficiency in manufactures at home. Many had admired their gentle and peaceable disposition; their cheerfulness; and their hospitality. Even they, who were nominally slaves in Africa, lived a happy life. A witness against the abolition had described them as sitting and eating with their masters in the true style of patriarchal simplicity and comfort. Were these then a people incapable of civilization? The argument that they were an inferior species had been proved to be false.
He would now go to a new part of the subject. An opinion had gone forth that the abolition of the trade would be the ruin of the West India Islands. He trusted he should prove that the direct contrary was the truth; though, had he been unable to do this, it would have made no difference as to his own vote. In examining, however, this opinion, he should exclude the subject of the cultivation of new lands by fresh importations of slaves. The impolicy of this measure, apart from its inhumanity, was indisputably clear. Let the committee consider the dreadful mortality, which attended it. Let them look to the evidence of Mr. Woolrich, and there see a contrast drawn between the slow, but sure progress of cultivation, carried on in the natural way, and the attempt to force improvements, which, however flattering the prospect at first, soon produced a load of debt, and inextricable embarrassments. He might even appeal to the statements of the West Indians themselves, who allowed that more than twenty millions were owing to the people of this country, to show that no system could involve them so deeply as that, on which they had hitherto gone. But he would refer them to the accounts of Mr. Irving, as contained in the evidence. Waving then the consideration of this part of the subject, the opinion in question must have arisen from a notion, that the stock of slaves, now in the islands, could not be kept up by propagation; but that it was necessary, from time to time, to recruit them with imported Africans. In direct refutation of this position he should prove, First, that in the condition and treatment of the Negros, there were causes, sufficient to afford us reason to expect a considerable decrease, but particularly that their increase had not been a serious object of attention; Secondly, that this decrease was in fact, notwithstanding, very trifling; or rather, he believed, he might declare it had now actually ceased; and, Thirdly, he should urge many direct and collateral facts and arguments, constituting on the whole an irresistible proof, that even a rapid increase might henceforth be expected.
He wished to treat the West Indians with all possible candour; but he was obliged to confess, in arguing upon these points, that whatever splendid instances there might be of kindness towards their slaves, there were some evils of almost universal operation, were necessarily connected with the system of slavery. Above all, the state of degradation, to which they were reduced, deserved to be noticed; as it produced an utter inattention to them as moral agents. They were kept at work under the whip like cattle. They were left totally ignorant of morality and religion. There was no regular marriage among them. Hence promiscuous intercourse, early prostitution, and excessive drinking, were material causes of their decrease. With respect to the instruction of the slaves in the principles of religion, the happiest effects had resulted, particularly in Antigua, where, under the Moravians and Methodists, they had so far profited, that the planters themselves confessed their value, as property, had been raised one-third by their increased habits of regularity and industry.
Whatever might have been said to the contrary, it was plainly to be inferred from the evidence, that the slaves were not protected by law. Colonial statutes had indeed been passed; but they were a dead letter; since, however ill they were treated, they were not considered as having a right to redress. An instance of astonishing cruelty by a Jew had been mentioned by Mr. Ross. It was but justice to say, that the man was held in detestation for it; but yet no one had ever thought of calling him to a legal account. Mr. Ross conceived a master had a right to punish his slave in whatever manner he might think proper. The same was declared by numberless other witnesses. Some instances, indeed, had lately occurred of convictions. A master had wantonly cut the mouth of a child, of six months old, almost from ear to ear. But did not the verdict of the jury show, that the doctrine of calling masters to an account was entirely novel; as it only pronounced him “Guilty, subject to the opinion of the court, if immoderate correction of a slave by his master be a crime indictable!” The court determined in the affirmative; and what was the punishment of this barbarous act?—A fine of forty shillings currency, equivalent to about twenty-five shillings sterling.
The slaves were but ill off in point of medical care. Sometimes four or five, and even eight or nine thousand of them, were under the care of one medical man; which, dispersed on different and distant estates, was a greater number than he could possibly atrend to.
It was also in evidence, that they were in general under-fed. They were supported partly by the produce of their own provision-ground, and partly by an allowance of flour and grain from their masters. In one of the islands, where provision-ground did not answer one year in three, the allowance to a working Negro was but from five to nine pints of grain per week: in Dominica, where it never failed, from six to seven quarts: in Nevis and St. Christophers, where there was no provision-ground, it was but eleven pints. Add to this, that it might be still less, as the circumstances of their masters might become embarrassed; and in this case both an abridgment of their food, and an increase of their labour, would follow.
But the great cause of the decrease of the slaves was in the non-residence of the planters. Sir George Yonge, and many others, had said, they had seen the slaves treated in a manner, which their owners would have resented, if they had known it. Mr. Orde spoke in the strongest terms of the misconduct of managers. The fact was, that these in general sought to establish their characters by producing large crops at a small immediate expense; too little considering how far the slaves might suffer from ill-treatment and excessive labour. The pursuit of such a system was a criterion for judging of their characters, as both Mr. Long and Mr. Ottley had confessed.
But he must contend, in addition to this, that the object of keeping up the stock of slaves by breeding had never been seriously attended to. For this he might appeal both to his own witnesses, and to those of his opponents; but he would only notice one fact. It was remarkable that, when owners and managers were asked about the produce of their estates, they were quite at home as to the answer; but when they were asked about the proportion of their male and female slaves, and their infants, they knew little about the matter. Even medical men were adepts in the art of planting; but when they were asked the latter questions, as connected with breeding and rearing, they seemed quite amazed; and could give no information upon the subject of them.
Persons, however, of great respectability had been called as witnesses, who had not seen the treatment of the Negros as he had now described it. He knew what was due to their characters; but yet he must enter a general protest against their testimony. “I have often,” says Mr. Ross, “attended both governors and admirals upon tours in the island of Jamaica. But it was not likely that these should see much distress upon these occasions. The White People and drivers would take care not to harrow up the feelings of strangers of distinction by the exercise of the whip, or the infliction of punishments, at that particular time; and, even if there were any disgusting objects, it was natural to suppose that they would then remove them.” But in truth these gentlemen had given proofs, that they were under the influence of prejudice. Some of them had declared the abolition would ruin the West Indies. But this, it was obvious, must depend upon the practicability of keeping up the stock without African supplies; and yet, when they were questioned upon this point, they knew nothing about it. Hence they had formed a conclusion without premises. Their evidence, too, extended through a long series of years. They had never seen one instance of ill-treatment in the time; and yet, in the same breath, they talked of the amended situation of the slaves; and that they were now far better off than formerly. One of them, to whom his country owed much, stated that a master had been sentenced to death for the murder of his own slave; but his recollection must have failed him; for the murder of a slave was not then a capital crime. A respectable governor also had delivered an opinion to the same effect; but, had he looked into the statute-book of the island, he would have found his error.
It had been said that the slaves were in a better state than the peasantry of this country. But when the question was put to Mr. Ross, did he not answer, “that he would not insult the latter by a comparison?”
It had been said again, that the Negros were happier as slaves, than they would be if they were to be made free. But how was this reconcileable with facts? If a Negro under extraordinary circumstances had saved money enough, did he not always purchase his release from this situation of superior happiness by the sacrifice of his last shilling? Was it not also notorious, that the greatest reward, which a master thought he could bestow upon his slave for long and faithful services, was his freedom?
It had been said again, that Negros, when made free, never returned to their own country. But was not the reason obvious? If they could even reach their own homes in safety, their kindred and connections might be dead. But would they subject themselves to be kidnapped again; to be hurried once more on board a slave-ship; and again to endure and survive the horrors of the passage? Yet the love of their native country had been proved beyond a doubt. Many of the witnesses had heard them talk of it in terms of the strongest affection. Acts of suicide too were frequent in the islands, under the notion that these afforded them the readiest means of getting home. Conformably with this, Captain Wilson had maintained, that the funerals, which in Africa were accompanied with lamentations and cries of sorrow, were attended, in the West Indies, with every mark of joy.
He had now, he said, made good his first proposition, That in the condition of the slaves there were causes, which should lead us to expect, that there would be a considerable decrease among them. This decrease in the island of Jamaica was but trifling, or, rather, it had ceased some years ago; and if there was a decrease, it was only on the imported slaves. It appeared from the privy council report, that from 1698 to 1730 the decrease was three and a half per cent.; from 1730 to 1755 it was two and a half per cent.; from 1755 to 1768 it was lessened to one and three quarters; and from 1768 to 1788 it was not more than one per cent.: this last decrease was not greater than could be accounted for from hurricanes and consequent famines, and from the number of imported Africans who perished in the seasoning. The latter was a cause of mortality, which, it was evident, would cease with the importations. This conclusion was confirmed in part by Dr. Anderson, who, in his testimony to the Assembly of Jamaica, affirmed, that there was a considerable increase on the properties of the island, and particularly in the parish in which he resided.
He would now proceed to establish his second proposition, that from henceforth a very considerable increase might be expected. This he might support by a close reasoning upon the preceding facts. But the testimony of his opponents furnished him with sufficient evidence. He could show, that wherever the slaves were treated better than ordinary, there was uniformly an increase in their number. Look at the estates of Mr. Willock, Mr. Ottley, Sir Ralph Payne, and others. In short, he should weary the committee, if he were to enumerate the instances of plantations, which were stated in the evidence to have kept up their numbers only from a little variation in their treatment. A remedy also had been lately found for a disorder, by which vast numbers of infants had been formerly swept away. Mr. Long also had laid it down, that whenever the slaves should bear a certain proportion to the produce, they might be expected to keep up their numbers; but this proportion they now exceeded. The Assembly of Jamaica had given it also as their opinion, “that when once the sexes should become nearly equal in point of number, there was no reason to suppose, that the increase of the Negros by generation would fall short of the natural increase of the labouring poor in Great Britain.” But the inequality, here spoken of, could only exist in the case of the African Negros, of whom more males were imported than females; and this inequality would be done away soon after the trade should cease.
But the increase of the Negros, where their treatment was better than ordinary, was confirmed in the evidence by instances in various parts of the world. From one end of the continent of America to the other their increase had been undeniably established; and this to a prodigious extent, though they had to contend with the severe cold of the winter, and in some parts with noxious exhalations in the summer. This was the case also in the settlement of Bencoolen in the East Indies. It appeared from the evidence of Mr. Botham, that a number of Negros, who had been imported there in the same disproportion of the sexes as in West India cargoes, and who lived under the same disadvantages, as in the Islands, of promiscuous intercourse and general prostitution, began, after they had been settled a short time, annually to increase.
But to return to the West Indies.—A slave-ship had been many years ago wrecked near St. Vincent’s. The slaves on board, who escaped to the island, were without necessaries; and, besides, were obliged to maintain a war with the native Caribbs: yet they soon multiplied to an astonishing number; and, according to Mr. Ottley, they were now on the increase. From Sir John Dalrymple’s evidence it appeared, that the domestic slaves in Jamaica, who were less worked than those in the field, increased; and from Mr. Long, that the free Blacks and Mulattoes there increased also.
But there was an instance which militated against these facts (and the only one in the evidence) which he would now examine. Sir Archibald Campbell had heard, that the Maroons in Jamaica in the year 1739 amounted to three thousand men fit to carry arms. This supposed their whole number to have been about twelve thousand. But in the year 1782, after a real muster by himself, he found, to his great astonishment, that the fighting men did not then amount to three hundred. Now the fact was, that Sir Archibald Campbell’s first position was founded upon rumour only; and was not true. For according to Mr. Long, the Maroons were actually numbered in 1749; when they amounted to about six hundred and sixty in all, having only a hundred and fifty men fit to carry arms. Hence, if when mustered by Sir Archibald Campbell he found three hundred fighting men, they must from 1749 to 1782 have actually doubled their population.
Was it possible, after these instances, to suppose that the Negros could not keep up their numbers, if their natural increase were made a subject of attention? The reverse was proved by sound reasoning. It had been confirmed by unquestionable facts. It had been shown, that they had increased in every situation, where there was the slightest circumstance in their favour. Where there had been any decrease, it was stated to be trifling; though no attention appeared to have been paid to the subject. This decrease had been gradually lessening; and, whenever a single cause of it had been removed (many still remaining), it had altogether ceased. Surely these circumstances formed a body of proof, which was irresistible.
