GENERAL COURT OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
19 March 1823
After the quarterly meeting the General Court of Proprietors resolved itself into a Special Court, at the request of nine Proprietors (including Ricardo), ‘to take into consideration the present state of the East-India sugar trade’. Mr. C. Forbes moved:
‘That it appears to this Court, that since the repeal by the act of last session of Parliament, of the restrictions formerly imposed on the West-India trade, no pretension exists for any exclusive protection to the sugars of the West-Indian colonies against those of British India.
‘That as the present unequal duties on the sugars of the East and West-Indies terminate in March 1824, this Court do earnestly recommend to the immediate attention of the Court of Directors the necessity of using their strenuous efforts with his Majesty’s ministers, to obtain an equalization of the said duties.’
Mr. Forbes said that Mr. Whitmore intended to bring this subject under the consideration of Parliament after the recess. Mr. A. Robertson, opposing the motion, raised again the question of shipping which had been debated the previous year.
Mr. D. Ricardo said, he could not follow the Hon. Gent. in his observations with respect to ships of small tonnage; at the same time he thought it was a question of very great importance. The Hon. Gent. had entered into a great number of arguments, in order to dissuade the Court from agreeing to the resolution now under discussion. If he had heard the Hon. Gent. in any other place, or if he had been ignorant of his sentiments, he should indeed have conceived that the Hon. Gent. was addressing an assembly of West-India planters, for he (Mr. Ricardo) should use precisely such arguments as the Hon. Gent. had done, in order to overturn their claims. (A laugh!) The Hon. Gent. had stated truly, that when there was a surplus of sugar in this country, prices must be higher on the continent than here, to induce the merchant to export it; but he would ask the Hon. Gent. was that any reason why an unsound principle should be contended for? He would ask of the Hon. Gent., and of those whose cause he espoused, ‘Are you afraid to give equal rights and an equal protection to all classes of His Majesty’s subjects?’ (Hear!) The Hon. Gent. had also stated, very correctly, that the mere enumeration of exports and imports would not give a true idea of the commerce which one particular country carried on with another. They might export to a country, but it did not follow that that country should pay in a direct manner: because the exporting country might wish to receive the proceeds in commodities which were the growth of another state. The Hon. Gent. said, this was a mere question between the agents of different interests: he (Mr. Ricardo) thought otherwise. He viewed it in the light in which it was regarded by the Hon. Director before him (Mr. Bebb), and he could view it in no other. He considered it to be a question in which the public were the great parties concerned; (Hear!) for he should not have appeared in that Court, he should not have interfered, or raised his voice on this question, but in behalf of the public. (Hear!) It might be very true, that the price of sugar was so low as not to encourage its cultivation; it might be very true that it did not fetch a remunerating price: but were not arts resorted to for the purpose of raising the price? It was acknowledged that there were. And was not a hope held out in some publication, that, by diminishing the supply, the planter might get firm hold of the home-market, keep it without a surplus, and then raise the price as he pleased? Now, he would ask, had the people of England no interest in all this? Had they no interest in procuring their sugar from other countries, and preventing the continuance of this most odious monopoly? They were called on, as the ground for their decision, to compare the exports and imports with reference to the East and West-Indies: but that mode did not satisfy his understanding. He asked, what was the object of this measure? It was to procure sugar at a cheaper rate; and, if it were made manifest to him that, by adopting it, they would make sugar cheaper, he would throw open the trade, although they exported millions of manufactures to the country which at present monopolized it. He thought the Hon. Gent. had encumbered the subject with many things which did not belong to it. He took a large view of the question, with reference to the greater likelihood of retaining our East-India or our West-India possessions. If they entered into these subjects, as connected with the question before them, they would be totally unfit to decide on it, so extremely difficult were they of solution; and he must say, that, for his own part, if he could not give a sound opinion on this particular question, without well understanding the subjects which the Hon. Gent. had brought forward, he would not attempt to give an opinion at all; but, if he thought that the East-Indies or the West-Indies would be severed from this country in a month, it would not alter the vote that he would give: