Front Page Titles (by Subject) 10.: THE DEBATE ON EAST AND WEST INDIA SUGARS GLOBE AND TRAVELLER, 7 JUNE, 1823, P. 3 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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10.: THE DEBATE ON EAST AND WEST INDIA SUGARS GLOBE AND TRAVELLER, 7 JUNE, 1823, P. 3 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE DEBATE ON EAST AND WEST INDIA SUGARS
This article was preceded by an editorial comment: “The following article on this question, from our Correspondent, has long been omitted for want of room. Though our Correspondent treats the interests of the West Indians rather cavalierly, the power of his arguments entitle [sic] him to attention.” The delay was not very long, for the debate in the House of Commons took place on 22 May (PD, n.s., Vol. 9, cols. 444-67), just two days after Mill’s seventeenth birthday, on which day he joined his father in the Examiner’s Office of the East India Company (which was interested in East India sugar). The leading article, headed “East and West India Sugars,” is described in Mill’s bibliography as “Strictures on the Debate concerning East and West India sugars, which appeared in the Globe and Traveller of [7th June] 1823”
(MacMinn, p. 2).
the debate in the house of commons, on Thursday the 22d ult., upon Mr. Whitmore’s proposal for equalizing the duties on East and West India Sugar, is remarkable, not only for the able and argumentative speeches of Mr. Ricardo and Mr. Whitmore, but for the unprecedented exposure which their opponents made of the weakness of their cause.1
There are two arguments against the monopoly, either of which would be conclusive, but when combined, they are irresistible. One of these applies to this in common with all other monopolies, that they enhance the price to the consumer. The other argument applies peculiarly to the West India monopoly, that it perpetuates Negro Slavery.
To these arguments, no answer was or could be made. A cry, however, could be raised against them; and this has been done. The great objection of the West India Gentlemen to the abrogation of the monopoly is this: “It would ruin us.” Supposing this to be true, it accounts perfectly for their disapprobation of the measure; but it may not, perhaps, be so all-important a consideration in the eyes of the philosopher as it is in theirs. When a Government has made laws for the protection of a particular class—that is, laws to enable them to pillage the rest of the community for their own benefit, it can never happen that no expectations will be founded on those laws, no calculations bottomed upon their stability. This may be a reason for making the abrogation a gradual one; but it can never be a reason for allowing the nuisance to be perpetual, inasmuch as the interest of the many is preferable to that of the few. No great reform can ever be effected without producing distress somewhere; and the greater the benefit the greater will be the distress. If the public has been robbed of a great advantage, to retard the ruin of the West India Planters, this advantage cannot be restored to the public without deeply affecting the interest of those Gentlemen. But if this were a reason for allowing the abuse which perpetuates Slavery to exist, there are few abuses for which as good an argument might not be found.
In point of fact, however, it is not by the rejection of Mr. Whitmore’s motion, that the ruin can be averted which has so long been impending over our Sugar Colonies. It is not many years since the whole continent of Europe was supplied with Sugar from the West Indies. Our Colonies not only possessed a monopoly of the English market, but furnished a large supply for re-exportation. These were the days of West Indian prosperity. But for some time past, the Continent of Europe has derived by far the greater part of its supply from other sources; and the price of Sugar on the Continent has fallen below the lowest rate at which the West Indies could supply it. Excluded thus from the Continental market, colonial Sugar experienced an unexampled depression of price, which was further enhanced by the influx from Demerara and the other newly-acquired Colonies.
This depression must be permanent, or can be remedied only by the removal of a large capital from the production of Sugar to other employments: for at present our Colonies produce and send annually to market a far greater quantity than the consumption of England requires. Hence it is that Mr. Marryatt had to present a petition from a body of Planters in Trinidad, “who did not derive one shilling of profit from four hundred thousand pounds of capital which they had invested, but, on the contrary, sustained considerable losses from the depression in the price of Colonial produce.”2 At present, therefore, as Mr. Ricardo has justly observed, the admission of East India produce would not enhance the distress, for the price is already as low as it would be if the competition were open.3 But it would do what is of equal importance; it would prevent Sugar from ever rising again to a monopoly price. To reject a measure from its tendency to lower the price of Sugar, when Sugar is at a losing price, and cannot for many years be expected to rise again, might only tend to delude the West India Planters by false hopes, and aggravate their distress by disappointment.
The minor objections of the West India Gentlemen are to the last degree futile. It is scarcely necessary to give more than a bare statement of them.
As for instance—Mr. Ellis says that by acquiring new colonies we pledged ourselves to support the colonial system.4 This is to say, that if we ever were ignorant enough to think Colonies an advantage, and to act upon that persuasion, we thereby pledge ourselves never to correct our errors.