He would now speak of the consequences of the abolition of the Slave-trade in other points of view; and first, as to its effects upon our marine. An abstract of the Bristol and Liverpool muster-rolls had been just laid before the House. It appeared from this, that in three hundred and fifty slave-vessels, having on board twelve thousand two hundred and sixty-three persons, two thousand six hundred and forty-three were lost in twelve months; whereas in four hundred and sixty-two West Indiamen, having on board seven thousand six hundred and forty persons, one hundred and eighteen only were lost in seven months. This rather exceeded the losses stated by Mr. Clarkson. For their barbarous usage on board these ships, and for their sickly and abject state in the West Indies, he would appeal to Governor Parry’s letter; to the evidence of Mr. Ross; to the assertion of Mr. B. Edwards, an opponent; and to the testimony of Captains Sir George Yonge and Thompson, of the Royal Navy. He would appeal also to what Captain Hall, of the Navy, had given in evidence. This gentleman, after the action of the twelfth of April, impressed thirty hands from a slave-vessel, whom he selected with the utmost care from a crew of seventy; and he was reprimanded by his admiral, though they could scarcely get men to bring home the prizes, for introducing such wretches to communicate disorders to the fleet. Captain Smith of the Navy had also declared, that when employed to board Guineamen to impress sailors, although he had examined near twenty vessels, he never was able to get more than two men, who were fit for service; and these turned out such inhuman fellows, although good seamen, that he was obliged to dismiss them from the ship.
But he hoped the committee would attend to the latter part of the assertion of Captain Smith. Yes:—this trade, while it injured the constitutions of our sailors, debased their morals. Of this, indeed, there was a barbaous illustration in the evidence. A slave-ship had struck on some shoals, called the Morant Keys, a few leagues from the east end of Jamaica. The crew landed in their boats, with arms and provisions, leaving the slaves on board in their irons. This happened in the night. When morning came, it was discovered that the Negros had broken their shackles, and were busy in making rafts; upon which afterwards they placed the women and children. The men attended upon the latter, swimming by their side, whilst they drifted to the island where the crew were. But what was the sequel? From an apprehension that the Negros would consume the water and provision, which had been landed, the crew resolved to destroy them as they approached the shore. They killed between three and four hundred. Out of the whole cargo only thirty-three were saved, who, on being brought to Kingston, were sold. It would, however, be to no purpose, he said, to relieve the Slave-trade from this act of barbarity. The story of the Morant Keys was paralleled by that of Captain Collingwood; and were you to get rid of these, another, and another, would still present itself, to prove the barbarous effects of this trade on the moral character.
But of the miseries of the trade there was no end. Whilst he had been reading out of the evidence the story of the Morant Keys, his eye had but glanced on the opposite page, and it met another circumstance of horror. This related to what were called the refuse-slaves. Many people in Kingston were accustomed to speculate in the purchase of those, who were left after the first day’s sale. They then carried them out into the country, and retailed them. Mr. Ross declared, that he had seen these landed in a very wretched state, sometimes in the agonies of death, and sold as low as for a dollar, and that he had known several expire in the piazzas of the vendue-master. The bare description superseded the necessity of any remark. Yet these were the familiar incidents of the Slave-trade.
But he would go back to the seamen. He would mention another cause of mortality, by which many of them lost their lives. In looking over Lloyd’s list, no less than six vessels were cut off by the irritated natives in one year, and the crews massacred. Such instances were not unfrequent. In short, the history of this commerce was written throughout in characters of blood.
He would next consider the effects of the abolition on those places where it was chiefly carried on. But would the committee believe, after all the noise which had been made on this subject, that the Slave-trade composed but a thirtieth part of the export trade of Liverpool, and that of the trade of Bristol it constituted a still less proportion? For the effects of the abolition on the general commerce of the kingdom, he would refer them to Mr. Irving; from whose evidence it would appear, that the medium value of the British manufactures, exported to Africa, amounted only to between four and five hundred thousand pounds annually. This was but a trifling sum. Surely the superior capital, ingenuity, application, and integrity, of the British manufacturer would command new markets for the produce of his industry, to an equal amount, when this should be no more. One branch, however, of our manufactures, he confessed, would suffer from the abolition; and that was the manufacture of gunpower; of which the nature of our connection with Africa drew from us as much as we exported to all the rest of the world besides.
He hastened, however, to another part of the argument. Some had said, “We wish to put an end to the Slave-trade, but we do not approve of your mode. Allow more time. Do not displease the legislatures of the West India islands. It is by them that those laws must be passed, and enforced, which will secure your object.” Now he was directly at issue with these gentlemen. He could show, that the abolition was the only certain mode of amending the treatment of the slaves, so as to secure their increase; and that the mode which had been offered to him, was at once inefficacious and unsafe. In the first place, how could any laws, made by these legislatures, be effectual, whilst the evidence of Negros was in no case admitted against White men? What was the answer from Grenada? Did it not state, “that they who were capable of cruelty, would in general be artful enough to prevent any but slaves from being witnesses of the fact?” Hence it had arisen, that when positive laws had been made, in some of the islands, for the protection of the slaves, they had been found almost a dead letter. Besides, by what law would you enter into every man’s domestic concerns, and regulate the interior œconomy of his house and plantation? This would be something more than a general excise. Who would endure such a law? And yet on all these and innumerable other minutiæ must depend the protection of the slaves, their comforts, and the probability of their increase. It was universally allowed, that the Code Noir had been utterly neglected in the French islands, though there was an officer appointed by the crown to see it enforced. The provisions of the Directorio had been but of little more avail in the Portuguese settlements, or the institution of a Protector of the Indians, in those of the Spaniards. But what degree of protection the slaves would enjoy might be inferred from the admission of a gentleman, by whom this very plan of regulation had been recommended, and who was himself no ordinary person, but a man of discernment and legal resources. He had proposed a limitation of the number of lashes to be given by the master or overseer for one offence. But, after all, he candidly confessed, that his proposal was not likely to be useful, while the evidence of slaves continued inadmissible against their masters. But he could even bring testimony to the inefficacy of such regulations. A wretch in Barbadoes had chained a Negro girl to the floor, and flogged her till she was nearly expiring. Captain Cook and Major Fitch, hearing her cries, broke open the door and found her. The wretch retreated from their resentment, but cried out exultingly, “that he had only given her thirty-nine lashes (the number limited by law) at any one time; and that he had only inflicted this number three times since the beginning of the night,” adding, “that he would prosecute them for breaking open his door; and that he would flog her to death for all any one, if he pleased; and that he would give her the fourth thirty-nine before morning.”
But this plan of regulation was not only inefficacious, but unsafe. He entered his protest against the fatal consequences, which might result from it. The Negros were creatures like ourselves; but they were uninformed, and their moral character was debased. Hence they were unfit for civil rights. To use these properly they must be gradually restored to that level, from which they had been so unjustly degraded. To allow them an appeal to the laws, would be to awaken in them a sense of the dignity of their nature. The first return of life, after a swoon, was commonly a convulsion, dangerous at once to the party himself and to all around him. You should first prepare them for the situation, and not bring the situation to them. To be under the protection of the law was in fact to be a freeman; and to unite slavery and freedom in one condition was impracticable. The abolition, on the other hand, was exactly such an agent as the case required. All hopes of supplies from the Coast being cut off, breeding would henceforth become a serious object of attention; and the care of this, as including better clothing, and feeding, and milder discipline, would extend to innumerable particulars, which an act of assembly could neither specify nor enforce. The horrible system, too, which many had gone upon, of working out their slaves in a few years, and recruiting their gangs with imported Africans, would receive its death-blow from the abolition of the trade. The opposite would force itself on the most unfeeling heart. Ruin would stare a man in the face, if he were not to conform to it. The non-resident owners would then express themselves in the terms of Sir Philip Gibbs, “that he should consider it as the fault of his manager, if he were not to keep up the number of his slaves.” This reasoning concerning the different tendencies of the two systems was self-evident. But facts were not wanting to confirm it. Mr. Long had remarked, that all the insurrections and suicides in Jamaica had been found among the imported slaves, who, not having lost the consciousness of civil rights, which they had enjoyed in their own country, could not brook the indignities to which they were subjected in the West Indies. An instance in point was afforded also by what had lately taken place in the island of Dominica. The disturbance there had been chiefly occasioned by some runaway slaves from the French islands. But what an illustration was it of his own doctrine to say, that the slaves of several persons, who had been treated with kindness, were not among the number of the insurgents on that occasion!
But when persons coolly talked of putting an end to the Slave-trade through the medium of the West India legislatures, and of gradual abolition, by means of regulations, they surely forgot the miseries which this horrid traffic occasioned in Africa during every moment of its continuance. This consideration was conclusive with him, when called upon to decide whether the Slave-trade should be tolerated for a while, or immediately abolished. The divine law against murder was absolute and unqualified. Whilst we were ignorant of all these things, our sanction of them might, in some measure, be pardoned. But now, when our eyes were opened, could we tolerate them for a moment, unless we were ready at once to determine, that gain should be our God, and, like the heathens of old, were prepared to offer up human victims at the shrine of our idolatry?
This consideration precluded also the giving heed for an instant to another plea, namely, that if we were to abolish the trade it would be proportionably taken up by other nations. But, whatever other nations did, it became Great Britain, in every point of view, to take a forward part. One half of this guilty commerce had been carried on by her subjects. As we had been great in our crime, we should be early in our repentance. If Providence had showered his blessings upon us in unparalleled abundance, we should show ourselves grateful for them by rendering them subservient to the purposes for which they were intended. There would be a day of retribution, wherein we should have to give an account of all those talents, faculties, and opportunities, with which we had been intrusted. Let it not then appear, that our superior power had been employed to oppress our fellow-creatures, and our superior light to darken the creation of God. He could not but look forward with delight to the happy prospects which opened themselves to his view in Africa from the abolition of the Slave-trade; when a commerce, justly deserving that name, should be established with her; not like that, falsely so called, which now subsisted, and which all who were interested for the honour of the commercial character (though there were no superior principle) should hasten to disavow. Had this trade indeed been ever so profitable, his decision would have been in no degree affected by that consideration. “Here’s the smell of blood on the hand still, and all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten it.”
He doubted, whether it was not almost an act of degrading condescension to stoop to discuss the question in the view of commercial interest. On this ground, however, he was no less strong than on every other. Africa abounded with productions of value, which she would gladly exchange for our manufactures, when these were not otherwise to be obtained: and to what an extent her demand might then grow exceeded almost the powers of computation. One instance already existed of a native king, who being debarred by his religion the use of spirituous liquors, and therefore not feeling the irresistible temptation to acts of rapine which they afforded to his countrymen, had abolished the Slave-trade throughout all his dominions, and was encouraging an honest industry.
For his own part, he declared that, interested as he might be supposed to be in the final event of the question, he was comparatively indifferent as to the present decision of the House upon it. Whatever they might do, the people of Great Britain, he was confident, would abolish the Slave-trade when, as would then soon happen, its injustice and cruelty should be fairly laid before them. It was a nest of serpents, which would never have existed so long, but for the darkness in which they lay hid. The light of day would now be let in on them, and they would vanish from the sight. For himself, he declared he was engaged in a work, which he would never abandon. The consciousness of the justice of his cause would carry him forward, though he were alone; but he could not but derive encouragement from considering with whom he was associated. Let us not, he said, despair. It is a blessed cause; and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory. We have obtained for these poor creatures the recognition of their human nature* , which, for a while, was most shamefully denied them. This is the first fruits of our efforts. Let us persevere, and our triumph will be complete. Never, never, will we desist, till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name; till we have released ourselves from the load of guilt under which we at present labour; and till we have extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarcely believe had been suffered to exist so long, a disgrace and a dishonour to our country.
He then moved, that the chairman be instructed to move for leave to bring in a bill to prevent the further importation of slaves into the British colonies in the West Indies.
Colonel Tarleton immediately rose up, and began by giving an historical account of the trade from the reign of Elizabeth to the present time. He then proceeded to the sanction, which parliament had always given it. Hence it could not then be withdrawn without a breach of faith. Hence, also, the private property embarked in it was sacred: nor could it be invaded, unless an adequate compensation were given in return.
