EAST AND WEST INDIA SUGARS
22 May 1823
Mr. W. Whitmore moved that a select committee be appointed with a view to equalising the duties on sugar (at present an extra duty of 10s. to 15s. was payable on sugar from the East, above that which was payable on sugar from the West Indies). Mr. C. Ellis, opposing the motion, said that ‘the protection extended to the West-India colonists had been conceded as a compensation for restrictions to which the East-India interest was not subject. If it were not a formal charter, it was an absolute compact with the consideration of value received, and not less valid than positive law.’ Mr. Robertson contended that the consumer was benefitted by the present state of things; owing to the incapacity of the East Indies under their wretched system of slavery, and the destruction caused by the white ants, ‘it would be impossible ever to make the growth of sugar in the East Indies sufficiently productive.’
Mr. Ricardo congratulated the House upon the comfortable information contained in the speech of the hon. member who had spoken last, and who had shown, that, what with the white ants and other difficulties, it would be impossible for the East-India planters ever to compete with those of the West-India colonies. The inference from which was, that there was nothing to fear from allowing them the advantage required. On this occasion he would take the liberty of quoting a speech of the hon. member for Sandwich (Mr. Marryat) in 1809, which was marked throughout by its strict adherence to the true principles of political economy. In that speech, the hon. member had contended for the policy of admitting the conquered colonies to an equal participation in the trade with the other colonies of England. The question at that time was, whether the colony of Martinique should be allowed to send its sugars to the British market on the same terms as the other colonies, and the hon. member had then clearly shown, by a train of the soundest reasoning, that the price of sugar on the continent regulating the price in this country, it could be no disadvantage to us that the sugar of Martinique should be sent here. Here the hon. member read the passage of the speech to which he had alluded. He then went on to contend, that the same argument (substituting the East Indies for Martinique) would apply to the question before the House. The sugars of the East Indies would not exclude those of the West. He would maintain, that there ought to be no restrictions on the imports of any of our colonies—that it would be an injury, as well to the colonies as to the mother country, and that therefore we ought to get rid of them altogether. It should also be recollected, that if the proposed measure gave advantages to the East-India trade which it did not possess before, there were disadvantages under which that trade still laboured, which went to counterbalance them. An hon. member had talked of our compact with the West Indies. He would say, in reply, that if any compact existed, by which the industry, either of the colonies or of the mother country, was rendered less productive, the sooner it was got rid of the better. The argument of the hon. member for Dumfries (Mr. K. Douglas) was quite inconclusive, in supposing that we should lose a great portion of the revenue derived from our West-India produce. He did not think the proposed measure would have any such effect, or that we should have the produce of either the West or East Indies at half their present price. He wished that could be proved; because it would render the proposition still more desirable. But he thought it was absurd to maintain, that because our West-India planters had a large capital embarked in the trade, we were therefore bound to take sugars from them at double the price which we could get them for elsewhere. Such an effect would not, however, be the result of the proposed alteration. East or West-India sugars would not be much lowered by it; but we should have this advantage from it, which would be most desirable—it would prevent sugars from rising above their value. Some gentlemen were alarmed at the idea of exporting bullion to India. For himself, he did not object to it; for bullion could not be acquired without the employment of our industry, and if a duty was levied in one case as well as in the other, it was clear that we should not lose any part of our revenue. With respect to the employment of our ships and sailors, it was natural to conclude, that as the East Indies were further off than the West, the proposed alteration would employ more rather than fewer. As to the duty on East India sugar, it was, by their own confession, of recent date, not having been introduced until 1814. What then, became of the ground of long possession? With respect to the effect the measure recommended would produce on the negro population, he did not see any grounds for supposing that it would be injurious. In the first place, he did not believe that we should import East-India sugar to any very considerable amount. But even were the competition to interfere with the sale of the produce of the West Indies, the condition of the slaves, if not improved, would not be injured by the change; inasmuch as the capital now employed in the production of sugar, would, under such circumstances, be converted to the growth of a more beneficial, because a more remunerating commodity. In the speech of the hon. member for Sandwich, to which he before alluded, there was a most extraordinary observation. It the more surprised him, as it was irreconcileable with the sound views entertained by the hon. member. In the speech, however, it was stated, that the price of any commodity did not depend on the cost of cultivation, but on the relation of the supply to the demand. Now, nothing was more unsound. In all cases, the cost of cultivation was sure to regulate the price which any commodity must bear in the markets of the world. As, therefore, the cost of production was acknowledged to be less in the East Indies in the production of sugar, the price of that article in the markets of the world must in the long run be regulated by that cost. There was another observation which was worthy of remark. The hon. members acknowledged, that the greatest advantage would attend a free trade; but, said they, “it is not a free trade, but a participation in the monopoly that the East-India advocates demand.” Granted. He would accede to their object; though at the same time, he was prepared to go to a much greater extent. He was ready to allow a free trade on sugar from all parts of the world where that commodity was grown. He would allow a competition not alone of East-India sugar, but of the sugars of South America, Cuba, Brazils, and China. And so would the hon. member for Sandwich, provided he was allowed to import the sugars of the West Indies with the lower rate of duties. It was, however, of those duties which prohibited all competition, that he (Mr. R.) complained; and, with the hope of modifying the evil, he would give his support to the motion.
Mr. Marryat said, ‘it was extremely amusing to hear hon. members, proprietors of East-India stock, declaiming in that House on the advantages of a free trade, at the very moment that they themselves were interested in one of the most outrageous monopolies that ever existed in any country in the world.’
Mr. Ricardo, in explanation, observed, that he had never possessed a shilling more than 1000l. East-India stock, and never given a vote in favour of monopoly in his life.
Mr. Huskisson ‘agreed with the hon. member for Portarlington that, considering the question abstractly, and without reference to the state of things which had grown out of the colonial policy of this country for the last century—the only point worthy of notice was, where, as consumers, could we get our sugars at the cheapest rate? But, he denied that the question ought to be so abstractly considered’, and opposed the motion.
The House divided on Mr. Whitmore’s motion: Ayes, 34. Noes, 161. Ricardo voted for the motion.