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CHAPTER X. - 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 1806 to March 1807—Death of Mr. Fox—Bill for the total abolition of the Slave-trade carrie in the House of Lords—sent from thence to the Commons—amended and passed there—carried back, and passed with its amendments by the Lords—receives the royal assent—Reflections on this great event.
It was impossible for the committee to look back to the proceedings of the last session, as they related to the great question under their care, without feeling a profusion of joy, as well as of gratitude to those, by whose virtuous endeavours they had taken place. But, alas, how few of our earthly pleasures come to us without alloy! a melancholy event succeeded. We had the painful intelligence, in the month of October 1806, that one of the oldest and warmest friends of the cause was then numbered with the dead.
Of the character of Mr. Fox, as it related to this cause, I am bound to take notice. And, first, I may observe, that he professed an attachment to it almost as soon as it was ushered into the world. Early in the year 1788, when he was waited upon by a deputation of the committee, his language was, as has appeared in the first volume, “that he would support their object to its fullest extent, being convinced that there was no remedy for the evil but in the total abolition of the trade.”
His subsequent conduct evinced the sincerity of his promises. He was constant in his attendance in Parliament whenever the question was brought forward; and he never failed to exert his powerful eloquence in its favour. The countenance, indeed, which he gave it, was of the greatest importance to its welfare; for most of his parliamentary friends, who followed his general political sentiments, patronized it also. By the aid of these, joined to that of the private friends of Mr. Pitt, and of other members, who espoused it without reference to party, it was always so upheld, that after the year 1791 no one of the defeats, which it sustained, was disgraceful. The majority on the side of those interested in the continuance of the trade was always so trifling, that the abolitionists were preserved a formidable body, and their cause respectable.
I never heard whether Mr. Fox, when he came into power, made any stipulations with His Majesty on the subject of the Slave-trade: but this I know, that he determined upon the abolition of it, if it were practicable, as the highest glory of his administration, and as the greatest earthly blessing which it was in the power of the Government to bestow; and that he took considerable pains to convince some of his colleagues in the cabinet of the propriety of the measure.
When the resolution, which produced the debates in parliament, as detailed in the last chapter, was under contemplation, it was thought expedient that Mr. Fox, as the minister of state in the House of Commons, should introduce it himself. When applied to for this purpose he cheerfully undertook the office, thus acting in consistency with his public declaration in the year 1791, “that in whatever situation he might ever be, he would use his warmest efforts for the promotion of this righteous cause.”
Before the next measure, or the bill to prevent the sailing of any new vessel in the trade after the first of August, was publicly disclosed, it was suggested to him, that the session was nearly over; that he might possibly weary both Houses by another motion on the subject; and that, if he were to lose it, or to experience a diminution of his majorities in either, he might injure the cause, which was then in the road to triumph. To this objection he replied, “that he believed both Houses were disposed to get rid of the trade; that his own life was precarious; that if he omitted to serve the injured Africans on this occasion, he might have no other opportunity of doing it; and that he dared not, under these circumstances, neglect so great a duty.”
This prediction relative to himself became unfortunately verified; for his constitution, after this, began to decline, till at length his mortal destiny, in the eyes of his medical attendants, was sealed. But even then, when removed by pain and sickness from the discussion of political subjects, he never forgot this cause. In his own sufferings he was not unmindful of those of the injured Africans. “Two things,” said he, on his death-bed, “I wish earnestly to see accomplished—peace with Europe,—and the abolition of the Slave-trade.” But knowing well, that we could much better protect ourselves against our own external enemies, than this helpless people against their oppressors, he added, “but of the two I wish the latter.” These sentiments he occasionally repeated, so that the subject was frequently in his thoughts in his last illness. Nay, “the very hope of the abolition (to use the expression of Lord Howick in the House of Commons) quivered on his lips in the last hour of it.” Nor is it improbable, if earthly scenes ever rise to view at that awful crisis, and are perceptible, that it might have occupied his mind in the last moment of his existence. Then indeed would joy ineffable, from a conviction of having prepared the way for rescuing millions of human beings from misery, have attended the spirit on its departure from the body; and then also would this spirit, most of all purified when in the contemplation of peace, good-will, and charity upon earth, be in the fittest state, on gliding from its earthly cavern, to commix with the endless ocean of benevolence and love.