They, who had attempted the abolition of the trade, were led away by a mistaken humanity. The Africans themselves had no objection to its continuance.
With respect to the Middle Passage, he believed the mortality there to be on an average only five in the hundred; whereas in regiments, sent out to the West Indies, the average loss in the year was about ten and a half per cent.
The Slave-trade was absolutely necessary, if we meant to carry on our West India commerce; for many attempts had been made to cultivate the lands in the different islands by White labourers; but they had always failed.
It had also the merit of keeping up a number of seamen in readiness for the state. Lord Rodney had stated this as one of its advantages on the breaking out of a war. Liverpool alone could supply nine hundred and ninety-three seamen annually.
He would now advert to the connections dependent upon the African trade. It was the duty of the House to protect the planters, whose lives had been, and were then, exposed to imminent dangers, and whose property had undergone an unmerited depreciation. To what could this depreciation, and to what could the late insurrection at Dominica be imputed, which had been saved from horrid carnage and midnight-butchery only by the adventitious arrival of two British regiments? They could only be attributed to the long delayed question of the abolition of the Slave-trade; and if this question were to go much longer unsettled, Jamaica would be endangered also.
To members of landed property he would observe, that the abolition would lessen the commerce of the country, and increase the national debt and the number of their taxes. The minister, he hoped, who patronized this wild scheme, had some new pecuniary resource in store to supply the deficiencies it would occasion.
To the mercantile members he would speak thus: “A few ministerial men in the house had been gifted with religious inspiration, and this had been communicated to other eminent personages in it: these enlightened philanthropists had discovered, that it was necessary, for the sake of humanity and for the honour of the nation, that the merchants concerned in the African trade should be persecuted, notwithstanding the sanction of their trade by parliament, and notwithstanding that such persecution must aggrandize the rivals of Great Britain.” Now how did this language sound? It might have done in the twelfth century, when all was bigotry and superstition. But let not a mistaken humanity, in these enlightened times, furnish a colourable pretext for any injurious attack on property or character.
These things being considered, he should certainly oppose the measure in contemplation. It would annihilate a trade, whose exports amounted to eight hundred thousand pounds annually, and which employed a hundred and sixty vessels and more than five thousand seamen. It would destroy also the West India trade, which was of the annual value of six millions; and which employed one hundred and sixty thousand tons of shipping, and seamen in proportion. These were objects of too much importance to the country to be hazarded on an unnecessary speculation.
Mr. Grosvenor then rose. He complimented the humanity of Mr. Wilberforce, though he differed from him on the subject of his motion. He himself had read only the privy council report; and he wished for no other evidence. The question had then been delayed two years. Had the abolition been so clear a point as it was said to be, it could not have needed either so much evidence or time.
He had heard a good deal about kidnapping and other barbarous practices. He was sorry for them. But these were the natural consequences of the laws of Africa; and it became us as wise men to turn them to our own advantage. The Slave-trade was certainly not an amiable trade. Neither was that of a butcher; but yet it was a very necessary one.
There was great reason to doubt the propriety of the present motion. He had twenty reasons for disapproving it. The first was, that the thing was impossible. He needed not therefore to give the rest. Parliament, indeed, might relinquish the trade. But to whom? To foreigners, who would continue it, and without the humane regulations, which were applied to it by his countrymen.
He would give advice to the house on this subject in the words, which the late Alderman Beckford used on a different occasion: “Meddle not with troubled waters: they will be found to be bitter waters, and the waters of affliction.” He again admitted, that the Slave-trade was not an amiable trade; but he would not gratify his humanity at the expense of the interests of his country; and he thought we should not too curiously inquire into the unpleasant circumstances, which attended it.
Mr. James Martin succeeded Mr. Grosvenor. He said, he had been long aware, how much self-interest could pervert the judgment; but he was not apprized of the full power of it, till the Slave-trade became a subject of discussion. He had always conceived, that the custom of trafficking in human beings had been incautiously begun, and without any reflection upon it; for he never could believe that any man, under the influence of moral principles, could suffer himself knowingly to carry on a trade replete with fraud, cruelty, and destruction; with destruction, indeed, of the worst kind, because it subjected the sufferers to a lingering death. But he found now, that even such a trade as this could be sanctioned.
It was well observed in the petition from the University of Cambridge against the Slave-trade, “that a firm belief in the Providence of a benevolent Creator assured them that no system, founded on the oppression of one part of mankind, could be beneficial to another.” He felt much concern, that in an assembly of the representatives of a country, boasting itself zealous not only for the preservation of its own liberties, but for the general rights of mankind, it should be necessary to say a single word upon such a subject; but the deceitfulness of the human heart was such, as to change the appearances of truth, when it stood in opposition to self-interest. And he had to lament that even among those, whose public duty it was to cling to the universal and eternal principles of truth, justice, and humanity, there were found some, who could defend that which was unjust, fraudulent, and cruel.
The doctrines he had heard that evening, ought to have been reserved for times the most flagrantly profligate and abandoned. He never expected then to learn, that the everlasting laws of righteousness were to give way to imaginary, political, and commercial expediency; and that thousands of our fellow-creatures were to be reduced to wretchedness, that individuals might enjoy opulence, or government a revenue.
He hoped that the house for the sake of its own character would explode these doctrines with all the marks of odium they deserved; and that all parties would join in giving a death-blow to this execrable trade. The royal family would, he expected, from their known benevolence, patronize the measure. Both Houses of Parliament were now engaged in the prosecution of a gentleman accused of cruelty and oppression in the East. But what were these cruelties, even if they could be brought home to him, when compared in number and degree to those, which were every day and every hour committed in the abominable traffic, which was now under their discussion! He considered therefore both Houses of Parliament as pledged upon this occasion. Of the support of the bishops he could have no doubt; because they were to render Christianity amiable, both by their doctrine and their example. Some of the inferior clergy had already manifested a laudable zeal in behalf of the injured Africans. The University of Cambridge had presented a petition to that house worthy of itself. The Sister-university had, by one of her representatives, given sanction to the measure. Dissenters of various denominations, but particularly the Quakers, (who to their immortal honour had taken the lead in it,) had vied with those of the established church in this amiable contest. The first counties, and some of the largest trading towns, in the kingdom had espoused the cause. In short, there had never been more unanimity in the country, than in this righteous attempt.
With such support, and with so good a cause, it would be impossible to fail. Let but every man stand forth, who had at any time boasted of himself as an Englishman, and success would follow. But if he were to be unhappily mistaken as to the result, we must give up the name of Englishmen. Indeed, if we retained it, we should be the greatest hypocrites in the world; for we boasted of nothing more than of our own liberty; we manifested the warmest indignation at the smallest personal insult; we professed liberal sentiments towards other nations: but to do these things, and to continue such a traffic, would be to deserve the hateful character before mentioned. While we could hardly bear the sight of any thing resembling slavery, even as a punishment, among ourselves, how could we consistently entail an eternal slavery upon others?
It had been frequently, but most disgracefully said, that “we should not be too eager in setting the example. Let the French begin it.” Such a sentiment was a direct libel upon the ancient, noble, and generous character of this nation. We ought, on the other hand, under the blessings we enjoyed, and under the high sense we entertained of our own dignity as a people, to be proudly fearful, lest other nations should anticipate our design, and obtain the palm before us. It became us to lead. And if others should not follow us, it would belong to them to glory in the shame of trampling under foot the laws of reason, humanity, and religion.
This motion, he said, came strongly recommended to them. The honourable member, who introduced it, was justly esteemed for his character. He was the representative too of a noble county, which had been always ready to take the lead in every public measure for the good of the community, or for the general benefit of mankind; of a county too, which had had the honour of producing a Saville. Had his illustrious predecessor been alive, he would have shown the same zeal on the same occasion. The preservation of the unalienable rights of all his fellow-creatures was one of the chief characteristics of that excellent citizen. Let every member in that house imitate him in the purity of their conduct and in the universal rectitude of their measures, and they would pay the same tender regard to the rights of other countries as to those of their own; and, for his part, he should never believe those persons to be sincere, who were loud in their professions of love of liberty, if he saw that love confined to the narrow circle of one community, which ought to be extended to the natural rights of every inhabitant of the globe.
But we should be better able to bring ourselves up to this standard of rectitude, if we were to put ourselves into the situation of those, whom we oppressed. This was the rule of our religion. What should we think of those, who should say, that it was their interest to injure us? But he hoped we should not deceive ourselves so grossly as to imagine, that it was our real interest to oppress any one. The advantages to be obtained by tyranny were imaginary, and deceitful to the tyrant; and the evils they caused to the oppressed were grievous, and often insupportable.
Before he sat down, he would apologize, if he had expressed himself too warmly on this subject. He did not mean to offend any one. There were persons connected with the trade, some of whom he pitied on account of the difficulty of their situation. But he should think most contemptibly of himself as a man, if he could talk on this traffic without emotion. It would be a sign to him of his own moral degradation. He regretted his inability to do justice to such a cause; but if, in having attempted to forward it, he had shown the weakness of his powers, he must console himself with the consideration, that he felt more solid comfort in having acted up to sound public principles, than he could have done from the exertion of the most splendid talents against the conviction of his conscience.
Mr. Burdon rose, and said he was embarrassed to know how to act. Mr. Wilberforce had in a great measure met his ideas. Indeed he considered himself as much in his hands; but he wished to go gradually to the abolition of the trade. He wished to give time to the planters to recruit their stocks. He feared the immediate abolition might occasion a monopoly among such of them as were rich, to the detriment of the less affluent. We ought, like a judicious physician, to follow nature, and to promote a gradual recovery.
Mr. Francis rose next. After complimenting Mr. Wilberforce, he stated that personal considerations might appear to incline him to go against the side which he was about to take, namely, that of strenuously supporting his motion. Having himself an interest in the West Indies, he thought that what he should submit to the house would have the double effect of evidence and argument; and he stated most unequivocally his opinion, that the abolition of the Slave-trade would tend materially to the benefit of the West Indies.
The arguments urged by the honourable mover were supported by the facts, which he had adduced from the evidence, more strongly than any arguments had been supported in any speech he had ever heard. He wished, however, that more of these facts had been introduced into the debate; for they were apt to have a greater effect upon the mind than mere reasonings, however just and powerful. Many had affirmed that the Slave-trade was politic and expedient; but it was worthy of remark, that no man had ventured to deny that it was criminal. Criminal, however, he declared it to be in the highest degree; and he believed it was equally impolitic. Both its inexpediency and injustice had been established by the honourable mover. He dwelt much on the unhappy situation of the Negros in the West Indies, who were without the protection of government or of efficient laws, and subject to the mere caprice of men, who were at once the parties, the judges, and the executioners.
He instanced an overseer, who, having thrown a Negro into a copper of boiling cane-juice for a trifling offence, was punished merely by the loss of his place, and by being obliged to pay the value of the slave. He stated another instance of a girl of fourteen, who was dreadfully whipped for coming too late to her work. She fell down motionless after it; and was then dragged along the ground, by the legs, to an hospital; where she died. The murderer, though tried, was acquitted by a jury of his peers, upon the idea, that it was impossible a master could destroy his own property. This was a notorious fact. It was published in the Jamaica Gazette; and it had even happened since the question of the abolition had been started.
The only argument used against such cruelties, was the master’s interest in the slave. But he urged the common cruelty to horses, in which their drivers had an equal interest with the drivers of men in the colonies, as a proof that this was no security. He had never heard an instance of a master being punished for the murder of his slave. The propagation of the slaves was so far from being encouraged, that it was purposely checked, because it was thought more profitable and less troublesome to buy a full grown Negro, than to rear a child. He repeated that his interest might have inclined him to the other side of the question; but he did not choose to compromise between his interest and his duty; for, if he abandoned his duty, he should not be happy in this world; nor should he deserve happiness in the next.
Mr. Pitt rose; but he said it was only to move, seeing that justice could not be done to the subject this evening, that the further consideration of the question might be adjourned to the next.
Mr. Cawthorne and Colonel Tarleton both opposed this motion, and Colonel Phipps and Lord Carhampton supported it.