for, would it not still be to the interest of India to send her sugars to this country if she were placed under the Government of any other power? Certainly it would; and, therefore, the parties immediately concerned had little to do with this point. (Hear!) He again asserted, that the public interest was concerned. He would go farther than either of the contending parties were inclined to go. He thought no exclusive protection should be granted to either the East or the West-Indies, and that we should be free to import our sugar from any quarter whatsoever. No possible injury could arise from this. The Hon. Gent. also alluded to another subject, but in a manner which he (Mr. Ricardo) was sorry to hear. He professed his love for freedom of trade, as the principle under the influence of which commerce was sure to prosper; but then he made so many qualifications that he quite lost sight of his original proposition. (A laugh!) He would protect the monopoly of the landed interests, he would protect the monopoly of the tea-trade; and several others, all of them, he believed, just as objectionable as the very monopoly they were discussing. With respect to the shipping-interest, no argument appeared to him to be so weak as that adduced by them. They asserted that, by the adoption of this measure, the shipping of the country would be greatly reduced. But could they get sugar from the East-Indies without shipping? and was not the voyage much longer? Every view he could take of this subject proved to him that those interested in shipping, would be particularly benefited by the proposed equalization. There were some other points to which he meant to call the attention of the Court, particularly with respect to cotton. The Hon. Gent. had instanced the cotton-trade, and argued that by the aid of machinery, by importing cotton from America, and by exporting the manufactured goods to India, great injury was inflicted on the manufacturing class in that country. Undoubtedly some injury was done to that class; but one would think the Hon. Gent. would have turned his attention to the accompanying good. He would ask the Hon. Gent. in what commodities those exports were paid for? Those who exported must have got a return in something else they had not before had. If we send cotton goods to India, they must be paid for. Our cotton goods were purchased with other manufactures; new branches of trade were thus struck out, and both countries were ultimately benefited. The one country was employed in making machinery and working it, and the other in fabricating those manufactures by which our cottons were paid for. Instead of pointing out in what line capital should be employed, he thought it would have been as well if the Hon. Gent. had left that point to be settled by the individual. (Hear!) It was undoubtedly very kind of the Hon. Gent. to lecture those who might be inclined to embark their capital in the East-India sugar-trade; (A laugh!) it was very considerate of him to warn them of their danger; and he thanked the Hon. Gent. for his admonition. (A laugh!) But he could not think, at this time of day, when they had advanced so far in commercial knowledge, that the Hon. Gent. was perfectly competent to decide on the manner in which capital should be laid out (Hear!) Indeed, he seemed anxious to apply the customs of the East to the commerce of Europe, and to keep the same system going on, from father to son, without variation, to all eternity. (Hear!) An Hon. Gent. (Mr. Tucker) had alluded to the subject of slaves, and declared that he was proud to be an Englishman, more particularly in consequence of what had occurred in the last few months. In truth, he had reason to be proud of it. No man could possibly value this country more than he did. It had signalized itself gloriously a thousand times. But he confessed that he really was inclined to blush with shame, to hide his face, when West-India slavery was mentioned. (Hear!) It was a stain on the otherwise pure character of the country, which he ardently desired to see wiped away. (Hear!) The question of slavery was one of infinite importance. It well deserved the consideration of the country. He meant to cast no imputation on the planters; it was the infamous custom, the shocking system, against which he directed his reprobation; for, surely it was impossible that any man could, for a moment, reflect on the treatment and punishment of slaves without shuddering. (Hear!) It was this country that had to answer for the continuance of that abominable system. On this day, he believed, a petition would be presented to Parliament by a most benevolent individual (Mr. Wilberforce) in favour of that unfortunate race of men, who were subjected to the horrors of slavery. He hoped the application would produce its just effect, and that this grievous stain would be removed from the national character. (Hear!)
Mr. Robertson explained that ‘he had not attempted to direct individuals how they were to dispose of their capital’.
Mr. Ricardo said, when he spoke of the Hon. Gent.’s offering his advice as to the disposition of capital, he did not mean it in any invidious sense.