At length the session of 1807 commenced. It was judged advisable by Lord Grenville, that the expected motion on this subject should, contrary to the practice hitherto adopted, be agitated first in the Lords. Accordingly, on the second of January he presented a bill, called an act for the abolition of the Slave-trade; but he then proposed only to print it, and to let it lie on the table, that it might be maturely considered, before it should be discussed.
On the fourth no less than four counsel were heard against the bill.
On the fifth the debate commenced. But of this I shall give no detailed account; nor, indeed, of any of those which followed it. The truth is, that the subject has been exhausted. They, who spoke in favour of the abolition, said very little that was new concerning it. They, who spoke against it, brought forward, as usual, nothing but negative assertions and fanciful conjectures. To give therefore what was said by both parties at these times, would be but useless repetition* . To give, on the other hand, that which was said on one side only would appear partial. Hence I shall offer to the reader little more than a narrative of facts upon these occasions.
Lord Grenville opened the debate by a very luminous speech. He was supported by the Duke of Glocester, the Bishop of Durham (Dr. Barrington), the Earls Moira, Selkirk, and Roslyn, and the Lords Holland, King, and Hood. The opponents of the bill were the Duke of Clarence, the Earls Westmoreland and St. Vincent, and the Lords Sidmouth, Eldon, and Hawkesbury.
The question being called for at four o’clock in the morning, it appeared that the personal votes and proxies in favour of Lord Grenville’s motion amounted to one hundred, and those against it to thirty-six. Thus passed the first bill in England, which decreed, that the African Slave-trade should cease. And here I cannot omit paying to his Highness the Duke of Glocester the tribute of respect, which is due to him, for having opposed the example of his royal relations on this subject in behalf of an helpless and oppressed people. The sentiments too, which he delivered on this occasion, ought not to be forgotten. “This trade,” said he, “is contrary to the principles of the British constitution. It is, besides, a cruel and criminal traffic in the blood of my fellow-creatures. It is a foul stain on the national character. It is an offence to the Almighty. On every ground therefore on which a decision can be made; on the ground of policy, of liberty, of humanity, of justice, but, above all, on the ground of religion, I shall vote for its immediate extinction.”
On the tenth of February the bill was carried to the House of Commons. On the twentieth counsel were heard against it; after which, by agreement, the second reading of it took place. On the twenty-third the question being put for the commitment of it, Lord Viscount Howick (now Earl Grey) began an eloquent speech. After he had proceeded in it some way, he begged leave to enter his protest against certain principles of relative justice, which had been laid down. “The merchants and planters,” said he, “have an undoubted right, in common with other subjects of the realm, to demand justice at our hands. But that, which they denominate justice, does not correspond with the legitimate character of that virtue; for they call upon us to violate the rights of others, and to transgress our own moral duties. That, which they distinguish as justice, involves in itself the greatest injury to others. It is not in fact justice, which they demand, but—favour—and favour to themselves at the expense of the most grievous oppression of their fellow-creatures.”
He then argued the question upon the ground of policy. He showed by a number of official documents, how little this trade had contributed to the wealth of the nation, being but a fifty-fourth part of its export trade, and he contended that as four-sevenths of it had been cut off by His Majesty’s proclamation, and the passing of the foreign Slave-bill in a former year, no detriment of any consequence would arise from the present measure.
He entered into an account of the loss of seamen, and of the causes of the mortality, in this trade.
He went largely into the subject of the Negro-population in the islands from official documents, giving an account of it up to the latest date. He pointed out the former causes of its diminution, and stated how the remedies for these would follow.
He showed how, even if the quantity of colonial produce should be diminished for a time, this disadvantage would, in a variety of instances, be more than counterbalanced by advantages, which would not only be great in themselves, but permanent.
He then entered into a refutation of the various objections which had been made to the abolition, in an eloquent and perspicuous manner; and concluded by appealing to the great authorities of Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox in behalf of the proposed measure. “These precious ornaments, he said, of their age and country had examined the subject with all the force of their capacious minds. On this question they had dismissed all animosity—all difference of opinion—and had proceeded in union;—and he believed, that the best tribute of respect we could show, or the most splendid monument we could raise, to their memories, would be by the adoption of the glorious measure of the abolition of the Slave-trade.”