Mr. Fox said, the opposition to the adjournment was uncandid and unbecoming. They who opposed it well knew that the trade could not bear discussion. Let it be discussed; and, although there were symptoms of predetermination in some, the abolition of it must be carried. He would not believe that there could be found in the House of Commons men of such hard hearts and inaccessible understandings, as to vote an assent to its continuance, and then go home to their families, satisfied with their vote, after they had been once made acquainted with the subject.
Mr. Pitt agreed with Mr. Fox, that from a full discussion of the subject there was every reason to augur, that the abolition would be adopted. Under the imputations, with which this trade was loaded, gentlemen should remember, they could not do justice to their own characters, unless they stood up, and gave their reasons for opposing the abolition of it. It was unusual also to force any question of such importance to so hasty a decision. For his own part, it was his duty, from the situation in which he stood, to state fully his own sentiments on the question; and, however exhausted both he and the house might be, he was resolved it should not pass without discussion, as long as he had strength to utter a word upon it. Every principle, that could bind a man of honour and conscience, would impel him to give the most powerful support he could to the motion for the abolition.
The motion of Mr. Pitt was assented to, and the house was adjourned accordingly.
On the next day the subject was resumed. Sir William Yonge rose, and said, that, though he differed from the honourable mover, he had much admired his speech of the last evening. Indeed the recollection of it made him only the more sensible of the weakness of his own powers; and yet, having what he supposed to be irrefragable arguments in his possession, he felt emboldened to proceed.
And, first, before he could vote for the abolition, he wished to be convinced, that, whilst Britain were to lose, Africa would gain. As for himself, he hated a traffic in men, and joyfully anticipated its termination at no distant period under a wise system of regulation: but he considered the present measure as crude and indolent; and as precluding better and wiser measures, which were already in train. A British Parliament should attain not only the best ends, but by the wisest means.
Great Britain might abandon her share of this trade, but she could not abolish it. Parliament was not an assembly of delegates from the powers of Europe, but of a single nation. It could not therefore suppress the trade; but would eventually aggravate those miseries incident to it, which every enlightened man must acknowledge, and every good man must deplore. He wished the traffic for ever closed. But other nations were only waiting for our decision, to seize the part we should leave them. The new projects of these would be intemperate; and, in the zeal of rivalship, the present evils of comparatively sober dealing would be aggravated beyond all estimate in this new and heated auction of bidders for life and limb. We might indeed by regulation give an example of new principles of policy and of justice; but if we were to withdraw suddenly from this commerce, like Pontius Pilate, we should wash our hands indeed, but we should not be innocent as to the consequences.
On the first agitation of this business, Mr. Wilberforce had spoken confidently of other nations following our example. But had not the National Assembly of France referred the Slave-trade to a select committee, and had not that committee rejected the measure of its abolition? By the evidence it appeared, that the French and Spaniards were then giving bounties to the Slave-trade; that Denmark was desirous of following it; that America was encouraging it; and that the Dutch had recognized its necessity, and recommended its recovery. Things were bad enough indeed as they were, but he was sure this rivalship would make them worse.
He did not admit the disorders imputed to the trade in all their extent. Pillage and kidnapping could not be general, on account of the populousness of the country; though too frequent instances of it had been proved. Crimes might be falsely imputed. This he admitted; but only partially. Witcheraft, he believed, was the secret of poisoning, and therefore deserved the severest punishment. That there should be a number of convictions for adultery, where polygamy was a custom, was not to be wondered at. But he feared, if a sale of these criminals were to be done away, massacre would be the substitute.
An honourable member had asked on a former day, “Is it an excuse for robbery, to say that another would have committed it?” But the Slave-trade did not necessarily imply robbery. Not long since Great Britain sold her convicts, indirectly at least, to slavery. But he was no advocate for the trade. He wished it had never been begun; and that it might soon terminate. But the means were not adequate to the end proposed.
Mr. Burke had said on a former occasion, “that in adopting the measure we must prepare to pay the price of our virtue.” He was ready to pay his share of that price. But the effect of the purchase must be first ascertained. If they did not estimate this, it was not benevolence, but dissipation. Effects were to be duly appreciated; and though statesmen might rest every thing on a plausible manifesto of cause, the humbler moralist, meditating peace and goodwill towards men, would venture to call such statesmen responsible for consequences.
In regard to the colonies, a sudden abolition would be oppression. The legislatures there should be led, and not forced, upon this occasion. He was persuaded they would act wisely to attain the end pointed out to them. They would see, that a natural increase of their Negros might be effected by an improved system of legislation; and that in the result the Slave-trade would be no longer necessary.
A sudden abolition, also, would occasion dissatisfaction there. Supplies were necessary for some time to come. The Negros did not yet generally increase by birth. The gradation of ages was not yet duly filled. These and many defects might be remedied, but not suddenly.
It would cause also distress there. The planters, not having their expected supplies, could not discharge their debts. Hence their slaves would be seized and sold. Nor was there any provision in this case against the separation of families, except as to the mother and infant child. These separations were one of the chief outrages complained of in Africa. Why then should we promote them in the West Indies? The confinement on board a slave-ship had been also bitterly complained of; but, under distraint for the debt of a master, the poor slave might linger in a gaol twice or thrice the time of the Middle Passage.
He again stated his abhorrence of the Slave-trade; but as a resource, though he hoped but a temporary one, it was of such consequence to the existence of the country, that it could not suddenly be withdrawn. The value of the imports and exports between Great Britain and the West Indies, including the excise and customs, was between seven and eight millions annually; and the tonnage of the ships employed, about an eighth of the whole tonnage of these kingdoms.
He complained that in the evidence the West India planters had been by no means spared. Cruel stories had been hastily and lightly told against them. Invidious comparisons had been made to their detriment. But it was well known, that one of our best comic writers, when he wished to show benevolence in its fairest colours, had personified it in the character of the West Indian. He wished the slave might become as secure as the apprentice in this country: but it was necessary that the alarms concerning the abolition of the Slave-trade should, in the mean time, be quieted; and he trusted that the good sense and true benevolence of the House would reject the present motion.
Mr. Matthew Montagu rose, and said a few words in support of the motion; and after condemning the trade in the strongest manner, he declared, that as long as he had life, he would use every faculty of his body and mind in endeavouring to promote its abolition.
Lord John Russell succeeded Mr. Montagu. He said, that although slavery was repugnant to his feelings, he must vote against the abolition, as visionary and delusive. It was a feeble attempt without the power to serve the cause of humanity. Other nations would take up the trade. Whenever a bill of wise regulation should be brought forward, no man would be more ready than himself to lend his support. In this way the rights of humanity might be asserted without injury to others. He hoped he should not incur censure by his vote; for, let his understanding be what it might, he did not know that he had, notwithstanding the assertions of Mr. Fox, an inaccessible heart.
Mr. Stanley (agent for the islands) rose next. He felt himself called upon, he said, to refute the many calumnies, which had for years been propagated against the planters, (even through the medium of the pulpit, which should have been employed to better purposes,) and which had at length produced the mischievous measure, which was now under the discussion of the House. A cry had been sounded forth, and from one end of the kingdom to the other; as if there had never been a slave from Adam to the present time. But it appeared to him to have been the intention of Providence, from the very beginning, that one set of men should be slaves to another. This truth was as old as it was universal. It was recognized in every history, under every government, and in every religion. Nor did the Christian religion itself, if the comments of Dr. Halifax, bishop of Gloucester, on a passage in St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians were true, show more repugnance to slavery than any other.
He denied that the slaves were procured in the manner which had been described. It was the custom of all savages to kill their prisoners; and the Africans ought to be thankful that they had been carried safe into the British colonies.
As to the tales of misery in the Middle Passage, they were gross falsehoods; and as to their treatment in the West Indies, he knew personally that it was, in general, indulgent and humane.
With regard to promoting their increase by any better mode of treatment, he wished gentlemen would point it out to him. As a planter he would thank them for it. It was absurd to suppose that he and others were blind to their own interest. It was well known that one Creole slave was worth two Africans: and their interest therefore must suggest to them, that the propagation of slaves was preferable to the purchase of imported Negros, of whom one half very frequently died in the seasoning.
He then argued the impossibility of beasts doing the work of the plantations. He endeavoured to prove that the number of these, adequate to this purpose, could not be supplied with food; and after having made many other observations, which, on account of the lowness of his voice, could not be heard, he concluded by objecting to the motion.
Mr. William Smith rose. He wondered how the last speaker could have had the boldness to draw arguments from scripture in support of the Slave-trade. Such arguments could be intended only to impose on those, who never took the trouble of thinking for themselves. Could it be thought for a moment, that the good sense of the House could be misled by a few perverted or misapplied passages, in direct opposition to the whole tenor and spirit of Christianity; to the theory, he might say, of almost every religion, which had ever appeared in the world? Whatever might have been advanced, every body must feel, that the Slave-trade could not exist an hour, if that excellent maxim, “to do to others as we would wish that others should do to us,” had its proper influence on the conduct of men.
Nor was Mr. Stanley more happy in his argument of the antiquity and universality of slavery. Because a practice had existed, did it necessarily follow that it was just? By this argument every crime might be defended from the time of Cain. The slaves of antiquity, however, were in a situation far preferable to that of the Negros in the West Indies. A passage in Macrobius, which exemplified this in the strongest manner, was now brought to his recollection. “Our ancestors,” says Macrobius, “denominated the master father of the family, and the slave domestic, with the intention of removing all odium from the condition of the master, and all contempt from that of the servant.” Could this language be applied to the present state of West India slavery?
It had been complained of by those who supported the trade, that they laboured under great disadvantages by being obliged to contend against the most splendid abilities which the House could boast. But he believed they laboured under one, which was worse, and for which no talents could compensate; he meant the impossibility of maintaining their ground fairly on any of those principles, which every man within those walls had been accustomed, from his infancy, to venerate as sacred. He and his friends too laboured under some disadvantages. They had been charged with fanaticism. But what had Mr. Long said, when he addressed himself to those planters, who were desirous of attempting improvements on their estates? He advised them “not to be diverted by partial views, vulgar prejudices, or the ridicule which might spring from weak minds, from a benevolent attention to the public good.” But neither by these nor by other charges were he or his friends to be diverted from the prosecution of their purpose. They were convinced of the rectitude and high importance of their object; and were determined never to desist from pursuing it, till it should be attained.
But they had to struggle with difficulties far more serious. The West Indian interest, which opposed them, was a collected body; of great power, affluence, connections, and respectability.
Artifice had also been employed. Abolition and emancipation had been so often confounded, and by those who knew better, that it must have been purposely done, to throw an odium on the measure which was now before them.
The abolitionists had been also accused as the authors of the late insurrection in Dominica. A revolt had certainly taken place in that island. But revolts there had occurred frequently before. Mr. Stanley himself, in attempting to fix this charge upon them, had related circumstances, which amounted to their entire exculpation. He had said, that all was quiet there till the disturbances in the French islands; when some Negros from the latter had found their way to Dominica, and had excited the insurrrection in question. He had also said, that the Negros in our own islands hated the idea of the abolition; for they thought, as no new labourers were to come in, they should be subjected to increased hardships. But if they and their masters hated this same measure, how was this coincidence of sentiment to give birth to insurrections?
Other fallacies also had been industriously propagated. Of the African trade it had been said, that the exports amounted to a million annually; whereas, from the report on the table, it had on an average amounted to little more than half a million; and this included the articles for the purchase of African produce, which were of the value of a hundred and forty thousand pounds.
The East Indian trade, also, had been said to depend on the West Indian and the African. In the first place, it had but very little connection with the former at all. Its connection with the latter was principally on account of the saltpetre, which it furnished for making gunpowder. Out of nearly three millions of pounds in weight of the latter article, which had been exported in a year from this country, one half had been sent to Africa alone; for the purposes, doubtless, of maintaining peace, and encouraging civilization among its various tribes! Four or five thousand persons were said also to depend for their bread in manufacturing guns for the African trade; and these, it was pretended, could not make guns of another sort.—But where lay the difficulty?—One of the witnesses had unravelled it. He had seen the Negros maimed by the bursting of these guns. They killed more from the butt than from the muzzle. Another had stated, that on the sea-coast the natives were afraid to fire a trade-gun.
