Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2
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CHAPTER VII. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2 
The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. (London: L. Taylor, 1808). Vol. 2.
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Continuation from July 1794 to July 1799—Various motions within this period.
I purpose, though it may seem abrupt after the division which has hitherto been made of the contents of this volume, to throw the events of the next five years into one chapter.
Mr. Wilberforce and the members of the committee, whose constitutions had not suffered like my own, were still left; and they determined to persevere in the promotion of their great object as long as their health and their faculties permitted them. The former, accordingly, in the month of February 1795, moved in the House of Commons for leave to bring in a bill for the abolition of the Slave-trade. This motion was then necessary, if, according to the resolution of that House, the Slave-trade was to cease in 1796. It was opposed, however, by Sir William Yonge, and unfortunately lost by a majority of seventy-eight to fifty-seven.
In the year 1796 Mr. Wilberforce renewed his efforts in the Commons. He asked leave to bring in a bill for the abolition of the Slave-trade, but in a limited time. The motion was opposed as before; but on a division, there were for it ninety-three, and against it only sixty-seven.
The bill having been brought in, was opposed in its second reading; but it was carried through it by a majority of sixty-four to thirty-one.
In a future stage it was opposed again; but it triumphed by a majority of seventy-six to thirty-one. Mr. Eliott was then put into the chair. Several clauses were adopted; and the first of March 1797 was fixed for the abolition of the trade: but in the next stage of it, after a long speech from Mr. Dundas, it was lost by a majority of seventy-four against seventy.
Mr. Francis, who had made a brilliant speech in the last debate, considering that nothing effectual had been yet done on this great question, and wishing that a practical beginning might be made, brought forward soon afterwards, a motion relative to the improvement of the condition of the slaves in the West Indies. This, after a short debate, was negatived without a division. Mr. William Smith also moved an address to His Majesty, that he would be pleased to give directions to lay before the House copies of the several acts relative to regulations in behalf of the slaves, passed by the different colonial assemblies since the year 1788. This motion was adopted by the House. Thus passed away the session of 1796.
In the year 1797, while Mr. Wilberforce was deliberating upon the best measure for the advancement of the cause, Mr. C. Ellis came forward with a new motion. He began by declaring, that he agreed with the abolitionists as to their object; but he differed with them as to the mode of attaining it. The Slave-trade he condemned as a cruel and pernicious system; but, as it had become an inveterate evil, he feared it could not be done away all at once, without injury to the interests of numerous individuals, and even to the Negros themselves. He concluded by moving an address to His Majesty, humbly requesting, that he would give directions to the governors of the West Indian islands, to recommend it to the colonial assemblies to adopt such measures as might appear to them best calculated to ameliorate the condition of the Negros, and thereby to remove gradually the Slave-trade; and likewise to assure His Majesty of the readiness of this House to concur in any measure to accelerate this desirable object. This motion was seconded by Mr. Barham. It was opposed, however, by Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. Pitt, and others; but was at length carried by a majority of ninety-nine to sixty-three.
In the year 1798 Mr. Wilberforce asked leave to renew his former bill, to abolish the Slave-trade within a limited time. He was supported by Mr. Canning, Mr. Hobhouse, Sir Robert Buxton, Mr. Bouverie, and others. Mr. Sewell, Bryan Edwards, Henniker, and C. Ellis, took the opposite side of the question. Mr. Ellis, however, observed, that he had no objection to restricting the Slave-trade to plantations already begun in the colonies; and Mr. Barham professed himself a friend to the abolition, if it could be accomplished in a reasonable way. On a division, there appeared to be for Mr. Wilberforce’s motion eighty-three, but against it eighty-seven.