Lord Howick was supported by Mr. Roscoe, who was then one of the members for Liverpool; by Mr. Lushington, Mr. Fawkes, Lord Mahon, Lord Milton, Sir John Doyle, Sir Samuel Romilly, Mr. Wilberforce, and Earl Percy, the latter of whom wished that a clause might be put into the bill, by which all the children of slaves, born after January 1810, should be made free. General Gascoyne and Mr. Hibbert opposed the bill. Mr. Manning hoped that compensation would be made to the planters in case of loss. Mr. Bathurst and Mr. Hiley Addington preferred a plan for gradual abolition to the present mode. These having spoken, it appeared on a division, that there were for the question two hundred and eighty-three, and against it only sixteen.
Of this majority I cannot but remark, that it was probably the largest that was ever announced on any occasion, where the House was called upon to divide. I must observe also, that there was such an enthusiasm among the members at this time, that there appeared to be the same kind and degree of feeling, as manifested itself within the same walls in the year 1788, when the question was first started. This enthusiasm too, which was of a moral nature, was so powerful, that it seemed even to extend to a conversion of the heart: for several of the old opponents of this righteous cause went away, unable to vote against it; while others of them staid in their places, and voted in its favour.
On the twenty-seventh of February Lord Howick moved, that the House resolve itself into a committee on the bill for the abolition of the Slave-trade. Sir C. Pole, Mr. Hughan, Brown, Bathurst, Windham, and Fuller opposed the motion; and Sir R. Milbank, and Mr. Wynne, Barham, Courtenay, Montague, Jacob, Whitbread, and Herbert (of Kerry), supported it. At length the committee was allowed to sit pro formâ, and Mr. Hobhouse was put into the chair. The bill then went through it, and, the House being resumed, the report was received and read.
On the sixth of March, when the committee sat again, Sir C. Pole moved, that the year 1812 be substituted for the year 1807, as the time when the trade should be abolished. This amendment produced a long debate, which was carried on by Sir C. Pole, Mr. Fuller, Hiley Addington, Rose, Gascoyne, and Bathurst on one side; and by Mr. Ward, Sir P. Francis, General Vyse, Sir T. Turton, Mr. Whitbread, Lord Henry Petty, Mr. Canning, Stanhope, Perceval, and Wilberforce on the other. At length, on a division, there appeared to be one hundred and twenty-five against the amendment, and for it only seventeen. The chairman then read the bill, and it was agreed that he should report it with the amendments on Monday. The bill enacted, that no vessel should clear out for slaves from any port within the British dominions after the first of May 1807, and that no slave should be landed in the colonies after the first of March 1808.
On the sixteenth of March, on the motion of Lord Henry Petty, the question was put, that the bill be read a third time. Mr. Hibbert, Captain Herbert, Mr. T. W. Plomer, Mr. Windham, and Lord Castlereagh spoke against the motion. Sir. P. Francis, Mr. Lyttleton, Mr. H. Thornton, and Mr. Barham, Sheridan, and Wilberforce supported it. After this the bill was passed without a division* .
On Wednesday, the eighteenth, Lord Howick, accompanied by Mr. Wilberforce and others, carried the bill to the Lords. Lord Grenville, on receiving it, moved that it should be printed, and that, if this process could be finished by Monday, it should be taken into consideration on that day. The reason of this extraordinary haste was, that His Majesty, displeased with the introduction of the Roman-catholic officers’ bill into the Commons, had signified his intention to the members of the existing administration, that they were to be displaced.
The uneasiness, which, a few days before, had sprung up among the friends of the abolition, on the report that this event was probable, began now to show itself throughout the kingdom. Letters were written from various parts, manifesting the greatest fear and anxiety on account of the state of the bill, and desiring answers of consolation. Nor was this state of the mind otherwise than what might have been expected upon such an occasion; for the bill was yet to be printed—Being an amended one, it was to be argued again in the Lords—It was then to receive the royal assent—All these operations implied time; and it was reported that the new ministry* was formed; among whom were several, who had shown a hostile disposition to the cause.