In the West Indian commerce two hundred and forty thousand tons of shipping were stated to be employed. But here deception intruded itself again. This statement included every vessel, great and small, which went from the British West Indies to America, and to the foreign islands; and, what was yet more unfair, all the repeated voyages of each throughout the year. The shipping, which could only fairly be brought into this account, did but just exceed half that which had been mentioned.
In a similar manner had the islands themselves been overrated. Their value had been computed, for the information of the privy council, at thirty-six millions; but the planters had estimated them at seventy. The truth, however, might possibly lie between these extremes. He by no means wished to depreciate their importance; but he did not like that such palpable misrepresentations should go unnoticed.
An honourable member (Colonel Tarleton) had disclaimed every attempt to interest the feelings of those present, but had desired to call them to reason and accounts. He also desired (though it was a question of feeling, if any one ever was,) to draw the attention of the committee to reason and accounts—to the voice of reason instead of that of prejudice, and to accounts in the place of idle apprehensions. The result, he doubted not, would be a full persuasion, that policy and justice were inseparable upon this, as upon every other occasion.
The same gentleman had enlarged on the injustice of depriving the Liverpool merchants of a business, on which were founded their honour and their fortunes. On what part of it they founded their honour he could not conjecture, except from those passages in the evidence, where it appeared, that their agents in Africa had systematically practised every fraud and villainy, which the meanest and most unprincipled cunning could suggest, to impose on the ignorance of those with whom they traded.
The same gentleman had also lamented, that the evidence had not been taken upon oath. He himself lamented it too. Numberless facts had been related by eye-witnesses, called in support of the abolition, so dreadfully atrocious, that they appeared incredible; and seemed rather, to use the expression of Ossian, like “the histories of the days of other times.” These procured for the trade a species of acquittal, which it could not have obtained, had the committee been authorised to administer an oath. He apprehended also, in this case, that some other persons would have been rather more guarded in their testimony. Captain Knox would not then perhaps have told the committee, that six hundred slaves could have had comfortable room at night in his vessel of about one hundred and forty tons; when there could have been no more than five feet six inches in length, and fifteen inches in breadth, to about two thirds of his number.
The same gentleman had also dwelt upon the Slave-trade as a nursery for seamen. But it had appeared by the muster-rolls of the slave-vessels, then actually on the table of the House, that more than a fifth of them died in the service, exclusive of those who perished when discharged in the West Indies; and yet he had been instructed by his constituents to maintain this false position. His reasoning, too, was very curious; for, though numbers might die, yet as one half, who entered, were landsmen, seamen were continually forming. Not to dwell on the expensive cruelty of forming these seamen by the yearly destruction of so many hundreds, this very statement was flatly contradicted by the evidence. The muster-rolls from Bristol stated the proportion of landmen in the trade there at one twelfth, and the proper officers of Liverpool itself at but a sixteenth, of the whole employed. In the face again of the most glaring facts, others had maintained that the mortality in these vessels did not exceed that of other trades in the tropical climates. But the same documents, which proved that twenty-three per cent. were destroyed in this wasting traffic, proved that in West India ships only about one and a half per cent. were lost, including every casualty.—But the very men, under whose management this dreadful mortality had been constantly occurring, had coolly said, that much of it might be avoided by proper regulations. How criminal then were they, who, knowing this, had neither publicly proposed, nor in their practice adopted, a remedy!
The average loss of the slaves on board, which had been calculated by Mr. Wilberforce at twelve and a half per cent., had been denied. He believed this calculation, taking in all the circumstances connected with it, to be true; but that for years not less than one tenth had so perished, he would challenge those concerned in the traffic to disprove. Much evidence had been produced on the subject; but the voyages had been generally selected. There was only one, who had disclosed the whole account. This was Mr. Anderson of London, whose engagements in this trade had been very inconsiderable. His loss had only amounted to three per cent.; but, unfortunately for the Slave-traders of Liverpool, his vessel had not taken above three fourths of that number in proportion to the tonnage which they had stated to be necessary to the very existence of their trade.
An honourable member (Mr. Grosvenor) had attributed the protraction of this business to those who had introduced it. But from whom did the motion for further evidence (when that of the privy council was refused) originate, but from the enemies of the abolition? The same gentleman had said, it was impossible to abolish the trade; but where was the impossibility of forbidding the further importation of slaves into our own colonies? and beyond this the motion did not extend.
The latter argument had also been advanced by Sir William Yonge and others. But allowing it its full force, would there be no honour in the dereliction of such a commerce? Would it be nothing publicly to recognise great and just principles? Would our example be nothing?—Yes: every country would learn, from our experiment, that American colonies could be cultivated without the necessity of continual supplies equally expensive and disgraceful.
But we might do more than merely lay down principles or propose examples. We might, in fact, diminish the evil itself immediately by no inconsiderable part,—by the whole of our own supply: and here he could not at all agree with the honourable baronet, in what seemed to him a commercial paradox, that the taking away from an open trade by far the largest customer, and the lessening of the consumption of the article, would increase both the competition and the demand, and of course all those mischiefs, which it was their intention to avert.
That the civilization of the Africans was promoted, as had been asserted, by their intercourse with the Europeans, was void of foundation, as had appeared from the evidence. In manners and dishonesty they had indeed assimilated with those who frequented their coasts. But the greatest industry and the least corruption of morals were in the interior, where they were out of the way of this civilizing connection.
To relieve Africa from famine, was another of the benign reasons which had been assigned for continuing the trade. That famines had occurred there, he did not doubt; but that they should annually occur, and with such arithmetical exactness as to suit the demands of the Slave-trade, was a circumstance most extraordinary; so wonderful indeed, that, could it once be proved, he should consider it as a far better argument in favour of the divine approbation of that trade, than any which had ever yet been produced.
As to the effect of the abolition on the West Indies, it would give weight to every humane regulation which had been made; by substituting a certain and obvious interest, in the place of one depending upon chances and calculation. An honourable member (Mr. Stanley) had spoken of the impossibility of cultivating the estates there without further importations of Negros; and yet, of all the authorities he had brought to prove his case, there was scarcely one which might not be pressed to serve more or less effectually against him. Almost every planter he had named had found his Negros increase under the good treatment he had professed to give them; and it was an axiom, throughout the whole evidence, that wherever they were well used importations were not necessary. It had been said indeed by some adverse witnesses, that in Jamaica all possible means had been used to keep up the stock by breeding; but how preposterous was this, when it was allowed that the morals of the slaves had been totally neglected, and that the planters preferred buying a larger proportion of males than females!
The misfortune was, that prejudice and not reason was the enemy to be subdued. The prejudices of the West Indians on these points were numerous and inveterate. Mr. Long himself had characterized them on this account, in terms which he should have felt diffident in using. But Mr. Long had shown his own prejudices also. For he justified the chaining of the Negros on board the slave-vessels, on account of “their bloody, cruel, and malicious dispositions.” But hear his commendation of some of the Aborigines of Jamaica, “who had miserably perished in caves, whither they had retired to escape the tyranny of the Spaniards. These,” says he, “left a glorious monument of their having disdained to survive the loss of their liberty and their country.” And yet this same historian could not perceive that this natural love of liberty might operate as strongly and as laudably in the African Negro, as in the Indian of Jamaica.
He was concerned to acknowledge that these prejudices were yet further strengthened by resentment against those who had taken an active part in the abolition of the Slave-trade. But it was never the object of these to throw a stigma on the whole body of the West Indians; but to prove the miserable effects of the trade. This it was their duty to do; and if, in doing this, disgraceful circumstances had come out, it was not their fault; and it must never be forgotten that they were true.
That the slaves were exposed to great misery in the islands, was true as well from inference as from facts: for what might not be expected from the use of arbitrary power, where the three characters of party, judge, and executioner were united! The slaves too were more capable on account of their passions, than the beasts of the field, of exciting the passions of their tyrants. To what a length the ill treatment of them might be carried, might be learnt from the instance which General Tottenham mentioned to have seen in the year 1780 in the streets of Bridge Town, Barbadoes: “A youth about nineteen (to use his own words in the evidence), entirely naked, with an iron collar about his neck, having five long projecting spikes. His body both before and behind was covered with wounds. His belly and thighs were almost cut to pieces, with running ulcers all over them; and a finger might have been laid in some of the weals. He could not sit down, because his hinder part was mortified; and it was impossible for him to lie down, on account of the prongs of his collar.” He supplicated the General for relief. The latter asked, who had punished him so dreadfully? The youth answered, his master had done it. And because he could not work, this same master, in the same spirit of perversion, which extorts from scripture a justification of the Slave-trade, had fulfilled the apostolic maxim, that he should have nothing to eat. The use he meant to make of this instance was to show the unprotected state of the slaves. What must it be, where such an instance could pass not only unpunished, but almost unregarded! If, in the streets of London, but a dog were to be seen lacerated like this miserable man, how would the cruelty of the wretch be execrated, who had thus even abused a brute!
The judicial punishments also inflicted upon the Negro showed the low estimation, in which, in consequence of the strength of old customs and deep-rooted prejudices, they were held. Mr. Edwards, in his speech to the Assembly at Jamaica, stated the following case, as one which had happened in one of the rebellions there. Some slaves surrounded the dwelling-house of their mistress. She was in bed with a lovely infant. They deliberated upon the means of putting her to death in torment. But in the end one of them reserved her for his mistress; and they killed her infant with an axe before her face. “Now,” says Mr. Edwards, (addressing himself to his audience,) “you will think that no torments were too great for such horrible excesses. Nevertheless I am of a different opinion. I think that death, unaccompanied with cruelty, should be the utmost exertion of human authority over our unhappy fellow-creatures.” Torments, however, were always inflicted in these cases. The punishment was gibbeting alive, and exposing the delinquents to perish by the gradual effects of hunger, thirst, and a parching sun; in which situation they were known to suffer for nine days, with a fortitude scarcely credible, never uttering a single groan. But horrible as the excesses might have been, which occasioned these punishments, it must be remembered, that they were committed by ignorant savages, who had been dragged from all they held most dear; whose patience had been exhausted by a cruel and loathsome confinement during their transportation; and whose resentment had been wound up to the highest pitch of fury by the lash of the driver.
But he would now mention another instance, by way of contrast, out of the evidence. A child on board a slave-ship, of about ten months old, took sulk and would not eat. The captain flogged it with a cat; swearing that he would make it eat, or kill it. From this and other ill-treatment the child’s legs swelled. He then ordered some water to be made hot to abate the swelling. But even his tender mercies were cruel; for the cook, on putting his hand into the water, said it was too hot. Upon this the captain swore at him, and ordered the feet to be put in. This was done. The nails and skin came off. Oiled cloths were then put round them. The child was at length tied to a heavy log. Two or three days afterwards, the captain caught it up again; and repeated that he would make it eat, or kill it. He immediately flogged it again, and in a quarter of an hour it died. But, after the child was dead, whom should the barbarian select to throw it overboard, but the wretched mother? In vain she started from the office. He beat her, till he made her take up the child and carry it to the side of the vessel. She then dropped it into the sea, turning her head the other way that she might not see it. Now it would naturally be asked, Was not this captain also gibbeted alive? Alas! although the execrable barbarity of the European exceeded that of the Africans before mentioned, almost as much as his opportunities of instruction had been greater than theirs, no notice whatsoever was taken of this horrible action; and a thousand similar cruelties had been committed in this abominable trade with equal impunity: but he would say no more. He should vote for the abolition, not only as it would do away all the evils complained of in Africa and the Middle Passage; but as it would be the most effectual means of ameliorating the condition of those unhappy persons, who were still to continue slaves in the British colonies.
Mr. Courtenay rose. He said, he could not but consider the assertion of Sir William Yonge as a mistake, that the Slave-trade, if abandoned by us, would fall into the hands of France. It ought to be recollected, with what approbation the motion for abolishing it, made by the late Mirabeau, had been received; although the situation of the French colonies might then have presented obstacles to carrying the measure into immediate execution. He had no doubt, if parliament were to begin, so wise and enlightened a body as the National Assembly would follow the example. But even if France were not to relinquish the trade, how could we, if justice required its abolition, hesitate as to our part of it?