In the year 1799 Mr. Wilberforce, undismayed by these different disappointments, renewed his motion. Colonel M. Wood, Mr. Petrie, and others, among whom were Mr. Windham and Mr. Dundas, opposed it. Mr. Pitt, Fox, W. Smith, Sir William Dolben, Sir R. Milbank, Mr. Hobhouse, and Mr. Canning, supported it. Sir R. Milbank contended, that modifications of a system fundamentally wrong ought not to be tolerated by the legislature of a free nation. Mr. Hobhouse said, that nothing could be so nefarious as this traffic in blood. It was unjust in its principle. It was cruel in its practice. It admitted of no regulation whatever. The abolition of it was called for equally by morality and sound policy. Mr. Canning exposed the folly of Mr. Dundas, who had said, that as Parliament had in the year 1787 left the abolition to the colonial assemblies, it ought not to be taken out of their hands. This great event, he observed, could only be accomplished in two ways; either by these assemblies, or by the Parliament of England. Now the members of the assembly of Jamaica had professed, that they would never abolish the trade. Was it not therefore idle to rely upon them for the accomplishment of it? He then took a very comprehensive view of the arguments, which had been offered in the course of the debate, and was severe upon the planters in the House, who, he said, had brought into familiar use certain expressions, with no other view than to throw a veil over their odious system. Among these was—their right to import labourers. But never was the word “labourers” so prostituted, as when it was used for slaves. Never was the word “right” so prostituted, not even when The Rights of Man were talked of, as when the right to trade in man’s blood was asserted by the members of an enlightened assembly. Never was the right of importing these labourers worse defended than when the antiquity of the Slave-trade, and its foundation on antient acts of parliament, were brought forward in its support. We had been cautioned not to lay our unhallowed hands on the antient institution of the Slave-trade; nor to subvert a fabric, raised by the wisdom of our ancestors, and consecrated by a lapse of ages. But on what principles did we usually respect the institutions of antiquity? We respected them when we saw some shadow of departed worth and usefulness; or some memorial of what had been creditable to mankind. But was this the case with the Slave-trade? Had it begun in principles of justice or national honour, which the changes of the world alone had impaired? had it to plead former services and glories in behalf of its present disgrace? In looking at it we saw nothing but crimes and sufferings from the beginning—nothing but what wounded and convulsed our feelings—nothing but what excited indignation and horror. It had not even to plead what could often be said in favour of the most unjustifiable wars. Though conquest had sometimes originated in ambition, and in the worst of motives, yet the conquerors and the conquered were sometimes blended afterwards into one people; so that a system of common interest arose out of former differences. But where was the analogy of the cases? Was it only at the outset that we could trace violence and injustice on the part of the Slave-trade? Were the oppressors and the oppressed so reconciled, that enmities ultimately ceased?—No. Was it reasonable then to urge a prescriptive right, not to the fruits of an antient and forgotten evil, but to a series of new violences; to a chain of fresh enormities; to cruelties continually repeated; and of which every instance inflicted a fresh calamity, and constituted a separate and substantial crime?
The debate being over, the House divided; when it appeared that there were for Mr. Wilberforce’s motion seventy-four, but against it eighty-two.
The motion for the general abolition of the Slave-trade having been thus lost again in the Commons, a new motion was made there soon after, by Mr. Henry Thornton, on the same subject. The prosecution of this traffic on certain parts of the coast of Africa had become so injurious to the new settlement at Sierra Leone, that not only its commercial prospects were impeded, but its safety endangered. Mr. Thornton therefore brought in a bill to confine the Slave-trade within certain limits. But even this bill, though it had for its object only to free a portion of the coast from the ravages of this traffic, was opposed by Mr. Gascoyne, Dent, and others. Petitions also were presented against it. At length, after two divisions, on the first of which there were thirty-two votes to twenty-seven, and on the second thirty-eight to twenty-two, it passed through all its stages.
When it was introduced into the Lords the petitions were renewed against it. Delay also was interposed to its progress by the examination of witnesses. It was not till the fifth of July that the matter was brought to issue. The opponents of the bill at that time were, the Duke of Clarence, Lord Westmoreland, Lord Thurlow, and the Lords Douglas and Hay, the two latter being Earls of Morton and Kinnoul in Scotland. The supporters of it were Lord Grenville, who introduced it; Lord Loughborough; Holland; and Dr. Horsley, bishop of Rochester. The latter was peculiarly eloquent. He began his speech by arraigning the injustice and impolicy of the trade: injustice, he said, which no considerations of policy could extenuate; impolicy, equal in degree to its injustice.
He well knew that the advocates for the Slave-trade had endeavoured to represent the project for abolition as a branch of jacobinism; but they, who supported it, proceeded upon no visionary motives of equality or of the imprescriptible rights of man. They strenuously upheld the gradations of civil society: but they did indeed affirm that these gradations were, both ways, both as they ascended and as they descended, limited. There was an existence of power, to which no good king would aspire; and there was an extreme condition of subjection, to which man could not be degraded without injustice; and this they would maintain was the condition of the African, who was torn away into slavery.
He then explained the limits of that portion of Africa, which the bill intended to set apart as sacred to peace and liberty. He showed that this was but one-third of the coast; and therefore that two-thirds were yet left for the diabolical speculations of the slave-merchants. He expressed his surprise that such witnesses as those against the bill should have been introduced at all. He affirmed that their oaths were falsified by their own log-books; and that from their own accounts the very healthiest of their vessels were little better than pestilential gaols. Mr. Robert Hume, one of these witnesses, had made a certain voyage. He had made it in thirty-three days. He had shipped two hundred and sixty-five slaves, and he had lost twenty-three of them. If he had gone on losing his slaves, all of whom were under twenty-five years of age, at this rate, it was obvious, that he would have lost two hundred and fifty-three of them, if his passage had lasted for a year. Now in London only seventeen would have died, of that age, out of one thousand within the latter period.
After having exposed the other voyages of Mr. Hume in a similar manner, he entered into a commendation of the views of the Sierra Leone company; and then defended the character of the Africans in their own country, as exhibited in the Travels of Mr. Mungo Park. He made a judicious discrimination with respect to slavery, as it existed among them. He showed that this slavery was analogous to that of the heroic and patriarchal ages; and contrasted it with the West Indian in an able manner.