On Monday, the twenty-third, the House of Lords met. Such extraordinary diligence had been used in printing the bill, that it was then ready. Lord Grenville immediately brought it forward. The Earl of Westmoreland and the Marquis of Sligo opposed it. The Duke of Norfolk and the Bishop of Llandaff (Dr. Watson) supported it. The latter said, that this great act of justice would be recorded in heaven. The amendments were severally adopted without a division. But here an omission of three words was discovered, namely, “country, territory, or place,” which, if not rectified, might defeat the purposes of the bill. An amendment was immediately proposed and carried. Thus the bill received the last sanction of the Peers. Lord Grenville then congratulated the House on the completion, on its part, of the most glorious measure, that had ever been adopted by any legislative body in the world.
The amendment, now mentioned, occasioned the bill to be sent back to the Commons. On the twenty-fourth, on the motion of Lord Howick, it was immediately taken into consideration there, and agreed to; and it was carried back to the Lords, as approved of, on the same day.
But though the bill had now passed both houses, there was an awful fear throughout the kingdom, lest it should not receive the royal assent before the ministry was dissolved. This event took place the next day; for on Wednesday the twenty-fifth, at half past eleven in the morning, His Majesty’s message was delivered to the different members of it, that they were then to wait upon him to deliver up the seals of their offices. It then appeared that a commission for the royal assent to this bill among others had been obtained. This commission was instantly opened by the Lord Chancellor (Erskine), who was accompanied by the Lords Holland and Auckland; and as the clock struck twelve, just when the sun was in its meridian splendour to witness this august Act, this establishment of a Magna Charta for Africa in Britain, and to sanction it by its most vivid and glorious beams, it was completed. The ceremony being over, the seals of the respective offices were delivered up; so that the execution of this commission was the last act of the administration of Lord Grenville; an administration, which, on account of its virtuous exertions in behalf of the oppressed African race, will pass to posterity, living through successive generations, in the love and gratitude of the most virtuous of mankind.
Thus ended one of the most glorious contests, after a continuance for twenty years, of any ever carried on in any age or country. A contest, not of brutal violence, but of reason. A contest between those, who felt deeply for the happiness and the honour of their fellow-creatures, and those, who, through vicious custom and the impulse of avarice, had trampled under-foot the sacred rights of their nature, and had even attempted to efface all title to the divine image from their minds.
Of the immense advantages of this contest I know not how to speak. Indeed, the very agitation of the question, which it involved, has been highly important. Never was the heart of man so expanded. Never were its generous sympathies so generally and so perseveringly excited. These sympathies, thus called into existence, have been useful in the preservation of a national virtue. For any thing we know, they may have contributed greatly to form a counteracting balance against the malignant spirit, generated by our almost incessant wars during this period, so as to have preserved us from barbarism.
It has been useful also in the discrimination of moral character. In private life it has enabled us to distinguish the virtuous from the more vicious part of the community* . It has shown the general philanthropist. It has unmasked the vicious in spite of his pretension to virtue. It has afforded us the same knowledge in public life. It has separated the moral statesman from the wicked politician. It has shown us who, in the legislative and executive offices of our country are fit to save, and who to destroy, a nation.
It has furnished us also with important lessons. It has proved what a creature man is! how devoted he is to his own interest! to what a length of atrocity he can go, unless fortified by religious principle! But as if this part of the prospect would be too afflicting, it has proved to us, on the other hand, what a glorious instrument he may become in the hands of his Maker; and that a little virtue, when properly leavened, is made capable of counteracting the effects of a mass of vice!
With respect to the end obtained by this contest, or the great measure of the abolition of the Slave-trade as it has now passed, I know not how to appreciate its importance. To our own country, indeed, it is invaluable. We have lived, in consequence of it, to see the day, when it has been recorded as a principle in our legislation, that commerce itself shall have its moral boundaries. We have lived to see the day, when we are likely to be delivered from the contagion of the most barbarous opinions. They, who supported this wicked traffic, virtually denied, that man was a moral being. They substituted the law of force for the law of reason. But the great Act now under our consideration, has banished the impious doctrine, and restored the rational creature to his moral rights. Nor is it a matter of less pleasing consideration, that, at this awful crisis, when the constitutions of kingdoms are on the point of dissolution, the stain of the blood of Africa is no longer upon us, or that we have been freed (alas, if it be not too late!) from a load of guilt, which has long hung like a mill-stone about our necks, ready to sink us to perdition.