The trade, it had been said, was conducted upon the principles of humanity. Yes: we rescued the Africans from what we were pleased to call their wretched situation in their own country, and then we took credit for our humanity; because, after having killed one half of them in the seasoning, we substituted what we were again pleased to call a better treatment than that which they would have experienced at home.
It had been stated that the principle of war among savages was a general massacre. This was not true. They frequently adopted the captives into their own families; and, so far from massacring the women and children, they often gave them the protection which the weakness of their age and sex demanded.
There could be no doubt, that the practice of kidnapping prevailed in Africa. As to witchcraft, it had been made a crime in the reign of James the First in this country, for the purpose of informations; and how much more likely were informations to take place in Africa, under the encouragement afforded by the Slave-trade! This trade, it had been said, was sanctioned by twenty-six acts of parliament. He did not doubt but fifty-six might be found, by which parliament had sanctioned witchcraft; of the existence of which we had now no belief whatever.
It had been said by Mr. Stanley, that the pulpit had been used as an instrument of attack on the Slave-trade. He was happy to learn it had been so well employed; and he hoped the Bishops would rise up in the House of Lords, with the virtuous indignation which became them, to abolish a traffic so contrary to humanity, justice, and religion.
He entreated every member to recollect, that on his vote that night depended the happiness of millions; and that it was then in his power to promote a measure, of which the benefits would be felt over one whole quarter of the globe; that the seeds of civilization might, by the present bill, be sown all over Africa; and the first principles of humanity be established in regions, where they had hitherto been excluded by the existence of this execrable trade.
Lord Carysfort rose, and said, that the great cause of the abolition had flourished by the manner in which it had been opposed. No one argument of solid weight has been adduced against it. It had been shown, but never disproved, that the colonial laws were inadequate to the protection of the slaves; that the punishments of the latter were most unmerciful; that they were deprived of the right of self-defence against any White man; and, in short, that the system was totally repugnant to the principles of the British constitution.
Colonel Phipps followed Lord Carysfort. He denied that this was a question in which the rights of humanity and the laws of nature were concerned. The Africans became slaves in consequence of the constitution of their own governments. These were founded in absolute despotism. Every subject was an actual slave. The inhabitants were slaves to the great men; and the great men were slaves to the Prince. Prisoners of war, too, were by law subject to slavery. Such being the case, he saw no more cruelty in disposing of them to our merchants, than to those of any other nation. Criminals also in cases of adultery and witchcraft became slaves by the same laws.
It had been said, that there were no regulations in the West Indies for the protection of slaves. There were several; though he was ready to admit, that more were necessary; and he would go in this respect as far as humanity might require. He had passed ten months in Jamaica, where he had never seen any such acts of cruelty as had been talked of. Those which he had seen were not exercised by the Whites, but by the Blacks. The dreadful stories, which had been told, ought no more to fix a general stigma upon the planters, than the story of Mrs. Brownrigg to stamp this polished metropolis with the general brand of murder. There was once a haberdasher’s wife (Mrs. Nairne) who locked up her apprentice girl, and starved her to death: but did ever any body think of abolishing haberdashery on this account? He was persuaded the Negros in the West Indies were cheerful and happy. They were fond of ornaments; but it was not the characteristic of miserable persons to show a taste for finery. Such a taste, on the contrary, implied a cheerful and contented mind. He was sorry to differ from his friend Mr. Wilberforce, but he must oppose his motion.
Mr. Pitt rose, and said, that from the first hour of his having had the honour to sit in parliament down to the present, among all the questions, whether political or personal, in which it had been his fortune to take a share, there had never been one in which his heart was so deeply interested as in the present; both on account of the serious principles it involved, and the consequences connected with it.
The present was not a mere question of feeling. The argument, which ought in his opinion to determine the committee, was, that the Slave-trade was unjust. It was therefore such a trade as it was impossible for him to support, unless it could be first proved to him, that there were no laws of morality binding upon nations; and that it was not the duty of a legislature to restrain its subjects from invading the happiness of other countries, and from violating the fundamental principles of justice.
Several had stated the impracticability of the measure before them. They wished to see the trade abolished; but there was some necessity for continuing it, which they conceived to exist. Nay, almost every one, he believed, appeared to wish, that the further importation of slaves might cease; provided it could be made out, that the population of the West Indies could be maintained without it. He proposed therefore to consider the latter point; for, as the impracticability of keeping up the population there appeared to operate as the chief objection, he trusted that, by showing it to be ill founded, he should clear away all other obstacles whatever; so that, having no ground either of justice or necessity to stand upon, there could be no excuse left to the committee for resisting the present motion.
He might reasonably, however, hope that they would not reckon any small or temporary disadvantage, which might arise from the abolition, to be a sufficient reason against it. It was surely not any slight degree of expediency, nor any small balance of profit, nor any light shades of probability on the one side, rather than on the other, which would determine them on this question. He asked pardon even for the supposition. The Slave-trade was an evil of such magnitude, that there must be a common wish in the committee at once to put an end to it, if there were no great and serious obstacles. It was a trade, by which multitudes of unoffending nations were deprived of the blessings of civilization, and had their peace and happiness invaded. It ought therefore to be no common expediency, it ought to be nothing less than the utter ruin of our islands, which it became those to plead, who took upon them to defend the continuance of it.
He could not help thinking that the West India gentlemen had manifested an over great degree of sensibility as to the point in question; and that their alarms had been unreasonably excited upon it. He had examined the subject carefully for himself; and he would now detail those reasons, which had induced him firmly to believe, not only that no permanent mischief would follow from the abolition; but not even any such temporary inconvenience, as could be stated to be a reason for preventing the House from agreeing to the motion before them; on the contrary, that the abolition itself would lay the foundation for the more solid improvement of all the various interests of those colonies.
In doing this he should apply his observations chiefly to Jamaica, which contained more than half the slaves in the British West Indies; and if he should succeed in proving that no material detriment could arise to the population there, this would afford so strong a presumption with respect to the other islands, that the House could no longer hesitate, whether they should, or should not, put a stop to this most horrid trade.
In the twenty years ending in 1788, the annual loss of slaves in Jamaica (that is, the excess of deaths above the births,) appeared to be one in the hundred. In a preceding period the loss was greater; and, in a period before that, greater still; there having been a continual gradation in the decrease through the whole time. It might fairly be concluded, therefore, that (the average loss of the last period being one per cent.) the loss in the former part of it would be somewhat more, and in the latter part somewhat less, than one per cent; insomuch that it might be fairly questioned, whether, by this time, the births and deaths in Jamaica might not be stated as nearly equal. It was to be added, that a peculiar calamity, which swept away fifteen thousand slaves, had occasioned a part of the mortality in the last-mentioned period. The probable loss, therefore, now to be expected was very inconsiderable indeed.
There was, however, one circumstance to be added, which the West India gentlemen, in stating this matter, had entirely overlooked; and which was so material, as clearly to reduce the probable diminution in the population of Jamaica down to nothing. In all the calculations he had referred to of the comparative number of births and deaths, all the Negros in the island were included. The newly imported, who died in the seasoning, made a part. But these swelled, most materially, the number of the deaths. Now as these extraordinary deaths would cease, as soon as the importations ceased, a deduction of them ought to be made from his present calculation.
But the number of those, who thus died in the seasoning, would make up of itself nearly the whole of that one per cent., which had been stated. He particularly pressed an attention to this circumstance; for the complaint of being likely to want hands in Jamaica, arose from the mistake of including the present unnatural deaths, caused by the seasoning, among the natural and perpetual causes of mortality. These deaths, being erroneously taken into the calculations, gave the planters an idea, that the numbers could not be kept up. These deaths, which were caused merely by the Slave-trade, furnished the very ground, therefore, on which the continuance of that trade had been thought necessary.
The evidence as to this point was clear; for it would be found in that dreadful catalogue of deaths, arising from the seasoning and the passage, which the House had been condemned to look into, that one half died. An annual mortality of two thousand slaves in Jamaica might be therefore charged to the importation; which, compared with the whole number on the island, hardly fell short of the whole one per cent. decrease.
Joining this with all the other considerations, he would then ask, Could the decrease of the slaves in Jamaica be such—could the colonies be so destitute of means—could the planters, when by their own accounts they were establishing daily new regulations for the benefit of the slaves—could they, under all these circumstances, be permitted to plead that total impossibility of keeping up their number, which they had rested on, as being indeed the only possible pretext for allowing fresh importations from Africa? He appealed therefore to the sober judgment of all, whether the situation of Jamaica was such, as to justify a hesitation in agreeing to the present motion.
It might be observed also, that, when the importations should stop, that disproportion between the sexes, which was one of the obstacles to population, would gradually diminish; and a natural order of things be established. Through the want of this natural order a thousand grievances were created, which it was impossible to define; and which it was in vain to think that, under such circumstances, we could cure. But the abolition of itself would work this desirable effect. The West Indians would then feel a near and urgent interest to enter into a thousand little details, which it was impossible for him to describe, but which would have the greatest influence on population. A foundation would thus be laid for the general welfare of the islands; a new system would rise up, the reverse of the old; and eventually both their general wealth and happiness would increase.
He had now proved far more than he was bound to do; for, if he could only show that the abolition would not be ruinous, it would be enough. He could give up, therefore, three arguments out of four, through the whole of what he had said, and yet have enough left for his position. As to the Creoles, they would undoubtedly increase. They differed in this entirely from the imported slaves, who were both a burthen and a curse to themselves and others. The measure now proposed would operate like a charm; and, besides stopping all the miseries in Africa and the passage, would produce even more benefit in the West Indies than legal regulations could effect.
He would now just touch upon the question of emancipation. A rash emancipation of the slaves would be mischievous. In that unhappy situation, to which our beneful conduct had brought ourselves and them, it would be no justice on either side to give them liberty. They were as yet incapable of it; but their situation might be gradually amended. They might be relieved from every thing harsh and severe; raised from their present degraded state; and put under the protection of the law. Till then, to talk of emancipation was insanity. But it was the system of fresh importations, which interfered with these principles of improvement; and it was only the abolition which could establish them. This suggestion had its foundation in human nature. Wherever the incentive of honour, credit, and fair profit appeared, energy would spring up; and when these labourers should have the natural springs of human action afforded them, they would then rise to the natural level of human industry.
From Jamaica he would now go to the other islands. In Barbadoes the slaves had rather increased. In St. Kitts the decrease for fourteen years had been but three fourths per cent.; but here many of the observations would apply, which he had used in the case of Jamaica. In Antigua many had died by a particular calamity. But for this, the decrease would have been trifling. In Nevis and Montserrat there was little or no disproportion of the sexes; so that it might well be hoped, that the numbers would be kept up in these islands. In Dominica some controversy had arisen about the calculation; but Governor Orde had stated an increase of births above the deaths. From Grenada and St. Vincents no accurate accounts had been delivered in answer to the queries sent them; but they were probably not in circumstances less favourable than in the other islands.
On a full review, then, of the state of the Negro population in the West Indies, was there any serious ground of alarm from the abolition of the Slave-trade? Where was the impracticability, on which alone so many had rested their objections? Must we not blush at pretending, that it would distress our consciences to accede to this measure, as far as the question of the Negro population was concerned?
Intolerable were the mischiefs of this trade, both in its origin and through every stage of its progress. To say that slaves could be furnished us by fair and commercial means was ridiculous. The trade sometimes ceased, as during the late war. The demand was more or less according to circumstances. But how was it possible, that to a demand so exceedingly fluctuating the supply should always exactly accommodate itself? Alas! we made human beings the subject of commerce; we talked of them as such; and yet we would not allow them the common principle of commerce, that the supply must accommodate itself to the consumption. It was not from wars, then, that the slaves were chiefly procured. They were obtained in proportion as they were wanted. If a demand for slaves arose, a supply was forced in one way or other; and it was in vain, overpowered as we then were with positive evidence, as well as the reasonableness of the supposition, to deny that by the Slave-trade we occasioned all the enormities which had been alleged against it.