He adverted, lastly, to what had fallen from the learned counsel, who had supported the petitions of the slave-merchants. One of them had put this question to their lordships, “if the Slave-trade were as wicked as it had been represented, why was there no prohibition of it in the holy scriptures?” He then entered into a full defence of the scriptures on this ground, which he concluded by declaring that, as St. Paul had coupled men-stealers with murderers, he had condemned the Slave-trade in one of its most productive modes, and generally in all its modes:—and here it was worthy of remark, that the word used by the apostle on this occasion, and which had been translated men-stealers, should have been rendered slave-traders. This was obvious from the Scholiast of Aristophanes, whom he quoted. It was clear therefore that the Slave-trade, if murder was forbidden, had been literally forbidden also.
The learned counsel too had admonished their lordships, to beware how they adopted the visionary projects of fanatics. He did not know in what direction this shaft was shot; and he cared not. It did not concern him. With the highest reverence for the religion of the land, with the firmest conviction of its truth, and with the deepest sense of the importance of its doctrines, he was proudly conscious, that the general shape and fashion of his life bore nothing of the stamp of fanaticism. But he begged leave, in his turn, to address a word of serious exhortation to their lordships. He exhorted them to beware, how they were persuaded to bury, under the opprobrious name of fanaticism, the regard which they owed to the great duties of mercy and justice, for the neglect of which (if they should neglect them) they would be answerable at that tribunal, where no prevarication of witnesses could misinform the judge; and where no subtlety of an advocate, miscalling the names of things, putting evil for good and good for evil, could mislead his judgement.
At length the debate ended: when the bill was lost by a majority of sixty-eight to sixty-one, including personal votes and proxies.
I cannot conclude this chapter without offering a few remarks. And, first, I may observe, as the substance of the debates has not been given for the period which it contains, that Mr. Wilberforce, upon whom too much praise cannot be bestowed for his perseverance from year to year, amidst the disheartening circumstances which attended his efforts, brought every new argument to bear, which either the discovery of new light or the events of the times produced. I may observe also, in justice to the memories of Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox, that there was no debate within this period, in which they did not take a part; and in which they did not irradiate others from the profusion of their own light: and, thirdly, that in consequence of the efforts of the three, conjoined with those of others, the great cause of the abolition was secretly gaining ground. Many members who were not connected with the trade, but who had yet hitherto supported it, were on the point of conversion. Though the question had oscillated backwards and forwards, so that an ordinary spectator could have discovered no gleam of hope at these times, nothing is more certain, than that the powerful eloquence then displayed had smoothed the resistance to it; had shortened its vibrations; and had prepared it for a state of rest.
With respect to the West Indians themselves, some of them began to see through the mists of prejudice, which had covered them. In the year 1794, when the bill for the abolition of the foreign Slave-trade was introduced, Mr. Vaughan and Mr. Barham supported it. They called upon the planters in the House to give way to humanity, where their own interests could not be affected by their submission. This indeed may be said to have been no mighty thing; but it was a frank confession of the injustice of the Slave-trade, and the beginning of the change which followed, both with respect to themselves and others.
With respect to the old friends of the cause, it is with regret I mention, that it lost the support of Mr. Windham within this period; and this regret is increased by the consideration, that he went off on the avowed plea of expediency against moral rectitude; a doctrine, which, at least upon this subject, he had reprobated for ten years. It was, however, some consolation, as far as talents were concerned, (for there can be none for the loss of virtuous feeling,) that Mr. Canning, a new member, should have so ably supplied his place.
Of the gradual abolitionists, whom we have always considered as the most dangerous enemies of the cause, Mr. Jenkinson (now Lord Hawkesbury), Mr. Addington (now Lord Sidmouth), and Mr. Dundas (now Lord Melville), continued their opposition during all this time. Of the first two I shall say nothing at present; but I cannot pass over the conduct of the latter. He was the first person, as we have seen, to propose the gradual abolition of the Slave-trade; and he fixed the time for its cessation on the first of January 1800. His sincerity on this occasion was doubted by Mr. Fox at the very outset; for he immediately rose and said, that “something so mischievous had come out, something so like a foundation had been laid for preserving, not only for years to come, but for any thing he knew for ever, this detestable traffic, that he felt it his duty immediately to deprecate all such delusions upon the country.” Mr. Pitt, who spoke soon afterwards, in reply to an argument advanced by Mr. Dundas, maintained, that “at whatever period the House should say that the Slave-trade should actually cease, this defence would equally be set up; for it would be just as good an argument in seventy years hence, as it was against the abolition then.” And these remarks Mr. Dundas verified in a singular manner within this period: for in the year 1796, when his own bill, as amended in the Commons, was to take place, he was one of the most strenuous opposers of it; and in the year 1799, when in point of consistency it devolved upon him to propose it to the House, in order that the trade might cease on the first of January 1800, (which was the time of his own original choice, or a time unfettered by parliamentary amendment,) he was the chief instrument of throwing out Mr. Wilberforce’s bill, which promised even a longer period to its continuance: so that it is obvious, that there was no time, within his own limits, when the abolition would have suited him, notwithstanding his profession, “that he had always been a warm advocate for the measure.”