For another specimen of this Gentleman’s mode of arguing, he tells us that it is unjust to deprive the Colonies of their peculiar advantages, unless, at the same time, we take off the peculiar restrictions under which they labour.5 This is not a reason for leaving both evils, but for taking them both away. The monopoly is an evil; the restrictions are another, and a very great evil. There is nothing which we more ardently desire than to get rid of both. But, according to Mr. Ellis, we are to retain the one evil on its own account, and the other because it would be unjust to take it away and leave the former alone.
Another argument of a similar stamp was used by Mr. Marryatt—namely, that the East India Company is a monopoly: “Gentlemen who deprecated monopoly, with the profits of monopoly in their pockets, would be much better employed in declaiming against it in Leadenhall-street than in that House.”6 And why not in both? Should the existence of one evil secure another from attack? Nay, more—if we can obtain the co-operation in destroying one evil, even of those who profit by the other, why should we not gratefully accept of it? Evils would seldom be removed if those who attack them were to refuse all aid but from persons who agree in all their opinions.
It is worthy of remark, that while Mr. Ellis opposes the admission of East India Sugar, because too much would come, Mr. Robertson opposes it because no Sugar would come at all. If we may believe him, the East Indies are not only incapable of exporting Sugar—they are even under the necessity of importing it.7 Be it so. Mr. Ellis’s alarm, then, is ill-founded; and there is no danger of ruining the Colonies by granting a permission of which no use can be made. We desire no more than a fair trial. But Mr. Robertson, in his wisdom, has discovered, that “the consumers of this country would be materially injured.”8 How injured? By purchasing their Sugar too cheap? But they desire no better than to be injured in this way. By being forced to pay too high a price for it? But how can this be, when, at the worst, they can obtain it from the West Indies at the same price as before!
It would appear that the West India Gentlemen differ in every thing else, and agree only in condemning the proposed measure. While Mr. Robertson contends that do what we will we can never get an ounce of Sugar from the East Indies, Mr. Marryatt thinks that the admission of East India Sugars would “lead to so general a growth of Sugars, as must prove highly injurious, by glutting the markets both here and on the Continent.”9 It is the ruined West India Planters, we suppose, who are thus all on a sudden to extend their cultivation. Or if the glut is to come from the East Indies, this proves that—in the opinion, at least, of Mr. Marryatt—Sugar can be grown cheaper in the East Indies than in the West.—We would recommend to this Gentleman the propriety of imposing restrictions upon the trade of making shoes, with a view to prevent a glut of that article. To whom is this glut, as it is called, injurious? To the consumer? No; to him it is a benefit. To the producer? But it is quite evident that the East India cultivator can never permanently sell his Sugar below the price which will repay the cost of production with the ordinary profit. And the consumer would be greatly injured if he could sell it higher. If, indeed, a merchant has a stock of Sugar on sale, the proposed measure may be injurious to him. But why? Simply because it lowers the price, and benefits the consumer. Mr. Marryatt’s reasoning would go to prevent all improvements in agriculture or manufactures. There is none of these which does not cause a “glut”—that is, lower the price to the consumer.
Mr. K. Douglas treats the subject as if it were a question of charity. The Sugar Trade can be “no object” either to the Hindoos or the British residents. Mr. Whitmore has proved conclusively, that, far from being no object, it is among the greatest of objects to the East Indies.10 Suppose, however, that it really were “no object” to the natives or British residents, unfortunately for the argument of Mr. Douglas, there is a third class of persons—namely, the consumers. What should we think if we were compelled to buy hats or shoes, not where we could get them best or cheapest, but where it is the greatest “object” to the seller?
We are informed by Mr. Ellis and Mr. Marryatt, that the “mercantile marine of the West Indies, contributed to support the naval power of Great Britain.”11 We had thought that the day for this sort of cant was gone by; that even in the House of Commons, at this time of day, the mention of the Navigation Laws12 would excite a laugh. Surely no one can now be deceived by it. Can any one seriously think it possible, that a country rich and commercial like Great Britain, can labour under so great a deficiency of ships and seamen, that it should be necessary for her to continue a branch of commerce where there is not only no gain, but an actual loss, merely for the purpose of having a nursery for seamen! Who can doubt that even if the West India commerce were to cease altogether, the ships and seamen now employed by it would speedily find employment in bringing from the East Indies what they formerly brought from the West! For the longer voyage, indeed, more ships and seamen would be required; and if they be Lascars, what then?—Are not Lascars as good as any other seamen?
Mr. Ellis, moreover, tells us that the proposed measure would deprive the negroes of employment.13 Can any thing more effectually deprive them of employment, than the present unexampled, but permanent, depression of price? Waiving, however, this consideration, the calamity with which we are menaced by Mr. Ellis is no calamity, but one of the greatest of blessings. We desire nothing more than that the negroes should be without employment. It is the prelude to their final emancipation. What was impracticable when the labour of negroes produced an abundant profit, will be easy when they are a dead weight about the necks of their employers. This alone would be far more than a counterpoise to the most terrific evil which could befal a few West India Planters. They could scarcely be put in a worse condition than their own slaves.