Sir William Yonge had said, that, if we were not to take the Africans from their country, they would be destroyed. But he had not yet read, that all uncivilized nations destroyed their captives. We assumed therefore what was false. The very selling of them implied this: for, if they would sell their captives for profit, why should they not employ them so as to receive a profit also? Nay, many of them, while there was no demand from the slave-merchants, were often actually so employed. The trade, too, had been suspended during the war; and it was never said, or thought, that any such consequence had then followed.
The honourable baronet had also said in justification of the Slave-trade, that witchcraft commonly implied poison, and was therefore a punishable crime; but did he recollect that not only the individual accused, but that his whole family, were sold as slaves? The truth was, we stopped the natural progress of civilization in Africa. We cut her off from the opportunity of improvement. We kept her down in a state of darkness, bondage, ignorance and bloodshed. Was not this an awful consideration for this country? Look at the map of Africa, and see how little useful intercourse had been established on that vast continent! While other countries were assisting and enlightening each other, Africa alone had none of these benefits. We had obtained as yet only so much knowledge of her productions, as to show that there was a capacity for trade, which we checked. Indeed, if the mischiefs there were out of the question, the circumstance of the Middle Passage alone would, in his mind, be reason enough for the abolition. Such a scene as that of the slave-ships passing over with their wretched cargoes to the West Indies, if it could be spread before the eyes of the House, would be sufficient of itself to make them vote in favour of it; but when it could be added, that the interest even of the West Indies themselves rested on the accomplishment of this great event, he could not conceive an act of more imperious duty, than that, which was imposed upon the House, of agreeing to the present motion.
Sir Archibald Edmonstone rose, and asked, whether the present motion went so far, as to pledge those who voted for it, to a total and immediate abolition.
Mr. Alderman Watson rose next. He defended the Slave-trade as highly beneficial to the country, being one material branch of its commerce. But he could not think of the African trade without connecting it with the West Indian. The one hung upon the other. A third important branch also depended upon it; which was the Newfoundland fishery: the latter could not go on, if it were not for the vast quantity of inferior fish bought up for the Negros in the West Indies; and which was quite unfit for any other market. If therefore we destroyed the African, we destroyed the other trades. Mr. Turgot, he said, had recommended in the National Assembly of France the gradual abolition of the Slave-trade. He would therefore recommend it to the House to adopt the same measure, and to soften the rigours of slavery by wholesome regulations; but an immediate abolition he could not countenance.
Mr. Fox at length rose. He observed that some expressions, which he had used on the preceding day, had been complained of as too harsh and severe. He had since considered them; but he could not prevail upon himself to retract them; because, if any gentleman, after reading the evidence on the table, and attending to the debate, could avow himself an abetter of this shameful traffic in human flesh, it could only be either from some hardness of heart, or some difficulty of understanding, which he really knew not how to account for.
Some had considered this question as a question of political, whereas it was a question of personal, freedom. Political freedom was undoubtedly a great blessing; but, when it came to be compared with personal, it sunk to nothing. To confound the two, served therefore to render all arguments on either perplexing and unintelligible. Personal freedom was the first right of every human being. It was a right, of which he who deprived a fellow-creature was absolutely criminal in so depriving him, and which he who withheld was no less criminal in withholding. He could not therefore retract his words with respect to any, who (whatever respect he might otherwise have for them) should, by their vote of that night, deprive their fellow-creatures of so great a blessing. Nay, he would go further. He would say, that if the House, knowing what the trade was by the evidence, did not by their vote mark to all mankind their abhorrence of a practice so savage, so enormous, so repugnant to all laws human and divine, they would consign their character to eternal infamy.
That the pretence of danger to our West Indian islands from the abolition of the Slave-trade was totally unfounded, Mr. Wilberforce had abundantly proved: but if there were they, who had not been satisfied with that proof, was it possible to resist the arguments of Mr. Pitt on the same subject? It had been shown, on a comparison of the births and deaths in Jamaica, that there was not now any decrease of the slaves. But if there had been, it would have made no difference to him in his vote; for, had the mortality been ever so great there, he should have ascribed it to the system of importing Negros, instead of that of encouraging their natural increase. Was it not evident, that the planters thought it more convenient to buy them fit for work, than to breed them? Why, then, was this horrid trade to be kept up?—To give the planters, truly, the liberty of misusing their slaves, so as to check population; for it was from ill-usage only that, in a climate so natural to them, their numbers could diminish. The very ground, therefore, on which the planters rested the necessity of fresh importations, namely, the destruction of lives in the West Indies, was itself the strongest argument that could be given, and furnished the most imperious call upon parliament for the abolition of the trade.
Against this trade innumerable were the charges. An honourable member, Mr. Smith, had done well to introduce those tragical stories, which had made such an impression upon the House. No one of these had been yet controverted. It had indeed been said, that the cruelty of the African captain to the child was too bad to be true; and we had been desired to look at the cross-examination of the witness, as if we should find traces of the falsehood of his testimony there. But his cross-examination was peculiarly honourable to his character; for after he had been pressed, in the closest manner, by some able members of the House, the only inconsistency they could fix upon him was, whether the fact had happened on the same day of the same month of the year 1764 or the year 1765.
But it was idle to talk of the incredibility of such instances. It was not denied, that absolute power was exercised by the slave-captains; and if this was granted, all the cruelties charged upon them would naturally follow. Never did he hear of charges so black and horrible as those contained in the evidence on the table. They unfolded such a scene of cruelty, that if the House, with all their present knowledge of the circumstances, should dare to vote for its continuance, they must have nerves, of which he had no conception. We might find instances indeed, in history, of men violating the feelings of nature on extraordinary occasions. Fathers had sacrificed their sons and daughters, and husbands their wives; but to imitate their characters we ought to have not only nerves as strong as the two Brutuses, but to take care that we had a cause as good; or that we had motives for such a dereliction of our feelings as patriotic as those, which historians had annexed to these when they handed them to the notice of the world.
But what was our motive in the case before us?—to continue a trade which was a wholesale sacrifice of a whole order and race of our fellow-creatures; which carried them away by force from their native country, in order to subject them to the mere will and caprice, the tyranny and oppression, of other human beings, for their whole natural lives, them and their posterity for ever!! O most monstrous wickedness! O unparalleled barbarity! And, what was more aggravating, this most complicated scene of robbery and murder which mankind had ever witnessed, had been honoured by the name of—trade.
That a number of human beings should be at all times ready to be furnished as fair articles of commerce, just as our occasions might require, was absurd. The argument of Mr. Pitt on this head was unanswerable. Our demand was fluctuating: it entirely ceased at some times: at others it was great and pressing. How was it possible, on every sudden call, to furnish a sufficient return in slaves, without resorting to those execrable means of obtaining them, which were stated in the evidence? These were of three sorts, and he would now examine them.
Captives in war, it was urged, were consigned either to death or slavery. This, however, he believed to be false in point of fact. But suppose it were true; Did it not become us, with whom it was a custom, founded in the wisest policy, to pay the captives a peculiar respect and civility, to inculcate the same principles in Africa? But we were so far from doing this, that we encouraged wars for the sake of taking, not men’s goods and possessions, but men themselves; and it was not the war which was the cause of the Slave-trade, but the Slave-trade which was the cause of the war. It was the practice of the slave-merchants to try to intoxicate the African kings in order to turn them to their purpose. A particular instance occurred in the evidence of a prince, who, when sober, resisted their wishes; but in the moment of inebriety he gave the word for war, attacked the next village, and sold the inhabitants to the merchants.
The second mode was kidnapping. He referred the House to various instances of this in the evidence: but there was one in particular, from which we might immediately infer the frequency of the practice. A Black trader had kidnapped a girl and sold her; but he was presently afterwards kidnapped and sold himself; and, when he asked the captain who bought him, “What! do you buy me, who am a great trader?” the only answer was, “Yes, I will buy you, or her, or any body else, provided any one will sell you;” and accordingly both the trader and the girl were carried to the West Indies and sold for slaves.
The third mode of obtaining slaves was by crimes committed or imputed. One of these was adultery. But was Africa the place, where Englishmen, above all others, were to go to find out and punish adulterers? Did it become us to cast the first stone? It was a most extraordinary pilgrimage for a most extraordinary purpose! And yet upon this plea we justified our right of carrying off its inhabitants. The offence alleged next was witchcraft. What a reproach it was to lend ourselves to this superstition!—Yes: we stood by; we heard the trial; we knew the crime to be impossible; and that the accused must be innocent: but we waited in patient silence for his condemnation; and then we lent our friendly aid to the police of the country, by buying the wretched convict, with all his family; whom, for the benefit of Africa, we carried away also into perpetual slavery.
With respect to the situation of the slaves in their transportation, he knew not how to give the House a more correct idea of the horrors of it, than by referring them to the printed section of the slave-ship; where the eye might see what the tongue must fall short in describing. On this dismal part of the subject he would not dwell. He would only observe, that the acts of barbarity, related of the slave-captains in these voyages, were so extravagant, that they had been attributed in some instances to insanity. But was not this the insanity of arbitrary power? Who ever read the facts recorded of Nero without suspecting he was mad? Who would not be apt to impute insanity to Caligula—or Domitian—or Caracalla—or Commodus—or Heliogabalus? Here were six Roman emperors, not connected in blood, nor by descent, who, each of them, possessing arbitrary power, had been so distinguished for cruelty, that nothing short of insanity could be imputed to them. Was not the insanity of the masters of slave-ships to be accounted for on the same principles?
Of the slaves in the West Indies it had been said, that they were taken from a worse state to a better. An honourable member, Mr. W. Smith, had quoted some instances out of the evidence to the contrary. He also would quote one or two others. A slave under hard usage had run away. To prevent a repetition of the offence his owner sent for his surgeon, and desired him to cut off the man’s leg. The surgeon refused. The owner, to render it a matter of duty in the surgeon, broke it. “Now,” says he, “you must cut it off; or the man will die.” We might console ourselves, perhaps, that this happened in a French island; but he would select another instance, which had happened in one of our own. Mr. Ross heard the shrieks of a female issuing from an outhouse; and so piercing, that he determined to see what was going on. On looking in he perceived a young female tied up to a beam by her wrists; entirely naked; and in the act of involuntary writhing and swinging; while the author of her torture was standing below her with a lighted torch in his hand, which he applied to all the parts of her body as it approached him. What crime this miserable woman had perpetrated he knew not; but the human mind could not conceive a crime warranting such a punishment.
He was glad to see that these tales affected the House. Would they then sanction enormities, the bare recital of which made them shudder? Let them remember that humanity did not consist in a squeamish ear. It did not consist in shrinking and starting at such tales as these; but in a disposition of the heart to remedy the evils they unfolded. Humanity belonged rather to the mind than to the nerves. But, if so, it should prompt men to charitable exertion. Such exertion was necessary in the present case. It was necessary for the credit of our jurisprudence at home, and our character abroad. For what would any man think of our justice, who should see another hanged for a crime, which would be innocence itself, if compared with those enormities, which were allowed in Africa and the West Indies under the sanction of the British parliament?
It had been said, however, in justification of the trade, that the Africans were less happy at home than in the Islands. But what right had we to be judges of their condition? They would tell us a very different tale, if they were asked. But it was ridiculous to say, that we bettered their condition, when we dragged them from every thing dear in life to the most abject state of slavery.
One argument had been used, which for a subject so grave was the most ridiculous he had ever heard. Mr. Alderman Watson had declared the Slave-trade to be necessary on account of its connection with our fisheries. But what was this but an acknowledgment of the manner, in which these miserable beings were treated? The trade was to be kept up, with all its enormities, in order that there might be persons to consume the refuse fish from Newfoundland, which was too bad for any body else to eat.
It had been said that England ought not to abolish the Slave trade, unless other nations would also give it up. But what kind of morality was this? The trade was defensible upon no other principle than that of a highwayman. Great Britain could not keep it upon these terms. Mere gain was not a motive for a great country to rest on, as a justification of any measure. Honour was its superior; and justice was superior to honour.
With regard to the emancipation of those in slavery, he coincided with Mr. Wilberforce and Mr. Pitt; and upon this principle, that it might be as dangerous to give freedom at once to a man used to slavery, as, in the case of a man who had never seen day-light, to expose him all at once to the full glare of a meridian sun.