In tracing the measure still further, or as it will affect other lands, we become only the more sensible of its importance: for can we pass over to Africa; can we pass over to the numerous islands, the receptacles of miserable beings from thence; and can we call to mind the scenes of misery, which have been passing in each of these regions of the earth, without acknowledging, that one of the greatest sources of suffering to the human race has, as far as our own power extends, been done away? Can we pass over to these regions again, and contemplate the multitude of crimes, which the agency necessary for keeping up the barbarous system produced, without acknowledging, that a source of the most monstrous and extensive wickedness has been removed also? But here, indeed, it becomes us peculiarly to rejoice; for though nature shrinks from pain, and compassion is engendered in us when we see it become the portion of others, yet what is physical suffering compared with moral guilt? The misery of the oppressed is, in the first place, not contagious like the crime of the oppressor. Nor is the mischief, which it generates, either so frightful or so pernicious. The body, though under affliction, may retain its shape; and, if it even perish, what is the loss of it but of worthless dust? But when the moral springs of the mind are poisoned, we lose the most excellent part of the constitution of our nature, and the divine image is no longer perceptible in us. Nor are the two evils of similar duration. By a decree of Providence, for which we cannot be too thankful, we are made mortal. Hence the torments of the oppressor are but temporary; whereas the immortal part of us, when once corrupted, may carry its pollutions with it into another world.
But independently of the quantity of physical suffering and the innumerable avenues to vice in more than a quarter of the globe, which this great measure will cut off, there are yet blessings, which we have reason to consider as likely to flow from it. Among these we cannot overlook the great probability, that Africa, now freed from the vicious and barbarous effects of this traffic, may be in a better state to comprehend and receive the sublime truths of the Christian religion. Nor can we overlook the probability, that, a new system of treatment necessarily springing up in our islands, the same bright sun of consolation may visit her children there. But here a new hope rises to our view. Who knows but that emancipation, like a beautiful plant, may, in its due season, rise out of the ashes of the abolition of the Slave-trade, and that, when its own intrinsic value shall be known, the seed of it may be planted in other lands? And looking at the subject in this point of view, we cannot but be struck with the wonderful concurrence of events as previously necessary for this purpose, namely, that two nations, England and America, the mother and the child, should, in the same month of the same year, have abolished this impious traffic; nations, which at this moment have more than a million of subjects within their jurisdiction to partake of the blessing; and one of which, on account of her local situation and increasing power, is likely in time to give, if not law, at least a tone to the manners and customs of the great continent, on which she is situated.
Reader! Thou art now acquainted with the history of this contest! Rejoice in the manner of its termination! And, if thou feelest grateful for the event, retire within thy closet, and pour out thy thanksgivings to the Almighty for this his unspeakable act of mercy to thy oppressed fellow-creatures.
Printed by Richard Taylor and Co. Shoe Lane.
[* ]The different debates in both Houses on this occasion would occupy the half of another volume. This is another circumstance, which reconciles me to the omission. But that, which reconciles me the most is, that they will be soon published. In these debates justice has been done to every individual concerned in them.
[* ]S. Lushington, esq. M. P. for Yarmouth, gave his voluntary attendance and assistance to the Committee, during all these motions, and J. Bowdler, esquire, was elected a member of it.
[* ]The only circumstance, which afforded comfort at this time, was that the honourable Spencer Perceval and Mr. Canning were included in it, who were warm patrons of this great measure.
[* ]I have had occasion to know many thousand persons in the course of my travels on this subject; and I can truly say, that the part, which these took on this great question, was always a true criterion of their moral character. Some indeed opposed the abolition, who seemed to be so respectable, that it was difficult to account for their conduct; but it invariably turned out in a course of time, either that they had been influenced by interested motives, or that they were not men of steady moral principle. In the year 1792, when the national enthusiasm was so great, the good were as distinguishable from the had, according to their disposition to this great cause, as if the divine Being had marked them; or, as a friend of mine the other day observed, as we may suppose the sheep to be from the goats on the day of judgment.