That Mr. Ellis, or any of his supporters, should talk rather unwisely, can be matter of surprise to no one; but we confess we did not expect to hear such a sentence as the following from the mouth of Mr. Huskisson: “If it was true that the production of slavery was more costly than that of free labour, that would be an additional reason for not depriving him [the slave holder] of the advantage of his protecting duty.”14 That is, the greater the mischief the greater the reward. What! is it not enough that we should be compelled to fee the planter for employing slaves? Must the fee be even greater because that kind of labour is not only cruel but unproductive? Is he to be rewarded not only for doing evil, but for going out of his way to do it?
To crown all, Mr. Douglas thinks, that “a great deal of mischief is likely to result from the frequent agitation of this question.”15 What a speech for a legislator! We remember that when a cry was first raised against the abominations of the Slave Trade—when benevolent Philanthropists, both in and out of Parliament, lifted up their voices, for a long time unsuccessfully, in earnest reprobation of that atrocious traffic—then too we were warned of the “mischief which was likely to result from the frequent agitation of this question.”16 The slave-owners, indeed, felt, very deservedly, the mischief which resulted to them from it. But we have learned to be suspicious of those questions from the agitation of which mischief ensues.
To conclude—this debate is a striking exemplification of the evils arising from the present constitution of the House of Commons. On one side are liberal principles—the interest of the consumer, and above all, the interest of the slave, for which so many Members express unbounded zeal, and which all affect to consider of supreme importance—on the other side is the personal interest of a few West India Planters and Merchants—personal interest and nothing more. There are few evils at all comparable in magnitude to this, and the removal of which, at the present moment, would produce so little suffering; yet personal interest carries the day by a majority of 161 to 34.
It has been urged as an objection against plans for giving the people a control over their Representatives, that the people would certainly be in error on certain questions of political economy. On some, perhaps, they might, though even this is doubtful; but in a case like the present, where the contest is between liberal principles and the interest of a small number of individuals, the worst enemies of the people cannot affirm that they would be in error. Yet, on such questions, the House of Commons almost uniformly goes wrong; and there can be no doubt that personal interest, if it does not immediately dictate the vote, at least prevents the voter from applying his mind so as to understand the subject, and leaves him, even when well-intentioned, to the artful guidance of an interested Minister.
[1 ]William Wolryche Whitmore (1787-1858), M.P. for Bridgenorth, an advocate of free trade, Speech in Introducing a Motion on East and West India Sugars (22 May, 1823), PD, n.s., Vol. 9, cols. 444-56; David Ricardo, Speech on East and West India Sugars, ibid., cols. 457-9. Mill’s references and quotations are not identical to the reports in PD, but they are cited for ease of reference. The West India monopoly was established by 1 & 2 George IV, c. 106 (1821), and continued by 3 George IV, c. 106 (1822).
[2 ]Joseph Marryatt (1758-1824; referred to in PD as James Marryatt), M.P. for Sandwich, colonial agent for Grenada and Trinidad, Speech on East and West India Sugars, PD, n.s., Vol. 9, cols. 460-1.
[3 ]Ibid., cols. 458-9.
[4 ]Charles Rose Ellis (1771-1845), M.P. for Seaford, head of the West Indian interest, Speech on East and West India Sugars, ibid., cols. 453-4.
[5 ]Ibid., col. 452.
[6 ]Ibid., cols. 459-60. The offices of the East India Co. were in Leadenhall Street.
[7 ]Alexander Robertson (d. 1856), M.P. for Grampound, Speech on East and West India Sugars, ibid., col. 456.
[9 ]These remarks seem to have been made not by Marryatt, but by William Robert Keith Douglas (1783-1859), M.P. for Dumfries Burghs, 1812-32, in his Speech on East and West India Sugars, ibid., col. 455.
[10 ]Ibid., cols. 446-8.
[11 ]See Ellis, ibid., col. 453; Marryatt, ibid., col. 460.
[12 ]See 3 George IV, c. 44 (1822) and, for the earlier navigation laws, 12 Charles II, c. 18 (1660), and 15 Charles II, c. 7 (1663).
[13 ]Ellis, speech of 22 May, col. 453.
[14 ]Speech on East and West India Sugars, ibid., cols. 464-5, by William Huskisson (1770-1830), M.P. for Liverpool, Treasurer of the Navy and President of the Board of Trade (1823-27), advocate of free trade.
[15 ]Cf. Douglas, ibid., col. 456.
[16 ]See James Baillie (ca. 1737-93), M.P. for Horsham and agent for Grenada, Speech on the Slave Trade (2 Apr., 1792), in Parliamentary History of England, ed. William Cobbett and John Wright, 36 vols. (London: Bagshaw, Longmans, 1806-20), Vol. XXIX, col. 1074.