With respect to the intellect and sensibility of the Africans, it was pride only, which suggested a difference between them and ourselves. There was a remarkable instance to the point in the evidence, and which he would quote. In one of the slave-ships was a person of consequence; a man, once high in a military station, and with a mind not insensible to the eminence of his rank. He had been taken captive and sold; and was then in the hold, confined promiscuously with the rest. Happening in the night to fall asleep, he dreamed that he was in his own country; high in honour and command; caressed by his family and friends; waited on by his domestics; and surrounded with all his former comforts in life. But awaking suddenly, and finding where he was, he was heard to burst into the loudest groans and lamentations on the miserable contrast of his present state; mixed with the meanest of his subjects; and subjected to the insolence of wretches a thousand times lower than himself in every kind of endowment. He appealed to the House, whether this was not as moving a picture of the miserable effects of the Slave-trade, as could be well imagined. There was one way, by which they might judge of it. Let them make the case their own. This was the Christian rule of judging; and, having mentioned Christianity, he was sorry to find that any should suppose, that it had given countenance to such a system of oppression. So far was this from being the case, that he thought it one of the most splendid triumphs of this religion, that it had caused slavery to be so generally abolished on its appearance in the world. It had done this by teaching us, among other beautiful precepts, that, in the sight of their Maker, all mankind were equal. Its influence appeared to have been more powerful in this respect than that of all the antient systems of philosophy; though even in these, in point of theory, we might trace great liberality and consideration for human rights. Where could be found finer sentiments of liberty than in Demosthenes and Cicero? Where bolder assertions of the rights of mankind, than in Tacitus and Thucydides? But, alas! these were the holders of slaves! It was not so with those who had been converted to Christianity. He knew, however, that what he had been ascribing to Christianity had been imputed by others to the advances which philosophy had made. Each of the two parties took the merit to itself. The philosopher gave it to philosophy, and the divine to religion. He should not then dispute with either of them; but, as both coveted the praise, why should they not emulate each other by promoting this improvement in the condition of the human race?
He would now conclude by declaring, that the whole country, indeed the whole civilized world, must rejoice that such a bill as the present had been moved for, not merely as a matter of humanity, but as an act of justice; for he would put humanity out of the case. Could it be called humanity to forbear from committing murder? Exactly upon this ground did the present motion stand; being strictly a question of national justice. He thanked Mr. Wilberforce for having pledged himself so strongly to pursue his object till it was accomplished; and, as for himself, he declared, that, in whatever situation he might ever be, he would use his warmest efforts for the promotion of this righteous cause.
Mr. Stanley (the member for Lancashire) rose, and declared that, when he came into the house, he intended to vote against the abolition; but that the impression made both on his feelings and on his understanding was such, that he could not persist in his resolution. He was now convinced that the entire abolition of the Slave-trade was called for equally by sound policy and justice. He thought it right and fair to avow manfully this change in his opinion. The abolition, he was sure, could not long fail of being carried. The arguments for it were irresistible.
The honourable Mr. Ryder said, that he came to the house, not exactly in the same circumstances as Mr. Stanley, but very undecided on the subject. He was, however, so strongly convinced by the arguments he had heard, that he was become equally earnest for the abolition.
Mr. Smith (member for Pontefract) said, that he should not trouble the House at so late an hour, further than to enter his protest, in the most solemn manner, against this trade, which he considered as most disgraceful to the country, and contrary to all the principles of justice and religion.
Mr. Summer declared himself against the total, immediate, and unqualified abolition, which he thought would wound at least the prejudices of the West Indians, and might do mischief; but a gradual abolition should have his hearty support.
Major Scott declared there was no member in the house, who would give a more independent vote upon this question than himself. He had no concern either in the African or West Indian trades; but in the present state of the finances of the country, he thought it would be a dangerous experiment to risk any one branch of our foreign commerce. As far as regulation would go, he would join in the measure.
Mr. Burke said he would use but few words. He declared that he had for a long time had his mind drawn towards this great subject. He had even prepared a bill for the regulation of the trade, conceiving at that time that the immediate abolition of it was a thing hardly to be hoped for; but when he found that Mr. Wilberforce had seriously undertaken the work, and that his motion was for the abolition, which he approved much more than his own, he had burnt his papers; and made an offering of them in honour of his nobler proposition, much in the same manner as we read, that the curious books were offered up and burnt at the approach of the Gospel. He highly applauded the confessions of Mr. Stanley and Mr. Ryder. It would be a glorious tale for them to tell their constituents, that it was impossible for them, however prejudiced, if sent to hear discussion in that house, to avoid surrendering up their hearts and judgments at the shrine of reason.
Mr. Drake said, that he would oppose the abolition to the utmost. We had by a want of prudent conduct lost America. The house should be aware of being carried away by the meteors with which they had been dazzled. The leaders, it was true, were for the abolition; but the minor orators, the dwarfs, the pigmies, he trusted, would that night carry the question against them. The property of the West Indians was at stake; and, though men might be generous with their own property, they should not be so with the property of others.
Lord Sheffield reprobated the overbearing language, which had been used by some gentlemen towards others, who differed in opinion from them on a subject of so much difficulty as the present. He protested against a debate, in which he could trace nothing like reason; but, on the contrary, downright phrensy, raised perhaps by the most extraordinary eloquence. The abolition, as proposed, was impracticable. He denied the right of the legislature to pass a law for it. He warned the Chancellor of the Exchequer to beware of the day, on which the bill should pass, as the worst he had ever seen.
Mr. Milnes declared, that he adopted all those expressions against the Slave-trade, which had been thought so harsh; and that the opinion of the noble lord had been turned in consequence of having become one of the members for Bristol. He quoted a passage from Lord Sheffield’s pamphlet; and insisted that the separation of families in the West Indies, there complained of by himself, ought to have compelled him to take the contrary side of the question.
Mr. Wilberforce made a short reply to some arguments in the course of the debate; after which, at half past three in the morning, the House divided. There appeared for Mr. Wilberforce’s motion eighty-eight, and against it one hundred and sixty-three; so that it was lost by a majority of seventy-five votes.
By this unfavourable division the great contest, in which we had been so long engaged, was decided. We were obliged to give way to superior numbers. Our fall, however, grievous as it was, was rendered more tolerable by the circumstance of having been prepared to expect it. It was rendered more tolerable also by other considerations; for we had the pleasure of knowing, that we had several of the most distinguished characters in the kingdom, and almost all the splendid talents of the House of Commons* , in our favour. We knew too, that the question had not been carried against us either by evidence or by argument; but that we were the victims of the accidents and circumstances of the times. And as these considerations comforted us, when we looked forward to future operations on this great question, so we found great consolation as to the past, in believing, that, unless human constitutions were stronger then they really were, we could not have done more than we had done towards the furtherance of the cause.
The committee for the abolition held a meeting soon after this our defeat. It was the most impressive I ever attended. The looks of all bespoke the feelings of their hearts. Little was said previously to the opening of the business; and, after it was opened, it was conducted with a kind of solemn dignity, which became the occasion. The committee, in the course of its deliberations, came to the following resolutions:
That the thanks of this committee be respectfully given to the illustrious minority of the House of Commons, who lately stood forth the assertors of British justice and humanity, and the enemies of a traffic in the blood of man.
That our acknowledgements are particularly due to William Wilberforce, esquire, for his unwearied exertions to remove this opprobrium of our national character; and to the right honourable William Pitt, and the right honourable Charles James Fox, for their virtuous and dignified cooperation in the same cause.
That the solemn declarations of these gentlemen, and of Matthew Montagu and William Smith, esquires, that they will not relinquish, but with life, their struggle for the abolition of the Slave-trade, are not only highly honourable to themselves as Britons, as Statesmen, and as Christians, but must eventually, as the light of evidence shall be more and more diffused, be seconded by the good wishes of every man not immediately interested in the continuance of that detestable commerce.
And, lastly, that anticipating the opposition they should have to sustain from persons trained to a familiarity with the rapine and desolation necessarily attendant on the Slave-trade, and sensible also of the prejudices which implicitly arise from long-established usages, this committee consider the late decision in the House of Commons as a delay, rather than a defeat. In addressing a free and enlightened nation on a subject, in which its justice, its humanity, and its wisdom are involved, they cannot despair of final success; and they do hereby, under an increasing conviction of the excellence of their cause, and inconformity to the distinguished examples before them, renew their firm protestation, that they will never desist from appealing to their countrymen, till the commercial intercourse with Africa shall cease to be polluted with the blood of its inhabitants.
These resolutions were published, and they were followed by a suitable report.
The committee, in order to strengthen themselves for the prosecution of their great work, elected Sir William Dolben, baronet, Henry Thornton, Lewis Alexander Grant, and Matthew Montagu, esquires, who were members of parliament, and Truman Harford, Josiah Wedgwood, jun. esquire, and John Clarkson, esquire, of the royal navy, as members of their own body; and they elected the Reverend Archdeacon Plymley (now Corbett) an honorary and corresponding member, in consequence of the great services which he had rendered their cause in the shires of Hereford and Salop, and the adjacent counties of Wales.
The several committees, established in the country, on receiving the resolutions and report as before mentioned, testified their sympathy in letters of condolence to that of London on the late melancholy occasion; and expressed their determination to support it as long as any vestiges of this barbarous traffic should remain.
At length the session ended; and though, in the course of it, the afflicting loss of the general question had occurred, there was yet an attempt made by the abolitionists in parliament, which met with a better fate. The Sierra Leone company received the sanction of the legislature. The object of this institution was to colonize a small portion of the coast of Africa. They, who were to settle there, were to have no concern in the Slave-trade, but to discourage it as much as possible. They were to endeavour to establish a new species of commerce, and to promote cultivation in its neighbourhood by free labour. The persons more generally fixed upon for colonists, were such Negros, with their wives and families, as chose to abandon their habitations in Nova Scotia. These had followed the British arms in America; and had been settled there, as a reward for their services, by the British government. My brother, just mentioned to have been chosen a member of the committee, and who had essentially served the great cause of the abolition on many occasions, undertook a visit to Nova Scotia, to see if those in question were willing to undergo the change; and in that case to provide transports, and conduct them to Sierra Leone. This object he accomplished. He embarked more than eleven hundred persons in fifteen vessels, of all which he took the command. On landing them he became the first Governor of the new Colony. Having laid the foundation of it, he returned to England; when a successor was appointed. From that time many unexpected circumstances, but particularly devastations by the French in the beginning of the war, took place, which contributed to ruin the trading company, which was attached to it. It is pleasing, however, to reflect, that though the object of the institution, as far as mercantile profit was concerned, thus failed, the other objects belonging to it were promoted. Schools, places of worship, agriculture, and the habits of civilized life, were established. Sierra Leone, therefore, now presents itself as the medium of civilization for Africa. And, in this latter point of view, it is worth all the treasure which has been lost in supporting it: for the Slave-trade, which was the great obstacle to this civilization, being now happily abolished, there is a metropolis, consisting of some hundreds of persons, from which may issue the seeds of reformation to this injured continent; and which, when sown, may be expected to grow into fruit without interruption. New schools may be transplanted from thence into the interior. Teachers, and travellers on discovery, may be sent from thence in various directions; who may return to it occasionally as to their homes. The natives too, able now to travel in safety, may resort to it from various parts. They may see the improvements which are going on from time to time. They may send their children to it for education. And thus it may become the medium* of a great intercourse between England and Africa, to the benefit of each other.
[* ]Ten or twelve of those, who were examined, much to their honour, came forward of their own accord.
[* ]This point was actually obtained by the evidence before the House of Commons; for, after this, we heard no more of them as an inferior race.
[* ]It is a pity that no perfect list was ever made of this or of any other division in the House of Commons on this subject. I can give, however, the names of the following members, as having voted for Mr. Wilberforce’s motion at this time.
[* ]To promote this desirable end an association took place last year, called The African Institution, under the patronage of the Duke of Gloucester, as president, and of the friends to the African cause, particularly of such as were in parliament, and as belonged to the committee for the abolition of the Slave-trade.